Swimming in heels

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A quick post to talk about people who are ‘good at games’. I am not one of them. Ive always been more of a shopper than a netballer. Always last at cross country at school and for whom sports day was a thing of torture, i could never see the merits in running around in the cold and wet chasing a ball. But, finally, aged 40 i have reached a stage where I actually enjoy sport. I even go running occasionally. I have learnt to surf and I love my bike retrieved from a skip that Peter customised for me by spray painting it navy blue and adding a basket and a big silver bell. Very Amelie.

And one BIG reason to get a house in France is to do outdoorsy stuff. Or indoorsy stuff that doesn’t involve plugging anything in. And i spend a large part of my time there instigating sporting pursuits. Like playing table tennis or swimming in the pool.

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Or cycling to the bakery (6km) and back on one of our dozens of bikes – all retrieved from skips or bought at emmaus which is like a permanent giant car boot sale. Peter has even bought a tandem which we can cycle to the village on like Tim brook Taylor and bill oddie.

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There’s swingball which takes us all back to the 1970s and will possibly one day, take someone’s eye out.

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And of course there is skiing. Which I took up at the age of 39 and finally got the hang of aged 41.

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And there is even a rope swing park at a nearby village, Aignan, where we can scale great heights as a family and zip wire across lakes.

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So finally I have become sporty. Miss Tilly my old PE mistress would be stunned. Though getting into a communal shower with thirty other girls afterwards I would still have a real problem with.

Tidings of joy?

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And before you know it, it was Christmas again – this time with partial heating AND my parents. In less than two years we had managed to take a house with no water, heating, walls or heart and turn it into a family home. A warm, bustling, family home for the first time in twenty years. With noisy meals, heated games of table football and plenty of rowing about what time bedtime is. Regular, family stuff.

We had learnt by now via neighbours a little about the enormous french family who once lived in what we, the White family now refer to as La Maison Blanche (see what we did there?) It was once home to a family called Mouledous. The Mouledous had eighteen children and they all lived in our house in Gensac. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe. There are now dozens of Mouledous scattered around the local area. There’s Dr Mouledous in Maubourguet who we took Seb to once for scurvy or some such Victorian illness for which Seb is a magnet.

Then, there is the genteel and elegant Francoise who is no longer a Mouledous by name as she married. She is a retired paediatrician and lives in a beautiful old windmill on the edge of our village and invites us over for aperitifs and speaks such posh French we can understand every word (unlike Serge our other neighbour, with whom a conversation is probably the French equivalent of a chat with Gazza). Francoise’ daughter is married to an English Dr and they live in Ealing with their three ‘English by birth but French by manners’ children.

Finally, the best Mouledous of all is Frank Mouledous. Frank recently returned to his family home in Maubourguet with his Hawaain wife to open up rural France’s, one and only California surf shack, burger bar. Called The California Kitchen it’s the kids fave place to eat in France – go figure – but it’s not just the enourmous burgers which are made from scratch and delicious. Or the american style cheesecake which Mrs Frank makes from scratch and is delicious. Its not even the fact there is no loo at the California Kitchen so you have to run across the street to the Town Hall if you need a pee which the kids think is way cool. the big draw of the California Kitchen is the fact that Frank is a big bear of a man in a chef’s outfit who talks to the kids in a French/American accent. He might have stepped out of one of those dreadful shows they watch on the Disney channel where the Dads are always overweight and bufoony, and the Mum’s naggy and in charge. And Frank always offers up free desert for which my children would happily follow the child catcher, never mind a man who could be Selena Gomez’s onscreen Dad!

So this Christmas we would have a family Christmas the like of which our still a bit shabby house had not seen for about twenty years or more. A Christmas to make the Mouledous memory proud.

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Peter and the boys bought a huge tree that filled one ‘kings speech’ style corner of our salon. And because we now had a concrete floor in the salon, we moved all Christmas operations into it. The table we normally use in the garden with a white linen tablecloth to disguise the fact it’s an outdoor table. And mistletoe found in abundance in our woods.

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And my mum had brought onesies for the boys from Primark so they could feel cosy when they got up on Xmas morning to see if he’d been. Which of course he had.

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And we could begin to see how our holiday home could actually be a real home. With a sofa, (ikea natch) and lots of rooms that we could spread out into. We may not be a family of 18 but when all our new Mouledous friends pop round for a glass of wine and some cashews we hope they’ll be impressed. And perhaps explain where they all used to sleep! Because readers, next Xmas we’ve got our friends the Candys coming to stay and they are the closest thing to Mouledous we know as there are six of them! We may need a bigger goose!

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Day tripping

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We were still finding our way around the Gers. It’s a little known part of France without the glamour of Côte d’Azur or quaint picture postcard lavender fields of Provence. And as we’d bought the house without any advance planning or investigations we really had no idea what we would do for every holiday, for the rest of our lives in this part of France. Drink wine? Eat cheese? We did by now have French versions of trivial pursuit and scrabble but this alone could not fill four, two week holidays a year. We had a striped hammock for lazy day, book reading and we had explored a host of local eateries (in the early weeks with no heating or water, we ate out just to keep warm and use a nice toilet) our nearest restaurant is called Les 3Bs and serves everything with a nouvelle cuisine style whipped sweet potato mousse. Hake, pork or beef all with sweet potato mousse. And aguilettes de canard for the kids. But after almost a year in the house we could barely utter the words sweet potato without feeling billious. Besides, eating and drinking could not fill our days (well it could but we’d all be the size of pavarotti by the end of the holidays) so we began some local explorations. Here are our some of our favourite finds should you ever find yourself in the Haute Pyrenees or Gers.

1. The Maison des Chamaux
As I’ve already blogged, our friends Paul and Sarah Bird run a fabulous animal park only fifteen minutes drive away. And as we were now friends we could see camels and drink wine concurrently. This is not the same experience for paying visitors. But go anyway as its fun. Camels can be stroked, goats are jumped through hoops and wool is spun. My personal fave are the pigs. In mud. Happy as.

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2. Biarritz
My craving for a slice of old school glamour led us on a day trip to Biarritz. A two hour drive but a place that makes me feel like I am actually on holiday. Chic people, posh restaurants and a faded glamour. The beach is big and if not directly in season, not too busy. We built sand castles, ate salad nicoise and wished we had more time to rent boogie boards.

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3. Le petit train d’artouste
Discovered when our friends Ian and Alice came to stay. A good, almost two hour drive into the mountains, this is a cable car ride to a tiny train which then takes you on an hour long ride around the edge of a mountain. Best of all, along the way are dozens of beavers which being the only English people on the train we took great delight in shouting each time we saw one. Leslie nielson eat your heart out. At the end of the route is a great walk to the top of a mountain lake and a great sense of satisfaction that we had lung fulls of mountain air to flush out the night before’s peach schnapps marathon. Then, as bad fortune would have it, but giving us something to remember the day by, on the way back the train tombe en panne. We had to walk the final kilometre to the car park, dodging beavers as we went. But as we trudged wearily back to our car, we agreed that Beavers and Breakdowns would be the perfect title should Ian ever write an autobiography.
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4. The Marciac Jazz Festival
For which Uncle Ricard came to stay and did his best akerbilk impressions. The one thing guaranteed to send the children into spasms of embarrassment is uncle richard’s singing. Made worse only if I join in sonny and Cher style. Made even worse if the song in question can be sung ‘club singer style’. So imagine their horror and our joy to discover the local jazz festival which runs through the month of August features not only real, snare drum and trumpet style jazz, but also, New Orleans style jazz bands in the town square where you can all sing and dance along. The village of Marciac is taken over each night for a month by tented restaurants, bars, ice cream vendors and jazz bands so you can sit outside, eat amazing food and sing as you eat to ‘when the saints come marching in’. And on a balmy summers evening tHere really is nothing nicer, even when uncle Richard insists on conducting himself throughout the meal in his ‘dobby the free elf’ voice (dobby LOVES Harry Potter….) and Sebastian danced for a crowd, and we all had massive ice creams and Arthur prayed for a replacement family.

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I could go on, but suffice to say, we had found plenty to do in our funny little, unfashionable part of France. And when all else fails, there IS French trivial pursuit where you can answer Charles de Gaulle or Vanessa Paradise for everything!