Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 in a Pocket Handkerchief!

I inherited my mum's collection of antique and vintage pocket handkerchiefs this year, and when I was doing an initial sort-out recently this one sprang to my attention:
In the centre are the four seasons, and around the edges, as you can see, are the months. Each one is illustrated with a natty 1930s illustrations of a stylish young lady doing the Things One Must Do at that time of year! It's witty, colourful, and a good way for me to do a little review of 2012:
Let's begin with January (where else?). I didn't skate but I did spend an unusual amount of time in Toulouse, doing the cultural kind of things that there dosn't usually seem to be time or money for. It was all thanks to Son 1's work experience, and I wrote about ancient, medieval and modern Toulouse here.
February was indeed a month for staying in and recuperating - don't you love the picture? Son 1 had a big op on his knee at the end of January, and February seemed to be mainly taken up with nurse's visits and carrying food to a sofa-bound son. However, being fairly house-bound had its compensations, and I re-organised all my lovely vintage kitchenalia, and also popped out to buy some fantastic vintage tins which are still talking starring roles around the house.

Would that I looked so stylish in the wind. My only similarity with this picture is the red face. It was windy here in March, but there were moments of springtime sunshine, too. Everything was overshadowed by the killings in Toulouse towards the end of the month, and it seems that many people in the key communities (Jewish and Muslim) have had a really hard time since those complex and tragic events. Your continued prayers would be appreciated.
We had a few April showers - here and in Edinburgh, where I went to visit my dad and also to meet his lovely new friend... there was more news to come on that front as the months progressed! For Easter I looked at my vintage French chocolate moulds, and also shared an embroidered map of England, which dates from around the same time as this handkerchief.

I certainly didn't dance around any May Poles in May! I think that's what she's doing - don't you? However, things got appropriately outdoors-y and a huge Scottish foxglove burst into bloom in our French garden. I also painted the front gate and got  some great deals as the Vide Grenier season really came into play!

June is my birthday month. I love sun hats, but I don't quite go for the bonnet-effect pictured here! We wore our sun hats to pick blueberries and to spend time with our new hens....

In July I changed my blog's look - I loved the old blue flowers so much but I had to find a way to celebrate the beautiful kitchen canisters I'd bought with my birthday money! I also picked up some antique hemp sheets - this is a stunning fibre and the sheets now do sterling service absorbing whatever the boys and the dog can put on them, under the throw on our sofa. But the main excitement of July was our departure on a 28 day camping tour of Italy!

The pictures for the two months are kind of reversed, on the handkerchief - we swam in the Med in July and walked in the Appennines in August. But, close enough! The holiday was a wonderful time together - I've got over the fear that things will go wrong, mainly by relaxing and realising that, of course they will from time to time, and it's my reaction to them that will turn them into either a big deal or a short-term blip. Later on in the month I took the boys over to Edinburgh to meet my dad and his now fiancée!

September is often a quiet month for my work, as all the children I teach are busy with la Rentrée and don't yet know their timetables for out-of-school activities. However, over the month I slowly built up my own timetable, deciding that the boys are now independent enough for me to take on after-school lessons - all of them at home, and finishing around 6 or 7pm, so that the boys come home independently, relax or do homework (lol) and then we all eat together in the usual way - it's working fine, and gives me the chance to teach a lot more children and teenagers, as this is the time-slot their parents have always wanted. The hens also became more numerous, as we adopted two new littlies, whose previous owner was heading back to the US. After a nervous start, these two have settled in well and now live up to their heroic names (more or less)! In the picture, our society lady is looking at the apple harvest - for us, it was finally an egg harvest! Our little swan song to summer was a weekend camping trip in the Pyrenees for Ben's birthday.
What is our friend doing for October? Sneezing? I have no idea... Well, I was mainly working! Taking on more children in the evenings gave me more time to accept appointments with my language school in the daytime. I took a weekend out to take the boys, plus friend, to a rural science event in a beautiful village. I also popped into the charity shop near my Friday lessons and was delighted to find vintage down-filled édredons which have kept us warm though the only patch of freezing nights we've yet had this winter.

November wasn't particularly foggy, but I love the illustration! We spent a weekend in Edinburgh, for my father's wedding.
I didn't share many photos at the time, as I hadn't asked for permission to show faces, but I've got permission since then, so here are the happy couple! Don't they look great? My BiL took this wonderful photo at the reception.
December, well, that's now! We didn't find any mistletoe (it grows all around here, but only very high up). We had a lovely, peaceful Christmas, and today Ben and Son 1 have gone off to the Toulouse museum where Son 1 did his work experience back in January. He never had the chance to take his dad around it then, so today is the day. Son 2 is slowly going crazy as he waits in for a delivery of a game he's ordered with his Christmas money. We were told it should arrive today, but...

So, it's been a wonderful year. Honestly, my years are getting better and better.

Which way is the wind blowing for 2013?

We have some fixed points. What should be Son 1's final operation is set for February, so that will be another quiet month in! Our wonderful holiday in Italy has inspired us to plan another two weeks of camping, this time around Spain. Ben may, hopefully, be doing some further training from September onwards, so this will keep him away from us during the week but will allow us all to discover a new part of France at the weekends. I'll still be busy teaching, but I will commit myself to one New Year's Resolution - I will continue blogging! One of the reasons my life has got better and better is that I have learned to appreciate and cherish the good times - to record them and even to seek them out. Bloggers and blogging have taught me to do this. Busy or not, it's too good to leave behind! Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas 2012

We had a lovely Christmas - thanks for your kind greetings!
Ben decorated the cake, although I wrapped the chocolate parcels! Ben also cooked a delicious capon from our friends and neighbours who farm across the stream from us - he was busy in the kitchen while the boys and I laid the table and generally pottered. In the evening we took Raja for a walk around the Coulée Verte in the dark - a lot of fun with torches!
As I took part in this Christmas challenge, run by Kelly who now blogs here, I thought it would be a good idea to run a quick 'bilan' (assessment, usually of costs) of our 'less spend' Christmas. We didn't buy any wrapping paper, but I did buy a few cards, which isn't like me. We'd missed out on sending any cards at all over the last two years, and I really wanted to keep in touch with friends and family who might be feeling forgotten. We made jams and jellies, dried chilis from the garden, and created Christmas decorations and shopping bags as gifts. I bought some books second hand and one new but reduced. We supported the school fund-raising by buying boxes of organic (but unfortunately not fair trade) choclotates as gifts, and gave the niece and nephews fair trade chocolate bars to go with their vouchers. We did the Sakado project which involved me and the boys buying various gifts and necessities for homeless people, and donating the filled rucksacks to an organisation which gave them out in the centre of Toulouse last week. That was a good feeling. The boys wrote personalised messages to the men who would receive the rucksacks, and I was really proud as they overcame their aversion to anything that looked like 'work', writing a message that would make the recipient realise that someone cared for them.
For internal consumption, our capon was expensive but worth it, for taste, for low carbon footprint, and for supporting local, friendly commerce. We bought the rest of our food using vouchers and careful attention to supermarket's special deals in the weeks running up to Christmas. I suppose we saved at least 40€ that way, which is just over what the capon cost! We did spend out on family Christmas presents, but aimed mainly for things that were really needed/will come in handy over the next year - Son 1 gave Ben books on Spain, where we intend to holiday, Ben bought us all a fruit drier (more on that in future) and I got the boys cycle computers, camping gear etc. I then splashed out on a CD for each of the males - Adele, Birdy and Emili Sandé, because we have all been enjoying great British female singers on French radio this year! The rest of the gifts were second hand books and DVDs which I picked up in charity shops and on the fabulous For Sale, Swap, Wanted and Giveaway in Toulouse and Surrounding Area Facebook page. And the most appreciated/most used gifts I gave? Four Calvin and Hobbes cartoon books from the Stockbridge Shelter Charity Bookshop... The whooping and cackling continues...

Monday, December 24, 2012

A very merry Christmas, and a belated Pause in Advent

Oh, life takes over again..! But only in a good way:
The last part of my Essence of Christmas is, of course, Jesus. Can you spot him there, in among our Sunday School children and teachers? We had a 'global' themed nativity this year...

If you're a Christian, having Jesus as the main 'ingredient' of Christmas is a bit obvious. If you're not a Christian, I hope that you didn't stop reading straight away - I'm rather conscious myself of the alienating nature of faith blogging. I personally feel more at home in a very mixed blogging world, where we share our differences as much as our similarities. Rather like our church, don't you think? Happy Christmas to all of you. It's been a lovely year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Animals at Christmas

It's Christmas in the garden!
The hens are thriving in their new hen run (fence designed by Ben out of old pallet wood, and constructed en famille by all four of us (but mostly by Ben...) Raja is certain that there is a hole in the fence somewhere. Her new life-project is to seek out the gap - she doesn't want to eat the hens, by the way, she wants the kitchen scraps we feed them!

Son 1 and Ben were out in the garden with the Christmas lights last weekend, and decided to include the hens in the festivities. I'll try to get a photo at night time, too.
Just as Raja tries to eat the hen's food, a goat ate my wreath! This was before it got to me - a friend who's a trained florist made it for me and left it near her back door to keep fresh. Whereupon one of her goats ate it... so I have made a reasonable job with ivy from the garden, but I do miss Amy's creation!

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Pause in Advent - Essence - Family

I'm a late runner in this week's Pause for Advent - life is still busy but in generally good ways! We spent yesterday at church and then watching The Hobbit with the boys, which brings me on to my third ingredient in the 'essence' of Christmas - family.
I'm sure this is one thing that nearly everyone can agree on - Christmas is a time for family. My family member is hiding in the photo above - Son 2 is controlling the innkeeper puppet in yesterday's youth group nativity!
Son 1, usually the shy one, fought for the part of the mad scientist (what do you mean, the Nativity play doesn't usually have a mad scientist?) and ended up sharing the role - here he is is using a most hideous English accent in his role as assistant to the 'German' mad scientist! It brought a lot of laughs...
So here are our fast-growing children, suddenly amongst the teenagers instead of wearing their dressing gowns and looking like little lost shepherds. How do you adapt Christmas to family life as the children grow up and become more independent? In some ways, we have it very easy, as the boys like many of the 'childish' aspects of our celebrations. I read a French magazine article pointing out that at Christmas even teenagers find it acceptable to childish, and that's a rather cheering fact to hold on to.
I have very little regretful 'nostalgia' for the boys' childhood years. Yesterday Son 2 asked which 'him' I liked best - the 2 year old, the 8 year old, the 14 year old, or what? I honestly answered that I like the fact that I have been with him at all of these stages, and am still with him as he is growing up. Keeping our sons in a bubble away from other teenaged boys and the pressures of modern life would be rather nice, but is both impossible and, ultimately, very dangerous. There are some hard things for them to deal with as they are getting older - friendships change and many friends they have trusted in the past are into things they shouldn't be into. I'm very grateful for honest sons (honesty can be painful but it's way better than the alternative) and I'm immensely grateful that we are supported by God in the real world. We don't have to pretend that family life is all sweetness and cosiness, but can honestly and joyfully trust God in Reality.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A Christmas Treasure Hunt

I had a quick look round Truffaut yesterday - one of those garden centres which has become so much more... and which is a glittering wonderland at Christmas!
It's ever so pretty, and although quite expensive you can even find British Christmas crackers there sometimes, so worth a look.
Every year they do different colour themes and concepts.

Have a look and see which one you like best!
So, the treasure hunt of my title is a little game I like to play on my own, every Christmas.
I call it: 'Hunt the baby Jesus'!
Now, this isn't a complaint that Jesus isn't more at the centre of Christmas in France.
After all you can't say: 'Christ is the centre of Noël' in the same way as: 'Christ is the centre of Christmas', can you? There's no reason for the secular French state to be expected to mention Jesus, or Christian things at all. In fact, there's every reason for a secular state to celebrate a secular winter festival, isn't there? I'm not complaining and I hope that I'm not triggering a set of complaining comments - in the UK and the US Christmas is a lot LESS secular than in France, let me tell you!
So my personal 'hunt the baby Jesus' is just that - personal. And of course, I did find him, among the traditional Provençal santons. I'm glad he's there. And he needs to be personal. He's not State Business, and we can't legislate for him to be in shops, or in hearts.
So, what do you think, and which colour/concept would YOU choose? You can answer either the sacred or the secular question, here..!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Pause in Advent - Essence - Others

Welcome to the second Pause in Advent! The posts from last week were diverse and fascinating, but also had some kind of unity amongst them - we often find that we are dwelling on the same ideas as we prepare for Christmas. Thanks for all your posts and to all who took time to read and comment on others' posts, which is so encouraging and interesting.
This year, as I've said, I'm thinking about the essence of Christmas - not the commercialised/generally accepted form of the festival ('flavouring'), but what it really boils down to ('essence'). This is very necessary, as I've taken on a lot more work, and also because no one now has the money to spend on Christmas that many took for granted a decade ago.

My first ingredient of the true 'essence' of Christmas was tradition. My second is 'other people'. It's generally suggested that the more you care about other people, the happier you feel. Focussing on addressing your own (and your family's) immediated needs, exclusively, is a self-defeating strategy - people who take time to help others are happier and feel more satisfied. There've been times when I've been pretty active on 'saving the world', but these last few years have been more about the family and me - I really don't want to get so insular that I forget there are others out there with far greater needs than our own. Dormouse has some great examples of how people are helping out around the world on her recent post here. Ben spends some time each year collecting food for the French Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart) - he was at a local supermarket charming old ladies (I don't doubt) today, for the big collection before Christmas.
A group of people in a town near us has got involved in the Sakado project (there is a great French pun there if you know where to find it...). Sakado is a national organisation which organises the collection of packed rucksacks (sacs à dos) for homeless people. The idea is that you use new or good quality second hand material to provide warm clothes/blankets, hygiene products, communications aids (like a phone card or envelopes with stamps on) and Christmas goodies, and pack these into a rucksack along with your own personal message of encouragement. The rucksacks are then given to homeless people in the area - Toulouse in our case.
I've picked up two adequate rucksacks and a few warm clothes from our budget sports store - for some reason, the charity shops aren't stocking rucksacks at the moment, which I think is missing a trick. I've been to the charity shop for gloves, hats, socks, blankets etc so now it's over to the boys - I'm going to give them the list of hygiene products and Christmas goodies and a budget, and send them off to Intermarché to choose whatever they think would be best for a homeless man. Son 2 is already intrigued, and wonders if he will ever see a man in Toulouse carrying HIS rucksack!
This is quite a costly exercise. Stocking up for it has already made me realise how absolutely impossible it would be to get properly kitted-out for outdoor life without an income. I hope that when the boys go shopping for the supermarket products they will also face some realities about how homeless people have to live. By getting involved, in this practical way, I pray that we are going to bless someone else this Christmas but will also count our own blessings more accurately. Maybe the essence of Christmas is that Jesus came to a difficult place, at a difficult time, among difficult people - for Others.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Neighbours, tropical and otherwise...

At Christmas they eat lychees on the island of Réunion !

Our neighbours spent many years living on Réunion, and now their younger son has returned there. They received a parcel of lychees this week and Nellie called me over the fence to come and partake of the bounty.

I’ve never had fresh lychees before, and they are great. I had to take a photo quickly… there’s no way they’ll last until Christmas here!

We’ve had some wonderful neighbours over the years. A kind reader might suggest that this is because we deserve them, but actually I wonder if playing the piano at midnight, having the odd scream at or between children and running a farm-style front garden truly make us good neighbours… but over the years, we’ve known real friendship and kindness from those who’ve lived next door to us.

In Cumbria, we had Dave and Maggie, a young middle-aged couple who sorted us out in all our ‘first house’ disasters – Dave found us an old bath when we did up our bathroom, and Maggie taught us about the folk music of the fells. In North Tyneside we had a succession of young women living in the flat below us, who put up with Ben practicing his trumpet at night and invited us round for curious food and sociable parties. In Harrogate our neighbours honoured us by chopping down the high hedge that they’d planted because they didn’t like the previous owners of our house! We shared the cherries from our tree with them on the only year it actually produced – they couldn’t believe they’d been living next to a cherry tree all these years.

On moving to France, we met with real kindness. The neighbours of our rental house spoke some English, and had real fun initiating us into cassoulet and all the wonders of living in this part of France. Serge and Nellie, our Réunionaise/French neighbours here, are sweet and generous. It took both families a while to work out how to be cross-cultural neighbours – in France people don’t talk to their neighbours much, I’m constantly assured, and when we did weird things like inviting all the locals to a bonfire party we were accepted but considered rather odd! So sometimes Serge and Nellie don’t talk to me for weeks or months, and I have to remember that they aren’t shunning me, but just behaving normally for France. But at other times they give us food (and indeed, we give them food too) and they have taken to giving us leftovers for the hens, which is just fantastic! They’ve set up a little table by their fence and I sometimes find a bowl of rice or a pot of shredded lettuce on it in the morning. What a very nice way to live with your neighbours.
PS The internet connection is back! What a relief...

Monday, December 3, 2012

A First Pause in Advent - 'Essence'

Welcome to A Pause in Advent 2012, as readers and as ‘pausers’ ! This Pause in Advent is more challenging for me than others I’ve organised, as I’m working close to full time right now and our internet connection decided to desert us last week. I wrote this post on Saturday night and am now (Monday morning) in a McDonald's restaurant near to my next lesson, taking advantage of McDonald's free WiFi (and a diet coke and a salad...) It's been an enormous pleasure to log on and read all the kind and enthusiastic messages you've left me since our internet connection disappeared - my apologies to those who asked questions which I haven't been able to answer yet.

So, having more outside pressures at the moment, I’ve had to think about my priorities for preparing Christmas. What is really essential, and what is just a pleasant trimming? Or, to go with the title of this post, what is the essence of Christmas, and what is merely ‘Christmas-flavoured’?

I teach French people who work in the food industry, and one group had an interesting conversation last week about which ice creams are entitled to a vanilla flower on their packaging. If real vanilla essence is used, the packaging can be illustrated with the vanilla flower. If flavouring which has never seen a vanilla pod is used, then there is no right to use a picture of the flower. (Although unscrupulous producers do use it. No surprise there…)

So there we are – essence (the distilled ‘real thing’) and flavouring (a commercial attempt at copying the real thing).
For me, I’ve decided that to distil Christmas preparations down to their essence, I will need to focus on four things. I’ll post about one of those things, each Advent Sunday!

The first part of the essence of Christmas may well be tradition. I love the old traditions and I really enjoy the way that families and other groups quickly create their own traditions – there doesn’t need to be much age behind a tradition to make it significant. I hope that some of the other ‘Pauses’ are going to talk about these traditions, old and new, and I’m really looking forward to learning more about them. But another, very practical, aspect of tradition has really made itself clear to me this year.

I was far too busy teaching English to food producers (and others) to prepare much for Advent this year. So on Friday night I went to the box labelled ‘Advent’ and pulled out:

The Advent Tree made by Ben’s mum when the boys were little.

The Advent Wreath made by Ben from one of our firewood logs two years ago, after we’d burnt a hole in the old fabric wreath in our 'Pause' logo. (I need to add some greenery - I haven't had time yet!)

The Advent Nativity Scene bought by me in the Harrogate Fair Trade Shop about eleven years ago.

If I hadn’t had these trusty, traditional pieces tucked away, we wouldn’t have been ready for Advent. Last year I really enjoyed getting creative and making a fresh Advent wreath. This year I’m delighted to be revisiting the old favourites, which have allowed me to establish a genuine atmosphere of preparation in the home, with almost no work. Traditions make it easy to hold on to what matters – my new discovery of the week.

PS Ben has just started playing ‘O come, o come Emmanuel’ on the piano – full marks for Advent Essence, that man!

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Old and the New, plus a little more info on Advent

Ben and I, belatedly, got round to trying this year's Beaujolais Nouveau last night:
It's an important tradition to us, not only because it's a good thing to join in French customs, but also because it marks an anniversary for us - eight years ago we came out to look for a rental house near Toulouse because Ben had been offered the job here. I was fairly ill and for many years I found it hard to look back on that time with any pleasure, but now I can taste the Beaujolais and reminisce with enjoyment on our first visit and all the years that have passed since!
Thank you to everyone who has already signed up for A Pause in Advent this year. We'll be starting on Sunday 2nd December, as Advent begins quite late in 2012! For those who want to know more, the idea is that we post on any subject which allows us to calm down and think straight at a busy time... Many people have a religious or spiritual take on the event, and many use the pause as a way to emphasise the value of simplicity or traditions old and new, and to dwell on the importance of people above profit at this consumer-driven time of year. We write about what we've been doing, what we've been thinking, and what we hope for. Will you join us?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Pause in Advent, 2012

Some sweet people (in the USA, Britain and France) have expressed the hope that we'll be doing the Pause in Advent again this year - thank you so much to them for keeping the thought going while I'm so busy! The answer is yes, I will be delighted to host this four-week event again, where you are invited to post every Sunday or Monday in Advent, on any subject of your choice that helps us to think about the quieter, calmer aspects of getting ready for Christmas. Please see any of my posts in previous Decembers for examples, and let me know if you'd like to get involved this year! I'm so busy teaching that I may only manage the once-a-week posts, but I think I'll need those Pauses to take a moment to reflect on what Advent and Christmas should mean to me. Will you join us, please?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Family Celebrations!

Our frenetic activity over the last week was all to get ready for a wonderful celebration in Edinburgh:
I didn't think to ask permission to blog photos, so there are no faces in this photo, but the dashing naval captain is my father, marrying his beautiful bride, whom you see here holding her vintage family prayer book. It was a really special event. Maybe I'll be able to show you more photos when I've spoken to them after the honeymoon!
You have my permission to see me! I bought the outfit second hand, but at a rather classy (and therefore more expensive than usual) shop in Edinburgh called Mona's Catwalk - well worth visiting if you're in the area! Mona and I had a lot of fun playing dress-up, and I like the results. I wore my handmade mother of pearl button necklace, and a vintage coat that I picked up on the local sales page on Facebook - no photos of that yet, but I have high hopes that my brother in law got a photo of it!
I'm OK showing you these charming faces - they are my family's former minister (she's moved on to a new church now) and our two boys, who scrubbed up nicely for the family event, I think!