There will now be a short intermission…

…whilst we complete the move to France.

The boxes are all packed and now the house resembles a maze whilst Mrs Shark and I scurry about like two demented rats.

The removal firm rang today and they will be here at 8am this coming Friday and Mrs Shark and myself will be away to Portsmouth to catch the ferry two hours later, leaving my brother and sister-in-law and son to keep the removal men topped up with tea and biccies and then tidy up  before our buyers move in. The cats will be picked up by the lovely Melanie tomorrow evening and brought to us on Saturday and our worldly goods will follow a week on Friday.

As soon as I get a French 3G dongle for the new laptop I’ll be back blogging and the top 20 of my favourite albums will be revealed.

And so, dear reader, a bientot!

Preparing to move

Well, barring something disastrous – touch wood – it’s goodbye to England and hello to France in two weeks’ time.

The movers and cat transporters are booked, our temporary rental home in France awaits us and is aired and tidy after we spent a few days there last week, a French bank account has been set up and all the necessary paperwork involved in moving to a foreign country has been sorted out as much as it can be.

The plan is to rent for a few months and look around for somewhere to buy.

We love the Mayenne region. It’s got an agricultural economy, isn’t touristy, property bargains are to be had and it’s beautiful countryside. It’s two hours from a ferry port – Caen – and this means we can come back here for visits and friends and relations can visit us. We’re renting there and will hope to buy there too.

Elsewhere on this wonderful world wide web thingy, someone recently accused me of ‘running away‘ which couldn’t be further from the truth.

Basically I’m retiring to France as it offers us more for our money in terms of property and a slightly less frenetic pace of life – especially if we end up living in rural surroundings, as planned.

I’ve worked all my working life, paid all my taxes and never claimed a penny from the State in terms of welfare benefits. We can buy a detached and fully habitable house with an acre of land for a fraction of what it would cost here and, now that we’ve both managed to retire early, I’d like to settle with Mrs Shark somewhere peaceful and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

We just couldn’t do that in this country so, as we both love France and have spent many, many holidays there, it’s a no-brainer. We both speak French reasonably well and like the French people we’ve met over the years and French society, on the whole, still respects the individual’s right to get on with life without too much State interference – certainly not to the level it’s escalated to here.

Mrs Shark, the two cats, a house in the country and a bit of land to work on. It all sounds good to me…

The Sharks go to London

Although we only live about 45 miles north of London – that’s about 30 minutes on a fast train – Mrs Shark and I very rarely venture into it.

However, as we really wanted to go to the excellent France Show at Olympia and had already paid for tickets, we decided to gird up our lions, brave the weather and place ourselves at the tender mercies of public transport.

We left home by bus and after a very quick (some parts of the route were left out due to snow) and uneventful journey, we arrived at Central Milton Keynes Station, just in time to catch a London Express which was only delayed by about 10 minutes. So, one quick train ride later, we were soon standing outside of Euston Station with a cigarette and a cup of coffee bracing ourselves for the Underground.

It was remarkably uncrowded and we had a good journey to West Brompton – the best station to use for Olympia 2.

(Yes, I know this is all very prosaic, but we really don’t go to London much!)

We’d attended the France Show last year, when moving to France permanently was but a germ of an idea, but now, 12 months later, we now had a sense of purpose, having found a buyer for our place (fingers crossed!). We knew what we wanted to find out, so we circled the stands we needed to visit on the program and set forth.

We  managed to find some useful people to talk to and get advice from – Credit Agricole for setting up a French bank account, currency exchange people for transferring money and also property agents for renting and then buying.  Everyone seemed very helpful and we now have some useful contacts for advice. We also gathered a stack of material to read at home.

We saw some celebs there, too.

I almost knocked Jean-Christophe Novelli over in my haste to get to the loo. He was just coming out from ‘backstage’ to demonstrate some sort of seafood cuisine and we almost collided…

Then there was a bookstand, with Carol Drinkwater (now an author, but probably best remembered for her TV role as James’ Herriot’s wife in that vet series) and Kate Mosse (author of the excellent ‘Labyrinth’, set partly in one of my favourite places on earth, Carcassonne).

But the real treat was meeting John Dummer.

John used to lead a blues band in the late 1960s and early 1970s – the John Dummer Blues Band. They were never as big as Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, or even Chicken Shack, but they were a splendid band which I saw a few times back then. They were slightly lighter than most blues bands of the day and featured fiddle. They had a sort of country and folk tinge too, which set them apart from the rest. They had a big hit in France with ‘Nine by Nine’ which was used for a cheese advert and then released to become a best-seller.

He was also a member of Darts, which had several hits and which people probably remember more than his blues stuff.

Now, he’s an antique dealer living in France and he’s also an author. I bought his book, ‘Serge Bastarde Ate my Baguette’ and he kindly signed it for me. A nice guy and great to meet the leader of one of my favourite 1960s blues bands.

Anyway, laden with brochures, books, nougat, lavender soap and freebies (USB pen drives and keyrings with discs for using in supermarket trolleys) we decided to head back to Euston in case some trains were cancelled.

We got to Euston nice and easily via a still uncrowded tube and, whilst having a pre-journey coffee and smoke outside the station, managed to spot one more celeb. It was Johnny Vegas, leaning against a pillar near the entrance having a smoke and yawning. He looks much smaller in real life…

Having esconced ourselves on a nice warm train, there was an announcement that there would be a delay due to a technical fault. This then led to a series of announcements that an engineer had been called out, the engineer was working on the fault, the engineer was still working on the fault, etc, so we disembarked to find a working train.

We found one, settled in for the journey and then…

“We apologise for the delay, but we’re waiting for the train manager.”

We then heard that he had been delayed on a train from Preston.

About 20 minutes later, the manager must have arrived because the train pulled out of Euston and sped us back to Milton Keynes. Another bus journey and we were home.

All in all, 8 hours out but not bad for public transport, not to mention the inclement weather.

But would I ever give up my car and go fully ‘public’?

Would I fuck…

French roads and food

It’s easy to run this country down – Labour have been doing it for 12 years – but yet another trip over the Channel just confirms my belief that the French do some things far better than we do.

Here’s just a couple for now.

Roads

Sure, France has its share of bad roads, but I’ve rarely come across anything calling itself a main route that wasn’t well-maintained yet unimpeded by roadworks. In about 750 miles of motoring on French roads over the last few days we came across only one stretch of roadworks – about half a mile long – and that was just south of Dunkerque. All the rest of the roads we used – Autoroutes (both with and without tolls), Routes Nationales, Routes Departmentales and minor very ‘rural’ roads – were totally clear of cones, holes and workmen which ensured good times between our various destinations.

Then there’s the Aires de Repos – the rest areas and services. These can range from a simple lay-by with or without loos to a petrol station with a well-stocked shop and a restaurant selling reasonable cooked meals. Yes, just like here the services are pricey but they’re frequent and usually clean and well-staffed.

The frequent 130 kmph (80 mph) stretches of motorway are invaluable for really eating up the distances – France is a big country – and the habit that most French drivers have of using the outside lanes to overtake and then pulling back to the inside means that you don’t get some arsehole hogging the middle lane as if it’s for his own private use as you frequently see here.

Yes, it’s a delight to drive in France – despite long journeys on the major Autoroutes setting you back a fair few euros on the peage sections. Often worth it though for the speed and lack of congestion, although you usually see very little of that except in major centers of population.

Food

Bread…there’s nothing to beat a really fresh baguette from a good French baker. Anything you buy here calling itself a “baguette” is a travesty. Some good cheese – and there’s plenty of that to be found and properly ripe too – a glass of wine and a fresh baguette and you have a simple but perfect lunch.

Many of the better restaurants – and they do take some tracking down, which dispels the myth that all restaurants are good in France – will construct menus that reflect the availability of good local seasonal produce, show off the skills of their cooks and provide an experience you’ll remember for a long while if you’re lucky.

We had a superb meal at the hotel we stopped off at in Neufchatel-en-Bray in Normandy last Friday. It was the 28 euro Menu Tradition and my choice opened with Mousse de Foie Gras, followed by a puff pastry wrap with Neufchatel cheese inside, served with a salad with a 5 spice dressing and strips of magret de canard. There was a pause for a small bowl of apple sorbet with Calvados poured over it – a modern variation of  the Trou Normand – and then the main course arrived: a large piece of beef with sauce echalotte served with oven baked potatoes layered with Neufchatel cheese accompanied by seasonal vegetables. The cheese course followed and I chose some aged Neufchatel, local goat’s cheese and Livarot. To conclude, dessert – a chocolate tartelette with caramelised nuts in it, dressed with honey and creme anglaise.

Expensive? I suppose so, but then again you can spend over half that quite easily on a pub lunch, and there were 6 courses, all beautifully prepared with quality fresh ingredients, nicely presented and well-served by very friendly staff. The only downside to the whole evening was the cost of the wine which was 27 euros for the bottle of 2007 Buzet we chose, but that’s often the case in France.

Christmas was in full evidence in all the shops and things weren’t really that different elsewhere with trees and lights and all the usual stuff set up in the towns.

This notice I saw at one of the Aires we stopped at really amused me:

Any Father Christmas who suddenly exclaimed “Oh, oh, oh!” would get short shrift here in dear old Blighty, that’s for sure…

Away for a wee while

Off for a few days in France.

The agenda includes some Christmas shopping, looking over a possible place to rent while we house hunt, having some good meals out and just enjoying being somewhere different for a while.

If anything looks bloggable while I’m there, I’ll try and blog it – I’ll have wifi access most of the time.

Off to bed soon – up at 3am or so…

Au reservoir, as Mapp and Lucia would say.

In a state agents

Shark Towers has now been on the market for just over a week and we’ve already had 4 lots of potential buyers viewing the family estate.

Of course, selling this little piece of England means that we’re now faced with the prospect of buying a small corner of La Belle France, so we’ve been looking at French estate agents’ sites.

In doing so, we’ve stumbled upon a new interweb game: ‘Spot the worst photo of a French property‘.

I don’t know about anyone else, but my philosophy regarding photos of a house you want to sell is that you present the rooms nicely – clean, tidy, uncluttered, etc, etc.

But not so with many French vendors.

Here’s my favourite so far:

Capture2

More to come.

Total eclipse 1999

For spectacular displays that can really mindfuck you, Nature surely takes some beating.

One such awe-inspiring demonstration of Man’s insignficance and powerlessness took place earlier today in the form of a total solar eclipse.

The 2009 eclipse was unfortunately not visible from this country but, with the benefit of modern technology, people can still experience part at least of its magnificence without actually having experienced it first-hand.

I was fortunate to see the 1999 eclipse and, since blogging back then was merely a young Guido’s wet dream I’m going to blog about it 10 years later.

We were in France on a caravan holiday with my brother-in-law and his wife and we’d gone specifically to see the eclipse as the band of totality lay across Northern France, whereas in the UK it only just clipped Cornwall.

We went for 2 weeks and spent the first one in the Dordogne on a very friendly site where I got an unofficial ‘job’ as interpreter for the owner – a long story which involved an irate Brit scraping the roof of his camper van on some overhanging branches.

We headed north-east as the day of the eclipse got nearer and the night before realised that as all the campsites were booked solid – we were idiots not to pre-book – we’d have to pitch the caravan in an aire de repos, which was somewhere in the Somme region.

It was a very basic aire with parking and a small toilet block.

The toilets were truly disgusting – French public toilets are rarely 5* facilities – but at least there was room to park…

I seem to remember that the eclipse was due at about 6am so we settled down for the night ready to get up early.

I couldn’t sleep – partly due to sheer excitement but also due to the sleeping arrangements. Mrs Shark and myself had been sleeping in the awning previously but this time we were sleeping in a caravan berth and they really aren’t to my liking.

I got up about 1am, grabbed plenty of cigarettes and headed outside to wait for the dawn.

Whilst I was trying to sleep a Swiss guy had arrived in the mean time and had erected a massive camera tripod on the dunny roof.

He spoke no English and I spoke no Swiss-type German so we chatted as best we could in French for the next 4 hours or so and he shared his coffee with me and, as he smoked, we shared my cigarettes.

We were both eyeing up the cloud cover and wondering if we’d actually see the bloody eclipse but as the time approached the clouds actually rolled back as it started.

As the eclipse approached totality everything went quiet – the 150 or so people who had either stayed at or pulled in to the aire de repos, the birds which had been singing away, everything.

There was a strange light that was unlike any other sort of half light I’ve experienced – more like an absence of light than darkness if you see what I mean – which seemed to leech the colour from everything so it looked like colourised monochrome.

The Sun itself was eventually covered by the moon and we got to see the ‘diamond ring’ effect.

Above all, there was this feeling almost as if time was standing still and everything you knew that was around you had ground to a halt.

Then the sun emerged again gradually and as it got lighter the birds started singing again and everything seemed to come back from a strange place.

As everything gradually fell back into place, people started talking about what they’d seen and heard and felt and with the eventual reappearance of the whole of the disc of the sun it was clear that it was all over and that we’d seen something amazing that not everybody gets to see.

Amazing, to be sure, but above all rather humbling and a reminder, to me at least, that even though you knew the sun was going to appear again when it disappeared behind the moon that for a brief few seconds you realised how important that ball of energy in the sky really was.

I captured the whole thing on video tape and I watched it the other day.

Not quite the same, but still pretty powerful stuff 10 years later.

As for Cornwall’s view of it – a total disaster with far too much cloud cover…

Alcopops? Non!

Could this be the saddest Facebook group of all time?

5 very concerned French citizens have banded together to encourage moderation when drinking alcopops.

Si une jeune fille de 14 ans qui pèse 48
kg boit deux alcopops (soit 24 grammes
d’alcool), elle aura un taux d’alcool dans
le sang d’environ 0.9 pour mille.

Basically, if a 14 year old girl of average weight drinks two bottles of alcopops she’ll end up a bit pissed.

Pas de merde, Sherlock…

Roll on August…

Holiday now booked.

We had a few days away in the Mayenne region of France a couple of months ago to suss out the area. We liked it very much so we’ve got another week down there to see if it’s where we want to buy.

I have no idea what phase of ‘the Plan’ we’re at, but the back of our house is now all spruced up with everything painted and pointed with a view to selling later this year.

Phase 4 of the plan

The cats are booked in next Tuesday for a blood test to see if their rabies shots have been effective.

If so, then we can take them across to France but if we want to bring them back inside 6 months then they’ll have to be tested.

However, if we stay here in the UK for 6 months and then get a second clear blood test then we can come and go as we please.

So, that’s what we’re doing.

Next phase is to think about selling this place and decide on an area of France we want to move to…

So far Brittany, Normandy, Pays de Loire and Poitou-Charentes seem favourites.

We shall see…