Saturday, 23 September 2017

Bordeaux, je t'aime

The one constant in my life is my love of France. I am lucky to live very near to France and can hop over quite easily. And so once again I ventured off solo with one suitcase and one piece of hand luggage in case my suitcase got lost. I normally drive but this time decided to fly.

I had spent many happy years as a student at university in Bordeaux. This time I was going to tour vineyards and take a couple of wine courses. And I should add, meet old friends who I was at university with thirty + years ago.

Suffice it to say that my trip was the best holiday of my life and one which I could probably write a book about. We're older but we're the same and how we feel will never change- that was the lesson we learned seeing each other after thirty years.

I walked the entire length and breadth of the center of Bordeaux- 65 kilometres in two days. Have comfortable shoes and the world is truly one's oyster. As a single woman, walking holidays in safe places are the most important part of my holiday and I can say that I never felt threatened in Bordeaux. I walked everywhere by myself and  gladly have lived to tell the tale. Bordeaux is breathtakingly beautiful, easy to navigate on foot and very close to the best vineyards in the world.

On one of my wine courses in St Emilion I met a French Canadian who told me he was retracing the steps of his youth before he died. That is the conundrum of what it is to be human, my dear friend.

 Learning to distinguish between Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot.

Some of the 750,000 bottles in the underground cellars of CHATEAU DE LA RIVIERE.

Moi with a few bottles for lunch. CHATEAU DE PORTETS.


Some of the 22 kms of underground cellars at CHATEAU DE LA RIVIERE.

All photos copyright SvD.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Why The Past Is A Foreign Country

I recently returned to Bordeaux where I had spent many happy years, the best of my life, as a student. I graduated in 1987 and this year is 30 years exactly since I left university. I combined my desire to retrace my steps with winetasting tours to St Emilion and Medoc vineyards and revisiting old friends.
Photo copyright SvD.

I used to love spending the day in St. Emilion wandering around the cobbled streets of this ancient village some parts of which date to 767 AD. Thirty years ago I could walk through the whole village and maybe see a dozen people. Today the village receives 1.5 million tourists annually.
St. Emilion. Photo copyright SvD.

Bordeaux is now the second most visited town in France after Paris.
Ripening  grapes, St. Emilion. Photo copyright SvD.

I recognised nothing during my trip of how things used to be. In fact, I felt acutely aware of how I had aged and my memories were balancing off a precipice soon to be shunted into oblivion. The world has changed and seems intent on being bigger, more dynamic, more relevant and in my view, more false. There was a time where the quiet stillness of my soul could be found munching 'macarons' and sitting with my feet in the pools of spring water of the ancient communal stone laundry in St. Emilion which this time 'round, I couldn't find.

How the world has changed! I learned on this vist to retrace my steps that we can't recreate the journey we had to embark on in order to learn and to be what we needed to become.

One of these bottles is the year I was born. Photo copyright SvD.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Mushroom season

If I was a vegetarian, I would be spending hours every day foraging for mushrooms. The best mushrooms appear in late September as the weather just begins to turn cold. This year we have lost a month as everything is in advance: sloes are already ripe as are blackberries and apples- that usually happens in October. I came upon these field mushrooms this weekend in the woods- very edible and delicious friend in butter with garlic, salt and parsley. When I find mushrooms, it means the land is still naturally fertile and the delicate balance of nature has not yet been tipped over the edge. Note the circular formation of how mushrooms grow.

Photos copyright SvD.

Making do

I am the queen of making do, of carrying on, of the stiff upper lip, of being Ms Sensible in a crisis (only because I have no choice) as always. In the woods I found this bird feeder that looks a lot like me and it made me smile.

Photo copyright SvD.

How did the slow caterpillar cross the road unscathed?

On my walk yesterday along a winding country road where cars whistled past at furious speed and the odd cyclist in bright speedos would appear suddenly beside me and shout 'Hullo!'. I love this bit of road, it stretches for around ten miles and although the drivers take advantage of the lack of traffic and pretend they're Lewis Hamilton, I nonetheless manage to gather my thoughts and enjoy the scenery of endless fields, huge skies and even something much smaller.

Mr Caterpillar caught my eye as he crossed the road very, very slowly. He didn't seemed concerned that at any minute he could be fossilised into the asphalt but continued as if he had all the time in the world. My heart started beating rapidly with the anxiety of having to watch an imminent murder most foul. I didn't dare pick up the caterpillar knowing from experience that his spikes would hurt like hell. A car approached at break neck speed but luckily on the other side of the road. Mr Caterpillar had been lucky but I knew his luck wouldn't last. A cyclist appeared out of nowhere as usual and zoomed past missing Mr C by millimeters. Deciding I had to do something, I stood in the middle of the road, not exactly planning to commit suicide but to force cars and cyclists to slow down just so Mr C would make it safely to the other side. I counted to 78 and.....finally! Mr C arrived at the end of his voyage all the while having been completely oblivious to my self-induced angst for his well being. Isn't life funny like that? Mr C wasn't lucky. He was just crossing the road.

Photo copyright SvD.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

On my walk today

I walked six miles today just strolling around and here's what I saw:

In a church. Cryptic praise?

Along the canals.

And my favourite time of the day.

Photos copyright SvD.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Shots of Summer Part 2

 Looking southwards against a sober sky...
 Cobnuts - a tasty snack raw or roasted (if you have any left after gorging yourself).
 Milk Thistle- used as a natural remedy in these parts for hundreds of years to treat liver congestion.
Ripe elderberries- when they ripen it signifies the end of summer. We're in August but nature says summer is over already!
Ripening damsons - the best jam ever is made from these wild tart plums. Not very digestible raw but like the quince they take on a whole new dimension once cooked.

All photos taken on my walk today.

Photos copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

How to Stop A River of Tears

In my 20s I was hopeful, in my 30s accommodating, in my 40s philosophical, in my 50s too wise for my own good but never too old to change. There is an old joke about what has three legs at dusk. Answer: an old man requiring a stick to walk with. In the process of aging it is not just the physical body that needs a crutch. We are now getting used to waking up to bad news- terrorist attacks, mosque attacks, deadly fires. Rather than becoming inured to bad things the opposite is happening: bad news makes us less reliant on the metaphorical crutch, somehow more resilient and yes, more emotional- suddenly we realise that we had better make the most of life on our terms as there is a very real possibility it could be curtains sooner rather than later.

When my father died I realised I was living half a life and needed to change it. The sight of my father lying in a coffin was a seminal moment. Whatever crutch I was relying on was suddenly whipped away and I felt myself instantly determined to change the way things were. The same must surely apply to the terrible news that greets us almost daily. The first question we must ask ourselves is what can we do? The answer is painfully simple. I'll explain why.

As I walked the hounds this morning, I reflected as I always do particularly on my mother with whom I had a most awful relationship. It suddenly dawned on me that my late mother's unkindness and the fact that she never said anything good about anyone was because she couldn't stop herself. In other words, when we do bad things and say bad things, we have to keep doing them. Bad engenders bad. Just like the evil we are faced with in the world today. As simplistic as it may sound, the solution starts with us.

Just for one moment, perhaps less than thirty seconds of your time is all it will take to change the world. Here's what you can do in thirty seconds: reflect on the last unkind/bad thing you said or did. Next, resolve to change your behaviour and do and say only good things from now on. I am certainly guilty of the opposite on occasion- just this morning I was cursing the truck driver who swerved ahead of me in the fast lane in order to overtake another truck. I think I used every expletive in the dictionary. But my behaviour was more about my state of mind and the anxiety which sometimes overwhelms me. In that respect I am like everyone else but my expletive-laden rant didn't actually change the situation.

How we cope in adversity takes courage. Courage to recognise our weaknesses and to realise we need to change the way things are, including the way we react. We can alter our behaviour but we can't stop bad things from happening. Doing good and saying good is the boomerang which will come back to greatly enrich your life.

Photo copyright SvD.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Down at the farm...

Sheep have been shorn of their Winter coats and are spending their days and nights outdoors munching on grass and a special feed the farmer delivers early in the morning. These are ewes which will give birth again in the Spring. Sheep are not that interesting and not half as curious as cows. Sheep are very skittish (like pigeons) and never want to say hello. Cows on the other hand would like to spend all day chatting to you:

The calves are one year old and will soon be 'osso bucco'. Here they are meeting my darling doggie. Some calves will join the dairy herd as well.

I call them babies and give them pats as I walk past but they are much bigger than me! Thankfully their teeth are quite flat and not very sharp!

Photo copyright SvD.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Direction of My Heart

I have written before about the different types of love, romantic, maternal, etc. There is another kind of love- silent and fateful, an obligation to yield because it makes us who we are. A person can be the direction of our heart. A navigator on our journey through life. I have been fortunate in my tumultuous existence to meet random strangers who were effectively in charge of the direction of my broken, damaged heart.

Throughout my life I have met people literally on the street with whom I have gone on to forge close friendships and connections which had a strength of purpose in that precise moment in my life. When I was a student, I foolishly headed for Bordeaux on a whim without any back up plan or knowledge of what I was going to do. I met someone at the airport who offered me a place to stay. That person taught me about what I didn't want- to take drugs and distance myself from the real world. I then moved into an unfurnished apartment and received a knock on the door that same day from a kindly lady who offered me her spare furniture. That lady would become my defacto grandmother- someone who utterly adored me and I her. My friendship with this angelic woman occurred just as my family was falling apart- my brother had caused my parents terrible heartbreak and the repercussions within our family felt like being on a rollercoaster where you wanted to scream but knew all too well that no one would hear. I had to learn how to deal with the unhappiness in my family and in the process, heal my shattered soul. If I hadn't had the affection of a little old lady who knocked on my door out of kindness, I don't think I would have managed to stay sane.

A couple of years ago the same thing happened in reverse- I was the stranger who helped someone in distress. A lady visiting her ill mother in a nursing home stopped me one day on the street and needed to talk. Again the connection was instant and over the course of several weeks it became apparent that I had something which could help her overcome her anxiety. Attention, interest, a demeanor that made her feel that I was wiser than perhaps I actually am.

Lovers engage the romantic desire we crave- the hope of being loved and cherished.  But as people, we are infinitely more powerful than we believe. Not because we are better but because we offer a type of sustenance to weary souls. We are all frazzled from the daily grind of living and sometimes it can feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and that the future is bleak. To quote my best friend, at our age all we can do is reminisce because there really is nothing to look forward to. She's right and wrong. If we manage to get to our age and still be capable of showing empathy and kindness to others we have won the stakes in the lottery of life. Once we understand how much we can mean to others by showing them attention and thoughtfulness towards their predicament, then we are fulfilling our prophecy as human beings. If collectively whole continents could harness such a force it would be for the good of all where no one would feel lonely, isolated and tormented by the things they cannot change. Each of us is a ray of light in a world becoming shrouded in darkness.

Someone once said to me that I make others happy. It took me a while to understand that there is a symbiosis between people which makes us relevant to each other. No matter how down or out we may feel or fearful of the future, it is worth remembering that someone else is having a worse time. We can't change the world but we can make small steps which in turn will have far-reaching consequences. So open yourself to the possibility that someone will be sent to help when your world is falling apart. And be that person for somebody else. The person who could change the direction of a heart.

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

My suppers this week!

These are the dishes that I cooked and relished in the last week. They say that if you love to eat you love to cook!

Roast Chicken. Home from work at 6.05pm. Chicken in the oven at 6.20pm, on the table at 8.15pm (having rested for twenty minutes).

Served with:

Petits Pois à la Parisienne. Cooked this while chicken was roasting.

Pan- Fried Tuna Steak with Fennel Seeds, served with Sauerkraut.

Fried Rice served with leftover Roast Lamb.

Omelette aux Fines Herbes with Home-Made Chips.

Broccoli Tempura- I could literally eat this all day every day. Easiest thing to make if the oil is just the right temperature. I ate a whole head of broccoli like this one evening.

Anyone can cook- please try! You'll be saving your sanity, health and the planet at the same time.

All photos copyright SvD.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The season of abundance

Summer fruits are in plentiful supply at the moment and the easiest dessert which everyone loves is sliced fruits soaked in a bit of freshly squeezed orange or lemon juice (or whatever booze is lying around, rum or cointreau, for example) and served with sweetened double cream. Choose fruits which are just bordering on overipeness- they are the sweetest. Refrigerate the salad before serving. On scorching days like today this is a perfect light and refreshing dessert.

The dollop of cream in my photo resembles a sheep's head for some strange reason....

Photo copyright SvD.

A Real Tree

Whenever I come upon a tree which has not in it its entire long life ever been lopped or pollarded or tormented by human hands, my heart skips. On my 5 mile walk today:

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Cows in a row

This morning on my dog walk making way for one hundred dairy cows freshly milked and let out to pasture:

Photo copyright SvD.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

How I found a 190million year old fossil on Charmouth Beach

I discovered Charmouth Beach quite by accident- I had gone to church one Sunday while staying in Sidmouth on holiday. The couple who were sitting next to me in church and to whom I had not even spoken, invited me to coffee straight after mass. As it turned out, they had lived in Sidmouth all of their lives- they were in their 60s. I asked about fossil hunting and they suggested Charmouth Beach and so I headed off the next morning armed with a plastic bag to collect my finds and a sturdy pair of shoes.

I arrived at the beach in the pelting rain- oh, the joys of the British summer! I asked a passing local if I should turn left or right on the beach for the best finds. She said right which I did picking my way along the beach which is essentially a quarry of medium to large rocks forced out of their dormancy from the overhanging cliffs by rain. Heavy downpours soak into the cliff making it fall apart literally and as the cliff disintegrates, the fossils are loosened from their resting places. I was lucky- we had experienced a terrific storm the night before replete with thunder and lightning. I hoped I was going to get lucky.

Indeed I was one of the first few hunters on the beach which stretched for two miles or so before me. I rubbed my hands with glee. Off I went bent over peering earnestly at my feet. I quickly learned not to touch the crumbling cliff face as the disintegrating rock is tar-like and sticks to your hands like glue. Gloves would be the order of the day but I had none. Instead I would have to find fossils amongst the rocks on the beach. I kept going. One of the attributes you acquire living on your own is amazing concentration. Used to my own company I can literally go for hours on end on a single task like painting or writing. So bending over relentlessly scouring the rocks for something out of place was easy.

And here's what else I did- I meditated. I emptied my head of the figurative rocks in my brain and blocked out the ancillary noise- the sound of people's voices, even the crashing of the waves a few feet from me. I got to the point where there was nothing in my head at all just a silence punctuated by a sensation that I should stop and look near my feet and not move. That's what I did. The sensation grew stronger. I did not veer even one inch away from where I was standing but concentrated all my energy into examining the rocks as intently as possible. Suddenly I felt that I should bend down even closer which I did and that again, I should not move. I did what I was being propelled to do. And there it was. I picked it up not knowing what it was but sensing it was incredible.

There was a further strong feeling that I should stop searching as to want more than one prize would be greedy. I turned around and  retraced my footsteps away from beach.

By now in need of some sustenance I headed off to the nearby restaurant where a surplus of customers meant that we had to share tables. As I sat down I examined my finds. The gentleman at the same table who was in an amorous clinch with his girlfriend looked up. 'Very impressive,' he smiled, at the fossil not me, unfortunately. Turns out he was a palaeontologist on holiday with his new girlfriend and he knew just about everything on fossils and dinosaurs. He confirmed I had struck very, very lucky indeed for a complete novice with no knowledge or experience.

Later on the local museum re-iterated the same thing: my ammonite (an ancient type of squid) was rare and wonderful.

The sensation of our temporary passage on this earth is made all the more profound while standing in the rain holding a 190 million year old fossil.

So there you have it: when we abandon our will sometimes great things want to find us. Neither is this the first time where coincidence after coincidence has guided me towards something.

If I could, I would spend the rest of my life down on Charmouth Beach which has to be one of the best experiences ever of my life.

My ammonite. Photos copyright SvD.

If you'd like to know more about ammonites, this link has all the info:

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Summer has begun ...and soon will end

In ancient English folklore, the appearance of flowering elderflower signifies the start of Summer. When the flowers turn to fruit, Autumn has begun. Today in Oxfordshire:

Photo copyright SvD.

Seaweed amongst the fossils on Charmouth Beach, Dorset.

Photographed as I found them. Photos copyright SvD.