Wednesday, June 08, 2016

tasty and natural

I was surprised to see elder growing here, I had imagined that the climate would have been too hot and dry, but I was wrong.  They were flowering as I arrived at the convent and my hosts  had already made elderflower syrup this year.  We chatted about other uses and ended up gathering bafulls of flowers that we set to dry as an ingredient for herbal tea, either on its own or to blend with other herbs.  

The plants cling to the wettest places and are found alongside streams and in damp valleys where they can thrive.  We drove out into the countryside and spent an enjoyable couple of hours harvesting and chatting in the warm spring sunshine.  Whilst chatting, it transpired that they had packets of seeds to sprout, that they had never dared to try, so were excited to hear that it was something that I regularly did.  That evening we set to soak three different sprouts, mung beans which give chinese bean sprouts, sunflower seeds and cress.  A week later they were nicely sprouted and we enjoyed them in salads accompanied by fresh leaves and shoots from the garden.
seeds put to soak for sprouting

elderflowers ready to dry

combing elderflowers of their stalks

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

time at the convent

The convent that I stayed in next was on the edge of a large village up in the hills behind Tarragona, about 20 minutes from the sea.  It was the first time I had visited the area and I was pleasantly surprised by the natural landscape.  There were high hills/mountains inland, lush hillsides and vineyards, I use lush loosely and to compare it with other areas of Spain, it was still fairly arid and dry compared to the UK or my little patch of France, but pleasing none the less.  

Disappointing though, plenty of industrial areas with huge huge warehouses, factories and commercial buildings.  They tend now to be gathered into specific areas which is good news but due to the giant oil refinery on the coast there is bound to be a large amount of associated manufacturing in the area.  I didn’t let all of that put me off as the landscape undulated and there are still many beautiful areas with unspoiled views, interesting villages and properties to be found.

My hosts are in the process of partially restoring the convent which had been abandoned for many decades.  The plan is to renovate the two side aisles of the building, shaped like a church, leaving the central nave roofless as a courtyard within.  There had been some work unsympathetic done, before the building was protected as a historic monument, by a recent previous owner, that has to stay.  But the rest will continue in a more harmonious style, mainly to consolidate and secure what remains of the building.

The land around the building had long been a dumping ground for the neighbourhood, fly tipping and an accumulation of years of junk has already been cleared and the transformation back into a garden has begun.  I was tasked with weeding, strimming the waist high vegetation and to help guide my hosts into planning a suitable garden for the convent.  

I toiled each morning, took a short break then trawled estate agent web sites and their offices during the afternoons.  Timings in Spain are different again to france, with the majority of shops and offices closing at around 13.00 and reopening anywhere between 16.00 and 17.30 through till 20.00 or 21.00.  I began to take full advantage of a mini siesta, even though the weather was not that warm, to ward off the tiredness of constant late nights, easy to adapt too and very useful.

Discovering houses all over the region gave me an excellent opportunity to find out where felt good and what I was really looking for.  I soon became aware of the eye sores and the unattractiveness of the local industry as well as the quiet hidden villages nestling in the countryside.  Unfortunately the houses that I was drawn to on paper were not in appropriate places for what I have planned for the future.  Access along miles of dirt track or through industrial zones won’t be conducive to people visiting for holidays or to attend gardening courses, not the appealing to me either with my quest for easy access and involvement with local community.  I saw some lovely and very reasonable properties but my quest continues.
pretty, but rather weedy

what is supposed to be there

amazing courtyard

Thursday, May 26, 2016

spring in sitges

I’m having a bit of time away after the winter, partly holiday and also a bit more of a nose into the possibilities in Spain.  I have mentioned my ideas in previous posts from last autumn.

For this trip I have decided to HelpX again, It’s been a while since I gave a hand to folk and decided that it would also be a better way of getting to know the area in a bit more detail.  Thankfully I had made arrangements in advance, as Percy was still in the garage, waiting for a new wheel bearing to be fixed, when I was due to leave.  

I am away in my new, old Golf, a great vehicle and a joy to drive.  Nippy, easy to park, more economical and much less stressful than the van for the journey I am making this time.

My first stop was in Sitges, with a german family who relocated to Spain many years ago.  It was good to hear the stories of settling in and integration into a new way of life and to marvel at the flexibility of languages, with the family speaking german or spanish together, the two boys tended to use catalan between themselves and everyone spoke amazingly good english whenever I was to included in the conversation.

I painted for them, firstly the front facade of the house, which wasn’t at all difficult, just the distance from the ground in some instances, the house is built into a steep hillside so it feels high up even before climbing a ladder.  It was great to make such a fast transformation to a property and the results were immediately appreciated.  Then, after, refreshed one of the guest bedrooms in the house.  I discovered quite how poor low cost paint can be, it was taking five or six coats to give decent coverage so it was soon replaced with a higher quality product and progress was much faster.  I easily got everything done within the week that I was staying.

I made full use of my free time, heading to the beach most days to soak up a bit of sun and for a glorious swim in the sea, I spent much time touring estate agents, checking property websites and heading out to visit potential properties.  It’s interesting to see how different planning laws have affected housing here and how the enthusiasm (greed) of the last property boom has changed the landscape, particularly as it was stopped in full flow when the most recent financial crash hit the shores.  There are unfinished estates of houses all over the place, strange zones of cramped housing where the city folk once had allotments and a tiny shed that have since been developed, often without permission, over the decades, leading to fairly smart, pricy properties squashed together with completely inadequate vehicle access and an almost shanty feel.  Not cheap either, until you discover that there is little other alternative in many places without being completely out in the sticks.  I found nothing that fitted my criterion during the week that I was there, so headed off, as planned to my next host an hour or so further south.
woody, my golf on holiday in the sun
the sun setting over the catalan hills

freshly painted facade 

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

a little landscaping project

Just been over to my good friend Vanessa’s for a few days whilst my van’s been in to get a wheel bearing changed.  The bearing still isn’t done, but that’s another story.  We’d skid a few times during the winter and thought it would be fun to spend a bit of time comparing notes and planing the future a bit considering that we are both single (now) and living in rural france.  Most of the time it’s great, though the long dark winter nights can be rather lonely and it takes huge effort to remain upbeat and sociable throughout the winter months.  We had a great time, the weather was fairly warm and sunny, there was a gardening project that had been discussed in the autumn to be completed.  the emphasis is still on internal renovations of the house, though they are coming to an end, vaguely, after four or so years.  (no thanks)  So i got on and tidied up a bit outside, around what used to be a cow shed and store room and is just outside the kitchen door.  Sorry, no other photos, still getting used to using my phone to take pictures and don’t always think!!  Anyway we had a great time and hopefully advanced our thinking on rural living for singles........

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

back home in the sunshine

Hurray, after a long and interesting winter I have finished in the mountains and am back on my land in Vieuzos.

It's been a mild winter with plenty of rain, warm temperatures and sunshine, so everything has been growing like the clappers.
winter mustard as a 'green' mulch being cut back and returned to the soil
brassicas, fruit bushes and some impressive onions after a bit of weeding

russian kale still going strong

list of seeds sown, crate four

another beautiful sunset

Check out what I've been uncovering in the veggie plot.  Immediately after weeding, am getting seeds planted directly in the raised beds and also sowing cells and my usual transplantable toilet roll tubes for beans, peas and squash plants.  they should be ready for planting out in a good couple of weeks if the weather continues to be as warm as it has been for the last few days.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

let them eat cake

and tarts and all manner of other delicious desserts that we provide here at the refuge.

It’s often the evening shift that prepares the desserts, the pastry bases having been cooked off in the hot oven after lunchtime service.  It’s often a quieter and calmer time of day to be doing such baking and usefully fills the time whilst evening guests are dining.

Dinner is served at seven thirty, soup usually, served in large tureens placed directly on the table for guests to help them selves, followed by a main meal, again served in its entirety on a large serving platter and left for guests to help themselves.  It is a mountain refuge (of sorts) rather than a hotel, so participation is the name of the game.  Desserts are often individual, sometimes specifically produced for the evening clientelle, though often the same as we prepare for lunchtime.

Chocolate tartlets are filled with home made chocolate filling, as are the lemon ones.  Blueberry pies are lined with confectioners custard and topped with tinned blueberries.  Apple tarts are baked on site as are most of the other creations, though the pastry and pastry cases arrive frozen and many of the other ingredients ready prepared. Fruit salad arrives fresh in large tubs ready to be improved with other fruits and a good slosh of rum, before being portioned out.  Rice pudding is made in bulk and stored in vacuum bags in the cold room until needed.  Other desserts, the more fragile ones tend to be made on the day.

During dinner, we set to and get as much preparation for the following day out of the way, so that the following morning can be slightly more leisurely.  That said, after a lunchtime service of two hundred or so, leisurely isn’t often an appropriate word to use.  It’s full on right the way through.  Individual plates of local cheeses, local ham and charcuterie are set out and cling filmed to help keep them fresh, stored in refrigerators before going on sale the following day.  Unused items are ‘refreshed’ as necessary and presented for the allowed number of days before (rarely, if we get it right) being discarded - to the local fox.

Friday, March 04, 2016

going to work

The weather is frequently interesting on the way to work, at least it wasn't too windy today.....

Tuesday, March 01, 2016


Unlike the previous years that I have spent here, snow has been exceptionally sparse this winter.  

Through to the end of December only twenty percent or so of the resort was open.  I didn’t ski at all until the second week or January, having waited patiently for a decent fall of snow.  It wasn’t really that much, but enough to properly cover the ground surrounding the ski runs, making the place much more beautiful and white.

proper snow
Since then, the whole resort has been poised, skis and boards at the ready for a really decent quantity of snow to fall.  To date, we’re still poised and waiting.  It’s just going to be a low snow year. (since writing there has been a couple of decent snow falls and everyone is much happier)

That said, I’ve had the good chance to have a couple of the best weather days off of the season so far.  Twice, immediately after a couple of days of grey, precipitous days when a fair quantity of snow has fallen, beautiful blue skied sunny days with not too many people on the slopes.  Each time I’ve been out with my ski buddy Pierre and we’ve said, ‘just the morning, till eleven or so, we’ll leave before the crowds arrive and it gets too busy’.  Each time we get to eleven and it’s still great, the crowds start to fill the slopes, we persevere for a bit and then stop and have a drink for half an hour or so.  By which time it’s midday and the whole population of France are thinking about food, the temptation is overwhelming, almost without exception everyone has to stop and eat, and by twelve thirty the mountains are almost devoid of people.  It happens everywhere, but is most noticeable in a ski resort when everyone disappears for a good hour and a half for a sit down meal.  

Pierre with his snowboard
It changes our minds every time and we carry on skiing, making the most of the clockwork eating habits of the nation, only deciding to call it a day when they finally start to reemerge after a thoroughly decent meal.  I used to tell guests that lunch time was the best time to ski, but none of them ever managed to go without, or eat on the lifts and take advantage, or the empty slopes, it’s just not in a Frenchmans’ psyche to miss a meal.  This phenomenon allows us extra time on the snow without the inconvenience of queueing for lifts or crowded pistes and we make the most of it every time.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Back to my winter adventure, or more aptly put, my winter journey of discovery.  

I’ve been aware for a while that I haven’t written and it’s gotten me thinking  as to why I haven’t had the inspiration to do so.  To date, there is no one specific cause, but a series of causes and reasons that have reduced my motivation to put pen to paper (so to speak).  

For the last month or so, I’ve been working six full days a week, plus a good hour and a half, two hours, journey time on top every day.  It’s not enormous, and I’ve worked much harder and longer hours than that in the past, but it seems to be taking it’s toll this year.  

Snow from my apartment window

The evenings are altogether more calm, only overnight guests stay on, they all eat the same meal at the same time and tend to be quite self contained.  Evenings reminiscent of the Lou Rider days for me, with people sitting round playing cards or games together.  Lacking, here, though, is the relaxing crackle of an open log fire and the possibility to recline on a comfortable sofa after a day on the slopes.  The ambiance remains one of a self service restaurant trying to be a mountain refuge by night.   

Staff planning has to take into account the fact that we might be busy, it’s too late at 12:30 to call in reinforcements as it takes a good hour to get there from the nearest village, so a full team has to be in place for the start of lunchtime service.  If it’s busy, fine, everyone works flat out, rather too factory like in some respects, but fast and efficiently, to ensure that anyone that arrives is served appropriately and that after they leave, the whole place is clean and tidy before the day team leave on the last chair lift.  When it’s quiet, however, not only is the whole team geared up to work flat out, there is very little ancillary work that can be done to fill the time.  If it’s reasonably busy time passes relatively fast, but the fewer the diners, the slower the day passes, when there is almost no one, time drags like eternity and the tiredness sets in.  A huge amount of psychological and physical energy is invested in the expectation and preparation for a busy day, the deflation is imminently notable when it doesn’t happen.  

For me, with years of retail experience and the fact that I have adapted to so many different situations during my travels, I don’t find the fluctuations too difficult to deal with.  Unfortunately for a few of the others, their tolerance for  the impressive changes in workload is somewhat lacking and the ability to change speed relating to work load incredibly difficult to deal with.  It becomes wearing none the less.

Personally, my journey of discovery, continues with my likes, dislikes and preferences in such situations.  For the future I would pay more attention finding a workplace that allows time for personal contact with clients/customers.  Perhaps a restaurant, or hotel with live in accommodation.  Somewhere with a bit more continuity within work tasks and the chance to take a bit more responsibility.  Here, we jump from task to task, from day to day, with no continuity, filling in where needed and where necessary - it’s how seasonal work works I guess, yet it could be more fulfilling.

I frequently have ideas and try to share my skills in customer service and retail management here.   On occasion my suggestions are well received and implemented, but I find that the underlying attitude to customers and how they are viewed by retail and service providers remains markedly different between our two countries.

The Refuge where I work. Now with snow

I now have huge respect for those people who work tirelessly behind the scenes of self service restaurants year in year out, for the effort they put in to producing the food that (some of them) serve, all ours is produced on the premises.  Mostly these workers don’t get to see the people they feed, let alone converse with them, and as a customer, I have never given that much thought to what goes on behind those stainless steel and glass counters that one encounters all over the place.  If it’s good food, well presented, compliments due.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

missing dogs

I’m missing my dog walking on a Wednesday morning.

When I am in Vieuzos, I try to keep Wednesday mornings free.  I go to Lannemezan market to shop  - all my favourite stalls for bread, cheese (right smelly stuff sometimes) pesticide free veg - for the things I haven’t yet grown in the garden, fruit and anything else that takes my fancy.  It’s great to have a good nose around and see what’s available before buying and have a chat with some of the stall holders.

Then, after the market, I head out of town to the local dog refuge and volunteer dog walk.  A team of volunteers arrive each week to give all the dogs a walk, it depends on how many people turn up as to how many dogs you get to walk and how long it takes.  

A great opportunity to meet new folk, have a good chat, plenty of fresh air and give the poor abandoned pooches a bit of love and exercise.  I love going and it’s so warming to see how happy the dogs are when the get to stretch their legs, they are all so lovely, even the damaged and lost souls appreciate the attention and respond well to having a bit of calm away from the pound if only for a short while.  

Most of the dogs seem to be re-homed fairly quickly, though some stay for months and months and become favourites to the walkers.  I tend to get given the more boistrous, bouncy individuals as I am seen to have a calming influence on most of my charges. I have my brother, the earstwhile dog whisperer, to thank for imparting his wisdom, fairly subconsciously, in my direction, it seems to have stuck and on the whole am able to reproduce his teachings and techniques with positive results.

Unfortunately I don’t often get a day off on a Wednesday during the winter, so I miss my weekly walk.  Here are are some photos of the most recent dog walk I did.  

do I get a treat now?

a balmy early January day

some of the pound

some more of the pound

wanting another walk already

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

heading to work

I’ve found my morning routine now.  I get up just before six, pass by the bathroom, put the kettle on and spend fifteen minutes involved in stretching and breathing exercises.  (the first chapter of a Tai Chi book that I started a couple of years ago)  I’ll proceed through the rest of the book one day, but for the moment this does me the world of good,    Make a cup of tea and enjoy a bowl of fruit and nut porridge, slow cooked in a thermos that I start off the night before.  Put on my outdoor gear over what I am already wearing, thick ski trousers, my big jacket, equip myself with snow boots, gloves, goggles, wooly hat and ipod and set off towards Saint Lary at around seven ten/fifteen.   Have to be there by seven thirty.  It’ll have to be earlier when it’s snowed hard, but for now, that’s not happened.  During the brisk walk through the village I listen to Michel Thomas teaching Spanish.  Fifteen minutes every morning gets me to work with a few extra words and I go over and over the class till it sticks in my head.  If I get other opportunities, such as alone in a ski lift, of an evening or on the way home, I listen to more, but it gets me to work every morning in a productive manner.

I say to work, it’s the meeting point for where everyone who works in the refuge or another restaurant on the slopes, the Merlans,  has to meet to start the communal journey up the mountain.

There is a mini bus that takes nine of us, any one else has to take the cable car and a bus for the first leg of the journey.  Twenty minutes or so drive up the windy mountain road to the next stage of the journey, the ‘eggs’  enclosed pods that seat six that take us another 600m up into the ski resort.  Before we leave on these there are usually a couple of lorries waiting with deliveries for
the two establishments.  

The deliveries are unloaded outside the building and the boxes carried upstairs to the departure level by hand.  Once all there and the ‘eggs’ are ready to go, some of the team heads off to the top to receive the boxes.  Down below, one or two people load each pod with a couple of boxes, making sure that they are easily retrievable as the pod passes by at the top.  

The lift takes eleven minutes to reach the top when running well, a lot longer when there are technical difficulties or it is windy, the longest ascent for me has been over half an hour, howling sub zero winds outside, swirling snow and minimal visibility in the dawn twilight (if there is such a thing).  

At the top, the team manhandle the boxes out of the pods, pass them along a human chain to be loaded into a snow scooter trailer for the next leg of the journey.  There is frequently too much merchandise for one trailer, so it heads off to be unloaded before returning for the remaining items.  My, our, goods always get loaded second as they go to a different location where they are unloaded once again, in preparation for a downward journey by chair lift to the refuge.  To catch up with the snow scooter and our goods, we either take a ski lift on it’s descent, which takes five minutes or so if it’s running, or a brisk fifteen/twenty minutes by food along the edge of a ski slope, way before any skiers are about.  Not too bad when it’s calm and sunny, but when the weather sets in, all that clothing I mentioned earlier comes in mighty useful.

We then wait with our goods until the lift team arrive and go through their start up procedures and ensure that the lift is running.  Sometimes they are already there.  Our goods are then manhandled again and precariously placed on individual chairs on a chair lift, one person sets off ahead to receive them down below.  Smaller items go in large plastic crates, though care must be taken as the crates then have to be lifted on and off of the ever moving chairs as they pass by.  (Never would this be allowed in the UK, Health and Safety would have a field day)

This lift then drops down into the most remote and inaccessible part of the resort.  Frequently accessible by ski slope, but this season, due to the lack of snow, only by this lift.  A glorious setting overlooking wild mountain scenery where mountain beasts roam and birds of prey circle overhead.  No lights are visible at night and the only sounds are from the constant torrent of water in the stream and the wind in the trees.  

The boxes are grabbed off the chairs as they pass then walked, barrowed or sack trucked the last twenty metres to the back door of the refuge where they are sorted and stored immediately.

The morning team frequently don’t arrive and finish putting away the delivery of the day until way gone ten o’clock.
on top of the world at sunriseo 
loading our delivery onto the snow scooter trailer

last weeks rubbish heading down the moutain

en route - walking down an empty ski slope 

we came from right up there in the distance

going down again with boxes of stores

and down further

this is going to look amazing covered in snow

to the refuge - new wooden fascade on the left of the photo, the Lac de l'Oule dam is visible on the right.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

days off without much snow

On my first day off I had expected to be heading for the slopes to ski, but with the beautifully warm weather, blue skies and sunshine, I decided I would rather enjoy a good hike instead.

In the view from my front door, I can see across Saint Lary village and the valley across the other side and away towards the mountains in the distance,  There is a road pass that rises to the lowest part of the valley over there with stunning 360 degree views at the top.  that was to be my destination.

The road and then hiking trail that I joined, part of the Atlantic to Mediterranean Pyrenean GR10 trail, took me in exactly the right direction to reach the pass, col d’Azet and I spent a very enjoyable day hiking up through quaint mountain villages, past miniature working farms, through patches of woodland, through fields of pasture, over babbling streams and, nearer the top, across more open moor type land rising to the ridge and view on the other side.  

Strangely, for the end of December, the vegetation remained lush and green, insects and even a butterfly or two whirled about in the air and tiny lizards, basking in the warm sun, darted to safety as my foot steps warned them of my approach.  Violets flowered under hedgerows in places and catkins plumped themselves, imagining that spring had already arrived, in preparation for wind blown pollination that doesn’t usually happen for another three or four months.  I marvelled at the power of sunshine and warmth on our natural vegetation and prayed, at the same time, for cold winter weather to arrive promptly and put a stop to the untimely advance of the season before it was too late.  

I had already had a conversation about cherry blossom that someone had seen in a neighbouring valley and feared that if things advanced too far before the real winter set in, we would see disasterous harvests of fruit next year.  If the flowers open and are then frosted, they come to nothing, the resultant fruit, that usually takes the better part of spring and summer to ripen, has no time to form and there is no chance for flower buds to be created again before winter real sets in.  The trees are then in a weakened state through this unnatural effort and start up again in the following spring  less able to protect themselves from disease and insect attack.

I averted myself from dwelling on such possibilities and concentrated on the majesty and grandure of the landscape, marvelled on the immense power of bye gone glaciers that carved the landscape millions of years ago, the constantly changing scenery, that we will never see, over millennia, as the iberian peninsula constantly pushes against the rest of europe, forcing these ancient mountains to resist the ever present attack of natural erosion, whilst, on the surface, we busy ourselves with every day life as if it is the most important thing in the world.  To be outside in such amazing natural scenery can put everything into perspective, even if it only lasts an afternoon or a day, it’s a joy to behold and something to be remembered on other occasions.

On the third picture, Vignec, where my flat is, is visible in the distant valley.