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St Bloggie de Riviere

Things French, life in France, general wittering and the odd rant.

Updated: 2018-04-21T08:07:21.025+02:00


The Big Snow 28 Feb 2018


Yesterday we had the heaviest snow fall since I can remember, and I've been here for more than two decades.It started when I was at work. We didn't worry, it was supposed to turn to rain in the afternoon. As midday approached, it showed absolutely no signs of turning to rain. The temperature stayed obstinately low and the warm air from the south was stuck out in the Med somewhere.View from my window at work at 11.30 amPeople started leaving. I hung on for a bit hoping for things to improve, but finally at 1.30 pm it was leave or risk not leaving because obviously I had left my tyre chains at home thinking that as usual, the Orange Snow Alert would be exaggerated.It wasn't, so I brushed the 10 cm or so of snow off my car and crept out onto the road. It was actually not too bad if taken carefully. I made it to the bottom of my road, a steep hill, and parked. There were no tyre marks going up the hill and I knew there was no hope of success.Near my house at 2.30pmI climbed the hill, got home and immediately dug out my fluo pink ski suit, snow boots, and gloves, found the plastic sledge I'd bought when the boys were younger (which coincided with the last time we went sledging...) in the garage and went back out to sledge down the hill. I wasn't the only one out. There were kids throwing snowballs with their parents, and bigger kids attacking each other.After lunch, I went to find my sledge which I'd left outside, but my son had taken it, so found the old sledge that I'd had when I was a child. It hadn't been used since a feeble attempt on a thin layer of soggy snow some years back which it proved too heavy for. The several centimetres of dry snow was perfect for it, however.My old sledge which had been red but was repainted by my dad years ago and not been used sinceIt took some steering, but eventually I got the hang of it, and instead of banging systematically into the snowy kerb, I got all the way down the hill, slight bend included by using my feet. I felt quite the Winter Olympic Luge champion, as there I was flat on my back on the sledge dashing feet-first down a steep hill. Fun!I was the only adult on a sledge, to the embarrassment of my eldest. One of his friends skied down the slope, others used my other sledge, and then they went off. I'm not sure if this was in the natural progression of things or to get away from an embarrassing mother on the instigation of my son.This morning, March 1, the snow has started to melt and is already too deep, soft and soggy for the old sledge, the the modern plastic one has not reappeared. Good thing I made the most of it yesterday!For more pictures of Montpellier and the region in the snow, the local newspaper, Midi Libre, posted a good selection sent in by readers here.StBdeR[...]

Lost in Oppidum


An oppidum is A Roman provincial town built often on high ground which is fortified and walled. Hérault's most impressive oppidum is at Ensérune but there's another one at Murviel-les-Montpellier, one which I've been wanting to visit for years but never got round to although I've been through the village many times.Yesterday I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in Murviel. My first thought was 'coffee' and I went in search of a café in the tiny medieval quarter of the village. The stone houses all nestled together were charming, and there was many a cat dozing picturesquely or out on the razzle, but café there was none.That was when I remembered the oppidum, and, thrilled that I had at last the opportunity to see it, and remembered before it was too late, I followed a signpost that indicated the direction. Little did I know but that would be one of a total of two useful signs.I was starting to wonder at the distinct lack of directions when I met a man, who turned out to be a local Brit, and was very helpful and told me that all paths lead to the oppidum. I just had to climb to the top of the hill, turn right, and I'd be overlooking it in all its splendour.The path was steep and rocky, and promised to provide quite enough exercise for the day without me needing to go to the gym too.Steep path upA couple of faint blue lines on a rock indicated a circuit of some sort, but without a sign of any sort, it was impossible to know whether it was going to the oppidum or not. Still, I followed it, and turned right at the T junction at the top where I saw a 'useful' sign.'Useful' signDon't try and search for information on it, there is none. There probably had been, once, but now it was just a post with a white board on it. I couldn't see through the trees either to overlook the alleged oppidum. Maybe it was there, maybe it wasn't...After walking through a tiny olive grove in the middle of nowhere (it seemed), I found some ruins.Roman ruinsWas this the oppidum? Was there an information panel to tell me? They were pretty underwhelming as far as Roman ruins go, and, in the absence of a useful signpost, I decided that I probably was not looking at the oppidum.Thick Roman wall which may or may not be part of the oppidum.I was enjoying my walk in lovely undulating countryside, with garrigue plants and trees and delicious smells of herbs and pine despite not knowing where I was. Another signpost did nothing to help, and I could see I wasn't the only one to experience mounting frustration, because someone had expressed his/her annoyance with a clear message on the blank panel: Information NULLE !! Justifiably so.Disgruntled visitor message: 'Information NULLE !!'The faint blue lines had also long since disappeared, so it was with interest that I finally came across something clear and precise. Almost.Clear signpost with a fatal flawA map! At last! A lovely map showing all sorts of useful bits of information. Except one. The 'YOU ARE HERE' spot. What a tease. I was obviously not the only person to spot the fatal flaw because someone had written on it: 'On est où ?' - Where are we? The mystery continued.Bushy 'access-friendly' pathI continued taking random directions, and noted the different types of vegetation along the various paths. They were solid proof of the diversity dream.At one junction, I met a jogger who optimistically asked me the direction to the village. He was lost too. He had been following the faint blue paint marks until they petered out. We struck up a matey chat of fellow lost-ees until I cracked and got my phone out to consult Google Maps. The jogger decided to try one direction and, while I was still waiting for my return itinerary to load, he came back to try another as the one he took just stopped.Tree-lined stony pathThanks to Google Maps, I discovered I was a mere 15 minutes from my point of departure despite having been walking for almost an hour going up and down and along. No sign of the oppidum, natch, although I thought this immaculate olive grove very impressive.[...]

#SNCF Christmas Train Ticket Wind-Up


#SNCF have excelled themselves today winding up hundreds (and possibly thousands!) of customers wanting to travel at Christmas.Back in September when I bought my Eurostar tickets (because they go on sale way before SNCF, but that's another story/bone of contention), I signed up for the alert telling me when I could buy my TGV train tickets at Christmas. I wanted to be there at the starting blocks, in time to get the cheap Prem's tickets. I got myself organised. I couldn't fail!This is the message I got the day before T-day (T for ticket), that got me all excited about the 'best prices' starting October 12:Very 'clear' information from #SNCFReady, steady... hang on, what time is "aube"? Dawn breaks round about 7.30am at the moment. Did SNCF mean actual dawn or pick-a-time-early-in-the-morning?I got up at 6.45am and dashed to the computer, as fast one can dash still half asleep. The SNCF ticket page was open and ready from the previous night (organised, see?). I clicked on 'Trouver' and... up popped not nice cheap Prem's tickets, but bog-standard pretty expensive ones.What time, I wondered furiously as I went through the process (whilst grinding my teeth) of buying them, is effing aube?I set about trying to find out. I sent a message on Twitter and entered into the twilight zone of a 'dialogue des sourds', on their part, anyway.My question was clear, was it not? Why wouldn't they tell me? Was there a conspiracy afoot to thwart those of us not-in-the-know getting cheap tickets so only the favoured informed few could travel cheap and have enough left over to buy the odd Christmas present? Things didn't improve:With my frustration levels rising at an alarming rate, I tried putting a message on Facebook, but none of my friends knew what time the tickets went on sale. Then I tried ringing SNCF but all their salespeople were on the phone, I should ring back later.Then I tried SNCF on Facebook. I put a message on their page and up popped a message window. I copied the message into the window and immediately got a link to a Q&A page that is deeply embedded (or so it seems) on the page, not the usual page.Would I get a precise answer, or wouldn't I?YES! At last! For SNCF, 'aube' on October 12 is at 6am! And note that this information was only available because Gerry had taken the time to find the page where you ask questions and write the request. Had no one done that, we would all be none the wiser! This is in the age of communication, too. Opaque? It's like getting blood out of stone.In any case, at 6.50am I was too late! All the cheap tickets had gone. Or had they?I then started reading messages from irate customers who had been there at 6am on the dot in order not to miss a thing, and already there were no Prem's tickets. What is this 'arnaque', this scammy wind-up? Why get us up in the middle of the night (it's still black out at 6am!) for nothing?Five hours after my initial conversation with SNCF on Twitter, and after I'd already got the answer I wanted, they kindly deigned to tell me the exact hour, and that all the Prem's tickets had been sold in record time:I concluded, along with many others, that there had been NO Prem's tickets on certain trains. Or perhaps one or two, and that SNCF had set us up to fail. So thanks, SNCF for a morning of frustration, rage, anxiety, nervous exhaustion, and much time-wasting.And as an exercise in communication, let me tell you for nothing, SNCbloodyF that it FAILED! If you need further advice, you know where to find me...StBdeR[...]

OnVaSortir... or not?


It's now the demi-saison, that lovely time of year with vivid autumnal colours and ideal temperatures for outside activities.This morning I went for one of my favourite walks in the park of Restinclières. There were few people about, the sun was shining, and as it had rained yesterday, drops of water glistened on every plant. The warm air brought out smells of wet earth, herbs and pine. I took this photo of herbes de Provence growing wild. They look very dry because we've had so little rain, but walking past, they smelled wonderful.Wild herbes de Provence (rosemary and thyme)I ambled along and thought how delightful it was to be there, alone, and thus able to think, stop to admire the views and really look at everything.Walk through a pinède carpeted with herbes de ProvenceA group of three people came towards me talking and moaning. They were not appreciating the views or walking 'in the moment'.It made me think about the website where you can either organise an outing or sign up for one organised by someone else. It's a good way of meeting people and not doing stuff alone all the time. As you can see from the screen shot below, there are lots of different types of activities.from At 14:00 'Randter' has organised a walk at Restinclières, although no one has signed up for it (1/10) so why didn't I want to go with her this afternoon? Because when you walk with others, especially people you don't really know, you have to talk to them. When I go for a walk, I like to walk in peace. I like to concentrate on smells, sights, sounds and think about how lucky I am to have such splendours on my doorstep.Call me an unsociable old bat, but I don't want to have someone yakking at me barely pausing for breath, or me realising that I don't like the person and then feel bad for a) thinking uncharitable thoughts; and b) wasting my time being there.What I would enjoy more is a mountain-bike outing. Not the super enthusiast type that has you going up nearly vertical slopes and slogging over 20km+ of rugged terrain, but a more leisurely ride without too much up and down. Then if you get into trouble, you've got help at hand, and it's quite difficult to talk to people on a bike, so you'd have to do all that during rests. Yes, that is more my thing. My youngest's VTT (mountain bike) club organise family bike rides twice a year so that parents can join in, and they are always very enjoyable. That.Someone told me this week that people also use OnVaSortir as an unofficial dating site. I suppose this is to be expected because one way of meeting other people is to be active, so you're bound to meet like-minded types, especially if you target your activities wisely.So, I haven't signed up for anything yet or thought about organising something (no thanks!). There's a time for everything, and I do like to take plenty of it.StBdeR[...]

20 Things To Do in the South of France


Every now and again I get contacted by someone either wanting my views on some topic, or to link to a blog post or website.Most recently, Jen of Jen Reviews contacted me about linking to a post she's written on 100 best things to do in France. I had a look at it, and it has a pretty good variety of things to do, from the obvious to the less obvious. So, if you're planning a visit to France, you could do worse than peruse her suggestions.It got me thinking about my own list of things to do. Of course, I didn't agree entirely with her list, but then my own would be concentrated around the South of France. While I'm not sure I can come up with 100 things to do, here in no particular order, are some of my favourites:1. MotorbikingMichelin came up with a brilliant idea many years ago of colouring routes that go through attractive scenery in green. Motorbiking along these roads is the best way of exploring them, and of getting deep into the French countryside. Cycling takes more effort, and driving is not so much fun unless, I suppose, you're driving a cabriolet.2. Walking up the Pic St LoupView from the top of the Pic St LoupThe Pic St Loup is the local Montpellier landmark and is a popular walk. Take a picnic and admire the wonderful views from the top.3. Lac de SalagouLac de Salagou, ruins of Celles in the distanceI cycled around the Lac de Salagou once. However, you don't have to cycle around it to enjoy it. It's a beautiful place for playing in safe water, doing water sports, having a picnic, going on a walk. We've motorbiked around it too, it was much faster...4. Meteorological Observatory, Mont AigoualOn the top of Mont Aigoual is a functioning meteorological observatory in an imposing purpose-built castle that also houses a free exhibition and museum. There's also a nice shop and café if you don't want to face the bracing winds eating your sandwiches at the picnic tables outside.Picnic table and view5. Mont AigoualWhile I'm on the top of Mont Aigoual, I'll mention that it's a great place for walking, and even has a small ski resort - Prat Payrot - with 4 downhill green slopes, 4 blue and 3 red, plus 32km of cross-country skiing, including a black course.6. The CevennesOne of my favourite areas. Fabulous for motorbiking, walking, canoeing, visiting, eating, observing, skiing and all manner of other fun things to do.Fabulous Cevennes scenery7. BambouseraieI looked through my blog to find a post on visits to the bamboo gardens at the Bambouseraie near Anduze, but I must have been there mainly before I started St Bloggie de Riviere. I used to go when my parents visited, and I had young boys. It's a fantastic place, well worth the visit, and has a lovely shop too.Bambouseraie shop8. Little Steam TrainA natural follow-on to the Bambouseraie is the little steam train that runs from Anduze to St Jean du Gard with a stop at the Bambouseraie.Steam Train at St Jean du Gard stationYou can make a day of it, starting at Anduze to St Jean du Gard, having a picnic, getting back on the train, stopping at the Bambouseraie and catching the last train back.View along the little steam train route9. Byrrh FactoryOver the the Pyrenees Orientales and the town of Thuir you'll find the Byrrh factory where they make herb and spice-based liquor which was originally sold as a health tonic and eventually became part of France's aperitif culture. You go on a tour of the old parts of the factory, learn about the manufacturing process and get a tasting at the end. Absolutely fascinating, if for no other reason than it has the biggest oak cask in the world holding over 1 million litres.The original aperitif10. Cirque de MourèzeNear Clermont-l'Hérault, this is a great one for kids because they can run around the weird and wonderful rock formations and let their imaginations run riot.Weird rock formations at the Cirque de MourèzeIt's a great place for a walk for adults too.11. The Noria Water MuseumAt St Jean de Bruel in Aveyron, this is[...]

Easter Day Motorbike Ride around l'Hérault and le Gard


Weather over the Easter weekend is often terrible in Montpellier. The local football club organises a tournament every year and more often than not, games are played in the rain, or are called off.This year however, we had glorious sunshine, and every biker in the land wanted to be, or was, out riding through the glorious colours of spring. My DB and I jumped on the new BMW GS1200 for it's first outing of the year.Our first motorbike ride of 2017 in Hérault and the GardStarting at the bottom, we rode west to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert, stopping to admire the Pont du Diable.Pont du Diable near Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert looking south(Click on the photos to get a better look)We were able to have a quick stop to look and take some piccies because we were on the bike. If you have a car, this is a lot more difficult because there is practically nowhere to stop and park any more. You have to go to the designated car park and walk back. This makes it much more of a faff, and rather obliges you to stay for long enough to make it worth while.Looking north towards Saint-Guilhem-le-DesertOn the plus side, there's a free navette to Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert so you don't have to double the faff by finding the designated car park there too.We carried on past Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert towards Ganges, via Saint-Jean-de-Buèges which is very pretty and has a bar with a handy, shady terrace where you can enjoy a refreshing beer. There speaks the voice of experience (after a lovely walk along a nearby river), because it was too early for booze, so we rode straight through and turned left at Ganges towards Le Vigan.From there, passing a group of bikers on the way, we took a winding route up the mountain to l'Esperou on Mont Aigoual where we had lunch at the restaurant of the Hotel du Parc. We arrived just in time because hot on our heels was a group of 7 bikers (not the same), another group of visitors, and then the group we'd passed previously too. The patronne must have been delighted! Fortunately, we had got our order in first and were served before the hordes monopolised the waitress.Although it was a lot chillier up at l'Esperou than in the valley, the hotel had a nice fenced off garden where my DB was able to snooze peacefully in a garden lounger while I continued reading my (actual) book 'Nice Work (if you can get it)' by Celia Imrie which I enjoyed very much. I travel prepared...On  our way back down the other side of the mountain via Valleraugues, we came across a shelter for observing mouflon which look like wild goats with big curly horns. My DB's friend hunts them apparently. I'm sure the meat requires very slow cooking as the muscles must be hard as rock with all the scampering up sheer rock faces.Mouflon observatoryWe had a good peer about, but just saw impossibly precarious mouflon paths up scree-filled slopes. Disappointed, we carried on, having noted the still bare trees at altitude compared with the vibrant greens of further down.After wiggling our way back down to Ganges, we turned off right to cross the river and head west towards Montdardier and the Cirque de Navacelle via part of the Gorges de la Vis.Dinky bridge across the Gorges de la VisQuite the prettiest trout farm aroundTo reach the Cirque de Navacelle, we had to climb up onto the plateau on a tiny road with hairpin bends every fifty metres. The views became spectacular pretty quickly. Across the plains, the arid countryside was yet another contrast to the verdant valleys.(fuzzy) Menhir de Trivallé, causse de BlandasWe stopped to photograph a lonely little menhir, and although it's too fuzzy to read the signpost, it does have a name - the menhir de Trivallé. A quick search of 'menhir Blandas' threw up lots of hits, and it seems there are many of them dotted across the causse (menhir des Combes, circle of megaliths Cromlech de Lacam de Rigalderie), so if you're searching for sites of dolmens, menhirs, etc., the Causse de Bland[...]

Reflecting on The Art of Travel


Alain de Botton is one of my favourite authors. I love his writings on philosophy and his belief that the point of philosophy is to help people live their lives.I was given 'The Art of Travel' for Christmas which was perfect reading while convalescing after a bout of 'état grippal' (flu-like state) which has had me gripped for two weeks.I have a very ambivalent attitude to travelling on the whole. I'm not one of those with itchy feet. If I can't travel, I'm not that bothered, but if I can, I tend to enjoy it. Of course, it depends how I'm travelling, and with whom, and why. My DB asked me recently to list my favourite ways to travel. I thought about it and came up with:motorbikecartrainplaneSince air travel became a cattle market, with dodgy air conditioning systems that share a plane-full of bugs amongst the passengers, I've avoided it, preferring the train for long-distance travel from A to B (France-UK). You can take more baggage on a train too, important for those essential supplies like boxes of wine for Christmas and summer holiday consumption with one's mother.On a bike, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination if you choose the right roads, and with a car, it's similar but with more space and less contact with the weather.Much of what Alain de Botton wrote resonated with me. He has a capacity to identify situations, problems, issues, and put words to them. Since reading about his holiday to Barbados which he expected to be fantastic, but found that he had 'inadvertently brought myself to the island' with accompanying psychological baggage, I read a similar sentiment in a novel later in the week: 'Not Quite Nice' by Celia Imrie, and of course, have often been distressed at how many unresolved issues encroach on the enjoyment of a holiday. The reality of travel is different to how we fantasise about it. We anticipate it to be somewhere we can be happy and carefree, but the reality is different.How many of us have argued with a partner on holiday? My DB and I have had a number of humdingers. The aftermath of an argument leaves you unable to appreciate the many splendours of the place you've come to visit. I remember stomping along a superb cliff path on the Costa Brava, with the Mediterranean Sea glinting blue, and a lighthouse perched attractively on a rocky promontory. I barely noticed the views while there. So, "in order to draw the anticipated happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods, we first have to satisfy other emotional or psychological needs, like the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect".Looking back on that walk, the memory of my bad temper has faded, but I remember the beauty of the walk. de Botton identifies this too: "We are best able to inhabit a place (in memory, anticipation) when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there". One of the advantages of art galleries full of pictures of other places is that you can see the "essence of a country" without having to deal with the problems. Travelling dilutes the experience.I always take photos of the places I visit, but I also try to absorb the atmosphere and actually see a place, by not taking photos. Ruskin, the artist, believed that people should learn to draw because drawing could teach them to see. "By recreating what we see, we move from a position of observing beauty, to one of understanding its constituent parts, and hence more secure memories of it." He was scathing of photographers who used it to pay "less attention to the world than they had previously from a faith that photographs automatically assured them possession of it".Ruskin taught people to draw, not caring if they were any good at it. What was important was learning how to see. He also believed in describing a place in words, to "word paint", because it involves asking questions, being precise in analysing what we see and Botton also writes about "s[...]

Happy New Year (bof)


Back to work after a Christmas break is a tough one. You go from the festive spirit, lots of food, wine, making merry with friends and family to the serious business of earning a crust.

This morning I woke up and still felt festive, if a bit tired after a full week of merry-making and the return to France. By the end of the day I felt it was all over. The deccies are still up, and will stay up until Twelfth Night so as not to incur the wrath of the Christmas Spirits and scupper the year, but my heart's no longer in it.

I can no longer put off tidying my lovely pressies away. I'll have to empty my suitcase and generally tidy up the rolls of wrapping paper and boxes of Christmas cards. Après-ski is fun; après-Christmas is not.

Christmas is like a bubble of unreality. You suspend real life while you see friends and family, eat too much at every meal, quaff too much alcohol, indulge in cakes and snacks in a concentrated few days. I think it's the coming back down to earth that makes the hardest bump.

I was in the UK last week. On one evening, I met up with a couple of guys from school who I hadn't seen since they left at 16. We had a fantastic time reminiscing, catching up on who had done what, who had died (not so fun), who was where, etc. A real plunge back into the past, it was. A mega dose of nostalgia.

Back in the present, it's the New Year and I don't even want to think about what's coming up. Instead of plunging into gloom and doom, today I cheered myself up by noting the huge progress in human civilisation since 1820 as seen in the graphs of The World as 100 People.

From here - Our World in Data
Let's just hope the good things carry on getting better and the bad things continue going down.

Happy New Year.(image)

The Megalomania of Hotel Booking Sites


I will not be using or or any of these hotel booking websites any more. They have fallen victim to rapacious megalomania and enough is enough.Over the long weekend of the first of November, my DB and I decided to go on a motorbiking road trip around Auvergne. The weather was set to be fabulous, a change from the last time we were there when low clouds obscured views of everything, and especially the volcanoes we had hoped to see.We went onto Trip Advisor to look at hotels in Clermont-Ferrand where we wanted to have a base. It was a busy weekend and lots of hotels were full. However, we found two that had rooms available, and looked at the prices. We decided to book one and take pot luck with the other. After looking at the plethora of prices through Trip Advisor's partners, we went onto the Hotel Oceania's own website and found a good deal that included breakfast. For the first night, Friday, we went to the Best Western Hotel Gergovie near the Parc des Exposition. There we had a chat with the receptionist. We had seen on the price of €63 for the room. When we asked the price of the room, we were quoted €75. I said that I had seen the lower price on the internet and asked if we could have the same rate. The receptionist told us that, no, that was impossible because Booking had access to their reservations software, and they were not allowed to offer the same price! Not only do they monitor reservations, but they also observe who is looking at a hotel on their website and then goes onto the hotel's website (definite shades of Big Brother). If that wasn't shocking enough, she went on to say that booking websites take 20% of the amount paid. Twenty percent! That leaves a measly 3% margin for the hotel. How can they survive with such a small cushion of security? She said that while she couldn't offer us a lower price, she could throw in breakfast. I was pleased to hear the way the negotiations were going because I love hotel breakfast buffets. My DB agreed and we checked in.It was very nice and they did a very tasty truffade in the restaurant at dinner.When we arrived at the Oceania the next morning, we were given two tokens for a free drink each as we had booked through their website. A nice touch and much appreciated.The good thing about all this is that competition makes businesses work harder. Breakfast is included in a price, and/or the client is offered a free drink. I wondered if it was just Booking/Hotels that behaved so greedily, and found that it was not. A quick search on Google (more megalomania) brought up a blog by someone who had investigated His experience was that the website took 25% of the fee! You can read about it, and see the photo he took of the reservation received by the hotel (and not for the client's eyes) here. In the comments section, a hotelier writes about his experience with Expedia and the pros and expensive cons of having a contract with them.While it is useful to see what people have thought of a hotel, and it's definitely convenient to be able to book a room in the same place, we will not be making reservations that way any more and encourage these sites to take even more control of booking systems with their mucky fingers. I can just imagine them ultimately wanting to make it obligatory to go through their central system, and then, of course, put the prices up, and the hotels would not be able to do anything about it.Keep hotels free from plunder! Use their own websites to make your bookings. Before it's too late...StBdeR[...]

News and booze


Thought I might do a round-up of the month. Not the toxic, glyphosate type which kills every living thing in sight, but an environment-friendly John Craven-type Newsround.SportI've given up zumba. Not a biggie, but when I went to the first session of the 'rentrée', it was a bit tough on the old knees. Nothing to do with having done zero sport during the summer because it was so hot (except for walking in Wales), but everything to do with age-related decrepitude. My DB suggested that perhaps zumba was for osteoarthritis-free youth and that I could do something else. The truth hurts, but less than a dodgy knee.It just so happened that I had to get some sporty clothes for my youngest in Intersport behind Carrouf, and what did I see opposite? A gym. And not just any old outrageously expensive 1OO€+ per month temple of the vain and oily, but a 245€ per year basic gym with a nice age range of the young and fit, to the more mature trying desperately to ward off osteoporosis and muscle shrivel.When I popped over to look inside, I was pleased to find nice kind lads in charge, one of whom told me all about the gym, didn't make me feel like an old crock who had no place in a centre of fitness, and generally made me very welcome. So I went back the next day and signed myself up, and my eldest.I go two to three times a week, take my Kindle, and am happy I can go whenever I want (6am to 11pm) whatever the weather. I even have a personal fitness plan that is training me to be hail and hearty, strong of bone, and firm of bum.AgeI'm older than I was at the beginning of the month. It was my birthday (50+) which had to be a low-key event because it was mid-week. Otherwise of course I would have had a party for the masses... As it was, a friend took me out for a ladies-who-lunch lunch in a ladylike boutique restaurant called 'Déjeuner sur l'herbe' where you can buy the chairs you sit on if you so wish. I didn't, I just wanted to eat and chat, as you do in a restaurant. We had a very jolly time, even quaffing on a naughty work day glass of wine.In the evening, I went to an InterNations bash. My co-Ambassador and I organised it for my birthday so I could celebrate it with a bunch of jolly people even on a Tuesday.Happy Birthday me! I'm rocking the charity shop top!When I arrived, I ordered a G&T to celebrate, and one was forthcoming. My co-Amb said she would get my drink and another G&T appeared. Turns out there was a little mix-up and this one had no home. When I told the patronne it was my birthday, she instantly gave me the second drinkie poo, so there I was, Two-Gins Sarah (see photo above). I got very merry (see below).One G&T downOne of my buddies got everyone to sing ''Happy Birthday' and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed myself.It was my eldest's birthday this month too. He is no longer a snotty teenager, but a go-getting young man of 20! Well, hopefully the go-getting will kick in at some point... and he has yet to dip his toe in the gym...My son on his way to a gala event, suit bought 30mins prior...Happy Birthday son, just kidding, etc.CodingIt's a long, hard slog learning C sharp. I did very little over August with the result that I had to revise everything I'd done at the beginning of September, reviewing nearly all the videos and my notes so I could pass a little test. In order to boost my shit memory, I'm taking a complex of vitamins B and C, the sort of thing they give to Alzheimer sufferers... The coding challenges often involve solving puzzles, and as I rarely use my brain in that way, it's like pulling teeth. My DB assures me it'll get easier, but I can just feel the rusty cogs cranking up in my brain trying to make head or tail of the problem. #SavetheCultureI joined a Facebook cultural Ponzi scheme which involved books. Getti[...]

Discovering Swansea's Industrial Heritage #2


The boat trip up the River Tawe was very interesting but to get more intimate with a ruin, you have to go to the Aberdulais Tin Works and Waterfall. It's a National Trust site located in the Vale of Neath. My mother went there years ago when all that was apparent was the waterfall.Aberdulais waterfallBut there has been a lot of restoration and conservation work since, and it has revealed the ruins of the most recent industry to occupy the gorge - the tin-plating works. The site has housed a succession of mills since 1584 : copper smelting, iron-working, textiles and grain mills and, in the nineteenth century, tinplate.Behind me is the old school, now the caféIn its heyday, tinplate from the works was exported all over the world, and only stopped when the Americans slapped huge tariffs on tinplate imports to protect its own infant industry. Some of the Welsh workers went to the US to use their skills in the factories there.The museum really tries to convey the conditions of the workers. There are videos, a small cinema, displays and objects dug up from the site. Local children tell the stories of their forbears on film, how they were put to work at the age of eight, and the terrible conditions they endured. It was so hot, for example, that sweat ran out of their shoes.Replica wheel in original wheel bedThe wheel, that uses 400 year old technology, was built by students and apprentices of British Steel at Port Talbot. It's the largest electricity-generating wheel in Europe. It wasn't working when we were there, but it normally produces 100-120kw of electricity per day.The turbine has a generating capacity of 200kw and provides electricity to most of the neighbourhood!Small site, global impact!Apparently the river is quite something when it's in spate. It was already quite dramatic during our visit after raining overnight.Aberdulais fallsIt was an exceptionally interesting visit; well done the National Trust for all the work they've done to make the museum as fascinating as possible. They even provide picnic tables for those who bring their own food, which we did, and the rain held off while we ate it!StBdeR[...]

Discovering Swansea's Industrial Heritage #1


The fun part of holidaying with three generations is that you get to do lots of different types of activity. It's easier if the youngest is a teenager and not subject to the tyranny of naps, and that he is amenable to tagging along to things he might not be initially interested in.Gower is full of history, and the Swansea area in particular, has an amazing industrial past. The Waterfront Museum at the Marina will have your eyes on stalks at the sheer quantity and variety of industry that has existed in Wales. Did you know, for example, that Swansea was known as 'Copperopolis'? It was the heart of the world copper industry in the nineteenth century.Copper ore was mined in Cornwall and shipped to Swansea, a prime location because of its harbour and easy access to local sources of cheap, suitable coal. You need three to four tons of coal to smelt one ton of copper ore so it made sense to transport the ore by ship up the River Tawe to the copper smelting works in the Swansea valley. The copper was then transported to the factories in the Midlands.If you take a boat ride from the Marina on the 'Copper Jack', you can see some of the remnants and ruins of this industrial powerhouse.Take a boat ride on the 'Copper Jack', Swansea MarinaWe floated slowly up the River Tawe along with a full boat-load of passengers ranging from pushchair young to wheelchair-bound old. Once out of the Marina, a DVD started on a screen at the front of the boat and described in real time what we were seeing and why.Notch at far end enabled ships to berth right up to the quayWe learned a lot about the industrial history of Swansea, and the damage done to the environment because of the success of the factories.Chimneys and remnants of Hafod-Morfa copperworksSeparating copper from copper ore produced mountains of furnace ash and slag, and clouds of smoke laced with arsenic and sulphur. Workers were consumptive and the countryside all around was a desert. My mother was among the people on the boat who were locals and remembered what it was like, where absolutely nothing would grow.Red brick former ice houseThey marveled at the transformation of the banks which are now a verdant green and abundantly covered with bushes and trees. The pollution ended only with the decline and extinction of the copper industry. Good for Nature, bad for business.However, the Hafod-Morfa copperworks is being regenerated. It's on a twelve-and-a-half acre site that contains twelve significant industrial heritage buildings and structures. Wales has woken up to the importance of its history, and there is funding to make the most of what remains.The Swansea project was started back in 2010 by the council in conjunction with Swansea University, lead by Professor Huw Bowen, and plans include the creation of a centre for tourism, business, education and work. They are creating interpretation trails and a living history laboratory where visitors can learn about Swansea's leading role in the Industrial Revolution and development of the global economy.StBdeR[...]

Swansea is the place to go with teenagers!


The end of the summer is approaching; my son is looking at school bags online as he left his on the TGV coming back from the UK (with ID card, carte jeune, crisps and a few clothes inside); I've been back at work for a week.We went for two weeks to England and Wales, as usual, but did not do just usual things. For our trip to London, we visted the Bethal Green Museum of Childhood where I saw, to my joy, an owl just like my own "Sage".Toy from Bethnal Green Museum of ChildhoodMine is a bit bigger than this one, and has a blue and green body in a material printed with feathers. He came from Heal's sale and the story goes that I was about 4 or 5 and could be seen staggering along with the owl almost as big as me, saying "Can I have this?". He had one wing a bit loose but that was quickly remedied with a sharp needle and cotton, and he's been in my room (chez parents) ever since. The museum is lovely, but the noise of screaming kids was phenomenal. Take ear plugs.In Wales, we stayed in a lovely little bungalow in Bishopston near Mumbles. It also has a story. The owner, who lives next door, built it for his father-in-law about 7 years ago. He incorporated all the specifications required by the old man. Then, when it was all finished, and ready to roll, the father-in-law, an inveterate hoarder, couldn't face leaving his own home.It had an amazing bathroom, with, most unusually for rented accommodation, a thousand pound's worth of free-standing bath on feet.My youngest was the only one to get to try it because my mother decided she'd never be able to get out of it, and I preferred the shower. He found it was lovely to soak in after a good hour at Limitless, Swansea's trampoline park.Limitless Trampoline Park, SwanseaThis is a fabulous place for kids and adolescents, or indeed students who want to play a game of dodgeball or organise a bouncy party. The noise levels were pretty high, so my mother and I retired to Starbucks about 100m away for a cup of tea while my youngest got on with bouncing off his energy.While we were at that end of Swansea, we visited the new engineering faculty and management school of Swansea University. It's been built on reclaimed land from the docks, and is enviably close to the beach, called the ("pied dans l'eau") Bay Campus.View from Great Hall restaurant balconySwansea University Bay Campus view towards MumblesThe town has two universities that are both expanding, and bringing much-needed investment into the area.Another activity that we did, that was eminently suitable for teenagers, was FootGolf, along the Mumbles Road. By that time, my brother and family (two ado girls) had arrived, and this was one of the activities that we could all enjoy. My mother kept score, and I distinguished myself not one bit as an ace footie player. I remember the greens, sandwiched between the promenade and main road, as a 'pitch 'n' putt' where my brother loved to thrash me and got very annoyed when I didn't take it seriously, which of course made me all the keener to be silly. The new owners have enlarged the holes and bought a bunch of footballs, and created a very entertaining activity that even I enjoyed without being too much of an idiot. I had to cheat on the odd occasion of course, but I enjoyed trying to kick the ball more than hitting it with a stick. No one will be wanting to sign me up for their team any time soon though...My youngest wanted another go at shooting innocent targets, so we went back to Perriswood where he shot the hell out of a range of metallic creatures and printed baddies.Rifle range with life-size targetsAirsoft rangeMother and I, on the other hand, were enjoying meeting Alice the lazy Eagle Owl, and Dave the dim Peregrine falcon as Perriswood is, primarily, a [...]

A weekend in Lyon with motorbike ride into the Monts d'Or


While the UK has been agog with Brexit, the French with the footie and Tour de France, I (who couldn't vote) have been battling with my new project of learning C sharp, in the heat, with a rubbish internet connection and laptop that keeps overheating.Fun.By way of distraction last weekend, I went to help my DB move from one well-appointed flat that he wasn't paying for (director's perks during his trial period) to one that he will be paying for (his trial period being at an end). (And while I was at it, take advantage of his super fast internet connection.)The last time I was in Lyon it was also to help him move, funnily enough. This was a fairly painless affair because he was moving from one furnished flat to another furnished flat within the same city, so it just took a couple of car loads, a reasonable amount of humping up stairs, and a limited amount of cleaning (for me at any rate).He moved from a flat with no view, to this:Overlooking the Confluence districtThe trees form part of a park that residents can enjoy, that goes right down to the river Saône, only separated from it by a main road.Looking towards the centre of LyonThe Alps are almost visible in the far distance.The building is a former convent schoolThe flat, and building are full of original features, but it's all been nicely renovated too. Quite the des res!On Sunday morning, we took a break and went for a motorbike ride into the Monts d'Or and Beaujolais. The local stone is a remarkable vibrant orange/yellow and makes for some charming villages.The scenery was typically rolling hills, pasture, meadows, fields of cattle, scattered villages, leafy woods and, of course, vineyards.This church positively glows in the sunWe were on the new bike (BMW1200 GS) which purred through the villages, and roared through the countryside. My DB loves the engine... The passenger seat is comfy too.The pink ribbon was to celebrate some sort of Rosé day, I thinkBeaujolais countryEither the fields in the photo above are on a slant or the village is. I can't quite make up my mind. As I took it from the back of a moving bike it could be either! The vineyards are part of the Beaujolais appellation. Let's hope they have a good year this year and produce lots of delicious wine.Rolling hills, charming villages in les Monts d'OrOne village that we went through obviously had some eccentric inhabitants with a fine line in graffiti.This is the best graffiti I've seen in FranceWe didn't stop to find out any more about who had created the artwork but I know that s/he is not impressed with the modern state of France...Most graffiti around Montpellier is of the basic tagging typeMy favourite said: "Julien Coupat - Eric Hazan (radical lefties) -> un livre d'opinion mène en prison au nom du terrorisme!".Nifty artwork and wonderfully radical messages, plus a lovely red doorLove the skull on the leftSomeone's been very busy!We finished the day, later, with an apero outside a bar in the Croix Rousse quartier which is where all the bobos live. The air was balmy, the rosé iced, and it was lovely and peaceful, with just the murmur of conversation from tables nearby.I could get used to that.StBdeR[...]

A day out at the Touratech Travel Event


Touratech is a German company that makes accessories for motorbikes. We're not talking seat covers with little hearts on or 'go faster' stripes here, but everything you need 'for your next adventure': vehicle equipment, riding gear, travel equipment, navigation and clothes. Their catalogue is the ultimate biker porn.Bike with kit and Touratech teddyThey have a shop in Orange, and every year, organise the Touratech Travel Event at the Parc des Expositions. The programme is a varied mix of talks, rides out, workshops, skill testing, etc. We go, naturally, as Orange is just an hour up the autoroute, and it's a good day out. Not just for the stands that sell adventure packages in far-flung spots across the globe for thousands of euros each, or the vehicles of all sorts on display, but for the presentations by bikers who have actually been and come back from an expedition.We thought about buying this for fun... (€32K)If you think this sounds like a bunch of hairy bikers showing a few holiday snaps of big bikes and pints of beer, it isn't. Yesterday we listened to two women talking about what they had done, where they had been, and what they had seen.One was a young woman called Stéphanie Bouisson whose team participated in this year's BMW GS Trophy"Adventure, foreign cultures, new friendships, gravel, sand and dust make BMW Motorrad's International GSTrophy an Enduro challenge that is second to none. International teams compete in intensive daily stages aswell as numerous special challenges. This also applied to the International GS Trophy 2016, which took placein spring in the impressive landscape of Southeast Asia."Look at this beaut!Another speaker was Marie-Hélène Cambon, who, with her husband Jo, rode from Bordeaux to Iran on their motorbikes, stayed a month in Iran, and rode all the way back again! Their video of the trip was just stunning. Iran has some fantastic scenery, beautiful monuments, and welcoming people. A blog describing their trip with some of their photos can be seen on their website here.Is is a bike, is it a car? No, it's a 3-wheeler d'enfer!One of the themes we heard in all the talks was the desire by the biker adventurers to meet people along the way. Not just fellow bikers, but the local population, and they all talked about some of the amazing people they came across. A far cry from insular biker gangs who are just interested in themselves and duffing up others.My toes touch the ground - must be my size... !We listened to a talk by a guy who had shipped his bike over to South America and ridden from Valparaiso to Ushuaia and back. Again, amazing stories of the people he met, places he stayed, and the most incredible scenery.Most of the bikers who gave talks were sponsored, or helped in some way by Touratech and other groups. In return, they agreed to talk about their trip at events such as the one this weekend.The cutest carThe penultimate talk, however, was by Philippe Perrenoud, the guy who set up a Trail-Rando with his wife. He goes out and discovers trails and routes for Enduro adventures, then sets up an itinerary, makes all the arrangements and sells the result. He told us about he goes about discovering the trails which is a long and pain-staking business going down every single likely path.He has set up trails all over the world, including in France, with, for example, a diagonal route from Deauville to La Ciotat. These trips have to be accompanied by a guide because the trails go through farms, need permission from everyone along the way (some 200 paysans) and can thus only take place a certain number of times per year. You meet the farmers along the route, and are welcomed rather than cursed. Baggage is c[...]

Video Presentation of my Python Project


I had to present my Python project to the other students in the MOOC, and I did this using a very nifty software called Screencast-o-matic which lets you film yourself using the webcam and also records your screen and mouse action at the same time. For free, too, in the basic version which was perfect for what I had to do.

See me in action on my video explaining what I did, here:

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My Python Capstone Project


I've done it! I've made it all the way through the Python for Everybody MOOC by the University of Michigan with the très sympa Dr Chuck (Dr Charles Severance) at the helm who took us through the highways and byways of Python and supported us with substantially complicated scaffolding. Much needed, in my case.The last module in the 5-part course was the Capstone where we had the opportunity to do an optional project. Always game to get the most out of things, I decided to take the bull by the horns and sign up.For the project, we had to find a data set, 'scrape' it to find some specific information, put that into a database, and finally, visualise the results. There are data sets about many different fascinating subjects such as:the last words of inmates in Texas before execution since 1984the "Million Base" of 2.2 million chess matchesa Twitter data setWorld Health Organisation data setFamily food data setMillion Song data setand so on. For my project however, I chose the Transport for London data set available in their Application Programming Interface (API). It provides access to real time data on the most highly requested information across all modes of transport. It also provides data on accidents across London. I wanted to find out about bicycle accidents (just because), and discover where most accidents happen. I thought it would probably be the City of London which is densely populated during the day and has high cycling activity (couriers etc.).The first thing I had to do, I discovered, was apply for an API key giving me permission to scrape the data. Then I had to write the code, which I based on code we had seen during the course (click on the images to see them bigger and better).This code creates the database, connects to the TfL API, asks for the year to download and inserts the longitude, latitude, severity and victim (cycle, car, motorcycle, etc.) into the database for that year. Then it saves the data and closes the connection.It took me a few days because I wasn't sure about exactly what I needed to do - did I need to create a dictionary, or two, or none...? That's half the problem actually, for me - identifying the structure of the code you need to write for the job you want to do.My code is really simple too. It just asks for one year, not multiple years. It assumes there are no errors in the year entered (e.g. 2016 which is not available yet). I could make it more robust, but to start with, I just wanted to make it work!This is what the data looks like in the API:TfL API raw dataThis is what it looks like 'pretty printed':TfL API data in readable formatYou can see more clearly the information I wanted to download in the 'pretty printed' format.This is what the database my code created looks like, it has 23116 rows of data:DatabaseI was astounded the first time the code worked and saw the database loaded with data. Someone I spoke to recently called the feeling a 'nerdy moment'. Never thought I'd ever have one of those, I must say!Having got the data, I then had to write some code to select the cyclist accident set, choosing 'severe' accidents rather than fatal ones (too sad), iterating through the data, and writing the longitude and latitude locations only to a javascript file.Code to select geolocation dataI was thankful to have some scaffolding to help me write that too!The geolocations of severe cycle accidents in LondonOnce I had the geolocation data, I then had to visualise it. I had already used some visualisation code earlier in the MOOC, so just had adapt it to visualise my data. It actually took me three days because I ran into a problem and had no idea what to d[...]

Annual birthday cake disaster


With what has become boring regularity, and I really don't know why I continue to bother, my attempt to make a 15th birthday cake for my youngest turned out a disaster. So bad, it was not good for anything but the bin.It should have looked something like this:From the Tesco recipe pageA layered cake with Ovaltine and chocolate sponge and Ovaltine-flavoured icing, and lots of Maltesers. Recipe here.Well, I don't have the right sort of cake tins, so thought it wouldn't matter if I made a single layered cake and just plastered it all over with icing and Maltesers.This is how it came out:An inch thick at the edges, what happened to the raising agents, eh? Buggered off on a weekend break? The recipe said to stir the flour into the wet ingredients, so I did. What it needed, in fact, was to be beaten in with a whisk, because all the lumps of flour that I thought would dissipate on cooking, did not, and stayed their comfy clumpy selves, visible to all on the bumpy surface of the cake. Attractive...White bits are clumps of flour. Guess who didn't sift...This wouldn't have been so bad if the cake had tasted good. But it didn't. I got my son to taste a bit and he started off by saying it was nice... then... discovered an unpleasant after-taste. At that point I gave up and decided to throw money at the situation.I went to Gonzalez chocolaterie in Jacou, run by Maître Artisan Patrice Gonzalez ("Rendre le monde plus tendre à chaque bouchée") and indulged my son with one of their super chocolate cakes, the Royal:Mousse au chocolat noir, croustillant praliné, biscuit Joconde..Candles are mine, only 12 in a packet, too stingy to buy 2It was, of course, heavenly, and went down a storm with the four boys. My son  had 3 buddies to spend the afternoon mucking about, then I took them to KFC, and left them with a bucket. They found their own way to the cinema to watch 13 Hours, and I picked them up after midnight outside the cinema, brought them home whereupon they took over the living room with mattresses and bedding and were still there at 11.30am the next day (watching tele and playing XBox) when the mother of one arrived to pick him up. The others stayed to lunch (nems) and continued mucking about for the rest of the afternoon.My son had a lovely birthday. Lots of trashy food, fresh air and fun. I kept out of the way except for providing vital services (taxi, food), and spent the afternoon trying motorbikes with my DB (Honda, new BMW GS, BMW X), dinner with friends, and having lunch in la Grande Motte on Sunday in the glorious sunshine.The port, Grande MotteI was shattered by Sunday night.StBdeR[...]

Nasty niffs and a blue blue sky


We've had our first motorbike ride of the year. Our intention was to ride over the long Easter weekend, but what with rain forecast on Sunday and an exhausted DB, we decided to make it an afternoon on a sunny Saturday ride.Languedoc-Roussillon, Uzès in the pink GardIn the end, we chose Uzès, named 'City of Art and History' in 2008, because it's lovely and gets packed during the tourist season, and we could pass through gorgeous little villages like Ste-Croix-de-Quintillargues on the way there. Ste-Croix-de-QuintillarguesIt has a rich history and a coal-mining tradition, the vestiges of which can still be seen, restored by the community. Ste-Croix-de-QuintillarguesWe continued our ride along the back roads to Sommières, another medieval pearl of Hérault, where we stopped for petrol.So far, my enjoyment of the ride had been somewhat marred by the niff of male cat-spotting pee. How on earth? you may wonder. Well, my dear little Ulysse, over winter and probably at Christmas when I dared to take leave of absence for a week (leaving my eldest for most of the days) undoubtedly took umbrage at my absence, and spotted one corner of the living room where my motorbike helmet sat.I had already discovered the evil evidence and dealt with the soggy box, but I had not sufficiently cleaned the helmet. For example, I had forgotten to clean the visor... So, when we stopped for petrol, I found a tissue in my pocket, got the bottle of San Pellegrino (sacrilege!) and tried to rectify the issues of visibility and pong.I succeeded with visibility, not so much with the pong, so had to keep the visor partly open for the rest of the ride. I admired the scenery and azure blue sky accompanied by the pungent odour of cat and tea tree oil (which I had optimistically used at home to try to neutralise the niffs).Pretty road, blue skyThe Gard département is extremely varied in its geography. It ranges from the flat coastal plains of the Camargue and Nîmes to the mountains of the Cévennes. The roads to Uzès passed through the flatter plains, some of which were lined by plane trees growing at an angle, forced to struggle against the strong winds that regularly sweep over the region.Rocky outcropsThe monotony of flatness and bare-branched vineyards was relieved occasionally by rocky outcrops, and in the far distance we could see just about make out the first mountains of the Cévennes, and snowy peaks.Cévennes in the distance, snowy peaksWe reached Uzès, the first Duchy of France, at about 4pm and had a brief stop. It was a relief to remove my helmet which is very tight against my jaw and makes it ache after a while.Uzès and a very blue skyAccording to the tourist office:Uzès was a Bishopric from the 5th century to the French Revolution. The Bishops of Uzès were very powerful. They had the right to mint coins, dispense justice and even bought part of the Uzès domain in the 13th century. There was continued rivalry between the Lords and Bishops, which resulted in various conflicts and lawsuits. In the 18th century, the diocese of Uzès included 193 parishes and was one of the largest in the Languedoc.Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.Uzès, not too busyUzès out of seasonThe main road circles around the town, so we did that because it's a very attractive place, and then left to go back home via Quissac.UzèsThe views were similar to the ones earlier, but we did come across an extremely attractive domaine - Domaine de la Rouvière which I can't find on the map.Domaine de la Rouvière (I think)There was no panel giving the name of[...]

Prat Peyrot sous la neige


What a peculiar winter. Mild enough to save us hundreds in electricity bills - good, but also mild enough not to kill off all the fleas - bad. I've had to resort to Frontline for Ulysse, the first time ever. He was just infested with the little buggers, and the herbal potions I tried were totally ineffective.Then over the February holidays we had a brief cold spell which was enough to crown Mont Aigoual with a heavy covering of snow. I took a Thursday off and decided to take my youngest skiing. I phoned ahead to find out when the half-day ski rental started, and was told that if I intended driving up, I would need chains. Chains!A hurried wash and brush-up and I was in Roady talking to a man who knew a lot more about chains than me. My last experience with them was leaving a box of newly bought chains swinging on a supermarket trolley and driving off about twenty years ago. I can't recall at what point we discovered this slight problem...Anyway, he showed me the right size for my wheels, and then I asked him to demonstrate putting them on. A wise move as it turned out because they are quite a challenge!Back home, I got lunch together (bacon sarnies), dug out my fluo pink ski onesie (or combinaison in French, I didn't realise they were onesies in English - thanks Trish... visions of tiger-striped bed gear come to mind), boots and unfashionable woolly hat, lent my motorbike wet-weather trousers to my son, and off we went.Did we need the chains? We did! Were they a bugger to put on? A total bugger, but not half as bad as they were to take off. Picture frozen fingers, gloves the size of a man's hand with the ends flopping wetly and coldly getting caught in the bits, my son reading the instructions, and me on my hands and knees cursing.We stopped at l'Esperou to rent skis, and I also rented boots once I tried them on as they were a lot more comfortable than mine. The woman said she'd had the same ones as me back in the day (1990)! In the end I ditched my boots there because I knew I'd never wear them again having tried the others, and the plastic might just collapse in the cold too. It was €20 to rent boots and poles for half a day for both of us.The ski resort is called Prat Peyrot, and is a tiny place with 4 green slopes, 4 blue and 3 red which take no time at all to ski down, and a cafeteria. There's also 32km of cross-country skiingNot cool and trendy on skis, but comfy and warmI found a nice place to park right up near the start of the slopes (glad of my chains on the snow-covered road) that someone who'd had enough vacated. The weather was pretty awful, so half a day was probably as much as they could take.Pretty awful weather but lots of snowTo get up the slopes, the resort has ancient tire-fesses: those little disks at the end of a metal pole that drag you up the slope and that you have to let go in time or get a smack in the face (says she from experience). On the red/blue slopes some start with such a jerk that you are hoisted off the ground for a metre or two and have to be careful to land properly or fall and tumble unceremoniously back down in front of everyone. Snowboarders have a particularly challenging time!To think that the resort only had the green slopes open just a week before!If you master the tire-fesses of Prat Peyrot, you can cope with any tire-fesses in the world!At one point it started 'raining' with tiny drops of ice that stung as they hit me in the face. Ouch! It was like an extreme facial.We had a good time going down all the slopes that were open (all but one red), saw the same people[...]

Shrinkflation at AMETRA


Modern life is full of examples of lowering standards for no change in price (except upwards), such as the decreasing size of Quality Street boxes of chocolates, the removal of two Cadbury's Fingers from a box of biscuits, lighter weight packets of Walkers crisps, fewer wipes in a packet of Dettol wipes, and so on. Economists call it 'shrinkflation', according to the Daily Mail.Natural shrinkage?It's happening in services too, and I have one glaring example from my own experience. In France, it is obligatory for employees to have regular medical check-ups from the médecin du travail. I have been out of the UK for a long time, but when I started work, there was no check-up; perhaps things have changed?Anyway, a few years ago, we used to have annual check-ups at AMETRA, a national association that specialises in work-place health. It used to be a legal requirement to have an annual check-up by a doctor, with a preliminary consultation with a nurse who asked us questions about our workplace, made us pee into a cup and passed us on to the doc.Then, we stopped getting summoned to AMETRA, and no one cared a jot about our health for three years. THREE! So naturally, we didn't get the invoice for services non-rendered, right? Wrong! There it was, every year, a bill for 2500Eur or so. For nothing.In the end, I complained. I was told that the company was having problems (no kidding!), and they were restructuring. Fine, I said, but why are you still invoicing us, and can we stop paying? Of course not! If you don't pay AMETRA you get into all sorts of trouble, a bit like with the impôts. It turns out that it's obligatory for us to pay, but if they can't deliver a service, we can't complain.So I complained again, and looked around for another provider. There isn't one. They have us by the short and curlies, as it were, and as with any totalitarian state worth the name, you shut pay up or get into trouble.Eventually, a service was resumed, of sorts. They had worked out their little problems, and the status of our health was to be checked again, but now every two years instead of annually. Was there a change in the invoice? Of COURSE, it was split in two!!Joke.We were sent convocations. We all went to see the nurse and then the doc. The nurse did not ask us to pee into a little cup. Pee's off, but there was no change in the invoice.When I went to see the doc, she asked me lots of questions, checked my sight and took my blood pressure. She asked me what I had for brekkie (I can't remember how it came up), and I said I had a boiled egg every day. Horrified, she told me that I was eating WAY too many eggs, and that I should have no more than two per week. I tried to tell her that there were new guidelines, but she was having none of it.I don't think she does much revision at home...When I got back to work, I forwarded a mail to her from a reputable source stating that eggs were good and we could eat two per day with no problem. No need to thank me (she didn't).A few months later we got another letter from AMETRA. From now on, when we get the summons to go every two years, one year in two we'll see just the nurse, so we'll only see a doc every four years. Is there a change in the invoice? Yeah, right.So there you have it. A flagrant lowering of standards for absolutely no discernable benefit to the customer. Welcome to the modern world.StBdeR[...]

Pumpkins etc.


Until this week, I hadn't been ill for over a year, which I put down to the wonders of propolis and being tanked up with vitamin D. This year's batch of rhinoviruses are a tough bunch, it seems, and got through the armour plating of my defences. I've been off work, but it could have been worse - I could have gone temporarily deaf in one ear, like my DB.By far the most comforting nourishment while feeling awful is soup. For Christmas, I was given a 10kg pumpkin, a massive thing. It sat on the floor in the hall until I realised a couple of weeks ago that it was starting to go off, whereupon I had to do something with it immediately, or consign it to the compost bin.My 10kg pumpkin looked like this(from here)This happened on a Sunday afternoon, the rest of which was thus spent peeling, de-seeding and cutting up. I put two oven-tray fulls of pumpkin chunks in the oven to roast and freeze, put another bag-full in the fridge, and made pumpkin soup out of the rest. I'm a big fan of potimarron soup, and butternut squash soup, but I find pumpkin soup a bit bland. My first attempt just had pumpkin, onion and potato and chicken stock. That's my classic recipe for potimarron and butternut, or a mixture of both. It's not enough for pumpkin unless you have a super rich stock, which I didn't. The resulting soup was disappointing to say the least.For my second try, I took the bag of chunks out of the fridge this week (just before they went off), and added carrot, turnip and a parsnip to the pot. They made all the difference, and I ended up with a super-tasty, hearty soup which has kept me going at lunch times this week.I still have two bags of frozen roasted pumpkin in the freezer, pumpkin that is responsible for the demise of my oven. At least, while cooking it, and indeed, once the pumpkin was cooked, my oven started making odd noises and at some point gave up the ghost. It was thirteen years old and much used so I can't complain. It didn't die during cooking Christmas lunch, or an important dinner party (not that I have any of those), or even half-way through a roast chicken. No, it was faithful to the last, and waited until the pumpkin was nicely roasted before expiring. Thank you dear oven.I am replacing it with a French oven, a Sauter (let's jump!) which is the equivalent of my Sholtès and the winner of a Que Choisir ('Which') comparison of ovens. I could have replaced it with another Sholtès, but I read a review from someone who had done just that, and while they were happy with it, they remarked that the components have been made with shoddier quality materials than the old one. A sign of the times, obviously, so I decided to support French manufacturing and save 150Eur or so.What else? Well, I've been making good use of Hotspot Shield by watching BBC iPlayer - 'War and Peace', 'Dickensian', 'Death in Paradise', 'Silent Witness', and also 'Endeavour' on ITV player. Sitting at the dining table (which is not used for dining) in my cosy dressing gown, in front of the computer with the earphones on, a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake to hand, and watching tele is a great way to be ill.I've also completed the second course of Python and signed up for the third which is starting this week. As I fear I might not be up to the task of all this learning, I am doing, alongside, the CodeAcademy course on Python to give me another point of view, and more exercises. I have to keep at it as there's nothing easier to forget. As with all languages, the most difficult part [...]



At the end of my last post, I mentioned that I was studying Python, a computer language. I've never done anything like it before (although now I come to think of it, learning Arabic was quite as tortuous), so it's tough pounding it into my brain (which is obviously full of incredibly useless useful other stuff...).Still, headway is being made; I finished the first course, Python for Everybody (even me) - and I'm now on the second of the five-part course - Data. Helping me learn is the Anki app, in their own words:Anki is a program which makes remembering things easy. Because it's a lot more efficient than traditional study methods, you can either greatly decrease your time spent studying, or greatly increase the amount you learn.Anyone who needs to remember things in their daily life can benefit from Anki. Since it is content-agnostic and supports images, audio, videos and scientific markup (via LaTeX), the possibilities are endless.For example:Learning a languageStudying for medical and law examsMemorizing people's names and facesBrushing up on geographyMastering long poemsEven practising guitar chords!It's also open source and free. And it works.Why Python? Why learn to code? Well, you never know what the future holds in store, and my current job could disappear, and as a developer, you can work anywhere in the world. Particularly in France where, when you hit 50, you're considered dead meat, unless you can code. Java programmers are never out of work apparently. I plan to go onto Java once I've got the hang of the more straightforward language Python.Also, I got a promotional email from Coursera in which a woman who had been in admin retrained as a programmer starting with the Python for Everybody course. If she can do it...Let's just say that it's a challenge, and definitely keeping me on my toes!I've been on my toes in more ways than one. Remember I mentioned that I was walking regularly during the week using the WalkActive technique, or as near as one can without going through the training programme? Well, it's taken inches off my waist and I can now get into trousers I was on the point of throwing out. My DB says it's very noticeable, so well done Joanna Hall (the founder).I could definitely do with walking off work's Christmas lunch! I'm stuffed!! We had it at work and everyone brought something so there were lots of good things to eat including: boeuf bourguignon, lobster bisque tart, quiche, salads, charcuterie, luxury butter, fabulous cheeses, chocolate moelleux cake, chestnut log, buche, clementines, lichis and so on. Ouf.We are all at work in the family this week. My youngest is doing his work experience at the local opticians' who are parents of a best buddy and very welcoming so he's having a lovely time. My eldest dropped law as being way too boring and with people he didn't get on with, and is now doing a sandwich course in marketing, and working at a local dynamic start-up with people he does appreciate and having a fab time. He's putting into practice all the theory and ideas he learns at college and at his age, having a job is a miracle! France is a rubbish country for jobs for the under 25s and over 50s and the unemployment statistics bear witness to my damning judgement. He got the job by networking - the only way these days, it seems - the CEO is the mother of a good buddy who he's known for years. She told him that he might not have the technical skills yet, but he has the human qualities she wants for her t[...]

Fresh air and mushrooms


Today is probably the last of the beautiful, mild days we've been enjoying all month. Tomorrow, the temperature is set to plummet by 10°C. I took the afternoon off to walk in one of my favourite local spots - Domaine de St Sauveur - get blown about a bit in the blustery wind and clear out any residual cobwebs. It was peaceful enough for me to do my version of Walkactive walking without feeling conspicuous. Soon it'll be dark when I get out of work, and my enthusiasm to walk will dwindle to nothing. I'm making the most of it while I can. While I walked, I thought about what a pleasure it's been this autumn being outside to enjoy life.For example, sometimes, the weather is so perfect, you just have to jump onto (the back of) a bike and ride off into the hills. The day after our tour of l'étang de Ponant, we pursued our two-wheel weekend with a bike trip into the Cevennes to admire the glorious colours.Sunny Cevennes 1 Nov 2015It's not New England, but it's still a spectacular sight.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015We meandered along some tiny tiny roads, no wider than the width of a car, and took it carefully because sometimes there was nothing between the edge of the road and a sheer drop down. I sat very still on the back of the bike...Cevennes 1 Nov 2015It was so warm I just had my tee-shirt and jacket on, and even felt it was a bit much. In the shade, however, it was more obviously autumn and a lot chillier.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015We stopped for lunch at St Jean du Gard, from where the little steam train runs to Anduze. November 1 is a public holiday in France, so many places were shut. We were starting to get a little worried about our rumbling stomachs. After circling round the town three times, we decided to try the restaurant in the Routard guide, La Treille.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015We had wanted to sit outside in the sun, but as all the bars with terraces were shut, along with all the others, and the only other restaurant open had a terrace in the shade where everyone was wrapped up in coats, we thought La Treille inside was the best option.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015It was a good choice. It was warm and snug inside with a wonderfully cosy interior - lots of nooks and intimate spots. The crepes were delicious too. I had one made with 1/3 chestnut flour filled with a local pelardon cheese, and my DB had a regular crepe filled with potatoes, lardons and cheese. It was very hearty. We were very good and sensible and didn't have any cider or wine, the better to navigate the narrow winding roads.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015Every corner opened up different views of the hills, and the stunning sight of azure blue sky, as vibrant as anything you see on the Cote d'Azur!Cevennes 1 Nov 2015I was struck by the amazing contrast of the intense green on the terraces in the photo above compared to the rich golden colours of autumn and grey/greens of the pines elsewhere. Is it pasture or winter wheat?Hunters with hunting dogs in the trailerAt one junction, we came across several trucks belonging to hunters, at what was obviously the end of their day's hunting. In the trailer were the dogs so I suppose it was a very well-organised group, maybe even professionals. Wild boar are a big problem in the region. Their numbers increase every year and they are extremely destructive.Cevennes 1 Nov 2015The wild boar would probably have been in heaven in some of the woods we passed through. In places, the strong fragrance of wild mushrooms was like riding throu[...]

TGO - Cycling round the Etang de Ponant


I have been sent home from work today because of an orange bad weather alert. How different from the glorious sunny weekend a couple of days ago.The whole country was bathed in a balmy anticyclone for the last weekend of the Toussaint holidays. Perfect weather for a Halloween tramp around the houses with over-excited kids.We dug out our book on mountain bike trails around Montpellier 'Autour de Montpellier - VTT' that's been sitting in the house unused for five years. It sometimes takes time to catch up with action one's good intentions. I jotted down all the rides that were:on the flatdoable in an hour and a halfthe list was:number 2 at Grau du Roi, 12 km, taking 1h30, flatnumber 3 at l'étang du Ponant, 13 km, taking 1h30, flatnumber 5 along the Vidourle river, 17km, taking 1h30, flatThe aim of enjoying a gentle ride was so that we wouldn't repeat the mistake of our last bout of VVT enthusiasm when we launched into a 27 km circuit around the Lac de Salagou, the memory of which was so traumatic we didn't touch the bikes again for months. We learned from that mistake.La Vidourle riverSo we chose the tour of Ponant lake between la Grande Motte and Grau du Roi. You leave the car on either side of the dramatically called Pont des Abîmes which crosses the Vidourle river. Unhitch the bikes and prepare for a couple of hours of delight.Single track path, l'étang de PonantAlthough the start of the path is a wide 'chemin vert' along the river which is much used by people out to enjoy a nice walk with or without dogs or kids or both, after a few hundred metres, it turns right to start the tour of the lake. There, if you're not used to riding along single file tracks (like me), you can find yourself wobbling and falling off until you realise that you have to look straight ahead and not down at the track. Looking down is a to court disaster. My DB, following me, was highly entertained by my antics.Boggy patch, l'étang de PonantWe set out at just after 3pm in autumnal soft lighting and muted colours. The lake was a silky pale blue-grey, its surface barely broken by a gentle breeze. Growing around the edge are typical salt marsh plants such as sea pickle or glasswort. In the summer it's bright green, but in the autumn it turns a rusty red. It makes for a soft landing too...Glasswort banks on l'étang de PonantThe path was mostly dry, but there were several patches of boggy marsh. For most we could find an alternative way round, but we also had to ride through some muddy zones which left a sticky sludge on the bikes that had to be washed off with the powerful jet of a car wash.Peaceful path, l'étang de PonantWe didn't hurry. It was so peaceful - the water still except for the odd plop of a fish catching insects, the beautiful light that softened everything we saw, hardly anyone about, only a few fishermen sitting placidly waiting, and the perfect temperature for riding.étang de PonantAs the afternoon wore on, the mosquitoes came out, but by then we were nearly finished. The sun was starting to set and tinted everything with a rosy hue.Aigrette on a branch, l'étang de PonantFishing nets, étang de PonantThere are many different types of birds that visit the étang. We didn't see any flamingoes but did see a number of herons and aigrettes posing stylishly on the tree branch 'sculptures' in the middle of the lake.Heron? étang de PonantThis is a fantastic ride to do in la demi-saison - spr[...]