Christmas tree

December 7th, 2012

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We have a normal sized house; the ceilings are about 2.5 metres high. We also have a Corrie; my wife loves Christmas and big Christmas trees. I shall let the pictures of the tree we bought from a local farmer for 30 € speak for themselves….

UK TV in France

December 1st, 2012

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As you might have noticed, we live in France, so we have French TV.

Amongst people like us this is quite unusual; most people from the UK have satellite TV. Initially I wasn’t bothered and was actually quite happy watching French TV. My personal favourites are Fourchette & Sac à DosDes racines et des ailes and J’irai dormir chez vous – mainly travel documentary style programmes.

I must admit that I do download programmes such as ‘Have I Got News For You’ on iPlayer, so it’s not all French language stuff. And if you fiddle with the settings on your TV you can watch programmes like CSI in VO (version originale) which is quite good; everything foreign is dubbed on French TV rather than subtitled, and dubbing makes plots difficult to follow.

Anyway, with Christmas on the horizon, we were envious of our friends and family back home. There’s nothing quite like watching some Christmas telly with a few mince pies and… a few more mince pies. So it was time to install satellite TV.

Initially I thought this would be expensive, but I looked into it and discovered that the parts themselves are very cheap. I bought a 60cm satellite dish for 25 € and 10m of cable for 8 €, both from Leroy Merlin. The assistant wanted to sell me a bigger dish when I mentioned I was planning on getting UK channels with it; I ignored his advice since I’d read on forums that 60cm is plenty. Friends had an old Sky box that they were happy to lend to us, so I didn’t need to buy a satellite decoder. However, if I had needed to buy one I was surprised to learn that I didn’t need to use a Sky box; any Freesat box would do the trick. These start from around £35 for a basic model.

I put the dish together and, with the help of my compass and the coordinates of the relevant satellite on a piece of paper included with the dish, pointed it in the right direction. With the window open, the Sky box on channel 101 and the volume turned up full, I gently moved the dish around a bit until I heard BBC1 blaring out. Success!

It wasn’t quite as easy as I make it sound. The next day it was raining and we had no signal at all so I moved the dish but there were some branches between the dish as the sky and it didn’t work. After some more adjustments I got it to 100% signal. It wasn’t that difficult.

The only trouble now is that the boys are glued to CBeebies all day long!

School

October 12th, 2012

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Our eldest goes to school – he’s a few weeks into his second year. Here’s how it works….

School’s obligatory from age 6, but most children go from age 3, some even younger if the school will accept them. Soren’s school has two sides; the little ones (maternelle 3-6) and the big ones (primaire 6-9). There are 30 children in his school.

So we drop Soren off between 09:05 and 09:15 and he hangs his coat and bag up on his little hook, takes his shoes off and puts on his slippers (chaussons). He goes through into the classroom and puts his name tag on the board then sits at one of the tables to do a puzzle or some drawing for a bit before the structured part of the day begins. Parents can help their child with the slippers bit but once the children have gone into the classroom we have to go; there were too many instances of children screaming and clinging to their parents so the teachers decided a clean break was the answer.

There’s a break mid-morning when they play outside in the courtyard, but only when it’s not raining or cold. When the weather’s even slightly unpleasant the teachers keep them indoors. They never get to play on the grass because (apparently) in the winter the ground’s too wet and in the summer the ground’s too hard. Given they’re only in their 20s, the teachers have old lady attitudes to children and the outdoors!

Lunch break is at 12:15. They go off hand in hand with one of their friends in a neat line to the cantine where they have, for example,

Potage
Bœuf bourguignon avec pommes de terre
Camembert
Crêpe à la confiture.

After lunch the younger ones (3, 4 and sometimes 5 year olds) have a nap. Then more school stuff, a mid-afternoon break, then we go and pick Soren up at 16:45. Regardless of the weather he’ll be wearing everything in his bag – coat, hat, gloves, scarf, even if it’s hot and sunny!

School is Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; they get Wednesday off.

I made a river. And a wall. And a couple of decks

September 20th, 2012

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I know, I know; it’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here. Here come the excuses….

‘Stuff’ is really getting in the way. You know, life ‘stuff’ like looking after the children, school, daily chores, making websites (have I mentioned my website business Uncomplicate before?), writing stories and articles for the local paper (I haven’t mentioned that before – I’ll get to that blog update one day) and watching loads of movies (which I review on one of my other websites Just finished watching…).

But I have been doing free range adventurey type stuff too.

I’ve made a river for the boys. It’s a stone riverbed with a pump at the bottom taking water via a buried hosepipe back up to the top. They love splashing about in it, making pools with pebbles, filling up buckets, floating leaves down it. Unfortunately this summer has been very dry so any bit of water is pounced on by the wasps. We’ve therefore not had this on very often.

I’ve made a wall for the river to flow out of, a bit like a waterfall but not as dramatic. Before leaving the Lakes I did a dry-stone walling course; I finally put those skills to some use. It’s a bit rustic and it’s not dry (it’s held together with lime and cement so there’s no risk of it falling on children) but it looks pretty good I reckon.

I made a deck, or two decks to be precise. Outside our dining room window was a muddy weedy mess. I dug this up, built a frame and laid a deck. The garden is quite a bit higher than the house so I built another smaller deck between the garden and the main deck, so there’s now a sort of deck step thing going on. It’s so much neater and the boys can play there when the grass is too wet and we can sit out there and generally make use of the space.

It’s good to have got this post finally done! I’d actually finished this project a couple of months ago :-/

We went on holiday

September 3rd, 2012

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Soren & the mountain

Living here has been a little like an extended holiday so we have never felt the urge to actually go on holiday. However, we have fallen into dull routines and got fed up of the things to do around here… so we went on holiday!

The whole of France goes on holiday in August so we timed our trip to be right at the end, just before school starts again, when everyone else has gone home. We drove down to the Ariège region of the Pyrenees (straight down from Toulouse) and camped at 800m in a deserted little campsite that’s actually a donkey farm. The owner told me as we left that one of his donkeys had been attacked by a bear in June, but he hadn’t wanted to tell me until we were leaving. That’s the thoughtful type of people you get in this area of France.

It was really cold. We drove around, going for walks and looking about. One afternoon we took the boys to a tree climbing place where they wear harnesses and do fun-looking things. We had a nice meal in a very pretty cafe. We ate the world’s biggest croque-monsieur.

After a couple of days there we drove part of the way back, stopping at Ikea (we needed some things and our nearest one is 3 hours away, so it made sense… except that it was heaving and took ages) before desperately trying to find a campsite in the dark. We finally found somewhere at 21:30 but it was closed. We drove through a gap in the fence and pitched our tent anyway, and it turned out fine.

The following day we drove to the Dordogne and had a splash about in the river. And that was it; we drove back home and the boys went crazy playing with all the toys they hadn’t played with for 3 days.

Just a short holiday, but a nice one.

Adventures on our bike trailer

July 22nd, 2012

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Having three children doesn’t make it difficult to do things in the way you’d think. The baby is easy and isn’t the problem: it’s that I need to occupy BOTH his big brothers whilst Corrie’s looking after him. So going for bike rides was off the cards. Until….

I bought a bike trailer! It’s second-hand, from a friend, but it works really well and they love it. So far we’ve done about 12 miles in it and, whilst I can certainly feel the extra weight, it’s perfectly alright. And hearing the giggles from behind me is lush. But when they bicker it’s not so fun.

I’m not sure if all bike trailers are the same but this one has a big clamp that attaches to the chainstay of the bike. My chainstays are quite short (because of the geometry of the frame), rectangular, and I have disc brakes so the clamp didn’t fit very well and got in the way of my foot when peddling. After looking online for a solution (I didn’t find one) I decided to ditch the clamp and attach the spring directly to the bike using a bolt. It’s much, much better – I’ve got room to peddle now – and more secure.

But that’s all a bit geeky, sorry.

It’s lovely and yellow!

 

Expensive new computer; expensive new software?

June 21st, 2012

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What do you do when you need expensive software but can’t afford to buy it? Steal it… or go open source.
[Warning: this is a slightly geeky post and might not seem at home on this blog, but  there is a free range element to this, I promise].

My web design business, Uncomplicate (he’s very good you know, and quite reasonable), is picking up and I’ve been getting quite a few new jobs recently, which is brilliant! I was struggling to get on my old MacBook to actually do the work though because Corrie liked to use it in the evenings so I decided to use some of my earnings to buy myself some equipment.

So I bought myself a snazzy new MacBook Air; I’ve always worked on Macs (since 2001 anyway) and I’m quick and comfortable on them. It’s awesome: 8GB RAM and all flash storage means it’s super-quick, quicker than any computer I’ve ever used. And it’s teeny. So it’s the perfect tool for making websites in a house filled with screaming boys where no desk is safe from scissors and paint. But it doesn’t come with any website-making software, and I needed some.

Even though all my websites are now made in WordPress I still use software in the process. I used Dreamweaver (for connecting to servers, managing file transfers, messing about with layouts, working on source code) – that costs £360. I also used Photoshop (for preparing images for the web, making logos, working on website design elements) – that costs £660. So over £1,000 for the software; I’d need to make a few websites to make that back. But anyway, that’s very expensive!

So I decided to cheat and downloaded ‘free’ versions of both these pieces of software. This involved some fiddling about with host files on my lovely, new, innocent laptop so that the software would be blocked from connecting to the internet to verify the serial numbers. I felt dirty. After a day I uninstalled these, put the host files back to how they were, phoned Adobe and apologised, and looked for legitimate alternatives.

And here are the legitimate and affordable alternatives for Mac…

Dreamweaver

  • BlueGriffon – it looks nice, is light (93MB) and does what I need it to do. Except ftp stuff, but (and this is the beauty of open source stuff) there’s an add-on for that: FireFTP. Excellent. And it’s free. Perfect!

Photoshop

  • GimpShop – sounded good and is good, but I need ‘save for web’ functionality and I simply couldn’t figure out how to install the plugin. If you can figure that out, it’s the answer, probably.
  • Pixelmator – a slick designed-for-OSX piece of software that only costs £10. I’m finding it slightly awkward to use as I’m familiar with Photoshop so I’ll need to get the hang of it, but it appears to do everything, including ‘save for web’ – I’m on day 2 of the 30-day trial.
  • Photoshop Elements – if Pixelmator doesn’t do it for me I’ll go for this. It costs about £60, does everything I need, and is familiar.
With a little bit of effort it seems you can find anything you need on the internet, and often you don’t need to resort to stealing. It feels good to do the right thing.

 

A quick update…

June 3rd, 2012

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It’s been a while since I posted, partly because of laziness but mainly because we’ve had another baby (Kasper – he’s lush!) and we’re a bit busy these days.

Here’s a quick update on what we’ve been up to…

  • The pool’s been cleaned up and started again just in time for a few hots days – we’ve been in every day for the last week and although the water’s pretty cold (20 degrees the first day, 25 degrees yesterday) it’s been fun.
  • Corrie’s plants are coming on well, albeit rather late – everything in the garden is late this year. So we’ve got green beans and butternut squash and peas and onions and salad planted and lots of other stuff in pots waiting. And loads of stawberries!
  • I’ve been mowing the garden but can’t keep up. The mixture of lots of rain and lots of sun means the grass is growing super fast and I just can’t cut it often enough. Twice a week might just do it, but I simply don’t have that sort of time these days. The long grass does look nice though.
  • I bought a petrol strimmer to tame some of the jungle bits – I’ve not had time to sort them properly but strimming’s fun!
  • I’ve been doing some web work (I’ve re-started my website making business Uncomplicate) and writing some stuff for a local English paper.
  • Soren and Milo have been running nude around the garden, playing in the paddling pool, digging in the soil, and generally getting rather impressive sun tans.
  • And we had a baby! In keeping with our free range adventure he was born at home in the middle of the night, just Corrie and me; I caught him as he shot out. He’s doing really well.

There’s probably more to tell but this is basically what we’ve been up to.

See ya!

 

Mini adventure vs free range adventure

May 10th, 2012

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Before we moved to France we used to live in the Lake District. Probably not officially the Lakes, but for a couple of years on the southern edge and then a year or so on the eastern side.

Anyway, my adventures back then involved waiting until Corrie’s mum was coming for a visit and then packing my rucksack and heading up into the Cumbrian hills for an overnight wild camp. (Not that I don’t like Corrie’s mum! It was that she would help look after the boys so I wasn’t needed).

It was lush. My dog Spooky would come with me, we’d walk for a few hours in the afternoon to our camp spot overlooking something beautiful, watch the sun set, marvel at the stars, sleep in the tent, wake up early (usually to mist), walk a few more hours and then drive home.

I miss those mini adventures to be honest. This adventure we’re on now is completely different and still quite exciting, but it’s not a camping/hiking/wilderness adventure, it’s more a lifestyle/family adventure. And I do still hanker after those camping/hiking/wilderness adventures.

If all of this sounds silly then watch this video which sums it up rather nicely (and triggered my nostalgia)…

Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain. Rain.

April 26th, 2012

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It’s raining.

It started 10th April and it hasn’t stopped.

Not just rain but mega downpours. And hail, hail the size of, er, normal hail stones.

And the weather forecast says it’s going to keep on raining forever. And gales on Sunday.

Maybe it’s time to move on. Hawaii has nice weather doesn’t it?

 

Water

April 18th, 2012

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The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking that, since we live in rural France and have chickens and grow our own vegetables and so on, we’re a bit eco.

We’re not.

I don’t know why we’re not as undoubtedly we should be, but the reality is that we consume quite a lot of oil to heat our old and not that well-insulated house, use a fair bit of diesel in our big van, and, according to our water meter reading this morning, use a massive amount of water.

There must be a leak somewhere as I can’t believe we use that much, but until my investigations are complete I’m going to see if we can use less.

So for starters, I may adopt this washing up technique I found on a green forum:

  • Empty sink.
  • Locate plug.
  • Don’t fill the sink.
  • Start by adding detergent add hot water until there’s about one inch of water.
  • Use hot water tap only!
  • It will be cold to start with, but will get to a temp that suits your resistance.
  • Add cutlery to soak for later in the wash.
  • If you’re like me start with glasses.
  • Lay a glass on its side use cloth to clean with whatever water is available from the sink at this point.
  • Rinse soap from glass gently with hot water into same sink. This keeps your water hot and clean as you go.
  • As you get through your pile of dishes the water level increases and remains hot.

 

Loft story

April 14th, 2012

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I’ll warn you in advance: this is quite a long and boring post but I know that if I don’t write down what we did I’ll forget.

My brother and I climbed up the ladder into the loft on 1st November 2011 to begin work on the conversion project. Five months later it was all done. Here’s a summarised account of what we did….

The boys' new room

The loft above the original part of the house was a traditional crop drying room with a door leading into it from the roof, thick soil on the floor beneath which was gorse then wooden planks. Overhead were the oak beams and roof framework. The loft above the extended bit of the house, which also had a door leading into it but this time from metal steps up the side of the house, already had wooden floorboards but rolls of loft insulation had been laid out over them for many years and it was all filthy, and also full of rubbish.

The first job was to remove all the junk that was up there: tiles, wood, cardboard boxes and loads of bits and pieces. It was dark and dirty up there but it was exciting to be starting on my biggest project yet. I’d spent a long time thinking about how things were going to be done up there so I had a plan, but it wasn’t written down anywhere so it was good to finally clear the space and start to visualise it.

The second job was to get the iPod and speakers up there. Over the next few weeks we listened to my entire music collection many times over. For one period all my brother wanted to listen to was Coldplay, and I, as usual, opted for Boy 8-Bit.

To help make things even easier to visualise, the next thing we did was put in the Velux windows, one in the ‘old’ loft (the boys’ bedroom) and one in the ‘new’ loft (our bedroom). Cutting a hole in the roof is very intimidating but once the tiles had been taken off and the wood sawn we were left with window-sized holes into which we slotted the Veluxes (Velii?). It wasn’t quite as simple as this, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d first feared. I also put a smaller window, just a skylight really, into the other side of the roof which would be the corridor. Once they were in it was lovely and bright up there – which was good!

Next up was some shopping. We hired a trailer from a local builder’s merchants, hooked it onto the back of the van and drove up to a big B&Q type place 60 miles away called Brico Depot (they were by far the cheapest and actually are part of the same group as B&Q)  to stock up on plasterboard, insulation panels, wood, more windows and the wooden floor. The trailer and van were absolutely full to bursting and driving down the motorway with such a precarious load was scary, but we made it back alright and unloaded all the materials into the garage in the dark.

Now that we had the supplies we made a start on building the frames for the ceiling and walls. There isn’t anything particularly dramatic to to recount about this stage other than it took a lot of wood and screws, and screwing into 100 year old oak beams is virtually impossible. Oh, and it took ages (about a week) and became rather tedious. Some sections were incredibly complicated and we discovered that the best way to work things out is to sit down with a cup of coffee and look at the problem for ten minutes or so. Once the frame was done we got to the part we’d been looking forward to for a while; insulation.

Pretty much as soon as we started to squeeze the insulation between the roof and the wooden frames we realised that this was a horrible job, and wished it would be over as quickly as possible. It took several days and we both developed nasty coughs, but once it was in we were very relieved.

The plumber and electrician came to set things up at this stage, running cables and pipes all over the place. He also rerouted some heating pipes that were in the way of where we were going to make a doorway through the 60cm thick stone wall to join the two lofts together. Once he was done we started with the floor.

First we had to build a frame. The loft floor was soil and, whilst most people round here remove tons and tons of this to lay their floor directly onto the floor joists when converting their lofts, I couldn’t face doing that. Plus all that soil and stuff worked well as insulation, so I figured it might as well stay. The frame in place we started to lay the planks, screwing them into place. This took a lot longer than we’d anticipated, mainly because we realised about half way in that we’d been putting the boards down the wrong way round so had to lift them all up to start again. Luckily we’d ignored advice and screwed the planks down.

Once that was in place we started with the plasterboard. I used four sorts of plasterboard: normal plasterboard for the partition walls (13mm); thinner stuff for the ceilings (10mm); medium insulating polystyrene-backed plasterboard for the sloping walls (10+40mm); and thick insulating polystyrene-backed plasterboard for the gable end (10+100mm). We had mountains of this stuff and carrying it up the ladders was a nightmare, as was measuring and cutting it. Oh and fitting it using adhesive cement and screws was also a nightmare! However, of all the jobs so far, this was the one which gave us the most satisfaction as we could really see the rooms taking shape.

Unfortunately my brother’s time was up and he had to head home. However, we’d done loads in just one month and I’d definitely have got nowhere without his help, so thanks little bro!

From then on it was lots and lots of smaller jobs. We hired a local builder to make the hole in the 60cm stone wall as I was worried I’d bring the roof down by not doing it properly, and once that was done I fitted windows into what had been the doorways into the two lofts. This involved building a short brick wall to fill the gap a bit and then fitting the windows. I built a step from the corridor into our new bedroom, cut a hole in the wall at the top of the stairs so that we could access our new rooms without having to go outside and up a ladder, and that marked the point at which we were weather-tight. Exciting!

Then I started with taping and plastering. The plumber and electrician came back a few times to do his stuff, including installing three radiators (luxury as it was a very cold winter), the builder came back to lime render the stone walls, and I just plodded on with filling gaps, taping and plastering.

I’d run out of enthusiasm by now and would go weeks without doing anything. But eventually the plastering was finished and I could sand the walls down. Then we painted, stained the floorboards, oiled the floorboards, put the skirting on… and moved in! All in all it took five months. If I’d carried on at the same pace my brother and I set at the start it would have taken two, but it just got so boring!

Anyway, it’s done and it’s awesome. Well, not 100% done: I still need to put the shutters on one of the windows and build the steps that join the stairs to the new corridor out of proper wood rather than cheap pine. But it’s very, very nearly all done.

He’s my brother

April 13th, 2012

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Milo parking his bike next to Soren's

Soren grabs onto his brakes, jumps off his bike and lets it fall wherever he happens to be before sprinting off to the next thing.

Milo rolls up beside his big brother’s discarded bike, carefully climbs off his bike, then with great effort pushes it so it’s also lying sideways on the floor.

I think Soren might be Milo’s hero.

Blossom, blossom everywhere!

April 7th, 2012

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No silly post this time, just a few pictures of the blossom in our garden: peach, plum, pear and cherry.

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom

Peach blossom

Peach blossom

Plum blossom

The contents of my pockets

April 6th, 2012

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Pocket contents

I’m currently wearing my favourite Howies jeans. Unfortunately for them they’ve become what I call my ‘kickabout jeans’; I wear them all the time for pretty much everything. As a result they have a huge hole in one pocket, muck all over – mud, grass, wood stain  – and are worryingly thin at the knees. But they’re very comfortable, and anyway, my previous ‘kickabout jeans’ are in the bin.

I’m sure I can’t be that unusual but I do tend to accumulate lots of stuff in my pockets, as you can see from the photo above. And before you ask, yes, I do need three different knives with me at all times.