Fruitcake’s French Adventure Part 13 – Early Days.

Guest blog by Fruitcake @barjan

pirate-161968_640Eleven days after our arrival we finally managed to go to Saumur to organise the connection of a phone. It was bitterly cold and the heater in the van didn’t work because it was frozen! There were huge, thick ice floes floating down the river Loire as we crossed the bridge, I have never been so cold, it hurt our faces and when we found the phone shop it was such a relief to get into the warm, but my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, I had a job to speak! However we got it sorted for someone to come out and, thankfully, the heater worked on our return journey! Still, we couldn’t get warm for the rest of the day.

The cold weather continued, but was sometimes a cause for hilarity. I’d washed, mangled and hung on the line our washing one day and it immediately froze solid and looked like a lot of cardboard cut outs! Mr. F. walked by the line and was whacked round the head by a frozen shirt sleeve! I fell about laughing! “Knocked out by a shirt sleeve!” I said through my giggles, he joined in despite the pain!

The “kitchen” side of our room with the green slimy walls was by the door, open because of the smoke and it was so cold that the cooking oil, washing up liquid, gas bottle and dishcloth all froze. My attire, whilst cooking our meal, was as follows: – Leggings, trousers, T-shirt, jumper, body warmer, jacket, hat and scarf! It was quite hilarious! Even the suds on the washed dishes froze as I put them on the drainiing board. Once when I was washing up and Mr. F. and the dogs were the fire side of the partition I banged the frozen dishcloth on the side of the sink and shouted “What do you think that is?” “The dishcloth!” came the reply “Yes! You win the prize, do you want to open the box or take the money?” We were in hysterics! (It was the saying from a quiz show back in the day)

Another day Sophie, the doberman cross, was leaning against one of the unit doors and was shivering so much the door was rattling and I had to make a little coat out of an old T-shirt for Annie, the Jack Russell as she couldn’t stop shivering.

We continued to disentangle the apple trees, cut them into logs and push them up the hill in the wheelbarrow for the log pile, but it was never ending as they didn’t stay on the pile very long! Mr. F. tried to rig up a contraption with a length of pipe through a hole in the window to try and blow the smoke up the chimney so that we could close the door, but to no avail!

We were in a dilemma, having the door open meant we burnt the wood more quickly and our options were to a) order & install a wood burner, temporarily as the hearth wasn’t ready for a permanent fixture or b) get a smaller wood burner and temporarily fit that with the thought that we could use it later in the proposed gite or c) sit with our legs in sleeping bags and keep fetching and burning lots of wood!

It was January 1997, our 1st New Year and I was cold in the night for the first time since arriving and, of course, whenever we were out we couldn’t leave the open fire alight so the house got really cold, We discussed different heating options and Mr.F. was annoyed that he couldn’t solve the smoke problem with the fire, but we had to do something, even the dog’s drinking water in the house froze!

Putting up blankets and curtains seemed to help. There were some compensations, not having any electricity, so no fridge or freezer, it was quite handy, when I hung a fresh chicken in a carrier bag up on the beam in the room next door to prevent beasties getting at it, to find that it was frozen solid!!

We found a woodburner shop – much too expensive & the girl was most unhelpful!! Freezing rain made the roads treacherous and Mr.F. had to chop away thick ice to make a safe pathway to the well to draw water (me hanging onto his traousers as he pulled it up, to prevent him slipping and falling in!) We were told that it was minus 9 degrees, it felt colder!!

A man from France telecom came to do a survey of what was to be done, we got excited at the prospect of having a telephone connection!

The estate agent was also an agent for Villager wood burners we discovered so, after discussions with him, a flat top wood burner was decided upon, so that we could also use it for cooking, he informed us that the company was out of stock due to high demand in the cold weather, so it had to be ordered! He also said he would introduce us to a young, English builder that he thought might be useful to know.

We had more snow, the telephone engineer didn’t come. I went up to check that the neighbours were okay and they let me use their phone to let the family know that we had food and wood and were okay, but didn’t know when we would have a phone.

We had a slight thaw so lifted the frozen tarpaulin sheet from the igloo that was our furniture and managed to get a bit more inside.

By the 11th January the thaw was complete and the snow was replaced with mud! And on the 12th it was warm enough to work outside in T-shirts!

I rang France telecom from the village telephone box – they might come on 15th! On the 14th 2 engineers came to discuss what was needed (obviously the surveyor wasn’t enough!) On the 15th 2 different engineers came (making 5 people in all now!) Still, we were connected at last! The girls and my Dad were very relieved to now be able to contact us. (There would probably be times when we wondered if that was a good thing!!)

Frosty mornings and sunny days meant that we could not only cut lots of logs but start on some of the outside work for a few days, but by the 17th we were experiencing very windy, wet weather, our outdoor lunches were short lived!

The sheet on the stable roof came off in the gales and we battled in the wind to get it back and noticed the France telecom men hadn’t fixed a cable properly and it was violently swinging at head height! A phone call was made and in fairness it was fixed that day..The driveway wa so muddy we couldn’t drive up it on our return from a shopping trip, so wellies on and gravel spreading, to no avail, so we let it slide as far to one side as possible and left it!

The agent said he would bring the young builder to introduce him to us.

The four dogs were generally very good ,considering the conditions we were all living in, but they were a bit naughty sometimes, One day when we’d had to go out and they couldn’t get outside to sunbathe on this day, we came back to find they had tipped over the laundry basket, chewed bits form the cane lid, taken a pair of my dirty knickers to bed on the sofa, together with one of Mr. F’s slippers and the cushion from my chair! When I said “What’s all this?!” They all ran out into the garden!

By the end of January we felt we had made progress, we had a telephone connection, had cleared a considerable amount of undergrowth, brambles and rock, started digging out for gardens, clearing weeds, chopping the tops off of some bulbs in the process! Dug out a lot of rubbish from in the ruin, planted some plants, Mr. F. made a very nice chicken house and put up some gates. Still hadn’t met the English builder and still had no date for the wood burner, still couldn’t believe that we actually lived in France, in our own cottage and still felt like excited pioneers!

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6 Responses

  1. Blue velvet
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    My goodness Fruitcake, how on earth did you manage, to be that cold and still keep laughing Wow! I too remember some really freezing cold winters in Normandy, no double glazing or central heating, just some logs and a second hand gas heater. I do understand regarding the high winds, I’ve never experienced winds like it before. When we eventually got our woodburner flat top Villager it was heaven, I could cook on, made loads of lovely thick soups to keep us warm and very cheaply. It was all a big adventure, my Mum was horrified, but we just enjoyed the challenge. Good for you both! :rose:

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  2. Blue velvet
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    My goodness Fruitcake, how on earth did you manage, to be that cold and still keep laughing Wow! I too remember some really freezing cold winters in Normandy, no double glazing or central heating, just some logs and a second hand gas heater. I do understand regarding the high winds, I’ve never experienced winds like it before. When we eventually got our woodburner flat top Villager it was heaven, I could cook on, made loads of lovely thick soups to keep us warm and very cheaply. It was all a big adventure, my Mum was horrified, but we just enjoyed the challenge. Good for you both! :rose:

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  3. Liz
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    What a winter to start your life in France in Fruitcake. You have come out of it still smiling – I admire the strength of character you and your hubby have. I can the feel the cold for you……just reading the article made me shiver! Makes us so grateful for having warmth.
    Seems there is a prospect of power cuts in France this winter…..so very glad we have a villager wood burner too and gas for cooking in the event of this happening. We also have a genie should it be necessary.
    Thanks Fruit….interesting to read. :rose:

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  4. Fruitcake
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    Yes Liz & Blue, since that first winter we have always had a woodburning stove and in this house have yet another Villager, unfortunately not a flat top as it was already here, so we miss the benefit of cooking on it, however I do have a 90cm wide gas cooker so that and the woodburner will mean we can cook and keep warm during any power cuts! (just have to keep fingers crossed for freezers etc if it’s off for very long) Thanks for reading :rose:

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  5. Stinky
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    Compared to your icy story, ours was a little better, but still icy,we had electricity of a sort one socket but no heating etc. Wonder what your dogs thought you were up to?
    You must have been so excited as each obstacle (with a capital O!) was overcome, I know we were.

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  6. Fruitcake
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    Yes Stinky I think excitement was the primary emotion that we felt all through those early days and a sense of great achievement each time another obstacle was overcome and another goal reached. In all honesty, although we’re still very happy and have been throughout, I think they were a very happiest days, albeit the least comfortable, because of that excitement. Thank you again for reading my ramblings.

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