It’s a long way down…

On our way to the south of France from England, Leo and I passed the time listening to Desert Island Disks podcasts. One of the best ones was Bear Grylls. He spoke about his decision to climb Everest as he lay in hospital with a broken back.
It was in part this that inspired our adventure today to a rock we have named Wright’s rock, about a mile from the house. I have a vague memory of climbing it once before, but I was sure there was a path. Today there was not. And as we stood looking at the sheer stone rock-face we were going to have to climb to get to the top I felt less like Bear Grylls and more like the vertiginous coward I really am.FullSizeRender 4















My husband was all for it. He has some new walking boots and wanted to try them out. Leo was keen too, and started climbing immediately. I stomped off in a downward direction convinced they were both going to fall and refusing to watch. It was all about to end in tears when Olivia came to the rescue, discovering a slightly less horrendous way up that involved crawling under a tree.FullSizeRender 2
We all made it to the top, which had seemed impossible ten minutes earlier. “There,” said my husband, surveying the stunning views. “We’ve all achieved something today.”
“Let’s go home for a cup of tea,” I suggested. And we started looking for a way down. No one ever really talks about getting down, it’s all about reaching the pinnacle, getting to the summit, scaling the heights etc. How come no one ever mentions getting down?
The way down in not to be underestimated, especially not when you are dealing with bare cliff-face. My husband admitted that he had put us all through the adventure of climbing up to make sure we weren’t deprived of that lovely sense of achievement. “But I’m sure there is a path down somewhere,” he smiled.FullSizeRender 5
I thought about killing him on the spot, but decided to wait until he’d found the path.
He didn’t find the path, so we had a rather harrowing descent, mainly on our bottoms. I have never been so happy to see a gravel track in my life.FullSizeRender 3















The moral of the story is two-fold; definitely push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you’ll feel great afterwards (and really enjoy your cup of tea). But don’t forget about the way down. While I was happy to get to the top, I was even happier to get to the bottom.

What I did in my holidays

I remember when I was at school we used to have to write an essay at the beginning of term about our summer holidays. I could never really think about much to write, except of course for the summer when my mother and I escaped from her third husband in her purple Ford Cortina and drove from England to Italy to meet my real father.

This summer we did so much I don’t really know where to begin. We started in London and ended in London, but in between went to Paris, Sainte Cecile, (our house in the south of France) Yorkshire and Scotland. Miraculously I was able to work from everywhere and I can’t see a situation where I will be forced to spend the summer here again.

We played the ‘what was the best bit’ game on the way back to Abu Dhabi, and all of us found it impossible to pick one thing. But among the highlights were:

The Chelsea football school and winning player of the week (Leo)

Being at Sainte Cecile (Bea)

Eating duck in Chinatown (Olivia)

Playing golf at his club and lunch at le train bleu (Rupert, see below pic)

My highlights included; food shopping at Waitrose (yes, I am a boring middle- class woman whose idea of a good time is spotting a box of Bendick’s bittermints or full-fat Organic Devon milk), realising how much I love Sainte Cecile as a holiday home, seeing friends (best thing of all actually, even better than the Bendick’s), travelling on London buses just gazing out of the window at the shops and life on the street, playing tennis on the most beautiful grass court ever in the English summer sun in Yorkshire, two visits to Stamford Bridge to watch us win (as well as Frank Lampard warming up just in front of me).

I was in a total panic about coming back here, desperate for something to happen to make it possible for me to stay there. But now I’m here, I’m pleased to be home. The kids are pleased to be back too, although Bea was apparently the only child in her class who said so.

The children loved England, and they seemed totally at home roaming around London on the buses and tubes, going shopping and meeting friends. Next year the plan is to send them all to school there, which I’m really happy about. I want them to have strong links to Europe, not just because our friends and family are there, but because eventually they will live there.

But for the moment it is a place we go for our holidays, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Sainte Cecile For Sale

When we bought Sainte Cecile in the year 2000, I never thought we would sell it. “These people must be crazy, selling this place,” I whispered to Rupert as we were shown around. “It’s utter heaven.”

It is utter heaven, as anyone who has ever visited us will confirm. And we have seen so many momentous events there; the babies, several books, unforgettable lunches with, among others, great friends who are sadly no longer with us.

But the time has come to move on. We are not leaving France, but leaving the region. It is too difficult to get to from here, added to which La Belle Maison, a property I have had my eye on for years, is now ours. Well, we have had our offer accepted, and we just need to sell Sainte Cecile to pay for it.

So if you feel like relocating to our former paradise, please let me know. The house has five bedrooms (three with mezzanines), two sitting rooms, a kitchen, dining room, office and terrace from which you can watch the swallows diving into the pool to drink while enjoying a glass of Languedoc white.

It is sad in many ways, even looking at the pictures now makes me nostalgic. As Bea (the family member I was most worried about, who has always maintained she wanted to live there forever) summed up: “It will always be my first home, but it is time to move on.”

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Another grand day

OK so I know I said in the last blog that it’s amazing how little you can get done on holiday, but after a week in Europe I’m amazed at what we have actually achieved.
Yesterday we drove from Pezenas to Rome (I use the term ‘we’ loosely, I drove about 40 minutes of the ten hours. Prior to that we had packed all of this and more into a week:
Swimming naked in a river
Playing badminton in my underwear (is that progress?)
Playing tennis (by said river). Several times.
Shopping in Zara (in Geneva and Annecy)
Watching masses of Wimbledon
Staying with good friends Norrie and Mary
Staying with good friends Simon and Julie (and Julie, I dedicate today’s picture to you)
Staying with good friends Jean-Claude and Alex (Jean-Claude of wine-making fame whose wine is in Love in a Warm Climate)
Staying with my seemingly ageless in-laws
Playing tennis on a clay-court in Pezenas
Reading almost half a book
Eating my first plate of proper Italian pasta in Lucca
Seeing my lovely mother and Swedish cousins I have not met since I was a child

And today of course is the Mens’ Wimbledon Final, so how better to end this blog than with a gorgeous picture of the 2011 champion (we hope).

Near disaster

Just had this note from our tenants at home…

‘The house is OK but we had a serious fire here yesterday and had to evacuate the area. The hill opposite the house (to the north) was affected with the fire coming over the top from the other side and then travelling along this road towards Gabian. It even crossed the road in a couple of places. All very worrying at the time. Horrible black landscape now.
The fire services disconnected the electricity & therefore water etc but all working again today. However, all the phone lines have burnt down. The cables are molten and some of the wooden poles have been burnt down. Who knows when it will all be reconnected as it looks like a big job.’

I can’t bear to think about our lovely home in such peril. It seems there is a fire every year now. We don’t get there until the end of August, maybe some of the grass will have grown back by then. I have been dreaming about walking up that hill to Julia’s lookout (as we have named the top of the hill) for months and looking out at this view….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010

Look out for helicopters

BradSome amazing news today. Apparently Brad Pitt has been house-hunting in the Languedoc. Unlike most of us who do our house-hunting on the internet, Brad has been flying over the region in a helicopter and when he spots a pad he likes the look of, he lands and asks if it’s for sale.

As you can imagine since I heard this news four hours ago I have been in a state of high alert. I am not going to risk a bad hair second, let alone day, in case Brad takes a shine to our house lands here. My nails are painted, my underwear is matching (rather optimistic but you never know). As my husband told the friend of ours who broke the news. “If Brad lands on our lawn he’ll get more than he bargained for.”

You may remember from a previous blog that when I promised to be faithful to my husband I put in Brad as my one caveat.

My weekly supermarket shop suddenly became very exciting as I thought Brad might be in the next aisle. Well? Even film stars have to eat. And I know for a fact they sell peanut butter there, which no American can live without for more than five minutes.

The news that Brad may be my new neighbour is extremely exciting. If he does land on our lawn I might even have to pretend to sell my house to him, although now he’s moving into the region I’ve no desire to move at all.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

A ‘hurtie’ day

Our weekend with Marguerite is going well so far. She has got used to us wearing knotted handkerchiefs on our heads and eating nothing but jelly and baked beans.

Bea had a bad go on her new pink bike. In fact she was complaining about how bad a bike-rider Marguerite is when she drove into the back of me and crashed. She has a horrible cut on her knee. Leo hit his head on the table when he stood up after rescuing his yellow car from the floor, Marguerite got her finger caught in a folding table (dangerous things these tables) and Olivia was stung by a bee. She concluded it was a “hurtie day”.

We had a lovely picnic at annual event just over the hill which involves sitting in the sunshine drinking wine and eating while listening to music and occasionally popping up to various stalls which sell wine, food and goat’s cheese. The children ran around having fun, we ate and drank far too much and had a perfect time. We were with some friends whom we invited to pop by for tea and a swim on their way home.

We also like to dance

Sadly after all that wine and goat’s cheese not only Rupert and I, but Bea and Leo were passed out by the pool when they showed up. We were all naked, as is our habit when swimming alone (another custom for Marguerite to share with the rest of the village when she escapes). Rupert luckily had his straw hat strategically covering some of him but the rest of us were just plain undressed.

When we stumbled upstairs for a cup of tea we found a note: ‘Popped by but you were all asleep by the pool, see you very soon we hope’. ‘But maybe not so much of you’ they might have added.

Finally, Madeleine. The agony goes on. But is this a generational thing? The father of a friend of mine had the following conversation with him yesterday:

“This Madeleine thing….do you think the world is having a Diana moment?”

“Why?” asked my friend.

“Well, if we’d lost one of you, I mean of course we would have been upset, but we would have got over it.”

“How long do you think that would have taken you?”

“Oh, I would say about a week.”

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

The divine M. Clerc

This morning was one of those mornings that make me even happier than I usually am that we moved here. For some reason the children were nice to me, and to each other. Even Max the cat was spared his normal morning tail-pulling from Leonardo.

I took the girls off to their gym course in Pezenas. It is the school holidays and they are doing gym and art every day from 9.30 to 4pm. This is costing us a total of £30 for both girls for the whole week. Amazing considering we paid more than that for half a day in a Sussex nursery when we only had one child. They skipped behind me with their friend Manon, happily discussing various ‘books’ they are writing which they assure me will make them a lot of money. Yeah, right, I know all about that. I’m sure with my aunt disinheriting me the books I have written so far have actually lost me more money than they’ll ever make me. But I didn’t mention that to them. As their subject matters are clowns, water and fire I doubt they’ll offend any remaining rich relations.

Having dropped them off I went shopping. By the time I arrived at M. Clerc’s shop I already had my hands full. Once there I bought fresh asparagus, artichokes, cherry tomatoes and lots more goodies.

As I went to leave with all my shopping he said: “Wouldn’t you rather swing by with the car?” What a sweetheart. Minutes later I arrived and pulled up on the pavement, holding up the traffic behind me. M. Clerc loaded my shopping in, told me I looked beautiful and gave me a kiss goodbye.

There are two main reasons this little episode makes me glad we live here; first there is no more charming grocer on the face of the earth than Jean-Luc Clerc, shopping with him is a joy and however tempted I am sometimes to move to somewhere a little more exciting or closer to a plate of proper Italian pasta I know I won’t leave until he retires. Second no one here would give you a hard time for holding up the traffic while your lunch is loaded into your car. Is there anywhere more civilised to live than France?

Moving at high-speed

Languedoc almonds in MarchYesterday we had a picnic at our almond grove. That makes it sound very grand, which it’s not. We have around sixty almond trees and a little hut, known as a mazet. There is about an acre of land with a river at the bottom of it and a vineyard lining one side. We can just see our house from it, up on the hill in the distance.

We invited about twenty friends, everyone brought something, mainly children. They had a great time, building houses out of sticks, wading in the river, cycling up and down the small road, playing with the dogs. As Tom, one friend observed; “Children always seem to move at high speed, imagine if we did the same as adults.” The only high speed thing about the adults was their drinking.

To eat we had oysters, salads, quiches, grilled meats, olives, cheeses, divine chocolate chip cookies and apple tarts; everyone came laden with food, almost all of it home-made and delicious. As a way to have a Sunday lunch-party it beats the hell out of standing over a hot oven praying your roast potatoes will look like they were cooked by Nigella and not Mr Bean.

There was a mixture of French, English, Irish and Australians. A good mix of nationalities. But the one thing all their children will have in common will be that they will, in all probability, speak French for life. Which of course is reason enough in itself to move here. French is possibly the most impossible language to get a grip on (outside the really tricky ones like Chinese and Russian). Practically every time I speak I worry I have got something wrong. The poems my children have to learn off by heart at school seem to get increasingly incomprehensible.

It’s a funny thing. Some days my French seems to work and on others it just stalls, like an old car that hasn’t been started for a few years. Even the children are beginning to notice. When I told Olivia recently I had to watch the French news for work and so we couldn’t watch cartoons she looked at me with pity: “But mummy,” she said. “You don’t understand it anyway.”

Is that why France seems like such a nice place to live?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007

A rose by any other name

Voici un IrisSpring is here. I know because the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming and a yellow and black salamander keeps falling into the pool. We are on constant pool-watch and have already rescued him three times. We even put some bleach in to try to deter him, but he’s a stubborn little thing.

It’s a relief to send the children off to school without coats and gloves, but for them the hard work is just beginning. I saw on French television yesterday that the government has concluded children are lacking in vocabulary. Voici une Jacinthe“They know the word for flower,” said an official spokesman. “But they can’t distinguish between, for example, a hyacinth and an iris.” Well, there is something we have in common, because neither can I. So once again I am in awe of the French educational system and relieved that my children will grow up to be so much more accomplished than I am.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2007