The Infinitive and Beyond


Part Two – My route to French

My French was picked up in my twenties when I moved to Brussels around 1990 with a previous partner, whose first language was French, despite his impeccable English. Not one of his friends in Brussels spoke any English and I was completely isolated in company. I could not follow even simple dialogue, was terrified of the supermarket, and it felt like people were always laughing at my expense. They probably were

But necessity is a great motivator, and despite having no appropriate clothing (or understanding) I somehow landed a job serving lunches at a very smart restaurant in Place du Sablon, working for a very wealthy and attractive lady known secretly by her staff as ‘Madame Cuisses de Grenouille’ due to her wardrobe of designer miniskirts – a name which I, of course, could never pronounce

We took a room by the flea market in the Marolles of Brussels. There were no cooking or bathing facilities, so I used the public baths in the next street. The room was directly above ‘Cafe Les Puces’ on the corner of Place de Jeu de Balle. Freddy, the wonderful barman at Les Puces, made sure we knew all the regular marchants and other locals. Sadly Freddy was HIV-positive, and needed someone to cover when he went to hospital appointments, and I offered to help. Then he became too sick to work and he asked if I would take his position. It wasn’t what any of us wanted and I have no idea how anyone thought I would manage

The boss was Bernard, a scruffy little Bretton guy who I thought looked very fierce, but who turned out to be a real pussycat with no English, a wonderful sense of humour and an insane (not in a good way) Luxembourgoise wife named Vera. Despite my lack of French, Bernard and I somehow managed to communicate very well.  Hours were long and I worked at least 6 days a week (Vera worked some Sundays as I needed an occasional day off and she believed the tourist tips were good). The bar opened at 6am and Bernard would turn the jukebox up loud and bang on the ceiling with a broom to wake me up to come to work (true) as I slept directly above the bar

We would close anywhere between 6pm and 7.30pm each day, depending on how many customers we had and how long we felt like drinking. It was an incredibly busy bar, and I was working in a language I couldn’t grasp. I thrived on it, I made a decent percentage of the takings and I was getting hugely generous tips right from the first day. In addition I apparently started to dream in French (“je dois server le facteur”, etc ) even though I hadn’t thought I was learning much

The bar itself was constantly full of stallholders, friendly gendarmes, not to mention the postman of my dreams(!) who would start the day early with a coffee and petit cognac, moving on to beer as the day progressed. Locals were predominantly French-speaking, coming from all parts of the French-speaking colonies, and no-one other than visiting tourists ever spoke English, beyond ‘ello’. Of course, I never let on to English-speaking tourists that I understood them because I enjoyed eavesdropping their conversations

Being a flea market, no-one EVER used the formal ‘vous’ form of address. The bar atmosphere was rowdy, language was very colourful, and on top of learning all the necessary skills to keep bar in Belgium, I had to make an effort to focus on the words I really needed to understand: the names of beers, foods, numbers, etc. Happily most people were very patient with me and I had a lot of fun. Inevitably I learned a colloquial version of French, a language where ‘septante’ and ‘nonante’ were real numbers. I still struggle today to remain formal and correct, and some of the expressions I might use certainly would not be acceptable in middle-class French company!

There were some dreadful clangers, such as when I loudly called an awful man a pair of dungarees when he pinched my bum, and the entire room fell off their chairs laughing. He laughed too, but it didn’t end well because he carried on drinking and rough justice kicked in. ‘Nuff said

For a few months I was a fixture on the square. I was ‘l’Anglaise’, and people really looked out for me, which was no bad thing in such a neighbourhood. I fitted in and I was very happy working at Les Puces … until all Saints Day when Bernard had paid someone to paint the window of the bar. He chose the ‘Little Mermaid’ and the artist put my name under Ariel, Bernard’s under the crab, and scrawled ‘Vera’ beneath Ursula the witch. This was probably Bernard’s little joke, but she went ‘folle’ and came at me screaming with a large knife. I was lucky because a regular customer threw me out of the door to safety when he saw the blade. I stayed in Brussels for about 2 years, but that was the end of that gig

In 1999 when I was eight months pregnant I took Baz to show him where I had lived. In the hour we spent on the market Baz and I were greeted warmly by some of my old friends, hugged and even asked to go to Sunday lunch at someone’s home

So after 20 years of speaking virtually no French, I am enjoying finding out what I still remember, how little I sometimes understand, and how much more I can learn


The Infinitive – and beyond!


Part 1 – Baz’s route to French

‘Daddy’s behaving suspiciously.’

I looked out and saw him crouched down among the chickens at the back of the garden, apparently gazing into his phone. Given that we have virtually no signal in the front garden, I thought this was indeed suspicious but perhaps it was better not to ask…

That evening Baz told me that he had been secretly learning some French vocabulary using the Linkword app on his phone, following the suggestion of the serveuse on a visit to France in August that he and C should not rely on me so much (and perhaps more so because he had been frustrated that he could only say “bonjour” to the lovely elderly lady who stopped them in the street to chat one morning)

I was hugely impressed that he was doing this, but slightly worried that random words like hedgehog and wasp etc might not help him much with everyday conversational French, so I dug out the dust-covered and previously unused Michel Thomas CD set which a friend had recently recommended. I bought it over ten years ago, but the desire to learn back then just hadn’t been strong enough to persuade either of us to put up with the really irritating female pupil on the CD

Baz’s wish to learn has clearly increased since then. And this course focuses on the similarities of the language with English, of which there are many, rather than the differences. Why didn’t our French teachers at school do this, instead of scaring us with their ‘you’ll never understand any of it’ attitude? I left school with no confidence and no expectation that I would ever learn French, and the strong belief that only certain people had the sort of brains required to process a second language

Just a few weeks on, he has been listening to the course in the car, there is no written work, and he already has a very good grasp of the mechanics of spoken and written French, referring to me for vocabulary from time to time. He has become fairly competitive (it’s a man thing), seemingly driven by the desire to be better at it than me. In twenty years I had no idea he had any aptitude for languages, so his improvement is remarkable!

My French is fairly rusty and I harbour no such ambitions, though I really should improve and would definitely benefit from listening to the course properly. I have stuck it on my iPod and will try to cover some of it while I sweep and mop this week, in preparation for meeting the builder on Tuesday



Stuff matters – packing pitfalls

Charlotte age 5 in ‘the hat’*

I am currently packing my own stuff to send out to France. I was saddened recently to read a fellow blogger’s account of receiving her damaged belongings. This lady had paid for professional packing, so hopefully her insurance will cover the damage, but monetary value is of course only part of the story

I certainly don’t mean to patronise anyone reading this, but after 20 years (and counting) in the freight industry I know that people often do not realise what is involved in the journey their goods take. Just today, a large national courier delivery driver brought in some items and we saw him literally chucking boxes around in the back of his van. Don’t be despondent – thought and planning can save heartbreak if you are packing goods yourself, so this may just help someone else in blogspace:

  1. THIS WAY UP   The journey usually involves changes of vehicle along the way, meaning that various people will handle your goods. Markings alone cannot protect your goods. Your packing needs to be tough enough to withstand repeated handling, changes of orientation and being stacked with other goods
  2. Keep it Original    Where possible, keep things in their original packing – particularly for electrical items etc
  3. Nice and easy    When packing small items, try to make each box easily manageable for one person (rule of thumb is 30kg). For example, mix heavy books in a box with bedding to spread the weight
  4. Is it FRAGILE?    Only mark fragile items as such, because if you mark everything the same way people tend to ignore it
  5. Movement and Impact    It may sound obvious, but the aim is to ensure that individual breakables have adequate padding to stop them moving around and to protect them from knocks. Line strong boxes with bubble-wrap or similar where available, and use smaller padded boxes within outer boxes to separate and contain items in transit. If your stuff moves around or rattles when you shake the box, it will probably not survive the journey
  6. Soggy bottoms   Sometimes people close the top of a box beautifully, but neglect to put enough tape underneath. A box is only as strong as its bottom. If in doubt, add more tape!
  7. A solid top  Cut boxes down in height if they are not full. Boxes with empty spaces are weak and can collapse when things are put on top so you need to make the top surface firm
  8. Be creative   Re-use packaging wherever possible, for the sake of the environment and your purse too. I keep an eye open for useful packing materials, and stash these to one side for later use. These are typically things like strong postal tubes, protective padding, small boxes and anything ‘squidgy’ that can be re-purposed, however unconventional. If you are sending bedding, it makes excellent packing when packed into plastic bags inside an outer box

Now that’s quite enough. I don’t pretend that this is an exhaustive guide, but I have tons of packing to do and a sick chicken in my living room, so I wish you all a wonderful (breakage-free) Christmas!

*more about ‘the hat’ another time, perhaps…

Rough Seas at West Bay

‘Rough Seas’ hangs over our bed

The wind was howling around the building, and yet we slept brilliantly. There is something strangely comforting about a storm (especially since the roof was renewed!). We grabbed an hour in the morning to take the cameras down to the harbour before packing up the flat to go homeIMG_7304


The sea is possibly the most dramatic reflection of rough weather, and the landscape at West Bay changes completely when a storm hits. Last weekend the waves were hitting hard and herring gulls were out in force, riding the air currentsDSC_0132

It would have been fun to look for fossils as the tide was higher than we have seen for a while, but we couldn’t wait for the tide to turn. I love that there are still always people out walking (and plenty of runners) on the harbour and promenade, whatever the weather


It amazes me that the face of East Cliff remains so golden, even in a storm. Despite its elemental beauty it demands respect, and due to this weather there are likely to be further cliff falls in the next few weeks

seeking shelter

Too cold for snow in Old Windsor

snow in OW

Well, knock me down with a snowy feather! I emerged from Old Windsor Rec on Wednesday, one of the mildest November days on record, only to see the car park of the Fox and Castle, covered in snow. Not to mention a whole bunch of Christmas trees. Behind the scenes was less pretty, of course, as a long pipe supplied the white stuff. But the effect was stunning – if slightly confusing

snow OW 2

There was a lady from the National Lottery, who explained to me that this gimmick publicity stunt is part of their ‘making dreams come true’ campaign. They apparently worked out that Old Windsor is one of the least likely places in the UK to get snow, and so they took it upon themselves to surprise us all. I’ve lived here for 17 years and thought we had seen as much snow as anyone I know in the UK. I certainly never thought of O W as somewhere that lacks snowfall – there have been several days off school for C to go sledging over the years, and we had to get rid of our BMW convertible after the winter of 2010 because it was rear wheel drive and couldn’t cope with the ice and snow on the bridge over the river. As I recall, the snow was so thick that year that we also hit a pothole in the road and the damage was so bad that we had to abandon the car and get a lift home. Perhaps I am slightly cynical, but the whole thing seemed a bit odd. Never mind: it’s very pretty and I am sure they can fully justify the use of these resources. I won’t get all bah humbug because the kids will no doubt LOVE it

Drifting in Islington


madonnasite2I am in danger of becoming old before my time. I’ve noticed recently that when anyone asks me if I still love London, I reply that I love it but that I also find it tiring. I don’t know where the habit crept in of adding the caveat. The truth is, I do still love London and still find its villages fascinating

We took Charlotte to a gig in Islington on Sunday.  The evening was too warm for mid-November so having enjoyed a meal at the Masala Zone, Baz and I wanted to walk it off. I used to spend a lot of time in the area and I lived a short walk from Upper Street, or ‘Supper Street’ as it is now nicknamed, during my twenties. There is a wealth of Georgian, Regency and Victorian buildings that remain, particularly noticeable at the top end of Upper Street and on the side-roads that run down towards Essex Road

Unfortunately we didn’t take our cameras (it was dark, to be fair), so we had to rely on Baz’s phone as mine had no charge. Hardly well-equipped, but we snapped the fabulous Madonna mural with the legend ‘Queen, Rebel, Icon’ as well as this charmingly observed mural


As I looked in the windows of an interiors shop near the corner of Essex Road when Baz called me to say, ‘P, you have to see this’


Predictably the shop is called ‘Get Stuffed’. Should I even call it a shop? I love animals so taxidermy is not my thing at all, but there is something so intimate and compelling here and it looks more like an animal sanctuary than a stuffers


 It was hard to do it justice with the phone through the metal shutters but I think Baz captured how the creatures actually seem to engage with you and with each other, are almost living, a community. It was very affecting

There is something special to see on most streets in London. All its villages still have their own personalities after hundreds of years and their commerce and architecture is diverse. Even on a dark night when the shops are shut, you can never be bored

One man’s humour is another man’s squirming discomfort

I know that Woody Allen has fallen from grace with the biggest thud, but I for one will always think of his films with great fondness and admiration. When I first saw ‘Sleeper’ I was about 13 years old and it was the funniest thing I had EVER seen. I know I am not alone in this, and so I have chosen the famous Mr Allen for the 3 quotes for today to balance the inspirational quotes of the last 2 days

Yes, I found them on internet sites

Yes, we have all heard them before

Yes, I think they are worth hearing again

“Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”

“Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”

There are also many Woody Allen quotes which really are gems of wisdom, but I have made a conscious choice to opt for the silly ones. I hope you get a little giggle out of at least one of these. It’s such a specific style of humour and it immediately summons up his character’s facial expressions and gesticulations

When Charlotte was a baby we sat at a table next to Woody Allen outside a bar in downtown Miami. It was after all the squidgy stuff had hit the fan, but it was exciting, nonetheless. I was surprised at how skinny and worn he really looked, but he was probably closer than ever to becoming his on-screen character

3 Days 3 Quotes – How not to be a quitter

Jack Dempsey - heavy hitter
Jack Dempsey – heavy hitter

Today is the second day of the challenge and I am turning to sports people for inspiration. I am not an athlete myself, but I love to run (ask me another day and I’ll say I hate running too). I will never be fast but with the help of some great running buddies I have achieved five half marathons so far and I have never not finished a half marathon, however much pain I have been in from injury. I don’t judge others by this. I simply need to know this of myself; that when I say I will complete something I do not quit until it’s done

Surely sport is inspirational in itself – a great boxing match, an exciting game of rugby, a nail-biting triathlon finish. People devote their lives to bettering their own performances, often in the face of adversity and disability. They entertain and enthral us. And who is not moved by great sporting performances?

These 3 quotes for today are all from truly respected gentlemen in their field

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing” – the great Muhammed Ali, whose charisma and style were as exceptional as his skills, but who got to the top through sheer grit, hard work and a refusal to quit

“A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t” – Jack Dempsey, 5-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer of the 1920s, whose punch was so heavy it was claimed that he had weighted gloves

“The more I practice, the luckier I get” – the much-loved gentleman of golf, Gary Player. I have moved away from the boxing theme here. I am not a golfer but sportsmanship and being a nice guy go a long way. I mean, have you ever heard anything bad about Gary Player? Nor have I

Whether or not sport is in our lives, we can all admire guts and discipline

Like a rabbit in the headlights…Winstonisms

after Edvard Munch**

… I have been nominated by the Mr Magnet for the ‘3 Days 3 Quotes’ Challenge

I have walked, climbed and run hundreds of miles over the years when asked to do so for charity, and even more so when I was told I would not achieve the goal in sight. Yesterday I signed up to the next physical test (54 miles of Scottish terrain in one day) and I very much look forward to it

Mine is an awkward nature and I will not apologise for that. So, Cameron, bring it on!!

I realise that Winston Churchill has been quoted more that almost anyone in history (Oh no! She’s only going to quote bloody Churchill!’ I hear you cry), but it’s usually the same few biggies that are trollied out, where he either rallied the country to chew up and spit out the erstwhile enemy or insulted people in truly monumental fashion. There is a wonderful Winston-ism on the wall of my local, the Horse and Groom in Windsor, which compares the way that people see their businesses, but I can’t see it on the internet and it’s lunchtime right now so they’re going to be too busy at the pub to read it to me over the phone. It’s a shame because it really speaks to me as a business owner myself, so I’ll try to include it later. In any case we are rarely short of something our Win would have said.

To reflect Cameron’s uplifting and honest blog I have the theme in mind of self-improvement:

‘To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often’

‘Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb’

‘It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time’

Please excuse me for relying on the best-known quote-generator of the 20th Century, but there are good reasons why some people are quoted more often than others

**In case you are wondering, this is an entirely gratuitous shot of my kitchen floor, which just happens to look exactly like ‘the Scream’ by Edvard Munch. It’s not at all relevant, but I felt like sharing!

Now, am I supposed to nominate someone as well? I really should read the maps instructions I am given!!

Online romance, unkempt loveliness

Dust? What dust?
Dust? What dust?

This is my first online relationship. Somehow I identified this house as my soul mate among all the other potential candidates on the property equivalent of Tinder (what Baz calls ‘house porn’). I had little idea what I was looking for in my partner, only that it would be French, considerably older than me, and would hopefully introduce me to some good walking and a bit of skiing. I didn’t care how it was dressed, what sort of health issues it might have or what its relationship history would be. In fact I don’t even remember what especially piqued my interest when I saw it, but I committed there and then. I could not wait to be face to face, so I booked the first possible flight over, and it felt good. Now I spend my time dreaming of being back there when I’m not …


But what if fate and the internet hadn’t brought me to this old unloved and unfashionable house? No doubt it would have remained empty for another 40 years, and there would eventually be a sign on it – like the one further down the road where the stonework is now partially naked and the front door is rotten through – which unashamedly invites people to ‘make me an offer’

Brazen and almost naked
The brazen neighbour now almost completely exposed

I cannot imagine these beautiful old buildings having no souls, nothing beyond the simple fabric of which they are made. They have withstood so many changes, outlived all the people who dreamed of them, built them, and several generations living in them. They have energies – some are less than positive

It’s also difficult to comprehend how little monetary value they have and how little interest they get. The estate agent had the front door key but hadn’t bothered to free up the lock so that we could use the front door when I went to view. As a result, my first sight of the house interior was while negotiating my way though a garage full of junk, and this made it feel like a bizarre film set, not a place to live. Once we finally completed the sale and wrestled the key from the agent it took Baz 30 minutes and a bit of WD40 to get the lock working. The house immediately felt like a very different prospect – a home with a future

As a footnote, the plans arrived in my inbox this morning. An architect has painstakingly put together detailed plans of the layout to enable me to work with a small local team towards stabilising and saving this lovely building. This is the first essential element of progress. I’ve been told that the plumber and the builder apparently think we are ‘very brave’ to take it on. Should I be panicking?!!!