22 May 2011

Heads Up - and a Moving Moment

I am so sorry guys for our regular week-end feature - A Week-End Wonderweb - being a no-show this week. Nothing to do with a lack of inspiration or some diary mishap. Simply I have been mad busy lately on a number of personal and work-related fronts, going places, meeting people, and not in the right frame of mind to just sit down and plan my blog ahead as I would normally do...

Thing is, I doubt I will be able to make it up to you this coming week as I am off to sunny Manchester! That's right - and I am excited about this trip! Not exactly a leisurely city break either although I will be taking my mum with me and I'll make sure we can squeeze in a bit of shopping and sightseeing between appointments. I'll even take my camera with me as I intend to be snapping away for the blog.

The point of no return for mother and son? (picture source)
As soon as I'm back to France, I will be embarking upon a busy Summer schedule workwise, yet this doesn't mean La Baguette is compromised, just that I might not be as wordy as I would normally, and the monthly output may get reduced a notch. On the other hand, I have exciting ideas in store for La Baguette! So just relax and stay put, my friends.

Meanwhile I thought I'd share with you a touching moment I caught recently via the IFAW* newsletter (blog) which related an incident in Assam (North East India), in late April, whereby a newborn elephant slipped down a narrow ravine and became trapped while sustaining injuries. His worried mum joined him down, and she too got injured. A rescue team quickly got organised to pull the distressed pair out to safety. The calf was rescued first and he thankfully survived his ordeal despite initial fears. After a stint in intensive care, it looks like he is slowly pulling through. Unfortunately his mummy died soon after her baby was rescued.

A rocky start to life! (picture source)
With France's Mothers Day just around the corner, this is a beautiful yet extremely touching tribute to motherly love and care. Click here to read the full report.

* IFAW = International Fund for Animal Welfare

All photography in this article by the IFAW - Wildlife Trust of India's field communications officer, Sashanka Barbaruah, in Assam (Northeast India).

20 May 2011

(B)Rambling On (Part 2)

Roll forward 17 months and migrate almost a thousand miles South East of South Manchester. I've now spent enough time in a totally different countryside league to venture a disillusioned sigh before rolling up my sleeves. For this is no domesticated rambling countryside as in the Cheshire set playgrounds, nor is it the Cheshire countryside from the farming communities that spread beyond the aforementioned playgrounds.

'Autumn view of Shutlinsloe' (Cheshire) by © Ed Rhodes Photography
Here in this part of Southern Europe where I now reside, farming, agriculture, peasantry, cottage industries (where I would be tempted to include small-scale family fisheries and the likes), and the foundations of the pastoral lifestyle that they all support, are dying a sure death and falling prey to the trappings of the all mod-con urban lifestyle, real estate speculators  and the pressure of tourism. The sort of countryside I am personally faced with is the result of decades of utter neglect.

Society is changing and it would be extremely tempting for someone like I to point the finger, lament and criticise. Family elders like Claire (my grandma's auntie who I have mentioned a few times in this blog), did their absolute best in their day to work the land, in harsh conditions and with very little financial reward in return. Who can blame the next generation for giving up altogether on agriculture and land management, and instead move to the towns and cities, where they would embrace a modern lifestyle, with prospects of a 'real' job and a regular wage?

In France like elsewhere, and for centuries and centuries agriculture has suffered cyclical ups and downs, not only in tune with the economy, but also as a result from other factors like disease or weather; the 19th century Irish potato famine is a fitting example. Small farming concerns are often first to pay the price and go bust, but larger farms are not exempt: John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath describes it in 1930s depression-hit Oklahoma farming belt.

In a strange paradox, despite the fact that worldwide population is growing exponentially, new markets emerging and existing ones expanding, the malaise is set to carry on across the farming industry. This is an industry that has become heavily reliant upon government subsidies in order for the farmers to survive. Add to that the law of supply and demand which puts tremendous pressure upon the farmers, further emphasised by supermarkets driving costs down en masse, in turn weakening whatever's left of the supply base bargaining powers. Those who feed the world are not necessarily the best fed.

Against this far-from-joyful overall land context, I have set myself a challenge over the last few months, involving two land management projects that I have been tackling single-handedly, this giving me a tiny insight into the challenges that await whoever tackles land with minimum equipment, support, knowledge and physical preparation... Oh and no cash. One project involves a former vineyard gone wild (so wild that oak trees and maquis are thriving in there). You get the picture: this is no Château Margaux... I have been clearing brambles, cutting wild grasses, sawing down small diseased trees and generally working towards rehabilitating the land's ecosystem, with the unwitting contribution from some existing wild plants and bushes for the landscaping bit: green oaks, asphodels, honeysuckle, cistus, boxwood, etc. Alongside this rather ambitious project, I am trying to save a small 19th century stone shed from further decay (see picture above).

Apart from the tight scrub (maquis), you are also faced with a rampant case of brambles known to take over a whole one-storey house in less than twenty years if left unleashed. Other pests of the vegetal order involve a variety of parasitic ivy that creeps up trees, lives off them, suffocates them till they die. Right, left and centre, high and low, I have been battling all sorts of invasive plants like bramble, thistle and co. They seem to grow back even more vigorously after they have been hacked or pulled. I could pretend to be clever and use radical chemical methods, but that would be cheating and anyway that just wouldn't be me. There is enough pollution in the world as it is.

So guys, be ready to rock, and welcome to the jungle! All in all, since living in this part of the world, I have never seen so much bramble around. It is even encouraged by locals who allow it to thrive unchecked around land strips as some makeshift hedge/ land boundary. We are as far away from those charmingly romantic hedgerows from England as can be! Another reason for despair when you like your countryside upkept, not unkempt. Here the wilderness from the abandonned countryside is spreading upon your doorstep if left unchecked. That wilderness is unforgiving to whoever tackles it. You end up covered in scratches, nicks, blisters, cuts and you can also say bye-bye to that flawless complexion...

Friends and relatives from across the shore who imagine that my Corsican stoppover is a life of leisure in the sun, where I have no other worry than unpack my designer purchases, before sipping frappé Mint Juleps poolside with Paris Hilton en route for Portofino, couldn't be further from the truth. Enough rambling on, someone's got 'brambling' to do!

16 May 2011

(B)Rambling On (Part 1)

When you have been a hardcore urbanite all of your life - except for the last 17 months - chance is, the countryside will still hold some secrets to you and still take you by surprise. No disrespect, but my (rather remote and sedate) experience of the countryside for the 16 years preceding the last 17 months (are you still following me, btw?) erred (tottered) on the posh side, and I shall only drop the name: Cheshire.

Property for sale in Prestbury, Cheshire (POA), at Jackson-Stops & Staff

'Nuff said, I lived on the wrong side of the Cheshire county border, yet only a hop away from the coveted plush pads of Hale & Hale Barns, Knutsford, Dunham Massey, Woodford and Alderley Edge. I'll bypass Wilmslow on this one, as Wilmslow is too obvious an option, Wilmslow is brash and nouveau riche (in my opinion). Anyway, the Cheshire countryside I was aware of was nothing to do with the deep, middle-of-nowhere, muddy, dusty, back-breaking farming heartland countryside, I must concede. Rather it was Manchester's extended Southbound spread of charming little satellite towns and villages flirting with the outskirts of suburbia and stretching just over the green belt that circumnavigates our marvelous Northern city.

Me and my mates would nip across to Cheshire like one would nip down the corner shop, whenever we felt like it, as a pick-me-up, with no particular reason, for a wander mostly or even in search of lifestyle inspiration. We 'targeted' the trendy bars (where we liked to be seen), quintessentially English pubs (where we felt cosy in Winter), and stylish restaurants (only if we felt flush that month!).

Sweet talking at The Rams Head, in Disley

You get it, we'd nip across to Cheshire mostly to kid ourselves, pretend we were one of them, and try blending in with the beautiful crowds, even passing judgement like only a bunch of girls would, from the safety of their group and assurance gained after that first glass of wine: 'That one over there, she can't be from round here, you can tell from that dress, and look at that hair, is she desperate or what?' - we'd quip with a frown (as if we shouldn't have known better ourselves!) and then we'd giggle, like a bunch of silly teenage girls, 30 going on 13!

I slummed it a notch when taking Tickle to the parks and country parks of Cheshire (mainly Styal and Dunham Massey), on those long lazy Summer week-ends, even later in season. I felt safe, rested and incredibly inspired there, cut off from the stress of the city. I'd go for a drive down the narrow country lanes of Cheshire, just to reconnect with myself and with my thoughts. I'd clear my head, solve problems, find brief contentment. Me and a friend would sometimes make a whole day out of our Cheshire trip, visit the odd boutique and succumb to purchase temptation, visit an antiques dealer for inspiration, on a whim and on a daydream, then down to the garden centre, or the local tea room for a treat.

'Dunham Massey Mill in the Snow', by © Ed O'Keeffe Photography

What fascinated us was that those 'little towns in the country' boasted virtually all the conveniences of the bigger towns (maybe minus good transportation links), with the added advantage of quality, originality and exclusivity, which in turn resulted in the distinct disadvantage of the price tag. When down in Knutsford, which virtually consists of two parallel and narrow high streets that you can walk up and down in less than ten minutes (excluding window-shopping), we'd marvel at those designer kitchen showrooms, glamorous hair and beauty salons, trendy wine bars and bijou designer boutiques.

At the estate agents windows, we'd coo at the rows of noughts sitting within the price of the 'For Sale' properties from the Cheshire set. We'd wow past those handkerchief-sized character cottages with their neat topiary box hedges, doll-house picket fence and expensive-looking plant tubs from Heal's or Barton Grange, with elaborate colourful arrangements spilling out of them. Those houses had kerb appeal by the bucket-load.

Source: Marie Claire Maison

We'd think, we'd hope: 'One day, it will be me!' We'd live the daydream while we were there, then head home and land back into the reality of our financial situations... Anyway this was the kind of countryside we liked: polished, civilised, designer-led... and townie. And fake - let's admit it. (to be continued)

14 May 2011

A Week-End Wonderweb 14-05 (Style)

Some claim that you either have it or you don't, it is difficult to define but lives by the right combination in good taste, allure, balance, harmony (colour, shape and material), with a little je ne sais quoi, it also transcends the fickleness of fashion and any errors of judgement, while remaining for some of us a lifelong Graal quest: style matters!

Sources (from top down):

10 May 2011

Product Review - Bayer HealthCare Exitick

Now I must admit, I never imagined that I would one day write a review on a random tick remover... A cult shoe brand - yes, a tub of fabulous face cream - tick, an age-defying serum - why not? A tick remover, come on! Glamour has never been so ridiculed... Yet in my defence and in this particular case, I would have probably never considered such a subject matter, should I have been pleased with said product in the first place.

Let me start from the beginning. As you all know by now, I am the proud owner of a Jack Russell Terrier called Tickle (a.k.a. Tick, of all unfortunate foretelling nicknames one decides one day to inflict upon their beloved mutt!). And since living in Corsica, my little dog's unfortunate claim to fame has been to be Tick by name and... by nature!

Not sure if this is partly due to our countryside environment, a breeding ground for creepy-crawlies, parasites and a multitude of rodents that would only make the likes of Rentokil blissfully happy, yet sadly not curbed by the slightest sign of municipal (or private) pest control. I see you ominously point at my dog; this one - sigh - had to be the exception to the JRT rule. The only creatures he does chase are the ones we don't want him to chase: crickets, lizzards, slugs, snails and frogs... There is almost a penchant for French gastronomy going on (if you do exclude the first three!), but this might just be pure coincidence.

The fact that in this part of the world I have been unable to source Tickle's highly efficient veterinary-prescribed flea and tick treatment from back home has not helped the cause, meaning that my four-legged companion has developed an unfortunate propensity for catching ticks everytime he goes out. Infestation happens mostly in early Spring.

I'd read about tick removers, a simple metal device used to safely detach the pest from cats and dogs without running risks of leaving embedded body parts into our pets and causing infections (like we'd be likely to if using standard tweezers or scraping them off with fingers or cotton buds, etc.). So one morning I duly made my way to the local pharmacy in order to purchase one of those simple metal tick removers. I reckoned a 5-Euro note would leave me change for a coffee across the way.

When the pharmacist turned around looking smut (in a 'ta-da!' sort of way) and leaned across the counter with said item, I found myself facing a piece of chunky design-led fluorescent plastic monstrosity coming with all the useless bells and whistles... and packaging too. I got that sinking feeling but sadly enough I didn't just walk away, I walked away with the most pointless bit of design probably ever created this millennium, and 11.50 Euros poorer. 11.50 Euros!

For that price you'd expect Alessi or Philippe Starck to at least put their stamp on it and make sure you want to wear it on a necklace too. Sure enough they would have made sure that the design works and fulfills that simple task (Bayer, take note!): to safely remove ticks from your pet. It's no rocket science, and yet it might just as well be.

The tick remover looks like a nut-cracker, it is - according to the lengthy blurb and instructions to use on the box - 'designed' to remove all sizes of ticks. Looking at the tick remover once I'd (sort of) made sense of which way to use it, the ticks in question are supposed to be pretty massive to say the least (the size of an average black widow spider). Unless I am missing something, or that silly bit of plastic was 'designed' for some prehistoric XXL tick specimen from the rainforest, or 'designed' to pull out a vampiric tick after it'd been pumping blood non-stop off your pet (preferably with your consent) for the last 5 weeks, I cannot honestly see this tick-remover be of any use at all!

Of course I did put it to the test, I was unable to dislodge embedded ticks with the device and only got loose ticks climbing and crawling all over it and my hand (eeek!) before sliding back onto my dog or down the floor! This is no tick remover, rather a Tickle tick tickler! It got me annoyed too, with my purchasing decision, and with the pharmacist who I'd trusted. I had wrongly assumed that Corsica being a rural island, the powers that be would be sufficiently and efficiently equipped with tools of the trade to tackle the most basic outbreaks. I was wrong. I should have probably trawled the net, rather than help the local shops - for once.

Since that incident, I have made an appointment with the vet in Bastia, and requested a strong anti-tick repulsive for Tickle. Fingers crossed, this seems to be working (despite the odd tick he's still getting!). As for my experience with the Bayer Exitick, it will probably result in me cc-ing them this article as a complaint letter. And ta-da! That's one unhappy customer spreading the good word to the blog universe!

The + sides: none
The - sides: chunky, not ergonomical, difficult - if not impossible - to use, inflexible, expensive, totally useless.

7 May 2011

A Week-End Wonderweb 07-05 (Accent Colours)

Domestic, commercial, industrial or culture-dedicated interior/ exterior walls come to prominence with accent colours: if thought out carefully and applied strategically in order to avoid any bad taste errors, those areas of motif or brighter/ darker colour issue a bold statement of presence and modernity, by playing with natural daylight (or lack thereof) for depth, luminosity and general effect, further asserting the building's existing character, and outline existing features - or create detail.

Sources (top page down):

6 May 2011

Spring Snapshots

Of all four seasons, Spring is my all-time favourite. And although each season holds it in the charm stakes, Spring holds it together better in my heart. In fact, if the four seasons made up a perfume, Spring would be its basenote.

The sweet smell of (Spring) success: hawthorn
For me, Spring signifies the true commencement of a new year, unlike 1st January, because it symbolises birth - rebirth even - renewal, nature waking up. It symbolises life and a new beginning. It encapsulates the anticipation of exciting things to come, it heralds the end of Winter drab, and the longer milder days and shorter nights. It holds the promise of Summer, those long lazy vacational Summer days that fill us with simple carefree joy: picnics, gathering with friends, garden parties, music festivals, pottering about in the garden...

Spring is promising on many fronts, and it is also a floral revelation - be it in the garden, the local park, the countryside around us. Simple little moments of happiness in my experience, like witnessing a sprinkle of crocuses across a lawn, a bright yellow sparkle of daffodils down the grass verges of nearby Mobberley (Cheshire), the beautiful white lilac in my front garden making me proud by displaying its floral scented best to all and sundry, trees getting dressed up in a variation of tender green leaves, wildlife busied up chirping, building nests, raising youngs.

The poppy patrol: papaver
Spring provides some of the finest, most delicate garden produce: asparagus, artichoke, lettuce, radish, herbs, strawberries, cherries, rhubarb, medlars... And of course those fine Jersey new potatoes that make up the best salads! You can't get bored in the kitchen in Spring thanks to all those fine cooking possibilities!

Spring makes us ladies yearn to be prettier and lighter, discarding scarves, shedding clumpy attire, instead revealing dresses, sporting shorter sleeves, showing off bold colour schemes, daring bright patterns, flaunting floaty/ see-through fabrics. Spring is simply inspirational. It gets us out of houses and out and about, out there in the open.

Part of Ralph Lauren's Blue Label womenswear collection
Spring by name and Spring by nature. It is, in my eyes, like a metaphorical springboard, filling me with energy, with ideas, with enthusiasm. It is invigorating and regenerating like a citrus-fresh fragrance.

Everything seems possible in Spring, everything looks rosier, lighter, smoother, happier. It sounds terribly cliché to say but Spring makes me spring into action, it's when those long-forgotten foggy New Year's resolutions from weeks and weeks ago suddenly rush back to the forefront and enthuse me to act on them. A good Spring clean, not solely in domestic terms, but also as regards matters of the mind, addressing those things and people and actions that bug us and delay us and drag us down. And to get on top of the tedious long put-off paperwork and those other chores at large.

Christian Dior's Escale à Portofino: so fresh!

Ideas pop up, start coming together as by magic, they materialise, see the day of life. Spring gives me strength, it clears my head. And my favourite month in Spring? You might have guessed, it is right now - May!

And by the way, what is your favourite season, and why?

3 May 2011

La Fête du Muguet

Last Sunday, 1st May, was a busy day in the diary. Firstly it is referred to as Labour (Labor) Day as a homage to 1st May 1886 when a workers strike in Chicago (USA) pledging the 48-hour working week (6 days x 8 hours a day) ended in a bloodbath when the police force fired gunshots at them. Three years later, in 1889, the Paris International Socialist Congress decided to symbolically dedicate 1st May in support of the 8-hour working day plight. This would eventually be ratified through Parliament no less than thirty years later, on 23rd April 1919...

Ensley Furnace (Alabama c1906), via Shorpy (Juniper Gallery)
Labour Day, as it symbolically became known as, is recognised in many countries around the world. Labour Day became a paid bank holiday in France in 1947; employees working it would be granted double pay. Traditionally in France on 1st May, trade unions march down the streets peacefully across the main French towns and cities, to perpetuate the tradition, while using it as a platform to voice any griefs they might have, usually with some political connotation. Human rights groups join the march.

Meanwhile each year in Britain the first week-end of May (known as the May Day bank holiday week-end), spans a three-day week-end (i.e. including Monday). Village fêtes traditionally commemorate it one way or another (market stalls, morris dancing, medieval re-enactments, etc.). This year, our lucky neighbours will have enjoyed a four-day bank holiday extravaganza, courtesy of the Royal Wedding celebrations.

Now back to France and on a much more romantic and sweeter note than Labour Day, the French celebrate 1st May by purchasing (or picking in the wild) a few twigs, a bouquet or pot of muguet (lily of the valley). Fabulously fragrant and the darling of couture house perfumes, lily of the valley is also reported to bring good fortune to those who take it home on 1st May (not exactly the latest fad as this French tradition dates back to 1561!). French trade unionists marching down the streets on 1st May wear the flower on the buttonhole as their symbol for Labour Day.

My mum keeps her muguet for a whole year (admittedly the plant has no super powers that enable it to keep that long, especially if cut, or kept indoors in its original pot), before replacing it with a fresh one the following 1st May.

Now that's a fragrant talisman that everyone should treat themselves to, if only to take Spring home and enjoy the wonderfully fresh and infinitely feminine aroma. Meanwhile La Baguette belatedly wishes everyone: Bonne Fête du 1er Mai!