what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, May 28, 2010

the issue


Had to evict a toad from the house on Thursday morning as I continued to muse about the house decision. Now it has become an issue more of principle than specific house. Should I be spending this amount of money on a house which will effectively take me away from my Sirnea house? Should we rather not be renting houses on long-term bases until we are really sure

house musings


Wednesday morning I wrote and read. McEwan’s Saturday is quite amazing in its language as its neuro-surgeon muses during his operations, encounters, squash and family meeting. Until now I had regarded this writer as two dimensional as dimensional as the rest of English writers.
I took the back route to nearby Pleyben which I found to have a glorious church and ornate monumental calgaire. And, again, a great tourist information centre – with aesthetic and informative booklets on the area. Even Plonevez has such a centre – each having 3 staff. Quite a contribution to the area’s economy!
Arranged to see some houses in the vicinity – to get some terms of comparison now that it is clear that this is the most appropriate area. Mid afternoon, the weather break which had been signalling arrived with a vengeance with heavy dark skies and rain.
Daniela phoned to point out that, with her mum’s death, we now have 3 residences in Romania; that she may well return to work in Bucharest and that perhaps therefore we should simply take long lets of houses in places such as Brittany rather than divest ourselves of 25% of our capital. It’s an important observation and makes me redo my calculus. A Finistere location offers the advantage of closer family contact (and the Plonevez house is ideal for guests): access to the seascape and language I love; to French medical facilities and to the UK.
But its distance from Romania (5 day drive) does threaten life with Daniela; use of Sirnea to which I am so attached; and my capital. And yet I have always said that I need to do something with my money – but what if I wanted to resell and couldn’t? A lot of houses are on the market at the moment; the village is not exactly the most beautiful; and who can predict what will happen to the euro and the European economy?
Basically we need a reasonably-sized house we can live in during the cold winter period. Sirnea is for April-October; the Bucharest flat is impossibly small but now we have the Ploiesti flat for winter which at least has a bedroom! A flat in Russe – just inside Bulgaria - could be an answer! Just an hour from Bucharest and 3 hours from the Black Sea. But that is not as god for family, language, or health facilities!
It’s a great pity I cannot go into partnership with someone for the Plonevez house – minimise risks and leave cash for a Russe (Ploiesti or Balcik) option.

deja vu


I had been advised that the Crozon peninsula was something special – and so it proved. On the way, another visit to the brocanteur at Plonovez netted Ian McEwan’s Saturday; one of John Updike’s Rabbit books; 2 le Carres; another Paul Scott (Jewel in the crown, the best known of his quartet); and 2 unknowns – Linda Grant’s When I lived in modern times which won her the Orange prize in 2000 and Alison Johnson’s A House by the shore, a tale of restoring an old manse in the Hebrides and running it as a hotel.
Chateaulin was my first destination – just 15 minutes’ drive away. As I cruised alongside the canal which flows through it, I suddenly realised this was the place Daniela and I had morning coffee in 1999 after our night on the camping site on the hill above. Indeed, for years, I have had a recurring vision of this stretch of canal! This seemed an important sign – which was confirmed when, a few kilometres further brought into sight a Breton church in whose yard I had photographed Daniela. And then suddenly, on the left, I was looking down on a large expanse of sea. Crozon itself was a bit disappointing – but views of Brest at Lanveac and the estuary at Landevennc made up for it. I am now quite clear that this central part of Finistere – somewhat maligned by the residents of Morbihan for its weather and low density – is in fact the best for me. And that Plonevez is as good a location as any – with its ready access to sea north, south and west and near to cities such as Quimper.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

pace of life


Up early again and, as I sat on the patio and saw the clockhand move to 09.00, I realised how quickly time is moving. I thought that time was supposed to stand still at this time of life – but it is in fact moving too fast. I would happily freeze this time of day before the world moves into gear – and that, perhaps, is why I am drawn to my Carpathian house in Sirnea and to this part of the world. They move at a slower pace.
One of Le Monde recent features (in the book section) was about the new distance between journalism and literature, focussing on one Joseph Kessler (one of their greats at his height in the 1930s), on Ryszard Kapuscinski and on Hunter Thompson – with no mention of people like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron (whose Behind the walls I have discussed here) and Jonathan Raban whose 1979 Arabia through the looking glass I am now reading. The last two are particularly good in the way they let other people talk and say interesting things. The trouble, I suppose, is that there are so many excellent writers in this genre - Neal Ascherson, William Dalrymple, the great Hans Magnus Enzenberger, Joan Didion (perhaps more political) to mention but a few. And where do you place people like Theodor Zeldin (Intimate History of Humanity) and Robert Kaplan with his historo-travologues? It’s interesting (for me) that my taste in reading has become more journalistic and less abstract.

the Quimper area


Sunday and Monday were scorchers – with temperatures reaching 28 for (another!) holiday weekend (they were even talking on the radio about the number of French public holidays – at least 50 it seems). After the driving of the previous week, I relaxed on Sunday but left early Monday for the Concarneau and the coast. Thick forests from Chateuaneuf du Faou and an interesting town at Rostrenen – only 15 kilometres or so from a coast with sand and the large smoothened boulders piled on top of one another which I associate with the Brittany coastline. I had a look at some of the estate agent windows and might come back here to check out possibilities - rather than Loudeac (which doesn’t have the same access to the sea)
Concarneau was lively – with an open market going strong in front of the old fortress. The bouqiniste was just putting out his books – which gave me a chance for a chat. He was in his 50s but survived on internet sales. I resisted the temptation of some well-thumbed Morris West translations in favour of a good condition, translated edition of one of David Lodge’s early novels (The British Museum is falling down). The weekend Le Monde leads with contributions from the leader of MDem Robert Bayrou and Joseph Stiglitz on the threat to the euro and also a summary of the main points of a French intellectual (Edgar Morin)’s attempt to redefine the left. Reading Le Monde outdoors in a sunny France is definitely one of my simple pleasures. I’m sorry they’ve stopped the footnotes for which the journal used to be famous!
Pte de Trevignon was my stopping point for the day – great beaches and scenery. At 3pm I went on to Quimper - mainly to test the run from there back to Plonevez – but the city itself is an archetypal French city – with a series of bridges aesthetically strung across the river; Bastille-type official buildings and cathedrals nudging the river and an extensive medaeval pedestrianised centre. The Cathedral (with flying buttresses) is one of the largest I’ve seen, had a suitably spiritual smell to it. A nice touch was the choral music quietly playing. T did the return journey in 45 minutes via Coray – it can apparently be done in 35! A quick shower shook off the salt and then back in the car for a garden party which Jenny and Kevin had fixed before the weather broke. It was a good chance for me to get a sense of the social networks and how people found the area. Patrick – despite is accent – was a Frenchman from Brest who is living in Kevin’s house next door until the house it took them a year to find in Huelgoat is ready. And Adrian, who had a neck operation the previous week, was able to extol the virtues of the French medical system – both in careful diagnosis and quality and cost of treatment.

Finistere


Saturday the drive to Finistere – at leisure. Following my nose to see little villages and the canal. The “deep countryside” remark was beginning to prey on my mind – but the further west I travelled, the more I saw the traditional Brittany which had first charmed me all of 20 years earlier when we went with the kids. Susanna apparently still remembers the little dog on the gite farm we stayed at in the Dournanez area. St Caradec was the first village to draw me off the main route – with a serene little lake glimmering in the sunshine; and then Gouraec - an evocative village of old stone houses. I’ve had the thought several times that rural France seems a real celebration of the smallness argument first conducted by Leopold Kohr (see my summary of his 1947 book) and then publicised by his friend Schumacher in the late 60s. The effects of the organisational impetus which mayors and other leaders give to small communes don’t require complex arguments just the evidence of your eyes – in the well-kept air of even those communes which have a high vacancy rate. Even collections of about 20 houses boast a church, a shop, le mairie, and a well-kept open space. A few more houses and there is a school and mediatheque. Little wonder that France was ahead of us in Scotland on community enterprise thinking – with what is has called the “social economy”. It would be good to read a sociological account of these hameaux and bourgs and how they are being affected with the various currents of outward and inward migration. I was impressed to find a magazine on Village life which seems a unique French balance between the traditional and radical – a celebration of the commune and an exposition and encouragement of ecological techniques.

Wanting to look at the houses around Rohan in the Pontivy area, I had selected at that village’s notaire – but was once again confirmed in my prejudices about their inflexibility. Before reaching Loudeac passed through a great settlement called La Creche and phoned Mark to see if they dealt with any houses there. The lack of “a vendre” signs semed a good sign! Popped in to Loudeac to see what other agents could offer there – and signed in with 2 agencies, a rather supercilious young man in one and a very efficient woman in the second.
Before getting to Jenny and Kevin’s house, dropped in to have a look at neighbouring Chateauneuf du Faou – which is on the canal. Stunningly located on the curve of cliffs. Then a quick drive past 2 large supermarkets to Plonevez – which proved larger than I had remembered. A warm welcome from the couple who are selling the house – sat under the trees and nursed a Kis Royal in their divine garden. Daniela wd love it! Then had another quick look at the houses. Mainly to check the dimensions of the upstairs and dining areas – and on insulation. The ceiling and top walls of the bedroom areas actually have a Scandinavian touch – with discretely painted light wood. I learn of some of the socialising which goes on in the area
Then a short drive to the gite which will be my home for the next week – a very tastefully decorated light, small stone building with one bedroom in a loft-type arrangement. The English couple keep horses, sheep - and boats. He was in trawling and has restored not only their houses here but a grand mansion in the vicinity. The hameau itself has a lot of for sale notices – mainly of the terraced houses in the main street. Despite that, the upkeep of the village is impeccable.

last day in redon area


Friday morning was waste of time – with 2 rural houses near Redon for which I still have a preference. But a revisit at midday to the St Nicolas du Redon house near the Canal which I had first seen 2 weeks earlier was useful. The house is fine (although the sitting room potentially claustrophobic) – but the new neighbours (in a large house) could be problematic and the type of traffic constantly passing the front door is nothing short of ridiculous. A phone call from Mark – who remarked that the Finistere area was full of Brits. Got me thinking.
Afternoon promised a La Garcilly house – but it was in fact 2 houses in a lovely bourg (Sixt sur Aff) but over my limit. The British couple in the first was sad – they had invested in a rather curious b and b ( 4 en suite rooms at level 3) and then he had had a heart attack and she an arthritic condition which prevented her carrying out the B and B. A tragic example of how hopes can be dashed – and the 4 en-suite rooms now diminished rather than increasing the sales value. It had a very impressive front – and huge garden at back. Next door was a smaller house – but overpriced at 154. The estate agent also a bit sniffy about the Finistere area – “deep countryside” he remarked and I had visions of the sort of life vividly described in Graham Robb’s book – where thick forests housed poverty-ridden peasants and a servant girl was described by visiting English historian Arthur Young at the end of the 18th century as a “walking dung-hill”!
On way back I had another look at the Malansac house – whose location and garden arrangements don’t compare with Plonevenez.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Wednesday, knowing that I wd be seeing some houses at La Garcilly – on the river Aff - popped in on my way to Redon and was quite taken with it. Came back with the Foret agency people to see a modern house in an estate on top of a steep hill. It was charming – and met the specifications but the hill and the estate put me off. For the second time I stalked out of a Notaire offended with their lazy arrogance (the previous time had been Pontivy) – but, on this occasion, shared with the young guy my opinion of French notaires. Like the previous one, they were simply unable to fit me in to their schedule. Pontivy had offered me an appointment a week hence – and the Garcilly guy couldn’t fit a 10 minute visit to the only house I was interested in (in the town) until some time the following week.
The morning started with another attempt to get a haircut – which is not as easy as I’ve been used to in Romania and other transition countries. In French rural areas, the hairdresser’s is a rare social phenomenon in more senses than one. No question of “come back in 10 minutes”. In Malestroit I duly accepted an appointment the next day at 11.00. Had time before my noon visit in the small town – broused in the newsagents; scanned the newspaper on a bench in front of the church in the warming sun. Spent a few minutes inside the church and thought of my parents. These old Brittanny churches with lovely stained-glass windows are solid reminders of the faith which sustained the people here – and have become an important element in my choosing this area. I’m reading Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France – which looks at how life was lived in the very different parts of France a century or so ago.
Tuesday, after the morning bike ride round the villages, I returned to Questembert for another agency which reckoned that I wd be better looking in the Redon area where the property was cheaper (further from Vannes). He put me in touch with their branch there. For me this is actually a better area – with both the confluence of river and canal and the TGV connection. And the location of the house is also great (with the exception of the traffic passing the front window). No word from Gwen of yesterday’s agency about the rest of the houses we didn’t manage to visit. Visited Rochefort-en terre – charming but a bit lifeless - frozen in time. Popped into 2 Malestroit agencies and also fixed visits.

getting serious


Deep into my third week of house hunting and in the last few days of the house let at Reminiac, another serious house appears on the horizon – at a charming village, Malensac, some 10 minutes or so from Redon. Up a short lane beside the pharmacie, it is bright and spacious – the front door opening onto what is currently a dining room – with a well-equipped kitchen to the left which has a nice view of the neighbour’s lawn. On the right of the house a large sitting room. Up a delightful wooden staircase, an open space in a large attic area used as an office gave (on the left) to 2 bedrooms and (on the right) to a third large bedroom. Outside, past the garage, a good vegetable garden area and new potting shed. All for 142,000. So what is it to be – this one which, as the agent rightly says, will sell and re-sell with no difficulty or the one in Finistere. Time for decision. I phone the Finistere agent to find out if she has been able to find me accommodation in the area while I check it out – and get an outline of the procedure. A birth certificate is needed!! Over lunch at St Martin on the canal, I make a rapid comparison of both the 2 houses and areas. Surprisingly the Finistere house scores well – with pluses being the neighbouring gite, the conservatory, the front garden, the charm of the front room and perspectives of upstairs rooms, the availability of almost all the furniture – and the present owners moving to the next door house (help with any issues on oil heating). There is a TGV at Morlaix in the north (about 45 mins drive compared with Redon being only 10 minutes or so away from Malansac).
The Malansac house has a slightly awkward garden arrangement (no lawn or front garden and the vegetable garden being round the garage corner).
Both houses are near the canal. Malansac has a Super U - and Plonevez sur Faou a small supermarket and 3 larger supermarkets 6 kms away. Both have medical facilities. Malansac has ready access to Vannes and the coast there – Plonevez sur Faou to Quimper and the more spectacular and less frequented Finistere coastline (inc Concarneau).

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

getting warm


Had a relaxing day on Sunday after all the driving of the last few days. And it was a glorious day. Cycled around the area first and then continued the reading of Julian Barnes Letters from London (1995).
Monday afternoon took me to Questembert, to the Agences agency who lined up 8 properties for me. We visited 5 of them, none matching the the longere which I saw in Plonevez-sur-Faou on Saturday morning. I have a feeling that the purpose of the viewing of the next couple of days is to confirm that this is the best available. Certainly it would make the task of setting up home so much easier – if I was able to negotiate for most of the furniture (which is quite to my taste).

Saturday a long drive to visit an intriguing house in Poullaen (in Finistere) which I had seen on mayer-immobilier internet more than a month ago. With a small valley of pond, trees and stream at back, it looked adorable – and well priced at 127,000. However, it seemed a bit remote – with 2 summer houses next door (English). The next house Sylvie took me to see was next to a dam created some 40 years earlier to feed a nuclear power plant (!) which has been closed for 30 years. It was remote and fusty. The last visit was magic – to a logere in a village not far from the Canal and Carhaix. It has the angles and perspectives I love in a building and is in fact 2 houses –with a small (2 bedroom) gite next door. Now on market for 130,000, its pleasant UK residents would be next door neighbours. And it’s in middle of regional park area and some 35 minutes drive from Quimper where there is both sea and TGV connection. Round the corner is one of these antique garages where I picked up books by Stepen Fry, Ian Rankin (my first), Paul Scott (time to read this guy who wrote in the 1960s) and Julian Barnes. I indicated I was interested in spending a few days in the area before making a decision.
Then back to Loudeac where 4 visits had been arranged – 2 in the town (11,000 pop and with Carrefour) itself. First (at 152k) was typical estate house – with 4 bedrooms and flexibility but little character. Second had nice living room accessing south facing verandah but needed fair amount of work (empty for 8 months or so). Other 2 houses too remote and needing work.
Back in Reminiac, started to think about the logere – and the realities of life in Finistere village.
Thursday was a public holiday but I saw in newspaper that a nearby Super-U was having a sale – which included bikes. Beautiful drive – and bought one at 70 euros.
Friday went back to Pontivy area – with Columbie agency. They first showed me an old house just off the central square on the market for 200k but likely to go for about 160. Hadn’t been lived in for 6 months – and had no real charm. Then a real original stone house just 5 minutes from river in centre – with very large garden at back and near a swimming pool. But the house was small and had no character.
Popped in to Loudeac and Rohan in whose environs property seems to be cheaper – and made arrangements for visits on Saturday afternoon and Tuesday.

house search

Drove on Wed from Redon to the Pontivy area – which has a great atmosphere which belies its 15,000 population. Its located in a small bowl of hills with the Blavet river flowing through it and a mix of medieval streets and grand buildings giving it a real Napoleonic feel. It is apparently the fastest growing town in Brittany – which is not good for purchase prices. The notary could offer me an appointment only in a week – so I walked out. The neighbouring house agents offered a meeting an hour later which allowed me time for a walk around and a chat with an Englishman in a La Foret agency who was able to take me to a couple of great houses – but 12 kilometres out of the town. Most interesting is in Guen.
On outward journey, I saw 2 agencies in Questembert and fixed visits for Monday next. On way back from Pontivy I called in at Josselin to visit the EngIish bookshop – and managed to see a house in the centre at the Foret agency (which I am using for Redon). Also picked up 2 le Carre novels – of which I have become a recent devotee. His language and values very acceptable.
Two interesting items on the British TV news – rather hidden amongst the blanket coverage of the first days of the historical coalition there. First that the Nottingham hospital system is now buying its food ingredients from local suppliers and saving both prices (two pounds fifty a patient meal day) and local jobs. It’s possible through a “processing hub” which ensures quality. As the presenter asked, why hasn’t this happened before. I would assume the French and German systems have been doing this for some time. The answer was that the concept of local food sourcing has been slow to take off.
The second item is a report on police spending which has just been issued which asks that the issue of police numbers should be put on a more analytical basis – rather than being determined by a political bidding war which uses simplistic language of police on beat.

Back to house-hunting. I’m told that the Morbihan area from Ploermel south is the highest priced part of Brittany – for several reasons. First the micro-climate is more favourable (with the gulf stream); the area is within the commuting distance of towns such as Vannes, Rennes and Nantes. North of Ploermel is (with the exception of Pontivy) a more remote area – with fewer towns.
On Wednesday I found a charming house in the Redon area which is actually in the Ille et Villaine part of Brittany, stretching from Dinard on the Channel almost to the Atlantic coast in the south. Redon has a slightly run-down air – but good train connections and proximity to the Brest-Nantes Canal. The house is a few minutes walk from both the Canal and a supermarket. Only drawbacks are the traffic passing the front door and the 2 flights of (almost medieval) stairs – to the bedroom, study and then a large attic area.
Have just finished Colin Thubron’s Behind the Wall. Written in mid 1980s, the early part has echoes of Gulliver’s Travels - with Thubron’s European stature and features arousing intense curiousity. “Do I smell?” is a question he poses to the Chinese passenger as the plane descent into Beijing starts the book. Although these were still the times of the bike, modernisation and the active displacement of old buildings was already underway – and Thubron’s various conversations reflect the conformity of the people.

Monday, May 10, 2010

lift off


After several hours trying to get BlueAir to accept our mobile telephone number (and clarify where the shuttle bus in Paris was) I managed to buy a ticket online late afternoon yesterday which allowed D to catch the train from Redon at 20.20 from Redon to Paris and get successfuly from there this morning to Beauvais and fly at 11.00 this morning to Bucharest. And Hilary and I left at a drisly 06.15 for Nantes with the skies apparently also clear for her trip back to Leeds. The skies opened around Nantes - but back safely.
The picture is a small scuplture we saw in the window of an atelier in Josselin

Sunday, May 9, 2010

travel headaches


And then, suddenly, Hilary was with us. I drove down to Nantes airport to pick her up Friday morning and we visited Redon on the way back. Nice place
Saturday we went to the peninsula.

Daniela's mum died on Sat night - have to get her back to Bucharest - and Hilary back to Leeds. But the ash cloud is drifting again and flights are being cancelled in France. BlueAir website also acting up and unable to take our booking of the Beauvais (Paris)-Bucharest flight (perhaps just as well). Having been a distant observer of the April chaos, I am now in the middle of it. We think of driving tomorrow to Nantes - put Daniela on the TGV for Paris - and, if flights are grounded, then drive to St Malo to let Hilary take ferry to Portsmouth.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dinan and Becherel


Monday was overcast and cold – as we headed with Adrian and Susanna following – to Dinan on the minor roads north. Dinan is quite amazing – with the strongest fortifications I have ever seen commanding the heights over the river and riddled with tiny medieval lanes.
After the farewells, the real find was on our return journey. We had intended to visit Rennes but were diverted by a sign on the road for Becherel – ville du livre and duly encountered what is for me a dream place – one of what is now a European network of 2nd hand book towns and villages. I had encountered one quite by accident in Fontenoy la Joute (Lorraine) on a long drive I had made on my own in 1997 from Bucharest to Brussels to take up a dreadful job I survived for 6 months with TAIEX – which was then the body helping the accession countries access knowledge about the acquis commaunitaire. I quickly discovered that it was little more than a travel boutique run by a bustling dragon of an Englishwoman masquerading under a Polish name.
Being Monday, most of the 16 bookshops were closed – but a couple were open. The first a real antique book shop whose cafe area was just like a sitting room and where we were left to our own devices. The second was a cavernous area – where I tracked down my Michel Mohrt and almost got the Jean Michel Revy and Romain Gary books I’m looking for. Hopefully we’ll return another day. They have apparently a blog – www.becherel-autour-du-livre.com
At one level it is annoying not to have regular access to the internet to be able to follow that link. At another, it is an encouragement to read what I have already downloaded

Ploermel et al


The weekend was the English bank holiday – so we had the pleasure of a visit from Susanna and Adrian – arriving midnight. Vide greniers had promised – but proved disappointing at Ploermel at Augan. Ploermel itself, however, is the first place we visited which I could imagine living in. Lively and full of charm – it has two large churches in the centre – both with delightful stained-glass windows. An organ was playing in one on our first visit – but I could find no way in to enjoy the performance. When we revisited on Sunday morning a christening was underway in the second – wood ceilings and Breton stone are the impressive features of these churches. Proximity to such a spiritual haven is probably on my checklist for houses! The newsagent’s had a very impressive range of magazines – including a fairly recent literary venture modelled on New York Review of books – www.booksmag.fr

Josselin gave us 4 serindipidous moments – an exhibition of marqueterie by Jacques Moisan in a tiny ancient church adjoining its fairy-tale castle which looms over the river. A sculpteuse seemingly specialising in capturing the relationships between men and women – I photographed a small one in the window of a couple reading back to back with the woman’s hand trailing. Hands are so expressive – I remember one of Dobre Dobrev’s paintings of a quiet Bulgarian square with a languid hand in the air. You can get a sense of the sculptress at http://creatures.celestes.free.fr
The final delight was a second-hand English bookshop – from which I emerged with 3 gems - a Jonathan Raban book whose title I had come across when I was considering the Syrian job some years back (Arabia through the looking glass); a highly appropriate Colin Thubron book - Behind the Wall about his travels in China in the early and mid 1980s; and a Morris West thriller I had not yet read - Cassidy.

Sunday night we ate well – and I had the rare pleasure of a conversation a quatres – with Adrian’s questions proving skilful in eliciting from me some rare opinions about the goodies and baddies in politics and why the British system is in such a mess. Although I did opine that the recent expense scandals are perhaps not quite what they seem! Most of the so-called misdemeanours were in fact the result of the advice given by the House officials – and the felons were few and minor. I am never disposed to conspiracy theories – but on this occasion I have to ask about the timing and nature of the revelations. The financial melt-down and collapse of neo-liberalism has required string government action and a rethink of the role of the state. One would have expected a resurgence of socialist thinking. So perhaps the expenses scandal was a preemptive strike – to ensure that the legitimacy of government activity remained under question.