Sunday, May 17, 2009

Not me at the keyboard for today’s blog but rather a contribution from a recent holidaymaker in our holiday cottage, who decided to “sing for his supper”. Over to you, John …

Hi Gabrielle and Stuart - I have written a few notes on my enjoyable week spent with you both for your blog. I’m still thinking about the different things I did there and all the tips you both gave me!
Regards, John.

I arrived at Saint Maden on the sunny evening of Easter Sunday. The countryside was bright green with a blue sky and a fresh nip in the air. Stuart and Gabrielle welcomed me with a warming cup of tea and a cosy cottage, in which they’d set a fire going for several hours in an old Godin woodstove.

I'd volunteered to do some work, but it wasn't the dreaded "report for duty at sunrise to milk to cows" that a Welsh colleague had suggested might be the regime, Stuart and Gabrielle offered a very civilised start with morning coffee at 10. Good, I fancied a sleep-in, sorely needed after months of 50-60 hour workweeks. Before going to bed l had a quick poke around outside the gite...but not too far as it was pitch black and strangely, almost scary without the sounds of cars, people or even dogs for that matter, to disturb the tranquillity.

After the first of many solid nights of sound sleep, and a morning walk to the local baker, I reported for duty. The plans sounded more than reasonable, Gabrielle suggesting a few hours work each day in exchange for an evening meal. This meant l could combine my 'training' with sightseeing, perfect!

That afternoon Gabrielle asked me to weed the newly replanted camomile lawn in the beautiful gite garden. Just an hour later, though, I heard Stuart start up the sit-upon lawnmower. I had a long-held ambition to drive one of these devices, so I persuaded them that I could be better employed doing the mowing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially when I found top gear and let loose the throttle, giving me the feeling I was go-karting rather than grass-cutting :-)

I tended to start my days with a brisk walk to the baker. Tasty bread at a third of the price I’m used to paying in Geneva region of Switzerland, where I live. I enjoyed an afternoon wandering around the wonderfully preserved medieval part of Rennes, but after an hour or so of that I was itching to get back to the smallholding and see what I could do.

I took up Stuart’s offer to watch him humanely despatch one of their chickens, and then participate in plucking and drawing it. It would “hang’ for a day, then spend a day in a red wine marinade, before reappearing on the dinner table.

Stuart and I spent half a very rainy day in their woodland, slipping and sliding around as we harvested the logs he'd cut over the winter, moving them across a small stream into a clearing for future transport back to their permaculture smallholding. I enjoyed the physicality of it all but we were both happy to stop after three hours and enjoy a well-deserved lunch break at a local auberge: a classic French workmen’s lunch with a bottle of vin de table plonked down in front of us even before the menu arrived and then four courses of hearty food, all for the reasonable price of l don't what, because l didn't pay :-)

An afternoon’s trip to the seaside, about 40 min away, turned out to be a decidedly damp affair, however, golf umbrella in hand I persisted and enjoyed the stiff sea breeze before heading back to Dinan for a seafood meal at one of the many inns by the river. [Thanks to George for the visual metaphor.]

Helping Gabrielle in the vegetable plot [see photo at top] I learnt so much about growing vegetables, including a revelation that l have been able to put into effect immediately after returning home … concerning, of all things, nettles.
They might sting like hell but now I have a use for them, natural nettle “tea” liquid fertiliser. What will my neighbours think when they see me take nettles out of the land that lies between our two gardens compared to my usual habit of dumping my cuttings there.

On Friday evening, we shared our final meal together, a wonderful Coq au Vin, accompanied by a mixed salad from the garden scattered with edible flowers and all washed down by a 2002 bottle of Hermitage. It was a fitting end to a wonderful week, a week of relaxation in a tranquil setting, a slower pace of life, lively discussions, experiencing life on a smallholding and working my body physically, something I appreciated more than my habitual 8-10 hour workday sitting in front of a computer screen.