Friday, December 31, 2010

The missing sporran.

Kilts are usually only worn at family weddings in the Highlands of Scotland . However, Hogmanay is different. The one night of the year when the house looks like a movie set for Brigadoon. A kilt wearing, pipe skirling island of Scotishness amid a sea of bemused French. Unfortunately, the gremlin that manages to hide the Christmas lights also has a side line in hiding my sporran. My kilt is laid out on the bed but both sporran and dirk have disappeared. " They'll be where you left them " comes the reply of 'the font'. To be told that this happens every year is not particularly helpful.

We have three supermarkets in the small market town. Two of some repute and a third, Le Mutant, an improbably named discount outlet. The sort of place where the cans are identical and have white labels marked baked beans or tomatoes . Certain members of the household have discovered Le Mutant. " Are these mutant sausages ?" or ' Would you like a mutant tomato ?". Amid this breakfast time hilarity 'the font ' has developed that resigned, contemplative look that you usually see on pictures of medieval saints awaiting martyrdom. Someone is dreaming of longer semesters.

Wilf continues to thrive. The insulin injected every morning without our family fellow even noticing. And to think that only ten weeks or so ago we were saying our goodbyes. Seeing him now, surrounded by his flock, revelling in the attention, is a wonderful start to the New Year. A reminder that he or she who laughs ... lasts.

A wish to end 2010. May you each be granted the gift of a New Year free of fear .

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Ghost and Mrs.Muir

A good day. A really good day. Wilf had a full, uninterrupted, nights sleep. The insulin already having the desired effect. He woke refreshed and in a party mood. That old sheepdog philosophy " When your ship comes in makes sure you are willing to unload it " evident in his playful mood. We stop the car and watch as a herd of deer stream across the road in front of us. Twenty of them silhouetted against the morning skyline.

Our arrival at the cafe under the arcades met by a more than usually robust 'Bonjour Vilfee' from the early morning revellers. The friendly waitress in the flashing 'Bon Noel' apron being rewarded with Wilfs best ' I love you. I really do ' look in return for the end piece from a croissant.

Home from the bakers for the breakfast feeding frenzy. Madame Bay was bustling around laughing uproariously. Me thinks she rather enjoys youthful company. Our saintly cleaning lady has returned sporting a new hair do. Thankfully, more conservative than last years red Sinead O'Conor buzz cut. Does anyone remember the old television series ' The Ghost and Mrs. Muir ?' Something implausible to do with a widow and the spirit of an old lighthouse keeper. Imagine the leading lady with the palest of pale blue rinses - then think of Madame Bay. 'The font' thinks that either the 50's look is back in fashion or it must have been an Upper East Side salon.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Time amid the duck crisis.

A very French sight. The surgery was packed full of farmers with mud caked boots talking animatedly on their mobile phones. Much waving of arms. Overnight a mystery disease had hit the local duck breeders flocks. A big issue here in the foie gras centre of France. Amid the chaos a hand on 'the fonts' shoulder and a friendly " If you don't mind me working while we talk I'll try to answer your questions ".

Five snatched minutes of common sense and guidance. Keep taking the Cortisone. Insulin to be injected once a day. The diabetes probably caught before it did any permanent damage to his eyesight. Signs that the tumour may be metastasizing . No point in changing his diet . Come back in ten days. Reassurance that there was no pain. All this information, and the options open to him, passed to 'the font' across a duck strewn dissecting table . In a foreign land the multiplied comfort of having a caring vet.

Another difficult night for Wilf. The insulin will take time to work. In between pit stops we watch the cricket from Australia. A chance to think of the mystery and charm of blogs. So many comments from folk who've never met Wilf. Comments that are sometimes funny, sometimes helpful, sometimes wistful but always kind. Always kind. The best sort of companions for a long journey.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The first surgery after the holidays and the vets waiting room was as crowded as a snowed in airport departure lounge. Christmas in this part of France is clearly a dangerous time for animals.

After an hour and a half we finally get to see the prim Parisienne . For some reason she just doesn't 'click' with either Wilf or myself. The other two vets are simply wonderful. They understand the overriding importance to the male patient of bisous, sweet talk and tickles . By contrast the northern vet is all furrowed brow and stern remonstrance - not the ideal bedside manner for a nervous sheepdog or owner. Wilf tried to control his bladder but the stress proved to be too much for him. Another first. The old fellow looked so, so miserable.

A battery of blood tests. Diabetes confirmed. A 90% certainty that it's Cortisone induced. The insulin had run out on Christmas eve and a new batch won't be delivered until later today. A second night of bi-hourly pit stops in the garden.

I'm hoping that one of the other vets will be there this afternoon to give advice. Is the tumour growing again ? Should we consider stopping or reducing the Cortisone to see if that cures the diabetes ? How will the Cortisone and Insulin interact ? Should we change his diet to a diabetic variety ? For the first time we have the feeling that our old family friend might know there's something wrong.

Monday, December 27, 2010


It's a normal working day here in France and the first priority is to get to the vets with Wilf . Over the last 48 hours he's started to drink much, much more than normal. This also means that he's having to pop outside for a pit stop every couple of hours - day and night. Either a sign of diabetes or that the Cortisone is at last impairing the livers functioning . The indignity of having to scratch on the door to get out has left our proud fellow looking positvely crestfallen.

The peace of the small hours is a fine time to be with Wilf and catch up on the million and one little things that get overlooked during the rest of the year. There is something so elemental and trusting about the warmth of an old family sheepdog asleep across your slippers. In a drawer in the library came across two water colour sketches by a Scots artist, Francis Cadell. Done in 1915 they tell the story of Scots soldiers in London during the early, more innocent, days of the 'Great' war. Most of the ' Jocks' time seems to have been spent looking longingly at the behatted shop assistants. These two are cheekily entitled ' I don't think ' and ' Admiration '.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I've got work to do.

Wilf was able to spend his Christmas morning in a Polish Lowland Sheepdogs natural habitat. The kitchen. He ventured out into the garden for a half hearted game of touch rugby around eleven but quickly scurried back inside. The smell of the roasting turkey simply too much to ignore. As he climbed the stairs to the terrace he turned and gave us a wistful look that seemed to say " Sorry guys. I've got work to do . You go and enjoy yourselves ".

Sadly for Wilf no one dropped the turkey or the Christmas pudding. However, mystery surrounds a plate of caviar and blinis that had foolishly been left unattended on the drawing room floor for all of five seconds. Had another gannet eaten them or was that a guilty smile on Wilfs face ? All but the victim gave him the benefit of the doubt.

'The font' got an oil free chip fryer as a gift. I thought this wasn't such a bad choice . It could have been worse. 'The font' seemed less convinced .

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Christmas.

A quiet morning walk with Wilf. Time to ourselves before the house becomes a chaotic production line for bacon filled croissants. We've woken to that magical snow shrouded silence that hints at angel choirs and beating wings. No nativity oxen but we hear the gentle lowing of the two adventurous cows in the paddock across the lane. No shepherds but the welcome presence of one very happy sheepdog with snow on his nose. No star in the snowy sky but the lazy passage of a solitary heron. Christmas morning. A still point in a turning world. A sense that today, of all days, we are never alone.

A very happy Christmas to you all from a snowy France.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wilfs poem

Woke to find the two sweet cows from across the lane happily standing in the middle of the lawn. Overnight they'd pushed open their picket gate and sought shelter from the Pyrennean wind behind our laurel hedge. The happy, trusting , things followed me back across to their field without so much as a murmur.

In the library, stumbled across an anthology of verse, 'Breathings on the Border', by a rather prim Victorian Scots poet, Elizabeth Clephane. The sort of half pastoral , half moralistic poetry that is deeply, deeply unfashionable today. One of her poems, about a shepherd and his sheep, is quite famous. In it a line that caught my eye. Substitute sheepdog for shepherd and it perfectly captures Wilfs exultant, family reunited, mood :

" And all through the mountains, thunder riv'n,
And up from the rocky steep,
There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav'n
'Rejoice!' I have found my sheep !"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A special French Christmas.

A glance at the calendar and mounting panic turned into outright terror. Time to do the Christmas shopping. While 'the font' headed off to Ikea for those Swedish staples - raw herring and lingon - yours truly dealt with the important matters. Champagne, Chablis, and Yquem from the wine merchant. Oysters, foie gras, and a Christmas buche from the market. All the components of a typical French Christmas eve chosen and paid for in less than two hours.

Last year we had capon for Christmas day lunch, the local tradition. This year we've ordered a turkey. It should arrive in the butchers tomorrow lunchtime. The cheese will be ready later today and the flowers can be picked up from the outdoor market at lunchtime. All we're waiting for now is British Airways to get back to normal.

Wilf was determined to help with the unpacking. Upstairs in the kitchen, his head was to be found in every carrier bag, excitedly sniffing away at their contents. The word 'no !' conveniently forgotten. He sat contentedly in the middle of the floor noting, exactly, where each item was put away.

The family fellows last walk of the day has now been brought forward to seven o'clock. A small spoonfull of coconut ice cream at seven thirty as a bed time treat and he's sound asleep by eight. Last night he couldn't raise his back leg to christen the plane tree by the gate. The first time he's ever had this problem. Can a dog look downheartened ? Clearly a major boy dog thing. One of those inevitable milestones on his journey and a reminder to us to enjoy every minute of this Christmas with him.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wilfs motto.

One of those mornings all dog owners know. You want to walk quickly while your canine companion wants to dawdle. It wasn't exactly a long walk but Wilf was determined to enjoy the sunshine. Nothing, not even the promise of croissants would hurry him along. He set of at a stately pace towards the stream, distractedly followed a few choice scents, then turned around and headed towards the car at an even more stately pace. Every tree sniffed, location memorized and roots christened. When he finally caught up with me he gave his best ' What's been keeping you ? ' smile.

He was still smiling when we made it to the cafe in the square. Croissant crumbs from the waitress and a sliver of meringue from the sales lady at the bakers. All donations gratefully received. Wilfs motto : Look for opportunities not guarantees.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A cynic might wonder.

As far as Wilf was concerned it was a day for staying close to home, dozing on the door step and generally doing as little as possible. Not even the promise of a trip to the cafe for croissants and a hair tousling would get him to move. We were concerned about his lethargy but as 'the font' observed, any dog that can cover the distance from the downstairs door to the upstairs kitchen in three seconds flat still has plenty of fight left in him.

While our little touch of paradise continues to bask in bright sunshine the rest of Europe remains shrouded in snow. Even Paris and Frankfurt have cancelled 40% of their flights. As for Heathrow the less said the better. The repeated ineptitude of this airport a national embarassment. Let's wait to see what today has in store before panicking.

A telephone call to say the Glasgow Rugby team have delayed their match until seven o'clock tonight. A cynic might wonder if they're reluctant to leave the southern sun and return to the cold of Scotland. The kilted fans,sitting drinking at the tables on the central square in Toulouse, seemed happy enough. The delay was welcome. The sturdy little Volkswagen chose yesterday to have another of its temperamental moments and was hauled off to the garage. A reminder that it really does need to be replaced.

In town I literally bumped into the joiner coming out of the cafe. " When might we see you up at the farmhouse again ?" I asked. ' Oh! In the New Year M'Ongoose. In the New Year ' he replied cheerfully , sauntering off with a wave and a smile. Very helpful. My thoughts were less than seasonal. At least we know he's still alive. Now all we have to do is find the electrician, plumber, tiler, gutterer, and decorator. Mental note :- Never try to restore a rickety old house when you're actually living in it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Frosty winds made moan.

Londons Heathrow airport closed and Scotland,to all intents and purposes, cut off. The coldest night in more than twenty years. Heavy snow, freezing fog and black ice are once again disrupting Christmas travel plans. I'd always thought Christina Rosettis poem 'In the bleak Midwinter ' was a piece of sentimental flimsy but at times like this the lines : " Frosty winds made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow " stand out as inspired brilliance.

Glasgow Rugby Club were scheduled to play Toulouse on Saturday. The Glaswegian team duly arrived here but their kit got stranded at a snow bound Heathrow. It's still at Heathrow. The match has been rescheduled for today and the Scots lads will have to play in borrowed strip. I'm betting that the French side will let them play in their canary yellow training shirts. A decidedly unpresbyterian colour scheme. Wilf and yours truly will be there to cheer the visitors on.

Here in southern mountain country the skies are again blue and the air warm and mild. Wilf spent much of yesterday ferreting around on the banks of the little stream, gleefully tracking down enticing odours. When he got back to the house he turned on his back and fell sound asleep outside the front door. Time aplenty for a boy to bask in the sun. If we didn't know differently we'd swear that he was the healthiest dog in the world. I'd like to think he's one of the happiest.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A vertical dog blanket.

Wilf and yours truly finally settled down to watch what remained of the rugby. Downstairs 'the font' and the manic curtain woman dealt with the new drapes in the hallway. How it could take two hours to hang two lengths of cloth is one of lifes imponderables. Even more amazing is how a non-stop conversation could be carried on throughout the entire process. Is there any subject under the sun duller than ' triple lining ?' Hopefully, the extra long and incredibly heavy curtains will help keep out some of the chill Pyrennean winds that whistle through the gaps in the doors.

To begin with Wilf was somewhat suspicious of this stripey new addition to his hallway. However, he soon found that they are great to nestle into. 'Whoooa - a vertical dog blanket' . Any attempts to shoo him away from his favoured spot by the door, on the new curtains, are doomed to certain and complete failure. Curtains come and curtains go but a boyz favourite lounging spot is inviolable.

Wilf has had a really good week. Full of life and vigour. His recent lethargy and aches pushed aside. Fresh salmon fishcakes now firmly at the top of his list of favoured foods along with coconut icecream. The coming week is set to get even better. Turkey, gravy and a reunited flock.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A bad year for melons.

Another frigid start to the day. The ground covered in thick, glistening, hoar frost. Wilf who has become quite sniffy about going out in the cold surprised us by rushing delightedly out of the door. The sort of bone chilling morning when you're hoping for a short walk and your canine companion has his heart set on a long one. And a long one it was. Across the green, past the church and down to the lake. 'The font' and yours truly in fits of laughter as Wilf tried skating on the frozen puddles. Much truffle hound snorting as long hidden scents were discovered. Pungent delights.

Eleven thirty and the mayor came past for a restorative glass of champagne. He was feeling low. Another local farmer is giving up melon growing and going over to livestock rearing. It seems that in 2007 the farmers were getting 73 cents a kilo for their cantaloupes. In 2009 this had slumped to 54 cents and this year a disastrous 45 cents. ' Une annee catastrophique '. Incomers are oblivious to the changes in the landscape but for the old timers like the mayor it's a source of sadness. An hour and a half, and three glasses of Bollinger later, he seemed to have rediscovered his equilibrium.

After the mayor it was the turn of the curtain lady to show up. She rang the bell just as I was settling down to watch the rugby on television. Five nothing in her shoes and imbued with super human energy the curtain lady is a living nightmare. She always wants to ask my opinion about pleats or borders or linings. This is a mind numbing nightmare to someone whose knowledge of curtains can be summed up in the words 'Open or closed '.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Reassuring good measure.

Madame Bay arrived at the front door, unexpectedly, to bid an emotional farewell. She, the long suffering Monsieur Bay and fifty or so other members of the local retired gendarmes club are off to New York for a week. For the journey Madame Bay was wearing a lime green headscarf that had been knotted at the front. Those old wartime posters of Rosie the riveter sprang to mind. " Don't worry M'Ongoose. It's only a week " she said wrapping her arms round me in a remarkably hearty, breath depriving embrace. Then, she repeated the " it's only a week " for reassuring good measure. Wilf had a little boy look on his face that seemed to say ' please tell me she's not going to plant one of those kisses on me '.

A slight dusting of snow yesterday. Wilf was delighted. Polish Lowland Sheepdog heaven. He followed me across the fields, head high into the wind. Every so often he would run on ahead and pounce on something invisible in the long grass, emerging with a smile on his face and a muzzle and nose covered in snow. I'd like to say that his hunting technique was lithe and graceful but that wouldn't be entirely true. It was however highly entertaining. Play mode firmly set.

When, after a long day out in the cold, an old dog sits in front of the fire, lays his head on your foot and falls gently asleep is that happiness, delight or joy ?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Joining Peary .

It's bitterly cold with the thermometer showing minus six. Deep winter in this most temperate part of the world. Wilf followed me across the fields and down to the river, the grass frozen hard with the thick frost. Eagles, kestrels and the occasional languid heron our only companions. Under the blue winter sky the verges of the fields still thick with rose hips, sloes and berries. Maybe it's the ice underfoot or maybe it's the fresh scents the cold throws up but our old family fellow was as lively as a puppy. He zigzagged backwards and forwards along the valley floor, nose down, ears trailing along the ground, oblivious to the chill. Every so often he'd roll on his back, squirming contentedly in some choice scent. No need to hurry him back. Sometimes a thick woolly coat is a blessing.

Into town for the morning croissants and our 'Bonjour Wilfee' routine at the cafe in the square. The locals at the bar dressed as though they were going to join Peary on an expedition to the arctic. The peroxide waitress wearing the ' Bon Noel' apron with the flashing lights over her duffle coat. The show must go on.

Home to hang the last decorations on the tree. Then half an hour of touch rugby, meerkat hunting , and rug surfing. Wilf charging along the full length of the hallway, his aches and pains forgotten in the thrill of surfing. He finally turned over and fell asleep in the middle of the floor. He's still there - snoring gently. Time enough to recharge his batteries before 'the font' returns. A good day. No - a very good day.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Prepared for the day, ready for the night.

To the market town for Christmas lights. Not a set to be found anywhere. The Christmas locust has swept through our little patch of France devouring every set of tree lights in existence. With Wilf in the back of the car hastily hurried off to the large town 40 minutes away and bought the last 3 sets in the new Auchan supermarket. €14 each ! A young woman sales assistant squirted me with 'male fragrance' as I was leaving. The poor girl must have been very bored or very desperate. Purchase a bottle of this and "you'll be prepared for the day - ready for the night" she said. As I was wearing a bobble hat and a shaggy jumper at the time this made me laugh out loud with genuine delight. I'll try the line on 'the font' and see what the reaction is.

Set up the Christmas crib on the half landing. Somehow we seem to have lost Joseph and acquired a little old lady instead. Maybe it was always like that and I'd simply never noticed before. There again perhaps it's some strange Biblical revisionism on the part of the Slovak crib maker who decided single handedly to write Joseph out of the plot. Curious.

Over lunchtime pizza turned on the televison to get the weather forecast. Instead I got the Wendy Williams show. I had never heard of Ms.Williams until this chance encounter. Now, here before our very eyes Wendy was interviewing Rachel, a full time Christmas tree decorator. Must be a seasonal job I thought but suspended my disbelief as the rara skirted Rachel told us the four golden rules of tree design :

1) Always use at least 100 lights per foot . A seven foot tree - at least seven hundred lights

2) Always start from the top

3) Choose a theme and stick to it

4) Stand back and view your work. Remember you're an artist !

Wilf looked at me. I looked at the half decorated tree. We then both looked at each other. " Blimey ! Shouldn't have started at the bottom" he seemed to say before we headed off for some touch rugby in the hall.