Best of Blog in France by Stephanie Dagg - Read Online
Best of Blog in France
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Five years ago we left our large, brand new house in Co. Cork, which we’d built ourselves, for a two-hundred-year-old hovel in Creuse, France (actually, two, plus a crumbling barn, and not forgetting 75 acres of land and lakes).
Why, oh why? Why did we aspire to go down in the world, to leave the country where we could communicate successfully and actually use our painstakingly acquired professional qualifications to make a living? Why did we abandon all that and go abroad where, at least at first, we would be scratching a living so far below the poverty line as to be complete out of sight of it? Insanity? Bloody-mindedness? Misguided romanticism? The spirit of adventure?
None of the above. Quite simply - necessity. It was the only thing to do.
We couldn’t carry on in Ireland the way we were. After fifteen years there, it was time to go before Chris’s work-related stress made me a widow and the cost of living got any worse. And so we changed our lives by moving to rural France to run a gîte and carp fishing business and do a little llama farming on the side.
We are: myself, Stephanie, author and freelance editor and now also llama farmer and gîte cleaner; Chris, ex-quality assurance in the chemical industry, now carp lake manager, DIY expert and mole hater; three totally Frenchified children, namely Benj, currently nearly 20 and at University; Caiti 17 who regularly wins national school awards, and 10 year-old free spirit Ruadhri; Nessie our dog who came with us too, but all the other animals – alpacas, carp, cats, goats, guinea pigs, hens, llamas, rabbits, turkeys – have been accumulated here.
Moving abroad is tricky at the best of times. With kids of 14, 11 and 4 at the time it became even more of a challenge. But with persistence, a positive attitude and, let’s face it, no alternative, we’ve made a success of it. It’s been far from easy though. Many people harbour notions of an idyllic rural French ex-pat lifestyle, sipping wine and watching sunsets. That rarely exists. Reality is French bureaucracy, exploding composting loos, leaking roofs, viciously cold winters without central heating, living off savings, self-doubt, frustration and depression.
I began my blog in July 2009. With its honest view of what it takes to get established abroad, my blog, Blog in France, has encouraged and educated current and would-be ex-pat families, as well as entertained everybody, or at least I hope it has. The overall tone is optimistic and light-hearted and variety is the key. I’ve picked what I think to be a nice selection from the first couple of years’ worth of entries, which I’ve arranged by months. So from January to December, you can see what living in rural Creuse is like for an Anglo-Irish family who took the plunge and have never looked back. (OK, maybe just the odd glance!)

Published: Stephanie Dagg on


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Bacs Against the Wall


My two teens are taking their bacs at the moment. The Bac, le Baccalauréat, introduced by Napoleon in 1808, is the qualification students gain (hopefully!) at the end of their three years in lycée, when the majority of them are aged around 18. Technically it is an academically qualifying degree, so if a student definitely doesn’t want to go on to university, he or she can refuse to take the Bac. However, the vast majority of students sit it.

Benj and Caiti are taking the Baccalauréat general. (There are two other types of Bac Baccalauréat technologique and Baccalauréat professionnel.) The Baccalauréat general is divided into three strings. For each one, the exams are spread over two years. Benj is doing a Bac L (littéraire i.e. arts). Last year he took exams in maths and computer science, natural sciences and French language. He was assessed on a TPE (Travaux personnels encadrés) project which counted towards his final marks. He then dropped all those subjects, and this year is in the process of being examined of French literature, philosophy, history and geography, English and German. Even his achievements (or lack of) in physical education over the year are taken into consideration. Caiti is taking a Bac S (sciences). This year she is taking her French language exam and will have an oral exam too. She’s already had her TPE assessment. Next year, her last one at lycée, she will sit maths, SVT (sciences vie et terre – life and earth sciences), philosophy, physics and chemistry, maths, history and geography, English and German, and get a mark for her PE during the year. As you can see, her workload will be a lot heavier than Benj’s has been this year. There is also a third type of Bac Bac ES, sciences economiques et sociales.

The exams are up to four hours long, which seems rather fierce to me. The longest I ever did were 3-hour ones at A-level and then at Uni, and also when part-qualifying as an accountant. Those were quite long enough! Benj had two of these 4-hour horrors on Monday. He still looks tired!

This being France, we need to complicate things. Each exam has a coefficient i.e. a weighting, which makes some subjects more important than others. For Benj, philosophy has a coeff of 7, which is a bit of a pain because Benj has found it harder going than he thought it would be. However, for scientific Caits, it will only have a coeff of 3. However, Benj did well in his Bac last year and got well over the 50% overall you need to pass. Those excess marks will contribute towards this year’s scores. He has another secret weapon too. He has been taking an optional European German course, which he will be examined in orally. If he gets more than 12/20 for this, those marks will be added to his overall total, giving a nice little boost. (Caiti does the same course, so she stands to benefit next year too.)

If a student’s overall mark for the Bac (i.e. from all the exams over the two years) is between 8 and 10, a near miss, he or she can sit the épreuve de rattrapage. This consists of orals in two subjects that the student can choose. And if these go well and bring the average up to 10, the Bac will be awarded. But if they don’t, the student has the option of retaking the final year at lycée and resitting the next June. The results come out on 5th July this year, and the épreuve de rattrapage is held over the following few days so everyone gets their final result very quickly after the exams. This puts England and Ireland to shame where the waiting periods of several months for exam results are frankly ridiculous.

Pass rates nationally for the Bac are generally above 80%, so I don’t think my two have too much to worry about. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed anyway!

STOP PRESS: It’s emerged today, 23rd June, that a question on the Bac S Maths paper, which kids took on Wednesday 22nd, was leaked on Monday. However, the education minister decided not to cancel the exam, which is what students and teachers are saying he should have done. The question, on probability and worth 20% of the marks, is simply not being marked and the other questions, more difficult ones, are being given a higher weighting to compensate. This isn’t fair at all, since, as Caiti tells me, probability is one of the more straightforward areas and candidates can usually pick up good marks on this question. There are rumours that questions from the English paper were also leaked, but I haven’t been able to find out much about that yet.

Tractor Temptations


We’re test-driving a vehicle at the moment. Not a brand new Lamborghini, sad to say, but a 50 year old Mc Cormick Farmall Intenational 265 tractor. These were churned out in large quantities between the 1920s and 1970s as a sensibly priced, all purpose tractor aimed at medium-sized family farms. They could do enough of the tasks needed on the farm to reduce the reliance on hired hands, not to mention horses or mules. Farmalls were prominent in trend toward mechanising agriculture.

There are hundreds of old tractors to be seen in the farms of Creuse. I much prefer these to the increasingly enormous and powerful new ones that hurtle along the country lanes round here, completely filling them. Some are so wide that the tyres are on both grass verges. Not much room for other road users.

This could be tractor number 4. Tractor number 1, Rusty, was this tractor’s sibling, and the first one we bought. It was brilliant, but suffered what we’ll tactfully call antifreeze deficiency problems one winter and came to an untimely end. So we got a second tractor, which Rors named Sea Blue. This is a Fordson Dexta, a very compact but tough machine. These were only produced for seven years between 1957 and 1964. Ours is the same age as me. It’s nippy, and apart from an unfindable fuel leak and the tendency for its steering to freeze up in winter, it’s been a great investment.

Tractor number 3 was another Mc Cormick, a totally rusted up wreck that we bought for a few hundred euros as we were told the engine block was fine and so we could put it onto Rusty and get him going again. Well, it wasn’t, so we didn’t. That tractor was taken off for scrap a few months ago.

And now we have prospective tractor number 4 sitting outside. We’ve had a spin around the farm in it. What I like about the Mc Cormick is the passenger seat above the left rear wheel. It’s metal, of course, and destroys your backbone as you bounce around it, but it’s brilliant. So we’re trying to decide if we really need a second tractor. It’s bigger and more powerful than Sea Blue, and with old tractors, you never know what’s going to go wrong next, so if you have two, the likelihood is that at least one of them should be working at any time. If we can get the price down a bit, I think the vendor has got himself a deal … especially as it comes with a free, ancient benet (metal storage/carrying box)!

Gueret 7th June 1944


I’ve often noticed plaques on the wall in various places around Gueret. And they all have the date 7 juin 1944 on them. While waiting for Benj to take his German oral exam last Friday, I walked round and took photos of the ones I could find. Then I did some research to find out what happened in Gueret that day.

Gueret, in the free zone since 1940, was the first metropolitan préfecture (chief town of a departément) to be liberated by the résistance intérieure français (the resistance) and 7th June 1944 was the day it happened. Sadly it was short lived. The Germans retook the town on 9th June, but it was liberated again, this time permanently, on 24th August.

So what was going on in Gueret on the 7th? Creuse as a whole had been veering in favour of the resistance, away from the neutrality it was supposed to have. Starting around 5.30 am, battles between the Germans and the resistance centred on two hotels in the town. They also fought against the Vichy-controlled military police (milice), who were based at the masonic lodge in Gueret. The Germans and the milice surrendered. The people of Gueret were delighted. There was some vengeance. Collaborators were hunted out, with the cry of « A mort, vendu, salaud » and summary executions took place. But after the German lorries rumbled back into town on the 9th and re-established control, the Guérétois leaders were rounded up, and sent to Limoges for interrogation. Very few were executed as the collapse of German control of France began soon after.

One of commemorative plaques I saw was in pieces. The surname Becker was visible but that’s all. I hope it will be replaced as soon as possible. We mustn’t forget these brave people and what they did that day.

Nos Loisirs


On 1st July 1906 a new magazine came out in France – Nos Loisirs. This first issue was amongst the huge treasure trove of magazines and newspapers that we found in the attic here when we moved in. It cost ten centimes and described itself as ‘journal-revue illustré de 32 pages’ (illustrated magazine and review). What’s more, it claimed ‘pas une ligne, pas une gravure qui ne soit pas intéressante’ – there wouldn’t be a single line or drawing that wasn’t interesting. And is that true?

First up was a letter from the editor agreeing that readers were probably saying that there were enough magazines out there already. But this one was ‘différent’ and truly ‘populaire’ – for the people. Each week there would be new writing from well-known authors, discussions of current affairs and social problems, advice to young people, competitions, humour – everything!

This issue has a long illustrated story, ‘The Extraordinary Adventure of M. Poulot’, and then a detailed discussion of the new-fangled phonograph. Charmion, the ‘chien cambrioleur’ (burglar dog) has a column devoted to him, and one of eight photos in the journal is of him. Another photo is of Séverine, whose page comes next, and she talks about women and their right to vote. She concludes by quoting a friend who says astutely: ‘Until women become voters, my dear, the men in parliament won’t do anything for them.’ They had to wait until 1944 to gain suffrage.

There are two more stories. Then a cartoon. Where is St Stephen? teacher asks a pupil, standing next to a large map of France. In Heaven, Madam, the child replies. Maybe it was funny at the time!

A piece of piano music takes up the centrefold. ‘Sous le Fautaies’ it’s called (In the forest of tall trees) and is in the fiendish key with four flats, whatever that is. I’ve forgotten a lot about music, which is shameful since I played the violin for years!

There’s a flyer for the novel Zezia by Paul Dumas, and then some short tips on things to talk about in conversation. One of these little nuggets is the fact that ice floes floating south from the North Polar ice will take two centuries to melt. They reckoned without global warming, obviously. Other conversation starters are the snippets that trees that grow on the south side of a hill are tougher than ones that grow on the north, and that 1.7 million children in Russia have no education. Another story, a hotel review (The St Regis Hotel in New York) and an article on home improvement – specifically how to organise your boudoir. Then there’s a competition to match silhouettes to photos, fashion advice and adverts.

All in all, quite a variety of subject matter, and I’d probably have been tempted to buy the next issue. I haven’t been able to determine exactly how long the magazine was published for, but I’ve found copies online from 1909 so it ran for several years at least.


Blog Slog


I always find it a bit of a slog to blog in summer. It’s not for lack of things to write about – summer is our busiest time. The trekking season has got underway, our gîte and lakes have had clients since March and are booked through to October, we’ve celebrated the end of term and excellent exam results, we’ve had Ruadhri’s birthday, we go cycling as often as we can and swim every day in our swanky new pool, we’ve sheared an alpaca, we’ve got two new goats, there have been a lot of awesome thunderstorms … there is loads going on. In fact, I think it’s because there is so much happening that I tend to dry up creative-wise. Add the hot weather and lassitude tends to strike every night about 9 when I settle down to a bit of computing. Well, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

It’s certainly hot at the moment. I’ve had a good trawl around on the Net but can’t conclusively determine whether July is hotter than August in France. Some sets of figures suggest July, others August. My own feeling is that July is warmer. The days are longer and nights certainly seem hotter. But it’s great. When you live through Creuse winters, you deserve the summer sunshine, and you’re ready for it. We’ve adjusted our daily routine so that we get up and outdoors early, get things done then have a siesta from 1 till 3 or so, and then get busy again later in the day.

However, I’ve discovered something interesting in my temperature-related surfing. A lot of weather and climate websites show the times of sunrise and sunset – and also twilight. Did you know that are three different types of twilight? And, that twilight happens twice a day – just before sunrise and just after sunset. Now I always thought twilight was an evening thing, and pretty much the same thing as dusk.

So, first of all there is civil twilight. That’s what most of us would think of as twilight – when you can still see things clearly but it’s getting dark at night (or starting to get light in the morning). The precise definition is when the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon, either before rising or after setting.

Nautical twilight is the next type of twilight, which is when the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. It’s a good bit murkier than civil twilight and only vague outlines of objects can be seen. It’s hard to make out the horizon at all.

Finally, astronomical twilight is when it’s completely dark – ‘still’ in the morning, and ‘just gone’ in the evening. The sun is now 18 degrees below the horizon.

Twilight is crépuscule in French. It has a Latin root. Another derivative, crepuscular, is used in English to refer to animals that are active at both twilights, such as fireflies, owls and bats. Talking of fireflies, Chris and Benjamin have seen some down at our big lake. Ruadhri and I have looked a couple of times, but with no luck. I think we went searching when it was only civil as opposed to nautical twilight i.e. too early! Rors can’t quite stay up late enough. But as the evenings slowly draw in, our chances will improve.

Pole Dancing


E, the farmer who cuts our hay, arrived yesterday to tackle this year’s grass. Sadly it’s a poor crop due to the early hot weather followed by the continuing long dry spell. Things aren’t good for farmers generally. E told us that his beef cattle are worth half of what they were last year, that the cereal crops will be disappointing and that Creuse still refuses to declare an official drought. I’m not sure what the repercussions of their doing so would be for farmers, but there is presumably something.

Anyway, before E climbed back into his cab to finish the last field, he mentioned that one of our telegraph poles was leaning over. This came as a surprise. It had been OK when we’d last passed it at lunchtime. There’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that the event has something to do with our hay being cut by a large tractor with a huge cutting attachment! However, when we went to try and prop the pole up this morning, we soon saw that it’s practically rotten, and has large splits and holes all over it. It’s a poorly pole. It would have only taken a slight bump from E to send it toppling.

We have a lot of poles at Les Fragnes. Down one side of our long driveway we have electricity poles, and they cross over the drive and back at one point. And down the other, we have the telegraph poles, which also cross the drive at the corner. We are a tad over-poled. It’s a pity the two utility companies couldn’t work together and save a few trees.

So, since this morning I have been ringing France Telecom to tell them about our pole. Phoning 1013 is a waste of time at the moment, though. There are ‘perturbations’ in their service, a recorded message tells me mournfully. The answer