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Thursday, 25 December 2014

Thursday 25th December: Christmas Day in Brittany ‏

A very eventful Christmas day. Karl had invited me over to his place and when he discovered Celine was also staying in Brittany over Christmas, he insisted she come too. He had already told me that Stefanie, his daughter, was arriving on Christmas Eve and would be cooking the dinner.
It was a cold, crisp morning and when Celine arrived at my place. She was wrapped in a woolly coat, a long scarf, gloves and a stripy hat. My cottage was warm and and she stood with her back against the radiator, shivering. (Celine hates the cold. I think she'd be far more suited to a tropical climate).
At Karl's the kitchen had been transformed. The big wooden table had been placed in the middle of the of the room and was set for dinner with a tablecloth and napkins and a centre piece arrangement of holly and red candles. Home made paper chains sparkled from the ceiling and strands of tinsel were draped over all the available furniture. (This had to be Stefanie's doing). Jean-Luc was hunched in the corner armchair; an ancient tabby cat purring on his lap. He and Karl were both wearing a red Christmas hats.
Celine was admiring the table when Stefanie came into the room. She was tall and fair, like her dad. She radiated energy, giving the impression of bounding from place to place. She introduced herself and started chatting to Celine about her course at the Free University of Berlin. She too was wearing a Christmas hat and handed one each to me and Celine, insisting we wear them. Karl smiled indulgently at his daughter as he watched us pulling them on. (I have the feeling she can do no wrong as far as he's concerned).
As we were talking there was a loud hooting from outside, followed by a screeching of tyres on the gravel drive. Karl looked out the window and sighed. I guessed it was Marie and her brothers. There was a loud banging on the door. Karl went to open it, whilst Celine and I watched from the kitchen. Marie was standing there in her black knee high boots and dressed in what could only be described as a party frock; a sparkly frilly thing with bows and ribbons, which, on her, looked ridiculous. The twins were standing behind her, arms folded. They were still in their blue overalls, but with one major difference: they were both wearing matching red jumpers, with a design of snowflakes dotted around a smiling reindeer's face. Celine nudged me and laughed. I wondered where on earth Marie had got these from. She said nothing to us, but called her husband's name. Before we had time to say anything, Jean-Luc scuttled past us, out through the door and into the van; no words of thanks to Karl, no Happy Christmas: nothing. We watched as they sped off. Karl shrugged and said in a way he was relieved Jean-Luc was no longer his problem.
In the kitchen Stefanie had put on a CD of Christmas songs, and urged Celine to sing along with her. Karl and I were then treated to a tuneless rendition of "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas". 

Stefanie said she had thought for a long time about the dinner and had decided to include French, German and British traditional recipes. Karl said she'd got up at five o'clock, been for an hour's run through the country lanes, and then started preparing dinner on her return. It might be her age but I wonder if she'll have the same energy when she's fifty.
The first course of grilled leeks and stewed garlic on toast was delicious. Celine asked if Stefanie wanted any help but she was already there, serving the main course; a rack of lamb with Rosemary and thyme. She had prepared whipped potatoes with garlic and cheese accompanied by herbed haricot verts and carrots. She carried over a bowl over to me and proudly lifted the lid to present roast potatoes and Brussels sprouts, saying she'd researched British Christmas traditions and these were in honour of me. The food was excellent! Karl said that a lot of German families have goose for their main course, but having so many in his lake he couldn't do this. Celine had read somewhere that carp is a German delicacy at Christmas, but Karl said it depends on where you live. In Berlin, families would have roasted pork or goose.
For dessert Stefanie had brought over a Stollen from Berlin. This is a cake filled with dried fruit and swirls of marzipan, served with whipped cream. To accompany it we had a large jug of Gluhwein; a mulled wine served warm. We had almost finished when, to my amazement, Stefanie announced she wanted to see the dolmens at Carnac, and now would be a good time. Karl said we were all too full up to go out and it was too cold. But she insisted, saying that as she didn't drink, she would do the driving. It was two o'clock and the light was already beginning to fade, but I could see that Stefanie was used to having her own way and it felt mean to complain after she'd cooked us such a lovely dinner. She took the van keys from Karl, and ran out into the driveway. The three of us wrapped ourselves in hats and coats and followed slowly behind. We set off, Celine giving directions, whilst Karl snored away in the front seat. I could feel myself slipping off to sleep, but Celine kept nudging me.
It took us about half an hour to reach the main site of standing stones, just outside Carnac. The place was deserted, as were the roads: everyone, presumably, at home in the warm. As soon as we arrived Stefanie got out her phone and started taking pictures. She asked if we knew why the stones were arranged in perfect straight lines. Celine said it was because they were believed to be a Roman Legion which was turned to stone by the wizard, Merlin. She said there are more than three thousand standing stones in the area, taken from local rock and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany. They are the largest collection of such stones in the world, some believe they date back to 4500 B.C. The three of us shivered, as we watched Stefanie take endless pictures. 

We were freezing, but Stefanie doesn't seem to feel the cold. Karl called her to come back into the van as darkness was falling and it would soon be impossible to see anything.
Back at Karl's we made coffee while Stefanie went up to her room to use her laptop. Karl told up her mum had died when she was six and it had been hard for both of them. He said he's very proud of her but admits he finds it difficult to say no. Celine said she's a lovely girl and was impressed by her cooking skills. I added she has a good future ahead of her, she's doing well at university. Karl said she hopes to become a lecturer. (It's obvious he loves having her around. I don't think he'll want her to go back).
We drank more of the Gluhwein, and fell asleep on the sofas.
I woke with a start to the sound of music playing. Stefanie was clearing the table, singing along to a Christmas Carol while Celine and Karl were discussing German folklore. The fire in the big old hearth had been made up and the kitchen was warm and cosy. We stayed up late into the night, talking, until all of us (apart from Stefanie) drifted back to sleep.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Tuesday 23rd December: Familiar Faces‏

Had a nice surprise this morning when Paul knocked on my door. He and his family are staying at the gite over Christmas and New Year. It was good to see him again. He said Isabelle is doing well; the baby is due in April. He had come round to invite me over for dinner this evening. When I mentioned Celine is coming to see me, he said she would be welcome too. I told him I would bring the Banoffee Pie I made yesterday. I also asked if he wanted to use my piano. Knowing he wouldn't be able to resist, he spent the rest of the morning playing Poulenc and Bizet.

Celine arrived about five. She'd been busy interviewing residents of an elderly people's home near Vannes; recording their memories of folklore and local legends passed down by their parents and grandparents. Soon after she arrived we went over to the Gite where Isabelle was about to serve the first course: French onion soup. She looked very well and said that everything was fine with the baby.
Mathilde showed us the little Christmas tree which her parents had bought that morning from the market near Lorient. Isabelle whispered something to her and she handed me one of the presents from under the tree, telling very slowly in French that I wasn't allowed to open it until Christmas morning. When I asked what she wanted for Christmas, she screwed up her face in concentration. Her mum explained that she was crazy about anything to do with the Disney film, "Frozen".
In respect of me, Celine, Paul and Isabelle spoke in English, but to Mathilde, who's only eight, it was in French. I could understand some of it, anything too difficult I asked Celine to fill me in. I was able to follow the conversation when Celine asked Mathilde if she was looking forward to having a brother or sister. I don't think Mathilde would be jealous; she seems excited but she did say that if it's a boy she's going to send him back!
The soup was very good (nothing like the French onion soup I used to make back in England) and the main course (beef bourguignon) was even better. Isabelle said she's taken several cookery courses in Paris and now would like to start up her own catering company.
Over dinner Celine asked if Paul and Isabelle they had ever been to the Forest of Broceilande; a magical forest near Rennes which is believed to be the last resting place of Merlin from the legend of King Arthur. Mathilde was very interested in this and wanted to know more (She's very bright for an eight year old). Celine told her that Merlin's father is said to be one of Satan's devils who was sent to earth to create an evil child who would have control over men. Mathilde listened, enraptured, as she was told how the baby, Merlin, was christened and so lost his evil powers and grew up to use his magic to do good. Celine said the Forest has many magical places including a spring called The Fountain of Baranton. It was here that Merlin first encountered the witch, Viviane, who whom he fell in love. Mathilde insisted her parents take her to visit the forest before they return to Paris (I'd be interested in seeing it too).
My Banoffee pie went down well; everyone seemed to enjoy it. We finished with coffee. Celine asked if Isabelle and Paul had any names for the baby. Paul said they had decided not to find out the sex and so were waiting until the baby was born. Mathilde suggested Beyonce for a girl and Justin (after Justin Bieber) for a boy: her parents were horrified! Celine said her son, Julien, is in Melbourne, Australia. He's twenty-three and a marine biologist. Isabelle thought it must be strange to have Christmas in the Summer, but Celine said he's been there two and a half years and so should be used to it by now. I think she misses him, but it's so expensive to travel there, she said she doesn't know when she'll next see him.
It was nearly ten when we left and made our way back to my cottage. I couldn't believe it when I saw a figure standing at my door. My first reaction was to panic. But as we got closer I saw it was Adele. She was leaning against the door, and had a parcel wrapped in Christmas paper. I asked her what she was doing. she smiled at me, ignoring Celine and said she hadn't been waiting long but had wanted to give me my present. I unlocked the door and she followed us in. Celine said nothing but sat down in one of the armchairs whilst Adele handed me the present. In the light of the living room, her skin had a strange orange tone. Her eyes were overdone with black eye-liner and as usual, her lipstick was smudged. Her eyes were fixed on me. She said she wanted to give me her present now as she was spending Christmas with her mother and would be leaving tomorrow.
We both heard Celine mutter, "Thank Goodness!"
Adele swung round and glared at her. She began shouting at her in French, saying she was a cheap whore and to keep her nose out of her business. Celine said nothing to this but just laughed. This only caused Adele to shout louder. The last thing I wanted was an argument but I told Adele, as calmly as I could, that she should leave. She glared at me, then at Celine before turning away, and slamming the door behind her. I opened the present. It was a framed picture of myself with Adele, taken at a restaurant where we had gone for her birthday. I told Celine what I remembered of that day. As soon as we'd left the restaurant Adele had accused me of flirting with one of the waitresses and had sulked for the rest of the evening. 

Celine said Adele reminded her of Le Lutin; gnome-like fairies who cause trouble and play tricks on people. They take on different forms, including black chickens, white horses and goats. Celine laughed, adding that maybe they take on the form of Adele too! At the home she had visited that afternoon she'd interviewed an elderly man whose grandfather used to tell him Les Lutins had pushed him off his bicycle when he was a young boy. He said the creature would hang around the crossroads and country paths and most often took the form of a goat who would jump out and run into the bicycle, knocking the grandfather off. Celine said the man was convinced this was true.

Although we laughed about Adele being one of Les Lutins, I can't help worrying about what she's going to do next. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Thursday 18th December: Cow-Rustlers‏

Early this morning I had a phone call from Karl and he sounded worried. I've been so preoccupied with getting my Amatore's Restaurant published I hadn't given much thought to the Jean-Luc situation. Karl then told me Hilda had been kidnapped.
Karl does tend to panic but after he calmed down and told me what had happened I agreed he had cause for concern. Karl is a light sleeper and was woken at around five this morning by the sound of a truck. He got up to look out of his window and, although it was still dark, he could just make out Marie's brothers leading Hilda into the back of their truck. He got dressed as quickly as he could and rushed downstairs but the truck was already racing up the driveway with Hilda aboard.
He was dreading telling Jean-Luc and imagined him having a fit, but when he finally got up and came down into the kitchen his reaction was not what Karl expected. Apparently he showed no reaction, but went and sat at the kitchen table, said nothing and listened in silence whilst Karl told him what had happened. He had since refused to eat or drink anything and Karl was worried that he might be having some sort of breakdown. As I had known Jean-Luc a lot longer Karl wanted me to come over in the hope that I might be able to get some sense out of him. I doubted this but agreed I would do what I could to help.
When I arrived at Karl's I was shocked by Jean-Luc's appearance. Although he was clean and tidy, his eyes were glazed and he fixed his stare on some imaginary object in the corner of the room. I called his name but he was completely unresponsive. Karl said he hadn't eaten much the whole time he had been staying there.
We decided to go to Marie's to find out what was going on. The morning was damp and misty, just as it has been all week. Karl told me that, despite the freezing weather, Jean-Luc had insisted on sleeping in the barn with Hilda, and Karl had to go out several times during the past few nights to check up on him.
There wasn't much room to park at Marie's as six or seven old wrecks were piled up in front of the farmhouse. The twins were working on an ancient Renault, the type of model once popular in the eighties. They were were dressed in their usual blue overalls and matching caps (I've never seen them dressed in anything else). They both looked up as we parked. I've only ever seen them together and honestly couldn't tell one from the other. Karl got out and approached them, asking what they had done with Hilda. They didn't answer but bolted towards the front door and swiftly disappeared inside the house. I knew they had gone to fetch their sister, and sure enough, after a few seconds Marie appeared and stood in the doorway with her arms folded. She was dressed very oddly; baggy denim blue dungarees, a blue cap and a pair of white lace-up knee high boots. For some strange reason she was wearing a pair of sunglasses. Like her brothers, she said nothing but stood there waiting for us to speak. Karl asked her where Hilda was and demanded to know why the twins had taken her. Marie just laughed. She told us Hilda had been sold for a very good price and it was time for Jean-Luc to come home. She added that they had spent twenty two Christmas' together and this year was to be no exception. She was certain that Jean-Luc would return now all the nonsense with Hilda was over. Ridiculous though it seems, I had the impression Marie is jealous of Hilda.
Karl asked her how she could possibly believe getting rid of Hilda would make Jean-Luc return. She didn't answer this but smirked at him and shook her head.
I spoke to Karl in English, saying that it was useless trying to reason with the woman as she is probably as crazy as her husband.
When we arrived back at Karl's place the kitchen was empty. At first we assumed Jean-Luc must be upstairs, but after calling him Karl started to panic. We searched through the barns, the sheds and the rooms where Karl restores his furniture but it became obvious that Jean-Luc had gone. Karl wanted to take the van and search for him, but I thought he was probably on his way to Marie's. I suggested we wait for a while to see if he turned up (I really didn't fancy going to Marie's again).
We sat in the kitchen, drinking coffee, but Karl couldn't concentrate. He kept glancing at the clock and, after several minutes of fingers drumming on the table top, I gave in.
We had only driven a couple of minutes down the road when Karl called out and screeched the van to a halt. 

Crossing the field to the right and heading towards the road was Jean-Luc. As he emerged out of the mist I noticed he wasn't wearing a coat; the man must have been freezing. He showed no surprise as I opened the door to let him in. Karl asked what he had been doing. Jean-Luc told us he had been to town to buy a lottery ticket. After we'd left, he'd fallen asleep in the kitchen. Hilda had appeared in his dream and he'd written down the numbers she'd given him. He became animated and took out the ticket to show us.
When we returned to the house Jean-Luc took his usual place at the kitchen table, gazed into empty space and said nothing more. (I really don't know how Karl puts up with him).
Back home I phoned Celine and told her about the day's events. I also mentioned that, on the way to Marie's, Karl told me his daughter is coming over for Christmas from Berlin and will be arriving in a few days. He hasn't seen her for over a year. She's studying History and Archaeology and plans to visit the Dolmens whilst she's here. Celine was interested to hear this and said she was looking forward to meeting her. Although we laugh about it, I think we were both wondering if Jean-Luc's lottery ticket is going to be a winner.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Friday 5th December: A Stolen Kiss

Last night was Gavin and Ines' engagement party. I wasn't keen on going but I'd mentioned it to Celine who said she was looking forward to it. When she arrived at my place she showed me the present she'd bought them; a tea set she'd got from a market last week. I was relieved when she said it was from both of us -- otherwise I'd have been going to the party empty handed!
I had already described Gavin's house to Celine, but she was still surprised at how masculine the inside was (all black and minimalist). Ines and Gavin, arms linked, were greeting guests at the door to the conservatory. Gavin moved over to a group of admirers (laughing in his usual boisterous way) as Ines showed us her ring which Celine dutifully admired (big and garish - not what I would have thought was her style). Ines fussed over our gift and placed it with the others arranged around a large framed photograph of the happy couple. I looked around at the guests, there must have been about thirty people and it was clear that no expense had been spared for the event. A firm of caterers had obviously been engaged, as two girls in matching uniforms were serving a buffet one end of the room. A large banner with Congratulations to Ines and Gavin hung from the chandeliers. Celine also pointed out that all the flower arrangements must have been done by a professional florist.
We were introduced to Ines' parents who had travelled up from Spain. Her mother only spoke Spanish but her father's English was quite good and we chatted for a while about Barcelona. Celine said she visited there once. She had taken a tour of the city on an open-top double decker bus, hoping to get a better view but it rained constantly. However, she refused to budge!
Ines' brother and sister-in-law came over and introduced themselves. Her brother is an art teacher. Celine asked what he thought of city's Picasso Museum. He said not enough had been done by the city to promote it's connections with the artist who, after all, had lived there at various times in his life.
I noticed Gavin's elderly mother slumped on one of the black leather sofas (just as she had been the first time we had met). She was humming along to the background music -- one of Gavin's own performances -- and I noticed Ines' songs had not been included.
The food was very good: canapés, vol-au-vonts, assorted meats and a variety of cheese. I was topping up my plate when Alexander called me over. He'd brought Kieron along who told me how he'd taken on a waiter's job at one of the restaurants in Carnac. He didn't want to return to England and planned to stay in France. I asked him about the campsite. He said he was relieved to be away from the place and hadn't been back. He's heard from Rodrigo and Tatiana who are now staying with Tatiana's parents and looking for a place of their own. I can't imagine how any of them would have managed on the campsite in this freezing weather.
Alexander introduced us to a couple of teachers who work at the same language school as Ines. One was from Berlin, so I told her about Karl and gave her his e-mail address, saying he's always looking for the chance to speak to anyone in his own language.
Celine was talking to Michel, our new drummer, and his wife Antoinette. Michel was describing Canada and how much he misses it (I noticed Antoinette said nothing on this subject). I think there's a bit of tension there. I was discussing our last rehearsal with Michel when Gavin, standing at the piano, broke into song. The room waited in silence until he finished the final phrase with a theatrical bow. Ines, standing alongside, beamed while everyone applauded. Michel and Antoinette said they had to leave as they had to get back for the babysitter.

Celine said it was hot and stuffy in the room and needed some fresh air. I watched her wander over to french windows and step out into the night. I was talking to Alexander when I noticed Celine returning from the garden, followed by Ines and Gavin. Both women looked upset. As Celine came over towards me, I could see at once that something was wrong. She beckoned me out into the hallway and told me that Gavin had also been outside. At first they were chatting and joking, then said she was beautiful, grabbed hold of her, and tried to kiss her. She pulled away. But, at that exact moment, Ines came out into the garden and saw them. Although it was obvious she was trying to get away, Ines became aggressive; demanding to know what she was up to. Celine explained what had happened while Gavin just stood there with a stupid smile on his face. When Ines questioned him, he'd shrugged and said he understood how it was difficult for any woman to face rejection. At that point Celine stormed back into the conservatory.
I was not at all surprised by this; Gavin is obviously a serial womaniser and Ines is blinded to it. Celine agreed, there was no way he will be faithful to Ines. She said she wanted to leave and would wait for me in the car.
I went back into the conservatory. Gavin and Ines were talking to her parents, his am round her waist, as though nothing had happened. Ines came over and launched into a rant about Celine, saying I should be careful as I didn't know what she was really like. While I didn't want to spoil her engagement party, I felt I had to point out that Gavin had made a pass at Celine. She dismissed this, saying I was mistaken and I would soon come to my senses.
I said goodbye and left.
Celine was upset but said she'd try to forget it as she was sure Gavin probably does this sort of thing all the time. We both thought it was a shame the evening had been ruined. I felt bad for Celine. She'd already had to change her phone number because of the silent calls she's been getting. And now this. We both wondered when, if ever, Ines will come to her senses.