Thursday, 31 January 2013

Gordons Bay

 Gordons Bay is a tiny beach between Clovelly and Coogee along Sydney's Eastern Beaches Coastal Walk. It is home to the local fishing club, who store their tinnies (aluminium dinghies) on picturesque wooden racks on the beach. Protected by an offshore reef, Gordons Bay is one of the few calm and tranquil beaches along this section of coast, and diving and snorkelling are encouraged here. There is an underwater nature trail marked by guide chains and you can see blue groper and baby sharks, sponges and sea urchins.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Sailing off Sydney

A photo from early December 2012.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Bronte Beach, Sydney

Bronte Beach is where families come. It's got everything -- soft sand, surf, a safe swimming hole for the kids known as the bogey hole (that's the section in front of the rocks and surf, on the right), and an ocean tidal pool for ploughing up and down doing laps (out of shot to the right). There is a lovely park behind the beach with lots of shade and lush lawn, picnic tables and barbecues. The restaurant and takeaway outlet are good. It's where we stopped for lunch on our Eastern Beaches Coastal Walk in December 2012. Parking is apparently a nightmare, but most people travel there on the bus.
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Queensland weather update: My father and my friend Margaret have emailed to say that it has largely calmed down where they are. My father described the wind roaring like a jet for two days, but although their town is cut off in all directions, their immediate area has avoided the serious flooding. Today is the first day back at school after the long summer holiday, so there will be considerable disruption to the school programme, and to commerce, with the highways in and out of Brisbane cut (they are allowing some traffic now with police escort). With no damage caused by the wind, Dad is quite happy to have had 4 inches of rain, as they were starting to get a bit dry. 

Margaret says there are still 165 000 homes without electricity, but the day is sunny. She had a big pot blow over in her garden and break, so she too got off lightly. Her daughter was in Brisbane and had quite an epic journey home to a town 200km west. The water is still rising in some areas to the west and north-east, but the storm itself has moved down the coast to the south and into New South Wales -- you probably don't want to be at Bronte today, even though that's a long way south of the worst of the weather.
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Meanwhile, here, we are just grey and overcast, with the same predicted for the foreseeable.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Sacred Kingfisher

 One day while we were staying in Canberra in November last year we put a picnic together and drove out to Namadgi* National Park. While we sat on a rock and ate our lunch this Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus held our attention. It sat on this, or nearby branches, calling 'kekekekeke' all the time. Periodically it spotted a tasty insect and flew down to capture it mid-air or low over the grass. It would bring the prey back to the perch, then drop down to a large knot hole on the trunk of the gum tree. The knot hole must have contained its mate and their nest.

*pronounced nah-madd-jee.
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A Weather Update from my friend Margaret, who lives in Toowoomba (about 50km from my parents): The weather here has been awful, I think it is the 3rd day of non stop rain and wind, yesterday I had to drive up and down Hume st a few times and there were tree limbs from the big gum trees broken off and lying on the road, some as big as 2 cars,as well as many bits of gum and campher laurel the size of a bathtub and leaves and twigs carpeting the asphalt.

The bloke next door to me had one of his garage doors blown right off and the people in the next street had their Boab tree blow right over and crush the fence.

The council trucks were like worker ants, the small ones  with crews pulling the branches to the footpaths and the big Muncher mulch trucks back and forth reducing the limbs to wood chip.

It was quite scary to be out driving in it but this area was without power from noon till 7.30pm so Dad's oxygen(uses it 24hrs) machine stopped without power and 2of  the 3 back up portable bottles were empty (3 hours supply each). The paramedics arranged for me to get some replacements from a nearby nursing home that had a big delivery on Friday.

The power was still out toward 5 pm and all I had in the house were a few candles and a small torch, so it was back out to K mart for a decent size lantern and batteries.

We had 144mls in the 24 hours 9am Sat to 9am Sun, would think we had the same yesterday,will check on Elders website later.

Diana just rang and said the creek at her place at Withcot is up and they can't get out, no idea how long they will be isolated. Grantham and Laidley had a lot of people evacuated yesterday as the flooding in some areas is as bad as 2011.

Bundaberg had some Tornados !!! on Saturday and there has been severe damage up there and flooding. TV has been focused with weather reports and constant updates.
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Meanwhile, here in Preuilly, the day has dawned bright and clear -- likely to be the only sunny day for weeks by the look of the prévisions météo.

Sunday, 27 January 2013

A Minor Medical Drama

Last Thursday I had my very first, in my entire life, appointment with a gynecologist. Don't worry -- it was just for a routine cervical smear test, but in Australia and the UK, this is done at your GP's surgery -- either by the doctor themselves, or more likely these days, the practice nurse.

According to Madame le Docteur Michèle Conort, some GP's will do it in France, but mostly you make an appointment with your gynecologist. Mme Conort's surgery is in rue Aristide Briand in Chatellerault, quite close to the river, in a series of buildings that are jam packed with specialist physicians of all sorts.

On examining me, she discovered a polyp the size of a large pea, so whilst blythely engaging me in conversation about the Baptistry of St Jean in Poitiers to take my mind off things, she cut it out on the spot. She says she is certain it is benign, but naturally has sent it off for a biopsy anyway. She told me off for leaving it more than the recommended 3 years between tests (quite right too).

When she asked me for my Carte Vitale (the equivalent of a medicare card for Australians) I explained that although I had an identity number and was clearly in the system, I had never been sent a Carte Vitale, and had never been able to find out why. She told me I was the third patient that day in the same situation, and I could see by the note she made to herself that the other two had French names, so it is presumably nothing to do with not being French (and besides, Simon was issued with his card ages ago). She had also run out of feuilles de soin (care record forms), which is how you claim for the fee reimbursement 'manually'. She apologised and said if I was going to be in Chatellerault next week for any reason I could pick it up, otherwise she would post it to me. My consultation cost €44, of which I expect to get half back once I send the feuille de soin to RAM.


I tottered out of the surgery in a bit of pain and was very pleased to see Simon waiting in the car right at the entrance of the building. He'd been amusing himself down at the river while I was at the doctor's, making movies of the raging torrent that is flowing over the sluices that once controlled the waters of the Vienne to power the arms factory.


We set off home and about half way I started to feel really weird. I said to Simon that I thought I was going to faint, and promptly passed out. Only for a few seconds, thankfully, and we drove the rest of the way home with my window down, solving the fainting problem, but risking hypothermia. I don't know what caused this uncharacteristic attack of the vapours, and can only guess that it was some sort of shock reaction. I got home, took a couple of paracetamol and by bedtime I was fine. I can't tell you how glad I am that I didn't drive myself to the doctor's though.
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Weather update: In Preuilly, by lunchtime yesterday the snow was already mostly mush and the buildings dripping copiously. It's all gone now, bar a few solid lumps in the shade, and the weather is predicted to be wet and windy.

Meanwhile, news from my parents, who say: "We are now under the influence of the tail of cyclone Oswald. With severe winds and heavy rain at times huge damage further north with tornados. All safe here at present more severe this arvo according to the bureau. 28mm so far."

Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Birthday Boy

Here he is, looking as proud as punch. Simon's father is the main reason we went to Australia in November. He turned 80 years old and the family organised a party. Simon's brother Jon arranged for Ernie to arrive in style, in this classic Rolls Royce - something on every East End boy's wishlist.

Today is another anniversary -- Australia Day, and Ernie is a perfect example of those intrepid spirits who left their country of birth to make a better life for themselves and their families in Australia -- exactly the sort of thing Australia Day celebrates.
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The blog header for today is a photo of the Warrumbungles - we selected this photo to be the banner before the bushfires that devastated the area last week. We wrote about the fires here.
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Weather news: We woke up to 2cm of snow this morning. Simon has been out sweeping the street.

Friday, 25 January 2013

La Ferme forte

Just recently, engaging in some displacement activity, we took a drive to Martizay. Exploring the back blocks of the village we came to the hamlet of la Mardelle and this fabulous fortified farm. I can't find out anything about this complex, but a mardelle is a clay lined sinkhole or pool created by the action of water percolating through the substrate and dissolving the underlying limestone until the surface collapses to form an impervious depression. It can be very deep and dramatic, such as a sinkhole, or it can simply be a shallow karst pool on the surface. The names of the nearby hamlets may hint at the waterlogged nature of the landscape, at least in the past -- la Saulnerie ('the willows') and Lejonc ('the rush').

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An arrêté (decree) has gone up on the town noticeboard, telling residents of the commune that they must cut back trees and shrubs if they are encroaching on public rights of way and streets, and if they are getting too close to power and telephone lines (the distances are specified on the notice). If property owners don't deal with the required pruning, the local authority will do it for them and send a bill.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont

La Temple de la Sybille.

Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont in Paris was created in 1867 and opened on the first of April to coincide with the Exposition Universelle.

On barren land, the site wasn't much used beforehand, except for a gibbet which stood there from the 13th century until the fall of Louis XVI. The place next became a gypsum quarry, from the Revolution to 1860.

In the development of Paris overseen by Napoléon III, gardens played a significant part. It was decided to purchase the land and transform the top of the hill into a garden.

The 24.7 ha park receives 3 million visitors annually.

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There is a Marché aux truffes (Truffle Market)  at Marigny-Marmande on Saturday 26, from 9 am to 1 pm. But before you go you might want to watch this video (kindly brought to my attention by my friend Sweetpea).

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Ronsard Lived Here

 The jettied gallery where Ronsard wrote and the apsoidal end of the church at the Prieuré de Saint-Cosme.
We have written about the Prieuré de Saint Cosme before. It is one of the lesser known historic sites of Tours (actually in La Riche, once a separate village, but now absorbed into the Tours agglo). It is stunningly picturesque with ruins surrounded by a garden full of roses, as befits its most famous former occupant, the 16th century poet Ronsard. Here is his most well known poem, Quand vous serez bien vieille and three rather different translations of it -- you will see why roses feature so much in the Priory gardens.

 The 14th century maison du prieur where Ronsard lived.

A ceiling has been installed in this room at some stage, so now a hole has been cut in it to allow us to see this earlier dragon-headed king post in the maison du prieur.

Roof timbers in the maison du prieur, showing the typical pegged joints, and a row of croix de Saint-André below the roof ridge to ensure it cannot twist in the wind.

A nice repair job on some old collombage (wattle and daub infill on a timber framed building) under the stairs in the maison du prieur. It looks a lot like our house, also probably 14th century and repaired by an artisan working with traditional materials in the 21st century.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Going Bush

 A typical homestead in the bush.

On 29 November last year we headed out from Canberra and set off on a 2500 km round trip to visit my parents in south-east Queensland. Simon has done an interactive map showing our route and marking highlights with photos. Please click on the symbols if you want to follow our journey.

View Trip to Qld in a larger map

A typical pub in the bush.

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Warrumbungles Update: It's gloomy to say the least. The fire has burnt out over 54 000 ha and is still not out. Most of the burnt area is within the National Park, and 80% of the park is burnt. Ecologically it's a tragedy in terms of the 18 species of amphibians, 68 reptiles, 281 birds and 82 mammals. If they haven't been killed in the fire, food may now be short. Malleefowl, koalas, eastern pygmy possums and brush-tailed rock wallabies are of particular concern. Of course, in the long run, the magnificent volcanic formations that form the backbone of the park are unaffected, but the park is one of the last remnants of the Brigalow Belt, a tremendously rich but sadly undervalued bioregion in Australia. There has been some rain which has brought relief, but the local tourist office is despairing -- economically the National Park was their  biggest attraction. The visitor centre, which contained aboriginal artefacts, is destroyed, as are some of the Siding Spring Observatory buildings. There is a further social issue too -- 53 homes burnt out, 113 other buildings, many, many farm animals killed and much farm machinery damaged beyond repair. 

It seems likely that the fire was started by a lightning strike deep in the National Park. This made it almost impossible to control in those initial crucial few hours. Because of resources issues, Rural Fire Services usually let fires in wilderness areas burn, and focus their attention on human habitations and enterprises. Shockingly, it seems that resources in the future will be even scarcer. The RFS is only possible because of the dedication of its many volunteers, but the New South Wales government has decreed it must take a financial hit in these straitened times.

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Preuilly Snow Update: As predicted by the Météo, we had some rain and high winds, so the snow had more or less gone by yesterday afternoon.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Crisp and Even

It may not be very deep, but it is definitely crisp and even, which makes it look deeper than it really was. It started to snow in the night sometime and was snowing lightly when I got up yesterday. I measured 5cm in our driveway at mid-morning. I'm glad we got round to covering the Renault, which lives in the open front courtyard. We celebrated by watching a documentary on the winter of 1963 in Britain -- 2 and a half months of snow and ice and freezing temperatures -- the country froze to a standstill. Simon, who lived in London, says he can just about remember it.


The council tractors with their snow moving blades on were out clearing the streets of Preuilly when I went to buy bread.

 
 Our front courtyard.

 Our teenaged neighbour Tiphaine's footprint in the tyre tracks on the street.

 One of the neighbourhood cats returning to the home fire after having been out investigating this new white world.

According to Patti Lecron's blog post yesterday, année de neige, année de bon grain (literally, 'year of snow, year of good grain'). In other words, snow in the winter is a sign we will have a good harvest. Well, it was true last year, but not the year before, so we will have to wait and see.

 The Courteix kids and dog play in the snow in the street.

Looking down towards the ancien marché aux porcs

The snow was all sparkly and lovely, and there was no wind, so it was pleasant outside if you were rugged up with snow gloves and the rest. I hope these images don't upset our Australian readers too much...40°C -- insupportable ! The temperature here is hovering around 0°C.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Price of Things

We had been warned that everything had got very expensive in Australia in the last couple of years, since we were last there. I can't say I noticed it especially, but there were a few things that were significantly more expensive than in France, like diesel (and some, like petrol, which is cheaper).

Whilst restaurant and takeaway meals seem to be around a third dearer in Australia than in France, it was staples like sugar and milk which really astonished us with the price difference between the two countries.

 Audi, my sister-in-law Rosie's dog, eyes off the coconut macaroons I have just made with some very expensive Australian sugar.
 
Both France and Australia are sugar producing countries. In France, sugar beet is widely grown in the north, even after 45% of sugar beet growers have withdrawn from the industry in the last 6 years. The beets are fully refined into sugar in France. The price to growers is set by the European Commission, and they operate under a quota system, but the retail price is not controlled. I pay 89 euro cents a kilo (the equivalent of AUD$1.10). Growers can produce more than their quota and the price for the beets sold outside the quota is not regulated, but these beets cannot go into the production chain for refined sugars. Instead they are sold to the industrial chemical or pharmaceutical processors. Imported cane sugar, especially from less developed countries and former French colonies is equally available, and is offered favourable trade arrangements so it is extremely competitive. Since 2006 France has become a net importer of sugar.

In Australia sugar cane is widely grown in the north east, but it is only processed to the raw sugar stage before being shipped offshore for refining. Sugar is one of Australia's biggest export products. Sugar beet is not grown at all. The 2kg bag purchased in Canberra that you see in the photo above cost me AUD$4.60 (ie $2.30 / kg or the equivalent of €1.85 / kg -- more than twice what I pay in France). Mind you, this does seem to have been particularly expensive sugar -- the same product in the same supermarket chain but in a small country town in Queensland was 90 cents a kilo cheaper.

The pasturised homogenised fresh milk I purchased at the same time cost me $1.90 a litre (€1.53), whereas in France I pay €0.80¢ ($0.99¢) for raw milk direct from the producer (it's up to 10 euro cents dearer in the supermarket, and UHT, not fresh). In Australia, dairy farmers have quotas, are locked in to selling to designated processors (it is illegal to sell raw milk) and are paid between 13 and 18 cents per litre (friends of mine receive 14 cents a litre for their milk). UHT milk is widely available in Australia, but not consumers first choice (only being purchased when shelflife is important). The price is unregulated, and set by the processors, who are effectively controlled by the big supermarkets. At this price, the farmers are not breaking even, and many are handing in their quotas (as my friends plan to do).

France also currently uses a quota system to control the market, although this is due to end in 2015. The price farmers receive is not officially regulated, but there is a regularly reviewed recommended price proposed by representatives from the industry (including the farmers themselves). It is currently around 34 euro cents ($0.42) and processors (such as the giant Danone) stick fairly closely to it when purchasing milk. Even so, producers say that the real cost of production is around 42 euro cents a litre and there was a dramatic protest in Brussels in November while we were away, when dairy farmers from all over the EU came to town and sprayed the European Parliament building (and riot police) with milk.

In both countries, dairy farmers can choose to exceed their quotas, but the extra milk cannot be sold as milk, but only go to make milk products such as powdered milk or the various dairy bulking agents widely used in the food industry. Naturally, the price to the producer is lower for this ex-quota milk. The milk I bought in Australia was not the cheapest. One of the big supermarkets, Coles, notoriously uses milk as a loss leader, and sells it for $1 a litre (80 euro cents, the same as I pay in France). Of course, in this situation, it is not the supermarket or the processors who are bearing the loss, but the dairy farmers. Milk is never used as a loss leader in France -- there would be no point -- French people don't consume enough of the stuff.

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More Bakery News:  This time from the horse's mouth -- I spoke to the baker's wife, who runs the shop and she said they simply weren't getting enough custom. It's clearly been too long between the closure of Pichard's bakery and the new baker taking over, and people have decided to stick with the Merles now they've got into the habit of going down the hill. The new bakers are going to continue to bake and open the shop until the end of the month, then it is closed, définitif.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Big Berta Goes Bung

The day before we left for Australia, in November, I turned on the oven and nothing happened -- no light, no fan and definitely no heat. The gas cooktop worked perfectly, so it wasn't the power supply in. We were mystified, but didn't have time to do anything about it before we left. At least it was better than having the back door lock explode the afternoon before we left, which is what happened in 2009.


 The orange wire is Stéphane's temporary fix just before Christmas.

On our return Simon emailed the retailers in London, who had previously been very helpful. They replied that they were no longer the agents for Bertazzoni and could only pass on to us the contact details for the new London dealer. We got in touch with the new London dealer and they said they couldn't help us as we were in France and gave us the contact details for the French service agent. They were located in a département many kilometres away, so we emailed our friend Chris, who also owns a Bertazzoni, passed on what we had learned and asked his advice. He gave me the service contact email that he had, and checked the papers that came with the range cooker. I'd already checked ours, and neither of us could find any sort of troubleshooting guide, nor any wiring diagrams that might shed some light. In the meantime I'd also emailed Colin, who is an electrical engineer, to see if he could identify what the problem was likely to be.

Elizabeth holds a torch while Colin and Simon remove the old thermostat sensors.

I emailed the service address Chris had given me. After about a week they came back to me to tell me that they could only deal with North American clients and gave me a European service email address. I emailed this address and got someone in the service department at Bertazzoni in Italy. He replied promptly, communicated in English and was immediately very helpful. He guessed what the problem was (a faulty oven selector switch) and sent me the relevant wiring diagrams so we could check it out.

I asked Stéphane, if he would come over to look at it, which he very kindly did. Stéphane, amongst his many talents, is a trained electrician. Sure enough, a plastic lug on the mechanical part of the selector switch had melted. It looked like one of the electrical connections was a bit loose, heated up and had caused this. Stéphane effected a neat and clever wiring bridge and we had a temporary fix.

Simon looks on while Colin very competantly puts all the new wires in their right place.

I relayed this information to the nice man at Bertazzoni, who said that he was very happy to post us a replacement part for free, as the range cooker was still (just) under guarantee. What he couldn't do, as we were in France, was arrange a technician to come and do the repair. Would we mind arranging this ourselves? By this time it was Christmas eve.

The old oven selector switch and wiring.

I agreed, and waited for the part to arrive. By 10 January I decided the service department at Bertazzoni's had had enough time to get over Christmas and New Year and emailed them to see where the part was. They apologised, said they'd been very busy and it would be with me by Monday. It was.

Once I had the part I had intended to ask Alex if he could come over and help Simon replace the switch (amongst his many talents he is a trained electrical engineer). However, he was unavailable. I emailed Colin to let him know progress, and he very generously offered to come over and deal with the repair.

The new switch and wiring loom that arrived in the post from Bertazzoni.

Thus it was that yesterday, Colin and Elizabeth arrived, bringing the first snow of the winter with them. The old switch, thermostat and wiring were pulled out and the new gubbins put in. It seems likely that Big Berta was the victim of a known problem with these range cookers, as the new part had been modified to be more robust. Colin took the view that since we had been sent the whole kit and kaboodle, we would be best off replacing the whole lot and not just the selector switch. I was most impressed by Colin's grasp of how it all worked and where everything should go. With hardly any bad language, he and Simon had the top off, the switch in place and the coloured spaghetti all connected in the right places. It worked first time too! We really appreciate his time and expertise.

A close up of the new switch.

In return I cooked a fat and gluten free lunch for everyone, which I thought was going to be a bit challenging, but turned out to be relatively easy (minestrone with no lardons, homemade veggie stock and gluten free pasta left over from John's visit in May; warm winter fruit salad and rice cream pudding made with skim milk, in case you need to do the same one day).

Friday, 18 January 2013

Canberra Recovers

Today is the 10th anniversary of devastating bushfires that burnt out much of the wonderful National Parks and Nature Reserves that surround the Australian capital, Canberra, destroying buildings at the Mt Stromlo Observatory, killing many wild animals and birds including those at the Tidbinbilla Research Station, and finally, entered the suburbs themselves, destroying 500 houses and killing 4 people. An appalling event that we watched with increasing horror, live on the internet at home in London.

A photo I took in Namadgi NP, March 2003 -- everything you see is burnt, down to a depth of 1m into the ground.

The fires were extraordinarily ferocious, consuming everything in their path and moving at great speed. I was in Canberra 6 weeks after the event and saw for myself the blackened earth in Namadgi NP and the ruined houses in Duffy.

Namadgi NP in November 2012 -- you might never notice the fire damage...

Nowadays, the casual or uninformed visitor wouldn't notice the traces still visible to those who remember. In the mountain forests of Brindabella and Namadgi the trees bear the scars, but new growth almost entirely obscures the dead trees now.

...but look more closely at the hilltop in the background.

The fires were a tremendous shock to Canberrans, who never expected them to breach the city boundaries or to destroy so much of the surrounding forestry areas. Simultaneously, terrible fires were burning in Victoria, which would not be extinguished until early March. After the smoke cleared and firemen at last went home, a debate started about how bushfires and the bush near urbanised areas should be managed. Something had to be done, because quite apart from the loss of life and property, fires were beginning to be a significant pollution problem, contaminating water resources and by 2007, releasing 30% more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal fired electricity plants, industry and car exhausts put together.

The new National Arboretum, replacing a commercial pine monoculture that was destroyed in 2003.

The discussions centred on the need to clear undergrowth, which provided fuel for the fires. For years the government policy had been to make fire breaks by grading vegetation clear areas and doing controlled burns on a very limited scale. This was seen as good conservation practice, leaving habitat undisturbed. Now those who argued that much more controlled burning was needed started to be taken more seriously in public. They drew heavily on traditional Aboriginal practices of 'cleansing' the land with fire and won a lot of support.

The Arboretum goes on and on...

However, my reading makes me worry that the ideas of those who would manage the forests in traditional ways have been dumbed down. Policies have been established that are so formulaic you can see immediately they are not going to succeed. There is no allowance for seasonal differences from year to year and too much pandering to selfish modern landuse practices, leading to a blanket, simplistic requirement for a 10% annual 'controlled' burn. It seems very likely that the same convenient pieces of land will be burnt year after year, to fit in with some works department agenda, and often with a hubristic lack of regard for current weather conditions. It will also give the green light to concerned but inexperienced private citizens to conduct burn-offs of their own. These fires are frequently inadequately supervised, and not checked thoroughly to ensure they are totally extinguished ie cold, including underground tree roots.

Although there was an enquiry after these fires highlighting the tinder load issue as well as the flaws in the 'stay or go' policy ('hoping people will do something is not a policy') whereby evacuation was not enforced and people could make up their own mind whether they evacuated or whether they stayed to fight the fire, it seems that the lessons were not entirely learnt. 2009 saw utterly horrendeous fires in Victoria, and now we've just had southern Tasmania up in flames again, along with bits of New South Wales. Communications and warning systems continue to fail and there is too much reliance on fire trucks, which can't get into the wilderness. Encouraging people to have a fire survival plan, with an agreed set of actions once the warnings go out has helped, but government needs to focus on issues such as electricity line maintenance and how to achieve the delicate balance between high quality wilderness habitat next to safe urban human habitat.

...covering many hectares, and already a Canberra icon.

On a happier note the one very positive thing that has come out of the Canberra fire is the National Arboretum. Thousands of trees of many species, both native and exotic, are being planted on the hillsides where there was once a pine plantation. Canberrans have taken this project to their hearts and support it unreservedly. It symbolises regeneration, renewal and looking forward to a future full of hope for them. It's not yet open to the public, but special events are periodically held on the site, including what was clearly a very popular annual concert, Voices in the Forest.

To read a very moving account of the fires written by someone who was present and actively involved in the aftermath, go to the blog post for today on Talking Naturally, written by Ian Fraser.

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Bakery Update: Bad news again I'm afraid. The new bakers is fermé fermé  according to one of my old ladies. No one knows why, although she hinted she might know or have guessed -- it could be plein de choses, apparently. My guess is that the bakery equipment is not up to scratch and there has been a disagreement with the landlord. It is very curious, as only a week ago, Bertu (the mayor, Monsieur Bertucelli) was clearly delighted to welcome the new baker to town at his New Year ceremony and there was no hint it might be a trial period or anything.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Equine Visitors

 Horse-trekking steeds tethered to a line.

Célestine is not the only one offering visitors to the Loire Valley a more interesting experience of touring the chateau than being packed onto a coach. There is at least one, and I think two, companies, offering horse-trekking tours.

One of the residents is keen to make contact with the visitors, but a little nervous.

The horses are 'undressed' and tethered to a rope between two trees in the picnic area at Chenonceau while their riders go off and visit the chateau. The resident horses, who live in the overflow carpark, make somewhat hesitant contact with these interlopers.

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Yesterday a crisis of major proportions developed in Preuilly around lunchtime. Wednesday is Sophie and Aurélien's (the bakers 'down the hill') closed day, but now with the new baker in town (the baker 'up the hill'), we don't have to rely on the depôts de pain for the daily bread on a Wednesday. Imagine the consternation and turmoil when citizens arrived at the door of the new baker's, to find the blinds down and the door locked! No sign on the door announcing a fermeture exceptionnelle either. No one knew what the story was! We all headed down to the Casino (that's the supermarket, not the pokies) as they are the depôt de pain. They had already run out, but the baker from Martizay who supplies them was promising to get more delivered in 10 minutes. The time came and went. More and more people gathered. A few got desperate and bought a loaf of 'long life' bread. Most just hung about in the cold. Eventually I decided to give up and go home. On my way past the Vival supermarket up the top of the hill I spotted my friend Sylvie inside, positively flaunting a baguette! I don't know where she got it, but it must have been the last bread in town. I made a face at her and went home to cook pasta for lunch. I didn't want to hang around the main street too long -- after all the traditional response to bread shortages in this country is to riot...




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For a vision of what our journey from Canberra to Queensland would have been like if we had been making it now rather than a month ago, see this video shot by one of the firemen at Coonabarabran, fighting the fire as it crosses the road we travelled.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Closed Door

A superb repro medieval door in the Donjon at Loches, discreetly Chubb locked and warning of danger lurking behind. I assume it hides some of the electrical gubbins. It may have been made by the same team as made our staircase, as I know they have worked on the Donjon in Loches.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Warrumbungles

The Warrumbungles possess just about the best name and the best skyline of any place in New South Wales. The mountains have been a wilderness national park since 1953. Our original plan when we travelled through New South Wales in November / December last year was to overnight in the national park, but for one reason or another we ended up staying in Moree instead. We did, however, turn off onto the old highway in order to get the best views of the Warrumbungles as we passed.

 And just for fun, here they are from the 'back', that is to say, taken on our journey south, from the Castlereagh Highway rather than the Newell Highway.

Now we find they are in the news, with fierce bushfires raging through the national park, threatening the world famous radio telescope facility at Siding Spring and destroying over 30 homes. No deaths have been reported but the fire continues to burn despite slightly cooler weather improving conditions. For the story as reported in the local news, see the ABC Western Plains bulletin from yesterday.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Big Boys

Two Limousin bulls soaking up some rays in a field on the outskirts of Angles-sur-l'Anglin in late October.

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Movie Suggestion: A Pas de Loup, a short (70 minute) independent Belgian film which will test your French language comprehension a bit -- there is no dialogue and it is entirely narrated and from the point of view of an 8 year old girl. Rather sweet, nicely done. 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

A Plague on All Your Houses*

Plague Soldier Beetles Chauliognathus lugubris have been capturing the news headlines for the past year or so in Australia. These attractive dark green and orange beetles occur sporadically in large numbers in order to maximise reproductive success. They form dense aggregations on flowering plants and are often seen in gardens and in houses.

I saw them in Canberra in the Botanic Gardens and in private gardens, and in Sydney on the Manly foreshore. Alex Wild noted them from his trip to Australia this time last year and has posted some much better pictures than mine, along with some basic information about the species.

A Plague Soldier Beetle on a Canberra garage wall.

I am quite disturbed by what I read in the comments to his blog post. Most of them are from random Australians who have discovered his blog by accident because they have large numbers of these beetles in their garden and were trying to find information about them. What bothered me especially was the number of these comments that begin with 'I love nature, but...' and go on to say that they are planning to exterminate the beetles immediately.

So -- even when presented with the facts from a clearly reputable authority that a) the beetles are not just harmless but positively beneficial, and b) they will be in plague proportions for only a few days, these people are not prepared to temporarily modify their lifestyle or behaviour in any way (except to remember to purchase an extra can of Mortein at the supermarket). I have to wonder what exactly it is that they understand by the word 'nature' and what they consider to be 'loving' it.

A minor plague on a Teatree Leptospermum sp in the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

I was disquieted to realise that some Australian houses have not just the plug-in devices that deliver a regularly timed dose of synthetic, carcinogenic scent into a room, but some people also have a similar device that sprays a periodic burst of insecticide 24/7. These devices are prominently advertised on television. A decade earlier, people would have had screens on all doors and windows, or simply put up with insects coming indoors. These days, doors and windows are getting bigger and the big screens that would need to go with them are probably not rigid enough to be practical, as well as being seen as unaesthetic. Lights, both indoor and outdoor, proliferate, and exacerbate the problem by attracting the hapless insects.

Doing what they do best.

Granted these insecticides are fairly well accepted to be of low toxicity to mammals, but I do wonder how much gets out into the environment from people and pets in contact with residuals on carpet and furniture. After all, mammals are not the only fish** and every time you walk out the door or wash your clothes, some must be transferred to the soil or the water system. It all adds up. I could understand it, and indeed condone it, if the target was specific, such as malaria carrying mosquitoes, but this generalist approach that any insect in numbers or indoors should be a dead insect I find deeply shocking.

*to slightly misquote the Bard, in traditional tabloid manner.
**sorry, that's a feeble taxonomy joke, and you need to know about Willi Hennig to get it.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Asparagus in November

These 1kg bundles of fresh green Australian grown asparagus were about AUD$8 I think, in the monsterous and somewhat bizarre shopping experience that is the Canberra branch of Costco. Anything from diamond rings to bhuja mix available here. We bought oysters, champagne, asparagus, a fillet of Wagyu beef and a large fruit cake amongst other things -- all excellent quality and value. In the last decade asparagus has become big business in Australia, with the trade growing to be the 8th largest producer in the world and worth AUD$50M. Green asparagus is by far the most commonly available -- partly due to it being cheaper to produce, partly due to customer preferences. The Australian asparagus season is September to March.

Friday, 11 January 2013

The Refectory at Saint-Cosme

The refectory door, with its chevron pattern surround.

The Prieuré de Saint-Cosme has a well preserved refectory, with a lovely Romanesque doorway and an interesting pulpit (une chaire romane in French). A monk would be stationed here at meal times to read to the assembly below as they ate.

A composite pilaster in the reading niche.

Access to the niche is via the arch on the left. The reader would go up a short curved staircase and sit looking out over the assembly from the larger arch on the right.