February 28, 2014

Cold, wet, windy

The weather here is atrocious. Well, it is if you’re thinking about flying a light aircraft, anyway. When I got up this morning, which wasn’t that early because it’s hardly worth it (if you have the choice) when you can hear wind and rain lashing against your bedroom window, the garden outside was soaked and the water was almost up to my doorstep in the mud outside my kitchen door. When I went to get some wood in yesterday, the ground from the door around to my wood store was like a swamp with rainwater lying in pools in the footprints left by my rubber boots from previous days, so goodness knows what it was like this morning because I didn’t want to find out until I had to.

As I type this, the rain has stopped slapping against my back door, behind me, and there has been a brief period of bright sunlight between the almost unremitting heavy grey cloud. But it keeps doing this, and although it buoys our hopes for a few minutes, we know that the respite will be brief and pretty soon the cloud and rain will roll back in again. In fact, here it comes again, right now. I mentioned in an earlier posting that we expected there to be more rain, from then until the end of this week, but I didn’t think that it would be this cold or this windy and with this amount of rain.

We can see from today’s satellite photos on the internet where it’s all been coming from, which is from way out over the Atlantic.

null

But this is only half of the story. The question is, ‘Why?’ And we don’t have to look too far to get the answer, because it turns out the ‘usual suspect’, the jetstream, is what’s mainly responsible.

null

I recall before I left the UK to come to France, talking about how the weather there had been adversely affected by the jetstream’s moving further south than usual for the time of year and how it had dragged ‘arctic’ weather down with it, bringing cold, wet and windy conditions. At that time the jetstream had made it about as far down as the English Channel, but it appears from the above image, that it has now drifted a great deal further south, bringing similar conditions not just to south and west France but also to northern and mid-Spain and possibly even parts of north Africa. This begs several questions – one being, ‘How much further south can it possibly drift?’ Another is, ‘Just how long will this weather cycle go on for?’

I haven’t been watching the jetstream’s recent progress but it’s pretty obvious that trends such as we are viewing do not just happen overnight – my guess is that it has taken several weeks for it to trek south, which explains the unsettled weather conditions that we’ve been experiencing in recent weeks. There are several possibilities as to what will happen as from now. Firstly, if the jetstream has not reached its southernmost limit, we are clearly going to be in for more of the same for a while to come. The first image, above, shows that south and west France are being affected by the same unsettled weather patterns as the UK, except that because the UK is further north, on average it is colder there with a chance that the precipitation will fall as snow. It’s probably reasonable to assume that if the jetstream continues its trek south, colder conditions will also be dragged further south into France.

However, if the jetstream’s move south has now either reached its southernmost limit, or, more optimistically, has already begun its move north again, at least there would be a light on the horizon for we ULM pilots in France, and in both cases, it would be just a matter of time before things here begin to improve. So now we just have to wait and see which scenario applies – and just keep watching what that ruddy snake high up in the sky gets up to, because only it, not us, has the power to decide what happens next 😐

February 25, 2014

Turning the corner

Weather-wise? Maybe. I checked Galinat again today on my way back from Intermarché and it was showing a definite improvement compared to the last time I saw it. The very top edge of the apron next to the road was still a bit soggy but even a metre or so in, the ground was much firmer. I’m not sure that it was quite firm enough to taxi, let-alone drive on, but I don’t think it was far off. The reason was that we have had one or two dryish days and yesterday especially was just what the doctor ordered, with a bit of sun and a brisk drying wind.

If anything, the runway was a bit firmer than the apron, although still not quite dry enough to start using on a regular basis, but another few days like the ones that we’ve had recently and we’ll be back in business. However, true to form, on my way back home, the dark clouds began to roll in and we had a short, sharp squally shower of rain. But it didn’t last too long and with a bit of luck, although it refreshed the mud between my back door and my wood store, I don’t think that it will have put the airfield back too far. So now it’s just a matter of waiting, hoping and keeping fingers crossed 😉

February 21, 2014

Really infuriating!

I went out to Galinat again this afternoon to see if there had been any improvement in the state of the airfield. I have to say that I wasn’t holding out much hope so I wasn’t disappointed with what I found. Yup, it was at least as wet as when I got bogged down in my car the other day, if not more so, and you could still clearly see the tyre marks left by my car when Christian drove off down the field after my young DJ friend (because that’s what he was) and I had pushed it out of the mud.

It’s hardly surprising that the airfield is still as wet as it is because every time there’s a little bit of sunshine and/or wind to help it to dry out a bit, soon afterwards it rains and puts it right back at square one again, because the ground is so saturated. This time last year we were getting some lovely spring-like days but I wasn’t flying because although I already had the X-Air, I wasn’t able to do the work on it to make it flyable because I was working on my new fireplace. Now it’s at Galinat and ready to fly, and I’d love to, but the weather is doing everything it can to stop me. It’s totally maddening 😡

February 18, 2014

Still no flying, but…

… I’ve been keeping myself busy since I got back home from ‘down south’. Last Thursday February 13th was my birthday but it was a low-key affair, which I was glad of because I was still getting over the 3 weeks I spent working on Val’s kitchen. Wim and Sophie were off for the week in Arcachon so I was left to myself to enjoy a little bit of R & R. Now, one of the things that the French do very well I think, is what I know as crystallised fruit. At Christmas especially, the local Intermarché supermarket dedicates a whole area to a gorgeous display of the stuff as a sort of ‘Pick ‘n Mix’ of all kinds of irresistible fruits. The only thing that’s a bit off-putting is that it’s not covered up at all so over time, some of the fruits on display become a bit dry and unattractive looking, and who knows what gets deposited on them as hundreds of shoppers pass by every day 😕

The display is still there and although this year the price has gone up quite a bit, to 11.90€/kg, I decided that I’d treat myself on my birthday. To give an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a pic of a small bowl containing dried figs, prunes, apple, pineapple, papaya, mango, strawberries and black and white grapes.

null

The latter are nothing like English currants and sultanas, being much more luscious and juicy. OK, it was a little extravagant because just the same as when you buy ‘Pick ‘n Mix’ sweets, you end up shovelling much more than you originally intended to into your bag, and also as a treat, it’s absolutely loaded with calories. But to heck with it, I thought that I deserved it 😉

Since then I’ve done little more except keep my ‘poele à bois’ burning. Val has had a 13 kW Supra built-in stove fitted in her salon that churns out heat fantastically well once it gets up to speed. One of the reasons is that she uses good quality dry wood, which performs much better than the kind of stuff I’ve been getting out of my garden. Even so, she was caught out the last time she had wood delivered because although it was all oak, it was actually pretty wet because of all of the rain we’ve been getting recently. As a result, she was being troubled by the same problems as me – hard to light, slow to get going and a lot of smoke if you open the stove door while it’s doing so.

I suggested that she should get hold of a sack or two of dry, split kindling, which she did, and although the wood was being kept in her nice dry garage, that it would probably dry and burn better of it was split down, because a large proportion of it consisted of quite large logs. As a result, we hired a ‘fendeuse’ like mine for a day and I spent a few hours one Sunday unstacking, splitting and re-stacking the wood. But it was worth it because the theory worked in practise and the stove was immediately back to belting out heat, just as before.

Having learnt these lessons, on Saturday I got hold of a sack of kindling myself from Les Briconautes, together with a sack of small, dry logs to supplement and help get my own wood up to temperature, and have been using them with success for the few days since then. However, my wood situation is a bit tricky, as it’s ‘touch and go’ as to whether I’ll have enough of my own to see me through the winter. I could buy some more (eg 2 stéres of oak) but I don’t want to, because (a) I don’t have enough storage space for it at the moment and (b) I want to empty my present rickety old wood store and build a new one, which would be a bit difficult if it was full up with wood.

Nevertheless, yesterday (Monday) I phoned a local supplier who I’d found on the Internet offering dry wood at a competitive price with ‘no minimum order’ to see what he would charge for delivery. First he said that the distance from his place to my house was too far to deliver only 2 stéres and then he said that his vehicle was ‘en panne’ (broken down), so the signs were not good. He said that he’d call me back but I’m not surprised to be still waiting for his call. So today I thought that I’d try to get a handle on my wood situation and see exactly how much I had left to see me through. I’ve now used up just about all of my dead trees with harder wood and the bulk of the remaining dead wood is in a tree with catkins, that I think from what I can gather from the Internet is called a Corylus. These trees are very common over here and if left, produce a large number of trunks from their base until they almost resemble an enormous bush. That’s what’s happened with the one I have close to my wood store, except over many years, it’s become totally uncontrolled, almost blocking the way around the end of my house. And also, many of the trunks have become totally dead.

So these are the ones I’ve been chopping out with my chain saw. It’s a bit like coppicing and although it now looks rather tatty as a result from some angles, I’m sure that in time new trunks will shoot up to take the place of the large, old dead ones that I’ve removed and the tree will become full again. But as a result of my efforts with my chain saw, in fact I’ve ended up with quite a bit of wood, as the following pics show.

null

null

And because the wood is all dead, I can burn it straight away, as I’ve found this evening, so long as I use the ‘Les Briconautes’ dry wood to get it going and up to temperature. So it was a bit of luck, really, that the wood supplier didn’t come back to me, because if he had done and I’d ordered a couple of stéres off him, I have absolutely no idea what I’d have done with it 🙂

I decided that I’d go straight ahead and split down all the wood that I’d cut, not just to make it ready to burn but also to make it lose any moisture it contained quicker. I’d also then be able to see just how much I had to get some sort of idea of how long it might last me. Although I’ve shown some pics of my ‘fendeuse’ previously, I’ve not been able to show it in action. Without someone else being here at the time, it would be difficult to show a video of some kind as it needs two hands to operate it for safety reasons. However, here are a couple of shots of it taken today showing what it can do, albeit with a log of relatively modest size.

null

null

The paperwork that came with the machine says that it will handle logs up to 50 cm in length and 25 cm diameter. However, one of the old tree trunks that I split the other day was at least 35-40 cm in diameter and it handled that pretty much with ease, so it’s a pretty handy tool to have. But anyway, I ended up with quite a nice little pile of split-down logs, as shown below.

null

null

null

As you can see, I split my garden wood down pretty small, much smaller than you’d need to if it was good quality, dry hardwood, and this is because it dries out and burns much easier if the stove is hot enough in smaller split pieces. While I was using my splitter, Wim flew over my house in his Weedhopper (CLICK HERE for a video of Wim and his aircraft), so although I think Galinat is still too wet to be flyable, his strip obviously isn’t, the difference being that it’s on the top of a hill whereas Galinat is half-way up one. I think that now I’ve sorted out my wood, I’ll nip across to Galinat to see how wet it still is. But this time, after my last experience, I think that I’ll leave my car on the road outside the airfield 😉

February 12, 2014

Sticky situation – really!

On the way back from Intermarché I thought I’d pop into Galinat and make sure that 56NE was alright as it’s been over 4 weeks since I was last there. It’s tied down just inside the airfield entrance which is just a drop-down from the road through a gap in the trees and as I entered, I could see that everything was just fine.

I only drove a few yards from the road and parked on the grass in front of the aircraft and as I exited my car I could see immediately that the ground was very soft and shquishy underfoot. This came as no surprise because as I drove up the hill, I’d noticed a lot of water flowing off the hillside and a few signs of adverse weather, such as some downed trees and broken branches.

I was therefore pleased and relieved to find that 56NE was safe and sound where I’d left it and that its covers and tie-downs, when I checked them, had hardly moved. I also checked Regis’s Zenair while I was there and re-secured a bungee that was no longer holding a small tarp over its engine cowling and prop and then went to see what condition the runway itself was in.

Despite itself sloping and having a steep downward slope away from it on its western side it was, if anything, wetter than the apron area where I’d parked my car. I suppose this was not surprising really, because with the hills of the Dordogne being so rocky, water has to flow the whole way down over their surface from the top to the bottom in order to escape, thereby explaining the water flows that I’d seen lower down on my drive up to the airfield. The situation at Galinat is also exacerbated by the airfield being only half-way up the hillside, meaning that it stays waterlogged all the while water is draining down from higher up.

It was then time for me to think about getting my car out to drive home and despite the condition of the ground, as it’s front-wheel drive, I didn’t think that this would be a problem. I couldn’t have been more wrong, because after reversing back on almost level ground for only 10 metres or so, my wheels began spinning and I was stuck in the mud. I stopped straight away before I dug myself in and after finding that my left wheel in particular was already down 2 or 3 inches in slimy mud, looked for something to put under my wheels to give them more traction.

I tried handfuls of broken twigs, the way that they always do in the films, but this didn’t work. Direct action therefore seemed a better idea so I then decided to enlist the help of a young guy who, by luck, happened to be flying a model RC aircraft towards the lower end of the runway and see if he could push me out.

Even that didn’t work and I only succeeded in digging my wheels a bit further in. He then tried placing some larger branches behind and in front of the wheels but they still didn’t have the desired result. I said that I’d best go to find Christian, the airfield owner, who I’d noticed had been at home when I drove by his house, to see if we could get hold of a tractor and the young guy kindly offered to drive me down there. As we descended the hill, we passed Christian driving up it in the opposite direction, so after turning round, I explained my problem to him.

He returned to the airfield with us and after a few more unsuccessful attempts to push the car out, got a large shovel out of his old Volvo which he used to dig shallow metre long holes in front of the wheels. We then placed the cut branches under the tyres along the length of the holes to give them something to grip on, and with Christian in the driving seat, because he knew which direction to head in if the car was eventually extricated, we gave it another go with the young guy and me pushing.

This time we were successful and somewhat to my consternation, Christian went heading off over the grass down the hill in my car! Before disappearing down the ever-steepening slope, he turned right though and headed for the runway before stopping short and turning parallel to it on its western side. Then he kept going before disappearing from sight.

I had visions of having to recover my car from a muddy field at the bottom of the hill using some kind of heavy-lifting gear, but there were no worries on that score, because pretty soon my car was hurtling back up the hill on the road to the airfield. Christian had known all along of a route from the airfield off the hill back onto the road and this was what he’d used.

After he’d pulled up and got out of my car there were congratulations and hand-shakes all round and then I filled in the holes in the grass that Christian had dug earlier in front of my wheels as best I could. So that was me out of a sticky situation that I certainly don’t want to repeat in a hurry. In future, while the weather is as wet as it has been, I’ll leave my car on the roadway outside the airfield entrance and check the state of the ground on foot. After all, next time I might not be so lucky that help will be so close at hand to get me out of such a sticky situation 😉

February 11, 2014

Back in Plazac

I left home to head south to give my friend Val a hand installing her new kitchen on 20th January, never believing that I would be away for 3 weeks! I thought that it might take a fortnight or so to get the work done but actually got back again to a rather cold and soggy Plazac late yesterday afternoon. Val lives near to Limoux in the Languedoc, a small town that is famous for its sparkling wine called Blanquette de Limoux, which is said to pre-date champagne. This was traditionally produced by a method similar to the ‘methode champenoise’ when the wine is fermented in the bottle, keeping the carbon dioxide produced in the wine to make it effervescent, and a small quantity still is. As well as carbon dioxide, fermentation produces by-products called leas and if the carbon dioxide is not released, it stops the fermentation process prematurely before the wine has had the opportunity to reach its full alcoholic potential.

With champagne, the wine is cleared of the old leas after the initial fermentation has finished and a secondary fermentation is then started in the bottle to raise the alcohol content and produce the effervescence. However, with Blanquette de Limoux that is produced in the traditional manner, the old leas are not cleared so the final product is a bit cloudy, and also the alcoholic strength of the final product is somewhat lower. However, nowadays the bulk of production is done by the ‘cuve close’ method involving the use of large stainless steel tanks and this results in a wine with higher alcoholic content that meets the modern taste and at a much more economic cost. The same method is used for other wines, such as Veuve du Vernay that I used to be Product Marketing Manager of many years ago, which is how I got to know about such things and why they still interest me.

Not that I had much time to either see much of the area or to sample much more than a few glasses of the product in question, because we were plagued by days of torrential rain that left many of the local vineyards that are located on almost every available patch of level or not too sloping land, under water. And on the occasions when the sun did show its face, usually I was fully occupied indoors by the task of kitchen fitting 😕

I’ve mentioned previously that Val decided to plump for a new Ikea kitchen and I initially became involved back last November when she told me about the design that a professional kitchen person had produced for her. I pointed out that if he went ahead and installed a high cupboard with sliding doors in the position that he had proposed it would be impossible to open any of the drawers while standing in front of it. I then came up with what I thought was a better alternative so had only myself to blame when Val decided to go with it! We sourced the units together from Ikea in Toulouse before Christmas and originally her brother Greg was going to come over from the UK in the new year to fit it. However, this became impossible so I stepped forward to take on the task never knowing what I was letting myself in for 🙂

But let’s not get too far ahead and start at the very beginning. Shown below is a picture of what Val’s kitchen originally looked like – a style that might affectionately be referred to as ‘franco-chaotic’ I think, with a mish-mash of hand-made cabinets thrown together, some with doors and others with none and just curtains to cover their contents.

null

Before Christmas, she had had the whole lot ripped out, some rewiring done, the walls and ceiling skimmed with plaster and the whole room repainted in plain white, so it should have been a relatively straightforward matter to get stuck in with installing the new units. Unfortunately not. Ikea units are designed to fit directly against the walls and do not have a void for services behind them. This meant that the existing plumbing had to be extended downwards to below the bases of the new units and rerouted and also some of the new wiring had to be treated likewise. However, the latter left much to be desired and required other time-consuming modifications to make it usable, and that didn’t include the making good that the electrician had also conveniently (for him) apparently forgotten to do. Take a bow Cameron from Australia – probably from the ‘wild-west’ of the country, I assume 😐

With the preparatory work completed, involving much toing-and-froing to the local ‘Mr Bricolage’ that frequently held little or no stock of the required items, occasionally involving the need to use an alternative, here are a couple of pics showing the stage reached after the first few days after the units and worktop had been installed down one side of the kitchen.

null

null

Shortly afterwards, Val was able to use the sink in her kitchen for the first time since December, after the new one had been installed, which almost certainly explains the happy smile on her face.

null

Val’s kitchen is rather triangular in shape, tapering down to a very narrow end where the pro designer had originally proposed to fit the tall cupboard with drawers. I intended to build right around the narrow end of the kitchen using a narrow 40cm wide unit with drawers and knew that this would present certain challenges, as shown by the following image.

null

However, things worked out as planned and the final result was very satisfying with a good use of the limited space available. It was then just a matter of slogging on to get the job completed. Here are a couple of shots showing the plumbing under the sink and just after the new gas hob (using cylinder gas) and electric oven had been fitted.

null

null

Measuring up the space for the proposed under-counter fridge and freezer was a bit fraught as the run of the units required a full, uncut 3 metre length of worktop, but fortunately everything worked out exactly as planned (phew!)

null

That meant that the main installation work was completed, leaving just the finishing to do, so it was time to celebrate by breaking open a bottle of Blanquette de Limoux 🙂

null

And to finish off, here are a few shots of the finished article.

null

null

null

I was very pleased with the way the final job turned out. This is the first (that I can remember anyway…) Ikea kitchen that I’ve fitted and I wasn’t that impressed by it. I like the final look of it but I didn’t like the absence of service void behind the units that prevented their being ‘adjusted’ to take account of dodgy walls and/or floors, the pathetically flimsy legs that dropped out of their ‘fixings’ every time you picked up a cabinet to move it before installation, the quality of much of the melamine used in manufacture (a peg blew through and shattered the face of one cabinet’s side panel during installation, which would have been disastrous if it had not then been covered by the unit next to it), the need to tediously nail the back onto every cabinet involving the waste of an awful lot of time, the way you have to attach ‘slow closing’ units onto standard hinges and drawer sliders instead of just fitting slow-closing ones in the first place, the fact that Ikea don’t supply a double-width unit (at all!) to take a sink unit, that the sink unit they do supply does not have a proper back and bottom to it, the gruesome quality of the Ikea-supplied kick-plates and having to measure up every door to attach handles and knobs because Ikea can’t be bothered to supply you with drilling templates, to name just a few. There were other things too but I just can’t be bothered with listing any more – but in any case, I hope I’ll never have to take on another Ikea kitchen install in my lifetime 🙁

So what have I been up to since I’ve been back? Nothing to do with flying, that’s for sure, because the weather has just been too cold, wet and miserable. I arrived back to a freezing cold house yesterday but fortunately I’d planned ahead and left kindling all ready to go in my ‘poele a bois’ and a supply of wood stacked up beside it. I soon got through that, though, so today I was out cutting up some of the large tree stumps that I’ve had under my shelter for the past few weeks and then splitting the cut pieces with my new ‘fendeuse’ to make some nice size logs. I’ve had these burning away this evening and my stove has been chucking out a good bit of heat, so all’s well down here in the Dordogne. I hope it stays that way and that maybe the weather might improve a bit soon. I think that it will not do so for a week or so yet however, because this is, after all, the winter and we might still have to expect a bit of snow even though the shoots of the daffodils and bluebells are already well above the ground. But life here in this corner of France will continue in its own way and at its own pace 😉

February 4, 2014

Normal service…

… will be resumed as soon as possible. I’ve been down south in the Aude for the past fortnight helping out my friend Val with the installation of her new Ikea kitchen. This is the first Ikea kitchen that I’ve ever fitted and I’ve not been too impressed by it but I’ll say more about that some other time. Things also take at least 50% longer to do in France compared to the UK because of the time it takes to to-and-fro to the local DIY store that is then frequently out of stock of the simplest item meaning an even longer trip to another store, and I also think that the quality of many French hardware and plumbing items leaves much to be desired.

But anyway, I expect to be finished in the next couple of days or so – I say ‘finished’, but in fact I’ll have to come back again in a few weeks time to actually finish the job off due to Ikea’s policy of not holding ‘essential’ consumables needed for any install in stock and thinking that a 2-4 week delivery delay is OK when you’ve already started an installation of one of their kitchens.

People like me come to live here in France because of the lifestyle here, but some aspects of the French lack of business and consumer ‘nous’ can be infuriating from time to time, I have to say 😉