Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pumpkins etc.

Until this week, I hadn't been ill for over a year, which I put down to the wonders of propolis and being tanked up with vitamin D. This year's batch of rhinoviruses are a tough bunch, it seems, and got through the armour plating of my defences. I've been off work, but it could have been worse - I could have gone temporarily deaf in one ear, like my DB.

By far the most comforting nourishment while feeling awful is soup. For Christmas, I was given a 10kg pumpkin, a massive thing. It sat on the floor in the hall until I realised a couple of weeks ago that it was starting to go off, whereupon I had to do something with it immediately, or consign it to the compost bin.

My 10kg pumpkin looked like this
(from here)
This happened on a Sunday afternoon, the rest of which was thus spent peeling, de-seeding and cutting up. I put two oven-tray fulls of pumpkin chunks in the oven to roast and freeze, put another bag-full in the fridge, and made pumpkin soup out of the rest. I'm a big fan of potimarron soup, and butternut squash soup, but I find pumpkin soup a bit bland. My first attempt just had pumpkin, onion and potato and chicken stock. That's my classic recipe for potimarron and butternut, or a mixture of both. It's not enough for pumpkin unless you have a super rich stock, which I didn't. The resulting soup was disappointing to say the least.

For my second try, I took the bag of chunks out of the fridge this week (just before they went off), and added carrot, turnip and a parsnip to the pot. They made all the difference, and I ended up with a super-tasty, hearty soup which has kept me going at lunch times this week.

I still have two bags of frozen roasted pumpkin in the freezer, pumpkin that is responsible for the demise of my oven. At least, while cooking it, and indeed, once the pumpkin was cooked, my oven started making odd noises and at some point gave up the ghost. It was thirteen years old and much used so I can't complain. It didn't die during cooking Christmas lunch, or an important dinner party (not that I have any of those), or even half-way through a roast chicken. No, it was faithful to the last, and waited until the pumpkin was nicely roasted before expiring. Thank you dear oven.

I am replacing it with a French oven, a Sauter (let's jump!) which is the equivalent of my Sholtès and the winner of a Que Choisir ('Which') comparison of ovens. I could have replaced it with another Sholtès, but I read a review from someone who had done just that, and while they were happy with it, they remarked that the components have been made with shoddier quality materials than the old one. A sign of the times, obviously, so I decided to support French manufacturing and save 150Eur or so.

What else? Well, I've been making good use of Hotspot Shield by watching BBC iPlayer - 'War and Peace', 'Dickensian', 'Death in Paradise', 'Silent Witness', and also 'Endeavour' on ITV player. Sitting at the dining table (which is not used for dining) in my cosy dressing gown, in front of the computer with the earphones on, a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake to hand, and watching tele is a great way to be ill.

I've also completed the second course of Python and signed up for the third which is starting this week. As I fear I might not be up to the task of all this learning, I am doing, alongside, the CodeAcademy course on Python to give me another point of view, and more exercises. I have to keep at it as there's nothing easier to forget. As with all languages, the most difficult part is thinking in the right way. I can understand what's going on when I see it, but actually writing it down from scratch is much trickier. Exactly like people who say they can understand but not speak a language.

I will get there in the end. I will.

Thursday, December 17, 2015


At the end of my last post, I mentioned that I was studying Python, a computer language. I've never done anything like it before (although now I come to think of it, learning Arabic was quite as tortuous), so it's tough pounding it into my brain (which is obviously full of incredibly useless useful other stuff...).

Still, headway is being made; I finished the first course, Python for Everybody (even me) - and I'm now on the second of the five-part course - Data. Helping me learn is the Anki app, in their own words:
Anki is a program which makes remembering things easy. Because it's a lot more efficient than traditional study methods, you can either greatly decrease your time spent studying, or greatly increase the amount you learn.
Anyone who needs to remember things in their daily life can benefit from Anki. Since it is content-agnostic and supports images, audio, videos and scientific markup (via LaTeX), the possibilities are endless.
For example:
  • Learning a language
  • Studying for medical and law exams
  • Memorizing people's names and faces
  • Brushing up on geography
  • Mastering long poems
  • Even practising guitar chords!
It's also open source and free. And it works.

Why Python? Why learn to code? Well, you never know what the future holds in store, and my current job could disappear, and as a developer, you can work anywhere in the world. Particularly in France where, when you hit 50, you're considered dead meat, unless you can code. Java programmers are never out of work apparently. I plan to go onto Java once I've got the hang of the more straightforward language Python.

Also, I got a promotional email from Coursera in which a woman who had been in admin retrained as a programmer starting with the Python for Everybody course. If she can do it...

Let's just say that it's a challenge, and definitely keeping me on my toes!

I've been on my toes in more ways than one. Remember I mentioned that I was walking regularly during the week using the WalkActive technique, or as near as one can without going through the training programme? Well, it's taken inches off my waist and I can now get into trousers I was on the point of throwing out. My DB says it's very noticeable, so well done Joanna Hall (the founder).

I could definitely do with walking off work's Christmas lunch! I'm stuffed!! We had it at work and everyone brought something so there were lots of good things to eat including: boeuf bourguignon, lobster bisque tart, quiche, salads, charcuterie, luxury butter, fabulous cheeses, chocolate moelleux cake, chestnut log, buche, clementines, lichis and so on. Ouf.

We are all at work in the family this week. My youngest is doing his work experience at the local opticians' who are parents of a best buddy and very welcoming so he's having a lovely time. My eldest dropped law as being way too boring and with people he didn't get on with, and is now doing a sandwich course in marketing, and working at a local dynamic start-up with people he does appreciate and having a fab time. He's putting into practice all the theory and ideas he learns at college and at his age, having a job is a miracle! France is a rubbish country for jobs for the under 25s and over 50s and the unemployment statistics bear witness to my damning judgement. He got the job by networking - the only way these days, it seems - the CEO is the mother of a good buddy who he's known for years. She told him that he might not have the technical skills yet, but he has the human qualities she wants for her team. Was I proud?

So as the holiday season kicks off, I hope you all have a very merry Christmas, or at least the Christmas which suits you.

And if you need to send some Christmas ecards that are not cheesy, whimsical or nauseating, (and free), I can recommend for cards such as this one:
*Merry Christmas*

Friday, November 20, 2015

Fresh air and mushrooms

Today is probably the last of the beautiful, mild days we've been enjoying all month. Tomorrow, the temperature is set to plummet by 10°C. I took the afternoon off to walk in one of my favourite local spots - Domaine de St Sauveur - get blown about a bit in the blustery wind and clear out any residual cobwebs. 

It was peaceful enough for me to do my version of Walkactive walking without feeling conspicuous. Soon it'll be dark when I get out of work, and my enthusiasm to walk will dwindle to nothing. I'm making the most of it while I can. While I walked, I thought about what a pleasure it's been this autumn being outside to enjoy life.

For example, sometimes, the weather is so perfect, you just have to jump onto (the back of) a bike and ride off into the hills. The day after our tour of l'étang de Ponant, we pursued our two-wheel weekend with a bike trip into the Cevennes to admire the glorious colours.

Sunny Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
It's not New England, but it's still a spectacular sight.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
We meandered along some tiny tiny roads, no wider than the width of a car, and took it carefully because sometimes there was nothing between the edge of the road and a sheer drop down. I sat very still on the back of the bike...

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
It was so warm I just had my tee-shirt and jacket on, and even felt it was a bit much. In the shade, however, it was more obviously autumn and a lot chillier.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
We stopped for lunch at St Jean du Gard, from where the little steam train runs to Anduze. November 1 is a public holiday in France, so many places were shut. We were starting to get a little worried about our rumbling stomachs. After circling round the town three times, we decided to try the restaurant in the Routard guide, La Treille.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
We had wanted to sit outside in the sun, but as all the bars with terraces were shut, along with all the others, and the only other restaurant open had a terrace in the shade where everyone was wrapped up in coats, we thought La Treille inside was the best option.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
It was a good choice. It was warm and snug inside with a wonderfully cosy interior - lots of nooks and intimate spots. The crepes were delicious too. I had one made with 1/3 chestnut flour filled with a local pelardon cheese, and my DB had a regular crepe filled with potatoes, lardons and cheese. It was very hearty. We were very good and sensible and didn't have any cider or wine, the better to navigate the narrow winding roads.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
Every corner opened up different views of the hills, and the stunning sight of azure blue sky, as vibrant as anything you see on the Cote d'Azur!

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015

I was struck by the amazing contrast of the intense green on the terraces in the photo above compared to the rich golden colours of autumn and grey/greens of the pines elsewhere. Is it pasture or winter wheat?

Hunters with hunting dogs in the trailer
At one junction, we came across several trucks belonging to hunters, at what was obviously the end of their day's hunting. In the trailer were the dogs so I suppose it was a very well-organised group, maybe even professionals. Wild boar are a big problem in the region. Their numbers increase every year and they are extremely destructive.

Cevennes 1 Nov 2015
The wild boar would probably have been in heaven in some of the woods we passed through. In places, the strong fragrance of wild mushrooms was like riding through heaven, and had we been looking to go mushroom picking, I don't think we would have been disappointed.

As it was, we left them in peace, but I can still remember the delicious smell of damp humus and aromatic fungi.

That ride was one of the highlights of this month, appealing as it did to all our senses, but even local walks and another bike ride have been pure delight, and I feel so much the better for it all.

Ready indeed to face a winter of learning Python!

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

TGO - Cycling round the Etang de Ponant

I have been sent home from work today because of an orange bad weather alert. How different from the glorious sunny weekend a couple of days ago.

The whole country was bathed in a balmy anticyclone for the last weekend of the Toussaint holidays. Perfect weather for a Halloween tramp around the houses with over-excited kids.

We dug out our book on mountain bike trails around Montpellier 'Autour de Montpellier - VTT' that's been sitting in the house unused for five years. It sometimes takes time to catch up with action one's good intentions. I jotted down all the rides that were:

  • on the flat
  • doable in an hour and a half
  • the list was:
    • number 2 at Grau du Roi, 12 km, taking 1h30, flat
    • number 3 at l'étang du Ponant, 13 km, taking 1h30, flat
    • number 5 along the Vidourle river, 17km, taking 1h30, flat

The aim of enjoying a gentle ride was so that we wouldn't repeat the mistake of our last bout of VVT enthusiasm when we launched into a 27 km circuit around the Lac de Salagou, the memory of which was so traumatic we didn't touch the bikes again for months. We learned from that mistake.

La Vidourle river
So we chose the tour of Ponant lake between la Grande Motte and Grau du Roi. You leave the car on either side of the dramatically called Pont des Abîmes which crosses the Vidourle river. Unhitch the bikes and prepare for a couple of hours of delight.

Single track path, l'étang de Ponant
Although the start of the path is a wide 'chemin vert' along the river which is much used by people out to enjoy a nice walk with or without dogs or kids or both, after a few hundred metres, it turns right to start the tour of the lake. There, if you're not used to riding along single file tracks (like me), you can find yourself wobbling and falling off until you realise that you have to look straight ahead and not down at the track. Looking down is a to court disaster. My DB, following me, was highly entertained by my antics.

Boggy patch, l'étang de Ponant
We set out at just after 3pm in autumnal soft lighting and muted colours. The lake was a silky pale blue-grey, its surface barely broken by a gentle breeze. Growing around the edge are typical salt marsh plants such as sea pickle or glasswort. In the summer it's bright green, but in the autumn it turns a rusty red. It makes for a soft landing too...

Glasswort banks on l'étang de Ponant
The path was mostly dry, but there were several patches of boggy marsh. For most we could find an alternative way round, but we also had to ride through some muddy zones which left a sticky sludge on the bikes that had to be washed off with the powerful jet of a car wash.

Peaceful path, l'étang de Ponant
We didn't hurry. It was so peaceful - the water still except for the odd plop of a fish catching insects, the beautiful light that softened everything we saw, hardly anyone about, only a few fishermen sitting placidly waiting, and the perfect temperature for riding.

étang de Ponant
As the afternoon wore on, the mosquitoes came out, but by then we were nearly finished. The sun was starting to set and tinted everything with a rosy hue.

Aigrette on a branch, l'étang de Ponant

Fishing nets, étang de Ponant
There are many different types of birds that visit the étang. We didn't see any flamingoes but did see a number of herons and aigrettes posing stylishly on the tree branch 'sculptures' in the middle of the lake.

Heron? étang de Ponant
This is a fantastic ride to do in la demi-saison - spring and autumn - when it's not too hot, and not too damp. Especially on a wind-free day like the one we had.

No wind today, étang de Ponant
At the end, we felt energised and relaxed after a ride that was good for both mind and body. And we made a speedy getaway before a mozzie attack could ruin the effect!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Useful learning with Hubspot

A few years ago (two decades to be exact - how time flies), I did a Masters in European Business Administration. The course comprised various subjects one of which was marketing. I remember I did my project and dissertation on setting up a UK food business in France. I was a tad early - there was academic interest but little hope of business success. Indeed, I"ve never bought Brit foods in a dedicated store because the prices have always been on the wrong side of my price/acceptability curve, even with high nostalgia peaks.

When I had finished my degree, I realised that it was totally inappropriate for small town Montpellier because it was aimed at large companies - the sort you find in London, Paris, Lyon... Oops. I got a job in admin instead, in a rush so I could repay the loan I'd taken out to pay for my "career-boosting" degree. Then I got pregnant and gave up the idea of a career in favour of keeping my job.

So I never got to use anything I had learned which is totally typical for me as I have never used my first degree either. I have a lot of talent in not terribly useful skills, like picking education I never get to use.

Still, it's all good intellectual effort, and I'm sure my life is the richer for  it...

However, I don't believe in giving up on education, and with the arrival of MOOCs (massive open online courses), there's a world of learning out there for the taking, and mostly for free. Maybe I could even dig up a talent for useful learning, that I could put to some use!

With that in mind, I recently signed up for Hubspot's Inbound Marketing certification. Here's the blurb:
The Inbound Course & Certification is a free marketing training course that covers the fundamentals of the Inbound Marketing Methodology. Learn how SEO, Landing Pages, Blogging, Conversion, Lead Nurturing, and Email marketing come together to form a modern inbound marketing strategy.
I thought it was excellent because it is customer-centric marketing rather than the marketer-centric. So it frowns upon invasive practices such as pop-ups, unwanted emails, in-your-face spam and so on - things I personally hate. Instead you have to attract people who have a problem they want answers to, help them to find a solution, convert them into customers, close the sale, and finally delight them with the way you do business afterwards.

The course is made up of twelve classes that cover all aspects of Inbound through videos where it's all clearly explained, and you can download both the videos and transcripts in order to revise for the test. In order to get certified, you have to pass the test. Sixty questions to be finished in 75 minutes that you can take a maximum of three times before being locked out for one month.

I'm proud to say I got it in one and am thus Inbound Certified, and here's my badge.

 If you want to update your marketing skills, I do recommend Inbound as good place to start, and you get a snazzy badge to boot. 

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Would you change your eating habits?

How far would you go to change your eating habits for health reasons?

Okinawa diet pyramid
I was reading about a man recently who became a fruitarian. He was already following the Okinawa diet which is high in anti-oxidants, low in fat and sugar, no meat, eggs, or dairy but high in vegetables with some soya and fish but decided to follow the advice of Douglas Graham, long time food guru, athlete and creator of the 80/10/10 diet. This involves eating 80% of calories from ripe fruit (carbohydrates), 10% from fat and 10% from protein.

Fruitarian diet pyramid

Once on the diet, the writer found himself enjoying incredible energy and superior physical performance in sport. He felt fantastic. As time went on, however, he discovered some down sides including moments of inexplicable anxiety, emotional fragility and jitters. There was another problem too, which his wife didn't appreciate...

I remember seeing an episode of Castle (starring Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle) where his daughter Alexis gets herself a fruitarian boyfriend - Pi. Richard, being a protective father, was not keen on Pi, and kept up a low level of hostility towards him until Alexis felt forced to move out and set up home in a grotty flat with him. However, Richard need not have worried about Pi's physical attentions towards his daughter as, from what I read about being a fruitarian, Pi would have had the libido of a tomato!

Changing to fruitarianism and become a social pariah? Not for me thanks.

On the other hand, I'm interested in anything that will keep osteoarthritis at bay, and it seems that the Chinese, with their 3000 years of medical expertise, have some advice worth reading.
Foods to ban from your diet if you suffer from joint pain
You'll see from the above that all wheat and wheat derivatives are banned, as are dairy products, alcohol, sugar and tobacco. Also on the list are oats, beetroot, corn, buckwheat, rye, split peas and salt. The problem with all these foods is that they promote inflammation which leads to joint pain.

But diet is only one part of the problem. To be free of joint pain you also need to draw on the right herbal medicine, acupuncture, Qigong, massages, and ventouses (suckers). According to Chinese medicine, whatever the type of joint pain (arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, micro-crystalline arthritis), whether it's in your knees, wrists, elbows, hips, back or neck, it's the result of painful obstructions due to cold, wind and humidity. This means your Qi (inner energy) and Yin-Yang balance are unbalanced in favour of the cold, wind and humidity due to certain accidents, your emotions, food and bad posture.

The Qigong exercises recommended are called Lian Gong Shi Ba Fa - 18 movements to be done in the morning after a cup of tea but before breakfast:

I haven't managed to work them into my morning regime yet, mainly because I'm too lazy to get up that early, but also because I don't have room in my bedroom, although you're supposed to do them outside...! It's getting a bit chilly for that too.

However, I am taking some notice of the diet demands. Banning all twelve foodstuffs from my life is a bit excessive so I've decided to take the Option for Wimps: no alcohol during the week, no wheat unless I'm out (it's tough to avoid bread when eating out - no sarnies, no tarts, etc.), no dairy most of the time, no sugar (I suppose this doesn't include fruit) and no buckwheat as soon as I've finished the packet of flour I use for my gluten-free bread. I'll use fonio after that. I don't smoke, so that's no problem, and I can cut the other things out without too much trouble, except salt. I can't cook without salt even if I don't use much.

I'm sure there's an opportunity somewhere for someone to develop the Chinese Medicine Anti Joint Pain diet and gather recipes into one place instead of us trawling the Internet searching for ones which fit.

Do you eat with your health in mind too?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Early Autumn Hérault

The weather here has been glorious these last two weeks. Gone are the sweaty summer days where one can do no more than search out air-conditioned spots or live in the penumbra of a shuttered existence clad only in swimming cossie and sarong (for decency... I have boys and boys' friends seemingly permanently in the house).

Hérault has been sauntering into Autumn in majestic fashion, yielding up grapes for harvest and mushrooms for picking. The hunters are out, their presence heard rather than felt, in early morning forays pitting their wits against the wily boar. Mornings surprise with a welcome chill while afternoon warmth reminds us that winter is still a way off yet. Coat or no coat? is the pressing question of 8am...

It's perfect motorbiking weather. You can ride north to the Pic St Loup stopping off at Domaine de l'Hortus to see "Les Observatoires" - large wooden structures placed in identifiable constellations (supposedly) - or ride "La Vague" in the of the wave-like hollow between the mountains of Pic St Loup and Hortus.

Seen at Domaine de l'Hortus "Les Observatoires" de Matthieu Pilaud

La Vague

La Vague

Or you can ride south, basking in the balmy warmth, invigorated by the blue of a nearly cloudless sky and energised by the sea air.

Mont St Clair, Sète, looking towards Balaruc-les-Bains
Sète, which is a hell hole on earth of too many people in the summer returns to off-season peacefulness in September despite the draw of the seaside to locals and others on a sunny weekend.

Mont St Clair, Sète looking east along the coast
There are Germans aplenty in camping cars squatting space along the canals or parked legitimately in camp grounds. It's ideal weather for the childless who can be seen reading the paper quietly inside, or fishing peacefully outside. Picnics are leisurely affairs with no small people demanding attention. Perhaps a little petanque amongst friends on a spare patch of dusty ground in the shade of sweet smelling pines.
View at lunch time
From Sète, we rode west to Cap d'Agde and had a lunch on a little island that housed the capitainerie and a little tapas bar aptly named 'Au bout du quai'. We ate our tapas overlooking the port with a motley collection of boats both large and small, mostly in need of attention.

Cap d'Agde looking towards the capitainerie island
The volcanic beaches were sandy and sparsely populated, while there was a regatta getting under its unhurried way, a lack of wind seemingly no obstacle to an enjoyable 'race'.

We visited the memorial to the 900,000 French, Europeans and Harkis who were repatriated from Algeria in 1962 after 8 bloody years of war. Not the French state's greatest moment. The memorial stone looks out over the Mediterranean, the only link to their previous lives, having escaped in chaos and despair, but lucky to be alive... Many settled in Agde and became fishermen, teachers, shopkeepers, and contributed hugely to the development of the town.

Finally, we rode back to Montpellier via the coastal road towards Les Aresquiers which is now hunkered down behind some substantial protective walls designed to save the sandy beaches from the ravages of winter storms. After crossing the bridge over the canal, the smell of the sea is replaced by warm pine as you pass through the protected forest, to be followed by decaying salt marsh plants on the Etang de Vic on the other side. The flamingoes were visible in force on the Etang du Grec between Carnon and Palavas, heads down in the water, standing on one leg, or just having a snooze whilst basking in the sun. Their colourful pink bodies added cheery touches of colour to the greeny blue lagoon.

Judging by the traffic on the roads, we were all out and about enjoying being by the sea today.