A sort of beaver

These large rodents have become quite a tourist attraction. They were introduced to Europe in the XIX century from South America to provide cheap fur coats. The European stock is all derived from individuals escaped from fur farms, or sprung by animal rights activists.

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Their official name in Europe is coypu, the name given to them back home in the Amazonian jungle, but they are also known as nutria in the fur trade. I don’t like to think of them as nutria, it’s rather like referring to a cow as a steak, a pig as a chop, or a horse as lasagne if you want to push the analogy into the realms of really bad taste (no pun intended).

Whatever their name, coypu or nutria they have become pests. They have no natural predators once they reach the adult size, and they are quite fearless. Having got close to one of the things once I can understand why Finbar won’t even look at them. They grow quite big, up to 20lb, with huge feet and the most revolting orange incisors. I have heard of dogs dying after being bitten by a coypu.

The only thing that keeps their numbers down is the cold. Unlike beavers they are tropical animals and can’t stand it, suffering terribly from frostbite, especially their tails. Unfortunately for the Garonne our region is below their climatic limit, and as this winter was particularly mild they have taken no harm from it at all. They have spent the long winter nights reproducing like rabbits, and merrily undermining the river bank.

There is always a small crowd of admirers gathered at this particular part of the river front, either feeding the devils or cooing at them. Baby coypu, like all baby animals are sweet little things, but their grandfathers are not so lovable.

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There seems a sort of irony in the fact that the restaurant opposite the place where the coypu adulation society congregates feeds them on potatoes and stale bread. The same people who coo and awww at the rodents will quite happily go into the restaurant and tuck into a nice fat steak.
True, there is a restaurant further up the river that serves coypu under the name of marsh beaver. Wonder if they know?

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A sort of chicken

Yesterday I finally managed to get a few pictures of the werechicken, the beast that has been haunting our little street since last summer.
It all began in August. It sounded like a small dog in distress, a sort of ahoo hooo cry, and it went on all day. I couldn’t work, it was such a pathetic noise, and my blood pressure rose a bit more every time I heard it at the idea that some heartless individual had abandoned a little dog somewhere in the labyrinth round the back of our block.
We live slap bang in the centre of Bordeaux, a city of some 600,000 souls. The old town hugs the last bend of the Garonne before it throws itself (to use a quaint French expression) into the Atlantic, and that’s the part where we live. The housing is a mixture of low-rise blocks, no more than four floors, and individual houses. The street fronts hide a mosaic of small, secret gardens. We have one of those, but the blocks on either side don’t. Instead there is a sort of no man’s land full of trees and shrubs, and discarded building materials that extends right round the back of the houses, but has only one access, a metal door at the end of our street. The distressful cries were coming from this empty lot.
With one of the neighbours, also anxious about the little dog, we went all round the place trying to see where it could be. But the trees were too thick, and the owner of the lot wasn’t around to let us in. A couple of days later, I was on the point of calling the SPA to break in and rescue the poor critter, when the neighbour called round to say he had seen the animal, and it was a big bird. He had heard that it belonged to a bunch of workmen who only called by intermittently to feed it. The neighbour decided to take the ‘big bird’ under his wing, so to speak.

The 'sort of chicken'
The ‘sort of chicken’

The upshot is that the ‘big bird’ creeps underneath the metal door (there’s a gap big enough for Trixie to get through, so Big Bird has no problem) and wanders about in the street shrieking for the neighbour to open his window and feed it. The neighbour, despite his background as a butcher, isn’t too hot on natural history, and pronounced it a sort of chicken that was probably being fattened for the pot.
That was last summer. The ‘sort of chicken’s’ voice has broken and it now makes an unmistakeable cock crow. All night. It also gets very stroppy when its breakfast isn’t forthcoming. Each time I have tried to photograph it, either I can’t find the camera or the battery is dead. Or the critter wanders off onto the main road. Yesterday though, I caught it, crowing beneath next door’s window.
The funny thing about this story is not so much that we have a rooster for a neighbour slap bang in the centre of quite a big city, but that nobody thinks it’s the least bit strange. I was feeding it the other day when the neighbour on the other side came out. She paused as she passed the rooster and said, “Handsome rooster, that.” And walked by.

This was early morning and not quite light
This was early morning and not quite light

Actually he isn’t a handsome rooster, he is raggedy and timid. His comb and wattles have been cut off, and his spurs look like metal implants, because he is obviously used as a fighting cock. We sometimes hear the metal door clanging closed late at night, and I suppose it’s ‘Big Bird’s’ owners coming to collect him or bring him back after a fight. He’s only a stupid chicken maybe, but I hate the idea of what he’s being used for.

The 'handsome rooster' under next door's window waiting to be fed
The ‘handsome rooster’ under next door’s window waiting to be fed

Trixie’s blogspot

I was reading about what makes a good idea for a blog post. One suggestion was to interview non-bloggers. Bloggers are always interviewing other bloggers, but it can be interesting to interview someone who doesn’t have a vested interest. I thought of the ideal candidate.

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Trixie, when did you decide that you were going to a house cat?

Well, I was very young, about four, five months old. At that age, you do some stupid things, you know? I’d been hanging around the mosque for a few days and there wasn’t much happening. They tell me it’s always like that during the week, but I was too wet behind the ears to know that. Anyway, this kid with his little sister in tow stopped to say hello, and I could tell he’d be a push over. Something in the gooey way he looked at me. So, I yelled at him a little and he finally got the message and led the way to his home.

So you were adopted by a boy and his little sister?

Adopted? That’s a bit strong. I simply reminded him that every home needs a cat. The boy’s cat had just gone walkabout, permanently and he was feeling a bit down. I jumped into the breach. Charity work if you like.

Does the position suit you; do you feel you’re treated reasonably?

They’re a bit stingy with the Friskies. I have to shout until I’m blue in the face in the morning, to make the big one who gets up first understand about breakfasts. He thinks one bowlful is enough. One bowlful! After a whole night barely closing my eyes. Does he think the mice stay away because they prefer the wallpaper next door? Has he no idea what it takes out of a body playing the black panther all night?

I hear you share your lodgings with a dog. No problems there?

Don’t mention the dog. I’ve done my best to show the brute where it can sleep and where it can’t, but it lollops about the place as if it owns it, flopping down anywhere it fancies with its great hooves flying. I’ve been forced to take drastic measures, but the stupid people who live here haven’t understood. As if I enjoy peeing on the furniture and in the smelly dog’s bed! A dog’s place is outside, in a kennel, on a short chain, with a muzzle.

And the other cats?

Huh! Those two bird brains? The grey one has no idea of the value of good Friskies. Turns his nose up at what’s put in his dish. If I wasn’t there to clean it up they’d be complaining about the smell, or the mess or whatever. All he wants to do is drink out of the tap in the bathroom. Drinks like a Pole. And he’ll only eat meat! They’ve tried to get me to eat that stuff too, all slippery and bloody. Yerk! It’s not natural. Give me a nice bowl of Friskies anyday. Brekkies aren’t bad either, and Whiskas are okay for a change. But meat!
The other one is just mental. I mean, really. She falls over her own feet, plods around like a platoon of squaddies, and her eyes are weird. I mean, who ever saw a cat with eyes like an owl? She can’t tell the difference between the dog’s biscuits and Friskies. Chews on those giant-sized things for hours! Moronic, if you ask me.

You don’t sound too enthusiastic about your place, Trixie. Would you consider another position?

I might. If they had Friskies 24/24, 7/7, and the hours were acceptable. And there was no dog, and no other cats. I’d have to have my own cushion, and I’ve got rather attached to this one. And I have first breakfast at 4.30 am. At least the big one here has understood that much. And I have to have access to the beds. All the beds. Some people don’t like that. And I couldn’t leave the area. The Bear doesn’t wander too far these days, and White Pants keeps strictly to this territory. Isis, Black Prince and all the mob from the next block would miss me if I moved away. It would have to be a pretty good offer. I’d have to think about it carefully. Very carefully.

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Cat tales

Since the work has been going on next door, Trixie has been very unsettled and doesn’t know where to put herself. She has been spending quite a lot of time in the bureau, mooching around and waiting for a seat to be vacated so she can squat on it.
We did give her her own chair and cushion, but she wants Finbar’s chair. And she wants it all to herself.
Trixie doesn’t like sharing, not even carpets. For example, an innocent dog might be lying asleep in front of the fire. Trixie NEVER sleeps in front of the fire, unless that is what Finbar is doing. This is how she usually operates.

Trixie drops heavy hints
Trixie drops heavy hints

A couple of minutes later…

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Nobody knows how she does it, but the place is always vacated. At the moment, as I say, she is upset by the noise of the commandos next door and creeps into the bureau looking for a quiet corner. Finbar has got used to it and after voicing his irritation by barking when they start first thing, he ignores it.
This morning, Trixie came into the bureau and stood in front of Finbar’s chair, lashing her tail and looking intimidating. Finbar didn’t budge. He hadn’t been out for a walk and he was lying doggo, hoping I’d forget. Trixie climbed onto the chair and walked up Finbar’s back. She dug about between his back and the chair trying to get him to move. Usually Trixie can shift anything when she puts her back into it. Archimedes had her in mind when he said the bit about give me somewhere to stick my nose and I will move the Earth.

Finbar playing dead while Trixie tries to burrow into the stuffing.
Finbar playing dead while Trixie tries to burrow into the stuffing.

This time it didn’t work. Finbar is a big dog and I have always thought it miraculous that he manages to fold himself up small enough to fit in an armchair. You’d need a massive shoehorn to get him out. Trixie’s snout, for once didn’t work. So after an attempt to dig up through the bottom of the armchair, she sat on the back of it looking down, working out the options. The best option turned out to be me, turning up with the dreaded lead to take Finbar walkies. The look on that cat’s face I would swear was VICTORY.

Spring drama

The sequel to the spring cleaning drama has been the start of serious demolition work in the building next door. The owner warned us it would be a bit noisy. He didn’t say they were going to use surface to air missiles to knock the partition walls down.

At 7.30 this morning the shelling started and all the animals in the household were startled into action. Cats scuttled to hide under the furniture, Finbar ran up and down the stairs barking, even Catherine got out of bed.

They have just started up again after a very long lunch break. I hope the chief gunner didn’t hit the gros rouge too hard or we could end up with a lot of collateral damage from whizzbangs coming through the chimney breast in our bedroom.


Spring clean

On Saturday the new owner of the building next door phoned to ask if he could come round the following Thursday to do an official inspection of the party wall. No big deal for most people, but we are not most people, and our house is a squirrel house. Nothing is ever thrown away, just in case it comes in useful. We have two entire rooms (it’s a big house) full of nothing but boxes filled with plastic bags, boxes full of clothes and shoes that don’t fit anybody but have years of life left in them, lampshades that don’t fit any of the lamps, notes, files, schoolbooks, prehistoric computers, toys, baby books. You name it, we have a box full of it.

We reckoned that we only had to clean half the house, the half with the party wall in it. The children dealt with the top floor, tidying up two of the bedrooms and the cats’ playroom, and piling all their lumber into the unfinished bathroom and locking the door.
I got the kitchen and the pantry ship shape. My room was already tidy (nobody had been allowed in it for a week), and everybody pitched in to make the main room downstairs look normal. It isn’t dirt, I hasten to add, it’s the rather eclectic assortment of objects that decorate it that most people find off-putting. We put the decorative bicycle outside, took down the painting of the Sacred Heart, hid the dog’s toy box, removed the dried holly from the sofa (the only way to stop Trixie peeing on it), put the pinecone collection in the fireplace, and some of the stacks of books back in the bookcase.

That left the first floor. Our bedroom was full of boxes, pictures, books and piles of clothes that we couldn’t decide if they were on their way to or from a charity shop. The landing looked like a junk shop in the process of moving premises. On Thursday morning husband said he’d deal with it. He finished mending the guttering on the shed, and filling in Finbar’s potholes in the path, and I locked myself in my room and left him to it. He had three hours left.

What sounded like removal men heaving things about on the first floor went on for a couple of hours, then the sound of the shower. I went up to see. Not a box in sight. It was fantastic! I just wanted to lie down on the bed and gaze at the emptiness. First though, we had the visit, which was very perfunctory in the end and a bit of an anticlimax after all the work it had involved.

When the owner and the legal person left, I brought in the washing (there’s always washing to be brought in) and took an armful of sheets upstairs. I was about to open the door to the ‘box’ room, which also houses the linen cupboard, and husband put his hand on my arm.

H: Don’t open the door.
Me: Why not?
H: It could be…dangerous.

He opened the door a crack and I peered inside.

We are going to have to spend some time today putting our rubbish back, otherwise we will never see the linen cupboard again.

Migraine and worse

Today has been a migraine day. One of those days when I wake up with a crashing headache and what feels like morning sickness. Vision is fuzzy, ‘things’ flit about in front of my eyes, and my head feels as if somebody is pounding my skull, just over the left eye with a mallet, possibly to find out if my head really is stuffed with old newspaper, or Kapok.

Migraine sufferers will know what I mean.

The only thing to do is to take one of mother’s special pills and go back to bed. Not to sleep—sleep is impossible with the disjointed images, snatches of music, conversation, passages from the book I was reading the night before—simply because I am of no earthly use to anyone in an upright, or even seated position.
The worst aspect of a migraine for me is the nightmarish world it pitches me into. Everything seems hopeless, ‘change and decay in all around I see’. I find myself unable to stop the thoughts of suffering, held at bay when I am absorbed in work, that surface when my defences crumble. The images that flood the internet, rapidly glossed over with a grimace, are still there, recorded on the retina, tidied away, until the physical pain and the scattering of mental resistance lets them out.

Tomorrow the pill will have worked and the pictures will have gone back in their box. But the box is still there, and what it hides is the awful reality for all the helpless victim of man’s violence and unthinking cruelty.
Today an anniversary service was held in Toulouse for the children and the young father who were murdered, shot dead at their school by a stupid, deluded, ignorant young man with a chip on his shoulder. He was shot too, the angel of death, and frankly, who cares? He doesn’t have to see the eyes of the woman whose husband and two young children were butchered, so casually, random victims because one Jew is a good as another. Their lives have been snuffed out, but the mother is left, and the murderer does not have to see the emptiness in her eyes. We see them though, the eyes of all the victims of violence, looking into the camera with a depth of suffering most of us will never know.

Tomorrow the pill will have worked, but today, with no defences, the eyes watch me and all I can do is weep.


The bridge and The Belem

This morning there was a lot of animation down on the Garonne. Police speedboats were charging up and down; police cars were doing their best to keep up despite having to use roads and bridges. Most of Bordeaux had turned out to see the President of the Republic inaugurate the new bridge.
It being our quay, our bridge and our river, I hadn’t really given much thought to the festivities, and we trolled upriver as usual. However, the crowds making their way to join the thousands already assembled by the new bridge made Finbar nervous. He stopped, nudged my hand gently with his nose and gestured homeward with his head.
I looked at the heaving crowd, and wondered where François was. I watched the policemen showing off in their speed boats, blocked my ears against the wailing of sirens as their land-bound colleagues raced in a great circuit over the new bridge then back across the old one.
We were about to turn back when I noticed the boat gliding under the bridge. It was The Belem, a Mexican navy training ship, a beautiful three master that always turns up for Bordeaux’s nautical extravaganzas. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea. Neither what the arrangement Bordeaux has with the Mexican navy, nor why their training ship is over a hundred years old. It’s a lovely sight whatever the reasons, and once again, I didn’t have a camera with me. The one on the picture is similar, slightly smaller, and Russian.

Finbar was not impressed, pulling in the direction of home, and I found myself looking at the scene not as a human being avid for excitement, but through the eyes of a dog who sees only dense crowds and uncharacteristic movement disturbing the river. So what? The new bridge is officially open, but it will still be there tomorrow. So, the President is in the throng, he’s not such an oil painting, is he? The river police might be thrilled to bits with their high-powered boats, but I’d rather watch the gulls fishing.
You go down that way of thinking and you find yourself listening for birdsong rather than your telephone while walking along the roadside. You look at the wildflowers growing at the edge of the pavement rather than the shop windows, and the clouds scudding overhead instead of the gorgeous shoes of the woman walking in front. You find yourself drifting away from what anchors us to society, and longing for something that can’t be bought, that doesn’t need to be photographed to exist, that might be found in the depths of a dog’s eyes, or the patch of moss growing on a stone wall.

Viva l’Italia!

Panorama Torino
Panorama Torino

The Italians went home today and there was much weeping and wailing and tearing of hair at the airport. We have participated regularly in the exchange of students for years now, mainly with Germany and the US, but this was the first time we felt we drew the star prize. In fact, we have been so disappointed with our guest students that we have declined to take any more Germans. There comes a point when you have to say, this is not blind prejudice, this is a fundamental difference of outlook and culture.

So, this is our fourth child to have had a foreign correspondent, and our first Italian guest. Having had a succession of children whose vocabularies did not seem to include the words ‘thank you’, or very much else for that matter, it was a breath of fresh air to share our home with a child who was chatty (in a language not her own), cheerful, helpful and polite. After a week it was as if we had acquired another daughter, and rather than heaving a great sigh of relief when the brat was finally dumped on the plane home, it was exacting promises to come back soon that we waved goodbye to Giulia.

In fact, the experience of receiving a bunch of sixteen-year-olds from Turin has been an exhilarating one for all the families concerned. Many romantic liaisons have been formed, as only sixteen-year-olds know how to do, and many hearts were broken at the airport of Bordeaux Merignac. For the first time in living memory, all the students got together to throw a party. Okay, they threw it in our house, so we were on the front line, but that’s what you get for having a big house in the centre of town. They cooked themselves pasta, they smoked like chimneys, they made a hell of a noise, and they had a whale of a time. But they did hardly any damage, they left at a reasonable hour (well, most of them), and the ones who stayed cleared up the next morning.

Having lectured my children about what a wonderful country Italy is, and what tremendous people (after the Irish, of course), I felt completely vindicated. All we are going to hear about between now and mid April is the return match.

Viva l’Italia!

Trixie moves in

Well, it had to happen one day. Having driven Finbar out of his dog basket by peeing in it in his absence, then off his blanket in the sun, and off the sofa using the same tactic, Trixie has infiltrated Finbar’s last retreat.

For the last few months he has been sleeping on an armchair in the bureau. HIS armchair. He thought he was out of range of Trixie’s vindictive bladder.


Lately, bored with having no one to torment, Trixie has started coming into the bureau and sitting on the desk. You get up for a minute and she settles on the chair. Push her off the chair and she sits back on the papers on the desk. She gets cross if you dump her on the floor too often and retaliates by stomping across the keyboard.

This morning Finbar came back from his walk to find Lady Muck sprawled across HIS armchair. He asked her very nicely to get off, but she refused. We know what happens when Trixie gets vexed, and it isn’t very pleasant.


The solution is: throw out all the useless things in the bureau like boxes of teaching materials, course notes and documentation for all the different projects underway. Once we’ve got rid of all the stuff that only interests humans, we’re putting a second armchair at the other side of the radiator, with Trixie’s special cushion that has ‘Mon Trésor’ embroidered on it.

And we’re going to do it pronto. Otherwise Finbar will be sleeping on the floor on the landing.