Category Archives: Family

My Mother’s Story

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It’s my mother’s 7th birthday. She goes off to school happily to share the excitement of the day. But jealousy rears its ugly head and a little boy says, “In any case, you’re adopted”. When she gets home from school, she learns the heartbreaking truth – well, part of it, anyway.

Earliest photo of my mother
Earliest photo of my mother

Her real mother, Ada, conceived her in the ship that took her family – her husband and four children aged 2 to 10 – to Australia. She died in childbirth in Brisbane in 1920. My mother, Ada Joan, who only weighed one kilo at birth was unofficially adopted by an older couple who didn’t have any children of their own. To keep her alive, her foster mother strapped her to her chest at night.

When my mother was eight months old, her father took the other children back to England, promising to send for her when she was old enough to travel. He never did and never made any contact with her at any time.

The first letter from my mother to her sister Moira
The first letter from my mother to her sister Moira

It’s now a few months after her 7th birthday and my mother has started corresponding with her older sister, Moira, and will do so until she’s fifteen. The letters are poignant.

But Moira wants to visit her in Australia so my mother cuts off all correspondence because, as she explains to me later, she is afraid her sister won’t like her.


The year she turns 18, my mother’s foster parents, whom she loves very much, both die within six months of each other leaving her no family at all. By then she is living and working in the Crown Sollicitor’s office in Canberra. She gets engaged to a man called Jack, I think, but like so many other young men at the time, her fiancé is killed in World War II.

Back in Brisbane after the war, she meets my father, the oldest of a family of 9 children from a sheep property in northern New South Wales. They get married in Brisbane in 1948. After three years without any sign of pregnancy, they are about to adopt a baby when my sister is conceived.

The last letter from my mother to her sister Moira
The last letter from my mother to her sister Moira

I am born the next year and my two brothers soon come along, each spaced three years apart. My mother has two miscarriages after that. She is devastated. She wants a big family. We are on holidays on the Atherton Tablelands when she miscarries the second time. I don’t understand what’s happening but suddenly my mother is in hospital.

In 1966, my sister is 14. We’re holidaying on a nearby coral island and are visiting friends. My brothers are playing out the back of the house and my sister goes to check on them. The next thing, one of the boys comes back to tell us that a rock has fallen on my sister. Death must have been instant. There is absolutely no explanation why a ten-ton rock should have moved as that precise moment.

Portrait of my mother during her Canberra years
Portrait of my mother during her Canberra years

My mother has lost the first person of her own flesh and blood she has ever known. When I have my own son and daughter, I realise what it must have been like. I am utterly paranoid the year each of them turns 14. I am always aware of the great fragility of the life of a child.

Many years later, I am visiting my mother who is on holiday in London. She asks me to go with her to the births and deaths registry at Somerset House. We track down her parents’ birth and marriage certificates and are able to find some addresses in the north of England. None of them, however,  produce any results.

It is not until my mother is 70 that a genealogy expert at the university in Townsville tracks down her older sister Moira who is then a retired registered nurse living in Canada. My parents go to meet her in Toronto and learn the rest of the story which proves even more devastating.

Family portrait in 1960
Family portrait in about 1964

It turns out that my mother’s parents were travelling out to Australia to see her mother’s mother who, for some reason no one seems to know, was living in Brisbane at the time. My mother’s maternal grandmother LIVED IN THE SAME STREET as my mother until she died, without ever acknowledging her in any way.  She is buried in the Kangaroo Point cemetary in Brisbane.

Moira has kept my mother’s letters all these years and that is how we have them today. She is able to give very little news of the rest of the family. One of her brothers also emigrated to Canada and was blown up in a laboratory accident. She herself has never married. The two sisters keep in regular contact after that, mainly at my mother’s instigation, but after my father dies in 1993, there are no more trips overseas so the two sisters don’t ever meet again.

Mum at my graduation ceremony in 1975
Mum at my graduation ceremony in 1975

After my mother’s death in the year 2000, I try to phone Moira but get no answer so I send a card. There is no response. A couple of years later my younger brother receives a letter from a sollicitor in Canada telling us that Moira has left her very small estate to a charity and asking if we want to contest the will, which we don’t of course.

In today’s world of the Internet and social media, my mother’s story would have ended differently, I believe. Australia back in 1920 was really at the end of the earth. Communication was slow and difficult. But it doesn’t explain her grandmother’s attitude, does it?

My Piano Finds a New Home

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When I was a child I loved singing but unfortunately I was constantly told that I was singing out of key or that I was tone deaf. I had no idea what that meant of course and still sang along gustily with my more gifted siblings when we spent whole days in the car going down to Brisbane for the holidays. I still have our little song book from that period with Bell Bottom Trousers, A Bicycle Built for Two, The Old Grey Mare and other songs of that ilk. Only my father, who was not very musical, defended me.


When I was about 6 or 7, we acquired a stereogram and my mother gradually collected the popular musical comedies of the time, particularly those of Rogers and Hamerstein. I still know all the words to Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. But my favourite was Salad Days written by Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds as a summer musical for the Bristol Old Vic’s resident company. It’s one of the London West End’s longest running musicals even though the music and lyrics are nothing sensational.


My request to learn the piano was turned down and I was put into Speech and Drama classes instead. I went on to get my licentiate (teaching diploma), the significance of which you’ll see later on. I was told by my mother many years later that she didn’t want any of us to learn the piano because she used to spend most of her celibate evenings out playing so that the rest of the company could dance! She didn’t want that to happen to us.

My youngest brother turned out to have a wonderful singing voice so had private lessons and won prizes at the local eistedfodd. No one realised that I should have had singing lessons too! But I didn’t know then that it was possible to learn to sing in key. I sang in the shower, I sang when I took my dog for walks, I sang in the car with the window wide open as we whizzed along at 90 miles an hour and no one could hear me.

Townsville, taken from Magnetic Island
Townsville, taken from Magnetic Island

The most embarrassing moment was being voice-tested for the school choir, especially the year when I was school captain. I developed a sneeze that I could bring out at will so no one at school actually heard my singing voice. I just said I was alto and sung under my breath. For many years, there was an annual school performance starring all the music pupils. I was so envious the year they put on The King and I and I couldn’t even participate.

When my children were born, I sang to them all the time and even made up songs for them and they never complained about my voice. They liked my singing. Recently, I played some Peter, Paul and Mary songs for Black Cat on my iPad and she looked at me in amazement, “Is that Puff the Magic Dragon I’m hearing?”

Black Cat wearing her princess dress at a musical afternoon
Black Cat wearing her princess dress at a musical afternoon

Somewhere in the back of my mind, the lyrics from Salad Days remained with me and when Black Cat was 6, I started “looking for a piano, not just any old piano, the one that makes you sing“. The words are actually “the one that makes you laugh” but that’s how I remembered it. I had also realised by then that the methods I used to teach children to pronounce words correctly could be applied to singing. Once you hear the sound correctly, you can pronounce it.

So I went to a piano shop and bought a beautiful new German piano and Black Cat and I both started learning privately with an Australian woman and it worked – I did learn to sing on key! I later joined the choir at the local music academy (conservatoire) and was able to participate in a number of live performances from which I derived great satisfaction.

Proud mums at a musical afternoon
Proud mums at a musical afternoon

I loved learning the piano. I spent hours practising and managed to make reasonable progress. However, an adult doesn’t have the same capacity as a child and it required a lot of hard work. After my divorce, Black Cat and I went to the consevatoire as it was cheaper and I had to sit for an exam each year. The piece I could play perfectly for my teacher’s ears alone dissolved as soon as the examiner walked into the room and my fingers went to jelly.

In the meantime, I started organising musical afternoons for my friends and their children who sang or played instruments. We had a cello, a violin, two clarinettes and a trombone. I found sheet music for several instruments and all the little brothers and sisters of the instrument players had xylophones and triangles. Leonardo took up the clarinette so was able to participate as well. I often played duets with Black Cat, with me always playing the easier part of course.

Leonardo at the clarinette and Black Cat at the piano one Christmas
Leonardo at the clarinette and Black Cat at the piano one Christmas

I eventually stopped playing when I realised that the hours I would have to spend praticising would not lead to any great improvement in my level. I had achieved what I really wanted – I had learnt to sing – and even though I am still reticent about singing in front of other people, I think I can actually hold a tune these days.

Black Cat became busy with other things and no longer had time for lessons. I occasionally had the piano tuned but it mainly stayed closed until two years ago, when Brainy Pianist from Sydney spent a year with one of Jean Michel’s son on an exchange. When I learnt that he played the piano, I immediately had it tuned and on Wednesday nights, before the family dinner, he would come and play for a half an hour while we were preparing the meal, breathing new life into the piano.

The piano before it was taken away
The piano before it was taken away


As our move to Blois gets closer, we are working out how everything will fit into the new house. I thought a lot about the piano and finally decided it was pointless keeping an instrument that no one plays and that is getting older every year. I mentioned it to the mother of Céline, the cello player from our musical afternoons one day and the next thing, I had an email from Céline.

She now has three little boys. She brought them along so she could try out the piano. The second little boy in particular seems to have an aptitude and Céline herself plays both piano and cello, which has kept up over the years.

Taking the piano down 4 flights of stairs
Taking the piano down 4 flights of stairs

So when the piano left yesterday, in the capable hands of two movers, who carried it carefully down our four flights of stairs (it was brought up 8 years ago by a single person called a porteur), I was sad and happy at the same time. Sad because the piano represents so much to me and happy because it will now be used and loved every day.

A Therapeutic Ride along the Marne

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It’s Black Cat’s last day in Paris before she goes to New York to look for a job. I’m delighted for her, of course, because she’s following her dream, just as I did 38 years ago, but I am very sad to see her go. We’ve decided not to say goodbye at the airport so we part ways in the street. I go back upstairs and try to work. When Jean Michel phones at five to say he’s finished for the day, I suggest we go cycling along the Marne.

Looking towards Pont de Bry
Looking towards Pont de Bry

The cycle path from Pont de Bry to the old chocolate factory in Champs sur Marne remains our favourite ride and is filled with happy memories of when we lived in Fontenay sous Bois and could easily go there at the end of the day.

And we love stopping off on the way back for a barbecued côte de boeuf at La Pergola.

The inauspicious façade of the Pergola
The inauspicious façade of the Pergola

As it’s the last Friday in August, there is very little traffic so we only take about three-quarters of an hour to get there. We’ve already phoned La Pergola to check they’re open and make sure our côte de boeuf will be ready when we arrive after cycling for an hour along the Marne. The owner recognises knows us as le couple en vélo even if we haven’t been there since last summer.

Swans on the Marne
Swans on the Marne

As soon as we get on our bikes, I start feeling better. It’s a lovely day and the Marne is full of swans. We ride down to the chocolate factory and back to La Pergola. Our favourite table in the garden is waiting for us.

The Pergola garden
The Pergola garden

The côte de bœuf arrives and it’s enormous. Since we began intermittent fasting in June , our appetite has diminished somewhat. We manage to finish it anyway particularly as the meat is delicious. Jean Michel even orders tarte tatin for dessert! Fortunately it doesn’t have any cream with it.

Wearing my headlight
Wearing my headlight

It’s completely dark by the time we finish and we still have a 20-minute ride back to the car so we don our headlights and windcheaters and off we go. On the way, we pass the other, more recently opened La Pergola with its bright neon lights. I think it’s an eyesore.

The other neon-lit Pergola
The other neon-lit Pergola

Next morning we’re not even remotely hungry so decide to have a fast day. Today is the first day of Black Cat’s new life! Good luck!

La Pergola, 87, promenade Hermann Régnier, 93460 Gournay Sur Marne, 01 43 05 36 56

Christmas is Over Already

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Black Cat left for New York today with the Flying Dutchman for Christmas and New Year, so we celebrated Christmas early his year, on Saturday evening, as both Relationnel’s sons were free as well. Leonardo, of course, was asleep in Sydney. I got back from Blois on Friday night so Relationnel and I spent Saturday rushing around buying the rest of the presents and ingredients for our Christmas feast. All very exhausting!


We started with 3 verrines (avocado, pink grapefruit & prawns;  eggplant purée, ricotta & cherry tomatoes; zucchini, basil & fromage blanc purée with parmesan chips & walnuts) and a spoon (pumpkin & spice purée) with a glass of champagne.

After that, we pulled the Christmas crackers and laughed at the silly jokes, followed by the present opening. We dispensed with the traditional shoes under the Christmas tree, which Black Cat had decorated earlier in the evening and Relationnel played Santa instead.


This was followed by (small portions of) spéciale oysters, smoked salmon and foie gras with quincy bought at the wine fair recently (a Loire Valley sauvignon not unlike sancerre) by which time I totally forgot to take any photos, which is a pity because the foie gras was decorated with mini muffins of my making, a few leaves of leafy greens and 15 year old balsamic vinegar. Three of the plates looked very professional.

The main course was côte de bœuf with Darphin potatoes (Black Cat’s choice) and oven-baked eggplant, zucchini and bell peppers, this time accompanied by a 1979 Saint Emilion.


Dessert consisted of two verrines – Columbian coffee panna cotta with Speculoos (Belgian brown sugar & ginger biscuits) and apple crumble & French custard – and the rest of the mini muffins, with another glass of champagne of course! No cake, of course, because I made it too late …

May I wish you all a very happy and joyous Christmas with a special thought for those who have suffered recent losses.

A Unique War Memorial, a Bush Picnic and a Winery near Armidale

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On the day of our family picnic to Dangars Falls near Armidale, we stopped on the way at a unique war memorial which was presented to us by Graeme, the historian in our party. The Dangarsleigh War Memorial is unique in that it was a private memorial erected by the Perrott family in memory of their oldest son, Harold, killed at Passchendale Ridge in the First World War. The local community joined in, making various contributions, including ceramic tiles from the Catholic Cathedral, and the other veterans were added to the list. Building commenced on October 6th 1920 and the monument was unveiled on Empire Day May 24th the next year.

Dangarsleigh War Memorial

Harry Court, an Armidale blacksmith, made and donated the turnstile and worked symbols of the Navy and the Army into the handles. Each of the elements of the monument has a symbolic meaning, determined by Mr Perrott: • the large circle surrounding the monument “represents the world, with the inlaid stones showing the rough path of life”; • the three-sided base “represents ‘Mother’ England with Ireland and Scotland; • the five smaller pillars, each with five sides represent the ‘Children’ of the British Empire – Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa”; and • the eight-sided obelisk “unifies England with Ireland and Scotland, and the five Dominions to form the British Empire, above which is the globe to represent the world.”

Gun, bugle, whistle and cannon on the turnstile at Dangarsleigh War Memorial

“The entrance is in the form of an eastern temple and invites people to ‘Nirvana’, the Place of Peace and is surmounted by a bell, which calls the souls to rest. The turnstile has handles fashioned into shapes of a military bugle, service rifle, Naval bosun’s whistle and a cannon.” The Perrot family graves are nearby.

Perrott family graves

I wish I had had Graeme to talk to me about Australian history when I was growing up. “Social studies” as we called it then seemed very dry and full of dates and I dropped it as soon as I could in high school. It was not until I went to England for the first time in 1975 that history became a reality. I’ve learnt to look at the whole picture and see how different things fit together, but I still have trouble with dates.

Family interaction on the viewing platform at Dangars Falls

We then went on to Dangars Falls and our family party took over the viewing platform altogether.  I learnt that one of Graeme’s friends was killed in the terrible massacre in the 1960s at Port Arthur in Tasmania, which we visited a week or so ago. He also had a student who jumped off the cliff above the falls. Such terrible tragedies.

Chilling out at Petersons Wineries

After the picnic, we went to visit Petersons Wineries, with their lovely old guest house built in 1911 featuring a distinctive archway that the younger generation found most enticing! After tasting a couple of wines at the cellar door, which is in the old stables, we bought a glass of wine each and sat under the shady trees outside. These are the moments with family that I miss most when I’m in France.

The Big Kneipp Family Reunion in Australia

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When we were in Australia 3 years ago, I took Jean Michel on a pilgrimage to the sheep country where my father was born – Bonshaw, near Glen Innes and Tenterfield in northwestern New South Wales. The Kneipp family originally comes from a little village called Winkel along a small section of the Rhine River in Germany where vineyards and wineries still flourish.

Glenmore, the sheep property where my father grew up

The first ancestor that can be traced was called Johann, probably born in the early 1640s. He and his wife Katarina had five children, born between 1667 and 1675. Their third child, also called Johann, was born in 1672. He married Margerthe and they had ten children. The oldest boy was Christan,  born in 1694. He and his wife Maria Eva only had two children, Wendelin and Susanne. Wendelin, our ancestor, was born in 1723 and died in 1790. He married Ursula and they also had two children, Franz and another Wendelin. Franz married Clara and they had just one son, Wendel, born in 1779.

Johann Kneipp (photo:

Now Wendel (this is sixth generation here) married Mary Ann and they had five children, including another Johann, born in 1831. He was my great great grandfather and came out to Australia as a young man, in 1856, bringing 5 rams with him.  In Australia, Johann married a fellow German, Caroline Utz, born in 1842 in Stuttgart. He died in 1914 in Glen Innes while Caroline lived for another ten years.  They had 11 children, the first of whom was born in 1862.

The dashing and debonnaire Matey Kneipp, my great grandfather

George, eighth in line, was born in 1873. Known to everyone as Matey, he married Helena Lennon, of Irish extraction, from Armidale and they had five children: Anthony George, Dom, Mary, Joseph and Frank. Their property, just outside Ashford, was called Beaumont.

My father, George Kneipp, the oldest, with his mother and father, 3 brothers and 5 sisters

Anthony George, known as George, born in 1901, married Kathleen McHugh and they lived on a sheep property called Glenmore. He died young, at the age of 49 so I never met him. Kathleen, my grandmother, died in Inverell in 1972 at the age of 72, having brought up 9 children – four sons and five daughters. Their home was declared a primary school and the teacher lived with them all year round. When they reached high school age, they went off to boarding school.

Mixture of generations in Armidale Mall

My father, also known as George, was the oldest. One brother and three sisters are still alive. My own parents died in 1993 and 2000. In my generation, there are 40 first cousins, of whom only 14 are women (three deceased) and we have had 44 children between us, but this time half are women. So far, there are six members of the next generation.

My cousins are spread across Australia and last time, we covered many miles to catch up with them which is why I came up with the idea of a family reunion this time. Unfortunately, many live far away (Perth, Melbourne, Mackay, Darwin, etc.) but there were still nearly 50 of us at the family dinner.

A bush picnic

All my immediate family was present – my two brothers and their four children and my son and daughter. My uncle, two of my aunts and an aunt by marriage were also there as well as many cousins.  Both before and after the main get-together, we met up at our home exchange and in the mall in Armidale, where we took over one of the main cafés for breakfast, at Dangar Falls where we picnicked and at the homes of friends and family.

Catching up a last time

It was heart-rending for me to say goodbye to the different members of the family as they left one by one during the long weekend, particularly the “oldies” as we won’t be back for another three years. But it was a wonderful experience and the next date has already been set – January 2015 – for an 80th birthday on a sheep property. Jean Michel will be given a taste of the “real Australia” and has promised to be more fluent in English by then!

Mother’s Day in Galerie Vivienne

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Black Cat and I decided to celebrate Mother’s Day a bit early this year because on the real day – 3rd June – she’ll be in Delft and I’ll be in Blois. Last year, Leonardo was with us as well but he’s in Sydney now of course and we had a lovely brunch in the courtyard of the restaurant inside the Arts & Métiers museum. This year, there were just the two of us so Black Cat took me to A Priori Thé in Galérie Vivienne for lunch. Paris has many arcades and passageways but this is my favourite and the closest to home.

Built on an L-shape, it was inaugurated in 1826. I love the beautiful mosaic floors and curved glass roof, not to mention all the lovely shops. The Bistrot Vivienne at the Rue des Petits Champs entrance changed hands a couple of years ago and went upmarket. It’s a little expensive for a bistrot but the staff are friendly and dining in the spacious arcade away from the noise of the street is very pleasant. I have to admit that the French fries, served in a little bucket, are excellent!

Legrand Fils et Filles, one of Paris’ best-known wine merchants, also has regular tastings. Don’t hestitate to walk through the bar area and into the old-fashioned épicerie on the other side which sells sweets, coffee, tea and other gourmandises in a very olde worlde atmosphere.

A Priori Thé, halfway down the arcade, is one of my favourite lunch spots but you often need to reserve in advance if you want to sit outside. They have a different special every day and the ideas are always original. You can buy wine by the glass that comes from Legrand. Relationnel and I sometimes go just for coffee after having lunch at home and it’s a great place for afternoon tea particularly with young friends who have strollers. I like the fact that they have “half servings” of cakes and desserts. They also have an excellent “café goumand” which is coffee or tea served with mini-cakes.

There’s a bookshop just after A Priori Thé with old and new books, including a few paperbacks in English where I used to go before I discovered Book Off and a picture framer where you can get very wide and very tall photos of Paris. We have one with the Pont des Arts in the middle and the Pont Neuf on the left that is impossible to take yourself unless you have a special camera which I don’t.

There is even a designer clothing shop called La Marelle with no indication whatsoever on the outside that the clothes are secondhand. I wandered in one day by accident and overheard some interesting conversations among the clients, some of whom were bringing their clothes in for sale. A very discreet address! There are some firsthand designer shops as well, including Nathalie Garçon, Catherine André, Rodika Zanian, Yuki Torii and Gautier.

The other boutiques in the arcade include a watchmaker who sells both new and old watches, an optomotrist, a toy shop, a hairdresser where the lady seems to spend a lot of time in a chair in front of her shop, a shoe shop, a hat shop, a florist, a boutique that sells old letters and engravings and a couple of art galleries (one with a very colourful cow in front) but none of them are exactly in my price range.

If you visit Galerie Vivienne, you might also like to visit Galerie Colbert (1836) a little further down and Passage Choiseul (1829) a few blocks away, both on Rue des Petits Champs in the direction of Avenue de l’Opéra.  Galerie Colbert has a beautiful glass dome while Choiseul is a little rundown but has real shops and little places to eat and not a tourist in sight!

Bistrot Vivienne, 4 rue des Petits Champs, Paris 75001, 01 49 27 00 50,
A Priori Thé, 35-37 Galerie Vivienne, 75002 Paris, M° Bourse or Palais Royale, 01 42 97 48 75, Open for breakfast-lunch-tea: Monday -Friday from 9am to 6 pm /Saturday from 9am to 6:30 pm, Sunday Brunch from 12am to 4pm Sunday tea from 4pm-6:30pm


Cleaners I Have Known

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My current Maria

I love my cleaning lady! We joke together that the only time I’m not so happy with her is when her holidays don’t coincide with mine (dammit, she goes away most of August) or when she stays home to look after a sick child (which I approve of naturally). One of the hardest things when I left the suburbs to come and live in Paris was losing my Portuguese cleaner whom I’d had since I was pregnant with Leonardo 30 years ago! She had a wonderful sense of humour (like my current Maria), was very devoted, obviously went back to Portugal for the whole of August like everyone else (I can forgive her for that!), and adored my children.

When she learnt that I was pregnant with Black Cat, she said that I’d never to able to make another baby as beautiful as Leonardo. But when she came to clean just a few hours after Black Cat was born, she declared that I’d done it again! Black Cat was born at home by the way, in case you’re wondering. I’d had enough of interfering French hospitals by then! I had a midwife and doctor present and everything went perfectly.

The French government has a good system for domestic workers called “chèques service“. If you declare them and pay social security contributions, they become a tax deduction. You have to set it up with the bank first so that when you declare their hours on the website, the social security contributions can be taken directly out of your bank account. That way you’re covered if there is an accident and they get a better old age pension and even sick pay. The scheme doesn’t just apply to cleaners, but also to nannies, gardeners, handymen or whoever else you might employ on an hourly basis.

So when we moved to Paris, Relationnel told me to be very nice to one of the Portugueuse concierges on our street (there are five altogether) because she knows absolutely everyone and decides who’s going to work where! He was right. Not that I wouldn’t have been nice to her anyway. I mentioned my need for a cleaning lady and very soon Maria arrived on my doorstep. All Portuguese cleaning ladies are called Maria Something by the way. Maria A. and I immediately got on. She likes cleaning, she takes pride in her work and she likes the freedom it gives her. She works for four or five different people in the same street.

We also go back to visit my first Maria in January each year for a galette des rois and whenever we visit a European city with a special Catholic church such as the Macarena in Seville or Assisi or Our Lady of Loreto near Ancona, I buy an icon to give her.

Leonardo’s first cleaning lady was also Portuguese but when she had her first baby and decided, quite understandably of course, to stay home and look after him, he had to find someone else, but never managed to find another Maria. Maybe that’s why he moved to Australia!

Black Cat has a male cleaner who’s Philippino and speaks English. Being a cleaner is a traditional profession for Philippino men and they do a wonderful job.

Now when we move to Blois in two years’ time, I’ll have to find another cleaner. I do hope there’s going to be another Maria.

Sewing Machines I Have Known

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Last Sunday when we were on another dépôt-vente excursion, I came across two Singer treadle sewing machines, one of which seemed in very good condition and a bargain at 40 euros. A nostalgia trip of course. My first sewing machine was one of those little kid’s ones that only did chain stitch. For the uninitiated, it means that you just had to pull on the thread and the whole lot would come undone.

I was a devoted sewer as a child. I had a Barbie doll that I made clothes for, including miniature bras and pants and skirts with zippers. So I was certainly not going to be satisfied with a machine that only did chain stitch. Mum didn’t think at 9 or 10 that I was old enough to use her electric Singer machine but I was very insistent so she bought me a hand-operated Singer.

Photo from The Power House Museum

I used to set it up on a low table on the veranda and sew away to my heart’s content. But I soon saw the limits of a hand-operated machine, particularly as Mum’s did zigzag and made buttonholes. She told me that the day I could sew a straight line in a piece of material without any markings, I could use her machine. Well, I mastered that in next to no time and migrated to the real thing. At school, we used treadle machines and I used to help all the others when they got stuck. We made boring things such as aprons.


By 13, I was making my own clothes. By 16, I was making everything I wore. I could take the machine to pieces and put it back together as well! And do you know what happened to the hand-operated machine? I decided when I was a teenager to redecorate my bedroom. I made little “flutter” curtains with sketches of Montmartre on them (already getting ready to live the French dream) and desperately wanted a white chenille bedspread. But Mum, very practical, was against it. I was not known for my tidiness. So I sold the sewing machine to buy the white bedspread myself!

When I came to France, the thing I most missed was Mum’s sewing machine. I’d practically made a whole new wardrobe before I left, because living in Townsville meant I only had summer clothes. So I made woollen skirts and tailored jackets that stood me in good stead for quite a while. I must have borrowed a machine from time to time though because I can remember some of the clothes I made in those early years in France.

Mum’s wedding present was a sewing machine. We went together to choose it at the BHV in Paris. By then, I wanted something more sophisticated of course that would sew things like jersey. I also needed something compact so I chose a little Elna. Mum bought the machine and then announced she was going off for the rest of the day by train to Liseux in Normandy, to see the church of Saint Therese. I didn’t know what to do. Mum didn’t speak French and Dad would never forgive me if I let her go by herself. What if something happened? I was getting married in two days’ time! But how can you stop your own (very determined) mother from doing something?

So I took her to the station and helped her buy the ticket and went home to face the music. After calculating the time she would need to go there and back, Dad spent a couple of hours down at the bus stop waiting for her! She came home safe and sound, perfectly delighted with herself and her ability to get around France on her own. Mothers!!

My trusty Elna is still going strong although I rarely do much sewing today. I made most of Black Cat’s clothes when she was little and when she was ten, I bought her an electric machine, also a Singer, a special child’s machine with two buttons – a hare and a tortoise. She didn’t use it very much to my disappointment, but I didn’t say anything. Then suddenly, when she was in her late teens, she became a keen sewer, much more adventurous than me, and she occasionally stuns everyone with a new outfit. A friend of mine has lent her a Singer, probably about the same one as Mum had!

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No Oysters on Sunday

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I think our cold snap this year has even reached the news in Australia. February is always the coldest month in Paris and we usually have a couple of snow falls during the winter but the temperatures rarely go below freezing. But we’ve just had two weeks in Paris with minus 2 or 3 degrees throughout the day and much colder temperatures at night.  We’d actually been having a very mild winter so the cold snap took everyone by surprise.

Brainy Pianist alias Michelin Man

Brainy Pianist, who desperately wanted to see some snow, was searching for somewhere to go and I suggested Strasbourg so he and Thoughtful went there last weekend by train. It didn’t snow in Strasbourg – at minus 12°, it was too cold – but they saw a lot of snow on the way. Brainy Pianist, looking very much like the Michelin man, was dressed in long johns, two pairs of jeans, 2 T-shirts, 2 jumpers, 2 pairs of socks, a neck warmer and a scarf, two beanies, one with ear flaps, and rabbit-fur lined gloves he’d had the good sense to pick up in Rome after he read my post! He hadn’t thought to take a second pair of gloves, but Thoughtful did! Plus they were both wearing anoraks of course.

Thoughtful alias The Terrorist

It’s snowed in Paris since, to Brainy Pianist’s delight because he missed the first snow fall when he was in Strasbourg, but there wasn’t a lot so it didn’t stay on the ground for long. The Palais Royal Gardens looked very pretty though and the water in the fountains next to the Glass Pyramids at the Louvre was all frozen over. But the cold has persisted.

In winter, I usually just wear wool mix trousers, socks, long-sleeved shirt and wool mix jacket when I go out, with ankle boots, parka with a hood, long scarf to keep the hood in place and rabbit-fur lined gloves. When it’s minus something, I add a pair of tights. My hands get very cold though. I have a pair of thin silk gloves somewhere that have obviously disappeared at the moment, just when I need them!

Me, not Black Cat

Black Cat turned up for afternoon tea yesterday in a summer dress with a cardigan over it, thick tights, long boots, coat, hat, scarf and gloves.  Looking very chic as usual. She’s even got special iPhone gloves so you don’t have to get freezing hands when you answer your phone. I need some too. She immediately took off the cardigan because our apartment is overheated, usually 23°C with the radiators off because of the hot water pipes from the central heating. The water has to be hot so that the apartments on the lower floors are sufficiently heated (we’re on the fourth floor). At her place, though, they have electric heaters, which are expensive to run, so she always has to keep a jumper on. Plus her Australian flat mate is always opening the windows and turning off the radiators and forgetting to turn them back on, particularly in the morning.

Directoire chest of drawers

Yesterday was the coldest I’ve been in a long time. We went off to a dépôt-vente in Nogent sur Marne looking for more furniture for the house in Blois. It was minus 2° both inside and out! I don’t know how the people can work there. We bought a directoire chest of drawers with a marble top. Despite the gloves, my hands were completely frozen by the time we got back into the car which, being a Volvo, doesn’t heat up very quickly. You’d think the Swedish could do better than that! Our Renault Scenic is almost immediately warm.

I went to the market this morning to buy fish and eggs. We bought everything else from the supermarket yesterday because last week’s fruit and vegetables were damaged because of the freezing temperatures and the ground’s so hard now you can’t dig anything up. The fish don’t seem to mind the cold. I felt sorry for the fish mongers though. They have to clean and gut the fish. No oyster man. Last week we ate inferior “fines de claires” instead of “spéciales” so this time, we decided not to have oysters on Sunday. Sigh.

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