Running a French Holiday Gite in Rural Brittany

Friday, September 29, 2006

Off to Wales this weekend to collect some beds

Furnishing our holiday home seems to be a never ending occupation, especially since we're now starting (very slowly!) to renovate the second house. Ultimately that'll be a second 3 bedroom Gite as well although it's connected to our current one at the first floor so there'll be the option of renting all of it out as a 6 bedroom property.

Last weekend I was in Ikea to buy some new bedside lights as some guests last month had accidentally broken one of them when staying. We've broken (and replaced) one ourselves last year so I ended up buying three new ones so that we'll have a few spares over in France. Although Ikea's in France as well (and costs slightly less than the UK), the nearest one is 2 hours away in Nantes so I end up in the export business again when we go shopping there. For some reason lights seem to be incredibly expensive in French shops - one place I looked in wanted £40 for each bedside light and I ended up paying over £50 for what I thought was a fairly ordinary light in one of the bedrooms. Ikea's prices are much more reasonable.

Wherever possible we've tried to furnish the Gite with simple country style oak furniture so we've ended up with a mixture of things from our UK house, from UK furniture dealers, from ebay and of course from France.

This weekend for example a friend of mine has given me a couple of beds from his late fathers house so we've hired a transit van and are off to deepest darkest Wales to pick them up. Doubtless they will end up being lashed to the roof of my trusty Primera Estate for the journey over to Brittany, but for ease we've got a van for the weekend and of course a ready supply of Yorkie bars for the journey!

I was looking on Google for a good Yorkie bar picture for this Blog article. Bizarely there's a Wikipedia entry on Yorkie chocolate bars and even more strange was when I searched for Yorkie Chocolate Bar on Google I was presented with an Adsense advert suggesting that I might 'Buy Yorkie Chocolate Bar on eBay'. Surprisingly there isn't actually any Yorkie bars for sale on ebay right now .....


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The drain's a pain

Received a phone call yesterday morning from the guests currently staying in our Holiday Gite; they were having really good weather and enjoying themselves, but were phoning to report that there was a problem with the kitchen sink that was draining away very slowly.

It's at times like this that it's very frustrating to be however many hundred miles away as there's nothing I can do from afar.

Our Gite (like most of rural France) isn't on mains drainage, there's a fosse septique for the toilet and grey water (bath & shower) waste, and a separate fat trap and ditch drain or the kitchen. I'm hoping that the problem is as simple as just vegatable peelings in the U bend under the sink because if it's a problem with the fat trap then it be a bit harder to uncover since the fat trap was accidently gravelled over by the builder earlier in the year when we had the new patio and driveway laid. It's not impossible to get to, just a matter of shifting the stones and the weedproof membrane, just will take a little longer.

Cleaning out the fat trap is not much fun either. I emptied it last year at the same time we had the fosse cleaned out and removing several years of accumulated grease and fat was very unpleasant and smelly. The fat stuck to everything it touched - the kitchen collander I used to scoop it out with (oops got in trouble with the wife for that one), the bucket, me, the dustbin, etc; and it smelt as well, far worse than the fosse which hardly smelt at all. I don't envy the water board people that have to clear similar blockages in London sewers all the time. Fortunately once cleaned the fat trap's worked flawlessly ever since.

Anyway we phoned our local Brittany agents, Cherril and Alan, and they're going to have a look and hopefuly fix the problem.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

New Clive Kristen book: "A French Restoration: The Pleasures and Perils of Renovating a Property in France"

Amazon emailed me yesterday to let me know that Clive Kristen has written a new book which is due to be released on 29th September.

For those that don't know Clive, he's written a number of books about renovating and purchasing a French property and there's a well thumbed copy of "Buying a Property in France: An Insider Guide to Realising Your Dream" in our Brittany Gite that I bought and read well before embarking on our own French adventure. It's a good factual book about the process of buying a property (fees, legal process, prices in different areas, useful french building phrases, etc).

Clive's latest book appears (from online reviews) to be a more in depth story following three years of a British couple's own French rennovation dreams ... "When you fall in love common sense flies out of the window".

Judging from Clive's previous book, it should be an interesting read so I think it'll be getting this one as well. The RRP is £9.99, but are offering it for £6.59 (plus P&P), for £6.79 and for £7.49.

Better dig out the Amazon voucher that's lurking in my inbox somewhere ...

PS: Finally finished reading Tom Clancy's 'The Bear and The Dragon' that I blogged about last month. The last 300 pages are better than the first 800 and (no suprises) the American's save the day!

PPS: If you're very quick you can grab a copy of Clive's 'Property in France: An Insider Guide' off ebay, closes monday night and currently only 99p.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

The Blog is looking a bit odd tonight - not my fault, part of Blogger is broken

Unfortunately the Blog's looking a bit poorly tonight with all of the background appearing in Grey and half of the icons missing.

First of all I thought I'd broken the template but trying to directly view some of the graphics (e.g. gives a 'page not found' error.

It appears to be a known problem with the blogblog site not working properly - others have reported the same problem with blogblog not working on the Blogger support Group.

Sorry folks, out of my hands - have to wait for Google (the owners of Blogger) to fix it. Earlier today the whole blog was giving a HTML error code 500 so there's clearly some sickness at Camp Google ...


A pair of French blogs I've been reading

Thought I'd pass on details of a couple of interesting French/France blogs I've been reading recently:

First up is This French Life which is written by an expat journalist, Craig McGinty, and is full of French-related news, articles and insights. Craig's quite a prolific blogger; one recent interesting article includes Journées européennes du patrimoine about how many state buildings and museums are open in France this weekend (September 16th and 17th) for the public to tour around (from the event’s official website I can see that there are hundreds of places in Brittany alone).

My second recommendation is Hilliary Keegin's blog about life in Paris. Hilliary's an American living in Paris and although she doesn't blog all that often, the articles written are quite amusing. I especially liked J’ai donné mon sang pour la France (I gave my blood for France) about her experiences going to give blood for the first time (and hope that she'd be rewarded with a glass of wine).

Both excellent Blog's, both completely different, and both worth a read.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Saved some money with Speedferries and if you're quick you can too

A few weeks ago I bought a Speedferries 'SuperVoucher' of 10 open tickets for their Boulogne/Dover ferry service, valid for 2 years for £240. At the time I commented that this was exceptional value for money as it gives 10 single Dover/Boulogne crossings for £24 each, or equivalent to £48 for five return crossings.

I intend to use them for the next few relaxing breaks in our Brittany Holiday Cottage.

Looking on SpeedFerries's website yesterday I notice that the price for the SuperVoucher had now increased to £280 for the same 10 tickets. Good value still at £28 for each single journey (and they're still valid for two years); but makes me happy as I've saved £40 by buying when I did.

But stop press !!

Email this morning from Speedferries saying that they're offering another 3,000 Supertickets (book of 10 open tickets) for £240 so if you're quick you can pickup the same bargain I did.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Blood, Bone Marrow and Wandering Guests

I had a very busy evening yesterday with juggling blood donation, bone marrow sampling and having guests getting lost en-route to our Brittany Holiday Cottage.

After work I was supposed to be going to Give Blood in central London, something I've been doing 3 times a year since just after I turned 18. I feel that it's kind of like a bank, if you don't make donations then when you (or your family) need to make a withdrawal, there might not be anything in the bank [at this stage the analogy breaks down and any thoughts of receiving interest on your donation are not worth thinking about!]. Anyway I've now given about 56 donations so this was to be just a regular event.

On Saturday however I received a pack from the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust telling me that I was a possible match to a Leukaemia sufferer and I was through to a final matching round. They wanted a further blood sample from me to do the match, and if positive then I would be asked to make a Bone Marrow donation.

Both my wife and I (Liz) have been on the Bone Marrow register for years after we went to an inspirational talk by one of their fund raising managers. Just seeing the difference a bone marrow donation can make to someone's life is incredible - recipients can be two weeks away from death but within a week of receiving a donation they're up and about as if nothing had ever been wrong with them. Although Liz has had a second round match before (but unfortunately wasn't a close enough final match), I've never been called up before so it was quite exciting.

Spoke to the Anthony Nolan Trust on Monday to confirm my details and was told that they wouldn't be able to harvest my marrow if I'd had a donation in recent weeks. I therefore had to cancel the blood appointment until they'd determined whether I was a close final match or not.

Getting to my own local GP in Bedfordshire to take the donation was going to be a pain (as I'm working in London right now) so I thought I'd go to the Blood centre and they could take the sample. Although I couldn't give blood right now I had also been asked some time ago by the National Blood service if I would consider going on their platelet donation panel, and they wanted a sample to check for that. I couldn't give the platelet sample at the normal blood donation centre so was going to have to travel to their 'fixed location' bases in Luton or Edgware. So I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone, go to Edgware and give the Anthony Nolan sample and the platelet sample.

Unfortunately I didn't read my notes about where to go properly (or their website) so I trekked off (by tube) to the blood service's central testing and distribution in Collingdale, not Edgware. After walking from the station to the hospital I found it was completely the wrong place and had to take the tube back two stops up the line, and a further 15 minute walk to a different hospital - argh!

Finally getting there literally minutes before they closed they were really helpful and were really enthusiastic about taking the Anthony Nolan sample for me. Unfortunately they didn't want to take the platelet sample as well because if I was "The Chosen One" that matched to a Leukaemia sufferer and made a bone marrow donation then I wouldn't be able to give blood for a year and they'd have to start again with a new platelet sample afterwards.

So stuck the Anthony Nolan blood sample in the post to them and now wait to see - I should hear either way in a month or so.

Meanwhile over in France it was changeover day for the Gite and there was a party of 6 arriving for a week's holiday. Unfortunately they were having problems following the directions and couldn't find the place. Liz was at home receiving several mobile phone calls and kept trying to tell them how to locate it. By the time they all managed to get through to me I was at the Edgware blood centre trying to explain to them why I was there.
Guests getting lost on the way is always a worry in the back of my mind but we spent a lot of time writing out travel directions from all the different French ports and airports that holiday makers could travel over via. Our very first set of guests had problems en-route because I’d missed out a critical “go two miles down the road” from the instructions, but after this was corrected we’ve had no problems ever since and guests have commented on the quality of the directions given.

Anyway our frustrated guests were actually in the adjacent village and been repeatedly driving past the side turning to the Gite. 30 seconds on the phone to them and they’d realised the mistake and were at the front door.

Incidentally in France the ‘Give Blood’ organisation is called ‘Don du Sang’ (almost a literal translation of the English). We’ve seen them in nearby towns when holidaying ourselves. Reminds me of referring to someone as being ‘Sang Froid’ – literally Cold Blooded.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

New Brittany Gite website design - still coming soon (part two)

Following on from my blog entry earlier in the month about changing the website design for our Brittany Gite, I've been carrying on trying to find the best HTML and CSS way to have a three column site layout with:
  • Website navigation on the left
  • Main text in the middle column
  • Supporting photos and pictures on the right
As I've already described I didn't want to use fixed width tables any more, I wanted to do the layout in a purely CSS manner, and I wanted the middle column text to appear first in the HTML file (i.e. before the navigation links and photos) so that search engines would give priority to that text.

It appears that this site design concept is somewhat of a 'holy grail' and there's several good attempts to solve just this problem out there....

First up I looked at the excellent website resource A List Apart who I've used in the past to help me write a CSS print stylesheet so that pages don't get truncated when printed.

A List Apart's most recent attempt to solve the 3 column layout problem's aptly called 'in search of the holy grail'. It's fairly simple in approach with DIV's for each of the navigation, text and picture columns; left and right padding to the centre text column in the CSS script (to leave space for the navigation and picture columns on either side); and then the three DIV's are positioned beside each other by using negative margins.

At first glance this appeared to work as required but as I tested it more I started to find problems; especially bad was if the browser window was resized bits of the site disappeared and reappeared, seemingly at random! Reading the comments and suggestions that other readers had put against ALA's article and after a lot of fiddling about with their suggestions I was able to fix most of the issues (in particular the resizing one), but unfortunately not all of them.

The final demo version of our homepage restyled using A List Apart's 3 column approach works OK in both IE6 and Firefox 1.5 for screen width's greater than 600, but for narrower screen sizes the navigation menu and pictures disappear off the edge of the screen (so bit of a problem that you can't navigate around the site!) and for reasons I can't explain (or fix despite lots of trying), IE doesn't always correctly colour the navigation menu bars, looking a bit naff. Other ALA readers have reported similar problems with background images so I guess it's IE bugs that are the root cause.

So after a week or so of trying ALA's approach I gave up and looked for another solution ... and found plenty of links to other sites trying to find the same holy grail mentioned in the discussion board for ALA's Holy Grail article.

One I haven't tried yet is Position is everything's 'Any Order Columns' design which at first glance seems to be very similar to A List Apart's Holy Grail. Maybe I will take the time to try it out, especially as the CSS seems to be simple (which gets my vote!).

The layout approach I've spent most of my time trying out (probably over 2 weeks on and off) is Skidoo Too, an adaptation of the existing skidoo layout. Here again is a test Gite website homepage, restyled using the skidoo layout.

What I really like about the Skidoo layout is the clean layout and simple colour scheme. After a few iterations of background colours and fonts I think I've ended up with a much easier to read site design that's less "cramped" with a larger font size and more white space between things.

The website navigation has a two level menu hierarchy with main sections (such as 'The Gite', 'Nearby attractions', 'Travel options', 'Rental availability', etc), and for some of these they're sub-divided into second level sub-pages (so 'The Gite' section has pages within it for 'Garden', 'Lounge', 'Bedrooms' and 'Kitchen').

Currently the site design uses a bulleted list for the left hand side navigation bar so that I could put circular bullets before the second level menu items (e.g. the sub-page about the Kitchen in our Gite within the Gite section). Getting the bullets to appear only on second level menu items and not the first took a lot of CSS fiddling (including negative indentation and the star-HTML hack) before it displayed properly in different browsers, but these CSS hacks will not work in Internet Explorer 7 without a re-write. So while I was trying out the Skidoo Too layout I decided to try simplify the approach from a combination of colours and bullets to just using different colours to distinguish navigation position within the site.

The new simpler navigation design has pale green level 1 menu items that turn dark green when you're viewing a main (level 1) page, and white sub-section (level 2) menu items that turn pale grey when you're looking at a sub-page. Demonstrations of how the menu now would look when viewing main site pages or sub-pages are also on the test Skidoo Too homepage.

The Skidoo Too CSS has lots of comments in it as to what each different element does and as I've said the resultant page looks a lot cleaner and easier to read. It also displays properly with a variety of different screen sizes in both Internet Explorer and Firefox (even with narrow screen sizes nothing disappears off the side and it's still readable, unlike ALA). The only concern I have with this template is that it uses 6 nested DIV's in the HTML to get everything to work properly. To my mind this is far too many, it makes the HTML hard to read and equally hard to edit and increases the chance of inadvertently breaking the site when making changes.

So right now I'm a bit undecided. I've some more changes I've been trialling to the banner 'masthead' at the top of the page, and maybe I'll test out Position is everything's 3 column design - wait for part three to see if I finally make a decision!

Meanwhile I'd be interested in what other people think about the potential new (Skidoo Too) design and whether it looks OK in their browsers.

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