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. . . but that still leaves 1%. 'Bonne année! Meilleurs voeux!' the local French cry, approaching you with arms outstretched, overjoyed to plant three kisses on your cheek, left-right-left, or right-left-right; there's no set order

. . . but that still leaves 1%. 'Bonne année! Meilleurs voeux!' the local French cry, approaching you with arms outstretched, overjoyed to plant three kisses on your cheek, left-right-left, or right-left-right; there's no set order. 'Happy New Year! Best wishes!'
(For those that need a little phonetic leg-up, the French sounds like 'bonn annay, may-yuh vuh'. Not hard, is it? Such a lot of unemployment among French lett - Ah. H'm. I see I've set a trap for myself. What I wanted to suggest was that among the letters used in written French an awful lot are redundant. All those Es and Ls and Xs, for instance; they don't do anything, they just hang about the street corners of the French sentence. If I'd allowed my original sentence to run there would have been sniggering in the back row. Besides, the proposition would have been absurd.)

Then they go on to particularise their best wishes. 'La santé surtout. C'est primordial, ça!' (Health, above all. That's the chief thing!) And you would fully agree if at that precise moment you weren't smothered in the 3-kiss embrace of someone only slightly known to you, causing you to forget that all Europe is in the grip of norovirus, one of the most instantly contagious viruses known to man.

So far this year we've attended a civic reception, a 4-hour, 5-course lunch for the elderly of the village (moi? elderly?), various choir rehearsals, an organ recital, a funeral, a Burns Night and various lesser junkets and gets-together and it's been the same at every one. Sometimes we've been offered new year greetings several times by the same person.

And of course we went down heavily with norovirus. Luckily Dame Nature sees to it that there's an offset between husband and wife griping and groaning, so that the one recovers a little strength in time to soothe the fevered brow of the other. And in our agony there was no comfort in learning that of the 80-odd people at that lunch, more than half went down within the following 48 hours.

It's those very same people who comment that this winter is the healthiest they've known for some years, because the intense cold kills all those microbes. Et comme quoi, as the French would say, which I can only translate as Huh.

* * *

OUR NEIGHBOUR Hector came past with his dogs the other morning just as I was putting out fresh sunflower seeds and peanuts for the birds, so we stopped to chat. (He too and Mme Hector had caught the dreaded norovirus.) He commented that that the overflow from one of our bassins (like a tiny pond) had dried up. The trop-plein (i.e. 'too-full', very logical and picturesque) flows via a pipe into a roadside ditch, and usually it dispenses free water to passers-by from October to June. But not this year, because there has been too little rain. This doesn't bode well for the summer. The aquifer below our land can't be anything like full enough to guarantee us water to see us through the growing season.

This isn't good news, although there's time enough yet for several days' worth of steady rain before spring and summer. Water is very much on our minds at the moment.

Lac de l'Airette

Our water used to come from the beautiful Lac de l'Airette. It's a tiny lake, very deep, dammed into a hidden fold of the mountains to the north of our valley. To get there you have to wind your way up a rock-strewn mountain road filthy rich in potholes and sudden dizzy drops, not everyone's cup of tea. When eventually you find it, it's dark and mysterious, with shimmering reflections of the crags and peaks it that tower above it. If you're as cursed/blessed (take your pick) with as untamed a romantic imagination as I am, you wouldn't be surprised to see an arm clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, emerging from the still waters, poised to catch King Arthur's sword Excalibur slung in symbolically to mark the end of an era . . .

. . . and end of an era it is, too, or was several months ago. Word had it locally that a Brussels directive had ordained that public water supplies which were open to the skies, like the Lac de l'Airette, were to be phased out. In future they would have to be replaced by underground water supplies, which were less at risk from terrorist contamination. This may be news to all those who depend on the great London reservoirs, those lakes that you fly over just after take-off from Heathrow, and I don't think there's a word of truth of in it. But for us who depended on the Lac de l'Airette it explained its sudden closure and replacement by a really quite nasty water from somewhere else.

The somewhere else was an apparently limitless aquifer deep beneath the bed of the river Orb, so deep that the water in it comes from elsewhere than the river flowing above. It's far too deep for the water on its own to provide the gravitational pressure needed to supply the upstream mountain villages, like ours, so hill-top holding tanks had to be constructed and powerful pumps installed to pump the water up from the aquifer into the holding tanks. The new water is unexpectedly warm, so it has to be stored for long enough to allow it to cool. There's so much of it that it may be used to supply the city of Béziers and its 72 000 inhabitants with it. I hope they like lime in their water.

In the meantime our beautiful Lac de l'Airette mountain water is no more, a thing of the past, unless anyone cares to follow our tyre-marks up there and fill their own bottles and barrels from the lakeside. Which some people do, they tell me. Instead we find coming out of our taps a liquid so heavy with lime that it looks more ultra-skimmed, see-through milk. It tastes horrible and clogs everything up, dishwasher, kettle, washing machine, shower heads and goodness knows what else. It leaves a milky deposit on the car, the windows, house-plants and rose leaves and anything else watered with this vile liquid.

So local sales of filters and water softeners have rocketed. We started with an English device designed to prevent scaling. It replaces rock-hard scale with a sort of white mud you can wipe away. We bought a French water filter to remove the lime from drinking water: lime-free, the new water really doesn't taste too bad, and even hardened pastis drinkers have been known to agree. (Pastis? It's that yellowish aniseed-flavoured spirit that turns white when you add water, as you must. Like certain disinfectants, but there the resemblance ends.)

All right. Rant over. We went to Montpellier the other day for Josephine to see her acupuncturist, Dr Acula. While waiting I took one or two photos, including the one of the massive Louis XIV aqueduct supplying the old city at the top of article. You may have wondered what it had to do with anything. Now you know. It's what we need. Straight to us from the Lac de l'Airette.