Exploring the garden

The children staying next door (Pressley grandchildren and friends) are having a wonderful time exploring my garden.  Like Ella and Otto, they find the derelict shack in the woods particularly alluring (so glad I got this area cleared of rusty iron and broken glass last week).

They are delirious with excitement, particularly Joe, as they have found a skeleton – possibly a fox?

New sound system

As I write I’m sitting listening to Beethoven on my magnificent new Sonos speaker, a present from Ed, Jude and their two friends, Charlie and Sam.  Thank you!

Apart from its quality, it appeals to a techy nerd like me: I can choose music from my extensive library or any radio station from my computer, iPad or iPhone.  Eventually, when I acquire more speakers, I can choose which music to play in each room.

The speaker sits discreetly on the low table in the sitting room, fitting in with old and new neighbours:

Poltics changing in the Cévennes

The South West of France has always been a stronghold of the Parti Socialiste (PS).  It still is, but the Communist Party, once strong in mining areas in the Cévennes, has virtually disappeared in the last ten years; the Greens (various flavours) continue to be a significant but not growing minority; and the main right party, the UMP (which contraversially changed its name this year to Les Republicains) is on the whole in second or third place.

What has changed in the last few years is the alarming and sudden support for the Front National (FN).  So far only a few communes have an FN majority – mainly in the Rhone area.  But the proportion of people voting FN has rised dramatically.

On my last trip to the hospital in Montpellier I was chatting with my driver, Paul, initially about racism.  He comes from a traditional Cévenol family: the family mas is now divided into different houses for his parents, grandparents and uncles and aunts. But he has lived in Montpellier where he socialised in a very mixed culture, with lots of maghrébin (North African in origin) friends.

We talked of the burka and I was surprised to find almost the first Frenchman who agrees with me, that banning the burka encourages the maghrébin sense of isolation and non-inclusion, and that there are other, more positive ways of tackling problems of islamic extremism.

I asked if this was an opinion shared by his family.  Oh no, he said.  He was particularly angry about his grandfather, who dislikes all foreigners, particularly muslems, with no apparent reason, as he did not even fight in Algeria.  His parents are almost as bad, he said, and so he avoids talking about politics with his family.  He knows his grandfather voted FN last time and suspects his parents did too.

There is this curious contradiction: the Cévenols pride themselves on being a ‘terre de refuge’, receiving and hiding huguenots, Jews, other resistance groups, and later,  ‘soixante-huitards’ from the 1960s – and at the same time many are peasants who have not ventured out of the Cévennes for generations and who don’t like the idea of others moving onto ‘their’ land.  If ‘vous n’êtes pas d’ici’ that can mean not only that you might be foreign, or Parisian – it could even mean you are from the Midi but not the Cévennes.  But the nearer home, the better.

It takes a little while to realise that local politics, and in particular the election of a mayor, is about finding a way to look after the interests of ‘les enfants du pays’. I have always thought it ironic, since many of the so-called locals are in fact the descendants of economic refugees from more impoverished areas of the Massif Centrale.

At any rate, their reactions are those of an intensely conservative rural people, and not like the reactions of the urban right, who feel more directly threatened and in competition with foreigners.



External radiotherapy finished

In the end I found I had an additional session on Friday – to make up for one cancelled on 14 July (even for cancer treatment national holidays are sacrocanct). Now the five weeks are over.  I thanked the radiologist who has supervised every session, telling him it was so reassuring to see a familiar face every day.  He works with a series of young assistants, who – according to one of  my drivers – are there to familiarise themselves with the whole range of radiotherapy equipment.

At my hospital the main machines used are three Varian 21EX Linear Accelerators.  I remember the first time I entered the room, past incredibly thick walls to protect technicians from the beams, it was with some trepidation, but I soon got used to the collection of giant robots which performed smooth dance-like steps, first two coming forward to scan, then a reassembling before the red light came on and the machines circled smoothly round my couch and then back again.  Nearly three hours in a taxi and less tha 15 minutes on the couch.

The most humbling part was to see other, clearly sicker, patients being wheeled past, and for me particularly poignant, the young women, pale and with scarves on their heads, having passed from chemeotherapy to radiotherapy.  Not many smiled.


The weather breaks

Metéo France is astonishingly accurate with its forecasts, although sometimes the threatened rain or wind comes a day earlier or later than expected.  This time it was spot on: the wonderful but overpowering heat, rising to 36 yesterday afternoon, was brought to a rude end by the storms predicted for today, and by this afternoon the teperature had plummeted to 18 degrees.

As I was driven back from Montpellier at lunch-time, my driver, Paul, pointed out the incredibly black clouds and rising wind as we approached le Vigan.  And then we drove through the storm, which seemed to rush towards us: thunder, lightning, sheets of torrential rain, tornado-like winds, and trees bending over towards us.

I suggested to Paul that he could drop me off in le Vigan if he liked and I could be taken by someone else for the last stretch (his afternoon job is taking someone to a hospital in le Grau du Roi, virtually in the Camargue).  But he battled on – until we came across a tree across the road. Chaos while a stream of cars attempted to do U turns in zero visibility, and then we took an alternative route, round the back of Bréau, where the narrow road threatened on occasions to become a river.

Heavy rain throughout the afternoon has made up for the three-month long, hot drought.  Locals here still talk of “le 15 aout” as the turning point in the summer weather.  It has come two days early this year.

Bennion Pedley family visit

Respecting the wishes of my daughters, I put very little information about their visits and activities in my blog.  But I can’t let the all too short visit by Jude, Ed, Ella and Maddie slip by without enthusing about how wonderful it was to have them here.

Jude and Ed spoilt me rotten, firmly doing all shopping, cooking and household tasks.  Ed somehow packed in a demanding pre-breakfast cycle trip every two days, before reverting to kitchen duty and child care.  Jude is a calm, loving presence, quietly (most of the time…) resolving child disputes

Ella is a delightful, articulate, sensitive five-year old with a fertile imagination, forever enacting dramas, often recruiting Maddie as her accomplice.  Her prowess in the water continues to grow; this year she discover treading water and swimming on her back.  And her jumps into the pool are done with gay abandon.

Maddie is an adorable, mischievous, strong-willed two year old. She has flummoxed everybody by her apparent refusal to talk, although it has been clear for some time that she understands language all too well.  At last she is putting words together, albeit with a tendence to omit consonants (it takes practise to interpret “a-l” as “apple”) and insists on using her whole range of her own words.  “Water” for example, is “deega”.  All insects are of course “bees”. Amazingly she manages to compensate for her limited vocabulary by making her meaning very clear with her frequent use of “uh uh uh-uh-uh” accompanied by mime if necessary.

She has a strong sense of self at the centre of the universe, so “mine”, “my” and “me” are used with some force, while “sharing” still has to be worked at.  Most of the time Ella is amazingly loving and tolerant, but every so often – not. It is tough, I tell her, being the eldest.

For the first half of the holiday Jude and Ed’s friends Sam and Charlie were here with their two children, Henry and Daisy. Jude and Charlie first met as expectant mums, and Henry and Ella shared a nanny for their first few years and have a close, complex relationship, alternating between loving play and vying to have their particular interests come first.  The two families had a good time and were lucky with the weather.  I hope this will be a regular fixture.

It would have been nice if I had not spent the entire two weeks having to drive every morning to Montpellier for my radiotherapy session.  And catering for my restricted diet was an additional challenge for Ed, the cook, (and for me, to resist eating things I shouldn’t).  Ella was most solicitous, saying she did hope that all this “treatment” was going to mean that I would not be ill any more with cancer, of which she seemed somehow to have some understanding.

This morning Jude and the girls shared the taxi taking me to Montpellier to be dropped off for a promised visit to a special toy shop, before they went on to the airport and an exhausting wait for a delayed plane.  At least this time Maddie was not sick in the customs area!

Radiotherapy nearing end

Only  three more sessions of external radiotherapy left, thank goodness.  Most of the time it has been fine, but the last few days have not been so good: both gut and bladder suffering.  I fear this is inevitable, given the cumulative effect of the radiotherapy, but I suspect also that too many lapses in the prescribed diet have not helped.

After Thursday I have a fortnight’s break, and then a one-off session of internal radiotherapy (Curietherapy).

it will be quite strange not to be spending half each day on the road to Montpellier.  I have become friends with the team of drivers with Taxis Thiebaut and enjoy our daily chats. Still, it has been tiring, particularly on the very hot days.

Heatwave continues

After a temporary dip in temperature and a couple of feeble 15 minutes of rain, the heat has returned. When I got into my car, sitting in the sun, the temperature was 44 degrees. Later, parked in the shade, it dropped to 38 degrees. Nor is it cooking enough at night.

This afternoon, however, we are promised thunderstorms, and perhaps more next week. I don’t want the last days of Ed and Jude’s holiday to be spoilt but it would be good if the weather could sort itself out, ready for another fine spell when Kate and family arrive in ten days.

The nearly four months of hot dry weather has of course had a devastating affect on the countryside. Fruit and vegetable growers are struggling, rivers are dwindling (there is talk of a ban on bathing), trees are losing their leaves prematurely or even dying and hillsides are brown.


Communications shutdown

A couple of days ago we had a taste of how the modern world can quickly become paralysed. After a tasty but expensive meal for nine, we asked for the bill, and were told we could not use our cards. Apparently all electronic communications from Montpellier to Le Vigan were broken.

Checking of iPhones confirmed this. No internet, but worse, no communications for the machines in all the shops, petrol stations and restaurants. And in the banks, staff sat twiddling their thumbs, unable to process any request for money. Back home, no internet of course but also no landline

Our only source of information was Sam, our visitor, who for his work had a Blackberry phone ‘virtually’ located in the States and still communicating by satellite. So we discovered the cause was road works just outside Montpellier, where the – apparently sole – fibre optic cable linking us to the outside world had been cut. (I knew exactly where this was, as the congestion caused by the  construction of a safety barrier had made me late for radiotherapy in the morning.)

the blackout lasted 24 hours and affected 22 communes. All this in the busiest week in the year for the tourist industry.