Sara’s visit – and weather extremes

Now I’m in the middle of Sara’s all too short visit.  Only she could be so cheerful with a start that was appallingly wet (nearly three days non-stop rain) and which featured me being either absent for medical trips or on the phone or computer making appointments.

We have really have all weathers thrown at us over the past two weeks with temperatures between the 20s and zero, much to the confusion of nature.  We still get the odd lizard, frog and bee wondering what to do, despite one morning of overnight frost.

Then at last yesterday the weather transformed into glorious warm autumnal sun and we started plans for an outing centred on finding somewhere nice to eat in the middle.  Only fly in the ointment was finding that virtually every restaurant I usually frequent was closed and we realised that in these autumn school holidays running up to Toussaint, public life once again comes to a standstill.

We did one of my favourite trips to see the autumn colours, going up the forestry ‘road’ above Salagosse, climbing up the mountains almost to Aigoual, stopping to admire views and colours, and then descending down to Valleraugue.  All the time we hoped to find at least one place open to get a bit to eat – but no! La Cravate, the Gite d’Etape near Col de Minier, the miserable places at the ski centre at Esperou, and the entire food industry of Valleraugue were closed.

Still, we enjoyed our stroll round Valleraugue before setting off for Ganges (couple of errands to do) and munching a later afternoon roll in place of lunch.

I was surprised to see that up in the mountains the autumn colours were almost over, whereas down here they have hardly started.  Still, we have seen the odd glorious tree on our trips, plus some jolly animals: first Hélene’s goats grazing beside the road, then a non-sighting of a rare mountain sheep called a Mouflon (the mind boggles how they survive on this almost vertical hillse) and then the road blocked by a flock of sheep.

Today we did the Aveze to le Vigan and walk – and back – beside the river and then picked up another (disgusting) mid-afternoon roll from the supermarket.  Why, we asked, were we not organised enough to have packed a little picnic.

Sara then did another outing with Christine, up to Mouzoules (the buildings of former friends now sadly all abandoned).


Sara’s short visit is sadly over (not before the usual sewing, cooking and gardening help!).  She continued her whistle-stop tour with the usual convoluted car-train-bus journey to the family house in Roussillon, and then on to her son James in Cagnes-sur-Mer. Two old pals who never stop talking – even when playing Scrabble. I miss this.


On a health helter-skelter

Monday: the day my friend Sara arrived.  But first I tried to pack in as many of my medical rend-vous as possible into one day. This involved going down to Montpellier and criss-crossing the city all day.

First I had a meeting with the anaesthetist in Clinique St Roch. It is always frustrating that one has to return to Montpellier for this meeting, but emphasises that operations are a partnership between surgeon and anaesthetist.  I saw a woman anaesthetist, who took down – again – all my medical history, and gave me a prescription for detailed blood tests.

Then I had to go next door for to a laboratory for a nasal sample, to check I had no current infections.  (So far, no news means good news.)

Then back across town for my six-monthly cancer checkup at the Institut de Cancer.  This was the most frustrating meeting of all: I had a long wait in a place totally lacking any signs of a human touch, just lots of machines and message boards that told you when your number was called.  Then a VERY brief meeting with the oncologist.  I did feel that I was a pea on the production line, and since it was one with apparently no further symptoms, of no further interest, despite the gravity of my cancer last year.  Where is the training that encourages doctors to say: “I’m glad to say that you seem to be doing well and fingers crossed this will be the same when we see you in six months.”?  Instead, a cursory examination by my tired looking oncologist, Dr Elizabeth Kerr, followed by her dictating a brief note into her machine.

Another rush back across the city for the fourth meeting, with a rhumatologist, first meeting up with Sara, who had arrived on her long trip from Cagnes-sur-Mer.

This meeting was much more jolly, mainly because the rhumatologist, Dr Roch-Bras (Sara and I spent ages wondering how to pronounce her name – it is like Rock Bra) turned out to be a really nice woman.  We hit it off straight away, with a mutual enthusiasm for Italian architecture (started by me saying that the pain in my back and side – the reason I was there – had really got worse after the June holiday in Italy).  She was recommended by my surgeon, Mme Bertrand, and I feel I am in the hands of a competent but friendly sisterhood.

Dr Roch Bras was very thorough in her questioning and examination.   (She was not the first person to asked me what on earth I had done in my life  to have such comprehensive wide-spread arthritis!)  Like everybody else so far she hesitated to come to any conclusion about the source of the pain (other than to say it was not, as I had thought, related to the pain/discomfort in my left foot). But I think that she wanted to eliminate various possibilities and to this end gave me a prescription for a scintillography (a nuclear bone scan – a first for me). Apart from injecting an anti-inflammatory into a knee which is also troubling me (and exclaiming at its obvious bad condition) we agreed there was little she could do at present, and possibly nothing this side of the forthcoming shoulder op.  But at least I feel I have found a rhumatologist in whom I have confidence, and will abandon the one I have gone to in Ganges.

Sara and I were then able to go home and collapse.  Since then I have had a series of blood tests at the local laboratory.  The first time was a not very nice farce, as I have a vein problem (too thin and tending to collapse) and the woman trying to fill a whole multitude of little capsules with my blood had to give up after three attempts and less than half the capsules filled.  There was one difficult moment when boss’s mother, who must be about 80 and nowadays works in the lab behind, came to ‘help’.  I remember Chris saying she was useless even ten years ago.  At one stage each woman had hold of one of my arms and was tapping and poking in a vain effort to find a vein (sorry, couldn’t resist saying that).  Anyhow, the next day I had to come back for M. Pages himself to find a vein – which he did immediately (though confirming it was difficult).

I have also been back to Montpellier for the scintigraphy, at the Clinique Millénaire, a high tech place which I know only too well as it was where Chris died.  The machines reminded me a bit of the giant robots which encircled me last year during the daily radiotherapy sessions.  Lucky I don’t suffer too much from claustrophobia, as they zoomed in right over me.

The drill is that the machines scan your body, you then have some drugs with radio active material injected into the body and wait for two hours before the next session of scanning to allow for the ‘medicine’ to travel round the body.  I drank a litre and a half of water during this period, as instructed.  I think this is to eliminate radio active materials that have found their way into bits of the body other than the bones. Then back under the machines which did a longer scan, first over my whole body and then concentrating on the back and hips.

Almost immediately afterwards I was given the report by a radiologist (which I have to pass on to the rhumatologist).  The good news is that there appears to be no damage surrounding the various replacement joints, which had been the fear.  The radiologist volunteered in a fairly decisive tone that there was significant (‘très important’ in French) arthritis in the right shoulder, right knee, left ankle and various parts of the spine.  Great, thank you.  I’m afraid I’m all too aware of this and the implications for future treatment plans, starting with the shoulder in ten days….

Now – apart from a trip to deal with an ingrowing toenail – I am trying to have a few health-free days holiday with Sara!


Very right handed

Two weeks from now I will go into hospital to have my right shoulder replaced. I will then spend two to three months in a centre de rééducation. The first month the shoulder is immobilised except for controlled movements by the physiotherapist, thereafter slow practise at moving the shoulder, arm and hand.

I am as much preoccupied by the prospect of living without the use of my right hand as worrying about the op.

When my left shoulder was replaced I spent three months with the use of only one hand. But at least that time it was my right hand. I am increasingly aware of just how right-handed I am. Apart from playing the cello and driving I can’t think of any activity where I would choose to use my left hand. Also the left shoulder operation was not a great success. I have no pain but limited mobility. So currently I cannot reach the back of my head to brush my hair with either hand.

I face the little actions of daily life such as dressing and, without going into details, in the bathroom, with trepidation. I know that eating food is not a big problem because there will be staff to help chop up the food and if necessary I will just use a spoon.

But what about my addiction to all my devices – my phone, iPad and computer? I have tried using my left hand with the computer mouse and keyboard. Very awkward, particularly the typing as I am a touch typist. Thank goodness for the iPad. It is much easier to type with my left hand on its visual keyboard, albeit painfully slow.

Nevertheless my usual Christmas card to friends and family will probably not happen this year and the annual photo albums I give to my family will be very late.

On a brighter note, preparing for a left-handed future has given me an excuse – as a gadget freak – to explore a new (for me) technology. I have dictated this blog into my iPhone, whose speech recognition software has transformed it into text. Then on my iPad I have made one or two corrections before publishing it.


I come from a family of interrupters.  We were and are not short of a thing or two to say.  The two seem to go along together.

I have happy memories of childhood Sunday lunches: five people holding forth with vigour, often at the same time.  Looking back it must have been daunting or at the very least tiring for visitors to the table.  Luckily we had quite a few friends with the same attributes.  I remember, for example, joint events with our friends, the Caplans.  My contemporary, Sally, could – and still does – equal me in verbosity.  And her father, Isador, could beat records with his long jokes.

Interrupting is not a nice thing to do, we are taught. Rude and disrespectful. So why do we do it?  Impatience to put our point of view, anxiety that the conversation will move on before we have had our tuppence worth, anxiety perhaps that we will not remember our views to await the right time to put them, and sometimes impatience because we reckon we know what the other person is about to say and want to skip to the next point.  I also have a tendency to run several conversations in my head at once: I am listening to the current conversation – but at the same time I have other ideas running in tandem.  Very confusing for the listener.

I think I am a reasonable listener, but may not give this impression in my eagerness to participate actively.  It is interesting that two of my friends whom I regard as the best listeners were both social workers.  Did they choose this profession because they were good listeners, or did they learn the skill through their work?

If you have a line of argument or a good story you naturally want to finish it without being interrupted.  My father had a story, perhaps apocryphal,  about an old Oxford dodge for holding the floor: you start your sentence….. and pause….. continue the sentence – and immediately move onto the next sentence.  Since your listeners are naturally well brought up, they would not dream of interrupting in mid-sentence when you take your breath, but wait in vain for a natural pause at the end of the sentence.

I don’t know if my brother-in-law, Peter, has heard this story.  He didn’t go to Oxford, but he definitely pauses mid-sentence – and justifiably gets irritated if I interrupt him then.

Why am I thinking about interrupting just now?  Because I have been listening to a programme about politics on the French radio station ‘France Culture’.  All members of the panel – and the presenter – interrupted each other constantly.  This happens all the time not just on radio and TV programmes but at social events.

One of the things I love about the French is the way they like to hold forth.  (Chris used to find it more difficult in our early years here.  He would prepare his contribution to the conversation, wait for a pause – too late, we were on to the next subject.)  I may be drawn to this aspect of the French character, but it has not helped me to curb my tendency to interrupt.  Everybody is doing it!

But now my desire to reform my bad interrupting habits has been strengthened by the realisation that I share this tendency with one of today’s more contemptible public figures: Donald Trump. Time to reform, to resist the temptation to interject with my point of view.



Paucity of restaurants and cafes

My brother-in-law, Peter, and I recently visited a few vineyards in the region.  We tasted well – but we also ate well.  In particular we had an excellent lunch in the wine village of Montpeyroux.

We chose ‘La Terrasse du Mimosa’ because it was round the corner from the caves where we had been buying wine.  And we were hungry. We didn’t expect much, as the tables were plonked in an area surrounded by roads and seemed without pretention.  We were wrong: the food was excellent, the service good, and the wine recommended by the waitress a new discovery.  We sat in the mid-day sun, feeling all was right with the world.

That is perhaps many people’s image of the south of France – a village centre, the sun, watching people walk by, and enjoying good food and wine.  But Montpeyroux is 50 km south of here, in the prosperous wine belt of the up and coming Terrasses du Larzac.  There is more money around.

When friends and family come to stay, they often say “Let’s go out for a meal”.  But where? Or if they go for a walk over the hills and arrive in a village, they are thirsty, and look for a local cafe or bar. In vein. The truth is that the network of bars, cafes, bistros, brasseries, restaurants, auberges…..that one dreams of finding is not there.  Maybe it was never there, though there is evidence in local history of village bars, once serving the more modest needs of the locals.

When Chris and I first came here, Bréau had an auberge, where Alain offered outstanding food (though not to the taste of the locals).  The auberge is now a chambre d’hôtes, and the bar above the baker’s is open for short hours, doing a good job, but really a meeting place for locals such as the hunters.  The nearby village of Aulas had a restaurant (for a time very good) and a cafe.  Both are now closed.  Le Vigan, our local ‘metropolis’ has half a dozen  places where you can eat lunch (mainly bars) and even fewer where you can eat in the evening.  The main restaurant with gastronomic aspirations closed two years ago.  There are one or two other places with better food, but a fair trek from le Vigan.

Why? I suppose the lack of restaurants can partly be explained by the strong Protestant tradition of the Cévennes. That is what a friend, from a Catholic Breton background said to us in our early years here. I sometimes forget that this is one of the very few Protestant areas of France – not that many people go to church, but there is a sense of belonging to a huguenot past, a puritan culture. People meet, celebrate, eat and drink, but more so in the family or within the social structures of a village do (like the one I’m about to go to in five minutes).

For me the reasons for the lack of restaurants are more fundamentally economic.  Our region until recently was called Languedoc Roussillon and finds itself near the bottom of the national wealth table:  20% of households in Languedoc Roussillon, Corsica and Pas de Calais live below the poverty line. Within the region the département of the Gard is not as poor as its more northern neighbour, Lozère.  But the western part, including the pays viganais, is far poorer than further east, towards the Rhone.  Even those with jobs are often low paid and have little money to spare for going out – apart from Saturday, when people go to the market as much to sit having a drink with friends as to buy food.

For two months of the year there is a dramatic influx of tourists and an evident demand for restaurants and cafés.  But the tourist season here is ridiculously short and it is hard to sustain a business on a few months of sunshine in summer.

Luckily all is not gloom.  On Peter’s last evening here we returned to a local restaurant in Aumessas (15 km away is regarded as local round here): La Filature. Here at last was some classy food.


Expensive building catastrophy

I know that subsidence is a problem here and in July had to have a terrace pillar propped up by Jean Pierre, the builder who built the original little house and terrace.  At the same time I had Lionel Martinez, the builder, look at the damp patches in my bedroom (now worse).

Damp in bedroom
Damp in bedroom

He came again today with his équipe.  They climbed on the roof and found some damage in the lead surrounding the solar panels, which they fixed temporarily.  I’ve phoned the plumber and he will sort this out soon I hope (under the ten year guarantee).

Lionel and his men were convinced that the main source of damp came from below.  At first they wondered about a leak in the underfloor heating (horror – that would have meant taking up the tiles, and I have no spare).  Then they looked at the subsidence in the jacuzzi terrace (buit after the house, by Jean-Pierre) and went underneath and looked at the foundations and saw evidence of damp coming down the wall.

They are convinced that the damp is caused by water collecting against the house and seeping into the external wall and going up as well as down from there.  I have been trying to just live with this subsidence as the thought of rebuilding the terrace is too horrific.

Subsiding terrace
Subsiding terrace

But now I have to contact Jean Pierre and get something done pretty urgently to stop rainwater seeping into the foundations.  At the very least I think he is going to have to build a trench, improve the water protection against the house and channel the water off the terrace.

The problem is that Jean Pierre blames me for the subsidence, saying I insisted on him paving the terrace before it had settled.  That is not true and I fear there is a pattern of him trying to evade responsibility when things go wrong (like the pillar on the terrace I pointed to earlier in this post).  Also, he works on his own and struggles to make a living.  So I fear I am going to be shelling out money I can ill afford – particularly as I watch my income plummet following the Brexit vote!

What I should really do is have the whole terrace repaved, probably getting rid of the jacuzzi at the same time.  But I can’t afford to contemplate such a big project, or to think about it just before going into hospital.

Dégustation de vin

I still find it quite unnerving that the French word for ‘tasting’ is ‘degustation’. But that is what we have done a couple of times in the past week.

My brother-in-law, Peter, is here for a fortnight. Most of his visit is rather boringly low key, while I get on with a backlog of tasks, like trying to cram a fortnight’s cello practise into a week, rescue the Arabic completely forgotten over the summer before the first autumn class this Thursday, and deal with the pile of administration generated by the latest chapter in my health history.

However we have managed to fit in three wine trips,  the first to visit our friends Graeme (‘Trois Terres’) and Alice at Octon on Lac de Salagou, then to Pic St Loup and the yesterday to the Terrasses du Larzac. These trips were made very special by the glorious warm sunny weather.

The jagged limestone masses of Pic St Loup and its neighbour, the Montagne de l’Hortus, are the landmark when driving down from my house to Montpellier.

Pic St Loup (L) and Montagne de l'Hortus (R)
Pic St Loup (L) and Montagne de l’Hortus (R)

Peter and I have refined the list of vineyards we visit to a manageable maximum of about six (mid-range in reputation).  Last Friday we visited three: Mas Gourdou, Foulaquier and Lavabre (not least so I could avoid the temptation to spend too much!).

We tasted – and bought – some superb wines in all three.  But these were wines made three or four years ago.  I fear the story could be quite different in another three years.  Pic St Loup was hit by a devastating freak hailstorm one day in August. Giant balls of ice wiped out whole crops. The mother of the young man who now runs Mas Gourdou told us that he had lost 60% of his grapes – particularly serious as he has just invested huge sums to upgrade the vineyard equipment and buildings. At Foulaquier the owner said he had lost 70%.  The worst he said was that the damage done to the vines meant that next year would have no grapes either.  At Lavabre the owner said that he had lost all – 100% – of his Grenache one of the three main grapes he needed to produce an appellation wine.

The Terrasses du Larzac is  the wine growing area to the west of Montpellier, on the southern slopes of the Larzac plateau. It is perhaps less well known than Pic St Loup, but it merits the same accolades.  We decided to limit ourselves to just two vignerons. (A viticulteur makes grows the vines but leaves the production of the wine to a cave cooperative. A vigneron grows the grapes and turns them into wine himself, selling directly from his cave, to specialist wine merchants or direct to restaurants.)

It has now become an annual event to visit André Suquet and Jo Lynch, the delightful couple who own and run the domaine Villa Dondona near Montpeyroux.  Earlier this year André took us on a memorable tour of his vineyards, surrounding the picturesque hamlet of Barry, with dramatic views of the nearby ruins of a medieval fort.  This time we had arranged to meet him in his cave in Montpeyroux.  André was for decades a doctor in Africa – we think in quite a senior post – and we have had delightful, wide ranging conversations with him in the past.  This time the talk was mainly of Brexit, as we all (including the young Italian waiting to make his case for being employed by André) struggled to understand the mentality of those who voted to leave.

One amusing aside: we learnt that André was in the same class at medical school as André Bertrand (now a dentist of high repute), the father of Marion Bertrand, the surgeon about to do my shoulder. The Bertrand parents own and run several vineyards, the main one, Domaine de Malavieille, being close to Graeme and Alice, who also know them.  A trio of medical vignerons!

People in the wine trade like eating well.  André told us about the forthcoming annual dinner of vignerons from Montpeyroux and its surrounds, when the food will be provided by a many starred Michelin chef.  Lunch in the middle of the square near his cave was not quite this, but still, well above the standard you get in le Vigan.  Further, the waitress recommended a wine we didn’t know which turned out to be excellent.  The restaurant is also a wine shop and sells at the same price as you pay when visiting vineyards.  We will be back.

After lunch we visited a vineyard we didnt know, recommended by Graeme, called Mas des Brousses, in Puéchabon, a lovely old village which does not seem to feature in guide books.img_3848

The vigneron turned out to be a vigneronne – a very pleasant young woman, Géraldine Combes, as were her wines.

I benefit on all these trips from Peter’s knowledge about wine.

Poppy drama

When I got back from Montpellier on Tuesday I was met by a concerned Peter (my brother in law) and abject Poppy. They had been walking on the road across the valey when they came across a group of horses from the centre equestre.  Peter put Poppy on her lead (while at the same time discussing kitchen installation issues on the phone with his plumber).  Suddenly one of the big dogs appeared from the centre, down below in the valley, a set upon Poppy (Peter is not sure whether it was aggression or surprise that caused this). Much yelping from Poppy and shouting from people, and then the dog was called off by its owner yelling from down below.

There were two impressive tooth marks, one very deep and dangerously close to the spine, and both bleeding.


Poor Poppy was in a complete state when I got back, just as she had been after the allergic reaction to Frontline injections.  She crept round the house, searching hiding places, never staying in one place for more than a minute, and refusing to come near us. It was evening, but I phoned the vet at her home for advice.  She said that as Poppy was walking the spine had not been affected, but that I should come in in the morning.  So all three of us had a restless night, with Poppy finishing the night on Peter’s bed, lying in such a way that he was unable to sleep!

I spent the following morning at Heide, the vet’s.  She was trying to fit Poppy in between operations, but people kept coming in with problems or queries and the phone never stopped.  She is always cheerful, patient and energetic and shows her evident love of animals.  We are so lucky, but as she is in her seventies I dread the day when she decides to stop work.  She said that Poppy’s wounds would have been very painful and immediately injected her with pain killers and antibiotics.  With any luck she should get better soon and wont have an infection.  I have learnt the hard way that I should have appropriate painkillers and disinfectants for dogs in the house.

This morning she is bounding about as if nothing has happened.  She has had her painkiller, suitably covered in goat’s cheese (her favourite treat) and now we are off to Pic St Loup for some wine tasting.

Mitchison visit

I’ve just had a flying but delightful visit by Graeme Mitchison, Clare, his sister, and her husband, John Webber. Connections with the Mitchisons go back so far that I feel they are almost family.

It was unbelievable how much we packed in, particularly as the weather was suddenly unreliable. I picked them up on Friday evening, and we did a tourist stroll to take in the Arena and Maison Carré before supper.

Great seeing both Roman wonders with new eyes as it were, even though it was too late to go inside. Graeme is – amongs many things – a mathematician. So looked up at the stonework in the arches of the Arena and immediately spotted that it was an ellipse rather than circle. As for the Maison Carré (which delighted all), he instantly noted the five spaces between columns on one side and ten on the other, thus the perfect rectangular symmetry. Nobody, however, could explain why the roof seemed to curve away.

We all disliked Norman Foster’s Carré d’Art, the brutal concrete and glass block beside it which picks up none of the elegant themes from what was once a splendid Roman forum.

It was after one by the time we got homebut we were up early enough to pack in a full day.  It was gratifying how much my view was enjoyed, despite the dodgy weather.  After a morning at the market we went on a memory lane trip, to the campsite wherewe and John and Clare took our children on summer holidays.  John and Clare even braved the chilly looking water.

A lot of time was spent talking and eating (Graeme cooked two superb meals – a fish curry and a bouillabaisse – as well as a chicken curry for my freezer!).  Even so, they packed in a vigorous walk up to La Cravate (used to be one of my favourites) and a meander by car back down the precarious forest road to Salagosse and then down our valley.

This morning – at last back to cloudless skies – I said goodbye to them at Nimes station.  But I’m hoping this will now become a routine visit.  (So does Poppy – who developed a particular attachment to John.)