Hibernating

Once again we are awash.  Here is today’s newspaper warning.  We are in the orange bit with symbols of heavy rain.

Black clouds are scudding across from the Mediterranean, the rain is coming down in buckets rather than drops, and every so often rolls of thunder add to the menacing air.

Sensible people stayed indoors, but I ventured out to help some friends with their computing problems (and got a good lunch in exchange). We were constantly having to turn off computers and internet connections as the thunder rolled around overhead.

Problems all solved – other than the ongoing one that Poppy does not understand that she must go out alone in this weather. She is very bored.

First week with drone

The reason for getting a drone was to take a different sort of photo.  After one week I have managed to get the drone up several times, crashed it once, taken some jerky videos, but so far no photos.

I recognise that being able to take decent photos is somewhere further along the learning curve, but still, here are some examples of snapshots taken from the videos.

Apart from the crash into trees beside a football pitch, I have confined myself to home ground, hoping that it would be easier to rescue a crashed drone.  As the week progressed I felt adventurous enough to take it to my friend, Dessa, who lives in a stunning old hamlet, la Rouvierette, a collection of old houses running along a ridge looking down and over the valley of the Hérault below.

I discovered immediately that this would be a tricky site: there were too many trees round her house and I am not experienced enough yet to avoid them.  It is unnerving when the drone disappears out of sight and I find squinting into my phone screen – the only way of tracking it –  a bit of a challenge in the glaring sunshine. Concentration was made even more difficult when we were joined almost immediately by the neighbours’ children and then their parents. Still, fun was had by all.

Indian summer ends – during motor rally

What a glorious ten days it has been: temperatures in mid-twenties, beautiful clear skies, a lovely sharp autumnal light. Everybody was smiling because the weather was so good.

Now it has come to an end, as predicted. This morning we had rain and the temperatures have dropped ten degrees. From now on, the forecast is for more rain and unsettled weather.

This will affect this weekend’s busy programme of activities around le Vigan. Tomorrow is the annual apple and onion fair – I fear it will take place under heavier rain.  And we are in the middle of the annual Critérium des Cévennes, one of France’s major motor rally events – a series of courses taking advantage of our steep, winding roads.  Last night it was the leg Arrigas-Aumessas-Col de Mouzoules-Mars. For several hours  there was the constant noise of rally cars at the end of this circuit, turning  the road junction at the foot of my land.

I’m pretty neutral on motor rallying itself, but we have had bad experiences of spectators parking anywhere, leaving rubbish, and one year while we lived below, camping on our new house site, helping themselves to our woodpile. More long-lasting is the effect it has on local drivers, or would-be rally drivers.  How often I have heard cars take the corner below by skid-braking rather than changing down gears. (And no, despite all my speeding offences, I have never tried this technique.)

One of the most enthusiastic spectators is Malik, the driver who delivers my lunch (equivalent of meals on wheels) each morning. Yesterday he could not wait for the rally to start and to take his children round the local country to watch as much of the rally as possible.

Malik’s enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoy our morning chats.  Sadly I have decided that I must end these meal deliveries, intended to help while I am limited to lifting two kilos, making shopping and cooking difficult.  The limit is still there, but I am working out ways to avoid lifting shopping bags and not cooking in larger pans. Never mind, said Malik.  We will surely bump into each other in le Vigan.

Du soleil

What a wonderful weekend it has been: sunshine, no wind and temperatures in the mid-twenties.

Apparently the beaches round Montpellier were full of sun-worshippers.  Here, people just rejoiced that for once the lovely weather coincided with the weekend.

It is extraordinary how here we leap from one extreme to the other – the unrelenting rain of ten days ago being replaced by a balmy Indian summer. The good weather is set to continue all week, albeit with cooler temperatures.

Yesterday was supposed to witness my next step in the drone journey: a video clip taken above my house. Afterwards I took the card out of the drone and discovered that aerial footage was blank.  I think I had failed to press the video button twice.  Instead, all I got was a couple of minutes of a blurred image of an insect crawling in front of the drone, as it waited for takeoff on a rock beside me while I consulted the manual.

Another technical challenge is how to create clips of an acceptable size for the internet, rather than this simple screenshot.

Aha.  Some time later…. I have just made my first video with the drone.

A day later:

And here is a second, less jerky video.

This was made after I crashed into some trees . The learning curve continues.

Nerdy Granny. My tech journey

I have just bought a drone!  But before I explain further, I want to go back and reflect on how on earth I came to be even thinking of buying one.

I have always had a weakness for gadgets and machines.  I suppose if I am honest this goes back to my teens, when I bought an elderly Lambretta 150cc scooter from the gym mistress and became the first sixth former to drive on two wheels to school.

The two wheelers became more efficient over the years: first a replacement Lambretta when at university, then better performing Hondas in Nigeria, then  back a step in France, with a series of mobylettes with more character than efficiency, before Chris and I returned to Italian scooters, this time Piaggios.

In the meantime, of course, I acquired a succession of four wheelers.  I have always loved driving, from my first car, a spanking new Mini when I was a reporter, a Peugeot in Nigeria (underpowered), a rusty old Renault 4 van in Scotland (I was particularly attached to this, holes in the floor, doors that fell off, and all), a sturdy Lada and then a boring family Renault 12, then a VW hippy campervan which walked rather than ran up the French hills, then a later one, which drove faster but did not have the same charm (but was equally unreliable), on to Citroens (much more reliable), and now, of course, my quirky two-seater Smart car (still capable of generating speeding tickets, I’m afraid).

Cameras have had the same chequered and varied journey.  My childhood Kodak Brownie 127 produced a small number of dark, monochrome snapshots.  It was replaced by a hand-me-down from my mother whose photos were equally dull and only marginally more in focus.  It finally fell from favour when my friend, Wenol, and I were making our epic voyage through Africa, and I realised that not a single shot of the Victoria Falls had worked – the shutter had finally stuck on open. In the Zambia we hitched a lift with a crop sprayer who showed us his Pentax single lens reflex camera, and when we reached Nairobi, we both bought the same model (and as a result were so short of cash we nearly did not make it back to Europe).

When the children were young I graduated through a number of other SLR cameras, from black and white to colour, and as time progressed, moved into the world of digital photography – perhaps the biggest transition of all.

The biggest camera purchase of all was done on impulse.  In 2003 I said goodbye to Chris and set off for my first trip to India.  En route, in Montpellier, I bought a Canon DSLR, but it was several days before I dared to write to Chris to confess. My excuse?  It would perhaps be the only time in my life when I would see the Taj Mahal, which deserved a better camera than I had. (Indeed I was very pleased with my photos of India and mounted an exhibition in our local village on my return). Ultimately it cost too much buying lenses for this first Canon and its successor, and they were too heavy. So I downgraded to what are known as mirrorless cameras and currently have a Sony a6500.

Meanwhile there was another strand to my techie journey: my progress through many (too many) computers and phones. It all started in the mid-eighties when I progressed from a BBC microcomputer to the purchase of my first Mac, which I was also using at work.  I progressed through various generations of Mac till 2013, when I bought my most recent one, a laptop called a MacBook Air (with a giant monitor when at my desk).

But that is not enough.  Oh no. Just as my camera journey has sort of moved back to something less powerful but more portable, so too in the world of computers and the gadgets that have followed.  In the 1990s I briefly possessed an Newton – perhaps the first machine to have a go at handwriting recognition – before Steve Jobs killed off the Newtons.  So, naturally, I was an early adoptee of the Apple iPhone and, later, iPad. Both tools which as a techy addict I regard as essential to enjoyment of life.

So there I was, ten years ago, adjusting to life after Chris’s death, relatively stable in my car ownership life.  After Chris died I sold our scooters and replaced our Citroen van with the splendid Berlingo, which I only gave up last year because I needed to adjust to life after shoulder operations. But my world of cameras and electronic gadgets has not been so stable or, one might say, mature….

Over the last five years, I have been hospitalised over seven times, accounting for an average of over two months a year. Each hospital stay has one upside: I save the normal daily expenses (food, petrol, heating and so on).  As I explained to one of my VSL (ambulance taxi) drivers, Sonia, I felt I had some justification in spending these ‘savings’ on consumer durables, compensating for the reduction in my mobility, bringing me another sort of enjoyment: mastering technology.

The other day Sonia reminded me of this, how when  driving me back and forth from hospitals she witnessed my ‘excuse’ for upgrading my iPhone (I have the iPhone x which takes splendid photos), splashing out on an Apple Watch (I was egged on by Sonia, who already had an earlier model) and – again, encouraged by Sonia, this year’s reward for three hospital stays for my innards: a drone.

Now one of the failings of many amateur photographers like me is thinking that somehow the kit will help you take better photos.  Alas, this is not the case, but I still enjoy trying to improve. At present I am trying to take better photos using my combination of iPhone (the camera that is always in your pocket) and Sony. That ought to be enough of a challenge to keep me fully occupied (and indeed this winter I want to find a teacher to help me improve with the Sony).

But I have been seduced by the appeal of taking photos from above or, compensating for reduced mobility, just a little off the track I am on.  I have dithered and researched and finally, last week, gave in.  I bought the DJI Spark drone.  DJI is the Chinese market leader in consumer drones, and the Spark is their cheapest model.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, a consumer drone such as the Spark is like a small helicopter with a camera on board, capable of taking both photos and video.  Here is mine, sitting beside my phone.

Just at present I am at stage one: learning how to fly the drone, petrified of losing it caught in trees, sinking into my pool or simply crashing to the ground.

I have spent ages watching ‘how to’ videos on YouTube (invariably by nerdy young men) and am just about mastering how to keep the drone above me and not inadvertently muddle forward with backward or up with down on my two joysticks.

Yesterday I dared take my first photo with it.

My first ever drone photo

Not great, but the triumph was taking it and then transferring it successfully to my computer. I think it will be a little while before I progress significantly to stage two: taking decent photos.

Meanwhile I also have to take in all the rules about flying drones in France (not over towns or villages, not near airports or military zones, not above big crowd events, not over the Parc des Cévennes).  All of these are completely understandable and defensible and, given the potential for privacy invasion or causing danger to others, my position as a drone owner is not easy to defend.  So I won’t attempt to.  Well, not for now, as I want to go out in the sunshine and master today’s self imposed task: how to make the gimbal move up and down, so the camera can look down, not just straight ahead.

Tempête

After something like five weeks without rain, the weather started to change last Wednesday. There were still periods of fine weather – like on Saturday when Dessa and I lunched outside after the market.  But the clouds were gathering.

Then the rain came, with a vengeance. It rained hard, relentlessly, violently, all yesterday, throughout the night and all today.  We are catching the edge of la tempête Leslie, which battered Portugal and is now passing eastwards along the Mediterranean coast.

What a contrast to the dry, dry weather we have had.  It is rare to be able to look down at my land from above (photo taken by a friend’s drone) and see all the terraces still brown – no grass has grown since the summer.

That should change dramatically now.  Our local river is thundering down the valley, and my bassin, which had been half empty a week ago, is ready to overflow.

As I write I have just discovered a leak in my roof – just weeks after the ten-year guarantee finished.

I’ve left a message on the builder’s answerphone, but given there must be a queue,  I don’t expect a prompt reply.  And more rain is expected  until Friday, when hopefully normal sunshine will return.

Thumbs up from surgeon

Yesterday was my one month check-up with my surgeon, Dr Glaise, after the hernias/éventrations op.

It is always a pleasure to see Dr Glaise – such a splendid combination of friendly empathy and at the same time a sense of competence and authority.

She listened to my prepared list of questions and concerns and then looked at my tummy. “Oh, that’s very good,” she said.   “Yes, apparently I have a surgeon with an excellent reputation”, I replied.  She laughed, and said she had not been fishing for compliments, but was simply pleased that the scar had healed well. (I no longer need dressings – just some protection to prevent rubbing by the dreaded corset.)

She said it was now OK to drive, bend down, put on my compression stockings myself – do most things, provided I am cautious.  Only a few negatives:  for the next six months I must carry on wearing the corset and, most important of all, I must simply not lift or carry anything weighing more than two kilos, including rucksacks, she said, looking accusingly at the lightweight rucksack I had brought containing my medical records and xrays.

More long term, unfortunately, I must continue taking the prescribed laxatives indefinitely. Dr Glaise said that the damage to my gut following the cancer and its treatment, and now the occlusion and hernias, was unfortunately permanent. Hmm.  Without going into details I have to review my plans to return to India or, failing that, to take further trips out of Europe: the medical component of my luggage continues to grow.

At eight and a half weeks pregnant, Dr Glaise looks wonderful, but is approaching her last day in surgery. I asked her, apologising if it was indiscreet, whether she would be returning to Ganges after maternity leave.  No, she said.  She had been offered a once in a lifetime opportunity: to set up a gastroenterology unit at the Clinique St Roch in Montpellier.  This is the clinic where my other female surgeon, Marion Bertrand, has performed three operations, a second left hip replacement , a right shoulder replacement and subsequent surgery to deal with tendon and adherence pain in this shoulder.. So, even if I don’t like the commercial-industrial feel of the building, this clinic is one of Montpellier’s best.  It confirms my earlier gut (sorry) feeling that Dr Glaise is a high-class surgeon.

Since saying goodbye to her, I have reclaimed my car (now in pristine condition following the insurance job on the two bashes earlier this year), done my first supermarket shop (involving putting things one by one from the trolley into my car and at the other end, reversing this laborious process – pity we don’t have home deliveries in the country, and I have notified the nice nurses that I no longer need them to deal with my compression stockings.  I think I will keep on the meals on wheels for another week, rather than rushing into shopping and cooking, though tomorrow Odile and I are going to do a joint shop/cook to fill my freezer with more soup for the evenings.

 

Charles and Pierre marry

On Saturday I attended a joyful and moving wedding, that of Charles and Pierre, my good friends with whom I have played much music over the years.

They have been together since 1972, when they met singing Renaissance and Baroque music.  Pierre, formerly a tenor, no longer sings; instead he has played the recorder in our baroque music trio.  Charles has continued to sing baritone until quite recently, but mainly played the harpsichord in our trio.

They are an unusual and entertaining couple.  I think the French use of the word “original” is perhaps appropriate: full of opinions and strong sentiments, slightly removed from the modern world, and always full of energy remarkable for friends who are, shall we say, a little older than I am.

The ceremony reminded me of Jude and Ed’s wedding, in the same local Mairie ten years ago, though now there is a better room, thankfully on the ground floor given the average age of the 60+ guests.

The same mayor, Alain Durand, performed the ceremony – his first with a gay couple, although fellow councillors have already conducted two other gay marriages in our tiny commune. It was all quite lighthearted and everyone laughed when Alain included the usual text from the French Civil Code about the couple’s duties when bringing  any eventual children arising from the union.

The couple followed the formal proceedings by each giving a speech.  Pierre’s was eloquent and, as usual, floral.  He referred to landmarks in France’s history such as women’s right to vote, the abolition of capital punishment, the introduction of gay marriage….. and now a new date, his marriage with Charles, after over 40 years together.  And of course he could not resist ending with a poem.

Charles, visibly more nervous, mentioned his happiness when teaching at the Sorbonne and then an allusion to his feeling of not being accepted here for the first couple of years. Then he played a selection of, mainly French, recordings. As he said to me afterwards, he wanted people to listen to the music,  rather than it being pleasant wallpaper in the background.  What stands out for me was hearing again an absolutely beautiful old recording of a song by the French Renaissance composer, Claude Lejeun, exquisitely sung by Charles and Pierre and their friends at the Sorbonne.

Then out of the Mairie – passing through the traditional tossing of rice, and we all walked up the hill to their beautiful house, Le Caladon (where Jude and Ed also had their wedding party). It turned out that the reception was in the courtyard, with an excellent buffet, and despite turning a little chilly by nine, the threatened rain stayed off until 11 in the evening (by which time Hans, Margaret, who was driving me home, and I were well tucked up in bed).

Back home

I have just spent my first full day at home.  What a contrast.  The silence – no sounds of cars, of nurses and their trolleys, or conversations with deaf patients or lost souls.

I was busy on the day before my departure helping Eileen, the English patient, make arrangements for her journey back to England.  I have negotiated a good price with my favourite ambulance-taxi firm to take her to the airport, checked that EasyJet does indeed have a wheelchair at the airport, and booked her ticket to Gatwick.  I have also been acting as translator for instructions from the doctor and physiotherapist. Eileen is more confident now about coping with life in Les Chataigniers, and after all, she now has less than a week to go.

Autumn – or rather winter – came suddenly and brutally on Monday: the temperature plummeted and yesterday there was a bitter north wind.  Today we were back to lovely sunny weather.  I did a two kilometre stroll up to the village of Mars and back, wearing just a t-shirt again.

The leaves on most trees have not yet turned colour, but they are looking tired.  A whole month with just one brief shower has left everything looking parched.

Apart from a daily walk I am trying not to overdo it. The district nurses call by in the morning, to put on my compression stockings, and return in the evening to take them off.  Every two days the dressings have to be done, but not for much longer.  The nurses are quite insistent that I should not try to manage the stockings by myself, and that I should heed the surgeon’s instructions not to put any stress on my stomach muscles (those that I still have!), regardless of whether or not I have any pain.

I have the equivalent of meals on wheels delivering an (unappetising) lunch each day, so I only have to fish something simple out of the freezer for supper. I’m trying hard not to lift up anything  that weighs much more than a  kilo or (until I see the surgeon next week) to bend too much. I fear that I have to wear the dreaded corset for several months.