UK visit

I’m  sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport after a hectic ten days in London.


I divided my time between Jude’s family at Bromar Road and Kate’s at Red Post Hill, starting at jude’s.

How lovely to see the girls, who grow taller and maturer every time I see them. My first day I went down to see years four and five at Belham  Primary perform a nativity production (written by teachers and children) . It was brilliant. I have never seen so many children perform with such energy and enthusiasm. They have an excellent music teacher (the benefit of being a newly created academy – much as I am against them). Ella, tall, serious and distinguished looking, was one of the three kings. She sang her solo beautifully  I’m sorry I missed Maddie’s show – I think she was the back end of a camel .

After three nights I moved on to Red Post Hill. In the following days I went to three shows with the grandchildren . First Grimms Fairy Tales with Kate’s family. When Otto, who was sitting next to me, said in a loud voice that he was bored and wanted to leave, I rather agreed with him.  I’m not keen on adults bounding around pretending to be children  but after the interval the tales got blacker – and better. Still, I was a bit disappointed, given the reputation of the company , Philip Pullman.

We then had lunch in Cote Brasserie, on the Thames Path, beside the river. I remember this area in the fifties when everything was derelict.  I used to step through bombsites to sing in a madrigal choir near Southwark Cathedral. Now this part of the south bank is dominated by luxury flats and restaurants. The place is buzzing with life.  I can see why this stretch of the south bank of the Thames has become a play and strolling area for Londoners and visitors. 

Then, while the Gillies and friends went home, I moved on to my next appointment: Rumpelstiltskin with the Bennion Pedley and friends. (This was my first visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall complex. The architecture may be brute concrete 60s style but what a comfortable theatre to visit – modern bars, loos and open spaces and seats with leg room.)

The reviews of Rumpelstilskin have been a bit sniffy, but I loved it. It was completely bonkers, better appreciated by the grownups than the children maybe, full of fast moving wit and bizarre pantomime, wonderful modern lighting effects and excellent music.  The children seem to have enjoyed it, even  Maddie, sitting next to me seemed rapt.

On Christmas Eve I went with the Gillies to the East Dulwich cinema for an afternoon of popcorn and musical – Mary Poppins Returns. It was slickly produced, with some enjoyable cameo roles for Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, but to be honest I preferred the loony Rumpelstiltskin to Disney.

At last, at last, Christmas Day arrived.  I don’t think Otto in particular could have borne the suspense of much more anticipation. The BPs arrived and there was a morning of feverish present opening, excitement, frustration when things didn’t work (or parents had forgotten the batteries!) and pleasure at giving.  However, as I watched the feverish ripping open of a mountain of packages, I found it so difficult not to descend into censorious bah-humbug mode, remembering the smaller, more abstemious haul of our childhood. That did not stop me wearing my new clothes with great pleasure for the rest of the day!

Christmas lunch, cooked by Ed, was of course delicious.  A traditional affair, turkey breast and trimmings and a rich assortment of vegetables. And later, a superb Christmas cake. As usual, I ate too much….

For the two families the evening was somewhat blighted by the need to prepare for their departure, at the crack of dawn, for a sun and swimming mini-holiday in Tenerife. Sad for me, as I would have liked to see the children for longer. 

A day of technology

Kate, Jude and I had given Deb a much needed replacement iPad, a refurbished, two-year-old model (the same as mine). 

Bringing it into service and transferring all data from her old one proved a lengthy exercise. Deb had forgotten her Apple password, so trekked across London to hunt it down in her house.  First I had to bring her old iPad up to date, which required several mobile phone conversations with Deb, always a major challenge, complicated by her popping in and out of underground stations! In the end I decided to create a new password for her, and by the time she returned, her new iPad was up and running. Given that Deb has neither a truly operational phone nor a computer, the iPad is essential to her – and to us, as it is the only way to get in touch with her!

Old friends

The next day I went to Richmond to see my two oldest friends: Christine for lunch and Sally for tea. Both visits merit a blog post of their own, but suffice to say that these are two very special people for me. And happily I’m also fond of their spouses!

Christine has not been well, with a bad attack of shingles, and Roy beat me in the medical drama stakes, describing with gusto, his self diagnosis of a heart attack and the dramatic trip by taxi to the Royal Free, where he still an Important Person, in preference to an ambulance trip to Kingston hospital.

I even fitted in a trip to Finchley to have lunch with Deb and her friends Kay (who was at Oxford with her) and Alan and their daughters.  Nice food (Turkish restaurant) and good conversation.  But what I will remember was an extraordinary little exchange.

The woman at the next table came across and said, very apologetically, that she was sure she knew Kay from some time in their past. They eventually established that they had been to the same primary school in Hampstead. I fail to recognise people from last year, let alone from over 60 years ago!

Yesterday I continued my meeting up with old pals.  I had lunch in the Tate Modern with Mimi, who ran the information department of Citizens Advice for England when I was doing the same thing in Scotland.

She may be in her eighties now, but Mimi is still an astute, energetic and amusing friend.  The food in the Members’ Room was indifferent (Mimi is going to pursue this!) but we sat for hours nattering, and then wandered round some of this huge gallery and took the lift to the top to gaze (with mixed feelings) at the rapidly changing landscape of London.  We were somewhat baffled that people could have bought at huge prices the apartments beside the Tate. I wonder if they knew that the Blavatnik Building would give people a prime view of their sitting rooms. I’m not a fan of the architecture of the Tate Modern and many of its rooms leave me cold, but we whizzed through these and concentrated on a few with old favourites or new discoveries.

We talked of our love of travel.  I confessed to Mimi that, despite my daughters’ misgivings – health permitting – I wanted to visit Iran and visit beautiful towns like Shiraz and Yazd.  It seems a logical next step having loved the Islamic architecture of Rajasthan and Istanbul. “Ah yes,” said Mimi. “A good idea – I went there a couple of years ago”!  She has given me the contact details for her excellent guide, so maybe I will manage to set this up for the autumn of 2019.

Brexit and Uber

Like my last trip to London I indulged in several Uber trips, in an effort to conserve my energy.  I hit particularly lucky with the three drivers, from Bulgaria, Rumania and Poland, who were all interesting to talk to. All three said how much they enjoyed being Uber drivers, because of the flexibility in working hours and the people they met.

Inevitably conversation turned in all three cases to Brexit.  All three were Remainers, although interestingly the Bulgarian was the most diffident.  He had studied economics before coming to the UK he said, and if he found it difficult to understand the complexities of the Brexit possibilities, how could other people make informed decisions? So he was for leaving such decisions to elected representatives rather than referendums.

The Pole divided his time between being an Uber driver and builder. He would personally be OK, he said, as there became a shortage of Polish builders (he has the right to stay already), but he reckoned it was a complete and utter catastrophe for Britain.

Given the problems with the Gatwick Express, I took an airport minicab back to Gatwick.  This was not an Uber driver and unlike the others, he was not particularly friendly and drove too fast.

Whatever the wrongs to the Uber system, I have to confess that I do find using it greatly aids my  rushed visits and I enjoy my chats.

My habit of talking to strangers

I’m finishing this entry in the evening, after a very long day – the plane was held up for over an hour with a mechanical problem. Having opted for Special Assistance, I was in a warm bus beside the plane.  I felt sorry for other passengers possibly standing in an overcrowded departure lounge.

I was sitting beside a French couple who had been on my plane to Gatwick.  As usual I got into conversation with them… … Two of their children live here, so they have just had a complicated Christmas with some relatives who spoke spoke only English, others who spoke only – not quite sure which – Indian language, and her husband who speaks only French. We have exchanged contact details so I look forward to meeting up with them again.


A difficult week

Wow, over a week has passed since I last wrote.  This time has been dominated by my car.  Tuesday was a busy day – first the Bréau Christmas lunch for pensioners and then an afternoon of music rehearsals.

After a morning battling with the airport’s non-functioning system of booking a parking place for next week’s trip to the UK, I was late. I climbed into my car, turned the ignition and – nothing, The lights were on, so not a flat battery, but nothing turned over and during several attempts various warning messages flashed by. Oh dear, an electronic problem.

I got to the lunch, thanks to my friends Charles and Pierre.  (Didn’t enjoy it as I had a splitting headache and 96 pensioners packed into too small a space did not help.).

Then on to my first cello event, my lesson with Anne, driving an old car belonging to Charles and Pierre’s. In between this and my next appointment, I rushed round, talking to my insurers and others, establishing that getting my car to the garage in Montpellier could cost me over €200!

This did not help my next performance, with Jean Sebastian, the pianist – my last rehearsal before next month’s concert. Nor did my headache. Then before my final musical event – rehearsing with beginners for another ‘audition’ next week, I rang my garage.

Now why did I not do that earlier?  I discovered that I was still under a service contract, despite being into my second year of ownership, and that my car would be picked up and taken to Montpellier for free.  Phew!

So Wednesday morning a guy turned up with his lorry, got the car working, thus establishing there was a problem with the battery, but insisted that the electronics needed checking over as this failure was not normal. So I said goodbye to my little car, all set to see it again the following day.

Then I started to feel ill.  I realise now the headache had been the start.  By the evening it began to feel horribly like another occlusion.  I was not in a good place.  At midnight, in a calm moment, I packed my bag in anticipation of another trip to the clinic at Ganges.

Then I was sick, very sick, twice. And miraculously by 2am I felt things calming down. I managed to doze through the rest of the night and, amazing, in the morning I felt weak but better. Emergency averted, I hoped.  Just as well, as my next challenge was getting to medical appointments in Montpellier by the afternoon.

With my borrowed car (not fit for long journeys), I drove to le Vigan, took the bus to Montpellier (what a bargain – €1.60 for 70 km) and continued by tram and then on foot (in the pouring rain) to the Clinique St Jean. I was there to see an anaesthetist, in preparation for the thermocoagulation injection into my spine next month. Then on, still in freezing rain, to an appointment with a specialist physio, who measured my mobility before the event and will see me again after.

I had hoped to return in my car, but of course it was not ready, so back home by tram and bus. Actually it was a jolly occasion.  I sat at the front and one of my neighbours said as I entered “Ah, voici la violoncelliste”. She was a former councillor in le Vigan who used to attend our concerts regularly.  The woman next to me was also very cheery (I kept quiet when she enthused about the gilets jaunes). The driver joined in the conversations too.  I discovered his family have the magnificent old house at the far end of the Vieux Pont, the splendid romanesque bridge in le Vigan.

Thursday, after thankfully an uneventful night, I was back in the bus to Montpellier to collect my car.  This was a three hour journey – bus followed by two trams, so I was relieved to find that my car was indeed ready.  And even more relieved that I did not have to pay a penny.  (I don’t like the fact that the receptionist at this huge Mercedes and Smart garage greets me by name – I have had uncomfortably too many visits here in the last year.) Nobody could explain the electronic fault, but they replaced the battery, rebooted the electronics system and ran various tests.  I still love my car, despite its heavy reliance on electronics and potentially expensive bills in the future.

Oh and I forgot to mention that I had been ringing Lionel, my builder, regularly, chastising him for not coming to look at my roof leak. This week he came, apologetic for the long delay.  The crack in the cement at the top of the roof was found (caused he thought by the summer heat) and repaired, so hopefully all is now well.

Lionel had brought his team from a bigger job the other side of Ganges.  He said that there was now so little money available for building in the le Vigan area that he had had to move his business to places between Ganges and Montpellier.  Another worrying indicator that the economic life of our area is in jeopardy.

Now this weekend I must practise the cello to make up for the three days of not touching my instrument.

Right to stay – the next step

Today I finally got to hand in my application for a carte de séjour permanent.  This is the dossier I painstakingly prepared in July and mistakenly took to the Préfecture of the Gard, in Nimes, on 6th October rather than 6th December. Off I set again – before dawn, but this time on the right day.

The Gilets Jaunes were out at various roundabouts on the way to Nimes and outside the huge and unappealing Préfecture building.  So I had to present my passport, explain my business, before being let in though a narrow opening of a side gate, with gendarmes and prefecture staff controlling all movements.

Inside, the Accueil des Etrangers was cordoned off from the rest of the Prefecture.  It was packed with foreigners, several clearly asylum seekers. But unlike my earlier visits in those first years that we were living here, the atmosphere was  business-like but perfectly friendly – non of that xenophobic surliness that I remembered.  And instead of one dark room with a bullet-proof grille through which one talked, there was a large waiting room, reminiscent of British benefit offices, with six reception desks.

I was summoned to desk C and  handed my dossier to the  official.  I felt like a smug schoolgirl when he commented on how well organised it was, unlike some of the documents they receive.  I had divided the documentation required into sections:

  • The actual application form, including a a statement on my reasons for wanting to stay in France
  • Proof of identity – passport birth certificate etc
  • Proof of domicile – official statements from the mairie and my notaire.  I had collected these, though not specifically asked for, and they turned out to be useful.
  • Proof I have been living here continuously for at least five years – my laboriously collated electricity and phone bills
  • Proof of income – my equally laboriously produced spreadsheet (in sterling and euros) of all income, which of course fluctuates with the exchange rate, pension documents, five years of bank statements and a statement explaining the complication of the fiscal year being different in the two countries.
  • Proof I have been paying my income tax – five years worth of statements from the tax office

I list all of this not to show off but to demonstrate that applying for the right to stay here permanently is a serious business.  In the waiting room there were dire warnings that any incomplete dossiers would be rejected.

Enough to scare anybody away. But my official was very pleasant.  As he painstakingly checked the voluminous file, took my finger prints and asked for further information, the atmosphere was relaxed, and on finding I had lived in Edinburgh, he waxed enthusiastic about Scotland. His degree had been in English and he once spent a happy nine months, based in Glasgow. He had been unable to find a job using his degree and so had ended up in administration. I trust they will make good use of someone fluent in another language, I said encouragingly.  Not a chance, he replied, they don’t care two hoots. Ils s’en foutent.

I watched the official stick one of my passport photos onto what looked promisingly like a carte de séjour.  But then he stuck it into the dossier.  When might I hear the outcome of my application, I asked. In a couple of months, he replied, as the dossier has to be OK’d by a pyramid of officials. It was clear he was not impressed by this.

So, here’s hoping that by the end of February at the latest I should get my carte de séjour.

Closing one health chapter

This morning I had my three month checkup after the hernia operation at the start of September.  Cross fingers all is fine and I should be able to put this dire year – perforated stomach ulcer, intestinal blockage (occlusion) and hernia operation – behind me.

My lovely surgeon, Dr Glaise, is no longer at Ganges.  She is away on maternity leave and then moves to the Clinique St Roch in Montpellier.  Her replacement, Dr Essome, seems amiable, though it is too early to know about his professional competence.

I asked him about the muscular discomfort I get elsewhere in the abdomen, particularly just below the ribs.  He explained that this discomfort is natural as the body adjusts to the alien object that has been inserted. The patch (which is lower – at what is left of tummy button) is attached to muscles which travel vertically, hence you feel elsewhere than the location of the operation, and as my patch was so large, more muscles have been affected.

He reassured me that this was not a sign that the hernia operation had not worked and I could now resume normal life (with prudence): discard the dreaded corset and, more crucial, end the limit on lifting anything heavier than two kilos.  And he confirmed that my physio could go ahead and have sessions to strengthen my abdomen muscles.

The conversation then took an unexpected turn.  Where did I come from?  London, I said, and you? The Cameroons, he replied – and switched into English.  He was born in francophone Cameroon, in Douala (which I visited way back in 1966), but grew up speaking both English and French as well as local languages.  Then he trained as a doctor in Italy, so added Italian to his repertoire!

He now lives in Montpellier and commutes daily to work in Ganges, where he takes up his permanent post in January.  I wished him good luck and said I hoped that, sadly, I would not be seeing him again@!


Scraping away

I can’t think of an appropriate equivalent to ‘fiddling’ (in a pejorative sense) to describe my unsatisfactory efforts on the cello. So maybe I will settle on ‘scraping’ and yesterday was a day spent scraping away.

In the morning I practised my Mendelssohn at home and felt quite pleased with myself at managing to play the two pages without stopping,  and ready for the afternoon at the Ecole de Musique.  Given I still cannot lift more than two kilos, my friend Christine comes at midday on Tuesdays to put my cello in the car.  Once at the école, people rush to help me, thank goodness.

My lesson with Anne went much better than last time.  She commented that it was clear that my right shoulder was getting more flexible, as I was coping better with the long slurred passages.  (These are particularly difficult for me on the A string – the one I play on the most – as it requires me to raise the arm more in the air than the lower strings.) I felt like commenting that the improvement was also the result of my putting in a bit more practice!

We then played some exercises involving shifting between some positions that I am not accustomed to.  For the benefit of non-players shifting positions is the way one moves the fingers of the left hand from one position to another on the same string. You do this, for example, in order to avoid playing an open string, which makes a different sound, to continue a passage on one string, or to be able to play higher and higher, on the A string in particular.

The most commonly used positions on the cello are 1st and 4th, so now I was practising, for example, jumping from the 2nd or 3rd to 5th. There is a whole technique to sliding up the hand (and not leaving the thumb behind) and not landing on the right note just by luck!  Basically it requires a good ear, good technique and lots of practise to train the brain where to shift up to.

Later in the afternoon I played the Mendelssohn with Jean Sebastian, the pianist.  That was a bit of a disaster.  I managed to get through the piece, but badly.  JS was very nice when he reported back to Anne, but I have to somehow make the Song sing with fluidity, rather than hear the evident attempts I’m making to hold onto the rhythm in syncopated passages! Two more weeks to get it right … …

My confidence was restored in the the final session, when I played with another adult pupil who is struggling to play in tune.  There I have a new challenge: Anne wants me to improvise on my line in a tune based on a Jewish prayer.  She plays a lot in bands playing jazz and modern music and is quite keen on improvisation.

I can see lots of the benefits of improvising  -to better communicate with other musicians, to truly listen to music rather than just playing the notes in front of you, to think ahead, to be creative – but it’s that bit I find scary.  I don’t think I’m creative.  We are playing this piece in the end of term session with beginners (the Mendelssohn is in the more advanced session) and Anne wants me to improvise in front of people.  No way!