Super moon

We continue to have this unreal weather: non-stop sunshine and warm afternoons (22 degrees today). Not necessarily a good thing for nature, but it enabled me to marvel again at the full moon two days ago.

Pity I didn’t look out of the window an hour earlier. It would have been a better photo as the moon appeared above the hill across the valley. Still, it was a wonderful sight – brighter than my photo, which I have darkened so you can see the moonscape. It has been lighting up the countryside all night for the past week.

Apparently they call this the Snow Moon because in February it often shines onto the snow. Little chance of that this year! Instead, everything is sprouting, even in my garden where neglect and ignorance attempt to reign.


Yes, we are still in winter: yesterday it was -1 degrees when I went to the baker in Bréau (though by the afternoon we are often sitting outside).

But February is a strange month; nature is never really dormant. The hazelnut trees have had catkins for several weeks now and suddenly crocuses and other small flowers have sprung open. The tits are suddenly tweeting away and last week I even heard a nightingale – just briefly.

Jacques, the local onion farmer, is busy ploughing in preparation his ever expanding number of fields (he has been quietly being buying up parcels over the last ten years).

We have had very little rain since November (when we had a lot) and – a reminder that summers seem to be drier too – Jacques’ brother Eric has been installing what seems a huge pipe system to irrigate the lower fields.

Polish builders score again

At last my bedroom terrace is resurfaced. It has been a story which has involved unfortunately a few fallouts.

The terrace was originally built round my jacuzzi. Then it suffered significant subsidence (a source of tension between me and the otherwise excellent original builder) and the jacuzzi packed up (again some tension, this time with the French branch of Canadian Spa who refused to service it).

So last year the jacuzzi was removed, the hole filled up, and the former opening now has some excellent steps leading down to the terrace below (ie easier to fetch bottles from the cellar!

Making good the terrace surface has been problematic. I agreed with the guy doing the work that the existing tiles should be covered over by a new layer of slate (schiste) ones, matching the rest of the terrace. The weather last year did not help, with snow or rain interrupting work frequently. But finally I lost my patience and called an end to this particular project.

This month, I took on a different builder, a Pole called Kris. True to the reputation of Poles in the building trade, he did the whole job in two weeks. I am pleased and relieved (although a little more out of pocket than originally expected. It looks good and merges seamlessly with the rest of the terrace.

Now we just need a good rainfall (!) to wash the site down.

Estate agent duties

Owning a drone has taken an unexpected turn. After providing Dessa and her neighbour with information about the state of their roofs, I am now providing images for friends wanting to sell their houses.

A Scottish couple who are selling their house in Mars, the next door village, asked me for some aerial shots for their sales literature. We will be doing these together shortly (once Spring shows some appearance) but I have provided them with some initial samples.

My friend Dessa has two houses and has been trying unsuccessfully to sell one of them. The trouble is that it is huge and beautiful but needs a fortune spending on it to insulate the roof, instal central heating and provide a septic tank that meets the ‘norms’. People keep visiting, falling in love with it, going away to do their sums – and not coming back. So Dessa is going to review her selling strategy, but knows this must include a portfolio of pictures that do the place justice. Here is my first stab at aerial views.

La Saint-Valentin

Who would have thought I would have ever attended a Valentine Day event? Not at all my cup of tea! But I went – to show willing.

Lou Rossignol is the old folk’s club – club des ainés – in Bréau. It does an impressive number of activities through the year, from afternoons of Lotto (I draw the line at these) to some great outings, last year to Spain, for example (I always seem to be ill or in England when there is a really good trip).

My friend, Margaret, is the treasurer, so its finances are impeccable. She and the other two committee members also do a great job on the food front. At the Valentine event, there were crepes and waffles, with a huge variety of home made jams – with Margaret’s orange flavoured with whisky and lemon flavoured with gin being particularly popular.

The afternoon’s animation was music by the Vacquier brothers, who are really good. Margaret says they are outstanding blues players, but they adjusted the repertoire to the audience in Bréau, including a cheerfully vulgar local song La Viganaise (wish I could follow the local patois enough to get the whole thing).

I was sitting opposite the former mayor (who was involved in the organisation but not ceremony of Jude and Ed’s wedding). Now in his eighties, he takes a back seat in village life. His wife, Lina, is the president of Lou Rossignol and, despite being in bad health, a dynamic force which rescued an association which risked becoming moribund.

The three committee members are all over seventy (and Margaret is 80). I fear for associations like this; there is no sign of the next generation getting ready to take over community activities.

Musée de la Romanité

On Thursday I visited the truly stunning new Musée de la Romanité in Nimes. Designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc, it was opened last year.

The building is as memorable as its contents. Walking across the open space that has been created round the Arènes since the first time I came many years ago, we saw the new, ultra-modern museum sitting beside its Roman neighbour.

I was visiting with my friend, Dessa, and another couple, Andrew and Jane. I did not want to hold them up taking photos, so here is a link to some superb photos (I did not wish to breach copyright by reproducing them here) plus one to a movie clip I took.

I really like it: there is a wonderful, dream-like quality about the rippling glass exterior dressing. Nor do I think it detracts from or competes with the Arènes – on the contrary, it seemed to enhance it and draw one’s eye towards the wonderful old stone arches.

Inside is equally imposing, with a sweeping spiral stair rising up to the main collections on the first floor. The museum is really a dedication to Nimes important past in antiquity, starting with the Iron Age and then tracing its development during Greek as well as Roman times, with even a small but good collection of medieval finds.

There are apparently over 50,000 objects in store of which about 5,000 are on display. Many of them have been found during quite recent building works, including the building of an underground carpark pretty well on the site of the museum! One of my favourite exhibits was a magnificent mosaic floor, discovered in 2006 and painstaking taken apart and rebuilt in the museum.

There could perhaps have been more pedagogic stuff, but there is at least some attempt to introduce you to each section of the museum, in several languages. There is some good use of hi-tech, with interactive touch screens, models, and projections showing the development of Nimes through the centuries, media showing the arrival of Greek and Phonecian ships as well as the Romans, and the routes they all took passing westwards through Nimes. There were good explanations of the various types of – mainly local – stone used in the houses and ornaments.

We were impressed by how well preserved lots of the Greek and Roman stuff was (the medieval statues, in contrast, were more weathered). I’ve never been very good at gazing at glass cases of archaeological remains, but this was different. I have never seen coins, for example, in such a good state. The vases were beautiful, but for me the highlights were the mosaics.

The only ‘bémol’ in the museum’s design was the loos. When we arrived we went to the ones on the first floor – all two (unisex) ones! Maybe the main ones were elsewhere, we thought. But no, at the end of our visit, we discovered there were four loos – two gents, two ladies – on the ground floor. By the afternoon the museum was packed, with several guided tours as well as school groups. How could anyone design a busy, modern building without adequate loo provision ?!

I was not consistent about when I took photos, but here they are:

Working at the cello

It is a year since I took up the cello again, after the two operations on my right shoulder. I was scarcely able to hold the bow, but as my surgeon said, playing the cello was an excellent form of rééducation, to regain the movement in my arm.

It has not been easy. It was very painful at first, and then of course, I had three dramatic health episodes last year, so effectively I only played for six months.

So imagine my pride in at last being able to play long notes on the bow. The mobility does seem to have improved with regular cello practice.(Albeit I don’t play for very long, to the horrified astonishment of my teacher, when I confessed two weeks ago that I reckoned half an hour a day was OK).

For my weekly lessons I have spent a month working on the first movement – the Prelude – of Bach’s first cello suite. I have played it before, but Anne, my teacher, threw me a new challenge by requiring a totally different pattern of bowing. I’m getting there, but it is not easy. In a fortnight I will move on to the second movement, Allemande.

Anne is helping me to correct all the bad technical habits I have picked up in those years of playing without a teacher. I just wish I had started playing the cello when I was younger. Stamina is definitely an issue and I am never quite sure how to fit my practice in early enough in the day, while I still have the energy.

Today I am really wilting, after a session of over two hours playing in the Ecole de Musique’s orchestra! The brass instrument teacher, Christophe, took over the orchestra at the start of term. I was initially sceptical, but he turns out to be a brilliant teacher-conductor.

He is very patient, taking things slowly at first, going over problematic passages, working on intonation (particularly in the cello section!), and drawing out of us an understanding of how to play, and to listen to the others. It is a mark of his success that although some of us are completely exhausted at the end, he has had our attention the entire time. People go out of the school afterwards enthusing about their morning.

The music is very simple: it is meant for beginners, reflecting the composition of the orchestra, with children of primary school age (where are the older children, I ask) and a lot of adults (not just pensioners). I am happy to be playing easy music, concentrating on my technique and helping the other cellists. I sit next to a delightful nine-year-old, who is going to be very good indeed. I feel it is fortunate I am there because one piece, an adaptation of the West Side Story themes, is more challenging than the other three cellists can’t handle some of it yet.

Not quite the same thing as playing in a trio or quartet as I used to, but still very satisfying.

End of a chapter

On Monday I went to Montpellier to see the surgeon who performed the thermocoagulation procedure on my back. Sadly it was to report it had not worked.

The idea – so far as I could understand the medical explanations in French – was to burn off the nerve ends in the offending part of the spine, in my case in the last two lumber vertebrae. It is regarded as a non-invasive procedure with no known side effects, though with apparently about a 50 per cent success rate.

Unfortunately I am part of the other 50%: I still have the pain further down, in the sacrum area. It really is not the most acute pain I have had, but it is chronic and wakes me up every two hours during the night.

The surgeon, Dr Dhenin, was very sympathetic and regretted he had not been able to help. As the arthritis in the lumber vertebrae is not yet “catastrophique”, we agreed that there was no point discussing further surgery. So he wished me good luck with an indefinite programme of physiotherapy.

So Charlotte, my lovely physiotherapist, continues to massage my back and go through a series of exercises to try to improve the mobility in the sacro-iliac area, as well as introducing new exercises (now I am safely over last year’s three dramas) to restore some strength to my abdominal muscles.

Biology was on my list of most disliked subjects at school (art, biology, needlework, cooking and gym). The first two shared a requirement for artistic dexterity and visual memory (all those names of bones and flowers…) which I did not have. It is ironic that now I am getting Charlotte to give me lessons in anatomy and I attempt to grasp some understanding of the three -dimensional images I see on the internet.


My daughters think I am obsessed by the weather. They are right. If you live in the country you are so much more aware of the effect of weather changes, particularly when we have more and more extremes.

Last week we had snow, and for a day I did not venture out of the house. Then we had some magnificent mists. I was visiting Dessa at La Rouvierette on Friday and up there we looked over a lunar landscape of mist and clouds.

Then at the weekend we had unspeakable weather: icy cold gale winds which howled remorselessly. The snow descended down from the mountains, but stopped just above our level (I am 400 metres above sea level).

Last night the wind calmed at last and I watched the stars return to the sky. This morning, walking with Poppy up the valley from my house, the scene was once again bright, crisp blue sky. With no horrible wind, it felt so much warmer.

Nevertheless, up above us, on Mont Aigoual and neighbouring peaks, the snow is still there. I could see it when shopping at the supermarket this morning. And on the way home I saw the sign on the ‘main road’ up the mountains had not only its seasonal symbols that snow chains or winter tyres were obligatory, but an additional sign saying the roads were closed completely, even the one to the ski station. I guess this might date from yesterday when the winds would have made the icy roads even more dangerous.


And now – – we have just had several glorious days of non-stop sun and temperatures which actually hit 20 degrees on the way back from Montpellier on Monday!

Neighbour problems

Decades ago, when I worked for the Scottish Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, I wrote a booklet on Neighbour Problems. Not only is this still a frequent complaint brought to Citizens Advice but I can report that neighbour disputes are alive and well in France too.

Sometimes they are resolved peacefully. Years ago Chris and I watched as one neighbour, a builder, having blocked his own access with piles of rubble, took short cuts over his neighbour’s land. This neighbour put up a ribbon along the boundary – the builder got out of his truck, cut it, and proceeded as usual. So then the neighbour planted a row of trees. That defeated the builder, who was a man of the soil and would not damage trees, and so unblocked his own entrance.

I once watched another neighbour, told that her swimming pool was partly on another’s plot of land, discreetly shifting boulders so that border was more clearly further away from the pool.

Not so nice was the experience of a young woman I knew in Montpellier. When she bought her house, the neighbour claimed she had no right to use her first floor terrace (which happened to look over the neighbour’s garden). Things got very nasty, ending up in court. Unfortunately the neighbour was a local judge and nobody was willing to represent my friend, who ended up hiring a lawyer from Paris – but won. My friend was black and there is no doubt that the motivation here was racist.

I would say that most problems I have observed here have to do with property rights rather than, say, noise. I find it fascinating how well versed people are on rights (more so than obligations) and how keen to know to the nearest square metre where are the boundaries of their property and what rights others have to pass through.

I know of a hamlet which seems to be particularly susceptible to tensions between neighbours, with a variety of disputes over access or use of land. The latest has become very nasty and disturbing. It involves a couple with a house right in the heart of the hamlet.

Recently the house next door was sold to a couple of Parisians. On arrival in the village, they started almost immediately to hassle my friends, claiming that their bathroom, and I think other bits of the house, did not belong to them. It is true that my friends’ bathroom is built on top of part of the neighbours’ house. But old Cévenol villages are like that. Then they denied my friends right of access to their house, barricading the entrance and forcing them to take a longer, more precipitous route.

My friends consulted lawyers and a property surveyor (géomètre expert). It appears that the original division of the houses years and years ago is problematic, but on the advice of their lawyer, they issued an injunction requiring the neighbours to remove the blocked access to their house.

Things have now got very nasty. The neighbours have countered with a formal notice to quit ‘their’ property. The rest of the village has apparently provided statements recording that in their memories, my friends’ house has been as it is now, including the access, for decades, going back to the fifties at least. But presumably a lot will depend on various expert statements and the view of the judge.

My poor friends – the wife is not in good health and they are not loaded financially – face a very scary future. French litigation can be long and costly and they are unfortunately not insured for legal costs.

Remind me to check next week that my house insurance includes assurance de protection juridique!