Chez Fatou

Saturday was a sad day: Fatou offered lunch in her restaurant for the last time. She has sold the business to the cafe across the square and is moving on to new pastures.

Chez Fatou was the smallest restaurant in le Vigan, but with some of the finest food: a wonderful, subtle spicy mixture of African, Middle Eastern and French dishes, served with a cheerful albeit leisurely service.

Fatou is a magnificent, larger than life character: a tall, elegant woman from Mali, with splendid Afro hairstyles, a great smile, strong opinions and a wonderful laugh.

She has – oh dear, had – a regular small clientele of people who loved her food and the casual, friendly ambiance.

On Saturdays there is a regular group of half a dozen friends, whom I sort of know (friends of friends) and gradually over the last year they have welcomed me at their table.

They were there when I arrived (late – but Fatou is more relaxed than most French restaurants about what hour she serves lunch), greeted me – and Poppy – with enthusiasm, and they slid up the bench to make room for me.

Everyone talks with great animation and as so often, neighbouring tables became involved in the conversation. It’s not a place for people who cannot handle noise. The restaurant is a semi-basement cave with no sound insulation, so it is quite a challenge for me sometimes to follow fast flowing conversation in French, accompanied by the wonderfully energetic waving of hands and shrugging of shoulders. (A glass of Fatou’s delicious punch occasionally helps.)

I don’t know where we are going to eat on Saturdays, but with any luck I will enjoy Fatou’s dishes again, as she plans to offer to cook at parties and other events.

The screws tighten

What a surreal day. We lurch even closer to the abyss. Monday’s indicative vote is the last chance.

Brexit is high up on the news here as well. People are baffled, sad at what they see as the collapse of everything they thought the British were – pragmatic, calm, dignified (well, yes, also arrogant, cherry pickers).

Last week my English neighbours, here on a brief visit, were shopping in my favourite veg shop and the owner asked them with sympathy how they were coping. (The assumption is that any Brits here are not for Brexit.) She told them that she had several British customers worrying about their futures in France

At lunch with my friends Charles and Pierre we returned to the old question, what made people vote for Brexit. In the afternoon I went to the pharmacy (where I am greeted by name – a sad réflection of where I shop these days!) and again was asked what I thought might happen now.

Then, on to the vernissage of an art exhibition – a vernissage is the opening, to invited guests, with drinks and nibbles. There are quite a few artists in the region and this was a gathering of le Vigan’s cultural set, of which I appear to be a member. I was hardly able to look at the paintings and sculptures as I was accosted again and again by people wanting to express sympathy and to exclaim at what a catastrophe this was for le Royaume Uni.

People here are under no illusions about the problems facing the EU, but there is a strong sense of what it has done to unite people beyond nationalism. They are worried about the forthcoming elections and the rising right wing populism.

Nobody was surprised I am still waiting for my carte de séjour; the French are only too aware of the shortcomings of their administrative bureaucracy. One woman said she had an American nephew who had been told by the Paris prefecture that his application for French citizenship might take three years to be considered.

More pressing than my desire to retain European nationality is my need to be in the health system. Friends were appalled to hear that my carte vitale (the crucial health passport here) might only last for a year after Brexit.

They understand when I say that for two years my life has been on hold. Sadly the Resume button may soon be pushed, but who knows what will be playing.

French or Irish?

I find it hard to concentrate on anything other than the political mess in Britain. I weep for my country of birth; and I fear for my future in my country of adoption.

I won’t rehearse yet again all the reasons why I am so angry and despairing about Brexit. I think I am more depressed and upset about it than any other event that has happened in my life – yes, including the failure of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which dominated my life as a teenager.

It is not simply witnessing the country stepping ever closer to the cliff, with all the potential damage to the British economy, industry, health system, universities, research… … It is the realisation that Britain is a broken country, with polarised views, a rising populism, and a parliamentary system in crisis. Whatever the result – and goodness knows where we will be in two months – how can attitudes be changed, how can the damage be repaired? How can parliamentary democracy regain credibility, for example, and how can we again believe in and respect politicians, statisticians and journalists?

Meanwhile, what can I personally do? Not a lot. I signed the petition to revoke Article 50 of course (on day one). I can’t demonstrate (but I am glad that Kate and family – as well as at least one cousin – are currently marching in London).

If there is another referendum I can’t vote as I have lived in France for more than 15 years and the overseas voters bill, which would restore my right to vote, has been held up by Brexit. It is a private members bill, introduced in 2017, and was only debated in Parliament last week – to a virtually empty Chamber.

But I can try to obtain dual nationality, to remain a citizen of an EU country in the event of Brexit happening. Unlike my Carte de Séjour which I am still waiting for), becoming the citizen of another European country would have no practical benefit – other than my childish pleasure at being able to continue to walk through the EU Citizens gate at the airport.

It is more a personal statement, that I am a European, that I wish to distance myself from these horrible nationalistic, xenophobic views in Britain. They are elsewhere as well, of course, and whatever his other faults, Macron made a good distinction last November between patriotism – love of your country, which can be an inclusive sentiment, and nationalism (https://francais.rt.com/france/55302-patriotisme-contraire-nationalisme-tres-politique-discours-macron-centenaire-armistice-paris).

I am not proposing to give up British citizenship, but rather to have dual nationality. The question is, which country? Well, the obvious choice is France and last year, in between hospital crises, I started to collect together the information required, though it was clear that the priority should be applying for residency.

There are three problems about applying for French citizenship. The first is that I have to gather together an enormous amount of documentation (as well as writing yet another essay about why I am applying). This includes a host of birth, marriage and death certificates (which all have to have official, legal, costly translations). And in due course there will be difficult interviews no doubt.

My second problem is that I do not have a birth certificate for my father, who was born in India, and it is impossible to obtain a copy. Thanks to my cousin, Ursula, who works in the British Library, we found the record for his baptism, and the Library has produced a letter saying that government departments sometimes accept their official evidence of a baptism in lieu of a birth certificate. I can but try, though I worry about the word “sometimes”.

My third problem is that I might have to wait years rather than months to get French citizenship. Every time a French person asks if I have applied yet, I mention the problem of delays in the process and they raise their eyes in shared frustration at the tortuous workings of “l’administration franchise”.

So how about joining the apparently growing queue of Brits using their familial links with Ireland to seek Irish citizenship? Both my paternal grandparents were Irish. My grandfather was born in Portaferry in northern Ireland and my grandmother in County Cork in southern Ireland.

The procedure should be so much more straightforward than applying for French citizenship. But that is before one takes into account the amazing lack of documentation for my Irish family. Apart from my father’s missing birth certificate, which could be a problem here as well, there is the question of evidence of my grandparents’ marriage. They were married in Ceylon (don’t know why, as my grandfather was in the Indian Police in Madras). There is no marriage certificate, just a newspaper report recording the wedding and what the bride wore.

Yet another complication, I do have my grandmother’s birth certificate, but there is a blank in the box for her name! I have paid Irish genealogists to track down her baptism records, but they have drawn a complete blank. (What they did throw up was something else I had not known. My great grandfather was a leading light in the Church of Ireland, but it turns out he was married in a Methodist church and that his father was a Methodist minister.)

All of this might prove to be too many dodgy records, even for the Irish. So I am currently thinking of returning to my French citizenship papers. Big sigh.

An expensive week

My iPad is an absolute essential part of my life. I use it each evening to watch Channel 4 News (with depression, anger and disbelief at the latest Brexit instalment). I sit on the sofa with it rather than in front of my computer and invariably write emails, watch rubbish on telly, look at photos, listen to music (played out on my speakers) – and generally pass the evening with it. Living alone, it is my companion, a buffer against solitude. Well, it and Poppy, of course…

So imagine the disaster when last week, when carrying my water, my iPad (minus its sleeve), a notebook and pen, and some medication from the bedroom to the main room, the iPad slid from my hand and tumbled to the floor, landing face down on the hard tiles. Yes, in one careless move I had smashed my iPad screen.

I then discovered that the the price of replacing an iPad screen has risen with each model. If I went to Apple it would cost 400 euros and the cheapest quote I could get in Montpellier was for 239 euros- for an iPad which is over three years old.

I swithered for a week and then I took a deep breath and bought a new iPad, for an astronomic price which I am to embarrassed to repeat here. I just could not bear shelling out all that money for what is, in the world of technology, an ageing piece of kit. I paid out even more as for the first time Ihave bought AppleShare insurance against breakages!

My partner in crime in the trip to the Montpellier Apple Store was my friend Dessa, whose collection of gadgets probably equals mine – we bought our Apple watches together. Embarrassingly as we entered the store several of the assistants greeted us like old friends.

The assistant who helped me set up my new iPad was a new acquaintance, a charming young man of Algerian descent. I know this because before long we were talking about Brexit and becoming French (he has double nationality now and said it was not difficult to obtain – times have changed, I fear). We then had the most extraordinary discussion in which he expressed sympathy with the Brexiteers and went on to praise Trump. That got Dessa (American/Dutch) really going, as she tried to convince him how wrong he was. I suspect he could have been a gilet jaune supporter, but he certainly stunned us. We parted amicably of course and he said how much he had enjoyed a challenging disagreement.

As for my old iPad, I have given it to my friend, Sonia, the ambulance driver. So it is going to a good home.


A truly Renaissance man

Next month I will be attending a memorial day in Cambridge for my lifelong friend, Graeme Mitchison, who died last year.

When I received the invitation and detailed programme, which includes sessions on maths, biology and a concert, as well as the usual dinner and speeches, I once again found myself thinking of this remarkable man, whom I have known since we were small children and will always miss. Amazingly I have found the best obituary in one of my bêtes-noires, the Daily Telegraph.  I have sneakily reproduced it here.

Obituary in Daily Telegraph


Declining income

I have just been preparing my annual income spreadsheet, in preparation for next month’s income tax declaration. It does not make for happy reading.

My main income is from my university pensions (my own pension and that as Chris’s widow). These are paid into my French bank account (clocking up charges on the way) and my income spreadsheet shows that between 2015 and today my income has gone down – by several thousand euros.

Exchange rates are strange things: often you cannot really explain why the annual figure fluctuated up or down. But this table shows one of the reasons we were so much better off when we first paid French income tax in 2001. Then you can see the result of the 2008 recession. And then the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum cannot be a coincidence.

Disappearing car

We may live in a rural backwater, but that does not mean there is no car-related crime. 

A fortnight ago I was driving through le Vigan when I spotted a little white car with no wheels, at the spot where I knew my English neighbours had parked their car when en route to the airport last autumn.

Yes, sadly, it was their car.  They had planned to return shortly after and so left the car near the bus stop – and then family problems meant they had not come – and had forgotten about the car. Too late they kicked themselves for having done nothing.

I said I would check the price of wheels (though we both suspected these would cost more than the value of the car) and if not, find someone to help dispose of the car.

Before I could do that, there was another blow: the car had disappeared. Yesterday I went to the Gendarmerie, but they knew nothing about it. Next stop was the Hôtel de Ville to see if the municipal police had removed the car. It turns out that there is now only one municipal police officer and he is on holiday this week! (So I suppose one can park anywhere in town with impunity.)

We will have to wait till next week before finding out if the car has been impounded and what the fine might be. At least I have learnt a new French word: the car is almost certainly à la fourrière.

Drone practice

Now that Spring has come I am trying to improve my drone skills. Apart from a couple of ‘estate agent’ sorties, I am concentrating on improving my navigation manoeuvres over my own land.

It is not easy: I have to squint (in the sunshine) at the complex menu on my small iPhone screen, which works together with the remote controller – and at the same time, glance up frequently to ensure that my drone is not heading for trees – or freedom further afield … …

In order to improve my skills I have been following some online drone forums, which provide a lot of useful information (more comprehensible than than the instructions provided by the Chinese manufacturer, DJI). At the same time I am switched off by some of the comments by the predominantly male macho community. Inevitable, I suppose, if I choose to wander into a toys-for-boys world… …

Childhood magic

We are in the middle of half term here – a whole two weeks! And suddenly there are children everywhere, parked chez les grandparents. 

I passed two children playing in my neighbours garden.  Aged nine and six, they were busy mixing magic potions, using mainly an assortment of green herbs and earth.

Then yesterday I had a brief discussion with my granddaughters, aged nine and five. Guess what, they were mixing magic potions. Theirs were a mixture of flour and food colouring. 

The session ended suddenly; the potion had stained the white dining table. Emergency action was needed.

Future in the balance

“Eh! Eh….le Brexit?” Everyone asks me, with a mixture of incomprehension and sympathy.

Yesterday I was asked at least four times – by my hairdresser, the pharmacist and a couple of friends in ‘my’ cafe. 

One friend was typically optimist: don’t worry, he said, you’ll end up staying with us in Europe. Theresa May will give in. Don’t be so sure I replied. You are not familiar with the tribal loyalties of the Conservative Party. Plus there are the Labour MPs representing Brexit constituencies. 

The pharmacist, M. Bresson, had a different view. He had been told that his English counterparts are all stocking medicines in preparation for a no deal. 

I reflected on these comments as I tried to get past the blockage caused by the gilets jaunes at the roundabout at the entrance to le Vigan. 

When I see them, I see people who feel ignored, not listened to. Just like the Brits in the North East. And I fear that here this will transform into votes for the Front National.