Carte de séjour

Ça y est – as they say here. At last I have my carte de séjour.

I applied last July for this card which entitles me to live in France for ten years. I finally got the interview when I handed over the weighty dossier in December and was told the card would take a month or two to be available. In February I wrote asking what had happened to my application – and got no reply (no telephone number of course).

So I decided the only thing was to go to the Préfecture in Nimes (a round trip of about 180 km) and confront the fonctionnaires face to face. I went armed not only with a copy of everything I had presented them last year, but also a circular from the Minister of the Interior which says that although EU citizens don’t need a carte de séjour they have a right to one and it is the obligation of the Préfecture to fulfil this request. I also found some text which spelt out that an absence of a written response by the préfet could be interpreted as a tacit refusal and could be contested.

As I waited in the inevitable crowd in front of the Accueil for Etrangers, I prepared myself mentally to be pleasant but firm and to insist on seeing a manager if necessary. But once again I was struck by the pleasant manner of the two officials fielding the multiple queries at the Accueil – so different from earlier experiences in Nimes.

I handed over my passport and the official receipt given for my dossier and explained I wished information on what was happening. The woman looked at my record on her computer and said the carte was ready! She reached out beside her desk and found it instantly.

How long had it been sitting there? Why did I never receive the promised letter telling me to come and collect it?

Never mind. I have it – unlike several compatriots in le Vigan, who applied after me and have had their applications returned. In anticipation of Brexit, Nimes has stopped processing British applications. This is blatantly against the Minister of the Interior’s ruling, but I suspect people have not the energy to fight the system. Anyhow, once Brexit happens we will all have to apply for a new carte de séjour, to be devised just for Brits. I’m hoping the fact that I have a current one will make it easier to get the new one, and will ease the next, long postponed action: applying for dual nationality.

Of course the real big question is what will happen to healthcare after Brexit. Still a horrible unknown. Given the chaos and utter weariness I witnessed when in the UK, I fear dealing with this is low on the British government’s agenda.

BPs in France

I have just had a lovely week with Jude, Ed, Ella and Maddie – despite the unseasonably cool weather and two days rain. (Kate and family were meanwhile having a hot, exotic holiday in Mauritius.

Their visits are always action-packed. The parents normally go on a long walk before breakfast, while I look after the girls. On one day Ella and Maddie joined them on their usual Esparon-Bréau trek, only this time they reversed the route and continued along the ridge to Molieres (I reckon about 12 kilometres).

On perhaps the coolest day we visited the impressive knights templar fortifications at La Couvertoirade. On warmer days we enjoyed pottering around as usual down by the river near my house, at Le Rieumage, once with our traditional BP picnic. Ella and Maddie even paddled in the river’s icy water – Ella even swam, albeit rather briefly.

A highlight was the now routine trip to our splendidly arranged accros branches (tree climbing) centre. It is a wonderful setting, high up on the Causses above le Vigan, with courses at a different levels – green, yellow, blue, red and black (the latter mainly for adults full of adrenalin). Both girls have come along tremendously in their confidence and skills. Maddie really enjoyed it for the first time, successfully negotiating courses green 1 and 2. Ella whizzed through the yellow courses and tackled blue 1. I didn’t see much of this as it was so high above us. Perhaps the main accolade should be for the parents, who accompanied their children. Jude, who hates heights, had once again to face the horrors of the green course, including crawling through a tunnel designed for children. Ed had been praying that Ella would decide against tackling the tall, tall tree at the start of the blue course – and then had to face climbing it himself. Ella has been on a few tree climbing courses in England, but says this one is the best. She admitted to being afraid but then pleased with herself at having overcome her fear.

There was of course an Easter egg hunt and lots of chocolate eating. But there was also much happy pottering around the garden, playing complicated imaginary games which involved much running up and down the terraces and of course, long sessions on the double swing, with both parents nobly doing lots of pushing.

Meals cooked by Ed were as usual a highlight, with energetic conversation by all. And the weather meant we played more games than usual, from Pelman to the game which we are all now addicted: Monopoly Deal This has little to do with Monopoly, its parent, but is a game of luck and tactics. I’m probably the worst player and Ella the best.

Now it is all over. They are back in London, and the washing machine has run its last cycle.

Graeme, a polymath

“If there had been a Nobel prize for polymaths,” said the novelist, Ian Macewan, “it would have to go to Graeme Mitchison.”

He was speaking at the Memorial Day for my lifelong friend, Graeme, who died last year. And what a day it was.

In the afternoon there were several sessions attended by scientists who discussed Graeme’s contributions. According to Tim Mitchison, his cousin (an eminent professor of biology at Harvard), whom I sat opposite at dinner, these sessions were quite moving, as mathematicians, quantum physicists and biologists spoke one after another of the immense contributions that Graeme had made in their area, his brilliance, intellectual curiosity, and generosity.

Then there was a concert in King’s College Chapel. Again, musicians talked about his wonderful piano playing but also his immensely popular hosting of musical evenings at his house in Maids Causeway.

The most poignant – most upsetting – moment was when the two young pianists played the Fantasia in F minor by Schubert, one of Graeme’s favourite composers. The sound drifted gently up through the chapel, its mournful theme reducing many of us nearly to tears. It was played exquisitely by James Sherlock and another pianist. James, now conductor of the Copenhagen Opera, used to play this with Graeme. And Graeme was there, in every note.

This was followed by Bach and Dvorak. But nothing touched that raw moment of his presence so much as in the Schubert.

Dinner was in the splendid dining hall of the neighbouring Caius College. Hard to hear as over 100 friends and family all talked with energy, with many reminiscences and memories of moments spent with Graeme. I was overwhelmed by the communal sense of love for this unusual and exceptional man I have known all my life. I hadn’t appreciated how widely he had spread his network of friends in the decades he has lived in Cambridge. And the diversity of his friendships.

The most moving account perhaps came from Ian Macewan, whom he met when they were both visiting the Galápagos Islands. He recounted how Graeme tried to explain string theory to a non-scientist with the aid of three boots and laces. He spoke, as others who followed did, of the incredible range of Graeme’s interests and achievements. Indeed he said that he based a character in one of his novels on Graeme.

Another speaker Phillips Sands, the international human rights lawyer, described how Graeme’s wise comments on a problem he set him caused him to successfully win a case at international court at The Hague. And another eminent academic, who had come from Australia for this day, described an eventful visit to the V and A with Graeme, which ended with the being thrown out after Graeme attempted to discover how the statue of the Three Graces had been assembled – finding the key bolt that held them together. An example of Graeme’s sense of curiosity and mischief. Another described hair raising leaping over dangerous crevices and dodgy paragliding adventures.

They all managed to convey Graeme’s gentle modesty and delight in sharing with his friends. Never a prize winner or professor, but a brilliant and lovely man. Everybody left feeling that they had given him the send off he deserved (though of course he did not believe in an after life).

In the UK

I’m here to attend memorial events in Cambridge for my friend Graeme, who died last year – a short trip, dates constrained by my concert on Tuesday evening and family arriving in France this weekend.

My uneventful flight was enhanced by the presence of a huge number of French school children, going over for an Easter trip to the UK. Next to me sat a small 14 or 15-year-old, who politely offered me some of his Toblerone. He came from Clermont l’Herault and the girl next to him from the village of Octon on the Lac de Salagosse.Ah, I said, I knew a girl of her age who lives in Octon – Mattie, the daughter of some winemakers. Oh yes, she said, Matilde. Small world!

The boy switched to English – good English. I congratulated him on his accent and asked how he came to be speaking so well, had he been often to the UK? No, he replied, clearly pleased at the compliment. He had been once when small with his parents, and once to Sri Lanka, where he practised his English. Otherwise, he tried where possible to watch films on TV in English. He added, with some pride, that this was a cultural trip for children who had performed well in their English classes. Good luck to him, and bravo for the good manners shown.

As usual I was struck by how much colder it is in England and cursed myself for yet again not bringing a warmer coat. It’s is only a few degrees less than in France, but I think the lack of sunshine and increased humidity makes it seem much more.

I have been staying in Dulwich, with Kate and family, so have seen a lot of my grandchildren, Otto and Willow, now nine and seven. I’ve never been good with small children, so I am enjoying all the grandchildren getting older, and watching their very distinctive characters evolve.

Then, via a quick detour to Kentish Town for lunch with my brother-in-law, Peter, up to Cambridge to stay with my cousin, Ursula. She and Nick (away in Berlin) have a delightful house looout over Jesus Green and five minutes from the town centre. It reminds me of many academic houses I have known in Oxford: books, books and more books, piled up in every room and in bookshelves narrowing all passageways. And a decor cheerfully ignoring modern fashions – plumbing and paintwork dating back decades. I was staying in an attic room which was once occupied, when the house was digs, by Ian Macewan (see next blog entry!).

Nice to get to know Ursula’s two daughters, Helen (post doc researcher linguistics researcher at Surrey University) and Frances (!) who works n the Oxfam bookshop.

And now, on a long, tortuous train trip to Gatwick Airport = made worse by major rail problems.

Le traque

Tuesday night I was fizzing with frustration. I was well prepared for the Ecole de Musique’s end of term concert, but then – comme d’habitude- my performance was ruined by nerves.

As soon as I had finished the Allemande from the first Cello Suite of Bach, I wanted to play it again – properly.

I am enjoying my lessons with the cello prof, Anne, and she is painstakingly working on all the ‘mauvaises habitudes’ I have picked up as a largely self taught player.  I have actually felt the improvement in my playing.Still very much a low level amateur, but better than a year ago.  It helps that my shoulder has also been less painful, allowing my bow arm to move better.

In the morning I played for Anne and she was pleased with many of the nuances and phrasing I had achieved. Then come the actual performance in the evening, and unfortunately I was first on stage and had not properly psyched myself up. Also, the spike holder slid slightly on the floor and I was playing in an awkward position.  Too late to adjust this once I had started.

Soooo annoying.  All those little details I had worked on were forgotten, intonation was not as good as it should have been and I stumbled on one or two of the passages that were a bit more tricky. Pah!

I’m relieved I was not the only one: the violinist, Elisabeth, with whom I will be playing a trio next term, had to stop twice because either she or the pianist lost the place.

This was a concert for the adult students and the general level was not bad.  It ended with some lively singing by a chorale class of 20 pupils.  I love the singing teacher, Sabine, who teaches and conducts using her whole body with energetic enthusiasm, as you can see from this last song in the audition.


I have spent so much time obsessively following every tortuous turn of the miserable Brexit saga that I have let March come and go without comment. I find it a truly magical month (unlike April, which should be so wonderful but so often disappoints with unseasonal rain or chilly spells).

At the start of March there are no leaves, just a hint of colour in the branches of trees and a few timid buds appearing. Then everything changes. Almost overnight you can see the buds turn into blossom and lovely, light young leaves unfurl. As I drive into le Vigan, there is one weeping willow in particular, whose transformation I have failed to capture (always too late for an appointment or too cold to stop). The sun shone all month and people walked around with a spring in their step and smile on their faces.

I have just put up an odd collection of photos to record this lovely month. The first two were taken on a crisp day at the start of March. Then a couple of pictures of the moon, as this year we have had spectacularly splendid full moons, with not a cloud to be seen. I thought I would pop in a picture of rush-hour traffic on my way home – this herd of sheep has a donkey as well as the usual dog to encourage it up the road to Mars.

The next photo is an old mill, taken with my drone. This is one of a group beside the river below Bréau which several of us want saving before it is too late. The picture afterwards is the old farmhouse near it which is too far gone to rescue.

The rest are the usual mixture of buds and flowers that everybody snaps on walks or in the garden.

Now we are into April. The weather has continued to be unseasonably cold, but a couple of days ago, the non-stop blue sunshine came to an end: we have just had 36 hours of heavy rain. Typically this was on Saturday, more or less washing out the weekly market. But as everybody was saying, since this is only the second time it has rained this year, we desperately need the water. It is good to once again hear the River Souls, in the valley below my house. It was more violent towards the coast, with hailstorms and ‘tornadoes’.

It is raining again now and more is forecast for the coming days. I want it to rain and rain – until next Saturday, when my daughter Jude and family arrive for an all too short week. At present it looks as if it will be cold and dry the first half and then warmer but wet thereafter. Lots of board games will be needed 🙁

Chez moi

A different sort of lunch the following day: nine people at my house. Given my energetic pursuit of avoiding the kitchen, this was a meal in which responsibility for the courses was shared out.

Before my Saturday lunches at Fatou’s, I have somehow got drawn into a Saturday morning drink in the Café des Cévennes, with an equally amiable but very different group of people. They all came to lunch yesterday. Nationalities covered are French, British, German and Dutch/American (Dessa!). The common language is French (though sometimes it is hard not to lapse into English if you find yourself beside an anglophone, particularly if the subject is Brexit!).

I was supposed to provide the cheese course but I even managed to delegate this to Dessa, as I was playing in the Ecole de Musique until after the market closed.

So, excellent food and good conversation. This is now going to be a routine gathering of the group.