Permis de conduire

Last week I lost my driving licence – a first in over 50 years of driving and three licences – British, Nigerian and now French.

Normally my licence lives in a wallet on the back of my car seat. But I needed it in order to hire a larger car for Allan and Gayle’s visit, and somewhere in le Vigan or my house, this flimsy, dog-eared, inconvenient, three page card went awol. Allan and Gayle had to put up with me obsessively looking again and again in the same cupboards, drawers, pockets, shopping bags, under the sofas… … They joined in, searching the two cars and the ground up to the house.

Yesterday I decided it was definitely lost and set about the laborious job of requesting a replacement. There is an extremely complicated on-line site which I now know backwards, as I struggled with navigating through its officialese.

First stop was a visit to SuperU, one of the two supermarkets, whose photo booth has the facility to produce photos and electronic signature which go direct to the government site. After feeding the machine – twice – and summoning a member of staff to help, I ticked this off as done. In fact the machine said none of the photos conformed to the new rules (despite my glowering to avoid the prohibited smile). The shop assistant convinced me that this was a load of nonsense and my photos were OK.

Then three hours of work, collecting digital versions of the various documents – passport, proof of domicile, records for the lost licence (thank goodness I had scanned mine!) and completing the online forms. I took so long because I spotted at the end that I had put Allen as my Nom de Famille on page 1, whereas they were expecting my maiden name, Filson. I went back to page one, but it would not let me change this – so I started all over again.

This morning I downloaded a second copy of the declaration of loss of permit, completed the pdf file and took it to the gendarmerie to be stamped, only to be told this would not be needed (despite everybody having told me it was essential that the police put their mark on it).

So now I have to wait for the new licence to arrive – fingers crossed this will not take as long as my carte de séjour. The one big improvement is that driving licences are now bank card size. Which means I won’t lose it so easily – until that fateful day, of course, when my whole handbag is stolen… …

One complication is that La Poste has gone on indefinite strike in our département. So it could end up sitting in a sorting office somewhere. This morning I went to the mairie to check that my request for a proxy vote in the EU elections had arrived. (The elections in France are on Sunday, by which time I will be in Lisbon with Jude and family.) My request had arrived, but several others have not.


Friday evening, just as I was packing to travel to Lisbon, I received an email saying my application was incomplete or incorrect and that I should return to the site remedy this. They didn’t actually tell me how to find my dossier so once again I spent a lot of time wandering round the menus. Got there eventually and found that they wanted proof that Filson was my maiden name and that I was required to scan and upload my livret de famille.  This is a document which records all events like births, marriages and deaths. Well of course we don’t have this in Britain. So I wrote them a letter and uploaded my marriage certificate with translation. Let’s hope that suffices!

Kiwis in the Cévennes

On Wednesday I said goodbye to Allan and Gayle Gillies, the parents-in-law of Kate, visiting Europe from New Zealand.

The weather was not kind to them in their five-day visit, although this gave them a chance to rest after a hectic bus tour round Spain and Portugal – and before the challenge of childminding in the Gillies household in London. I was also the beneficiary of Allan’s DIY skills: he modified a cupboard and installed a shelf for me.

Then the last day was better than expected, so we did an impulse trip to visit Roquefort, home of one of my favourite cheeses, and then on to the splendid Millau Viaduct, which they had never seen.

It was my first trip to Roquefort too and we all found the tour of one of the seven underground labyrinth of caves (formed by the collapse of the mountainous limestone plateau) fascinating (though being in a guided group made taking photos difficult).

The next day, while I took Allan and Gayle to the airport, Margaret took Poppy for a much needed haircut. Since Poppy hates this almost as much as going to the vet, I was relieved that it was Margaret who received the reproachful sulks on the drive back from the toilette in Ganges. As it was, Poppy spent a restless night and followed me round in an anxious state for twelve hours. Worth it though, to get rid of all those burrs and grasses and unkempt coat.

Voting in EU elections

Earlier this month I received my carte électorale, which shows that as a citizen of another EU country I am entitled to vote in France in elections for the EU parliament and in local council elections.

These will almost certainly be the last European elections in which we will vote. I suspect this means that in the future I will also not be able to vote in the local elections in France.

I will be well and truly disenfranchised as, having lived over 15 years out of the UK, I don’t have a vote in UK Parliamentary elections.  I would also not have a vote if there was a second referendum, even though this affects me so directly.

The EU elections in France take place on Sunday 26th May – by which time I will be in Portugal. So last week I set about organising a proxy vote – Margaret will vote for me.

It turned out to be very complicated. I went online, found the formidable form I have to complete- but the instructions said I should download the (pdf) file and fill it in on the computer – handwritten entries were not accepted. It was only later that I spotted a note at the foot of the page saying alternatively one could write on a printed form available form the counter (didn’t say what counter…). I tried typing on the Mac and the text insisted on appearing vertically on the form, so the I had to download it onto my iPad. Having at last printed the completed form I took it, as instructed, to the gendarmerie.

It didn’t surprise me that the gendarmerie bell wasn’t working. I tried knocking on the window without success. So then I walked up to another window which I knew was in the back room where the gendarmes sit.

When finally I came face to face with a gendarme the first thing he did was to reprimand me for daring to tap on this window! Then he scrutinised the form, searching for a problem. And he found one. There were three boxes: proxy for the first round, for the second round, or all rounds. I had ticked all rounds. Aha, said the gendarme, that is wrong: there is only one round in European elections, so you should have ticked first round. I murmured that all rounds included first round – but no: I must redo the whole form – all three pages of it.

He then produced a properly printed copy of the form I had painstaking downloaded from the internet and stood over me as I filled it in. As I entered today’s date, I muttered the figures in English as I usually do. Magic: the gendarme said “Two thousand” to show he knew some English – and actually smiled.

Now I have to think who I will vote for. The nightmare facing us sounds horribly familiar: the threat of the populist right.

The polls show that party dominated for so long by the Le Pen family – the RN (Rassemblement National – though everyone still calls it by its old name, FN Front National) has taken the lead over Macron’s party, the LREM (La République en March – which is in coalition with Modem, another, soggier, centralist party. Well below these two front runners come the Conservative party, the LR (Les Républicains, formerly the UMP), and then in ever descending order: the LFI (La France Insoumise – an equivalent to Momentum), the Greens (EELV – Europe Écologie Les Verts ) and the Socialist party (PS – Parti Socialiste).

As in all European countries, interest in the European elections is low and people are likely to vote based on national rather than European issues. So what should I vote? I have been havering between the EELV and the LREM. I don’t trust the LFI and the poor old PS is in a mess. The most important thing is to stop as many Front National candidates as possible from getting elected. On that basis I am, with some reluctance, currently inclined to vote for the LREM.

Pupitre de violoncelles

Pascale, who sits next to me in the ‘orchestra’, took this photo while we were waiting to start yesterday’s concert (mine is far left).

I tend to put quotes round the word orchestra because it seems presumptuous to apply it to our motley band. Its members range from eight to nearly eighty year olds – with the emphasis on pensioners rather than schoolchildren. Ability levels are extreme, to put it mildly. But it is great fun.

Christophe (the brass teacher at the Ecole de Musique) has been building up our orchestra since last autumn. He works us hard – over two hours most Saturday mornings, but the results are incredible. Somehow, from being able to play virtually nothing, our band passes muster and we performed a programme which lasted about an hour. And that after a morning rehearsal for three hours. The wind players were complaining about the exhaustion of their reeds and lips; my dodgy right shoulder was seizing up.

Some of the music, like ‘Autumn’, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, was included so that the children were able to play. Others, like Shostakovich’s Second Sonata was a little more demanding. There were plenty of bits, like Albinoni’s Adagio, with well known themes. So a popular rather than strictly classical concert. And the audience of course was friends and families.

The cello section has grown – disproportionately to the violin section, where the little childen outnumber the adults (a good sign for the future). We are now four adults, of whom two are relative beginners, and one nine-year-old, Lilou, who is going to be very good.

We have to be optimistic about the future of music in the Pays Viganais. A new scheme – financed partly nationally, partly by the Pays Viganais – has been launched, and 162 primary school children will start learning instruments in the autumn, with lessons, groups sessions and instruments all provided free. This is really a novelty here, where parents have expected to pay for music, thus making it really a minority activity. But over the past ten years a national initiative has been growing and now it is our turn to benefit from this.

The village school in Bréau will have 33 children learning string instruments, mainly the violin. They will initially learn also to pay together in their school. Hopefully one day some of them will join us in the orchestre de l’Ecole de Musique.

A photography lesson

My friend Dessa currently has two visitors from Germany: Manos – a professional photographer – and his wife Katya. Yesterday there was a break in this year’s unreliable weather, and we headed off and up into the Cévennes. Manos is here researching possible photo opportunities for the future (he is particularly interested in early churches), while Dessa and I were hoping to watch and learn.

It is so easy to forget that we are just a few miles from one of the most beautiful, unspoilt stretches of rocky and green valleys and mountains. Each time I venture up into the hills I think why don’t I do this more often.

We did not in fact take pictures of this wonderful landscape – that is another project. Instead we were heading for two Romanesque churches, in St André de Valborgne and Pompidou. In fact both churches were a little disappointing, the first because it was not open (as advertised) and the second because. although in a charming rural location, its restoration had not been particularly well done.

But both villages have some striking Cévenol houses, and what we learnt from Manos is how to look around us and notice details. In particular he showed us how to be aware of doors, windows, gates – the little features that make up villages or towns. Of course when he takes a photo there is so often an added clever visual twist- a piece of railing, or steps – which invite the eye to look up and beyond. Why, we asked ourselves, had we not thought of this. Answer: as well as his talent, Manos has years of training and experience behind him. Luckily he is also a good teacher, and we enjoyed his explanations of how to produce a more interesting picture.

I feel rather like a student presenting an unimpressive portfolio, but here are my photos. I’m hoping Manos will have time to look at them on Monday and give me a few more tips.

May Day

I am pleased that the French still celebrate May Day on the 1st May. I know May Day has many historical associations with spring or religious festivals, but for me this is a day when one marches for better jobs, social reform, or against racism. So I regretted the UK decision to move the holiday to the first Monday in May, breaking this link with workers’ marches.

The May Day marches in Paris and other French cities were spoilt by violence and the confusion caused by competing groups such as the Gilets Jaunes. And I’m I don’t even know wether there was a ceremony in le Vigan this year.

Instead, as it was a lovely sunny day. I joined others at the annual spring plant show – La Main Verte – in the grounds of the Chateau d’Assas.

Poppy’s tenth birthday

Of course the other reason May Day is important is that it is Poppy’s birthday. Ten is quite a landmark: Poppy has become a wonderfully adaptable, (mainly) biddable dog, with a friendly, happy temperament and lots of character. I’m very lucky to have such a special dog. Lucky also to have friends like Hans and Margaret, who look after her when I need to be away for the day or longer. Theirs is her second home.

My two bêtes noires

Well I have already dealt with one last week – l’administration française – and emerged triumphant, with my carte de séjour. Now I am faced by a bigger monster: Orange, the French telephone company, the largely privatised successor to France Telecom.

The only thing to be said in favour of Orange, which is the largest provider in France, is that apparently the three other big operators are even worse.

I pay for a package which includes mobile phone and internet. I don’t expect great reception. After all I live in the sticks. One becomes used to watching the satellite signal on the phone drop from one pathetic blob to none. The performance of the internet is not brilliant either, particularly when using FaceTime (like Skype) for chats with the family, or watching television (I have found a way to watch UK channels as well as the excellent French-German Arte)

Since Christmas I have the feeling the internet speed has got worse and for the past month it has become progressively unusable. I’m not talking about comparisons with metropolitan areas; I’m talking about a download speed which has dropped from a just about acceptable 8Mbps to less than 1Mbs. I have an app called SpeedTester and have started collecting records in order to complain to Orange. This is what it showed last night:

A download speed of less than half a Mbps is unusable. I was trying to do simple things like looking for swimming costumes for a family trip in three weeks – and had to give up. Even emails take for ever to download.

I have tried to phone Orange, but gave up after the usual lengthy time pressing options 1, 2 and 3 or trying to explain my problem (in French of course) to a computer ‘help’ person. I’m going to have another bash later in the week, when I have more time and when I have calmed down.

There is light at the end of the tunnel: we are going to have fibre optic up to the corner of my land. They are laying the cable now, with roadworks rapidly moving up the hill towards my house, but apparently it could be many months before the fibre optic is brought into service.

This morning I passed the mayor and his deputy inspecting the roadworks and mentioned my problems. Ah, said Yves, the deputy, that will be the wind. Or maybe, he added, the weekend….

Now to see if I have enough internet to post this!