Cats and Dogs

Trips outdoors are brief and carefully planned. My lovely convertible has its roof shut and the air conditioning on. When Poppy and I walk, we choose a short, shady stretch.

Poppy has had to put up with short toddles from the bridge car park up to the village of Serres, because that side of the valley is still in relative shade in the early morning.

This means, of course, negotiating the prolific four-legged population of Serres. On our way up this morning we came across the two extremely unpleasant, yapping pugs, who lunged towards Poppy, beside themselves with fury. Their owner sensibly keeps these unattractive animals on their leads.

Once at Margaret’s house, I met Poppy’s bosom pal in Serres, a long-haired dachshund called Gaston. Owned by a nice (gay) couple who have a weekend house here, Gaston is friendly, playful, and as obsessed as Poppy by rubber balls or, in his case, bones. This morning he went after Poppy’s ball while she, as usual, played the submissive I’m-the-bottom-of-the-pack role, and watched on. Whereupon Gaston amazingly pushed the ball over to her, recognising it was for sharing. Gaston’s owners, Marcelle (the wheelchair-bound neighbour in her nineties), Margaret and I spent a happy quarter of an hour laughing at the two dogs’ antics.

That is, when we were not sharing a moment of disapproval at the people who park their cars in the allocated disabled space near Marcelle’s house. “Inadmissible,” said one of Gaston’s owners. We all know that one of the offenders is the sole member of the council who lives in Serres. Like so many of the breaches of rules here – such as the abandoned old cars taking up parking spaces, or the eyesore of dozen or so trucks and cars in the most visible location in the valley, a car business in blatant disregard of the planning restrictions – nothing is done. The maire likes the quiet life.

On the way back down to the car, we have to pass the house with the two fierce cats. These sit on the wall, staring malignantly at Poppy and one has in the past actually attacked her. Both Margaret and I have had to use a stick to beat it off Poppy. She now knows to walk briskly straight past the house, looking straight ahead, hoping somehow that she is invisible.

This morning I came across another cat who looked equally hostile. It leapt back through the hole in this door and then popped her head out, growling menacingly, daring Poppy to come up the steps. Poppy very wisely declined. She loves chasing cats who run away from her, but has learnt that if they hold their ground they are best avoided.

Alerte rouge

Written two days ago, but apparently failed to post! Since then I have bought electric fans for my house and for the gite, where I have friends staying. This is much better, provided I sit tight in one place, do nothing except let the cooler air blast in my face.

We have been watching the temperatures climb all week and today the Metro France forecast passed from orange to red – the highest level. Our department (le Gard) is the one second left:

Yesterday afternoon was already pretty horrific; it was stiflingly hot and yet if one opened just one window, hot air rushed in. I’m afraid the after effects of the cancer treatment – loss of lymph glands plus horrible thick compression stockings – have meant I have lost my tolerance for hot weather. So I was dreading today.

I spent the morning playing music with my friends, Charles and Pierre. Not only is this a pleasure in itself, but it was paradise playing in their dining room – a fifteenth century cellar with incredibly thick stone walls and so its own delightfully fresh micro-climate.

As soon as I stepped outside after lunch the heat hit me. The car registered 47 degrees and the steering wheel was almost too hot to touch. I rushed home, deposited Poppy and cello somewhere cooler and went down to le Vigan in search of a fan.

After half an hour in my least favourite shop in le Vigan – the sole remaining hardware store – I came back to my car and by now it was registering 50 degrees!

In comparison my house seemed relatively acceptable. Though half an hour later, with the fan still not assembled (the plastic bits are not fitting) I was again drinking and sweating litres.

We have just had a thunderstorm, which lasted all of five minutes and we are back to unrelenting sun. The BBC forecast is that this will continue for another two days. Here we are again, the red blotch blog the coast of the south of France.

I’m hoping that normal summer weather will arrive in August, when the two families come, because this would not be fun for anyone.

Too hot to think

And apparently too hot to finish posting this and the following item.  I wrote this on 26th June.

The canicule has hit in with a vengeance today, and it is predicted to be even hotter tomorrow and Friday. It is impossible to do anything. Poppy is flaked out too.

I’ve just been down to le Vigan and my car (which has my only reliable thermometer) says it is 35-6 in the shade and 40 in the sun. Last week’s heavy humid weather has been replaced by a hot wind coming from the south, as if we were one stop away from the Sahara. I’m not sure which is more unpleasant.

Until now I have managed to keep the house at an acceptable temperature, by having all doors and windows wide open at night and almost everything closed, with shutters down, in the day. Even so, the house has unfortunately heated up and there is not a room to be comfortable in. On days like this I wish I had an old Cevenol house with thick stone walls.

Sadly I cannot jump into my pool. Jacky, who built and maintains my basin, has been very ill and needed to take a break this month. I agreed he could get the pool running early July, not knowing what weather was round the corner.

I’ve just looked at the forecast for the next two months. According to Accuweather, temperatures are going to be 30 and above until 31 August!

Auditions

It’s the end of the school year and over the past two weeks I have taken part in five auditions organised by the Ecole de Musique.

I think the term ‘audition’ rather than ‘concert’ is used to reflect the fact that these are seen as occasions for friends and family to hear what we have been working on. There is none of the formality or pursuit of perfection of a real concert.

That does not stop me having my usual performance nerves, which make me increasingly angry and frustrated. Why can’t I overcome that sense of panic? Some people have nerves before a concert and then seem to be able to put that behind them once they play the first note. I notice that is the case, for example, with our very competent percussionist. I, on the other hand, seem unable to focus on the task in hand: to concentrate above all on both the technical demands of a performance and the musicality.

The first audition, two weeks ago, was given by adult students at the Ecole. In the morning lesson I was pleased with the way I played the Allemande from Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite I. So was my teacher, Anne. But come the evening, all those finer points that I had mastered went out of the window. Pah!

A few days later I performed the same piece before a smaller audience, with just the cellists performing. Same thing – not helped by playing without specs. I thought I had forgotten them, but at the end of the evening Anne found them on a table.

Then we had the end of term for ensembles. I was OK playing with the orchestra, but ill at ease again when I played in a trio. We were playing two dance pieces by memory with a certain degree of improvisation – not in my comfort zone. Some contributions were delightful: the students range in age from six to 80. Here are some of the youngest enjoying the limelight (more than me!).

This concert was in the auditorium of the Lycée which has an unforgiving acoustic, and the orchestra was not playing at its best. Two days later the orchestra performed again, during the Fete de La Musique (21 June – a big event here, with bands playing all over town). We were in the Temple, which has a forgiving acoustic (ie rather too much echo!0, the orchestra and conductor, Christophe, were much more at ease. We played well (for us) and enjoyed ourselves – even me.

Last night I played in a couple of pieces in another audition. One of the pieces was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. I keep telling people if they knew the words, they would be quite put off, but instead several like the music because they hear it at rugby matches!

Well, it’s all over for a year. If you discount the time off to have a hernia operation last autumn, I have almost managed a full year’s cello playing – the first time for six years! Now for the holiday work: I have to complete work on the Courante, which follows the Bach Allemande, and Anne has given me a whole lot of exercises and pieces to fill up the summer.

Ethical travel

Thanks to Trump my big autumn project – a trip to Iran – is now off the agenda. I had been so looking forward to this visit. I love Islamic architecture and Iran is stacked full of history and beautiful buildings.

There were always lots of reasons not to go to Iran. It would have been the most expensive holiday of my lifetime, not least because even before the new, serious eruption in diplomatic relations, I would have been unable to travel independently. Because of Britain’s alignment with American foreign policy, British tourists were already covered by the same requirement to either travel in an officially accepted group (someone I would not want to do) or to employ a ‘guide’ at all times.

My family was concerned that the trip would not have been safe. I was less concerned by this. I am used to travelling on my own; I know when to keep my mouth shut (at least when travelling!); at 76 I don’t risk the unwelcome advances that younger women might face; and if I get ill, there are good hospitals in Iran (and I would have taken out repatriation insurance). I do acknowledge that I could always run the risk of losing my papers or money. That is a growing risk wherever I am!

More serious was the criticism that travelling to Iran would be visiting a country with serious human rights issues and would be implicitly validating the regime. That is the most complex of the objections and one for which there is no easy answer.

Should one not visit a country whose governance one disapproves of, whose values are not your own? Should one boycott countries which have serious abuses of human rights, which treat women unfairly, which persecute minority groups, which employ child labour, which have the death penalty, which imprison people without trial, which govern secretively and inject fear in their citizens, which do untold damage to the future of the planet (eg destroying forests)? What countries are left? Do I want to visit them? What is the impact of tourists not visiting these countries?

Perhaps one should just stay at home? After all, the other argument against travel is that going anywhere is likely to involve energy issues, particularly if you fly. (It was so much easier in the days before mass tourism, when to travel was a minority interest, and flying was not doing serious damage to our planet.)

My problem is I love travelling. I even like the actual process of going from one country to another (though I draw the line at enjoying airports). I love seeing other ways of living, meeting different people, eating different food and enjoying the history and architecture of other countries.

I would have liked to have travelled more during my life, but was constrained, like most people, by lack of cash and demands of family and work. Further, Chris did not like travelling. When the children were young, once we arrived at the campsite every summer, he was happy not to budge another inch. Again, in retirement he was content to stay put. Since he died I have had a series of health issues which have inhibited my wanderlust, though I have of course been to Italy a couple of times, Istanbul, and this year, Lisbon and Barcelona.

Because I love travelling I am tempted to play the devil’s advocate when faced with objections about the ethicality of going somewhere. I find it is not a black and white question, there are nuances.

It matters, for example, if you can distinguish between the behaviour of a regime and the attitudes of a significant number of its citizens. So when we went to Istanbul I considered that much of its population were not Erdogan supporters and did not deserve to be boycotted.

There are other instances when most citizens side with the regime. You could argue that this was the case in South Africa in the days of apartheid, and in Israel and Myanmar.

I have to confess that aged 23 I did in fact go round South Africa, at the start of my journey through the continent. My friend, Wenol, and I went in order to see apartheid for ourselves, and compare it with Nigeria, where we had been living and working. Indeed, we had the good fortune to meet some of the leading opponents to apartheid and to see for ourselves some of the worst aspects of the regime, but still, I wonder now if I should have gone.

You could argue that I should go to Israel and Myanmar for similar reasons, to see for myself. But I think I would be too uncomfortable with this. I would feel that going would be condoning systems to which I am totally opposed. In these three cases I think the value of a general boycott to demonstrate disapproval does bear some weight.

So if there is a line of places where I should not visit and those where it is OK, where is the cut-off point? It is completely subjective, I think. If you boycott all places with one of the no-noes on my list, there are few places left in the world. So for me it is a question of being comfortable with my visit not being seen as condoning the abuses.

So I suppose if Israel and Myanmar are at one end of the scale (with China and the US not far behind) and Finland, say, at the other, Istanbul, Iran- and indeed now India with its Hindu nationalism – are in an uncomfortable position in the middle. I would visit these countries so long as my visit was not seen as validating a regime or principles to which I am opposed and so long as I expected the people I met to be largely welcoming and open to other ideas.

So what now in the Autumn? I am thinking of going to Morocco.

Powerless

Why do I faff on here about losing my specs when the world around us is falling apart? When I was young we spoke, demonstrated and acted against racism and war. We did so because we believed our voice could be heard and we could change things.

Today we appear to be able to nothing, as we watch Trump join the other two great powers, Russia and China, in lurching the world towards a new era of hate, violence and insecurity.

Now Britain is in danger of finding itself led by Trump Mark II. There is the same disbelief as before Donald Trump was elected. Surely in the end people will see through this unpredictable, dishonest, uncaring self-promoter? But we can no longer be sure.

After all, this is the electorate that allowed itself to be seduced by the Brexit promises, which hankers after a nice, safe old world, when Britain could do its own thing (take back control) and not rely on others. It is an electorate swayed incredibly by the media (including the Telegraph, currently Johnson’s second paymaster).

When the two candidates reach the final round and the Tory Party at large choose between them, imagine – it is a small section of the population, some 160,000 Tory Party card holding members who will be choosing our next prime minister. Not only are they not representative of the British people but they are probably not representative of the Tories, with a bias towards ageing, white, probably mainly better off, probably mainly home counties home owners, favouring the non-liberal end of Tory values.

Assuming Boris avoids major clangers and reaches the final two, what of the other candidate? This will most likely be Jeremy Hunt. True, he has done better than Johnson as Foreign Secretary (who wouldn’t?), though of course I don’t approve of the ongoing policy of cosying up to the US and its allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. But let’s not forget his long stint as Heath Secretary, when he battled uncaringly against junior doctors and A&E departments and misreported the drain on NHS resources by foreigners.

I don’t reckon much for the chances of Gove, he of the unfortunate time as Education Secretary (since redeemed in Environment), his cocaine past (conveniently – for others – dredged up just now), and unfortunate look when emerging from his house in running shorts. I can’t take Sajid Javid seriously since reading Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, and Dominic Raab is, I hope, with his gungho no-deal line, an unlikely winner.

I fear Rory Stewart has no chance at all of being the second candidate. Pity, as I always side with the quirky. He comes across as intelligent, genuinely caring, and unafraid of sticking his neck out against a no-deal Brexit, although I don’t reckon much for his preference for a citizens’ assembly over a second referendum. Let’s not forget though, that interesting as he is (and yes, ambitious), he is still very much a Tory and therefore ultimately for me a member of another planet.

Well, what of the other planet? What of Labour? I despair, I really do. I don’t have a parliamentary vote any more (anywhere). But if I did, would I really vote for the party which I thought was built into my genes (despite having cancelled my membership in 1997, when Brown ended the Labour Party commitment to use income tax and public spending to reduce inequality)?

I suppose I have always seen myself as somewhere left of centre within the Labour Party, a genteel sort of Fabian who tried to remain optimistic about the advance of democratic socialism (though completely against the Fabian closeness with New Labour).

It is difficult to judge the impact of Momentum, living as I do outside the UK and no longer involved in Labour Party politics. I share many people’s unease with some of its methods and style. But I agree with many of its positions, for example, on opposition to government austerity.

What really makes me despair is the disastrous leadership – if you can call it that – of Jeremy Corbyn. I suspect that I would agree with many of his domestic policies, but he has been utterly incompetent, rigidly stuck somewhere in the past in key areas, and incapable of engaging with modern media for putting his messages across. I think I may agree with him, for example, about the lack of evidence (so far) that the Iranians were behind the oil tanker attacks, about Israeli oppression of Palestinians, and that the British Government should not be working so closely with Saudi Arabia (or the Americans), but he has not put his position across effectively. And his complete failure to stem the accusations of anti-semitism in the party has been disastrous. His failure to persuade the Labour movement to give up on the nuclear deterrent has deprived him amongst other things of funds to promote social equality. Worst of all is his complete fudging of the Brexit issue. I simply cannot imagine him as a viable Prime Minister.

If I still had the vote my MP would be the only Green, Caroline Lucas, and I would continue to vote for her – with enthusiasm. If not, the Liberals? I suppose so, but I never forget rounding on my parents when they abandoned Labour for the Social Democrats!

It brings me no comfort to watch the rest of Europe going through similar turmoil. Here in France the Front National (I refuse to go with its ridiculous name change) was triumphant in the European elections. Our little commune of Bréau was only one of three in the local area in which the FN did not come out on top – just. The Socialists are pretty much extinct.

In Germany the Socialist Party’s record low support means it is no longer the obvious alliance candidate for the CDU (conservatives). Merkel’s successor Kamp-Karrenbauer, is hard right, and there is a danger of a drift towards the right-wing nationalist AfD. The rise in the popularity of the Greens remains the small hope this will not happen. Politics in Italy, with the horrible rise of the League, is very worrying. And let’s not get started on countries like Poland and Hungary.

Oh dear. What to do? I could go on to consider why politics has broken down and what could be done. Well, I have my spectacles, so that diversionary tactic is not available. Instead I will go away and eat a late lunch.

Women friends

After Tuesday’s cello concert I had dinner with three of my French women friends: Odile, who lived in my Gite for much of last year, another Odile, who has retired from running a restaurant in Bréau, and Monique, who used to run the campsite in the days when we camped there.

We spent an excellent evening eating (well), drinking (amply) and above all talking – a lot. It has to be said that, since Sylvia died in 2015, what I have missed most here is the women friends I had in Edinburgh. That evening reassured me that yes, I do have good friends here with whom I can talk, discuss and argue.

There remains the barrier – or challenge – of a different cultural, not to mention linguistic mindset. For conversation without these barriers I have to rely on two other good friends, Margaret (Scottish/German) and Dessa (American/Dutch).

I do try to avoid getting sucked into the easier social situation of mixing predominantly with English speakers. Sometimes it cannot be avoided. I’m just about to go to lunch with a very nice elderly couple (Moroccan and French) who have their second home in Bréau. I know that the other guests are Margaret and her husband, and Maria, a South American who speaks English more fluently than French. We will undoubtedly be speaking French throughout the lunch, so it is weird to invite a lot of English speaking guests together.

Spectacles

I have always lost, or more often, mislaid spectacles, car keys, and – since mobiles were invented – phones..

When my daughters were young they gave me a present of a gadget to attach to keys which, if you whistled, would make them ring out.  (It had to be abandoned because the keys started to respond to laughter.)
More recently my Apple Watch (and iPad) allows me to identify where my phone is. But nothing helps me track down my specs or car keys. (There are various tiles on the market but they are all too large to be useful, in my view.)

How often I have gone through the house, starting with my desk, my bedside table, with ledges at eye level, and then scouring all rooms, drawers, under the car seats… getting more and more annoyed with myself as I keep checking in the same places again and again.

I have had a recent worrying bout of losing or misplaying spectacles.  It started in Lisbon, where I must have left my sun specs on a cafe table. In Barcelona I bought a replacement pair. Then on Saturday I thought I had left these in the Ecole de Musique, which was closed for the Pentecote holiday, and bought a second, cheaper pair as a backup. Only to discover later that I had put my sun specs into the case for my cello/computer specs!

It continued. On Tuesday we had our small end of year cellists concert, in which I was playing several times.  I opened my cello/computer specs case – only to find it was empty.  Panic! I struggled through the performances, as always already hit by performance nerves, peering at the music, sometimes playing a wrong note (hoping that the audience – mainly parents of the other cellists – did not notice). Worse still, at the end of the concert, when Anne out teacher was tidying up, she found my specs on a table.  I had in fact taken them out of the case and, presumably while doing something like fishing out my music, absentmindedly put them to one side.

That’s the key problem: being absent minded or lacking concentration.  As I said, these are not new character traits, but I do get worried that – along with forgetting people’s names – they are occurring more often. If you are 76 you cannot but ask yourself if these are the first signs of dementia!

I keep telling myself that playing the cello, playing with my computer, learning new photographic skills, not to mention meeting the challenge of talking in two languages, must all help the poor old brain keep on working.

Village drama

As I live outside the village, my friend Margaret is the source of much of my information about village life. Yesterday she rang me as the latest excitement unfolded. Three huge, emaciated hunting dogs had appeared in the village and were creating havoc.

Of course everybody was out there, giving their tuppence worth: the man whose car roof one of the dogs had jumped onto, various people involved in rounding them up, a hunter who recognised the dogs and rang the number on their collar – and Margaret, who was so shocked at the bad condition of the dogs that she gave them an entire packet of dog food she keeps for Poppy.

It turns out that the dogs came from Aulas, the village the other side of the hill. Their owner was in hospital and the person who was supposed to be feeding them had clearly not done so (Margaret says they were in a very bad state indeed) and the dogs had apparently broken out of their compound in desperation.

When a van eventually arrived to collect then, more general excitement. The oldest had gone meekly into the van, but one of the younger ones took some time to be caught. We just hope that now these poor dogs will be looked after.

Well, that’s village life. Nothing happens. And then suddenly something like this turns into a whole rural drama.

New permis de conduire

I’ve got my new permis de conduire. It arrived less than ten days after I applied for it! And its half the size, just a card rather than three page document, will fit into my credit card holder and thus has less chance of being lost again.

I well remember when my friend Charles lost his driving licence at it took months to replace, with several visits to the Sous-Préfecture. Magically a Government internet service is working as it should, with the application no longer sitting indefinitely on the desk of some fonctionnaire.

Actually I had to make one visit: to the Poste to collect it. The postal service in the Département du Gard is on strike “indefinitely”. The only staff still working are the young employees on short term contracts. I got involved in a debate at the Post Office about the strike: the woman in front of me, whom I know, said she thought the service should be completely privatised, while I and the man behind me said that the problem was the cutbacks in the service: fewer staff (and more on short term contracts), longer hours, not being paid for jobs for which they had previously received extra payments (delivery of phone books, election papers etc).

The day I collected my new permis, an employee at the local supermarket stopped me in the carpark and told me, with pleasure, that my old permis had been found and I could collect it from reception. As this had been the only place I had gone between needing the permis to hire a car and going home I had of course checked two weeks earlier, the day after I lost it. So I wonder where it had been lurking meanwhile.