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!

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.