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.

A year ago

Today a year ago was my first day in the Clinique in Ganges after having been rushed into hospital with a perforated duodenal ulcer.

What a nightmare that was. And it was the first of three health dramas: I was back in an ambulance six weeks later for what turned out to be an intestinal occlusion. Then in September I was back a third time, for an operation to have the occlusion and hernia fixed – side effects of the cancer treatment in 2015.

Charlotte, my lovely phsyio, was reminding me of this today. No wonder she and the GP are so firm that it is too early to contemplate having my arthritic knee replaced. Trouble is that the history with the duodenal ulcer means that all anti-inflammatories are banned, including products rubbed on locally.

The drama a year ago happened days after the Ecole de Musique’s orchestra accompanied two Chaplin films – a thoroughly enjoyable experience had I been feeling better – and two weeks before I was due to play a solo in the end of year concert.

That is another reason I have been remembering last year. I got an email when in Lisbon saying that that there would be an end of year concert for the cellists on 11th June and would I play the Bach Allemande which I performed in April again. I am now discovering how quickly I can forget a piece if I don’t play it every day. And yet another challenge for my bad case of ‘trace’ – performance nerves.

A blog for whom

Phew, that blog on Lisbon and Barcelona was a bit over the top. I won’t do that again.

The trouble was that not only did I not have the time or energy to do daily entries, which would have produced more manageable chunks, but also I discovered I had a problem uploading photos..

For those who know what on earth I am talking about, I normally import photos from the camera card into Lightroom on my Mac – and then upload smaller versions from Lightroom to my website. I travel with my iPad not my Mac. I can import photos from my card to the iPad Photos app – but then I don’t know how to reduce the size of files before uploading them to my website. If anybody knows how to do this, perhaps using the IOS version of Lightroom, please tell me.

At least I can now add this entry to the more permanent part of my site, under Travel.

In my defence, I see my blog primarily as a diary for myself – and those family and friends who enjoy knowing what I am up to or what I think. Already my posts are too wordy – I am a compulsive scribbler (though these days I suppose I should say keyboard tapper). But life is too short to work at my text – those days of refining and pruning are over.

Lisbon and Barcelona

Back from my trip to Lisbon and elsewhere. I haven’t written a word in ten days, so everything has become a bit of a blur. But a very lovely blur.

The journey was tiring: a lift to Montpellier, train trip to Barcelona, taxi to airport, where the plane was delayed nearly an hour – and lots of queuing, which I find a strain.

Lisbon

In Lisbon, my sister, Deb, arrived from London at the same time, and we took a mad taxi to the hotel- a 70 year old driver, who paid more attention to us than the road and whose gps system was not working (did it ever?). Much of the journey I was leaning over the back seat, showing him my phone and trying to give him instructions. Trouble is that he never got the ‘in 300 metres’ bit and changed direction immediately. We got horribly lost and end up being left beside the roadside a good distance from the hotel and in the dark. Next day I downloaded google maps,which is a much better app and would have got us out of this pickle. We were picked up by a woman (whom I had wrongly assumed was picking up in another sense) and she insisted on finding out hotel and leading us to the door. We parted with enthusiastic hugs.

The hotel was a delightful, quirky place, tucked away in a cul de sac, rather off the main tourist areas, with very friendly staff and (very important for our family) delicious breakfasts. Jude, Ed and the girls were waiting for us, and as usual I marvelled at how Ella and Maddie had grown and were even more of a delight to be with.

Belem

Our first day together we went to Belem, a port, now part of Lisbon, at the mouth of the river, which flourished during Portugal’s golden age of voyages and commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos is a splendid monastery, financed mainly by ‘pepper money’ – taxes imposed on spices and precious stones – its size intended to display the wealth of King Manuel I. The stone was the same soft colour as Montpellier’s, and the brilliant sunshine enhanced its warmth. The fortress, Torre de Belem, beside the water was also an impressive demonstration of the power of Manuel I.

We then had a hot walk along the water front, past the monumental 20th century Padrao dos Descobrimentos – built to mark the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator and in memory of this glorious period of Portugueses maritime exploration. Impressive, even though Salazar clearly had Stalin in mind when he commissioned its construction.

We made a little detour to visit the Museum of Coaches. This turned out to be unexpectedly entertaining. The museum was like a giant spacious hangar, filled with ridiculously ornate coaches, mainly from the 18th and 19th century, with a back cloth of appropriate music and filmed dancing of the period. The coaches somehow succeeded in portraying the huge gulf in the life of the few wealthy aristocrats and the rest of the population.

Back along the water front towards the very modern looking Museum of Modern Art. This was the BPs I was travelling with: their energy – led by Ed, who invariably strides ahead, leading his band ever on and up – is incredible, and the children are accustomed to days with many activities packed in. But Ed and Jude are also sensitive to my growing incapacity to stand the pace, and I was definitely wilting by now. So while Ed, Deb and Ella went round the museum, Jude and Maddie kept me company, watching a sailing regatta outside.

There followed perhaps a bizarre and isolated incident of unimaginative officialdom. I could not sit on the steps, so I perched on the low iron railing in front of the museum – and was ordered somewhat officiously to get off, by a guy in uniform who seemed to have no other role to play. If they were worried about their railing, I observed, it would be cheaper to paint it once a year than hire someone to stop people using it as a seat (god forbid that the museum – a building on which no expense had been spared – should have provided some seats). But then again, in a country with a shortage of work, it kept him in employment of a kind.

Jude was so cross at the absence of seats that she marched into the museum and demanded a chair for me. Amazingly they seemed to have none. Three more officials inside the museum, equally underemployed, seemed to have great difficulty in understanding my need to sit somewhere but then offered a wheelchair, which required an amazing amount of paperwork. I’m afraid it compared very badly to similar situations in London museums and galleries, remembering the time five years ago when I was particularly incapacitated and people bent over backwards to help.


After a collapse in our hotel we went out for what was for me the most enjoyable meal of the holiday. We went to a busy restaurant with a view out over the water and as the sun set, gorged ourself on lots of delicious tapas, washed down by rather a lot to drink. The end to a busy and satisfying day.

Day two: museum, cable car and tuk tuk

The day started with another museum – the Gulbenkian. We opted to view his vast and eclectic private collection of art, objects and furniture. We particularly liked the rooms on Egypt and Persian, and were less enthusiastic about the French 18th century furniture and objects. There is a pretty wide ranging European art collection, notably lots of Guardis (which I liked more than the others), some good Flemish stuff and a Turner (which I missed). The museum is set in a lovely park and for the children (and me!) the turtles were a highlight.

Each day aims to include something for the children, so we then headed down to the waterfront for a ride in a cable car (a particular sacrifice for Jude, who has no head for heights). And then a late lunch in a nearby restaurant, which turned out to be Brazilian (we have come across quite a lot of Brazilians in Lisbon) and included eat as much as you want of a range of meat, which made Ed very happy.

We left Ella, who was not feeling well, and Jude at the hotel and went on for the final activity: a trip through the delightful old Alfama district on a tuk tuk, the transport I so loved in India. Ours turned out to be a slight deviation from normal design – although it conformed to type by having no handbrake, in a city built on hills. It had a completely mad Russian driver, Lucy, whose aim seemed to be to excite Maddie (sitting in front with her) by racing down all the hills.

I would have liked to have returned to this district to explore at a slower pace and maybe listen to some fado music. But the views were splendid – and of course we packed in a quick church visit on the way.

Ella had recovered by supper time, which was in a more up-market restaurant: the Pharmacia, which had a splendid terrace and garden, again with views over the water. But personally I preferred the previous evening’s less formal setting, friendlier service and, for me, tastier tapas.


Tram 28

Next day we started at the 18th century Basilica de Estrela, whose roof top offered more splendid views over Lisbon. And for the children, more turtles in the pleasant gardens opposite. Lisbon seems to have a lot of green spaces for locals to stroll in.

We packed in a trip on the famous Tram 28. Built in the 30s, it is still negotiating streets with bends and slopes that modern trams could not contemplate. Great fun for me, as I am always offered a seat, but not so easy for the family, though they found a viewing point at the back.

One of the negative points of Lisbon (and other European cities) is that we are not the only tourists. Apart from the crowds in the trams and on the streets, perhaps the most tiring implication is the need to queue for everything. Something I find increasingly difficult to manage. (The worst queue was on the first day, trying to get into the monastery. One key is to buy the rather expensive Lisbon Card, which usually means as well as discounts you get the equivalent of Speedy Boarding.)

Down we trundled to the elegant district of Baixa, rebuilt on a grid system after the great earthquake. The main pedestrianised avenue, Rua Augusta, was splendid, but full of other people. Seeing the queues for the Elevator, we abandoned the plan to go up it and, after picking up some delicious custard tarts (we are all fans of these), we moved on.

We were supposed to be taking a tram up to near the Castelo de Sao Jorgio. It was fun watching the driver (a woman) leap out of the tram and change the points so we could descend and then reverse up the next bend – except we soon discovered that this manoeuvre was because the tram had half broken down and could not manage further climbing, and was turning round to descend the hill. So we continued by tuk tuk and then on foot.

It was hot and we were tired, so we did little more than climb the tower of a charming 12th century church in order to admire yet more views – and then, as always, a highlight of the day – lunch.

Then suddenly it was time to leave Lisbon – a day earlier than Deb and I expected. Ed and Jude had brought forward the second part of the trip, to give the children more time in the swimming pool and playing with their friends Henry and Daisy, who were staying in the same hotel.

I was sad to leave Lisbon; I felt I was just beginning to get a feel for it. I recognise that a city built on hills is a challenge for someone with my arthritis, but it is a place to wander round, noticing little details, like the tiled houses – and pavements – and admiring the views that are always there. I like the fact that much of it is a bit down at the heel, and although swamped by tourists, the guesthouses and hotels have not taken over. And apart from a couple of museum officials, people were very friendly and welcoming.

Our journey to Sintra, 30 km from Lisbon, for part two of the trip, was in an enormous people carrier rather than two taxis. The driver kept us entertained telling us his life story. He was born in a Portuguese colony (I forget which) and his father, who had fallen out with the government, sent him – aged seven – and his sister to school in India, before the whole family met up again to start a new life in Portugal. His father died young and our driver seems to have spent much of his life being responsible for his family.

Sintra

How can I describe our hotel in – or rather a few kilometres outside – Sintra? Well, it was perfect for the children: a choice of swimming pools, a trampoline centre, a carousel, and food they liked. For the adults the pluses were surprisingly good food, comfortable bedrooms, and a view up to the palaces and forts of Sintra that we would be visiting.

Blurred photo from hotel
Fort on left, Palacio Nacional da Pena, Sintra below

But I found the vast pretentious, luxurious, impersonal hotel architecture utterly depressing – and an eyesore on the landscape. Quite a contrast to our quirky little Lisbon place (which Jude said was more expensive!). As soon as I arrived I thought of Jacques Tati, in particular Les vacances de M. Hulot and Mon oncle. So looking at it through his eyes, I could not take this place seriously.

It was also a taxi drive from the town, which given we were now ten people (including Jude’s friends Charlie and Sam and their two children) complicated planning.

Castelo dos Mouros

The next day’s outing illustrated the problem: Charlie’s taxi headed for the Palacio Nacional da Pena, the amazing red and yellow palace we could see from our hotel, while Jude’s and ours went to the Castelo. A communication problem somewhere, but since we were jam-packed in a line of tuk-tuks, cars and taxis, in a one-way road up the hill, not much chance to rectify it.

Anyhow, Deb and I kept to the plan, gave the palace a miss and concentrated on the Moorish castle, which turned out to be one of the highlights of the holiday. The Castelo was built by the Moors from North Africa in the 9th century, fell into ruins when the Christians conquered the area, and was restored in the 19th century. This description does not do justice to the charm of the place, its magnificent views, interesting relics of Moorish and early Christian occupation, and its splendid battlements. The romantic restoration is good: it restored but retained the fortifications and wrapped everything in lush woodlands and plants.

I was determined to reach one of the high points and made it, with the patient help of Deborah. I think if the others had been there at the time I would have stopped earlier, not wanting to hold people up. As it was we were all reunited in time to go down to Sintra for lunch.

As usual our mid-afternoon lunches meant that it was impossible to find somewhere interesting and in the shade for ten people! So after a rather hot snack, everyone was glad to return to the hotel – particularly the children, who were by now fixated on swimming and trampolines.

Palacio Nacional de Sintra

The next day – Deborah’s last – we opted to go to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, in the central of town, while the others went the quirky palace and gardens at Quinta da Regaleira.

The Sintra palace proved the highlight of Sintra. It is a vast complex, much of it built in the 14th century and added to in the 16th century. It was the royal family’s summer home right up to the 20th century. The outside is charming, with whitewashed walls, moorish windows and dominated by two giant conical chimneys. Inside is much more ornate. What I remember particularly are the wall tiles (I have become very attached to Portuguese tiles) and decorated ceilings. I also coveted some of the huge collection of wooden dressers.

We emerged, well satisfied, ready for lunch, which turned out to be another highlight of the holiday. Jude and Ed had picked the restaurant which looks out over the palace. Good location, service and food! It is strange how late lunches eat into the afternoon. Nobody had much energy for further exploring of this very pleasant town: so back again to the hotel (where this time even Deb – not me – joined the bathers).

I am so glad Jude and Ed invited both of us on this holiday. It is a long time since Deb has had one and she deserves it. Despite having to often prop me up I think she enjoyed the trip.

The seaside

The last day for the rest of us was spent on the beach, or rather, beaches. Part one was a magnificent beach to the west of the village of Colares, though as this is a surfing area, the swimming was not really suitable for the children.

Lunch – once again a highlight… – was in an unprepossessing building set back the wrong side of the beach road, chosen because the prices were less astronomic than on the right side. It turned out to be a little gastronomic delight. Henry chose sea bream (or was it turbot?) and so his dad, Sam, had to have the other half – and got very excited after his first mouthful. The rest of us were more modest but equally pleased, though I’m surprised we had any appetite given how many delicious starters/amuse gueules we had already consumed. (There was a long argument about the difference if any between amuse bouche, amuse gueule and similar expressions for the little delights that some restaurants place in front of you while waiting for the meal itself.)

After lunch we went to Colares, a charming old seaside village, now town, in search of more suitable swimming for the children, who spent a happy couple of hours on a sandy beach with rocks – in the company of hundreds of mainly Portuguese families. I do find it frustrating going to the seaside and not being able to swim, but I enjoyed watching Ella and Maddie’s delight at the simple pleasures of a seaside holiday.

Well, that was it, my last day in Portugal with the family, as I was to set off early in the morning to travel to Barcelona.

I’ve not talked much about the family and have of course not put up photos of them. But it was a lovely to take part in a family holiday with them and sad to say goodbye. Not that I did say goodbye, as Ed and Jude were off to see the palace and Ella and Maddie were already in the water, supervised at a distance by Sam. Great to see their independence even if it means one sees less of them.

Barcelona

Since the times of my flight to Barcelona and the ongoing train to Montpellier did not work, I had decided to spend a day in Barcelona, which I have never seen, and checked into a nondescript but very satisfactory hotel (300 metres from the metro) for two nights.

Sagrada Familia

I had planned to make visiting Gaudi’s masterpieces a priority, but discovered three days before coming that I was already too late: there were no more reservations for three days. Oh well, I thought, at least I can see the exterior and I will get there early to photo without crowds. I arrived at 7.30am and there was already a queue! As it was not a long one I wondered if I could chance it. I said to one of the guards that I had no ticket, bt he waved me into the queue. Once again over half an hour standing and waiting, and chatting to the young couple from Dubai next to me (he was Hungarian and she was Spanish, both in the ‘hospitality’ business).

At last the queue moved, and we went through an airport-style security system. Still nobody asked for my ticket or money. Was this because it was Sunday, I asked myself. A little later, as we were ushered into a packed church, it dawned on me. I was going to Mass!

Well, the church itself is pretty surreal, with its tall, tall nave, bizarre details, colours, figures in unexpected places. But you add to this the whole theatre of a Spanish Catholic mass. But not just any Sunday, this was the Sunday nearest to Ascension Day, a full-blooded affair with readings in English, French and English as well as stuff in what I imagine was Spanish and Latin!

As a non-believer you can imagine I soon got lost (I did recognise the Lord’s Prayer, but that was it, unlike the Koreans beside me). This left me with lots of time to gaze up at Gaudi’s edifice, enjoy the music, marvel at the Catholic rituals and the huge number of priests that seemed involved, and reflect on the dreadful role all religions have played in world history.

At last, at last, it came to an end, after virtually the entire congregation except me had gone forward to receive Holy Communion. Now, I thought, I can wander round the church, look more closely at details, and take photos. But no, we were ushered out, by smiling but firm young women (trained to do the job with a smile?), as the rows of chairs had to be removed and the church tidied up before the public, the paying public entered. I grabbed photos as I was gently nudged out.

Well, I had not intended to spend the morning at Mass, but it was quite an experience. I crossed the road to have breakfast (after 11am) and recover, only to be hijacked by an Australian couple with whom I had to share my table and who wanted to tell me about their Mediterranean cruise… …

Medieval Barcelona and Ramblas

I’ll talk more about my impressions of Gaudi later. Meanwhile, on to part two of the day: heading towards the Ramblas and the medieval centre of Barcelona beside it. Except that I took rather too long a detour along the Gran Via de les Costs Catalanes before arriving, already tired, at the Placa de Catalunya, the starting point for much tourist exploring.

Much of Barcelona is laid out on a grid system, but the old centre is a recognisable jumble of a medieval town, and I wandered through, enjoying the views, until I reached the cathedral.

My heart sunk when I saw the long queue. But when I asked an official if my Barcelona card worked, he replied no, but if I had an internet booking I could go straight in. So I went off into the shade, booked online, returned and was ushered straight in, wondering if I should have told all the poor sods in the queue.

The mainly 14th century cathedral is impressive, but I was surprised I felt a little disappointed. I think we are so spoilt by our magnificent cathedrals in Britain that there is not much outside Italy that match up to them.

When I came out I badly needed to sit and have a drink. The only cafe in sight was opposite and rather grand looking. No matter, I sat. And sat. Without being served. So very annoyed, I got up and told the waiter in passing that I had waited too long. He didn’t seem to care, but I did. I did not see another cafe – or bench – for ages.

I don’t understand it: there seemed a complete absence of seats in centra Barcelona and a curious lack of cafes in an area which you would have thought prime location with year-round tourists. There were shops, usually with discreet fronts, but no cafes.

In search of somewhere to sit I left the medieval streets and walked slowly up the Rambla. I could not really appreciate its historic and architectural attractions as much as I would have liked, as I needed to sit. At last I came to a tapas bar, collapsed at a table looking out at the Ramblas, and had something to eat and drink. It was sad that I was tired, but also I was rather put off by the fact that Barcelona seems to have been given over to consumerism. Yes, there were musicians and entertainers (though not as much as in Lisbon) but I was very aware of just how much this was a shopping centre. Apart from the stalls selling to tourists along the pedestrian centre, there were shops lining each side. And yes, at the top, in the Placa de Catalunya a massive store is about to be opened by Apple.

Still, in these meanderings between the Placa da Catalunya, the old medieval centre and up the Rambla (a tree-lined avenue which is regarded as the centre of tourism), I did see and like a lot:

I had planned to go to the Picasso museum, but I knew I had run out of steam, so when I finally reached the Placa I took a tourist bus round the southern part of the centre of Barcelona instead. This was disappointing: a poor commentary and of course the bus tended to stop in traffic jams rather than in front of a point of interest. But still, I saw the water front area, which I would not have otherwise seen, including the massive development done as part of the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games. Much of the athletes accommodation is now luxury apartments. Nearby is the World Trade Centre, a singularly unattractive business park reinforcing my impression of Barcelona as a place that is about money. And then, nearby, unexpectedly a park with a statue by Jean Miro.

The bus tour over, my one thought was I needed to get back to the hotel. I felt pleased with myself: I could see on the map that line 6 of the metro went from the Placa to Gracia, a stop 300 metres from my hotel. But every underground entrance I went to was for lines other than 6. I asked a gaggle of police officers and one pointed to a road beside the future Apple store and said the entrance was about 300 metres along there. Except it wasn’t. OK, I thought, I will take one of the other lines and find line 6 that way. I did – but it involved a nightmarish 500 metre plus walk along interminable corridors and moving staircases. One day I will go back to Barcelona and discover the steps down to line 6 on the Placa Catalunya.

More Gaudi: Casa Vicens

On my last morning I knew I did not have enough time for Picasso, so instead I went to another Gaudi house, not far from my hotel. Casa Vicens is the first house Gaudi designed, so relatively early in his career and an interesting contrast to Sagrada Familia, which was designed at the end of his life, during his obsessively religious period, before he met an early death run over by a tram.

This was a fascinating visit: the house, built as a summer house for his client, shows all the influences – Catalan, Islamic, oriental, English – before he developed fully his own modernism. The house included an interesting exhibition with models of houses by his contemporaries, from William Morris to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. There was even a model with small description of a house by Voysey (our grandmother lived in a Voysey house in the Fifties, so this was interesting for me).

There were also several original texts written by Gaudi, showing the development of his ideas about what a house should be. Reflecting the times in which he wrote, when so much housing was insanitary, he places emphasis on the importance of the house as a healthy place for children to grow up in. But he is also interested on the concept of the house as a space for the nuclear family, and for him, the ideal was a ‘manor house’, a house in the country.

So, as I walked round this house, I could see how he saw the functionalists spaces of a family house interrelating, but I could also see the beginnings of all the unusual details which became more exaggerated later on.

I can’t make my mind up about Gaudi. The Sagrida Familia is an amazing spectacle and not to be missed, particularly the inside with its play on height and light and the little details, some of which are delicate and lovely, others just plain bizarre or kitsch. Ultimately I suppose it is Gaudi’s obsession with religion that stops me from excessive enthusiasm for the Sagrida Familia.

I find the Casa Vicens more interesting, both in the study of his evolving artistic ideas and because he was still designing for people not God. I saw another famous Gaudi apartment block, the Casa Mila (Pedrera), from outside. Next time I would like to go round this too.

I want to conclude my rambles through Barcelona with some pictures of windows and banners. I think I have become a little obsessed by these and can see me continuing to build a window collection in other places. The banners were interesting: I have not tried to translate all but I think they reflect the passion for Catalonian independence and of course there were probably more than usual following the EU elections.

To do it justice I need to see Barcelona again, when I am less tired, and perhaps in a month when there are fewer crowds. After all, as the easy journey home demonstrated, Barcelona is only three hours from Montpellier.

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.

Postscript

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.