Full house

This is the season when I have no time to write: both families – BPs and Gillies – are here. Which means there are no bedrooms left.

I have handed over my bedroom to Jude and Ed and my new temporary bedroom is a space under the house. At leat my wine is close to hand……

When Ella arrived she was appalled that Granny was thinking of sleeping in these conditions and thought her parents should take my place. They also tried to persuade me to swap, but actually it is rather nice to have a quiet sanctuary away from the noise and chaos above. And for someone who spend years camping with the family, this is more akin to glamping.

Once the holidays are over, work will continue with making this a more acceptable spare bedroom. Already some doors are on order and maybe I will get some plumbing in place for a bathroom beside it. At present I have a composting loo and a garden tap.

This is just a pause before I go down to join the Gillies beside the pool. They had their walk this morning, while the BPs are doing their more ambitious one now, under the remorseless afternoon sun.

There were supposed to have been thunderstorms today. We were all looking forward to a bit of rain and a drop in temperatures. The ‘storm’ has so far proved to be ten minutes of heavy rain. And the dip in temperature was also temporary. I think everybody is a bit taken aback by the heat. Just a few degrees higher makes a huge difference.

Thanks goodness for the lovely pool. And Otto is revelling in the table tennis championships (the only child to take part). I enjoy it too, though frustrated that all my physical handicaps curb my ruthless competitive spirit. Perhaps this evening we will indulge in a more gentle game of boules. Meanwhile the grownups have become disgracefully obsessed by our evening sessions of Monopoly Deal (a card game whose only link with the board game is the names of the properties) and we are going to bed much too late.

Apprentice advocate

My youngest granddaughter, Maddie, shows promising signs of valuing her rights. A politician, lawyer or demonstrator in the making?

At six she is now in her second year at primary school, thoroughly loving all aspects of school life, even her lessons (she was initially resistant to anything that was not “play”). In her end of year report her teachers wrote of her enthusiasm and passion for learning.

And, said her teacher, “In her role as Science Ambassador, Maddie has shown commitment and dedication by attending meetings during her own time. She has displayed confidence and communication skills throughout her time in this important role.”

From what I can gather being a class ambassador is akin to being class representative. But this little ambassador is currently seething with indignation, determined that at the next meeting she will seek redress. So, what is the problem, I asked Maddie over FaceTime (like Skype) at the weekend.

“When the Art ambassadors meet they get given biscuits – and we don’t! That’s not fair (one of Maddie’s favourite phrases), especially as Science is even more important than Art. Why, I asked. “Because science is about solving stuff.” Hmmm. An interesting debate to be held in the coming months, but meanwhile I am delighted she plans to stand up for her rights, even if they are only for biscuits.


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.

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.

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.


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.

UK visit

I’m  sitting in the departure lounge at Gatwick Airport after a hectic ten days in London.

Family

I divided my time between Jude’s family at Bromar Road and Kate’s at Red Post Hill, starting at jude’s.

How lovely to see the girls, who grow taller and maturer every time I see them. My first day I went down to see years four and five at Belham  Primary perform a nativity production (written by teachers and children) . It was brilliant. I have never seen so many children perform with such energy and enthusiasm. They have an excellent music teacher (the benefit of being a newly created academy – much as I am against them). Ella, tall, serious and distinguished looking, was one of the three kings. She sang her solo beautifully  I’m sorry I missed Maddie’s show – I think she was the back end of a camel .

After three nights I moved on to Red Post Hill. In the following days I went to three shows with the grandchildren . First Grimms Fairy Tales with Kate’s family. When Otto, who was sitting next to me, said in a loud voice that he was bored and wanted to leave, I rather agreed with him.  I’m not keen on adults bounding around pretending to be children  but after the interval the tales got blacker – and better. Still, I was a bit disappointed, given the reputation of the company , Philip Pullman.

We then had lunch in Cote Brasserie, on the Thames Path, beside the river. I remember this area in the fifties when everything was derelict.  I used to step through bombsites to sing in a madrigal choir near Southwark Cathedral. Now this part of the south bank is dominated by luxury flats and restaurants. The place is buzzing with life.  I can see why this stretch of the south bank of the Thames has become a play and strolling area for Londoners and visitors. 

Then, while the Gillies and friends went home, I moved on to my next appointment: Rumpelstiltskin with the Bennion Pedley and friends. (This was my first visit to the Queen Elizabeth Hall complex. The architecture may be brute concrete 60s style but what a comfortable theatre to visit – modern bars, loos and open spaces and seats with leg room.)

The reviews of Rumpelstilskin have been a bit sniffy, but I loved it. It was completely bonkers, better appreciated by the grownups than the children maybe, full of fast moving wit and bizarre pantomime, wonderful modern lighting effects and excellent music.  The children seem to have enjoyed it, even  Maddie, sitting next to me seemed rapt.

On Christmas Eve I went with the Gillies to the East Dulwich cinema for an afternoon of popcorn and musical – Mary Poppins Returns. It was slickly produced, with some enjoyable cameo roles for Meryl Streep and Colin Firth, but to be honest I preferred the loony Rumpelstiltskin to Disney.

At last, at last, Christmas Day arrived.  I don’t think Otto in particular could have borne the suspense of much more anticipation. The BPs arrived and there was a morning of feverish present opening, excitement, frustration when things didn’t work (or parents had forgotten the batteries!) and pleasure at giving.  However, as I watched the feverish ripping open of a mountain of packages, I found it so difficult not to descend into censorious bah-humbug mode, remembering the smaller, more abstemious haul of our childhood. That did not stop me wearing my new clothes with great pleasure for the rest of the day!

Christmas lunch, cooked by Ed, was of course delicious.  A traditional affair, turkey breast and trimmings and a rich assortment of vegetables. And later, a superb Christmas cake. As usual, I ate too much….

For the two families the evening was somewhat blighted by the need to prepare for their departure, at the crack of dawn, for a sun and swimming mini-holiday in Tenerife. Sad for me, as I would have liked to see the children for longer. 

A day of technology

Kate, Jude and I had given Deb a much needed replacement iPad, a refurbished, two-year-old model (the same as mine). 

Bringing it into service and transferring all data from her old one proved a lengthy exercise. Deb had forgotten her Apple password, so trekked across London to hunt it down in her house.  First I had to bring her old iPad up to date, which required several mobile phone conversations with Deb, always a major challenge, complicated by her popping in and out of underground stations! In the end I decided to create a new password for her, and by the time she returned, her new iPad was up and running. Given that Deb has neither a truly operational phone nor a computer, the iPad is essential to her – and to us, as it is the only way to get in touch with her!

Old friends

The next day I went to Richmond to see my two oldest friends: Christine for lunch and Sally for tea. Both visits merit a blog post of their own, but suffice to say that these are two very special people for me. And happily I’m also fond of their spouses!

Christine has not been well, with a bad attack of shingles, and Roy beat me in the medical drama stakes, describing with gusto, his self diagnosis of a heart attack and the dramatic trip by taxi to the Royal Free, where he still an Important Person, in preference to an ambulance trip to Kingston hospital.

I even fitted in a trip to Finchley to have lunch with Deb and her friends Kay (who was at Oxford with her) and Alan and their daughters.  Nice food (Turkish restaurant) and good conversation.  But what I will remember was an extraordinary little exchange.

The woman at the next table came across and said, very apologetically, that she was sure she knew Kay from some time in their past. They eventually established that they had been to the same primary school in Hampstead. I fail to recognise people from last year, let alone from over 60 years ago!

Yesterday I continued my meeting up with old pals.  I had lunch in the Tate Modern with Mimi, who ran the information department of Citizens Advice for England when I was doing the same thing in Scotland.

She may be in her eighties now, but Mimi is still an astute, energetic and amusing friend.  The food in the Members’ Room was indifferent (Mimi is going to pursue this!) but we sat for hours nattering, and then wandered round some of this huge gallery and took the lift to the top to gaze (with mixed feelings) at the rapidly changing landscape of London.  We were somewhat baffled that people could have bought at huge prices the apartments beside the Tate. I wonder if they knew that the Blavatnik Building would give people a prime view of their sitting rooms. I’m not a fan of the architecture of the Tate Modern and many of its rooms leave me cold, but we whizzed through these and concentrated on a few with old favourites or new discoveries.

We talked of our love of travel.  I confessed to Mimi that, despite my daughters’ misgivings – health permitting – I wanted to visit Iran and visit beautiful towns like Shiraz and Yazd.  It seems a logical next step having loved the Islamic architecture of Rajasthan and Istanbul. “Ah yes,” said Mimi. “A good idea – I went there a couple of years ago”!  She has given me the contact details for her excellent guide, so maybe I will manage to set this up for the autumn of 2019.

Brexit and Uber

Like my last trip to London I indulged in several Uber trips, in an effort to conserve my energy.  I hit particularly lucky with the three drivers, from Bulgaria, Rumania and Poland, who were all interesting to talk to. All three said how much they enjoyed being Uber drivers, because of the flexibility in working hours and the people they met.

Inevitably conversation turned in all three cases to Brexit.  All three were Remainers, although interestingly the Bulgarian was the most diffident.  He had studied economics before coming to the UK he said, and if he found it difficult to understand the complexities of the Brexit possibilities, how could other people make informed decisions? So he was for leaving such decisions to elected representatives rather than referendums.

The Pole divided his time between being an Uber driver and builder. He would personally be OK, he said, as there became a shortage of Polish builders (he has the right to stay already), but he reckoned it was a complete and utter catastrophe for Britain.

Given the problems with the Gatwick Express, I took an airport minicab back to Gatwick.  This was not an Uber driver and unlike the others, he was not particularly friendly and drove too fast.

Whatever the wrongs to the Uber system, I have to confess that I do find using it greatly aids my  rushed visits and I enjoy my chats.

My habit of talking to strangers

I’m finishing this entry in the evening, after a very long day – the plane was held up for over an hour with a mechanical problem. Having opted for Special Assistance, I was in a warm bus beside the plane.  I felt sorry for other passengers possibly standing in an overcrowded departure lounge.

I was sitting beside a French couple who had been on my plane to Gatwick.  As usual I got into conversation with them… … Two of their children live here, so they have just had a complicated Christmas with some relatives who spoke spoke only English, others who spoke only – not quite sure which – Indian language, and her husband who speaks only French. We have exchanged contact details so I look forward to meeting up with them again.

 

Never again

As I listened to the bells tolling at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I thought of the grandfather I never knew – of the father my mother never knew. I wondered how our lives might have been had he not been killed in 1916.

Major Ronald Greig was a professional soldier – he had already got the DSO in the Boer War and was an experienced 40-year-old officer in the Royal Engineers when he died.

I have little idea of what he was really like. I get the impression of a nice, easy going, probably quite charming man, but without the  apparent liveliness of the family he married into.

What would have happened if he had lived? Well, for starters Tish, my gran, a young war widow overwhelmed by life with three small children, would not have remarried. (So I would not have acquired an additional aunt and three lovely cousins.) Nor would she have started the liaison/friendship with Dick Mitchison in 1927 which lasted till his death in 1970. And our family would not have benefited from all the rich friendships, that still continue, with his family .

So would Ronnie and Tish have lived happily ever after? Hmm.  I’m never quite sure.  I always wonder whether being an army wife would have really suited my fun-loving, capricious granny.

The First War had dealt her a double whammy: the year after Ronnie died, she lost her favourite brother, David. In some ways I wonder whether this death did not affect her even more.

David Clutterbuck was the middle of three brothers. The oldest, Lewis, came back from the war a damaged man.  We never asked gran what really happened, but he spent most of his life abroad – a remittance man, paid to stay away from home.  The youngest, Walter, survived the First War and ended up a major general at the end of the Second War.

My mother once took us to Winchester College and showed us the war memorial for David’s class.  I think the entire class was wiped out.

That led me on to remembering reading Vera Brittain’s sad ‘Testament of Youth’ and watching the powerful 1930s American film of the German book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.  Two works to push you towards pacifism.

To end, the unbelievable news that Donald Trump stayed indoors rather than face the rain for an Armistice day event at a cemetery holding the graves of American soldiers! While Merkel and Macron make symbolic gestures of peace and unity, he once again makes bellicose gestures and statements and fails to understand the symbolism of what he is supposed to do.

And I wonder what he made of Macron’s statement:

Le patriotisme est l’exact contraire du nationalisme. Le nationalisme en est sa trahison.
(Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.)

 

Chris

It is ten years today since Chris died. I try not to think of his miserable last few days but instead the fortitude with which he faced ill health over the previous two years, and above all our splendid adventures over 40 years together.

I wish he were here to see his daughters continue to grow in wisdom and kindness and to know his four grandchildren (He would have been a lovely grandpa.) In fact I just wish he was here.

That’s all. I’m not going to attempt to reflect at length here on this clever but complex man, capable of showing scorn or anger when faced by bureaucratic incompetence or academic pretension, capable of being an old grump in the house, but intrinsically kind, generous and principled, loving the good things in life, especially happy here in France, smiling jovially at his guests and many friends, and above all, loving his family.

Later in the day

I dont have my photo collection while in hospital. But here are three memories. Well, the first – a newspaper cutting from 1962 –  is not a memory, since I didn’t know Chris then. But I remember very well how often he said his involvement with the American Civil Rights Movement changed his life.

The two photos that follow are taken from Jude’s reposting on Facebook today. I took the picture of Chris in Paradise Square, Oxford (a charming but  insalubrious area since sadly replaced by concrete nothingness) during our first years together. The second photo was Chris in a typically happy mood at the table with his family.

Oh. I’ve just realised that of course I have more photos of Chris on my site.

Gillies’ visit

The Gillies left on Monday.  Since then I have cleared the house, been to Ganges for my glaucoma check, got passport photos ready for next month’s trip to the Prefecture in Nimes – and resumed my local social life.

Now, time to reflect on the Gillies stay.  There are more photos than for the BPs. For some reason I took more and also now I have more time to put them up.

The two families overlapped for a few days and immediately embarked on an active weekend tree climbing and canoeing. Both were a great success – so much so that the Gillies returned for a second tree climbing visit.  Otto, who is also not keen on tree climbing, surprisingly went back for the second trip and managed very well. They continued also with more walks than normal.  Bravo to them – Otto and Willow are not keen walkers but managed much better than last time.

On the night before the BPs left, the children organised a disco.  The definite dancing star was Otto, who performed some current routine effortlessly, unlike the adults…

Another party highlight was Steve’s birthday.

His present from Kate was a magnificent ‘action camera’ (GoPro): a tiny device which Steve can attach to his head when cycling or swimming underwater.  The first trial, on the accrobranche trip was thwarted by the children discovering they could use voice commands to active or stop filming! Later Steve took some splendid footage in the pool which must get my hands on.

The pool was of course the main centre of activity during their stay.   The inflatable canoe I had bought proved a hit, with Willow showing instant skill. Otherwise lots of jumping in, squirting, splashing, and lounging.

There was a lot of time spent on electronic devices.  I have to admit that this was partly the grownups’ fault: we had become addicted to the card game, Monopoly Deal, introduced to both families by Ed.

There was also some splendid writing and drawing. Otto wrote a very touching entry in his new note book and drew his (imaginary?) band, made up of his mates at school

Willow produced a carefully crafted cutout and started a story, ‘The Lost Tiger’.  She is a perfectionist and every time she made an error, she tore it up and started again. Her handwriting is amazing for a six-year-old; she reminds me so much of my schoolfriend, Christine, with the same range of talents: handwriting, art, maths and sport.

Suddenly their week was over.  Back to the grind for the parents, two more weeks of holiday for the children, who will be meeting their new childminder next week.