Round Fès

Until now I have been exploring the original historic centre, Fès el-Bali, focussing on the medina.

In the afternoon Merieme organised a driver to take me on the road that goes round the outside of the walls of this original city. Amine spoke fluent English; he had been a policeman in Qatar for ten years, but had returned to his beloved Fes.

We started just beyond Batha, the quartier where I am staying, and did a tour of Fès el-Jedid, thé ‘new’ town, built mainly in the 13th century, by the Merinid princes.

We started with the royal palace, Dar el-Makhzen. Actually, as this is closed to the public, the visit consisted of simply admiring the huge Moorish entrance.

I asked Amine if the current king actually used this palace very much, given that he has quite a few. Oh yes, said Amine, he comes here regularly on his doctors’ recommendations. H apparently has medical problems and Fes is a healthy place to live – not too hot or cold and not humid like the coast.

Right next to the vast palace complex is the Jewish quarter, the Mellah. In exchange for tax payments – the rulers provided the Jewish community with protection. There are very few Jews left in Morocco now, most having emigrated to Israel after 1948.

Amine observed how distinct was the architectural style of the streets in the Mellah: whereas Arab houses invariably have a single entrance door and few windows in their exterior walls, as the household looks in towards its courtyards, the Jewish houses has windows and balconies looking out onto the street. I took this picture from my car window, but it should give some idea of the style.

We drove on and climbed the hill on which sits the former fortress, now no longer in use, which was so visible on my first evening. This time we were looking across at the Merinid tombs and the hotel (right of the second image) where I went on my first evening.

To be honest the panoramas were far less breathtaking than those of Istanbul, visited two years ago. The size is impressive, but the only building to stand out is the mosque.

Next was the obligatory shopping stop, although again I made it clear that I was not shopping. Actually it turned out to be interesting, particularly as I was able to make comparisons with wonderful pottery at Abuja in Nigeria (when we lived there).

The guide told me that the clay used in Fès is grey, unlike the rest of Morocco where it is red. All the tiles for floors and walls are hand cut. The decoration is done by hand, using very fine brushes. Interestingly this is not an exclusively male domain; there was at least one woman working on the decoration. Tiles are also broken up in various ways to provide the material for mosaics. The shop was of course huge, impressive – and enticing!

On to the north of the city and up to the hill with the Merenid tombs. The Merinids were responsible for the building of the ‘new’ Fès, Fès el-Jdid, in the 13th century and from some time in the 14th century until their demise their rulers were buried in these tombs. Incredibly they have been allowed to crumble away and no archaeological work has been done there. In one direction I had a good view down onto the Al Quaraouyine Mosque and towards the south part of the impressive city wall ramparts.

In the evening I had supper and one of the nearest cafes. It turned out to be delicious: aubergine-based salad, Moroccan pastries and of course thé à la menthe. The waitress was a pretty and cheerful young woman who turned out to be studying English at University. She was very approving of my choice of Moroccan dishes on the menu.

L’administration française

Sometimes French administration can be a nightmare. Perhaps British administration is as bad – it is nearly 20 years since we moved here – but somehow I suspect the French are the winners. When I mention any problem I am having, my French friends sigh, shrug their shoulders (pride or resignation?) and say : « Ah. L’administration française… … »

My level of spoken and written French is OK. Imagine how daunting it is if you speak almost no French. I don’t need to imagine; I know, as for the past week or so I have been helping an Englishwoman several years older than me and with a very basic level of French, who is struggling to replace a lost carte grise (log book) for her car,

My heart sinks when I see an official form, with so many boxes to tick and so many entries to get wrong, especially as administrative French can have a very particular vocabulary.

I should add: imagine how daunting it is to cope with bureaucracy if one is not at home with computers and the internet. Because in France (maybe in the UK too?), the pressure to communicate with government offices online has suddenly become relentless.

This is how I got involved. Initially I had been asked to help my friend come to grips with a new computer. So I think I was the obvious person for her to turn to when she found herself floundering with online forms.

What had I let myself in for? In order to declare the loss of her carte grise online (there is no other way), she had to print, complete and then scan back a long form, together with various backup documents such as passport, proof of residence etc.

It turned out the scanner function of the printer had never been used, so I had to download and instal the software – and then help her complete, print and scan everything.

Next big problem: in order to apply for a replacement carte grise she needed to go through the contrôle technique (MOT) – and for this she needed a carte grise! The only way out of this vicious circle is apparently to obtain a fiche d’identification du véhicule.

This is turning out to be another big challenge: how to cope with endless going round in circles and coming to dead ends on a government site called ANTS which deals with things like documents for cars or passports. The site firmly tells you to go to another site, called FrenchConnect to set up a secure connection to information on ANTS. But FrenchConnect in turn requires you to identify yourself via your space on either the government site for health or taxes.

My friend had never joined either site. I started with the health one, Ameli, and – surprise, surprise – it was temporarily unavailable. So then I moved on to the tax one, impôts.gouv. Guess what, I needed an online reference from her tax returns, but since she pays her taxes in the UK she does not have one.

So this evening I had to admit defeat and say there was no more I could do before going away for a fortnight. She needs somebody to go with her to the tax people and get them to get the necessary document verifying her identity, then to the sous-préfets office to force the receptionist (the only person one ever gets to see) to help her get the fiche d’identification du véhicule, and then take that and all the other papers to the contrôle technique – and then finally she should be in a position to complete her request for a carte grise and thus be driving legally again.

Well I have found a friend willing to take this on, Ive tried to brief him as much as possible, and I have obtained the name of the one person in the tax office whom I know is intelligent, helpful and – added bonus – speaks English.

It is all very well moving to websites for administration, but they must be better written, there must be places where people who do not have computers or the internet can go, and even more important, there should be somebody when things go wrong. In the Pays Viganais we are over 50 km from any significant sized town and public offices are closing their doors all the time. Already the CPAM (health administration) is down to one person available part time by appointment only, the tax offices are scheduled to be relocated to Nîmes (86 km away) and Alès (74km). And the Sous-Préfet seems to do nothing.

So what will people do in the future?

Harcèlement sexuel

On Saturday I heard the harrowing story of sexual harassment told by a good friend of mine here, a woman in her sixties. I knew she had been suffering from stress this year. Now I know why.

For years she has lived amicably alongside her neighbours, a couple the same age as her. Then a few months ago she became aware that whenever she went into town she was bumping into the husband. Wherever she turned, he seemed to be there.

At some point he made it clear that he was in love with her, tried to embrace her, but was rejected. He continued to stake her, sent her endless, often explicit, text messages and cut down a tree so he could see into her house more clearly. The neighbours had exchanged keys so they could feed cats and water plants when the other was absent, and my friend then became aware that her neighbour had been looking at emails on her computer.

As time progressed he became more aggressive: he attempted to rubbish my friend, and told people that she had slept with him. Why did she not go to the gendarmes, I asked. She replied that at that point she did not have confidence that they would intervene.

Then things got nastier. My friend is proud of having a large, organic garden, untouched by pesticides for over 50 years. She became aware that everything in her garden was dying – trees, bushes, flowers and vegetables. He had poisoned her land. Worse to follow: she found that the long pipe bringing water from her source in the hills above her house had been broken in several places, and the joints and taps seized up with cement or glue.

This is what broke her spirit: she is a woman of the land. At last her daughter persuaded her to go to the gendarmes and went with her, first printing out the long list of text messages. The gendarmes also asked her why she had not come earlier and were faintly hurt when she expressed her scepticism that they would do anything about this.

There was no proof that the poisoning of the land and destruction of her water system was done by the neighbour. But the text messages – which at first he denied sending – were proof of his nasty harassment. My friend didn’t really go into what happened to the neighbour other than that he had to go before an investigating judge – juge d’instruction. I think he was admonished, warned to stop his behaviour and to keep away from my friend. I was taken aback that he was not punished further. I think that in the UK now he could have faced a fine at the very least.

For her the most important outcome was that he has put his house on the market and he and his wife are renting somewhere in town. It will take her some time to recover from this trauma.

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.

Permis de conduire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Kiwis in the Cévennes

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

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

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

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

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

A photography lesson

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

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

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

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

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

May Day

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

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

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

Poppy’s tenth birthday

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

Carte de séjour

Ça y est – as they say here. At last I have my carte de séjour.

I applied last July for this card which entitles me to live in France for ten years. I finally got the interview when I handed over the weighty dossier in December and was told the card would take a month or two to be available. In February I wrote asking what had happened to my application – and got no reply (no telephone number of course).

So I decided the only thing was to go to the Préfecture in Nimes (a round trip of about 180 km) and confront the fonctionnaires face to face. I went armed not only with a copy of everything I had presented them last year, but also a circular from the Minister of the Interior which says that although EU citizens don’t need a carte de séjour they have a right to one and it is the obligation of the Préfecture to fulfil this request. I also found some text which spelt out that an absence of a written response by the préfet could be interpreted as a tacit refusal and could be contested.

As I waited in the inevitable crowd in front of the Accueil for Etrangers, I prepared myself mentally to be pleasant but firm and to insist on seeing a manager if necessary. But once again I was struck by the pleasant manner of the two officials fielding the multiple queries at the Accueil – so different from earlier experiences in Nimes.

I handed over my passport and the official receipt given for my dossier and explained I wished information on what was happening. The woman looked at my record on her computer and said the carte was ready! She reached out beside her desk and found it instantly.

How long had it been sitting there? Why did I never receive the promised letter telling me to come and collect it?

Never mind. I have it – unlike several compatriots in le Vigan, who applied after me and have had their applications returned. In anticipation of Brexit, Nimes has stopped processing British applications. This is blatantly against the Minister of the Interior’s ruling, but I suspect people have not the energy to fight the system. Anyhow, once Brexit happens we will all have to apply for a new carte de séjour, to be devised just for Brits. I’m hoping the fact that I have a current one will make it easier to get the new one, and will ease the next, long postponed action: applying for dual nationality.

Of course the real big question is what will happen to healthcare after Brexit. Still a horrible unknown. Given the chaos and utter weariness I witnessed when in the UK, I fear dealing with this is low on the British government’s agenda.