Saturday was a sad day: Fatou offered lunch in her restaurant for the last time. She has sold the business to the cafe across the square and is moving on to new pastures.
Chez Fatou was the smallest restaurant in le Vigan, but with some of the finest food: a wonderful, subtle spicy mixture of African, Middle Eastern and French dishes, served with a cheerful albeit leisurely service.
Fatou is a magnificent, larger than life character: a tall, elegant woman from Mali, with splendid Afro hairstyles, a great smile, strong opinions and a wonderful laugh.
She has – oh dear, had – a regular small clientele of people who loved her food and the casual, friendly ambiance.
On Saturdays there is a regular group of half a dozen friends, whom I sort of know (friends of friends) and gradually over the last year they have welcomed me at their table.
They were there when I arrived (late – but Fatou is more relaxed than most French restaurants about what hour she serves lunch), greeted me – and Poppy – with enthusiasm, and they slid up the bench to make room for me.
Everyone talks with great animation and as so often, neighbouring tables became involved in the conversation. It’s not a place for people who cannot handle noise. The restaurant is a semi-basement cave with no sound insulation, so it is quite a challenge for me sometimes to follow fast flowing conversation in French, accompanied by the wonderfully energetic waving of hands and shrugging of shoulders. (A glass of Fatou’s delicious punch occasionally helps.)
I don’t know where we are going to eat on Saturdays, but with any luck I will enjoy Fatou’s dishes again, as she plans to offer to cook at parties and other events.
Who would have thought I would have ever attended a Valentine Day event? Not at all my cup of tea! But I went – to show willing.
Lou Rossignol is the old folk’s club – club des ainés – in Bréau. It does an impressive number of activities through the year, from afternoons of Lotto (I draw the line at these) to some great outings, last year to Spain, for example (I always seem to be ill or in England when there is a really good trip).
My friend, Margaret, is the treasurer, so its finances are impeccable. She and the other two committee members also do a great job on the food front. At the Valentine event, there were crepes and waffles, with a huge variety of home made jams – with Margaret’s orange flavoured with whisky and lemon flavoured with gin being particularly popular.
The afternoon’s animation was music by the Vacquier brothers, who are really good. Margaret says they are outstanding blues players, but they adjusted the repertoire to the audience in Bréau, including a cheerfully vulgar local song La Viganaise (wish I could follow the local patois enough to get the whole thing).
I was sitting opposite the former mayor (who was involved in the organisation but not ceremony of Jude and Ed’s wedding). Now in his eighties, he takes a back seat in village life. His wife, Lina, is the president of Lou Rossignol and, despite being in bad health, a dynamic force which rescued an association which risked becoming moribund.
The three committee members are all over seventy (and Margaret is 80). I fear for associations like this; there is no sign of the next generation getting ready to take over community activities.
Vacquier brothers provide the music
Lousols Valentine afternoon
René Masseport, who was mayor for decades
Lina and René Masseport
Jacqueline Ruer joins in the singing
Poppy was the only dog present. Had to stop Jean Claude feeding her marshmallows.
On Thursday I visited the truly stunning new Musée de la Romanité in Nimes. Designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc, it was opened last year.
The building is as memorable as its contents. Walking across the open space that has been created round the Arènes since the first time I came many years ago, we saw the new, ultra-modern museum sitting beside its Roman neighbour.
I was visiting with my friend, Dessa, and another couple, Andrew and Jane. I did not want to hold them up taking photos, so here is a link to some superb photos (I did not wish to breach copyright by reproducing them here) plus one to a movie clip I took.
I really like it: there is a wonderful, dream-like quality about the rippling glass exterior dressing. Nor do I think it detracts from or competes with the Arènes – on the contrary, it seemed to enhance it and draw one’s eye towards the wonderful old stone arches.
Inside is equally imposing, with a sweeping spiral stair rising up to the main collections on the first floor. The museum is really a dedication to Nimes important past in antiquity, starting with the Iron Age and then tracing its development during Greek as well as Roman times, with even a small but good collection of medieval finds.
There are apparently over 50,000 objects in store of which about 5,000 are on display. Many of them have been found during quite recent building works, including the building of an underground carpark pretty well on the site of the museum! One of my favourite exhibits was a magnificent mosaic floor, discovered in 2006 and painstaking taken apart and rebuilt in the museum.
There could perhaps have been more pedagogic stuff, but there is at least some attempt to introduce you to each section of the museum, in several languages. There is some good use of hi-tech, with interactive touch screens, models, and projections showing the development of Nimes through the centuries, media showing the arrival of Greek and Phonecian ships as well as the Romans, and the routes they all took passing westwards through Nimes. There were good explanations of the various types of – mainly local – stone used in the houses and ornaments.
We were impressed by how well preserved lots of the Greek and Roman stuff was (the medieval statues, in contrast, were more weathered). I’ve never been very good at gazing at glass cases of archaeological remains, but this was different. I have never seen coins, for example, in such a good state. The vases were beautiful, but for me the highlights were the mosaics.
The only ‘bémol’ in the museum’s design was the loos. When we arrived we went to the ones on the first floor – all two (unisex) ones! Maybe the main ones were elsewhere, we thought. But no, at the end of our visit, we discovered there were four loos – two gents, two ladies – on the ground floor. By the afternoon the museum was packed, with several guided tours as well as school groups. How could anyone design a busy, modern building without adequate loo provision ?!
I was not consistent about when I took photos, but here they are:
Decades ago, when I worked for the Scottish Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, I wrote a booklet on Neighbour Problems. Not only is this still a frequent complaint brought to Citizens Advice but I can report that neighbour disputes are alive and well in France too.
Sometimes they are resolved peacefully. Years ago Chris and I watched as one neighbour, a builder, having blocked his own access with piles of rubble, took short cuts over his neighbour’s land. This neighbour put up a ribbon along the boundary – the builder got out of his truck, cut it, and proceeded as usual. So then the neighbour planted a row of trees. That defeated the builder, who was a man of the soil and would not damage trees, and so unblocked his own entrance.
I once watched another neighbour, told that her swimming pool was partly on another’s plot of land, discreetly shifting boulders so that border was more clearly further away from the pool.
Not so nice was the experience of a young woman I knew in Montpellier. When she bought her house, the neighbour claimed she had no right to use her first floor terrace (which happened to look over the neighbour’s garden). Things got very nasty, ending up in court. Unfortunately the neighbour was a local judge and nobody was willing to represent my friend, who ended up hiring a lawyer from Paris – but won. My friend was black and there is no doubt that the motivation here was racist.
I would say that most problems I have observed here have to do with property rights rather than, say, noise. I find it fascinating how well versed people are on rights (more so than obligations) and how keen to know to the nearest square metre where are the boundaries of their property and what rights others have to pass through.
I know of a hamlet which seems to be particularly susceptible to tensions between neighbours, with a variety of disputes over access or use of land. The latest has become very nasty and disturbing. It involves a couple with a house right in the heart of the hamlet.
Recently the house next door was sold to a couple of Parisians. On arrival in the village, they started almost immediately to hassle my friends, claiming that their bathroom, and I think other bits of the house, did not belong to them. It is true that my friends’ bathroom is built on top of part of the neighbours’ house. But old Cévenol villages are like that. Then they denied my friends right of access to their house, barricading the entrance and forcing them to take a longer, more precipitous route.
My friends consulted lawyers and a property surveyor (géomètre expert). It appears that the original division of the houses years and years ago is problematic, but on the advice of their lawyer, they issued an injunction requiring the neighbours to remove the blocked access to their house.
Things have now got very nasty. The neighbours have countered with a formal notice to quit ‘their’ property. The rest of the village has apparently provided statements recording that in their memories, my friends’ house has been as it is now, including the access, for decades, going back to the fifties at least. But presumably a lot will depend on various expert statements and the view of the judge.
My poor friends – the wife is not in good health and they are not loaded financially – face a very scary future. French litigation can be long and costly and they are unfortunately not insured for legal costs.
Remind me to check next week that my house insurance includes assurance de protection juridique!
Let’s switch our attention for a moment from the surreal shutdown of government in the States and this evening’s nail biting key chapter in the bizarre and lunatic Brexit, and consider the tiny rural backwater in France where I live.
This month Bréau-Salagosse was the first commune in the Département du Gard to merge with its neighbour, Mars. We are now officially the commune of Bréau-Mars.
It makes absolute sense when you consider that the population of Bréau is little more than 400, while that of Mars is under 200! There are of course even smaller communes amongst the 35000 plus French communes: over 3000 communes have less than a hundred inhabitants (while at the other end of the scale there are over 40 communes with populations of more than 100,000). But at last there has been some effort to rationalise some of the smaller ones: some 622 have merged to create 237 new ones.
I wondered whether France would ever dare reform its communes. They have existed for centuries but were given their modern status and functions after the French Revolution. In recent years their importance has diminished, with the recently created ‘communités de communes’ taking on many of their jobs. But still, suggest to a Frenchman that the day of the communes is over and you can expect a strong reaction. People hold dear the idea that they can go and seek the help of, or complain to, their maire (mayor). And of course all births and deaths are recorded in the mairie, and marriages – like our daughter, Jude’s, and friends Charles and Pierre’s – are also celebrated there.
Our new commune Bréau-Mars makes obvious sense, but I don’t think its creation will lead to much financial saving, at least in the immediate future. Both mairies (council offices) will remain in use, as will the two village halls. And at last week’s first meeting, it was clear that this new but still small commune will have five deputy mayors!
I attended this meeting and witnessed what was clearly a prearranged exercise. The former maire of Bréau, Alain Durand, remains maire of the the new commune, and his Mars counterpart, Jean-Jacques Derick, becomes his deputy. Then the outgoing maire-adjoints from the two communes were solemnly nominated and elected maire-adjoints, scrupulously in order – first maire adjoint from Breau, second from Mars etc. (It all took for ever as for every election each councillor went out of the room to complete the ballot paper!)
I was not well placed to take photos, but these at least show I was present for this – minor – historic occasion. (My photo of Alain being draped ceremonially in the French tricolore sash is blurred because Laetitia, the secretary, got up in front of me at the crucial moment.
One good outcome of this merger – once the GPS systems catch up with the administration – is that I need no longer have arguments with couriers who insist I live in Mars. Our road, Pied Méjean, used to be the boundary between the two communes. Now both sides of the road are in the same commune.
And now, I must get ready to watch Channel 4 News, in the run-up to The Vote.
When Margaret heard I was to spend New Year’s Eve on my own, I found myself invited to a small dinner at her friends Danièle and Jean-Claude.
It was an amiable, low-key event, but with good food (almost as good as Margaret’s!). Poppy could not attend because they have an overexcited terrier – a rescue dog, so with no early training.
I think my days for surviving four or five hours of dinner leading up to midnight, followed by an hour winding down afterwards, are perhaps numbered. I take my hat off to the French; they have a stamina I don’t have for long meals.
Margaret and I attempted a bit of Auld Lang Syne at midnight, without great success, not least because of our inability to remember all the words. Instead, we gave in to the local practise of going round the table, kissing everybody and wishing “Bonne Année”.
Jean-Claude holding forth, Danièle, far right.
Table presentation is important here - especially the glasses... ...
What I find just as exhausting is remembering to greet everybody with “Bonne Année” or “Meilleurs Voeux” for days – no, weeks afterwards. The next day I was in Montpellier for my thermocoagulation injection. As I was wheeled into the operating room, I met the surgeon, Dr Dhenin, who held out his hand and said “Bonne Année” – I had to struggle to extract my arm from the blankets to respond. And I noticed that the woman next to me in the recovery room said “Bonne Année” to every new nurse or assistant who attended to her.
The road blocks by the gilets jaunes continue. We have had them at the big roundabout near my local supermarket, Intermarché and, more importantly, at the other end of le Vigan, blocking the road to Ganges and thence Nimes and Montpellier. Apart from the inconvenience in finding detours to avoid the blocks, there have been some queues at the petrol pumps, in case supplies don’t get through.
I have mixed feelings about the Gilets Jaunes movement, mainly negative. Insofar as this is a protest against petrol prices, triggered by the announcement of a forthcoming 11% increase in fuel taxes, I have some sympathy: I would rather see governments raise revenues through indirect taxation – income tax. And high petrol prices hit low income groups especially hard in rural areas, given our dependence on cars.
It is, of course, increasingly becoming a more expression of frustration by people who are finding it hard to make ends meet and are turning their anger against Macron and his economic program. He is seen as a champion of the rich and urban. He feeds into people’s resentment with his complete absence of the common touch, with an arrogance that is turning away even those who actually hoped he would improve things (as opposed to those who voted En Marche in order to block the Front National).
But — the price of fuel is not very different in France from most other European countries. For example, a litre of 95 octane petrol, which I use, is currently €1.46 in France, €1.55 in Germany and €1.64 in Italy. Diesel is €1.46 in France, €1.45 in Germany and €1.56 in Italy. The change in fuel taxes is intended to wean the French off more polluting vehicles, by eliminating the advantage diesel cars have always had (am I relieved I sold mine last year!). I think part of the extra revenue is supposed to go on financial subsidies to people exchanging old polluting vehicles for modern ones.
More worrying is the way this huge, unstructured movement is morphing into a campaign to remove Macron. And in my view the main beneficiaries are the far right, the Rassemblement national – still known by its old name, the Front National. It is not clear how far they are behind the movement, but they are clearly enjoying it. And certainly there are disturbing populist and racist elements, for example, in the handing over of six migrants to the gendarmes.
Mélenchon and the more extreme left are also joining in. The socialists and trade unions are sitting, unhappily, on the sidelines. Whatever the position of the different parties, there is no doubting the general support of the public for the gilets jaunes. I have become aware of a growing number of cars displaying their gilets (compulsory kit, like emergency triangles, but usually kept in the boot) on the front dashboard.
Today I witnessed the gilets jaunes at firsthand. I was due to meet friends at the big annual at St Jean du Gard – Les Journées de l’Arbre, de la Plante et du Fruit. I made the mistake of taking the direct route to cover the 70km in about 90 minutes. Except it took longer, much longer, as I went through five gilets jaunes blockades.
The first, on the roundabout on leaving le Vigan, was the biggest and most organised. There must have been over a hundred people gathered there, all assembled in a jolly, party mood. As I approached the barricades, someone came to get my signature for their petition. When I said I was not in favour, I soon realised that this meant I would have to wait, while those who signed, often sounding their horns in support, were let through. Poppy and I just sat there and eventually, after about 15 minutes, I was let through.
Blockade at le Vigan
Blockade at le Vigan
Goat statues in gilets jaunes
I do like it when demonstrators show humour: I had to smile at the ridiculous roundabout after Ganges, where the metal figures of a flock of goats had had yellow gilets painted on them. On the return journey I noticed that somebody had climbed up the post to put a yellow gilet over the speed camera (which everybody knows about) on the road from Ganges to le Vigan.
The result of my lengthy journey (plus stomach muscles hurting from yesterday’s physio) meant I was not really fit enough to enjoy the foire. I did only a cursory tour of the foire, pausing to take a photo reflecting the colour of the day – the largest lemon I have ever seen:
After lunch (worthy rather than tasty) with my friend Dessa and her friends and neighbours, I returned home, initially taking some picturesque back roads to avoid at least some of the blockades.
What a glorious ten days it has been: temperatures in mid-twenties, beautiful clear skies, a lovely sharp autumnal light. Everybody was smiling because the weather was so good.
Now it has come to an end, as predicted. This morning we had rain and the temperatures have dropped ten degrees. From now on, the forecast is for more rain and unsettled weather.
This will affect this weekend’s busy programme of activities around le Vigan. Tomorrow is the annual apple and onion fair – I fear it will take place under heavier rain. And we are in the middle of the annual Critérium des Cévennes, one of France’s major motor rally events – a series of courses taking advantage of our steep, winding roads. Last night it was the leg Arrigas-Aumessas-Col de Mouzoules-Mars. For several hours there was the constant noise of rally cars at the end of this circuit, turning the road junction at the foot of my land.
I’m pretty neutral on motor rallying itself, but we have had bad experiences of spectators parking anywhere, leaving rubbish, and one year while we lived below, camping on our new house site, helping themselves to our woodpile. More long-lasting is the effect it has on local drivers, or would-be rally drivers. How often I have heard cars take the corner below by skid-braking rather than changing down gears. (And no, despite all my speeding offences, I have never tried this technique.)
One of the most enthusiastic spectators is Malik, the driver who delivers my lunch (equivalent of meals on wheels) each morning. Yesterday he could not wait for the rally to start and to take his children round the local country to watch as much of the rally as possible.
Malik’s enthusiasm is infectious and I enjoy our morning chats. Sadly I have decided that I must end these meal deliveries, intended to help while I am limited to lifting two kilos, making shopping and cooking difficult. The limit is still there, but I am working out ways to avoid lifting shopping bags and not cooking in larger pans. Never mind, said Malik. We will surely bump into each other in le Vigan.
Way back in the spring I started the laborious business of preparing the dossier for an application for a carte de séjour permanent. This means the right to stay permanently in France. Well, renewable every ten years – but that’s a long way ahead……
Then came my eventful health summer, which interrupted the process somewhat. But in July -after my two hospital stays – I made my formal application for a rendezvous at the Préfecture of the Département du Gard in Nimes. At this meeting you have to hand over your dossier and who knows what happens next or how long it will take. The rendezvous can only be asked for on the internet so there is no way of talking to anybody about this.
Then I waited, and waited. The wait became more urgent the more messy the Brexit process becomes. As long as the UK is in the EU, we don’t need a carte de séjour: if you have lived here for at least five years you have the right to live and work in France with or without the carte.
But now both the British Ambassador to France and the Direction Générale des Etrangers en France (DGEF) have said it is advisable to have a carte de séjour permanent before 29 March 2019.
After Brexit (horrible to think this is likely to happen) this carte should be relatively easy to change for whatever is required then (no decisions yet). This covers the first of the three big problems (residency rights, health care and the drop in the value of my pensions).
So imagine my relief when I got an email towards the end of August saying my rendezvous was on Thursday 6th. This morning I was up at 6am, anxious to get to Nimes with time to spare, given the dire warning on the website that the rdv is off if you are five minutes late.
I have bad memories of the Préfecture of Nimes, and in particular its unfriendly Bureaux des Etrangers. I was pleasantly surprised that things seem to have changed: a cheery young woman greeted me in reception and asked for my passport.
“Oh,” she said, “I don’t see your name on the list for today. Can I see your email?” She looked, and confirmed my meeting was on Thursday the 6th. BUT IN DECEMBER! What an eejit I have been!
So my rendezvous will be nearly five months after asking for it, with no idea how long the subsequent process will take and whether I will get the carte before the end of March.. And I can say goodbye to the next step, applying for French nationality, any time in the near future.
Surprisingly, apart from being annoyed with myself, I am not as upset as I might be. It has been hard work assembling my dossier. I don’t really know what the Départment du Gard wants. The Interior Ministry has provided guidelines, but apparently different départements are interpreting these with some variations
At least this is now done and hopefully I can just pull it out again in three months time.
This is what my dossier includes (thank goodness for computers; it all looks quite stylish and convincing – at least to me).
the completed demande de titre de séjour, including some text on why I am applying
documents confirming my identity – passport, photos, birth certificate with translation
documents on where I live and my rights to be there – I got formal statements, or attestations from my notaire and the commune of Bréau
proof I have lived here continuously for five years – I have downloaded electricity and telephone bills for this period
proof I have sufficient income not to be a drain on the State -including a description of my various pensions, a spreadsheet showing income from all sources over the past five years, and bank statements showing the receipt of pensions
income tax assessments for the past five years
attestations showing my rights to healthcare under the French health system and that I have a fully complementary private health insurance
I spent a very pleasant afternoon at Roy’s, despite having to forego most of the barbecued lunch. There is nothing more pleasant than sitting out in the lovely September sun (temperatures high twenties but no humidity) just talking.
Sitting next to me was a Frenchman who arrived ranting about the imminent, mindless cutting down of mature trees in the village ‘place’ below. He sought advice from the Dutch (bigshot) European lawyer sitting on his other side. I picked up that there was little to do, as these small rural mayors and councillors may these days have relatively limited powers of governance, but exercise these autocratically. As one councillor said: “We consulted – what more do you want? Now it is our job to decide – and we are cutting the trees – they are too old.” The fact that the consultation gave rise to a big petition cut no ice.
On leaving the lunch I discovered that this man is the owner of the beautiful old family house below Roy’s much more modest dwelling. And indeed, his house looks over a backstream to the river Herault onto these trees.
The conversation moved on, as it so often does here, to Brexit and Europe. I overheard the Dutchman and Roy agreeing that Europe was in a very bad way both economically (pending disasters in Italy and maybe later France) and politically (with the upsurge of the populist right everywhere. The Dutchman was of the view that Germany should heed the views of the Scandinavian bloc and agree to compromises to keep the UK in Europe as a valuable political and economically.
His forecast as to what would happen to Brits in Europe was as uncertain as everybody else’s. I showed him an alarming article in the latest issue of an online magazine aimed at British expats in France, reporting that some officials are interpreting a hard Brexit as meaning pensioners like me would have all rights to healthcare cut off on 29 March next year.
His reaction was very much a lawyer’s: this should be fought in the courts on the basis that we long-term residents are covered by the principle of protection universelle maladie . But this legal right is qualified by your economic circumstances and in my case I would have to pay an additional 8% income tax.
I’m currently very much absorbed by this problem, as at last – after nearly three months waiting – I have received an email instructing me to attend an interview on Thursday at the Prefecture in Nimes to present my large dossier in support of my case for having a Carte de Séjour. Obtaining this carte is a prerequisite if I wish to continue and apply for French citizenship while retaining my British one). A growing number of commentators, including the British ambassador in Paris advise this to help strengthen our case next March.
The whole thing is a dreadful mess, philosophically, politically (regardless of inefficiencies and corruption in Brussels), economically and personally.