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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: