Collectors

Yesterday I visited a house with the largest collection of books I have ever seen (apart from the larger stately homes).

My friend, Dessa, and I have become part of a small but cosmopolitan group – German, Dutch, American, British and French – who tend to congregate for a drink in our favourite bar on Saturdays. And the German couple, Hans Leo and Doris, had invited us for lunch.

The setting was magnificent – the house is perched on the saddle of a hill near Sumène, with panoramic views of the Cévennes. The first view of the house itself (after a nearly disastrous wrong turn ending up in a neighbour’s onion field) was very Cévenol but deceptively low-key.

The full extent of this rambling three storey old house only became apparent as we were take on a tour and at first sight seems quite modest – a traditional kitchen, dining room and sitting room, and then, along further little passages, some very handsome bedrooms.

Upstairs, however, was a larger sitting room which led onto a massive barn-like library, every wall covered from top to bottom with books. And another surprise: this library led onto a second, equally vast library! Down in the basement, more rooms and more books.

Doris and Hans Leo are voracious readers with catholic tastes. Even so, their rich and varied collections revealed that they are also formidable collectors! I hazarded a guess – at least 10,000 books? Doris nodded.

They have one daughter who lives near Montpellier. She apparently also loves books. But given my family’s experience of disposing of book collections every time someone in the family dies (as the non-reader in the family, I am the exception) I don’t envy her task some time in the future!

Equally impressive are their walls covered with a prolific collection of, mainly modern, paintings. Although I am pretty ignorant about modern art there were quite a lot that I coveted.

Hans Leo and Doris bought their house as a spectacular ruin in the early seventies. Doris continued to work as a psychiatrist in Germany until she found a post in Montpellier and Hans Leo initially worked on the house while also running an art gallery in Montpellier.

In a very thorough, German, way, he learnt the skills of house restoration by watching a local builder, all the time taking extensive notes. The skills he acquired and the years of hard graft he put into this house have produced something which is a wonderful mixture of old, simple Cévenol style and detailed, clever adaptation to make it into a comfortable modern home with (relatively – heating is always a problem in stone houses). Well, I should say rather, they have created a magnificent library and art gallery, with living accommodation attached.

We had a delicious meal (another good cook that I will hesitate to invite chez moi!) and lots of good conversation. I will return – with my drone as well as camera – one day when the weather is not so dreich, a wonderful word I learnt living in Scotland, to describe days when it is grey, damp and generally not inviting.

Bonne Année

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”.

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.

Charles and Pierre marry

On Saturday I attended a joyful and moving wedding, that of Charles and Pierre, my good friends with whom I have played much music over the years.

They have been together since 1972, when they met singing Renaissance and Baroque music.  Pierre, formerly a tenor, no longer sings; instead he has played the recorder in our baroque music trio.  Charles has continued to sing baritone until quite recently, but mainly played the harpsichord in our trio.

They are an unusual and entertaining couple.  I think the French use of the word “original” is perhaps appropriate: full of opinions and strong sentiments, slightly removed from the modern world, and always full of energy remarkable for friends who are, shall we say, a little older than I am.

The ceremony reminded me of Jude and Ed’s wedding, in the same local Mairie ten years ago, though now there is a better room, thankfully on the ground floor given the average age of the 60+ guests.

The same mayor, Alain Durand, performed the ceremony – his first with a gay couple, although fellow councillors have already conducted two other gay marriages in our tiny commune. It was all quite lighthearted and everyone laughed when Alain included the usual text from the French Civil Code about the couple’s duties when bringing  any eventual children arising from the union.

The couple followed the formal proceedings by each giving a speech.  Pierre’s was eloquent and, as usual, floral.  He referred to landmarks in France’s history such as women’s right to vote, the abolition of capital punishment, the introduction of gay marriage….. and now a new date, his marriage with Charles, after over 40 years together.  And of course he could not resist ending with a poem.

Charles, visibly more nervous, mentioned his happiness when teaching at the Sorbonne and then an allusion to his feeling of not being accepted here for the first couple of years. Then he played a selection of, mainly French, recordings. As he said to me afterwards, he wanted people to listen to the music,  rather than it being pleasant wallpaper in the background.  What stands out for me was hearing again an absolutely beautiful old recording of a song by the French Renaissance composer, Claude Lejeun, exquisitely sung by Charles and Pierre and their friends at the Sorbonne.

Then out of the Mairie – passing through the traditional tossing of rice, and we all walked up the hill to their beautiful house, Le Caladon (where Jude and Ed also had their wedding party). It turned out that the reception was in the courtyard, with an excellent buffet, and despite turning a little chilly by nine, the threatened rain stayed off until 11 in the evening (by which time Hans, Margaret, who was driving me home, and I were well tucked up in bed).

Roy’s 75th birthday lunch

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.

 

A companion

Yesterday my friend Pierre (Charles, Pierre and 8 play music together) arrived for a minor op (also a hernia). Since his blood is not coagulating enough, his op has been postponed a day and he is in a room opposite me.

This morning we walked together over the bridge and played the game of which building we would buy. I have my eye on a filature with magnificent tall arched widows and a first floor roof terrace looking over the river. Pierre said no, a nineteenth century building was not old enough for him. It had to be the last house, a massive building probably going back to the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

Pierre conceded that if we lived here, my filature would probably serve us better as a music room. I think always of lovely it was playing music in the beautifully restored magnanerie (where formerly the silk worms were cultivated) belingong to my friend Tom Vernon, whom I still miss.

Sara’s visit

Sara’s much too short week here has whizzed by, and this morning she was off to Levens, near Nice, to her son James.

i was truly pampered – even more than usual – as Sara rose to the challenge of meals without all the yummy things we love. Apart from the odd bit of butter and a daily croissant, she loyally followed my regime. When she arrived I was not really hungry, but I regret that over the past week I have recovered my appetite. I am also much less tired, though the afternoon siesta seems to have become almost routine.

As usual Sara also did sterling stuff in the garden, clearing weeds and filling the flowerbed in front of the house with the plants we bought at the Saturday market.

Given the afternoon temperatures in the mid thirties, we enjoyed the bassin (including spending hours watching a wasp building a nest under the table!). The plant pool is looking lovely with the water lilies doing particularly well this year, and Jacky has replaced the plants around the bassin destroyed by the wild boar in the winter.

Apart from doing lots of lounging around, talking (as usual, at the same time) and playing Scrabble (I let her beat me…), we packed in a lengthy meal at Fatou’s, a good concert (Dvorak and Mendelssohn) in Molières, strolls round the villages of Molieres and Aulas, a couple of markets and cafe sessions, a trip to an amazing garden in the Valleraugue valley, offering apéritifs to my friends Charles, Pierre, Francis and Mireille – and then two tasty meals with each of these couples, who made huge efforts to adjust their cuisine to my requirements.

I’m now sitting beside the water, enjoying the evening sun. But sad my pal is no longer here. We talked much of India, which we both love. Who knows, perhaps my next big adventure might be a trip with Sara to Kerala at the end of 2019 .  Just need to tell my body to behave .

 

Sally’s visit

After that difficult week feeling unwell, suddenly I found myself cosseted and spoilt by my house guest – rather than the other way round.

Sally arrived on Monday, when I was halfway through preparing dinner.  The deal had been that my English neighbours, Janet and Neville, who were arriving on the same plane, would drive Sally up here, and that I would lay on dinner for all. Instead I had spent the morning first struggling over the problem of my disappearing/reappearing carte vitale and then queuing for a long time to see a doctor. Then I discovered I had left the trout (bought the previous day)  out of the fridge-so back again up the hill to the trout farm to buy four more.

By then I was seriously behind schedule and running out of steam. Sally took over in the kitchen, the sun came out – chasing away the morning’s thunderstorm – and we all sat outside for our aperitifs, enjoying the wonderful post-storm evening light. The menu was warm pélardons (local goat’s cheeses) and salad, then the trout and potatoes, followed by strawberries and cream (the only thing I had managed to complete). Sally somehow managed to get all this ready while at the same time being outside with us. But she is someone who has cooked and entertained with extreme competence and flair all her life. Things did not stop there; during the week, she filled my freezer with mountains of soup and chicken dishes. Wonderful.  I sat back and concentrated on getting my energy back after the bad week.

And we talked.  And talked. I would argue that Sally can talk more than me; some would suggest the reverse…  Sally and Christine (whom I had seen ten days ago when in London) are my oldest friends.  It is 67 years since Sally’s and my parents became friends and she, her sister Jane and I became friends too – though more slowly.  We all went on to grammar school together, and Jane and I went to Oxford the same time. I may only see Sally once or twice a year, but the friendship is a continuum.

The weather was supposed to be dreadful all week, but the rain held off until Sally left and we packed quite a lot of wandering around into the three full days she was here.  The highlight was a beautiful day driving up onto the Causse, the limestone plateau to the south of le Vigan, a leisurely lunch at one of my favourite restaurants at Blandas, then meandering down into the spectacular Cirque de Navacelles – and then winding up the other side, through the dramatic barren landscape, softened by  the asphodèles which were in flower, and again crossing the spectacular river Vis at Madières.

Even the car drama at Navacelles did not damage this lovely day.  We were walking back to the car when we saw a large Audi doing a slow, incompetent three-point turn – in too little space between my Smart and the cars parked on the other side of the road.  Then, in slow motion, we watched, disbelieving, as the car moved on forwards, into mine. The driver turned out to be a man of about 60 – with only one hand!  His right arm ended in a stump, with which he had been manipulating the forward-backward controls. He indicated his arm, but we made it clear this was no excuse.  The damage is not dramatic, but will have to be fixed.  The man, M. Borroso, suggested he could get it fixed in le Vigan, as he was in the trade, but I refused, and said it must be repaired by the Smart agents, my garage in Montpellier.  We exchanged names and telephone numbers and we took photos of his car and we all went on our way.  (I was to learn later that, this being France, there is paperwork we should have completed and signed jointly before leaving.)

All too soon it was Friday, and I drove Sally back to the airport. I am hoping this will be an annual (and longer) fixture.

 

 

UK visit

Back home in France, I’m sitting at my desk, gazing out on a green, green landscape, and above it blue sky with the odd fleck of passing white cloud.  And it is warm – well, warmer than London.

This must have been the coldest and wettest UK trip in my memory, but despite this, I had some lovely moments.

I originally timed this trip to say goodbye to my dear friend, Graeme, but he died sadly ten days before. Coincidentally I bumped into his sister, Clare, when in Richmond, so I was able to say again how special Graeme was.  I won’t be able to go to his funeral, which is the day I take my next friend, Sally, to the airport.

I usually manage to see Sally or Christine – my two oldest school friends, who both still live in Richmond.  This time I had lunch with Christine and her husband, Roy (just recovered from emergency heart surgery at Easter!) at their perfect Richmond pad (ground floor, three bedrooms, spitting distance from the river).

I think it is 66 years since Christine and I found ourselves together in Class B at the Vineyard Primary School . Two years later we were both in Form 1B at Tiffin Girls School – and eight years later, both went to Oxford.  There were also games of tennis, picnics, cycle rides CND marches and trouble together when we arrived home too late.  When you grow up together like that, it creates a lifetime bond. It is great that the friendship with Christine, and indeed with Roy, goes on.

This was the only non-family event in my week (if you discount an abortive shoe hunt).  I spent the first three days with the Gillies (Kate and family). There were trips to Otto and Willow’s schools in Dulwich, some guitar strumming and with Otto, taking Willow to her gym class (a graceful natural – not Filson genes, I suspect) and reading them both books.  As they grow older I find it so much more satisfying to spend time with them.  I was not a natural toddler granny, I fear.

As usual, I respect the family wishes for lack of detail or photos of the children, but I cannot resist an attempt capture the absolutely stunning transformation of their ground floor, which now has a huge kitchen/dining/sitting space, with this panoramic photo:

Then I moved on to the BPs (Jude and family), where the three days were dominated by Maddie’s fifth birthday. We started with her actual birthday on Friday, when after school I took Maddie and three equally loud and excited five year olds to the local upmarket cafe, accompanied by a (slightly) more sedate Ella and her friend, Mae.

The long suffering nanny, Katie, then took the younger contingent home, still  in the pouring rain, of course, while I went with Ella and Mae (and her very nice dad) to their choir. This turned out to be an excellent, robust event with children from various schools, who sang with great gusto and lack of inhibition.  I was amazed to discover later that Ella and Mae only started the main song, which they sang with confidence, complete with dramatic hand gestures, last week.  And while I was there, they started another song, the old favourite ‘Scarborough Fair’. I wished the children here could have heard the enthusiasm and discipline of these young singers.

Sunday’s highlight was of course the Birthday Party, which Maddie shared with Sammy, the little boy with whom she shared nursery school and, initially, nanny.  Most of the children came from The Villa, Maddie’s old – private – nursery, although several have moved to the Belham, the primary school which Maddie finally got into a fortnight ago. She has yet to acquire Ella’s passion for Belham, with memories of the vary special Villa still too vivid.  But I think she is coping.

The party was a hoot – 20 very loud children running riot in a church hall, with an almost equal number of adults hovering nearer the Prosecco bottle. After tea there was a superb entertainer, Mark, and his sister, Kate, who come from an animal rescue centre which seems to combine entertaining children with educating them about caring for animals. The children adored all the animals, from the soft, plump rabbit, to the prickly but beautiful hedgehog and the grand finale, Henry the Python.

Everybody started with a go at holding the chameleon (which also tried its best to hide on a trainer), and most took on the snake (parents included).

I can’t resist finishing on a technical note.  Unlike France, England has embraced contactless payments with enthusiasm. My British bank, Nationwide, supports Apple Pay (unlike my French bank, Credit Agricole).  This means that instead of using cash or cards, I can use my phone to make payments – or better still, my Apple watch.  Travelling on trains or buses, paying for shoes or coffee or clothes, I kept my bag firmly zipped up and instead, double clicked on my watch and placed it over the payment screen. Apart from needing coins for Maddie’s birthday present, I think I may have opened my wallet twice in a week.

Graeme

Yesterday my old friend Graeme Mitchison died.  Our family connections go back three generations and Graeme and I have known each other since we were small children.

His family moved to Richmond shortly after we did and I played often with Graeme and his older sister, Susan.  As teenagers we shared a love of music.(Our parents arranged that we swapped piano teachers, as Graeme – far more gifted – needed my more challenging teacher, while I needed someone who could tolerate a lack of practise).

We both went to Oxford together and supported each other through sometimes difficult times, and enjoyed walks, games of squash and of course meals, excellently cooked by Graeme. When I met Chris, I was so pleased that the two became instant friends, mutually admiring their different intellectual strengths.

Then Chris and I moved, first to Nigeria, then to Scotland and finally to France.  Graeme spent most of his life in Cambridge and we met mainly at Mitchison family functions.  The last time he came here was in 2016, with his sister, Clare and her husband John, for a brief but very happy visit (Graeme once again filling my freezer with goodies). Last September I saw him at a gathering to launch a book on the history of the Mitchison family and here he is – was – as always discreetly in the background.

And then, the horrible blow of his brain tumour.  I said it all in February.  We may have lived in separate countries for much of our lives, but we grew up together, shared so many common family memories, that for me it feels like losing a brother. A particularly nice, generous, modest but incredibly talented person.

Graeme

My dear friend Graeme has a particularly nasty brain tumour. I heard the news earlier this week and, although we are both over 70 and this kind of news is going to arrive more frequently, I am filled with shock as well as much sadness.

Our two families have been friends for three generations and I have known Graeme since we were small children.  We grew up in the same town, went to university together, stayed close friends when I got together with Chris.  Thereafter our contact has been spasmodic – letters, family get togethers, me attending a couple of his concerts . Because Graeme has spent his post-doctorate life in Cambridge, while I parted for Africa, Scotland and now France.

Graeme is one of the cleverest and most talented men I know – at Cambridge he has wandered between mathematics, biology and quantum physics, and at the same time plays the piano and performs at a professional level.  He is also kind, humorous, eloquent (on paper), modest and self-effacing.

What this news brings also is a sense of regret.  Why have I not made more of an effort to accept his invitations to go to his concerts, to nip up to Cambridge when visiting the children in London? It reinforces my appreciation that one has to work at obstacles like long distance or busy lives in order to see more of one’s lifelong friends. They deserve it, and their friendship enriches our lives.

I may not write much here about Graeme in the coming months.  But I find my thoughts return to him frequently as he currently undergoes radiotherapy and then faces the uncertain future thereafter.