Parking meters

Yesterday I spent a farcical hour wrestling with Montpellier’s parking meter system.

I had booked into an incredibly cheap hotel for the night, rather than return home – and then set off again today to take my plane to Morocco – and I found a parking spot on a busy road near the hotel.

In no hurry – at least at first – I sat in my car and watched a young man try to pay for his parking, and fail. Then I tried, and failed. Each time I got to the end of the convoluted process there was a message « annulation » and I had to remove my card.

I rang the number on the meter and got through to a very nice woman (Moroccan?) who directed me to a nearby meter. Actually I went first to the wrong one, which was not only impossible to read because it was in the full sunshine but also because the instruction screen had been vandalised. I tried to guess what it was saying several times, failed – and went onto the third meter, the one I was supposed to have used.

I failed here too, but as there was by now only an hour before parking was free, I shoved in two euros and retreated, exhausted, to the hotel.

When it works, the system of inserting your bank card, stating how long you want to stay and entering your car’s registration number works well. When it doesn’t you are back in the nightmare world where technology makes thinks harder not simpler.


Amazingly the new Livebox was ready to be picked up from le Vigan today and after a couple of hours, success.

The new box is up and running, with renamed id and password (rather than the usual ridiculous string wretched visitors have to type in), the Netgear wifi extender has been reconfigured to the new box and all devices connected.

Most satisfying of all, I’m getting an internet speed of about 7-8 Mbps rather than the <1. Not exactly an intercity express, but certainly a solid reliable goods train. To check it worked I watched the second half of the Nadal-Kyrgios match without a single hiccup. No more horrible buffering symbols.

This all goes to show that once again an Orange customer was right and the technical service wrong: the problem lay with the Livebox.

Yes, I know I am a sad case of a techy nerd, but it is such a relief to have the internet working reasonably after months of problems. It has made me realise how much I depended on it.

Orange battle continues

Things have got even worse since I last wrote about my internet service . Not only can I not talk to my family using FaceTime (like Skype) or watch British TV news, but now I cannot even use the internet to listen to the radio – or even log onto the Orange site to look at the details of my contract and use ‘chat’ to complain.

I did manage an unsatisfactory chat two weeks ago, when once again the Orange employee brought out the standard line that the network here is poor but all will change shortly. And I keep repeating there is ‘poor’ and ‘very poor’. My service is significantly worse than my neighbours.

I have changed the channel, as recommended by Orange. And I have bought a wifi extender to try and stop the internet dropping when further than a couple of yards from the Livebox (the orange router and wifi server). All to no avail.

Today I tried a new technique. If I ring the standard number I end up tapping options into the phone and never talking to a human. There is also an English-speaking service and here – wonders – after a ten-minute wait, I was speaking to a human. Well, sort of. It soon became obvious that the Orange training had been effective: she had the responses pat – presumably reading them out from her screen.

Me: I know there is a problem with the network in this area and that we will have a better service in six months, but my problems are growing daily and cannot wait that long. I explain that the download speed is often less than 1 MBps and the wifi connection has increasingly started to drop.

Orange: there is a problem with the network and it will improve in a few months.

Me: Yes, I know. I just said that. But meanwhile my internet is getting worse daily, unlike my neighbours, and I wonder if could be either my line or my Livebox (I have version 2 and the current box is version 4(.

Orange: I will check your line and box. (Several minutes later). There is nothing wrong with the connection or your box. And the download speed registers as 8MBps.

Me: But that is not possible. I have not had a speed like that for two months.

Orange: This is because you are using wifi not ethernet.

Me: I expect a small degradation in speed, but not a reduction of 1/8. What’s more, my neighbours dont have this problem.

Orange: Ah, but your neighbours’ lines may go elsewhere.

Me: No. They all go to the box at the corner of my land. One of my friends (Hans) regularly has a speed of above 8Mbps.

Orange: (checks Hans’ line and confirms that his download speed is currently 9MBps). You will need to talk to our commercial service; he is on a better contract than you.

Me: I am astonished. I did not know that the internet speed was determined by your contract, which I thought covered things like just how much you can download in a month. Further, I happen to know that Hans pays less a month than my nearly 100 euros! But OK, I say, I will talk to the commercial division.

Orange: (a few minutes later) The commercial service closes in five minutes, at 5pm. Please ring them tomorrow at 9am. (We have been on the phone for an hour and my landline phone is out of battery anyway.)

So next step: the commercial division at 9am tomorrow. I will be interested to know what contract I am on (since I cannot check it online!) and how much longer I have to do battle to get a new Livebox. Hans got so fed up he picked his old one up and drove to our nearest store in Montpellier, some 80km away to insist on it being replaced. I may well be doing this tomorrow.

You do feel so impotent. Orange is the privatised version of the old France Télécom we joined up with back in the 90s. It is one of the four big providers and essentially has a near monopolistic stranglehold on telecommunications in France. None of the so-called advantages of competition in a capitalist market place and none of the consumer rights you expect to find in a publicly owned service.

Next morning. Update.

Wow! Success – sort of. I talked to a very nice woman in Paris (commercial service – so customer relations are important…). I have upgraded my Orange contract (more money, so I am taking the risk of cancelling my iPhone insurance) and not only will I be entitled to a new Livebox but calls to mobiles in Europe are free – including the UK. (She assures me that for five years after Brexit this will continue.)

The downside is I have to wait several days, perhaps till next week, for the Livebox to arrive in le Vigan. Don’t ask me why it should take so long!

So the moral of the story is that it pays to use the English language service, in order to talk to humans not robots.

A blog for whom

Phew, that blog on Lisbon and Barcelona was a bit over the top. I won’t do that again.

The trouble was that not only did I not have the time or energy to do daily entries, which would have produced more manageable chunks, but also I discovered I had a problem uploading photos..

For those who know what on earth I am talking about, I normally import photos from the camera card into Lightroom on my Mac – and then upload smaller versions from Lightroom to my website. I travel with my iPad not my Mac. I can import photos from my card to the iPad Photos app – but then I don’t know how to reduce the size of files before uploading them to my website. If anybody knows how to do this, perhaps using the IOS version of Lightroom, please tell me.

At least I can now add this entry to the more permanent part of my site, under Travel.

In my defence, I see my blog primarily as a diary for myself – and those family and friends who enjoy knowing what I am up to or what I think. Already my posts are too wordy – I am a compulsive scribbler (though these days I suppose I should say keyboard tapper). But life is too short to work at my text – those days of refining and pruning are over.

An expensive week

My iPad is an absolute essential part of my life. I use it each evening to watch Channel 4 News (with depression, anger and disbelief at the latest Brexit instalment). I sit on the sofa with it rather than in front of my computer and invariably write emails, watch rubbish on telly, look at photos, listen to music (played out on my speakers) – and generally pass the evening with it. Living alone, it is my companion, a buffer against solitude. Well, it and Poppy, of course…

So imagine the disaster when last week, when carrying my water, my iPad (minus its sleeve), a notebook and pen, and some medication from the bedroom to the main room, the iPad slid from my hand and tumbled to the floor, landing face down on the hard tiles. Yes, in one careless move I had smashed my iPad screen.

I then discovered that the the price of replacing an iPad screen has risen with each model. If I went to Apple it would cost 400 euros and the cheapest quote I could get in Montpellier was for 239 euros- for an iPad which is over three years old.

I swithered for a week and then I took a deep breath and bought a new iPad, for an astronomic price which I am to embarrassed to repeat here. I just could not bear shelling out all that money for what is, in the world of technology, an ageing piece of kit. I paid out even more as for the first time Ihave bought AppleShare insurance against breakages!

My partner in crime in the trip to the Montpellier Apple Store was my friend Dessa, whose collection of gadgets probably equals mine – we bought our Apple watches together. Embarrassingly as we entered the store several of the assistants greeted us like old friends.

The assistant who helped me set up my new iPad was a new acquaintance, a charming young man of Algerian descent. I know this because before long we were talking about Brexit and becoming French (he has double nationality now and said it was not difficult to obtain – times have changed, I fear). We then had the most extraordinary discussion in which he expressed sympathy with the Brexiteers and went on to praise Trump. That got Dessa (American/Dutch) really going, as she tried to convince him how wrong he was. I suspect he could have been a gilet jaune supporter, but he certainly stunned us. We parted amicably of course and he said how much he had enjoyed a challenging disagreement.

As for my old iPad, I have given it to my friend, Sonia, the ambulance driver. So it is going to a good home.

Drone practice

Now that Spring has come I am trying to improve my drone skills. Apart from a couple of ‘estate agent’ sorties, I am concentrating on improving my navigation manoeuvres over my own land.

It is not easy: I have to squint (in the sunshine) at the complex menu on my small iPhone screen, which works together with the remote controller – and at the same time, glance up frequently to ensure that my drone is not heading for trees – or freedom further afield … …

In order to improve my skills I have been following some online drone forums, which provide a lot of useful information (more comprehensible than than the instructions provided by the Chinese manufacturer, DJI). At the same time I am switched off by some of the comments by the predominantly male macho community. Inevitable, I suppose, if I choose to wander into a toys-for-boys world… …


Once again we are awash.  Here is today’s newspaper warning.  We are in the orange bit with symbols of heavy rain.

Black clouds are scudding across from the Mediterranean, the rain is coming down in buckets rather than drops, and every so often rolls of thunder add to the menacing air.

Sensible people stayed indoors, but I ventured out to help some friends with their computing problems (and got a good lunch in exchange). We were constantly having to turn off computers and internet connections as the thunder rolled around overhead.

Problems all solved – other than the ongoing one that Poppy does not understand that she must go out alone in this weather. She is very bored.

First week with drone

The reason for getting a drone was to take a different sort of photo.  After one week I have managed to get the drone up several times, crashed it once, taken some jerky videos, but so far no photos.

I recognise that being able to take decent photos is somewhere further along the learning curve, but still, here are some examples of snapshots taken from the videos.

Apart from the crash into trees beside a football pitch, I have confined myself to home ground, hoping that it would be easier to rescue a crashed drone.  As the week progressed I felt adventurous enough to take it to my friend, Dessa, who lives in a stunning old hamlet, la Rouvierette, a collection of old houses running along a ridge looking down and over the valley of the Hérault below.

I discovered immediately that this would be a tricky site: there were too many trees round her house and I am not experienced enough yet to avoid them.  It is unnerving when the drone disappears out of sight and I find squinting into my phone screen – the only way of tracking it –  a bit of a challenge in the glaring sunshine. Concentration was made even more difficult when we were joined almost immediately by the neighbours’ children and then their parents. Still, fun was had by all.

Du soleil

What a wonderful weekend it has been: sunshine, no wind and temperatures in the mid-twenties.

Apparently the beaches round Montpellier were full of sun-worshippers.  Here, people just rejoiced that for once the lovely weather coincided with the weekend.

It is extraordinary how here we leap from one extreme to the other – the unrelenting rain of ten days ago being replaced by a balmy Indian summer. The good weather is set to continue all week, albeit with cooler temperatures.

Yesterday was supposed to witness my next step in the drone journey: a video clip taken above my house. Afterwards I took the card out of the drone and discovered that aerial footage was blank.  I think I had failed to press the video button twice.  Instead, all I got was a couple of minutes of a blurred image of an insect crawling in front of the drone, as it waited for takeoff on a rock beside me while I consulted the manual.

Another technical challenge is how to create clips of an acceptable size for the internet, rather than this simple screenshot.

Aha.  Some time later…. I have just made my first video with the drone.

A day later:

And here is a second, less jerky video.

This was made after I crashed into some trees . The learning curve continues.

Nerdy Granny. My tech journey

I have just bought a drone!  But before I explain further, I want to go back and reflect on how on earth I came to be even thinking of buying one.

I have always had a weakness for gadgets and machines.  I suppose if I am honest this goes back to my teens, when I bought an elderly Lambretta 150cc scooter from the gym mistress and became the first sixth former to drive on two wheels to school.

The two wheelers became more efficient over the years: first a replacement Lambretta when at university, then better performing Hondas in Nigeria, then  back a step in France, with a series of mobylettes with more character than efficiency, before Chris and I returned to Italian scooters, this time Piaggios.

In the meantime, of course, I acquired a succession of four wheelers.  I have always loved driving, from my first car, a spanking new Mini when I was a reporter, a Peugeot in Nigeria (underpowered), a rusty old Renault 4 van in Scotland (I was particularly attached to this, holes in the floor, doors that fell off, and all), a sturdy Lada and then a boring family Renault 12, then a VW hippy campervan which walked rather than ran up the French hills, then a later one, which drove faster but did not have the same charm (but was equally unreliable), on to Citroens (much more reliable), and now, of course, my quirky two-seater Smart car (still capable of generating speeding tickets, I’m afraid).

Cameras have had the same chequered and varied journey.  My childhood Kodak Brownie 127 produced a small number of dark, monochrome snapshots.  It was replaced by a hand-me-down from my mother whose photos were equally dull and only marginally more in focus.  It finally fell from favour when my friend, Wenol, and I were making our epic voyage through Africa, and I realised that not a single shot of the Victoria Falls had worked – the shutter had finally stuck on open. In the Zambia we hitched a lift with a crop sprayer who showed us his Pentax single lens reflex camera, and when we reached Nairobi, we both bought the same model (and as a result were so short of cash we nearly did not make it back to Europe).

When the children were young I graduated through a number of other SLR cameras, from black and white to colour, and as time progressed, moved into the world of digital photography – perhaps the biggest transition of all.

The biggest camera purchase of all was done on impulse.  In 2003 I said goodbye to Chris and set off for my first trip to India.  En route, in Montpellier, I bought a Canon DSLR, but it was several days before I dared to write to Chris to confess. My excuse?  It would perhaps be the only time in my life when I would see the Taj Mahal, which deserved a better camera than I had. (Indeed I was very pleased with my photos of India and mounted an exhibition in our local village on my return). Ultimately it cost too much buying lenses for this first Canon and its successor, and they were too heavy. So I downgraded to what are known as mirrorless cameras and currently have a Sony a6500.

Meanwhile there was another strand to my techie journey: my progress through many (too many) computers and phones. It all started in the mid-eighties when I progressed from a BBC microcomputer to the purchase of my first Mac, which I was also using at work.  I progressed through various generations of Mac till 2013, when I bought my most recent one, a laptop called a MacBook Air (with a giant monitor when at my desk).

But that is not enough.  Oh no. Just as my camera journey has sort of moved back to something less powerful but more portable, so too in the world of computers and the gadgets that have followed.  In the 1990s I briefly possessed an Newton – perhaps the first machine to have a go at handwriting recognition – before Steve Jobs killed off the Newtons.  So, naturally, I was an early adoptee of the Apple iPhone and, later, iPad. Both tools which as a techy addict I regard as essential to enjoyment of life.

So there I was, ten years ago, adjusting to life after Chris’s death, relatively stable in my car ownership life.  After Chris died I sold our scooters and replaced our Citroen van with the splendid Berlingo, which I only gave up last year because I needed to adjust to life after shoulder operations. But my world of cameras and electronic gadgets has not been so stable or, one might say, mature….

Over the last five years, I have been hospitalised over seven times, accounting for an average of over two months a year. Each hospital stay has one upside: I save the normal daily expenses (food, petrol, heating and so on).  As I explained to one of my VSL (ambulance taxi) drivers, Sonia, I felt I had some justification in spending these ‘savings’ on consumer durables, compensating for the reduction in my mobility, bringing me another sort of enjoyment: mastering technology.

The other day Sonia reminded me of this, how when  driving me back and forth from hospitals she witnessed my ‘excuse’ for upgrading my iPhone (I have the iPhone x which takes splendid photos), splashing out on an Apple Watch (I was egged on by Sonia, who already had an earlier model) and – again, encouraged by Sonia, this year’s reward for three hospital stays for my innards: a drone.

Now one of the failings of many amateur photographers like me is thinking that somehow the kit will help you take better photos.  Alas, this is not the case, but I still enjoy trying to improve. At present I am trying to take better photos using my combination of iPhone (the camera that is always in your pocket) and Sony. That ought to be enough of a challenge to keep me fully occupied (and indeed this winter I want to find a teacher to help me improve with the Sony).

But I have been seduced by the appeal of taking photos from above or, compensating for reduced mobility, just a little off the track I am on.  I have dithered and researched and finally, last week, gave in.  I bought the DJI Spark drone.  DJI is the Chinese market leader in consumer drones, and the Spark is their cheapest model.

For those who have no idea what I am talking about, a consumer drone such as the Spark is like a small helicopter with a camera on board, capable of taking both photos and video.  Here is mine, sitting beside my phone.

Just at present I am at stage one: learning how to fly the drone, petrified of losing it caught in trees, sinking into my pool or simply crashing to the ground.

I have spent ages watching ‘how to’ videos on YouTube (invariably by nerdy young men) and am just about mastering how to keep the drone above me and not inadvertently muddle forward with backward or up with down on my two joysticks.

Yesterday I dared take my first photo with it.

My first ever drone photo

Not great, but the triumph was taking it and then transferring it successfully to my computer. I think it will be a little while before I progress significantly to stage two: taking decent photos.

Meanwhile I also have to take in all the rules about flying drones in France (not over towns or villages, not near airports or military zones, not above big crowd events, not over the Parc des Cévennes).  All of these are completely understandable and defensible and, given the potential for privacy invasion or causing danger to others, my position as a drone owner is not easy to defend.  So I won’t attempt to.  Well, not for now, as I want to go out in the sunshine and master today’s self imposed task: how to make the gimbal move up and down, so the camera can look down, not just straight ahead.