Empty house

They have all gone home now: first the Gillies, then Sara, and on Friday the BPs. So I am left with a tranquil but sadly empty house. The washing machine ran all Saturday, I’m halfway through putting the houses back in order and as usual am building up a small pile of things left behind.

It was a good visit. All four children clearly enjoyed coming back to Granny’s house, the highlights being, of course, the pool and Poppy. Apart from the odd conference call and internet work session, the parents were also able to relax, often over a glass – or two – of wine and feverish games of Monopoly Deal, to which we are all addicted (including Ella and even Maddie).

Otto did his best to organise a table tennis championship but struggled as Sara, Jude, Ella and Maddie were firmly non-players and Ed was often cooking at crucial moments. However Otto, Steve, Kate and I had some good rounds. Otto is playing well and even managed (ahem) to beat me. But then, so did everybody else…

Water is a central feature of holidays here. Given the weather was so hot there were no river canoeing trips this year, but good visits to the beautiful river at our old campsite, La Corconne, and the BPs had their usual swim and picnic at the local river spot, le Rieumage. The huge pool next door was used also, for some group jumping exercises. But what is nice is how much my bassin is appreciated. The children enjoyed sharing it with the three goldfish who are now residents, as well as lolling around on floatable toys.

The big surprise was that Maddie, who in Portugal in May was still refusing to get her face wet, was not only prepared to jump into the water, but like the other three, seemed to spend more time under water than on the surface. This image could have been any one of the four:

A sign of the times, all four spent what seemed to be a huge amount of time on various devices – iPads and Kindles – often playing with each other across the internet. But then, I can remember that at their age I spent hours on holiday (particularly on wet days) playing cards and board games.

What is encouraging is that they also spent time on entertaining us (Ella of course acting as Producer, and Otto starring as the most enthusiastic singer), and all four were often engrossed in producing booklets or pictures. Here, for example, is a booklet produced by Willow (aged 7) which I found today when clearing up.

I took only a few family photos (partly out of respect for Kate and Jude not being happy with clients tracking down family pages. So here are my mainly non-family memories of summer.

Ethical travel

Thanks to Trump my big autumn project – a trip to Iran – is now off the agenda. I had been so looking forward to this visit. I love Islamic architecture and Iran is stacked full of history and beautiful buildings.

There were always lots of reasons not to go to Iran. It would have been the most expensive holiday of my lifetime, not least because even before the new, serious eruption in diplomatic relations, I would have been unable to travel independently. Because of Britain’s alignment with American foreign policy, British tourists were already covered by the same requirement to either travel in an officially accepted group (someone I would not want to do) or to employ a ‘guide’ at all times.

My family was concerned that the trip would not have been safe. I was less concerned by this. I am used to travelling on my own; I know when to keep my mouth shut (at least when travelling!); at 76 I don’t risk the unwelcome advances that younger women might face; and if I get ill, there are good hospitals in Iran (and I would have taken out repatriation insurance). I do acknowledge that I could always run the risk of losing my papers or money. That is a growing risk wherever I am!

More serious was the criticism that travelling to Iran would be visiting a country with serious human rights issues and would be implicitly validating the regime. That is the most complex of the objections and one for which there is no easy answer.

Should one not visit a country whose governance one disapproves of, whose values are not your own? Should one boycott countries which have serious abuses of human rights, which treat women unfairly, which persecute minority groups, which employ child labour, which have the death penalty, which imprison people without trial, which govern secretively and inject fear in their citizens, which do untold damage to the future of the planet (eg destroying forests)? What countries are left? Do I want to visit them? What is the impact of tourists not visiting these countries?

Perhaps one should just stay at home? After all, the other argument against travel is that going anywhere is likely to involve energy issues, particularly if you fly. (It was so much easier in the days before mass tourism, when to travel was a minority interest, and flying was not doing serious damage to our planet.)

My problem is I love travelling. I even like the actual process of going from one country to another (though I draw the line at enjoying airports). I love seeing other ways of living, meeting different people, eating different food and enjoying the history and architecture of other countries.

I would have liked to have travelled more during my life, but was constrained, like most people, by lack of cash and demands of family and work. Further, Chris did not like travelling. When the children were young, once we arrived at the campsite every summer, he was happy not to budge another inch. Again, in retirement he was content to stay put. Since he died I have had a series of health issues which have inhibited my wanderlust, though I have of course been to Italy a couple of times, Istanbul, and this year, Lisbon and Barcelona.

Because I love travelling I am tempted to play the devil’s advocate when faced with objections about the ethicality of going somewhere. I find it is not a black and white question, there are nuances.

It matters, for example, if you can distinguish between the behaviour of a regime and the attitudes of a significant number of its citizens. So when we went to Istanbul I considered that much of its population were not Erdogan supporters and did not deserve to be boycotted.

There are other instances when most citizens side with the regime. You could argue that this was the case in South Africa in the days of apartheid, and in Israel and Myanmar.

I have to confess that aged 23 I did in fact go round South Africa, at the start of my journey through the continent. My friend, Wenol, and I went in order to see apartheid for ourselves, and compare it with Nigeria, where we had been living and working. Indeed, we had the good fortune to meet some of the leading opponents to apartheid and to see for ourselves some of the worst aspects of the regime, but still, I wonder now if I should have gone.

You could argue that I should go to Israel and Myanmar for similar reasons, to see for myself. But I think I would be too uncomfortable with this. I would feel that going would be condoning systems to which I am totally opposed. In these three cases I think the value of a general boycott to demonstrate disapproval does bear some weight.

So if there is a line of places where I should not visit and those where it is OK, where is the cut-off point? It is completely subjective, I think. If you boycott all places with one of the no-noes on my list, there are few places left in the world. So for me it is a question of being comfortable with my visit not being seen as condoning the abuses.

So I suppose if Israel and Myanmar are at one end of the scale (with China and the US not far behind) and Finland, say, at the other, Istanbul, Iran- and indeed now India with its Hindu nationalism – are in an uncomfortable position in the middle. I would visit these countries so long as my visit was not seen as validating a regime or principles to which I am opposed and so long as I expected the people I met to be largely welcoming and open to other ideas.

So what now in the Autumn? I am thinking of going to Morocco.


I have always lost, or more often, mislaid spectacles, car keys, and – since mobiles were invented – phones..

When my daughters were young they gave me a present of a gadget to attach to keys which, if you whistled, would make them ring out.  (It had to be abandoned because the keys started to respond to laughter.)
More recently my Apple Watch (and iPad) allows me to identify where my phone is. But nothing helps me track down my specs or car keys. (There are various tiles on the market but they are all too large to be useful, in my view.)

How often I have gone through the house, starting with my desk, my bedside table, with ledges at eye level, and then scouring all rooms, drawers, under the car seats… getting more and more annoyed with myself as I keep checking in the same places again and again.

I have had a recent worrying bout of losing or misplaying spectacles.  It started in Lisbon, where I must have left my sun specs on a cafe table. In Barcelona I bought a replacement pair. Then on Saturday I thought I had left these in the Ecole de Musique, which was closed for the Pentecote holiday, and bought a second, cheaper pair as a backup. Only to discover later that I had put my sun specs into the case for my cello/computer specs!

It continued. On Tuesday we had our small end of year cellists concert, in which I was playing several times.  I opened my cello/computer specs case – only to find it was empty.  Panic! I struggled through the performances, as always already hit by performance nerves, peering at the music, sometimes playing a wrong note (hoping that the audience – mainly parents of the other cellists – did not notice). Worse still, at the end of the concert, when Anne out teacher was tidying up, she found my specs on a table.  I had in fact taken them out of the case and, presumably while doing something like fishing out my music, absentmindedly put them to one side.

That’s the key problem: being absent minded or lacking concentration.  As I said, these are not new character traits, but I do get worried that – along with forgetting people’s names – they are occurring more often. If you are 76 you cannot but ask yourself if these are the first signs of dementia!

I keep telling myself that playing the cello, playing with my computer, learning new photographic skills, not to mention meeting the challenge of talking in two languages, must all help the poor old brain keep on working.

Pupitre de violoncelles

Pascale, who sits next to me in the ‘orchestra’, took this photo while we were waiting to start yesterday’s concert (mine is far left).

I tend to put quotes round the word orchestra because it seems presumptuous to apply it to our motley band. Its members range from eight to nearly eighty year olds – with the emphasis on pensioners rather than schoolchildren. Ability levels are extreme, to put it mildly. But it is great fun.

Christophe (the brass teacher at the Ecole de Musique) has been building up our orchestra since last autumn. He works us hard – over two hours most Saturday mornings, but the results are incredible. Somehow, from being able to play virtually nothing, our band passes muster and we performed a programme which lasted about an hour. And that after a morning rehearsal for three hours. The wind players were complaining about the exhaustion of their reeds and lips; my dodgy right shoulder was seizing up.

Some of the music, like ‘Autumn’, from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, was included so that the children were able to play. Others, like Shostakovich’s Second Sonata was a little more demanding. There were plenty of bits, like Albinoni’s Adagio, with well known themes. So a popular rather than strictly classical concert. And the audience of course was friends and families.

The cello section has grown – disproportionately to the violin section, where the little childen outnumber the adults (a good sign for the future). We are now four adults, of whom two are relative beginners, and one nine-year-old, Lilou, who is going to be very good.

We have to be optimistic about the future of music in the Pays Viganais. A new scheme – financed partly nationally, partly by the Pays Viganais – has been launched, and 162 primary school children will start learning instruments in the autumn, with lessons, groups sessions and instruments all provided free. This is really a novelty here, where parents have expected to pay for music, thus making it really a minority activity. But over the past ten years a national initiative has been growing and now it is our turn to benefit from this.

The village school in Bréau will have 33 children learning string instruments, mainly the violin. They will initially learn also to pay together in their school. Hopefully one day some of them will join us in the orchestre de l’Ecole de Musique.

My two bêtes noires

Well I have already dealt with one last week – l’administration française – and emerged triumphant, with my carte de séjour. Now I am faced by a bigger monster: Orange, the French telephone company, the largely privatised successor to France Telecom.

The only thing to be said in favour of Orange, which is the largest provider in France, is that apparently the three other big operators are even worse.

I pay for a package which includes mobile phone and internet. I don’t expect great reception. After all I live in the sticks. One becomes used to watching the satellite signal on the phone drop from one pathetic blob to none. The performance of the internet is not brilliant either, particularly when using FaceTime (like Skype) for chats with the family, or watching television (I have found a way to watch UK channels as well as the excellent French-German Arte)

Since Christmas I have the feeling the internet speed has got worse and for the past month it has become progressively unusable. I’m not talking about comparisons with metropolitan areas; I’m talking about a download speed which has dropped from a just about acceptable 8Mbps to less than 1Mbs. I have an app called SpeedTester and have started collecting records in order to complain to Orange. This is what it showed last night:

A download speed of less than half a Mbps is unusable. I was trying to do simple things like looking for swimming costumes for a family trip in three weeks – and had to give up. Even emails take for ever to download.

I have tried to phone Orange, but gave up after the usual lengthy time pressing options 1, 2 and 3 or trying to explain my problem (in French of course) to a computer ‘help’ person. I’m going to have another bash later in the week, when I have more time and when I have calmed down.

There is light at the end of the tunnel: we are going to have fibre optic up to the corner of my land. They are laying the cable now, with roadworks rapidly moving up the hill towards my house, but apparently it could be many months before the fibre optic is brought into service.

This morning I passed the mayor and his deputy inspecting the roadworks and mentioned my problems. Ah, said Yves, the deputy, that will be the wind. Or maybe, he added, the weekend….

Now to see if I have enough internet to post this!

Chez Fatou

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.

A truly Renaissance man

Next month I will be attending a memorial day in Cambridge for my lifelong friend, Graeme Mitchison, who died last year.

When I received the invitation and detailed programme, which includes sessions on maths, biology and a concert, as well as the usual dinner and speeches, I once again found myself thinking of this remarkable man, whom I have known since we were small children and will always miss. Amazingly I have found the best obituary in one of my bêtes-noires, the Daily Telegraph.  I have sneakily reproduced it here.

Obituary in Daily Telegraph

Declining income

I have just been preparing my annual income spreadsheet, in preparation for next month’s income tax declaration. It does not make for happy reading.

My main income is from my university pensions (my own pension and that as Chris’s widow). These are paid into my French bank account (clocking up charges on the way) and my income spreadsheet shows that between 2015 and today my income has gone down – by several thousand euros.

Exchange rates are strange things: often you cannot really explain why the annual figure fluctuated up or down. But this table shows one of the reasons we were so much better off when we first paid French income tax in 2001. Then you can see the result of the 2008 recession. And then the fall in the value of the pound since the Brexit referendum cannot be a coincidence.

Disappearing car

We may live in a rural backwater, but that does not mean there is no car-related crime. 

A fortnight ago I was driving through le Vigan when I spotted a little white car with no wheels, at the spot where I knew my English neighbours had parked their car when en route to the airport last autumn.

Yes, sadly, it was their car.  They had planned to return shortly after and so left the car near the bus stop – and then family problems meant they had not come – and had forgotten about the car. Too late they kicked themselves for having done nothing.

I said I would check the price of wheels (though we both suspected these would cost more than the value of the car) and if not, find someone to help dispose of the car.

Before I could do that, there was another blow: the car had disappeared. Yesterday I went to the Gendarmerie, but they knew nothing about it. Next stop was the Hôtel de Ville to see if the municipal police had removed the car. It turns out that there is now only one municipal police officer and he is on holiday this week! (So I suppose one can park anywhere in town with impunity.)

We will have to wait till next week before finding out if the car has been impounded and what the fine might be. At least I have learnt a new French word: the car is almost certainly à la fourrière.

Childhood magic

We are in the middle of half term here – a whole two weeks! And suddenly there are children everywhere, parked chez les grandparents. 

I passed two children playing in my neighbours garden.  Aged nine and six, they were busy mixing magic potions, using mainly an assortment of green herbs and earth.

Then yesterday I had a brief discussion with my granddaughters, aged nine and five. Guess what, they were mixing magic potions. Theirs were a mixture of flour and food colouring. 

The session ended suddenly; the potion had stained the white dining table. Emergency action was needed.