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.

Estate agent duties

Owning a drone has taken an unexpected turn. After providing Dessa and her neighbour with information about the state of their roofs, I am now providing images for friends wanting to sell their houses.

A Scottish couple who are selling their house in Mars, the next door village, asked me for some aerial shots for their sales literature. We will be doing these together shortly (once Spring shows some appearance) but I have provided them with some initial samples.

My friend Dessa has two houses and has been trying unsuccessfully to sell one of them. The trouble is that it is huge and beautiful but needs a fortune spending on it to insulate the roof, instal central heating and provide a septic tank that meets the ‘norms’. People keep visiting, falling in love with it, going away to do their sums – and not coming back. So Dessa is going to review her selling strategy, but knows this must include a portfolio of pictures that do the place justice. Here is my first stab at aerial views.

Internet struggles

I have to all intents and purposes had no internet for a week.  Already horribly slow, it has got slower and slower and finally ground to a halt on Friday with a download speed of 0.1 Mps.  The Speedtest Global Index  reported the country with the slowest speed in December was Tajikistan – with 5 Mps.

When I could not even receive emails, let alone images or movies, I decided to ring Orange – as  last resort, with little hope of achieving anything. But miracle, after 90 minutes of talking to a guy in Morocco, with much rebooting of my router, my connection is miraculously working again!

The support person had just rebooted something at his end and then, on hearing I was using a Mac, said hastily he was passing my problem to a colleague – and I was disconnected. After waiting in vain a further half an hour fora call from the Mac support person, I decided to retry the internet, and miracle – the speed was up to 8 Mps (a snail’s pace in global terms but a hare’s in this neck of the woods). Just now it is 5.1 Mps, which is  bearable.

There are better times ahead, however. On Tuesday I went to see the mare of Bréau to ask if the roadworks in Serres included network cables and if so, would Pied Méjean, where I live, be included.

Alain, the maire, and his adjoint, Yves, said that the Serres work was general upgrading of electricity cables and lights and did not include Pied Méjean.  However, the local internet hub – and ugly white box at the foot of my property – was due to be upgraded to fibre optic in December.  It is running late, but we can but hope that 2019 will see an improvement in internet services, and I am the best placed to benefit!

It still remains a mystery to me why so many friends in and around le Vigan are suddenly experiencing a dramatic drop in internet speed.  Yesterday I was due to help my friend Dessa with some computing problems.  Eventually we had to abandon trying to get an internet connection and decamp to my house – a good 30 minutes drive away.

A difficult week

Wow, over a week has passed since I last wrote.  This time has been dominated by my car.  Tuesday was a busy day – first the Bréau Christmas lunch for pensioners and then an afternoon of music rehearsals.

After a morning battling with the airport’s non-functioning system of booking a parking place for next week’s trip to the UK, I was late. I climbed into my car, turned the ignition and – nothing, The lights were on, so not a flat battery, but nothing turned over and during several attempts various warning messages flashed by. Oh dear, an electronic problem.

I got to the lunch, thanks to my friends Charles and Pierre.  (Didn’t enjoy it as I had a splitting headache and 96 pensioners packed into too small a space did not help.).

Then on to my first cello event, my lesson with Anne, driving an old car belonging to Charles and Pierre’s. In between this and my next appointment, I rushed round, talking to my insurers and others, establishing that getting my car to the garage in Montpellier could cost me over €200!

This did not help my next performance, with Jean Sebastian, the pianist – my last rehearsal before next month’s concert. Nor did my headache. Then before my final musical event – rehearsing with beginners for another ‘audition’ next week, I rang my garage.

Now why did I not do that earlier?  I discovered that I was still under a service contract, despite being into my second year of ownership, and that my car would be picked up and taken to Montpellier for free.  Phew!

So Wednesday morning a guy turned up with his lorry, got the car working, thus establishing there was a problem with the battery, but insisted that the electronics needed checking over as this failure was not normal. So I said goodbye to my little car, all set to see it again the following day.

Then I started to feel ill.  I realise now the headache had been the start.  By the evening it began to feel horribly like another occlusion.  I was not in a good place.  At midnight, in a calm moment, I packed my bag in anticipation of another trip to the clinic at Ganges.

Then I was sick, very sick, twice. And miraculously by 2am I felt things calming down. I managed to doze through the rest of the night and, amazing, in the morning I felt weak but better. Emergency averted, I hoped.  Just as well, as my next challenge was getting to medical appointments in Montpellier by the afternoon.

With my borrowed car (not fit for long journeys), I drove to le Vigan, took the bus to Montpellier (what a bargain – €1.60 for 70 km) and continued by tram and then on foot (in the pouring rain) to the Clinique St Jean. I was there to see an anaesthetist, in preparation for the thermocoagulation injection into my spine next month. Then on, still in freezing rain, to an appointment with a specialist physio, who measured my mobility before the event and will see me again after.

I had hoped to return in my car, but of course it was not ready, so back home by tram and bus. Actually it was a jolly occasion.  I sat at the front and one of my neighbours said as I entered “Ah, voici la violoncelliste”. She was a former councillor in le Vigan who used to attend our concerts regularly.  The woman next to me was also very cheery (I kept quiet when she enthused about the gilets jaunes). The driver joined in the conversations too.  I discovered his family have the magnificent old house at the far end of the Vieux Pont, the splendid romanesque bridge in le Vigan.

Thursday, after thankfully an uneventful night, I was back in the bus to Montpellier to collect my car.  This was a three hour journey – bus followed by two trams, so I was relieved to find that my car was indeed ready.  And even more relieved that I did not have to pay a penny.  (I don’t like the fact that the receptionist at this huge Mercedes and Smart garage greets me by name – I have had uncomfortably too many visits here in the last year.) Nobody could explain the electronic fault, but they replaced the battery, rebooted the electronics system and ran various tests.  I still love my car, despite its heavy reliance on electronics and potentially expensive bills in the future.

Oh and I forgot to mention that I had been ringing Lionel, my builder, regularly, chastising him for not coming to look at my roof leak. This week he came, apologetic for the long delay.  The crack in the cement at the top of the roof was found (caused he thought by the summer heat) and repaired, so hopefully all is now well.

Lionel had brought his team from a bigger job the other side of Ganges.  He said that there was now so little money available for building in the le Vigan area that he had had to move his business to places between Ganges and Montpellier.  Another worrying indicator that the economic life of our area is in jeopardy.

Now this weekend I must practise the cello to make up for the three days of not touching my instrument.

Right to stay – the next step

Today I finally got to hand in my application for a carte de séjour permanent.  This is the dossier I painstakingly prepared in July and mistakenly took to the Préfecture of the Gard, in Nimes, on 6th October rather than 6th December. Off I set again – before dawn, but this time on the right day.

The Gilets Jaunes were out at various roundabouts on the way to Nimes and outside the huge and unappealing Préfecture building.  So I had to present my passport, explain my business, before being let in though a narrow opening of a side gate, with gendarmes and prefecture staff controlling all movements.

Inside, the Accueil des Etrangers was cordoned off from the rest of the Prefecture.  It was packed with foreigners, several clearly asylum seekers. But unlike my earlier visits in those first years that we were living here, the atmosphere was  business-like but perfectly friendly – non of that xenophobic surliness that I remembered.  And instead of one dark room with a bullet-proof grille through which one talked, there was a large waiting room, reminiscent of British benefit offices, with six reception desks.

I was summoned to desk C and  handed my dossier to the  official.  I felt like a smug schoolgirl when he commented on how well organised it was, unlike some of the documents they receive.  I had divided the documentation required into sections:

  • The actual application form, including a a statement on my reasons for wanting to stay in France
  • Proof of identity – passport birth certificate etc
  • Proof of domicile – official statements from the mairie and my notaire.  I had collected these, though not specifically asked for, and they turned out to be useful.
  • Proof I have been living here continuously for at least five years – my laboriously collated electricity and phone bills
  • Proof of income – my equally laboriously produced spreadsheet (in sterling and euros) of all income, which of course fluctuates with the exchange rate, pension documents, five years of bank statements and a statement explaining the complication of the fiscal year being different in the two countries.
  • Proof I have been paying my income tax – five years worth of statements from the tax office

I list all of this not to show off but to demonstrate that applying for the right to stay here permanently is a serious business.  In the waiting room there were dire warnings that any incomplete dossiers would be rejected.

Enough to scare anybody away. But my official was very pleasant.  As he painstakingly checked the voluminous file, took my finger prints and asked for further information, the atmosphere was relaxed, and on finding I had lived in Edinburgh, he waxed enthusiastic about Scotland. His degree had been in English and he once spent a happy nine months, based in Glasgow. He had been unable to find a job using his degree and so had ended up in administration. I trust they will make good use of someone fluent in another language, I said encouragingly.  Not a chance, he replied, they don’t care two hoots. Ils s’en foutent.

I watched the official stick one of my passport photos onto what looked promisingly like a carte de séjour.  But then he stuck it into the dossier.  When might I hear the outcome of my application, I asked. In a couple of months, he replied, as the dossier has to be OK’d by a pyramid of officials. It was clear he was not impressed by this.

So, here’s hoping that by the end of February at the latest I should get my carte de séjour.

Summer whizzing by – BPs depart

It’s a fortnight since I last wrote.  The BPs – Jude and family have been and now departed; the Gillies – Kate and family – overlapped and will be here till next week.  I start the morning at 6.30, putting the robot in the pool and all too soon the children are awake, and my normal quiet writing time in the morning is over.

The BPs arrived from an active visit to the Ile de Rey and continued with their usual impressive round of walks (Ed and Jude doing one while the children are still asleep in the morning), swimming, canoeing, a visit to the water park near Agde, picnics beside the local river, trips to the old campsite and, together with the Gillies, a visit to Accrobranche, the splendid local tree climbing centre.

Ed as usual was the cook and even managed to fit in an impressive lunch for our friends, Charles and Pierre.  He regarded my dietary limitations as a culinary challenge. Rather than expecting me to eat something different, he modified his usual range of family dishes, though sadly this meant he did not lay on his two special annual treats, roast lamb followed by tarte tatin. It is still a strange summer, to have no barbecued food, spicy dishes, salads or cheese, all washed down by glasses of water, while others knock back the wine and beer.

The BPs like their food and meals are regarded as highlights.  Just before the end of their holiday, Ed looked out at the view one morning and said “I do enjoy breakfasts”.  So do I.  It is perhaps my best time of the day.  I’m full of energy and enjoy this moment of communal leisure.

Ella and Maddie are now great conversationalists. Meals are a time when we all talk and Ella in particular holds forth with articulate gusto.  But Maddie is holding her own, fiercely competitive and refusing to accept that she is three years younger. How often one hears the indignant “That’s not fair!” as Maddie measures portions, considers what role she has been given in a game or resists going to bed earlier. Most of the time they play wonderfully together, Ella making diplomatic concessions in their endless games of pretend and the evening shows she put on for us grownups.

Both girls are more interested in communication than sporting activities, with the big exception of swimming. Maddie has made huge progress with her confident doggy paddle, crossing the pool fearlessly (though still insistent that her face must not go under water) while Ella has a superb range of strokes – breast stroke, a stylish crawl, and even butterfly. Perhaps even more impressive was the way both tackled the tree climbing. Ella was the star, refusing to allow fear of heights prevent her from completing a nail-biting course (green 3) which Ed, who followed her, admitted was one of the scariest things he had done.

Ed and Jude meanwhile managed to have quite a lot of leisure time, walking or lying by the pool.  And in the evenings I was introduced to the addictive game of Monopoly Deal. So far I am the dunce while Ella, who learnt it a few days after me, proved a star (beginner’s luck, I say…).

Their ten days here came to an end too soon.  I miss them already. Seeing the grandchildren so little is the main downside to living here, but we did pack in