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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.

Closing one health chapter

This morning I had my three month checkup after the hernia operation at the start of September.  Cross fingers all is fine and I should be able to put this dire year – perforated stomach ulcer, intestinal blockage (occlusion) and hernia operation – behind me.

My lovely surgeon, Dr Glaise, is no longer at Ganges.  She is away on maternity leave and then moves to the Clinique St Roch in Montpellier.  Her replacement, Dr Essome, seems amiable, though it is too early to know about his professional competence.

I asked him about the muscular discomfort I get elsewhere in the abdomen, particularly just below the ribs.  He explained that this discomfort is natural as the body adjusts to the alien object that has been inserted. The patch (which is lower – at what is left of tummy button) is attached to muscles which travel vertically, hence you feel elsewhere than the location of the operation, and as my patch was so large, more muscles have been affected.

He reassured me that this was not a sign that the hernia operation had not worked and I could now resume normal life (with prudence): discard the dreaded corset and, more crucial, end the limit on lifting anything heavier than two kilos.  And he confirmed that my physio could go ahead and have sessions to strengthen my abdomen muscles.

The conversation then took an unexpected turn.  Where did I come from?  London, I said, and you? The Cameroons, he replied – and switched into English.  He was born in francophone Cameroon, in Douala (which I visited way back in 1966), but grew up speaking both English and French as well as local languages.  Then he trained as a doctor in Italy, so added Italian to his repertoire!

He now lives in Montpellier and commutes daily to work in Ganges, where he takes up his permanent post in January.  I wished him good luck and said I hoped that, sadly, I would not be seeing him again@!

 

Scraping away

I can’t think of an appropriate equivalent to ‘fiddling’ (in a pejorative sense) to describe my unsatisfactory efforts on the cello. So maybe I will settle on ‘scraping’ and yesterday was a day spent scraping away.

In the morning I practised my Mendelssohn at home and felt quite pleased with myself at managing to play the two pages without stopping,  and ready for the afternoon at the Ecole de Musique.  Given I still cannot lift more than two kilos, my friend Christine comes at midday on Tuesdays to put my cello in the car.  Once at the école, people rush to help me, thank goodness.

My lesson with Anne went much better than last time.  She commented that it was clear that my right shoulder was getting more flexible, as I was coping better with the long slurred passages.  (These are particularly difficult for me on the A string – the one I play on the most – as it requires me to raise the arm more in the air than the lower strings.) I felt like commenting that the improvement was also the result of my putting in a bit more practice!

We then played some exercises involving shifting between some positions that I am not accustomed to.  For the benefit of non-players shifting positions is the way one moves the fingers of the left hand from one position to another on the same string. You do this, for example, in order to avoid playing an open string, which makes a different sound, to continue a passage on one string, or to be able to play higher and higher, on the A string in particular.

The most commonly used positions on the cello are 1st and 4th, so now I was practising, for example, jumping from the 2nd or 3rd to 5th. There is a whole technique to sliding up the hand (and not leaving the thumb behind) and not landing on the right note just by luck!  Basically it requires a good ear, good technique and lots of practise to train the brain where to shift up to.

Later in the afternoon I played the Mendelssohn with Jean Sebastian, the pianist.  That was a bit of a disaster.  I managed to get through the piece, but badly.  JS was very nice when he reported back to Anne, but I have to somehow make the Song sing with fluidity, rather than hear the evident attempts I’m making to hold onto the rhythm in syncopated passages! Two more weeks to get it right … …

My confidence was restored in the the final session, when I played with another adult pupil who is struggling to play in tune.  There I have a new challenge: Anne wants me to improvise on my line in a tune based on a Jewish prayer.  She plays a lot in bands playing jazz and modern music and is quite keen on improvisation.

I can see lots of the benefits of improvising  -to better communicate with other musicians, to truly listen to music rather than just playing the notes in front of you, to think ahead, to be creative – but it’s that bit I find scary.  I don’t think I’m creative.  We are playing this piece in the end of term session with beginners (the Mendelssohn is in the more advanced session) and Anne wants me to improvise in front of people.  No way!

More health stuff

Sometimes my life seems to consist of a flurry of health-related appointments. Apart from my two physio appointments, this week I will have had blood tests in le Vigan, foot and ankle xrays in Ganges, and two visits to specialists in Montpellier.

The xrays were a bit of a waste of time; they simply confirmed that my left foot and ankle are very arthritic, so that there is little more that the podologue, who has been checking on my insoles, can do to ease the discomfort.

On Monday I saw an endocrinologist in Montpellier to discuss the blood test results (deficit of selenium and zinc) and my continuing loss of hair.  She was very reassuring and said my hair will grow back again, now that I am recovering from all my innards dramas and am no longer on a limited diet,  and has prescribed treatments for the next six months to increase my mineral and vitamin levels. I still cannot get over the sensation of touching my head and feeling how little hair I have.  I now know how bad this must feel for chemeo patients, you lose a bit of your identity, and I look forward to growing more hair in 2019.

On Tuesday I was back in Montpellier, this time to see a surgeon to discuss the possibility of an injection to ease the pain in my back (which is not acute, but wakes me up every two hours at night). This is the latest in my string of attempts to sort out my back problems, having abandoned the medication prescribed by a neurologist, Dr Lionnet, earlier this year because of the side effects.

I was extremely impressed by Dr Dhenin, who specialises in spine surgery. It is so rare to meet a surgeon who is personable, with very strong communication skills and at the same time an air of evident authority and competence.

He turned the screen round so he could better explain to me what he was seeing when he looked at the MRI and scan from last year.  He showed the path of the spinal cord on the MRI and said that, though the spinal canal in the lumbar area was narrow, it was not yet ‘catastrophique’.  He turned to the scans, and showed how the arthritis was particularly bad in the 4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae. He was pretty sure (as is Charlotte, my physio) that this is the cause of the pain.

He has proposed – and I have agreed to – a procedure called thermocoagulation.  From what I can understand this involves injecting electrodes (under local anaesthetic) into the lumbar area in order to effectively burn off nerve ends in the two offending vertebrae and the disc.

Of course I realised afterwards, when being interrogated by my daughter, Kate (far more efficient at analysing information and asking pertinent questions), that I have only the vaguest understanding of what is going to be done. Unfortunately it is a procedure which was sniffed at by NICE back in 2002 and therefore I can find little on the internet to clarify my confusion.

I have confidence in Dr Dhenin, however. I am not the only one: at a village lunch today I talked to someone who had this done last year and regards Dr Dhenin as his saviour. He is also the surgeon who performed much more dramatic spinal surgery on my friend, Margaret, who is another of his fans.

The procedure will be done, as an outpatient, on 2nd January.  Meanwhile I have to see to the usual round of preparatory visits such as trips to see the anaesthetist.

 

 

 

 

Gilets Jaunes

The road blocks by the gilets jaunes continue.  We have had them at the big roundabout near my local supermarket, Intermarché and, more importantly, at the other end of le Vigan, blocking the road to Ganges and thence Nimes and Montpellier.  Apart from the inconvenience in finding detours to avoid the blocks, there have been some queues at the petrol pumps, in case supplies don’t get through.

I have mixed feelings about the Gilets Jaunes movement, mainly negative. Insofar as this is a protest against petrol prices, triggered by the announcement of a forthcoming 11% increase in fuel taxes, I have some sympathy: I would rather see governments raise revenues through indirect taxation – income tax. And high petrol prices hit low income groups especially hard in rural areas, given our dependence on cars.

It is, of course, increasingly becoming a more expression of frustration  by people who are finding it hard to make ends meet and are turning their anger against Macron and his economic program. He is seen as a champion of the rich and urban. He feeds into people’s resentment with his complete absence of the common touch, with an arrogance that is turning away even those who actually hoped he would improve things (as opposed to those who voted En Marche in order to block the Front National).

But — the price of fuel is not very different in France from most other European countries. For example, a litre of 95 octane petrol, which I use, is currently €1.46 in France, €1.55 in Germany and €1.64 in Italy. Diesel is €1.46 in France, €1.45 in Germany and €1.56 in Italy. The change in fuel taxes is intended to wean the French off more polluting vehicles, by eliminating the advantage diesel cars have always had (am I relieved I sold mine last year!). I think part of the extra revenue is supposed to go on  financial subsidies to people exchanging old polluting vehicles for modern ones.

More worrying is the way this huge, unstructured movement is morphing into a campaign to remove Macron.  And in my view the main beneficiaries are the far right, the Rassemblement national – still known by its old name,  the Front National. It is not clear how far they are behind the movement, but they are clearly enjoying it. And certainly there are disturbing populist and racist elements, for example, in the handing over of six migrants to the gendarmes.

Mélenchon and the more extreme left are also joining in.  The socialists and trade unions are sitting, unhappily, on the sidelines. Whatever the position of the different parties, there is no doubting the general support of the public for the gilets jaunes.  I have become aware of a growing number of cars displaying their gilets (compulsory kit, like emergency triangles, but usually kept in the boot) on the front dashboard.

Today I witnessed the gilets jaunes at firsthand.  I was due to meet friends at the big annual at St Jean du Gard – Les Journées de l’Arbre, de la Plante et du Fruit. I made the mistake of taking the direct route to cover the 70km in about 90 minutes.  Except it took longer, much longer, as I went through five gilets jaunes blockades.

The first, on the roundabout on leaving le Vigan, was the biggest and most organised. There must have been over a hundred people gathered there, all assembled in a jolly, party mood.  As I approached the barricades, someone came to get my signature for their petition.  When I said I was not in favour, I soon realised that this meant I would have to wait,  while those who signed, often sounding their horns in support, were let through.  Poppy and I just sat there and eventually, after about 15 minutes, I was let through.

I do like it when demonstrators show humour: I had to smile at the ridiculous roundabout after Ganges, where the metal figures of a flock of goats had had yellow gilets painted on them.  On the return journey I noticed that somebody had climbed up the post to put a yellow gilet over the speed camera (which everybody knows about) on the road from Ganges to le Vigan.

The result of my lengthy journey (plus stomach muscles hurting from yesterday’s physio) meant I was not really fit enough to enjoy the foire.  I did only a cursory tour of the foire, pausing to take a photo reflecting the colour of the day – the largest lemon I have ever seen:

After lunch (worthy rather than tasty) with my friend Dessa and her friends and neighbours, I returned home, initially taking some picturesque back roads to avoid  at least some of the blockades.

 

 

Bread – and Brexit

Yesterday I made another loaf of bread.  It takes little more than five minutes preparation with my bread-making machine, and the result in the morning is a delicious nutty brown loaf.

The French of course favour the baguette and the local village boulangerie makes a delicious variant called La viganaise. But buying this means a car trip, albeit short. And baguettes really don’t last for more than a day.  Not a problem in a family, but not very practical if you are on your own.

Besides, my favourite meal of the day is breakfast: coffee and toast.  My loaf makes better toast than baguettes. I use a multi-ceréales flour (a variety of wheat grains – I’m not a fan of the more virtuous wholemeal flour) and add walnuts and raisins. Yummy result.

Why am I going on about bread? Well for starters it is pouring with rain outside (quelle surprise).  And it keeps my mind off the subject which has dominated my thoughts for the past two years and which now makes me feel even more angry and anguished than ever – Brexit.

I’m concerned firstly as someone who chose to live in France and for whom the consequences of what is decided – when it is decided – could change my life, and has already resulted in living with uncertainty.

I’m concerned for the British economy, for which any outcome other than remaining in Europe, will mean we are worse off, maybe much worse off. Businesses will suffer, so too will hospitals, schools, universities, young people seeking employment wider afield… the list is longer.

I’m concerned for this total loss of a sense of belonging to a community (however blemished) which is larger than a nation.

Now what? We are in a complete Alice in Wonderland situation.  It is impossible to predict what will be the outcome. I fear the Conservatives will revert to tribal stereotype(even Ken Baker is talking of supporting May!) and fall behind the very bad current deal. (Don’t get me started in the equally messy scene in the Labour Party.)

A couple of days ago Martin Kettle in the Guardian described the dilemma succinctly:

There is no majority for Theresa May’s deal; no majority for a no-deal exit; no majority for a Norway-type option; no majority for a second referendum and no majority for a general election. Politically, there seems no way out.

I keep hoping, even  at this dangerously late stage, that we will go for a second referendum. It cannot be assumed that this time round the Remainers would win, but a second referendum offers a chance to limit the damage done by the ill-advised and very badly drafted first one (whose campaign was so full of misinformation and downright lies and whose outcome incidentally, people quickly forgot, is not legally binding). Whatever happens now, damage is done.  We have polarised positions and angry people. I feel pessimistic about repair to these wounds in my lifetime.

Oh, and if there is a second referendum, I – along with all other Brits who have lived in Europe for more than 15 years – will not have a vote.

 

Made in China

Last week I bought a cello bow.  I took back the carbon bow I had been playing on loan and asked M. Becker, the luthier, what else he had at the lower end of the cello bow range.

The carbon bow was definitely an improvement on my old bow, but it physically did not feel comfortable. M. Becker agreed: choice of bow is a complex mixture of what sort of music you are going to play, the character of individual cellos and what you find comfortable.

I was looking for something with a bit more weight and perhaps a wider range of sound qualities.  Ideally I should have brought along my cello, but this was too big a challenge physically, so I tried out two or three bows on M. Becker’s cellos.

Eventually I picked a wood rather than carbon bow, but with a huge feeling of guilt. The bow is made with Pernambuco wood, from South America, an endangered species, but still regarded as the best wood in the world for bows, with the right balance of flexibility yet strength. Apparently there is some sort of association of bow makers which is campaigning for a replanting program. I would gladly contribute to it, to assuage my guilt.

My bow cost 300€ and this is considered quite a reasonable sum. My hard up cello teacher has just bought hers for €800 and many professional players pay thousands.

I was taken aback to discover it was made in China, but it proved hard to find anything made in Europe in my price range.  M. Becker said that there were some excellent Chinese bow makers these days.  And besides, China has apparently stockpiled a significant part of the world’s supply of Pernambuco!

Anne, my teacher, was politely approving of the bow, though she clearly prefers (so do I) the slightly heavier weight of hers. As she said, I can always decide later to sell it and upgrade to a better one.

To recover from this purchase, I once again went to Alain’s for lunch, sitting at the table next to his kitchen, chatting to him as he prepared some excellent magnet de canard.

And now there are no more excuses for not getting my cello to sing out during my Mendelssohn piece. Oh yes there is one excuse – or rather explanation – le trac – my old enemy, performance nerves.I played really badly at my lesson with Anne, on Tuesday, and then with Jean Sebastian, the accompanist. I have a month in which to find a way not to lurch from one  dangerous passage to another.

 

J’en ai marre

Those are not my words; it is what pretty well every French person I meet is saying – I’m fed up with it. They are referring, of course, to the weather.

Nobody can remember so much rain falling as this autumn.  It is not so much the statistics, as often we get torrential rainstorms which push the rain count up.  It is rather the relentless, day after day of rain. People here are just not used to this.  I’m getting a bit bored of people saying it must remind me of London.  No, I say, London is having better weather!

Today was another washout.   I forced myself to take Poppy for a walk.  As soon as she had done her business, she looked at me and turned back towards the house. The Saturday market scarcely existed.

I braved the elements to attend an interesting session by our local professional violinist, Francois Gilles, on Bach’s Partitas. We were in one of the wonderfully elegant salons in the beautiful Chateau d’Assas, very appropriate as Francois Gilles took us through the history of- and played extracts from – the dance movements which form the basis of so much of Bach’s work.

Afterwards I took refuge in my favourite eating place, Chez Fatou, and enjoyed a delicious fish dish and the shared conversation of all.  Somebody mentioned today’s road blockages by ‘les jaunes’ – the people protesting against the rise in fuel prices. Fatou rose to her full height, elegant today in a Chinese embroidered top, and declared: ” They are mad.  We are destroying our planet and they want to encourage us to do so.”

Then back out into rain.  Actually, I have to admit, it is not non-stop.  Yesterday there was a brief respite, and as I walked up to Serres, I was able to admire the autumn colours, which have not yet fully reached the hills behind.

When I got to Serres and looked down at these trees, I reflected that the rain has stolen our usual long enjoyment of such colours.  And the cold forecast for next week (temperatures dropping from mid-teens to near zero) will end any hope of my planned expeditions to take autumn photos.

Update next day

Wonders… I woke to see the sky had cleared and it has not rained all day. And it is colder.

 

 

 

Never again

As I listened to the bells tolling at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, I thought of the grandfather I never knew – of the father my mother never knew. I wondered how our lives might have been had he not been killed in 1916.

Major Ronald Greig was a professional soldier – he had already got the DSO in the Boer War and was an experienced 40-year-old officer in the Royal Engineers when he died.

I have little idea of what he was really like. I get the impression of a nice, easy going, probably quite charming man, but without the  apparent liveliness of the family he married into.

What would have happened if he had lived? Well, for starters Tish, my gran, a young war widow overwhelmed by life with three small children, would not have remarried. (So I would not have acquired an additional aunt and three lovely cousins.) Nor would she have started the liaison/friendship with Dick Mitchison in 1927 which lasted till his death in 1970. And our family would not have benefited from all the rich friendships, that still continue, with his family .

So would Ronnie and Tish have lived happily ever after? Hmm.  I’m never quite sure.  I always wonder whether being an army wife would have really suited my fun-loving, capricious granny.

The First War had dealt her a double whammy: the year after Ronnie died, she lost her favourite brother, David. In some ways I wonder whether this death did not affect her even more.

David Clutterbuck was the middle of three brothers. The oldest, Lewis, came back from the war a damaged man.  We never asked gran what really happened, but he spent most of his life abroad – a remittance man, paid to stay away from home.  The youngest, Walter, survived the First War and ended up a major general at the end of the Second War.

My mother once took us to Winchester College and showed us the war memorial for David’s class.  I think the entire class was wiped out.

That led me on to remembering reading Vera Brittain’s sad ‘Testament of Youth’ and watching the powerful 1930s American film of the German book ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’.  Two works to push you towards pacifism.

To end, the unbelievable news that Donald Trump stayed indoors rather than face the rain for an Armistice day event at a cemetery holding the graves of American soldiers! While Merkel and Macron make symbolic gestures of peace and unity, he once again makes bellicose gestures and statements and fails to understand the symbolism of what he is supposed to do.

And I wonder what he made of Macron’s statement:

Le patriotisme est l’exact contraire du nationalisme. Le nationalisme en est sa trahison.
(Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.)

 

Playing the cello again

It is over five months since the perforated ulcer put a dramatic stop to all music making. I am now resuming my cello playing, but it’s hard work.    The problematic right shoulder is still a major obstacle and a long period with no physiotherapy has not helped.

I am still limited to lifting a maximum of two kg (not much more than my handbag). But I have worked out a way to slide the cello off the spare bed (the spare room is doubling up as music room now), over my knee and into position in front of me.  And on Tuesdays (music day) I have arranged that my friend Christine will come and put the cello into the car for me. (At the music school there are plenty of people to get it up the stairs for me.)

I had my first lesson on Tuesday, playing  Mendelssohn’s ‘Song without Words’ which I been working on in the spring.  I think Anne, my teacher, is probably a bit tired of hearing it, but as I explained to her, the relentless passages of sustained bowing on the A string are a form of physiotherapy for my shoulder.  The aim is to not seize up with the effort of lifting my bow arm out so far. Anyhow, she wants me to play it in the end of term concert in December, so I have to arrange to practise it with the piano teacher (appositely called Jean Sebastian…) who will accompany me.

Before then I have to sort out what to do with my bow, which is pretty well at the end of its useful life – it was a cheap one I got for Jude when she was about 12. It is somewhat warped and now half bald. I have given it a hard life and it is to be given some respite by being rehaired.

On Thursday I chummed my friend, Dessa, to Montpellier and we started the day by taking my bow to the luthier (always a pleasure, as he is a nice man, a genuine craftsman, with a lovely first floor atelier, crammed with instruments, in a grand nineteenth century building with a splendid over the top marbled and mirrored entrance and magnificent staircase).

If I get a second bow, this old one can become my backup. Bows can be incredibly expensive – thousands rather than hundreds – and my level of playing does not justify a big investment.  So I discussed with M. Becker, the luthier, the relative merits of a carbon fibre bow rather than the traditional wood (ideally an expensive Brazilian wood called Pernambuco).  I get the impression that in the sub-thousand range I might get more quality for my bucks going for carbon.

M. Becker has lent me a cheap(ish) carbon bow to try out while he is repairing my bow.  When I first played it yesterday I was staggered by the difference: it is so much easier to get a good, strong sound.  Of course this could just be because mine was half bald.  I suspect if my playing ever improved (huh!) I would find the colours less subtle.  But meanwhile it has convinced me that I am definitely buying a new bow next week.

Dessa enjoyed her little visit into this world of musical instruments.  We then moved on to lunch at my favourite restaurant – outside, since we had not booked, but amazingly the rain held off until we had finished.  Then off for Dessa’s checkup with her (and my) surgeon, Marion Bertrand, who greeted me with great friendliness. And we rounded off our day at one of our favourite places, the Apple Centre, where Dessa bought the new iPad (yes, I’m envious).