Blog

Musée de la Romanité

On Thursday I visited the truly stunning new Musée de la Romanité in Nimes. Designed by Elizabeth de Portzamparc, it was opened last year.

The building is as memorable as its contents. Walking across the open space that has been created round the Arènes since the first time I came many years ago, we saw the new, ultra-modern museum sitting beside its Roman neighbour.

I was visiting with my friend, Dessa, and another couple, Andrew and Jane. I did not want to hold them up taking photos, so here is a link to some superb photos (I did not wish to breach copyright by reproducing them here) plus one to a movie clip I took.

I really like it: there is a wonderful, dream-like quality about the rippling glass exterior dressing. Nor do I think it detracts from or competes with the Arènes – on the contrary, it seemed to enhance it and draw one’s eye towards the wonderful old stone arches.

Inside is equally imposing, with a sweeping spiral stair rising up to the main collections on the first floor. The museum is really a dedication to Nimes important past in antiquity, starting with the Iron Age and then tracing its development during Greek as well as Roman times, with even a small but good collection of medieval finds.

There are apparently over 50,000 objects in store of which about 5,000 are on display. Many of them have been found during quite recent building works, including the building of an underground carpark pretty well on the site of the museum! One of my favourite exhibits was a magnificent mosaic floor, discovered in 2006 and painstaking taken apart and rebuilt in the museum.

There could perhaps have been more pedagogic stuff, but there is at least some attempt to introduce you to each section of the museum, in several languages. There is some good use of hi-tech, with interactive touch screens, models, and projections showing the development of Nimes through the centuries, media showing the arrival of Greek and Phonecian ships as well as the Romans, and the routes they all took passing westwards through Nimes. There were good explanations of the various types of – mainly local – stone used in the houses and ornaments.

We were impressed by how well preserved lots of the Greek and Roman stuff was (the medieval statues, in contrast, were more weathered). I’ve never been very good at gazing at glass cases of archaeological remains, but this was different. I have never seen coins, for example, in such a good state. The vases were beautiful, but for me the highlights were the mosaics.

The only ‘bémol’ in the museum’s design was the loos. When we arrived we went to the ones on the first floor – all two (unisex) ones! Maybe the main ones were elsewhere, we thought. But no, at the end of our visit, we discovered there were four loos – two gents, two ladies – on the ground floor. By the afternoon the museum was packed, with several guided tours as well as school groups. How could anyone design a busy, modern building without adequate loo provision ?!

I was not consistent about when I took photos, but here they are:

Working at the cello

It is a year since I took up the cello again, after the two operations on my right shoulder. I was scarcely able to hold the bow, but as my surgeon said, playing the cello was an excellent form of rééducation, to regain the movement in my arm.

It has not been easy. It was very painful at first, and then of course, I had three dramatic health episodes last year, so effectively I only played for six months.

So imagine my pride in at last being able to play long notes on the bow. The mobility does seem to have improved with regular cello practice.(Albeit I don’t play for very long, to the horrified astonishment of my teacher, when I confessed two weeks ago that I reckoned half an hour a day was OK).

For my weekly lessons I have spent a month working on the first movement – the Prelude – of Bach’s first cello suite. I have played it before, but Anne, my teacher, threw me a new challenge by requiring a totally different pattern of bowing. I’m getting there, but it is not easy. In a fortnight I will move on to the second movement, Allemande.

Anne is helping me to correct all the bad technical habits I have picked up in those years of playing without a teacher. I just wish I had started playing the cello when I was younger. Stamina is definitely an issue and I am never quite sure how to fit my practice in early enough in the day, while I still have the energy.

Today I am really wilting, after a session of over two hours playing in the Ecole de Musique’s orchestra! The brass instrument teacher, Christophe, took over the orchestra at the start of term. I was initially sceptical, but he turns out to be a brilliant teacher-conductor.

He is very patient, taking things slowly at first, going over problematic passages, working on intonation (particularly in the cello section!), and drawing out of us an understanding of how to play, and to listen to the others. It is a mark of his success that although some of us are completely exhausted at the end, he has had our attention the entire time. People go out of the school afterwards enthusing about their morning.

The music is very simple: it is meant for beginners, reflecting the composition of the orchestra, with children of primary school age (where are the older children, I ask) and a lot of adults (not just pensioners). I am happy to be playing easy music, concentrating on my technique and helping the other cellists. I sit next to a delightful nine-year-old, who is going to be very good indeed. I feel it is fortunate I am there because one piece, an adaptation of the West Side Story themes, is more challenging than the other three cellists can’t handle some of it yet.

Not quite the same thing as playing in a trio or quartet as I used to, but still very satisfying.

End of a chapter

On Monday I went to Montpellier to see the surgeon who performed the thermocoagulation procedure on my back. Sadly it was to report it had not worked.

The idea – so far as I could understand the medical explanations in French – was to burn off the nerve ends in the offending part of the spine, in my case in the last two lumber vertebrae. It is regarded as a non-invasive procedure with no known side effects, though with apparently about a 50 per cent success rate.

Unfortunately I am part of the other 50%: I still have the pain further down, in the sacrum area. It really is not the most acute pain I have had, but it is chronic and wakes me up every two hours during the night.

The surgeon, Dr Dhenin, was very sympathetic and regretted he had not been able to help. As the arthritis in the lumber vertebrae is not yet “catastrophique”, we agreed that there was no point discussing further surgery. So he wished me good luck with an indefinite programme of physiotherapy.

So Charlotte, my lovely physiotherapist, continues to massage my back and go through a series of exercises to try to improve the mobility in the sacro-iliac area, as well as introducing new exercises (now I am safely over last year’s three dramas) to restore some strength to my abdominal muscles.

Biology was on my list of most disliked subjects at school (art, biology, needlework, cooking and gym). The first two shared a requirement for artistic dexterity and visual memory (all those names of bones and flowers…) which I did not have. It is ironic that now I am getting Charlotte to give me lessons in anatomy and I attempt to grasp some understanding of the three -dimensional images I see on the internet.

Weather-obsessed

My daughters think I am obsessed by the weather. They are right. If you live in the country you are so much more aware of the effect of weather changes, particularly when we have more and more extremes.

Last week we had snow, and for a day I did not venture out of the house. Then we had some magnificent mists. I was visiting Dessa at La Rouvierette on Friday and up there we looked over a lunar landscape of mist and clouds.

Then at the weekend we had unspeakable weather: icy cold gale winds which howled remorselessly. The snow descended down from the mountains, but stopped just above our level (I am 400 metres above sea level).

Last night the wind calmed at last and I watched the stars return to the sky. This morning, walking with Poppy up the valley from my house, the scene was once again bright, crisp blue sky. With no horrible wind, it felt so much warmer.

Nevertheless, up above us, on Mont Aigoual and neighbouring peaks, the snow is still there. I could see it when shopping at the supermarket this morning. And on the way home I saw the sign on the ‘main road’ up the mountains had not only its seasonal symbols that snow chains or winter tyres were obligatory, but an additional sign saying the roads were closed completely, even the one to the ski station. I guess this might date from yesterday when the winds would have made the icy roads even more dangerous.

Postscript

And now – – we have just had several glorious days of non-stop sun and temperatures which actually hit 20 degrees on the way back from Montpellier on Monday!

Neighbour problems

Decades ago, when I worked for the Scottish Citizens’ Advice Bureaux, I wrote a booklet on Neighbour Problems. Not only is this still a frequent complaint brought to Citizens Advice but I can report that neighbour disputes are alive and well in France too.

Sometimes they are resolved peacefully. Years ago Chris and I watched as one neighbour, a builder, having blocked his own access with piles of rubble, took short cuts over his neighbour’s land. This neighbour put up a ribbon along the boundary – the builder got out of his truck, cut it, and proceeded as usual. So then the neighbour planted a row of trees. That defeated the builder, who was a man of the soil and would not damage trees, and so unblocked his own entrance.

I once watched another neighbour, told that her swimming pool was partly on another’s plot of land, discreetly shifting boulders so that border was more clearly further away from the pool.

Not so nice was the experience of a young woman I knew in Montpellier. When she bought her house, the neighbour claimed she had no right to use her first floor terrace (which happened to look over the neighbour’s garden). Things got very nasty, ending up in court. Unfortunately the neighbour was a local judge and nobody was willing to represent my friend, who ended up hiring a lawyer from Paris – but won. My friend was black and there is no doubt that the motivation here was racist.

I would say that most problems I have observed here have to do with property rights rather than, say, noise. I find it fascinating how well versed people are on rights (more so than obligations) and how keen to know to the nearest square metre where are the boundaries of their property and what rights others have to pass through.

I know of a hamlet which seems to be particularly susceptible to tensions between neighbours, with a variety of disputes over access or use of land. The latest has become very nasty and disturbing. It involves a couple with a house right in the heart of the hamlet.

Recently the house next door was sold to a couple of Parisians. On arrival in the village, they started almost immediately to hassle my friends, claiming that their bathroom, and I think other bits of the house, did not belong to them. It is true that my friends’ bathroom is built on top of part of the neighbours’ house. But old Cévenol villages are like that. Then they denied my friends right of access to their house, barricading the entrance and forcing them to take a longer, more precipitous route.

My friends consulted lawyers and a property surveyor (géomètre expert). It appears that the original division of the houses years and years ago is problematic, but on the advice of their lawyer, they issued an injunction requiring the neighbours to remove the blocked access to their house.

Things have now got very nasty. The neighbours have countered with a formal notice to quit ‘their’ property. The rest of the village has apparently provided statements recording that in their memories, my friends’ house has been as it is now, including the access, for decades, going back to the fifties at least. But presumably a lot will depend on various expert statements and the view of the judge.

My poor friends – the wife is not in good health and they are not loaded financially – face a very scary future. French litigation can be long and costly and they are unfortunately not insured for legal costs.

Remind me to check next week that my house insurance includes assurance de protection juridique!

British pensioners in the EU

There are apparently about 200,000 British pensioners living in Europe and of course I am one. I am glad to say that at least the Guardian is beginning to report regularly on our plight.

Today’s edition has a good article on the efforts of British MEPs to get the EU to ensure that the 1 million Britons (about a fifth pensioners) do not find themselves in a legal abyss on 30th March.

At the same time campaigning groups like British in Europe is pressing Theresa May to ensure that the British Government continues to reimburse pensioners’ medical bills and to apply increases to state pensions, even if there is a no deal Brexit.

I know three or four other British pensioners locally, including one in his mid-eighties, who are equally anxious about what is going to happen to us in less than two months.

The main concerns are health protection and money (reduced income because of fall in sterling combined with potential increase in taxes once the EU ban on double taxation goes). Most of us are pretty confident that rights of residency will be respected. The French Government has said that we will have a year to get the – not yet finalised – residency permit.

But we must not be blasé about residency. Both the French Interior Minister and the British ambassador have strongly urged people to obtain the current carte de séjour. I applied for mine in July last year, got my interview at the start of January and was told that I should have my carte within two months. Hmmm.

Other Brits in the area applied later than me and are even further down the queue. One still has his head in the sand, and done nothing, but has now agreed to let me help him.

Brexit – another screw turns

Yesterday I kept turning on the television and watching with growing anger and horror. The unthinkable is happening: we are not just heading for Brexit, but a no-deal brexit. The ultimate in precipices.

As I watched the noisy and often stupid contributions I could not help but see this through the eyes of a European – I mean a European living this side of the Channel. The arrogance and ignorance of what I often heard is unbelievable.

How can so many Tories assert that they (the EU) are being difficult and intransigent? It is the UK which wants to leave and is making a total ballsup of it. What really got my goat yesterday was the repeated statement, with the knowing look of businessmen who know how to do deals (not), that we had to keep no-deal on the table as a bargaining counter because, you know, these EU types wait till the last moment before blinking and caving in.

As for Corbyn. Don’t get me started. I can understand his historic lack of warmth about the EU back to the Seventies (I shared it), but the world has changed since then. I won’t go into a defence of being in the EU here. Labour’s position in 2015 on whether to have a referendum was already highly problematic. But since the results of the referendum, Corby has done nothing but prevaricate, blur and confuse.

Corbyn and May bang on that “the people has spoken”. Of course we all needed to take into account why so many people voted for Brexit, starting with examining how far incompetence, dishonesty and intrigue during the campaign affected the result. The people have spoken, yes (at least, just over a half of those that voted at that time). But there is nothing in our weirdly constructed constitution or the badly drafted referendum bill which said that Parliament (which should be making the decisions) is legally bound to implement the vote. And now that the full horror of what the Government has achieved, or rather, not achieved, is apparent, and the Government and Parliament are fragmented and paralysed, surely the only way out (if it is a way out) of this mess is to ask people to reflect again – and after that, decide to think very hard indeed before ever having a referendum again.

Both May and Corbyn are putting party interests first. May has been desperate to hang on to her loony right plus the DUP, Corbyn has been obsessed by the opportunity, he thought, for a general election. Brexit is not a party issue – which is why it is such a mess. And now, unbelievably, May has reversed her humiliating defeat (I always thought the Tories would end up toeing the tribal line – along with Labour MPs who fear for their jobs in Brexit voting constituencies. Even more unbelievable is to go back to the EU again, thinking that somehow yesterday’s vote will make European countries change their mind. Dream on.

The No-Deal nightmare has particular significance for Europeans in Britain and Britons in Europe, in particular for British pensioners like me. Why? Because on 29th March our right to health services in Europe will end, unless some miracle happens in the next two months. If this happens, I will not be able to continue living in France. I don’t want to leave, I have no other home, and I cannot expect to receive the level of health care in England that I get here.

To be continued … … …

Snow

The snowflakes started to fall while I was playing music in le Vigan. I rushed home, keen to negotiate the steep hairpin approaching my house before it came impassable.

It snowed through the evening, but then during the night we had another strong wind, and this morning, although the landscape was white, the snow had been blown off the trees. I reckon that was it: it has been cold today, but little signs of further snow.

Nevertheless I decided not to set foot outside this morning. When I remember how what we were young I thought nothing of trudging through the snow to school or work, I am sad to think that now prudence now dominates.

Jacquot, my charming electrician, made it to the house to fix some lights in the bedroom. But together we watched while a van negotiated the road outside my house, with a dozen attempts before he made it up a few metres.

Collectors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.