Bacon, leeks and haggis

Monday: Today is the feast of St Hilaire of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367) Hilaire (Hilary) was bishop of Poitiers and a writer of highly regarded theological texts. The handsome Romanesque church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand is rightly seen as one of the jewels in Poitiers’ cultural crown . It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, to this day, it’s a staging post for international pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perhaps it was with the intention of marking the feast day that some bright spark at the hôtel de ville decided last week to install a decidedly non-Romanesque plastic bottle bank immediately outside the church.

Tuesday: Madame S and I have enrolled to take the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) B2 intermediate level French exam in March. We both passed the pre-intermediate B1 exam in Cambridge before moving to France in 2018 and at the moment that’s the only level required when you apply for French citizenship – although there are rumours that the state may raise this in the future. This is slightly more important for madame because after 31st January she will no longer be an EU citizen, but in any case we are both very keen to improve our French just to make our social life a little easier.

With the exam in mind I have now arranged to have a weekly lesson with our friend Maryse, who has some experience as a French teacher. This is on informal basis in a local café; the only payment required is that I get the coffees and post-lessons beers. We had our first lesson this week and it went very well. For an hour I got to grips with the difference in pronunciation between é and è, and the subjunctive form of avoir and être. In the second hour, during which beer was taken, I found to my delight that my fluency had increased dramatically and I was able to quote lines from Verlaine and Rimbaud, neither of whom I’ve actually ever read.  

Wednesday: A visit to the local surgery to get a prescription renewed. We got Dr K’s name out of PagesJaune when we arrived, and we struck lucky. His English is not great, but on my first visit he managed to convey by mime that he has been on fishing trips to Cork and Kerry and likes Ireland a lot. An old-fashioned, no-nonsense family GP, he’s used to my rampant hypochondria (my suspected heart attack – ‘indigestion, monsieur’, meningitis – ‘an earache, monsieur, you have too much of the wax’) and we now get on very well. A visit costs €25, €17 of which is immediately reimbursed by the health service. The prescription will cost €2 at the pharmacy. Dr K, being a decent man, obviously feels a little embarrassed at my paying the fee for something that only takes five seconds, so he takes my blood pressure, checks my heart rate and asks if there is anything else I need. We watched The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV at the weekend and I’m now wondering if a slight chill I’ve developed recently might just be the start of blackwater fever. He looks me in the eye and I decide to wait a week before bothering him with it.

Thursday: Cycling home from Monoprix, I see a woman shouting out ‘monsieur, monsieur!’ and waving at me. One of the leeks I’d bought to make soup had somehow fallen out of my pannier bag. She hands it to me and, thanking her, I think about saying something about often having had ‘a leek’ in the street but feel it would lose something in translation.

Friday: Bacon and haggis may seem an odd reason for a trip to Paris, but it was why we were on the 07.15 train from Poitiers Gare arriving into Montparnasse at 08.34. We had our petit déjeuner in a café near the station, then a pleasant leisurely walk via the Luxembourg Gardens to the Pompidou Centre to see Bacon en toute lettres. We’d booked tickets but the Centre, currently going through a major refurbishment, seems to be operating some sort of triage system of queues, security checks, and misleading signage to ensure that only the fittest and most dedicated visitors will actually make it to the exhibition – I saw one large German gentleman being led away sobbing only a hundred yards or so from the final turnstile.

The exhibition is magnificent, with a number of rarely seen works, but I think that, like so many of these blockbuster shows, it is just too large and one’s eyes eventually start to glaze over. A subset of just three or four of the many triptychs on show would arguably have made for a more intense and satisfying experience. Nevertheless I’m very glad to have seen it.

After lunch (La Grille Montorgueil – recommended) we undertook the second part of our mission. To return some of the hospitality we have received from various friends and neighbours since arriving in Poitiers, Madame S has decided that we will have a Burns Night celebration next week. (I had suggested a St Patrick’s Day alternative, but she reminded me of my tendency to be a little overcome with emotion on those occasions.) Burns Night means haggis, something that most Poitiers butchers, understandably, do not supply. Le Comptoir Irlandais, our local Irish shop, does have a tinned version, but we decided this wouldn’t do at all. I had envisaged a fairly long trek around specialist épiceries in Paris, but we got lucky in our first port of call, the Marks and Spencer’s food store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We bought four, which probably means haggis curry or haggis and chips for a few days afterwards, but as we both love the stuff this is no hardship.

Heading back to the station we had to scurry across Boulevard Raspail in heavy traffic. For a second I had a vision of a headline in the following day’s Le Parisien:

Road accident: bizarre contents of victim’s rucksack