A Week in Poitiers

And the war drags on…

Here in France 319 coronavirus deaths were reported between Friday and Saturday, an increase of 110 over the previous twenty-four hours. In all, 38,105 cases have been reported in France, Île-de-France (including Paris) and Grand Est (the Ardennes and Alsace-Lorraine) by far the worst hit with 7,660 and 5,479 respectively. Here in Nouvelle-Aquitaine we have had 912. It was announced today that some patients are being flown from Grand Est to use spare hospital bed capacity in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

***

We’ve now had two weeks of house arrest here in Poitiers and we are getting used to it. You are only allowed out for certain reasons, the same as those now in place in the UK: to buy food and essentials, for medical reasons, for vital family reasons, and for physical exercise. A peculiarly French touch is that you must carry a self-signed letter (the government have provided a pro forma) saying that, on your honour, you are only travelling for one of the permitted purposes, and you have to tick a box saying which one. Failure to carry a letter can result in a fine of up to €300 (for serial offenders). As well as this, Poitiers, like many French cities, now has a curfew, from 22.00 to 05.00. Not something that bothers us in the slightest, as there is nowhere to go now anyway. Apart from these restrictions, life continues fairly normally. The shops are well stocked and there is little or no queuing required. Sadly, the covered market is now closed but, to be honest, I am surprised it was allowed to stay open for the week or so that it was, after everywhere else had to close. We have ample supplies of beer, wine and whisky, or rather we did have. The stuff obviously evaporates.

Madame S is still busy editing. I’m still doing my French revision, as our exam is now postponed till mid-May (it’s an ill wind …). I wander around the house, picking up and putting down various books that I’ve left dotted around the place, and I’m also slowly getting through a backlog of magazines. Last night I read an article in the London Review of Books by Ferdinand Mount on the make-up and philosophy (for want of a better word) of the current UK government. The issue is dated 20th February, which is just six weeks ago, but the article feels like something from the distant past. It is very much focused on Brexit, Sajid Javid is still Chancellor of the Exchequer, and there is not a single mention of coronavirus.

According to Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. We are clearly living through the latter.

***

On WhatsApp, my sister-in-law Lou posts a reminder: ‘Don’t forget the clocks change this weekend. You don’t want to be late getting up to sit in your living room’.

In France, along with the rest of Europe, the annual clock changeover is set to end next year. The final decision on how it will work has not been announced, but we will either move to summer time next spring and leave it that way (this seems to be the favoured option) or move back for the last time in October 2021. Madame has pointed out that France is large enough to merit two time zones and here in the west we should be aligned with the UK. I must admit that I do miss the earlier morning light that we used to get there. That said, sitting outside a bar with the sun going down at ten in the evening is not exactly a hardship.

***

Exercise here is restricted to one hour a day and to within a one-kilometre radius of your home, though I don’t think this is really being enforced too strongly. I generally manage an hour-long riverside walk each day, and this almost certainly takes me over the 1 km limit.

I don’t want to claim to be Poitiers’ answer to Gilbert White, but I’ve become quite the little naturalist on these walks. There is a great variety of birdsong to be heard along the river but, ignoramus that I am, the only one I can identify for sure is that of the woodpeckers who are nested near the Jardin des Plantes. I’ve also spotted a family of beavers (castors in French) paddling along near one of the bridges. I thought at first this sighting might be a symptom of having caught the virus, but Dominique, a neighbour, assured me that he and his wife often see them there. Most afternoons, as well as the birdsong, one can hear a Frenchman, hidden behind a high wall, sitting in his garden playing acoustic guitar and singing songs in English. He has a fine voice. On Thursday we got ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and on Friday it was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or, as he put it, à la bama.

This morning, just for a change, we went for a walk around the town centre. Normally I would be there nearly every day, but I’ve hardly visited it at all in the past two weeks. It didn’t feel much like the first day of summer; cold and overcast with a stiff easterly breeze. Poitiers Sundays are always very quiet. Nearly all the bars and restaurants are closed, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of England in the 1950s. I was shocked by this when we first came here, but I have come to really appreciate it. The sleepy atmosphere is a pleasant change to the rest of the week.

Usually one would see a sprinkling of churchgoers, an occasional tourist and the few determined regulars who know where to find the one or two cafés that are open. Today, though, it felt different. The town centre is almost completely deserted. One or two people out for une promenade like ourselves walking head down against the wind. It is eerily quiet. No conversation to be heard anywhere. It reminds me of the Will Smith film I Am Legend, though if there were any kangaroos around we didn’t see them.

Maybe next year…

In Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish pub, they still have the poster in their window advertising their St Patrick’s Night Celebration. We were promised un Irish Tap Takeover with such enticing beverages as White Hag (from Wexford) and Yellowbelly (from Sligo) along with des cadeaux, des kilts & plenty of craic! I’d been looking forward to this but sadly, like everyone else, they closed at midnight on the 14th. I celebrated St Patrick’s Day at home with a can of draught Guinness, a large Tullamore Dew and a packet of Guinness-flavoured crisps.

On our way home, we stop to buy croissants at Jules in rue Magenta, the only boulangerie currently open on a Sunday. Here, I am served by the cheery proprietor himself. The shelves are all full. Along with the baguettes and numerous other types of bread, there is the usual almost pornographic display of cakes and pastries. I tell myself that we must support local shops as much as possible, so, along with the croissants, I buy two rhubarb tarts. Suitably provisioned, we head back to our domestic prison.

Getting your five a day the Jules Boulangerie way.

***

On the internet I read that the situation in Greece is now so bad that production of hummus and taramasalata has stopped. It’s now officially a double-dip recession …

Véronique D.

Counting one’s blessings

Véronique

This morning I was reading the local paper while moaning to Madame that I needed a haircut and how disgraceful it was that barbers weren’t regarded as an essential service, when I noticed Véronique Dujardin’s picture on an inside page.

We met Véronique through another friend, Maryse, in the Café des Arts. Véronique is not that unusual a name here, and it took a couple of meetings before the penny dropped and I realised that this was actually the Véronique D. whose blog I had discovered several months ago when researching the history of Poitiers online. The blog is a wonderful cornucopia of pieces about different aspects of life in Poitiers, its history, architecture, politics and cultural activities, as well as reviews of films and books that Véronique has seen or read. (There is also quite a lot of stuff about embroidery, but I tend to skip that.) She has been a doughty fighter for a number of causes, and there are blog entries about everything from a battle to stop illegal parking in the town centre to a campaign against Monsanto’s use of glyphosate, a controversial herbicide that has been alleged by some to be carcinogenic. Whenever I look at the blog, I am struck by the energy and enthusiasm that Véronique brings to everything she does, and it was partly her example that led me to start my own.

However there is a sombre, sadder element in Véronique’s blog. In 2013 she was diagnosed with three brain tumours (meningiomas). She believes that these tumours are linked to her having been prescribed a high-dosage treatment of the drug Androcur for over twenty years, and for some time she has been pursuing a case against Bayer, the manufacturer of the drug. (The link between brain tumours and cyproterone, a constituent of Androcur, was first identified in 2008.) In July last year she won an important battle in the law courts when it was agreed that a committee of experts would be appointed to carry out a medical review of her case.

The impact on Véronique’s life has been heavy. Her memory, sense of balance and sense of smell have all been badly affected. She had a ten-hour operation in 2013 to remove a meningioma wedged between two optic nerves, and she was due next Monday to have another lengthy operation to rebuild her left eye-socket, incorporating a specially engineered piece of titanium. In the last two weeks, she has suffered a double setback.

After her court victory, Bayer appealed against the decision, and the appeal was due to be heard this week. The hearing has now been postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. No new date has been set.

Today’s paper carried news of the second setback. Véronique has heard that her operation has also been postponed because of the virus. In preparation for the operation, Véronique has been practising self-isolation far longer than the rest of us. She has been working from home, and friends and neighbours have been rallying round to do her shopping, Apart from the fact that this may now have to continue for some time, there is the complication that if the operation is delayed for months the titanium insert, specifically designed to take account of the current position of the tumour, may have to be re-engineered.

She is philosophical about this. ‘I expected it. They don’t want to take any risk with the spread of the virus.’ Her energy seems undiminished. ‘This morning I had a video conference with colleagues and I texted a neighbour, so that’s my shopping sorted out. I have a stepper so I am still managing my 10,000 steps a day.’

I suppose, all in all, waiting for a haircut is not such a big deal.

Virus Warning

A doctor writes…

A medical adviser to the government has today said that they may have to re-think their coronavirus strategy, admitting that the policy of home confinement has in fact exacerbated the situation.

According to Dr Jolyon Brakespeare of St Thomas’ Hospital London, ‘People now have time on their hands and, sadly, some automatically reach for their phones. This is far worse than the email problem back in the 1980s. When email first arrived we were threatened with an epidemic of so-called “funny emails”. It got quite serious at one point, especially with the very nasty “copy to all” variant, but at least it was mainly confined to office workers, particularly civil servants and those in large corporations. Sacking a few people and then educating the public about using spam filters meant that the problem seemed to be under control.’

Some scientists warned, however, that the threat had not gone away and that email was effectively a “gateway application” that would lure innocent people on to the internet, ill-prepared for the addictive software freely available there.

Sadly, it now appears that these fears have been confirmed. Dr Brakespeare again: ‘It’s a familiar story. They start when they’re young with Facebook and think “I can handle this. A few holiday snaps, a bit of bants with my mates, where’s the harm in that?”’

Then came WhatsApp.

Dr Brakespeare says that the biggest danger with WhatsApp is its ease of use. Even the elderly, some of whom have said they wouldn’t go near the internet, are now joining in. ‘It’s growing like wildfire. Single cells, i.e. individual users, can quickly form clusters and those within the cluster can immediately start transmitting to each other. One person sends a video clip or newspaper cutting and the whole group can instantly see it. The problem starts when each cell within the cluster passes the clip on to members of other clusters to which it belongs, and so on. Within a few hours a video clip can be halfway around the world. Some of these clips can be three or four minutes long. Think of the thousands of hours of people’s time this can take up.’

The doctor highlights two other potential problems. Firstly, addiction: ‘Some people spend hours looking at their phones waiting for a new clip to arrive so that they can immediately pass it on. I know of cases where if there is a quiet period they will start re-sending old clips again hoping that people won’t notice.’

Then there is what Dr Brakespeare refers to as Repetitive Viral Messaging Syndrome. ‘Some of the video clips are, of course, very funny, but many of them are variants of old jokes or slightly adapted versions of related video clips. The trouble is that you often have to watch the clip before realising that you have seen it or something very like it before. People with RVMS experience a feeling of tension when a new message arrives, which then turns into violent rage when they realise that they are watching “old ladies fighting over bog roll in Croydon supermarket” for the fifteenth time. Phones get smashed, cats kicked and loved ones abused. It’s nightmarish.’

The doctor has a radical but simple solution to the problem. ‘Open the pubs again and encourage people to visit them. Give them free beer or wine vouchers on condition that they hand their phones to a member of staff on arrival. It’s my belief that the danger from actually catching the virus is significantly less than the psychological damage caused by wanton WhatsAppery. And besides, if you do get it you’ll be too hungover to care.’

A week is a long time….

Poitiers is closed

14.00 Sunday 15th March

We live in interesting times.

Just as I had got used to regular handshakes and kisses with all and sundry, I noticed over the last two weeks that people have gradually stopped doing this. A few still persist, but more and more people shrug and make a joking remark about not doing it. Some half-embarrassedly offer an elbow instead.

I have yet to see anyone wearing a mask in Poitiers. The government has announced that it is stepping in to requisition stocks of masks and hand gel to ensure they get to the people who need them. This follows reports of thefts of masks and gel from hospitals in Paris and Marseille. The government’s advice is that only people who are infected or who are self-isolating need to wear masks.

There is little sign of the panic stockpiling that is being reported in the UK. Toilet rolls are in plentiful supply, and the only thing that we’ve noticed there being a slight shortage of is dried pasta. Obviously this may change over the coming weeks.

On Thursday, the French Health Ministry said that the death toll in France from the coronavirus outbreak had risen to 61, from Wednesday’s 48. It added that the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in France had also risen, from 2,281 to 2,876 with 129 people in very serious, life-threatening condition. That evening, President Macron did a twenty-five-minute television broadcast. It was a dignified, impressive performance, in sharp contrast to the bombast and blather of President Trump the previous evening. Macron announced that France was to close all schools, crèches and universities from Monday to try to curb the spread of the virus. He also urged employers to allow their staff to work from home wherever possible, and said that people who are over 70 years of age or who have existing health conditions should stay inside as much as they can. The broadcast seems to have been generally well received both by the media and by the public at large, although, predictably, Marine Le Pen criticised him for not closing the borders.

Last night we went out for a meal in La Mangeoire, a small local restaurant. Midway through the evening, Florent, the owner, came up and told us that it had just been announced by the government that all bars and restaurants in France would be closed from midnight until further notice. This meant of course that his staff would be out of work for the foreseeable future. Florent was philosophical and said he had been expecting it. At the end of our meal he gave us each an enormous brandy and said he hoped he would see us again soon. We hope so too.

The government has in fact announced the closure of all ‘non-indispensable’ shops and entertainment facilities. Food shops, pharmacies, tobacconists, banks and petrol stations will remain open. These restrictions are currently imposed until 15th April.

On leaving La Mangeoire we made a quick visit to two of our regular haunts, the Café des Arts and Le Cluricaume, to say a temporary au revoir to the staff there. Again people were generally philosophical, though Marie, the serveuse in the Café des Arts said ruefully that she had just come back from two weeks’ holiday. Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish bar, is a popular student haunt, and there was a fairly wild atmosphere as people made the most of their last few public drinking hours. Jean-Philippe the barman told me that he was sorry that Tuesday’s planned St Patrick’s Day celebrations would not now take place, but I suspect he has more pressing things to worry about. I didn’t like to ask, and it may be too early to know, what financial arrangements are in place for people who are laid off.

The current emergency has not led to the postponement of the municipal elections here in France. The first round takes place today and the second next Sunday. As an EU citizen, I am entitled to vote. Alas, Madame S, with her UK passport, can no longer do so. When I dutifully turned up to La Maison du Peuple in Rue Saint-Paul this morning, the first thing I was told to do by an official was to use the dispenser of sanitising hand gel by the door. I was then allowed to pick up a small brown envelope and eight sheets of paper, each containing the list of candidates of one of the parties contesting the election. From here I was directed to a line of curtained booths. I went into one, folded the sheet of my chosen party and placed it in the envelope. I was then directed to a table where a group of other officials were sitting. The first one of these checked my voting card against my pièce d’identité, my passport. The second checked my name on some sort of electoral roll. There was a moment’s concern when it couldn’t be found, but a third official had spotted my passport and said, ‘Ahh, you are Irish’. My name was then found on a separate roll, presumably of foreigners and other dodgy characters. She continued, ‘You are Mikayel Antony Shayan?’ It was close enough, and I nodded. At which point I was allowed to put my envelope through the slot in the top of a large transparent plastic container. A fourth official date-stamped my voting card – I need to keep this, as you use the same card for up to ten elections. A fifth official then asked me to sign my name next to my entry on the electoral roll. While doing this, she held a sort of plastic frame that covered the whole page apart from the box for my signature. A sixth official proffered a box of Bic biros from which I selected one, signed my name and then put the biro into a different Bic biro box held by a seventh official (this contained a number of other biros, all presumably used only once). I was then thanked by all the officials for doing my civic duty and was allowed to leave. At no point during the whole process did either I or anything I touched come into contact with another person. We will all have to do the same thing again next Sunday.

15.30. Update. The Secretary of State for Transport announced this afternoon that public transport will be ‘gradually reduced’ over the next week. This Monday, seven out of ten trains will run at SNCF. 

16.30. Update. Germany has just announced that it is closing its borders with France, Switzerland and Austria.

To think that only a week ago I was worried about revising for a French exam. (I spent Monday learning what to put in a French letter.)

A week in Poitiers

Testing Times

‘Do you know what I hate? When someone’s left oranges in a car. It’s a really distinctive smell. I can’t stand it.’

This was the woman with glasses, She’d been quiet at first but was now on her second glass of red.

‘I’ve never really noticed, to be honest.’

This was the other woman, the one with the mole on her cheek. On arrival in Le Gambetta, she’d asked Damien the serveur if they sold Babycham. When he looked puzzled, she’d repeated the question

‘Do. You. Sell. Babycham?’

‘Non, madame.’

She’d sighed theatrically and asked for an Orangina.

They had arrived with their husbands, who, for some reason I hadn’t caught, had temporarily gone elsewhere. Just before leaving, the mole’s husband had been describing how drinking vinegar made one’s nipples erect and somehow this had led to the remark about oranges. I couldn’t see the connection, between the vinegar and the oranges, that is, not between the vinegar and the nipples. Although I didn’t see that either.

Apparently they all live in Montmorillon, about 30 kilometres away, and had come to Poitiers for the day. I’d read recently there were quite a few Brits living there. I made a mental note to visit the place soon. In the meantime I would go home and ask Madame S if she would take part in a little experiment in physiology.

***

Taken at the flood

The River Clain is dangerously high at present and the nearby riverside park at Îlot Tison has been closed as a precaution. All this on top of the coronavirus. A plague and floods; positively biblical. One of the plagues was frogs, but best not to mention that in these parts.

My current concerns are more New Testament than Old, i.e. speaking in tongues … or rather failing to do so. Our French intermediate exam is less than three weeks away, and I am woefully unready. Madame, of course, is a little Scottish Edith Piaf, chirruping away happily to all and sundry in the Café des Arts while I stare moodily at my phone trying to memorise my irregular verbs. It’s all right for her; editing all day means that she has no time to agonise about the exam and the limited time left to get some proper revision done. Most days, once I’ve read the papers, done the crosswords and watched the afternoon cop shows (Meurtres à l’anglaise this week, which is French for Inspector Lynley), I’m lucky if I can get an hour in before we head out for our apéro.

I have done a lot of the necessary background work. I wear my beret when we are out and always carry a copy of Libération or Le Monde. My repertoire of Gallic shrugs and grimaces is impressive, and I can ‘bof!’ and ‘zut!’ with the best of them. I am good at reading the expression of an interlocutor and can usually insert an appropriate word when required. My carefully delivered ‘on verra’s (‘we’ll see’) and ‘peut-être’s (‘perhaps’) have given me the reputation of being a wise, reflective sort of chap. For a while I got a bit over-confident, randomly lobbing in the occasional ‘oui’ and ‘non’ when asked a question I don’t understand. I stopped this when one of Madame’s friends told her how strange it was that I loved scuba-diving but couldn’t swim.

I fear that none of the above will help me under exam conditions. So I’m now faced with three solid weeks of cramming. I spend my days with my coursebook and CDs, listening while ‘Clémence tells us about her pet peeves when going to the cinema’,reading ‘Claude describes what his dream house would be like’ and then settling down to ‘write 250 words about visiting a shop to exchange a scarf. It wasn’t meant to be like this.

***

Watching the rugby yesterday, I spent a moment working out my allegiances. I naturally support Ireland in any game they play in, and after that, in deference to Madame, I cheer on Scotland. If neither of these is playing, I root for our adopted ‘home’ side, the French. It’s a close call as to the order of the next two, but I think those fellow Celts, the Welsh, marginally win out over the plucky little underdogs Italy. I think that covers everyone.

***

Proper French food – available in Rue Victor Hugo

On being inconvenienced

Lavatory humour

On Tuesday, I read an article in the Guardian by Zoe Williams about two ‘toilet activists’ who have built a database of loo codes for cafés and shops across London. In resistance terms it’s hardly up there with the Maquis, but I wholeheartedly support their efforts, unlike Ms Williams, who airily declares that ‘the privatisation of toilets is one of the least contested areas of the public realm … because the state of needing the loo is such a temporary one that it doesn’t register as a meaningful deprivation’. Hah! Tell that to any man in his mid-sixties and you run the risk of being showered in invective. When two or three are gathered together, it’s never too long before the conversation turns to the subject of les pissoirs publiques (excuse my French), or rather the paucity thereof. This will inevitably be followed by harrowing tales of ‘close-run things’ and emergency evacuations, for all the world as if they are Battle of Britain veterans.

One of the first things I did on moving to Poitiers was to learn the location of every public convenience, either those specifically designed for the purpose or those in shops, bars, cafés, museums and galleries. I’ve done this wherever I’ve lived, having long learnt to appreciate the maxim ‘time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted’. If I’d stayed in London I could probably have earnt a crust giving a Blue Badge-standard guide to the capital’s ‘comfort stations’. This would have ended up with a visit to either the splendid Victorian WCs in the Princess Louise pub in Holborn or the strange Underground station-like atmosphere of the subterranean facilities in the University of London’s Senate House.

By some strange synchronicity, just after reading the Guardian piece I saw one in Le Parisien announcing the arrival of a new type of convenience in Paris. For reasons that will become obvious, these contraptions are known as Urilifts. These are manufactured by Pop-Up Toilets, a Dutch company who’ve been developing this type of equipment for almost 10 years. Urilifts are cabin-like structures consisting of two urinals and a closed cubicle, and their unique selling point is that they only come out at night. They rise up at 7 p.m. and disappear into the ground in the early morning. They are thus, according to their publicity, ‘designed to integrate into historic and heritage places and leave the public road accessible to residents during the day’. For the moment, there is only one in Paris, in Place des Abbesses, Montmartre, but more are planned.

URILIFT down…
…et voila! URILIFT up.

Now this is all well and good, and I can appreciate the authorities wanting to go for something discreet and unobtrusive, but I wonder if they have really thought this thing through. Once word gets around, I can see these things becoming attractions in their own right – not for tourists though, but for the local residents. As the hour of 7 p.m. approaches, they will gather at nearby cafés and on street corners, quietly smiling and nudging each other expectantly, trying to look nonchalant so as not to give the game away. The moment finally arrives. There is a slow, almost inaudible whirring sound. Then … ‘Urilifts are go!’ To gales of laughter, cheers and cries of allez-oop, some poor tourist, having paused momentarily to consult a map or take a photo, suddenly finds him or herself hoisted several feet in the air and marooned on top of a public convenience.

Obviously there is an element of chance in this. For one thing, there won’t always be someone standing in the right position. Also, the more agile and alert tourists will be able to leap off at the first signs of movement. But I think this uncertainty will only add to the excitement. Imagine the sharp intakes of breath as a potential punter comes close to the, for want of a better word, launch pad, and then the almost imperceptible sighs of disappointment as they move away again. Street theatre at its most compelling.

Of course the evening’s entertainment for the spectators need not necessarily end there. Once the Urilift is raised to its full height (with or without a rooftop passenger), someone will eventually want to make use of it. The locals know that as the door of the Urilift slowly opens for the first time that evening, there is always the possibility of said prospective user being trampled underfoot by some poor hungover wretch staggering out, cursing and roaring, having been unexpectedly trapped during the wee small hours (an apt phrase) and incarcerated below ground for the next fifteen.

Regular spectators will tell you gleefully of the rare occasions when one sees un whammy double, for example the time when a distraught American gentleman staggered out into the evening air only to look up bewilderedly at a Japanese lady standing above him tearfully beseeching to help her down from the roof. It sounds like a scene from a modern-day Madam Butterfly.

Given the nature of my bladder and my tendency to absent-mindedness, it would be foolhardy for me to declare ‘you’ll never get me up in one of those’, but I shall tread warily the next time I’m in Montmartre.