Thursday, the 16th of June, was Bloomsday, a day of celebration for lovers of James Joyce’s Ulysses and an excuse for alcohol-influenced revelry all over the world. On a fine sunny evening, I did my bit by enjoying a couple of pints of Guinness outside Le Roi d’Ys bar in Rue de la Cathédrale while listening to members of Poitin na nGael, the local traditional music collective. I don’t think any of them were actually Irish, being either French or American, but it’s the thought that counts.
Mixed Covid messages from the UK and France this week. On Monday, Boris Johnson postponed “Freedom Day” for four weeks in light of the increase in new cases caused by the Delta variant. The 19th of July is now the “terminus date” when all restrictions on social contact will be lifted, barring the emergence of a new game-changing variant. There were predictable howls of rage from the usual suspects, but opinion polls suggested that the general public broadly backed the decision.
Here in France, the government has taken a diametrically opposite approach. In an unexpected announcement on Wednesday, we were told that our own Freedom Day was being brought forward from the 1st of July to today, the 20th of June, when the curfew, in place since October, finally ends. The reason for this new relaxation is that the number of French cases is falling dramatically; as of yesterday, the average number of daily cases had dropped to 2719, compared to 40,000 in April.
This approach is not without risk. The Delta variant is fast-moving, and the number of cases in France is increasing. A second vaccination is required to be truly effective against the variant, and whilst total vaccination coverage in France is growing rapidly, it is currently only at 31% of adults. Worryingly, there has been a slackening of demand as summer begins and the pandemic abates. On a more positive note, the hot weather may help prevent the spread of the virus. It would surely be a major embarrassment for the government if this relaxation was later seen to be premature and a fourth lockdown had to be introduced.
As life slowly returns to normal here in Poitiers, it is reassuring to see the long spell of inactivity has, so far at least, not led to the closure of any of the bars or restaurants in Centre-ville. The opposite, in fact – there are signs of increased activity everywhere. Two restaurants have reopened under new management – Chez Michel in Rue Magenta is now Chez Jean-Michel, and L’Antigny in Place Charles de Gaulle is now Les Fines Gueules. Two new restaurants have opened, Le Roy des Ribauds in Place Charles-VII, and Bouillon Carnot in Rue Carnot. A third, as yet unnamed, is due to open soon in Rue des Grandes Écoles. So many eateries and so little time.
In the interests of research, Madame and I went to Bouillon Carnot for lunch on Wednesday. A bouillon is a restaurant serving a menu of standard French dishes at reasonable prices. Bookings are not taken, and turnaround is rapid. The most famous one is probably the vast Bouillon Chartier in Paris’s 9th arrondissement.
Bouillon Carnot is an altogether more modest affair, with seating for about twenty in a front area and about the same in a back room. The menu is not that dissimilar to that of its Paris counterpart. Nothing too adventurous, but a decent selection to choose from.
I had sardines, boeuf et frites, and Paris-Brest (a gooey cream bun). Madame had tomato salad, poulet aux olives, and the flan pâtissier. All served promptly, and all pretty good. With a carafe of Côtes du Rhône, the bill came to a reasonable €46. We will go again. Home by 15.00, just in time for the afternoon Maigret on TV. I closed my eyes for a second, and when I opened them again, Wales were beating Turkey 1–0.
We’ve been enjoying the football all week, all the more so since I discovered that Caribou Café, the friendly French-Canadian bar in Rue de la Regratterie, has got a large TV in the upstairs bar. We cheered on France as they beat Germany and chewed our fingernails during England v. Scotland. The bar staff thought it hilarious when we told them that un match nul (a draw) should definitely be regarded as a victory for Scotland.
Another sign of normality returning is the reopening of the cinemas here, and we’ve been twice recently. Coincidentally, both the films we saw are about the ageing process. In The Father, a man wrestles with the nightmare of dementia, and in Nomadland, a widow living in a camper van ekes out a living as she travels through the states of the western USA. Such unpromising material could have made for harrowing viewing; the fact that it doesn’t is largely due to Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand, who both won Oscars for their leading roles.
I had my own intimation of mortality this week when I finally gave in and got fitted with hearing aids. I’ve got by for a couple of years by saying that most people talk bollocks most of the time so I’m really not missing anything. Now, however, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Not only is everyone talking French, but they are doing it with masks covering their mouths. Something had to be done.
The result so far are mixed. Madame tells me that I am no longer asking her to repeat everything she says, which is an important consideration, and when I am out in the street I think I can hear things more clearly. But the difference is not the magic transformation I was expecting. The same goes for the sound on the telly – though apparently there is a small remote device one can use in connection with the hearing aid to boost this. I have the aids on trial for a week and will then make a decision about whether to keep them.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
In 2017, seventy students in Maryland drank so much alcohol at a party that the air in the house registered positive on a breathalyser.
During the Second World War, fish-and-chip-shop managers were exempt from military service.
Tunnock’s Teacakes aren’t allowed in RAF planes in case they explode.