Monday. My Pilates class finally restarted after a long Covid-influenced break. Several new members have joined, and we were all introduced to each other by Sandra, our tutor. When it came to my turn, she said, ‘C’est Mick … comme Mick Jagger!’ I assumed she was referring to my name rather than my gymnastic ability – the looks on the faces of everyone else told me they had quickly come to the same conclusion. We do lots of basic stretching, with a few yoga exercises added. My Downward Dog (la posture du chien tête en bas) is coming on a treat.
Tuesday. I went along to the Banque Alimentaire (food bank) in South Poitiers to be shown around and to see if I could be of any use to them. With six paid employees and around a hundred volunteers, it’s a much larger operation than the one I used to work at in Ely. There is a 1,200 m2 warehouse with four cold rooms. Five mornings a week, three refrigerated trucks collect food from local supermarkets and hypermarkets. This is sorted and then distributed each afternoon to around sixty charitable associations. There are also contributions from the EU, the French state, and local manufacturers and farmers. During the recent lockdown, the municipal council had a scheme for buying unsold goods from local markets to give to the food bank – helping both suppliers and consumers. In total, around 105 tonnes of food passed through the warehouse last year.
I was assured that my limited French would be no problem, and we agreed that I would do a Friday morning each week, helping out on one of the truck runs. I regard this as a promotion from my shelf-stacking duties at Ely, and I felt a surge of pride as I was handed my gilet orange (hi-vis tabard), happy in the knowledge that I can now add International Food Bank Specialist to my CV.
Wednesday. I’ve joined a local photography club, and we meet once a week in a community centre in Buxerolles. It’s good fun, and they are a jolly bunch. In my first couple of meetings I’ve been getting a crash course in French photographic vocabulary – a camera is un appareil photographique (they do use the word camera, but only for a video camera), a lens is un objectif, and a shutter is un obturateur. Confusingly, a photographer is un photographe. French vocabulary is usually more limited than English, but they do have a word for the button you press to actually take a picture – un déclencheur. As far as I am aware, there is no English equivalent.
Canon and Nikon owners predominate in the group (I have an Olympus), and there is a comic rivalry between the two, vying to demonstrate the superiority of their own particular models, often using fairly arcane debating points such as whether or not one’s camera is ‘PictBridge compatible’ and the number of ‘dual cross-type AF points’ it has. It’s all way above my head at the moment and reminds me of the Not The Nine O’Clock News Hi-Fi Shop sketch.
Thursday. To Paris to see the Vivian Maier exhibition at the Musée du Luxembourg.
Maier’s story is a fascinating one. Born in 1926 in New York, she lived there till she moved to Chicago in 1956. While working as a children’s governess, she enjoyed walking around the city, particularly the working-class areas, taking photos of urban life. Her mother was French, and she also travelled and photographed extensively in France.
The general public only became aware of Maier’s work in 2007, two years before her death. By now her health was failing and she had little money. However, three of the children she had nannied earlier in her life came to the rescue. They pooled resources to pay for an apartment for her and settle her medical bills. Unbeknownst to them, one of Vivian’s storage lockers had been auctioned off to repay some outstanding debts, and it was here that the massive hoard of over 100,000 negatives that she had accumulated throughout her life was discovered. Fame quickly followed. The exhibition is wonderful: beautiful photographs full of humour, pathos, and compassion. I defy anyone to go and see it and not come out feeling better about life generally.
I spent the rest of a fine sunny day happily clicking my way around the city.
A café near Blvd. Saint-Michel introduced these bears to assist with social distancing, but they seem to have become a permanent feature.
Friday. I arrive at 08.00 for my Banque Alimentaire shift. René, slightly older than me, is the driver. He has been with the food bank for a year. I am the accompagnateur. My main objective for the day is to not make a complete arse of myself. We visit several large supermarkets and hypermarkets on the periphery of Poitiers, loading plastic crates of fruit, vegetables, and refrigerated food. For the latter we have to record the temperature using a hand-held device that looks like a water pistol. Each stop takes about twenty minutes. I am clearly doing ok, because after the second supermarket I am given full responsibility for the water pistol. On the way back to base, we pass Poitiers airport, and René tells me that he was general manager there, back in the 1970s. Other volunteers I’ve already met include a charted accountant, an IT consultant, and two teachers. We unload at the depot and go out for a second, shorter trip to collect from a fruit and vegetable warehouse to the north of Poitiers. Back to unload again, and we are finished by 11.30. I’ve had worse jobs.
Things I’ve learnt this week:
The South Korean equivalent of ‘looking for a needle in a haystack’ is ‘looking for Mr Kim in Seoul’.
The average person produces enough saliva in their lifetime to fill two swimming pools.
In 1577 in Aylesbury, England, seven men and a woman were sentenced to be hanged after being found guilty of ‘keeping company with Egyptians’.