There’s a riot goin’ on

Place Leclerc 24th July

I don’t know. You turn your back for five minutes and all hell breaks loose.

Last Saturday (July 24th), while we were still in Paris, about 700 people staged an anti-health pass demonstration in Place Leclerc, the main square in Poitiers. A few dozen demonstrators, taking advantage of a wedding that was being held there, broke into la mairie. A flag was stolen, and a portrait of President Macron was taken from the wall and thrown down into the street. Somebody helpfully filmed the whole thing (https://twitter.com/​dystoman/​status/​​1419674069436338180?s=20).

The Poitiers protestors were not alone. On that day, an estimated 160,000 protesters took part in more than 200 demonstrations across France, a 30% increase on the week before. Another series of demonstrations took place nationwide yesterday (July 31st), and the overall number of protestors has risen to more than 200,000. About 1,000 marched through Poitiers, but this time the protest passed off peacefully. (The figures here are provided by John Lichfield, who writes for The Local magazine in France and provides a weekly analysis of the virus and vaccination situation in France and the UK.)

According to an IFOP poll for the Journal du Dimanche, support for the anti-passers is heavily concentrated on the hard left (57% support) and the hard right (49%), and overlaps to a large degree with the Gilets Jaunes movement. It can thus be seen as part of a more general anti-Macron movement supported by the most extreme Macron-hating sections of the population.

At the same time, support for the movement among the young is quite strong – 51% among 18-to-35s. As John Lichfield points out, ‘The people who marched on the last two Saturdays were not all anti-vaxxers or conspiracy theorists (although many were).’ While some banners said ‘Masks make children autistic’ or ‘Vaccines create variants,’ there were others saying ‘Pro-vaccine but also pro-liberty.’ While some were wearing yellow stars similar to those imposed on Jews by the Nazi occupiers of France and complaining of a vaccine-regulated ‘apartheid’, others were arguing against Macron’s decision to make vaccination more or less compulsory. Macron himself had at first been reluctant to do this.

For all the protests, the government’s recent initiatives to promote vaccination have been highly successful. Since the president first gave notice of the introduction of the health pass two weeks ago, the average number of first shots given daily has doubled. In this period, almost 5 million people have had their first vaccination, and in each of the past four days more than 400,000 first jabs have been administered. At the same time, the vaccination programme in the UK has slowed down dramatically. As things stand, France (now averaging 330,000 first shots a day) could overtake Britain (averaging 40,000 a day) in the total number of first vaccinations, in about three weeks’ time.

At the moment, it is difficult to assess what impact the anti-pass protests will have, or indeed what it is that the protestors are hoping to achieve. From August 9th, the health passport will be required for access to bars, restaurants, and cafés, larger shopping centres and malls, hospitals, medical centres, and retirement homes. It will also be needed for long-distance travel within France – domestic flights, interregional bus travel, and TGV or Intercité trains.

A recent poll shows that two-thirds of the French population support the president’s policy. At the same time, in John Lichfield’s view, the demonstrations will continue and may even get larger: ‘The nutters and the diehards and the weekend hobby-protesters will go on indefinitely. The more moderate, sensible protesters will melt away as the peak August holiday season begins.’ We shall see.

***

The British government has now opened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers from its ‘amber list’ countries. These include the USA and nearly all of mainland Europe. The glaring exception is France, which for some bizarre reason has been singled out and put on an ‘amber-plus’ list. On the Today programme on Friday, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, set out the thinking behind this decision. According to him, it was the high number of cases of the Beta variant on the island of Réunion, a French Overseas department.

There are two tiny flaws in this argument. Firstly, Réunion is actually 6,000 miles from mainland France (where the number of Beta variant cases is low and declining rapidly). Secondly, Réunion itself is on the amber list, which means that people arriving in Britain from the island containing the Beta variant the government is worried about don’t have to isolate.

The Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs of the United Kingdom

It is worth remembering at this point that France probably wouldn’t be Raab’s specialist subject on Mastermind. In 2018, during the Brexit negotiations, he admitted that he ‘hadn’t quite understood’ how reliant UK trade in goods is on the Dover–Calais crossing.

The word is that France might be admitted back into the fold next Thursday. I’m not holding my breath.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Irish for ‘escalator’ is staighre beo, ‘living stairs’.

In 2013, a stolen prosthetic arm was found in a second-hand shop in Bournemouth.

In 2004, a boat in Texas capsized because everyone ran to one side to look at a nudist beach.

We’ll always have Paris…

Graffiti, Parc de Belleville

One of the great joys of Paris is its compactness. The twenty arrondissements are effectively fenced in by the Boulevard Périphérique, and one can walk from Porte de Clignancourt in the north to Porte d’Italie in the south, just over 6 miles, in a couple of hours. Going from the edge of the Bois de Boulogne in the west to Porte de Bagnolet in the east is just under 7 miles, so it would take another 20 minutes or so. The city is made for walking.

Comparisons with London are difficult because of the more sprawling nature of the latter. A reasonable comparison might be going north/south from Parliament Hill in Hampstead to Wimbledon Common, which is a shade over 11 miles, and going west/east from White City to Canary Wharf, which is 10.5 miles. Every Londoner will have their own notional city boundaries (I always got a bit nervous once I was north of King’s Cross or east of Liverpool Street).

The past three days have been spent carousing in Paris – Madame’s treat for my birthday on Friday. It was warm and sunny, and we spent nearly all of it outdoors. Masks still scrupulously worn by everyone on public transport and in enclosed spaces. Far less so on the streets. According to my Google Fitness app, we averaged a shade under 8 miles (20,000 steps) a day, which is not bad going. It did, of course, require plenty of pit stops for refuelling on the way.

A few garbled jottings from our time there.

On Thursday morning, we headed north-east on the metro to Pyrénées to show Madame the wonderful city view from Parc de Belleville. We then walked back to the city centre via Rue de Belleville and Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple. I like this area. It’s lively and noisy, with a noticeable influx of Chinese people since I lived here twenty years ago.

Street Art, Rue de Belleville

Restaurants and bars have been allowed to extend their terraces wherever possible. This generally gives the city an even more festive air than usual, though perhaps it doesn’t always work …

Rue du Dragon

On Friday, we went to the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris, in the heart of the Marais. It’s one of my favourite museums and has just reopened after four years of renovation work. It looks superb. It’s free to enter, and one can spend a very enjoyable hour wandering the bright, airy galleries. We had come to see the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibition, which was every bit as good as I had hoped. There is a slide show here showing some of the exhibits.

Be warned, tickets are sold by entry time. Allow a little time before your session starts, because you will be stopped by a bewildering number of individuals checking that you have a ticket, that it’s for the right day and time, that you’re in the right queue for your session, that you have your health pass … ‘and if we could just have one last look at your ticket, monsieur? Merci! Enjoy your visit.’

Palais du Louvre

At lunchtime we walked through the grounds of the Palais du Louvre to Galerie Vivienne for a glass of champagne in Legrand, the wine bar and wine merchants. This has become a birthday tradition. That is to say, we also did it last year, and I don’t see any reason to stop now.

Joyeux anniversaire à moi!

A light lunch in Bar du Moulin nearby, then back to the hôtel to fall asleep watching Maigret.

A walk along the river in the evening, then dinner at Chez Fernand Christine, not far from our hotel in Rue de l’Odéon. It’s a sister restaurant to Chez Fernand in Rue Guisarde, and their speciality is the same ‘légendaire bœuf bourguignon de Rémi Lebon,’ which we both had. It was as good as always, but the portions are definitely getting smaller.

The evening’s entertainment was provided by three Americans at the next table, one of whom had the strongest Brooklyn accent I’ve ever heard. They ordered four starters, which they shared. We’d started before they arrived and left before their mains arrived, but they had already almost demolished the magnum of Sancerre that Brooklyn had ordered. He was drinking vodka chasers alongside this.

Brooklyn: Ya got any French vodka?

Waiter: Yes, sir, we do.

B: Is it smooth?

W: Oh yes, sir, it’s very smooth.

B: I hate smooth. Ya got any Stoly?

W: Yes, sir.

I was sorry to leave. If nothing else, I would have loved to see their bill.

After dinner, another, slightly more atavistic, birthday tradition, a couple of pints of Guinness in Corcoran’s in Rue Saint-André-des-Arts.

Corcoran’s, Rue Saint-André des Arts

A nightcap in Les Éditeurs in Carrefour de l’Odéon, and then gently floating homeward, feeling no pain.

Carrefour de l’Odéon, Midnight Saturday 24th July

On Saturday morning, we set out to visit the catacombs. I’d first tried to do this many years ago with friends Frank and John, but a sudden digestive crisis had forced me to leave them to it while I found what Brooklyn would have called a restroom. For some reason, this proved unexpectedly difficult, and by the time I succeeded it was too late to join them.

I was no luckier this time. The Covid virus has led to stricter controls on the number of visitors, and booking in advance is necessary, something we had failed to do.

Instead we went to Le Bon Marché, the upmarket department store whose food hall would give that of Harrods a run for its money. We toyed with paying €3,000 for a bottle of Chateau Latour or stocking up with Bird’s Custard Powder from their British section, but decided to leave both for another day.

Decisions, decisions

Lunch sitting in the sun outside ever-reliable Le Petit Saint-Benoit, then to Gare Montparnasse to share the train home with about half a million people heading for the coast.

A very enjoyable few days.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week … For some reason, I have forgotten everything I have learnt this week, but Madame has just told me a funny story.

Apparently the animal charity PDSA runs its promotional material on a syndicated basis. Thus you will see similar posters and signs in different cities throughout the UK: ‘PDSA. Helping Edinburgh animals,’ ‘PDSA. Helping Blackpool animals,’ ‘PDSA. Helping Norwich animals,’ etc.

All well and good, but they have just opened a branch in Bury.

Getting the needle

Anti health pass demo in Poitiers, Saturday 17th July

As I write this, just three hours after saying that they would not do so, the UK Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have announced that they are self-isolating, having been in contact with the Minister of Health, who has tested positive for the Covid virus.

More than half a million isolation alerts were sent to people using the NHS Covid-19 app in England and Wales during the first week of July, a 46 per cent rise on the previous week.

Tomorrow is Boris Johnson’s Freedom Day.

The French and English strategies for dealing with the virus have diverged significantly this week, and one result of this is that the rules for travel between the two countries are becoming increasingly complicated. On Monday, Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron both publicly announced the next stages in their respective countries’ battles against Covid 19.

Here in France, there were two significant changes. First, it will be mandatory for all staff working in hospitals, clinics, and retirement homes, and all workers who work in contact with elderly or vulnerable people, to be vaccinated by September 15th. Health Minister Olivier Véran has said that those who are not vaccinated will not be able to work, and will not be paid. Warning that it may be necessary to consider ‘compulsory vaccination for everybody in France’, the President said that for now the government is choosing to put ‘confidence’ in people to get vaccinated voluntarily ‘as soon as possible’.

The second major change is that from 21st July health passes will be required for all aged 12 and above to attend events of over fifty people. This will be extended to cafés, restaurants, shopping centres, hospitals, retirement homes, planes, and trains and coaches for long-distance journeys from the beginning of August. (Long-distance travel means TGV and Intercités trains, inter-regional coach trips, and all domestic and international flights. Local trains, buses, or trams will not be affected.) Masks remain compulsory on public transport and in all enclosed public spaces.

By contrast, and as expected, Boris Johnson announced that most Covid guidance and legal restrictions will be lifted in England tomorrow, Freedom Day. There will no longer be limits on how many people can meet, and the ‘1 metre plus’ rule will be removed (except in certain designated places, such as hospitals and passport control points). Masks will no longer be required by law but still recommended in public places. Limits on visitors to care homes will be removed. On 16th August, most Covid restrictions in schools will come to an end. From the same date, double-vaccinated adults may not need to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone who tests positive. The guidance recommending against travel to amber countries will be removed. Adults fully vaccinated in the UK will no longer have to quarantine for ten days after returning from an amber-list country.

In France, with the exception of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale, all of the main political parties have endorsed President Macron’s strategy. Although there have been nationwide demonstrations, with a strong gilets jaunes presence, one senses that the vast majority of the population supports the new measures. Furthermore, they do seem to be having the desired effect. Within two days of the President’s television broadcast, over two million new vaccination appointments had been made. Prior to the announcement, only 46.5 per cent of 25­- to 29-year-olds in France had been vaccinated, and only 25.4 per cent had had their second injection. It was this age group that the new measures were targeting, and it was they, overwhelmingly, who responded by immediately making appointments.

There is a sense of walking through the looking glass when one examines the situation in the UK. There, it is the vociferous minority, the anti-vaxxers, who are supportive of Johnson’s policy, while the public at large are not so sure. A poll published in the Observer two days before his announcement found that 73 per cent of people thought that wearing masks on public transport should continue, while 50 per cent said that ‘freedom day’ should be pushed back beyond 19th July. The current steady rise in the numbers of cases and deaths is, inevitably, causing increasing public concern.

Case numbers in France are also on the rise. Though they are currently much lower than in the UK, we are yet to experience the full effect of the Delta variant here. In both countries, hopes are now riding on vaccine take-up being swift enough to keep the spread of the virus to manageable levels. I’m inclined to think that the recently announced French policy is more likely to ensure this. However, with the possibility of a new variant emerging at any time, I’d be reluctant to bet the house on it.

To continue the Alice in Wonderland analogy, the rules covering travel between the two countries are getting curiouser and curiouser. On Friday night, the UK government announced that France had been placed in a new ‘amber plus’ category – halfway between amber and red – under the government’s traffic light system for travel. From 19th July, all those travelling from France to the UK, even if double-vaccinated, will continue to have to quarantine at home for ten days, taking tests on (or before) the second day and on (or after) the eight day (with the possibility of release after five days). The UK government is worried about the prevalence in France of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa and thought to be partially resistant to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is used for the majority of UK jabs.

Meanwhile, as of midnight tonight (Sunday), unvaccinated UK visitors to France will now have to show a negative PCR or antigen test that is less than 24 hours old, rather than the 48 hours allowed previously. If you’ve had both doses, you’ll now be exempt from providing a test to enter French territory. Once these conditions are met, there is currently no requirement to quarantine when in France.

So, as things stand, once vaccinated, travel from the UK to France is relatively straightforward. Travel in the other direction is much more complicated.

There is a significant anomaly in the cost of testing in the two countries. My friend Christopher recently made a return journey between them and provided a helpful breakdown of the costs (this was before the most recent announcements):

Going from the UK to France: mandatory UK PCR test £80, optional French PCR test €0.

Going from France to the UK: mandatory French PCR test €0, mandatory UK day 2 and day 8 tests £140, optional UK test and release £90.

(In his last TV address, President Macron stated that at some as yet unspecified date in the autumn, CPR tests in France will no longer be free for non-residents but will cost a maximum of €49.)

***

The latest bit of graffiti to appear in our street: ‘Nobody is born free under capitalism and hierarchy.’ You may not agree with the sentiment, but you have to admire the syntax, spelling, and correct use of accents. Far better than mine.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1865, the Duke of Buckingham was blown from Holborn to Euston through a pneumatic tube intended for parcels.

If you lift a kangaroo’s tail off the ground, it can’t hop.

The Scottish mountain Bod an Deamhain, ‘penis of the demon’, is usually translated into English as the Devil’s Point.

Home entertainment

Chateau d’Orion, Deux-Sèvres

Two of my favourite literary characters are Badger in The Wind in the Willows and Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother. Mainly, I think, because they both like to be left alone, Badger in his home deep in the Wild Wood, and Mycroft in his comfortable armchair in the Diogenes Club.

I wouldn’t say I am anti-social. I enjoy going to bars, restaurants, and other places of entertainment, on my own, with Madame, or with friends. These are places with fixed opening and closing times and defined codes of behaviour. Everyone knows where they stand. It is when this safety net of conformity is removed that I get twitchy.

I’ve always struggled to understand the ‘urge to entertain’ gene that some of us are born with – people who derive pleasure from organising ‘entertainments’ or home visits. As with smoking, those of us who do not have the gene are still liable to be affected passively. A wise friend once told me that three of the most depressing words in the English language are ‘Come to stay.’

Now, let me say at the outset that staying with family is OK. Here there is a sort of mutually assured destruction pact which ensures a high level of tolerance of individual habits, views, and foibles. Outside the family circle, however, it is terra incognita. There are minefields everywhere. Where to sit, where to stand, when to go to bed, when to get up, when to use the bathroom (which bathroom?), whether to flush in the night or not. When to suggest that you’d rather slit your wrists than watch another minute of Jamie’s Strictly Bake Off.

You are told at the outset to make yourself completely at home, and then reminded gently at regular intervals, ‘not that one … no, not there, no, that’s Dad’s/Sarah’s/David’s one …, actually, we normally … actually, we don’t …’ And then there is the phrase that, for me, is as gloom-inducing as ‘Come to stay’: ‘After lunch, we thought you might like to go for a walk.’ What I would actually like is an after-lunch nap.

***

Last Sunday, with our very nice neighbours Jean-Claude and Bernadette, we went to Oiron, a small hamlet (population 900) about 60 km away in the department of Deux-Sèvres. Jean-Claude, a retired teacher of dance and film studies, thought we might like a visit to the Château d’Oiron followed by a spectacle organised by a theatre group whom he occasionally worked with.

The château, a handsome edifice built for the Gouffier family, is the setting for the original Puss in Boots (Le Chat Botté) written by Charles Perrault at the end of the seventeenth century. Artus Gouffier de Boissy (1475–1519) was awarded the land of Caravaz in Italy after supporting Louis XII in the Italian wars, and he is the basis for the Marquis of Carabas in the story. Artus was responsible for initiating work on the château, just before he died, and it was completed by his son Claude (1501–1570). After centuries of steady decline, it was bought by the state in 1943, and over the next seventy years an extensive programme of structural repair and restoration was carried out. Today it houses the contemporary art collection Curios & Mirabilia, loosely based on the theme of the curiosity cabinet created by Claude Gouffier.

Curios & Mirabilia is an interesting collection but leans a little too heavily towards the world of Jake and Dinos Chapman. Once you’ve seen your third or fourth severed limb, penis/nose transposition, or grotesque hybrid animal, your eyes tend to glaze over.

A grotesque hybrid animal

In one room, a flock of small birds were scratching out a sort of tune with their feet as they landed on an electric guitar connected to an amp and speakers.

Not the Eagles

In another, a television was showing a film in which water flows into a bottle leaning at an angle, eventually forcing it to overturn and land on a small see-saw, causing a ball to roll down a slope into a bucket, which topples over and pours liquid onto a piece of glass, thus making a coin slide into a metal tray angled to allow a marble to fall onto another tilted surface and knock over a bottle which … This is fascinating for the first five minutes or so.

The exhibition makes for an enjoyable enough couple of hours. Unfortunately, we had three hours to kill before the spectacle was due to start. Refreshments were not available. To pass the time, we visited the nearby church of St Maurice. This has a large alligator nailed to one of the walls. We were unable to find out why. I suggested that it might be an allegory as well as an alligator. Nobody laughed. Lost in translation, perhaps.

The alligator allegory

Back in the town square, we assembled for the spectacle. I’d assumed this would be in a theatre, but was told that it would be performed at open-air locations around the village. By now a breeze was beginning to blow up, and I was regretting only wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

There is an attractive-looking bar, Le Salamander, in Oiron. It’s closed on Sundays.

The event was due to start at 17.30, but it was 18.25 before we were finally led into a courtyard nearby. We were given small, low shooting stick-type devices to sit on and told to take these with us as we went from scene to scene. They are relatively easy to sit on, but getting up unaided is well-nigh impossible.

Not as much fun as it looks.

The spectacle consisted of four short scenes. One was performed in the courtyard, the others in areas of parkland around the château. Two of the cast were women. One, in a blue tracksuit, carried a clipboard; the other, in a baggy purple coat and a cloche hat, carried an umbrella, which she would wave at the audience from time to time. They took it in turns to deliver short monologues, along with a thin man in a green hoodie and jeans who, when not speaking himself, hit some wine glasses with a small drum stick to provide a musical background for his co-actors.

The overall theme was Time (or possibly The Futility of Life – it was in French, and my hearing aids were playing up in the wind). One scene was definitely about postcards. They were all received in respectful silence by the audience, who clapped politely at the end. Afterwards, in the main square, we were given small paper cups of white wine and biscuits. By now, it had turned distinctly chilly.

In the car on the way home, we all agreed it had been a most enjoyable day, and that we should do something similar very soon.

In the evening, I sat in my armchair and watched The Ipcress File on TV. I’ve seen it many times, but there’s always something new to enjoy:

In a supermarket.

Colonel Ross (picking up a tin of mushrooms from Harry’s trolley): ‘Champignons’ … You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label. If you want mushrooms, you’d get better value on the next shelf.

Harry: It’s not just the label. These do have a better flavour.

Colonel Ross: Of course … You’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

Psycho was the first major American film to feature a flushing toilet.

It’s harder to tell how drunk you are if you’re surrounded by drunk people.

During the Christmas truce of 1914, an English soldier got a haircut from a German who used to be his barber in Holborn.

When I am old…

I was reminded of a poem yesterday. In Jenny Joseph’s  ‘Warning’, a woman contemplates old age and the freedom it will bring.  She has a list of things to look forward to, some of which – spending her pension on brandy, gobbling up free samples in shops, and running her stick along public railings – I find eminently sensible. Others – wearing terrible shirts and eating three pounds of sausages at a sitting – perhaps a little less so.

It’s an interesting poem, more so to me at present because I’m at an age where the line between having such intentions and being able to carry them out is becoming increasingly blurred. Last week, I only narrowly avoided realising one of the woman in the poem’s declared ambitions, ‘I shall go out in my slippers in the rain’, thanks to Madame’s alertness as we were about to leave the house.

I haven’t actually kept a similar list myself. One reason being, perhaps, that the poem is written from the standpoint of a person currently having to live with such strictures as to ‘not swear in the street and set a good example for the children’ – something I’ve never been very good at. Nevertheless, I find the idea is an attractive one, particularly because of the modest scale of the ambitions it describes. Far more sensible than a grandiose bucket list of things to ‘achieve’ before you die – learning Sanskrit, skateboarding down Ben Nevis – written more to impress others than to clarify one’s own thoughts.

As an aside, the nearest I’ve come to such old-age planning has been the steady accumulation, over many years, of books to be read ‘when I have more time … when I retire’. The pile continues to grow, waiting for some now undefined, ever-postponed future date. Reality is finally beginning to creep in. I now accept that I’m never going to read Don Quixote, Crime and Punishment, or Jane Eyre (though I will almost certainly re-read The ABC Murders and Maigret at the Crossroads for the umpteenth time). There will be a provision in my will for a coffin with bookshelves.

Anyway, I was reminded of the poem and its theme last night. One of the most pleasing aspects of the return to near normality is that we can now go out again each evening, around six, for un apéro. Short for apéritif, a pre-dinner drink, it is surely one of the most valuable French contributions to civilisation. One survey on the custom has stated that as many as nine out of ten French people enjoy an apéro, and according to French author Paul Morand, l’apéritif, c’est la prière du soir des Français – ‘the aperitif is the evening prayer of the French’. 

The word originates from the Latin term aperire, meaning ‘to open’, and according to some dictionaries, apéritif literally means ‘a laxative liqueur’. I can’t say that I’ve ever found it particularly so, but then my daily Bran Flakes and banana deal with all that sort of thing.

Some people go to the same bar each evening for their apéro, but Madame and I tend to mix and match between half a dozen or so. The choice on any evening will depend on a number of factors including the weather, the length of time since we last visited a particular bar, and whether we are feeling peckish – some bars are more generous with their accompanying nibbles than others. When we first arrived in Poitiers, we noticed how the French seemed to linger over one drink, so when we had finished ours, we would move on to another bar lest we appeared to be lushes. As we got better at recognising faces, we realised that many other people were doing the same, which made life a lot easier.

La Gazette

Yesterday, on a warm summer evening, we sat on the terrace of La Gazette. It’s in Rue Gambetta, the very centre of centre-ville, and the staff are very friendly. We ordered a glass of pinot noir and an Aperol spritz, and these arrived with a bowl containing peanuts and some sort of French cheesy Wotsits. Nothing odd about any of this, apart, perhaps, from the fact that the Aperol spritz was mine.

As I sipped it, it suddenly struck me that four years ago I would probably have been sitting in a pub in Ely, with a few like-minded individuals, having an ‘English apero’, which would have consisted of two, three, sometimes more pints of bitter. Any nibbles would have had to be bought and, in the case of my local, would have consisted of a packet of cheese and onion crisps or a bag of Nobby’s Nuts (dry roasted or ready salted).

L’apéro anglais

For countless years prior to this, I was involved in similar scenarios in various pubs in London. This is not to criticise or denigrate any of this, I hasten to add. I look forward to a time, post-lockdown, when I can return to the UK and re-enact some of these rituals.

Nevertheless, yesterday evening, I realised that something has changed. I looked at my drink. It was bright orange (like Tizer). It came in a large glass with a white straw, two slices of orange, and half a large strawberry. It was absolutely delicious. A younger me would have certainly ordered a pint of beer instead, or failing that, a large glass of red. Now, as I happily sipped my spritz and nibbled my Wotsits, the poem came back to me, and I began to think that terrible shirts might actually be fun to wear.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

God and Jesus are the only characters in The Simpsons to have five fingers on each hand.

British soldiers in the Second World War had a ration of three sheets of toilet paper a day. US soldiers were allowed 22.5 sheets a day.

The German for ‘contraceptive pill’ is Antibabypille.

A mid-week jolly

La Rochelle

We took a mid-week trip to La Rochelle, a seaport on the west coast about 90 kilometres from Poitiers, and our nearest seaside destination. It has a rich history and is probably most famous for the 1627–28 siege, during which the Huguenot city’s population fell from 22,000 to 5,000. The siege ended with complete victory for Louis XIII’s Catholic forces. Not being of the same persuasion, Madame and I tend to see this event from divergent perspectives.

Harbour Entrance

I like La Rochelle more and more with every visit. The quays around the harbour are lined with cheerful bars and cafés, and from here one can enter the town proper by passing through La Grosse-Horloge, a fifteenth-century city gate topped with an impressive clock tower. The main streets are lined with pretty arcades, and in the area around the indoor market, which is filled to bursting every morning, there is another lively cluster of bars and restaurants.

La Grosse-Horloge

We arrived mid-morning on Wednesday to find roadworks everywhere. The ongoing pedestrianisation of the harbour area is scheduled to last for another year. It’s noisy, but judging from the progress so far, it will look quite impressive when finished. After petit déjeuner at a small cafe on Quai Valin, we took a 45-minute bus ride to Île de Ré, an island just off the coast, now accessible by a 2.9 km bridge built in 1988. This was one of the reasons for our trip, as I’d been looking forward to visiting the island for some time. Sadly, it turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Nobody’s fault. The weather had changed. After a couple of days of bright sunshine, it was suddenly overcast, with an annoying blustery wind, the sort that Madame’s mum describes accurately as ‘making your hair sore’.

We took the bus to Saint-Martin, the island’s main town, only to find that the bus terminus is about a kilometre and a half’s walk from the town itself. Given the weather, this was not ideal, and I could feel distinct twinges of Eeyore-like gloom. On a more positive note, we did get to walk past the Saint-Martin Citadel, France’s largest long-sentence prison. Having lived in Wandsworth and worked for many years near Wormwood Scrubs, I regard myself as something of a connoisseur of prison architecture, and the Citadel is certainly worth seeing (overnight accommodation is probably a different matter entirely).

Saint-Martin Citadel

Saint-Martin itself is a pretty little place, a cross between Southwold in Suffolk and Cowes on the Isle of Wight, with a similar clientele. My guidebook says that August here is best avoided, and I can well believe it. Even on a cloudy June day it was very crowded. You can see all there is to see in less than an hour. Some expensive-looking holiday accommodation, a sprinkling of shops selling ‘crafts’ and chic sailing apparel, and that’s about it. I toyed with buying a bright yellow sou’wester but figured that opportunities to wear it in Poitiers would be limited.

There are various restaurants around the small harbour, and all were doing well. We had a very good lunch at La Marine, and by the time we walked back to the bus stop a couple of hours later, I was in a distinctly more expansive frame of mind.

Back in La Rochelle, things continued to improve as we spent the evening cheering France on in their Euro 2021 match against Portugal. This was in Corrigan’s, a bar in Rue des Cloutiers that serves excellent draught Guinness. Chatting to le patron, Barry, who hails originally from Cork, we were told that we’d dodged a bullet by changing from our original plan of staying overnight on Friday. The town’s rugby club, Stade Rochelais, would be playing their old rivals Toulouse in the championship decider, and the town’s bars and restaurants would all be packed, most of them booked out weeks in advance by regulars.

Allez les Corsaires!

This is another thing I like about La Rochelle: how the town gets wholeheartedly behind les Corsaires. Club shirts, hats, and scarves are very popular, and every other Covid mask you see is emblazoned with the club crest. Mind you, it’s debatable whether I’d be quite as enthusiastic about this if we’d arrived on the Friday and found all doors closed to us.

La Rochelle has several interesting museums, and the second reason for our trip was to visit the Musée Maritime, which currently has an exhibition of Robert Doisneau photographs, Allons voir la mer avec Doisneau. We saw this on Thursday and really enjoyed it. Some fine photos, and just enough to stop you getting ‘exhibition fatigue’. It is worth seeing if you are there between now and November 1st.

A poster from the Doisneau exhibition. Note the numbers. The likely obesity of English speakers is obviously a worry.

***

There is a sad postscript to our trip. Friday’s result: Toulouse 18 – Stade Rochelais 8.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The first pet cemetery opened in Paris in 1899, after the introduction of a law that banned throwing dead dogs into the Seine.

In 2016, Australian police offered cash prizes to any drivers they found to be sober.

The quinine in tonic water is effective against malaria, as long as you drink 300 gin and tonics every day.

Out and about in Poitiers


Poitin na nGael on Bloomsday




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 Chartier, Paris

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.

Bouillon Carnot

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.

Elections and Inoculations

Candidates’ posters outside la mairie

It’s election time in France. Our region, Nouvelle Aquitaine, and department, Vienne, go to the polls on June 20th. I’ve not been following these elections too closely, as I can’t vote in them. My Irish passport only allows me to vote in municipal and European elections. Sadly, after Brexit, Madame can’t even vote in those.

One interesting thing that I have learnt is how carefully election promotional material is controlled in France. A few weeks prior to the election, large temporary metal billboards are installed by the local authority outside the town hall and voting stations. These are for election posters, and the rules are strict and extremely precise. Each candidate, pair of candidates, or list of candidates in the election is allocated an equal space on the boards. According to the Electoral Code, candidates who put up their posters outside the legally sanctioned areas or periods risk a fine, and their posters can be taken down. 

In order to be completely fair, the ordering of space for candidates on the boards is decided by a draw. The panels must be large enough to allow for the correct display of at least a small poster measuring 297 mm × 420 mm and a large poster measuring 594 mm × 841 mm. In the case of a second round of voting, the posters of candidates no longer involved in the ballot should be removed by the Wednesday between ballots.

There are also rules on allowable colours in posters – for example, the French bleu-blanc-rouge combination is not permitted unless they are the colours of the party logo. Posters should not be printed on white paper, unless they include writing or colour pictures.

I’ve been keeping an eye on the posters at the town hall and, by Friday, only one had been defaced, that of Marine Le Pen’s party, Rassemblement Nationale, with the leader being given pencilled horns and chewing-gummed teeth.

In Paris last week, I noticed that they are a little more direct about these things.

***

Still on the subject of elections, while out campaigning yesterday, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, president of the left-wing party La France Insoumise was pelted with flour. This is a relatively common experience for politicians here, and the French have a word for it, enfariner – to throw flour at someone. This is not to be confused with entarter, to throw a tart at someone, again a routine occupational hazard for French politicians. I’m not seeking to condone such activities, but there is a nice medley of the two here.

The French for milkshake is, er, milkshake, but I’ve been unable to find evidence of any politicians in France being enmilkshaké in the way that the awfully nice Mr Farage was two years ago. More generally, in the English-speaking world, it would seem that the egg is the weapon of choice for disgruntled voters.

***

I had my second anti-Covid jab on Friday morning. In and out of Dr L’s surgery in fifteen minutes. The only after-effect was a slight drowsiness in the afternoon, and to be honest, that was more likely due to the two previous evenings, when Madame and I had been celebrating the full opening of bars and restaurants on Wednesday. A spell of glorious weather has meant that since then the city centre has had a carnival atmosphere. It was almost a relief when a sudden thunderstorm on Thursday evening cooled things down a bit – if only for a little while.

Within minutes of my vaccination, my online national health record had been updated, and I was able to download my vaccination certificate onto the government TousAntiCovid app on my mobile phone. This will almost certainly be required for international travel for some time to come. It is planned that the app will also be used as a way of recording the restaurants and bars one visits, but this system isn’t in operation yet. When it is, it’s meant to be an alternative to the ‘visitor’s book’ system that restaurants and bars were supposed to use during the first lockdown (but which, in practice, everyone quickly forgot about).

On the subject of vaccinations, Wednesday saw the 60th anniversary of the death of a famous Poitevin, Camille Guérin. He was born in nearby Châtellerault, and you would be forgiven for having never heard of him, though you will almost certainly have benefitted from his work as a bacteriologist and immunologist. With his colleague, Albert Calmette, Monsieur Guérin developed the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin, a vaccine for immunisation against tuberculosis. This is the BCG injection that we all used to dutifully line up for at school.

Camille Guérin (the man in the photograph behind him is Albert Calmette)

In France, it is still compulsory for children to have the vaccination before the age of six. In the UK, mandatory vaccination was replaced in 2005 by a targeted programme for babies, children, and young adults at higher risk of TB – the justification being the low TB rates in the general population.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1986, 12 jurors got stuck in an Otis elevator in a courthouse on their way to hear a lawsuit against the Otis Elevator Company.

The Queen won’t reveal her favourite meal in case she never gets served anything else.

Viagra can make your urine turn blue. (I read this on the Internet.)

Accordion Crimes

I’ve always liked accordions. They are so absurdly complicated-looking: a keyboard and a large array of buttons, separated by something resembling an inflatable radiator. Yet at the same time they are such beautiful objects, their varnished wooden cases trimmed in chrome and embossed with art nouveau flourishes, the keyboards set in mother of pearl or enamel. There are people who collect luxury cars, but I think an accordion collection might afford me more satisfaction.

My dad’s brother, uncle Mike, had one, and he was a dab hand at playing it. He and Auntie Sheila were regular visitors to our house, and at Christmas or Easter he would sometimes bring it along. A comic ritual had to be gone through so that he could be persuaded to play. He would first feign reluctance, and we, his audience, would temporarily turn into versions of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle – ‘Ah, go on, go on … You will, you will’ – until he eventually agreed. (Even at the tender age of 9, I used to wonder why he had gone to all the trouble of lugging the heavy case on a bus from Wimbledon to Fulham if he didn’t want to play it.)

Once he started, we would be treated to a jolly session of jigs and reels. If we were lucky – it would require another round of Mrs Doyle-like encouragement – my dad would do his Sean-nós broom dance (the chap in the video is not my dad, but is almost as good a dancer). All the while, I would sit happily mesmerised by the blur of Uncle Mike’s hands dancing up and down the keyboards and pausing only briefly to reach for a fortifying sup of Guinness or whiskey.

Here in France, the accordion-playing busker is a stereotypical figure. When I lived in Paris, I learnt to recognise the ones who regularly worked lines 6 and 7 on the Métro. I used to think that Autumn Leaves was a particular busker favourite, until one day, en route somewhere, my friend Frank helpfully put me right:

Me: They all seem to like Autumn Leaves.

Frank: That’s not Autumn Leaves.

Me: What is it, then?

Frank: Fuck knows, but it’s not Autumn Leaves.

Anyway, to get to the point. For the past ten years, Sacha, a Roma from Serbia, has been playing the accordion in the streets of Poitiers, either in front of Notre-Dame church or in front of the Passage Cordeliers. He’s there almost every day, and is a popular local figure. My own relationship with him got off to a shaky start when I absent-mindedly shoved my hand in my pocket and scooped out my change. To my horror, just as I handed it to him I realised I was giving him the princely sum of 14 centimes. He looked at it and then bowed his head with a grave ‘Merci, Monsieur’. I’ve made amends since then, and we are now on good terms.

Last Wednesday, disaster struck. While taking a break from playing, Sacha stored his accordion, collection cap, and chair in Notre-Dame church, as he usually does, only to find on his return that the accordion had gone. Sacha speaks very little French, but Greg, a local resident who speaks Roma, took him to the police station to report the loss. Witnesses have since reported the presence of some young men hanging around outside the church that day, but searches have so far been unsuccessful.

© Photo d’archives : Dominique Bordier.

Sacha with his original accordion

A friend of Greg has lent Sacha another accordion, but it is a smaller instrument and nothing like Sacha’s Beltuna Piano, brought with him from Serbia and relatively rare in France. Meanwhile, an online fundraiser has been started, and in two days it has raised over €2,700 towards its target of €3,500.

You might think that a ‘hot’ accordion would be a difficult thing to dispose of, but it would seem that enough of them are pinched to merit a wanted list of stolen accordions, run by the website Accordions Worldwide. Sacha’s hasn’t been added yet.

In her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx tells the story of one such instrument that travelled, with its Sicilian maker and his son, to New Orleans in 1890. The story follows the accordion over the next hundred years as it crosses several states of the USA. Given, sold, or stolen, it passes through the hands of numerous immigrant families, including Italians, Germans, Norwegians, and French Canadians. I hope very much that Sacha recovers his own accordion or, if not, that the fund will pay for a suitable replacement. If the latter, it would be nice to think that, for years to come, his original Beltuna continues to travel around the countries of Europe, playing something that may or may not be Autumn Leaves.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Pope cannot be an organ donor, because his body belongs to the Church.

A jar of Nutella is sold somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds.

Until the early twentieth century, left-handedness in a wife was grounds for divorce in Japan.

Free at last – more or less

Guess where we’ve been?

On Thursday, we went to Paris to spend a couple of days celebrating our new-found freedom. The sun was shining, and although service is still confined to their terraces, there was no shortage of cafés, bars, and restaurants in which to while away the time very pleasantly. Because of the restrictions on foreign travel, the atmosphere was a little strange at times. We had a stroll through Montmartre, and the streets around Place du Tertre, normally full of people at this time of year, were eerily quiet.

Montmartre – eerily quiet

On Friday, we had a mooch around the 7th arrondissement and saw one or two exteriors that have given Madame food for thought when we next decorate the front of our house.

148 Rue de Grenelle

29 Avenue Rapp

Restaurant owners won’t agree with this, but I found that one unexpected benefit of the reduction in tourist numbers was that waiters and bar staff were noticeably more relaxed and happy to chat to customers. I don’t hold with the idea that service in France, and Paris in particular, is generally poor. Someone once explained to me that, in brasseries especially, staff tend to work long hours and are generally pretty stretched. They need to be quick, and this can sometimes be misinterpreted as rudeness. In my experience, if you are polite, they will be too.

The 21.00 curfew is still in force, but in practice this seems to mean that restaurants stop serving at 21.00. People were still ordering meals up to ten minutes before this. Customers then slowly drifted home over the next hour. It all seemed very relaxed, and the police were noticeably absent.

Masks still need to be worn in the street …

… though exemptions are sometimes granted.

As always, no matter what your cultural interests are, you will find plenty of things to see and do in Paris.

Still lost in France

Still game

***

I think French food is wonderful. Poitiers has umpteen good restaurants, and a trip around the local market is always a treat. And yet, I do worry sometimes.

After the opening of Chien Chaud (see January 10th), the hot dog bar in Rue Magenta, I couldn’t help noticing that a couple of other café-restaurants have added hot dogs to their menus. And now Casa Huet, a restaurant just up the road in Saint-Benoît, has installed a pizza vending machine in front of its premises in Rue de Naintré.

According to the owner, Christophe Huet, ‘We had been thinking about it for a while, but the first lockdown accelerated things because people could only leave their homes for a short time.’

M. Huet and his team with their pizza machine

The pizzas are 80% pre-cooked and stored in the machine at 5 °C. You make a selection from a touch screen offering a variety of eight toppings, including merguez, peppers and onions, four cheese, pizza aux saint-jacques (scallops), local speciality la Poitevine (goat’s cheese and honey) and the ‘burger pizza’ (the mind boggles). You pay by bank card, and after three minutes your pizza is cooked at 350 °C. You can also buy it cold for reheating at home.

According to M. Huet, it’s been a great success, and over two hundred pizzas were sold in the first week. All well and good, but apparently he now intends to ‘develop the concept’. Mark my words, before you know it there will be a bœuf Bourguignon dispenser in the main square.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1903, the three largest sports stadiums in the world were all in Glasgow.

At actor Derek Fowlds’s funeral in 2020, Basil Brush was amongst the mourners and read a poem.

Hairy-legged tights are sold in China to protect girls from unwanted male attention.