Strange days

Monday

The flu jab season has arrived. I received a letter a couple of weeks ago saying that I could get my jab from today, so I headed to the pharmacie this morning. In previous years, they handed me my injection in a little freezer bag which I could take home and either inject myself or put in the fridge and arrange an appointment for my GP to do it. Clumsy and short-sighted as I am, there was a strong risk that I’d inadvertently inject the arm of my chair rather than myself, so I used to go along and get Dr L to do it. This year, however, the pharmacie itself offers the service. The pharmacist who served me led me into a small room at the back and did the job herself in a couple of minutes. She was polite and reserved, so I decided against using my ‘little prick with a needle’ joke.

As I’m over 65, I’m one of those who are first in the queue for the service. Madame S, being still young and sprightly, will have to wait till mid-November for hers.

***

Sound advice from someone on Twitter: ‘Before you get angry with someone, stop and take a deep breath, because then you’ll be able to shout louder.’

Tuesday

A variation on an old joke:

How many retired English teachers does it take to change a four-foot-long fluorescent light bulb?

Answer: One. But it will take him an hour, an awful lot of shouting and swearing, and a chair he will fall off. Twice.

Wednesday

Our taxe d’habitation (council tax bill) arrives. When we came here, we were told that this was being phased out over two years, with a large reduction this year and nothing to pay next year. This schedule was later amended, and we were told that the tax would be phased out more slowly and finally disappear by 2023.

Now, however, the vast expenditure entailed by the coronavirus has apparently led the government to reconsider the whole situation. What would replace the tax has never been made clear. Our current bill is a little over €2,000. Out of interest, I checked the figures in the UK, and this is almost identical to what we would have paid if we were still living in our house in Ely. Here, however, the figure includes €138 for our TV licence, and we get our bins emptied four times a week.

This, spotted in Viz today, seemed apt:

‘I was delighted when the kind people at the Inland Revenue wrote to me recently telling me that my tax return was “outstanding”, particularly as I can’t even remember sending it in.’

Tom Smith, Macclesfield

Thursday

A grim story. The gym where I go for my Thursday morning Pilates class is a ground-floor room on the corner of an apartment block in rue Grand Cerf. It has windows on two sides looking out on the road. High above the road, and clearly visible from the gym, the Viaduct Léon-Blum leads from the plateau that is the town centre to the top of the station car park on the far side of rue Grand Cerf. From there, one can take an escalator down to the station.

Sandra, our coach, tells us that last Thursday afternoon, she and some of the class she was taking saw a man commit suicide by falling from the viaduct onto the road. She later found out that she knew the man, who had been the head of the Orthopaedic Unit at Poitiers University Hospital, where she used to work as a physiotherapist.

Friday

This was the day we were due to go on a weekend trip to Paris to celebrate Madame’s birthday. The recent lockdown announcement put paid to that, so we decided instead to go to Tours, about 65 miles away. It’s a lively place, the largest city in the Loire Valley, with plenty of things to do and see. We spent Friday evening in Place Plumereau, the centre of the old town, a place full of bars and restaurants. The vast majority of people were wearing masks, but any concept of safe social distancing seemed to have disappeared, with crowds sitting closely packed everywhere.

As if in response to this (but actually in response to a significantly raised incidence rate throughout the whole Indre-et-Loire department), the prefecture announced new restrictive measures to be put into action from Saturday: a limitation of gatherings in public spaces to a maximum of six people, a requirement for bars and restaurants to keep a register of all customers, and a ruling that all bars and restaurants close at 10 p.m.

Despite this, we had a good day on Saturday. A walk along the Loire in the morning and a stroll around the food market, lunch in Place Plumereau, a look at the very fine Saint-Gatien Cathedral, forty winks at the hotel, and then an evening of grazing and bar-hopping. We strolled back to the hotel around ten o’clock, surrounded by crowds of young people clearly at a loss for what to do after the new curfew.

They could have done like us and watched The Shining on TV.

***

It’s fair to say that the mood in France is pretty sombre at the moment. The shocking story of the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in the quiet commune of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (twinned with Ramsgate, for some bizarre reason) is dominating the news. Eight cities are rated at the Covid level of maximum alert and eight at the next level of heightened alert. The rate of identified new cases continues to rise steeply – it was 10,593 a month ago, yesterday it was 32,427. Silver linings are a little difficult to discern at the moment.

Still Living

Every year, I have to prove to the BBC that I am still alive and entitled to receive my pension. They send me a form to fill, which needs to be witnessed by someone in authority – a solicitor, a doctor etc. This would entail me paying a fee, but the Beeb also accepts a certificat de vie, a similar document issued by the government, which you can print out from their website and get signed and witnessed, for free, by an official at the town hall.

On Wednesday, I printed my form, filled in my details and presented myself at the reception desk at the hôtel de ville. A large, bearded man, a distant relative of Harry Potter’s friend Hagrid, eyed me with suspicion as I stated my reason for being there. He asked for my pièce d’identité and I gave him my passport. With a pencil in his enormous fist, he noted my name in a tatty exercise book . I suspect this data was not destined for any sophisticated IT system. Silently, Hagrid pointed me to a nearby door.

Here, at another desk, a middle-aged woman handed me a ticket with A23 on it and motioned me to a bench on which two young men and a young woman were sitting. All of them, it turned out, were there to collect student bus passes. One of them started grumbling about having to wait for these. I thought of telling them that when you get to my age you need a piece of paper just to prove you are still breathing, but I wasn’t sure my French was up to it.

After ten minutes, my number was called and I was ushered into a booth, where another large, bearded man, possibly Hagrid’s brother, was sitting. I told him that I wanted a certificat de vie and took my filled-in form out of my bag. While I was doing this, he had reached behind him and produced another, blank certificat de vie from a filing cabinet.

I pushed my filled-in form towards him.

He looked at me for a moment, then looked at his blank form then at my filled-in one.

‘Where did you get this?’

‘I printed it at home. From the government website.’

‘How many of these forms do you need?’

‘Just the one.’

He was silent for a moment, no doubt mentally rummaging through some book of governmental etiquette to handle a situation like this. Putting his blank form back in the filing cabinet would probably require the filling-in of a different form to explain its non-use.

Reluctantly, he picked up my form and started reading the details I had filled in. He then asked me for my passport to check that I hadn’t lied about my name and date of birth. He stamped my form, signed it and slid it across the table with a solemn ‘Voilà’.

I looked at it and saw that, in the section to be filled in by him, he had not recorded my passport number. With the most ingratiating smile I could muster, I passed the passport and form back and pointed to where he needed to do this. He looked at the form, then at me. I was clearly a troublemaker. He filled in the number and passed the form back in silence. We wished each other good day, and I left the booth feeling that I had somehow let us both down badly.

Another service provided by the council is free recycling bags. We were out of these, and as this seemed a day for administrative chores, I went to the council offices at the far end of town to pick some up. However, when I got there, the place was closed for redecoration; a notice on the door said that, for the time being, recycling bags were to be collected from the hôtel de ville.

With a heavy heart, I went back to face Hagrid, who clearly remembered me.

‘Des sacs pour le recyclage?’

He looked at me in a way that suggested that he’d been talking to Hagrid 2, then pointed me in the same direction as before. The woman gave me a ticket with A43 on it, and I sat down. After a few minutes, I was summoned. My luck was in, and instead of Hagrid 2, I got a charming young woman who gave me a large roll of recycling bags – a year’s supply.

‘Would monsieur like some ordinary refuse bags?’

‘No, thank you. We have plenty.’

‘Some toutou bags?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Pour votre chien. Le poop.’

‘Non merci, pas de chien.’

On the way out, I raised my bundle of bags in a friendly salute to Hagrid, but he stared at me blankly, still trying to work out what scam I was working with bin bags and a certificat de vie.

***

We have cancelled our planned trip to Paris. As expected, the city was declared an area of maximum alert on Monday. Bars and cafés have to close for two weeks, and restaurants must close at ten o’clock. Fortunately, our train and hotel reservations were fully refundable – as they more or less have to be these days. Few people are going to take the risk of booking any sort of trip in advance unless they can keep their options open.

Generally speaking, the outlook here, as in the UK, continues to be bleak. The number of new cases reached a new level yesterday, with nearly 27,000 people testing positive in twenty-four hours. It’s been rising steadily for weeks now. Along with Paris and Marseille, Lille, Lyon, Grenoble and Saint-Étienne have now been declared areas of maximum alert. There are eight cities at the level of heightened alert: Bordeaux, Rennes, Rouen, Nice, Toulouse, Montpellier, Dijon and Clermont-Ferrand. The health minister, Olivier Véran, has warned that Toulouse and Montpellier are likely to be raised to maximum alert in the next few days.

The major difference between here and the UK, as far as I can see, is that in France the government’s management of the crisis is broadly endorsed by the public. I think that one of the main reasons for this is that, compared to that of the UK, the overall strategy is clear and easy to understand. The alert level system and the map that goes with it, showing areas of the country in different shades of red according to level, are easy to follow. How an area gets the level assigned to it (the number of cases and the situation in local hospitals) is also clear. The management of restrictions in an area, once its level has been assigned, is handled locally by the prefecture, which to me seems sensible.

As with any government policy, there will be dissenting voices, but there is nothing like the confusion and anger currently ‘on stark display’ in the UK, according to Andrew Rawnsley in today’s Observer: ‘Between north and south. Between young and old … Between government and opposition. Between scientist and scientist. Between Westminster and local government. Between cabinet member and cabinet member. And between prime minister and his own party.’

Still, things can only get better. There are now only eighty-two days until Brexit.

Learning French

We’ve lived in France for two and a half years and my French is still pretty atrocious. That said, I can read reasonably well now, and my listening is slowly improving, though I still need sous-titres pour sourds et malentendants (subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing), which are available on most TV programmes. Although this is a very fine invention, it not only tells you what people are saying but also things like ‘a phone rings’ or ‘a shot is fired’, obviously useful for the hard of hearing, but a little tedious for those of us who are simply hard of French. The subtitles also describe any background music that is being played. This is nearly always described as ‘sinister’, ‘romantic’ or ‘intriguing’. As far I can tell, intriguing merely means that the person doing the subtitling thinks a piece of music is neither sinister nor romantic. I find this quite engrossing, but Madame S gets visibly irritated with my occasional ‘well I thought that was quite romantic’ or ‘did that really sound sinister to you?’

My main problem with French is speaking, or rather speaking out loud. In my head, lying in bed or sitting quietly on a bus or train, I can string sentences together reasonably well. I can express my opinion, ask others for theirs, even make the occasional joke. It is when I actually have to open my mouth and speak to a real person that the world falls apart. My mind goes blank and I am reduced to about half a dozen safe phrases. ‘You’re right’, ‘I agree’, ‘We will see’ and ‘I don’t know’ will not get you into trouble, but they are not going to get people queuing up to talk to you at any social event. My accent, which in my head is Maigret with a hint of Charles Aznavour, becomes pure Arthur Daley when unleashed on the general public. I find it quite difficult to keep talking when my interlocutor is visibly wincing.

To try and remedy this situation I have just signed up for three-and-a-half hours a week of online French lessons. One of the few unexpected benefits of Covid-19 is that many English universities are now offering some of their courses online rather than in the classroom. As far as I can tell, there are no similar courses available here in France.

At first I had thought I might not be allowed to enrol from France, and I confess I had thought about using an English address, that of one of my daughters for instance. But the prospect of my acting as if I was online in England for twelve weeks was not an appealing one. I kept thinking of the scene in The Great Escape where Gordon Jackson, pretending to be German, says ‘thank you’ when the Gestapo officer wishes him good luck in English. I was likewise bound to slip up in some conversation exercise by saying that I’d been shopping at Monoprix or buying a baguette at the boulangerie. Luckily, my worry was completely unfounded and I was assured that living in France was no obstacle.

Our lessons are my first experience of using Zoom, and it’s been good fun. I’d imagined that, this being a university-run course, most of the students would be younger than me, but nearly all of us are at or near retirement age. I’m not the only one new to Zoom. George, who’s from Peckham, has struggled to get the hang of it; in the two lessons so far, we can hear him clearly but we’ve only managed to see his forehead. In the first lesson, the tutor suggested that he adjusted either his seat or his camera. He agreed, but then there was a loud crash as if he had fallen off his chair. After a minute or so his forehead reappeared, asking ‘is that any better?’ The tutor, wisely in my opinion, said that it was fine.

The lessons are well planned, and I think I’m making some progress. Unfortunately, I have the attention span of a five-year-old. I am constantly being distracted by peering at the backdrops of my various fellow onscreen students.

Harry from Dudley has, on the wall behind him, a Wolverhampton Wanderers poster and a large blown-up photograph of an Alsatian with its name, Rocky, on a metal plaque. I think Harry may be single. Judith in Cornwall has a very impressive wine rack (not a euphemism, I hasten to add), and Chloe from Norwich has a large stuffed owl. Nigel from Hemel Hempstead, who’s clearly a bit of a prat, has some of the books on his bookshelves facing outwards as if he was in a branch of Waterstones. Strangely enough, none of these are Dan Browns or Agatha Christies but things like The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. My own backdrop is of bookshelves, and I’ve thought of displaying copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and Fifty Shades of Grey just to get him thinking.

***

There’s been a sort of beer festival going on in Poitiers for the last fortnight. I say ‘sort of’ because it’s not been in a specific venue. Instead, various bars have given over an evening to promoting the beers of one or more of the ever-growing number of small local breweries.

On Friday Madame and I went to Le Zinc to sample the beers of La Chamois and De Mysteriis Pictavis. After some lengthy research, Madame declared La Chamois ‘Juicy’, a light citrusy IPA, her favourite, while I went for the De Mysteriis Pictavis ‘Jinx’, a wonderful spicy porter. On emerging from the bar into the fresh air, I sensed that our research had been a little too thorough. The last thing I remember clearly is suggesting to Madame that ‘Juicy and Jinx’ would be the perfect name for a TV series, loosely based on our own lives, which I would write. In it, we would travel around France solving crimes and having hilarious adventures.

I have forgiven her for her cruel response on the grounds that she is not used to drinking large quantities of beer.

Juicy
Jinx

Masking reality

The Covid-19 situation in France is steadily worsening, much as it is in the UK.

On Sunday we were told that Vienne had joined the ever-growing list of French departments classified as rouge, i.e.having a Covid infection rate of higher than 50 per 100,000. This allows the prefectures to trigger additional measures to reduce the risk of transmission. 

On Monday we learnt what this meant, and I think most people were surprised how little had changed. The only new rule is that masks are now compulsory everywhere in the central area of the town. Most people were already observing this anyway, and I’d noticed recently that you are likely to be stared at pointedly if you are not wearing a mask. There are, as yet, no restrictions on bar and restaurant opening times, and the museum, cinemas and other places of entertainment are still open.

On Tuesday, the government further refined its classification system, allowing it to impose strict restrictions on the areas with the highest numbers of cases. There are now four levels of classification: Alert, Heightened Alert, Maximum Alert and State of Emergency.

There are sixty-nine departments with the Alert designation, including Vienne. As well as Monday’s new mask regulation, the new classification means that weddings, parties and social events are now limited to thirty people maximum.

Eleven “metropoles” (cities and their surrounding suburbs) have been given the Heightened Alert designation, including Paris, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulouse and Nice. Here there is an infection rate above 150 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a high level of spread among elderly people (above 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). Restrictions in these areas include closing bars (though not restaurants) at 10 p.m. at the latest, limiting the number of people allowed to gather in public spaces to ten, and lowering the maximum attendance for big events from 5,000 to 1,000. Gyms and sports halls will also close in most cases, along with community halls. Visits to care homes will only be possible with appointments.

Only one area in metropolitan France, Marseille, has been classified as Maximum Alert, although the overseas department of Guadeloupe has also been so designated. This means there is an infection rate above 250 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and a very high level of spread among elderly people (above 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants). This level of alert means local authorities must close all bars and restaurants for at least two weeks from Saturday, although the period could be prolonged if the health situation requires it. All other public spaces that do not already have strict hygiene rules in place must also close, although cinemas, museums and theatres will be exempt from this if they have sufficient hygiene protections.

The move is deeply unpopular in the city, and on Friday hundreds of restaurant and bar owners staged a demonstration protesting against the new shutdown. According to Bernard Marty, president of the regional hospitality association, the demonstration took place outside the commercial courthouse ‘because this is where we’ll probably come to declare bankruptcy’.

Nowhere in France has yet been given the designation State of Emergency, and no details have so far been given as to what measures this would entail. During the first wave of the virus the whole of France was placed in a State of Health Emergency, but this designation seems to open the way to declaring a State of Emergency in certain areas only.

We’ve booked a weekend in Paris in three weeks’ time. I’d say the chances of that city being moved to Maximum Alert status by then are about fifty-fifty.

***

When I was a very small boy, we used to have in our garden in Fulham a scaffolding pole set in concrete, which served as one of the supports for the washing line. While the pole was useful in facilitating the weekly wash, one of my earliest memories (this would have been the mid-1950s) is of it being put to very different use.

On a couple of Sunday afternoons every September, my dad and my uncle Jerry would bring the family radio out into the garden, an extension cable keeping it plugged into the mains in the living room. The radio was one of those heavy old walnut cabinet jobs with such exotic stations as Athlone, Vatican City and Hilversum on the tuning dial. Placing it on a small rickety table, they would then somehow contrive to use the scaffolding pole as an aerial. I haven’t a clue how they achieved this, but it entailed a couple of minutes of “to me, to you” and the odd swear word as they slowly moved the table around the pole in a bizarre sort of ritual, attempting to get a signal. Then, almost magically, amid much crackling, we would hear the inimitable voice of Michael O’Hehir on RTE, commenting live from Croke Park in Dublin on either the All-Ireland Gaelic football or hurling final. Dad and Jerry would then spend the afternoon contentedly sitting in deckchairs, listening to the match and drinking bottles of Guinness, one of them rising every now and then to move the radio slightly as the signal waxed and waned.

Now, over sixty years later, I find myself, in an odd sort of way, following in my father’s footsteps. Over the past few weeks I have cobbled together a ramshackle software system which allows me to access BBC iPlayer and the UK version of Netflix (which is better than the French one).

Using Chromecast and a VPN and one or two other secret ingredients, I load them on my tablet and then send them to my TV screen. It’s very flaky. I have to leave the tablet untouched on a flat surface, as the slightest movement seems to crash the whole caboodle and I have to reload it. This is particularly annoying if it happens just as Morse, Barnaby or Poirot is about to reveal all.

French TV is reasonable, but with another lockdown looking increasingly likely, we need as many sources of home entertainment as we can get. It probably isn’t strictly legal, but with the world generally going to hell in a handcart I am prepared to take the risk (I know, of course, that I can rely on your absolute discretion). Anyway, I think Dad would have approved, and that’s good enough for me.

Not very Christmassy

Since the Green party, Poitiers Collectif, won the elections in June, the municipal council in Poitiers has been rather quiet. This is fair enough, I suppose; the symbolic first hundred days will not have been completed for a couple of weeks yet. They are in power for the next six years, and it’s reasonable for a new council to take stock before launching on any major new strategies. Obviously, having Covid-19 to deal with will have made their job significantly more difficult.

Nevertheless, in presentational terms it seems a little unfortunate that in our local paper, Le Nouvelle République, the first significant story to feature the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, is rather a negative one. It relates to the announcement that there will not be a traditional Christmas tree in the town’s main square this year. The reason given is that building work on the old theatre in the corner of the square is limiting the space available. As well as the tree, there is no room for the Ferris wheel which has been a major attraction in the last two years. Pierre-Marie Moreau, the president of the local chamber of commerce, has confirmed that technical reasons relating to the building work make it too difficult to install the wheel.

Both Madame Moncond’huy and Monsieur Moreau have promised that there will be a number of smaller trees around the city centre, along with food markets, designer markets, concerts, and street shows.

All of this seems fairly innocuous stuff, but a little cloud has appeared on the horizon for Madame Moncond’huy. Pierre Hurmic, the new mayor of Bordeaux and also a Green, has announced that they too will not be having a Christmas tree. However, Monsieur Hurmic has made it clear that this decision is based firmly on ecological grounds, saying that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ does not fit with his party’s green strategy, and that by the end of 2020 he wants to adopt a ‘charter of tree rights’ protecting trees in urban areas. His decision has been attacked by many, most noticeably by members of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). Madame Le Pen herself has joined in, declaring that talk of a ‘dead tree’ shows that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Now, in our own department, Vienne, Arnaud Fage, the only RN member of the departmental assembly, has accused Madame Moncond’huy of using the theatre building works as a pretext for carrying out a Green policy and demanded that a tree be placed in the main square to ensure that ‘our traditions are respected’.

All of this is good knockabout stuff. In many ways it reminds me of Gabriel Chevallier’s satirical novel Clochemerle. Set in a small town in pre-war France, the book describes the battle between Catholics and Republicans on the town council over the building of a public lavatory next to the church.

In all likelihood, the Christmas entertainments planned for Poitiers will be a great success and the row over the tree will be quickly forgotten. After all, the Poitiers Collectif are at the very beginning of their period of office, with the next elections not due until June 2026. But I can’t help wondering how much of an effect this little spat would have had if the elections were due to be held next January, rather than last June. Seemingly trivial things, the sort that Harold Macmillan described as ‘events, dear boy, events’, can often have a significant effect on public opinion.

The clearest example of this that I can think of is the UK general election of 1970, when Edward Heath’s Conservatives surprisingly defeated Harold Wilson’s Labour government. When Wilson called the election in May of that year, Labour was holding a 7.5 per cent lead in the Gallup poll after doing well in the local elections earlier that month. However on election day, June 18,Labour lost sixty seats and the Conservatives gained sixty-five, giving an overall Tory majority of thirty-one. Many members of the outgoing government were convinced that their defeat was strongly influenced by England’s sudden and unexpected quarter-final defeat by West Germany in the World Cup in Mexico, just four days before the poll.

Wilson was dismissive of any Mexican connection – ‘governance of a country has nothing to do with a study of its football fixtures’ – but years later, in his memoirs, Denis Healey revealed that as early as that April the prime minister had called a strategy meeting at Chequers ‘in which Harold asked us to consider whether the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day’. Tony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, blamed the defeat ‘on a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions’. Wilson’s minister of sport, Denis Howell, was in no doubt that ‘the moment goalkeeper Bonetti made his third and final hash of it on the Sunday, everything simultaneously began to go wrong for Labour for the following Thursday’. According to Howell, on the Monday morning before the election, he and home secretary Roy Jenkins were at a factory-gate meeting in Birmingham: ‘Roy was totally bemused that no question concerned either trade figures or immigration, but solely the football and whether manager Ramsey or Bonetti was the major culprit.’

Perhaps ominously for Poitiers Collectif, 2026 is a World Cup year. I imagine Madame Moncond’huy will be leading the singing of ‘Allez les Bleus!’ from the town hall steps.

***

Yesterday was the anniversary of the Battle of Poitiers (1346). In the Café des Arts on Friday evening, Madame S, in a whimsical mood after her third brandy and Baileys, suggested shinning up the statue of Joan of Arc in Rue des Cordeliers and draping a Union Jack on Joan’s head. I managed to persuade her out of this by explaining that any passing social media aficionado might take a snap, which, if made public, would be unlikely to help her French citizenship application. I also realised that the act would entail me giving her a piggy-back to get up high enough to reach the statue– a manoeuvre too awful to contemplate.

***

Quote of the week: ‘He’s enormously, enormously vigorous.’ – Matt Hancock on Boris Johnson during an interview with Times Radio on Friday.

Freewheeling

These are strange times. The coronavirus figures in France are steadily worsening. Last night 10,561 new cases were reported, the highest one-day count since the start of the outbreak. The figure was 6,544 last Monday.

On television on Friday night, Jean Castex, the prime minister, read out a statement on the current situation in France and the government’s response. There is to be a significant ramping-up of the screening and testing programme, and the number of departments classified as ‘red’ has now been increased from twenty-eight to forty-two. This classification allows the prefectures of those departments to trigger additional measures to reduce the risks of transmission. The prefects can specify where masks must be worn, decide whether major events can take place, and dictate the opening hours of certain businesses. They can also restrict travel – to a city, a department, or a limit of, say, a hundred kilometres.

The main trigger for a ‘red’ classification is an incidence rate greater than 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. At the moment, in our department, Vienne, the rate is 50.5, but other factors to be taken into account (including the percentage of positive tests and the number of infections observed from a positive case) mean that we are not ‘red’ yet. I suspect it is just a matter of time.

It is interesting to compare the current French figures with those in the UK. For a couple of weeks the UK saw a significantly lower number of cases, but there is now a noticeable steady increase. It is quite possible that the difference between the two countries is down to the fact that France came out of lockdown a month earlier (June 1st rather than July 4th) and that the UK is now in the process of ‘catching up’.

Somehow, in Poitiers, on a day-to-day basis, life goes on, seemingly oblivious to this depressing backdrop. We still haven’t met anyone here who has experienced the virus themselves. Obviously, we are slightly cocooned, as Madame S works from home and we do not have children at school. One of our neighbours was furloughed but is now back at work. A friend who works in a testing laboratory says she has been very busy for months. Other than that, when one walks around the city, things seem reassuringly normal. The only obvious evidence of the crisis is the now almost universal wearing of masks. (The M in my KPMG mnemonic for leaving the house – Keys, Phone, Money, Glasses – now has to do double-duty.) But after a while, even the fact that people are wearing them ceases to register.

A spell of fine weather contributes to the general sense of all being well here in France. The temperature is forecast to be in the thirties for the coming week and to drop only slightly after that. There are still tourists around, and there has been the usual September influx of students at the university. The café and bar terraces are crowded every evening (which is of course part of the problem) and, after their August holidays, the gilet jaunes are demonstrating and setting fire to cars again.

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

The Tour de France came to Poitiers on Wednesday, and Madame S and I went up to Les Couronneries to stand on Avenue John Kennedy just a couple of hundred metres from the finishing line. It was a scorching day, and we had to wait an hour and twenty minutes before the peloton arrived, but we could watch their progress on a giant TV screen nearby. In the meantime, we were entertained by a seemingly endless carnival procession of trucks and floats sponsored by various French commercial outfits, many of them throwing sweets and novelties into the crowd. We were surrounded by a large number of small children, but by the judicious use of some Boris Johnson-like rugby tactics, I managed to score four mini-bags of Haribo, a Monoprix baseball cap, and a large foam rubber hand with the Peugeot logo on it. My apologies again to the poor little boy who inadvertently got his wrist wedged under my foot. The riders themselves of course passed by in a flash, but it was all tremendous fun. And it’s great to see Irishman Sam Bennett continuing to wear the green jersey for leading the points classification.

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

The peloton with Poitiers Cathedral in the background – just a few hundred metres from our house.

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

There has been a big story in the French press this week about an as yet unclaimed prize of €157 million in the EuroMillions lottery, the third largest prize ever. The draw was made on 1st September, and the winner has sixty days from that date to claim it.

Yesterday I received an email from Française des Jeux, the lottery organisers:

Bonjour Michael,
 
Vous avez gagné 2.2EUR à LOTO N° 2185348278.

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

Si vous souhaitez obtenir le détail et le récapitulatif des jeux auxquels vous avez participé, rendez-vous dans votre compte FDJ®.

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

People who say ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part’ deserve to be horsewhipped.

***

Out for a walk this morning. We passed the house of Monsieur Gouin, an elderly neighbour of ours. He has some scaffolding up at the front and is clearly having some renovation work done. Monsieur Gouin is quite doddery and, rather unkindly, I admit, I remarked that he could do with a bit of renovation work himself. After a moment’s pause, Madame S said, ‘There’s a TV programme in that … Hommes under the Hammer.’

I sometimes think that editing’s gain has been stand-up comedy’s loss.

On my back and on my bike

I was due to go to my Pilates class on Thursday, but on Wednesday evening I got a text message from Sandra, the instructor, saying that the other students had all cried off, either because of being on holiday or from fear of catching the virus. Instead of cancelling the class, Sandra offered me an individual introductory session on her new workout device – ominously named The Reformer – which I accepted.

When I got to the studio/gym, I saw that Sandra had actually bought two of these devices and had had a small outer extension added to accommodate them. As you can see from this catalogue photo, they are fairly complicated-looking, but once the rudiments are explained you quickly realise that they are a very effective way of doing a workout.

Sandra showed me how to do a warm-up routine and then started on some leg exercises. One of these involved my lying on my back and putting each foot into a stirrup, leaving me in a position more suited to a gynaecologist’s consulting room than a gym. At this point, the phone rang in the inner office. Sandra went to answer it, leaving me alone in the room, still stirrupped and stretching my legs in and out as fast as I could. Suddenly I heard the outer door open, and someone entered the gym. Lying on my back, I couldn’t see who it was and thought the best thing to do was to say nothing and continue my exercise. After a short pause, a female voice said, ‘Est-ce l’endroit pour le Pilates?’ (‘Is this the place for Pilates?’) Red-faced and panting, I slowly managed to raise my head just enough to see, between my outstretched legs, a plump, middle-aged woman staring back at me. ‘Oui,’ I managed to blurt out before my head fell back onto the workbench. There was silence for a few seconds, and then I heard the door quietly close again.

When Sandra returned I thought it better not to mention any of this.

***

Thee harbour at la Rochelle

We went to La Rochelle on Friday and stayed overnight. It’s one of my favourite places in France. The harbour area is lovely to wander around in, and the back streets are full of friendly bars and restaurants. There is always a jolly bustling atmosphere, and this was even more the case this weekend, as the French Rugby season was about to kick off and La Rochelle, one of the top French sides, were at home to Toulon.

Saturday lunchtime saw us having a glass of rosé outside Chez Marie, a little wine bar next to the market. A group of burly rugby fans were sitting next to us, tucking into plates of oysters, cheese and sausage washed down with several bottles of white wine.

By contrast, across the street, outside another café were two men, I would guess in their late thirties, with a small boy, aged about two, in a buggy. The child seemed very happy, and both men seemed very attentive to its needs. Madame S and I then got into a long discussion about surrogate parenthood, and its ethics and practicalities. We covered Elton John and his partner’s children, the plight of Eastern European orphans, and the different adoption regulations in Europe and the USA. While we didn’t necessarily share the same views on everything, we agreed that the two men opposite seemed to be exemplary parents, and we wished them and the child all the luck in the world. It was just after this that two women came along, pulled up two chairs and joined the men. One of them, obviously the boy’s mother, picked him up and perched him on her lap.

We watched them in silence for a few minutes, and then I quietly suggested a visit to the aquarium.

***

Despite the virus and its problems, my old friends the Ely Jolly Boys are continuing their monthly rambles. My good friend Pete Bunten has sent me the list of conversation topics covered on their last two outings, and I hereby pass them on as prospective agendas for any similarly-inclined groups of individuals.

Ely, 31st July

· Matrons · Drinking behaviour at Cambridge colleges · Polish drinking clubs · Kent · Hattie Jacques · St Martin · Miss Immigrant competitions · Corfu · One-legged rugby players · Marianne Faithfull · Hermann Goering as an unexpected object of veneration · Goring-by-Sea · 747s out of the sun · Peterborough · Stig of the Dump · Albatross guano

Cambridge, 28th August

Old people’s homes · York Races · Getting banned from pubs (unjustly) · Tractor festivals and associated dancing girls · Early Christmas cards · The virtues of Limerick (not Limericks) · Drinking in New Zealand · Kentish Men and Men of Kent · The man who was killed by a London tram · The concept of creating a beer called ‘Workshy’ for the jobless · The Wee Frees · The virtues of dank in pubs · Yellow hands and brown fingernails · Fictional bars (bars in literature) · Short measures · Drinks cabinets · The lack of meaningful violence in modern society · Station bars · Leonardo DiCaprio.

(I would only add that the use of “dank” as a noun is surely something to be encouraged.)

***

The Tour de France has started after a delay of two months due to the coronavirus, and after eight stages, Britain’s Adam Yates is currently wearing the maillot jaune. On Wednesday the riders reach Poitiers, at the end of stage eleven. There have been some small displays in shop windows and a Tour-related photographic exhibition in the mairie but, if I’m honest, I’m a little underwhelmed by the general level of enthusiasm so far. Perhaps this will change over the next few days. Or maybe they have seen it all before and have become a bit blasé. Madame S made the intriguing suggestion that the Tour might be looked on as something akin to the Eurovision Song Contest. After the novelty of the first experience, it becomes an expensive and inconvenient burden for the towns selected.

Be that as it may, your intrepid reporter (just out of shot in the photo below) will be waxed and lycra-ed on Wednesday, sitting astride his Raleigh Explorer and ready to give them all a run for their money. Ding ding!  

We’ll always have Paris

We had a few days in Paris this week, and next weekend we hope to go La Rochelle. These breaks may be the only holidays we get this year, as the Covid-19 situation here is steadily worsening. There were 7,379 new infections in mainland France on Friday, compared with 6,111 on Thursday and 5,429 on Wednesday. A report from France’s directorate general of health said that ‘the progression of the epidemic is exponential’. At the start of July, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, had ruled out a second national lockdown because ‘the economic and human consequences of a total lockdown are disastrous’. On Thursday, the message had changed. ‘We want to do everything to avoid a new lockdown, but the lockdown plans, those detailing the strictest measures, lie ready in the health ministry.’

France is not alone in seeing a rise in the number of cases. Spain, Italy and Germany have also seen steady rises since they began lifting lockdowns at the start of summer. But why the situation here is (apparently) so much worse than in the UK is still unclear. The figure for the 14-day cumulative number of Covid-19 cases per 100,000, the key statistic that the UK government uses for assessing its quarantine rules, remains in the low 20s in the UK, while in France it has shot up from 51 to 81 in just over a week and is still rising. At the same time, the number of deaths per 100,000 over the same period remains low in both countries: 0.2 in the UK and 0.3 in France. Are people paying more attention to the warnings and guidelines in the UK than in France? Are the testing and reporting systems radically different? These are difficult questions to answer. France ended its full lockdown on 1st June, while the UK did not do so until 4th July, so it’s possible that there will eventually be a similar second spike in the UK figures. One hopes not, as we move into autumn and schools reopen.

***

On a more positive note, the trip to Paris was great fun. We spent three days walking the city; one day along the length of Canal Saint-Martin from Bastille to Jaurès in the north, another on the Promenade Plantée, the wonderful overhead garden walkway that runs for three miles from Bastille to the edge of the Bois de Vincennes in the east, and on our last day we walked along Île aux Cygnes, the artificial island that runs between Pont de Bir-Hakeim and Pont de Grenelle. Here you can find Paris’s own Statue of Liberty, a nine-metre-high scale model of the original. I have to admit it’s more impressive than the one in Poitiers.

While we were there, masks were compulsory everywhere in central Paris (since Friday, this has been extended to the whole city). One might occasionally see someone without one, but this was rare. You quickly get used to applying hygienic hand gel whenever you enter a building, and they now have gel dispensers at every bus stop.

Despite the significant drop in the number of overseas tourists, the city still seemed very lively in the evenings. Many central streets have been temporarily closed to traffic, allowing bars and restaurants to spread out onto the pavements. It all makes for a very festive atmosphere, and our days of walking left us feeling entitled to join in. One unexpected bonus from the shortfall in tourist numbers is that bars are having to compete more for custom. The prices of drinks, particularly beer, are noticeably down, and in many places now Happy Hours run from 16.00 to 22.00. I felt duty-bound to make as large a contribution to the Parisian economy as time and Madame permitted.

Paris -grim…

…and not so grim.

Brasserie Julienne in rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. The food is only so-so but an amazing room.

La Cremerie, a really nice little wine bar in rue des Quatre Vents.

***

This week sees La rentrée in France. La rentrée scolaire is when the new academic year begins. However, La rentrée is about much more than just schools. Many shops and business close down for at least part of the month of August, and parliament stops sitting. The Covid crisis has obviously cast its shadow, but there is still a general sense of a country temporarily taking things easier for a few weeks. La rentrée, in theory at least, sees the end of all that, as the nation mentally girds its loins for the challenges ahead (well, till Christmas, at any rate).

There is a tradition that La rentrée scolaire can only happen in September, so although Monday is not a public holiday here in France, the schools will restart on Tuesday. Even if one doesn’t have school-age children, it is difficult to avoid noticing this. Shops are suddenly full of special offers on stationery, as parents seek to buy the vast number of items on the official lists of requirements that schools send out. Here is the basic government list, which may be added to by individual schools. To ensure every child can afford to have the necessary equipment, the government provides financial assistance to families on more modest incomes. The amount this year will range from €369.57 to €403.48, depending on the age of eligible children. Entitlement is based on household income not exceeding a certain ceiling (less than €24,453 for one child, €30,096 for two children, €35,739 for three). This year’s amount has been increased to allow for the cost of protective face masks for the children.

I will be doing my bit at La rentrée. I restart my Pilates class on Thursday, and in two weeks’ time I begin twice-weekly online French lessons. I am determined to master this putain language.

***

Covid watch. I caught the last few minutes of yesterday’s FA Community Shield match between Liverpool and Arsenal on the internet. Lots of group hugs from the victorious Arsenal players, and at the end they all walked past the Shield and kissed it. As the BBC online commentator said, ‘Might as well just lick each other’s faces, boys’.

Kicking off in quarantine

The possibility of a non-quarantined visit to the UK seems to be fairly remote for the foreseeable future. The key figure that the UK government use to decide from which countries travellers need to be quarantined is the 14-day cumulative number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 in that country, as recorded by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). The UK’s current figure is 22.3. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is quoted as saying that he expects a country’s figures to be moving in the right direction for at least two weeks before considering a change. When Portugal was recently removed from the quarantine list, its figure was 28.5. It is now 26. This would suggest that a figure in the 20s would be regarded as ‘safe’, as long as a country’s overall trend is downwards. Unfortunately, France’s current ECDC figure is 59.8 and rising.

The reasons for the current spike in France are not completely clear. According to the English-language paper The Local.fr, one reason is a significant increase in the number of tests carried out. France tested 580,000 people in the first week of August. This represented an increase from around 200,000–230,000 tests a week over the course of June, up from around 400,000 tests per week in July. More tests will obviously lead to more cases being found. The good news is that the majority of the new cases are asymptomatic – the individual presents no visible signs of the virus. Most of these asymptomatic cases are young, statistically more resilient people with a lower probability of falling severely ill from the virus. The risk, of course, is that these individuals might then pass it on to elderly people or to those in care homes.

The government have stressed their determination to avoid a second lockdown, but it is likely that new restrictions will be introduced in the coming weeks. More and more cities are already making the wearing of masks obligatory in all public places, including in the street. We are visiting Paris for a couple of days this week, and we expect to wear masks all the time. It is probably only a matter of time before the rule is introduced here in Poitiers.

***

The English football season starts in a few weeks’ time, and the fixtures list has just been announced. Fulham’s first game is against Arsenal. I’ve supported Fulham for about 55 years; I’ve suffered intermittently from gout for about 50. It’s difficult to say which has caused me more cumulative pain over that time. Medication has effectively controlled the latter for most of my life – I can’t remember when I last had an attack. I tell myself that age and gradually living further and further from Craven Cottage provide an equally effective remedy for the former, but deep down I know this isn’t true. Promotion, a new season, and I’m like a teenager again, scanning the sports pages for transfer gossip. ‘Fulham in for Messi?’, ‘Scott Parker to manage Real Madrid?’ It passes the time before the agony begins again.

Along with Fulham, wherever I’ve lived I’ve always ‘supported’ the local team. This has taken me to Parc des Princes to see Paris Saint-Germain, to Milady Horákové to see Sparta Prague, and to Elphinstone Road to see Hastings United. Somehow I never got around to visiting Ely City, but I did go to nearby Cambridge United a few times. Whilst I’m delighted to see that PSG are in the Champions League final this evening, I have to say that the meat and potato pies were significantly better at Hastings.

The local side here, Stade Poitevin FC, are, in world football terms, closer to Hastings than to PSG. They play in National League 3, which is a regionally grouped ‘fifth division’ in the overall French football structure. They play in black and white stripes, and their nickname is ‘The Dragons’.

The club was formed in 1921 as Sporting Club Poitevin, and they have been quietly pottering around in the lower leagues since then. For one glorious season, in 1995–96, they reached the second division, but this was followed by two quick relegations. Money seems to have been a perennial worry, which probably accounts for a few name changes along the way. Things seem to have stabilised in the past couple of years, and promotion to National 3 was gained in 2018. The club had a big windfall last year when Arsenal signed Nicolas Pépé from Lille for €80 million. He started his career at Poitiers when he was 14, and they got about €1 million as their share of his fee.

I’d intended to go and see them last season, but the coronavirus put an end to that. The new season starts here next week, and I may go to the first home match against Lège-Cap-Ferret – if it is on. At the moment, all gatherings of more than 5,000 people are banned because of the virus. The average gate at Poitiers is significantly less than this, but the stadium holds 15,000. It’s difficult to get any definite information as to whether the game will actually be held or not, and I think the club are still not sure themselves.

Whatever happens, this is a time for optimism. They … sorry, we have a new manager, Erwan Lannuzel, and it’s just possible this could be our year. ‘Come on, you Dragons!’

***

Last night we went for a very nice meal at Le Bistro du Boucher, washed down with a fine bottle of Côtes de Bourg. An apéritif beforehand at Café de la Paix, afterwards to the Cluricaume for a nightcap, a cognac. Relaxed, at peace with the world. Then …

‘Christ, my leg! I can’t feel it! I can’t move it!’

‘That’s my leg, you daft twat.’

We walked home in silence.

Stranded in Poitiers

We had planned to go to the UK for a quick two-day visit in a couple of weeks’ time. Now they have reintroduced a fourteen-day quarantine period, and France will almost certainly reciprocate. So we’ve cancelled our Eurostar tickets and now have a voucher for another trip, when, or if, this crazy situation ever ends.

It’s conceivable, I suppose, that things might not improve, might in fact get worse, and we are doomed never to leave Poitiers again. As if to plan for such an event, I have been beating the bounds this week. On Tuesday I walked from the end of Rue de Tranchée, the most southerly point in Poitiers, to La Tour du Cordier, the most northerly (the latter is currently decorated with bicycles to mark the imminent arrival of Le Tour de France.) According to my Fitbit, it was 1.6 miles, and it took me 30 minutes. On Wednesday I walked from the railway station in the west to the far side of Pont Joubert in the east (1.1 miles, 23 minutes). Finally, on Friday I cycled around the perimeter of Poitiers via Boulevard du Grand Cerf, Boulevard Jeanne d’Arc, Boulevard Chasseigne, and Boulevard sous Blossac. I would have walked this too, but these are typically dull, edge-of-town ring roads, with few distractions and a fair amount of traffic. My bicycle odometer tells me that the perimeter is 4.1 miles.

I know this doesn’t exactly put me in the Marco Polo/Christopher Columbus league, but nevertheless it marks a significant moment, because I have now finally defined my Poitiers. It has taken a long time. Some time ago I started looking at the administrative layers of France, starting with the highest of these, the regions. Since then I have looked at the departments and finally the communes. If you are interested, there are pages on each of these in the French Administration section of this blog.

Poitiers is most definitely a commune, as is Paris (population 2.15 million – the largest) and Castelmoron-d’Albret, near Bordeaux (population 55 – the smallest). The population of Poitiers is around 90,000.

On the municipal council website, the city of Poitiers is divide into nine quartiers, but the majority of these are suburban areas that have developed since the 1960s. I have a feeling I won’t be spending much time in any of them. The weekly market in Les Couronneries is good fun, but other than that it’s large expanses of bungalows and housing estates These are tree-lined and well-maintained, but really they are little different from the London suburbs. Poitiers’ major tourist attraction, the Futuroscope science park, is not far from us, but we haven’t got around to visiting that yet – it all sounds a little earnest for my liking.

The core of the city, my Poitiers, is basically a very large hill, or more accurately, rock promontory, in a valley between two rivers. Historically, this physical placement has made it easy to defend, and the strategic significance of this has contributed greatly to the city’s growth over the centuries. In guide books you will see this area referred to as the old town or centre-ville. Confusingly, the city council’s website divides it into two separate quartiers, Centre-ville, (the southernmost two-thirds) and Les Trois-Quartiers (the northernmost third). There is no doubt some historical significance in this, but I am still trying to find it. To most people who live here, the hill is Poitiers.

At the top of the hill is a narrow plateau, referred to locally as le plateau, some 140 metres above the rivers below. It’s just over half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide. This is where the town hall, the main shopping area, and the market are. It is the heart of the city. Down the sides of the hill, away from the plateau, one will find a mazy network of narrow winding streets, where I still manage to get lost at least once a month.

On this relatively small hill, which can be crossed in any direction in half an hour, one can still find relics of a large Roman amphitheatre. There are medieval university buildings, monasteries, and convents that are still occupied today. There are wonderfully preserved Romanesque churches and handsome merchant houses dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Streets and squares tell stories of the French Revolution and the German occupation in the Second Word War. It has a museum, a gallery, two cinemas, and a fine médiatheque. You are rarely more than a couple of hundred yards from a bar, café, or restaurant. There are worse places to be marooned.

The Tour du Cordier, the northernmost point in Poitiers. Near the top, you can just see a couple of bikes put there to mark the Tour de France, which will be passing through on 9 September.

***

I collected my new glasses on Thursday, and they are rather handsome. The only problem is that I daren’t wear them. They were staggeringly expensive. We have recently taken out a mutuelle health insurance (you more or less have to have one here), and this covers about half of the cost of pair of glasses every couple of years. This being the case, I checked that my chosen optician accepted our mutuelle and went for the best sort of varifocals on offer. I cheerfully nodded when I was asked if wanted other optional extras; thinner glass, anti-reflective glare coating, and a couple of other things that I didn’t quite understand but which sounded nice. When I was told the total price, I was stunned but pointed out that I was mutuelle-covered. I could be wrong, but was there a hint of malicious pleasure in the assistant’s voice when she ever so politely pointed out that the mutuelle’s contribution had already been deducted?

I have a bad track record with glasses. I leave them in pubs, I sit on them, and I drop them (this caused the crack in my last pair). In Sicily once, I had a pair whipped off my head in a gale and land under the wheels of a passing taxi. I couldn’t bear to have any of this happen to my lovely new specs. Reluctantly, I have dug out my old cracked pair (it’s only a small crack, I’ll get used to it) and will now keep my new ones at home. I will take them out once a week and just look at them, rather than through them.