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.

They’re open!

A welcome return to life on the terraces.

The first step towards déconfinement was taken on Wednesday. Non-essentiel shops were allowed to reopen, and bars and restaurants were allowed to open their terraces and gardens. The latter are taking full advantage of this, not only cramming as many tables and chairs as they can outside their own premises, but also colonising the frontages of adjacent shops and offices. The owners of these seem quite happy with the arrangement, and it occurred to me that they might be being offered free or discounted drinks as a quid pro quo. I have emailed the owners of Café des Arts and Le Gambetta offering to put the space outside our own house at their disposal. I have yet to receive a reply, and I accept that as they are two streets away, it’s a bit of a long shot. Still, nothing ventured …

A “colonized” Rue de la Cathédrale

The municipal council are doing their bit to promote trade by nominating certain main thoroughfares as pedestrian areas between 11.00 and 19.00 (when the current curfew starts) to allow for even more seating space. They’ve also promised that they will be laying on several street shows as part of their Culture à l’air libre initiative. (I have mixed feelings about this, having narrowly avoided being run down by a unicycling juggler back in January.)

It all helps to create a very festive atmosphere, the only dampener (literally) being the spell of showery weather we have been experiencing over the last few days. I’ve got used to seeing swarms of drinkers rushing for any available cover during a sudden downpour, then returning five minutes later to wipe down their tables and chairs and carry on drinking. Luckily, the forecast is set to change after tomorrow, and we are promised a long period of warm sunny days.

Since Wednesday, Madame and I have been playing our part in revitalising the local economy. There are those who might say our efforts have been above and beyond the call of duty, but I regard that as defeatist talk. Nevertheless, I think we are both quietly relieved that today is Sunday and all the local bars are closed.

On Thursday we are heading off to Paris for a couple of days, partly just to celebrate the fact that we can do so. Another welcome sign of déconfinement is that internal travel restrictions are being eased, and the train service is slowly getting back to normal. We plan to make the most of this.

Travel between France and the UK is still too difficult to contemplate, requiring a period of quarantine both on arrival in the UK (ten days) and on returning to France (seven days). There is also a requirement to provide negative Covid test certificates on both sides of the Channel.

Incidentally, I saw this from ex-diplomat Simon Fraser on Twitter this morning: “Had to go urgently to France last week. PCR test in UK to go there cost me £120. PCR test in France to return home cost me £0.” The tests are now free at pharmacies in France, and you can even get them at the airport.

***

Changing the subject completely: I’ve never tasted Benedictine. Nor, as it turns out, has Madame. We both think it could be minty, but we may be getting it mixed up with green Chartreuse. I know crème de menthe is minty; the name is a giveaway, but I also once drank nearly a pint of the stuff at a party in Hastings (nothing else left).

Anyway. I looked up Benedictine on Wikipedia and discovered that it’s made from a mixture of 27 herbs and spices, of which 21 are publicly known. These include red berries, cinnamon, lemon balm, tea, thyme, coriander, cloves, vanilla, and nutmeg. I am no wiser as to what it tastes like, and for all I know, mint may be one of the secret ingredients.

What I did find out, and the reason for all this waffle, is the fact that the United Kingdom is a significant market for Benedictine, and much of it is consumed in the Burnley area. That’s right, Burnley. Apparently it’s a result of soldiers of the East Lancashire Regiment acquiring a taste for the drink while stationed in France during the First World War. In Burnley, Benedictine is drunk with hot water, a mixture known as ‘Benny-and-hot’. Most remarkable of all, Burnley Miners Club is reputedly the largest single customer of the liqueur in the UK.

Now, Burnley may not have a lot going for it. Not an obvious holiday destination, and a football team whose style of play is quite a long way from that of Barcelona or Bayern Munich. But from now on, whenever I hear its name, I will mentally raise a glass to its Miners Club members and their sophisticated taste in cocktails.

***

Other things I’ve learnt this week:

Gambrinous means ‘being full of beer’.

In the USA, ransom payments to kidnappers are tax-deductible.

Enid Blyton liked to play tennis in the nude.

Church-going

Western front of Notre Dame La Grande

I’ve been going to church a lot recently. Not through any new-found religious zeal, but in order to take photographs. When I signed up for the photography course I am currently doing, my intention was to concentrate on street life and, in particular, night scenes. Sadly, the start of the course coincided with the reintroduction of the lockdown and the curfew, which means that the streets are unusually empty and I can’t go out to take photos at night.

So for the last week or so I’ve been scampering around looking for things to photograph, and in Poitiers an obvious choice is the three Romanesque churches that are the city’s principal tourist attraction: Notre-Dame-La-Grande, St Hilaire, and St Radegonde. They are all very different, and all provide lots of scope for photos. St Hilaire is a World Heritage Site and a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Both it and St Radegonde are beautifully preserved. The intricate carving on the western front of Notre-Dame-La-Grande make it one of the most visited churches in France.

Side chapel in St Hilaire

I’ve visited all three churches on many occasions since we moved here, and one of the most striking things I’ve found is that they are nearly always empty. The same is true of the equally impressive St Peter’s Cathedral. I have got used to more or less having them all to myself, to the extent that I now get mildly irritated when I see a few tourists or a local coming in for a quick pray.

I’m quite puzzled by this. When I came to live here, I soon became aware that France, despite being officially a secular country, still has a strong Catholic tradition, and Poitiers is clearly a Catholic city. Every other street is named after a saint, a bishop, or an order of monks, and there are a number of (private) Catholic schools. The one around the corner from us has a nun at the gate ushering the children in each morning. As I go past, her look always suggests that I am on my way to help the police with their enquiries.

St Radegonde

Our friends sometimes use the phrase “très catho” when referring to an individual or family. I’ve come to realise that this is generally shorthand for “middle-to-upper class and conservative.” When we first moved in, our neighbour Colette used it to describe the family opposite her, whom we hadn’t yet met. Sure enough, the following Sunday morning we saw maman and papa in matching Barbour gilets, trooping off to Mass with their six young children in tow. They moved out shortly after we arrived; I don’t think the two events were connected.

Anyway, for the moment, in the unlikely event that I should bump into a Catholic clergyman, I can truthfully say that I seem to visit their churches far more often than most of their flock.

***

From the sacred to the profane. This, from the Times diary on Friday, made me laugh:

In a new book by Robert Sellers on the history of Radio 1, David Hamilton recalls the first day of the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, when the Liberal politician was accused of conspiracy to murder his gay lover. James Alexander Gordon read the news headlines and told listeners that when Thorpe and Norman Scott met in court “it was the first time they had come face to face for four years.” As the studio staff fell about, Hamilton asked JAG if he realised what he had said. “I don’t think about the news, I just read it,” he said. Then he looked more closely. “Oh my God!” It was amended for the next bulletin.

***

The swifts are back in Poitiers! Always a sign that summer is on its way. They are amazing creatures. They eat, drink, and mate while flying, and only stop to raise their young. It’s estimated they fly more than 500 miles each day. As soon as they arrive, they visit the nest they built the previous year. Often these are in small cavities they find under roof gables in some of the older houses around here. If you are lucky, you can sometimes see them darting in.

We had a shock on Wednesday. We found one lying on the path in our garden. There is a large French window there, and birds occasionally fly into it. For a swift at speed, this could be fatal. I was about to grab a dustpan and brush to perform the last rites when Madame said excitedly, “It’s still breathing.” She hurried off to the RSPB website, which advised her to put the creature in a cloth-lined box and let it rest there. We did this and laid it on the garden table. To our delight and amazement, we discovered shortly afterwards that it had recovered and flown off.

The only slight drawback is the effect this has had on Madame, who has developed what I can only describe as an Assisi complex. There are now several bird-feeders and drinking bowls dotted around the garden, and she is talking of building a hedgehog sanctuary. She stops to pat and exchange a few words with every dog we pass in the street (Christ knows what they make of her French), and I now discover that on 19th May, the day the lockdown ends, instead of a glorious bar crawl around the city centre, we are off to visit La Vallée des Singes, a monkey colony fifteen miles away.

The next time I see a concussed swift, it’ll be worm food before you can say “David Attenborough.”

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The man who wrote “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” killed himself after being booed off stage in Glasgow.

Whoopi Goldberg got her nickname from her childhood flatulence.

Buckingham Palace is built on the site of a brothel.

***

Not that anyone cares, but this blog will not be appearing next week. I need to finish my course work. Normal service will be resumed the following week.

In the meantime, here is some music.

A route map

The choice I’ve been struggling with all my life.

***

On Friday, President Macron announced the government ‘route map’ to the end of the current confinement. This will be a four-stage process. The main points are these:

From tomorrow, 3rd May: Travel restrictions will be lifted. We will no longer need an attestation document if travelling more than 10 km. Secondary schools will reopen. All other rules, including the 7pm curfew, remain in place.

On 19th May: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be able to reopen their outdoor terrace spaces only, with a maximum of six people per table. ‘Non-essential’ shops can reopen. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen with restricted numbers, as can open-air sports facilities. The curfew will be pushed back from 7pm to 9pm.

On 9th June: Cafés, bars, and restaurants will be allowed to reopen indoor spaces, with a maximum of six people per table. A pass sanitaire will be implemented – a ‘health passport’ showing either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test, which will be compulsory to access certain areas or events. Public events, including concerts and sports matches, with a maximum of 5,000 people, may be possible – but those attending will need a pass sanitaire. The border will be open to non-EU tourists and visitors, but they too will need a pass sanitaire. The curfew will be pushed back to 11pm.

On 30th June: The curfew will end. Events of more than 1,000 people, indoors or outdoors, may be permitted, but those attending will need a valid pass sanitaire.

Full details of exactly how the ‘health passports’ will work have not yet been revealed, but a prototype that is currently being tested would allow individuals to upload either a vaccine certificate or a recent negative Covid test onto their mobile phone or tablet.

This plan has been announced against a background of encouraging statistics in terms of both case rates and vaccinations (all the figures quoted here are from John Lichfield’s excellent weekly updates).

In terms of cases, all the statistics in the last week moved in the right direction, the first time this has happened for two months. The daily average number of cases was 27,857 – a fall of 16.6%. The number of deaths was down, as were the numbers for acute cases and hospital bed occupancy.

With regard to vaccinations, in the last week France delivered an average of 410,120 jabs a day, including 254,167 first jabs. Both are records (for France). By comparison, the UK, with almost exactly the same population, is delivering 533,807 jabs a day, including 118,207 first jabs. Overall, the UK is still way ahead, but France is now delivering twice as many first jabs. The target of 20 million first jabs by 15th May might not be met, but the result will not be far off.

President Macron’s reopening strategy is undoubtedly a gamble, The South African variant is still causing problems in some areas, and the identification of the first cases of the Indian variant (five so far) is a worry. The hope is that the vaccination strategy will win out. Quite what happens if it doesn’t is not clear.

Come what may, Madame and I have ring-fenced 19th May in our diaries. ‘We are just going outside and may be some time.’

***

Things that remind you that you are no longer living in the UK. A couple of months ago, in nearby Charroux, residents were alarmed to be woken one morning by gunshots. It turned out that the mayor had arranged for a group of local hunters to go shooting pigeons in the street (there’s a video clip of one of them in action here). The local paper, La Nouvelle République, regularly has articles about wolves being spotted in Vienne, and last week there was a warning that 1st May sees the start of Tiger Mosquito Alert, which runs till the end of October. This mosquito first appeared in France in 2019, and Vienne is one of the departments on red alert for the insect, which is a transmitter of the very nasty dengue virus.

As if that weren’t enough to worry about, this week La Nouvelle République reported that a wild boar had been seen on Île de La Glacière, a tiny island in the river Clain, about half a mile from our house. The local Lieutenant de louveterie, a sort of state-sponsored gamekeeper, deemed it accidentogène (hazardous) and said that attempts to capture it alive would be too dangerous.

A team of hunters was sent to ‘despatch’ it. The report doesn’t say if these were the same ones as the pigeon-shooting gang from Charroux, but whether they were or not, they were unsuccessful this time.

One of the Poitiers boar-hunters.

Apparently, the boar somehow got off the island and is now roaming through the undergrowth on the city’s outskirts. Who knows where or when it will reappear?

To cap it all, this week, both Madame and I have separately seen a mouse scurrying across the path in our garden. There is only so much of this one man can take.

***

Spotted just by Parc Blossac, this must be the longest street name in Poitiers, perhaps the longest in France. Imagine the poor bugger who lives at no. 99 …

Poor bugger: ‘Hello. I’d like to order a pizza.’

Pizza parlour person: ‘Certainly, sir. Can I take the address?’

Poor bugger (with a heavy sigh): ‘Quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, rue de cent vingt-cinquième régiment d’infanterie.’

A pause …

Pizza parlour person (with a barely suppressed snigger): ‘Would you mind spelling that for me, sir?’

Poor bugger: ‘Q … U … sod it, I’ll open a tin of baked beans.’

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

When George W. Bush, 43rd president of the USA, arrived in the White House, he found the Clinton administration had removed the ‘W’ keys from all the computers.

Rhinotillexomania is the scientific term for being unable to stop picking your nose.

The 1978 chess final at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs was between ‘Moors Murderer’ Ian Brady and disgraced MP John Stonehouse.

The writing’s on the wall

It’s not clear, at least to me, why there is so much more graffiti in France than there is in the UK. By this, I mean not only the ‘street art’ – murals and other forms of building decoration – that is condoned, and even encouraged, to a much greater extent by the authorities here, but also basic tagging and slogan writing. Poitiers has always had its fair share of this, but in the past month, well, to quote Harold Shand, the Bob Hoskins character in The Long Good Friday, ‘Now there’s been an eruption.’

I came out of our house the other morning to see this on the wall of our neighbour Nicole:

It’s a call for Jean-Michel Blanquer, the current Minister of Education, to resign. M. Blanquer is the target of quite a lot of the current outbreak. I saw Nicole later in the day, and when I commiserated, she just shrugged and smiled. It’s the second time in a couple of months that she’s been done, probably because her patch of white wall is the most inviting ‘canvas’ in the street. With luck it will be gone in a week or so.

The more acceptable form of street art: Voie André Malraux

In Poitiers, more than 2,000 tags were deleted in 2020, and according to Benoît Texereau, responsible for urban cleaning in the city, 600 have already been removed since January, more than half of them in the city centre. The city allocates €100,000 each year to tagging removal, and two men, Yohan Prior and Christophe Giraudon, are employed full-time on the task. They have been working together for fifteen years and have become good friends.

The statistics include only painted tags removed and do not take stickers and fly-posters into account. On average, between five and twenty tags are removed every day. According to Yohan, ‘We erased nearly 245 tags between mid-March and mid-April. It’s a mixture of feminist tags and tags against the government.’ Removing each one ‘can take between 30 seconds and 3 hours, depending on the size of the tag and the fragility of the building’s construction material’. One worrying development is that, during the previous lockdown, the taggers hardly damaged the walls, if at all. ‘Now that doesn’t bother them anymore.’ Yohan and Christophe have recently been equipped with a new machine, a hydrogommeuse, specifically to deal with more fragile surfaces.



Stencils are quick and effecive

M. Texereau says that, while all graffiti will be removed, the ‘prettier’ ones are left till last. The priority is to remove racist tags and other offensive ones that target individuals and communities as quickly as possible. Christophe explains the process: ‘We mask them very quickly with white Meudon [a primer] and then come back to erase them in the following couple of days.’ I’ve seen this in action, and their success rate is quite impressive. However, they appear to have missed the one around the corner from us, which accuses the current Minister of the Interior of being a rapist. It’s been there for over two weeks.

Posting graffiti can incur heavy fines, ranging from €1,500 to €7,500. The way the content of a specific item is worded may also constitute a separate offence in itself. The council provide the police with a regularly updated map of the tags. They occasionally catch the perpetrators in action, but the odds are against them. The current curfew means that, for long periods, the streets are empty of pedestrians, potential witnesses who might act as a deterrent.

Finally, one odd fact. According to Yohan, the feminists tend to tag early in the morning, while other groups do it at night. Suggestions for why this might be are welcome.

Graffiti of yesteryear. A wall near Parc Blossac


***

There we were, having a pleasant Saturday morning stroll by the river …

And then I saw …

Haven’t slept a wink since.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1905, the city of Birmingham banned rifle shooting in pubs.

The ancient Greek city of Megara held a version of the Olympic Games that included a kissing contest. Only boys were allowed to enter.

The Japanese word kareishu describes the smell of old people.

***

Tweet of the Week:

‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and make up your mind for fuck’s sake, you were laughing a minute ago.’ (Paul Bassett Davis)

A glimmer of hope

Lockdown? What lockdown? Seen on a riverside walk yesterday morning.

We are now at the midway point in the current lockdown, the third that France has gone through. When announcing the new restrictions at the end of March, President Macron said, ‘From mid-May, we will start to open again’, and it looks increasingly likely that there will be some relaxing of measures by the middle of next month. According to the magazine Le Point, the government’s plan is to allow café terraces to begin to reopen from Monday 17th May, with cultural venues such as museums and tourist sites also opening at this point. The opening of café interiors and restaurants is provisionally set for some time between 1st and 15th June. If this plan comes to pass, it will put us almost exactly a month behind the UK, who saw their own current lockdown gradually coming to an end with the opening of schools, ‘non-essential’ shops, and pub gardens on 12th April.

Comparisons between the two countries are complicated, because the UK’s third lockdown, which started in January, was much more stringent than France’s current one. One sensed then that the French government were pleased that their own handling of the situation (for instance, by not having a Christmas easing of restrictions as in the UK) had enabled them to avoid a similar January close-down. However, four months is a long time in politics, and the situation is very different today. The vaccine campaign in the UK led to a significant drop in the numbers of both cases and fatalities, whilst the relatively slow vaccine roll-out here, coupled with the arrival of several new variant strains of Covid-19, has led to figures going in the opposite direction.

M. Macron is reported to have been reluctant to impose a third lockdown until the worsening statistics made one clearly unavoidable. Faced with a disenchanted electorate and a long re-election campaign, he was keen to administer an effective medicine without making it too difficult to swallow. The current ‘partial’ lockdown is the result.

Like most people, I was glad of the lighter restrictions, with no documents to fill in whenever you leave the house, and more freedom to travel and exercise. At the same time, there is the nagging suspicion that it might have been better to bite the bullet now and have a complete lockdown, in order to benefit later on. There is also the feeling that the new rules are illogical. I can weave my way through the crowded street market but not sit in a cinema with carefully separated seats. I can stand with other people eating at a fast food kiosk but not sit on a terrace eating a proper meal. I can drink a Coke in the street but not a beer. I can buy books and records and patio furniture (garden centres are open) but not clothes or a kitchen table. Any business that does repairs can stay open, so you can have your shoes mended, but you can’t buy a new pair.

These are all minor inconveniences, and hopefully all of this will pass fairly soon. However, the future is far from clear. The journalist John Lichfield does an excellent job analysing the progress of Covid-19 in France and its treatment. In his latest bulletin, he talks of steadily improving vaccine roll-out figures and a dramatic drop in care home deaths, from 1,300 a week in November to 50 a week now. Overall, there are signs that a plateau has been reached. Numbers in acute care have been stable at around 5,900 for five days.

However, the third wave of the pandemic in France – 82% UK variant – is still at a high level, with over 30,000 cases and 300 deaths a day. The grim statistic of 100,000 Covid deaths in France was passed during the week. New scare stories about vaccine risks and variant strains appear almost daily. The government will have to balance very carefully the political desirability of relaxing current restrictions against the risk of increasing the spread of the disease.

***

Food for thought

***

One evening this week, we rewatched Peeping Tom, the film that more or less finished the career of director Michael Powell. On its release in 1960, the critics queued up to express their outrage. Caroline Lejeune in The Observer described it as a ‘beastly film’, whilst the Daily Express, subtle as always, said it was ‘more nauseating and depressing than the leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, and the gutters of Calcutta’.

Since then, the film has been reassessed and is now regarded as a classic of British cinema. It all seems very tame now, and it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve watched it several times and nearly always see something new to appreciate in it. This time it was a shot of the newsagent in Rathbone Place, where Mark, the eponymous peeping Tom, works.

29 Rathbone Place W1.

When I was young, every corner newsagent looked like this, festooned with adverts for cigarettes and ice cream. If you click on the image above, it should open in another window. Enlarge it, and you can just about make out a cigarette machine above the Wall’s sign on the right of the picture. These were once very common, as were machines which for a pre-decimal sixpence would dispense a carton of milk.

The pub that features in the film is the Newman Arms in Rathbone Street, a place where I’ve wasted many a happy hour. As well as Peeping Tom,it’s noteworthy for two other reasons. First, it was the pub on which George Orwell, once a regular there, based the Proles’ pub in 1984. Second, in about 2010, it was the first pub in London where I came across the vile practice of allowing people to ‘reserve’ tables. In a public house! I was outraged!

Mind you, I had the last laugh. I stormed out, and ten years later left the country, never to return. That’ll teach them. 

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The symbol of the Alzheimer Society of Canada is the forget-me-not.

In 1986, Michael Foot MP was made the Chair of a disarmament committee. The Times headline ran: ‘Foot Heads Arms Body’.

The Swedish expression ‘Skita i det blå skåpet’ is used to describe someone who has embarrassed themselves or has taken something too far. It literally means ‘to shit in the blue cupboard’.

A spot of turbulence

The mayor of Poitiers, Léonore Moncond’huy

Poitiers, peaceful little Poitiers, has been in the news, and it’s all thanks to our mayor, Mme Léonore Moncond’huy.

Regular readers may remember that at the end of last year, Mme Moncond’huy, a Green, got into a bit of bother when she announced that there would be no traditional Christmas tree in the main square. Some people felt that her stated reason for this – building work on the theatre in the corner of the square had left insufficient space for a tree – was merely a cover. They accused her of banning the tree on ideological grounds, and thus following the example of the mayor of Bordeaux, Pierre Hurmic, also a Green, who had stated that ‘a dead Christmas tree’ did not fit with his party’s green strategy and his planned Charter of Tree Rights. One of those to object was Marine Le Pen, the leader of the extreme right-wing Rassemblement National (RN), who said that talk of a ‘dead tree’ showed that the Greens have ‘a visceral rejection of everything that makes up our country, our traditions, our culture’.

Christmas came and went. In the main square, there were lots of pretty lights, and even a small (artificial) tree; the story was forgotten. Mme Moncond’huy was off the hook. Until last week. Suddenly, what at first glance might appear as a minor matter of town hall book-keeping has become national, and indeed international, news.

It started with the announcement that, as part of a review of funding for local sporting clubs, Poitiers would be phasing out its subsidy to two flying clubs, cutting it from €8,800 to €4,400 this year, before withdrawing it completely in 2022. Given that the overall budget of the council is over €90 million, this would not seem particularly significant, unless you were a member of either club. The decision was defended on the grounds that public money ‘is not intended to finance activities based on the use of exhaustible resources’, a stated policy of the Green party.

However, when defending the decision at the next Municipal Council meeting after the announcement, the mayor used the phrase ‘L’aérien ne doit plus faire partie des rêves d’enfants’ (‘Air travel must no longer be part of children’s dreams’). It was at this point that la merde a frappé le ventilateur (French homework: translate this yourselves).

A Twitter storm swiftly broke out. From the right, Marine Le Pen was immediately on the attack again: ‘Wanting to destroy sectors of industrial excellence such as nuclear and aeronautics, attacking children’s dreams: this is the true face of these “greens”’.

For the government, Jean-Baptiste Djebarri, Minister Delegate for Transport, denounced the views of Mme Moncond’huy as ‘authoritarian and moribund rantings’. He was one of many people to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (author of The Little Prince and himself a pioneering aviator): ‘Make your life a dream, and a dream a reality.’

From the left. Stéphane Le Foll, Parti Socialiste mayor of Le Mans and former minister, stated, ‘It was at Le Mans that Saint-Exupéry dreamed of flying, and that the Wright brothers made their first flights. Rather than preventing dreaming, we must invest and innovate so that our children continue to fly and dream.’ From the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of La France Insoumise, chimed in with a more enigmatic, ‘Hi Poitiers, Dreams should always stay free, signed Icarus.’

Louder and louder it got, and more and more strident. Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival, felt duty-bound to chip in: ‘We would save a lot of time, if this elected official … admitted that it was bullshit.’ Daniel Cohn-Bendit (AKA ‘Danny the Red’, veteran of the Paris ’68 demonstrations and later a Green MEP) was more direct: ‘I cried when the first man walked on the moon, and now there’s an environmentalist who tells me to stop dreaming, she should go fuck herself.’ In the UK, the story even got as far as The Times.

It’s fair to say there was a considerable amount of support for the mayor and her decision, but this has tended to get drowned out by the hostile comments. One can’t help thinking that there is a strong whiff of political opportunism about all of this – we are, after all, warming up for a presidential election year. This can sometimes teeter over into farce. It was rumoured last week that the Minister Delegate for Transport had nominated the presidents of the two flying clubs for France’s highest decoration, la Légion d’honneur. This was quickly clarified – he had only nominated them for la Médaille de l’Aéronautique, which is awarded for ‘outstanding accomplishments related to the field of aeronautics’. So that’s alright, then.

Alain Martin, president of l’Aéroclub ASPTT (on the left), François Chargelegue & Jean-Marie Arnault, respectively treasurer and president of l’Aéroclub du Poitou (on the right).

Mme Moncond’huy has herself now broadcast a video on Twitter defending her actions, and I think she makes a very good job of it. She admits her words were unfortunate, but says they were taken out of context. She makes the point that the flying club decision was part of a general plan to support those clubs that have been most affected by Covid and to target deprived neighbourhoods. She also points out that in the council meeting itself when the matter was discussed, ‘the atmosphere was serene’, and that there has been far less negative reaction in Poitiers itself than there has been on social media.

The flying clubs themselves have received numerous offers of financial help to compensate for the withdrawn subsidy, so I suspect they will survive. As, I hope, will Mme Moncond’huy.

***

I had my first AstraZeneca jab yesterday. When I turned up at Dr L’s surgery, there was a reporter there from the radio station France Bleu doing a piece on the vaccine. We chatted for a while, and then he asked if it would be OK to come in and watch me getting injected. Dr L and I agreed, and the reporter did a sort of joint interview with both of us while I was getting vaccinated. You can read a bit of it here on the France Bleu website. In my view, the extract gives rather more prominence to Dr L than is really justified, and for some strange reason, my opinions on various matters of public interest appear to have been cut. I accept that this may be a technical error, but I feel a little hurt nevertheless.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1915, the lock millionaire Cecil Chubb bought his wife Stonehenge. She didn’t like it, so in 1918 he gave it to the nation.

Bricklehampton is the longest place name in the UK with no repeated letters.

More than one-third of men using dating sites are already married.