A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

I’d more or less given up on the idea of a pre-Christmas trip to Paris once I knew that bars and restaurants were remaining closed. By Wednesday, however, I was getting a little stir-crazy. I figured that a day of walking in Paris, taking some photos, would make an attractive alternative to doing the same thing in Poitiers, which has been my daily routine for the last few weeks. I could grab something to eat en route and, if the weather changed or I got tired, I could duck into a church for a while. So, on Thursday, I got the 07.15 train, normally full but today half-empty, arriving at Montparnasse at 08.35. My plan was to go to Montmartre in the north and then work my way back on foot. Even allowing for dawdling and snapping, I would have more than enough time to catch my 16.08 train home.

I went by metro to Gare du Nord, where I encountered a minor setback to my cunning plan, in that all the station toilettes were closed. The employees of Derichbourg, the company that services the WCs at Gare du Nord, Gare d’Austerlitz, and Gare de Lyon, were on a 24-hour strike. My first reaction was ‘they’re taking the piss!’, but I realised the inappropriacy of this and headed on. I gulped down a double espresso and pain au raisin while standing outside La Mie Caline boulangerie in Bvd Magenta, then moved along to Bvd Rochechouart, crossing from the 9th to the 18th arrondissement.

I’m always a bit wary of walking around here, ever since I nearly had my pocket picked some twenty years ago. On a busy street, a man behind me on my left had made an elaborate show of brushing away his cigarette ash, which had apparently landed on my shoulder. As I turned to face him, his accomplice, on my right, was just not quite quick enough at reaching into my jacket pocket for my wallet. Realising what was going on, I spun around, shouting, just in time to see the two of them melting quickly into the crowd. I’m normally against capital punishment, but at that moment …

Back in the present, I felt decidedly uneasy at first, seeing a group of grim-faced young men hanging around a street corner, watching the passers-by, occasionally glancing at their phones and muttering to each other. But then the truth dawned on me. It was the pushbikes nearby that gave them away. That, and a couple of tell-tale green rucksacks. They were all working for Deliveroo or one of the various other food delivery outfits that have sprung up everywhere in the last few years. A little calmer, I walked on towards Sacré-Cœur. I was even more relieved a few minutes later when I found one of those fully automated WCs in a street near the cathedral. Even in winter, this area of Paris is normally packed with tourists, along with clusters of hawkers selling souvenirs and novelty trinkets. Today there was just a handful of people taking photos of each other and the city skyline. I joined them for a few minutes of clicking under a baleful sky

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

I thought about going into the cathedral, but didn’t, and walked on to the Place du Tertre, just to its left. Here again, one would normally be surrounded by a throng of tourists having their portraits sketched by artists of variable ability, watched by fellow tourists sitting outside the cafés around the Place. Today it was a ghost town. At one point I was the only person there. It felt distinctly eerie.

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

I travelled down to Abbesses, the pretty little quartier that is the setting for the film Amélie. There is a lot more life, as all the shops are still open. It is very attractive, but they have obviously cottoned on to their selling point, and there is more than a touch of tweeness here and there. It reminded me of Wimbledon Village, Southwold, and Stamford.

I started back towards the centre of the city, down rue Lepic to Clichy with Place Pigalle and Le Moulin Rouge on my left and on down rue Blanche towards Opéra. It was now lunchtime. I knew there was a little square in front of Sainte-Trinité church where I could sit and eat, so I had another boulangerie pit stop, this time for a small quiche Lorraine and a bottle of water. The woman who served me was a dead ringer for Hattie Jacques. I thought of mentioning this, but explaining Carry On films is way above my current level of French. As I left the boulangerie, it started to rain, and I ended up eating my quiche while standing in the doorway of a closed-down sweetshop. It’s not the image I like to project. I was worried at one point that benevolent passers-by might start placing coins on the ground in front of me.

The rain was continuing, so I took shelter in Galeries Lafayette, a French Harrods and Selfridges rolled into one. It’s a fine store, and I’d like to pay particular tribute to their excellent cloakroom facilities, which probably don’t get much of a mention in company advertising. The Christmas lights aren’t too bad either.

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

When the rain stopped, I started walking down Avenue de l’Opéra, but about halfway down fatigue began to set in, so I hopped on the metro at Pyramides to go a couple of stops to Pont Neuf (come on, just two stops, it’s hardly a mortal sin).

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

I walked over the bridge and up rue Dauphine to Saint-Germain. It was now 14.50, so as I was nicely on schedule, I had another ten-minute sit-down in the wonderfully gloomy church of Saint-Sulpice – as seen in The Da Vinci Code.

And now it is confession time, dear reader. Taking photos was not the only purpose of my trip. It’s Christmas Day on Friday, and one tradition, entirely of my making, is that we always have a bacon sandwich for breakfast on Christmas Day morning. The French don’t really do bacon, but there is an M&S food store just a few hundred yards from Saint-Sulpice, and they sell some very good Wiltshire smoked back …

 ‘… well, while I’m here I might as well get some Cumberland sausages … lime pickle, chapatis, those double chocolate ginger biscuits, two of those mini Christmas puddings, some shortbread, mince pies …’ Ho ho ho indeed.

I trudged slowly but happily up rue de Rennes (I am beginning to understand why one of my heroes, the historian Richard Cobb, described it as the most boring road in Paris) and reached the station at 15.50. On the corner of rue Odessa, I saw the one thing I’d been keeping an eye out for all day – a café selling takeaway vin chaud. But it was too late – there was a queue. At the station I just had time to get another double espresso and a cereal bar for the train. My Fitbit told me that I had done over 26,000 steps and walked twelve miles. I know it’s a long way to go for a bacon sandwich, but it’s a very scenic route.

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

In 1672, an angry mob of Dutchmen killed and ate their prime minister.

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.

Let there be lights

Monday

When I started this blog back in January, I imagined wandering around both in Poitiers and in the rest of France, meeting interesting people and seeing lots of fascinating things to write about. Hah!

A few weeks ago, our permitted ‘exercise period’ was extended from one hour to three hours a day, just as it got cold and wet enough to deter one from leaving the house at all. When you do go out, the people that you see walking around look about as cheerful as you feel. If you meet anyone you know, the conversation is usually limited to ‘Ça va?’ … ‘Oui, ça va’ and a mutual shrugging of the shoulders. No one has any news. It struck me the other day that it’s been a long time since I heard anyone shouting or laughing in the street.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’. The Christmas lights were switched on at the weekend, along with the piped music in the main streets, and they do help to make the place a little more cheerful. Although cafés and bars cannot open, they can sell drinks to take away. Until recently, this meant bottles of wine or beer for home consumption, along with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Now, however, some of the more resourceful ones are selling vin chaud (mulled wine) – a large cup for €3.50 is the going rate. I was never a great fan of the stuff, but needs must, and I’m beginning to get a taste for it. I’ve now worked out the route of quite a decent ‘vin chaud crawl’ around the city centre. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before Madame gets suspicious of my increasingly regular evening walks, to ‘see the lights’, from which I return considerably more cheerful than when I left, but I’ll enjoy it while I can.

Wednesday

This is not what I came to France for. Our local paper, the Nouvelle République, has an article about COVI, a French canning company in nearby Deux-Sèvres, who are now promoting their own brand of corned beef. Hereford, as it’s called, comes in tins that are of ‘singular trapezoidal shape with a key to open’, and it’s recommended, cold or hot, as an aperitif, in a shepherd’s pie, as a gratin, or with stuffed tomatoes. Hmm … not sure about corned beef aperitifs.

Fair play to them, they are having a real go at promoting it. There is even a YouTube video in which five GIs land on a French beach armed only with tins of the stuff. Luckily, someone has left an attractive picnic table on the sand for them. I wish COVI well, but can’t help thinking the company name is a little unfortunate in these troubled times.

I have to confess that corned beef has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. However, Madame, being health-conscious and having a more discerning palate, has added Hereford corned beef to the list of foodstuffs that are banned from the house (it slots in neatly between faggots and kippers).

Thursday

Today we learnt of the latest government proposals for dealing with the virus. They had initially hoped to be able to lift many of the lockdown rules on December 15th – allowing people to travel to visit friends and family over the holidays – and follow this with a reopening of bars and gyms on January 20th. However, this all depended on new cases falling to 5,000 a day, a target that the government now judges ‘impossible’. Instead, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced on television this evening that while some restrictions will be lifted, others will stay in place, and an 8pm (rather than 9pm) curfew will be introduced.

The curfew will be lifted on December 24th, but not on December 31st as had previously been suggested. Cinemas, theatres, and other cultural centres, which had been scheduled to reopen on December 15th, will stay closed until at least January 7th. Bars, restaurants, and gyms will still stay closed until at least January 20th. The important ‘concession’ that will still take place next Tuesday is that the lockdown will be lifted, and trips out of the home will no longer require an essential reason or an attestation (permission form). One can now travel out of one’s region without restriction. While this is welcome, in practice it makes little difference to us. We had planned a trip to Paris next week, reasoning that even if bars and restaurants were closed, we could go for a walk, visit a museum or a cinema, possibly both, and grab a snack lunch on the go. With cinemas and museums shut, this seems a lot less attractive. Ah well, Poitiers it is then, at least for the foreseeable future.

Saturday

Wandering aimlessly around Carrefour this morning and, blow me, there it was.

Those boys at COVI certainly don’t muck around. I bought a couple of tins, and they are currently stashed behind a toolbox in our cave. I’ll have to be careful, but if you are walking around the city centre of an evening, don’t be surprised if you see a furtive-looking character struggling with a tin opener and a cup of vin chaud.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In Germany in the eighteenth century, there was a secret Catholic society called the Order of the Pug. Members wore dog collars and had to scratch at the door to be let in.

Racehorse names that managed to escape the Jockey Club censor include Hoof Hearted, Peony’s Envy, Wear the Fox Hat, and Sofa Can Fast.

While English children’s stories begin ‘Once upon a time …’, Korean ones begin ‘Back when tigers used to smoke …’.

Au revoir, Giscard

The main news in France this week has been the death of ex-president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing at the age of 94. All the obituaries, both here and in the UK, have been respectful, if a little restrained, the words ‘haughty’ and ‘aloof’ appearing regularly. Apparently Margaret Thatcher regarded him as patronising and condescending – which, frankly, seems a bit rich.

This image of d’Estaing may seem a little paradoxical considering the fact that in 1974 he became the Fifth Republic’s youngest president, an intellectually gifted politician who introduced a number of liberal reforms including reducing the voting age to 18, the introduction of divorce by common consent, and the legalisation of abortion. He also oversaw the creation of France’s high-speed TGV rail network and promoted its nuclear power strategy. Nevertheless, the image of aloofness was something he found difficult to shake off – claiming to be descended from Louis XV probably didn’t help. To boost the idea that he had the common touch, he was photographed playing football and the accordion (though never at the same time).

These were, of course, just staged for the press and nothing like the genuine displays of working-class solidarity from Tony Blair playing keepy-uppy with Kevin Keegan or David Cameron eating a hot dog (with a knife and fork).

If I’m honest, my immediate reaction on hearing about Giscard’s death was surprise at the fact that he had still been alive. I’m probably not alone in that, at least amongst those of us who aren’t French. At 94 he had outlived his two immediate successors, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, both of whom served two full seven-year terms. There are now only two ex-presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, both of whom served a single five-year term (the period was reduced during Chirac’s reign).

The situation is very different in the UK, where ex-prime ministers have started to accumulate at an alarming rate. There are currently five – John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May – and you wouldn’t get very long odds on the current incumbent joining then fairly soon. There is a similar situation in the USA, with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama about to be joined by Donald Trump.

It’s quite interesting to look at how each of these countries treats its former leaders. When doing so, it is of course important to remember that in France and the USA the president is not just a ‘here today gone tomorrow politician’ but is also the head of state and on a par with the Queen.

In France, a former president receives a pension equivalent to that of a State Councillor, i.e. around 6,000 euros gross per month. If he decides to sit on the Constitutional Council, as he has the right to, he also receives around 11,500 euros net per month; in recent years, only Giscard has done this. They have a furnished and equipped official apartment, along with a staff of seven, including a chief of staff, assistants, and secretaries (this is reduced to three after five years). Should they wish it, two national police officers are available to them on a permanent basis for protection duties. A car is provided with two drivers (only one after five years), and they get free travel on Air France and SNCF, the French rail system. When they travel abroad, they can stay in the residences of the ambassador or the consuls.

In the USA, ex-presidents receive similar benefits. There is a lifetime annual pension of just over $200,000 a year, and the government pays for office space, furniture, staff, and supplies. They are also reimbursed for the move out of the White House and any work-related travel they do. All former presidents get lifelong Secret Service protection for themselves, their spouses, and any children under the age of 16.

In the UK, the situation is slightly different. Once a prime minster leaves office, he or she is not only out of a job but also, in theory, homeless, as 10 Downing Street has to be vacated and there is no state provision for any accommodation. They are, however, provided with an official car and driver, and they continue to have a police security guard. They are entitled to a pension of half their prime ministerial salary (which is currently just over £150,000). They can also claim a Public Duties Cost Allowance ‘to assist former Prime Ministers with the costs of continuing to fulfil duties associated with their previous position in public life’. This is worth £148,500 and is technically available for a lifetime. According to a cabinet office minister in 2016, Major was still claiming this twenty years after leaving office.

In the UK, there have been occasional calls for ex-prime ministers’ salaries to be ‘means tested’. It’s certainly true that there are plenty of opportunities for money to be made once out of office, and most of those qualified are adept at taking them. A few examples. Major was a board member of the Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest investment firms, and has numerous other directorships. Blair has amassed a property portfolio estimated to be worth £35 million. Cameron was paid £800,000 for his autobiography. Rather commendably, Brown tends to concentrate on advisory roles with organisations like the World Wide Web Foundation and the United Nations. His earnings from his directorship at the investment firm bank PIMCO go to the Gordon and Sarah Brown foundation for charitable works. Meanwhile, for now, May continues as an MP and can often be seen sitting on the back benches looking lovingly at Boris Johnson.

Our French ex-presidents have had mixed fortunes. François Hollande is still a member of the Parti Socialiste and has announced that, although he will not run for office, he plans to take an active part in the 2022 presidential election.

Meanwhile, poor old Nicolas Sarkozy is currently on trial in Paris for corruption. This raised a small but significant point of etiquette. On television last week, M. Sarkozy was shown on his way into the courtroom with various policemen standing at ease. By the end of the day, word had come down from Didier Lallement, the Paris chief of police: on trial or not, the man was an ex-president. As M. Sarkozy left the court, the soldiers stood stiffly to attention and saluted. I wonder if they will still do this if he is found guilty?

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week.

Until 1913, children in America could legally be sent by parcel post.

In the nineteenth century, before the Famine, an Irish labourer ate on average ten to fifteen pounds of potatoes a day.

In 2008, a man in Ohio was arrested for having sex with a picnic table.

This and that

Poitiers has gone for a decidedly minimalist approach to its Christmas tree this year

***

The Daily Mash on Sir Philip Green’s reaction to recent events

***

Brian Bilston is a poet who regularly appears on Twitter and is always interesting. If you replace Liverpool with Fulham, his latest poem so accurately reflects my life at the moment, that I think he might be spying on me through my webcam:

TODAY I SHALL LISTEN TO THE NEWS

Today I shall listen to the news and the football scores
and the tally of the dead. Intermittently, I shall pick
at the crossword and the biscuit tin, and stare out
of my back window at a squirrel as he scurries along
my fence. Later, there may be a film to watch. But for now
I shall listen to the prospects for a Liverpool team

looking to bounce back from a disappointing midweek defeat,
the rising unemployment figures, and the tally of the dead,
while attempting to make inroads with the north-west quadrant.
It is thought likely for there to be some changes made
to the side which started on Wednesday evening. I shall
be brought team news from all the featured grounds today

amid continued concerns over travel this Christmas, and
the failings of Test and Trace. It is regretted that in the present
circumstances, my newspaper is unable to process
crossword prize entries. Tomorrow, I shall buy some
more biscuits and possibly a pint of milk, and listen
to the news and the football scores and the tally of the dead.

The Clarkson Verses on his website https://brianbilston.com/ are also worth a read.

The wait goes on…

The Cluricaume

“Hoo-oo ha-a ha-a hoo-oo
Precious moments
When will I see you again?
When will we share precious moments?”

This week both England and France set out their plans for the next stage in dealing with Covid-19. It is interesting to compare the two. (Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have their own schedules.)

In England, the lockdown period will end on December 2nd, and there will be a return to the three-tier system first announced on October 12th but with significantly tighter rules.

In Tier 1, the rules are minimal, but this only covers a few isolated areas, like the Isle of Wight and Cornwall.

In Tier 2 (which is most of the country), you can’t socialise indoors with anyone you do not live with or who is not in your support bubble. You can meet in a group of up to six outside – including in a garden or a public place.

Shops, gyms, and personal care services (such as hairdressing) can reopen.

Pubs and bars can only open if they serve substantial meals. They must shut at 23:00 GMT, with last orders at 22:00 GMT.

Sports can resume with up to 2,000 spectators, or at 50% capacity (whichever is smaller).

In Tier 3 (which includes large parts of northern England), additional restrictions apply. Hospitality venues such as bars, pubs, cafés, and restaurants must stay closed, except for delivery and takeaway services. Spectator sports cannot resume.

More than 23 million people in England – 41.5% of the population – will be living under Tier 3 measures.

The first review of the tiers is set for December 16th, but it has already been announced that restrictions will be relaxed in all tiers from December 23rd till December 28th to allow three households to celebrate together indoors, outdoors, or in a place of worship.

France has adopted a very different approach to that of England. The new rules apply uniformly to the entire country.

As of yesterday, shops can open. This includes libraries, bookshops, clothes shops, toy shops, flower shops, etc. Also included are hairdressers and beauticians. 

Not included are cinemas, theatres, museums, cafés, restaurants, or bars. 

The system of exemption certificates (attestations de déplacement) will remain, meaning that anyone going out to exercise or shop will need to complete one and take it with them. 

People will now be allowed to exercise each day for up to three hours within 20 kilometres of their home. This does not allow people to visit family members or friends at their homes.

From December 15th, France’s lockdown will end if the average number of daily cases falls below 5,000 and the number of patients in intensive care units drops to between 2,500 and 3,000 or lower. Cinemas, theatres, and museums can reopen. Cafés, restaurants, and bars must remain closed. People will be able to move around freely, but a curfew will be in place from 21:00 to 07:00.

On January 20th, if the average number of daily Covid-19 cases remains below 5,000, France will move to phase three of its easing of lockdown measures. The curfew will end, and restaurants and cafés will be permitted to reopen.

Arguably, in France we are under a stricter regime. In particular, the non-opening of bars and restaurants until January 20th is hard to take. The curfew will last for over a month, with only a two-day relaxation for Christmas. However, the general impression I get is that most people are fairly resigned to the new regime (apart, obviously, from restaurant and bar owners). The government strategy has the advantage of being clear, logically argued, and applying equally to everyone.

We had a curfew during the first lockdown, and it didn’t seem to bother people. More and more restaurants are offering a takeaway service. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. The Christmas restriction is not quite as draconian as it might seem. Christmas here is a low-key private affair. You won’t see any Santas or reindeer on people’s lawns. There are no office parties, and pools of festive vomit in the streets are mercifully absent. The emphasis is on two meals – on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. By Boxing Day, people are returning to work and life to normal. All shops are open and busy. I have to say, after three years, I find this a perfectly acceptable way of doing things.

I could be wrong, but I get the impression that people are less happy in England. The tier system is complicated and inevitably throws up a number of anomalies. For example, Kent villages with very few virus cases now find themselves in Tier 3. People in Manchester (Tier 3) say they are being punished for previous disputes between their mayor and central government.

The proposed long Christmas break is dividing opinion. The government argument is that banning Christmas was never going to work; as people were not going to follow the rules, providing guidance to help them celebrate safely is a better way of managing the situation. However, many scientists are against it, saying it increases the risk of a third spike. Various newspaper surveys find that the majority of their readers think that relaxing rules for Christmas isn’t worth an additional month of lockdown later. Underlying everything there seems to be a sense that the overall strategy management is a bit flaky. Just today, the papers are reporting that Boris Johnson is preparing to make concessions to head off a revolt in his own party. There may be more twists and turns before the year is out.

***

When I said that people in France are resigned to the new regime, that doesn’t mean that everything always runs smoothly. In Joinville-le-Pont, on the outskirts of Paris, earlier this month, police officers were called to break up a rave involving over 300 people. They were met with a shower of bottles, which, I suppose, at least indicates that the partygoers were mindful of maintaining a safe physical distance.

Then on Monday, in Lannion, Brittany, a man was fined €135 for filling out his attestation form incorrectly. He had correctly given his name, address, and time of leaving home, but a policeman found that instead of ticking one of the boxes stating a legitimate reason to go outside – shopping, exercising, visiting the doctor, etc. – the man had written ‘aller péter la gueule à un mec’ (to smash a guy’s face in), an activity not covered by the form. He was fined an additional €150 for being drunk.

***

Three things learnt this week.

In France, it is legal to marry a dead person, so long as they had the intention to marry you while they were alive.

The word ‘his’ appears in the Bible 8,472 times. The word ‘hers’ features three times.

The average person farts 15–25 times per day.

Bye Bye Boulangerie

Sadly, La Pâtisserie Blossac in Rue de la Tranchée closed last Sunday. The proprietors, Serge and Isabelle Richefort, are finally retiring, thirty-seven years after Isabelle, an accountant by training, joined up with her brother to start the business. A group of customers gathered together for a small celebration at the shop on the Friday before the closure.

This is the third boulangerie we’ve seen closed since we moved here in April 2018, and it follows a pattern that is being seen throughout France. One reason for this is the general decline in bread consumption. According to the National Association of French Millers (ANMF), people in France are shunning baguettes in favour of healthier options. French people are now, on average, eating 120 grammes of bread per day, compared to 150 g in 2003 and a hefty 325 g in 1950.

But there is another aspect to this story. Serge and Isabelle belong to an endangered species. The term boulangerie is reserved for bakeries where the bread is prepared and baked on site; frozen or pre-baked products are not allowed. There are still around 32,000 traditional boulangeries in France, but the number is decreasing at a rate of about 1,200 a year. Young people are no longer drawn to the lengthy hours of the traditional bakers who live above the shop. Shopping malls have taken root on the periphery of rural areas, drawing in people who are content to buy at supermarkets or chains, such as Paul, La Panetière, and La Mie Câline – companies that get their products from mills which supply ‘mixes’ (mixtures of flour, improvers, and various ingredients) which simply require reheating. There are even baguette vending machines. All well and good, but for many people, particularly in more isolated areas, the loss of a boulangerie is also the loss of a community hub, a place to meet and chat while waiting in line for the daily baguette or the weekend eclairs. The decline in numbers is reminiscent of that of village pubs in England.

Quelle horreur !!

For all the decline in bread consumption, the French still take their baguettes very seriously, They consume a staggering 10 billion of them every year, which averages out at about 150 per head of population. In 1993, in an attempt to combat the creeping industrialisation of the bread-making process, the government, under prime minster Édouard Balladur, passed a law saying that the only ingredient allowed in a “baguette tradition” are wheat flour, water, salt, and yeast or sourdough. It must be baked on the premises and nothing must have been frozen in its preparation. If you can buy “une tradition” you know you are in a genuine boulangerie.

At, the same time as the Balladur act, in another attempt to garner support for traditional boulangeries, the city of Paris created an annual Best Baguette Prize. One of the privileges give to the winner is the right to supply the Elysée Palace with baguettes. Paris is still well provided for, in terms of boulangeries, so the prize is highly sought after. When I lived there, in Place D’Italie, there was a lot of local excitement when the nearby La Fournée d’Augustine in Rue Raymond Losserand, won the competition.  The owners were obviously delighted, the regular customers slightly less so, as the queues that used to form outside got even longer as people came from all over Paris to try the baguettes.

 La Fournée d’Augustine 

In doing what I laughingly call research for this little piece, I am slowly beginning to appreciate that, for all that they moan about it, the French secretly love bureaucracy. They keep statistics about everything. So I suppose it’s natural enough, in a country where bread shortages helped trigger a revolution, they keep such an extensive amount of data about bakeries.  Half the country lives less than 1.4 miles of a bakery, “as the crow flies”, according to one government report. In cities, 73 per cent of the population lives within less than a half-mile.

How long do the French take to reach their bakery? According to a national bakery association, the average boulangerie run, including all modes of transport, takes just over 7 minutes. To be more precise, it’s five minutes in a city or just over 9 minutes in the countryside… I could go on but I’m boring myself now.

 I had a strange experience when we came to Poitiers. M. Cousson our estate agent had recommended L’Atelier du levain ( literally “the sourdough workshop”)in nearby Rue Augouard as a particularly good boulangerie, and indeed it was. When we first moved in, I would reguarly buy our bread there, being as polite and smiley as possible in a pathetic attempt to ingratiate myself with the rather severe-looking female proprietor. My efforts seemed to be largely wasted. Every day, she would took my money with a curt, unsmiling “merci”,

Then, one Saturday, as I put out my hand for my change as usual, she suddenly delivered a heartfelt little speech. How she now regret not learning English at school. Her wonderful teacher, M. Durande. What an opportunity! Wasted! Wasted! How stupid she had been!  

Somewhat alarmed, I mumbled something about it being never too late and got out as quickly as I could. From then on we were on good terms. She always greeted me with a smile and restricted herself to the occasional sigh and “Oh, how I wish I could speak English ”. Something instinctively told me that not to reveal that I was an English teacher. One morning, about a month later, the shop was unexpectedly closed.  There was a note of apology in the window saying this was due to family illness and that they would re-open on the following Saturday. On the Saturday there was another note of apology and a promise that they would “définitivement” open the following Tuesday. They didn’t. The shop remained closed and I never saw here again. 

Victor Hugo would get a 1000 page novel out of that.   

***

Three interesting things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1871, lawyer Clement Vallandigham accidentally shot himself while demonstrating how a ‘murder victim’ may have accidentally shot himself. His client was found not guilty.

Most sex between giraffes is homosexual: in one study, same-sex male mounting accounted for 94 per cent of all sexual behaviour observed.

The total cost of rescuing a stranded Matt Damon in all of his films (including Saving Private Ryan, Interstellar, and The Martian) is an estimated $900 billion.

Remembering

Wednesday was Armistice Day. The lockdown meant that its public observance was significantly reduced compared to previous years. Here in Poitiers, the usual military parade and service in the main square were replaced by a small ceremony at a First World War memorial, attended by the mayor and a small group of public officials.

On TV we watched the events at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Again, the lockdown meant that this was a much scaled-down event. Attendance was limited to just thirty people, including the heads of the armed forces and previous heads of state, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. Everyone present wore bleuets (cornflowers), the French equivalent of the UK poppy. As tradition dictates, President Macron laid a wreath in front of the statue of Georges Clemenceau, President of the Council during the First World War.

Nearby is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, on which a flame is lit every day. It is exactly one hundred years since the buried soldier made his journey to Paris. At three o’clock in the afternoon on 10 November 1920, in a makeshift chapel at Verdun, a young infantryman was asked to lay a bouquet of flowers (gathered from the battlefield of Verdun) on one of eight identical coffins brought back from different battlefields of the Front: Flanders, Artois, the Somme, Île-de-France, Chemin des Dames, Champagne, Verdun, and Lorraine. The following day, a gun carriage bearing the chosen coffin was taken in procession to the Arc de Triomphe. Behind it was a decorated chariot bearing the heart of Léon Gambetta, an eminent republican (the event celebrated both victory in the war and the fiftieth anniversary of the Third Republic). The coffin lay in state, with a military guard, for three months. On 28 January 1921, in the presence of Lloyd George, Marshal Foch, and Marshal Pétain, the Unknown Soldier, along with the Legion of Honour, the Military Medal, and the Military Cross, was placed in the tomb, where he remains. On Wednesday, as President Macron lit the flame, the names of the nineteen French soldiers who have died this year were read out. It was low-key but effective.

On Wednesday evening in Paris, another much more elaborate ceremony took place when the writer Maurice Genevoix was admitted to the Pantheon, the grand temple in the centre of Paris and the last resting place for France’s most esteemed citizens.

A student at the École normale supérieure in August 1914, Genevoix signed up and joined the 106th infantry regiment. He took part in the Battle of the Marne and the march on Verdun. On 25 April 1915, in Rupt-en-Woëvre near Les Éparges, he was seriously wounded, losing the use of his left hand. Hospitalised for seven months, he began writing the first of a series of five books based on notes recorded in the trenches. They described in vivid detail the daily lives of les poilus (un poilu, literally ‘a hairy one’, is the French equivalent of the British ‘Tommy’). These were collected together and published in 1949 as Ceux de 14 (Those of 14),now regarded as one of the greatest testimonies of the First World War.

The Pantheon investiture was the result of a commitment made by President Macron when, two years ago, he visited Les Éparges during a tour of wartime Eastern Front sites to mark the Armistice centenary. Describing Ceux de 14 as ‘incomparable’, he said, ‘When the voices of the poilus have died away forever, it is incomprehensible that “Those of 14” do not appear in the Pantheon. They will all cross the threshold with their megaphone that was Maurice Genevoix.’ He was as good as his word. Genevoix, only the seventy-ninth person to enter the Pantheon, now rests alongside Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and Pierre and Marie Curie.

The event itself was impressive, despite again being restricted to thirty people. At 6 p.m., the president and his wife, Brigitte, joined with members of the Genevoix family on the forecourt of the Pantheon, where there was an arrangement of 101 illuminated glass cubes, each containing a handful of soil from one of the 101 French départements. On the 101st cube, students from the École normale supérieure placed a handful of earth from Les Éparges, where Genevoix was injured.

Images were projected onto the Pantheon façade while a specially commissioned musical piece was played. Inside, standing next to a new artwork by German artist Anselm Kiefer, the president made a speech, paying tribute to Genevoix and his fellow poilus. As we’ve discovered from watching his lockdown broadcasts on television, Macron is an excellent speaker, calm, dignified, and authoritative.

There is a YouTube video of the entire service. It’s nearly an hour long in total, but there is a very moving segment, starting at five minutes in and lasting for about five minutes, which shows the display projected on the front of the Pantheon. It is well worth seeing.

Maurice Genevoix (1890-1980)

***

The Times recently posted a list of twenty-five suggestions for things to do during lockdown. These include: learn Swedish, become a social media influencer, make your own cheese, brush up on your survival skills, get a head start with scuba diving, and learn to samba. All laudable, no doubt, but a little energetic for my taste. Instead I’ve set myself the more realistic task of browsing on Twitter till I learn one interesting new fact each day. Here are the pick of the last week.

In medieval chess, each pawn had its own role: Gambler, City Guard, Innkeeper, Merchant, Doctor, Weaver, Blacksmith, and Farmer.

Alexander Graham Bell suggested that telephones should be answered with the word AHOY. HELLO was Thomas Edison’s suggestion.

During the 1980s, Birds Eye sold more than 25 miles (40 km) of Arctic Roll every month.

Going, Going, Gone

Monday

Out for a walk after lunch, in my permitted exercise hour. Poitiers is always quiet on a Monday, with most of the shops shut. This can be very pleasant – a gentle transition between the weekend and the working week. On a gloomy day, when I am a mile from home and it begins to rain, it is less appealing. Turning a corner near Place Leclerc, I pass a bunch of seven squaddies, wearing balaclavas and carrying submachine guns. They all look very young. The nearest couple make eye contact with me, and I wonder what they are thinking. They may be the same ones I saw patrolling alongside the police outside the Cathedral yesterday morning. A sight we will no doubt have to get used to for a while.

The soldiers’ presence is co-ordinated through Vigipirate, the national security alert system which was set up by President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1978. It sounds vaguely swashbuckling, but is actually an acronym of Vigilance et protection des installations contre les risques d’attentats terroristes à l’explosif (‘vigilance and protection of installations against the risk of terrorist bombing attacks’). The system defines levels of threat represented by five colours: white, yellow, orange, red, and scarlet. The levels call for specific security measures, including increased police or police/military mixed patrols in subways, train stations, and other vulnerable locations. We are currently at scarlet (a definite threat of major terrorist attacks). In 2015, after the Bataclan attack in Paris, Opération Sentinelle was initiated. It is ongoing, deploying 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect ‘sensitive areas’. Right now, that probably includes every city centre in France.

Wednesday

It’s an ill wind. Having learnt from the first lockdown, many local shops have been quick to offer a click-and-collect service now that they are closed, including, thankfully, bookshops (why the **** are vape shops regarded as ‘essential’ but bookshops are not?) We are doing our best to support them all wherever possible.

An unexpected bonus is that the move online means that many things we would not otherwise have visited are now unexpectedly available. The most exotic of these that I have found so far is the Drouot Auction House in Paris – effectively the French Sotheby’s. They have been forced to close their doors during the lockdown but are continuing their auctions online. It took me just two minutes to register an account. Madame was quite alarmed when she realised that I had to give them my credit card details, and she has made me promise never to visit the site after lunch.

For me it’s a slightly more civilised version of fantasy league football. At the start of the month I allot myself a notional €500,000. I look through the items in the online catalogues, decide my maximum bid for anything that takes my fancy, and then we’re off to the races. Obviously, I don’t actually bid, but you’d be surprised at how tense it can get. If my maximum bid for any lot is higher than the hammer price, I claim it as mine. So far this month I’ve managed to pick up a bronze representation of an eleventh-century Ethiopian king for €120k (it reminded me of an old history teacher of mine), a nice Raoul Dufy oil painting of Deauville harbour (€210k), and a case of 2005 Mouton Rothschild at a very reasonable €11k. Sadly, I just missed out on a complete set of Ian Fleming first editions, which went for €22k, just over my limit. My only regret is paying €4,500 for a Cartier ‘tank’ watch. It’s very nice, but I could have got it for €3k. Goes to show you can’t always trust the estimates. Lesson learnt.

It still means I’m over €100k in credit this month. There’s a sale of erotic art next Tuesday, but the idea of Madame discovering me reading the catalogue does not appeal. I’ll probably settle for the Second Empire snuffboxes on Wednesday.

Friday

Another thing that hasn’t been affected by lockdown is construction work, and there’s quite a lot of it going on in the city centre right now. Two projects are council-funded. One is a new frontage for the central library, the Médiathèque François Mitterrand, where a landscaped garden is being built, and the other involves knocking down a rather forbidding wall in front of the old Banque de France building in Boulevard Solférino and putting a hanging garden in its place. Both will brighten up the city centre considerably, and they are another sign that the council doesn’t seem to be strapped for cash.

Growing up in London in the 1950s, I can remember a lot of building work going on to cover up old bomb sites from the Second World War. There would always be a few men hanging around watching the building work going on, and as a boy, hurrying by to play football or whatever, I used to think this an odd and boring thing to do. Not any longer; it is completely addictive. I try to arrange my daily walks so that I can see the progress at one or other of these sites. Sometimes nothing seems to happen for several days, and then suddenly, because of a minor alteration, some shrubs planted or some brickwork done, the whole layout seems transformed.

I am becoming a familiar sight to some of the workers, and I suspect they may think I am the Clerk of Works from the town hall. For a joke, I’ve toyed with the idea of turning up with a clipboard and stopwatch, but there’s a fair chance I’d have a brick hurled at my head.

Boulevard Solférino 2019

Last Week

Early next year

Saturday

It was sad to read the obituaries of both John Sessions and Geoffrey Palmer this week. John Sessions’ Life of Napoleon was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and Geoffrey Palmer’s line (in Reggie Perrin), ‘Bit of a cock-up on the catering front’, is now hardwired into my brain.

There’s a little piece about obituaries in The Times today. A reader asks why medical conditions are sometimes given as cause of death, whereas in other cases people are reported simply to have ‘died’. The paper’s obituaries editor says that they include the cause of death if it is known, but not if there is a continuing inquest or the family didn’t want to say.

Not all newspaper obituaries go into the cause of death. The Daily Telegraph briefly tried it as an experiment, but one of the first subjects under the new regime was a New Orleans jazz musician who had apparently died of an exploding penis implant. This was regarded as a little too much information for Telegraph readers.

Lockdown blues

Such a shame. Madame S and I had put so much effort into our Trick or Treat costumes this year, and now they will have to be mothballed for a year because of the lockdown.

***

It’s not quite like remembering where you were when John Kennedy died, but I can clearly recall the start of the last lockdown. On Saturday 14th March,we were in La Mangeoire restaurant when Florent, the owner, came and told us that it had just been announced that he had to close at midnight, and he did not know when he would be able to reopen. Florent was philosophical about it, but the news came as quite a shock to us. I remember we visited a couple of our local bars on the way home, to say a temporary goodbye to the staff, some of whom were suddenly facing an uncertain future. On the Monday, President Macron announced that the full lockdown would start at noon the following day and would last for ‘a fortnight at least’. In fact, the first lockdown lasted for two-and-a-half months, until 2nd June.

This time there was no surprise. The steadily increasing spread of the virus, despite the various local measures taken, meant that a second national lockdown was inevitable. It was announced on Wednesday and started at midnight on Friday. Initially scheduled for four weeks, it is quite likely that this will be extended, though Christmas does complicate the situation.

It seemed appropriate on Thursday to go back to La Mangeoire to have our last meal out for the foreseeable future. The place was fully booked for the whole evening, and all the other bars and restaurants around Place Charles de Gaulle were equally busy. Late into the evening there were crowds sitting out on the terraces, swaddled in coats and scarves, determined to enjoy their last night of freedom. The local paper reported that some hairdressers stayed open till 23.00 to cope with the last-minute bookings. One can only feel sympathy for the owners of Senza Nome, the Italian restaurant in Rue du Moulin à Vent that only opened a fortnight ago, and even more for Le Bouillon Carnot, in Rue Carnot, which opened on Wednesday, the day before the lockdown.

The rules are the same as before. We can go out only for essential purposes – shopping, medical appointments, etc. – and each time we have to complete an attestation de déplacement dérogatoire, a form saying why we are out, when we left, who we are, and so forth. We can only go out for exercise for an hour and within a 1 km radius of the house.

There are some small but significant changes this time. Schools and colleges are staying open, as are the markets, both covered and open-air, along with parks and public gardens (which gives us more options for our hour’s exercise). People are already used to wearing masks virtually everywhere and using sanitising gel on entering a shop. Most people I’ve spoken to accept the situation resignedly. We have our stockpiles of DVDs and books ready. There may be a little panic-buying in the supermarkets, but I doubt it. Many cafés and restaurants gradually started takeaway and delivery services as the last lockdown dragged on. I suspect that they will be a lot quicker off the mark this time. We are getting used to lockdowns. One difference, of course, is that the last one started as the days were getting longer and the weather was improving. Spring and the sense of renewed optimism that came with it helped to compensate for the temporary loss of freedom. Recent events in France mean that we are entering winter in a much more sombre frame of mind.

The obvious question is what happens afterwards. If (when?) the number of cases starts to rise again, will regular lockdowns be the new normal until a vaccine is eventually found? Who knows.

Little old wine drinker, me

I only ever went to one wine tasting in the UK. It was organised by The Wine Society and held in an upmarket hotel in Cambridge. I didn’t really enjoy it. Blazered and chinoed young men with names like Sholto and Tristram dispensing wine to middle-class couples overeager to show off their own knowledge of the subject. So, on Tuesday, I had my reservations when our friend Colette suggested we went to a tasting in nearby Chauvigny, which she’d seen advertised in the local paper. For one thing, everyone present would have been more or less weaned on wine, whereas, in good light, I can just about tell the difference between red and white. Add to this the fact that drink makes me ridiculously overconfident about my ability to speak French, and there seemed every possibility of my making even more of a prat of myself than usual.

Nevertheless, Colette had assured us it would be fun. Pierre and Louise, friends of hers whom we’d met and liked, were also going, so we decided to tag along. I should point out that Colette is 79 but is very much, as they say, ‘still game’. She was the first neighbour to call on us to welcome us to Rue des Carmes, and we have become good friends. She reminds me a little of my dad at her age, in that she has no hesitation in speaking her mind on any subject, often quite loudly and at some length.

We went in Pierre’s car, and the journey took about 25 minutes. I’d expected something like the Cambridge event and was looking for a hotel, or perhaps even a small château, so I was a little surprised when we drew up at a small trading estate just outside Chauvigny. Our venue, La Moustache, is a ‘Cave Pub’ situated between a boulangerie and Toutsie Salon Toilettage, a shop selling pet accessories. My spirits rose; the evening was clearly looking up.

On entering, we appeared to be in a beer warehouse. Crates were lined up, floor to ceiling, along the walls, and an impressive array of bottles was laid out on several tables. At the back, a few customers were standing at a bar. A sign on the counter said ‘Happy Hour 18.00–21.00’. Nearby, a couple of teenagers were playing at a pool table.

None of us said anything for a moment or two, then Pierre went up and spoke to the barman. A moment later, we were led to a small area slightly to the left of the main room. Here we found a long table and six chairs. Six wine glasses were laid out along with a small card saying ‘Reservé’. Pierre asked if anyone else was expected. The barman shrugged and said, ‘Sometimes people come, sometimes they don’t.’ Definitely neither a Sholto nor a Tristram.

He disappeared into a back room and then returned with two opened bottles of wine, one white and one red, both from the same local vineyard, La Tour Beaumont. He gave us an interesting little lecture on the white, which is made with the comparatively rare Fié Gris grape, poured us a glass each, and left us to it.

The wine was fruity and pleasant, but nothing exceptional. We sat sipping wine in silence for a moment or two. Then Colette said, ‘Nothing to eat? You’d think they’d at least give you a biscuit.’ Louise noticed a laminated menu on the next table. We decided to share a couple of platters of bread, cheese, and charcuterie, and Pierre went off to order these.

We finished the white. As there was no sign of our host, Colette told Pierre to pour out the red, a Cabernet Franc. We used the same glasses. No-one commented on this. I was beginning to feel quite at home. We all agreed the red was better than the white. We finished the bottle, ate our food, and the general mood lightened considerably. Colette suggested getting another red, which I thought was an excellent idea. Louise looked at Pierre, who was driving, but he assured her that he didn’t mind.

Colette was telling us about a recent holiday she had had in Alsace and how much she had enjoyed the wines there, when our host returned. He looked a little taken aback at our having finished two bottles of red, but said nothing.

‘Do you have any Alsace wine?’ Catherine asked.

‘We have a Gewurztraminer, Madame,’ he replied.

‘We’ll have a bottle of that …’

She looked at the menu.

‘… and some apple tart to go with it.’

Our host nodded and scurried off. Pierre looked thoughtful.

While we ate our tart and drank our Gewurztraminer (Pierre had a Perrier), Colette told us about her sciatica, her temperamental boiler, and her problems in configuring her new mobile phone.

On leaving, we each bought six bottles of the red. After some deliberation, Colette also bought another bottle of the Gewurztraminer.

She fell asleep on the way home. When we arrived at her house, Pierre gently woke her and saw her to her door, carrying her box of wine for her. I heard her say what a delightful evening it had been and that we should do it again soon.

Pierre wished her goodnight and told her to sleep well.

***

On Thursday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced that the curfew in force in a number of major cities was to be extended to 38 new departments, starting at midnight on Friday/Saturday. Fifty-four of France’s 96 mainland départements – and approximately 46 million people – are now under curfew from 21.00 to 06.00.

While this second wave of the virus – since the end of the lockdown in June – has only cost 2,000 lives compared to the 30,000 in the first wave, there are two worrying aspects to this resurgence. First, a significantly ramped-up free testing programme, soon to be expanded even further, has led to a sharply increased caseload that hospitals are struggling to meet. Second, this time around, the virus has spread far more quickly throughout the country. The first wave was confined mostly to Greater Paris and the east. This time, it is all-pervasive. Summer vacations and students returning to universities are likely to be contributory causes.

Nearby Haute-Vienne, Indre-et-Loire, and Maine-et-Loire are all now under curfew. So far, our department, Vienne, has escaped, but one senses that it is only a matter of time.

At the moment, the curfew is the only restriction placed on the newly-added departments. There are no lockdowns, no reductions in public transport, and no restrictions on travelling from one region to another. Schools, colleges, and universities remain open. So do markets. People are advised to work from home for a day or two a week where possible, but only advised. It is difficult to see how long this can last if the number of cases continues to rise at its present rate.