Not very Christmassy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Freewheeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

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

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

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

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

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

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

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

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

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

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

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

***

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

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

On my back and on my bike

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

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

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

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

***

Thee harbour at la Rochelle

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

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

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

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

***

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

Ely, 31st July

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

Cambridge, 28th August

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

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

***

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

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

We’ll always have Paris

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

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

***

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

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

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

Paris -grim…

…and not so grim.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Kicking off in quarantine

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

‘That’s my leg, you daft twat.’

We walked home in silence.

Stranded in Poitiers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Humour français

I have been trying to get to grips with the French sense of humour. Given my tenuous understanding of the language, this is something of a tall order and I’m resigned to it being a long and ultimately fruitless task. Nevertheless there should be a few laughs on the way. Here are a few general observations.

The French can be very funny. We’ve recently been watching a Netflix comedy series Dix pour cent, about the staff working at a talent agency in Paris. It’s available in the UK with the title Call my agent and I strongly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, well-acted and easily stands comparison with the best of US and UK comedy. Another excellent programme on French tv is Scènes de ménages ( a Scène de ménage is what a UK policeman would call a “domestic”). Each week we see a series of very short sketches, each featuring one of a set of six couples ranging in age from their thirties to their eighties. It’s now in it’s tenth series and the characters are all well-established. Again, its well written and acted and I’m a little surprised a UK company hasn’t picked up this simple but effective format.

On the other hand, French humour can often be very childish. When I was teaching in Paris, I was surprised by how often a group of adults could be reduced to fits of giggling by any passing mention of nudity, bodily functions or lavatories. Once I discovered this, I found a touch of the Frankie Howards was a useful way of enlivening a lesson that was beginning to sag a little.

***

The phrase double entendre is not used in France To get the English meaning across in France you would say double sens or sous- entendu.    

***

The French love calambours (puns). The language lends itself well to them for two reasons. Firstly, in spoken French, the syllables in a sentence are much more evenly stressed. An English person is unlikely to misunderstand the phrase “mighty tower” as “my tea tower” but in French “les rapaces” (the birds of prey) sounds identical to “les rats passent ” (the rats are passing). Secondly French has a lot more homophones than English : sain, saint, ceint, (healthy, saint, surrounded) are all pronounced the same, as are ver, vert, vers (worm, green, towards ) and sceau, saut, seau (seal, jump and bucket). The list of homophones seems to be endless.

 Puns have an honourable history in French classical literature. In the 16th Century when the dramatist Corneille wrote: Le désir s’accroît quand l’effet se recule (Desire increases when the effect recedes), he knew full well that his audience would pick up the alternative Le désir s’accroît quand les fesses reculent ( Desire increases when the buttocks recede).

A popular type of pun today is Monsieur et Madame. These are similar to English “knock knock jokes” (or the late arrivals at the ball in I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue – Mr & Mrs Decent-Exposure, & their son, Ian; Mr & Mrs Nutcluster, & their daughter, Hazel)

Monsieur et madame Vanbus ont une fille. Comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Hillary!

Mr and Mrs Vanbus have a daughter. What’s her name?
Hillary!

(“Hillary Vanbus” = “Il arrive en bus,” = “He’s arriving by bus.”)

Monsieur et Madame Bonbeur ont un fils, comment l’appellent-il?
Jean.

Mrs and Mr Bonbeur have a son. What’s his name?
John!

(“Jean Bonbeur” = jambon beurre = a ham sandwich)

Monsieur et Madame Diote ont une fille, comment s’appelle-t-elle?
Kelly!.

Mr and Mrs Diote have a daughter. What’s her name?
Kelly!

(Kelly Diote = Quelle idiote! = what an idiot!)


***

The French also like spoonerisms (contrepèteries) – where two letters are switched around in a phrase to change its meaning. Again these have been around a long time – In the 15th century Rabelais gave us “Elle est folle de la messe.” ( she’s crazy about mass) and “elle est molle de la fesse,” (“she has a soft behind.” ).

Most of the modern versions I’ve come across are obscene but this poster is relatively tame.

 Macron nous a dit 2 gros mois / Macron nous a mis 2 gros doigts (Macron told us two great months / Macron gave us two big fingers.)

Here’s another: Les Russes sont en fetê. / Les fesses sont en route. (The Russians are celebrating. / The buttocks are on their way). They do seem to have a thing about buttocks, don’t they?

***

Like all nations the French have their stereotypes. The target for national humour is Belgium, with Belgians being portrayed as uniformly thick. They are similar to Irishman jokes in England, and about as funny:

Pourquoi les Belges ont-ils arrêté la chasse au canard?”
Parce qu’ils n’arrivent pas à jeter le chien assez haut!”

Why did the Belgian stop hunting ducks?
They couldn’t throw the dog high enough.

The only Belgian joke that has made me smile doesn’t really fit the category:

 “The director of Pulp Fiction is making a movie about a Belgian comic book character who gets coronavirus and has to self- isolate. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s “Tintin’s Quarantino”.

I’ll get my coat.

***

Within France there are numerous regional stereotypes but these very according to where you ask. Here are a few opinions I’ve picked up from some very unscientific research. As far as I am aware, there isn’t a scrap of truth in any of them:

Parisians think that everyone outside Paris lives on a farm.

People to the south of Paris (Versailles, Chartres, Orléans): are “closet monarchists”.

The rest of the country think that Parisian are rude, sulky and arrogant.

People from Normandy can’t give you a straight answer to a question and are addicted to apples.

People from Nord-Pas-de-Calais are depressive, in-bred and alcoholic.

People from Brittany are stubborn, scheming and “really alcoholic”.

People from Alsace are uncommunicative, with ridiculous accents and shitty weather.

People from the Auvergne are crafty, greedy and live on cheese.

People from Marseille are always exaggerating, and the women are the equivalent of Essex girls.

People from the south-west (Basque country) are loud, colourful and alcoholic.

People from Toulouse are always late and live on cassoulet.

People from Lyon are laid-back and have an inferiority complex towards Paris.

People from Poitou and the Loire ( i.e. us) are stubborn, boring, conservatives.

People from Bordeaux are champagne socialists (“gauche caviare” ); they either have an uncle who owns a vineyard or are pensioners living by the sea.

People from Nice are not very nice at all.

I’d be glad to hear of others or of any observations on French humour.                  

Two meetings with the mayor

Tuesday was Bastille Day, a more subdued occasion than in most years. There were no big firework displays, either in Paris or here in Poitiers. The usual grandiose military parade in Paris was redesigned to celebrate heroes of the coronavirus pandemic. Ambulance drivers, supermarket cashiers, postal workers, and medics were all honoured at the scaled-back event.

In his address to the nation, President Macron announced a recovery plan for the economy which will include ‘at least 100 billion euros’ in addition to the 460 billion already committed to economic support since the start of the epidemic. The previous evening, the government had announced a significant agreement with trade unions which will see the wages of health workers rise by €183 a month on average (a more tangible benefit than being clapped at every evening).

Here in Poitiers in the main square, there was the usual display of troops, gendarmes, firefighters, and ambulance workers. The presentations of medals, presumably now all long-service awards, took place in the presence of the new mayor, Léonore Moncond’huy, and a sprinkling of civil and military dignitaries. As in previous years, the brass band seemed to be playing La Marseillaise every ten minutes but, perhaps in acknowledgement of the new regime, they ended with a surprisingly effective rendition of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’.

Wandering around to take some photos, I found a good spot behind a barrier near the stage. On the other side of the barrier, a woman in uniform with a camera, clearly some sort of army PR person, had noticed the same vantage point and started to walk towards me, smiling. I assumed that she was acknowledging that she was about to pinch my viewpoint and, accepting that she had her job to do, I smiled back and shrugged. She then proceeded to nod her head from side to side several times and enlarged her smile into a large Joker-like grin. I thought this was a bit weird, but nonetheless, a little self-consciously, I nodded my own head back at her. At this point she raised her hand to her face and blew a kiss towards me. I thought this was really too much, and I was about to say something offensive when I suddenly felt something brush against my leg. Looking down, I saw a little girl, about four years old, who had obviously been the intended recipient of all the photographer’s gestures. I slipped away quietly.

***

On Thursday we went to the first public meeting of Poitiers Collectif since their stunning victory in the municipal elections. It was a very warm evening, and two hours of sitting, wearing a mask, in a room without air-conditioning was not much fun. The meeting was fairly inconsequential. Various members of the Collectif spoke and promised us consultations, petitions, focus groups, awareness sessions, and the like. One sensed that the audience was a little underwhelmed. Still, the speakers all seem very nice and enthusiastic, and these are early days.

There was a question-and-answer session at the end. The mayor, Madame Moncond’huy, listened politely while a couple of people complained about parking restrictions and refuse collections. I was close to nodding off when I suddenly heard a voice at the back that I thought I recognised. I looked round and, sure enough, there was Mr Twomey, up on his feet.

I hadn’t heard from him since our strange phone conversation a couple of weeks ago. Despite the warm room, he was wearing the fawn raincoat he always seems to be in, and he was sweating profusely. Next to him was a small, red-faced woman in her fifties whom I didn’t recognise. Both of them had moved their masks to the tops of their heads, despite sitting right next to a sign clearly stating that masks should be worn.

It took a while to tune in – Twomey’s French is not much better than mine and he’d clearly had a few drinks – but I gradually understood that he was complaining about the lack of public conveniences in Poitiers and going into rather too much detail about the number of times this had forced him to take emergency measures. He then made a very poor joke about Madame Moncond’huy’s name (it’s pronounced ‘Mon Con Dwee’) and the phrase ‘men can’t wee’, which he seemed to think highly amusing. Luckily, nobody in the room seemed to understand a word of it.

I could see one or two of the security staff exchanging glances and edging towards him, and I feared there might be an embarrassing incident. Fortunately. at this point, the red-faced woman hissed loudly, ‘Shut up, you eejit’ and yanked at his raincoat, forcing him to fall back into his seat with a silly grin on his face. The mayor made no attempt to respond to his remarks and immediately took the opportunity to thank us all and close the meeting.

Madame S and I left quickly in case Twomey spotted us. I didn’t want anyone there to connect us in any way. I resolved to make contact with him at some stage in the near future to find out who this woman is (he has never mentioned any sort of relationship) and what exactly is going on in his life at the moment. I thought it better not to tell Madame of this plan.

Money, masks and markets

When I were a lad’ (1)

When I was about 12, I went through the collecting phase. Stamps, coins, football programmes, etc. None of them lasted that long. During the stamps period, I remember a teacher, Mr Murray, a slightly deranged Scotsman, telling me that a good guide to a country’s importance was their postage stamps. Small inconsequential nations (the word ‘tinpot’ may have been used) were forever producing new sets of gaudily coloured stamps commemorating a trivial event in their history or an individual that nobody outside their borders had ever heard of. ‘Serious’ nations, like the UK, would just have the head of state on their stamps and would produce commemorative stamps on only the rarest of occasions.

This would have been about 1963, and a quick check shows that, certainly as far as the UK was concerned, he was right up to that point. In 1924, the first commemorative stamps were issued for the British Empire Exhibition. There were only a handful of commemorative issues over the next thirty years, usually to mark a royal occasion – a coronation, wedding, or jubilee.

Sadly for Mr Murray, it was about this time that the rot set in. From 1963, the Post Office started issuing commemorative stamps more and more regularly. There were four sets in 1964 (including a set marking Shakespeare’s quatercentenary) and nine in 1965 (including a set to mark the death of Winston Churchill). In 2019 there were fifteen (including Marvel Comics, The Gruffalo, and Star Wars). So far this year there have been sets for video games, James Bond, and Coronation Street. Delights to come include Rupert Bear, Sherlock, and Star Trek.

Why am I telling you this? Well, a similar trend can now be seen with the UK’s currency. In my coin-collecting phase, I briefly owned a very handsome 1860 Victorian half-crown; a hundred years later, apart from the monarch’s head, the design was still almost identical.

Now it’s been announced that the Royal Mint are producing a set of coins to honour Sir Elton John. Four of them will have a face value of £5 (but for some reason will cost £15 each). There will also be a £100 one-ounce gold coin (costing £2,320), and a £100 kilo gold coin (£68,865). Apparently it’s the latest in the Royal Mint series of ‘Music Legends’ coin sets. The first of these, which had Queen on them, came out in January. This passed me by completely, but then, ‘Queen to appear on UK coin’ is not the most eye-catching of headlines.

Queen
Elton John

Does any of this matter? Not really. Probably just a touch of indigestion.

***

When I were a lad’ (2)

I can remember a time when, on leaving the house, all you had to do was remember your keys and money. Over the years, glasses were sadly added to the list, then a phone – at which point the mnemonic KPMG became a useful reminder. Now a mask is yet another item to join the little pile on the hall table. I’ve got used to wearing mine now, and I’m getting better at putting it on without being reminded to do so by Madame.

I’ve noticed that, even when not wearing them, most people are now carrying one ready to slip on when going into a shop or café. Some leave them dangling from one ear, which I think gives them a slightly deranged look. Others tuck them under their chin or upwards and onto their foreheads, like cricketers with their sunglasses. In The Times recently, Matthew Parris tells of seeing a man in a suit with his mask folded neatly and tucked into the breast pocket of his jacket, only the blue point showing, as a gentleman might do with the handkerchief into which he is never going to blow his nose.

According to Mr Parris, the ripped jeans favoured by teenagers today could be a throwback to the Renaissance when, for a time, there was a fashion for men’s garments to sport a pre-sewn slit to hint at a (highly unlikely) recent sword fight. In the same way, at some time in the future when this pandemic is long forgotten, it might be fashionable for women to hang elegant fabric pendants from one ear, or for young men to strap a piece of elasticated cotton on the tops of their heads. And nobody will remember why.

***

On Wednesday morning, I went to the market at Place de Provence. This involves a climb up a very steep hill to reach the Couronneries quartier of Poitiers, which is basically a collection of housing estates with a few small scattered malls and cheap shops. It’s a very different place to Centre-ville, where we live, and this is reflected in the street markets in the two areas. In Centre-ville, the Saturday market is held around the central covered market, which is open six days a week. It is mainly a food market, with a few antiques stalls around the periphery. The customers are predominantly white, and there are occasions when I’ve visited and it has reminded me of the Armstrong and Miller sketch about English Farmer’s markets, which is worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

In the Couronneries, the market is held on Wednesday and Sunday mornings. Place de Provence sounds nice but is basically a large car park in front of the U Express supermarket. The population is a lot more cosmopolitan here, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of London’s Brick Lane. As well as food, there are stalls selling clothes, household goods, bedding, and furniture.

Despite their differences, both markets are a treat to visit. The range and quality of food is really impressive, much of it is locally grown, and the competition keeps prices pretty keen.

On Wednesday when I went, a group of local students were conducting a survey about people’s attitudes to bringing up children and how much of this people felt should be solely the responsibility of women. They were recording people’s opinions on card and adding them to a display in the middle of the marketplace. One of them approached me and, despite my protestations about my poor French, my mumbled contribution was noted and my card was eventually added to the display. All well and good, but the buggers never said they were going to put my age on it!

Non!
Old enough to know better

A week is a long time in politics

On Tuesday I received a ‘thank you’ e-mail from Poitiers Collectif for assisting in their election victory, presumably because I had signed up for their weekly newsletter a couple of months ago. I’d also signed up for the newsletters of their two opponents, the Socialists and the LREM, so I was probably going to be thanked whatever the outcome, but nevertheless it’s nice to feel appreciated.

The truth is I am still struggling to get a clear grasp of the political situation here, both nationally and locally. To me, President Macron and Prime Minister Philippe both seemed to be doing a commendable job in handling the Coronavirus situation, particularly when compared to the seemingly shambolic state of affairs in the UK. Yet M. Macron continues to do badly in the polls, and his party did very badly in the recent election.

One area that I have found difficult to unravel is public finances, i.e. how taxes are shared between local and central government and how the local budget is determined and managed. The arrival of a new regime here in Poitiers will probably mean that this and next year’s budgets will be under a lot of public scrutiny, so this will be a good opportunity to get to grips with local finance.

As far as I can see, lack of funding does not seem to be a significant problem in the way that it is for local authorities in the UK. Schools are well maintained. Libraries, museums, and other public institutions appear to be flourishing. In the two years or so that we have lived here, the council seemed to me to be doing a good job in terms of the basics, like policing, refuse collection, road repairs, etc. The city is clean – graffiti seem to disappear almost immediately, though crottes de chien (dog turds – a France-wide problem) take a little longer. It would be naïve to say that Poitiers does not have its share of the problems that are experienced by all urban communities in France – drug-taking, petty crime, the decline of the ‘high street’ – but by and large it seems a decent place to live. Yet when I asked people their opinion of the previous mayor, Alain Claeys, most seemed apathetic at best. This might, of course, just be the result of his having already been in office for twelve years and people wanting a change. The most common criticism I heard was that he wasn’t really a socialist or was ‘not socialist enough’. On being asked what they meant, people struggled to come up with anything specific.

When I moved to Paris, nineteen years ago, I read France on the Brink by Jonathan Fenby – first published in 1998, it’s probably the best one-volume introduction to France’s history, politics, and culture that one can read. Whilst he admired almost all aspects of French life, Fenby, as the book’s title suggests, was pessimistic about the future. Growing cynicism about the political process, rising unemployment, and racial tension in the city suburbs led him to think that things could not go on as they were. Something would have to give. When we moved here two years ago, I read a new updated version published in 2014. Sixteen years had passed, but the message was the same: the country can’t go on like this.

An alternative analysis is succinctly offered by the French writer and traveller Sylvain Tesson (a sort of French A. A. Gill), who has said ‘France is heaven inhabited by people who think they live in hell’. I don’t want to tempt fate or to belittle the problems faced by many of the population, but maybe there is something in the French psyche that creates this atmosphere of being permanently on the brink. On verra, as they say here: we shall see.

***

On Wednesday I collected a package from the Post Office. It was a late-delivered Father’s Day present from my two lovely daughters: a small hamper containing, amongst other things, Yorkshire Tea, Gentleman’s Relish, Maynard’s Wine Gums, and plain chocolate Kit Kats. I’m very snooty about expats who whinge about food they can’t get in France, but nevertheless this was a most welcome surprise. One item I hadn’t seen before was a jar containing a mixture of peanut butter and Marmite. This sounds (and looks) pretty disgusting but is actually very tasty. That said, I don’t think I’ll be offering it to any of our French friends just yet.

***

Friday. A week is a long time in politics. The President has replaced his government, and we have a new Prime Minister, Jean Castex. His predecessor Edouard Philippe is now free to take up his post as mayor of Le Havre. In seven days the political scene has changed dramatically, both nationally and locally.

In 1898, in the middle of growing international tension between Russia and Japan, Fred Potter, the editor of a small provincial Irish newspaper, caused some hilarity by publishing an editorial stating that henceforth The Skibbereen Eagle would ‘keep its eye on the Emperor of Russia and all such despotic enemies—whether at home or abroad—of human progression and man’s natural rights’. I think such hilarity was quite uncalled for and hereby serve notice on Madame Moncond’huy in Poitiers and Monsieur Castex in Paris that from now on Postcards from Poitiers will definitely be keeping an eye on the pair of them.