Reasons to be cheerful

Christmas Eve 2020, Place Leclerc, Poitiers

I started writing this blog on the fourth of January this year. I was in an optimistic frame of mind. We were coming up to the second anniversary of our arrival here in Poitiers. We’d made several new friends and had settled in well. Our thoughts were turning to holiday plans for later in the year; possible trips to Ireland, and Italy, along with weekends exploring the many areas of France we had yet to visit. There would, of course, be the usual regular comings and goings, as we visited, and were visited by, friends and family in the UK.

Well, they say that if you want to make the gods laugh, tell them your plans. It was raining heavily the day I wrote the first entry of 2020, and it’s raining heavily now as I write the last. A miserable grey day at the fag end of this most peculiar year. Of the time in between, about five months has been spent in a form of benign house arrest. In late spring and for the last couple of months, we could only leave our home for certain specified reasons and we needed to carry a piece of paper saying why we were out and about. We were only allowed one hour’s exercise a day, and this had to be carried out alone. Bars, restaurants, and places of entertainment have all been closed. Travel outside one’s immediate area has been severely restricted.

There were a few bright spots in the period between the two lockdowns. We had a jolly weekend in Paris to celebrate my birthday and another in Tours to celebrate Madame’s, just days before the shutters came down again in October. We also managed to attend one of the few major sporting events that survived the Covid year, when the Tour de France raced through Poitiers in September. On the whole, though, like most people, we’ve had better years.

Still, ‘mustn’t grumble!’ Looking ahead, there are some grounds for cautious optimism. Trump is going (even if he seems intent on making his last month in office a particularly egregious finale to his presidency). There is a deal on Brexit (though its full ramifications still need to be examined). Covid-19 vaccines are being rolled out quickly (but only time will tell if they are fully effective against new strains that have started to emerge). For a much more positive verdict of the current global state of play, I recommend this piece by Philip Collins (not that one) from the London Evening Standard a few days ago. There are always reasons to be cheerful.

In Poitiers, we have had a change of regime at the town hall, with the Greens, in the form of Mme Léonore Moncond’huy and the Poitiers Collectif, taking over from M. Alain Claeys and the Parti Socialiste. The Covid crisis has so dominated events since they took office that it has been difficult to assess the impact of the new executive on day-to-day life here. However, one noteworthy new development is also cheering news. The council have launched a scheme to plant 10,000 trees in the city over the next five years. Between 2008 and 2020, the town hall undertook an extensive plan of pedestrianisation in the city centre. While welcome in itself, this led to complaints of ‘over-concreting’ in certain areas. This is one of the first things that struck me about Poitiers; lots of beautiful streets and buildings, but a surprising lack of greenery in the centre. In particular, the removal of two rows of lime trees in the main square, Place Leclerc, has left it looking distinctly arid. I’ve seen old Poitiers postcards showing the trees, and I think a return to something similar will be a distinct improvement.

Whatever happens, I hope to keep these Poitiers postcards coming for a little while yet.

Here’s to a happy new year, wherever you are!

***

The final few things I’ve learnt this year:

In 1928, the Solomon Islands pidgin for ‘adjustable spanner’ was spanner he go walkabout, and a ‘saw’ was this fella pull-him-he-come-push-him-he-go brother belong axe.

Someone who is cock-throppled has an extremely prominent Adam’s apple.

Chinese citizens hearing the national anthem are advised to stand still but be full of energy.

Fred Baur (1918–2002), the designer of the Pringles can, had his ashes buried in one.

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 …’.