Still Living

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

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

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

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

I pushed my filled-in form towards him.

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

‘Where did you get this?’

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

‘How many of these forms do you need?’

‘Just the one.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Des sacs pour le recyclage?’

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

‘Would monsieur like some ordinary refuse bags?’

‘No, thank you. We have plenty.’

‘Some toutou bags?’

‘Pardon?’

‘Pour votre chien. Le poop.’

‘Non merci, pas de chien.’

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Masking reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Dick Turpin

I’m slowly getting used to wearing my mask in public. Their use is now compulsory in many shops, and one is obliged to wear them when entering bars and restaurants, although they can be removed once you are seated.

Shop and restaurant staff tend to wear disposable masks, as they need to change then regularly, and many members of the general public also seem to favour this type. One unfortunate result of this is that you increasingly see discarded masks lying in the street. More worryingly, the French government has ordered two billion of these disposable masks for public sector workers, and there is growing concern about the fact that they are made of polypropylene and are not biodegradable.

We were sent some washable masks by the council, but these need tying behind your head and are a bit fiddly so we bought some that you can just hook over your ears. They came in two colours; I took the black one, leaving madame the white.  We make an odd couple walking down the street – like Dick Turpin and a State Registered Nurse.

***

Tuesday: Entering a shop, I stop to put on my mask and somehow in doing so I manage to knock off my glasses, which land on the pavement and end up with a crack in one of the lenses. Not so much Dick Turpin now, more the old lady on the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin. They are wearable, but I will get a new pair as soon as I can get an ophthalmologist appointment – not that easy, as there is currently a national shortage of them. I will probably need to go to nearby Niort or Angoulême – both a train ride away.

Sod it, sod it, sod it!

***

I bumped into Mr Twomey on Wednesday evening in the Cluricaume. He used to work with the British Council in Paris and is now retired. Lives near the station. It would be overstating it to say he’s a friend, but native English speakers are rare in Poitiers and we’ve got used to having the occasional pint together. I hadn’t seen him since before the lockdown, and he looked a little thinner. I wondered if he’d been ill.

‘Not at all dear boy. It’s my new regime. Want to know the secret? Sage and onion stuffing! Virtually living on the stuff. Found a little place in Montmorillon that sells it. Quite bizarre. Little Asian shop that I go to for vindaloo paste. And there it was, behind the chapatis and nan bread. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Paxo’s sage and onion stuffing! Add a spot of gravy – very tasty, nutritious and dirt cheap. Had it for lunch and dinner yesterday. Bit of flatulence but it’s a small price to pay. Can almost feel the pounds falling off.’

I could do with losing a little weight myself, and I thought of mentioning this to Madame, but she can’t stand Twomey so I’ll probably let it lie.

***

The mayor of Chauvigny and Laurent Jalabert

Thursday. The French cyclist Laurent Jalabert is in nearby Chauvigny today to help promote the coming Tour de France. The event should have been in July but has been postponed till September. We will have two chances to see it. The 11th stage, a 167 km run from Châtelaillon-Plage to Poitiers, is on September 9th, and the following day they go from Chauvigny to Sarran Corrèze; at 218 km this is the longest stage of the Tour. We are awaiting the exact details of the route to work out where to go for the best view. It should be fun, but of course, wherever it is, there will probably just be a blur of coloured shirts and it will be over in a couple of minutes. I mean it’s not as if it’s real cycling – like crossing the USA or anything.

Near Fairplay Colorado, April 25th 2010

***

Finally, spare a thought for our friend Véronique Dujardin, whom I mentioned in this blog a few weeks ago. Because of her pending operation, Véronique has been self-isolating since March 25th, and her only day out of her apartment since then was to attend a court hearing on May 28th. In this, Bayer Pharmaceuticals were appealing against the appointment of a panel of experts to investigate whether her brain tumours were the result of her having taken Bayer medication for twenty years.

Véronique has a hell of week ahead of her. She will be back in court on Tuesday to hear the result of the Bayer appeal. That same day she has a Covid19 test at the university hospital here in Poitiers. If that test shows no indication of the virus, she will then travel to a hospital in Tours on Thursday. On Friday, she will finally have the long-postponed two-hour operation to insert a titanium prosthesis into the orbit of her left eye to reduce the pressure from a tumour.  

Véronique

We wish her well

Out and about

Out at 07.00 on Monday morning. I wanted to take some photos on the last day of confinement, which started on March 17th and has lasted 77 days. For us, it hasn’t been particularly difficult. We have plenty of room, more than enough books and DVDs, and good Wi-Fi to keep in touch with family and friends. Nearby there are pleasant walks, along the river or around the city, for our daily hour’s exercise. I am aware how lucky we are. For anyone living alone or with young children, in cramped accommodation, perhaps without Wi-Fi, things must have been pretty grim. Parks, libraries, cinemas, and museums have all been closed.

On a bright sunny morning, I walked around the city centre for an hour or so and saw just a handful of people, mainly joggers and street cleaners. The only sounds came from the occasional car passing and swifts squealing as they circled overhead. There are worse ways of starting the day.

***

Liberation day. On Tuesday morning we went for coffee and croissants at the Café des Arts. It was a treat to see both François the owner and Maria the serveuse again, even if they were both masked and looked like they were about to operate on someone. About half the customers sitting on the terrace were also masked. The rules are that you must wear one when entering the interior, but you can remove it when inside.

Dr François reassuring his patients

Out again on a warm sunny evening to find the whole city centre buzzing. All the bar terraces were packed with people who had some serious catching up to do. We visit Le Gambetta and Au Bureau and end up back at the Café des Arts, by which time I was feeling distinctly mellow and had to resist the temptation to tell various strangers that they were ‘my bestest friend ever’.

***

I remember many years ago my friend Terry, who had recently retired, telling me how busy he was and that he was amazed he had ever actually found time to go to work. Impressed, I asked him what he had done the previous day. There was a longish pause, and then he said, ‘Well … in the morning I posted a letter’.

I thought this very funny at the time, but I’ve just realised that, if questioned by a barrister as to my activities on Wednesday and Thursday, all I could really come up with is that I had a haircut on Wednesday and picked up my new mobile phone the following day. Of course there was other ‘stuff’, but it’s now just a blurred mass of the minutiae of daily life. This is far from a complaint. I’m increasingly a subscriber to Pascal’s dictum that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. The lockdown period made it easy to follow this advice. Now that it’s over, my fear of missing out on things will probably have me scurrying about again like a mouse in a maze.

***

One curious sight this week. On three different occasions I’ve seen people carrying mattresses through the streets. Madame S had the explanation. House and flat moves were not allowed during confinement, and lots of students on short-term leases will now be sorting themselves out.

At the same time, the government has just extended the period of la trêve hivernale (the winter truce). This is a law which decrees that during the winter months, normally from November 1st to March 31st, tenants cannot be evicted, and the gas and energy companies are not allowed to cut off supplies to homes for non-payment of bills. This year, because of the coronavirus outbreak, the truce was first extended to 31st May and then to July 10th.

While this is clearly a humane statute, it means that at the end of the period evictions occur en masse, which inevitably puts a strain on social services and charities. According to an article in Le Monde in 2018, the number of compulsory evictions has risen significantly since the year 2000. In 2016 there were 15,222, an increase of over 50% on the 2013 figure. The extensions to the normal time period, along with the fact that many more people are liable to be in financial difficulties, means that this year is likely to be far worse. A reminder that the real impact of the virus is still to come.

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 Saturday morning

A ‘stop me and buy one’ cart dispensing not ice cream but free hand sanitiser.

Saturday afternoon

A march then a rally in Place Leclerc for Black Lives Matter.

Keep Your Distance!

At last some good news. On Thursday night, the Prime Minster announced that June 2nd will mark the beginning of Phase 2 in the progressive lifting of the coronavirus lockdown imposed on March 17th by President Macron. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 will last for roughly three weeks, from June 2nd to June 21st. From … Continue reading “Keep Your Distance!”

At last some good news. On Thursday night, the Prime Minster announced that June 2nd will mark the beginning of Phase 2 in the progressive lifting of the coronavirus lockdown imposed on March 17th by President Macron. Like Phase 1, Phase 2 will last for roughly three weeks, from June 2nd to June 21st.

From next Tuesday, bars and restaurants can reopen for the first time since they were closed on March 14th. The government will also accelerate the opening of schools. Cultural and sporting life will progressively return to normal.

These changes do not apply everywhere. The government has been using a traffic light system to monitor the spread and control of the virus,assigning each French département a colour depending on the results. Of the four regions that were originally red, mainly in the north-east, three are now green, and one, Île-de-France (which includes Paris), is currently classed as amber. Until it changes to green, certain restrictions will remain as to the opening of schools and places of entertainment. Restaurants and bars will only be allowed to serve customers in gardens and on terraces.

***

Obviously, here in Poitiers, many local bars have been badly hit by the enforced shutdown. I see it as my civic duty to pump some money back into the local economy and will try to do so as zealously as possible. I have told Madame S that I will be going out on Tuesday afternoon and, in the words of Captain Oates, ‘I may be some time’.

One slight problem I have is getting the hang of this social distancing business. It’s reminded me of George, whom I used to work with years ago at the BBC. Came from Dunfermline. Pleasant enough chap, seriously good chess player, liked a pint. One thing George lacked, however, was an understanding of the concept of personal space. When talking, he tended to stand almost toe to toe with you, and as he was a big chap, this could be quite intimidating until you got to know him. Usually one could make a joke about it and he would obligingly step back a little, but on the not infrequent occasions when drink had been taken, he would gradually forget this and inch forward again. The only option then would be to retreat a couple of steps yourself and wait for his next advance. I can remember several occasions when, in the course of an evening, George and I would perform what looked like a slow courtship ritual around the bar of the BBC Club, to the bewilderment of everyone there.

With the best will in the world, I can see similar scenes, multiplied many times, happening in bars here next week. The French are generally law-abiding folk, so everyone will start out correctly distanced. Gradually though, those more susceptible to alcohol will either forget, or get bored by, the rules and start to move closer; their more sober companions will move backwards, and before you know, there will be a strange sort of alcoholic line dancing going on. Furniture will get knocked over, small children will be trampled on. The more I think about it, I may wait a day or two to let things settle down a bit.

One other thing that had been bothering me was how to actually measure the correct social distance when I went to a bar of an evening. I want to do the right thing when I go out, and this has proved more difficult than I had imagined.

In the UK, people are told to keep two metres apart, and my daughters sent me a useful guide to how this can be achieved. Unfortunately, cardboard cut-outs of Richard Osman are in short supply in Poitiers at the moment.

A pointless exercise

I was kindly sent this leaflet by Tobias, a reader in Kenya. It’s fascinating, but hardly practical in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Out of Africa

Harvey, an old pal from Wisconsin, sent me this, which was a lot more useful and I could see a possible solution.

All I need is two dogs.

The only dog owner I know is our slightly bonkers neighbour Madame Boissier, who has two old and rather arthritic Labradors. I could tell her how much I had admired the creatures from afar and that I would regard it as an honour if she would allow me to take them for a walk in the evenings. This might seem a bit odd, as I have hitherto carefully avoided any contact with these malodorous beasts, but she’s getting on and would probably be glad of the offer. I’m no expert on canines, but I don’t see any problem in persuading them to stand nose to tail. As far as I can see, most dogs seem to do little else.

Then, on Friday, to my alarm, I discovered in the local paper that the recommended distance here in France is in fact one metre, which meant that I only needed one dog. How could I go to the old bat and tell her that I actually adored only one of her sodding mutts? Or that I adored them both but only one at a time? My heart sank.

I needn’t have worried. Out for a walk yesterday morning, I found that, with typical French ingenuity, our local boulangerie has come up with the perfect solution:

The bars are opening. I’ve got plenty of bread. Look out world. Here I come!

The Market re-opens

Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

As part of the gradual process of lockdown easing, shops were allowed to reopen in France on Monday. As luck would have it, this was the start of a three-day spell of very nasty weather. We went for a walk on Monday afternoon, just to see how life had changed, but were forced home again by cold, sleety rain. Our neighbour Catherine told us that this is an annual occurrence – les saints de glace (the Ice Saints), a period of three days of cold weather from the 11th to the 13th of May, named after the three saints whose days it covers, St Mamertus, St Pancras, and St  Servatius. Apparently this is a widely held belief across Europe (it’s known as ‘the blackthorn winter’ in some countries), and there is some meteorological evidence to suggest that this period is often a time of inclement weather.

It actually got noticeably warmer on Thursday and Friday, but the streets were still relatively quiet. Yesterday however, on a bright sunny day, the main market in Place Charles de Gaulle opened for the first time in two months, and it brought home to me the fact that the thing I’d missed most during the confinement was other people – not individually, but en masse – crowds, the general buzz of city life. It’s true that the market can’t match the pleasure of sitting in a bar or café, gossiping, arguing, telling jokes, or sometimes just observing (including the underrated pleasure of watching a couple of strangers having a ‘domestic’ – une dispute conjugale in French). Nevertheless, it was still a treat to be able to wander around, checking out the stalls and people-watching.

There were some signs that things weren’t quite normal. There were slightly fewer stalls than usual. Either the council is keeping the numbers down or some stallholders are waiting a while before reappearing. All the stallholders that were there, and many of the customers, were wearing masks. Customers were separated from the stalls by red and white tape, so that buying something entailed reaching across, a little awkwardly, to hand over your money and receive your purchases. Entry and exit from the covered market area was by separate doors controlled by security men in masks encouraging us to use the hand gel dispenser. Despite all of these things, it was a welcome return to something resembling normality.

Centre-ville in Poitiers is quite a compact little quartier, and one soon begins to recognise people who live locally. I saw several faces yesterday that I hadn’t seen for weeks – people I wouldn’t claim to know but am on nodding terms with. Seeing some of them, I thought, ‘Oh, I’d forgotten about you’,and they no doubt thought the same. There are a few such individuals, however, not seen since the start of the confinement, whose absence has actually registered with me. I will hopefully bump into them soon, if only to reassure myself that they have survived. In particular I’m thinking of Johnny Hallyday, the One-Armed Man, and the Lady with the Hat.

Johnny Hallyday, who must be in his seventies, is a smaller, slightly dilapidated and even more leathery-looking version of the original. He’s obviously spent some time getting the look just right. He has a shock of bleached blonde hair and is deeply tanned – in the interests of accuracy I once googled a colour chart, and he’s somewhere between cherrywood and light walnut. His outfit never varies: denim jacket and jeans, t-shirt, and elaborately painted cowboy boots. The only concession to the seasons is that in summer the denim jacket is sleeveless, or abandoned completely, and the jeans are replaced by rather skimpy denim shorts. The boots remain, and I am beginning to think he never takes them off. I’ve never seen him actually do anything. He usually sits having a beer or coffee on one of the bar terraces in Place Leclerc, or else he strolls around town appearing not to have a care in the world. He seems a happy man.

The One-Armed Man is a very different character. He is a slightly demented speed-walker with a semi-permanent frown. In his mid-fifties with thinning grey hair and a stubbly beard, he usually wears a baseball cap and either a tracksuit or a singlet and shorts. His daytime activities – going to the shops, the bank, or the post office – are incorporated into what seems to be a permanent high-speed training session, racing around the town centre, with other pedestrians merely a set of slalom poles to be avoided. He actually has a full set of limbs but has acquired his nickname from his practice of continually working one or other arm up and down like a piston when he is walking, as if he’s stamping passports on an invisible conveyor belt. When he has to stop, in a queue for instance, the frown temporarily disappears and he seems quite happy to talk to anyone he knows. I’ve noticed, however, that after a minute or two, one of his arms will twitch and slowly start to move upward, as if to remind him that the passports are piling up and he needs to be off again.

The Lady with the Hat, who lives just around the corner from us, is a mystery. Every day she walks very determinedly backwards and forwards across town. She is of average height and build, rather severe-looking with black horn-rimmed glasses. Invariably dressed in black, usually a shift-like dress and, if the weather dictates it, a black coat, she always carries a briefcase, or a shopping bag that could pass as one. On her head is a small toque hat festooned with brightly coloured flowers. This is so out of kilter with the rest of her outfit that, on first seeing it, you might think that someone has placed it there without her noticing, like a traffic cone on a statue. But, no, it is always there. I haven’t yet worked out where exactly she is going or why. I have seen her a few times near the post office at the other end of town, so perhaps she is collecting or delivering something. But what? Depending on my mood, I see her sometimes as a character like Connie, the ageing codebreaker in John le Carré’s Smiley novels, regularly sending and receiving highly secret documents. At other times, I have her despatching poison-pen letters on an industrial scale. Then again, perhaps she could be bringing a packed lunch for one of the elderly post office clerks, who accepts it every day with a formal merci but after all these years still shows no indication of wishing to take the relationship any further. I fear that in the latter case, if or when she finally accepts the situation, we will have seen the last of the floral hat.

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