Free at last – more or less

Guess where we’ve been?

On Thursday, we went to Paris to spend a couple of days celebrating our new-found freedom. The sun was shining, and although service is still confined to their terraces, there was no shortage of cafés, bars, and restaurants in which to while away the time very pleasantly. Because of the restrictions on foreign travel, the atmosphere was a little strange at times. We had a stroll through Montmartre, and the streets around Place du Tertre, normally full of people at this time of year, were eerily quiet.

Montmartre – eerily quiet

On Friday, we had a mooch around the 7th arrondissement and saw one or two exteriors that have given Madame food for thought when we next decorate the front of our house.

148 Rue de Grenelle

29 Avenue Rapp

Restaurant owners won’t agree with this, but I found that one unexpected benefit of the reduction in tourist numbers was that waiters and bar staff were noticeably more relaxed and happy to chat to customers. I don’t hold with the idea that service in France, and Paris in particular, is generally poor. Someone once explained to me that, in brasseries especially, staff tend to work long hours and are generally pretty stretched. They need to be quick, and this can sometimes be misinterpreted as rudeness. In my experience, if you are polite, they will be too.

The 21.00 curfew is still in force, but in practice this seems to mean that restaurants stop serving at 21.00. People were still ordering meals up to ten minutes before this. Customers then slowly drifted home over the next hour. It all seemed very relaxed, and the police were noticeably absent.

Masks still need to be worn in the street …

… though exemptions are sometimes granted.

As always, no matter what your cultural interests are, you will find plenty of things to see and do in Paris.

Still lost in France

Still game

***

I think French food is wonderful. Poitiers has umpteen good restaurants, and a trip around the local market is always a treat. And yet, I do worry sometimes.

After the opening of Chien Chaud (see January 10th), the hot dog bar in Rue Magenta, I couldn’t help noticing that a couple of other café-restaurants have added hot dogs to their menus. And now Casa Huet, a restaurant just up the road in Saint-Benoît, has installed a pizza vending machine in front of its premises in Rue de Naintré.

According to the owner, Christophe Huet, ‘We had been thinking about it for a while, but the first lockdown accelerated things because people could only leave their homes for a short time.’

M. Huet and his team with their pizza machine

The pizzas are 80% pre-cooked and stored in the machine at 5 °C. You make a selection from a touch screen offering a variety of eight toppings, including merguez, peppers and onions, four cheese, pizza aux saint-jacques (scallops), local speciality la Poitevine (goat’s cheese and honey) and the ‘burger pizza’ (the mind boggles). You pay by bank card, and after three minutes your pizza is cooked at 350 °C. You can also buy it cold for reheating at home.

According to M. Huet, it’s been a great success, and over two hundred pizzas were sold in the first week. All well and good, but apparently he now intends to ‘develop the concept’. Mark my words, before you know it there will be a bœuf Bourguignon dispenser in the main square.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 1903, the three largest sports stadiums in the world were all in Glasgow.

At actor Derek Fowlds’s funeral in 2020, Basil Brush was amongst the mourners and read a poem.

Hairy-legged tights are sold in China to protect girls from unwanted male attention.

Cobblers to maple syrup!

Monday

I can’t remember when I last got a pair of shoes soled or heeled. The development of synthetic materials means that shoe repair is probably not a growth industry. That said, Poitiers has a sprinkling of cordonneries that seem to be doing a reasonable trade. Good luck to them. In his book Uncommon Pursuits, historian Eric Hobsbawm devotes a chapter to shoemakers and menders and, having read it, I have a new-found respect for them

Throughout history, they have had a reputation for being political radicals. George Fox, one of the founders of the Quaker movement, was a shoemaker. Their role as working-class spokesmen and organisers in nineteenth-century England is well documented in studies of the anti-enclosure ‘Swing’ Riots of 1830 and of the Chartist movement. In France in 1789, twenty-eight shoemakers were involved in the Storming of the Bastille, and they were the most prominent group amongst those arrested for opposing the coup d’état of 1851. According to historian Jacques Rougerie, the workers involved in the Paris Commune of 1871 who suffered the highest proportion of deportations were, ‘of course, as always, the shoemakers’.

Monsieur L Guichard, Rue Carnot

There are various theories as to how these craftsmen got their reputation for radicalism, too many to go into in any detail here. The work was, at least to some extent, selected by men not capable of being involved in more conventionally valued physical activities. Small, weak, or physically handicapped boys were habitually put to this trade, and this may have provided an incentive to acquire other kinds of prestige. Shoemakers working together in workshops were among those crafts (which also included tailors and cigar-makers) that developed the institution of the ‘reader’: one of the men taking turns to read newspapers or books out aloud. The shoemaker’s work thus permitted thinking and discussion while working. The journeyman shoe-repairer travelling from village to village would be exposed to the culture and politics of a wider world, and the lightness of his toolkit made it easier than in some other trades to carry books with him. He was self-employed and needed by all. He did not rely on wealthy patrons or clients, so he could express his opinions without the risk of losing his job or his customers. There is much more in Mr Hobsbawm’s book, which is well worth seeking out.

Monsieur P. Mallet, Rue de La Tranchée

Tuesday

One of the joys of living in France is, of course, the food; the wonderful fresh produce available in the markets, the wine, the wide range of restaurants. There are, however, some odd little quirks in the French food world. I still can’t get my head round the fact that you can buy tinned Brussels sprouts here. Tripe is regarded as a luxury, and as for the ingredients (and smell) of andouillette sausages … According to Wikipedia, an andouillette has ‘a strong, distinctive odour related to its intestinal origins and components’, which is a diplomatic way of saying they smell of … er … faeces. ‘Although sometimes repellent to the uninitiated, this aspect of andouillette is prized by its devotees.’ They are welcome to them.

It’s artisanal, innit?

Here in Poitiers, the latest gastronomic quirk is the opening of Chien Chaud, an ‘artisanal hot doguerie’ on Rue Carnot. They offer a wide variety of hot dogs, including the Classic New York (onions, mustard, and ketchup), El Gringo (peppers, guacamole, and jalapenos), and Don Corleone (sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, and parmesan crisps). They come in at about €7 each, and you can have nachos or coleslaw with them. Purely in the interests of research, Madame and I have tried them (a Don Corleone for me and a Classic for her). The verdict: very tasty, but maybe not quite enough for a meal.

Do you want relish with that?

Wednesday

A strange dream last night. I’m in a pub in Wandsworth with Sir Anthony Hopkins and Steve McQueen. I’d been doing some sort of clerical job for Sir Anthony and he’d suggested a drink when we’d finished. Over pints of bitter, he is telling a funny story about how he once managed to lose his ticket while travelling on the Isle of Wight ferry. As is the way with dreams, we suddenly move on. It’s now late evening, and we are walking in Fulham, looking for another pub. Sir Anthony abruptly decides that he wants to go home. This turns out be a flat nearby that he’s renting from my aunt. He says goodbye and leaves me and Steve McQueen standing in Fulham Palace Road. At this point I wake up.

Later this morning, I remembered reading an article in yesterday’s Times about Sir Anthony Hopkins (he’s just celebrated his 83rd birthday), which probably accounts for his presence in the dream. However, I haven’t a clue as to what Steve McQueen was doing there. He didn’t say a single word throughout the whole thing. Mind you, he always struck me as a bit of a miserable sod.

Thursday

Do you want syrup with that?

Another strange new food outlet has opened: a Canadian shop in the Cordeliers shopping mall. It sells sirop d’érable (maple syrup), which is fair enough; the maple leaf is, after all, Canada’s national symbol. It also sells a variety of confectionery, along with Canadian rum, brandy, and whisky, nearly all which are steeped in, or infused with, sodding maple syrup. It reminds me of the Two Ronnies sketch about the restaurant that only sells rook. They even sell tins of baked beans in the stuff. (Again, for research purposes, I have bought one of these.) Our neighbour Natalie tells us that the Canadian shop is a boutique éphémère (sounds so much classier than ‘pop-up shop’, doesn’t it?)

Friday

Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the new Covid-related measures at a press conference last night. The ban on people travelling from the UK will remain in place until further notice to minimise spreading the variant britannique. Bars, restaurants, and cafés will remain closed until at least mid-February. Eight additional departments (mainly located in the east of the country) have had their curfew brought forward to 18:00. For the rest of us, the existing 20:00 curfew will be maintained, and reviewed on January 20. According to the Prime Minister, ‘the health situation has become more fragile in the past few weeks … I cannot rule out that we will have to take additional national measures in the coming days if needed.’

Meanwhile in the UK, the predicted end-point is slowly but steadily being moved on. On Monday, in his press conference confirming the lockdown, Boris Johnson spoke of February. By Wednesday, this had become April. I’m now more or less resigned to it being June or July before we will be able to visit the UK.

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

The national anthem of Bangladesh includes the lines: ‘The fragrance from your mango groves / Makes me wild with joy.’

Kummerspeck (‘grief bacon’) is German for the weight put on from eating too much when feeling sorry for yourself.

The French for a walkie-talkie is un talkie-walkie.

A Little Outing

The view from the roof garden, Galeries Lafayette, Paris

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

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

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

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

Looking over the city from the steps of Sacre-Coeur

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

Calvaire Stairs, Montmartre

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

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

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

Chrstmas lights, Galeries Lafayette

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

The view from Pont Neuf looking west

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

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

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

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

***

Three things I’ve learnt this week:

Glasgow is twinned with Bethlehem, Nuremberg, and Havana.

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

The Dyslexia Research Trust Clinic is in Reading.

Let there be lights

Monday

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

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

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

Wednesday

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

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

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

Thursday

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

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

Saturday

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

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

***

Things I’ve learnt this week:

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

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

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

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.

On Cheese (1)

A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the Marolles and the Limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every … Continue reading “On Cheese (1)”

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese. 
G.K.Chesterton, Alarms and Discursions

A silence fell at the mention of Gavard. They all looked at each other cautiously. As they were all rather short of breath by this time, it was the camembert they could smell. This cheese, with its gamy odour, had overpowered the milder smells of the Marolles and the Limbourg; its power was remarkable. Every now and then, however, a slight whiff, a flute-like note, came from the Parmesan, while the Bries came into play with their soft, musty smell, the gentle sound, so to speak, of a damp tambourine. The Livarot launched into an overwhelming reprise, and the Géromé kept up the symphony with a sustained high note.

Émile Zola, The Belly of Paris

I do like a little romance—just a sniff, as I call it, of the rocks and valleys. Of course, bread-and-cheese is the real thing. The rocks and valleys are no good at all, if you haven’t got that.

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now? No? Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese—toasted, mostly—and woke up again, and here I were.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

The train was crowded, and I had to get into a carriage where there were already seven other people. One crusty old gentleman objected, but I got in, notwithstanding; and, putting my cheeses upon the rack, squeezed down with a pleasant smile, and said it was a warm day.

A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.

‘Very close in here,’ he said.

‘Quite oppressive,’ said the man next him.

And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner, who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.

Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

I’m as bad as anybody. Down at Bournemouth, I kicked a tray of cups up into air and one hit Luther Blissett on the head. He flicked it on and it went all over my suit hanging behind. Another time, at West Ham, I also threw a plate of sandwiches at Don Hutchison. He’s sitting there, still arguing with me, with cheese and tomato running down his face. But you can’t do that any more, especially with all the foreigners. They’d go home.

Harry Redknapp, Independent, 10 October 1999

Clerk (suddenly): What about peace? Yes peace. I’m from Bohemia. I’d like to get home once in a while.

Chaplain: Oh you would, would you? Dear old peace! What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?

Berthold Brecht, Mother Courage and Her Children

Je me souviens d’un fromage qui s’appelait la Vache sérieuse (la Vache qui rit lui a fait un procès et l’a gagné).

I remember a cheese called Serious Cow (Laughing Cow sued it and won.)

Georges Perec, Mi Ricordo

Isn’t it the natural condition of life after a certain age? … After a number of events, what is there left but repetition and diminishment? Who wants to go on living? The eccentric, the religious, the artistic (sometimes); those with a false sense of their own worth. Soft cheeses collapse; firm cheeses indurate. Both go mouldy.

Julian Barnes,  Flaubert’s Parrot

A corpse is meat gone bad. Well and what’s cheese? Corpse of milk.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Sometimes I think I’m liquefying like an old Camembert.

Gustave Flaubert in Susannah Patton, A Journey into Flaubert’s Normandy

A week in Poitiers

The World at War

We are now near the end of our third week of home confinement and an improvement in the weather adds a subtle refinement to the irritation this causes. It’s far less of a hardship to be stuck indoors on a rainy day; once the sun starts shining you instinctively feel that outside a bar somewhere there is a seat with your name on it. Still, ‘mustn’t grumble’, as they say – a ridiculous piece of advice in my view, grumbling being one of the few real pleasures left in life.

As we can only leave the house for shopping trips and exercise each day, I’ve increasingly been resorting to various forms of virtual travel, one advantage of which is that you can move through both time and space. Quite by chance, just before we were told to stay at home, I’d ordered a box set of Granada’s The World at War series. It has been digitally remastered, with each frame restored and the sound upgraded and enhanced. The results are extremely impressive. There are over twenty-two hours to watch – some of which is background material – and at present we are watching one forty-five-minute programme an evening. In the six we’ve seen so far, the action footage is clear and sharp and the interviews, with everyone from Sir Anthony Eden to a group of East Enders reminiscing about the Blitz, look as if they might have been made last year instead of nearly half a century ago. It is compelling viewing and has stood the test of time remarkably, a painless way to absorb history. The series cost £900,000 to make, the equivalent of £11 million today. By comparison, according to Peter Morgan, its producer, the combined cost of series one and two of Netflix’s The Crown was £97 million.

Another form of time travel is provided by www.pepysdiary.com/, a fascinating website that is updated each day with an annotated extract from Pepys’ Diary for that day. If you register with them (it’s free) they send you an email with the day’s entry. Along with the extracts themselves, the site provides an encyclopaedia of information about people and places in Pepys’ time, with maps and a host of articles on broader aspects of seventeenth-century history. At the moment we are in April 1667, Pepys’ mother has just died, and everyone at court is getting twitchy about the prospect of war with the Dutch. The sudden appearance of a phrase in Latin or French usually means that Samuel has been trying to take his mind off things by indulging in some form of naughtiness or other.

My last virtual journey is more local and will, I hope, eventually be replaced by the real thing. I have discovered a book called Les rues de Poitiers by the magnificently named Raoul Brothier de Rollière. It was written in 1905 and is a biographical dictionary of all the streets in Poitiers. Obviously it is out of date: streets have disappeared, new ones have sprung up, and some have changed names. Nevertheless the potted descriptions are a fascinating insight into the history of Poitiers. Take for example, our own Rue des Carmes, a fairly quiet backstreet. It merits a whole page in the book and, amongst other things, one learns that it was an interior pathway between two of the main gates in the original Roman settlement. It got its current name from the ancient Convent des Carmes built here in 1367, and in the religious wars of the sixteenth century, cannons were placed on a platform a few doors away from our house to fire on the Protestant forces laying siege to the city from the hill on the other side of Pont Joubert.

The convent is long gone, replaced by a small block of flats, and this has given me an idea. Once the current crisis over, if I am spared, I intend to slowly start translating and updating M. Brothier de Rollière’s book, or at least the entries for the main streets. It will be a fine way to get to know the city better, and I will repay the debt by making amendments where necessary. I don’t think there are any new convents, but I will dutifully add details of all the vape shops, tattoo parlours and fast food establishments I come across.

***

You cannot buy bacon in France. Well, that’s not strictly true; there are online suppliers from the UK, and in Paris you can buy bacon at Le Bon Marché (the French equivalent of the Harrods Food Hall) or the very handy M&S food stores that are dotted around the city. We usually pick some up from one of the latter whenever we visit. What I mean is you can’t pop into your local supermarket and buy half a pound of back or streaky. It’s odd. One or two of them sell something they call bacon, but the slices are perfectly circular, leathery and taste like salty beermats.

What they do sell here is lardons, and one day last week I bought some of these for cooking our evening meal. When opening the packet, it occurred to me that the various small bits inside might once actually have been slices of bacon which were then chopped up. Out of curiosity, I sprinkled the contents onto a chopping board and started absent-mindedly moving them around with my finger trying to get some sense of how they had arrived in their current state. While doing this, I looked up and saw Madame S standing in the doorway. She stared at me thoughtfully for a few seconds and then left the room. I thought no more of it until later, when I passed the living room where she was on the phone to her mother in Perth. I’m increasingly deaf, but I am almost certain I heard ‘… and now it’s bacon jigsaw puzzles …’.

A Week in Poitiers

And the war drags on…

Here in France 319 coronavirus deaths were reported between Friday and Saturday, an increase of 110 over the previous twenty-four hours. In all, 38,105 cases have been reported in France, Île-de-France (including Paris) and Grand Est (the Ardennes and Alsace-Lorraine) by far the worst hit with 7,660 and 5,479 respectively. Here in Nouvelle-Aquitaine we have had 912. It was announced today that some patients are being flown from Grand Est to use spare hospital bed capacity in Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

***

We’ve now had two weeks of house arrest here in Poitiers and we are getting used to it. You are only allowed out for certain reasons, the same as those now in place in the UK: to buy food and essentials, for medical reasons, for vital family reasons, and for physical exercise. A peculiarly French touch is that you must carry a self-signed letter (the government have provided a pro forma) saying that, on your honour, you are only travelling for one of the permitted purposes, and you have to tick a box saying which one. Failure to carry a letter can result in a fine of up to €300 (for serial offenders). As well as this, Poitiers, like many French cities, now has a curfew, from 22.00 to 05.00. Not something that bothers us in the slightest, as there is nowhere to go now anyway. Apart from these restrictions, life continues fairly normally. The shops are well stocked and there is little or no queuing required. Sadly, the covered market is now closed but, to be honest, I am surprised it was allowed to stay open for the week or so that it was, after everywhere else had to close. We have ample supplies of beer, wine and whisky, or rather we did have. The stuff obviously evaporates.

Madame S is still busy editing. I’m still doing my French revision, as our exam is now postponed till mid-May (it’s an ill wind …). I wander around the house, picking up and putting down various books that I’ve left dotted around the place, and I’m also slowly getting through a backlog of magazines. Last night I read an article in the London Review of Books by Ferdinand Mount on the make-up and philosophy (for want of a better word) of the current UK government. The issue is dated 20th February, which is just six weeks ago, but the article feels like something from the distant past. It is very much focused on Brexit, Sajid Javid is still Chancellor of the Exchequer, and there is not a single mention of coronavirus.

According to Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen. We are clearly living through the latter.

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On WhatsApp, my sister-in-law Lou posts a reminder: ‘Don’t forget the clocks change this weekend. You don’t want to be late getting up to sit in your living room’.

In France, along with the rest of Europe, the annual clock changeover is set to end next year. The final decision on how it will work has not been announced, but we will either move to summer time next spring and leave it that way (this seems to be the favoured option) or move back for the last time in October 2021. Madame has pointed out that France is large enough to merit two time zones and here in the west we should be aligned with the UK. I must admit that I do miss the earlier morning light that we used to get there. That said, sitting outside a bar with the sun going down at ten in the evening is not exactly a hardship.

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Exercise here is restricted to one hour a day and to within a one-kilometre radius of your home, though I don’t think this is really being enforced too strongly. I generally manage an hour-long riverside walk each day, and this almost certainly takes me over the 1 km limit.

I don’t want to claim to be Poitiers’ answer to Gilbert White, but I’ve become quite the little naturalist on these walks. There is a great variety of birdsong to be heard along the river but, ignoramus that I am, the only one I can identify for sure is that of the woodpeckers who are nested near the Jardin des Plantes. I’ve also spotted a family of beavers (castors in French) paddling along near one of the bridges. I thought at first this sighting might be a symptom of having caught the virus, but Dominique, a neighbour, assured me that he and his wife often see them there. Most afternoons, as well as the birdsong, one can hear a Frenchman, hidden behind a high wall, sitting in his garden playing acoustic guitar and singing songs in English. He has a fine voice. On Thursday we got ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ and on Friday it was ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ or, as he put it, à la bama.

This morning, just for a change, we went for a walk around the town centre. Normally I would be there nearly every day, but I’ve hardly visited it at all in the past two weeks. It didn’t feel much like the first day of summer; cold and overcast with a stiff easterly breeze. Poitiers Sundays are always very quiet. Nearly all the bars and restaurants are closed, and the atmosphere is reminiscent of England in the 1950s. I was shocked by this when we first came here, but I have come to really appreciate it. The sleepy atmosphere is a pleasant change to the rest of the week.

Usually one would see a sprinkling of churchgoers, an occasional tourist and the few determined regulars who know where to find the one or two cafés that are open. Today, though, it felt different. The town centre is almost completely deserted. One or two people out for une promenade like ourselves walking head down against the wind. It is eerily quiet. No conversation to be heard anywhere. It reminds me of the Will Smith film I Am Legend, though if there were any kangaroos around we didn’t see them.

Maybe next year…

In Le Cluricaume, the nearest thing Poitiers has to an Irish pub, they still have the poster in their window advertising their St Patrick’s Night Celebration. We were promised un Irish Tap Takeover with such enticing beverages as White Hag (from Wexford) and Yellowbelly (from Sligo) along with des cadeaux, des kilts & plenty of craic! I’d been looking forward to this but sadly, like everyone else, they closed at midnight on the 14th. I celebrated St Patrick’s Day at home with a can of draught Guinness, a large Tullamore Dew and a packet of Guinness-flavoured crisps.

On our way home, we stop to buy croissants at Jules in rue Magenta, the only boulangerie currently open on a Sunday. Here, I am served by the cheery proprietor himself. The shelves are all full. Along with the baguettes and numerous other types of bread, there is the usual almost pornographic display of cakes and pastries. I tell myself that we must support local shops as much as possible, so, along with the croissants, I buy two rhubarb tarts. Suitably provisioned, we head back to our domestic prison.

Getting your five a day the Jules Boulangerie way.

***

On the internet I read that the situation in Greece is now so bad that production of hummus and taramasalata has stopped. It’s now officially a double-dip recession …

Burns Night

Monday: A parcel arrives: our ‘Burns Night Party Decoration Pack’. There is a poster with a picture of Robbie Burns and the Selkirk Grace (‘Some hae meat and canna eat’, etc. etc.), a tartan tablecloth, tartan bunting and some small Scottish flags. It’s not exactly Philippe Starck, but needs must. Also in the package are two hats. A large tartan tam-o’-shanter with a fake ginger wig attachment and a smaller tartan pork pie hat. Madame S and I still have to decide which we will wear (neither, I suspect). We expect to be ten for the evening and our table won’t seat that number easily, so instead of haggis, neeps and tatties we are going to have a buffet with various haggis-loaded dainties There will also be Scottish smoked salmon, cranachan, which sounds like a fairly lethal whisky-based trifle, and home-made gingerbread.

We’ve found a collection of Burns poems online along with their French translations, so we plan to recite a couple and let people follow the translations. My Scots is marginally worse than my French, so this should be interesting.

I’ve been put in charge of music. My initial suggestion, a Jimmy Shand/Bay City Rollers medley, is not well received.

Tuesday: We have a courette at the back of our house, a small walled garden or courtyard. It’s très petite, just room for a small raised area with shrubs and bushes, a table and a couple of chairs, but previous owners have put a lot of thought into its layout, and it’s lovely to sit out there in the summer. There is a small altar-like bird table, made of broken paving stones, in the middle of the greenery, and we get a steady stream of visitors, usually sparrows, starlings and pigeons but also the occasional finch or blue tit. One recent arrival, who has quickly established himself as a regular, is an extremely fat blackbird. He’s a cocky little bugger and is clearly aware that I’m watching him through the window. It’s been bugging me for a while that there was something familiar about the way he returned my gaze; a slow, sideways and upwards tilt of the head and a slightly sinister look in his eye. Where had I seen it before? The answer came to me on Monday evening with a TV news item about financial impropriety at Saracens rugby club. Suddenly there on the screen was a clip of the Saracens and England fly half, Owen Farrell, about to take a penalty. The head slowly turning and rising, that weird stare … I wonder if he has any blackbird in his ancestry?

Wednesday: A nice little mystery. In rue Montgautier, a young woman walking in front of us suddenly exclaims in delight as she spots a €10 note in the road. Then she turns to us laughing as she shows us the note, which had been neatly cut in half. Where was the other half? Why would anyone do this?

Years ago when I was teaching in Prague, I had a student, Tibor, who collected playing cards that he found in the street. He was in his early forties and told me that he’d been doing this since he was a teenager. When I asked how many he’d collected, he said nine but two of these were the ace of clubs. I worked out that that this meant, on average, finding one about every three years. Imagine the delight at a new discovery, and then the chagrin of realising that it was a duplicate. Of course he could increase his chances – by keeping an eye out around the casinos in Václavské námĕstí, for instance. I can just see Tibor, who was clearly a little bonkers, roaming the streets of Prague in his nineties, looking for a final elusive three of diamonds.

Thursday: The evening spent in the Biblio Café in rue de la Cathédrale. The Biblio is a lovely place, being both a bar/café and a bookshop where one is encouraged to browse before buying. I’m told that there are people who leave bookmarks in books on the shelves and slowly read through them over a series of visits. The owners, a friendly cheerful bunch, don’t seem to mind. It’s the fourth Thursday of the month, so there is the regular session de musique traditionnelle irlandaise avec Poitin na nGael. Poitin na nGael are a loose collective of musicians who play sessions in various bars around town each month. We don’t know much about them yet, but they are a mixture of French, American and (possibly) Irish individuals living here in Poitiers. Although they are amateurs the standard is high, and the evenings are good fun.

The Biblio has a fine selection of beers; the draught is supplied by the local Pirates du Clain brewery, and I usually stick to this, but there is a range of bottled beers all named after writers. I decided to have a George Orwell, as he died 70 years ago on Monday. It’s delicious, but at 8% it’s not exactly a session beer.

It sounds macabre but the Orwell Foundation have produced an interesting little film about the night Orwell died, narrated by his biographer D J Taylor. It’s only eight minutes long and is rather moving.

Poitin na nGael

Literary Lushes

Friday: Madame S is a stickler for authenticity, so we make a trip to the post office to pick up another parcel from the UK. This is Golden Syrup, needed for the gingerbread and unobtainable in Poitiers. I’d forgotten how handsome the tin is. Then it’s on to Le Comptoir Irlandais to buy a bottle of Aberlour whisky. We already have some Laphroaig, but I thought it would be nice for people to compare two different malts. I’m only thinking of the others, you understand.

“Out of the strong came forth sweetness”

Saturday: Burns Night. To paraphrase Chumbawamba, I had a beer drink, I had a red wine drink, I had a whisky drink (repeat for several hours). The haggis in all its forms was a great success, as were the cranachan and gingerbread. We had Burns readings, French songs from Maryse, Spanish poems from her Mexican husband, Vito, and Tara, our neighbours’ daughter, played her trumpet. We had Aly Bain, Eddi Reader, Big Country, Runrig, Roddy Frame, Orange Juice, The Proclaimers, The Bluebells, and Belle and Sebastian. There was even a bit of Jimmy Shand. In the end, everyone wore both tartan hats at some stage. It was an unforgettable evening. If only I could remember all of it.

Bacon, leeks and haggis

Monday: Today is the feast of St Hilaire of Poitiers (c. 310 – c. 367) Hilaire (Hilary) was bishop of Poitiers and a writer of highly regarded theological texts. The handsome Romanesque church of Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand is rightly seen as one of the jewels in Poitiers’ cultural crown . It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, to this day, it’s a staging post for international pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Perhaps it was with the intention of marking the feast day that some bright spark at the hôtel de ville decided last week to install a decidedly non-Romanesque plastic bottle bank immediately outside the church.

Tuesday: Madame S and I have enrolled to take the DELF (Diplôme d’études en langue française) B2 intermediate level French exam in March. We both passed the pre-intermediate B1 exam in Cambridge before moving to France in 2018 and at the moment that’s the only level required when you apply for French citizenship – although there are rumours that the state may raise this in the future. This is slightly more important for madame because after 31st January she will no longer be an EU citizen, but in any case we are both very keen to improve our French just to make our social life a little easier.

With the exam in mind I have now arranged to have a weekly lesson with our friend Maryse, who has some experience as a French teacher. This is on informal basis in a local café; the only payment required is that I get the coffees and post-lessons beers. We had our first lesson this week and it went very well. For an hour I got to grips with the difference in pronunciation between é and è, and the subjunctive form of avoir and être. In the second hour, during which beer was taken, I found to my delight that my fluency had increased dramatically and I was able to quote lines from Verlaine and Rimbaud, neither of whom I’ve actually ever read.  

Wednesday: A visit to the local surgery to get a prescription renewed. We got Dr K’s name out of PagesJaune when we arrived, and we struck lucky. His English is not great, but on my first visit he managed to convey by mime that he has been on fishing trips to Cork and Kerry and likes Ireland a lot. An old-fashioned, no-nonsense family GP, he’s used to my rampant hypochondria (my suspected heart attack – ‘indigestion, monsieur’, meningitis – ‘an earache, monsieur, you have too much of the wax’) and we now get on very well. A visit costs €25, €17 of which is immediately reimbursed by the health service. The prescription will cost €2 at the pharmacy. Dr K, being a decent man, obviously feels a little embarrassed at my paying the fee for something that only takes five seconds, so he takes my blood pressure, checks my heart rate and asks if there is anything else I need. We watched The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV at the weekend and I’m now wondering if a slight chill I’ve developed recently might just be the start of blackwater fever. He looks me in the eye and I decide to wait a week before bothering him with it.

Thursday: Cycling home from Monoprix, I see a woman shouting out ‘monsieur, monsieur!’ and waving at me. One of the leeks I’d bought to make soup had somehow fallen out of my pannier bag. She hands it to me and, thanking her, I think about saying something about often having had ‘a leek’ in the street but feel it would lose something in translation.

Friday: Bacon and haggis may seem an odd reason for a trip to Paris, but it was why we were on the 07.15 train from Poitiers Gare arriving into Montparnasse at 08.34. We had our petit déjeuner in a café near the station, then a pleasant leisurely walk via the Luxembourg Gardens to the Pompidou Centre to see Bacon en toute lettres. We’d booked tickets but the Centre, currently going through a major refurbishment, seems to be operating some sort of triage system of queues, security checks, and misleading signage to ensure that only the fittest and most dedicated visitors will actually make it to the exhibition – I saw one large German gentleman being led away sobbing only a hundred yards or so from the final turnstile.

The exhibition is magnificent, with a number of rarely seen works, but I think that, like so many of these blockbuster shows, it is just too large and one’s eyes eventually start to glaze over. A subset of just three or four of the many triptychs on show would arguably have made for a more intense and satisfying experience. Nevertheless I’m very glad to have seen it.

After lunch (La Grille Montorgueil – recommended) we undertook the second part of our mission. To return some of the hospitality we have received from various friends and neighbours since arriving in Poitiers, Madame S has decided that we will have a Burns Night celebration next week. (I had suggested a St Patrick’s Day alternative, but she reminded me of my tendency to be a little overcome with emotion on those occasions.) Burns Night means haggis, something that most Poitiers butchers, understandably, do not supply. Le Comptoir Irlandais, our local Irish shop, does have a tinned version, but we decided this wouldn’t do at all. I had envisaged a fairly long trek around specialist épiceries in Paris, but we got lucky in our first port of call, the Marks and Spencer’s food store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We bought four, which probably means haggis curry or haggis and chips for a few days afterwards, but as we both love the stuff this is no hardship.

Heading back to the station we had to scurry across Boulevard Raspail in heavy traffic. For a second I had a vision of a headline in the following day’s Le Parisien:

Road accident: bizarre contents of victim’s rucksack