Out and about in Poitiers

Poitin na nGael on Bloomsday

Thursday, the 16th of June, was Bloomsday, a day of celebration for lovers of James Joyce’s Ulysses and an excuse for alcohol-influenced revelry all over the world. On a fine sunny evening, I did my bit by enjoying a couple of pints of Guinness outside Le Roi d’Ys bar in Rue de la Cathédrale while listening to members of Poitin na nGael, the local traditional music collective. I don’t think any of them were actually Irish, being either French or American, but it’s the thought that counts.


Mixed Covid messages from the UK and France this week. On Monday, Boris Johnson postponed “Freedom Day” for four weeks in light of the increase in new cases caused by the Delta variant. The 19th of July is now the “terminus date” when all restrictions on social contact will be lifted, barring the emergence of a new game-changing variant. There were predictable howls of rage from the usual suspects, but opinion polls suggested that the general public broadly backed the decision.

Here in France, the government has taken a diametrically opposite approach. In an unexpected announcement on Wednesday, we were told that our own Freedom Day was being brought forward from the 1st of July to today, the 20th of June, when the curfew, in place since October, finally ends. The reason for this new relaxation is that the number of French cases is falling dramatically; as of yesterday, the average number of daily cases had dropped to 2719, compared to 40,000 in April.

This approach is not without risk. The Delta variant is fast-moving, and the number of cases in France is increasing. A second vaccination is required to be truly effective against the variant, and whilst total vaccination coverage in France is growing rapidly, it is currently only at 31% of adults. Worryingly, there has been a slackening of demand as summer begins and the pandemic abates. On a more positive note, the hot weather may help prevent the spread of the virus. It would surely be a major embarrassment for the government if this relaxation was later seen to be premature and a fourth lockdown had to be introduced.


As life slowly returns to normal here in Poitiers, it is reassuring to see the long spell of inactivity has, so far at least, not led to the closure of any of the bars or restaurants in Centre-ville. The opposite, in fact – there are signs of increased activity everywhere. Two restaurants have reopened under new management – Chez Michel in Rue Magenta is now Chez Jean-Michel, and L’Antigny in Place Charles de Gaulle is now Les Fines Gueules. Two new restaurants have opened, Le Roy des Ribauds in Place Charles-VII, and Bouillon Carnot in Rue Carnot. A third, as yet unnamed, is due to open soon in Rue des Grandes Écoles. So many eateries and so little time.

In the interests of research, Madame and I went to Bouillon Carnot for lunch on Wednesday. A bouillon is a restaurant serving a menu of standard French dishes at reasonable prices. Bookings are not taken, and turnaround is rapid. The most famous one is probably the vast Bouillon Chartier in Paris’s 9th arrondissement.

Bouillon Chartier, Paris

Bouillon Carnot is an altogether more modest affair, with seating for about twenty in a front area and about the same in a back room. The menu is not that dissimilar to that of its Paris counterpart. Nothing too adventurous, but a decent selection to choose from.

Bouillon Carnot

I had sardines, boeuf et frites, and Paris-Brest (a gooey cream bun). Madame had tomato salad, poulet aux olives, and the flan pâtissier. All served promptly, and all pretty good. With a carafe of Côtes du Rhône, the bill came to a reasonable €46. We will go again. Home by 15.00, just in time for the afternoon Maigret on TV. I closed my eyes for a second, and when I opened them again, Wales were beating Turkey 1–0.


We’ve been enjoying the football all week, all the more so since I discovered that Caribou Café, the friendly French-Canadian bar in Rue de la Regratterie, has got a large TV in the upstairs bar. We cheered on France as they beat Germany and chewed our fingernails during England v. Scotland. The bar staff thought it hilarious when we told them that un match nul (a draw) should definitely be regarded as a victory for Scotland.


Another sign of normality returning is the reopening of the cinemas here, and we’ve been twice recently. Coincidentally, both the films we saw are about the ageing process. In The Father, a man wrestles with the nightmare of dementia, and in Nomadland, a widow living in a camper van ekes out a living as she travels through the states of the western USA. Such unpromising material could have made for harrowing viewing; the fact that it doesn’t is largely due to Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand, who both won Oscars for their leading roles.

I had my own intimation of mortality this week when I finally gave in and got fitted with hearing aids. I’ve got by for a couple of years by saying that most people talk bollocks most of the time so I’m really not missing anything. Now, however, the situation has deteriorated dramatically. Not only is everyone talking French, but they are doing it with masks covering their mouths. Something had to be done.

The result so far are mixed. Madame tells me that I am no longer asking her to repeat everything she says, which is an important consideration, and when I am out in the street I think I can hear things more clearly. But the difference is not the magic transformation I was expecting. The same goes for the sound on the telly – though apparently there is a small remote device one can use in connection with the hearing aid to boost this. I have the aids on trial for a week and will then make a decision about whether to keep them.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

In 2017, seventy students in Maryland drank so much alcohol at a party that the air in the house registered positive on a breathalyser.

During the Second World War, fish-and-chip-shop managers were exempt from military service.

Tunnock’s Teacakes aren’t allowed in RAF planes in case they explode.

Accordion Crimes

I’ve always liked accordions. They are so absurdly complicated-looking: a keyboard and a large array of buttons, separated by something resembling an inflatable radiator. Yet at the same time they are such beautiful objects, their varnished wooden cases trimmed in chrome and embossed with art nouveau flourishes, the keyboards set in mother of pearl or enamel. There are people who collect luxury cars, but I think an accordion collection might afford me more satisfaction.

My dad’s brother, uncle Mike, had one, and he was a dab hand at playing it. He and Auntie Sheila were regular visitors to our house, and at Christmas or Easter he would sometimes bring it along. A comic ritual had to be gone through so that he could be persuaded to play. He would first feign reluctance, and we, his audience, would temporarily turn into versions of Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle – ‘Ah, go on, go on … You will, you will’ – until he eventually agreed. (Even at the tender age of 9, I used to wonder why he had gone to all the trouble of lugging the heavy case on a bus from Wimbledon to Fulham if he didn’t want to play it.)

Once he started, we would be treated to a jolly session of jigs and reels. If we were lucky – it would require another round of Mrs Doyle-like encouragement – my dad would do his Sean-nós broom dance (the chap in the video is not my dad, but is almost as good a dancer). All the while, I would sit happily mesmerised by the blur of Uncle Mike’s hands dancing up and down the keyboards and pausing only briefly to reach for a fortifying sup of Guinness or whiskey.

Here in France, the accordion-playing busker is a stereotypical figure. When I lived in Paris, I learnt to recognise the ones who regularly worked lines 6 and 7 on the Métro. I used to think that Autumn Leaves was a particular busker favourite, until one day, en route somewhere, my friend Frank helpfully put me right:

Me: They all seem to like Autumn Leaves.

Frank: That’s not Autumn Leaves.

Me: What is it, then?

Frank: Fuck knows, but it’s not Autumn Leaves.

Anyway, to get to the point. For the past ten years, Sacha, a Roma from Serbia, has been playing the accordion in the streets of Poitiers, either in front of Notre-Dame church or in front of the Passage Cordeliers. He’s there almost every day, and is a popular local figure. My own relationship with him got off to a shaky start when I absent-mindedly shoved my hand in my pocket and scooped out my change. To my horror, just as I handed it to him I realised I was giving him the princely sum of 14 centimes. He looked at it and then bowed his head with a grave ‘Merci, Monsieur’. I’ve made amends since then, and we are now on good terms.

Last Wednesday, disaster struck. While taking a break from playing, Sacha stored his accordion, collection cap, and chair in Notre-Dame church, as he usually does, only to find on his return that the accordion had gone. Sacha speaks very little French, but Greg, a local resident who speaks Roma, took him to the police station to report the loss. Witnesses have since reported the presence of some young men hanging around outside the church that day, but searches have so far been unsuccessful.

© Photo d’archives : Dominique Bordier.

Sacha with his original accordion

A friend of Greg has lent Sacha another accordion, but it is a smaller instrument and nothing like Sacha’s Beltuna Piano, brought with him from Serbia and relatively rare in France. Meanwhile, an online fundraiser has been started, and in two days it has raised over €2,700 towards its target of €3,500.

You might think that a ‘hot’ accordion would be a difficult thing to dispose of, but it would seem that enough of them are pinched to merit a wanted list of stolen accordions, run by the website Accordions Worldwide. Sacha’s hasn’t been added yet.

In her 1996 novel Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx tells the story of one such instrument that travelled, with its Sicilian maker and his son, to New Orleans in 1890. The story follows the accordion over the next hundred years as it crosses several states of the USA. Given, sold, or stolen, it passes through the hands of numerous immigrant families, including Italians, Germans, Norwegians, and French Canadians. I hope very much that Sacha recovers his own accordion or, if not, that the fund will pay for a suitable replacement. If the latter, it would be nice to think that, for years to come, his original Beltuna continues to travel around the countries of Europe, playing something that may or may not be Autumn Leaves.


Things I’ve learnt this week:

The Pope cannot be an organ donor, because his body belongs to the Church.

A jar of Nutella is sold somewhere in the world every 2.5 seconds.

Until the early twentieth century, left-handedness in a wife was grounds for divorce in Japan.


Western front of Notre Dame La Grande

I’ve been going to church a lot recently. Not through any new-found religious zeal, but in order to take photographs. When I signed up for the photography course I am currently doing, my intention was to concentrate on street life and, in particular, night scenes. Sadly, the start of the course coincided with the reintroduction of the lockdown and the curfew, which means that the streets are unusually empty and I can’t go out to take photos at night.

So for the last week or so I’ve been scampering around looking for things to photograph, and in Poitiers an obvious choice is the three Romanesque churches that are the city’s principal tourist attraction: Notre-Dame-La-Grande, St Hilaire, and St Radegonde. They are all very different, and all provide lots of scope for photos. St Hilaire is a World Heritage Site and a stopping point for pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Both it and St Radegonde are beautifully preserved. The intricate carving on the western front of Notre-Dame-La-Grande make it one of the most visited churches in France.

Side chapel in St Hilaire

I’ve visited all three churches on many occasions since we moved here, and one of the most striking things I’ve found is that they are nearly always empty. The same is true of the equally impressive St Peter’s Cathedral. I have got used to more or less having them all to myself, to the extent that I now get mildly irritated when I see a few tourists or a local coming in for a quick pray.

I’m quite puzzled by this. When I came to live here, I soon became aware that France, despite being officially a secular country, still has a strong Catholic tradition, and Poitiers is clearly a Catholic city. Every other street is named after a saint, a bishop, or an order of monks, and there are a number of (private) Catholic schools. The one around the corner from us has a nun at the gate ushering the children in each morning. As I go past, her look always suggests that I am on my way to help the police with their enquiries.

St Radegonde

Our friends sometimes use the phrase “très catho” when referring to an individual or family. I’ve come to realise that this is generally shorthand for “middle-to-upper class and conservative.” When we first moved in, our neighbour Colette used it to describe the family opposite her, whom we hadn’t yet met. Sure enough, the following Sunday morning we saw maman and papa in matching Barbour gilets, trooping off to Mass with their six young children in tow. They moved out shortly after we arrived; I don’t think the two events were connected.

Anyway, for the moment, in the unlikely event that I should bump into a Catholic clergyman, I can truthfully say that I seem to visit their churches far more often than most of their flock.


From the sacred to the profane. This, from the Times diary on Friday, made me laugh:

In a new book by Robert Sellers on the history of Radio 1, David Hamilton recalls the first day of the Jeremy Thorpe trial in 1979, when the Liberal politician was accused of conspiracy to murder his gay lover. James Alexander Gordon read the news headlines and told listeners that when Thorpe and Norman Scott met in court “it was the first time they had come face to face for four years.” As the studio staff fell about, Hamilton asked JAG if he realised what he had said. “I don’t think about the news, I just read it,” he said. Then he looked more closely. “Oh my God!” It was amended for the next bulletin.


The swifts are back in Poitiers! Always a sign that summer is on its way. They are amazing creatures. They eat, drink, and mate while flying, and only stop to raise their young. It’s estimated they fly more than 500 miles each day. As soon as they arrive, they visit the nest they built the previous year. Often these are in small cavities they find under roof gables in some of the older houses around here. If you are lucky, you can sometimes see them darting in.

We had a shock on Wednesday. We found one lying on the path in our garden. There is a large French window there, and birds occasionally fly into it. For a swift at speed, this could be fatal. I was about to grab a dustpan and brush to perform the last rites when Madame said excitedly, “It’s still breathing.” She hurried off to the RSPB website, which advised her to put the creature in a cloth-lined box and let it rest there. We did this and laid it on the garden table. To our delight and amazement, we discovered shortly afterwards that it had recovered and flown off.

The only slight drawback is the effect this has had on Madame, who has developed what I can only describe as an Assisi complex. There are now several bird-feeders and drinking bowls dotted around the garden, and she is talking of building a hedgehog sanctuary. She stops to pat and exchange a few words with every dog we pass in the street (Christ knows what they make of her French), and I now discover that on 19th May, the day the lockdown ends, instead of a glorious bar crawl around the city centre, we are off to visit La Vallée des Singes, a monkey colony fifteen miles away.

The next time I see a concussed swift, it’ll be worm food before you can say “David Attenborough.”


Things I’ve learnt this week:

The man who wrote “I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside” killed himself after being booed off stage in Glasgow.

Whoopi Goldberg got her nickname from her childhood flatulence.

Buckingham Palace is built on the site of a brothel.


Not that anyone cares, but this blog will not be appearing next week. I need to finish my course work. Normal service will be resumed the following week.

In the meantime, here is some music.