Freewheeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder how long we can go on like this.

***

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

Some pictures from the website of La Nouvelle République:

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

Some riders are suspected of excessive use of steroids.

A sign of the times

Scrum time!

***

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

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

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

Ce gain est désormais disponible dans votre compte FDJ®.

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

A bientôt sur notre site,

L’équipe FDJ®

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

***

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

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

On my back and on my bike

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

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

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

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

***

Thee harbour at la Rochelle

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

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

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

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

***

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

Ely, 31st July

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

Cambridge, 28th August

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

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

***

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

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