Les Nuits Blanches

French people seem to like depriving themselves of sleep. I thought that it was common knowledge that a good night’s sleep was good for health, mental alertness and is a necessity. Missing sleep can lead to road accidents, irritability and headaches. Just a quick look at the internet tells us that lack of sleep can cause high blood pressure, heart problems and cholesterol increases. A good night’s sleep can help improve memory, decision making and creativity.

Why do so many French events require staying awake for much or all of the night? In the UK we have the tradition of ‘seeing in the New Year’ which means staying awake until midnight, watching fireworks and hearing Big Ben chime until the strike of midnight – then we can happily go to sleep having wished each other a ‘Happy New Year’.

In France the celebration is called the  réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre. ‘Réveillon’ from ‘se reveiller’ to be woken up. ‘Un réveil’ is an alarm clock. ‘Saint Sylvestre’ because it starts on the day dedicated to the Pope Sylvestre the first who seems to have been quite a good chap as he fought against the heretical teachings of Arius of Alexandria who was denying the divinity of Jesus. Anyway that was between 280 and 355 A.D. 

Apparently Romans used to have a meal together on New Year’s Eve, and according to the wealth of the family, it could encompass many different dishes. It seems that the idea of eating a lengthy meal together came from that time. Typical dishes for a St Sylvestre celebration include oysters, foie gras, snails and thankfully smoked salmon! People assume that you will stay up all night and go home as the dawn breaks after being served a bowl of onion soup. Remember, dawn in winter is at breakfast time!

Weddings are also occasions for sleepless nights. Often the evening starts with aperitifs, small appetisers that go with a glass of champagne. About 2 hours later the sit-down meal begins with a starter. The long pauses between courses, sometimes filled with videos made by the couple’s friends and family, or songs sung by the parents and parents-in-law mean that it is well past midnight when the couple get to cut their cake and dancing begins. We have felt like terrible party-poopers when we are among the first to leave. Our friends asked us why we hadn’t returned to the venue to take part in the breakfast provided. But it hadn’t occurred to us that breakfast would be included in the festivities!

Paris offers a Nuit Blanche the first weekend of October when restaurants stay open all night and the theme of the city is illuminated Modern Art.

The 14 July, the anniversary of the French Revolution is also an occasion to stay up all night. In Epernay people are invited to dress entirely in white for the occasion. They can bring their own picnic and sit at one of the 230 tables set out on the avenue de Champagne and celebrate with the other 3,000 revellers all night long.

Unfortunately, we are usually tucked up in bed on these occasions, our brains being rejuvenated and refreshed, while our cholesterol is diminishing and our creativity is being enhanced!

City Break to Carcassonne on a Senior Citizens Railcard

Once the age of 62 is reach in France, a senior citizens railcard can be bought. Our first foray was to Carcassonne to see the medieval city and to benefit from the promise of reclining seats on the overnight trains.

We were disappointed to receive a text message just before departure to say that reclining seats would not be available. The promise of a comfortable seat and a certain amount of sleep was a principle reason for booking the trip. Instead we arrived very tired having spent most of the night awake.

Carcassonne station did not have any of the amenities for processing the arriving tourists. To leave the station we had to lug our suitcases down steps, go through a tunnel under the rails and then climb the same number of steps on the other side. There was no sign of a lift and I wondered how anyone with a disability or a heavy suitcase would cope.

Carcassonne town looked old and worn, with little investment in infrastructure. However our Ibis hotel near the Fine Arts Museum was conveniently situated. An afternoon nap refreshed us and we explored the old town. Away from the principal axes there were many old, dilapidated buildings not at all in keeping with a famous tourist town.

Coming by train means that you have no transport in which to visit the region, but we searched out the bus ticket office and bought bus passes for the week. If I have any travel tips, this is our best one. Buy a bus/tram pass so that when your legs get tired you can go on the longest bus ride you can find, preferably to an out of town shopping centre where you can sit and enjoy a coffee or an ice-cream.

The medieval city was our next day’s activity. Having read about the history of the rebuilding, I expected to see busts of Viollet-le-Duc the architect that planned and executed the resurrection of the ruined and destitute mound that was the city before 1850. I wanted to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos featuring the houses that had existed between the ramparts and what it had previously looked like. I expected this man’s work to be honoured, but it seemed like the truth of the modern rebuilding was less attractive than the myth of this amazing ‘medieval’ city. There had been a lot of controversy over his choices of roofing tiles for example, as no-one actually knew what the original buildings looked like as only the floor plans were visible, much of the stone had been taken for use in building houses in the new town – the site had been used as a quarry in effect. Recently, we saw a programme on the TV about Carcassonne which said that the space between the two outer walls had been filled with houses, using the ramparts as convenient back walls. The presenter showed the holes where beams had been inserted and the marks that remained of stairs going to upper floors. Now, that was interesting, seeing what had been removed during the renovation work in order to rebuild the mound as a medieval castle again. We found a little museum of school life between 1880 and 1960 which was interesting. Pictures of children wearing the the dunces cap ‘bonnet d’âne’ feature on their webpage. chttps://www.carcassonne.org/sites/default/files/paragraph/field_fichiers_ressources/2020-02/2019_GUIDE_ENSEIGNANTS_MUSEE_ECOLE.pdf. The poster showing the evils of alcohol and the illnesses it causes could possible be revived for todays gin drinking young people! TIP – take a bus No. 3 to see the castle from all sides.

Poster in the school museum.

Another day we took the bus out to Pont Rouge, an out of town shopping centre and saw some of the Canal du Midi en route. Strangely, the canal bed is at the bottom of a steep sided ‘V’ near the town so there is no possibility of cycling or walking beside it.

We took a bus to a lake – Lac de la Cavayère. Happily, there was a young couple on the same bus who got off just before us and disappeared down the road. We searched for a sign post but there wasn’t one, so decided that perhaps the young couple were also going to the lake, so set off in their footsteps. Fortunately, our hunch was correct and we found the lake. Usually, it was possible to walk all round it but there was building work taking place so we couldn’t do the whole circuit. People from the area had chosen their spots in the shelter of the forest and had folding chairs and portable picnic tables otherwise there were not may places to sit and eat. We saw various pretty butterflies and an impressive lizard.

Caunes-Minervois was listed as an interesting village with an Abbey. Again, we could get there by bus. After walking around the narrow streets for quite some time without finding the abbey, we resorted to looking at a map on our phone. Going round in a circle and arriving close to where we started, we mentioned the lack of signs to the concierge of the abbey. “Yes, everyone says the same thing!” she said.

We had passed a little park that had some picnic benches and went back there to eat. The park had many marble works of art, the marble coming from a local quarry. Even the toilets in the abbey had marble washbasins!

Caunes-Minervois Marble

The bus is also useful for having a rest when you have walked enough. We took a bus in the direction of the airport just for the ride! it It was at the end of the school day and it went to every village dropping off school children. For 85 minutes we saw every village between Carcassonne and the airport, all for the cost of a 1€ ticket – not bad value!

People told us that we must try cassoulet while we were in the south. We did, and it wasn’t the very interesting. Lots of overcooked beans and too much meat for modern people who don’t do days of hard physical work in the fields. By contrast we had a lovely meal in a restaurant called simply ‘104’ – its door number. Interesting modern dishes, beautifully presented and eaten in a little courtyard.

Just a few hours before our return journey we again received a text to say our reclining seats were not available. When a steward passed our seats, we complained that what we were having to make do with was not what we had booked and paid. The steward looked very surprised and said reclining seats had been phased out and hadn’t been available for a long time. After returning, we wrote to SNCF and got a refund of 82€.

Amblevins

IT IS everyone’s dream to retire to France, buy a little house in the country with enough land to grow fruit and vegetables. But what if you find your little ‘pied à terre’ is infested with the worst kind of pests imaginable?

It has happened to me. It was my niece that first said, “You’ve got vine-weevils”. She pointed out the leaves on a fuchsia that should have had smooth edges but had little indents eaten evenly along the sides.

Before you can defeat your enemy you have to know your enemy and what its tactics are. Some research on the Internet revealed that ‘otiorhynchus sulcatus’ are nocturnal creatures that live in leaf mould and lay eggs around the stems of the plant, which hatch into white grubs with orangey heads in the spring. The grubs feed off the roots, weakening the plant, and emerge a year later as adult vine-weevils.

I had just planted raspberry canes and discovered that vine-weevils are particularly partial to asters, cyclamens, geraniums, honeysuckle, roses, primroses…….   (the list continued) and raspberries. The French name is generally ‘Charançon’ but 

another is “poinconneur des lilas” which translated is ‘hole-puncher of lilacs’- not very good news at all!

More research on the Internet was required!  I learned that it’s very difficult to see or catch an adult weevil as when they are disturbed they fall to the ground and scurry away. OK, dirty tactics need cunning responses. I placed flowerpot bases all around the stems of the plants. When I got up in the night to go to the toilet (I’m that sort of age!) I would also wage war! 

When I woke up, I boiled the kettle, carried it out to the garden, gently filled up the flowerpot bases and then gave the raspberry bushes a shake. Hey presto, several of my enemies jumped off and fell into my dishes of very hot water and scalded themselves to death!! The moment was one of pure, triumphant bliss, regardless of the fact that my neighbours might see me and wonder what I was doing in the garden with a kettle, in my dressing gown at 3 o’clock in the morning! The English are very strange! 

The enemy had indeed been the, yet unseen, vine-weevil – black apple pip sized body, elongated head ending in long feelers

and 3 pairs of legs. Triumph eventually dimmed to despair when I realized that my only method of defeating the marauders was to continue to get up in the early hours of the morning! But God is good and inspiration comes to those who pray! Suppose the vine weevils didn’t just jump off plants when disturbed, but they are lazy by nature and fall off instead of climbing down?

My theory was proved right by the presence of several drowned vine-weevils in the dishes of water I had left under the plants. With the aid of lengths of guttering strategically placed I managed to drown quite a few. One day I found that one humble 3 foot length of guttering had caught 11 vine weevils overnight! This may not sound much but they can lay between 500-1600 eggs a piece.

My joy turned to further despair when I noticed that my neighbour’s huge privet hedge that ran down one side of my garden was infested with vine-weevils and also the lilac that belonged to the other neighbour! With horror I realized that although I could possibly win the war in my own garden, I couldn’t defeat the enemies of the entire neighbourhood.

I found a charming little story on the Internet that showed that even in the 1587 French villagers were having the same problems as me. The residents of Saint-Julien-de-Maurienne were having their vines ravaged by a horde of ‘amblevins’ as they are called in the Savoyard dialect. The local judge ordered a court case against them. But to represent the weevils fairly an advocate was appointed on their behalf. The local people offered the vine-weevils a patch of pasture away from the vineyards where they could munch away to their hearts content. Their lawyer argued that the area was infertile and didn’t at all suit his clients. We don’t know the end of the story, but perhaps the villagers were trying out the new legal process of allowing a Devil’s advocate, a new system that was established in the same year as the story took place.

When the Norman’s invaded England the first thing they did was to build motte and bailey castles. The bailey or palisade was probably to keep the English out, but I am sure that the water ditch was there to protect their small parcels of land from the possibility of invading vine-weevils. Even if my theory is not true, the next house I look for will have a moat!

Corks

Reims is one of only a few cities in France that has a motorway running through its centre. When we first arrived, we used to see written on the overhead gantry ‘Risque de bouchons’. As the area is full of champagne houses where bottles are filled and processed, I assumed that there was a risk that lorries could accidentally spill corks on the roads and cause hazards for motorists. After all ‘bouchon’ is the French word for a cork that stoppers the mouth (bouche) of a bottle. After a while I realised that the French for traffic jam was un bouchon, just as in English we might call it a bottleneck.

Cork is a wonderful product that comes from the bark of particular oak trees called Cork Oaks. Cork is an excellent insulator and is often used for floor tiles, place mats and trivets to protect tables from being damaged by hot dishes. Rather than throw wine bottle corks away we have adopted the habit of keeping them in a very large glass bowl. This week it was time that something must be done as the bowl was full to overflowing.

One way we had found of recycling corks to their best advantage was to make a heat mat out of some of them to protect our wooden table. I had found a shallow wooden tray in a craft shop and had carefully arranged wine corks to fit in it in an attractive, symmetrical tight fitting pattern. Corks come in slightly different sizes and finding the right cork for the right place had taken a lot of time. We had never felt the need to glue them in place as they hardly moved and it was easier to remove crumbs or bits of food by just lifting out one or two. I must emphasise just one or two, because if more were displaced it was very difficult find the right place and orientation of the cork so that they all sat level again.

Our first warning to any visitors we have is, ‘Don’t touch the corks’. An unfortunate visitor had been left in the house for a while on his own and he had had an accident with the tray. He had picked it up, turned it over to look at where it was made and …….. spent 4 hours putting the corks back in place!!

Having more corks than anyone could ever need means finding a use for them or throwing some away. Twenty or so, were plastic looking and felt like plastic. Written on each one were the reassuring words 100% recyclable. However, on looking into the subject it is not clear how this can happen or where. Those got put into our plastics recycling box.

What can one do with a collection of 125 champagne corks? I can assure you that we have not drunk all of those bottles. We often pocket them when going to events where bottles have been opened. I have made about a dozen into key rings. I am hoping that boat owners feel that an accessory that floats will be an advantage when they are on the water with their keys. I have seen that miniature plant pots can be made by hollowing out the centres of these bigger bouchons – that sounds an interesting idea.

That left 144 wine bottle corks. Oh, well that seems like another heat resistant tray is called for. As IKEA is currently selling a small bamboo tray, the idea took off. After a careful sorting out of matching corks, a neat pattern emerged. However, this time each one was carefully glue gunned in place so as to not horrify an unsuspecting visitor.





Don’t touch the corks!
Too many corks!
Key rings that float.

Pilgrim’s Rest.

Living on the ancient pilgrimage route between Canterbury and Rome, we volunteered to take in those arriving in Reims, looking for a bed for the night. So far we have received walkers, cyclists, single people and even a family with young children. Italians, Dutch, Belgians, French and British are among those we have welcomed. Some are taking time out to reflect about life and to think about spiritual things. We have decorated one bedroom with a large poster depicting the life of John Bunyan who wrote the book Pilgrim’s Progress. It is always interesting to chat with travellers and they usually ask why we came to France and are intrigued when we say that it was a call from God. Our guests often have catholic backgrounds and are interested in our protestant view point.

Reims is twinned with Canterbury. Both are cathedral cities associated with pilgrimage. Canterbury is the start of the Via Francigena, that was supposedly the route taken in 990 by Sigéric the Archbishop of Canterbury. As he did the return journey, he noted the 80 stages of his 2,000 km walk.

Many people think that the part though Northern France is a bit dull and uninteresting compared to the Alps or medieval Italy, but I like to remind people that the route they are taking was the front line during the 1st World War and that the now peaceful countryside was was far from quiet with the noise of shelling, bombing and explosions. The many beautifully kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries testify today to the colossal loss of life from 1914-18. It is relatively empty because so many villages were destroyed. Wood from forests became duck boards and trench linings.

So, if you want to walk or cycle 300 km on the GR 145 (Grande Randonné) and stop for a few days of rest in Cormontreuil (our part of Reims) you will be very welcome.

Pilgrim’s Rest at Cormontreuil

We have registered as a Bed & Breakfast with one double room and one single room. For 20€ /night and 5€ for an evening meal of mostly home-made food. We can cater for special diets too. Breakfast includes at least 4 flavours of homemade jams made with fruit from the garden.

Good news for Piglets

If you eat pork, bacon, ham, sausages or chorizo and care about animals then this week’s news will interest you. The French government has announced that from January 2022 it will be illegal to castrate baby pigs without anaesthetics. The procedure has historically been done to stop the meat having an unpalatable smell at maturity. In spite of a European declaration in 2012 it has yet to be halted even though the aim was to end castration without pain relief in Europe by 2018. Other countries such as the UK, Ireland and Spain slaughter pigs before sexual maturity, therefore avoiding the problem of unpleasant smelling meat. However, the problem is far less important now than in the past. Once, 20 % of pork was tainted but with selective breeding and improved feedstuffs, the strange smell only appears in 2% of carcasses. Yet, castration without pain relief was widespread.

Some French products demand pork from castrated piglets – Bayonne ham for example. Avoiding the possibility of ‘boar taint’ has been the priority of French farmers and pork product manufacturers. Only, 2.8 million piglets went uncastrated in France in 2019, just a fraction of the 23.5 million produced overall.

Another problem with the French pig industry is that it is very intensive. Pigs have 1 square metre to live in or less. We live in the north-east of France where several pork dishes are part of the region’s heritage, yet we have never seen a field of outdoor pigs enjoying mud and space to roam. Most pigs never see daylight nor feel anything but wooden slats under their trotters.

So are the piglets that provide your pork and sausages now living happy, contented lives? Well, no. There is still the problem of tail docking. In the first week of life 99% of piglets in France have their tails chopped off. The problem goes back to the number of piglets kept in small spaces with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The only thing of interest for them to play with is the tails of their fellows. The bitten tails can become infected, so many farmers like to chop them off to stop the problems progressing.

There is also the practise of cutting or grinding down piglets’ teeth supposedly to prevent damage to the sows udders. What is the answer to all of this?

We now buy very few pork products. When we see frozen ‘sanglier’ (wild boar) on sale in Aldi we buy it. It tastes and looks very different to the pink, insipid pork meat that everyone is used to. It has flavour, taste and texture.

If you are fortunate enough to live near an enterprising farmer who sells direct to the public, embrace his products. It is likely that you will be able to see his animals and that they will have ample space to move, access to fresh air, straw to lie on and burrow into and most importantly, enchanting, curly, waggly tails.

Dust

Today my usually smart clothes are streaked with grey. I want to  

brush myself down but that would be counter productive…it will only

 return to plague me again. It is dust.

         I hate dust. It is the bane of every housewife and househusband. It is relentless. It makes us into sluts without us doing anything. We go on holiday, have a lovely time, we clean the gite from top to bottom before we leave and come home to a house covered in dust. It calls out to us with an evil sneer, “You can’t escape the chores. Relaxing and holidays are not allowed!  Look at me, this house is in a mess!”

         Dust is universal. The Queen has dust at the palace; the prisoner has dust in his cell. No one can escape dust. Charles Darwin, sailing aboard The Beagle noted that dust fell on the ship even when it was thousands of miles from land. Dust can be carried in the air from continent to continent. Given particular conditions cars in Britain get covered in red dust, blown all the way from the Sahara. I even read that rally driving in dusty deserts was stirring up such huge clouds of dust that is causing pollution in other continents.

         Dust is always grey. It never ceases to fascinate me that whatever the colour of carpets and soft furnishings the dust produced is always grey. Dust consists of soil particles, flakes of dead skin, pollen grains, bacteria and viruses and carpet fibres amongst other things. Some of these are amazingly beautiful. Computer generated pictures of viruses are fantastically complex and colourful. Pollen grains are unique to the plants they come from. Individual pollen grains take many diverse forms such as tiny sea urchins and miniature hand grenades. How is such beauty reduced to a grey gritty powder?

         Dust can travel in all directions and is as good at gaining entry as the best burglar. It gets into every crevice. It gets behind clocks and under cupboards and down inside empty vases. It gets into glass covered bookcases and on top of lampshades. It can cling to vertical walls and collect on cobwebbed ceilings.

         Dust embarrasses us. A friend of mine always manages to run her finger over some surface in my house where I haven’t dusted. Once she even wrote her name in my dust on one particular shelf. Dust calls forth emotional resolutions to clean more often. However, seeing dust in other people’s houses can create feelings of superiority and pride, that our dust is not quite as thick or at least not quite so obvious!

I once read that the latest health fad in Sweden was pills that contain garden soil. Apparently soil has an abundance of micro-organisms that we need for effective digestion. If someone can make their fortune from selling soil pills, I wonder if I can put my dust to good use? After all it contains bacteria, viruses, pollen grains and soil particles which in small quantities would almost certainly give a boost to the immune system. There is the theory that living in environments that are too clean has caused the rapid increase in allergies. So therefore dust is good for you! But not of course your own dust, because you have already been exposed to all your own bacteria and soil micro-organisms.  But my dust could be just what you need to give a burst of vitality, a lift up to better health!

Perhaps I could turn my dust into an asset? When I feel people are looking rather too closely at my dusty surfaces, I can say,”Oh yes, haven’t you heard that dust is very good for you? Would you like a finger full? Maybe I could even market it as genuine household dust. I could franchise my ideas and become the first Dust Magnate! My epitaph would read, “From dust she came, dust was her life and after death she returned to it!

P.S. After one year of living in a rented house, we moved into a house we had bought. On moving day I was horrified to see the amount of dust that had collected under the beds and furniture after just one year. Our French friend said that they have a name for balls of dust – moutons -wooly sheep! I am now convinced that there is more dust in France than in the UK. The fact that there is is name for balls of dust and that they grow so quickly.

Fourteen Stones Lighter

A friend has just informed us that he had to have an emergency gall-bladder removal, which reminded me of this article from 2008 when we had only been in France for 18 months.

NO, IT’S not due to some trendy new diet, but to a short stay in a French Hospital.

A couple of months ago I went to my doctors because I had a pain in my back. I also experienced a very strange pain under my ribs after I had drunk a small glass of Chartreuse.  A scan revealed an enlarged liver and gallstones in my gallbladder (vesicule). The next step was to see a specialist at the St. Andre Clinic. Now, I don’t know what the word “Clinic” conjures up for you, but for me, we used to go to the clinic to have our teeth checked by the school dentist and to the clinic to have babies weighed. Both were very small establishments with perhaps 5 employees. In Reims there are 3 clinics each the size of a hospital.  My specialist at the St Andre clinic recommended surgery as a stone could easily move into the bile duct, block it and cause liver failure at any time. I was offered a date before Christmas, but wanted to be back in the UK with the family so opted for 5th January. I often say that you have to be quite fit to be sick in France as you are given so many things to do if you go to see a doctor. The wad of papers that I came away with included a prescription for some support stockings, a paper to take to our health insurer to check that we were covered for the cost of the hospital stay, and an appointment with the anaesthetist, and an inordinately long list of towels of various sizes that I would require for my hospital stay.

            I had to arrive at the clinic on the Sunday afternoon before my operation the next day. At the reception, we waited to be booked in by a clerk, which involved signing various pieces of paper, presenting my “Carte Vitale” and paying upfront for the stay, 150 euros. I could also opt for a telephone, a television and some other extras each of which carried an extra charge.

            We were then given the building number, floor and a room number. We found the right corridor and the nurse’s station and were directed to a double room with ensuite bathroom and shower. When the nurses knew that I was English they all spoke very slowly and clearly. I was very grateful for that because my fear was not about the operation but about being an English person in a French hospital.

            After Graham left I was alone with just my Collins pocket dictionary for support. Its introduction states that it contains a wealth of modern and idiomatic phrases not normally found in a volume of comparable size. It does not lie. It has been my saviour on numerous occasions. But could it cope with an operation on my ‘vésicule‘?

            After a nurse had checked my name, the reason for my stay and given me an identity bracelet, another nurse appeared who wanted to shave me! (raser). As I had to undress from the waist down, she obviously wasn’t worried about the hairs on my chin! This was quite a shock as the NHS in the UK abandoned this practise long ago. There were no curtains between my bed and the bed next door so there was no possibility of privacy, only the hope that your roommate will avert their eyes! Perhaps I will get used to standing ½ naked in front of medical practitioners. The French are a lot less uptight about it that I am used to.   

            The anaesthetist called in just to check that I had arrived. I was relieved that he didn’t go through the checklist of allergies and illnesses again which I had gone through at a separate appointment. I remember being very irritated in the UK having to go through that list with 3 different personnel one after the other and thinking, why don’t they look at the form their colleague has just been through with me.

            Another practitioner came to take a “Prise de sang” which amounted to 6 phials of blood, albeit small ones!

            My light “léger” evening meal arrived, which couldn’t have been any lighter without being non-existent, a bowl of bouillon and chocolate yoghurt. “Oh, well my post-Christmas diet has started”, I thought.

            The last act of the evening was to take a shower. I was given a bottle of brown liquid and told to wash not just my body but my hair as well. In the bathroom was an illustrated card detailing the exact method to use. First the hair and the face, then the body, not forgetting the ‘aisselles‘ (armpits), ‘nombril‘ (navel) and a word my dictionary couldn’t cope with but as “plier” means “to fold” I supposed must mean creases. I must use one of my two “gants de toilette” (bathmit) and dry with a clean “ serviette de toilette”(towel) of which I had had to bring four.

            The next morning I had to have another hair-wash and shower using some more brown liquid and fresh towels and this time to dress in a disposable surgical gown. I wonder if any cases of MRSA have managed to evade such a thorough system of prevention?

            By this time I had got to know the lady in the bed next to me. She had lived in Reims all her life and would have been born in the city had her mother not had to flee during the First World War. During the Second World War her husband had been a prisoner in a German concentration camp and she had sheltered English and American servicemen in her house. She said that the English were “sage” (well behaved) but the Americans were not and kept looking out of the windows. Fortunately she had good neighbours and received certificates from the British and American governments for her bravery. I had just been reading a book about the Bedford Triangle and the Carpetbagger flights to drop supplies and resistance workers into occupied Europe during the war, and had read about the reprisals that the Germans did to people at that time. Would you put your life and that of your family and neighbours on the line for stupid Americans who couldn’t resist looking outof the windows?

            After the operation I found myself back in bed and connected to a drip. My blood pressure and temperature were taken regularly and I was asked if I was in pain. It didn’t start to hurt until everything started to knit together and then any movement pulled at the wounds. As soon as I said that I had some pain the drip was replaced with something that ameliorated it. There was a chart in the welcome pack that said to grade your pain from 1-10 and that the nurses’ mission was to get rid of small pains and to lessen bad ones. 

            I was impressed that anything that we needed was done with cheerfulness. My roommate had had a bowel operation and needed pads. These were offered regularly without her having to ask. The bedpan was brought in the middle of the night with only a cheerful comment about the feebleness of my efforts. Sterilizing hand rub was used by the nurses after each contact and also offered to us. 

            Unfortunately my “léger” regime continued that evening with a repeat of the bowl of bouillon and the chocolate yogurt. By the next morning I was awake at 6.00 and longing for the sound of the breakfast trolley. To my horror I was obviously still on light meals as only a packet of 2 melba toasts and a cup of coffee arrived. At least my neighbour got a bread roll! My nice lady surgeon visited after breakfast and brought me a phial containing my 14 gallstones, all nicely flattened where they had been squashed in against each other. Proof of her hard work. She asked if I wanted to go home before or after lunch and I replied, ”before” in case I was still on the “light menu” list. 

            As I said, you need to be quite fit in order to be ill in France. My leaving instructions were to go to the payment clerk to settle anything remaining on the bill, go to the office of the surgeon to get an “arrêt de travaille” and a prescription for painkillers and 10 daily anti- thrombosis injections, go to the chemist to get the prescriptions and arrange for another blood test from my doctor!

            The “arrêt de travaille” certificate proved to be for 2 weeks. During this time you must remain in your house during working hours and an inspector could call at any time to check that you are not working. Friends have told us that you can creep out at lunch times because no self-respecting French inspector would visit during his lunch break.           

            We arrived home from the hospital and waited all day for the nurse to come and give me the next anti-thrombosis injection. Then the neighbour called round and said that it was up to us to phone the local nurse to ask her to call. He looked in the telephone book and found one who lived just around the corner. She was very obliging and when she heard that I had not had my dose for that day, arrived within half an hour. She said that I would need another blood test to check my “plaquettes”(blood cells) so that’s another phone call to the doctor and a trip out to the laboratory. But without doubt I will be given the results of the test by the end of the day, together with a list of norms within which my results should lie.

            I have a follow-up appointment to go to with my surgeon/specialist in a month’s time, by which time we will have had experience of almost all of the facilities that the French health service provides.

            All that remains is to fill out the questionnaire given me by the clinic. Of the 20 or so questions asked I shall have to tick the box marked “bon” in every case, if there was a box for “excellent” I would happily have ticked that. The only question that I am hesitating over is the one about ‘Quantity of food’. Is it fair to leave them scratching their heads by leaving a great big tick in the “Insuffisant” box?

Poubelles

One winter evening 14 years ago I was by myself in the house when the door bell rang. Three men were just departing through the gate but stopped and called  back to me “ Poubelles “. I didn’t understand why they wanted my dustbins. They repeated “Poubelles” but when they could see I didn’t understand they left. I shut the door, but couldn’t stop wondering what the purpose of their visit had been. 

         Slowly, I started to remember something in the excellent book that had helped us so much in our preparations for moving, ‘Living and Working in France’. After much searching I found the part I wanted under ‘Tipping’.

I read the extract with mounting horror, ‘Christmas is generally the time of giving tips to all and sundry, including the postman, rubbish collectors and firemen, who will often call in early December ‘offering’ you a calendar, for which you’re nevertheless expected to pay (unless you don’t want your post delivered, your rubbish collected or any house-fires extinguished for the following 12 months)’ Oh, no! I had just refused to give a tip to my dustmen! Would our rubbish be strewn over the road for all of the next year in retaliation?

Poubelles is a word to rank with Biro, Hoover and Wellingtons because it’s the name of the inventor of the object. Monsieur Eugèné René Poubelle was the Préfet of Paris. In 1884, he ordered that everyone must have a receptacle for their rubbish that must be put outside their doors to facilitate street cleaning. The boxes became known as ‘poubelles’, hence the French word for dustbins.

The dustbin men are called ‘éboueurs’ from the mud that they had to work with in the streets. It’s not a very nice name but whenever I see the dustbin men at work I think it’s much more exciting job here than in the UK. 

In the UK the dustbin men trudge along behind the dustcart. Here they are more ‘macho’ and have a little footplate and a handle at the back of the lorries. After emptying a few bins they hop onto their wagon and ride to the next bins like naughty schoolboys clinging onto the back of an old double decker bus. They don’t seem to be governed by so many health and safety regulations either. The man who empties the big double bins in our cemetery often lifts the whole bin by himself. They are also extremely efficient. Many streets are closed for weekly markets and the rubbish that is left is unbelievable, yet within half an hour of the last stall closing, the streets are pristine again.

For the €1100 we pay our local council we receive an excellent service. (For those British readers with weak hearts and high blood pressures, please skip the next sentence). The bins are emptied 3 times a week. We can also put out our yellow topped recycling bin once a week and that takes plastic bottles, paper, cartons and tins. Strict codes of conduct are expected from residents. We must only put out our bins after 7 p.m. and must take them in as soon as possible after they have been emptied. In our area the bins are emptied at about 5 o’clock in the morning, but I haven’t seen anyone going out at that hour to bring in their bins. 

For bigger items of rubbish such as tree prunings, old furniture and rubble there are 4 municipal dumps located around the city. There are also rubbish skips that are supplied by our local council. When a skip appears in your street it saves you the effort of loading up the car and going to the dump.

There is no household collection of green waste but anyone can get a compost bin for the subsidized price of €15 from the local council. A short time after signing up for one a pick-up truck arrived at our house. The bin was delivered in pieces, but the delivery person also dug over the patch of soil where it was to go, helped to assemble it, gave us an instruction book and then wanted our signatures in triplicate.

The nearest bottle bank is just across the road at the end of the street, but again there is a notice saying ‘7h-22h only’ in case you disturb the neighbourhood with the sounds of breaking glass.

One year when it had been snowing heavily for 2 days, buses have stopped running, classes have been cancelled but some people in the street put out their wheelie-bins. Did they really imagine the ‘éboueurs’ would be at work in temperatures of minus 10 °c?

Fortunately, our bins were emptied during the following year. David Hampshire, the author of the book, was just having his little joke! I did not need to buy a calendar in order to guarantee good service. But of all the jobs in the world from the night soil collectors in India to the rubbish collectors of Cairo, handling everyone else’s waste is the least honoured of all occupations.  Showing our gratitude once a year is right and proper. Was the foolish optimism of my neighbours justified? Yes! The bins were emptied at 5 am even in that bleak mid-winter.

Our Cemetery

Do you like visiting cemeteries ? In the UK we lived very close to one and it was a popular route to take into town, with plenty of mature trees, squirrels, birds and  a large wild flower patch yellow with dandelions in the spring.

We had no problem with buying a house that overlooked a graveyard here in France. The advantages are many. No-one will be able to develop the land and build a block of flats that blocks out our light. It is locked at night and surrounded by a high wall so thieves would find it very difficult to break into our house from behind. It is also very calm. No noisy neighbours for us! We have a little joke that we like to tell people when they visit. The family across the road have the very un-French surname of More. So we tell visitors that we are ‘entre les morts’. We have the dead – ‘les morts’ on one side and ‘Les Mores’ on the other, so we are between the dead!

We have been very surprised to find that the average French attitude is very different. People will refuse point blank to rent or buy a home next to the dead.  The reticence to have tombs near to dwellings can be seen in the placement of cemeteries. In the UK the local church usually has a large patch of sacred ground round it, but this is rarely the case in France. Cemeteries are often far from the village and out of sight behind a high brick wall. 

When I was researching the history of my grandfather’s brother who was killed in France in 1917 on the Somme, I wanted to find the local cemetery in the village of Courcelette. (George Tinsley Loveley – ‘He fought at Gallipoli and died on the Somme.’ Available on Amazon) My Great-uncle was killed at the age of 24 during a German advance. His body was found and his papers were sent to the British by the ‘enemy’. The family were told that he was buried in German Cemetery No 1. But now that graveyard has been lost. I wanted  to see if there were any isolated German or British soldier’s graves in the local village amongst those of civilians. I searched maps. I searched the village website. Nothing – no mention of one. I knew this could not be the case. There was one in every village. In the end I went onto Google Earth and virtually ‘walked’  along every road out of the hamlet. Along a country lane, was an unusually high, neatly trimmed, hedge. I said to my husband, ‘That is where we must look.’ We visited the area and hey, presto, I had found what had  not been marked on any map – the well-hidden burial ground.

If you are in France during October the cemetery is one of the places to be. At the end of the month are two weeks of half-term holidays for school children, culminating in 1st November Toussaint national holiday. The tradition is to put flowers on graves for All Saint’s Day.  I must add that the right to have a grave space is often only 30 years. If the grave is left untended and neglected the local council will repossess it and re-use it! Terrible news for family history addicts. Thus, during October far more visitors than usual come to see where their loved ones are interred. The grave must be weeded and cleaned. People arrive with buckets and cleaning materials to give the marble headstones a good scrub. Nearly everyone comes armed with a large pot of chrysanthemums. Modern intensive plant breeding mean that these ‘golden flowers’ , for that is the meaning in Greek, can now be bought in all shades of yellow, red, pink, white and purply-bronze. The view from our window becomes more and more florid as the days pass. Families come with little children in pushchairs, couples arrive, older people with mobility problems do their duty to their sadly missed defuncts.

            There was an advert on British TV quite a long time ago for an Italian product. In it a young man left a bunch of chrysanthemums on the doorstep of a girl he was hoping to impress. Grandma came home, saw the flowers and burst into tears. The viewers were supposed to know that chrysanths are associated with death in most of southern Europe. Don’t ever take a bunch as a present to anyone. They will be very taken aback.

We often take a walk around at the close of the day to appreciate  our own Chelsea flower show. Sometimes there are poignant flower arrangements. The Victorians were known for using ‘the language of flowers’ to transmit secret messages. Three vases of identical Chrysanthemums with a few red roses among them, surely spoke of ‘love’ separated by ‘death’?

Sadly, these hot house grown plants don’t last very long as the November weather takes hold. Sometimes strong winds wreak havoc and pots are overturned and can be seen rolling around on their sides. Cold rain soon kills these tender plants. The council gardeners come with a pick-up truck and any dead or dying ones are quickly removed. The big green bins are overflowing with discarded floral arrangements. However, rich pickings can sometimes be had by removing the nicest pots before the bin men arrive. Gardeners can never have enough recipients!

I feel a bit like the unofficial guardian. When, one evening at dusk a man staggered along the path, I was concerned. I was even more worried when neither I nor my husband, from the vantage point of our dining room table, had noticed him leave as night began to fall. I had always wondered what would happen if someone fell among the tombs, unable to get up. I decided to go and check. I entered, but saw nothing, I continued, still nothing. Then right at the far end, I saw a body lying over a ground level memorial. I hurried towards him fearing the worst but was relieved to hear sobs and breathing. I encouraged him to get up and to come with me. Fortunately, some younger family members soon arrived and took charge. I explained that I had seen him enter and indicated my house. Later on in the week someone knocked at my door. It was the man who had been in deep distress. He thanked me and explained that the tomb was his wife’s who had committed suicide.

Cut price tombs! Every October time there are adverts in the papers for reductions in the price of memorials. I wonder what happens if you buy one. Does it get delivered and you store it in your garage until needed? I heard of someone who wanted a marble table for his garden, but needed the help of half a  dozen friends to lift it into place. I wonder if the reductions in October are attractive, we could make use of the slab as a luxurious outdoor eating surface in the mean time!