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!

A few days in Switzerland

When train companies send you cut price deals and you also have a senior citizen rail pass, sometimes the offers are too good to resist. My husband read out a list of European destinations we could visit for next to nothing. For me Geneva grabbed my attention as it was one of the centres of church reform, so much so that it was once called the Protestant Rome. It would be a chance to discover more of Reformation history.

What were the differences we found having left France for a few days in Geneva? Having traversed Paris and lugged our suitcases up yet another flight of stairs, in train stations, parks and underground networks, the first thing we noted after arrival at Geneva station were the 2 slopes that led us from the train to the street. There was even a little slope beside the half a dozen steps up to our budget hotel.

Switzerland uses the Swiss frank (CHF) but we could spend our Euros as long as we don’t mind getting our change in Swiss coins. Upon seeing the bank notes that the cash machine issued, our reaction was ‘Wow, they are beautiful!’ Their notes have won prizes in ‘The Most Beautiful Bank Note’ competitions.

We were very pleased to receive a free bus pass along with our room key. As we often buy a bus pass when we visit towns by rail, that was a very pleasant surprise. The bus and tram network was impressive and we seldom had to wait more than a few minutes for one to arrive.

Eating out is often fraught with problems as I am on a gluten free diet. However, A quick search on the internet revealed more than enough establishments to give us a choice of venues. In France, being a vegetarian is considered strange and a few vegan products are just beginning to be available in supermarkets.

Geneva is in an interesting location at the foot of one end of the upside down crescent that is Lake Leman. We took a bus trip up the eastern side of the lake until there was a terminus, because any further and we would be in France.

We also took a bus trip in a westward direction as CERN was marked on our map. Once again we reached the frontier with France. To the south is France as well. Only the strip of land on the western side of the lake joins Geneva to the rest of Switzerland.

I had wanted to visit CERN- the European centre for nuclear research – as I wanted to find our what it felt like to have a 27 kilometre ring of tunnels under my feet with particles whizzing around them. A number of impressive exhibition centres are being built just beside the tram tracks, but we had to content ourselves with reading information of various free standing boards.

I had always been fascinated by the story of how Henry Dunant had thought it would be interesting to see a battle taking place, but was then horrified by the maimed and dying soldiers that were left untreated at the end of the day. His experiences led to the founding of the Red Cross. The headquarters and exhibition centre was to be our first port of call. I was disappointed by the too ‘Artistic’ exhibits that didn’t explain Henry’s involvement but were housed in lovely curved wood panelled rooms. I didn’t learn that he was one of the founders of the Y.M.C.A. and had a deep personal Christian faith.

Who would have guessed that Patek Philippe watches were named after the two founders? The top floor of the museum contained a library of all the 8,000 books ever written about time and watches, starting from ‘Learn to Tell the time with Noddy’ up to books on the universe.

For me one of the most amazing timepieces was made to look like a big vase of flowers. A small clock was part of the vase and the flowers were made of feathers. Almost hidden in the floral display were many small feather birds. On the hour they didn’t just chirp, but turned around and flapped their wings! It would be well worth while going again on a thematic tour of the enamelled watches or the automatons.

We found the giant wall that commemorated the reformers from Luther to John Calvin and surprisingly our own Oliver Cromwell, warts and all. However the Museum of the Reformation was closed due to refurbishment! How could they do that the week that I wanted to visit? I thought that the Museum of Art and History would fill the gap, but although there was plenty of Art, ‘History’ was only Archeology. A temporary exhibition of fans didn’t help me with my desire to find out about the Genevan reformers of the church. A tantalising video on https://www.musee-reforme.ch/en/the-reformation-in-seven-minutes/ gives us 1 minute of this 7 minute presentation! Oh, well, we will have to visit again after checking whether the Reform Museum is open!

Our nearest vineyards

When we step outside of our town houses’s front door and turn left along our road we can see a nice green hill in the distance. Sometimes we can just distinguish a tractor working there. On a recent Sunday afternoon I said, ‘Lets climb to the top where there is that small wood.’

To get there we crossed a deserted trading estate and then over the Reims by-pass, followed by a walk along an almost non-existent verge beside a busy main road. We jumped across a ditch onto a farm track and started a gentle climb. We were surprised when the purple alfalfa crops gave way to rows of vines. We have lived in sight of champagne vineyards for 15 years without realising it.

Champagne vineyards are divided in to ‘parcels’. French inheritance laws have meant that property gets divided up between the number of children that survive their parents. The houses, land and of course vineyards get smaller and smaller. When one vineyard owner marries another, they might have a sizeable inheritance but of ‘parcels’ dotted all around the region. The average size of a plot is only 1,800 square metres of several long thin rectangles.

Walking past the short ends, it is obvious that ownership changes every few rows. Some had a few leftover green grapes, some had a few unpicked red grapes. Some had weeds growing in the space between the rows, others were weeded , while others had neat alleys of mown grass. A grower who is trying to be organic would probably want to encourage insect life and so allow weeds, while another viticulteur doesn’t like weeds as they encourage pests, while another thinks that grass between the vines is a bad thing as the taste of it goes into the grapes via the roots.

Reaching the brow of a hill is always difficult as the closer you get the more hill there seems to be. I wanted to know what was on the other side – I was determined! Eventually we could see and were amazed to find that the vineyards continued for several more kilometres and that our recently discovered part was just a lip, an overhang of the total surface area.

We turned to go home via a track though the vines and realised that we hadn’t got as far as the small wood that topped the hill. Oh well, another adventure for another day. But, looking at Google Earth on our return to see which commune the vines extended into, we could see the outline of one of the forts that was built by General Raymond Séré de Rivières to protect Reims in 1870. Yet another discovery!

The Organisation that looks after British Soldier’s Cemeteries

Before the First World War soldiers were generally buried in mass graves. Only those who were in the upper ranks would have been accorded an individual burial and a memorial.

As it says on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, “It is difficult for those of us who have become familiar with the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate our war dead to appreciate what a revolutionary idea remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was in 1917. Nonetheless, the Commission was a pioneer and what it was doing during and in the aftermath of the First World War was extraordinary.

Never had a nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.

The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man Fabian Ware.”

I have used the Commission’s site many, many times to look up information on British First World War Cemeteries in my area of France. Simply by typing in your postcode you can find all the gravesites in your area.

When I saw that the Commission was having an open day at their headquarters in Beaurains near Arras I jumped at the chance to know more.

I have always been impressed by the amount of information on a British war grave. There is the badge of the regiment such as the Royal Naval Division, or simply the Suffolk Regiment or the more poetic the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Next comes the number and grade of the soldier, then as much of his name as is known, his battalion name followed by his date of death and his age. Usually there is a large cross and space for a few words, such as Rest in Peace or something more personal that was chosen by his family. By contrast French memorials are simple crosses with the name of the soldier, rank and only the initials of the regiment. If you don’t know that R.I.C is Regiment of Infantry Colonial then R.I.C. is not much use. The date of death is written on a French soldier’s grave but not his age.

German war graves have 4 names on the back and front arms of wooden crosses – hardly any information at all.

First of all we were shown the supplies of stone that could be used for memorials. I was surprised to see reddish ones and slate stones waiting to be engraved. In France the usual stones are white Portland stone but other materials are sometimes used. We were surprised to see finished headstones waiting to be shipped to Nigeria.

We learnt that there are subtile differences in the top shape of stones. For instance, a rounded top may indicate not a soldier but an administrator of the commission.

All the iron work in a French cemetery is made or repaired at Beaurains. The decorative finials on top of fences or gates are made in the smithy at Beaurains as are the metal boxes that contain the Book of Remembrance at each cemetery. A worn or degraded piece of metal work can be recreated or repaired in the CWGC workshop.

Then we were shown how the engraving was done and could even have a go ourselves at etching our names or tapping away with stonemason’s tools.

Inside the building was an explanation of how exhumed bodies could be identified by the types of buttons or the shape of a helmet. The presence of a wooden baton would indicate the rank of officer.

I have just found that I can join a Facebook site that gives news of the CWGC. I haven’t mentioned the meticulous work of keeping the cemeteries beautifully cared for with neatly mown grass and flowers in front of each grave. That is part of the legacy of Fabian Ware – he wanted the graveyards to be peaceful and pleasant and not sad, morbid places. I was touched to see a flower picture – it was the blue and red Pulmonaria – also known as Soldiers and Sailors!

A Light Lunch

Even after 15 years of living in France we are still learning things and being surprised by French culture.

In the UK being invited to come for ‘a light lunch’ might mean a ham salad, or soup followed by cheese and biscuits. Jamie Oliver suggests crab cakes or potato rostis. The fail-safe option would be pizza whether the location is Italy, France or the British Isles. My mother used to take the ‘Woman’s Realm’ weekly magazine in which were short stories of the ‘Romantic fiction’ genre. She noted that when an impromptu romantic meal was called for, a fresh herb omelette was often rustled up by the handsome hero.

Twice in the recent past we have been invited for a ‘light lunch’ by friends. Arriving around midday, we have been greeted with an apéritif of either champagne or a gin and tonic. On the coffee table would be a selection of bowls containing nibbles such as dried fruits and nuts, crisps, toasts with smoked salmon on a bed of cream cheese – things that can be eaten as finger food. Sliced pizza may also be served as it is considered as an apéritif and not as a main course.

We learnt this when invited to participate in ‘bring a contribution’ type meals. Our home-made pizza disappeared from the buffet where we had placed it and reappeared in pieces to be passed around as an appetiser. If your offering happens to be ‘gluten free’ and was what you had planned to eat, this presents a problem!

A pleasant time of conversation and friendly exchange ensues while seated in an informal manner. The next step is to be invited to the dining table already set with cutlery, glasses for water, napkins and wine glasses and possibly a simple vase of flowers.

The next courses could start with an entrée, avocado and parma ham, some prawns and salad in a Marie Rose dressing, a pâté or an egg dish. Do not serve anything to do with cheese as that is catered for later! Bread will be offered but never with butter. The bread has an unexpected use as a way of cleaning your plate of any sauces -because the plate will not be removed but will be also used for the main course!

Fish, casseroles, sliced ham, almost anything could be served as the ‘plat principal’ but don’t expect any vegetables except the ubiquitous green beans – les haricots verts. Starches -‘féculants’ such as potatoes, rice or pasta usually accompany meat. A student who stayed with us asked if our ‘light lunch’ of mixed salads could include some ‘féculants’ otherwise she would feel light-headed in the afternoon!

So far we have had apéritifs, un entrée, le plat principal but we have not finished! Next comes the salad either separately from or with the cheese plus more bread. Several cheeses are usually offered a blue veined one, a hard cheese, a goat’s cheese and a camembert. Be careful not to cut across the pointy end of a wedge of cheese as this is considered the best part. Try to leave the cheese in the same basic shape as when it arrived.

We are nearly at the end of our light lunch! Desert! Perhaps a Crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, crème caramel or a simple yogurt.

The students who stayed with us were adamant that they would not drink a coffee with us at 11am. French people drink coffee with their breakfast and after their lunch.

That was how our ‘light lunches’ ended and we were even treated to After Eight Mints!