Signs of the times

In the last few weeks we’ve been up to Courmettes a couple of times to either take people around the site  or collect them from there. It’s been particularly interesting because there now seem to be a number of people who are quite seriously interested in getting involved there in the short- or long-term. (They are also looking for a gardien, but you need good French for that, see this link). We’ve also taken a few days out both on our own and with friends and will probably be posting some pretty pictures from those in the weeks ahead.

One couple we were talking with wanted to go down to Nice to visit the university so we drove down with them and took the excellent park-and-ride tram system. This being France and it being August the university was closed so, almost by accident, we walked down instead to the seafront and along to the “Ground Zero” of the 14 July attacks. The fact that the beaches below the Promenade des Anglaises were full of people enjoying themselves seemed to make the point that this particularly vile act of terrorism had, apart from agony and distress, achieved precisely nothing.

Nice tributes

Nice tributes 2

This bandstand has become an unofficial memorial

 

Elsewhere in the region one of the major features has been just how dry it is. Even up at Courmettes, which gets the occasional rainstorm in summer, the pastures are bleached yellow.

Looking down on Courmettes and the dry pastures

Looking down on Courmettes and the dry pastures

The fire brigade is getting very nervous indeed at how dry everywhere is. In our area the authorities release daily maps giving the fire risk. For information, we are hiding just under number 6 in Centre Var.

fire-risk

Each level of fire risk has various dos and don’ts. The yellow level – severe – advises against entrance into the forests and prohibits smoking, fires, wild camping and using garden power tools or metalworking after 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Red bans almost all access into the area except main roads. Rain would be very welcome.

At this time in August the supermarkets are full of parents clutching lists issued by schools and shaking heads and breathing deep sighs at the cost of the obligatory textbooks and dictionaries. You have to feel slightly sorry for the editors of French dictionaries: the language is clearly evolving very rapidly indeed and if this sign is anything to go by, not very prettily.

At the new WiFi area in a local supermarket...

At the new WiFi area in a local supermarket…

DSCN5037Out in the countryside the grapes are nearly ready for harvesting and indeed we’ve heard that in some areas near us they have already been picked.

One particularly troubling sign of the times was noted by Chris in our local wine cooperative (is it too embarrassing to confess that we have a loyalty card there?). The printed statement about the wine containing 12.5% alcohol had been covered by a sticker with a handwritten 13.5%. Guessing the answer he would get, Chris asked the checkout girl for an explanation and was unsurprised by the response. ‘The weather is hotter in recent years so the wine has now become stronger. C’est le climat.’

Taradeau wine

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Beach, the Bugatti and the Beckhams

Given the international interest over the banning of burkinis at Cannes you might be expecting us to either comment on this matter or simply consider it too trivial for discussion. Well we aren’t going to discuss it, not because it’s too trivial but because it raises some very fundamental issues about Islam and France that are too deep to be discussed in a blog. Instead we’re going to be unutterably trivial but keep with the letter B theme.

The beach

In the last two years we have visited a number of beaches here (probably not as many as you suspect) but our current favourite is that of the Plage du Debarquement au Dramont east of Frèjus and St Raphael. Let’s give you some reasons why.

DSCN5130

  • There’s good free car parking as long as you get there early enough.
  • It’s got space. It’s not just long but it’s also deep which means that it doesn’t feel cramped.
  • DSCN5101

    Yes these really are bicycles on floats

    It’s got facilities. There are loos, a coffee shop, a restaurant, and the possibility of hiring canoes and rather bizarre floating things with bicycles on top of them.

  • It’s got shade. If the sun gets too much you can retreat under the trees.
  • It’s got fantastic views. You can see as far as the St Tropez peninsula.
  • The water is clear and clean.
  • It’s a great place for snorkelling, as you get to see lots of fish.
  • It’s interesting. The beach takes its name, Plage du Debarquement, because it was one of the main beaches for the Allied landings (Operation Dragoon) on the coast in August 1944 that ended the Nazi occupation of southern France. To commemorate the fact there is an imposing and solemn parade ground, various inscriptions and a well preserved landing craft. It’s an interesting reminder that even a secular state has to have sacred locations.

DSCN5128

  • If that isn’t enough, when you look offshore you see the extraordinary tower of the Ile d’Or. It’s widely believed that Hergé was inspired by a photograph of it for the Tintin book The Black Island (yes we know he transposed it to Scotland). It’s actually a 19th-century folly but it certainly gives a certain character to the beach.

DSCN5157

  • There’s a good walk nearby. Cap Dramont to the east is a dramatic headland of volcanic rock which gives rise to some challenging and fascinating scrambles around its edge. It’s also a nature reserve which means it has more than the usual amount of birdlife. We have even seen a Blue Rock Thrush there, which is well, a blue Thrush that hangs around rocks.
  • Finally there’s a more than passable restaurant which has good food at modest prices and has a view that most restaurants would trade a Michelin star for.

DSCN5137

The Bugatti

There was a great deal of excitement last weekend outside the Carlton hotel which is as we have previously commented is around 50 yards away from our church. Everybody was ignoring all the usual Ferraris and Lamborghinis and staring at an exotic blue Bugatti with Saudi plates guarded by two bodyguards who had that don’t-mess-with-me attitude. It turns out that this is the first Bugatti Chiron to be seen publicly. Having a little bit of research on the matter we can tell you that the Chiron is billed not simply as a supercar but as a hypercar and is a replacement for the famed Bugatti Veyron. It’s claimed to have a 1500 horsepower engine, a top speed limited to 261 mph, goes from 0 to 60 mph in less than 2.5 seconds and apparently at top speed can drain its hundred litre fuel tank in nine seconds. It has an alleged cost of over two and half million pounds (which explains the bodyguards). The word ridiculous comes to mind.

DSCN5211

The Beckhams?

We wouldn’t ever have called them our neighbours – they were at least twenty minutes drive away – but David and Victoria Beckham are selling their six-bedroom house in France. If you’re interested in some details try this link. It’s a snip at £2.4 million.

Compared to the Bugatti Chiron it looks an absolute bargain.

Posted in Uncategorized, Var | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Aftermaths

Regionally and internationally the two big events for us have been the Nice atrocity of 14 July and of course, Brexit. Last Sunday we came to terms with something of the aftermath of both.

DSCN4897-001

These hanging baskets with massive concrete bases have suddenly appeared across the seafront to prevent vehicle access.

When it comes to security Cannes faces something of a security quandary. It’s not dissimilar to that portrayed in Spielberg’s Jaws, where the mayor of a marine resort doesn’t want to face the fact that there is a killer shark in the water because it’s going to ruin the economy. So when we went into Cannes precisely a week after the Paris attacks last November there was not a trace of security around. ‘Crisis? What crisis?’ was the invisible message and it was understandable. After all Paris is a long way away. However the Nice attack was a bit too close for comfort. So security has been tightened, although to be honest you could easily not notice it.

DSCN5027

Actually one of the perverse effects of indiscriminate terrorist attacks is that after a while they lose their effectiveness. After all, if you don’t know where terrorists going to strike next how do you know that it isn’t going to be where you flee to?  For instance,  this summer you could  have shunned France and gone to Thailand; the site of Friday’s terrorist atrocities. (If this is jogging memories we refer you to Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samara, the retelling of an ancient Mesopotamian tale where someone fleeing from Death in one place escapes to exactly the place where they are destined to meet him.) Anyway on balance everybody seems to be having a grand time in Cannes and we thoroughly recommend it and if you are passing by, our church is just round the back of the Carlton Hotel.

As evidence of normality – if you can ever use that word for Cannes – there seems to be more than the usual number of outrageous cars, some of which parked themselves in front of the church.

Outside the church and on the pedestrian crossing

Parking your Ferrari outside the church (and on a pedestrian crossing). That never happened in Swansea.

So it’s business as usual in Cannes. More or less.

In terms of Brexit (is anybody now prepared to admit they voted for it?) we had a Conservative MEP Richard Ashworth speaking in church afterwards on the implications. (Note that if politicians speak during church they are expected to be honest, after church they can behave normally.)

Note that the church isn't really this shape but the panorama curves it.

Note that the church isn’t really this shape but the panorama curves it.

Given that he was a Conservative (albeit a Remain one) it was a brave appearance and he did little to defend Cameron’s disastrous gamble. He spoke well but frankly it was a little bit like a soufflé — all rather insubstantial. He pointed out what everybody now realises: we have blundered into an enormously complicated mess, we are most unlikely to get any better deal from the EU than we had before, and it’s going to take a very long time to sort out. Having been in favour of remaining in himself he was able to hint that he wasn’t terribly impressed with some of his colleague’s arguments in favour of leaving. (Yes Boris he meant you.) In the course of his talk he sensibly skirted around the unfortunate reality that most of his hearers in the church were dependent on sterling pensions or funds that were now worth around 15 percent less than they were a couple of months ago. His advice to everybody seemed to be get a big book, sit on the beach and enjoy the summer.

That’s probably what the Cannes Tourist Office is saying too.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Keeping busy

We do hope that no readers are under the impression that life here is little more than an endless round of visiting pretty scenic spots interspersed with trips to vineyards and restaurants. We do do other things.

In fact in the last few days we have really been rather busy. Saturday we visited a friend from church in the hills nearby and were persuaded to stay for lunch. We did a few more things around the house and then in the evening drove a not inconsiderable distance to a party held by some other friends in the church who have a house perched on a rather spectacular slope.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunday was church, where Chris led the prayers. There was a nod to unpleasant realities through Giles’s inclusion of the (thankfully rarely used) Anglican Collect for Martyrs which in this case ran:

Almighty God,
by whose grace and power your holy martyr Jacques Hamel
triumphed over suffering and was faithful unto death:
strengthen us with your grace,
that we may endure reproach and persecution
and faithfully bear witness to the name
of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

DSCN4911-001Then we had an impromptu picnic on the way back at Lac St Cassien which is one of those flooded valley reservoirs. It makes a pleasant swimming place because it doesn’t have any waves, salt to cling to your skin or jellyfish. After that we did a bit of birdwatching and were happy to see some Red-rumped swallows.

 

 

Monday we both worked in the morning and then in the afternoon went over to a very interesting French language Bible study in a house near Frejus, with splendid view overlooking the sea. Challenging, but both of us felt able to join in on occasion. We then drove on to Nice airport to pick up an old colleague of Chris’s, Alan Cram, and take him up to Courmettes. By this time it was dark but we did get a fleeting view of an a Eagle Owl. (Hint: it’s an owl the size of an eagle.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tuesday, while Alison continued working on a manuscript, Chris took Alan round the estate and they discussed lots of possibilities of what could be done. Wednesday, Chris started reading through the vast amount of literature he hopes to try to assimilate into an environmental management plan for Courmettes while Alison took Alan in another direction. There were a group of people up at Courmettes for holiday and a conference, including a number of Argentines, Swiss and Croatians, so that afternoon Chris took some of them on what is now becoming called “The Treasures of Courmettes” guided walk. Sometime we will do a full photographic coverage but it includes both a menhir and a dolmen, a splendidly preserved Roman road, remains of a ruined castle, spectacular views of the perched village of Gourdon and – not for the fainthearted – the summit of an 800 metre sheer drop. In the evening we went down to Tourrettes-sur-Loup and a very pleasant meal on the edge of the square.

DSCN4974-001

Group on the “Treasures of Courmettes” walk (they are looking at the view pictured at the end of this blog)

Thursday? We drove back to Taradeau find our new French driving licences waiting for us. Alison looked at hers and said “why is this in my maiden name”? But apparently in France one’s nom de naissance (birth name) is the official one, and a woman’s married name is her nom d’usage. It doesn’t seem to matter that the signature on the card is in her married name and apparently you can still us it as ID for a cheque with the married name on it. We wait to see what British car hire companies make of it.

Although northern France (like the UK) has been rather wet this year, down in this part of France we have had a dry summer that has left the vine growers grumbling and made the firemen rather nervous. Thankfully, we had a little rain on Thursday night. We could use a lot more but we give thanks for what we have had.

DSCN4953-001

The edge of the Gorges du Loup and (the rather dry) marsh area of the Courmettes estate

 

Posted in Courmettes, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

And life still goes on…

Because everybody knows France and everybody loves it, bad news about France is big news. And we have not been short of bad news. But contrary to some fantastic and irresponsible reporting France is not on ‘the brink of civil war’.  If you didn’t read it there was a very sensible and sane article by BBC’s Hugh Schofield at which is worth reading right down to the final sentence.

***

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe flew to the UK for a long weekend last week for the wedding of our nephew Mathew Weston to Catherine (Cat) Hartley. It was in Oxford with a service at St Ebbe’s and a reception at St Aldate’s; very enjoyable both as a wedding and an opportunity to catch up with the family.  It was a trouble-free trip although it would be nice if British Airways had actually even vaguely apologised for producing a flight back that ran 2 ½ hours late and included a last-minute aborted landing. Cross winds they said. Maybe: cross passengers certainly.

 

The reception in St Aldate's

The reception in St Aldate’s. And the weather was warm too.

***

The plumbers prepare their tools

The plumbers prepare their tools: that’s the new tank on the right

As part of the life goes on theme we have had some work done on the house. We bought our place here on the grounds that needed very little work, something that  on the whole has proved to be the case. Nevertheless we did inherit several oddities: a third toilet (very useful when you have guests) but without a wash basin, a unnecessarily large hot water tank without a thermostat and a second hot water tank you couldn’t switch off. So despite Brexit having reduced our income (and that of almost all British expatriates) by nearly 10 percent, we went ahead and had the local plumbers in this week to give us a wash basin, a smaller, more economic tank and wiring to control the extra tank. And at the end of it all Chris was emboldened to put some shelving around the new smaller water tank. He notes that you have to be very careful with DIY, as successes (and this was one) can encourage you to the sort of ridiculous venture where you decide to do a kitchen extension, dig yourself a Jacuzzi or completely rewire the house. No. We know our limits.

L to R: the original tank; the new one; and with the new shelves

L to R: the original tank; the new one; and with the new shelves

***

We are very definitely in high summer now and in the middle of the day temperatures have been hovering around the 34-35 degree Celsius mark. It’s so pleasant in the mornings that Alison has decided to do proof-reading work outdoors on the barbecue table.

DSCN4891

Up on the hills beyond us the lavender is out. And on the coast it’s open season for billionaire spotting. (The Daily Mail got revenge on Rupert Murdoch by printing pictures – not for the fainthearted – of him swimming off St Tropez, just 40 minutes away.)

DSCN4600

And in Cannes the other Sunday we found out that if you really want to get one up on everybody else the latest addition to a yacht is to put a helicopter on it. Getting ashore with one of those silly little dinghies is clearly so passé.

DSCN4851

***

One of the regular feature of the summers in this part of France is the risk of forest fire and last week there was a modest one about 30 miles away which produced a spectacular cloud of smoke. The fire service moved swiftly, the water bombers were called in and it was soon brought under control. Needless to say it didn’t make the headlines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Life goes on….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

And life goes on…

First of all we would like to thank so many of you for your support, sympathy and prayers in the wake of the appalling Nice atrocity. It is very much appreciated.

"Infinite sadness" was the headline on our local paper's Saturday edition

“Endless sorrow” was the headline on our local paper’s Saturday edition: the 50 page special took up most of the paper

If you want an in-depth analysis on the impact of the atrocity then this is the wrong place and this is the wrong time. We haven’t been to Nice (except the airport) in the last week but by all accounts the town has been full of journalists anxious to ride on the back of one of the most newsworthy attacks of recent times. If the essence of tragedy is bad things happening to good people then this ticked all the boxes: happy families enjoying an evening out, a spectacular location and then the sudden thundering intervention of death. What should have been the nearest thing to paradise instantly turned into hell. (A point the French media made much of is that Nice fronts onto the La Baie des Anges – the Bay of Angels.) And of course it was all videoed and on YouTube within minutes. Are we alone in being concerned about a global culture in which the first reaction to seeing an atrocity is increasingly to pull out your phone, film it and stream it worldwide? Are we all turning into voyeurs of violence?

Well the journalists are slipping away, leaving those involved to begin the long slow process of psychological and physical healing. Let’s hope for many reasons that this event is not soon forgotten because it has been outdone by some newer, worse and probably more videoed event. What will keep it alive in France is that there are elections next year. It seems particularly unfortunate that the first reaction of some people to tragic events is not to express grief, compassion or even outrage but to make a political point. This, one gathers, is not a phenomenon confined to France.

DSCN4749-Pano

But life goes on. Indeed if it didn’t the effects of terror would be greatly magnified. And actually what are you supposed to do? After a busy few days we did on Saturday exactly what we had planned to do earlier in the week, which was to head out over the Massif de Maures (about which we must blog at some point) and to L’Escalet on the Presqu’ile de St Tropez. (The French say Presqu’ile – the ‘almost island’ – where the English would simply peninsula.) We think L’Escalet is possibly our favourite part of the coast with its wooded granite headlands and cosy little bays. If you get bored you can always try and imagine which celebrity or entrepreneur owns the polished monstrosity of a boat that has just dropped anchor.

DSCN4794

Flags flying at half-mast along the Croisette at Cannes

Flags flying at half-mast along the Croisette at Cannes

Sunday we went into Cannes to church, and while you might have expected that there would be a large police presence, there was very little sign of any of the five or six police branches that operate in France. Maybe they had all gone to Nice. We had a minute of silence and Giles our chaplain had sensitively rewritten his sermon to address events: particularly true and false religion.  And as we walked around round we did wonder if beneath flags at half-mast there was a slightly subdued, if not almost embarrassed atmosphere.

***

 

At least one person has implied something along the following lines: ‘How terribly sad that, having moved to such a beautiful place, you find something nasty happening there.’  One understands the sentiment but it misunderstands the reason why we are here. We came here not because we wanted to escape but – au contraire – because we wanted to be involved in something useful and we felt this was the right place to be.  That involvement initially was with Les Courmettes and A Rocha, something which persists, but our involvement is now also with our church in Cannes (Chris continues his Reader training) and our community in Taradeau. In fact if this was an idyllic, perfect area then we might feel that we had gone to the wrong place. Surely the Christian calling is not about fleeing from problems, but being engaged with them and doing your best to help?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

On the attack in Nice

First of all we were going to revert to pretty pictures this week, then suddenly Britain had a new Prime Minister and we were going to write about her, and then she unleashed Boris from his kennel and we were going to write on that. And then finally, we had the appalling assault on the Promenade des Anglais just an hour away from us in Nice and it raises issues that need discussing. So forgive us if we are slightly more sombre and heavyweight than usual and talk about them.

***

All terrorist attacks are, by definition, horrible, but there was something particularly diabolic  – and we use the word in every sense – about Thursday night’s attack.  Nice is not the sort of place that you associate with terrorism: at least in the imagination, it is a happy city dedicated to culture, art and pleasure, surrounded by dazzling blue sky and sea and conveniently tucked away at the very corner of the hexagon that is France.

Nice from the old citadel. The Promenade des Anglais is on the far curve of the bay.

Nice from the old citadel. The Promenade des Anglais is on the far curve of the bay.

Indeed the Promenade des Anglais (along which we seem to drive on average every six weeks) takes its name from the British who in the 19th century flocked to Nice to escape London’s cold, rain and smog. To launch such an attack just after the fireworks for the great national festival of 14th July, deliberately targeting families and children, is particularly evil.

20151226_115150

Beach restaurant alongside the Promenade des Anglais, taken last December

The priority at the moment is of course compassion and practical and prayer support to those who are suffering as a result of this outrage. Reflection may seem out of place. Nevertheless because such attacks generate intense reactions, some of it very unhelpful, the issues raised need considering. With this third attack in France – and the related one in Brussels airport – it is now clear that we in the West are engaged in a war. Yet to use that little word war is problematic because it raises images of guns and soldiers and bloodshed and armies. In fact the real war is subtler and deeper: it is that of belief systems.

On the one side we have what we might call secular or liberal post-Christian Western values. Such a position – two centuries old in France – says that all that human beings really need is some sort of democracy,  some sort of capitalist prosperity and some sort of freedom to do what they want. Although its origins are firmly rooted within Christianity it is a view that has long since been uprooted from that soil. It is a position typified by the three-word summary of French values: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. This secular, liberal viewpoint is attractive for several reasons but most of all because, at least superficially, it works.

Nice from Courmettes

Nice from Courmettes: it’s the edge of the bay centre right

There are however two problems with the creed of the modern West. The first is that it is not fully satisfying: deep down we all know that we are meant to be more than simply consumers. A more profound problem is that it completely lacks any solid intellectual or logical basis. Why democracy? Why capitalism? Why freedom?  And – in the case of France –  why liberty, equality and fraternity? These are questions that are rarely asked because without any underlying biblical Christianity to give a basis there can be no answers. The West’s worldview may work, but it lacks any underlying foundation.

On the other side we have what we might term Islamic fundamentalists or jihadism. (Here it is worth pointing out, not least for the benefit of those inclined to follow Donald Trump in putting labels on people, that many who would call themselves Muslims are in fact functionally followers of Western secular liberalism.)  The Islamicist position is strong specifically in those areas where Western secularism is weak. So, it offers a spiritual view of the world that goes beyond consumerism and it has a firm underpinning: a stern, inflexible vision of a society governed by a God who rules and judges. These two aspects are sufficiently strong to outweigh the fact – more significant to us than them – that jihadist position doesn’t seem capable of producing a society that anybody wants to live in.

Nice from the air: you can see the harbour and the seafront

Nice from the air: you can see the harbour and the seafront promenade to the left

Seen in these terms it should be obvious that jihadism is not going to be countered by Western states adopting ever greater security measures, generating more prosperity, building more shopping malls or even offering more education. For all its works, Western liberalism is too insubstantial and shallow to pose any challenge.

It seems to us – and it’s not a novel thought – that the only way to defend those cherished Western values of liberty, equality and fraternity is to go back to the soil of Christianity from which they sprung. Although many in the West prefer to despise the Christian faith, our society needs to have the humility to admit that the very values that it upholds are in fact the practical outworking of that faith it derides. Indeed even within secular France there are those who have seen ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ as being fundamentally Christian values, not far removed from St Paul’s ‘faith, hope and love’. They certainly would not arise from of any other worldview or faith.

Common terns photographed in December at almost exactly the spot where the truck stopped on Thursday

Common terns photographed in December at almost exactly the spot where the truck stopped on Thursday

Ultimately, these appalling attacks raise fundamental questions to all of us about how we live our lives and on what basis we live them. In this respect France, having begun the West’s doomed experiment of trying to create a civilized society without relying on God, may be leading the way out of this particular wasteland. So for instance, evangelical Christianity in France is now growing so rapidly that reliable figures claim a new church is being planted every ten days. If modern Western culture can be reconnected to the soil that gave it its values then we may see something powerful and attractive enough to effectively challenge the sort of beliefs that have given rise to these recent attacks. But only if …

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment