Chill winds

Those of you who have been shivering in the UK may be comforted to know that it’s not been very warm here. On the contrary! With exception of a couple of decent weeks we’ve had a lot of cloud, rain and wind with temperatures much lower than normal. So we’ve been waking up to a chilly four or five degrees and some days it hasn’t got above 14 degrees midday. At the supermarket on Thursday morning the security man at the door was rubbing his hands to keep warm in a way that you would normally associate with February or March rather than May. Still after a dry winter the rain has been welcome.

Taradeau’s 12th century tower and chapel under uncertain skies. They should be blue!

There was certainly something very chilly about the great debate between Le Pen and Macron on French television on Wednesday. We watched most of it and were gratified that we were able to follow the general thrust of the arguments. And thrusts there were, along with stabbings and swinging blows! There was certainly nothing of the tone of the gentle British “here I profoundly disagree with the Right Honourable Gentleman”. Both speakers were openly contemptuous of each other. We sensed that the strategy on both sides was to fluster or annoy their opponent into an outburst. You could have compiled a dictionary of French insults over the two hours: “liar”, “priestess of fear”, “sower of hatred”, “parasite”, and even “banker”. There were open allegations of corruption and fraud.  In Britain you feel that there is still at least lip service to such Christian ideals as decency, honesty and charity in debates. Those qualities were definitely absent in this brutal and loud debate.

Le Pen came over to us as a rather sneering figure who was a bit of a bully and someone  much happier talking about her opponent’s flaws than her own plans. Macron appeared as the cool, steely academic with a frequently rather condescending tone; something that clearly annoyed Mme Le Pen. Macron certainly looked and sounded the more presidential. Among the commentators he is widely held to have won, but it’s not just commentators who vote. The two moderators incidentally were utterly hopeless with the result that there were frequently four voices all shouting at once: not something that you want if you’re struggling with the language. Anyway the vote is on Sunday and we will see.

The cool wet weather has been good for flowers: poppies on a roadside and roses in our garden

All being well we are up at Courmettes with the church youth group this weekend. “All being well” is a nod towards the weather and the risk of rain, wind and cold. The general rule of thumb here is that you drop a degree Celsius every hundred metres and so with the campsite at nearly 900 m altitude that’s a lot colder than the coast. And of late the coast has not been warm either.

After rain and winds the air is so clear you can see the peaks of Corsica from Courmettes; faintly with the naked eye and more clearly with binoculars or a long lens.

The Gospel and Climate Change. Chris’ name appears as one of the three editors

Maintaining the climate theme, Chris got a copy of his latest publication this week, based on the conference A Rocha sponsored for COP21. He wrote two articles, and the basic outline of the introduction and the conclusion, although they did get translated into French. It’s worth noting that the emphasis here as elsewhere is very much now on“climate change” rather than “global warming” and the way the temperatures have been over the last few days there are quite a few people round here prepared to admit that the weather has indeed changed.

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The French elections part one

We promise to return to pretty pictures fairly soon but given the significance of the French presidential contest we thought it might be worth making some observations from down here. The ‘down here’ bit is significant because most of the English language political comment seems to have come out of Paris. As anyone with any slight interest in France will know, the first round of the elections reduced the number of candidates to two: Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron. Our village, like most of the south-east and north-east voted strongly for Le Pen. We have not conducted in-depth surveys as to why this is the case. A lot of people we talk to have been very hesitant to discuss who they are voting for.

The 11 candidates for the first round. In this village it seems someone doesn’t like Le Pen.

‘Votes cast’ in Taradeau. Macron comes in third place with less than half Le Pen’s votes.

Clearly, there is concern about immigration and, just as important, assimilation. Built into the French system is a rather naive view that after a few years anybody who comes to live here from whatever background will automatically have adopted a secular French way of life so that sooner or later there be one uniform happy national culture. This faith in the overwhelming power of the French system is so complete that the census forms – which we filled out earlier this year – don’t even ask for religion. Well, it turns out that some cultures are much more resistant to assimilation than expected. (The British system of presuming that different cultures with different values can coexist has, of course, its own problems.)

And for the second round…

Now we find a lot to like about M. Macron. He has many virtues: youth, energy, looks, education and intelligence, and holds firm to those endangered liberal values of tolerance and openness. Less well-known are the facts that he is, or at least was, a very good classical pianist and that he speaks fluent English with a clarity and concern for grammar that ought to embarrass Donald Trump. And he looks good in a suit. What is there not to like?

The answer, down here at least, is quite simply that that people can’t identify with him. France, as with many other countries these days, seems to be increasingly divided. There are the elite, fundamentally Parisian, who wear smart suits and carry big phones and who are doing very nicely, and then there is the rest of the country. That rest of the country includes the depressed urban areas, particularly one gathers in the north-east, largely shunned by tourists, and the agricultural areas of much of France profonde. In both areas there is nostalgia for the increasingly sentimentalised “three great decades” after the Second World War.

Here in agricultural France one senses a real unease with the Macron image and if he is voted for in the second round it will be because he is the lesser of two evils. One can’t help but think it would have been a good idea if, a couple of years ago, his advisers had persuaded him  to buy a farm somewhere in a remote village and accumulate endless photos of him walking the dogs, frowning over the state of his vines, shooting the odd wild boar with the local hunt, buying his baguette, drinking coffee in the village square and above all playing boules. At the heart of his low polling figures down here is the real concern that actually he isn’t truly French. It’s the suit that does it.

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Cap Lardier

After the panics of March, the subsequent catching up on work and the family visit in early April, it was rather nice to have a visitor this week and do four days of walking in our area. Contrary to the rumour that it is eternally sunny here, even April can have its showers and clouds, but we were extremely blessed with the brilliant sun and deep blue skies that everybody associates with Provence. Mind you the temperature was somewhat lower than usual and the wind was often chill.  Further north in Burgundy there are areas where the vines have been threatened by late frosts: it’s been a long winter.

We decided to do one of the capes on the peninsula of St Tropez, Cap Lardier, which has been protected for the nation against the ceaseless demands of predatory builders by the Conservatoire du Littoral.  We walked out on the coastal margin, a slow but splendid walk along rocks under umbrella pines with the sea and the sky giving an overdose of blue.


We think this is a Violet Bird’s-nest orchid, Limodorum abortivum

It’s a good time to do coastal walks because you can still park your car and the paths are not blocked by families struggling to take the full weight of the obligatory beach kit including sunshades, mats and cool boxes. It’s also not too hot: we’re not likely to forget the walk on the adjacent promontory to the east where the temperature was nearly a hundred Fahrenheit. And at this time of year too there are flowers and new foliage: by July everything has a slightly dusty, faded air to it.

Yes these are spring colours. The yellow is a bushy Euphorbia. You can see the islands in the distance.

It’s a good walk with splendid views to the offshore islands of Port Cros and Porquerolles. The value of the Cape and other protected areas here is increased precisely because of the way that so much of this coast has been eaten up by the merciless cancer-like spread of villas and apartment blocks.

Coming back we took a somewhat adventurous and little advertised route up out of the coast over onto the rugged Massif de Maures. It was a fiercely winding road made particularly hazardous by ceaseless bends, steep drops on one side and deep gutters on the other, and a constant stream of cyclists. But the views from the top were worth it.

Cap Lardier looking from the built-up part of the coast.

A good day. One of the blessings of having visitors is that you are reminded not to take living here for granted. We don’t.​

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Selective visions of France

We have had number two son and family here last week. Their first child, Thomas, is three and of an age where all he wants is to go to the beach. And so for six days we obliged, including Cannes, Nice, St Maxime,  St Aygulf and Cap Dramont. Not for him the sun-drenched vineyards, quaint villages, endless woods and splendid mountain: just beaches. We have this feeling that his entire perception of France is one infinite stretch of sand and pebbles.

How you view France is a very topical issue. As most of the world knows French elections are looming. A recurrent theme here seems to be the need to do things differently to anywhere else and this certainly applies to the electoral system. It is very idiosyncratic and for those who are interested there is a good Wikipedia article on it (click here).  In summary, the President of the French Republic is elected to a five-year term in a two-round election. If, as seems likely, no candidate secures an absolute majority in the first round (23 April) a second round is held two weeks later between the two candidates who received the most votes. In theory this system allows citizens to vote with their hearts first time and then with their heads the second time. In practice, it means that most presidents attain power because the electorate ultimately felt they were less unlikeable than their opponent.

This year however the election is even more idiosyncratic than ever. There are five main candidates, all of whom could conceivably be president and the very strong possibility that the president may not come from either of the two traditional main parties. Indeed there are conceivable (and somewhat alarming) scenarios in which the president could come from either the extreme left or the extreme right.

Despite all this there doesn’t seem to be a lot of excitement down here. No one seems to be displaying banners or posters but then that may reflect the view in the countryside that, as with religion and sex, politics should be kept private and personal. There has however been some strong graffiti against Marine Le Pen of the Front National, a woman who makes Nigel Farage radiate gentle moderation.

Putin’s money = Marine [Le Pen]

It’s all pretty impenetrable but even as outsiders we sense that at the heart of the election is the question of French identity and the vision of France. Currently one of the most popular candidates, the youthful Emmanuel Macron, has his own vision: a liberal, dynamic France, open to business, technology and the world and one which will capitalize on Britain’s Brexit-induced economic and political decline.

There are however other visions. This week Le Pen came up with a curious and revealing statement about the notorious “Roundup” of 1942; an appalling event where some 13,000 Jews were arrested by French police and gendarmes and were herded into the Vélodrome d’Hiver from where most of them were shipped off to Nazi concentration camps.[1] She said that France was not responsible for this. Underlying this was evidently the idea that the France that did this was not the real France: that was somehow De Gaulle in London and the – then very limited – Resistance. This mystical and romantic vision of an authentic, heroic France peopled by decent peasants, brave soldiers and pious leaders stretching back through the Revolution to Jean d’Arc, Charlemagne (and quite possibly beyond) is a heady and intriguing one. It is of course not a million miles away from that of “Merrie England” and equally cannot stand up to scrutiny. But in times of confusion and uncertainty – and we are still in a State of Emergency – such a vision of a glorious past, however fanciful, is attractive.  It’s not just small children who can have strange perspectives.

[1] Like so much of the nastiness of the Second World War and other wars the Roundup seems to have been largely carried out by ordinary men (and a few women) dutifully and unquestioningly carrying out their orders. And in case anybody is feeling any sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority the evidence from occupied Jersey and Guernsey is that, had the UK fallen under Nazi rule, British bureaucracy and British bobbies would probably have done something very similar.  Incidentally there are two good films on this: Le Rafle (The Round Up) and Elle s’appelait Sarah (Sarah’s Key). Le Rafle highlights the heroic role of Annette Monod, part of the great Monod Protestant dynasty, members of which were involved in the early days of Les Courmettes.

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Cannes makes preparations

After a hectic and profoundly stressful three weeks involving two successive crisis visits to a frequently cloudy and chill UK we were rather hoping to come back to a sun-drenched south of France where we could relax and de-stress in the sun. Oddly enough the weather wasn’t much better than the UK and our first Sunday back together at church in Cannes for some weeks was marked by grey clouds and rain showers and as we drove along the coast, glimpses of thick snow on the Italian Alps.

We’ve no idea what this structure by the harbour was for but it looks impressive!

The problem with Cannes is that having created an image for itself as the exciting place where everything happens, it has to continue to maintain and promote that image. There are lots of other towns that would like to take over from Cannes and one senses an almost feverish desperation lest somewhere younger, smarter and trendier should seize the crown. Maintaining your position amongst fashionable cities is very much like trying to walk up the down escalator. So, come wind rain or terrorism there’s always forthcoming events to prepare for. The town’s motto ought to be “the show must go on”.

Not quite the weather most people expect from the south of France…

So even amid pouring rain, preparations were already afoot for the film festival that has put Cannes on the map. It’s the 70th anniversary this year, so the advertising is well under way, as well for as the innumerable other events, shows, conferences and symposiums that keep the economy going.  The season is only weeks away: there is no time to lose.

One subtle but sombre note was sounded  the unannounced appearance of gargantuan concrete plant pots strewn at strategic points across and along the Croissette. Lessons have clearly been learnt from last summer’s deadly attack at Nice. The ones across the promenade of the Croissette are particularly inconvenient. Many people like to stroll along it either to be noticed or to notice others: having security barriers that you can walk into while gawping at the great, the glamorous and the glittering is going to be a pain. Possibly quite literally.

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A bit of a saga

Something that has been increasingly looming over our time in France has been the welfare of Chris’s parents in northern England.With both of them in their late 80s and with no nearby family, their slowly failing health and vigour has been problematic. Although they generously let us go to France (well it wasn’t much more remote than Swansea) things have progressively been getting more difficult for them. Nevertheless, Chris’s father continued to defiantly soldier on as mum’s episodes of confusion deepened, hoping against the evidence that things would get better and that he could keep managing. We however were certain that it was only a matter of time before disaster struck and came to be concerned about every phone call.

Finally, on the morning of Saturday 11th we got an urgent call for help from dad who had decided that he could no longer manage to look after mum. Saturdays are not the easiest day to travel but we managed to get flights to Liverpool on the Sunday and were with them that afternoon. Action was clearly needed and Monday we drove around their village looking for care homes capable of taking people with dementia. Miraculously enough were able to find one with both nursing capability and a spare place only hundred yards from where they lived. Dad conceded that mum ought to be admitted which (again miraculously) we managed to arrange for the Wednesday morning. Later that day, Dad decided that rather than stay on alone, it was time for him too to go to a home. So we provisionally booked him into the same home for 31st March. Leaving dad alone in the house, somewhat frail but with support from a local care agency, we flew back on the Thursday morning, exhausted but feeling that we had done a good job. So far, so good.

Hail in Lancashire: by gum, it’s grim up north

But things don’t always go so smoothly do they? Mid-morning Saturday 18th we had another phone call from dad, who was clearly struggling badly with his health.  Eventually the neighbours called an ambulance and as our younger son Mark (blessings on you!) headed up from London by train for immediate support we discussed the situation over the phone.with the doctor dealing with Dad.  The decision was made to keep dad at home for the time being while Chris flew to the UK again on the Sunday – this time alone and to Gatwick and then north by train.

Conversations with Mark and attempts at conversation with dad that evening revealed a rapidly deteriorating situation. So Sunday night the ambulance was summoned again and dad went off to hospital. Monday was a difficult day with Dad in very bad shape and Chris having those troubling and delicate conversations with the medical team about resuscitation.

It was now clear that whatever was going to happen, dad was not going to go back to the house and so Chris started the process of putting it on the market with a local estate agent. On Wednesday the situation with Dad had become so complex and stressful that Alison cancelled her preaching at Cannes on Sunday morning and flew over on the Thursday flight.

Although Dad’s physical condition had improved over the next few days he still remained in delirium. In the meantime we started the process of clearing up the house. Not easy! Fortunately, Dad came out of delirium by the middle of the week and we were able to move ahead with the idea of him being transferred to the nursing home. With one of Chris’s two brothers in California  coming over at the end of the week we were able to make plans to return back to Taradeau. And on Friday dad was declared fit enough to be sent up to the nursing home where he now has a room of his own and is quietly recuperating.

Lancashire fells in the sunlight

So it’s been a hectic and stressful three weeks. We have felt very supported by friends and family, especially those who pray. To have got both of them safe in a nursing home and their house on the market in three weeks is more than could imagine. We were also helped by the fact that Power of Attorney had been set up in advance which we were able to implement. But we could have done without the stress! Anyway, it’s an enormous relief to know that finally they are in safe hands.  We hope that normal service on the blog will resume next week.

And as an aside, on the way back on the plane Chris was identified by a total stranger as the author of this blog.  There’s fame for you!

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A brief blog

Owing to some family crises (email us if you want to know more), we thought we’d just post some pictures from our garden.

Tulips hiding in the hedge

We succeeded in eradicating all the small aloe plants which spring from this giant one. Note the corks on the tips – the thorns are extremely sharp.

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