Sunday 7 May 2023

More cats than people: an Easter "holiday" in France

Well, I don't know how two months have managed to go by without a is probably due to a mix of recurring trapped nerve bother and time-consuming house projects - both at home and in France indeed. Although it is a while ago now, I thought I would write up a few of the more noteworthy incidents from that trip. It went pretty well overall, not least because my neck behaved throughout, despite all the mauling of luggage on and off trains, followed by furniture moving and extreme cleaning at the other end. As usual, I will adopt my customary thematic format...;)

Paris pitstop, and a distinct lack of burning things

Because of the ongoing public sector strikes in France at the time of my visit (in protest at the planned raising of the pension age from 62 to 64 - hey, try 60 to 66!, would be my response), I had a somewhat fraught run up to my journey, waiting to see if the Eurostar or my onward train would be cancelled. On the day, the latter was indeed not running, so I had to bump my ticket to the next day and spend the night in Paris - at eye-watering expense compared to the little hotel I usually favour close to my destination. 

Anyway, needs must, so I based myself near the Gare d'Austerlitz, where I had to catch the train early the next morning, and spent the late afternoon wandering around some of my old haunts in the 5th arrondissement - from work trips, and also a memorable meet up with Undina and her vSO, which I see was ten years ago! I must say I felt a bit let down not to spy any rioters setting fire to anything remotely combustible in their path, which is the impression I had formed from the news, and contented myself with a host (or should that be a splinter group?) of broken windows and skips piled high with rubbish.

A royal substitution

The day I was in Paris King Charles had been due to make a state visit there, but it was called off at the last minute for security reasons, in case he became a target (as part of the general civil unrest, I presume). And though Charles could not be there, his second son stepped up to take his place, and was prominently on display in the bookshop at the Gare d'Austerlitz! After all, the French title of Harry's controversial memoir means "deputy", "alternate" - or of course, "spare"...

Scoring free drinks on trains

[Okay, so that heading is not strictly accurate, as two of the drinks were on trains, and one at a train station, but bear with me.]

While waiting at St Pancras on the way out, I nipped up to the concession of Pret a Manger to get a tea, but they didn't have any decaf. I offered the barista one of my own teabags (which I carry with me for just such eventualities), and told him to charge me anyway, but he demurred. "It's your tea! I am only adding water, and that is free." What a star, I thought...then, only half an hour later, the train had not long set off when the conductor approached me and asked if I was "with" the person sitting next to me. I said no, whereupon he asked if I would swap seats with a passenger who preferred to travel facing forwards. I said that was fine, and the woman in question was effusive in her thanks and went immediately to the bar to get me a drink as a thank you - she offered to buy me anything I fancied, but I asked for a water. Minutes after she returned with it, the conductor came over again and handed me a voucher for a drink at the bar, which he made a point of saying included alcoholic beverages. "But that lady just bought me a drink." "Well, you have really helped me out, so I want to too." Reader, I got a mini bottle of red wine this time, but didn't drink it till journey's end.


Buses coming along in tens

Given the distances involved in reaching the village in "not quite the Dordogne", it might surprise people to know that my outward travel date was entirely governed by the availability of public transport for the last leg of the journey from Brive-la-Gaillarde, a distance of 30 km. To take a taxi would cost in the region of 70 euros at a guess, whereas if you time it right, there is one regular bus a week at lunchtime on a Wednesday (during the school term), plus a "bus on demand" on a Saturday morning, which must be booked in advance. Both for the princely sum of 2.30 euros for a journey that takes about an hour and a quarter. I had once arrived on a Saturday, and turned out to be the only person who had "demanded" the bus, but I had yet to try the scheduled Wednesday one. I arrived at the bus stop with plenty of time, though was a bit concerned to see no timetable posted inside the shelter for that particular transport company, only ones for the network serving greater Brive. I popped into a newsagent's and confirmed that this was the only bus stop on the very large square, for I did not fancy lugging my stuff round every side to check there were no other locations where a bus could pull up, as  happens in big cities in the UK.


By way of back up, I also asked a taxi driver who was parked up the same question, but he professed not to know, possibly because public transport is of course his competition. ;) He did, however, gallantly offer to pick me up after his lunch if the bus didn't show. It was due at 13.10, and between 13.05 and 13.15 no fewer than ten buses appeared in very short order, which caused major parking problems for them, and caused me to scurry back and forth squinting at the destinations and company livery on the side of them all. I could so easily have missed my bus by not being able to scoot back down the procession of vehicles in time. Suddenly I spied one that was going to the village and spoke to the driver. "Ah, you can't get on this one", he replied, "I only take schoolchildren." Well, even though I once tried to pretend to be 12 to get a cheap ticket for London Zoo (when I was 18), trying to pretend to be 15 when you are knocking on 64 seemed a bit of a stretch, and the prospect of an expensive fare suddenly loomed... Perhaps they had tightened up their passenger criteria since I last travelled that way. Then after a moment's pause the driver added: "Oh, but there's one behind me who takes anyone", and sure enough, a few buses further along was the very one I needed with an inclusive admissions policy; I gleefully paid my 2.30 euros and enjoyed a scenic ride to within a couple of hundred yards of my house. So although the scouting for buses was stressful and chaotic, managing to do the last leg on public transport felt like a real win.

More cats than people

This visit was unusual in that it wasn't quite "the season", so none of my English-speaking neighbours were in residence. For two weeks I mostly only spoke to tradesmen, people in shops, passers by, and the lovely ladies in the knitting club, whose session I caught one Thursday afternoon. But I am quite self-contained, and had a lot of jobs to sort in that time, so I didn't feel lonely as such. That said, the relentless banging of the shutters during a two day storm tried my patience to breaking point, while the wind was so strong that one of the shutter hooks fell out of its fixing (never to be seen again), and for several days both pairs of shoes squelched slightly when I walked. But there was a surfeit of cats to make up for the wayward weather and human deficit, and I had fun trying to catch them on camera, including a rather lopsided cat fight. 

The big furry orange and white cat with five names who has featured in previous French posts was one of the combatants, along with a tabby and white tom, which I named "Bruiser Truffle" for reasons you may readily infer. "Hemming/Chirac/Leo/Marmalade/whatever he is really called" was very much in evidence during my stay, but his coat was much longer and in an even tattier state this time; I think he must have had a hard winter, and may even have been trying to grow his own furry bivouac.  He still trots over to any house he spots that is "live", as in occupied, and hangs around expectantly, waiting for food.

Accosting a stranger to use their phone

Five days into the trip, and my phone suddenly stopped working - or rather I could still receive incoming voice calls, but could not do anything else on it. By the evening of the Saturday when this happened (April Fool's Day, rather fittingly!), and after fruitlessly trying to troubleshoot the problem on the public computer in the post office, and firking about in the settings of the handset itself, I remembered that I needed to contact a builder, who was in theory coming the next day to remove some tins of woodworm chemicals from last summer. He would naturally have sent me a WhatsApp, which I would not have been able to receive, possibly saying: "Does two o'clock suit?", ie something requiring a response, so I knew I needed to head him off and let him know he had to actually ring me, as that was the only way to make an arrangement.

So there was nothing for it but to start walking around the village looking for somebody whose phone I could borrow to text him, but obviously that is a well-known scam to get people's phones off them and run away. ;) The first person I approached was sitting in a van outside the town hall reading the paper. I tapped on his window and explained the problem, and he said: "What kind of phone do you want to send a message to?" and I said: It's a French phone, but an English man", and he replied: "Well, I don't speak any English, so I can't type your message for you", the implication clearly being that he did not want to hand the phone over to me so I could type it myself - which is entirely understandable. So I said: "Okay, well you could write it in French, as that would not be a problem". By now the man probably thought that this was getting increasingly absurd - with some justification - and asked: "Who are you anyway? Where do you live?", so I said: "I have that little detached house down the hill that belonged to the such-and-such family", and he said "Ah yes, I knew them, and the house, but I don't know you. I tell you what - do you know my wife?"

So I said: "I don't know if I know your wife!". "Well, we'll see then...I'll give her a call - she's in the town hall". To which I replied "That's odd - it's seven o'clock on a Saturday night and I didn't think it was still open?"

"My wife is the mayor."


Ha! So we went in together and the mayor recognised me straight away, because I had approached her in the past for help with my damp issues. She called me into her office, dialled the builder's number and handed me the receiver; so he got a call from the town hall on a Saturday night, and sounded quite puzzled when he picked up the phone to find me on the other end, asking him to ring on Sunday when he was ready to come over!

Then at 6am on Sunday morning the penny finally dropped...the reason my phone had packed up was because I had set a £10 cap on extra charges (eg for overrunning my data allowance), and because my provider has now reapplied roaming charges in the EU, it took five days at £2 a day to use that £10 allowance up. As soon as I removed the cap (after firking about in the Three app), the phone sprang back to life with a rapturous clamour of beepings and pings.

I will finish this post with a photo of "a croissant in a fat suit"...many sweet treats were eaten over the fortnight, and that is another thing to bear in mind when planning a stay...not to coincide with the boulangerie's holidays, which luckily started on the day I left. ;)

Oh, and perhaps I should add photos of two of the prettiest cats in the village: 

The grey one has mesmerising eyes, but does not actively solicit food. ;)