From scarlet hips to white damson blossom: Christmas 2020 to Easter 2021 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2021no1A.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are some links to photographs in the text;
clicking on the photographs will sometimes lead to
a larger selection of photographs

E2E in January snow

E2E in January snow

Over the last week of frosty nights and sunny days we have been enjoying the sight of white damson blossom and pink ornamental plum blossom. Looking out of the window this morning, it was impossible to distinguish the damson blossom from the white snow resting on the branches of all the trees.

In previous years we would have seen more blossom. But one of the casualties of the heavier snow back in January was our large walk-in fruit cage, which John and Alistair had constructed in 2011.

Snow on the fruit cage

The snow on top of it froze and its weight caused the horizontal wooden laths across the top to break and the netting to sag and split, bringing down the netting, wood, and snow onto the blackcurrant bushes. So when the weather was finer we knew we had to dismantle the whole cage for a complete rebuild. For the past few years the fruit crops have been steadily diminishing as the branches of the row of trees (some probably over 50 years old) outside the south of the cage got denser and blocked out more and more sunlight. Now was the ideal opportunity to either prune or fell those trees; we had hesitated to even prune previously lest cut branches fell on the cage and damaged it.

Cutting down the plum tree

Cutting down the plum tree

But now a neighbour, Jacky Georgeon, who we consulted, said straight away that he’d be happy to do the work, having done all the home-decorating he could, and he arrived with his tools a couple of days later. John was to be seen at a safe distance in the field with a rope round his waist from the biggest tree, guiding its fall as Jacky applied the final cuts to the 50 cm trunk. The tree subsided in slow motion, but still too fast for Helen to capture with her phone camera. Georgeon’s pal, Mickael, the assistant commune employee, brought his tractor-driven log splitter to do the final cutting up into lengths to stack for three or more years before they can be cut to smaller logs for the stove. With Mickael paid, and Jacky warmly thanked with whisky and a share of the wood, John busied himself, stacking the lengths and producing three cubic metres of wood chips for the garden from the many smaller branches. But alas, no line of pink and white blossom there this year.

However, the logs will come in useful once they are seasoned. The day after we told Jacky that we did not need to light our wood-burning stove very often, we realised that the underfloor heating was not working. Having learned how necessary it was to have an introduction to workmen, we quoted our friends Roger and Dorinda when ringing Fafin the Plumber, and such was the magic of their names that he came round a couple of hours later to assess the problem and later installed a new expansion tank. He was a bit concerned that he could hear too much air in the pipes and suggested we should leave a valve open upstairs for five days and top up the system to see if that improved the situation. All the controls are behind a bookcase, so we removed all the books from the shelves to move it. Only then did John notice that he had on the last occasion fitted some wheels to the bottom of the shelves, so we could move the bookcase out without having to remove all the books first! The books remain on the floor as, although the heating is working, there seems to be no sign of a leak and there is probably another, as yet, unidentified problem.

SantaAnd now a quick glimpse back at Christmas, which seems a long time ago. We picked all the scarlet hips in the orchard as we had no holly for decorations, along with aromatic sage, pine branches, cones, dried hydrangea flowers, and branches of spindleberry fruits and decorated windowsills and added a wreath to the front door. John treated himself to a curtain of lights for the big French windows, where they lit up the strings of Christmas cards. Christmas cards and letters were extra special to both write and receive at the end of a very quiet year for everyone, and we enjoyed leaving them up till the end of January, and the curtain of lights until the official start of spring (but then the plastic Santas climbing up house walls and letter boxes around the village hung around for just as long, slowly deflating). Christmas Day itself was quiet, the carols from Kings College were a pleasure, and the village seemed deserted when we went for a short walk, though there were plenty of cars on drives, so perhaps everyone was sleeping off their festive fare. Our own Christmas fare was a bit different this year, featuring guinea fowl, ice cream log and panettone. Our gifts to each other have kept us entertained since then. John ordered a big pile of books for Helen, and he is still experimenting on the occasional clear nights with his new motorised tripod mount used to help photographing the night sky.

Early morning sun

Early morning sun and snow

January seemed a long and dreary month, with dull weather, but as the hips and pine branches wilted and dropped, we brightened up the living room with purchases of pots of amaryllis, orchids and hyacinths. We also missed all the seasonal convivial French reunions and feasts. The Entre-deux-Eaux village council postponed their meal for the over-sixty-fives until 27 March and then had to change it from a lively gathering with music and dancing between courses, to a home delivery sometime after 2pm.

The village New Year meal delivery

Our doorbell rang around 5pm (it must have been hard to estimate how long it would take to pack up and distribute nearly 100 meals). The first items which our neighbour Claudine handed over were four half bottles of very nice wines! It was a shame not to catch up on local gossip, but John appreciated the lack of noise, especially the enthusiastic musical contribution of castanet man. We missed the mayor filling glasses at the end with his potent home-distilled pear or plum liqueur.

Sadly the subject of Covid cannot be avoided in an update. In early January Toby, Rachel and Stella all had Covid and Toby sounded very unwell. Fortunately Rachel’s eldest daughter was at home and able to help with cooking and looking after Jacob and Farrah. One Sunday afternoon in early January, Leila was contacted, like others from the Coroner’s Office, and offered a vaccination appointment if she could get to a health centre north of Nottingham in two hours time. Presumably they had spare Pfizer vaccine to use up due to missed appointments? She had unpleasant side-effects for several days, including breathlessness, but we were glad she had some protection, as not all her work could be done from home. Sadly it was not enough to protect her from a new strain of the virus, as yet unidentified, which she got in March and from which she is still very tired over four weeks later. As a rare case she will contribute to a study, beginning with a blood sample to establish antibodies produced.

But as friends in the UK were having their first vaccine doses, you probably heard about the problems over here. The EU were slow to place orders for member countries, despite rather shrill accusations from Ursula von der Leyen about Britain preventing exports. The French had been hoping to develop their own vaccine, so were a bit dismissive of other efforts. People here are also more hesitant about vaccines in general after previous cautions (from compulsory Hepatitis B for children in the 1990s which was stopped as there was apparent, never proved, correlation with multiple sclerosis and one of the 2009 H1N1 bird flu vaccines which was linked to narcolepsy) and President Macron made negative pronouncements about the efficacy of the Oxford AstraZeneca one, which did not help confidence.

When the programme was extended from care homes to over 75s in February, Helen tackled the clunky booking system. The website always said there were no available appointments, but advised ringing up instead. The phone answer system always said there were no appointments available, but try the website. Then one morning the phone had no such message, but kept playing the same bit of music for 20 mins until someone replied, and efficiently booked Helen’s appointments for both the first and second doses.

In March, the vaccination programme was extended to the 65-74 age group who had co-morbidities. Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines, which were originally reserved for the under 65s, then allowed for all, and then reserved only for the over 55s, were distributed to doctors’ surgeries. Given the problems with the main online vaccination system, and despite not being eligible, John put in a request to our doctor to be added to his list for the time when the eligibility list was widened. Surprisingly, John was offered an end-of-day appointment a week or so later. Unfortunately, like other EU countries, France then suspended the AZ vaccine use over a period that included John’s appointment.

Meanwhile, Helen had her second dose in a hall behind the Town Hall in St Dié. The nurse there was talking about the forthcoming move to a much larger sports hall on the outskirts of St Dié where they would also have more doctors and nurses and be able to double the vaccination rate. At this point as Covid cases were mounting in France, hospitals were having to transfer patients to other parts of the country, vaccine distribution volumes increased with the addition of the Moderna vaccine. One Friday the booking phone line was again answered, and John was offered his first appointment three days later on the Monday in the new location together with a date a month later for the second.

The new vaccination centre

The new vaccination centre (spot John)

That Monday turned out to be the first day in the new hall, so was a bit chaotic with patients not sitting in any order and doctors having difficulty locating their victims for preliminary interviews (though the nurses of course got their clients organised and sitting in treatment order for the actual vaccinations). Complicating matters were the inevitable mayor, entourage, reporters and photographers necessary on such occasions. We appear in some publicity photos, or at least our legs do. John was expecting it to be the Moderna vaccine but it turned out to be Pfizer.

A day after that, Macron announced a third French lockdown. So as Radio 4 broadcasts interviews with people excited over the easing of English restrictions, we embark on increased French restrictions (somewhat farcically, the form went through several revisions in a few days as various anomalies and simplifications were made). However, despite being more than 30 km away, we will still be able to go to Epinal later in April to complete our post-Brexit residence permits applications, giving photographs and fingerprints, if we tick the box on the reasons-for-leaving-home form marked administrative summons which cannot be carried out remotely.

We were very sad to learn during this period of the death of our good neighbour, Danielle Laine in her care home from what sounds like a heart attack. Our neighbour Danielle Barbe, who had visited her very recently, rang us that lunch time, and we realized why the church bells had been tolling. They tolled again a few days later for her funeral in the village church. We stood outside in masks as her coffin was borne in. There were quite a few people outside, mainly younger, and they all followed the coffin inside, although we went and sat on the bench under the tree by the road. A lot of the older people who would have known her well were not there though. On the way home Helen stopped to talk to one who was standing on her doorstep as the final bells tolled, and she sounded really glad to talk to someone. She lives on her own and has used canes to walk ever since we’ve known her, and was a good friend of Danielle’s. She said how few people in the village she knew these days. We shall remember Danielle for her lively conversation and readiness to help us during the last thirty years, although we know she had found life increasingly burdensome without her husband Pierre who died in September 2019. Their daughter Annick has been renovating her parents’ house, though we don’t think that she and her husband have moved in yet. The village bells also tolled for another village character, the ninety-year-old former military man, Gaston. Again it was not a Covid death and his mistress and her husband had been looking after him over recent months (which sounds very French).

However, it turns out that Covid is not the only current health threat. A few days ago we received an e-mail from the mairie which was headed Chenilles urticantes: prévention. It was a warning from the Regional Health Council of the Grand Est (oddly without any identifying images) about these nasty-sounding processionary caterpillars, which nest in pine and oak trees and descend and process in lines of up to a hundred in search of sunnier spots. Their hairs can be picked up and spread by the wind, and can cause intense itching, rashes, and sharp skin flare-ups. They can also irritate eyes.

A few days ago when John came in from the field and orchard where he had been leaning on the ground photographing fritillaries, daffodils and cowslips he complained of very itchy arms, but hadn’t seen any hairy processions. And talking of itching, Helen is hoping that whatever insect bit her last year has met a dreadful fate after she was covered in infected spots which caused her problems throughout the summer, autumn visits to the dermatologist and a dull rash that still itches.

But during the dormant period none of this deterred us from agreeable short walks in January and February and garden jobs in March. The compacted snow was quite treacherous on well trodden paths and the roads, but when the sun was bright, despite the cold wind in the sub zero temperatures, it was enjoyable walking across untrampled fields and along little-used paths. One morning three graceful deer skimmed across the snow as we glanced out of our bedroom window, and when we walked across that field their tracks were clear among the bird tracks.

Sahara sand in the sky

Sahara sand in the sky

Rainbow

the rainbow’s end

Another day the sky was an extraordinary yellow colour, caused by sand from the Sahara, and one afternoon, after rain, we could see from the window a rainbow which ended in the field opposite. But we did not take our spades and dig up the crock of gold.

One morning we drove a bit further afield to the hills on the other side of Saulcy, and started our walk at the Col d’Anozel. It felt good to be walking in the wooded hills beyond the village, but we discovered that a lot of trees had fallen during recent high winds, including the previous night.

Path blocked by trees

Someone had been earlier with a chain saw and the lower path had been cleared, but a higher path still had a lot of trees across it, which made scrambling over under and round them awkward, and we missed a track down to the starting point, so the walk was longer and steeper than intended! On a second walk at the Col d’Anozel we discovered that someone had left their picnic rubbish behind them – oyster shells and squeezed lemon halves. So very French!

Easter amuse bouche

Easter amuse bouche

And talking of French food, a great pleasure has been the discovery that our favourite restaurant, l’Imprimerie, is prepared to deliver their weekend menu as far as Entre-deux-Eaux from the book village some 47 km away. Each weekend chef Morgan and his staff prepare a three-course meal for a mere 20 euros, transport included, to be re-heated on delivery. So we have put in a weekly order, and after months of wearing old clothes have been dressing up for Saturday night dinner (Sunday over Easter). The menus have been very varied, highlights being his courgette and fish starter, Tom kha kai Thai chicken soup, buttery skate, beef cheek tagine, pear and almond tartlette, and his Easter special including the starter of St Jacques and sweet potato with an orange and almond sauce and his “Easter egg” dessert of a white chocolate “shell” with creamy “white” and kumquat “yolk”, not to mention the tasty nibbles before and after.

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

Potager and rebuilt fruit cage

We were ready for our Easter special as we had been rushing to complete current tasks before the forecast change in weather from sun to snow and rain. John had been reconstructing and strengthening the collapsed fruit cage and had just finished attaching metal rails rather than wooden laths across the top of the sturdy upright wooden posts. Helen had finished weeding the larger flower bed, scattering flower seeds, watering and covering with some of the woodchips. The vegetable patch was, by now, rotavated, with beds marked out and paths between beds covered in more of the woodchips. So far onion, leek, parsnip and carrot seeds have been sown in the beds, with lettuce and rocket in the new lightweight cold frame (in fact it was so lightweight that it blew apart and scattered in high winds one night, but John has re-glued and weighted it down). In the potting area at the rear of a barn are loo rolls of broad bean seedlings, and recycled plastic punnets of onion and various flower seeds; not yet visible are the more recently sown beans and peas. But they will all wait till the ice saints of May have passed before being planted out. And when the fruit cage has its netting back on, we have pots of honeyberries (lonicera caerulea), blueberries and a tayberry to plant as replacements for the old blackcurrants and prickly worcesterberries.

Hot cross buns

It is perhaps as well that snow and rain have temporarily stopped outdoor work, as one of John’s Achilles tendons has reacted (perhaps to a lot of standing on step ladders) by giving up supporting him. So it is back to the computers in the attic and John’s family tree, Helen’s dwindling pile of Christmas books, evenings of crime and football on TV and the last of the Easter chocolate. Our other festive treats of John’s home-made hot cross buns have, alas already been consumed.

Till we meet again, we waft our best wishes in print across the Channel!

The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, 21 December 2020

Click here to see larger versions of the photographs in a separate tab

 

I had planned to take a series of photographs of Saturn and Jupiter in the days before and after 21 December as the planets appeared to move closer together and then as they moved apart.

However, despite the sky being reasonably clear for several evenings before 21 December, there was always a layer of low clouds over the Vosges themselves. By dusk the elevation of the planets was only 10 degrees about the horizon and getting lower. The planets often appeared and the disappeared in that cloud but were often still covered in a light haze. On the day of the conjunction, 21 December, and for the following days, there was thick obscuring cloud. The next time I saw them (and last, because of clouds for the following week) was briefly on 26 December.

I took several hundred photos in total. Below is one from each of the nights Thursday-Sunday before the actual conjunction on the Monday and one on the following Friday. The second was taken at 1725, so in the dusk light. The third was taken just before 1800 and shows clouds. The fourth shows the closest I captured the planets with some moons of both Saturn and Jupiter and I’ve added a screenshot from the free Stellarium planetarium software http://stellarium.org/ which helps identify the moons. Saturn and the rings weren’t separately identifiable and just appeared as an oval (the 26 December photo is the best).

I was using my 75-300mm lens at 250-300mm. I tried different exposures as the planets seemed over-exposed, but that made no significant difference so I must be at the limit of resolution of the sensor/lens image for that length telephoto. I had to focus manually as autofocus does not work on many cameras for small objects at a distant near infinity (for autofocus the camera needed to be able to focus either side of the correct focus point). When turned on my camera was set to go to an “infinity” point (the setting is 999.9m) which gives a good depth of field but the primary focus is not at infinity (the latest top-of-the-range Olympus DSLR do have a new special Starry Sky autofocus, which reportedly works). The other problem was either the low haze or fine high cloud making the images fuzzy. I’ve since seen photos on an Olympus web site where someone used a 400mm lens and the rings and planet were separately identified.

Autumn colours, hazards and small pleasures around Entre-deux-Eaux September – November 2020

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2020no3.pdf (five A4 pages)

There are some links to photographs in the text;
clicking on the photographs will sometimes lead to
a larger selection of photographs

Today is the twenty-second day of the second confinement in France (which is starting to sound like sounding like a new date system similar to the post-Revolutionary one). As before, it is stricter here than in the UK, with certificates to complete before leaving the house. It felt borderline illicit earlier this week when walking well beyond the daily permitted one kilometre and one hour from our house.

"Ladybird" Attestation - autumn 2020

simplified Attestation

But it was after ticking the box for collecting essential medical supplies rather than the box for exercising and dog-walking, and the nearest pharmacy is in the next village of Saulcy-sur-Meurthe. Since the end of August the road to Saulcy has been closed for internet fibre installation to Mandray and resurfacing works (for some reason the fibre branching to E2E which takes the same route as far as the crossroads is scheduled for 2022/3), and so the walk across the fields and through the woods has been a much shorter route for us than the road deviation.

The original French proposal was for lock-down until 2 December; a review last week confirmed that it would not end before that, and there has been talk of extending it further. The restrictions here are significant. General travel is not allowed and leaving the house is only permitted for a short list of specific activities. As well as the printed version, the French TousAntiCovid phone app allows generation of a certificate with a QR code. Either can be shown when requested. We have seen mobile police checkpoints on the main roads stopping cars. 

Lidl notice of items they cannot sell

Only food, tobacco and computer equipment retailers, garages, pharmacies and laundries are allowed to open. DIY and hardware stores can open but only for items not on the restricted list. Electrical/white goods shops are shut, as are hairdressers. Florists and garden centres are shut although they were allowed to stay open until Toussaint, 1 November, for the sale of chrysanthemums (la fleur des morts) to honour the dead. Supermarkets are restricted in what they can sell and have had to fence off or rearrange areas where they usually have flowers, books, white goods, cosmetics etc. Home delivery/click and collect is available for restricted items to support local businesses. Street markets remain open. Hotels can open for “professional” travellers but food is only available in room service.

But a headache for the government here, as in the UK, is what to do about family gatherings at Christmas and New Year, and commerce associations are pushing for re-opening before Black Friday. Amazon France has now said it will postpone Black Friday offers until 4 December after French shops have probably reopened on 1 December (although it will still be possible to use Amazon Germany, Italy, Spain and UK – so two Black Fridays!) President Macron will give a further update next week.

At present the government is limiting cross-border flow. There are two-week self-isolation periods for going into the UK from France and again coming back into France (along with other certificates/Covid-19 testing). So with all the restrictions and uncertainties, we are regretfully preparing to spend our first Christmas in Entre-deux-Eaux for eighteen years.

Of course, in the good old days, we used to rush over here in the Christmas holidays. The first Christmas we spent here in 1990 (after we bought the house at the end of October) was memorable. The electrician had just finished his work, and the plaster was still wet on the walls, but the roofer had given up when the snow started, so had not put flashing round the chimneys. So when we lit the range in the kitchen and turned on the new electric radiators, the heat melted the snow round the chimney and the roof leaked. But we were intrepid in those days. It is hard to remember the days of no mobile phones, and we had not yet got a house phone, so it was a question of marching down to the village phone box and making agitated calls. The fact that we did not yet have a fridge was less of a problem, as we just buried food outside in the snow, although, with hindsight, it is surprising it was not devoured by animals! We all four slept in a dry room downstairs (which later became the dining room), taking care not to fall into the hole in the floorboards we discovered under a sofa which had been left. And we kept warm by and cooked meals including Christmas dinner on the sturdy range in the kitchen.

Thirty years later it should be a more comfortable and warm Christmas here, but it will so sad not to see the family (though perhaps no worse than having to spend our time in isolation in the UK and still being unable to see them). We hope they will be able to get together, with Leila collecting Jacob and taking him down to Toby’s on 18 December.

With Brexit bumbling on, we have had to apply for replacement permanent residence cards with us classified under the withdrawal agreement terms, which allows us more flexibility in travelling in Europe, with no need for additional visas, etc. For us the exchange should be a formality as we have ten-year cards which they will just renew – although we will probably need to go to the Departmental capital in Epinal as the new cards need digital fingerprints in the chip. Like many things, the application has been made and is being processed. Our health cover will continue to be paid by the UK and we will be able to get European Health Insurance Cards (EHIC).

For UK residents it is seems probable that travel in the EU will become more restrictive after 31 December 2020 including 90-in-180 day period limitations, stamped passports, border checks, International Driving Permits, green cards for international car insurance, travel insurance (EHIC for UK citizens has yet to be agreed), stricter pet passport regulations and, from 2022/3 onwards, possibly paying for a European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS) pass.

While Covid restrictions were lifted we enjoyed a few low-key activities in September and October. There may have been great excitement in Nottingham at the discovery of the Banksy graffiti of a girl with a hula-hoop (and a long queue to take selfies in front of it), but we caught up on all the sponsored street art in Saint Dié. After the war Saint Dié turned down proposals for a Le Corbusier designed town centre, to be replace the buildings dynamited by the retreating Germans. Consequently the main street is not very memorable and the blocks of flats, schools and community centres that were built around the centre are solid but not particularly attractive. So the colourful paintings that have been commissioned in recent years have definitely brightened up the featureless buildings.

N°3 UN AMOUR IMPOSSIBLE

N°3 Un amour impossible

There are a few that we regularly pass, like the hen and the cat, Un amour impossible, on the walls of the former library (which before that was the bishop’s palace), but many are in the social housing areas we seldom visit. So, armed with a map, descriptions and John’s camera we set out on a couple of sunny days to find all twenty-two.

N°14 l’observateur

N° 11 Le Renard et le corbeau (+ link to all street art)

John had initially been attracted by the boy with a magnifying glass L’observateur perched above some garage roofs close to the market square. Helen’s new favourite was the large fantasy/story-book Le Renard and le corbeau (spot the other animals!) on the end of a block of flats on the heights of Saint-Roch. It took us a long time to find the last, which turned out to be much smaller; Expulsion NDDL hidden in a doorway recess and N° 22(?) on the corner of the main shopping street.

Filled lemon chocolate

As most restaurants had put scrupulous distancing and masking precautions into effect, we continued to enjoy occasional meals at our favourite restaurants. Having tried out a few new ones and been disappointed in the food, or alarmed by lack of precautions at one, and the throngs of unmasked tourists around another in Colmar, we reverted to our favourites and celebrated John’s birthday with lunch at lImprimerie just three days before President Macron announced the second lock-down. We had asked in advance whether it would be possible for chef Morgan to make the delicious chocolate cream-filled lemon we’d once had, – so that day everyone was served a lemon dessert, though not everyone had Joyeux Anniversaire written a little unevenly in chocolate on their plate. The service is fairly informal at l’Imprimerie, with chef enjoying bringing food to his guests now that there is the open cooking fire and preparation area in the middle of the room. However, the Frankenbourg prides itself on correct service and always has some closely supervised trainees. Since we cut down on carbohydrates at home, the occasional bread roll and butter is a real treat when out, but Helen distressed a young male trainee who was meant to be clearing the table of every trace of crumbs after the quail main course as she grabbed the remains of her roll – how could he now be seen to be doing his job correctly?

Entre-deux-Eaux decided not to restart the monthly oldies champagne, cards and chat (presumably because of the large numbers), but the Ste Marguerite pensioners committee decided that they would resume activities at the end of September, with rigorous precautions. So Helen enjoyed three mind-stimulating remue meninges sessions before lockdown. There are usually around twelve people there, but the elegant ninety-year old decided not to risk it, and those shielding sick partners stayed away leaving a core of six, which was very manageable. The room now has a locked gate and door, so other people do not wander in and contaminate it between authorised sessions, our temperature is taken before we enter, and we wear our masks, have our own hand gel, and even wipe down table tops.

The annual International Geography Festival (FIG) was held in Saint Dié at the beginning of October, presumably with stringent precautions. This year the subject was Climate. The weather duly obliged, with a Saturday night of very high winds which, we read in the newspaper, damaged (shock-horror) the catering tent. On Sunday a professor from the Sorbonne was due to pronounce on the weighty topic of whether breakfast was necessary, so perhaps they were forced to conclude it was not, at least that day. The weather had also not propitious for the delayed French Open tennis in Paris, with complaints from the international players about how cold it was. They have long forgotten compulsory games lessons in all weathers at school! One happier person might have been Entre-deux-Eaux’s mayor who at the same time was saying that there wasn’t a problem with Covid in our commune, just with the low water levels in the reservoirs. (Helen had had to go down to the mairie to get a pension form signed and stamped attesting to her continued existence).

You will have read the shocking October news of the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty in Paris and the killings in Nice which have shaken everyone out of their Covid preoccupation. But on a lighter note of French national news, have you read about the autoroute arrest on the A20 leading to Paris of a man driving at a speed of 249 km/h. A new record. His excuse was that he wanted to make sure he was home before the curfew!

Back in the small world of Entre-deux-Eaux, our neighbour Danielle Laine, made her long awaited move to a brand-new purpose-built care home in Plainfaing. When Helen visited her with our next door neighbour (also Danielle), she showed us round enthusiastically, then we had drinks and cake with the warden and the six current residents outside on the terrace. The warden had been an au pair in England, so had plenty to say and the others chipped in apart from the one who had not put in his hearing aids and the wife who had suffered a stroke. Mme Laine was clearly enjoying the constant company (and flirting outrageously with the deaf man) after being so lonely following the death of her husband. Two of the ladies hadn’t settled and wanted to go back to their own homes, so she was trying to talk them out of it as their families have made it clear that they don’t want them to return as they keep falling.

black funghi

autumn colours across the valley

But at the end of October it was back to lock-down (although, more humanely here, visiting relatives in care homes is not forbidden). So it has been back to the small pleasures. John continues to photograph the autumn colours, and the flora and fauna in the nearby fields and woods, though yesterday’s fungi were miserably wilted and black. We had an invasion of hundreds of different coloured and spotted ladybirds. Helen’s pleasure is books, including books about books like the new Burning the Books and the fascinating novel Book woman of Troublesome Creek about a nineteen-year old pack horse (or mule in her case) librarian in an impoverished mountain area of Kentucky who is also one of the few blue-skinned people, who faced a lot of prejudice at that time. In the evenings we seem to have watched a lot of football and crime (including one series, Beyond appearances or Au-dela des apparences, set around the Col de la Schlucht near here).

cattle and farmhouse

And of course there are those one kilometre radius walks, mainly to the north of the house, where we have seen a lot of evidence of boars digging up strips of field by night. A few days ago, on Armistice Day, we did our best to walk to the south for a change, crossing fields and streams (one bridge has collapsed), avoiding the hefty tan coloured cattle (definitely not cows) who emit fearsome bellows from time to time and line up by the flimsy looking wire barriers to watch our passage with lugubrious interest. Unfortunately there were more cattle in another field we had hoped to cross, so we took a road detour towards a different track. At this point one of the village hunts shifted their focus and cars to the woods just in front of us. Armistice Day is a public holiday here, and the Vosges department had just obtained a derogation from the Covid restrictions to allow hunting boar and deer in cases of damage to forests and agriculture. We soon heard shots, so, as one can never be too sure of their aim in the afternoon after a boozy lunch, we prudently retreated from our detour, only to hear the shouts and barking dogs of a rival hunt in the other direction (around the World War 1 military cemetery). So we gave up and walked back past the watching cattle to the safer activity of gardening. You might have thought that shooting would be considered inappropriate on Armistice Day. The nocturnal boar diggings continue.

Spindleberry fruits

Alistair has just sent some photos of the Christmas lights he is putting up outside to cheer up their neighbours. That’s something else we will miss this Christmas as all our lights and decorations have drifted to Letchworth over the years (and their sale is currently on the prohibited list here). And the flamboyant crimson spindle fruits are now fading on their branches. However we do have a good collection of candles here, which usually only get lit during power cuts. So it will have to be traditional greenery, berries and candles here! And maybe the amaryllis and hyacinths we planted earlier will bloom for Christmas.

The International Space Station (ISS) July 2020

I posted an item on 7 June 2013 on photographing the ISS. As I now have a different camera and lenses and as we have clear skies I decided to do an update.

I now use the ISS Detector app on my phone to notify me of upcoming events. At 22:38 on Monday 27 July 2020 there was a possible nearly overhead ISS sighting (max. height 86°, appearing 27° above WNW disappearing 22° above ESE). The first quarter moon was not too bright and not likely to cause problems. So I set my tripod in the field below the farmhouse, in the best position to avoid the farmhouse and surrounding trees blocking the overflight path. I had a 7.5mm Samyang fisheye lens on my camera and set it at an angle to give me the likely full path across the diagonal of the image . With the lens set at f8, I opened the shutter just before the predicted appearance time. The ISS passed over and disappeared from sight just before the end of the path and I then shut the shutter. This is the resulting unedited image:

ISS 22:44 27 July 2020 ISO 400 f8 371s
Entre-deux-Eaux 48° 13′ 53″ 6° 58′ 48″

As I was satisfied with that photograph, the following day I was just out taking some photographs of the moon with a 75-300mm zoom lens (and also attempting some photographs of Jupiter). I’d forgotten about the ISS but suddenly saw it appear above the orchard trees. Rather than trying to take partial path picture, I wondered whether it was possible to just take a snapshot of the ISS itself. I had no idea of exposure settings and had little time so just took a guess at what to use. I loosened the ball and socket mount so I could swivel the camera to track the ISS and set the lens to 75mm in the hope of seeing the ISS through the viewfinder with the wider view. That wasn’t too difficult and I was then able to zoom to 300mm (= 35mm full-frame 600mm) and to track the ISS, pressing the release several times to take photographs. The results were rather mixed, poorly exposed, and showed camera shake but gave me an indication of what might be possible.

So I decided I might be able to do better the next night with some proper preparation. I set the camera exposure to a faster shutter speed and higher ISO and also set the camera to take an automatic succession of photographs to try to reduce the initial movement from pressing the shutter release (at that focal length the camera is very sensitive to the slightest movement). I had to use the release button on the camera as I needed both hands to help track the ISS smoothly so couldn’t easily use my phone as a remote control.

I took over 100 photographs. About 10% have an image that on close inspection is discernible as an object rather than just a white, slightly blurred, blob. I doubt I would be able to get a better photograph with that lens. I would need the camera attached to a telescope which had automated tracking.

This shows one of the full images with the ISS arrowed. I’ve pasted an enlarged version of that faint white dot in the RH corner. The ISS in the image is only 20×16 pixels overall. It was pleasing as I’d not really expected such a positive result.

ISS 22:48:04 29 July 2020 ISO 3200 f6.7 1/640s 300mm

According to http://www.isstracker.com/historical the ISS was at 45.874N 3.008W (over Volvic in Central France) at an altitude of 262.45 miles and travelling at 17,144.65 mph.

Borders and bubbly: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, January 2020

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2020no1.pdf (three A4 pages)
There is just one link in the text

A bleak scene of double high barbed wire fences. The police vans, armed patrols and dogs have disappeared. The young black men with shopping bags no longer come and go between the supermarket and the migrant camp, and they no longer watchfully line the dual carriageway. The encampment has shifted along the coast. But the road sign remains, warning of possible blockages or barricades on the approach road to the port of Calais. And small boats imperil immigrant lives on the Channel. The barbed wire still looms, a grim reminder of previous wars, shifting borders and racial purity ideologies.

This was our last trip to the UK before Brexit. During the course of 2020 the ease with which we have lived in Entre-deux-Eaux for eighteen years whilst maintaining our close links with the UK will be renegotiated. There have been some moving speeches of regret and singing in the European Parliament, and our French friends and acquaintances are solicitous as well as curious. But Boris has done it. For the moment it has been far less painful for us than for European-born friends long married to Brits and resident in Britain. But the quest for re-documentation lies ahead for us too.

2020 began as we spent New Year’s Eve with friends in London with whom we have often seen in the New Year. It felt special as they are on roller-coaster of hospital appointments, grim cancer diagnosis, hope of a miracle operation and then shattered hopes. But we celebrated happy memories of earlier years, of shared travels, explorations, leisurely meals and hospitality and their constant encouragement of Toby and Leila.

Back here, the mayor and council invited all villagers to the usual New Year champagne, nibbles and speeches (no doubt bearing in mind the local elections in March). This year there was a huddle of men in dark suits (“they look like funeral directors” murmured John) who turned out to be local mayors from our recent amalgamation or agglomeration of communes. A few people seem to be realising that it’s possibly not the best idea to exchange kisses with everyone in the room at a time when gastro infections and flu are a problem. We survived the germs of those who stick firmly to traditions. Generous prizes were awarded to two of the families who had put paltry Christmas decorations in their gardens, one of which we’d driven dismissively past along our road. (We need Alistair to come and demonstrate the garden illumination art!)

A couple of days later the mayor and council invited all the over 65s to lunch down in the village hall, – yes, the meal that lasts all afternoon, with dancing between the courses. We took our neighbour, Mme Laine, and were pleased that she stayed till the end – though she sent a message up the table as soon as she had put down her teaspoon after finishing dessert to see if I was ready to go home. So we left before the champagne, more dancing and coffee. But she did much better than John who found the music volume far too painful to endure added to his tinnitus, and had to leave after amuse-bouches, which was a shame. Various people had tried to get the volume turned down, but it didn’t subside by much. At least he missed “castanet man” joining in loudly as usual.

It is also the time of year when societies and organisations hold their AGM. The Oldies in Entre-deux-Eaux have the usual inducement of free lunch to follow the payment of subscriptions and re-election of the committee. But the Philomatique (local history) Society of the Vosges offers a loftier inducement of a slide or film show at the end of their AGM. And it was back to borders and the bitterness caused by their enforcement.

This year’s offering was a film about the boundary stones which delineated the new border between France and Germany after the ceding of Alsace and parts of Lorraine to Germany at the end of the France-Prussian War. It endured till the end of the First World War and was reimposed by Germany during the Second World War.

But this was not a dry historical documentary as it involved some very personal imagery. What did the academic historians in the audience made of it? The film-maker, Gilles Weinzaepflen, who is also a poet and musician, interspersed sequences of his walking the length of that former border from Switzerland to Luxembourg, through winter snow and through summer brambles, searching for each of the numbered boundary stones, black and white images of the ceiling of a hospital corridor hurtling past as a man tagged for an operation was transported to the operating theatre, and old photographs of his great grandfather’s restaurant in Mulhouse in Alsace. At the end of the showing he talked passionately about finding your identity after colonialism, war and forced separation of peoples and of healing and reconciliation. One of the black and white images had shown a kidney being stitched back together after an operation to remove a cancerous growth, and presumably his long walk was undertaken as part of his healing and search for meaning. The film also told of his great-grandfather’s long absence from his family and restaurant and bar in Mulhouse. He had rejoiced prematurely when French soldiers took back Mulhouse from the Germans in 1914 and had put up a sign on the door saying that Germans were not wanted inside. But the triumph was brief, Mulhouse was soon re-taken by the Germans and great-grandfather had to go into hiding.

The Philo AGM and film was held on the same afternoon as the pensioners of Ste Marguerite offered more champagne, galette des rois and dancing, but it was worth missing that for the lyrical film. Despite the misery and separation caused by the border, Weinzaepflen was still passionate that the old boundary stones should not be moved from their positions by gardeners, road building schemes or souvenir hunters but classified and preserved in place as Monuments Historiques.

Auberge Frankenbourg

Auberge Frankenbourg table decoration

Our most recent crossing of that old frontier between Lorraine and Alsace was to return to the Auberge Frankenbourg for lunch one Saturday. We crossed the old frontier at the bitterly fought over Col de Ste Marie, from which footpaths now lead past German concrete bunkers from the First World War and a small cemetery. Despite the fact that we haven’t been to the Frankenbourg for two and a half years, the staff had done their homework and their welcome was personal with enquiries after the family and our crossing the hills.

On Saturday, with half-term approaching, we hope to pass the barbed wire and cross the Channel with equal ease.

Teddies, reindeer and Dougal: every day life in Entre-deux-Eaux, November – December 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no5.pdf (four A4 pages)
there are various links in the text

A festive first for Entre-deux-Eaux: the commune will be awarding a prize this Christmas for the best decorated property. As we drove through the village today (7th December) there were few signs of anyone having accepted the challenge, apart from the Salle Polyvalente and the village shop. It is possible that people are waiting until after the traditional visit of St Nicholas this evening in Saint Dié or tomorrow afternoon in E2E before turning to the more recent and tackier idea of Father Christmas, reindeer, tinsel and lights.

We were setting out for Barr Christmas market, one of Helen’s favourites, over the hills in Alsace. The week has been sunny, cold and frosty until today when it changed to damp and low cloud. So, as we crossed the Col d’Urbeis, which we had once explored looking for traces of the old German First World War supply railways, there was no snow remaining. The forests below were still an attractive mix of dark conifers with the bare reddish branches of the deciduous trees and the ground cover of copper leaves. Further on we braked on a sharp, blind, bend to avoid the parked cars of people buying their Christmas trees from a popular plantation. And as we descended further to the Rhine plain the slopes were covered with the black pruned stumps of the vineyards. In Barr, the Saturday morning street market with its vegetable, cheese and charcuterie stalls was doing a brisker trade than the indoor Christmas markets.

mangy fox

mangy fox

And when we fancied a coffee and pushed our way through the red velvet curtains warding off draughts from the door of a crowded bar, the two older ladies serving wine, beer and coffee sounded harassed. The ambiance was traditional Alsatian with red-and-white tablecloths and dark beams. Close to our big table which we shared with some card players, stood a mangy stuffed fox holding a tray; but it had been pushed against the wall. and was not serving food to the noisy room beyond. Alas, the food and mulled wine stalls outside the Christmas market were not doing a similarly brisk trade; inside were craft stalls – ceramics, glass, fabric, wood tree decorations – and one had a not-very-festive placard announcing Liberté, Fraternité et choucroute (the local pickled cabbage served with with smoked pork).

Christmas bear

Christmas bear

As we drove back, the roadside outside Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines was adorned with teddy bears constructed from huge rolls of hay bales and all its shop windows were decorated with furry teddies of all sizes. Perhaps E2E should announce a bear theme for its decorations?

We had hoped to have lunch at the Frankenbourg restaurant after the market, but like several other restaurants this week, it was fully booked. Is this because of the festive pre-Christmas menus or because a lot of public service employees like civil servants, teachers and train drivers have had time for leisurely restaurant meals while on strike against Macron’s proposed pension reforms (I mean, who would actually choose to retire later than they used to because of well-meaning rationalisation attempts?)

During the gloom of November, we have been treating ourselves to lunch out once a week, thanks to a significant refund of our Contribution Sociale Généralisée (CSG) and Remboursement de la Dette Sociale (CRDS) payments. In 2015 the European Court had decided that those pensioners whose health service charges were paid for by another country did not have to pay the CSG and CRDS. France changed the law in 2016 to try to re-impose the charges by moving them to a different fund where the benefits were non-contributory. But a French court overturned that in 2018, so John put in a pre-emptive retrospective claim for the three years. The government appealed again but that was finally overturned in July 2019. But the system grinds slowly so it was November by the time we received the refunds, with their not inconsiderable interest.

tuna and beetroot strips with hibiscus

The weekly treats started a few days after our return from Letchworth on October 31st (no longer Brexit-at-all-costs day), with a dash to our favourite Restaurant l’Imprimerie in the book village before they closed for their major remodelling and installation of an open wood-fired grill. Chef’s inventiveness that day included the unforgettable combinations of tuna, beetroot and hibiscus in the shape of a crimson rose and of creamy scallops, sliced pig trotter and Jerusalem artichoke. The week after, we went back to In Extremis at the foot of the cathedral in Epinal.

The following week, after most of that week’s snow had melted, we drove over the hills to Kaysersberg, where the Restaurant l’Alchemille had really gone to town on their Christmas decorations, with a herd of life-sized reindeer, a boar, a grizzly bear, some unconvincing foxes and assorted owls and squirrels crowded round the Christmas trees in the small herb garden in front of the entrance. Entre-deux-Eaux take note!

Dougal

a.k.a. Dougal

One of the desserts we immediately christened “Dougal” as the chocolate strands on the creamy roll looked remarkably like the Magic Roundabout character (although perhaps we should have called it “Pollux”, which was Dougal’s name in the original French Le Manège enchanté). And last week we finally returned to the Ducs de Lorraine in Epinal, for the first time since 2013, now that the rude, brusque Madame, who had separated from the older of the two chefs, and that chef had left. But alas, with aforesaid chef having set up elsewhere, the food was no longer as tasty or well-presented, the amazing dessert trolley much reduced, and the staff equally abrupt (it is hardly the customer’s fault if the waiter brings tea instead of coffee and if he fails to press the right buttons on their credit card machine). We look forward to the re-opening of the friendly l‘Imprimerie!

Cultural events have not loomed as large as gastronomic ones. In fact our last dose of culture was probably during our return journey from the UK. As we now often do, when driving back in winter, we stopped overnight in northern France before it got dark. We went into Cambrai for the first time and walked round the streets near the main square and its dominating Hotel de Ville, including the Tourist Office where we picked up some excellent leaflets. It was so cold, we didn’t linger too long, but drove a few miles further south to the accommodation John had booked. Our usual overnight stops are at a convenient Première Classe or Ibis hotel in an out-of-town commercial area, but John had found a farmhouse chambre d’hôte which had a spacious studio room with cooking facilities. It turned out to be a remote, imposing farmhouse with substantial outbuildings round a courtyard. It looked old, and our hostess told us it had once been a coaching stop as well as farm, but suffered significantly during the First World War and was rebuilt after. She showed us photos of her grandfather there as a child, and her grandmother working as a young woman in the fields, and she also pressed a bulging folder into our hands to read. It turned out that her English guests were usually there to see the war graves of their ancestors in one of the many Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries. She and her husband have helped them and also collected their stories in the folder. So that provided interesting reading that evening in our studio in the outbuildings, along with the Tourist Office leaflets. The thought of a cold, 10km drive in a damp and pitch dark night back to Cambrai for a meal didn’t appeal once we were in our well-heated room so John reheated the vegetables-in-cheese sauce he’d made the night before as a possible standby.

After perusing the leaflets, we decided not to go back into Cambrai the next morning either. Fortified by Madame’s filling breakfast (which was much better than that provided by our usual cheap hotels), we drove cross-country to the departmental Matisse museum, which is based on a collection that Matisse had donated to his home town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. We suspected that we might not see all his paintings as a special exhibition was opening in a couple of days and the paintings were indeed still being moved or on the wall but shrouded; however it was still worthwhile.

Wilfred Owen’s grave

It is now housed in the former bishop’s palace, along with relevant donations by his publisher (Teriade) and the paintings of another local artist, Auguste Herbin (who we’d never heard of). After a coffee over the road (inevitably the Restaurant du musée Matisse), we drove on to the small village of Ors nearby, where Wilfred Owen is buried in a small military section of the communal cemetery. The revamped forester’s house from which he wrote his last letter home was not open till later in the afternoon, so we went directly to his grave. Apparently the French had not known until quite recently that he was famous as a poet back in the UK.

Helen resumed her various club activities, though they hardly count as cultural. The E2E oldies had their November games, cake and champagne session. Now that the original older members have become housebound or died there is less uninterrupted gossip, and the club is also popular with younger retired people from surrounding villages who enjoy playing cards and have started a craft table as well. It was then Helen’s turn to lead and provide refreshments for the brain exercise group, which she rather dreaded. But the unfamiliar Battleship grids and some Eysenk (remember him?) IQ questions (diagrammatic ones – missing numbers, next-in-sequence etc.) kept everyone fully occupied and John had kindly baked some parkin to revive everyone at the end. The following session, that week’s leader started with a dictation, using a poem with each line containing a second person singular imperative – not something John and I practice all these years since our school French lessons, but it was interesting that most of the group also struggled with the correct written French endings! Scrabble was positively relaxing by comparison.

It is just as well that we had not planned to drive to Letchworth this weekend, with long delays at Calais on this side due to customs staff being on strike as part of the pension protests and with the M25 on that side blocked by the crane accident. John is keeping the car topped up with petrol as there are shortages due to blockades by protesters of some western fuel depots and those might spread across the country. But we hope to travel over next weekend (14/15 December) without encountering too many obstacles and delays for Christmas and New Year. Who will be in charge of the UK by then?

Mourning and memories: Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth, August-September 2019

To download a printable PDF version
click on this link 
E2E2019no4.pdf (three A4 pages)
and click here for Bethune photographs

Two days ago was a day of National Mourning in France, following the death of former president Chirac. But life outside Paris seemed unaffected. Unlike some previous days of mourning, everyone was at work. We had been warned that a routine hospital check-up in Strasbourg might well be cancelled, as on previous such occasions, but it was not. And by the time of the minute of silence at 3 o’clock, we were probably in busy IKEA, where nothing came to a respectful halt at any stage.

Far more significant in Entre-deux-Eaux was the funeral the previous Monday of our neighbour, Pierre Laine. The village church, which only has about three services a year now, was full with family and neighbours, and there were two military (veterans) flag bearers. His death was not a shock, as he had been ill for a couple of years following heart attacks, and he had dozed most of the morning Helen spent with Danielle a few days before his death. He was a man of few words, and his increasing deafness had cut him off further in recent years, so it was good to hear in the tributes a little of his earlier life, having to leave home with his family during the war and seek refuge on the Col du Plafond, and later doing his military service which included Algeria. And of course there was mention of his enjoyment of hunting. Our memories of him go back almost thirty years, as Danielle and Pierre welcomed us when we bought her aunt and uncle’s house, and they were always available to recommend reliable workmen and traders. And during the early years when we let out the house for holidays when we were not there, they would sort out any problems for our guests, and advise them on activities and practical details like fishing permits, sometimes without any language in common. One of our favourite stories about Pierre (which we’ve probably recounted before) was my mother enquiring whether he had killed any wild boar (sangliers), which M. Laine denied with surprising vehemence, having thought she asked about killing Englishmen (anglais)!

Helen was once given a very personal introduction to some of the former villagers when she walked with three of the Oldies Club up to the church cemetery and was taken round some of the graves. On Heritage Day this September she joined a far more academic visit to the imposing family chapels erected by wealthy nineteenth century industrialists in the second Saint Dié cemetery. This graveyard lies in the outskirts of Saint Dié, on a rise overlooking their factories, and with the industries long closed seems very peaceful. Later that afternoon there was an interesting talk at the library about its innovative post-war librarian, museum curator and historian Albert Ronsin, who took it from a gentlemen’s reading room to a modern public access building for everyone. It was a timely lecture as in a few days the library closes its doors and prepares for a move in 2021 to a spacious intercommunal mediatheque (a converted former police and high court building).

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Haras statue, Strasbourg

Over in Strasbourg this Monday, after the hospital appointment on the day of national mourning, we treated ourselves to lunch in another converted building, the former eighteenth century Les Haras riding academy and stud farm. We had looked at it both when it was all shuttered and when the conversion was nearing completion, but since then the courtyard has acquired a magnificent statue of a horse. It was a grand feeling to sweep up the circular central staircase and sit beneath the magnificently beamed roof. The starter of leeks and smoked trout was delicate and tasty, and the sweet chestnut dessert was interesting (and reminded us of gathering sweet chestnuts on the way to other restaurant meals), but the main course was less adventurous basically pork and beans. Still, a great improvement on a restaurant which has re-opened in Saint Dié as Logan Laug and which we tried out with Roger and Dorinda during their September return trip. But what do we know about food? – We are only English, as the French would retort dismissively.

But lets not focus too long on food. There is also heating. The French climate change plan includes the proposal to phase out of oil heating boilers in ten years. There is no natural gas here in the village, even though the pipeline is only a kilometre away. Our oil boiler is twenty years old so this autumn John investigated replacing it with a heat pump. Unfortunately, even with government grants, based on current fuel and electricity costs, the payback period for the 16,000€ cost would have been over twenty years. And that is just for an air-water heat pump which would not provide enough warmth during our coldest (night-time down to -18°C) weeks. So we would have to keep the oil boiler or install an additional automatic heating system. A ground source heat pump or a wood pellet stove which could meet our requirements would have been even more expensive. In Paris-centric France, this is very much a rural problem, to add to lack of public transport, scarcity of public services, and slow broadband.

Stone Wall textile - Misun CHANG

Stone Wall textile – Misun CHANG

Meanwhile there have been all the familiar September activities, like the Patchwork festival in the small towns around Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, the big street market or braderie in Saint Dié, and the various clubs and lectures have resumed. Outside the leaves are beginning to change to autumn shades, and we have emptied and folded up the small swimming pool, coiled up and stored the potager trickle-watering tubes, and brought the benches, outdoor seats and some delicate plants into a barn. After all, we could be into heavy frosts by the time we return to Entre-deux-Eaux at the end of October.

When we drove over to England in August, it felt as if the port of Calais had given up on security checks in exasperation. There were no armed soldiers/police doing vehicle checks and passport control was cursory. As ever, we enjoyed spending a bit more time with Jacob and catching up with friends. And this trip we had a bit more time for history and nostalgia. The newly re-opened museum in Hitchin set us looking for the sites of neolithic henges in fields close to our Letchworth house and we enjoyed the sense of history and continuity in trips to Ely, Cambridge, Hertford and Old Stevenage. We found a pleasant walk over the fields from Letchworth to Ickleford along the Icknield Way, taking in a lavender farm and one of the three pubs, the Old George. And for a more recent bit of history, we had an unusual evening with Julia and Graham who were enjoying dancing in the ballroom of the former Spirella Corset Factory in Letchworth.

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

Chagall window, Chichester Cathedral

On the way home, we visited Fishbourne and its early Roman mosaics, Chichester cathedral with its tapestries and Chagal window, and briefly stopped in picturesque Arundel to check a stone lion in front of the castle. Why the latter, you might ask? There is a black and white photo of a proud nine-year old sitting on a stone lion, which Helen has always thought was taken at Arundel; we decided against the £19.50 entrance fee just to see the lion (which a guard confirmed was indeed there, along with a horse) and instead bought two pairs of much needed replacement Moroccan slippers for John from a craft fair.

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Model train in Crocodile restaurant, Bruay-la-Buissière

Back on the French side of the Channel after equally brief checks and a calm crossing in which and we could see the white cliffs of France beckoning from the start of the crossing, we stopped for the night near Bethune in a cheap Ibis on one of those out of town commercial centres. Adjacent was a cinema and some chain restaurants, so we had a late dinner in one of the “Crocodile” chain restaurants (named after a style of  European train with a long “nose” at each end) where we have discovered that the set price cold buffet provides a varied meal (including free wine, beer, etc.) without need of a main course or desserts and, for a bit of atmosphere, there is a train compartment for some of the diners and an overhead model train.

1920s buildings, Bethune

1920s buildings, Bethune

In the morning we went into Bethune, finding a quiet parking spot under the church on the hill, right by the huge war memorial commemorating the town’s soldiers and civilians; the peace was shattered by the sounds of the cars in the main square revving up as they set out at spaced intervals on a stage of an annual car race. The outdoor cafe tables were full of fans and families watching and drinking in the sunshine, so, having wandered round as John took photos of many of the elaborately reconstructed buildings of the mid 1920s, we joined the coffee drinkers at one of those bars whose interior looked as if it hadn’t changed since the 1950s.

We just hope that journeys between the two countries are as straightforward after 31st October.

Elections and etchings: Entre-deux-Eaux and Amsterdam April – May 2019

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2019no2.pdf (four A4 pages)

These are links to photographs of our visit to Amsterdam
(photography was forbidden in the Van Gogh Museum) and
our restaurant meals

Last week the postman delivered two identical heavy envelopes. They contained French EU election literature from fifteen of the thirty-four alliances of political groupings who could afford to print their manifestos and lists of candidates. The overwhelming impression was of anti-Macron sentiments, not to mention anti-European sentiments.

Election leaflets

Election leaflets

For example the UPR’s (Union Populaire Republicain) slogan is Ensemble pour le Frexit, while the list of the Patriotes, Gilet Jaunes and Citoyens included a picture of their main man with their ally and supporter Nigel Farage under the injunction Quiter l’UE: nos allies le font! There is a new voting system this year in France, voting for national rather than regional representatives. There are currently 74 seats to fill (79 after redistribution following Brexit, so 5 virtual seats till then). Some lists indicate the region the candidates are from, with our region, Grand Est, providing a distressing number of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National list (slogan Prenez le pouvoir); she also has a candidate from French Polynesia, as does Debout la France (slogan Le courage de defendre les Francais). Interesting times ahead. Voting here takes place as we travel back to the UK for half-term. We won’t be in E2E to vote and there is no postal vote option, only voting by a proxy.

When we travelled back to the UK at the beginning of April, the Brexit extension was still to be agreed. We broke the journey at Arras, and enjoyed strolling round the town on one of those sunny April evenings, with the beautiful big squares filled with people sitting outside at bar and cafe tables. At Calais next day, officials seemed to be shrugging their shoulders at the port: no armed soldiers checking cars and no passport check queues.

As political discussions unfolded, we enjoyed seeing family and friends. John helped Leila buy a secondhand Aygo and sorted out additional window locks, and internet-connected internal movement detectors and outside CCTV cameras to improve security following our attempted break-in. Unfortunately the already-installed alarm decided to have a late evening tantrum and set off the external alarm which could not be stopped until the bell-box battery was disconnected. We took Jacob to the Science Centre in Cambridge and visited Bletchley Park again with Ann and Derek (although we nearly didn’t get in as we’d managed to leave our tickets behind!)

Louvre-Lens Museum

Louvre-Lens Museum

On the way back from England, after passing through equally casual Dover port security, we stayed the night outside Lens and finally visited the Louvre-Lens Museum. The north of France has changed so much since those drives through slag heaps in the sixties and seventies and feels so impoverished after the closing of the mines and industries. As a regeneration project, the museum is built over a filled-in mine and is a stunning glass building with loads of wasted space, but with some very fine exhibits from the main Louvre collection in its time-line section.

Another reason for our overnight stops was to give John’s occasional dodgy back a rest on the long journey. The corset-like support belt also helps, but has the disadvantage of pressing on the bladder. This can be a problem when strolling round unfamiliar streets, as we found on our very enjoyable trip to Amsterdam the following week. We had researched the Rembrandt and Hockney-Van Gogh exhibitions and other sights we wanted to see, and also restaurants. What we had not read up on were loos and coffee shops.

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam canal

On our last day, which was the finest we had planned to stroll in a leisurely fashion round the canals, the book markets and food markets. After a couple of hours we fancied a coffee and a loo. We were walking alongside a broad, picturesque canal, and went into the first coffee shop. It was packed and smoky. Not a seat in sight. And an overwhelming hash aroma. In the coffee shop next door, the indolent young man with a far away expression took pity on the two elderly tourists, focussed his attention, and explained that people bought mainly hash, not coffee, in coffee shops and we might be more comfortable looking elsewhere. We headed for a shopping street and a bakery.

Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum

There were other times when we were to feel like grumpy elderly tourists. One was at the Rijksmuseum’s brilliant exhibition of all their Rembrandts, 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 prints. It too was packed (though not smoky!), and it was infuriating how many people would just come and stand right in front of you, blocking your view of a painting or (mainly postcard-sized or smaller) etching you were looking at and take a photo with their phone about six inches from it before moving on without really looking, as if their photo was more real than the original and other viewers an inconvenient background. After a reinvigorating coffee, we returned during lunchtime, when the museum was much emptier (the tour groups having been herded off to lunch) and thoroughly enjoyed seeing the details of the pictures unhampered. And John’s birthday present to Helen was the informative book of the etchings exhibition to appreciate at leisure.

Another grumpy episode was at MOS, a Michelin-starred restaurant on the waterfront. It was a pleasure to watch the busy barges and ferries passing the window, but we began to think that, like ailing sight and hearing, our taste buds had packed up. In the pretentiously presented dishes, we couldn’t taste the described ingredients – how could the distinctive flavours of crab, asparagus and lobster be cooked away? It was a shame, as we had spent a great morning at the Van Gogh Museum starting with the Hockney-Van Gogh special exhibition, which was spacious and not at all crowded with interesting comparisons between their joy in nature.

Wayang puppet theatre

Wayang puppet theatre

And in the afternoon we had paid a second visit to the ethnographic Tropenmuseum, with its highly critical presentation of Dutch colonial attitudes and influences and superb artefacts from Indonesia and New Guinea. Fortunately we discovered next evening at Graham’s Kitchen that our taste buds were unimpaired, and his crab, lobster and lamb were full of flavour. If that name doesn’t sound very Dutch, its because its affable chef is from Liverpool.

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

Rembrandthuis etching demonstration

It was many years since either of us had visited the Rembrandt House Museum, and we thoroughly enjoyed this visit, especially the demonstration of etching techniques and variable effects in printing. As we were queuing the conversation between a belligerent young man and his friend ran:
Why are we here?
Because I wanted to see Rembrandt’s house.
But we’ve already been here.
No we haven’t. That was the museum. This is different.
Later they had a discussion in Rembrandt’s studio with a very diplomatic attendant who admitted he had a ticket for that night’s big semi-final football match between his local team Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur. So our fellow visitors were Spurs fans doing culture. That evening, the sun came out and we walked through one of Amsterdam’s many parks (out of the town centre, fairly near our quiet hotel) to the glasshouses where there is now a good restaurant, de Kas, serving mainly home-grown food. There was a lovely atmosphere in the airy glasshouse, informative waiters, and interesting flavours. Replete we strolled back through the park and reached our hotel as the downstairs bar was exploding at half time as Ajax had scored two goals to add to their one from the first leg. 3-0. We retired to watch the second half in our room. Just as well as there must have been fury and chaos downstairs as Spurs scored an amazing three goals and reached the finals on away goals scored.

We had spent a wonderful four whole days (five nights) in Amsterdam, and could happily have spent longer. Back home the grass was long in the meadows and orchard and our enclosed vegetable patch full of weeds. We had only two weeks to create order before leaving for half-term in Letchworth. But after a week of fine weather, the grass is now cut, the potager is rotavated, and divided up into strips and paths again, seeds have been sown, broad bean and pea seedlings planted, and Helen’s birthday gift from Ann and Derek of three Lonicera caerulea (honeyberry) planted in the fruit cage. We look forward to their sweet blueberry-like flavour next year. Already, given warmth and this week’s rain, the rocket seedlings are poking through and let’s hope the rest of the seeds grow in our absence. It’s a hard life having two gardens! Maybe we need an army of robot lawnmowers snuffling permanently through our lawns/grass.

When we drove into St Dié, we discovered that during our brief trip to Amsterdam all the local roundabouts had been decorated with bicycles, many painted bright yellow, to celebrate the fifth stage of this year’s Tour de France. Riders will set out from St Dié on 10th July along a mountainous route to Colmar past sights many of you will recognise like Haut-Koenisbourg castle, Ribeauville, Kaysersberg, les Cinq Chateaux and Husseren-les-Chateaux (the castles being the give-away, since they all stand on high points). However, that day we were heading for the large annual Amnesty Book Sale. After some rummaging, John bought a French Joël Robuchon cookery book which had a good-looking recipe for chocolate-and-walnut cake.

Finding a recipe that the village traditionalists will enjoy at the Entre-deux-Eaux club’s May meeting, when Helen’s birthday falls, is always a problem as they greet foreign offerings with great suspicion. Fortunately, the brain-storming group of Sainte Marguerite pensioners are more open-minded. Last Friday it was Helen’s turn to provide the mental challenges and the refreshments afterwards. She resorted to visual rather than linguistic problems and copied a couple of battleships games from the Letchworth newspaper and some logic challenges from an old Eysenck IQ book. These were all a novelty to the group, so took a lot of concentration. The sheet of London monuments to name was less successful, so we did them out loud, along with facts about the United Kingdom, its saints and flags. By then everyone was most grateful for refreshments. John had made two dozen scones (plain and fruit) and Helen took proper plates, knives, serviettes, butter in a glass dish and a pot of home-made blackberry, apple, cinnamon and clove jam. They were an immediate success with warm congratulations being sent to the absent chef.

Chocolate and walnut cake

Chocolate and walnut cake

Today the E2E oldies afternoon was a more lugubrious affair, with much discussion of aches, urinary problems, broken bones, pharmacies and deluded villagers now in care, although Helen enjoyed games of Rummikub, Scrabble and Triominoes before the cakes and champagne were brought out and birthdays toasted. Oddly enough some of John’s chocolate-and-walnut cake, cooked according to the French recipe, remained at the end, while his cheesecake, based on English recipe, had all vanished. How does one ever know what our oldies will like?