Weeks 40 – 41 Arab telephones and rumblings: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

During the snowy weather of the last seven weeks we haven’t seen much of our neighbours. The main traffic up and down our lane has been Farmer Duhaut’s tractor taking fresh bales of hay to his cattle (and, of course, the trusty postman mentioned in the last bulletin).
But by yesterday most of the snow in our fields had melted and temperatures were mild in the gentle sunshine. In the morning Monsieur de Freitas’ son Philippe turned up to replace the chimney cap which had blown off the night before the snow started on 3rd January. (M de Freitas must have had a guilty conscience about not having fitted it properly three years ago as he looked surprised when we offered to pay!) After Philippe had finished, I decided it was the afternoon for a sunny stroll over to Saulcy. Setting out across the fields I was assailed by the sound of chainsaws and tractors in the woods, the bright flames of bonfires and the pungent smell of fields freshly sprayed with stable muck. I met taciturn loggers and also two girls skiving off school who seemed to be doing nothing more sinister than sitting in the middle of a field enjoying the sun beating down on their faces. People were out in the Saulcy graveyard, checking the plastic flowers, hens were pecking sociably around gateposts, and farm guard dogs barked enthusiastically at the sight of new people. Returning along our quiet lane I passed an elderly couple walking their black dog, and a girl wheeling a young baby (reminder, must drop in on neighbour Mme Laine – or Danielle, following our resolve to use first names! – to catch up on local gossip and find out who all these people are!) It was as if the church bells (which ring out at mid-day to indicate time to finish work and go for lunch) had rung out the message “everybody out in the sunshine!”

I have continued to learn some curious new “French” words at Scrabble – if in doubt I now try out English words and indeed “rash” (but not “mash”) was deemed acceptable. It’s always pleasing to get feedback from these newsletters (someone out there has actually read to the end!). So many thanks to Bruce his definitions of tex, sphaigne and wurm.

However, it was not during Scrabble (or even after sharing with so many villagers the impulse to walk in the sunshine) that I learned the French for “bush telegraph”. As millions of people were converging on capital cities to protest against Bush and Blair’s current plans for war in Iraq, our friend Nicola heard from her friend, the wife of the patisserie maker, that an art teacher friend of hers was organising an anti-war march in St Dié, starting from the main bridge over the River Meurthe at 3pm. It didn’t quite have the media coverage of the London march, as it was only decided on the Thursday. However 180 people, including Nicola, her neighbour (the wife of a retired gendarme) and I, duly assembled at the bridge, and processed up one side of the normally busy main street, preceded by a police car. It was a very sedate march, with few banners, and absolutely no shouting of slogans. We halted at the traffic lights by the cathedral, then turned round and processed back down the other side of the dual carriage way, thus seeing the tail of the procession on the other side of the road, with its hint of frivolity – a juggler (who couldn’t keep his balls in the air), and a young man with a guitar (who didn’t seem to be playing it). Outside the local newspaper office we paused for photos, then turned left at the lights and finished at the Hotel de Ville, opposite the potent symbol of the Tower of Liberty.

Being a Saturday, it was very quiet in front of the (closed) Town hall, but everyone was reluctant to disperse and stood around chatting. The woman next to me said that the marchers were all communists, socialists and other left wingers – no hint of the broad coalition including MPs, bishops, Muslims, and ordinary families to be seen on our TV screens on the streets of London. The newspaper next day confirmed this as a protest by the Left, hastily organised by “le téléphone arabe”. This new phrase seemed an ironic one given the fact that the sizeable local north African communities (there are five million French Muslims across France whom Chirac is no doubt keen to placate) had NOT been included in the communication chain.

The Christian churches, however, relied on a notice in the same newspaper, rather than the téléphone arabe, to publicise their ecumenical evening of prayer. “Ecumenical” turned out to be Catholics, Protestants, and Gypsies . It provided another interesting insight into the French approach to such matters. One hour fifty minutes was devoted to discussion of resolutions produced by ecumenical American groups, a petition to Chirac, and statements from a Monsignor who had actually spoken with the Pope and the last ten minutes to a Bible reading, a chorus and finally – the prayer of St Francis (which, sadly, for me though not the rest of the assembly, has been ruined by a not very peaceable Lady Thatcher). Improvised prayer doesn’t seem to be a tradition. As we prepared to disperse there was a frantic suggestion from a participant that we should at least all pray in our own homes.

There was however no warning in newspapers or by bush telegraph of the week’s other momentous event. And it doesn’t seem to have subsequently been reported by the UK media. I suppose any heading would have run “small earthquake in part of Europe – no one hurt”.

On Saturday evening I was at the computer downstairs in the farmhouse, just writing to my mother (who has famously mastered the fax machine in order to receive instant news) that nothing much had happened during the week, when, mid-sentence, there was a tremendous noise like a huge lorry rushing through a confined space, vibrating everything around (Helen’s description) or a low flying aircraft skimming the chimney tops (John’s description). Interestingly these descriptions occurred time after time in subsequent newspaper reports. Then the realisation that the vibration was real, things were shaking. It was stronger than anything I’d ever experienced, but at least in the 6 seconds it lasted, I realised it must a strongish earthquake. One of Nicola’s elderly neighbours was convinced his boiler had exploded. Someone else told their children it was the end of the world. In Nicola’s village everyone rushed out onto the street. In the big towns blocks of flats were evacuated. Immediately afterwards getting a telephone dialling tone was difficult as the system was overloaded with anxious callers checking on others. In places all the lights went out (though not with us). It certainly felt close. Geological web-site co-ordinates later gave an epicentre to the west of St Die (and about 25 km from us), for an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.4 on the Richter scale, at a depth of 10km. 5.4 is “rather strong” according to our Dictionary of Geology, and we really were pretty near the epicentre, though it was felt in the whole of the east of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and also the west of Germany and Switzerland. About a quarter of the report in le Figaro was devoted to reactions of those in Paris! However no-one was hurt, and the main damage in the small villages like Ste Hélène and St Gorgon nearly on top of the epicentre were cracked walls and bell towers, a shattered Joan of Arc, and the Angel Gabriel’s hands which dropped off. None of our village worthies like M. Laine (I mean Pierre) had ever experienced an earthquake, although the newspaper reported that the large town of Remiremont some 55 km away has recorded 40 earthquakes since the seventeenth century, the last being in 1984. The village bar and newspaper sales were both doing well on Sunday morning (and given it happened at 9.41p.m. Saturday evening, we were surprised there were several pages of reports in the regional Sunday paper)!

That Sunday we lunched with Nicola, as we often do, at an auberge in one of the mountain villages (Le Valtin). The food is wholesome and very well-priced with set menus of 10 and 13 euros. The auberge is always packed on Sunday, the only day they have their wood-fired grill in the corner operational; and we know of one couple who travel from Nancy, about 120 km each way, every Sunday for their lunch. Although our snow has melted, travelling only about 10 km and ascending a hundred or so metres took us to valleys where the fields are still completely covered with thick snow and where there are notices on roadside buildings warning of possible snowfalls from their roofs. Of course, even further into the Vosges, the ski resorts are enjoying the best snow for years and are packed as February is the French school holiday season (they zone France so different regions have different holiday weeks to spread the load on the resorts).

The village “téléphone arabe” in the form of Danielle (Mme Laine) arrived yesterday with a neighbour in tow, to invite us to an afternoon of accordion music and dancing being organised by the newly formed “ancients” of the village. I think we were so overwhelmed at the prospect of becoming ancients of the village that we duly paid our 10 euros each, despite neither of us being particularly fond of accordion music or dancing. It may be a small event as we were only ticket numbers 22 and 23. I wonder whether the “Accordéons de Nîmes” are making a special trip from Nîmes or are on tour? And what will the former shopkeeper make of them – I remember him reminiscing about playing his accordion in his father’s shop/café for Saturday night dancing when he was a child.

And now, for those of you who enquired how we were getting on with the French health system (well, perhaps it was only Dr John, with a patient to whom it was of interest!) here’s the latest update:

After all our efforts to gain the right card and attestation, John’s French state health insurance was cancelled in early January. His E106, on which his membership application was based, had expired (he’d stopped working a couple of years ago and the E106 is only valid for a fixed period – not that the DHSS in Newcastle actually got the date precisely right when they issued the form). And then it got caught in a beaurocratic loop. The French national health service noticed it had reached its expiry date and sent him a letter to say so. But before proceeding to transfer him, as my dependent, to my insurance, which is valid for longer, they needed to complete their set of documents with appropriate EU document from Newcastle stating his insurance had been cancelled, since you can’t have rights under two different E106 at the same time! But, being logical, Newcastle said that as it had expired they couldn’t issue a cancellation document for something that was no longer valid (and the French should know it)! But in France paperwork must be complete. After several phone calls, Newcastle eventually agreed to provide a letter rather than the standard EU cancellation document (they’ve obviously come across this before).

However, nothing arrived from Newcastle. A few weeks later another telephone call elicited the fact that there had been overseas postal problems at Newcastle (despite knowing this they hadn’t automatically re-sent letters) and the promise of another copy. Meanwhile the French service had agreed John’s health insurance would be backdated once everything was sorted out, so he could be ill and make any necessary claim which would be sorted out once (if) the paperwork was straight. A few days later, a letter from Newcastle arrived, followed a couple of days later by the original letter. Whether the French service got the letter they had also requested from Newcastle is open to doubt as, when told of the Newcastle postal problems, they indicated they weren’t expecting anything for several weeks anyway so wouldn’t bother to request another copy for a while. Anyway, we sent one copy of our letter to Epinal and about a week later received updated health insurance documents – but they weren’t, despite the promise, backdated. So now all is straight again.

In the meantime, since my documents seemed to be in order and I was running out of routine medications which my UK doctor had most kindly (and prudently, as it turned out), prescribed for 6 months ahead, I decided to tackle the system. You can choose different doctors for different things. So first of all I wandered into the reception of a gynaecological specialist recommended by Nicola (bush telegraph again). You need to produce proof of state insurance cover when visiting a doctor or pharmacy – you have a card (Carte Vitale) with a computer chip like a credit card. They use this to bill the French national insurance; and there is a machine in our local hyper-market which allows you to read the data on the card and check the progress of any claims. However, the national insurance only pays a percentage (usually around 70% for standard treatments) of the standard national tariff, which is usually less than the actual cost. The rest has to be covered by private insurance or paid by the person receiving treatment. So my first consultation with a specialist cost 23 euro/£15.50 (a normal consultation with a doctor is about 20 euro), I paid the fee on the spot and then the state reimbursed 70% of their 22.87 euro national tariff. For the routine smear which was due, I was billed by post, have paid by post, and await the repayment and results with interest. For the prescription, the state reimbursement is 65% of the actual cost. If you have private insurance then the national insurance computer system has automatic links to the private insurance companies (although we don’t appear to have subscribed for the link between pharmacies and the private insurance company, according to the pharmacist). Depending on the level on private insurance taken out (you can decide how much “extra” cover you want, e.g. enough to bring the cover up to 100%, 150%, 200% of the national tariff – treatment costs are higher in big cities than in more rural areas) all, or only part of the remaining costs will be paid by the additional insurance. Of course, despite the refund payments being made by bank transfers, paper documents are posted around as confirmation. I hope that answers any queries you might have about how easy it is to transfer into the French system. Do I really want to do battle to obtain the next round of blood pressure tablets! But at least now (we hope!) John is in a position to do something about his murmuring kidney stone!

And now it’s off to the library to change and renew my books and catch up with the rest of the newspapers. At least I understand that system!

Au revoir!

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