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Our visit to Germany and Poland

17 Nov
The remnants of the Berlin Wall

Our four days in Berlin

What a city! Our first time in Berlin and a whole new experience. As we had been born in 1949, we’d been on the sidelines of the aftermath of the second world war. Anything we knew about Berlin had come from the media and from reading Le Carré spy stories. To help us with our visit we had purchased a book in English which described the conditions whilst Berlin was divided between the allies and the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany).

The public transport system is superb. And cheap! You can purchase an all day ticket for €7 which you can use on any buses, trams, underground or Berlin overground train. Perfect for exploring. And when we were too tired to travel by public transport we used Uber to get us around.

We stayed in a small apartment to the north of the city (in the former East German sector). We found this through AirBnB and paid €65 a night. Warm and comfortable and very close to the bus, tram and train lines.

Like in any big city there was a profusion of restaurants catering for any taste. We discovered a small chain of restaurants offering Thai soups and noodles. Excellent for lunchtime, as the weather wasn’t that good – mainly cloudy, rainy and quite cold at times.

We spent a morning at the famous Berlin Zoo – we visited the Panda enclosure but were not able to see the newly-born Pandas. The zoo is impressive and well managed. There were a large number of employees looking after the animals and the grounds. Sadly most of the eating places were closed and only opened at weekends. So we left at lunchtime to keep body and soul together.

In the afternoon we visited the Berlin Technical Museum and had a good mooch round the old trains on display. We didn’t have time to do much else but the museum is well worth a longer visit.

Our first visit to East Germany

Görlitz is as close to Poland as you can get! In fact the town is separated from its Polish counterpart by a river (the Lusatian Neisse). Crossing the border is a matter of walking over a bridge – as simple as that!

The town of Görlitz is superb. It’s known for its well-preserved old town, where buildings of different eras show off a wealth of architectural styles. St. Peter’s is a late-Gothic church, with 2 steeples and the early-18th-century Sun Organ. The early-Renaissance Schönhof and adjacent buildings are home to the Silesian Museum, displaying German, Polish and Czech art and history. Görlitz is one of the few German cities that were spared from destructive allied bombing raids during World War 2. As a result it is much in demand as a film location.

We were amongst a party of 12 people from the Saint Louis choir of Carcassonne. We’d been invited by our counterparts (The Bach Choir of Görlitz) to sing Brahms’s German Requiem at their local church (Kreuzkirche). Both choirs had been rehearsing in their respective towns and the first time we’d sung this piece together was the Friday before the concert on the Saturday.

Our first visit to Poland

En route from Görlitz to Wroclaw

The combined choirs of Görlitz and Choeur Saint Louis Carcassonne traveled by two coaches to Wroclaw (about 165 kms from Zgorzelec (which is the name of the Polish part of Görlitz).

We then performed Brahms’ German Requiem at St Maximilian Kolbe in front of a huge audience (for a church) who seemed very appreciative. The priest gave a long speech in Polish but no one understood what he said! After we were given supper – Polish sausage and sauerkraut plus cakes!

Choeur Saint-Louis

15 Jun

I joined this choir three years ago. It is one of the main choirs in Carcassonne and focuses on works from the Baroque era – Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Saint-Saens. I am the only English person in the choir, which was quite challenging at first. In fact, I had been reluctant to join, mainly because of the language difficulty and also because I’m now deaf in one ear.

Patricia persuaded me to give it a try after we went to a concert in a lovely old church nearby and noticed that someone remarkably like our vet was singing in the choir. The next time we went to the vet with Nettles, our dog, we asked him, and yes it was him. He asked me if I could sing and I said yes, that I had sung tenor in a choir in Kent for a number of years.

He invited me to turn up the next evening to their rehearsal. I thought I was just going to see what it was like and to find out if I could understand the instructions (I had no trouble reading the music as the annotations are international). However, the next thing I knew, I was a full member of the choir! And I have throughly enjoyed myself. This is the leaflet for our next concert.


J’ai rejoint cette chorale il y a trois ans. C’est l’un des principaux choeurs de Carcassonne et se concentre sur des œuvres de l’époque baroque – Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Saint-Saens. Je suis la seule personne anglaise dans la chorale, ce qui était assez difficile au début. En fait, j’avais hésité à y adhérer, principalement à cause des difficultés de langage et aussi parce que je suis maintenant sourd d’une oreille.

Patricia m’a persuadé de faire un essai après être allée à un concert dans une vieille église charmante et a remarqué que quelqu’un remarquablement comme notre vétérinaire chantait dans la chorale. La prochaine fois que nous sommes allés chez le vétérinaire avec Nettles, notre chien, nous lui avons demandé, et oui c’était lui. Il m’a demandé si je pouvais chanter et j’ai dit oui, j’avais chanté le ténor dans une chorale du Kent pendant un certain nombre d’années.

Il m’a invité à venir le lendemain soir à leur répétition. Je pensais que j’allais juste voir comment c’était et voir si je pouvais comprendre les instructions (je n’ai eu aucun mal à lire la musique car les annotations sont internationales). Cependant, la prochaine chose que je savais, j’étais membre à part entière de la chorale! Et je me suis bien amusé. Ceci est la brochure de notre prochain concert.


Marseille in April

7 Apr

I’m not sure how I imagined Marseille was going to be like. Many French people told us of all the different places to visit so we went off in the car with a long list of interesting places to see. We picked up a young man as a BlaBlaCar passenger in Narbonne and he travelled to Marseille with Richard, myself and Nettles. I discovered he moved to France from the UK when he was 15 months old. He now works as a scientist on research into immunity. After dropping him off near a Metro we drove to our holiday apartment. Once we found somewhere to park, we settled into a comfortable apartment on the ground floor with a double-bed, shower room and open plan kitchen, dining room and lounge. It had all the amenities we needed for a short stay. It was located in a residential area but unfortunately we weren’t able to walk to any attractions as it appears that Marseille is built on hillsides. Many of the streets in that area are very narrow one-way with cars parked in every available space including the footpaths. I found a boulangerie, a boucherie and a small corner shop just down the road. There were roadworks everywhere as well as graffiti and dog poo, except the tourist area in central Marseille. Due to our physical disabilities we were not able to walk far and Nettles was reluctant to go to the toilet as she couldn’t find any grass!

Tuesday evening. We drove to the harbour and walked around the pedestrian area which was very extensive and clean. Many people were using electric scooters which they could pick up anywhere they found one and pay online for its use and leave it wherever they wished. Apparently at the end of the day trucks would go around picking up them up and returning them to their pick up points. On returning to our apartment Richard managed to find a place to park not too far away. That evening we walked to a little Italian restaurant. But we decided to take a Uber taxi back because we found it a little bit too far to walk back as well.

Wednesday. We decided to take a tour on an open top bus (yes a London bus) with Nettles. We stopped off for lunch and a large square full of restaurants. Nettles not only is invited into the restaurants but she’s also offered a bowl of water. After lunch we walked back to the bus stop to wait for the next tour bus to complete the tour. Unfortunately before the bus arrived the thunder and rain started so with Nettles shaking like a leaf with fear we got onto the bus and sat at the front downstairs. After a while the rain came down very heavily and I realised Nettles were sitting in a pool of water. When we looked around we saw the rain coming down the stairs like a waterfall so we moved to the back of the bus where it was dryer. After leaving the bus we rushed over to the café to get warm and it was filled with men smoking hookahs. A few ladies came in later and started smoking too. It was time to get a Uber taxi to take us back to the apartment. The first Uber taxi we took from the Italian restaurant was very nice and allowed Nettles to travel in the back seat with us. The second one we used to take us to the city centre accepted Nettles reluctantly if she travelled in the boot. Naturally she was as good as gold on both journeys. However the third Uber taxi driver refused to take Nettles at all which meant Richard had to go in the taxi to go and collect our car and come back into the city centre for me and Nettles who were getting and wetter and colder by the minute. It would have taken almost an hour for the return trip so I took Nettles into another café and ordered a hot chocolate. But before the chocolate came, I had a call from Richard saying he had persuaded the taxi driver to take us as well! We decided we didn’t want to go out again and Richard didn’t want to cook so we ordered an Indian takeaway to be delivered by Uber food. It arrived on time and was delicious.

Thursday. We’d been told that Aix en Provence is very beautiful and that it was only a half hour drive from Marseille so we decided to go there for the day. It is a beautiful city and it was a sunny day but with a cold wind. Again we decided to take a tour on a little six seater electric bus. The people were very friendly and helpful too so again we stopped off for lunch with Nettles and a super little restaurant with excellent food and service. With the electric minibuses there were three routes to choose from so we chose a second route after lunch and the third later. Each one only cost €1.60 for the three of us! That evening we ate in with a pre-prepared meal Richard had made and brought with us. Then we watched a film on TV.

Friday. After packing up we drove to the port again and found another little restaurant where we had swordfish to eat, before setting off to pick up our return BlaBlaCar passenger in Marseille to go to Narbonne. I should state that Richard did all the driving around Marseille as I didn’t feel confident in his car in so much traffic so many roadworks and so many parked cars everywhere.

My first impressions of Marseille. It’s a big city! It has a multinational community. It has a lot of history, good restaurants and many tourist attractions. Apart from the tourist area it is dirty and overcrowded with traffic and roadworks. There was too much graffiti and dog poo for my liking. The people in the restaurants and shops were friendly but like in any big city people did not speak to you in the streets, unlike the small villages like Montolieu and in Aix en Provence.

That dreaded B***it word

16 Feb

Well I have avoided it up to now, but now is the time for me to express my feelings about the UK leaving the EU.

I have been using a forum called Quora which is a place to gain and share knowledge. It’s a platform to ask questions and connect with people who contribute unique insights and quality answers.

Someone asked me the question “What do the older generation in England feel about Brexit?” So I thought I would reproduce below my response.

I’m 69 years old and lived in Britain until I moved to France in 2013. The referendum result was a shock to me and a lot of my contemporaries. I got the impression that people were expressing a profound dissatisfaction with a lot of things, and at the same time not really understanding the implications of their decision to leave.

I’ve been involved in trading with Europe since before the opening of the European market in 1992. I was chair of the 1992 committee in my home town, when our mission was to explain to businesses the implications of the open borders. It helped a lot of small businesses to trade into Europe (and particularly France) and it was an exciting time. No border controls for goods, no tariffs, no long queues at Dover, no barriers at all. If it had the EU mark then any product could be sold throughout the EU.


I also studied how the EU worked, as a lot of my clients needed to know this. I formed the view that it was accountable although unwieldy and that it had the interests of all the citizens at its heart. It provided dispute resolution between countries – a much better way to resolve issues than the USA’s current trade wars. And I was proud of the role the UK played in the EU. My European friends often said, ”we need the UK, to control our excesses)”!


So I’m sad that all this is changing. I’m sad for my fellow citizens in the UK as they will be going through a profound change over the next ten years. No aspect of life will be untouched, I predict. They will change what they eat, what cars they buy, where they go on holiday, how they work, etc. And if j know Brits at all, they hate change and this is too much change all at once!

Images of a chaotic process

I have also been cutting and pasting images that either amuse me or reflect my view about leaving and I’d like to share these with you as well:

Brits abroad

I think the hardest thing of all for us British people who have taken advantage of the freedom to live and work in another EU country, is the almost complete lack of empathy (or even compassion) shown by those in the UK that support leaving the EU. I won’t reproduce here the many nasty comments that I have received after I have posted a comment or a question about Britain leaving the EU.

I can probably sum up the responses as either being “You chose to leave so hard luck” or “You are no longer in Britain so you have no right to complain” to those that basically tell me that it will be alright on the night. So just in case you are amongst the latter, who think it will be OK no matter what version of Brexit is put in place, let me tell you that having one’s life turned upside down is very difficult indeed. For the moment, I suspect most of you in the UK will not have noticed much change personally (apart from all the media publicity and ferocious arguments).

Those of us living in Europe have had to completely change our plans. Some have already returned home – there are many British people leaving our area, selling up and coming home because they are fearful that they won’t be able to afford the healthcare in France. That’s going to be a terrible problem for the NHS since you are now having a lot of relatively health migrants leaving the UK, to be replaced by a bunch of mainly older and sicker people!

Those of us who cannot return home (similar to us in that they have sold up and moved everything to France where the cost of living is lower and therefore much harder to return to the relatively high cost of the UK), and have decided to tough it out.

We are applying for permanent residency in France (called a “Carte de Séjour”). This involves quite a lot of work, assembling all the evidence required to prove we have lived over here for at least five years and that we have the means to support ourselves and not be a drain on the French social security system. Since we had no idea that we would have to apply for this when we moved here at the beginning of 2013, we had not kept much paperwork. So you can imaging the pain of having to get hold of utility bills and bank statements going back nearly six years.

Next, we will be applying for French citizenship. This is a more convoluted process which will entail several interviews and answering questions about our understanding of France and how life works here. Fortunately I have had a good grounding in this provided by my French teacher with whom I have had weekly lessons via Skype. I also can communicate quite well in French (for a foreigner) and, because I am over 60 years old, I am exempt from proving my competence by examination. But others are less fortunate.

All in all, it is an extremely worrying and stressful time for British people living in Europe. Just so you know!!!

Well that’s Christmas over with!

7 Jan

It’s all quietened down here after Christmas and the New Year. To be honest, it never got into gear! It’s one of the differences we noticed when moving over here – Christmas is not a big deal. Firstly, only 25th December and 1st January are public holidays (and only if they do not fall on a weekend). Secondly, as the holiday break is so short, there is not the frenzied rush to go shopping beforehand. So we quite enjoy the more relaxed atmosphere.

The ice skating rink – Place Carnot, Carcassonne

It can get quite cold over here, says Trish!


Les Gilets Jaune

The astonishing site of people protesting in yellow high visibility jackets (“les Gilets Jaunes”) has created quite a stir in France. It has certainly shocked the French government. The demonstrators have intermittently blocked roundabouts, commercial centres and motorways over the last eight weeks. They have caused chaos – and many firms are laying off people, complaining of drop in sales (up to 30% has been reported which is bad news just before Christmas, especially when many seasonal businesses get about 40% of their sales in the run-up to Christmas). They have also caused an immense amount of damage – in Carcassonne they have defaced the Prefecture and the Town Hall, vandalised nearly 30 cash dispensers and burnt part of the toll booth at Carcassonne East exit.

It has to be explained that this type of protest is perfectly normal in France – the police or gendarmes will only intervene if the protest or assembly is illegal (all protests have to be notified to the Prefecture three days in advance). In general. French people see this type of protest as perfectly acceptable; it is the right of the people to demonstrate. I know I found this hard to understand before I moved to France but now I see it is part of the culture here. And it often works.

However, the level of violence and damage is much higher than usual. And in part this is due to the average person feeling unrepresented by the authorities. The price of fuel (which has risen by 15% in the last 12 months) was the last straw. But many feel isolated, under-rewarded and forgotten. So they are making their feelings known. And it has worked in part.

Each mayor has opened up an official book in which any citizen can write what they want to see changed. It is based on six main themes, so as to give the result some cohesion. The results will be fed back to the elected people and from this the government will set out their revised programme.

Protesters in action

But now public sentiment is turning against the protestors as the mindless violence and damage continues. In Toulouse, there have been groups of female protestors, marching to say it’s not them that is causing the damage.

Worst floods in living memory

23 Oct

As some of you may have read, the department of the Aude has been hit by the worst floods in living memory. Our commune, along with 125 others in the Aude, has been officially recognised as being a zone of natural catastrophe.

Fortunately our dwelling has not been affected but our organic garden has been wiped out. The disaster figures are staggering:

    14 people are dead with scores more in hospital
    6,000 people without homes
    Over 10,000 tonnes of household possessions to be removed and scrapped
    Many bridges need rebuilding or replacing
    The total damage to possessions and infrastructure is estimated at €300 million.
    Over 6,000 vehicles to be scrapped

All this happened within an area about 30km diameter of where we live.

Here are some photos of our damage.

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The mysterious hole

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We have lots of wood now!

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There is one of the decking pallets under this lot!

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Where to start?

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We cannot access this area yet

We are now taking stock of what’s happened. Sadly the beehives were swept away along with the colony of bees that Trish had been nurturing for the last two years. One of the four goldfish seem to have jumped ship. The new watering system has lost only the pump, amazingly. We think we can find three of the nine pallets that made up the garden terrace, but the frame of the marquee that covered it has gone. The reed bed system seems to be intact although the lower filter is almost entirely covered with debris.

This is what the garden looked like before the flood:

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Whilst the cat’s away, the mice do play!

24 May

So, taking the opportunity whilst Trish is in Nigeria, Richard decided to pop down to the true south of France – Provence! Here is his little story.

I booked a tiny self-contained flat through Airbnb in Sanary-sur-Mer which is just west of Toulon. I wanted to visit the historic port of Toulon, to find out why the French Admirals had based their fleet there during the Napoleonic wars. I now know why – it’s vast and well sheltered. Prevailing winds made it easy for the French to come out and pretty hard for the English to get in. Which is why Nelson had the port blockaded. And quite successful it was too until a storm blew up, scattering the blockading fleet and allowing the French out. It’s a long story but eventually they joined up with the Spanish fleet and got beaten at the Battle of Trafalgar, by Nelson.

Sanary-sur-Mer is a lovely seaside town with pretty streets, neat houses and a gorgeous seafront. It’s expensive, mind you. I chose not to eat out here, preferring a neighbouring town which is slightly downmarket.

Today was a lovely sunny day, with temperatures of 27 deg C, which is only five degrees less than in Abuja, Nigeria! And the sea sparkled, as only the Mediterranean can in summer. The holiday season is a long way off getting into full swing but everything was open and freshly painted. So I got the full version without the crowds. Bet it’s not like this in August!

The journey from Montolieu to Toulon takes about four-and-a-half hours. I posted the journey on BlaBlaCar and immediately received six bookings going. Of course, it was a railway strike day. Thank you SNCF – I made €69 instead of you! Tomorrow, for the return journey, I’ve got three bookings, as far as Nimes, then I’m on my own but it does give me the chance to meander a bit and not to worry about meeting strangers in strange places at fixed times!

Thunder in the hills

19 May

Last night I was woken by the dog, who was panting and moving around in an agitated state. Nettles always sleeps in our bedroom since we moved out here; it was a way to reassure her. About an hour later I heard the first roll of thunder. It must have been a long way away, by the sound of it. Nettles has always been our early warning system of an impending storm. I don’t know how long the thunder lasted as I dozed in and out of consciousness but I do remember some pretty long rolls. It was not the short bangs that we normally associate with a thunderstorm. It seemed to be rolling around the plain between the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees. I didn’t see any lightning either.

Eventually, I drifted off to sleep. I was woken at about 8 by the table on the other side of the bed moving, and a box of vitamin pills falling on the floor, as well as by a desperate scrabbling sound! Our dear dog, in an attempt to hide from the storm, had got behind the table and was now trying to extract herself! You see, normally she goes to hide in the shower area of the guest bedroom or under one of the beds there but the bedroom door was shut.

The second favourite place is under the kitchen work surface, behind a curtain and next to the gas bottle! Anyway, there are more thunderstorms on the way, so I’ll have to watch out for her this afternoon.

When we first moved out here, there was a pretty big storm and Nettles fled out the back door and disappeared! We were terribly worried as she was in a strange area and feared that she would get lost. It rained torrentially – the French saying is “il pleut comme une vache qui pisse”! Five hours later she reappeared, dry as a bone. No idea where she’d gone! It happened again some two months later, despite our efforts to close all external doors as soon as a storm was on its way. This time she came back two hours later but looking like a drowned rat!

Hey ho! The joys of dog ownership!

 

Bachelor life

17 May

I’m a temporary bachelor as Trish has gone to Nigeria to spend time with our friends Irene and Michael, who live there. Trish left on Monday – she was so excited and it was my pleasure to support her in getting all her papers and travel plans in order.

The day after she left I thought I’d struggle to find things to do. I’m pleased to say I’ve been busy ever since. When living as a couple, one has to compromise and share, naturally. Living on one’s own means I can pretty much do what I want when I want. So my present life has more of a natural rhythm to it and it’s a more efficient way of living – only for a short time, though!

One thing I have noticed is that despite saying to myself each night “I’ll have a lie in tomorrow” when the morning comes I’m up and rating to go at 7:30 am!

Another thing – I seem to be eating less food than I do when there are two of us. Perhaps it’s easier to cater for just one. I know I eat smaller quantities anyway after my gastric bypass, however, I do normally eat five times a day and my calorie intake is about 1,800 a day. These last few days I’ve gone down to three meals a day! My normal weight is now 110 kgs or 17 stone 4 lbs and over the winter this crept up a tad. So hopefully by the time Trish returns to Montolieu (28 May), I will be below my goal weight.

Today I am going to work this morning in the garden with Mareva and Nicolas (who live here). No doubt we will be ’assisted’ by Nettles as we weed the vegetable patch! Nettles in the gardenThen we will plant vegetable seeds and the potatoes. After lunch, I plan to continue the work removing the old window panes on the veranda of Irmtraud’s loft. It’s a noisy and tough job, as the windows are three storeys up and I can only work from the inside. Replacing windowsAlso, the putty is over 50 years old and is pretty much like concrete! I’m about to deploy the electric concrete chiseller! Later this evening I plan to pop into the village and eat a crepe cooked by our friends Veronique and José from their mobile creperie called Speedycrepe.

Tomorrow Louise and I plan to go to the seaside at Gruissan, to get some sun. So possibly a day off! Yippee!Gruissan harbour

Is winter over, over here?

2 Mar

It’s not been that cold in the south west of France this winter. So far, we’ve had two separate snowfalls, each lasting just two days. So, merely a dusting in comparison with what the UK has been receiving this week. And we’ve only had two nights since the beginning of the year where the temperatures dropped below freezing.

I took Nettles for a walk this morning and shot these views of our village from down below where the residential home is.

In the top photograph you can see our church, which is an ancient monument, built between the 13th and 15th centuries.

But it is not all good news – for the last two months we’ve had exceptional rainfall. In one weekend in January it rained the equivalent of one month’s precipitation. The river which passes by our garden is running in full spate (and is very noisy at night).

Anyway, now that spring has arrived, the gardeners are active again. Soil has been carefully prepared and marked out. A garden plan has been drawn up by Trish. And she and several volunteers have already dug-in the compost, ready for the seeds be planted. In fact, Trish has already planted broad beans and peas. There are also seedlings growing in the greenhouse.

Later, we drove into Carcassonne and visited a place where they sell everything that is required for watering a garden automatically. As we jokingly explained to the man behind the counter, coming from England meant that we had little or no experience of automatic watering systems, since it usually rained a lot where we lived in Kent. He understood completely what we were saying! The next step is to go back to see him and show him the plan of the garden and then he’ll be able to calculate precisely the components that we need.

Below is a shot of la Montagne Noire that I took on our return to Montolieu whilst Nettles playing in the field nearby.

Keep warm out there!