Sunday, July 08, 2018

RIP Ulysse

Ulysse 2004-2018
Last night there was a ring on the door bell at about 10pm. One's thoughts immediately fly to one's son, out and about with his car... but it was the door bell, not someone banging on the door as the police are wont to do.

I opened the door to some stricken-looking neighbours who asked me if I was the owner of Ulysse. They said something had happened to him and I should come immediately. I called for Christophe and we followed the neighbours down the road.

They said he'd been in a fight with their dog. He had gone into their garden, they weren't sure what had happened exactly but they tried to separate the balls of fury. They got them apart, and lay Ulysse on the ground where he died, maybe of a heart attack.

I arrived on the scene, and thought, that isn't Ulysse. His fur was all fluffy, his tail bushy. Then I saw the white spot at the end of his tail and I knew.

I reassured the neighbours - the mum was in tears and everyone was terribly upset. I thanked them for letting us know what had happened, picked him up and took him home.

Ulysse 'helping' me learn Csharp
Ulysse had always been the 'chef du quartier'. He picked me out at the SPA when he was six month's old, and immediately set about claiming his territory in our road. We had recently moved there and there were very few cats. Ulysse had no trouble proclaiming himself king, and was the scourge of all the cats that arrived after him. Until he got too old to care.

He was not terribly cuddle-friendly for years. He would sit near us, but never on our laps. If I sat in the garden, he would join me, and if I went down the path towards the shops, he would accompany me as far as the road, and then sit and wait for me to come back.

When he started getting on a bit, he took to our laps, and he loved it when we were ill and had to stay home. His nursing skills were unparalleled and greatly appreciated.
Ulysse on my lap during a bout of 'flu
Not so appreciated was the revenge he took when we went on holiday. On several occasions I arrived home to find he'd poo'd on my duvet and peed on the bed. He could be quite a little bugger!

He had a very discerning eye for our visitors, and you could trust his judgement as to who was a decent person.

Not long after he arrived here, he tried crossing a road without looking, and was hit by a car. He managed to hobble home, and I had to take him to the emergency vet. His jaw had been broken so they had to reset it and keep him under observation for a few days. Ulysse was a lot more careful after that experience!

Ulysse flaked out on the compost bin
He could recognise the sound of all the cars and motorbikes that mattered to him. When he heard mine, he would often appear from the bushes and sit and wait for me. He had his favourite spots for a snooze, or bedtime, and these would change every so often. If he determined that a particular bedroom would be his chosen place to sleep, woe betide anyone who tried to stop him getting there. He would miaow persistently until he got his way.

Fleas loved him too. Despite regularly dosing him with Frontline, he would be incessantly bothered by them. We fought a losing battle with the little buggers. They'll have to look elsewhere for a cosy nest and tasty morsel from now on!

While I'm very sad that my darling boy is gone, I'm also relieved that he will not become decrepit in his old age. This past year, he seemed to age before our eyes. He lost weight (to his correct weight for his size...), his black fur turned a rusty brown and his joints were starting to seize up.

I've had cats before that lived a long time, and I'm not sure that the last years were very pleasant. Ulysse died as he had lived, in battle. As Christophe said, 'Super U-cat' died a warrior.

Much loved, he went out with a bang.

RIP my little darling boy.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The New French System of PAYE

On January 1, 2019, the revolution that is PAYE will hit French taxpayers. Up until now, we paid tax on income from the previous year's tax declaration. The main problem with this is that it is inflexible in the case of major life changes, like redundancy.

So from next year, if something changes, we will be able to reflect this immediately in our tax payments. All good.

Except that, and there's always an except that, it's not all good. Last year, I enjoyed the services of a cleaner. She was employed through a service agency and thus made social payment contributions, got holiday pay, sick leave and all other advantages of the legally employed. I got half the money I paid to the agency directly taken off my taxes.

It's one of those French tax niches that are widely popular, and that the government have been trying to reduce. It meant that instead of paying, for example, 200EUR/month for the cleaner, with the tax relief I was effectively paying 100EUR because my monthly tax direct debit was 100EUR/month cheaper than it would have been.

Now though, with the new system, the reimbursement will not occur immediately, but will come as a lump sum twice a year. The result of this is that I will probably never be able to have a cleaner again.

Why? Well, if I pay, for example, 400EUR/month in tax, I will not be able to add a further 200EUR to pay for the cleaner. It's just too much. Even I get a reimbursement in a lump sum, the monthly total is just too high.

So does this mean that the government has found a way to kill off the niche? By making it impossible for people like me who are not rich enough to pay full taxes AND a cleaner, or gardener, or any other regular personal service?

I should think the people employed in the previously flourishing personal services industry must be horrified at the (intended?) potential consequences of this nasty little tax manoeuvre. And it makes the tax system a system of finance rather than economy. Obviously it gives the government the opportunity to use the tax income before paying out on the 'credit impots', but doesn't take into consideration the probability that the personal services industry will take a huge knock, and jobs will be at risk. Jobs done by those who are often in a vulnerable situation.

So thanks Macron. WBanker extraordinaire.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Big Snow 28 Feb 2018

Yesterday we had the heaviest snow fall since I can remember, and I've been here for more than two decades.

It started when I was at work. We didn't worry, it was supposed to turn to rain in the afternoon. As midday approached, it showed absolutely no signs of turning to rain. The temperature stayed obstinately low and the warm air from the south was stuck out in the Med somewhere.
View from my window at work at 11.30 am

People started leaving. I hung on for a bit hoping for things to improve, but finally at 1.30 pm it was leave or risk not leaving because obviously I had left my tyre chains at home thinking that as usual, the Orange Snow Alert would be exaggerated.

It wasn't, so I brushed the 10 cm or so of snow off my car and crept out onto the road. It was actually not too bad if taken carefully. I made it to the bottom of my road, a steep hill, and parked. There were no tyre marks going up the hill and I knew there was no hope of success.

Near my house at 2.30pm
I climbed the hill, got home and immediately dug out my fluo pink ski suit, snow boots, and gloves, found the plastic sledge I'd bought when the boys were younger (which coincided with the last time we went sledging...) in the garage and went back out to sledge down the hill. I wasn't the only one out. There were kids throwing snowballs with their parents, and bigger kids attacking each other.

After lunch, I went to find my sledge which I'd left outside, but my son had taken it, so found the old sledge that I'd had when I was a child. It hadn't been used since a feeble attempt on a thin layer of soggy snow some years back which it proved too heavy for. The several centimetres of dry snow was perfect for it, however.
My old sledge which had been red but was repainted by my dad years ago and not been used since

It took some steering, but eventually I got the hang of it, and instead of banging systematically into the snowy kerb, I got all the way down the hill, slight bend included by using my feet. I felt quite the Winter Olympic Luge champion, as there I was flat on my back on the sledge dashing feet-first down a steep hill. Fun!

I was the only adult on a sledge, to the embarrassment of my eldest. One of his friends skied down the slope, others used my other sledge, and then they went off. I'm not sure if this was in the natural progression of things or to get away from an embarrassing mother on the instigation of my son.

This morning, March 1, the snow has started to melt and is already too deep, soft and soggy for the old sledge, the the modern plastic one has not reappeared. Good thing I made the most of it yesterday!

For more pictures of Montpellier and the region in the snow, the local newspaper, Midi Libre, posted a good selection sent in by readers here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lost in Oppidum

An oppidum is A Roman provincial town built often on high ground which is fortified and walled. Hérault's most impressive oppidum is at Ensérune but there's another one at Murviel-les-Montpellier, one which I've been wanting to visit for years but never got round to although I've been through the village many times.

Yesterday I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in Murviel. My first thought was 'coffee' and I went in search of a café in the tiny medieval quarter of the village. The stone houses all nestled together were charming, and there was many a cat dozing picturesquely or out on the razzle, but café there was none.

That was when I remembered the oppidum, and, thrilled that I had at last the opportunity to see it, and remembered before it was too late, I followed a signpost that indicated the direction. Little did I know but that would be one of a total of two useful signs.

I was starting to wonder at the distinct lack of directions when I met a man, who turned out to be a local Brit, and was very helpful and told me that all paths lead to the oppidum. I just had to climb to the top of the hill, turn right, and I'd be overlooking it in all its splendour.

The path was steep and rocky, and promised to provide quite enough exercise for the day without me needing to go to the gym too.

Steep path up
A couple of faint blue lines on a rock indicated a circuit of some sort, but without a sign of any sort, it was impossible to know whether it was going to the oppidum or not. Still, I followed it, and turned right at the T junction at the top where I saw a 'useful' sign.
'Useful' sign
Don't try and search for information on it, there is none. There probably had been, once, but now it was just a post with a white board on it. I couldn't see through the trees either to overlook the alleged oppidum. Maybe it was there, maybe it wasn't...

After walking through a tiny olive grove in the middle of nowhere (it seemed), I found some ruins.

Roman ruins
Was this the oppidum? Was there an information panel to tell me? They were pretty underwhelming as far as Roman ruins go, and, in the absence of a useful signpost, I decided that I probably was not looking at the oppidum.
Thick Roman wall which may or may not be part of the oppidum.
I was enjoying my walk in lovely undulating countryside, with garrigue plants and trees and delicious smells of herbs and pine despite not knowing where I was. Another signpost did nothing to help, and I could see I wasn't the only one to experience mounting frustration, because someone had expressed his/her annoyance with a clear message on the blank panel: Information NULLE !! Justifiably so.

Disgruntled visitor message: 'Information NULLE !!'
The faint blue lines had also long since disappeared, so it was with interest that I finally came across something clear and precise. Almost.
Clear signpost with a fatal flaw
A map! At last! A lovely map showing all sorts of useful bits of information. Except one. The 'YOU ARE HERE' spot. What a tease. I was obviously not the only person to spot the fatal flaw because someone had written on it: 'On est où ?' - Where are we? The mystery continued.

Bushy 'access-friendly' path
I continued taking random directions, and noted the different types of vegetation along the various paths. They were solid proof of the diversity dream.

At one junction, I met a jogger who optimistically asked me the direction to the village. He was lost too. He had been following the faint blue paint marks until they petered out. We struck up a matey chat of fellow lost-ees until I cracked and got my phone out to consult Google Maps. The jogger decided to try one direction and, while I was still waiting for my return itinerary to load, he came back to try another as the one he took just stopped.

Tree-lined stony path
Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered I was a mere 15 minutes from my point of departure despite having been walking for almost an hour going up and down and along. No sign of the oppidum, natch, although I thought this immaculate olive grove very impressive.

Immaculate and very posh olive grove
I didn't quite follow the directions correctly (and got reprimanded by The Voice), but did discover an abandoned home with a well nearby, which brought up images of a wizened old farmer's wife trekking down the hill in the depths of winter to draw water.
Abandoned well 50 m from abandoned house
I got back on the right path to The Voice's relief (it was palpable).
Another picturesque path
I never did find the oppidum. I suppose it's there somewhere, and next time I have a couple of hours to spare there I'll try again, this time having printed off directions and a map, because I know you get no help once there!

This is what I didn't see (to some lovely music):

Thursday, October 12, 2017

#SNCF Christmas Train Ticket Wind-Up

#SNCF have excelled themselves today winding up hundreds (and possibly thousands!) of customers wanting to travel at Christmas.

Back in September when I bought my Eurostar tickets (because they go on sale way before SNCF, but that's another story/bone of contention), I signed up for the alert telling me when I could buy my TGV train tickets at Christmas. I wanted to be there at the starting blocks, in time to get the cheap Prem's tickets. I got myself organised. I couldn't fail!

This is the message I got the day before T-day (T for ticket), that got me all excited about the 'best prices' starting October 12:

Very 'clear' information from #SNCF
Ready, steady... hang on, what time is "aube"? Dawn breaks round about 7.30am at the moment. Did SNCF mean actual dawn or pick-a-time-early-in-the-morning?

I got up at 6.45am and dashed to the computer, as fast one can dash still half asleep. The SNCF ticket page was open and ready from the previous night (organised, see?). I clicked on 'Trouver' and... up popped not nice cheap Prem's tickets, but bog-standard pretty expensive ones.

What time, I wondered furiously as I went through the process (whilst grinding my teeth) of buying them, is effing aube?

I set about trying to find out. I sent a message on Twitter and entered into the twilight zone of a 'dialogue des sourds', on their part, anyway.

My question was clear, was it not? Why wouldn't they tell me? Was there a conspiracy afoot to thwart those of us not-in-the-know getting cheap tickets so only the favoured informed few could travel cheap and have enough left over to buy the odd Christmas present? Things didn't improve:

With my frustration levels rising at an alarming rate, I tried putting a message on Facebook, but none of my friends knew what time the tickets went on sale. 

Then I tried ringing SNCF but all their salespeople were on the phone, I should ring back later.

Then I tried SNCF on Facebook. I put a message on their page and up popped a message window. I copied the message into the window and immediately got a link to a Q&A page that is deeply embedded (or so it seems) on the page, not the usual page.

Would I get a precise answer, or wouldn't I?

YES! At last! For SNCF, 'aube' on October 12 is at 6am! And note that this information was only available because Gerry had taken the time to find the page where you ask questions and write the request. Had no one done that, we would all be none the wiser! This is in the age of communication, too. Opaque? It's like getting blood out of stone.

In any case, at 6.50am I was too late! All the cheap tickets had gone. Or had they?

I then started reading messages from irate customers who had been there at 6am on the dot in order not to miss a thing, and already there were no Prem's tickets. What is this 'arnaque', this scammy wind-up? Why get us up in the middle of the night (it's still black out at 6am!) for nothing?

Five hours after my initial conversation with SNCF on Twitter, and after I'd already got the answer I wanted, they kindly deigned to tell me the exact hour, and that all the Prem's tickets had been sold in record time:

I concluded, along with many others, that there had been NO Prem's tickets on certain trains. Or perhaps one or two, and that SNCF had set us up to fail. So thanks, SNCF for a morning of frustration, rage, anxiety, nervous exhaustion, and much time-wasting.

And as an exercise in communication, let me tell you for nothing, SNCbloodyF that it FAILED! If you need further advice, you know where to find me...

Sunday, October 01, 2017

OnVaSortir... or not?

It's now the demi-saison, that lovely time of year with vivid autumnal colours and ideal temperatures for outside activities.

This morning I went for one of my favourite walks in the park of Restinclières. There were few people about, the sun was shining, and as it had rained yesterday, drops of water glistened on every plant. The warm air brought out smells of wet earth, herbs and pine. I took this photo of herbes de Provence growing wild. They look very dry because we've had so little rain, but walking past, they smelled wonderful.

Wild herbes de Provence (rosemary and thyme)
I ambled along and thought how delightful it was to be there, alone, and thus able to think, stop to admire the views and really look at everything.

Walk through a pinède carpeted with herbes de Provence
A group of three people came towards me talking and moaning. They were not appreciating the views or walking 'in the moment'.

It made me think about the website where you can either organise an outing or sign up for one organised by someone else. It's a good way of meeting people and not doing stuff alone all the time. As you can see from the screen shot below, there are lots of different types of activities.

At 14:00 'Randter' has organised a walk at Restinclières, although no one has signed up for it (1/10) so why didn't I want to go with her this afternoon? Because when you walk with others, especially people you don't really know, you have to talk to them. When I go for a walk, I like to walk in peace. I like to concentrate on smells, sights, sounds and think about how lucky I am to have such splendours on my doorstep.

Call me an unsociable old bat, but I don't want to have someone yakking at me barely pausing for breath, or me realising that I don't like the person and then feel bad for a) thinking uncharitable thoughts; and b) wasting my time being there.

What I would enjoy more is a mountain-bike outing. Not the super enthusiast type that has you going up nearly vertical slopes and slogging over 20km+ of rugged terrain, but a more leisurely ride without too much up and down. Then if you get into trouble, you've got help at hand, and it's quite difficult to talk to people on a bike, so you'd have to do all that during rests. Yes, that is more my thing. My youngest's VTT (mountain bike) club organise family bike rides twice a year so that parents can join in, and they are always very enjoyable. That.

Someone told me this week that people also use OnVaSortir as an unofficial dating site. I suppose this is to be expected because one way of meeting other people is to be active, so you're bound to meet like-minded types, especially if you target your activities wisely.

So, I haven't signed up for anything yet or thought about organising something (no thanks!). There's a time for everything, and I do like to take plenty of it.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

20 Things To Do in the South of France

Every now and again I get contacted by someone either wanting my views on some topic, or to link to a blog post or website.

Most recently, Jen of Jen Reviews contacted me about linking to a post she's written on 100 best things to do in France. I had a look at it, and it has a pretty good variety of things to do, from the obvious to the less obvious. So, if you're planning a visit to France, you could do worse than peruse her suggestions.

It got me thinking about my own list of things to do. Of course, I didn't agree entirely with her list, but then my own would be concentrated around the South of France. While I'm not sure I can come up with 100 things to do, here in no particular order, are some of my favourites:

1. Motorbiking
Michelin came up with a brilliant idea many years ago of colouring routes that go through attractive scenery in green. Motorbiking along these roads is the best way of exploring them, and of getting deep into the French countryside. Cycling takes more effort, and driving is not so much fun unless, I suppose, you're driving a cabriolet.

2. Walking up the Pic St Loup

View from the top of the Pic St Loup
The Pic St Loup is the local Montpellier landmark and is a popular walk. Take a picnic and admire the wonderful views from the top.

3. Lac de Salagou
Lac de Salagou, ruins of Celles in the distance
I cycled around the Lac de Salagou once. However, you don't have to cycle around it to enjoy it. It's a beautiful place for playing in safe water, doing water sports, having a picnic, going on a walk. We've motorbiked around it too, it was much faster...

4. Meteorological Observatory, Mont Aigoual
On the top of Mont Aigoual is a functioning meteorological observatory in an imposing purpose-built castle that also houses a free exhibition and museum. There's also a nice shop and café if you don't want to face the bracing winds eating your sandwiches at the picnic tables outside.

Picnic table and view
5. Mont Aigoual
While I'm on the top of Mont Aigoual, I'll mention that it's a great place for walking, and even has a small ski resort - Prat Payrot - with 4 downhill green slopes, 4 blue and 3 red, plus 32km of cross-country skiing, including a black course.

6. The Cevennes
One of my favourite areas. Fabulous for motorbiking, walking, canoeing, visiting, eating, observing, skiing and all manner of other fun things to do.
Fabulous Cevennes scenery

7. Bambouseraie
I looked through my blog to find a post on visits to the bamboo gardens at the Bambouseraie near Anduze, but I must have been there mainly before I started St Bloggie de Riviere. I used to go when my parents visited, and I had young boys. It's a fantastic place, well worth the visit, and has a lovely shop too.
Bambouseraie shop

8. Little Steam Train
A natural follow-on to the Bambouseraie is the little steam train that runs from Anduze to St Jean du Gard with a stop at the Bambouseraie.

Steam Train at St Jean du Gard station
You can make a day of it, starting at Anduze to St Jean du Gard, having a picnic, getting back on the train, stopping at the Bambouseraie and catching the last train back.

View along the little steam train route

Over the the Pyrenees Orientales and the town of Thuir you'll find the Byrrh factory where they make herb and spice-based liquor which was originally sold as a health tonic and eventually became part of France's aperitif culture. You go on a tour of the old parts of the factory, learn about the manufacturing process and get a tasting at the end. Absolutely fascinating, if for no other reason than it has the biggest oak cask in the world holding over 1 million litres.
The original aperitif

Near Clermont-l'Hérault, this is a great one for kids because they can run around the weird and wonderful rock formations and let their imaginations run riot.

Weird rock formations at the Cirque de Mourèze
It's a great place for a walk for adults too.

11. The Noria Water Museum
At St Jean de Bruel in Aveyron, this is another very interesting museum set in an old water mill. It's been put to different uses at different times, but one of the main ones was cleaning woollen cloth. The mill has been restored so you can see how it was done. There's also a mini hydro-electric station, a large model of a river modified to produce hydro-electricity, lots of other interesting water-related information and a place for kids to play.

Noria water museum

The village is very pretty and there are some fantastic views to be seen after walking up through shady chataigner woods to the 'sentinelle'.
St Jean de Bruel 'sentinelle' and view of the village

12. Glass-blowing Museum
The Halle du Verre is in the quaint village of Claret. The region was an important glass-making centre, with manufacture monopolised by gentlemen glassblowers who came back from the Crusades with the skill and didn't want anyone else to share in their fortunes. The museum has an excellent permanent exhibition, regular temporary exhibitions, and an actual glass-blower working behind a protective glass panel. It opens on May 3 until 30 November.

From the top of Mont Ventoux looking east
A great favourite with cyclists, bikers, walkers, the Tour de France, and others, Mont Ventoux is an exceptional site with its limestone scree top that looks like snow from a distance. 

14. Markets
Some good local ones on Saturday mornings are at les Arceaux in Montpellier, Clermont-l'Hérault, and Sommières. There is a vast amount of parking at Sommières which gets very full by 10.30am. I know this because I went through Sommières yesterday on my way to a mountain bike enduro site and saw how many cars arrived between 9.45am and 10.30am. I'm sure there are others, but I just don't know about them. I seem to remember that Olargues has a lovely organic market but it's just once a year, this year on 15 August 2017. Special 'estivale' organic markets are popular in the summer.

About this time of year you also get the 'Médievales' which are great for families. My boys used to love them. They combine a market, sword fights, brave knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, jousting, etc. You can visit them all over Languedoc Roussillon, information here

Trying on a heavy helmet

16. Castles (ruined)
My youngest used to love visiting ruined castles. He used to dress up in his Crusader kit and, preferably with his brother and a buddy, would be happy to walk to the castle of the day and spend a productive afternoon doing battle. Languedoc Roussillon and beyond has many ruined castles from the imposing, impressive Cathar castles in the PO, to less frequented and easier to get to ruins nearer to home. Before Wikipedia came to the rescue of those in search of information on the castles of Hérault (for example) I used to take a map, look for the ruined castle symbol which, on Michelin maps is a triangle made up of three black spots, pack a picnic and get in the car.

Our most local ruin is the château de Montferrand above St Mathieu de Tréviers together with the château de la Roquette.

17. Other Festivals
There are many festivals throughout France, and depending on your poison, you can probably find one that suits. Festivals that I have been to or go to regularly include the FISE (extreme sports festival) held in May (24-28, 2017) showcasing the best of BMX, Roller, Skateboarding, Wakeboarding and MTB scenes. Then there's the Tomato Festival in Clapiers in September (250 varieties on show, plus lovely market), the International Short Film Festival (court metrage) in Clermont-Ferrand in February, the Avignon arts festival in July, Montpellier Danse, also in July, and the Montpellier music and film festival des Nuits d'O in August set in the shady grounds - you bring a picnic or buy something en site, and sit at long picnic tables eating before the band of the evening starts. It's very cool.

This takes place in Orange June 16-17, 2017, and gathers together bikers who love the idea of adventurous travelling, want to go on an adventure trip, have been on a trip, are preparing for a trip and so on. We particularly enjoy the presentations made by bikers (men and women) who were sponsored for their trip and have to give a presentation of what happened. We've listened to a young woman who rode from Canada down to Ushuaia, a couple who rode from France to Iran, others who rode around India, and so on. It makes for a fantastic day out if you like motorbikes.

19. The Beach
I don't often go to the beach in summer, but it is fun to go with friends to one of the many 'paillotes' - pop-up restaurants on the beach with private sections of beach that are installed for the summer and have to be taken down again in the autumn. Go in the evening for an apero, for example. Balmy air, the lapping of the waves, a glass of chilled rosé, trendy décor, it's definitely a cool thing to do. 

20. What boys like to do
When I asked my youngest (16) what he likes to do, he came up with the following list: 
  • FISE
  • Aqualand (Cap d'Agde)
  • Beach (with friends only)
He has also had lots of fun on his birthdays doing paintball, and Accrobranche, and can't wait until he's 18 when he can join an air-soft club. As an outdoor type, he loves mountain biking and there are many fantastic sites where you can ride for pleasure and take part in competitions. We often go skiing to Mont Aigoual to Prat Peyrot, but this year went to Prapoutel in the Alps which was much bigger, much better and more fun, even in the bad weather. He has also greatly enjoyed canoeing/kayaking on the Hérault river, and jumping off the rocks into the river at the Pont d'Issensac.

There is of course, so much more to do (like vigneron picnics, or various circuits by foot, bike or car), but I hope you enjoyed my list, and I'm always keen to get recommendations.