Melanoma’s a Funny Old Cancer

I have completely dropped off blog writing in the last month. The reasons for this will emerge here. This, I promise, is my last personal  blog on the subject of melanoma and how it has affected me.

Melanoma cancer appears to do the very opposite of what most other cancers seek to do. Most cancers want to quietly invade and get your body to accept their existence or at least fool your system into pretending that they are not there. This is not the case with melanomas.   The body is all too aware of their existence and happily combats them and suppresses them from the word go.

It is now commonly believed by the medics that melanomas are often “contracted” in one’s early youth, or even infancy: There you are sitting happily in the pushchair with only a sun bonnet for protection, or running around the garden in the bright sunshine with very little on and no protection whatsoever. One of your cute little moles gets irritated by a touch of sunburn and voila!

However, like many viruses (viri?), once in the system, melanomas are suppressed but never fully wiped out. With viruses, one day something happens to lower your body’s resistance and suddenly shingles, boils, acne, or a dozen other nastiness’s can suddenly erupt from nowhere.  In the case of the melanoma, it can sit there silently for 40 or 50 years just waiting until your immune system begins to falter, most commonly with age. Hence the reason that the majority of sufferers are in their mid 60s to 80s.

Melanomas appear in four distinct “stages”.  Stage one melanoma is when a mole begins to change colour, shape or expand.  If you are very lucky this will be on your front, arm or leg and you can quickly spot it and have it excised under local anaesthetic and that will be the end of it.

However, sunburn more commonly occurs on your back, and so do most melanomas. You need to be very lucky to have someone rapidly spot the change there. If, as in my case, it is well hidden between your shoulder blades this will not occur until the mole begins to bleed or itch, by which time it has become stage 2. This means it has become attached to your blood supply and developed its own nervous tissue. In this case you need a far bigger operation to dig it out, usually requiring a skin graft after. It is also usual to take biopsies and even remove your lymph nodes from under your armpits because this is where the melanoma is next heading.

Some six years ago this is precisely what happened to me. For the next five years, things had settled down and no new developments occurred. I had hoped that was the end of it. But it wasn’t to be. Last year a nodule appeared under one armpit heralding the arrival of stage three. Scans showed two “ganglions” one sitting harmlessly just under the skin the other deep into one of the lymph nodes. These were removed, the deep one leaving me with no feeling in my left hand armpit to this day.  The good news was that only the two cancers were spotted, and I might, just might be lucky. But once stage three is reached it is on the cards that the melanoma will spread eventually and become the lethal stage four.

Only 3 months ago another nodule arose on my right breast. Scans showed that melanomas had spread like wildfire throughout my body. I had them in both lungs, a large one next to my spine, one in my adrenal gland and several more dotted all over. Stage four basically turns you into one living melanoma. It does it with frightening rapidity, hence why the death rate is so rapid – 75% mortality within a year. I was very lucky to get such a quick warning with the subcutaneous breast cancer.  Without this, for most people there are no warnings until they fall seriously ill and only then get a diagnosis which comes far too late to do anything about it.

I was further lucky in living in France and within two weeks having had my first injection of the hideously expensive Ipilimumab. The rest, as they say, is history. I knew that 70% of all recipients had serious and potentially life threatening side effects and that a quarter need to be hospitalized. I happily sailed through the first three injections with no ill effects whatsoever, except that my breast cancer had shrunk to nothing. It was the fourth and final injection which did for me.

What the drug basically does is boost your immune system to that approaching a teenager, but in a sixty year old’s body. The immune system senses the melanoma and floods the body with “T” cells, which in turn emit lymphocytes which attack the cancers. However, melanomas, once established, develop their own defence system.  Each lymphocyte has a depression built into it, much like a keyhole. When it mindlessly attaches itself to a piece of normal body tissue there is a corresponding piece of projecting genetic material that fits the depression and acts like a sort of Masonic handshake which tells the lymphocyte, “We are one of you.” The lymphocyte promptly indulges in a programmed cell death. As can be guessed, the melanoma has also developed a copy of this projection. What the drug does is mask this depression so that the lymphocytes don’t die, but go battling on. The problem is that the lymphocytes now can’t readily tell normal tissue from cancerous tissue.

My first scan after treatment showed clearly that most of the melanomas, including the ones on the lungs, had completely disappeared, the rest were “lesions” which is a vague term doctors use to mean that they were either dried up melanomas or scar tissue. Only one melanoma remained. This was in my adrenal gland. and was the cause of all my problems.

The adrenal glands are a mysterious pair of glands sitting on top of the kidneys, both of a different shape and both doing different tasks. We associate the production of adrenaline with the adrenals, but infact they both produce a cocktail of different, naturally occurring powerful steroid type drugs that control our energy levels, responses to stress etc. and which also control the immune system! This was the problem.  Because of the cancer my immune system was not getting any control drugs from the adrenal glands.  Because the adrenal glands have a limited blood supply, unlike all the other melanomas the lymphocytes could not get ready access to it to destroy it, but the immune system was well aware of its existence so was pumping out more and more antibodies to attack it. These were rampaging around my body and started attacking me instead.  This was why I was being given such a massive dosage of steroids. Partly to quieten down the immune system, and partly to replace the lack of their production by the adrenal gland.

Unfortunately I also developed a massive reaction to the corticoid steroids they were giving me. I lost muscle and weight and rapidly took on a look resembling Ghandi at his leanest. Plus all the unpleasant side effects that I won’t go into. Needless to say I had to come off them in a hurry, and as they had an opioid effect had to “come down” off them. In the next two weeks I developed adrenal fatigue. I could barely move to do anything and was sleeping over 15 hours a day. If I did manage to get up and do a small activity after half an hour I had to go back to bed and usually slept for 4 more hours to recover. This was all due to the under production of my adrenal glands. This was also the reason that I have not been writing my blog. There finally got to it.

When I finally returned to the hospital the doctor was not best pleased with me. He put me onto a large dose of yet another steroid – hydrocortisone and warned me that I must not come off these under any circumstances as I could face dire consequences otherwise.  I am pleased to announce that I am getting no nasty side effects from this (so far) nor experiencing the opioid type highs and sleeplessness. Infact things are very slowly returning to normal. But still a way to go before I get back full energy levels or strength, but at least I am feeling more lively.

Oh the other good news. In the three weeks since the first scan, a second scan showed that my adrenal melanoma had already shrunk form 21 mm to 17mm and looks fair to be continuing to shrink. As a result they view me as case cured. My side effects will continue to occur until either that last melanoma is just a “lesion” or until my immune system settles down a bit more and comes to terms with the “old man” it is actually dealing with.

The latest research findings now show that 90% of those taking this drug live at least a year longer even if they have had to rapidly come off it due to adverse effects. But now it is shown that 80% of recipients are “cured” or at least had the melanomas shrunk sufficiently that in the 10 years since trials started none have had a resurgence or died of the disease. so I am looking fair to surviving this for at least the next ten years now. Need to open another bottle of bubbly to celebrate.

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Why Do the French Drive so slowly?

Due to my forcible eviction (literally!) from the steroid treatment I was taking, I can now get at least some sleep during part of the night. Hence my blog writing has somewhat fallen into abeyance.  I am hoping to redress this once our visitor has departed.  In the meantime, this is something I commented on years ago on Facebook and am expanding upon it further here.

The opening heading might come as a surprise to some. The generally accepted view of French drivers from the other side of the channel is that, while they are not as homicidally barking as the Italians or Greeks, the French are pretty much into overtaking everything. Especially on blind bends.  And are generally viewed as being keen on hurtling about, totally ignoring speed limits with a road death toll at least double that of other European countries for the given number of drivers on the road.  All this is partly true, and is expressly true in places like the Cote D’ Azure where the driving reaches insane heights of competitive stupidity, but here in our little rural corner of France the opposite is also true.

Many of the drivers here are old.  Very old.  Our local newspaper had a picture some years ago of an ancient mummy staggering out of a car. It’s heading was “99 and he’s still driving!” This was not a cause for celebration in my book.  The full page picture clearly illustrated a very senile person who, if not totally gaga was at least three sheets to the wind.  It looked like he was unable to get out of the car without help and with his outstretched arms, he really looked like a low budget version of “The Mummy Returns” or at least someone begging for assistance to help him emerge.

The problem here is that there is no alternative to driving.  There are no buses. And it is a very large empty rural area, with lots of tiny hamlets; three houses and a church, miles from any town or shop.  You have to drive.  What compounds the problem is that there is little work available here either. Most of the young have to drift off to the towns to seek employment.  This leaves a core of aging or aged persons, often on small holdings or tiny farms, scratching a living.

There are still genuine peasant farmers. This is a dying breed but they still exist. A few years ago we went with our knowledgeable French friend on an orchid hunt, looking for rare orchids on the limestone plateau to the north east of us.  The whole of the time we were up there a suspicious old man kept driving around on his ancient dingy orange 1950’s tractor in the background.  Our friend told us to “ignore him, he’s like that.  He lives with his wife in a house with no water supply nor electricity and drives his wife the 5 miles to Montcuq market with her clinging to the back of that ancient tractor with her hands on his shoulders to keep her from falling off.”

There is also a local pair that we see at second hand markets who look like ZZ Top before they cleaned up. They are father and son but look identical with hair and beards down to their waist.  They too, according to another French friend, live down a track to a farm that only their ancient tractor can manipulate and they live by creating their own alcohol from the fruit trees that grow around their “farm”. Most of which they consume themselves as their main food intake.  There is a mother in existence somewhere, but she is rarely seen as you can only get 2 persons on the tractor at one time.

The best place to observe these throwbacks en masse is at Valence market. There is one gigantic stall there that sells nothing but hunting and shooting gear.  And there they all are, standing around it.  Great overweight slobs wearing full camouflage outfits and commando boots, but over the top of that, the now legal requirement of a high vis Day-Glo vest, completely rendering the camouflage gear absolutely useless. We are talking serious moron here. Just standing still, trailing their hairy knuckles along the floor. Not saying anything to each other, but emitting the occasional grunt.  This is the local hunt. And are they scary. The thought that they are free to roam all over your land complete with a loaded gun just doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s been several years now since we have walked into a large supermarket only to be aware of a powerful smell permeating the shop. (apart from that of the fish counter.  Why do all French supermarkets eventually stink of the fish counter?)  The smell is readily tracked down to one person – usually a woman – who looks just like something emerging from the 19th century, and for whom the idea of washing, let alone deodorant is an alien concept.  We saw one whose stench was so strong that the rest of the French were giving her a wide margin, whilst watching with glee the poor checkout girl trying to hold her breath and not gagging whilst serving her.

Although, it has been necessary to apply for a driving licence for a long time in France, you didn’t actually need to take a  driving test until the recent past.  Most people over 40 have never had to take any sort of driving lessons.  And it shows.

A recent magazine article in a French periodical was horrified to discover that the majority of French people have no idea what a large number of the modern traffic signs actually mean. Can’t say I’m surprised at all.  Even the concept of “No Entry” and “One way” means nothing to them, again, especially to females.  We have watched in awe a female driver battling her way up a busy one way street in the teeth of oncoming traffic which have had to swerve to avoid her.  And she was driving a school minibus full of children!

Just today we watched with amusement a woman driving in La Francaise, a steep hill top village near us. A  narrow downhill road joined the main road at a 45 degree V. Despite 2 no-entry signs and a one-way arrow clearly displayed she went over to the other side of the road to be able to negotiate the tight bend then zoomed up the steep road in completely the wrong direction. If a car had come down it there would have been no way to avoid each other.

The point is that the older “country” people here are used to living life firmly in the slow lane.  They can make a trip to the supermarket last a whole half a day.  For some reason they have to go to the supermarket on the busiest day –  Saturday, when the queues at the checkouts can be long.  You have to bear in mind that this is a French supermarket and no matter how busy, there are only ever three persons on checkout. So a queue of at least  ten or twelve  “chariots” per aisle, laden to the gunnels is quite common on a Saturday.

French supermarkets do not supply carrier bags. You can buy “bags for life”, but few of the French do. They are just too mean.  So they load everything into the trolley, unload it onto the belt, load it all back into the trolley again, then unload it all yet again, one at a time, into the back of the car, and when they get home, unload it all one at a time into the house.  There’s a morning’s worth of activity to start with.

But the dread is the old person with the cheque.  You can spot them down the queue.  In France it costs €35 per year to own a bank card.  Incidentally there is no such thing as a credit card here. To go overdrawn is an offence. Bankruptcy can be a prisonable offence if people have deliberately over borrowed.  We know of one Brit who went overdrawn whilst waiting for his pension to be sorted out and transferred.  He was called into the bank and had his card cut up in front of him and told, sorry, we understand your problems, but if you were French you could now be in prison. From now on everything is in cash over the counter, and you can only take out a maximum of €300 per week of YOUR OWN MONEY!  Also everything to do with a bank here costs. You cancel a cheque, it will cost you €10. You do a cash transfer – €10 etc. When we asked why everything costs we were told “Bankers have to eat as well”. Didn’t like to say that they eat bloody well in the UK and it’s still free.

The French, quite rightly, don’t trust banks, and the “Bank of mattress” is a common euphemism.  Especially as all French have to fill in their own tax forms every year, or “The great lie” as it is called.  Apparently, when the Franc turned into the euro there was a huge panic as people tried to convert their hidden Francs secretly to euros.  When you view French houses, nearly all the décor, the kitchen, the bathroom and the furniture can be dated exactly to that time.  You were not able to get hold of a decorator, plumber, painter or builder for love nor money during the whole of that period as hidden assets were converted into house fittings.

Because so many people are too mean/poor to pay for a card, the cheque book is still used by the majority of older persons.  The problem is that French cheques are joined to the top of the cheque book across the top by a thin stub and are difficult to tear out, especially if you are old and arthritic.  After struggling for a bit they usually hand the chequebook over to the cashier to do the tearing.  Then they also have to provide 2 separate pieces of identity and the checkout girl has to meticulously write all this detail out by hand, then it goes into the machine that prints it back and forth 4 times. Then the person has to sign it, and make a note on the weird French check stub.

This is usually how the performance pans out – You have to remember  that this person lives miles from anywhere and is greedy just for some sort of human interaction.  And Saturday is the big day for it, and they will milk it for all they are worth.

The senior slowly puts each item onto the belt, one at a time, whilst actively talking to the cashier.  After a few minutes, all items are loaded. Still talking, the oldster meticulously watches all the stuff being put through the till, having not made the least effort to start packing it back yet.  Once it is all through, the cashier will interrupt the one sided conversation to inform the person of the price.  There is always a look of deep surprise that they actually need to pay for this stuff.  Then begins the slow careful repacking of the stuff back into the trolley, whilst trying to engage the cashier in further chat.  Only after everything is finally back into the trolley, do they look at the cashier with anticipation and are then again told the price.  Now begins “the delve”.  And this can be a supreme work of art.  Because, by law you should carry with you at all times all your identity card, insurance papers and full details, including an EDF bill (It’s why men carry around those man bags here), all old people carry a capacious bag full of dozens of bits of paper.  Delving into this for the elusive cheque book can be extended  for several minutes, especially as they keep stopping to apologise for not being able to find it.  Eventually it will emerge, and after a couple of minutes of fruitless struggle to tear it out, it is handed to the cashier who does it for them.

Now the cashier asks for 2 items of identity.  Back into the bag for another few minutes of rummaging, before emerging triumphant with a stack of store cards etc, plus somewhere in there the EDF bill (To prove where you live) and the carte d’identitie.  The cashier now writes all this out in long hand onto the back of the cheque and, eventually, the machine gets the cheque only to spend another couple of minutes printing it twice on one side, before the cashier takes it out and prints it twice more on the other side.  This then is handed over to the owner to peruse and sign.  But of course the owner is still slowly putting their bits of paper back into the bag.  Finally they look up, notice the cheque being waved at them, then take it in hand and look bemused.  They then proceed to delve back into the bag for a pen, before the now exasperated cashier pushes her pen into their hand.  After viewing the cheque suspiciously, it will eventually be signed in longhand.  This is not the end, this oldster is still trying to engage the cashier in conversation, who is now pointedly ignoring them and serving the next customer.  Only after the next customer’s stuff is virtually through, will they give up and head off to the car park for the long and tedious unloading/loading activity.  And so their morning has passed until next week. A whole morning gone. Boy do they know how to kill time here.  Meantime in the queue everyone is eyeing up the two other old ladies, and wondering whether to jump to the longer queue but without one of these harridans in it.

This, I promise you is genuinely how these things happen here.  I also think it is the reason why the glass case with the shotgun cartridges and bullets has been moved away from the checkout and put into the centre of the shop.  The urge to break into it and put these old dears out of their misery is overwhelming.

more to come

An update on the state of me. A bit of self-indulgence.

Well here I am again wide awake in the middle of the night, writing this blog.

Circumstances have changed somewhat though.  I am mainly awake because of my son’s visit, and I have taken to sleeping in my study on the bed/ settee in there so that my nightly excursions would not disturb the other members of the family. This was the integral garage to the house which I converted into a much larger kitchen/diner at the front complete with walk in pantry, and at the rear this study complete with its en suite toilet facilities.

This part of the house is therefore outside of the double bricked, double insulated walls and triple glazing of the rest of the house which renders it virtually soundproof.  This part is just a normal single brick which I conventionally insulated with a plaster board polystyrene sandwich and double insulation windows.  I also have the little window open in the loo to get some air flow.

And the result is I am being kept awake by 2 nightingales singing in our trees at the front of the house. Delightful as they are, nightingales are ruddy loud.  Meanwhile Cassiopeia is glaring directly in at me through the window along with some of her attendant starlets on a beautifully clear night.

The normal reasons that I am usually awake at this time have been due to the sleeplessness induced by being high on corticoid steroids being taken to prevent the often violent reactions to my cancer drug, which till recently has been trying to eat my insides.

Unfortunately my body has now taken a violent reaction against  the steroids themselves and unilaterally declared them inadmissible.  The result is that, because of the opioid like effects, I have had to take a bit of “cold turkey” and have had a very mild form of all the classic symptoms of “coming down”.  However the improvement in my general demeanour is overwhelming. I now realise that many of the awful side effects, especially the violent nausea, were being caused by the corticoids and not the drug treatment itself.

It looks like things are settling down, and although I am still a long way from trouble free, I certainly feel a lot better, and am usually now without severe discomfort.

I had a special reason to fear what might happen to me tonight, as I had severely broached my dietary regime in the name of taste and flavour.  Basically I am on the equivalent of an extreme version of the Aitkin’s diet.  I am not allowed anything with roughage.  So no fresh fruit or vegetables, no brown bread, no milk based items (some plain yoghurt and certain mild hard cheeses are allowed.)  I can eat all the protein I wish to and all the carbs such as rice, pasta, and spuds.  Downing lots of oily and fatty and sweet things are fine.  Anything to coat my stomach in quietening gunk.

Unfortunately we have a soft fruit glut.  My wife had picked a load of blackcurrants and red currants, and having poached them up in syrup wondered what to do with them.  I have already detailed elsewhere how it is impossible to buy thick, double cream in France (it all goes to the veal market to feed those poor things).  We bought an ice cream maker over with us years ago and have never been able to use it.  We have found that mascarpone is the only taste alike substitute for thick cream here, so my wife whipped a pot of this into the currant mix and froze it.  She hadn’t used the ice-cream machine, and the stuff froze solid.  But when it began to melt we have hit THE most delicious desert I have tasted in a long while.  I know it should be totally out of bounds but… oh so good.

A similar thing occurred a few days before when we picked gallons of cherries from the tree in our other house.  Ate a bowl full of fresh cherries, before my wife then took ages to destone and cook the rest. As they were sitting there in the fridge in danger of going off after all the hard work, she made several crumbles with them.  She was so tired she forgot to time them, and was really upset when she thought she had overcooked them.  But believe me there is absolutely nothing wrong with the taste of those cherry crumbles. Hmm.

Having my son here to cook for, we rather overindulged, and I was dreading the coming of this night and what might result. The answer is not much.  No different from normal and no discomfort. Boy am I pleased.

Unfortunately it doesn’t end there. I have 4 bushes and 2 trained “trees” absolutely bursting with gooseberries that are beginning to over ripen.  Tomorrow we must pick them there goosegogs.  My wife is not a fan of them, but I adore goosegogs. And will be making yet more pies/crumbles, and I know full well that I will have to eat some, especially as both our freezers are virtually full.  But what can you do?  you can’t leave such deliciousness to go rot can you?

Wish us luck.

 

A Tale of Two Health Care Systems

This is a very personal blog, mainly about me and my health care. And it’s about cancer. The big C. So be warned.

I feel the need to make a record of events, and to compare the attitudes of both the UK and French health systems as seen from a cancer sufferer.

Some 5 years ago I had an itchy spot on my back that started to bleed. Our wonderful French doctor took one look at it and phoned a dermatologist. The next week the dermatologist confirmed that it was a melanoma. Skin cancer. He then harangued me about not coming sooner, it has probably spread by now. which caused Maz to burst into tears. He asked why I hadn’t spotted it before? I said it is in the small of my back and I couldn’t see it. He then said what about your wife didn’t she spot it?

Not a nice man for a doctor. (Have since heard from our other doctor friend that this guy caused someone else to dissolve into tears) He won’t get any more referrals, but he did immediately phone the hospital and arrange for me to have surgery the very next week.  In France there are no waiting lists, no delays. Just instant action.

The next week I had part of my back surgically removed under a local. The results came back that the melanoma was a biggun. Two Weeks later I was driven to Toulouse in a private ambulance to a delightful cancer hospital smack in the middle of Toulouse right by the river. The huge picture window from my room had the most stunning view ever with two of the town’s major bridges passing on either side. I had a large scoop taken out of my back and had to have a skin graft from my leg to cover it.  They gave me the good news that there was no other sign of cancer. But I needed to come in every few months for a scan.

Things were fine until last year when a lump appeared under my right armpit.  I was back inside within a fortnight and they found 2 cancer sites in both armpits. Theses were surgically removed. And all seemed well.

Earlier this year I noticed a lump on my right breast. Unfortunately they were at the point of closing down the now much too small cancer hospital and transferring it all out to what is now probably Europe’s biggest cancer research university and hospital north of Toulouse. So I had to wait a month for my first appointment, much to my own doctor’s disgust.  Then the crunch came. I had stage 4 metastasis melanoma. I had tumours in both lungs, the adrenal gland a big one by my spine and in other places, as well as two subcutaneous ones.

The prognosis for stage four metastatic melanoma is terminal – 50% mortality within 6 months, 75% within 12 months, 100%  in 18 months. – IN ENGLAND!

Five years ago US company Meyer-Squibb introduced a magic bullet drug onto the market designed to destroy melanomas. There are two downsides, the drug itself boosts your immune system which can run amok and end up actually killing you itself. The other is the cost.  Each infusion injection costs $30,000 and you need 4 of them. That’s $120,000.

In the UK the National Institute for Clinical Excellence; NICE (What a sick and cynical acronym that is) took one look at the cost of the drug and one look at the people who needed it and said, “Nah.”  Although younger people are going down with skin cancer, I am typical of most sufferers. The majority are males in their mid sixties to eighties. We have all wandered around in sunny climes with no protection on our backs, too macho for that sticky cream stuff, getting ourselves heroically red and sunburnt.  Now the chickens had come home to roost.  It might even have been our French home that was my downfall, as I spent one hot summer just in cut off jeans and work boots for weeks building and concreting the sun terrace in our other house. NICE decided a load of old pensioners weren’t worth the cost of saving.

Here in France it was a totally different matter. Within two weeks I had had my first injection.  And I knew it was working because the tumour on my right breast began to shrink over night.  By the time of my third one (spaced 3 weeks apart) it had disappeared.  And I had been spared any side effects that 70% of patients get, which often causes them to be taken off the drug prematurely.  Feeling very cocky, I went for my fourth and final injection. The very next day the side effects hit. Big time!  That was over a month ago, and I am still suffering the effects.

The drug has the god-awful name Ipilimumab and is the only drug I have ever seen where every reference to it on the internet comes first with a massive poster warning about the “Life endangering effects” that this drug can have on you. I got two out of seven.  Basically, the drug boosts your immune system to the point where it goes into hyperdrive and starts killing off all and every tumour and other illness it finds (My lungs no longer wheeze and my esophagitis has been healed into the bargain).  Unfortunately, once the immune system has attacked and destroyed every anomaly in sight, it can turn around and start attacking its own host – me.  This is basically an extreme form of auto-immune disease.  It’s like a war party of American Indians, who have wiped out the cavalry and are now charging around looking for anything else to destroy.

An unfortunate set of circumstances – my own cancer doctor being off in Chicago with 3,500 other cancer specialists attending a conference on the even more amazing drugs that the US have put onto the market just last year, plus one of France’s national holidays intervening, meant that when I realised I was in serious trouble it was ten days before for one of Uncopole’s doctors sent an ambulance to get me into hospital.  By which time I had internal bleeding and the equivalent of full on dysentery, coupled with a deep nausea like the worst sea-sickness ever. Plus nagging pain. Sometimes it was hard to decide which part I needed to aim at the toilet first.  The drug was eating my bowels and had also attacked my hypothalamus.  Fortunately it decided not to eat my liver as well which is the really serious one.  As it was I narrowly escaped a colondectomy, and will probably have to take thyroid extract for the rest of my life.

To ameliorate the effects of the drug, they prescribe you massive doses of corticoid steroids.  But this stuff is also dangerous, and I have had quite a violent reaction to that as well.  I have lost nearly 3 stone in just over three weeks, my muscles are becoming atrophied and my skin has taken on the chicken leg look of a really old person. I have aged ten years in the last month.  One of the side effects of  corticoids is the euphoria. It hits some of the same centres as opium and cocaine.  Most of the time I am as high as a kite and totally away with the fairies, but a further side effect is the inability to sleep. Whilst in hospital I was reading between 3 and 5 books a night.

Fortunately many of these affects are reversible once my body settles down and learns to cope with my newly enhanced system.  Unfortunately the doctors can’t tell when this might happen. That it might never happen is the scary part.

The wonderful news though is that it has actually worked. All but one of my melanomas have been destroyed and are just scar lesions.  The one in the adrenal gland is still there but reduced, and I need to go back next month for yet another scan to see how it is going.  I have spent more time in and out of toroidal doughnuts since living in France than I have eaten real ones.

That was the personal bit, and way too prolix, but let me come onto French hospitals.  There are no wards, its always private rooms, and the hospitals are run by – tarra – doctors!  There’s no evidence of CEOs, under mangers, lawyers, accountants and the thousands of secretaries and paperwork wallahs that you see in the UK.  The French politicians keep a long way away from any sort of legislation about “improving” hospital standards, because they are so good anyway.  They also believe that small is beautiful and the equivalent of cottage hospitals are found sprinkled around the market towns of France.  With one or two big specialist hospitals in each city.

When I was in the hospital over the weekend it all went very quiet, and a new face appeared at my door with yet another very pretty intern. (All the doctors I saw were incredibly attractive young ladies who looked no more than 23.  I kept trying to look for the hidden cameras as I was certain I was in an American med-com.  Doctors just don’t come that young and glamorous.  It has its problems though when the prettiest one of the three standing around my bed wanted to finger my prostate gland. Normally you’d have to pay good money for that.)  Anyway this doctor came in and introduced himself in perfect English. He informed me that he was the head of the hospital and liked to send all the other doctors off for the weekend whilst he does the rounds with one volunteer intern. If an emergency arises they can be all back here within ten minutes. When he found out I came from Nottingham, he said he knows it well as he had done a stint at the Queens Med hospital there.

As for the nursing staff they were wonderful. I insisted on using my terrible French and they were very patient with me, and would correct me in English if theirs was good enough. There seems to be no hierarchic structure in evidence as I had no idea who was the senior nurse, and they all chatted happily with the doctors discussing treatment and results.  Infact over the weekend there was quite a bit of larking about and I did get to hear something smash, and suppressed giggles.  As the hospital was on top of the high hills due South of Toulouse and I was on the fifth floor I had yet another panoramic view towards the south and the Pyrenees.  Though to be fair I only glimpsed them once.

The downside was the food.  Maz had the same when she was in a neighbouring hospital.  Not only was the food absolutely tasteless what taste there was was vile. It all came in airline packaging. the one apple I was given was the most bitter thing I had ever eaten and the tiny pear had its skin bruised all over. I am sure they’re picking them out of the skips from Toulouse’s massive fruit markets.  They made the mistake of giving me a cheap apricot yogurt and this had so much flavour to it that I nearly swooned. I am now addicted to apricot yogurt.

In the previous little cancer hospital they had their own restaurant which served up reasonable food and I was delighted when a lady came round with a menu asking me to place an order and “Do I take wine with my meal?”  The last night there Maz came and visited and Maz could join me in the restaurant and eat downstairs. My meals were free but she had to pay for her three course meal of course. And the price? €8.50, just over a fiver by todays rate.  Also I’d used a telephone to inform my son in England how things were. And when I finally left they informed me that I had a telephone bill to pay. I thought “Oh ho I’m about to be stung like they do in English hospital, charging £45 just for a night’s TV and access to a phone.”  The cost was €3.50 just the price of the call.

I have nothing but praise for the French health system.  It is everything the UK system could be but is not.  All thanks to meddling, stupid UK politicians who want to make their mark by ripping it up and adding yet more layers of “initiatives” over the structure to justify their own egos.  Do you remember that they tried to organise a national database to computerise everyone’s records? But someone must have taken a major backhander to have given the project to a dubious American company renowned for being useless and very dodgy in their dealings – a yankee equivalent of Crapita.  After giving the company billions, it never happened and was quietly shelved.

Well the French have this system, and it works. We all have our “Carte vitale” like a green motor licence complete with picture.  When you go to the doctors, the hospital, the pharmacy, or when the nurse visits you (the nurses always visit your home rather than you go to a surgery). They simply plug in the Carte Vitale and they all have access to your details up to the level that they are allowed.  That way the pharmacist knows exactly what you are taking and what your needs are.

The other difference is that you are given all the details to do with your case. I have all my early X-rays and have printed out scans and a DVD of my earlier scans. It even has the same viewer software that you find in the hospital, and I have had great fun running a full screen walkthrough of my body.  Also when the doctors have a meeting to discuss your case, they make a copy of the minutes and send it to you, suggesting that if you don’t understand it, take it along to your own GP and he will help you.  What a difference compared to the secrecy of the Uk.  As a patient there you seem to be on a need to know only basis.

As for NICE. I think they need a new acronym.  How about the Association Reducing you to Survivors Or Losers Economically

Brits R Us

In my previous blog I stated I had finished with defaming Brits who live here in France, but I feel that I do need one last one to put the record kinda straight.
I forgot to mention the UK citizens living here whose aims and aspirations I share and who are successfully making a life for themselves following their particular dream.

Yes I know, this is me writing this gush, but I do feel the need to write a gentler blog this week concerning those of us Brits I feel akin to and can relate to.

There are two types of English I take my hat off to. The first is probably the overwhelming majority that live here: retired or semi-retired people who wanted a rest from the rat race, saw a pile of stones in a field whilst on holiday in France and have since been turning that pile of stones into a dream home, much to the amazement of some peasant farmer who cannot believe his luck that some insane foreigner has given him €100.000 euros for the worst piece of land on his farm and the stones for the old barn that fell down in his grandfather’s day. What is sad is that for many the dream can turn into disappointment and even nightmare.

The other group that I accord highest respect to are the working age English that have decamped with their family wholesale to try and live in France either by setting up their own business or seeking to work here.
They are the opposite of economic migrants.  It is incredibly tough to get work in rural areas and even if you have a specific skill you need paperwork to prove it and the French will only recognize French paperwork – in French.

Many of these people are having to do basic labouring or lowlier jobs, often “on the black” whilst learning enough French to pass exams for them to do a trade that they mastered years ago in England. They are usually earning a pittance compared to what their trade would get them in the UK, all for the sake of a lifestyle that they infinitely prefer for their family. Others are struggling to set up and run a business of their own in the teeth of the gale that is French bureaucracy and its appalling tax system.  I take my hat off to them all.

I would have included myself into the first group above, but we didn’t start with a pile of stones in a field. I wanted to.  I wanted to escape – everything.  Stress  and depression is a terrible thing.  In men especially, it leaves you scarred and cynical, defensive and aggressive.  I have seen it in the eyes of many other men who share my own jaundiced view of the world as a result. And I would have been really happy to have landed in the depths of nowhere, with just a grand view and lots of space between me and the next nearest human being (with the exception of my lovely wife). Or so I thought.

My wife was having none of it.  Being social and a good French linguist she wanted to be in the middle of a pretty, lively village and immerse herself into the life there, get to know people and integrate.  As ever she was completely right and I was completely wrong.  I am still anti-social, can’t cope with crowds, and quick to see the top of the glass is empty.  But at least now I can wear my own failings with a robe of humour and realise that the problem is of my own making and can get deep joy out of my existence here.  I owe this all to my wife who, unfortunately, I have now infected  for the worst as she has so stoically supported me. Because of her good French she has had to do all the communications, all the forms, confronted all the bureaucracy, all the hassles that flesh is heir to here, and my illness, whilst I stood silent at her coattails. I did all the physical work in upgrading and modernising both our houses, the building, the plumbing, the tiling the plastering etc.  But she shouldered the real burdens and it has affected her.  So I can add guilt to my portfolio of self-woes. Right! enough wallowing! On with the motley. We do have a wonderful life here on the whole, and some of our experiences are overwhelming. It is so lovely here for one thing, and I spend a lot of time just stopping and staring. Balm to the soul.

Buying a pile of stones in a field is one thing. Getting the wherewithal to turn it into a home is quite another.  If there isn’t a ready supply of water and electricity it can cost tens of thousands for EDF and SAUR, the state owned electric and water companies, to pipe them out there. There is also a little thing called planning permission, and in France, any brush with authority and legality is a minefield. One of Asterix the Gaul’s picture books is about his tussle with Roman bureaucracy as he meanders from room to room being told “No! Not my department”. For all his super strength he is worn down by the sheer tide of stubborn indifference on the part of officials.  It really reflects a truth of life here that all French can relate to.

France has one of the biggest centralised bureaucracies in the world. About 20% of the population work as civil servants, but the number of dependents relying on these jobs is more like 50% of the population.  The thing is they are jobs for life.  It is virtually impossible in France to sack anyone, no matter how incompetent, lazy or useless they are.  For most of the civil servants the only way to progress is to take more and more difficult exams.  That is how you progress, not on merit or on ability to do the job, but via exams. The result is a monolith of unhelpful people who know they have 35 years to kill in one job, their only joy is in providing as little assistance to anyone as possible. – For most of them.  You do get the odd joy of finding someone being both friendly and helpful, but it is a rarity.  I believe that Disneyworld Paris still has problems finding anyone to work there that is prepared to smile and say “Have a nice day”. This is especially true of the capital, where to smile at someone is tantamount to admitting that you are a halfwit. Most of our prejudices about the rudeness and sheer arrogance of the French stems from the attitude emanating from Paris.

But to be fair it isn’t just us foreigners who don’t like it. All the other French hate Parisians with a passion that is visceral.  The Parisians themselves have an insulting word for all other French – something like cabbage heads. When we first arrived in Lauzerte we were talking in a restaurant to a French couple about life here. And I asked him to tell me truthfully what he thought about all us Brits invading his land.  He gave a Gallic shrug and stated, “It could be worse. You could have been Parisians!” At last a race that’s hated more than us!

Having acquired your pile of stones, a water and electric supply and permission to do something about it. You now come to the little problem of how are you going to construct your dream home.  This can come as the first big shock to anyone on a low budget. Here stone costs the earth. The stone used in our region is a pure white porous stone known as Quercy Blanc.  Every old house is made of this. The trouble is it is virtually worked out. what new quarries there are, the quality is much poorer and it weathers much faster. Cut, dressed stone is therefore incredibly expensive.  Even worse, the artisans that can work this stone well are a dying breed.  To tempt a skilled artisanal stone worker onto your property and actually to start building walls you will need to leave a trail of high denomination Euros right up to the wall and then keep feeding them to him at regular intervals. But then you are constrained by the speed that they work. Building and infilling stone walls is slow work and these old guys don’t hurry. The payments can get quite out of hand.  That’s when they actually deign to turn up.

In France you are given a written estimate called a Devis. This Devis is a legally binding contract on both parties! Once you have signed it you are legally bound to it.  I don’t know if it is possible to actually insert a time clause into a Devis stating that if the work is not completed by such and such a time then it becomes invalid, but I don’t know of one being given. Once you have signed a builder’s Devis, you are stuck with him, no matter how useless he turns out to be nor how unprompt he is at actually turning up. To get any changes to the Devis, or to get rid of him, you need to turn to the law. And you seriously don’t want to do that.

We have heard stories of Brits crying with frustration, because every time they come back on holiday they discover that nothing has been done to turn their pile of stones into anything nearer a house. The builder only bothering to turn up two days after they are camped in their mobile home on their ground during their summer hols. They watch a bit of desultory work take place, knowing full well the minute they return home to England he will wander off site for another year. Some have made the big mistake of employing someone else more reliable to do the work. Only to be taken to court by the original builder for the €20,000 that the original Devis states you were going to pay him, even though he never did a thing. And he will win it. Obviously in the majority of cases things go through much more straightforwardly and regularly. But it is very important to get good sound advice about the quality and reliability of local builders especially if you are not permanently on site yourself.

OK so now you have some walls up. The next thing you need is a roof, and if you are doing up an old building you want some nice old beams to match the age. Oak is the only wood it is safe to use in Southern France. It has more chance of surviving termites, and is the only building wood that actually hardens with age and can easily take the great spans and weight even when old. Unfortunately, everyone wants it and it is in short supply. Therefore here, old oak beams cost the earth.  When I was knocking down internal walls in our old house, I wanted three  oak beams to act as uprights to take the weight under two beams that had been previously infilled with brick and which were now taking the weight of upstairs. I asked a young French electrician who did some work for us on an emergency basis (And ripped us off for €300 for approximately ten minutes work that he stretched out to 20 minutes by faffing about a lot). He replied, “You English and your love of old oak beams!”, but he did put us on to Richard who became a good friend complete with his very attractive young Russian internet bride. (Which was quite strange as he didn’t own a computer and shows no sign of being able to actually use one).  Sadly, since we’ve moved home we have rather lost sight of Richard and his Svetlana.  His brother owns a farm and they were demolishing tobacco curing sheds made of old smoked oak beams and he chopped us off 3 x 3metre lengths, charging us a very reasonable €100 for them. Then helped us get them home and fit them.

We briefly met an English couple who had serious wealth and were converting a magnificently huge barn.  He did much of the work himself, but when it came to the roof, they realised that they would need to have seriously skilled people to do the job and to create the whole elaborate thing out of new oak.  After months of trying to find a French company that wasn’t going to charge an absolute fortune, they paid to have an English company do it. They paid the airfare and living costs of the company’s’ designer to come over for a week to plan and draw the design. He went back and had all the pieces cut to fit in English oak, then loaded it all onto a giant artic low loader to trundle it from England all the way to Southern France. Once arrived, they paid for the whole team of English artisans to spend a week in France paying their full wages, overtime, and living costs, to create an amazing and elaborate set of roofing trusses.  And they stated that it cost less than half the price of the nearest competitive Devis of any French company. Such is the nature of costings in France due to the inordinate tax bills that businesses have to pay here to support the top heavy system of bureaucrats.

You finally have a roof and walls and the fitting of floors, windows and doors is more straightforward, but, again not cheap. The French go in for elaborate wooden front doors that can cost a couple of thousand euros just for the door. There are some wonderfully skilled stair makers here that can create elaborate confections in wood or stone, but at a price. Tiles are almost mandatory on ground floors. But at least tilers come two a penny.

Finally the house is finished. What you need next is the swimming pool. It is almost mandatory that any Brit turning an old mill or barn into a house, must also have a pool.  The average price for a bog standard sunken pool of a decent size is €25,000, but this can double if there are problems with the underlying land or siting, and if something a bit more shaped and elaborate is required.

Just one thing. The breed of Brit that undertook this sort of thing are virtually extinct now since about 12 years ago. The costs of land and property spiralled here with the advent of all those TV programmes such as “A Place in the Sun”.  Lots of Brits surged out here and the prices rocketed for about 7 years.  Then came the recession. Those programmes disappeared off our screens for a while and prices started to drop. Then they avalanched.  It was further reduced by the large numbers of Brits that decide to return to the Uk after the dream starts to turn a bit thin.

There was a 3 year turn around for many Brits. It’s now extended to a 6 year turn around as it  takes on average about 3 years to sell a house in rural France now.  No one wants them. The Brits coming out have dropped to a trickle, only the Belgians and Dutch seem to be buying these days (and the odd Australians! Ruddy long way to come for a holiday home.) The French don’t do commute, and the prices are too high for them. They like to live not 10 minutes from their place of work so that they can get back for the Holy 2 hour lunchbreak. Wealthy French mainly already own a rambling old country house somewhere that has already been in the family for generations. When they do sell it’s for a tithe of the quarter to half million that they have originally spent on them.  Mind you It is apparently now  high status thing in Par to own a country holiday home previously built by an expat Brit as we are renowned for building to very high quality.

We have known a lot of Brits who have gone home again.  Having had the joys and trials of building up their dream home deep in the French countryside, they suddenly find that there isn’t a lot to actually do in rural France once it is all finished.  We are near mountains. The winters here can be harsh and dreary.  Not much  snow but a lot of wet. with nothing much to do. Everything in France is geared to the month of August when the big cities empty their workers for the whole month.  Tourists from other parts of the world with less narrow habits such as the Brits and the Dutch have extended the holiday season here from May to October. But outside of this time, bars, and restaurants and most tourist attractions simply close.

Doing nothing but sitting all day around a pool, burning yourself to the beefy red tan most Brits achieve in the sun and drinking your self legless on cheap plonk tends to tire after a while.  It is especially difficult if you don’t have the language skills and you live miles from the nearest sizeable town. What usually happens is that the expats tend to get together in a coterie of fellow Brits and have constant barbecue parties at each others places, and regular coffee mornings and weekend meet ups at the local market bar. The problem is , once one pair in the group breaks ranks and returns home the rest tend to shatter too.

We fell out big-time with one pair of ex-friends, where the woman just had to shepherd everyone she knew together all the time, and couldn’t bare to be alone.  When we intimated that we didn’t want to constantly come and sing karaoke with a lot of other drunken, groaning, middle aged Brits around her pool all the time she took umbrage.  Mercifully they have returned to England now after 4 years of trying to sell their house.

The usual excuse for returning home is that they are missing the grandchildren. In reality they are bored out of their skulls.

But for many of us this is not the case. Speaking the language and getting involved in local activities and clubs is one way to wear the winter away. Being close to a large town helps as well.  You need more than gardening as a hobby if your going to face the winters here.  Some people we know have bought a small apartment in the South of Spain. Others, like us, have kept a house in England and return thither for the winter.  Unfortunately we needed to rent ours out to keep our income up.  It would be nice to be able to have the choice to pop back in the dead of winter.

Once more unto the Brits dear friends.

I thought I’d do one more piece on the various types of Brits that you find over here, before getting to the meat of daily French living.

France is a great place to reinvent yourself. You can claim to be who you like as no-one can easily tell if what you are saying is the truth. And we have met some amazing liars.

There is one who claimed he was the 6th rolling Stone (or some such group, not quite sure now which group he intimated that it was) and had really written most of their first songs. But he’d missed the plane to New York and that was it. He had also discovered the magical properties of cannabis oil and how it cured everything including cancer but there was a plot to keep him from gaining true recognition.

In our village is also the man who invented  and started up Oxfam and had become a millionaire twice over, but now busks with his guitar on the corner of the square on market days.

At least these are the comic light relief guys. During our early days here when we went along to one of Mr Masonic’s (see previous blog) parties, there I met a fellow completely togged up in brand new RAF blue blazer with gold buttons and a “Par Adua” badge on it complete with yellow cravat and handlebar moustache. He introduced himself as “Richard”, and when at some point I called him “Rich” he bridled and repeated “Richard!” But he himself called all the other men there “squire” (with the exception of the high mason to whom he deferred in appropriate fashion). I kept waiting for the Monty python team to appear. It was like the worst am dram performance, but he was serious.

We also have acquired in our collection an amazing small coterie of Geeks (I have to be really careful here as I could be seen to fit right in the middle of them.) These are all very intelligent but totally barking scientific types. Fortunately I do not have sufficient intelligence to fall fully in with this group. They are all obviously men suffering a degree of autism such as Asperger’s. But most have done very well for themselves. Some even own patents they still get income from.  And they all have nice roly-poly wives who indulge them and treat them like little boys.

They are all into gadgets and own “Raspberry pies” (these are small cheap computer units that don’t actually do anything but can be linked up to do any sort of computer task if you plug more and more things into them). they haven’t actually done anything with their raspberry pies yet but have great plans to run the whole house security/ heating/ electricity production from them.

They are seriously into photography, but not actually so much for taking photos, as for the acquisition of gadgets for their complex cameras. One of them takes the same photo daily from the same place at the same time of the twin columns of smoke coming up from the distant nuclear power station. One is heavily into developing film old style and his conversation revolves around the preferability of silver nitrates as a developing medium. Another is trying out how to grow things hydroponically via boxes floating on his fish pond.

One harangued me for ten minutes about the need for his wife to see a councillor due to her obesity. (She is not, just “festively plump” like the other wives.) But the subtext was who is going to look after me if she pops her clogs?

There is one large group that I was introduced to by another teacher friend, who lives over in the Gers region. He was the head of languages for his school and regularly attended soirees with the head and deputy heads, until he ended up curled up in a ball in the middle of the staffroom with a complete breakdown. He then quickly learned how facile was the bonhomie of the other senior members of staff and retired to France to nurse himself back together with the help of his loving wife..

The Gers is a land of very attractive long running low hills, which, unlike our region are not steep enough to have kept their covering of woodland. So it is intensively farmed and grassed. My friend took me to a high place and bade me look down upon the land of “The Horse People”.

Most of the land is now owned by big agri-farmers. but the Gers is dotted with largish farmhouses with a unique barn built along the back of the house. The animals could be allowed to come right into the house in winter and the owners would live above them being kept warm, if somewhat smelly.

The only people that would find such a house an attractive proposition would be someone with livestock – horses. And sure enough. – “See that one there, and there and there and so on – all Brit owned. all with one thing in common. Can you see what it is?” “Yes”, I said after a delay, “They all have horses”. “Yup”, replied my friend. “There’s at least 7 of them that you can see from here, all with one or two small fields, and a paddock. It’s nearly always the wives. They spend all day in jodhpurs, currying and brushing the horses and riding them around the paddock, whilst the husband spends his day riding around on a ride on mower or burning hay and horseshit, because none of ’em speak a word of French, nor have the gumption to ask one of the big farmers if he would like to come and collect it all for composting. They all own a Range Rover and they all meet up every Thursday for a coffee morning at each house in turn. They also meet up every Saturday morning at the local market, again for coffee.  And that’s their lives.”

I should imagine they too bray and neigh at their meetings.

The final group of Brits here are the ones that I have saved my most vituperative ire for. They are “The County Set”.

They exist here as if the British Raj had decamped wholesale and is alive and kicking in France. Their arrogance and disdain is amazing to behold. Yet another blazered one informed that “He couldn’t live back in England now, old boy, because there were too many damned foreigners living there and ruining it all.” (This is totally true I swear). When I pointed out to him that actually, we are the foreigners here and there is quite a lot of prejudice against us, he replied “True, but Johnny Frenchman knows how to keep his place.”  You just cannot make this up.

There is one village near us renowned for its coterie of  the County Set. It has a bar where they tend to congregate. It used to be owned by an Englishman who complained that the village war memorial was right in front of his drinks terrace and was “In the way”. He seriously wanted them to knock it down and move it elsewhere. When the council refused to concur with his plans he sold up and moved off. In another village further along was an English run bar called “The Frog and Tommy”. I kid you not.

We know some people who run a portable fish and chip van here in France (They’re from Essex, enough said), and they have a monthly slot outside the bar in the above village.

My wife is involved in a couple of cat charities and one which captures feral cats and neutralises them decided to hold its general meeting at this bar at this time so we could also eat fish and chips for a bit of fun whilst listening to the local vet give us the latest agenda.  But we had reasoned without the presence of the county set there.

At first things were fine, but then they came in – complete with hampers from which they took their own silverware, cruets and glasses and proceeded to eat fish and chips off their own china whilst waving their little fingers in the air and making as much noise as possible. Especially a couple of the women who looked and sounded exactly like Penelope Keith from “To the Manor born” and “the good life”. The worst one had the noxious blazer for a hubby who looked down on us with disdain from the height of his apparent MBE. They were vile and rude and just made it impossible to hear our speaker.

Sitting next to me was yet another teacher whom we knew who was a lanky PE teacher and excellent badminton player. He was looking at these like he was fit to have a go. And I thought “Oh oh there could be blood spilt here.” I opted that perhaps he wasn’t too keen on our lords and masters over the way.  His eyes unglazed enough to spit “No!” but then eased back. And I could see his wife watching him like a hawk.

These people really, really know how to bray.

My abiding memory of this village when we chanced back there one day was of a chubby young girl of about 6 all dressed in flouncy white chasing after an equally chubby younger boy with nothing on below waist level save a white T shirt. The girl was calling out in an even then piping upper class voice, “Oh do come back Munchkin. Don’t run away!”  And I remember thinking to myself, “yes do run Munchkin, run away lad – run like the f**k!”

Why are so many Brits in France so boring?

Something that interest me are the types of Brits that fetch up on French shores. And I’m here to tell you folks that it is not a pretty sight.

One group that dominates are what I call the “boring old farts”. They are mainly middle class, middle aged, well to dos who are dead from the neck down and from the thorax up. They are not quite up to the “county set” (the most noxious of all the nouveau arrivistes) but blend on into them. They are mostly members of the roundtable, the Lions club or are Masons. We know this because one of the leading lights in our village, who has mercifully returned to England having got all his “friends” to buy houses around him then promptly, after 3 years, selling his and leaving them with unsellable millstones, left us a scrap of a note. Turning it over it was on a piece of Masonic headed notepaper. My heart drops when I drive though a pretty French town or village and spot the roundtable and or Lions club badge. Heralding the existence there of boring old farts infiltrating the French way of life.

We went to see the ZEE band last night. This is a group of ex-session musicians who have a summer place near us and play for small beer around the villages here in the summer. In the winter they buy a business class world tour plane ticket and have booked gigs right around the world ending up as far away as New Zealand, Fiji, and Hawaii, before going onto the states and playing in los Angeles, and New York before doing a large charity gig in England. These guys are good. Seriously good.  And they played in our village last night. They are called the Zee band here because when the French hosts meet them they always state “Ahh. Vous et Zee band non?”

They play just about everything from Stones to Beatles to blues, through 60’s, Tamla, Soul onto Creedence type stuff and Clapton on into Elton and Queen. (Their version of Fat Bottom girls would have Freddy rising in appreciation if he could only hear them). Every song is instantly recognisable from the first expertly played opening riff and they are all highly singalong and dance to. The harmonies are great and the playing flawless. As I said they played for us last night. Me and my wife. It was a warmish night – this is Southern France in the summer after all, but all the doors and windows were slung back and we were the only ones inside listening to the band on the edge of a small empty dance floor. Actually that’s not true, a few French freeloaded and would come in and dance and enjoy then ducking out before being asked to pay. And people had paid good money to come. They were one hundred percent British and were all sitting out in the square en masse. They had even moved the tables and chairs into large groups (Roundtables?) and moved further away so that they could talk loudly at each other. Actually not so much talk as bray. They brayed loudly. you could hear them right across the music.

It is an unfortunate characteristic of even the boring old farts that though mainly as quiet as mice, some among them feel the need to assert their presence by braying and neighing at the top of their voices. A lot of the women do it as well, and some of them do like to have a good shriek. Imagine living in England and having a lot of rich Germans coming into our prettiest villages, buying up all the best houses then taking over the village square and sitting and talking German very loudly. This is very much what it is like here. No wonder so many of the French despise us.  I must admit to an inner ear problem when I am prone to do this myself at parties where I have to keep my wife near me to tell me that I am shouting, now I’m mumbling, and I can’t tell the difference above the background noise. So I tend to stay away from large groups with a shudder anyway. But this was truly embarrassing to observe.

When one or 2 of them that were acquainted with us, came over to say “hello” or came into the bar to buy a drink they would put their fingers  in their ears. But honestly the band had the sound wound right down. One of the reasons we bought another house is that I can open up my patio have a night of it and play my sound system to half a mile of empty countryside, and I have the volume at least to where they did last night. It might be that a farmer a mile away on yonder hillside might get to wonder where that noise is coming from drifting down the wind, but I doubt it.

These are all children of the 60s for Christ’s sake! Have they never experienced a pop concert? Or been to a dance hall? Or even danced? The answer I fear is no. They are all the silent middle-class majority of right-wing Tories, born and bred up to lead dreary lives in banks and offices, and their one dream has been to experience the frisson to moving to “foreign parts” where they can continue to lead their boring tedious lives in the backwoods of nowhere. Doing nothing but “a bit of gardening” until they day they expire as quietly and as pointlessly as they day they emerged.

My wife is shy and was too embarrassed to get up and dance with just me, but the arrival of a freeloading French lad and French girls broke the ice. Later the wives of the group got up and danced and we had a great, great night. After three excellent sets they stopped short on a knockout version of  Palmer’s “Addicted to love” when they realised that all the Brits outside had simply melted away and gone home en masse.  It was after 10 p.m. after all and getting dark.

For these people life must be like living in one very long boring episode of “The Archers” complete with comedy posh voices as per Linda Snell. One shudders to think what it must be like a hundred miles to the north in the Dourdogne-setshire as it is jokingly called, where the factor is cranked up to 10 with the sheer mass of this type of Brit living there. They even have English mayors that have taken over and the Lions predominate.

Poor France. Many French are miserable bastards – this is just not me saying this, a famous Frenchmen described the French by stating “Picture an Italian, a really miserable Italian. that is your Frenchman”. But at least they’re miserable in style.  Style is just something we don’t have. It was noticeable in the dancing last night. We clumped about in gay abandon, whilst the French glissanded and sleekly moved. But a great night anyway.

Reflections Of an Englishman living in France

I have decided to commence a blog detailing the trials and tribulations, pleasures and perturbations of living in France. It is intended to be humorous and, knowing me, will frequently descend into comic rants about coping with the sheer frustration and weirdness that can be life here.

One would think that being the nearest country to England, France would also have a similar “World View” to the UK  (I don’t here include Scotland, Wales or Ireland as they may also be weird in their own ways but they do at least share a recognisable set of values). But no, not as bit of it. At its roots, France is truly alien and is almost totally opposite in its outlook and values as compared to us English (Whom all the world knows are just about the most “normal” of people).

Despite the fact that we were ruled By Norman French for over 300 years and over half our language is composed of French words, It Was George Clemenceau, when trying to learn English who declared “English is French badly pronounced!”, I believe that that “foreign” language French is the real cause of all our differences and disputes. For, let’s face it, until Germany poked its nose into World affairs, and Belgium – twice, our most mortal enemy throughout history has always been France.

So why the hell are so many Brits travelling over in droves to resettle here?

To start with most of them can’t speak French. (Mine, I admit, is at pure schoolboy level, although my wife is a French linguist) And they usually come over in total ignorance of the minefield that is French rules and bureaucracy. What draws them here – and me come to that? This is one of the aspects I will be delving into in my own uniquely jaundiced and prejudiced way, whilst annotating day to day observations of our life here, and airing deep philosophical views about the nature of French living.

I hope you will find it amusing, possibly offensive, but at least I will attempt to stick at least a little near to the truth.  According to some I am noted for bending “reality” to accommodate my views, but like the bigot who looks heavenwards and sees someone just like himself smiling back down, I can’t accept that I’m not totally infallible in all things. I must be. I’m a man.

Enjoy.

Hello world!

I suppose I ought to introduce myself before I get down to my musings.

I am a retired teacher. Born in London, met my wife of long standing (and long suffering), first moved out to Norfolk then working for an international electronics company, until they decided they would rather operate from their home base in Holland (Big hint there). So I took  a combined Psychology and Special needs development teaching degree in Nottingham and have spent the rest of my working life there.

I have worked most of my life in schools for children with special needs. Varying from moderate to severe, and with all ages. I have run a remedial reading clinic that was very successful until it got shut down due to spending cuts. In the early days when The BBC and Archimedes computers first appeared in schools and later when we changed over nationally to PCs I taught computing to both teachers and children, and used to write simple programs to work with children with severe learning difficulties. It became the stock thing in education to give a child who never had the least chance of ever learning to speak, let alone to write or type a computer as an aid. But no software pertinent to their needs. So a couple of us wrote simple stuff to provide visual and aural feedback for such pupils. Not sure how valid the whole thing was for the child’s development, but it was the best we could do at the time.

My last work was with 17 to 19 year old “headbangers” with behavioural problems who had been kicked out of the mainstream for disruptive behaviour. Basically they were too unbright to be able to read or write and just got bored with a system designed by Thatcher and Blair that insisted they must find placement in a university where they would have to pay tuition fees as opposed to appearing on the high jobless statistics where the government would have to pay them. Oh no, I forgot, Thatcher declared that no one under 21 should get dole, so most of these would have ended begging on the street if the parents  threw them out as having no economic value in the purchasing of more booze and fags. Blair ameliorated this by having them pay pupils who refused to stay on £22 per week just to keep the stats down. and that was why I got ’em.  As it was I actually enjoyed working with them very much. And we got on well on the whole. My favourite quote from one of my star pupils – “I like you sir, you’re more fucking mad than I am”.

However, it is and was a very stressful job and depression and dissolution were well set in when I decided to jack it all in at the age of 60.

Some 14 years ago Bmi-Baby started flying planes out of East Midlands near to where we lived at £25 quid a pop to Toulouse. We took a flight out and my wife booked a gite in the depths of the Tarn et Garonne region near a delightful hilltop medieval village called Lauzerte. Walking up the steep narrow road towards the Barbican (Old castle gatehouse as was) noticed a cute little Cornish fisherman type house with blue shutters and a for sale sign. It looked lovely and had a rooftop garden with the most stunning views over the lower part of the town and onto the hills beyond. We casually enquired the price and were rocked back on our heels. It was as cheap as chips. By the end of the week we had shaken hands with the vendor and we had purchased a house in France out of the blue. It’s turned out to be one of the greatest decisions we have ever made.

It became my refuge as depression and stress climbed. Every available holiday we would fly out there and I would soothe my soul staring at our wonderful 2 foot thick stonewalls and huge ingle nook fireplace. It turns out the house was only 600 years old as the rest of the old fortified village dates back 800 years, but the 100 years war and the various religious wars and genocide that swept this region, destroying the Occitan culture in their wake, meant that it was another 200 years before they could safely build houses outside the fortifications. Which they finally did, chucking out all the more noisy and smelly operations. We were in the rue des Couteliers (cutlers -basically forges and sword/knife makers) next to us the Rue des Tanners (tanneries).

As it is, our village was occupied by the English for some 30 years of the 100 years war and most of the fortifications were built by the English as was the case in most of the other fortified towns in southern and central France. It has become the standard joke that the English are flooding back in to retake Southern France, but are buying their way in this time around.  You can still get a postcard in our local tabac celebrating “Madeleine de la chataigne” she was an innumerate peasant girl who sat outside the English garrison using chestnuts (chataignes) counting one into her lap each time an English soldier entered and taking one out each time one left. When there were finally none left she signalled the local peasants who then rushed in and killed off whoever was left and thus gaining control of the keep and returning ownership to France. That was 700 years ago, but you can get the postcard still. In the meantime a French king had demanded the destruction of the town walls and fortifications just to ensure they couldn’t be used again, so only remnants were left and the stone duly made away with by the locals to enhance their own properties. And that is much how it stands to this day.

We have since acquired a more boring 1970s bungalow halfway down the hill with a fair bit of land and even grander view over 3 valleys and onto the hills beyond. but at least we have the ability to stare out through the 3 large sets of French windows in our living room and walk directly out onto the terrace, without having to climb up stone flights of steps to get to the garden as in our other house. Our road dead ends before our house which is actually on a footpath and is part of the long distance pilgrim way to Compostella De Saint Jacque in northern Spain. So apart from the odd tractor, horse rider or annoying off-roader track bike, we only get pilgrims and long distance walkers passing our house. Our nearest neighbour is a large Pilgrim hostel designed to house dozens of them. And apart from some occasional evening “happy clapping” from the religious ones, we have complete peace and quiet – except for the nightingales. Our village is inundated with them. And I am sung to sleep most nights in the summer by them. And it is wonderful.