Bonne Nouvelle Année

It’s been a slow crawl to the end of 2021 and the start of 2022. We entered a medical crisis, and that took all our energy, time and focus. Once again, we are thankful for the high quality of French health care, in which the Carte Vitale pays for everything.

Thanks to Omicron (pronounced “O-micron” which means small O in Greek, as I have recently discovered, as opposed to “O-mega” which means large O), our holidays were spent without family visitors but with a good number of friends. The festivities were low key, and fewer, but still meaningful.

Nice was decked out as usual and made one list of best cities in Europe to see Christmas lights. For the most part, I skipped them and the risky (Omicron) crowds this year. I put up one decoration at home.

Vintage angel decoration

Earlier, in November, a fellow photographer friend and I gave ourselves a gallery show, one of the events of the year for us. We each sold two prints. As we sat in the gallery day after day for two weeks, we were able to enter into good conversations about art, culture, photography and more with visitors. I was happy to see that many people didn’t realize my seascapes were taken in Nice. Perhaps I did succeed in capturing a different — my — view of the sea and city.

From the gallery show

We are likely to stay put in Nice for most of the new year, as travel is out of the picture for now. I still find it a good place to live. The glorious weather in December was one reminder, and the rollout of impressive “grands projets” to make the city ever more appealing was another. So here we stay, unless we decide chateau living is more our style.

I wish you all a splendid 2021.

Posted in expat, expat in France, expat life, France, Nice, France | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

La Normandie

Our final attempt to ditch the hot and sticky summer 2021 weather in Nice led us to breezy and cool Normandy for two weeks. We’d never been, and I was excited to finally — since freshman year in high school — see the Bayeux Tapestry. We planned to visit the D-Day landing beaches and cemeteries too, and to roam the countryside as usual to find pastoral serenity and charming villages.

The Tapestry was indeed a marvel to see. It is 70 meters long, like piece of film reel, that pictorially tells the story of the 11th century Norman Conquest. Poor Harold of England. He gets an arrow in the eye.

The landing beaches and the contemplation of the bravery of those WWII soldiers make for a sobering experience. In Arromanches, remnants of the breakwaters and artificial harbor miraculously placed in position by the British remain. German bunkers and bomb craters dot the coastline. The silence contrasts with the sounds of war blasting in our imaginations.

At the American cemetery, where 10,000 tombs face in the direction of the US, we heard Taps as we were leaving, then the Star-Spangled banner as we approached the parking lot, and the roar of a fighter jet overhead as we got into our car. As it turned out, the liberation was being celebrated that week. This part of France is one of the few where Americans can experience an open welcome, to this day.

I thought I liked colorful Honfleur a lot, but then I saw Barfleur. In terms of mood, it was more my liking. It’s gray, like the Norman sea and sky, with the largest lighthouse in France, and a stretch of lonely beach to make my heart sing.

Barfleur, Phare de la Gatteville

If you stay out of the big (although not unpleasant) cities of Caen and Rouen, and avoid the boring, slightly trashy upscale beach resorts like Deauville, there are few people. There are almost as many cows.

Normandy

This is French dairyland! Vegans be warned, every dish comes smothered in cream and butter. It is a very traditional culinary region, so there are plenty of hearty meat dishes to choose from too. Luckily for me, there are markets galore with plenty of alternatives available. I admit I overdid it with the slabs of wood fired sourdough bread and fresh market butter, but I’m recovering well.

Our explorations were mostly restricted to the Calvados region of Normandy, known for apple ciders and brandies. Stopping at a creperie on our way to Beuvron en Auge, I did a double-sip of the glass of cider served. We were on the Route de Cidre as it turned out. It was the only thing about Normandy that topped Brittany in my experience.

Ah, yes. Normandy did not disappoint. But, Brittany. There’s next summer for that.

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L’Ecosse

About two weeks ago we returned from visiting our daughter in the Scottish Borders, a big region comprising of a few dozen small towns and hamlets and lots of countryside between Edinburgh and England. It is possible there are more sheep than people there, as it is mostly made up of impressive hills and several rivers, the Tweed being the principal waterway. Just what you need in a pandemic.

Getting to Scotland under Covid restrictions was an expensive hassle — pre-purchasing two self-administered Covid tests each, staying in a cottage rental for ten days of mandatory quarantine, mailing in our Covid tests, filling out lots of paperwork, and of course taking the required Covid test before traveling. And that’s for fully vaccinated people. Unvaccinated, forget about it.

But that’s life now, so we got on with it. Once in Scotland, we ventured out for long walks, mostly uphill, and for a driving tour of villages, but little else. There was, and still is, a lot of the Delta variant among the population so it was best to avoid the general public. Sheep weren’t a problem, though.

Ram

One day, I hit a milestone of 18k+ steps, mostly uphill. Ah yes, one could become quite fit living among the shepherds and villagers of the Borders. That’s assuming you don’t develop a taste for the Border Tart, the Selkirk Bannock or the Bran Scone, like I did.

The Borders doesn’t have the dramatic, moody scenery of the Highlands, but it is a tranquil and green region, while being much warmer and sunnier. In fact, it got quite hot for a few days, up to 80F/26 C. That used to be unheard of, but now, of course, it’s common enough.

All day long the bleats of sheep make up the background noise, so much preferable to city sirens and horns. I honestly think the sound and proximity of sheep calms the heart. One big thrill for me was stopping my walk uphill to watch the Border Collies herding sheep in a pasture, then having a chat with the shepherd about his dogs (Scot and Jude). (For more on that, see this. Speaking of dogs, note the Border Terrier originated in these parts.) There are no shortage of walks, for as long as you’d like, all connected across all the entire region.

Scottish Borders

In Scottish summer, the days are very long. That permits walking in the evening when the the fading sun over the countryside is prettiest. It illuminates the stone fences, rocky paths and wild grasses in gold. The ripples of hills alternate being cast in light and shadow, and usually clouds diffuse the light. Night falls on contentment.

Scottish Borders
Posted in COVID-19, expat life, quarantine, Scotland, Scottish Borders, sheep | 7 Comments

Freed from Captivity

Yesterday morning, after our Day Eight self-administered Covid test, we received a text from the National Health Service that we were free “to return to work.” I interpreted that to mean we were free in general. Off I went to tour the town.

We are in a wee village, surrounded by fields and hills, across the Tweed river from a slightly larger town, Melrose. From our rented cottage, I turned down a narrow road past the “Pink Cottage” and “Tweed Cottage” and “School Cottage,” to a tree-lined road past some grand estates and meadows, arriving at a small suspension bridge over the river where I took a dirt path towards the town center. People filled the cafes and shops. It was a jolt to be in larger company again. 

Several gardens were open for visitors and I ducked in. The British are fervid gardeners and it shows. For a long while, I lingered in the fresh open air admiring their handiwork. In the rugby field a game was on, and across the street a small group in chain mail was having a joust. The ruins of an ancient Abbey loomed. 

Melrose Abbey ruins

Like people with strong traditions everywhere, the Scots work hard to preserve theirs and thus distinguish themselves from the English down south. Haggis remains a popular item in the butcher’s, tweed and plaid line shop windows, and bagpipes are essential to every main event. Watching teens and dogs play in the Tweed on a hot afternoon, I enjoyed the pre-digital vibe and felt a spiritual kinship with the Scottish insistence on preserving their culture.

on the Tweed River

And yet, there are those winds of change, some not so good, as in the cherished biscuit brand McVitie’s closing down its Glasgow factory. Covid is putting pressure on the ruling party.  Brexit is inflicting pain on traditional industries. 

But that’s all for later consideration. It’s Sunday in the Scottish Borders. The gardens beckon.

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Voyager au temps du Covid

Armed with official negative Covid test results, our vaccination certificates, three-page UK Personal Locator Forms, proof of pre-purchase of two additional Covid tests to be administered in Scotland and proof of a ten-day quarantine accommodation, we flew from France into Scotland by way of Amsterdam. 

The layover in Amsterdam was just long enough to allow us to catch our connection despite an extra stop for a mandatory “document review” (I love looking at the Dutch, who remind me so much of their ancestors as seen in the painted masterpieces of the 17-18th centuries). In Edinburgh, we took a taxi with a chatty driver all the way to Melrose, an hour away but only seven minutes from our daughter’s place (I love observing the Scots, who look and sound like they came out of an episode of “Outlander”). We were not permitted to take public transport or have a family member pick us up, vaccinated or not.

Our captivity will take place in a wee cottage, off the main road of this village in the Scottish Borders.

I’ve just had a call with the local butcher who will deliver Shepherd’s Pies and stovies, and there’s a great fish and chips joint that delivers too. Our daughter stocked the fridge with vegetables and other necessities. We won’t starve. 

Our Scottish cottage

We have a small pile of books, so we won’t lack for literary distractions either. And then there is British TV and all that streaming allows.

Still, here we are, barely through Day Two, and I’m itching to walk to the hill I can see from our back window. Brown cows dot the green slope, under fast moving dark clouds and I want to feel the bracing wind in my (short) hair. UK-Gov has been in touch by text, warning of spot checks to make sure we don’t leave the property and the 10k pound fine if we do, so I’m dissuaded from venturing out. 

At least we are out of the heat and humidity of Nice. We turned on the radiator today. My kind of summer! By Monday the weather will turn to warm and sunny, and soon — now in nine days — we’ll be out and about. We won’t go far, as the highly transmissible and possibly vaccine resistant Delta variant is rampant but we’ll have long walks with “the kids” and Lily the poodle along the Tweed or Ettrick rivers and across sheep pastures. Family time. That’s what we are here for.

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