Liberation

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Today, here in France, it is la fête de la victoire, or le jour de la libération. It is a holiday to celebrate the end of World War ll and the freedom of the French people. It was on this day that Charles de Gaulle announced the end of the war in France on May 8, 1945. Here in our town, Canet-en-Roussillon, there was a commemoration at the War Memorial in the local cemetery this morning, a parade of Second World War military vehicles through the streets, the reconstruction of a United States Army Camp on the beach, and later tonight an open air dance will be held in the main square at Canet Plage. Most villages, towns and cities have some kind of celebration, and even seventy two years on there are those who remember the liberation of this country from Nazi occupation and oppression.

Yesterday the French elected a new president. At thirty nine years old, Emmanuel Macron will be the youngest person to lead this country since Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. Obviously as a foreigner here in France, I did not have a vote, but like many I was mightily relieved that a person of the far right would not be leading this country. France has many problems, and the path ahead will not be easy for the new president. Just as May 8, 1945 was a day of celebration and a fresh start after six years of war, so it is to be hoped that May 8, 2017 will be a fresh start and a time for the French people to come together to seek solutions to the many issues that face us all in today’s world, and heal the real divisions in French society.

Thursday Thanks #4

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In the past week we have travelled to our home in the south of France, to the town of Canet-en-Roussillon to be precise. This town is a seaside resort on the Mediterranean coast in the department of the Eastern Pyrenees, or PyrénéesOrientales to give it its correct French name. The department, similar to an English county, is the southernmost department in France, and has a border with Spain along the Pyrenees. It also has a strong affinity with its Spanish neighbour across the border as the locals here, as there, consider themselves Catalans. French may be the language of this nation, but Catalan is widely spoken here as it is in north eastern Spain down to Barcelona and beyond.

We first came on holiday here nearly twenty five years ago, and have seen the town grow and its amenities improve. Its near neighbour, the city of Perpignan, is only about six miles away, and thankfully for us has an airport with flights to both London and Birmingham, bringing sun seekers in the summer, and skiers to the nearby slopes in the winter.

This fourth Thursday Thanks allows me to express my gratitude for this place and all that it means to me. I’m a sun seeker rather than a skier, but I love the view that greeted me when I opened the bathroom shutters the other morning. The sky was a beautiful blue, but there in the distance to the south west were the snow capped Pyrenees, and as someone who doesn’t like snow, and is not that keen on being in the mountains, I do have to say that I never fail to appreciate that sight.

This is a home from home for me, but it’s not somewhere that I take for granted. I realise that I am very fortunate to be able to come here as often as I do, to enjoy everything that this region has to offer, beautiful scenery, good food, wonderful wine, and (despite my gripe about the wet and windy winter just past in my recent blog post entitled Postcard from Cuba), the climate too!

So today, it’s a thank you for this lovely corner of France, the mountains to the south west, and the sea to the east. Summer is not quite here yet, but it’s not far away!

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La Fête du Muguet

There are many different titles given to the first day of May. May Day is the obvious one, and for well over a century the day has had connections with workers’ rights, indeed it is sometimes known as International Labour Day, or here in France where I am at the moment, La Fête du Travail. Even the Catholic Church has got in on the act, and as a response to the May Day celebrations for workers sponsored by Communists, Pope Pius Xll instituted the Feast Day of Saint Joseph the Worker in 1955. The day has long been a public holiday in many countries, but here in France there is another lovely tradition going back to 1561, when on May 1st King Charles lX was presented with a bunch of lily-of-the-valley flowers as a token of luck and prosperity for the coming year. It is said that he then began the tradition of giving little posies of the highly perfumed lily-of-the-valley (Muguet in French) to the ladies of the court on that day each year as tokens of good luck.

All over France in the days leading up to May Day, you can buy these little sprigs of flowers or even potted plants to give to your sweetheart, other family members, or even neighbours, as tokens of luck and prosperity. It has become big business here. We arrived here on Saturday and our friends who met us at the airport presented us with a little pot of these flowers when they deposited us outside our house. The wrapper usually states Je porte bonheur – I bring good luck or happiness.

Big business or not, it is still a charming French custom as the beautiful scent of le muguet fills the air. I cannot give you that scent, but I do send you all “a virtual sprig of lily-of-the-valley” which I hope brings you good luck and happiness too. Bonne Fête du Muguet!

Postcard from Cuba

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After seven months overwintering at home in England we arrived back at our house in the south of France yesterday. We’ll be here for just over two weeks on this first trip of what will be a total of sixteen weeks here this year, and already I can see that we shall have to spend quite some time cleaning both inside and out, and doing a fair bit of gardening. They have obviously had a very wet and windy winter down here in the Roussillon. The Tramontane, that north westerly wind that Joanne Harris described in Chocolat, blows winter and summer alike, and this winter it has covered everything in a layer of fine sandy dust and has piled the leaves up against locked doors. It looks too, like the rain has fallen by the bucket full, as our flowering Oleanders are shooting well, the lemon tree has hundreds of buds on it, the vine already has the tiniest clusters of grapes forming, and even the bird of paradise, sheltered in a protected corner of the garden looks like it will give four huge flowers this year.

Our postbox, in typically French fashion, is set into the front wall of our garden. It has not escaped the ravages of either the Tramontane or the winter rains. Usually all it contains when we empty it on a first visit is a pile of junk mail, and the odd bill thankfully already paid by Direct Debit. Most of the contents had got wet at some point, and that inevitable sandy dust had then stuck to them. It didn’t take long to go through it all, throwing most of it in the bin, but there stuck face down to a flyer from a local estate agent was a dirty, damp postcard from Cuba!

The godson, (you’ll remember him, he was with us on our recent trip to Paris) had gone travelling on his own to Cuba last September. He loved the country and its people, but his experiences there were not all good. One night he woke up in a field miles from Havana, covered in insect bites, no wallet, no passport, no iPhone and his white Converse trainers taken from his feet. His drink had been spiked in a bar! The next few days were a mixture of Cuban hospitality and kindness from the hostel where he was staying, a British Embassy where the telephone lines were constantly down, and a sorry tale of trying to get money to him through the Foreign Office in London. Suffice it to say that all was eventually sorted and he was able to enjoy the next ten days, albeit on a temporary passport, paid for in Cuba, with money sent out by his parents through the British Foreign Office, and immediately removed from him on his arrival in London, and nothing but a pair of flip-flops on his feet!

We were here in France when all this happened, and were in touch with his parents and the British Embassy in Havana, so know how stressful it was for everyone. But like many young people he is quite resilient, and was determined that this unfortunate story would not totally spoil his view of Cuba and its people.

It didn’t! That dirty damp postcard sitting in our postbox for six months, having taken the best part of a month to get from Cuba, and suffering from the effects of the southern French wind and rain, told us he was continuing to enjoy his trip despite the setback. A reminder that all’s well that ends well in Cuba, and hopefully here too in the South of France after the winter winds and rain, we are set for a summer of pink flowering Oleanders, a tree full of lemons, a vine heavy with fruit, and those birds of paradise flowers all resplendent in their sheltered corner of our garden as the Mediterranean sun blazes down on us all. Happy days to come!

P.S. The message on the postcard asked if we knew who the two men were? We knew that one was Fidel Castro. The other we discovered was Ernest Hemingway, but perhaps you already knew that!
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Thursday Thanks #3

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(Image taken from the internet)

Following the shooting last week on the Champs Elysées of the Paris policeman, Xavier Jugelé, a national ceremony to honour him was held on Tuesday of this week. President Hollande was there, as were the two leading candidates in the current French Presidential Election. Apparently, the murdered policeman had been one of the first to respond after the attack at the Bataclan Theatre in November 2015 when ninety people were killed as they attended a music concert, on that dreadful night that Paris will never forget.

One of the addresses given at that ceremony on Tuesday was from the husband of the murdered policeman. Etienne Cardiles described his husband as “a lover of music and theatre” and “a man full of culture and joy”, and he used the phrase first coined by Antoine Leiris, whose wife was murdered at the Bataclan, “You will not have my hate.” He told the assembled gathering that he was suffering, but without hate.

I was very moved to hear what he said, and I would like to include the English translation, in this post where I express my gratitude for things that I am particularly grateful for in the past week.

“When I first got messages saying something had happened on the Champs Elysées, and that a policeman had died, a small voice told me it was you, and brought back to me that generous and healing phrase: You will not have my hate.”

“I don’t feel hatred, Xavier, because it is not like you – because it does not correspond to anything that made your heart beat, nor why you entered the police force. Because public service, helping others and protecting everyone was part of your education and your convictions – and tolerance, dialogue and patience.”

He went on to speak of his husband’s love of music, films and theatre, saying:

“Theatre transported you to another world, where you lived fully…You would shy away from no cultural activity.”

“A life of joy and laughter, in which love and tolerance were your strongest weapons…You lived like a star , and leave like a star.”

A wonderful tribute to a man, from the man who loved him. After the Paris shootings of November 2015, I read Antoine Leiris’ book in its English translation You will not have my Hate. I intend to re-read it in the next week or so in the light of this latest atrocity.

Of all the good things that have happened in my life this week, and there are quite a few, and I have lots to be grateful for this week, it is these moving words, and the sentiments that Etienne Cardiles expressed that make everything else pale into insignificance, and it is those words for which I am most grateful this week. “You will not have my hate.”

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Wing-It Theatre

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Does anyone else remember the television series Fame which aired during the 1980s? I used to watch it, and remember following the lives of the students and faculty at the fictional New York City High School for the Performing Arts. The series was based on the film of the same name released in 1980, and after the television series ended the whole thing was turned into a stage musical, and the show has been produced around the world in almost every major language.

An amateur production of the show was produced here in Coventry last week, and although it is not my favourite musical by any means, I do think it worthy of a mention here. It is worthy of a mention, not just because it was an excellent production, (more of that in a minute) but also because of the way it was produced. Coventry seems to be blessed with a great deal of talent in the sphere of musical theatre; there are a number of amateur companies which regularly put on great shows. One is the Coventry Youth Operetta Group, known as YOG, which has a very good reputation, and a number of West End and television actors and dancers started their acting careers in that company. The other is the theatre group that I want to focus on here, the Wing-It Theatre. Founded back in 2009 when a group of drama students wanted to put on a final show together before beginning their professional careers, it has developed into a theatre project for youngsters who come together, after auditions, for ten days of intensive rehearsals, after which the show is produced in a local theatre. Obviously a lot of hard work and preparation goes on in readiness for that fortnight’s activity, but the fact that a musical production of such high standards can be achieved in that short time, says a lot for the commitment, dedication and talent not just of the creative team, but of all the youngsters who are aged  between about eight and twenty two. Over the past few years the company has produced Spring Awakening, Hair, 42nd Street, Hairspray, West Side Story, The Little Mermaid and Rent.

I saw this year’s production Fame, on its second night, the theatre was full and the cast, as well as the audience, were obviously enjoying every minute of the performance. The principals were a very strong team, with some powerful singers and superb dancers, in fact the whole youthful cast brought a wonderful vitality to a plot which (let’s face it) doesn’t have much depth. The staging was inventive, and the technical side of the production, sound and lighting, was slick, where every word could be heard and every movement picked out by a clever use of the vast array of lighting equipment. The choreographer and musical director brought out the best in the youngsters, but it is my friends Callum and Hannah, Executive Producer and Artistic Director respectively, who deserve high praise for helping about eighty youngsters discover and develop their talent, and in a short space of time produce something as good as they did last week. Some young people are criticised for their behaviour, their indifference, and their lack of purpose. This group, not only put on a show which entertained their audiences, but they also did their generation proud. Their enthusiasm, their confidence, their ability to work together as a team and their talent, are all things of which they can be very proud. As someone whose youthful days are over, and who ceased to tread the boards many years ago, I am delighted that theatre groups like these exist, and I look forward to the next production of Coventry’s Wing-It Theatre Company.

Paris is a Beloved City

Having recently returned from a five day visit to Paris, and with thoughts of that beautiful city still buzzing inside my head, I want to share these words from a fellow blogger with my readers, to share her love of the city, and to share her sadness for what has happened.

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I am very sad about yesterday’s shootings in Paris. It is such a beautiful, magic place, populated with wonderful, friendly people who enjoy life and rich with history, architecture, art, cuisine and culture.  My heart is heavy for the victims of the shootings and their families, and for all Parisians as they struggle to recover from the shock and horror of the violence.

My tiny contribution to the healing process and return to normalcy is to reinforce the positives. Today’s post is just a quick couple of photos I snapped on my iPhone as part of a texting dialogue with my son while I was walking along the Seine. He traveled with me to Paris 5 years ago and we had an amazing experience, but that is literally another story (click here for “The Thankful Foreigner”).  He has great memories of Paris, and longs to return.

Me:  “I’m at the…

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