Shortly before I went to Bayonne, I bought a table on le bon coin (an internet selling site). I’d been looking for a dining table for a while, but this was the first I’d seen that met my needs; big enough, but drop leafed so it wouldn’t take up too much space. Kieran helped me to bring it up to the apartment, but when I examined it closely, I wasn’t convinced it didn’t have active woodworm, in spite of the seller’s assurances. So before going away, I dragged it out onto the balcony.
When I got home I started work; I stripped all the old varnish and wax and sloshed it liberally with woodworm killer. It was a good exercise in meeting neighbours, several of whom helped each time I needed to turn it over. I mixed up different tins of varnish till I got the colour I wanted, and varnished the legs and “underneath bits”, then stained and varnished the top. I’m really pleased with the result.
I’d been looking for dining chairs on le bon coin, but nothing caught my eye. I noticed the sales had started in a local furniture shop, so called in. Having no fixed idea of what I was looking for helped; I already have an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary furniture, so I was free to choose whatever I fancied. And what I fancied was even included in the sale – contemporary brown suede finish chairs with metal legs. They’re lightweight and comfortable.
Four chairs came as a single, heavy package, so I unpacked them in the car and brought the bits up in several trips. They were easy to assemble too; I think Kieran will be impressed next time he calls in.
When Maddy and Dom knew they’d be holidaying in France, they decided to spend a few days with me. It was lovely to see them and to be able to show them not just my apartment, but a little bit of the area too.
I’d originally planned to have redecorated the spare room in time for their visit, but after my stay in Bayonne, I felt it was perhaps an unrealistic ambition in the time that remained. I bought a chest of drawers from IKEA, but didn’t manage to assemble it, though Kieran did come over the day before their arrival to help me assemble the bed. A couple of packing boxes for bedside tables, topped with carefully chosen books and lamps from my workshop completed the rather Heath Robinson ensemble. It’s a good job they’re such good friends and didn’t mind having to rough it.
Unlike their visit last year, when they worked from morning to night every day of their 3 weeks so-called holiday, this time we did very little. Lots of sitting around, eating, drinking and talking, a lovely walk around the lake and through the forest, where they found loads of interesting flora and insects and a day spent visiting old friends near Nogaro filled the time. I think we were all tired after the Nogaro trip; Francis and Regine speak no English, so Maddy and Dom made a huge effort to speak French, with me on hand to translate where necessary.
The 3 days passed very quickly and they were off again in their camper van to discover pastures new. I hope they’ll be the first of many visitors.
I really must learn to be less trusting, open and honest! A few weeks ago, while walking around the lake, an elderly man started talking to me. He told me that he’s a musician, a songwriter and guitarist, as well as a cyclist; I must have said that I sing and play a bit too and that I’m a member of the cycle club. He was very full of himself and walked slowly, as he kept stopping to make sure I’d understood the finer points of the conversation, which was pretty much his life story, including why he’d never married, problems he’d had with various girlfriends over the years, lyrics from songs he’s written, which he explained in detail, etc, etc.
He told me, several times, that, even at 74 years old, he’s still sexually active adding that he’d even consider a platonic relationship and insisted that I take his email address. He was sure we could make beautiful music together! He was going on holiday to Spain the following week with a friend, but he really wished it was me who was accompanying him. Would I keep in touch? I said I’d think about it, as when I’d previously said I didn’t have time for any new activities, he didn’t accept that. I did think about it – for all of a millisecond, then deleted his email and forgot all about him.
This morning there was a pre – Tour de France cycling event in Dax. Having ridden in the heat yesterday I wasn’t up to another ride, but did want to find out more about the Roue Libre association, who had a stand at the start/finish point. It’s a group of volunteers who will repair/service your bike or teach you how to do it yourself; since I’ve never before had even to think about servicing my bike, I’m totally ignorant of how to start, so I signed up and paid my 10€ membership.
Then Christian and Gilles, who are also members of the cycle club, came over to tell me that someone had just visited the stand to ask after me. As they described him, it dawned on me that this was the guy from the lake walk; they said that he seemed determined to find me again and had even said he was thinking of joining the club. I explained my misgivings – they were very amused, but very understanding too.
I’ve learnt a lot over the past year, but must now learn how to answer questions in a more evasive, less transparent way, before I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. Perhaps I need to become a woman of mystery!!!
The following Wednesday “testosterone Ted”, as he’s become known, turned up to do our club ride. Apparently he made quite a nuisance of himself at the start, asking people where I was. They knew I was joining the ride a bit later, as it was going past the end of my road, but nobody admitted to that, suggesting that I might not be joining them that day. Various club members rode next to me the whole morning, so I think he got the message; he hasn’t turned up since anyway.
After all the trauma of the past year and once I’d settled into my new apartment, things started to go downhill; I couldn’t stop, just had to keep working, pushing myself as hard as I possibly could; each time I tried to stop, I just fell apart. My trip back to Harrogate was great and gave me a focus for a while, but I couldn’t sleep, kept having bouts of unexplained pain and ended up going to A&E on one occasion.
On my return from the UK I went to see my doctor; I explained that I really wasn’t coping well and suggested that maybe I needed a few counselling sessions. His reply shocked me – a stay in a psychiatric clinic! He knew of a good one in Bayonne, where, in fact, his receptionist had stayed a while ago. He called his receptionist in and they both assured me that it wasn’t full of “mad people”, but those, like me, experiencing difficulties in their lives. The clinic specialises in addiction, anorexia and depression and the receptionist couldn’t speak highly enough of it. Woah, woah, this was all too much for me to take in, too sudden, too fast!
I simply couldn’t commit there and then; my very English view of “lock you up and throw away the key” being too deeply ingrained in my psyche. That was ok, said the doc; I could go away and think about it and go back when I was ready.
A week or so later, I went back; I’d give the clinic a try (there was always the reassurance that if it didn’t suit, I’d be free to leave). The doctor made a phone call and told me the clinic would ring me in the next few days to arrange my stay. I couldn’t believe how fast things then moved; they called me the next day – could I go in the following Tuesday?
I packed my bag and set off to drive to Bayonne, a challenge in its own right. My shoulders and neck were rigid and desperately painful with the stress of what I’d agreed to do. However, I got there safely and was admitted, I had no idea for how long. The first few hours were taken up with a full health check and seeing the on call psychiatrist before I was taken to my room, light and spacious with en suite facilities, in the modern part of the building, in the grounds of a lovely old chateau.
The general way things run is that you stay in your room in the morning, unless you have appointments with a physio, dietician, etc, and the psychiatrist assigned to your case visits you there every day. Lunch is served in the canteen, after which you’re free to go out till 6pm. There’s a lovely park in the chateau grounds and it’s not a long walk into the centre of Bayonne. Dinner is taken in the canteen, then you’re free for the evening. Some people go out for a smoke, others play boules on the allotted space, still others play cards in the common area near the nurses’ station The staff are all delightful and more than happy to help in any way they can; in fact during my second week they even found me a quiet space to practice singing, before Saturday’s rehearsal, where nobody would hear me and I wouldn’t disturb anyone.
At first I felt quite resentful, this was all rather overkill; all I needed was a few counselling sessions, not to be confined to quarters for hours at a time. I was sooo bored! Most other people I met were doing “ateliers” – workshops – in music, dance, theatre, art, sport, aquarobics…… But not me. I gradually realised that I was there to learn to do nothing for a while. After the first few psychiatrist’s visits, I began to see things differently and settled into my new routine. I was allowed home for my first weekend, to “see how I got on”, heading back at the beginning of the following week.
The second week’s psychiatrist visits were harder than those of the first week, dredging up memories and emotions I’d had safely hidden away under lock and key for many years. But at least the psychiatrist had a sense of humour (I guess he needs one)….. and terrible taste in jackets. He said that I’d suffered a burnout (same word in French, just try saying it with a French accent), but had made excellent progress during my stay. However, I really must learn to listen to my body when it tells me to slow down – not to wait till it’s screaming at me! I promised to try and was discharged on Friday, at the end of my second week.
Friday 2nd June 2023 will henceforth be my personal Independence Day, the start of my new life.
I’m so grateful to the French healthcare system for providing this service; I’ve never heard of anything like it in Britain. The clinic is private, but the costs are covered by my “mutuelle” – top up health insurance. Clinics like this exist all over France and are well used; so many people I’ve spoken to have been through a similar experience following a traumatic event in their lives; there’s no stigma attached to needing a bit of help here.
I hate and detest paperwork; an official form or letter sends me into a flat panic and I’m unable even to read it properly. So you’ll understand why Nick used to deal with all the bureaucracy and why I’ve been having nightmares as the deadline for filling in my tax form loomed.
I told myself it couldn’t be that complicated and spent an evening hunched over the computer, trying to make sense of it; but I didn’t understand many of the questions and eventually gave up when I got into a loop that just took me round in circles.
So I got together all my paperwork and queued up at the France services minibus; but there they said that because I’d moved house, my income is from abroad and the tax office had got Nick’s date of death wrong (only by a few days, but wrong), it was too complicated for them to deal with – I’d have to go to the tax office.
I arrived at the tax office 10 minutes before they opened, but everybody else had had the same idea; the queue stretched from the doors nearly to the road, there were about 50 people ahead of me. My heart sank, I thought I’d be there for hours.
However, it was well organised; we queued up to be triaged, some people’s questions could be answered immediately, others were given tickets to queue at one of the six or seven offices available. When my turn came, I was sent to the computer at the end of the triage desks and told to log in, but when the man arrived to help me, heard my accent and realised my income is from a foreign source, he said he couldn’t deal with me, I’d need a specialist.
Again, I thought I’d have to wait for ages, but he went to one of the offices, turned out the couple who were in there (I do hope they’d finished) and sent me in. The advisor was very helpful, told me that the wrong death date didn’t matter, hardly needed to see any of the documents I’d taken, saying that he likes to keep things simple and within 10 minutes my tax return was completed.
I was amazed! It was so efficient! So un-French! I won’t have nightmares next year; I’ll just go to the tax office.
After a few false starts, I played my first gig with the band last night. It was billed as a “cabaret evening”; there were a couple of sketches, a few singers, then we rounded off the evening, which was raising funds for research into childhood illnesses.
Maybe it was because we ran through the whole set 3 times, twice as sound checks and once, unamplified, sat in the kitchen of the salle des associations, or maybe it was just being part of a group, all of whom are proper musicians, but I was able to keep my nerves in check, meaning that I sang as well as I do in rehearsal.
The audience was very appreciative (it was good to see several friends there) and even joined in with “knocking on heaven’s door” at the end. Once we’d packed up somebody asked if we’d go back for another event later in the year, so they must have been pleased.
A friend took this video on my phone; the quality’s very poor, but you can get an idea.
A few months ago, Alex and I decided to hold a celebration of Nick’s life, an opportunity for all those who couldn’t attend his funeral to get together to honour his memory.
I was so relieved when Alex offered to organise it; that sort of thing stresses me out. She has a friend who manages a bar in Harrogate, so that was the obvious venue, it would be held a week before the anniversary of his death.
I travelled to Harrogate on Easter Sunday, only to hear on my arrival that Nick’s brother had died the previous evening; so cruel that they both left this life within a year of each other.
During my first week Belle and Immy were on holiday from school, so I made the most of the chance to spend time with them, swimming, going to York, visiting Harlow Car gardens and generally spoiling them, as grannies are entitled to do.
The second week I took Immy to and from school, to give Jean and Doug a break, as well as catching up with lots of old friends. Kieran joined us on Wednesday, he was definitely in need of a holiday.
The day of the memorial arrived. I woke at 5am, suddenly aware that the niggling feeling, in the back of my head for weeks now, really had to be addressed; I was going to have to say something to our assembled guests, to give focus to the event and thank them for coming. Not something I’m used to doing, I felt quite sick at the prospect, but if the last year has taught me anything, it’s that we can all do anything we put our minds to. I made some notes – I thought it was quite acceptable. However, Gemma is very talented at this sort of thing and, not being able to join us for the day, was feeling quite left out, so I sent it to her for tweeking. It came back infinitely improved, but too long now for me to learn by heart in the hour before we had to set off.
Alex had had loads of photos of Nick printed, which we hung around the room and which were added to by friends when they arrived.
At 1pm they started to pour in; people I hadn’t seen for years and years, old friends from the children’s school days, Nick’s work colleagues, people he’d cycled with; they came from all over the country, London, Oxford, the Lake District, one friend even flew over from Northern Ireland.
The atmosphere was lovely as we reminisced about old times and shared our favourite stories about some of the crazy things Nick had done over the years.
I managed to get through my speech without bursting into tears, unlike each time I’d practised it, so once that was over I could begin to enjoy myself.
By 7.30 everyone had left and we went home, exhausted, but happy to know that the event had been a success and that everybody seemed to have enjoyed themselves.
A group of us met up for breakfast in a café in Harrogate the following morning; we had so much to talk about that breakfast ran into lunch, then continued to afternoon tea and cakes; we finally left after 3 o’clock, when they asked us to move as our table was booked for another group.
On Monday I took the bus to London to stay with my brother Peter and his partner for a couple of days, before heading home on Wednesday. Happily the weather is warmer here – I was frozen most of the time I was in Harrogate – must be going soft in my old age!
If there were a competition to see which nation could come up with the most senselessly complicated bureaucracy, I think the French would win hands down.
It’s so bad that in recent years a new department has been created; France Services, which exists for the sole purpose of helping people with their paperwork. I think the people who work for France services are specially chosen; I’ve now met quite a few of them, not one of them has been the typical “fonctionnaire”, beloved of those who want something to moan about, and with a reputation for being as unhelpful as possible. No, the people working for France services are, in my experience, charming, patient, knowledgeable and extremely helpful.
I knew I had to change my address with several bureaucratic bodies, so I set out to find the local France services office, which in St Paul turns out to be a mini bus every Thursday morning, in the marketplace. It doesn’t seem to matter how early I get there, there’s always a queue, but it’s a chance to chat to people as we wait our turn in the sunshine or the rain.
When we tried to change my address on the income tax site, it wasn’t working (a remarkably common problem here); never mind, said Marie (yes, I’ve been there so often now, we’re on first name terms!), we’ll do that when we do your tax form.
Then came my carte de séjour ( proof of residence). Even though it’s only in my name, it transpires that I have to declare Nick’s death as well as changing my address. I’d taken all sorts of papers with me, but not a death certificate, so was sent home for that. On my return the site crashed. The following week I knew what papers were required and , fingers crossed, it seemed to work. I don’t know how long I have to wait for a new carte, but one day I’m (nearly) sure, it’ll arrive.
Then there’s the carte grise, which proves ownership of a vehicle. As my name was with Nick’s on the original, I hadn’t done anything about it, but it seems this was illegal and had I been stopped, I’d have been in bother. But I wasn’t stopped, so I asked Marie to have it put into my name as well as changing my address. The first week the site wasn’t working; she could only change part of the address, so having spent over an hour trying, she gave up and I came home. Week 2 she managed to change the address and send off all the necessary documents, or so it seemed. Midweek I received an email to say that there were documents missing; I know we sent everything on the list, but went back again a third time and she re-sent them all . Last week I had another email to say there was another name on the proof of residence, so again I went to the bus; the French continue to use a woman’s maiden name for certain things after her marriage, so we thought that as my proof of residence is in my married name and the carte grise people have my maiden name, that must be the problem. We sent off a copy of my carte de séjour, which is in both names. So this afternoon, when I got an email from them, saying that my proof of residence was in the name of Sylvie Lataste, I thought I’d explode!
The heating in my apartment is useless; electric radiators which get hot but don’t radiate the heat. In my first couple of weeks here, I had them turned up full in the living room 24 hours a day, I didn’t dare heat the bedrooms too, and the temperature only achieved 17°C on two occasions. I have an app on my phone on which, in theory, I can track my energy consumption; unfortunately it’s only worked for one 24 hour period, but that single day cost me 9 euros ! I turned the heating off and happily, the weather improved.
I decided to look at a pompe à chaleur réversible (heat pump that does heat and aircon), got an estimate and took it to the management company’s office. I asked how long is have to wait for a decision; she wasn’t sure, but thought I’d probably have to wait till the residents’ AGM – in September! Oh well, if that’s how things work…….
Imagine my surprise then, when a week later I received an email telling me that, for exceptional reasons, I can go ahead! I haven’t asked why, I don’t want to stir things up, but I did call into the office to check that I’d not misunderstood the email. So next winter I should be toasty warm and if the summer is as hot as last year, I’ll have aircon too.
Apart from that, I’ve had a few days off. It made me realise just how exhausted I was and it’s been really difficult to motivate myself to start again. However, in the end, I had no choice; a neighbour from Caupenne offered to come over to help with jobs that I can’t do myself. I made a long list before he arrived and Kieran said he’d join Paul to help dismantle the big wardrobe in the spare room. It was a very good quality wardrobe and took a lot of work to take it apart. There were quite a few “right said Fred” moments, when the screws they expected to find didn’t exist or they just couldn’t work out how various pieces had been fitted together, but eventually it came apart – and in a saleable fashion, which meant somebody else could take it away. I put it on le bon coin (an internet selling site) and a couple came to buy it this morning.
Another job I had lined up for Paul was tile cutting. When Ludovic took away the clutter collector, it left pieces of tile on the wall below that were too short. I managed to find enough spares in the garage, Kieran brought his tile cutter and Paul did the cutting. I’ve retiled the bit of wall now and just need to grout it.
So the balcony is looking clearer, as is the garage since I sold all my packing boxes and the kitchen is more to my taste. There’s still a lot of decorating to do, but it’s good to feel that I’m gradually making progress.
One of the first things I had to do when I moved in here was to remove stickers from windows, doors, mirrors, cupboards…… nearly every surface was liberally covered in stickers, from the parrots and palm trees on the fridge, to the orange and olive trees on the windows, to a 2 metre high poppy on a wardrobe door, to the waterfall that completely covered the spare bedroom door. That has taken hours of work so far and is proving to be very difficult to remove.
The next item on my “has to go” list was the sliding glass window and the clutter collector it sat on, between the living room and the kitchen (sadly I’ve got no “before” pictures). It stuck out by 15cm on both sides of the wall, covering a chunk of work surface and serving no useful purpose, unless you like somewhere that gathers clutter.
I can’t rely on Kieran to do all these tasks, but he recommended a friend he’s worked with before, Ludovic, who has a business doing renovations etc. The first time Ludovic came round, I’d just got to the stage in the assembly of an IKEA chest of drawers that required more strength than I possess; he was very happy to oblige, leaving just the drawers to put together, which Kieran did when next he was over.
A week later, Ludovic came back to remove the window and the clutter collector, which he replaced with a piece of oak, as well as putting me some extra shelving in the kitchen. I’d finished decorating my workshop by this point, but was struggling to reinstall two of the shelves; again Ludovic was happy to help. He looked around the room, asking if I’d done the decorating myself; well yes. What, on my own? Yes. Didn’t I ever sleep? I had to admit not as much as I’d like!
Anyway, apart from a few bits, that room is now done; I filled the built in wardrobe with fabrics and can now sew again. A woman who runs textile arts courses recommended a patchwork club in Seignosse, where she explained “at the moment they just do traditional patchwork, but I think, with the right person, there may be some interest in textile arts”. So I’ve joined and I think she might be right, I’ll wait and see.
As the weather’s warming up, it felt like time to take a few days off; there’s a swimming pool just a five minute walk from here, it’s not open all the time, but is fine. I found the proper route for the longer walk around the lake and am gradually working my way through all the paperwork involved in moving house.