May 2020

The first two weeks of May were basically a repeat of April – painting, gardening, reading, walking, eating and drinking. Jarnac is so picturesque, there’s always a photo opportunity. Michael volunteered to help Fred prepare his La Comedie restaurant for its outdoor summer season. Lifting, shifting and painting kept him busy for a couple of days.

In Australia we have Anzac Day but in France a big remembrance is VE Day, Victory in Europe Day on May 8th. This year there were, of course, no ceremonies but there were still flags at half-mast and wreaths appeared in our local Charles de Gaulle square.

The most exciting thing that happened in early May was that the huge old willow tree in Thomas’s garden fell into the river, largely blocking the approach to the lock. It was interesting that it was reported to us while we were in our lodgings in Rue Baria. Even though we often feel quite invisible and think we fly under the radar, obviously people talk about us and know who we are and where our base is. We think Grubie is a large factor in that, because she is very memorable! The tree falling down wasn’t a big problem at the time, as there are no boats going up and down the river anyway. A day or two later a barge with four workers from the Charente Management Authority turned up to cut and remove the tree. It’s a good thing that the tree fell into the river and not on Thomas’s new roof. It’s also a good thing that it happened at such a quiet time and not in the middle of summer, when there’s often a line up of boats waiting for the lock – that could have been disastrous!

 

In the first 2 weeks of May we were a bit obsessed with data – the deaths were slowly declining, although there were still far too many.  It was encouraging that the numbers of reported cases, admissions to hospital and numbers in intensive care continued to fall. On May 15th France finished its total lockdown in most of the country and moved to social distancing. France has split the country into red and green zones. The red zones are in the north and east and have high rates of infection, so were still in lockdown. The rest of the country is a green zone, with low infection rates and so have been moved to social distancing.

In France in mid-May social distancing meant 2m apart, a limit of 10 people per gathering, only takeaway from restaurants and no bars and a limit of 100km travel from your home. Everyone is encouraged to work from home if possible and it seems a lot of people are doing that. The most significant change is that shops and businesses have reopened, with strict social distancing measures. It is only mandatory to wear a mask on public transport, but many shops and businesses require you to wear one and to use hand sanitizer at the door. Most people wear masks when out and about and the majority of masks are home made cloth ones, or at least were to begin with.

We were excited to be ‘let out’ on May 15th but in an ironic twist of fate, it bucketed with rain all day and so kept many people inside anyway! We braved the rain and went shopping at the big Auchan supermarket in Cognac and to book our car in for some repairs – the change oil and replace brake pad lights had come on. It took visits to two different places before we finally found a place in the tiny village of Hiersac. The oil light was attended to but we had to book in another time to replace the brake pads. So, much of our first day of ‘freedom’ was spent in a freezing cold and dirty mechanics shed!

Since then we have been enthusiastically attending to all the things we needed done – Grubie washed and clipped, Sue to the hairdressers, and the roof of the camping car to be professionally cleaned for the first time in three and a half years. Lots of other motor-homers do their own, but we both don’t like to be up that high.

We were excited to follow the situation in our home state of South Australia, where there is now no active Covid-19 at all. Zero cases! The best place in the world to be at the moment – and we’re over in Europe, which is riddled with the virus! At least we don’t have to worry about our family and friends at home in Australia.

It has been difficult for Michael this month, as he has worked long-distance with his mother and sister Jo, to finally put his father Geoffrey into a care facility.  Geoffrey is 92 and has advanced dementia and Michael’s dear mother Phyl just couldn’t manage looking after him at home any longer. At 88, she’s no spring chicken herself! When we decided to travel for 5 years we always knew that there would be issues like this, but were still surprised by how hard it has been. It’s tricky to be supportive but not directive, being so far away. We love Skype, WhatsApp and all the free internet-based communication platforms that make speaking often to our family and friends so cheap and easy.

 

Michael enjoyed another visit to Braastad cognac house, chatting with Richard Braastad and tasting some old cognacs. It was originally founded in 1875 as the Tiffon house, but was acquired by a young Norwegian in 1919 because Tiffon had no descendants. Apparently there was also a marriage connection. The Braastad family owns it’s own vineyards, distillery and cellars on the banks of the Charente.

Once the weather improved we started seeing friends again, inviting just a few at a time to our lovely little garden, so we could maintain social distancing. We started with Marcia, Willie and Liam. It was so lovely to see people in person and to chat in more depth. The following week we invited Steve and Mo. We also visited Liam and Stephanie to look at Stephanie’s beautiful artwork. She was due to have an exhibition this month at a chateau in the Medoc, but it has now been postponed for a year. So much good work needs a big audience and it’s not worth exhibiting for the few people visiting at the moment. Stephanie’s work is truly outstanding.

We think its really funny when Stephanie and Liam debate about who is the ‘true’ artist in their household. Stephanie maintains that Liam, as a cartoonist, is just a ‘Photoshop-er’.

Grubie has a new friend called Opale, belonging to Stephanie and Liam. They often meet in the park (Place de Charles de Gaulle) or just say hello in the lanes or around the Marche.

We hear all sorts of rumors about when things will be opening up. France had a big conflab about tourism in mid-May, to plan how to support and open up the industry. France had over 90 million foreign tourists in 2019. Tourism makes up 9% of France’s GDP and employs over 2 million people, so shutting it down has been a really big deal. We were encouraged to see the Jarnac camping ground preparing their facility. They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t expect to open soon. We’re hoping that they open in June and we can start touring again, at least on the Atlantic coast, once we have done the majority of our business.

We’ve also heard that some countries in Europe plan on opening borders in July, with two weeks isolation required after crossing. This seems very early but we hope it goes well and we can get to Spain for next winter.

In mid-May the number of confirmed cases in France rose to 143,845, an increase of 0.3% per day which has been the rate for the two weeks since lockdown eased. Having said that, the French do not test widely, only if you present with symptoms. The number of people in hospital with the disease fell from more than 32,000 in mid April to 17,941 and the number of people in intensive care fell from 7,000 in mid-April to 1,794 in mid-May. The daily death rate continued to fall, to around 100 a day.

We ‘sprung’ some friends of ours having a ‘meeting’ in the local park, just at the end of our street, the Place de Charles de Gaulle. They all live in the streets bordering the park, so decided to meet up for aperitifs and a glass of champagne. Naughty girls! They got excited and forgot to go home until after 1 am!! Willie reckons the square should be renamed Place de Anglais because so many expats have bought there.

We were also excited when the local Jarnac Office de Tourisme opened. They’re hardly ever open, even pre-Covid. Michael took the opportunity to get a few brochures and get some of our questions answered. For example, why do so many towns end in the suffix ‘ac’? Such as Jarnac, Cognac, Hiersac, Segonzac etc? Apparently, it comes from the Latin suffix –acum and originally from the Gallic –acos. It means an owner’s estate.

Grubie hasn’t been fabulous this month, and we’ve been to the vet 4 times in 8 weeks! They finally found a big rose thorn buried in her paw. Once that was removed she came good in less than 48 hours and is enjoying life again. Such a relief!

Finally, on May 28th the government announced further easing of restrictions in the green zones, to take effect on June 2nd. There are no travel restrictions in the green area and camping grounds can open. Restaurants and bars can open for business within strict guidelines. People can sit together at tables without a mask, but to move about the restaurant at all, you must wear a mask. The number of people who can attend an event has been increased.

There has been some easing of restrictions in Paris and the other high infection centres, which have now been downgraded from red to orange zones. They are allowed to open the outside terraces of bars and restaurants but must keep patrons the required distance apart. The real test will be when they let people in the orange zones out across the country, for the holiday period.

We finished the month of May with a wonderful party at Willie and Marcia’s beautiful house. Great food and music, to say nothing of the company! It was what we had really missed since this whole thing started in March.

And soon we’ll be heading for the Atlantic coast. We’re really looking forward to a feed of Moules!