En France

Time for one of those overseas blogging monologues. I know how much you all love them (go on! tell me how much you love them!).

I’ve just boarded a train from Angers St Laud to Paris Montparnasse, my first experience of the TGV. The train is reasonably busy, perhaps 75% full, but there is only one stop between here and Paris, at Le Mans. It’s reasonably spacious, and the lack of bulky headrests means that it is easy to peoplewatch – the girl to my right who is trying to sleep whilst wedging her enormous black handbag against the back of the seat in front of her, the bloke to my left who is sitting in the window seat that I reserved (I’m not sufficiently confident in my French to remonstrate with him, and besides, it’s easier to get up for the loo or the buffet from here – and I can still see the world zipping by), the young infant in his carrychair a few seats towards the back of the train who is cuddling his toy rabbit and quietly absorbing the constant stream of information that is the world around him, whilst his twin sleeps soundly in the next seat.

Thankfully I’ve come equipped with my bag of Maynards’ Wine Pastilles and a bottle of Waitrose Still Scottish Natural Mineral Water, as this train is about half a mile long (no exaggeration), and it would probably take me fifteen minutes to walk as far as the buffet/bar. All very English of me.

The train takes corners at very high speed, with the consequence that my laptop slips dangerously from one side of the little table to the other, so excuse any pauses in the narrative as I clutch hold of it to prevent it falling to the floor.

Why am I in France? Well, I’ve been here for two reasons – firstly to visit a famous and very old nursery company near Nantes, and also to attend and lend consultancy and support at a European Union Plant Variety Rights appeal hearing at the Community Plant Varieties Office in Angers. Yes, that last bit does sound exciting, doesn’t it? But, believe me, it was in fact very interesting and useful, even though we lost the appeal (we had only rated our chances of success at around 1-2% prior to the meeting, but reckon that we increased that to 20% by making a very well-argued, substantiated and convincing case during the hearing – we believe we were defeated only by a majority decision of the members of the panel rather than a unanimous one).

The "we" in this journey has been myself and David, who is a septagenarian plant breeder and fervent supporter of PFE (and the appelant), along with his wife Rosemary. As they are now travelling on for a short holiday in the upper Loire valley, I’m travelling back by train, plane and automobile (in the form of a coach) to dear old Blighty and the arms of Hels, who I have been missing like mad.

They say that distance makes the heart grow fonder, but we have been finding these separations (this trip, Hels’s recent trip to Vienna and her forthcoming week at a conference in Florida) to be quite painful, punctuated only by long (and expensive) phone calls telling each other how much we love each other and how much we miss one another. I’ve received the odd complaint of being a bit too soft and soppy in my writings on this site recently, so I won’t go on about it too much. It may just be because our love is still very new and extremely intense and not a little fraught with the worries of trying to sell our homes, find a home together, arrange a wedding and deal with the stresses of everyday life, but it certainly makes us value our time together more than ever. The time when "home" means our home together can not come soon enough.

I’m not sure how fraught this journey will be. According to Le Figaro this morning, Paris promises to be a hellish place today as umpteen gazillion police, soldiers and special forces secure the city for George Dubya’s state visit to mark the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day. I have to get from Montparnasse to Charles de Gaulle airport (assuming it hasn’t fallen down entirely). There is a coach service from Montparnasse, but I wonder if it might be delayed. I had planned to spend a little time exploring the Montparnasse area, having never visited Paris before, but if it appears fraught, I may abandon that idea.

We’re just coming into Le Mans. Interestingly, the conductor, in his announcements, puts the emphasis on the "Le", not the "Mans". Since it appears that nobody wants this seat, I may rummage around and find my headphones for a little audio entertainment between here and Paris. I bought a very cheap (three euro) CD from a second hand store in Nantes which is very good aside from a scratch that makes the first track unplayable (hence the low price, I guess), and I still haven’t had a chance to listen to it all the way through.

Anyway, a few non-work highlights of this trip:

  • the splendidly calm ferry crossing from Portsmouth to St Malo, with the moon hanging low in the sky and reflected wonderfully in the glossy water, whilst on the other side of the boat, the Isle of Wight loomed ominously in silhouette with streetlamps draped around its skirt hems and reflected in the water
  • the city centre in Nantes, with its cafés and cathedral
  • the castle in Angers, home of a fantastic, enormous and very old tapestry depicting the story of the Apocalypse, with amazing detail, particularly in the beasts and the horsemen, with St John looking on from a differently designed sentry box-like structure at the side of each panel, recording the scenes for the Book of Revelations
  • Angers cathedral, with its massive organ (stop it!) supported above the main entrance on four huge flying buttresses, each carved to resemble a bacchanalian figure seemingly inappropriate for a place of Christian worship, but imposing and wonderful nonetheless
  • the simple and beautiful chruch of Saint Laud in Angers, and much more light and welcoming building, which, when we visited, was being bedecked in flowers for a wedding to be held today

As David and Rosemary were very much in holiday mode on this trip, it allowed me more time than I would normally have for exploring my environs. Normally when I travel abroad for conferences and exhibitions, usually with David’s son Mike (also a plant breeder), there is little time for R&R, as we generally try to pack in as much work value into our time as we possibly can. Whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this trip (in spite of losing the appeal hearing), a little voice at the back of my head says that I really need to get more work done (hey! I could be doing it now instead of writing this monologue, but then I do have to keep you entertained somehow).

Hmm. Time for another wine pastille.

How strange. The guards have just come through the carriage, and they seem to be inspecting all the vents for the air conditioning system, peering into them as if they expect some sort of rat or mouse to poke his head out and say "salut!" at any moment. They’ve left the carriage now, so obviously didn’t find what they were looking for, although the activity has woken up the sleeping twin into a wide-eyed coughing session.

Idle thought: do nationalists in Northern Ireland refuse to use the Orange telephone network on principle?

Idle thought 2: what is it with young oriental men and really bad facial hair?

Idle thought 3: I wonder if there’ll be a powerpoint at CDG where I can recharge my laptop, or is that a uniquely American phenomenon? Even the wonderfully well thought out Copenhagen airport doesn’t have powerpoints.

<long pause whilst transferring from TGV to CDG>

Idle thought 4: if, when in France, you dial 15 for an ambulance, 17 for the police and 18 for the fire service, what happens if you dial 16?

Well, so much for having a stroll around Montparnasse. On arrival at the station, the first thing I noticed was the large number of police and armed troops present. A quick amble about the station revealed that the left luggage lockers were closed and sealed due to the security precautions, so I decided not to bother with trying to go for an amble whilst dragging my wheelie case and carrying my laptop. Instead, I elected to board the bus for the airport directly. As the bus hurtled through the streets, we passed a long row of buses laden with police, plus vans loaded with equipment, and then had to pull over to allow a fleet of water cannon trucks to roar past, sirens on and lights flashing. So I reckon that not going for a stroll was a smart move.

It has to be said that CDG (or terminal 1 at least) is the most dismal airport I have ever been in, even more badly designed than Dallas-Fort Worth. The duty-free area is cramped an ugly. The check-in desks are cramped and ugly. The &satellites" are cramped and ugly. There is a chronic lack of seating, refreshment points, signage, colour, light and air conditioning. Infuriatingly, there is a power point next to the seat I’ve found, but I stupidly left my French/UK adaptor in the bag that I’ve checked-in, so I’ll run out of power in about 20 minutes – with at least two and a half hours to kill before the flight. Worryingly, the bmi flight before mine, to East Midlands, has been delayed until around the time that mine is due to depart due to a fault with the aircraft, and I have a sneaky feeling that they might use the plane I’m due to fly on to take those passengers, thereby delaying my flight. I’ve even run out of battery life on my camera, so I can’t play at taking silly pictures. And I have no book with me. I think I’m going to be very bored. Sigh.

Idle thought 5: at what point is the boredom level sufficiently high that your brain dissolves and seeps out of your ear?

Anyhow, time to conserve battery life by shutting down the monitor. I’ll post this on my return (though, if you’ve read this far, you know that already).

UPDATE: my flight wasn’t delayed.


Hels’s flat sale has fallen through – the purchaser was intending to buy-to-let and has got cold feet over the interest rates. This is a major setback. We’re very pissed off and incredibly stressed, with just over four months until the wedding and nowhere to live.
I have to go to France later today until Saturday – I’d rather be here sorting all this out, although I’m not sure if there is anything much that I can do. Aside from support H, of course.

Inland Revenue woe

I’m still trying to enrol online with the Inland Revenue so that I can file paperwork digitally. The trouble is that the enrolment process is shit. As I’ve said before, for "security" reasons, passwords are sent by post and not over a secure connection. Since the unregistered post is as secure as your average teabag, I’m not won over by this argument.
Now I’ve discovered that, if there is a problem with your login, you must "de-enrol" (I wasn’t aware that I’d completed enrolment yet, but bear with me), re-enrol and wait for a new user ID and password to be sent by post. This process can take up to ten days.
This whole system is the biggest load of crap that I have ever seen. It is the most user-unfriendly system that anyone could possibly conceive. Pass me the paper – at least I don’t need a password for that.

Bugger Bognor

Today is the 75th anniversary of Bognor being granted the Regis suffix by King George V. Having strolled along the seafront this weekend, I can vouch for the cleanliness of the beach – on a glorious sunny afternoon, you can see its attraction. The town, however, is as shabby as ever.
You have to wonder, though, why the powers-that-be in the town have done "bugger"-all to celebrate the anniversary. Surely this would have been an excellent opportunity for some positive publicity for the place, an excuse for a minor royal visit perhaps?