Oh, the creative things we’ve been getting up to here on the French Riviera! Not all have quite worked out as envisaged, but we’ve had a brilliant time trying out ideas and seeing which ones fly. Speaking of flying, Carol’s trying out this thing called levitation photography (not quite as ouija board-ish as it sounds, but the results can look spectacular), and that was where the camper van’s high roof came in handy. Actually getting onto the roof was no mean feat, and involved scrabbling across from the villa’s first-floor balcony, and then hanging on for dear life as the van was manoeuvred into a good position for the shot. My beloved guitar didn’t have any say as to her involvement in the precarious arrangement, but we both lived to tell the tale. As to the final shot – well, after all that daredevilry, it turned out that the van’s roof wasn’t ideal after all, so we’re now back on the quest for the perfect spot for a bit of glorious levitation… For now, this one of me holding on to my guitar while nervously sprawling atop Tanya Toyota will have to suffice…
It’s been a very steep and winding learning curve, involving a variety of USB and XLR microphones, numerous jack plugs of various sizes and configurations, two different portable multitrack recording devices and much frayed patience, but I finally figured out that the problem wasn’t with any of the equipment, it was simply that if you’re going to record with a condenser mic, you need to power it with its own 48V phantom power supply. Eureka!!! Or perhaps Duh!!!
Anyway, I then set about buying one online. That, however, was where the problems really kicked into gear.
I thought that it was a wise move buying one from an eBay supplier in Nice, given that Nice is only a 30-minute drive away from where we’re staying. How could I have been so naïve? I ordered it on 13 January, and today, 30 January, after being assured it would arrive on 22 January (even that seemed a long time, given that it was only coming from Nice), and after numerous shirty emails to the supplier, I gave up the ghost (so to speak) and we drove to a music shop near Cannes to buy a phantom power supply there instead. Actually, we first drove there on Monday, only to discover that, in that peculiarly French tradition, it was closed all day Monday. So we drove there again today, only to be told they’d sold the last one a few days ago. So, after a spot of vicarious retail therapy (vicarious in that for a change I didn't actually buy anything and Carol did) to calm my severely re-fraying nerves, we drove home, where we discovered – yes!!! – a package in the mailbox from the eBay supplier in Nice! Hooray, hoorah!!! I could finally get on with recording ‘Don’t Wanna Run’ for the video Carol and I are planning on making! So I happily tore open the package, to find inside… a universal travel adaptor and no hint of a 48V phantom power supply…
After yet another VERY shirty email to the eBay supplier, I had to go and lie down on the sofa with the dogs for a while.
My hopes now hang on a friend who’s visiting from the UK bringing one over that we’ve just ordered on Amazon Prime to be – apparently – delivered to her tomorrow (Thursday). She travels on Friday, so if it doesn’t arrive with her tomorrow, the never-ending saga of the elusive 48V phantom power supply will continue to be exactly that…
Meanwhile, at least I got to pretend to drive a pink Chevy around the music store! Maybe there’s a song in that…
Spending the winter in the south of France has been fabulous for many reasons – not least because, well, we got to spend the winter in the south of France… One of the other benefits has been that it’s given us the time and space to work on our artistic passions – my songwriting and Carol’s photography. And now we’re going to have a go at bringing the two together by making a video of one of my songs, ‘Don’t Wanna Run’ (co-written with Nashville singer songwriter Terri Calderon).
In our previous video – of ‘Tangled Locks and Matted Fur’, my song about homelessness, which featured Carol’s touching photos of dogs belonging to homeless people – we did include a bit of video footage of me singing, but Carol regards herself very definitely as a photographer rather than a videographer. So the fact that this next one is going to be mainly video footage is quite ambitious. But we’re both up for the challenge!
We shot some practice footage yesterday to see what worked and what didn’t. We realised that various things, such as the reel of hosepipe outside the front door and the plastic bag full of fire ash, clearly need to be moved out of shot, while various other things, such as my lacklustre hair, need to be dealt with by other means. So this morning we’re off to Franck Provost Coiffure in Mouans-Sartoux, armed with a photo of a glamorous young woman sporting the sort of cut I’m after. I’m under no illusion that I’ll come out looking like a youthful fashion model, but if my hair has a bit more body and life to it, it’ll be job done!
Alors, regardez cet espace…
Today we decided to take the train to Nice in order to visit the Musée Matisse – a lovely cultural pursuit, involving, we assumed, a quick hop on the train along the coast, followed by a ride on the bus that leaves from the station and drops you off right outside the museum, then a leisurely stroll around the two floors containing the paintings and sculptures of the French master…
Wrong!! We did do all of that, but at each step we also tested to the full the saying that seems to apply the world over: if something can go wrong, it will. Sod’s law. Murphy’s law. Or, as the French have it, le loi de l’emmerdement maximum…
Everything was perfectly on track for a smooth day out … until we arrived at Mouans-Sartoux railway station to find that we’d missed the train to Nice by two minutes and the next one wasn’t due for another fifty-eight. But ça ne fait rien – we strolled into the little town and had a coffee and took photos to while away the time. I made a quick visit to les toilettes before we headed back to the station – and found myself momentarily plunged into darkness at a crucial moment when someone tried the handle on the locked door and managed to flip the light switch to the cubicle at the same time. Sacré bleu!
After being greeted by effuse apologies in French from the man waiting outside the loo when I came out, and stuttering back something like, ‘C’etait noir – but it’s OK!’ I rejoined Carol and we headed back to the station to catch the one o’clock train to Nice.
It was when we arrived at Nice’s central station an hour or so later, by which time it was Carol who was now bursting for the loo, that things started to go decidedly en forme d’une poire. Discovering that you had to pay an exorbitant 80 cents to use the station toilets, and having no loose change, we dashed around the little shop opposite, buying enough snacks to generate sufficient change for both of us to make use of the facilities. By then Carol could wait no longer, so dropped her one-euro coin in the machine by the gate, retrieved her 20 cents change, and bustled through the turnstile. It didn’t budge.
‘ATTENDEZ! ATTENDEZ!’ yelled the attendant, previously barely noticeable from her seated position around the corner.
That was one ‘ATTENDEZ!’ too many for Carol by that desperate stage.
‘I DON’T SPEAK FRENCH, AND THERE’S NO NEED TO SHOUT!!’ she yelled back (not entirely truthfully, it has to be said, though I wasn’t about to point that out to her by then). At which the officious attendant jabbed her finger at the turnstile, as though giving Carol the go-ahead to give it another push. Which she did, with furious vigour, and then duly marched round to the right, still fuming about having been yelled at by the attendant… only to find herself facing a bemused and worried-looking Frenchman, who, having just heard her say she didn’t speak French, stammered ‘Weemen’s’ while pointing to the other end of the room, where a woman was coming out of one of the cubicles.
Wheeling round, Carol then marched across to the Ladies’, flung open a door showing green for vacant, and found herself staring at an elderly woman hunched over the toilet with her knickers round her knees…
‘This is not going well!’ she muttered, perhaps the understatement of the day, but it brought a smile to the woman who had previously come out of the other cubicle and was now washing her hands.
I uttered not a word, though a phrase we had read the day before in a book of French idioms was dancing around in my head: Comme un éléphant dans un magasin de porcelaine…
By the time we were crossing the station concourse to catch the bus to the Matisse Museum, we were both gripped by lavatorial humour in its most literal sense, with tears rolling down our cheeks as we relived the disastrous few minutes in the station loo. Not to mention expensive – it cost the two of us nearly two pounds to use those facilities!
It may have been the uncontrollable mirth that we were both experiencing, or, again, it may have simply been the loi de l’emmerdement maximum still exerting its powerful force, but we spent a few seconds too long deciding which one of the two parallel roads we needed to be on to catch the bus, and it came rattling along on the one we had decided against, with no time for us to run to catch it, resulting in a 30-minute wait for the next one.
By now we’d wasted 90 precious minutes of our day out just hanging around waiting for public transport – but we’d also had a fair amount of hilarity, so we shrugged our shoulders in a pseudo-Gallic way and ate our newly purchased snacks as we waited on the pavement for the next bus to come along.
And come along it did, on time, 30 minutes later. All went well until we got off at the museum stop and turned the wrong way, resulting in a very long-winded and cold walk through a park and nearly into the wrong museum before we got back on track and realised that had we turned right instead of left off the bus, we’d have been in the museum within a couple of minutes.
After a bit of confusion about which was the entrance and which the exit, we at last made it into the Matisse Museum – with, surprisingly, enough time still left to stroll around and take in all the markedly different phases of the French artist’s career and life, and for Carol to take photos aplenty (sans flash, as the rather too attentive attendant repeatedly told her in quite an unnecessarily flirtatious way, I thought), as well as nearly demolish Marguerite’s head, an undoubtedly priceless sculpture that rocked to and fro as, with her camera to her eye, she backed into its rather flimsy plinth. No alarm sounded, and no security guards came rushing to poor Marguerite’s aid – not even the overly attentive one on the door! We didn’t linger too long after that, however, not wanting to push our already overstretched luck, and walked in a much more direct route to the bus stop on the opposite side of the road to catch the bus back to the station. Only to find that – of course! – we’d missed it by minutes. So we made a snap decision to catch the next bus that came along, wherever it went. The one that came next was heading to the port, so we took that, not realising that before it got to the port it would go everywhere else in Nice it was possible to go (except, of course, the station). When we finally got to the port, we all dutifully disembarked. Or tried to. It was when the elderly lady in front of Carol started flailing her stick around wildly as she tried to get off that I knew the next thing that could go wrong was about to. The old lady teetered over, nearly taking Carol’s eye out with her stick as she did so, and, like a woodlouse on its back, rolled around on the floor of the bus while everyone around her gasped and tried to get her back up before she was ready to be got up. ‘Je vais bien, je vais bien!’ she kept saying as the bus driver rushed up the aisle to assist her too. All was well in the end – she was probably more embarrassed than hurt, poor thing – and we all piled off onto the pavement as the bus drove off.
We definitely needed a swift glass of vino by then, which we had at a nearby bar, and then set off once more for the station, the Google Maps app directing us every step of the way… until the phone suddenly died and we were left wandering around in the centre of Nice with not a clue as to where the station was…
All we could do was keep walking in the direction we’d been heading in when the phone gave out, and thankfully that did indeed lead to the main road from where we could see the station. In no mood to mess around any longer, and seeing no barrier to just walking through the turnstile and onto the platform, that’s exactly what we did. Naughty us. But from the rest of the day’s experience, we should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. As our train came sailing in, a station gendarme came up to me and asked, in French, to see our tickets. Now it was my turn to deny any knowledge of the French language… At which he merely switched to English, which I couldn’t really claim to have no knowledge of. That’s where, thankfully, it helped that Carol had a ticket app on her phone, so we could legitimately claim that we were about to buy tickets on the app but were waiting until we were on the train and could plug in as she only had 9 per cent power left. Phew!
The train was packed, but we eventually found seats, plugged the phone in, bought the tickets, and settled back for the ride home… and managed to forget that French stations are VERY sparsely signed, so unless you’ve counted the stops or know the route extremely well, it’s very easy to miss your stop, especially in the dark, which it was by then, and which we very nearly did. But not quite. We got off, and found ourselves laughing hysterically as we made our way up the hill and home while talking about the day we’d just had – the day when virtually everything that could have gone wrong … did!
How I imagined summer in St Tropez to be: convivial yacht parties, scorching sun, and the expectation that if you're there, you have a lot of money. How I discovered winter in St Tropez to be: lonesome shrouded empty yachts, persistent rain, and the expectation that if you're there, you have a lot of money...
We'd decided to take the coast road there from Cannes, thinking it'd be a quick and pleasant sea-lapped run, only to discover that the mountains come very close to the shore in this part of the Mediterranean, and most of the time we were rounding sharp bends high above the slightly foggy coastline. Not only was in winter, it was also Sunday, so we pretty much had the road, as well as the little places we drove through, to ourselves. Such a vast contrast to the seething hordes of sun-seekers who must flock there in the warmer months, but still appealing in its own way.
By the time we finally arrived in St Tropez, the light was fading, yet finding somewhere to park was still a problem, and the rain was still coming down, making our attempted walk with the dogs from the centre of town to the waterfront a brief and curtailed venture. A small coffee and an equally small beer in the cafe directly opposite the parking spot where were were finally able to dump the van turned out to cost more than we had left in change, so out came the trusty credit card. The coffee alone cost 5 euros and 40 cents - steeper even than London prices!
Having shelled out for such overpriced drinks, we decided to take the non-toll roads back to Mouans-Sartoux, imagining them to be as easy to navigate as the miles and miles of dead-straight rural roads we'd encountered in northern France. How wrong could we have been? After climbing and descending two mountains in the dead of night, shrouded in fog and with steep drops on either side of the narrow, twisting road, I've never been so relieved to see civilization again, or to knock back a stiff brandy or two when we eventually arrived home late in the evening.
I know I said I'd be writing about my attempts to break into the live music scene here on the Riviera, but what I'm discovering is that, for my kind of music at least, such a scene doesn't really seem to exist in southern France. Disappointing definitely, but it hasn't stopped me continuing to hope that something along those lines may yet present itself...
As we drove down through France over the weekend from Calais to our new temporary home just north of Cannes on the French Riviera, we were greeted by bands of protesting ‘gilet jaunes’ at varying points – usually roundabouts – along the way. As their initial grievance had apparently been about the increased tax on diesel fuel and we were in a diesel-powered Toyota campervan, I was happy to raise my fist in a solidarity kind of way when we first encountered them, to be greeted by smiles and regal bows, and despite the additional sarcastic shouts from some of them of ‘Vive Brexit!’ we felt at one with these people we would now be living among. However, from about midway down, our feelings of unity were somewhat tempered by the long queues we began to find at the gilet-jaune-controlled roundabouts, and soon we were cursing the very sight of them as they told us we couldn’t take the turn-off we wanted to, or drunkenly accosted us, telling us to wind down the window and then leering into the van at the sight of two females in a campervan. As a result, from 70km north of Lyon, we decided to switch from the much cheaper roundabout-strewn rural roads to the much more expensive, but roundabout-free and much quicker, toll roads for the remainder of our journey south. What a great decision that turned out to be, and how the gilet jaunes went up once more in our esteem when we came to the pay booth after the most expensive leg, from Lyon to Aix-en-Provence, to find it (in an initially heart-sinking moment) swarming with gilet jaunes, and consequently… FREE!!! Vive les gilet jaunes! Except, of course, when they’re drunk, leering and anything but politically motivated…
We are now just about settled into our lovely new abode, and from here on I plan to be writing about my attempts to discover whether there is any sort of live music scene I can break into here on the French Riviera. I’m confident there will be. Time will tell. Or, as the French might say (but I’m sure don’t, in the same way that they don’t say ‘la nuit est jeune’), le temps dira…
With three months to go before we were due to move to the south of France – myself, Carol, and two miniature dachshunds – it seemed there was plenty of time to decide what to keep and what not, what to sell at the car boot and what to take to the tip – time, too, to stash what we did decide to keep in an orderly fashion in 75 cubic feet of storage space, with not a curse or a bruise to say otherwise. In the event, we were stuffing must-have items into the Toyota campervan at the very last second and cramming bags of rubbish into the green bin right up until I slammed the driver’s door shut and we finally drove off to begin a new life abroad.
What we discovered that meant in practice was that we had not had a second to plan our first week in France, when we had imagined ourselves idly ambling along the northern non-toll roads, stopping off hither and yon, and generally having a relaxed first few days of freedom as we made our way to our new home just north of Cannes. As a result, we found that the campsites we had assumed would be open in the winter were firmly shut, and whenever we stopped for the night it was not a question of simply flopping down on the bed at the rear of the van, but instead we had to move all our copious boxes and bags of belongings off the bed and stash them on the front seats before even thinking about turning in for the night. In the morning, before we could get back on the road, the reverse arduous procedure had to take place. So by the time we reached Le Mans, not very far south, but our main stopping-off point in the North, we were totally exhausted and shuddering at the prospect of another 1,000 kilometres before we would reach our new home…
As if that wasn’t enough, we inadvertently timed our trip to coincide with the burgeoning of a 21st-century French revolutionary spirit, and came across a number of fuel-tax-protesting gilet-jaune roadblocks at roundabouts, complete with mocked-up blood-spattered guillotines. As it turned out, the yellow-vests were very friendly towards us – which seemed strange with Brexit and everything, but very welcome too, and we took to raising our fists in solidarity as we passed them, bringing smiles to their faces, as well as (possibly sarcastic, but never mind!) regal bows. More violent demonstrations by young people against education reform brought the lovely medieval quarter of Le Mans to its knees the day I was due to play at a scène ouverte there, so instead we sat in a bar in Huismes and planned our route south.
Over two and a half days we would be driving from the Loire Valley right down to Mouans-Sartoux, a village just north of Cannes on the French Riviera. As Carol had managed to fracture her foot a few days before we set off from the UK, I was doing all the driving, so we knew we would only manage a few hours on the road at a time, and the first stop on our push south from Huismes, we decided, would be at one of the very welcome and spacious French Aires, or lay-bys, close to a town called Roanne. That itself was a first, for up until then, we hadn’t planned any of our overnight stops, and as a result, ended up staying next to a building site in Samer on the north coast, as well as in an on-street parking slot in the very heart of Alençon when we found that the ticket we had paid two euros for, thinking it might last us thirty minutes while we downed a beer at Le Celtic bar opposite, actually covered the whole of that afternoon and night, and took us to 9.48 the following morning!
Anyway, as we get ready to embark on the road to Roanne, I’ll leave you with a pearl of wisdom gleaned from telling the woman next to me at a music and raclette party last night that there was plenty of time to order another glass of wine: there is, it turns out, no such expression in French as ‘la nuit est jeune’... Of the French language, I have much to learn...
I’ve just come back from a lovely, lively evening playing a half-hour set at Sparky’s New Moon at the Half Moon pub in East Oxford. I arrived home just before midnight to two happy dogs greeting me from the cosiness of their bed in the kitchen, hoping for the usual late-night treat as I made toast and a hot drink for myself.
As I left the pub, however, I encountered a young woman sitting under a drenched sleeping bag at the edge of a busy road, trying desperately to keep her beloved young Staffie as dry as she could, all the while hoping against hope that by some miracle she’d get the money she needed to feed herself and her dog and get into the night hostel tonight. She would most likely still be sitting there, soaked to the skin and caring only about the well-being of her canine companion, had I not happened along. As it is, I’m hoping the two of them are now dry and warm in the night hostel, as I scraped together as much loose change as I could find in my pockets to give her what she said she needed for the night.
We walked together to the Asian grocer’s down the road, her dog now happily bouncing on ahead, looking for all the world like she knew that tonight they would be comfortable after all. The young woman told me she’s had the sweet, loyal and clearly street-wise dog since she was four weeks old and that since her partner died last December she’s the only thing that matters to her. And she very obviously does matter, as she was genuinely delighted when I said – and meant it – that the dog looked well and had a happy look in her eyes.
We parted company when I got to my car, and as I watched them disappear off down the road, I was thinking, ‘This is just one night out of a whole lifetime of nights that she’ll spend hoping against hope that some stranger will happen to pass by and take pity on them – just one single night of being warm and dry and safe.’ And that made my heart heavy. Whatever path has led her to live her life on the street, as far as I’m concerned the only right response is one of compassion. Our brief encounter may not help her and her dog beyond the wind-whipped, rain-lashed conditions of tonight, but any other response wouldn’t even have got them through that.
Our campervan holiday up through western France, from Bayonne to Dieppe, was a wonderful road trip of freedom, where we decided each day where we were heading next and the route we were going to take. The only thing we were sure about throughout was that we would avoid all toll roads, having experienced the expense of them in full on our first day, driving from Bilbao to Bayonne, when we must have clocked up about £20 in tolls on that relatively short journey.
So deciding to call in on Le Mans on Thursday 28 June was a spur-of-the-moment decision, mainly based on the fact that it was approximately midway between our previous spontaneous port of call, the brandy-and-history-infused Cognac, and Dieppe, where we needed to be by Saturday for our pre-booked ferry ride back to England. Oh, and according to Google, it also had that comparative rarity in France, a scène ouverte, or open mic, on that Thursday. So those things alone decided it – our visit was nothing to do with the world-famous Le Mans 24-hour auto race or the classic car event that, conveniently for us, fell either side of our visit, leaving the city and the campsite we stayed at comparatively empty and hence far more enjoyable.
The scène ouverte itself was an unknown quantity for me. It turned out to be at an extremely characterful bar, Le Pilier Rouge, in the old part of the city, frequented, it appeared, by the local bohemian crowd. From that, I assumed – completely wrongly as it turned out – that there would be an expectation that I would at the very least introduce my songs in French, and preferably sing them in the native tongue too. So I practised my introduction in Franglais, and, with Carol’s help, even came up with a translation for a line of my song ‘Before You’ – ‘Il y avait un temps – avant toi’. In the event, however, most of the others – all of them French – sang a mixture of French and American/English songs, and the English version of ‘Before You’ proved the hit of the evening, particularly with Juliette, the host, who came up to me after my set and asked if I would be OK with her singing it as it was her style of song completely, and in fact it was ‘the best song in the world’! I was of course thoroughly delighted with the idea of my song remaining behind me in Le Mans. She then asked me if I would bring the lyrics round to her the next day, to her fabulously bohemian shop, where Carol and I would also have lunch with her and some of the others who’d been there that evening – including the lovely Didier (who protested that his ‘Anglais est une catastrophe’ but went on to converse with us in charming and perfectly understandable English!), together with a French teacher and a local GP.
Both the evening of music at Le Pilier Rouge and the lunch at Juliette’s amazing Aladdin’s Cave of a boutique and art shop, above which she also lives, in a building which dates back to the Middle Ages, were incredible and gave us a wonderful taste of life as it is really lived in France. If you’ve only ever heard of Le Mans in connection with cars, then you’re missing out on its really beautiful and unspoiled old quarter dating back to before the time of Henry II (who was born there), and consisting of old timbered buildings and narrow cobbled streets. And inhabited by some of the nicest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Despite none of us speaking the other’s language with any degree of fluency whatsoever, the universal language of music brought us together, and one way or another we managed to cover a wide variety of topics and establish the roots of what promise to be lasting friendships.
And should you ever happen to pass by Le Pilier Rouge on a Thursday evening and hear strains of a French-accented version of ‘Before You’ drifting out, please pop in and say bonjour to Juliette and Didier from ‘les petites Anglaises’!
All photos courtesy of Carol Mac Photography.
We set off on our campervan adventure not at all sure what to expect, except to be able to enjoy the freedom to go wherever the hell we felt like going and do whatever the hell we felt like doing, and so far that’s exactly how it’s been – bloody brilliant! As I do virtually everywhere I go, I’ve brought my guitar and harmonicas along with me, ready to seize the opportunity to play wherever and whenever it might arise. By absolute chance, the day we walked into Bayonne for the first time a couple of days ago turned out to be the day of the one-day music festival that has open-air venues all over the city. Had I known in advance, I might have been able to secure a slot to perform, but as it was, all I could do was ask one of the performers – a woman with a thoroughly British name who turned out to be thoroughly French – if there were any live music venues in the city where I might get to play. She spoke as much English as I speak French (pas beaucoup!), so I ended up being misunderstood and having to assure her that I wasn’t expecting to be given a slot on stage that very night, and then all I gathered from her and her friends was that I would be very welcome to busk in the square whenever I wanted to… That wasn’t quite the answer I was hoping for, but ça ne fait rien – and it really doesn’t matter, because even if all I get to do is gently strum on the beach or in the van, this holiday has been chiefly about getting away from it all and spending time together for ten days. But if anyone knows of any venues between Biarritz and Brittany where I might get to play a few songs in the next few days, please drop me a line! 😊