Saturday, 21 July 2018

Gone to the Wall

When I was a young bloke living in Canberra we had very few museums and art galleries. This meant that apart from a visit to a dairy farm and one to Parliament house, school excursions were restricted to the Australian Instituite of Anatomy (Phar Lap's heart, skeletons, Papuan penis sheaths - photo here) which now no longer exists, and the Australian War Memorial (tanks, guns, airplanes).

No prizes for guessing which was more popular.

Lancaster G for George. There used to be more light in the Aircraft Hall

In 1972 a feature that I thought was the best ever thing ever done anywhere was unveiled, a mural showing all the aircraft type used by the Australian air forces between 1914 and 1968. It was massive - 4.5 metres by 60 metres - and incredibly detailed, and I had poster copies of it on my bedroom wall. It was painted by Harold Freeman, who was an official war artist during world war 2, and who went on the be the State Artist of Victoria.  Today the mural can't be seen after the aircraft gallery was redeveloped in 1999 and the mural hidden behind black panels. A poor image can be seen here.

Today some of the aircraft I remember from my childhood are still on display - Lancaster bomber G for George, a Spitfire fighter, and Albatross D.Va World War 1 german aircraft - but no mural.

You can't even buy the posters any more.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Struck by Lightning

Yesterday evening we had a tremendous storm. It started while I was on the phone to a very chatty client and I could see Simon in the background getting more and more agitated about the need to disconnect. A couple of hours later and back online I picked up friend Simon D's latest FB post. Here's what he had to say:

Our little village of Boussay in Indre-et-Loire was just rocked by a massive thunderstorm and the steeple of the church here took a direct hit from forked lightning -- see the line of the strike on the steeple and the slate debris in the street and grass below. This hit was maybe 100 meters (as the crow flies) from our house -- the noise of the strike was deafening. Exciting stuff. For concerned dog lovers reading this, Brandy was as cool as you like.

Other bloggers, from near and far in France, are remarking on the storms last night.

Fortunately, my postillion was spared.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Applying for a Carte de Sejour

We currently have the right to live and work anywhere in the EU by virtue of our British citizenship. We both have dual citizenship, Australian and British. That British citizenship automatically gives us EU citizenship. Once Brexit actually takes effect we will be non-EU citizens and have to apply for permission to live and work here just like our American and Australian friends.

A titre (or carte) de séjour, as it is known, is not strictly necessary yet, and will not be until March 2019 at the earliest. However, the advice from the British Embassy, the British in Europe citizens rights support groups and the French Ministry of the Interior is all to apply now for a titre de séjour. Those already holding cartes de séjours when Britain finally exits Europe will be fast tracked into whatever the new system is.

 The Post Office in Preuilly sur Claise.

The procedure is outlined in detail on the RIFT site but I thought it worth outlining what we have personally done so far. I've been networking with others in our situation for months and literally everyone's experience with this particular issue has been different, because the Préfecture in Tours' response has been different for everyone. The Préfecture is the département (county) administrative centre.

Back in October last year I spoke to a local British couple who had applied for cartes de séjour immediately after the referendum in 2016. They were exceptionally quick off the mark and were issued cards without too much bother. They kindly provided me with an inside contact at the Bureau d'Immigration in our préfecture in Tours.

I emailed the public servant they had dealt with and outlined our particular circumstances (born in Australia, married in England, dual citizenship, arrived in France in 2009, own home, income as per last tax return, auto-entrepreneurs). The public servant replied within a week, pointing out (as I already knew) that a carte de séjour was not yet necessary but that we had a right to apply if we wished and she gave us a list of documents she wanted to see as proof of when we arrived, what our income was, proof of identity and proof of our continuous residence in France for five years. We exchanged several cordial and professional emails, then Simon and I went to Australia for a couple of months.

 Our dossiers ready to go.

On my return applying for a carte de séjour kept falling to the bottom of my to do list, but slowly slowly I accumulated the pile of documents required and put them into categorised folders. Then I counted up how many pieces of paper I needed to photocopy. Around a hundred! We figured it would be cheaper to do it at the library on their big photocopier than at home using our ink on our little home office printer. Off I trotted to the library, only to have Hélène, the librarian, apologetically tell me that her photocopier was en panne, with no hope of it being repaired any time soon.

So I popped in to the mairie with my sack full of papers. The receptionists looked horrified and very quickly told me to come back when Gérard, the deputy mayor, was there. He was apparently responsible for 'this sort of thing'. I went home, and that evening Gérard called at the house. He left clutching all our documents, marked with how many copies we needed, and promised to do them himself over the next few days. About a week later he was back, with a file of papers that had doubled in size and he had done all the photocopying. He refused our offer of payment, so we gave him a bottle of 2015 Chinon which should develop into a good drop.

In the meantime I'd bought two folders with tabbed dividers so I could slot in the various papers, index them and keep them organised without annoying the public servant who would eventually have to deal with them. The papers are loose but contained. I'd heard that fonctionnaires hate having to deal with papers in plastic slips because they take so long to get out and put back in. I hope that little touch pays off...

At that point we received a letter from the préfecture, referencing my previous email correspondence and inviting us to submit our documents within a fortnight. No mention of having to have an interview at any point. So I drafted a covering letter in my bestest French and sent it to my friend Alain to proof read. I told him it didn't have to be perfect but I didn't want it to appear like it was from some mad foreigner. He kindly emailed back with the comment that it was clearly not written by a native speaker, but was perfectly comprehensible and I didn't sound like a crazy person. He made some minor corrections, mostly gender and accents. I printed it off and attached it to the folders of documents.

Then I took the folders to the post office and asked for an envelope to send them off to the préfecture. The post office clerk suggested a box would be better and went out the back to get one. The folders only just fit and she spent a while taping it up using little pieces of sticky tape. Eventually I said I wasn't convinced by the tape arrangement and requested she tape in a single strip from one side to the other. Nope, she couldn't do that. She'd run out of tape. If I wanted the package taped up securely I would have to go round the corner to the tabac, buy some tape and come back.

By this time there was a queue of four people and the lack of tape and sending me to newsagents caused some sympathetic eye rolling in my direction. I was back very quickly and one of the people in the queue helped me tape up the box more securely. I explained that it wasn't that the documents were valuable, but I'd spent hours gathering and sorting them and didn't want to risk the package bursting open. I filled out the forms for getting notification of the parcel's arrival at the préfecture and paid the €12.50 postage. I was surprise at how little the postage was -- I was expecting about twice that.

So it's in the system and now we just have to wait. My guess is that the next we will hear will be in about six months time, but in the meantime I've made an appointment online for early October at the préfecture. I bet we just get the brush off at that point though and told we must just wait for the file to be processed.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

An Evening of Fun

On Saturday I posted a video of the Retraite Aux Flambeaux, but there's more than just marching around town following a band and flaming torches.

Trying to get a hay baler through a crowd standing on the road.

As customary we meet at the Mairie at 9.00pm. At that time it's still light - far too early to do flaming torches, so we stand around catching up on news and bising our way through the population of Preuilly. At about 9.30 the Pompiers start organising themselves with torches

Starting to get somewhere

Once we're organised we follow the band around town, visiting the poterne (in front of the chateau) and crossing both bridges across the Claise before marching up the Grande Rue

We then head off to the Plan d'Eau for fireworks, set to music. We are always surprised by how good the fireworks are for a town with a population of only 1,000 people.

The evening finishes up with beer and dancing, which lasts well after we do - usually I return home after a couple of tunes to prepare a blog post about what we have done. This year I was home before midnight, but making the video took a couple of hours. Even then, I could hear the dancing was still going on.

We always enjoy our Bastille Eve event, it is a highlight of the year. Next year why not join us?

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Surveying at the Standing Stone

Recently I've been working with a small team to do a biodiversity survey of a site near Yzeures sur Creuse, known as the Pierre Levée. The site is made up of two former sand extraction pits that are now filled with water. A track runs between them and they are surrounded by cultivated farmland. The owner lives part time at the site. Between the two bodies of water, alongside the track, sits a prehistoric tomb -- the aforementioned Pierre Levée.

The team consists of François, a biologist working for the Regional Nature Conservancy; Alain, the president of the Living History of the Claise Valley in the Touraine Association (PVCT); Maeva, an ecology student on a work placement; Jean-Claude, a retired ecologist; and me.

Here are some pictures from our activities on the site in late June.

Leaf Blotch Miner Moth cocoon.

The caterpillars of the Leaf Blotch Miner Moth Acrocercops brongniardella feed on oak, in this case Downy Oak Quercus pubescens, making these characteristic white tissue paper like blotches on the leaves. The adult moths are one of those annoying micros that I try not to have anything to do with. They are a localised species, preferring open woodland, and are known to occur in Indre et Loire.

Alder Leaf Beetle larvae.

Along parts of the banks of the ponds are Black Alder Alnus glutinosa. Some of them were infested with Alder Leaf Beetle Agelastica alni larvae. It occurs commonly all over France as far as I can tell, but curiously has not been officially recorded for Indre et Loire (or at least, any records haven't made it to the official National Natural History Museum public database). The French name for the beetle is la Galéruque de l'Aulne. Like many leaf beetles the adult is rounded, shiny and black. It can sometimes cause serious damage to its Alder tree host.

 Alain and Maeva making observations along the southern edge of the site.

 A grass moth.

This grass moth Chrysocrambus linetella was recorded at the end of the visit, resting on Alain's car. Their caterpillars eat the roots of grasses. Thanks to Tim Ford for the identification. The French name for this little moth is le Crambus mordoré. It occurs over much of France.

 A weevil.

The charming little weevil Cionus hortulanus is widespread and abundant. There are about 40 species of Cionus in France, most of which look very, very similar. I'm no weevil specialist, so imagine my relief when this one turned out to quite easy to identify to species, based on its preference for Great Mullein Verbascum thapsus and the even colouration of the grey scales covering its body. The closest lookalike species favour Figwort Scrophularia sp and have scales that are different colours on different areas of the body. The French name is le Charançon gris de la scrophulaire.

A robber fly.

The robber fly Dasypogon diadema can be encountered on any sandy site in the area. Males, like this one, are entirely black (except for their yellow halteres). I've created a species account on Loire Valley Nature for this species.

 Small Red-eyed Damselfly.

The Small Red-eyed Damselfly Erythromma viridulum (Fr. la Naïade au corps vert) prefers still ponds with some floating aquatic vegetation, and is widespread and abundant over much of France.

A Honey Bee Apis mellifera takes aim at a Vipers Bugloss Echium vulgare flower.

 A mirid bug.

The mirid bug Lygus gemellatus is widespread and can be a pest of cereal and legume crops. The species is very variable in appearance, with a lot of differences in the amount and position of dark markings. Thanks to the Facebook group Insects and Other Invertebrates of Britain and Northern Europe I was able to identify this species.

A harvestman.

Harvestmen Opiliones are known as les Faucheurs in France. They are not spiders, having no venom and no silk. They are opportunist feeders, omnivores and detritivores. I think this one is Opilio parietinus.

Alain selflessly beating a path for us through nettles and brambles.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Allez les Bleus!!

I am not the world's greatest football (soccer) fan.

For years I took an interest in the results of West Ham United, because of where I was born and my family, and for a period in the late 70's and early 80's I would go to games whever I was in London. When Susan and I moved to London in 1997 we lived within 500metres of Upton Park, the West Ham ground, but I only went to two games, so reduced was my interest.

Not yesterday's fireworks, but some we saw earlier this month

By the time we left London my interest had dried up completely, and until yesterday I hadn't watch a whole game of football since the FA Cup Final of 2006. Some regard that game as one of the greatest FA Cup Finals, but by then I was bored with the petulance of the players and the agressive tribalism of the supporters.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that I have been living in two countries when they won the World Cup. The first was England in 1966, when my father and I made an English flag to put in our front garden even though at the time I had no idea why. The seond time was yesterday, when a French team comprised of young men of all cultural backgrounds won the World Cup for the second time in 20 years.

I even watched all of it.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Cunningham's Skink

Cunningham's Skink Egernia cunninghami is a big bruiser of a skink, which are usually smooth delicate little lizards, not spiny looking 40cm long monsters. Sun loving omnivores, they hang out in groups in rocky outcrops and hollow logs, regularly popping out to soak up some rays. They give birth to live young.

Named after the explorer and botanist Allan Cunningham, they can be found in south eastern Australia. Cunningham collected the first specimen for science in the Blue Mountains in the first quarter of the 19th century.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Fete Nationale 2018

Yesterday evening was our traditional Retraite aux Flambeaux, the march around town following a band, the whole evening rounded up by fireworks then dancing. This year the band was more traditionally French, but conversely less traditional for Preuilly. We have been doing the Retraite aux Flambeaux for 11 years, and I think I am right in saying this is the first time the band hasn't been exotic - usually we have Samba!

They are a band from Dissay, who we last saw at the Comice Agricole, and they were excellent.

This morning Preuilly is extra special quiet - heavy heads from post fireworks dancing, but also the annual fishing competition is on - so shhhhhhhhhhh.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Meeting an Asp Viper Face to Face

One day in late May we took Célestine over to mechanic Jean-Louis in Chateauroux. When we walked down his driveway to go to his workshop an Asp Viper Vipera aspis (Fr. Vipère aspic) slipped between us and went under Jean-Louis' Traction which was parked there.

You can see how much the tail narrows in this photo.

Jean-Louis and I immediately whipped out our cameras and started shooting. The snake regarded us with equanimity, calmly swaying from one side to the other but not hissing or striking out. Finally it decided it could not risk moving past us into the undergrowth and chose to climb vertically up the inside of the driver's side rear wheel. Jean-Louis didn't want it taking up residence in his car but it wouldn't budge. Finally we rolled the car forward slightly and it dropped down again.

A protected species, Asp Vipers are the only venomous species of snake in our area of France. They are relatively abundant and found in scrubby areas (Jean-Louis doesn't do much gardening...). They kill their prey by delivering a toxin when they bite, and bites to humans, which they will attempt as a defensive measure, can be fatal.

You can see the vertical slit pupil in this photo.

This is a medium sized snake, with the distinctive viperine triangular head, vertical pupils and snub up tilted nose. It has a fairly typical zigzag black pattern down its back, and doesn't grow beyond a metre long (mostly being half that size, like this one). Vipers have quite thick bodies that narrow noticeably at the tail. They can be confused with the Viperine Snake Natrix maura, a non-venomous grass snake that is similar in colour and pattern, but has round pupils and is more slender and if adult, longer. If you see a snake that looks like this swimming, it will almost certainly be a harmless Viperine Snake and not a true Viper (although they can and occasionally do swim).

Asp Vipers are diurnal, and active between February and November. They give birth to live young in August and hibernate over winter in natural cavities. Their main prey are small mammals (voles, field mice, shrews), lizards and birds. They like habitat that is transitioning between open and wooded, and are less present in intensively cultivated areas. They also like dry rocky scrubby slopes and the damper habitat of bocage (small fields of pasture surrounded by hedges). Their presence or absence is linked to the presence or absence of their small rodent prey.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Old Caravanne

As we said before, this year we saw the Tour de France again. This year's third stage of the Tour de France at Cholet was graced by a number of véhicules publicitaires de caravane ancienne, which followed the regular caravan of sponsor's vehicles. Most (if not all) of the vehicles belong to a man called Lionel Blanleil, who has been collecting and restoring them for over 30 years.

This first one is a mystery - the only refence online I can find
refers to it as a "mobile yellow jersey podium"

a 1960 Peugoet D4 advertising SPAR supermarkets

Peugeot J7 "Marché de France" of 1974

There were two Renault Butagaz promotional vehicles from 1961

1954 Citroen H-Van of the Midi Libre press unit

1961 Renault 1.400kg advertising Onrev Matresses

1960 Renault press van of la Nouvelle Republique.
There is an article (with photos) of this vehicle here

Renault 1400Kg Type R 2066 of 1953 advertising Byrrh.
Because it's France and 2018 the name of the product has been obscured,
because alcohol advertising is no longer legal

A 1966 Renault advertising Castelvin.
As with the previous vehicle, the branding has been obscured

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Life Underground

On Saturday 7 July biologist François Lefevbre, who I've been collaborating with recently, led a guided visit to a set of splendid underground galleries in le Grand Pressigny. He is a cave specialist and teasingly entitled the visit 'Life in the Caves', but quickly pointed out that it was about wildlife, not prehistoric humans. There is plenty of evidence of prehistoric human activity in the area, but not underground. These sorts of caves are not formed naturally by the action of water on the limestone geology, but by the action of man from the Middle Ages and after, in order to extract the stone for use as building material. 

Orb-weaving cave spider.

This particular cave is privately owned, and the owner, Pierre Mauduit, accompanied us on our visit. His family have owned it for several generations, as well as parts of the chateau, and he was full of interesting anecdotes. He pointed out, for example, graffiti from the Second World War, where his grandfather and others had written their names whilst sheltering from German guns down there. Part of the cave was rented out up until the 1970s and was used to cultivate button mushrooms.

The cave is not considered safe and we had to get special permission to go underground. As we moved through the galleries we were invited to look out for and learn about all the living creatures that spend their lives, either because it is their preferred habitat, or because they have fallen in accidentally.

The traces of mushroom cultivation from decades ago.

The first animal we encountered was an orb weaving Cave Spider Meta bourneti. I was really interested by how much the group, who were members of the public, enjoyed seeing the spider and learning about it. The lucky spider was surrounded by a good dozen Short-palped Crane Fly Limonia nubeculosa. They were just resting on the walls of the cave, not close enough to be lunch, but they wouldn't have wanted to fly off in the wrong direction. 

The spider lives in the cave all the time. It doesn't have much melanin, and would die if you put it outside. They are found near the entrances and below the air shafts, where they benefit from insects which just come in to shelter, such as the crane flies (which you could just as easily encounter in a wooded area with rotting logs where their larvae live). 

The owner is the man not wearing protective head gear.

Close by was a group of the parasitoid wasp Diphyus quadripuntorius. They have long antennae to sense their prey and a long ovipositor for injecting a single egg into a noctuid moth caterpillar. Adult noctuids and wasps hibernate in these caves together, often side by side, but come spring, it's war! The wasps seek out the moths' caterpillars out in the countryside to lay their eggs, turning the caterpillars into a living larder. The wasps are completely harmless to people and cannot sting.

Parasitoid wasps.*

Once we got well into the caves there was evidence of bat occupancy (ie droppings). We were told that there are half a dozen species of bats that use the caves as a hibernation site, mainly Greater Horseshoe Bats Rhinolophus ferrumequinum. François also had two mummified Grey Long-eared Bats Plecotus austriacus in a bag, which had been found in the Savoie Tower of the chateau. Being summer, the bats were elsewhere, busy raising babies in the attics of nearby houses. Pierre Mauduit told us that he can remember coming into the caves in the 1980s and seeing the entire ceiling of one of the chambers covered in hanging hibernating Greater Horseshoe Bats. These days if you surveyed a cave like this and saw twenty bats in total you would be thrilled.

* I posted this photo on the FB group Invertebrates of Northern Europe and got a rapid expression of interest by the Natural History Museum in London. Looks like I might be contributing a photo to an article someone from there is writing on Diphyus quadripunctorius. Many thanks to Jaswinder Boparai, an ichneumonid specialist at the museum, for identifying the parasitoid wasps in my photo.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Tour de France 2018

Yesterday we went to Cholet with Tim and Gaynor B to watch the team trial, stage 3 of the 2018 Tour de France. It was a completely different experience to our previous Tour visits, which were all out in the country, either in small towns (Preuilly-sur-Claise, Francueil, Montresor, Saint Savin), or way out in the country (a crossroads the other side of Chateauroux).

On all the previous visits we stood around for ages, then a huge bunch of cyclists whizzed past, then we all went home. The Time Trial format meant that we saw each team ride past as a group over the period of a couple of hours.

 UAE Team Emirates head out with Alexander Kristoff in the Green Jersey (points leader)

New Zealander Dion Smith in the Polka Dots (King of the Mountain) with Wanty - Groupe Gobert

Because of where we positioned ourselves we were able to see the riders on their way out about 500 metres from the start, and then on their return to the finish line about a kilometre away.

Team Bora about 2 minutes from a cold drink

Lotto Soudal head towards the finish

The Yellow Jersey rider was Peter Sagan of Lotto Soudal,
who followed his team in about a minute behind

It was a long day - we left home before 9.00am, and got back past 9.00pm, but it was spent in excellent company, and we saw some really interesting things that we hope to report on over the next couple of days.