I’m writing this on the TGV from Orthez to Paris. Yesterday was stressful because Matthieu’s journey up to Paris last night was cancelled, and we weren’t even sure this train would be running today. There are electric faults on the line from Hendaye to Bordeaux, causing significant disruption.

There was a wonderful peach sunrise on the drive across to Orthez this morning.

I’ve been in Salies for four days, and it feels like an interrupted holiday. Matthieu and Peter were ‘working from home’ in the basement garage. We set up with laptops around a big white plastic table, like real digital nomads.


I was working on a conference paper, and dealing with some routine universtity admin stuff. I have some time to write (like here, on this train), although I’m not at peak productivity.

Fun times at Birmingham airport

My flight to France from Birmingham was initially cancelled, which meant I had to stay overnight at a Novotel (at Air France’s expense). The last time I was at this airport I slept on a bench in the departures terminal, so at least the hotel was an upgrade on that.


Overall the delay turned a simple two-step flight into a kind of long multi-day expedition. Jetting across the channel isn’t easy when airlines are clearly struggling and we’re still in some kind of semi-confinement.

Also, I accidentally spilt a pot of greek yoghurt on myself.


I tried to mop up the remaining goop with some paper towels, but it still left a suspicious white stain down the front of my trousers. Disappointment.

Clinical masks

The Air France stewards told me my cloth mask wasn’t up to standard, and I needed to wear a bluey-white clinical mask. In Charles de Gaulle airport everyone almost everyone had those on, and after being in France a few days I’d say most French people are wearing these blue clinical masks.

The blue masks are not designed to be durable, the fabric tears, and the straps round the ears break fairly easily. On the other hand, my impression is most people in Britain are wearing cloth masks which are supposed to be washed and re-used.

To compare the two, in Britain there isn’t much discussion of the kinds of masks people should be wearing. It seems any sort of face covering is fine, there’s no standard of medical efficacy. Meanwhile in France there’s a particular insistence on clinical masks - and these blue disposable ones are obviously the favourite. It’s a revealing distinction in the ways different countries have adopted protective measures.

I’m sure proper clinical masks are better, but they have to be replaced regularly. So you have to deal with a supply chain for the constant distribution of these masks. There’s also a discussion in France about the free provision of masks, which is completely absent in Britain.

Montée de l’Aubisque

I raced (walking) up to the Col de l’Aubisque from Laruns again. Christine walked with me, and we reached the top together in 3 hours 29 minutes. That’s three minutes slower than last year, but this time around I won a prize!


There was no waiting around in the sun to cool down afterwards. The mountain pass was covered in thick fog, it was cold and damp and unpleasant enough that we took a bus back down to Laruns as soon as possbile.

I also felt much worse after the race than last year, I ran out of energy much earlier and felt like I was barely holding it together by the end. At least it shows I’m significantly less fit now than I was before.

Sorde l’Abbaye

On Saturday, Matthieu drove us out to a village west of Salies. The central feature of the village is the benedictine abbey of Saint-Jean, which we did not visit, although we did walk around the village itself. Peter cycled through here years ago and wanted to show it to us.


The place is an example of high-density medieval settlement, driven by limited building space within the village fortifications.

The abbey was one of the stop-off points on the pilgrimage route to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle. The houses have large doors, wide enough to accomodate a carriage and horses.


It rained. Matthieu, Christine, and Peter all took shelter in the recess of a door.


Some of the doors lead into courtyards, or large corridors which themselves lead off to the side into smaller spaces.


The population of the village declined through the 20th Century, and it’s quiet, not exactly bustling with activity. Today we see these buildings as a series of large houses. You have to imagine how in the past these same buildings contained a mixture of workshops, restaurants, shops, stables, along with separate housing units on different levels.

Matthieu’s apartment building in Paris has a primary school on the ground floor, it’s a multi-use building complex, similar to those in Sorde l’Abbaye. I set up my camera in Matthieu’s window, watching over the rooftops of Paris at the end of the day.