Five Things That Have Dramatically Improved Since I Was a Kid

November 6, 2019

So, in my last post I vented about things that have gone downhill since I was young (that is, about 50 years ago).

To give credit where credit is due, I want to point out some things that have improved since then.

  1. Tolerance.  I grew up around people who routinely made racial or ethnic slurs.  I don’t hear that any more.  Either those people have passed on or they have learned that when they say those things, they are regarded as idiots.  The same goes for homophobic comments, stupid comments about women, and many other ignorant and/or insensitive remarks.   Needless to say, this is very positive overall.
  2. Food.  Notwithstanding my put-down of the way most modern produce tastes, the variety and quality of food served in the US has improved beyond all expectations over the last 50 years.  When I was growing up, Italian food meant spaghetti and meatballs or pizza and Chinese food meant something called “chop suey”.  Now we have a wonderful range of choices, from the supermarket to downtown bistros.
  3. Medicine.  Things like heart disease, AIDS, prostate cancer and leukemia that used to be death sentences are now things that can be controlled and lived with.  Polio (a dreaded word when I was five or so) has been wiped out.  Now if we can do something about overdoses, accidents, murders and suicides, we might start bringing US life expectancy rates up again.
  4. Communications.  From the internet to What’s App to cell phones, we are connected to each other all the time, anywhere in the world.  Sometimes this is a pain in the neck, and sometimes it leads to people spending all their time looking at small screens, but on balance I think it’s great.
  5. Cars.   I used to hate owning a car because they broke down all the time, usually in the worst possible situations.  When you drove around, you always saw people standing by their malfunctioning cars on the side of the road.   Now cars seem to work all the time.  They tell you when they need fixing, and, although they are expensive and ecologically unsound, at least they are reliable.

Of course, many other things have gotten better in the last 50 years.  Read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now if you don’t believe me.

Speaking of things getting better, we are now in Nice and it is most enjoyable.  I have described Nice as a cross between South Beach and Paris, and that still seems about right.  Today we rode the hop-on, hop-off bus and visited archaeological sites in the Cimiez quarter (Roman baths and a small amphitheater) and a quirky Russian cathedral built in the 1800s.

Below, the aforementioned Roman baths in Cimiez.  More on Nice in future posts.


Five Things that Have Seriously Deteriorated Since I Was a Kid

October 31, 2019

Let’s admit it:   We all have an idealized view of how things were when we were young.  Our senses were sharper, and our feelings were more intense. So, we look back with nostalgia at how things were.

But the fact is that some things – some important things – have really gone to hell in a hand basket since we Boomers were kids.  I’m not talking about morals (although I wouldn’t say they have improved since, say, 1961). I’m talking about other aspects of what might be called our “culture”, for lack of a better word.

Herewith, my personal Top Five Things That Have Deteriorated:

  1. Movies. Go to the Cineplex today and you will have a choice of movies that truly, well, suck.  Sequels of sequels, movies based on TV shows that weren’t very good to begin with, endless variations on superhero themes, gross-out comedies.  Movies have ceded any claim to artistic merit, yielding to streamed services such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO, and have instead settled comfortably into the late stages of cultural decadence.  And if you don’t believe me, look at a list of the top films from 1970, which included, among many others, M*A*S*H, Little Big Man, Brewster McCloud, Five Easy Pieces and Patton.  Could (or would) any of these films be made today?


  1. Music. Call me old, call me crabby, tell me “OK Boomer”, but today’s popular music is unimaginably awful.  Numerous learned musicological studies (plus my own still-sharp hearing) have demonstrated that music today really is louder, less melodic, and more beat-driven than ever before.  Singers are either auto-tuned or they torture every note.  Again, look at 1970 – would you really trade anything produced today for the Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, the Supremes or other artists at or near the top of their games fifty or so years ago?


  1. The way people look. We had some bad trends in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, including sideburns, bell-bottoms and the generally hirsute look.  But people, in general, were slimmer and paid more attention to the way they looked.  I can’t account for the upsurge in obesity over the last 60 years or so but looking at photographs of people from that time is almost heartbreaking.  Go to YouTube and watch a couple of segments from Soul Train for confirmation.  And we were spared the indignities of tattoos, pink hair and grotesque piercings, to boot.


  1. Education. Just an observation, but many people under the age of about 50 seem to have difficulty with grammar, spelling, US and world history, simple mathematics, geography, civics, and other things that used to be taught in high school.  I blame this on our school system, which now concentrates on gender identity, victimhood, inequality and other subjects instead of making children diagram sentences and memorize multiplication tables.  (Sorry, breaking my “no politics” rule here).  It’s great to be more inclusive – students should read Jane Austen and Richard Wright as well as Mark Twain and Nathaniel Hawthorne – but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t learn how prepositions work.


  1. Produce. All too often, peaches taste like cotton, and tomatoes don’t taste like anything.  The wonders of modern agribusiness give us year-round access to produce of all sorts, but none of it tastes very good.  I write this from France, where tomatoes still taste like tomatoes and even apples taste like they came from an orchard and not from an apple factory.


I know this sounds like the rantings of an aggrieved 66-year-old, so, for some balance, in my next post I will write about five things that have actually gotten much better since I was young.

Glanum and Goudargues

October 28, 2019

I have been remiss in posting lately, for two reasons.  First, the amount of “real” work I’m doing has picked up a bit. It’s a bit tricky to write client blogs and white papers while sitting on a kitchen chair in a little cabin, but I’m doing it.

Second, for the last week W. had two friends staying here in Bonnieux.  Most days I was their de facto chauffeur and tour guide (although both women are highly competent and totally independent).  It just worked out that way because we have been here a while and know the landscape.  So that took up any extra time.

We had an interesting weekend.  On Saturday we went to St. Remy (St. Remy de Provence) which is a beautiful town of about 10,000 people perhaps 50 miles southwest of here.

St. Remy has a more or less intact “historical center” which is a circular section in the middle of town, replete with shops, galleries and restaurants.  But the whole town is attractive and well worth a visit.  The landscape is a bit different as les Alpilles (another range of mountains) loom up over a town that is situated on the flatlands.

South of St. Remy is the excavated Roman town of Glanum, first inhabited by Celts in the 7th century BC, then by Hellenistic colonists, then by Romans.  When the Allemani came storming down from the North, the Gallo-Romans abandoned Glanum and moved north to what is now St. Remy.

The site encompasses an entire town with baths, forum, houses, market and fountains.  Essentially, it is in a narrow valley with what used to be a wall at one end, designed not so much to keep out invaders as to control traffic and customs.  An amazing place, but one that doesn’t get much commentary from people visiting Provence.

Sunday we said goodbye to our guests and drove about 90 minutes to see friends in Goudargues, a village of about 1300 in Gard (across the Rhone river but supposedly still in Provence).  Goudargues sits next to a canal and near the river Ceze.

We had a beautiful canal-side lunch at a restaurant in the village, then went to see the site on which one friend is building his dream house.  We wandered around his “hameau” (a place too small to be a village and without commercial establishments) and chatted with his neighbors (or rather, he chatted and we listened and tried to figure out what was being said).

All very otherworldly and not at all like Richmond.  Which, I suppose, is the point of traveling.

At the end of this week, we leave the Luberon and move on to Nice.  Five weeks to go, and I must admit to a bit of homesickness, although I do love southern France.

Below, the ochre cliffs of Rousillon, another great Luberon village.






The View From Up Here

October 19, 2019

It’s a cloudy Saturday afternoon in Bonnieux.  Rain threatens, so we are hesitant to undertake today’s planned major activity, which is a walk from here to the neighboring town of Lacoste, which harbors the ruins of the chateau of the Marquis de Sade but, W. tells me, not much else.

At the near-end of the tourist season, there is not a whole lot to do in the Luberon.   The gastronomes plan their activities around lunches and dinners, but that is not us.  Yesterday we visited Avignon (about 30 miles from here) and walked around for four hours. But, to be honest, I’m getting tired of looking at churches and palaces.

So I’m pondering the fate of the world.  This is as good a place as any to do it from.  I said at the outset that this blog would not be in any way political, and I am sticking to that.  But I do wonder, in the larger sense of things, whether things are getting better or worse.

I think most French people would say that things are worse.  Incomes are stagnant, taxes are high, and unemployment hangs at about nine percent.  The highly touted health care and retirement systems are under severe pressure, and the French complain about crime (although by US standards it seems pretty safe).

In the U.S., we have three and a half percent unemployment and a stock market near an all time high.  Taxes are low.  People in the U.S. enjoy a per capita GDP of about $62,000, much more than any large country and more than that of Germany, Sweden, the UK, Canada, or Australia.  But no one seems very happy with the way things are in the U.S.

So those of us who can afford it come to France.  We look at the hilltop villages and the scenic churches, marvel at the scenic countryside (and it is marvelous) and enjoy the food and the wine.

Would I like to live here permanently?  For me, the answer is no.  I have too many roots and connections in the U.S. at this stage of my life.  I will never be truly French and I would never feel part of a French community.

And there are a lot of things I would miss:  Big, well-stocked public libraries.  Stores that stay open for the convenience of the customer, not the shopkeeper.  Diners that serve pretty much anything, anytime.  College football and basketball.  Churches that are full of churchgoers rather than a few tourists.

On the other hand, the French have great open-air markets.  People sit at cafes and don’t seem to care much about time.  They love sports, just not the sports we love.  They are close to their families in a way that most people in the U.S. could never understand.

So that’s the plan. Take some lessons from the French.  Care more about family and about family occasions like Sunday dinner.  Drink a bit more wine than you might at times (and drink better wine).  Learn how to sit calmly in a cafe and enjoy a well-made cappucino.  But go to tailgate parties, sing in the church choir and dig in to a couple of pecan waffles with bacon.

By the way, after this semi-melancholy screed, the sun broke through later in the afternoon, so we drove to the village of Oppede and explored the 700 year old remnants of a fortified hilltop town.  Then we enjoyed a Perrier-sirop (for W.) and a cappucino (for me).

Welcome to Bonnieux

October 14, 2019

The last two weeks have been a blur.  We have driven from the Dordogne to Bordeaux to St. Emilion to Carcassonne to Montpellier to our current location, Bonnieux, in the part of Provence known as the Luberon.

This is the area made famous by the British writer Peter Mayle in his bestselling “A Year in Provence” and in many follow-up books and novels.  Mr. Mayle lived in Manerbes, about 10 kilometers from here.

I have never read any of his books but yesterday, after settling in at our (very) little cottage outside Bonnieux, we drove to Manerbes and walked around.  Like Bonnieux, Manerbes is a hilltop town (“village pendant”) with a great view of the surrounding countryside.

I’ve been to Provence a few times but it is wonderful in the fall.  The tourists are mostly gone, the air is clear and it’s not so damned hot.  Manerbes has amazing in-town houses, an interesting clock tower and some fairly precious little stores.  It is more dressed up than Bonnieux and draws more tourists, even in the off season.

We continue trying to speak French whenever we can and we seem to have made some progress.  No one laughs outright at us, although some do ask if we would prefer to speak in English.  Our landlady is an attractive, older Swedish woman who has been living here for 40 years.  We started out speaking in French but that seemed ridiculous after a while, so now we converse in English.

So, count this among the blessings of retirement or semi-retirement:  The ability to travel outside the peak summer months.  Lower prices, smaller crowds, better weather and a general sense of relaxation.

Below, the clock tower in Manerbes.  More Provencal posts to come — right now I have to get back to real work to help fund our travels.




Five Reasons to Hate French Food

October 9, 2019

We have been traveling in France for close to six weeks now, and I think it’s time to fess up:  I hate French food.

It’s not the food itself — taken on its own, it’s pretty good.  And it’s not about the prices; by US standards, they seem reasonable enough.

It’s just that, when you are in a situation where you rely upon hotels and restaurants to feed you, the French system doesn’t work very well.

Why not?  There are, as always, five good reasons:

  1.  The French don’t understand breakfast.  It’s not something they do.  They don’t eat eggs at breakfast, or anything else, really.  “Real” French people eat bread and drink a cup of bitter coffee at home, or eat a croissant with a cup of bitter coffee at a stand-up cafe.  That’s it — no eggs, no French toast, no pancakes, no waffles, no understanding whatsoever of the most enjoyable meal of the day.
  2. They overemphasize lunch.  French people like to go to cafes, brasseries, bistros and restaurants, sit down and order lunch with a first course, main course and dessert, washed down with lots of wine.  They do this because they are going back to work to goof off, or because they are going to “faire du shopping”,  not because they are driving four hours to the next tourist mecca or climbing a 200 step staircase or bicycling from one town to another.  Big lunches are incompatible with afternoon activity, unless that activity is taking a nap.
  3. They are inflexible.  “Have it your way” is not a term that originated in France.   If you want something in a restaurant, it had better be on the menu.  No substitutions, no excuses, no variations on a theme.  Food is served at designated times, and God help you if you are driving hungry through a small town at 4 in the afternoon.  Unless the local boulangerie/patisserie is open (and not sold out of sandwiches — they will not make new ones) you will remain hungry.
  4. There is too much wine.  French wines are wonderful, and they are really cheap.  Cheaper than a soft drink or bottled water.  So you order a bottle, and it is delicious, but a bottle is really too much for two people.  But it seems a shame not to drink it, so you do.  The consequences are predictable.
  5. The food is too heavy.  Maybe it’s just the southern half of France, but confit du canard (pressed duck), cassoulet, and other dishes are too rich — almost impossible to digest, at least for old-timers like us.  Other dishes like veal kidneys and the ever-present foie gras just don’t have much appeal.

At the end of this week, we will be settling in for an extended stay in a village in Provence, at which time we will get back on our standard regimen of cereal (or a baguette) for breakfast, a sandwich and an apple for lunch, and whatever suits our mood for dinner.  Right now, we’re just a bit cranky after ten days in a car and/or in hotel rooms.

On the other hand, there are compensations.  From earlier this week, a view of Carcassone from just outside the outer walls:


The Big Five-O

October 3, 2019

No, I’m not writing about my 50th birthday.  That happened a long time ago.

I’m writing about the 50th reunion of the Class of 1969 from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Virginia.  It’s taking place this Saturday night in (where else?) Arlington.

I won’t be there, obviously, as W. and I are currently in Bordeaux, drinking fine wines and walking for miles around this very strange old city.  But I have been thinking about the event and about everything that has happened over the last 50 years.

Classmates have set up a website with “where are they now” profiles and the results are most informative.  For one thing, there seems to be a divergence between the Class of 1968 (it is a joint reunion) and the Class of 1969.  The ’68 class comes across as a bit more straight and narrow — more lawyers and doctors, more PhDs, more still-extant marriages to high school sweethearts.  The ’69 class took its time in finding its way in the world, with more than a few diversions (Peace Corps, Alaska, etc.)

In both classes there are lots of now-retired career military and career civil servants, perhaps not surprising given that Arlington houses the Pentagon and sits across the Potomac from Washington.

A couple of other observations:

  1. There is a mortality rate of about 10 percent for my class.  I don’t know if this is the norm for 68-year-old people (I’m two years younger than most of my classmates).  Death does not seem to care how popular you were in high school.
  2. Most people have lived decent, productive lives. Families, careers, travel, religion, hobbies, etc — people have found good ways to use their time and their talents.
  3. There are not too many big surprises.  The people who worked hard in high school seem to have worked hard in life.  They graduated from good colleges, got graduate degrees and pursued interesting careers.  Likewise, the slackers and goof-offs slacked and goofed off for a while.  But over time, everything seems to have balanced out.

If I weren’t in France, would I have gone to the reunion?  Probably not.   I am only in touch with one person from the class, who is a good friend to this day.  Every year or so, a half-dozen classmates who live in Richmond get together for a drink, which is enjoyable enough.  Plus, the class was so big (almost 700 people, I think) that there are many people I never knew.  Plus, I was a prize jerk in high school (compensating for my immaturity?) and many of my memories make me cringe rather than smile.

But it is good to look at a cross-section of normal, middle-class people and see that for the most part they have done well.  My class ventured out into turbulent times — drugs, demonstrations, the tail end of Vietnam, and the hippie era.  Being 18 in 1970 had its own set of challenges.  I’m glad that the people I knew in high school got through it relatively unscathed.

Back to France.  Today’s agenda:  Work in the morning, then see the Cathedral of St. Andre, take a boat ride on the Garonne, shop at a big bookstore and have an early dinner at a cafe.  Things could be worse.

Below, La Roque Gageac in the Dordogne, taken earlier this week.  The Dordogne was spectacular and I will write more about it in my next post.


Do-It-Yourself Retirement Planning

September 27, 2019

I’m taking a break from France-blogging to discuss a subject that is near and dear to me.  That is: whether to manage your own money (obviously using a bank or a discount brokerage firm, but making your own investment decisions) or to turn the management of your money over to a financial adviser of some sort, be it a broker, insurance agent or money management firm.

When you turn 60 or thereabouts, you start getting invitations to what we call “plate-licker” evenings.  These are events — usually at a steakhouse or a fairly high-end Italian restaurant — sponsored by a broker or money manager.  That person feeds you a nice dinner and then presents you with his or her case for why you should turn your money over to this particular firm to manage.

We have been to a few of these.  In each case, we have been impressed with the honesty and straightforwardness of the presentations.  No one has promised anything unrealistic.  If anything, the presentations focus on how unsettled the world is and how important it is to preserve and, if possible, grow one’s retirement capital.  The sales follow-up has been low-key and polite.

Of course, there are many other options in terms of money management.  Some individuals at some brokerage firms have a presumably well-earned reputation for working with affluent or “mass affluent” individuals.  Some firms take on couples with $500,000 in retirement savings while others have ceilings of $10 million and higher.

For four major reasons, we are going it alone for now.

These are:

  1. We know something about the markets.  In our pre-retirement careers, W. worked as a stockbroker and I worked writing earnings releases, annual reports and the like.  As an investor relations person, I shepherded CEOs and CFOs to meetings with investors and listened to scores of presentations.  The operative word is “listened”; I tried each time to learn something, to listen to the questions, and to figure out whether my clients were making a credible case for themselves and their companies.  W. passed a tough series of exams and loves to think about, read about, and talk about stocks and other investments.  (So do I).
  2. We like the process.   We track our portfolio, follow its ups and downs closely, and stay on the lookout for new ideas.   When things change, we discuss the situation and make joint, considered decisions about whether to buy, sell or hold.  It’s something we enjoy doing and we are happy to spend time on it.
  3. We are wary.  I once met a guy who was a client of Bernie Madoff.  Let’s just say it was not a pleasant experience for him.  I’ve known other people who have been swindled or cheated by money managers.  In the New York suburb in which we used to live, there were several upstanding citizens who went to jail (or should have gone to jail) for mishandling client money.  Most people who manage money are honest and professional;  a few are not. But the risk of running afoul of someone is not zero.  And that is not to mention the conflicts of interest that remain rife in the money management industry.
  4. We are stingy.  Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you have a million dollars.  Someone managing that money for you is going to want roughly $15,000 per year for doing that.  That’s $15,000, every year.  If that person is successful, that person’s fees will increase, as they should.  But the fees still come out of your pocket.  We trade infrequently, and we pay $6.95 per trade or thereabouts.  Think about it:  many money management experts will tell you that you should plan on taking four percent per year from your retirement funds.  That’s $40,000 on a million dollars.  But they want $15,000 of that.  Is that before or after the $40,000?  Either way, we think we are better off investing the money ourselves.

I’m not going to get into how we invest.  It’s boring, and it’s our own business anyway.  Let’s just say we are reasonably happy with the results.  We make mistakes sometimes, but we hit enough singles and doubles to be satisfied with our returns.

Is there a case for having someone else manage your money?


Find someone trustworthy and turn your money over to him/her if:

  • You don’t know anything about money, don’t know a stock from a bond, and find the whole subject distasteful.  (But I would urge you to learn about investments and keep an eye on things, even if you hate the subject).
  • You don’t have the time to do it yourself — to research companies, to track your portfolio, to follow the markets and listen to what informed people are saying.
  • You have a whole lot of money and want access to the types of investments — venture capital, initial public offerings, real estate partnerships, private equity — that aren’t available to “mass affluent” people.
  • Maybe, just maybe, you know someone with an outstanding track record of managing money (no, not your brother-in-law).  You can always entrust part (not all) of your portfolio to that person and see if you are happy with the results.

Your call.  We do it one way and so far it has worked for us.  But that is just one couple’s perspective.

Update:  We have finished French school.  What a great experience!

Tomorrow, on to the next phase of the trip, through the Massif Central, the Dordogne and on to Bordeaux.








Dendritic Pathways and Retirement

September 22, 2019

I have been wrestling with a big bear of a book called Behave:  The biology of humans at our best and at our worst, published in by Robert M. Sapolsky, who, according to the inside cover, “is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.”   In other words, he is pretty smart.

I won’t kid you.  The book is tough going.  The cover blurbs call it “immensely readable”, and it is, if you find sentences like “Moderate, transient stress (or exposure to the equivalent glucocorticoid levels) increases spine number in the hippocampus; sustained stress or glucocorticoid exposure does the opposite” to be immensely readable.

But I’m fighting my way through it because there is so much good stuff in it.  One of the most interesting discussions is about the discovery of what is called “adult neurogenesis,” which is the formation of new neurons in adults (and the accompanying creation of new dendritic processes, which, as I understand it, enable the learning of new skills).  In other words, you can teach an old dog at least some new tricks.

I’ve been thinking about this while spending time at French school.  As I mentioned, most of students here are our age or a bit older.  Yet they are all spending time and money (albeit in a highly pleasurable environment) to learn something quite difficult — the French language with all its twists, turns and quirky pronunciations.  Few of us will truly master French, but all of us will benefit from new neurons.

It is a cliche, but the brain really is like a muscle.  It gets stronger, or at least gets less weak, the more you use it.  That, in part, is why I have taken up the piano, singing in a choir, and learning bridge in the past few years.  (I’ve been fooling around with French for a long time).

As Dr. Sapolsky says, “Hippocampal neurogenesis, for example, is enhanced by learning, exercise, estrogen, antidepressants, environmental enrichment, and brain injury, and inhibited by various stressors.”  I’m skipping the estrogen, antidepressants and brain injury, at least for now, but I’m all for learning, exercise and environmental enrichment.

I’m also thinking — and I want to learn more about this — that civic and/or charitable activity creates dendritic pathways.

Speaking of learning and environmental enrichment:  Yesterday we drove a lot and visited Chambord (which I thought was an enormous monstrosity, built without any sense of taste or proportion) and the lovely small city of Beaugency, right along the Loire.

Among other things to recommend it, Beaugency is home to the spectacular 12th century Notre Dame church, in which Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage was annulled, so that she could marry Henry II and so that the movie The Lion in Winter could be made.  It also has a 56-meter tower, which we duly climbed, despite the narrow stairs and the pigeon droppings.

That gave us the resulting view of the Loire and the wonderful Beaugency bridge, with most of its 23 arches captured on W.’s phone camera:




Coeur de France aka French Class

September 18, 2019

Haven’t posted in a few days.  Since Monday my time has not been my own.  I spend each morning (four hours) in class studying French via total immersion and the afternoons trying to catch up on paid work.  There are also class excursions, dinner, homework, attempts at exercise and the like so the days rush by.

Class is pretty much as I pictured it.  W. and I are in an intermediate class with seven other people, all older folks from the US.  (By “older” I mean our age or thereabouts, not older than we are).  The instructors are French and we work on pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.  When we (the students) talk to each other, we are supposed to speak in French, but this rule is not strictly observed, to say the least.  And there is no English-language TV so in the morning we watch the news in French.

The school is called Coeur de France and it is located in the village of Sancerre, which is a pretty hilltop town in the Loire Valley (not far from the Loire itself as it turns out).  Sancerre is famous for its wines, but it is also a very nice place with a medieval town center, a charming square, a fine church and all the other attributes of a town that draws tourists.  They come to see the town itself but also to take in the panoramic, 360 degree views from the 500-foot high rock-pile on which Sancerre sits.

We have not had much time for touring but this weekend we will probably go to Bourges, the major town in the Berry region and reportedly a place that is full of history and fine arts.

So far, the trip has been great.  We have ironed out almost all of the normal travel complaints and we are enjoying the beautiful apartment that we rented right above the school building, a converted wine grower’s mansion.

The US seems very far away right now.

Ici, a picture of Sancerre from the Tour de Fiefs at the top of the town:

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By the way, it hasn’t rained in this part of France in 29 days and everything is looking a bit parched…