Bethany and Leanna – an update

I wrote last year about my chance meeting with Leanna Mills and her family in Montpellier. I was particularly moved by their story and have kept in touch with the family since.

With more surgery upcoming for Leanna and her sister Bethany, the family arrived back in France this week. They passed through Paris briefly on their way to Montpellier.

On Thursday evening I caught up with the girls and their father Nic for dinner. Afterwards we went down to the Eiffel Tower for some sightseeing. I’m still not much good at driving a wheelchair, and the evening crowds didn’t make it easier! Their little sister Olivia came with us, and had a lot of fun with the souvenir sellers…

Bethany, Nic, Leanna and Olivia in Paris

Bethany’s surgery is routine but still dramatic – she is getting the batteries replaced for the brain stimulator device that keeps her alive. The technology is slowly improving, and doctors  hope that her new batteries will last longer than two years. Bethany uses a wheelchair, but thanks to continuing surgery she remains fairly mobile and independent.

On the other hand, Leanna is facing a much grimmer challenge. In addition to her primary dystonia, she has recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – terrible news for a 15 year-old girl.  Leanna now requires significant care, and the outlook does not look good for much improvement.

Mills Sisters Registered Charity

The Mills family currently need help raising funds to buy a block of land in Newcastle, Australia and to construct a disability-friendly home for the girls. They have a registered charity, and donations are accepted online at their MyCause page. These donations are tax-deductible in Australia.

In other developments, the sisters now have their own website. With permission of the family, I also have set up a Facebook page – so you can follow them if you’re on Facebook, and I hope to post regular updates there as I hear news…


More crumbs from the weekend… not only did I visit the Saturday market, I also went to Le Vert Anglais for a burger (according to Ed, the best burger in France, and I won’t contradict him!)

A burger and Orangina under the pine tree on Place de Castellane is a good way to spend a few hours on a sunny Saturday.

The Languedoc summer provides perfect conditions for an outdoor meal of tapas, accompanied by well-selected bottles of Rioja and Pic Saint-Loup in the old town. It’s great to catch up with friends, and after so many months in Paris, it’s nice to remember that the Spanish border is not so far away after all…

My visit to Montpellier coincided with the Comédie du Livre – apparently the second-largest book festival in France – bringing hundreds of authors and BD artists into town.  Fans of all ages flocked to the tents set up on the Place de la Comédie and the Esplanade to get that personal dédicace from their favourite author or dessinateur.

To complement the burgers and tapas, some intellectual nourishment was in order. On Sunday I attended a live broadcast of L’Esprit Public on Radio France Culture, held in Montpellier as part of the festival.

I am fascinated by the particularly French respect for “talking heads”, and the broadcast featured some heavy hitters of the French intello-politico-media-élite: historian and member of the French Academy Max Gallo, politician Jean-Louis Bourlanges, journalist Philippe Labarde, and law professor Dominique Rousseau.

Philipe Meyer played the role of genial animateur, orchestrating the egos and brainpower at his disposal with alacrity and humour.  The topics for the show were the European deficit crisis and reform of the French education system. You can listen here.

The often controversial right-wing polemicist Eric Zemmour was supposed to participate in a live debate on Sunday afternoon. Having seen Monsieur Zemmour many times on television I was looking forward to seeing some sparks fly. But for some last minute reasons he was unable to travel to Montpellier for the festival.

Despite Zemmour’s absence, his “opponent” Jean-Francois Kahn delivered a fascinating session on the dangers of groupthink and la pensée unique – Kahn was highly critical of the French media and its role as a critic and commentator.

Keeping up with all that abstract debate was thirsty work – and there is no better way to round off a weekend in the south of France than with a pastis at sunset!

The Marché des Arceaux in 60 Seconds

This weekend was spent back in Montpellier, catching up with friends. On Saturday morning I visited the Marché des Arceaux with Ed Ward (read his Montpellier blog here).

With up to 80 local farmers and producers turning up each week, this is Montpellier’s premier source of fresh food in Montpellier – always worth a stop if you’re in town on a Saturday or a Tuesday!

Missing Montpellier

Tomorrow I leave Montpellier for the big city, a job and the real world. I’ve enjoyed my 9 months here, and that’s really down to the people I’ve met and the friends I’ve made. I’ll miss the city and it’s easygoing style, but I’ll miss the people more.

I reckon that I made more friends in 9 months in Montpellier than I did in 2.5 years in Oxford. Don’t get me wrong, my Oxford friends are wonderful, (and they know who they are) but the quantity and ease of contacts made in Montpellier has been extraordinary.

In Montpellier, I seemed to spend a lot of time going out, despite my student budget. Having drinks and late-evening meals as the sun sets over the old town. Watching films at the Cinéma Diagonal and Odysseum. River-swimming at the Pont du Diable. Wine tasting on the Esplanade during les Estivales.

It has been, as you might imagine, a pretty wonderful lifestyle, and I even managed to complete a masters thesis in between the fun I was having.  Whatever happens next in the big adventure, at least part of it has been spent living in the south of France.

So I’d just like to say thanks to my friends here, and especially to anyone I’ve left off this list! : Ariel, Ed, Severine, Isabelle, Claudia, Daniel, Laura, @paztek, Dédé le Camionneur, Eva, Nadiha, Wendy, Georges, Serge, Mick’n’Hazel, Mariannick, Janice, Alain, Nancy, Pierre-Yves, Raphael, Marion, Amandine, Régis, Lazare, Marie-Anne, Camille, Shamille, Dany le Setois, Cathy and Nathalie.

It’s not an adieu, it’s an au revoir. I’ll be back.

Meeting Leanna

Leanna (top) and Bethany Mills (Photo: Natalie Grono/Sydney Morning Herald)

Once in a while, life throws unexpected meetings at you, meetings that take you completely outside your normal frame of reference.  I’ve had one of those moments this week. Today, I met Leanna Mills. It happened something like this:

Last night, coming home from dinner on the tram, I was talking with an English friend, (in English of course). A man sitting nearby turns around and looks at us. As my friend got off the tram, he gets up and comes over, and asks, in a strong Australian accent, “So, where’re you from mate?”

He finds out I’m from New Zealand, and I find out Nic’s from Newcastle, New South Wales. And he’s here in Montpellier with his family because his 14 year-old daughter Leanna is having life-saving surgery. For the sixth time.

Leanna and her younger sister Bethany (12) suffer from an extremely rare neurological condition called primary dystonia. There is no cure, and one of the few successful treatments is deep brain stimulation, which involves the implantation of electrodes in the brain. One of the only places in the world they undertake the procedure on children is the paediatric neurosurgery department at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Montpellier.

Nic and his wife Michelle don’t speak a word of French, but since 2005, the lives of two of their daughters are in the hands of a few French expert surgeons. As Nic told me, the Australian government provides part-funding for overseas treatment, but most of the enormous costs of travel, surgery and after-care have been paid for by Nic and his wife’s own fundraising efforts, and the help of a few generous donors.

I wanted to give Nic my contact details, but when we parted ways at our tram stop, I didn’t have a business card on me, and Nic didn’t have a pen. So I shook his hand and wished him well, and walked home. A late-night google search uncovered this article about the girls in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Today, I wrote down my contact details on a piece of paper, and stuck it in an envelope. The plan was to drop it at the reception desk at the hospital, and ask them to give it to Nic. I wasn’t even sure if the hospital staff would allow me to do that, given patient confidentiality rules.

But when I arrived at reception, the lady said “Ah yes, the Australian girl. She’s on the 5th floor in Pediatric Neurosurgery. Take the lift, and go on up.” So I found the ward, asked at the nurses’ station, and I was shown to Leanna’s room. Leanna and Nic were both asleep, but the nurse had no hesitation in waking them up to tell them they had a visitor.

I had originally planned to simply drop off a letter. I ended up staying two and a half hours. Stuck in France, the Mills have had few English-speaking visitors. Nic and I talked about the fundraising efforts, and the adventures and dramas the family have had over the course of ten years. A nurse came in, invited Leanna to a birthday party for one of the other patients, and she disappeared for half an hour in a wheelchair.

It seems a cliché to describe Leanna as a brave young woman. At the age of 14, she’s spent more time in hospital than most people experience in a lifetime. She has electrodes in her brain, a battery pack in her abdomen and wires inside her neck. And yet, one day out of intensive care, she was still smiling. And she insisted on getting my myspace address.

Just as remarkable are Leanna’s parents. Nic has given up his job to care for his daughters and to find ways to raise funds for treatment and care. They both look tired, but determined. Nick’s made a solid list of contacts and has grand plans to put together the financial footing the family will need in the future. There’s a book and a website on the way.

Even if the repeat surgery is succesful, there’s a long way to go – Leanna and Bethany both require ongoing monitoring, and changing the batteries in their brain stimulation devices requires surgery every two years for the rest of their lives. The costs involved are extraordinary – but without this treatment, the girls would die.

Bethany, two years younger, is back in Australia and by all accounts doing very well. The Mills’ youngest daughter Olivia also stayed behind in Newcastle with relatives this time, while the oldest daughter Katey travelled with her parents to spend the summer in Montpellier while Leanna underwent surgery.

Next week, the Mills hope to fly home to Australia. I’m going to try and keep in touch with this remarkable family, and when their website is live, I’ll post the link here. Because you never know who might be able to help.

Rémi Gaillard, Montpellier’s own Buster Keaton

If Montpellier has an internet celebrity, it’s Rémi Gaillard. He’s been making prank videos on the internet for ten years, and his clips have received over 350 million views on Youtube.

Many of his gags are filmed right here in Montpellier. One would have thought the locals would have got used to his antics by now, but Monsieur Gaillard always finds new ways to amuse and annoy: last year he turned the streets of the city into a Nintendo Mario Kart racetrack:

His classic clips include a re-creation of Saving Private Ryan on the beach at Palavas and the arrival of an astronaut on a golf course, but my favourite is when Rémi and friends turn a supermarket into a Pacman maze. (According to the “making of” article, all damage was repaid in full):

There is obviously an anarchist and possibly dadaist streak in Gaillard’s humour,  and his motto “C’est en faisant n’importe quoi qu’on devient n’importe qui” (roughly – “By doing whatever you can become whoever”) suggests that there may be a philosophy behind what he does. There is also money – he was hired last year by Orangina and Nike to make viral videos.

You can find dozens more videos on his site, Although his gags are largely harmless, it really is a wonder that Rémi hasn’t ended up in jail yet…

Follow the River

Ignoring that Indian proverb about mad dogs, Englishmen and the midday sun, and needing a break from writing my dissertation, I set out on a mission yesterday to explore Montpellier’s slightly neglected river – the Lez.

On the map, it seemed like a simple exercise – following the river from Antigone northwards to Castelnau and then catching the tram back from from Place Charles de Gaulle. However, Montpellier has not quite reconciled itself with its river, making the journey more of a trek through suburban streets than a waterside ramble.

I started out at the eastern end of the Antigone quarter – a complex of monumental buildings aligned along an axis running a kilometre from the Hôtel de la Région all the way back to the Polygone shopping centre in the centre of town.

Antigone was designed by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, and although some praise its sweeping vision, I’m sweepingly unconvinced. The whole thing is vaguely totalitarian, as if it were dreamt up in fever dream by Ceaucescu. The scariest thing is people actually choose to live there.

I’ve been told by a couple of people that that fountain in the river was designed to be taller that the jet d’eau in Geneva – but when they switched it on, it soaked the diners on the terraces of the chain restaurants on the opposite bank. So today fountain plays at 33% strength. True or not, it’s a nice anecdote.

Continuing north from the Esplanade de l’Europe, the footpath soon deviated away from the riverbank – and I realised that despite the other magnificent infrastructure investments made by Montpellier, there was no public right of way along the banks of the Lez. Instead, you have to thread your way through side streets, very rarely glimpsing the river.

I never made it to Castelnau – my route involved traversing the main railway line, and the only crossing point was a road tunnel without any visible pedestrian footpath. So I backtracked through Les Aubes and Les Beaux-Arts (a rather interesting, slightly bohemian central suburb) to the centre-ville and caught the tram home.

Re-reading my map, it seems the northern stretches of the Lez are more promising for a riverside walk. So my next plan is to start from Place Charles de Gaulle and head north from there towards the zoo. I’ll just wait for a day when the temperature isn’t quite 34 degrees…

After the storm, the trams

After the storm, the trams
rumble and flash.
Sluiced of oil by rain, they
hiss and sing through curves:
like slow fingers on wet glass.

Between the tracks, a boy
orbits a chiding father.
Thrusting his willow wand, he
dares demons to join his marvelous project:
to snare and slow down the sun.

Tomorrow, the trams
will void themselves of voice,
Tamed by rest and lubrication.
Unscathed, the sun will spy
a wooden sabre rusting in a gutter.

But for now, the grey-arched day belongs
to roaring dragons on Sunday timetables,
to white arrows pointing to hospitals, and
to the mercury dancing in sandals
one footstep ahead of his shadow.

Montpellier, August 2009.

Tasting Notes

A few cat-sitting gigs here in Montpellier have not filled the wallet, but they have filled the apartment with cat hair, and the whisky cabinet with new bottles, allowing some interesting comparative tastings.  I’m no expert on single malts (as compared to, say Dubber and Clutch), but increasingly I know what I like.

To me, (and I’m going to sound like a complete tosser when I write this), whisky doesn’t taste of things like wine does. Rather, whisky tastes of ideas and images. Short scenarios that shoot out of the glass at you.

I’ve been progressively tweeting descriptions as I open each bottle. Here are those tweet-sized chunks, assembled in one place:

Cragganmore: felt-tipped tulip petals, newly unfurled bracken fronds, and the kitchen door of a Birmingham curry house.

Talisker 10 yr old: charcoal oxygen filters, aluminium window-frames and dodgy 1940s fuseboxes. Like drinking C-3PO. Délicieux.

Oban 14 yr: this is definitely what Maurice Sendak used to clean his paintbrushes while illustrating “Where the Wild Things Are

Dalwhinnie 10: Wednesdays at boarding school. Freshly laundered woollen socks, a locker room full of rugby balls and matron’s stern gaze.

Lagavulin 16 year old: Wow. Salty. Driftwood and neptunes necklace. Spicy treacle and seagull feathers. Mooring ropes at half-tide in a November sea-fog.

Aberlour 10 year old: you remember that class trip to the colonial museum with the old sweet shop, the stuffed elephant and Melissa wetting her pants?

Glenkinchie 12 year old: weekends on your uncle’s farm, amidst Victorian furnishings, mouldy tourist calendars from 1954

Bowmore Islay 12 year old: fossilised kauri gum, barnacles left too long on the mantlepiece and the bilge water from an Arthur Ransome novel.

Frogs’ Legs

Last night at dinner in Mauguio, the aperitif included ravioli réunionnaises, and frogs’ legs:

Although anglo-saxon stereotypes would hold that French people eat cuisses de grenouille (and equally slimy escargots) all the time, this simply isn’t true. A particular speciality of the lyonnais, frogs legs aren’t something that appears on the table very often. However it was inevitable that they would cross my plate at some point while I am living in France.

The verdict – sautéed in oil with herbs and vegetables and possibly some gros sel, frogs legs taste of very little at all. The texture of the flesh is very similar to scallops, and they’re full of little thighbones.  They aren’t unpleasant, but I’m not going to rush out and buy some myself to cook for lunch…