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2023 in photos and tales

Four short tales from the year, interspersed with photos (telling their own tales), followed by a photo gallery.

Tale 1. Chance encounter with Silicon Valley

Ruth and Dougal embracing the moment near the Hotel de Pavie on a hilltop in St Emilion.

Douglas and Ruth Mackay invited us to visit St Emilion, one of the prettier Bordeaux towns, this summer. Dougal and I had been boarders together in Solihull School more years ago than I’d like to count, and Lisa and I had a great time exploring the beautiful old town with them. After they flew back home to South Wales, we decided to spend our last night dining very well.

After St Emilion, Lisa and I drove across the Pyrenees and into Barcelona, our first visit. We rented bikes and visited the Picasso museum. Then back on the road further south, completing an almost 1000-mile drive from home.

Our nightcap was a good cognac on the terrace of the luxurious Hotel de Pavie overlooking the square where we had just indulged ourselves with a fabulous dinner: so easy to do in France!

An American couple were sharing their own nightcap at the next table, and we got to chatting, mostly with the woman as it happened. After we mentioned regretting not bringing our bikes, as we would have loved to have biked around neighboring vineyards, Marilyn told us that they had spent the last few days doing just that.

They were both on a “sabbatical,” she added, a word which for me means academia, and I asked her where she taught. “Stanford Law School.”

“Oh really,” I jumped in, “I worked in Palo Alto for three years, for Wilson Sonsini.” The firm has numerous contacts with Stanford Law, and I had worked with a couple of them.

Greg, the guy, looked up from his phone: “I was texting with Larry today.” I did a double take. Larry Sonsini actually did me a big favor when I worked for him 25 years ago, which I gather is not at all unusual. Now he is over 80 and pretty much retired from running the powerhouse law firm that he and John Wilson built from scratch in Silicon Valley. But he’s still a “superlawyer,” as Fortune said, and if you’re texting him, you are someone important in the Valley, really important.

Steve Jobs was walking out the front door when I walked in to interview there.

On our way back home, we spent a night in Zaragoza, a city in north central Spain founded in 24 BC by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. During the Spanish civl war, which he had initiated, Franco decided to bomb this church, known as the “Pilar,” because of the city’s support for the republicans. Neither of the two bombs that landed on the church exploded, a miracle of sorts displayed here. This church withstood fascists!

I racked my brains, but couldn’t place Greg. He and his wife mentioned that they would be attending a writing seminar in the UK, but were both pretty vague when it came to any other plans. We wished them well and returned to our AirBnB.

A few days later, googling Marilyn and Greg, I found out that he was Greg Becker, Silicon Valley Bank’s CEO at the moment when the bank tanked!

He had suffered a classic run on the bank, of the kind experienced by George Bailey in “It’s a wonderful Life!” Perhaps because of the film, I was sympathetic.

It appeared that his depositors who had withdrawn tens of billions in ten hours – ten hours! That’s one hell of a run! – were mostly VCs and the funded companies they control, which suggested to me that the VCs were likely the most responsible.

Here’s another odd Silicon Valley connection with our trip. Here is the Zaragoza statue of Caesar Augustus. His hairstyle looks eerily similar to Mark Zuckerberg’s, perhaps because the latter is reputed to have copied it as a token of his admiration!

Plus he had invested some of his own money when things started going South to demonstrate his confidence in the bank. That was a solid move. And ultimately his depositors were made pretty much whole by the good old US taxpayer: these depositors were not, after all, poor people!

Greg too did okay: he kept his salary of $9.9 million per year paid during the year before the bank tanked, and a $1.5 million dollar bonus paid just hours before the bank tanked. And he had sold $3.5 million in SVB stock (netting about $2.25 million in profit) two weeks before the bank tanked. In modern bank finance, that’s the way that the cookie crumbles.

This headline, dated soon after Silicon Valley Bank tanked, gives a sense of how Greg was perceived in the aftermath. It seems to have all pretty much blown over by now.

His and his wife’s long-term sabbatical, spent biking around Bordeaux vineyards and crossing other luxury projects off their bucket list, was easy to accomplish. Following earlier revelations in Fortune and other media, their only real concern was not being located.  

Greg is a modern American winner.   

Tale 2. Women losing out in sports

Grandchildren! Lisa has three already, and spent a total of six weeks in 2023 looking after them. Happy times! The first five weeks, in May and June, were arranged in advance to cover the period when Shannon, the little girls’ mother, returned to work after her maternity leave but baby care was not yet available. The sixth week in November was an emergency visit to take care of the family when Shannon came down with pneumonia. Here is Lisa ready to take Mabel (7) and Rosamund (5) to their dance class.

FaceBook is the carefully planned home for our carefully curated senior online communities. People like me spend a lot of time there orchestrating how we appear to each other, often banning spontaneity for the sake of avoiding ruffling others’ feathers. Excesses of any kind seem unlikely.  

Of course, I managed to experience one this year!

A law school classmate is the Administrator who controls several FaceBook groups. He is retired after a sterling career in a prestige conservative white shoe law firm. Out of the blue, for me at least, he sent me a curt message: I was expelled from one of his groups! He felt that I didn’t fit in with his friends there, and that was it. He did hope that we would remain friends, but certainly did not want to talk politics with me. Well, okay then!

The group’s name, ironically, was “Please Remove me from this Group!” It was designed to encourage witty attempts to be gross enough to be removed. Which it did, in an amusing manner, with the apparent constraint of requiring members to to some ill-defined party line. Not my forte!

My first and thus far only grandchild, Eliza, born in January 2022, with her mum Charlotte and dad Nick in a Christmas park in Rennes. The family lives most of the time in Nantes, less than a couple of hours from Lisa and me. Again, both parents work, and Eliza spends a lot of time in a creche (day care). Fortunately, she has four doting grandparents happy to look after her and all located within a reasonable distance.

I’m not exactly sure which “political” opinion riled him or his friends – of course, he didn’t say.

There was a mild debate whose subject I have forgotten with a Paris resident, but I suspect that the hot topic must have been an exchange that I had about trans women with a bright southern California woman. It was mild in tone, but concerned one of my heroes of the moment, J. K. Rowling.

After creating a world where muggles are disfavored for their racial impurity, an inspiring moral for children of all colors, she entered the trans fray. “If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased.”

I did not view this comment as anti-trans so much as common sense. If one’s sex is as mutable as one’s feelings, changing sex would not require constant hormone therapy and/or extensive surgery. It obviously isn’t.

Sylvie, Lisa’s youngest granddaughter, was born in February of this year. Here she is in her babycare at the Jewish Community Center. Happy days!

Self-perception as to gender, however, is a very complicated and painful topic which merits sympathy and compassion – I spent my early adolescence in a powerful ambivalence between worrying that I was not becoming male sufficiently quickly and feeling aghast at what becoming male meant – but such sympathy, however laudable, should not worsen the worldwide plight of women at the hands of men.

And the demands made by trans women and their allies for recognition and inclusion often have the perhaps unintended effect of putting women down.

The clearest example of this is the unfairness to women of allowing men to compete with them in sports requiring physical strength. Riley Gaines and the other women swimming competitively in the NCAA all spent years of increasingly demanding junior high, high school and college training and practices, and years of travel to meets and tournaments, often with family members in support. Like all athletes, they built their hopes and dreams on their sport over many childhood and teenage years.

Eliza on the terrace of one of the three little cafes in our little town. How she tied herself in those chains is beyond me, but it calls out for some sort of popular philosophical observation such as, to paraphrase Rouseau, “born free, but everywhere in chains.”

And yet it’s still a man’s world. At the end of all those years, a man taller and broader than any of them stood on the NCAA winner’s podium with his junk starkly outlined by his tight one-piece swimsuit!

How does the hurt that might have been suffered by Leah Thomas had he not been allowed to compete with women justify the hurt suffered by all of those woman athletes and their families? He could have raced against men, as he had in earlier years (with much less success, of course), or even in an open athletic category; why would that not have been an acceptable form of inclusion for him?

For me, Leah Thomas is nothing more than a cheat.

Well anyway, rather than taking J. K. Rowling’s part, this Facebook friend (we’ve never met, but she takes feminist positions) said that she regretted the author’s recent stand. For me, this stand is wholeheartedly feminist. For her, it excludes trans women whom she finds sensitive and easily hurt. She apparently did not see the very real pain suffered by Riley Gaines and her ilk.

In any event, my removal from the group meant that our brief dialog was done.

Tale 3: It’s Small World

Weddings! Charlie and Alex both got married this year! Wow!! Charlie and Gabi’s wedding in London in May is posted here. Alex and Haley’s was in November in La Quinta California, near Palm Springs. Lisa and I greatly appreciated how well they handled the complicated family arrangements on our side of the family. Notably, their photographer was careful to take all the photos that divorced parents can require in terms of etiquette. Here is the happy bride and groom with Haley’s parents, Kristen and Brian Haman, who both warmly welcomed us (thank you!), and Lisa and me! As Haley remarked, it looks as if Lisa’s dress was made to match the flower arrangements!

On Friday evenings, there is a fairly regular gathering of local ex-pats at Le Voyageur, our local Breton café.

Lisa and I seem to be out of town quite a bit, but when we’re home we do enjoy a little chit chat in English with the assorted people – it really is a diverse little group! – who stop by.

There was a new face one evening, introduced as Brian Murphy, a local guitarist and singer, and he and I started to chat. Perhaps because it is Arlo’s chosen profession, and a challenging one, I always enjoy meeting musicians. Brian is also a paralegal with significant expertise in trade with the Channel Islands, but I see him first as a musician.

I am laughing here not just because I’ve already had a couple and my socks are bright yellow, but mostly because I so appreciate these young men. All in the wedding party, they played soccer with Alex on the same teams during his high school years. They shared an unusual ethos of working hard at high school, and consequently all attended good colleges. There’s nothing like a good group of friends to keep each other on the (relatively) straight and narrow! From my left going around the group are Cole (best man), Ryan, Ian, Mitchell, Brendan and Eric (the girls were not on the team!). It was real delight to see them all again as they launch themselves on an unsuspecting world.

One of the early questions in many meetings of ex-pats is: ”where are you from?” You know that the person you’re talking with is not from Brittany, and the question is a helpful way of orienting the conversation and learning about whomever you’re with.

I’m from a lot of places in the UK. Born in Slough (just west of London near Windsor), I then lived in Cardiff (south Wales), Bristol, (southwest England), and Birmingham (midlands), before the family moved to Marlow (not far from Slough) when I was 13 and settled there.  

Mum lived there for 30 years in the same house before she died. Dad was raised in Slough, mum was born and raised in Birmingham, and I normally answer that I’m from Birmingham or Marlow. With Brian, I answered “Birmingham.”

The ceremony is complete, the groom has kissed the bride, and Haley and Alex respond to their 100+ guests’ appreciation. They choreographed the ensuing reception, featuring their own unique dance, and I was delighted to see how well organized everything was, a tribute to Haley and her parents.

“Oh,” he said, smiling, “me too!”

“Really!?” That was more of an exclamation than a question. How about that!

“Whereabouts in Brummie?” If you’ve heard that word before, it might have been in “Peaky Blinders,” who in real life and fiction were located in Brummie.

“Sutton Coldfield.”

“Solihull.” That was me. “But I almost went to school in Sutton Coldfield. My mum wanted me to attend a Catholic secondary school, and Bishop Vesey’s fit the bill.”

“That’s where I went to school!” That was Brian. I hadn’t attended the school, because it was too far from our home to reach by public transport and the family did not own a car (dad’s was supplied by his company, and company business was its priority).

Another from Alex’s classy wedding: from the left, three of my sons, Arlo (who came from Athens for the occasion), Charles (from London) and Alex (from Carlsbad), stand next to my former stepdaughter and son, Daphne (from Lake Tahoe) and Alban (from Santa Cruz). It’s Alex and all of his siblings except Nick, the oldest. The latter could not swing the cost from France now that he has a wife, Charlotte, and they have a baby, Eliza. Charlie was the officiant here, and his overview of the couple as he married them was poignant and clear, as were their own individual vows.

The discussion went on. Mum was of Irish extraction, as is Brian, and I wondered aloud if his family had worshipped at the same church as hers, the Abbey in Erdington. Mum lived maybe half a mile from the Abbey until she left home to join the ATS in 1944, and Sutton was a couple of miles away in the opposite direction.

“My family is buried in the Abbey’s graveyard,” said Brian.

I gasped: “so is my mum and her family!”

Isn’t it a small world!

What’s more, Brian is a very good bloke.

Tale 4. Sugar: the end of a passionate affair

Happy birthday to me! We spent a few days in Marlow to celebrate my birthday, and on the first enjoyed high tea at the Compleat Angler Hotel. Also champagne – see above! Hulya gave us great service and took some fantastic pictures, including this one on the restaurant terrace featuring the Thames and its weir. Thank you, Hulya!

Ever since Lisa and I got together, she has been warning me about my sugar consumption.

She was not the first. Dr. Rebecca Barker in Santa Cruz has that honor, warning me that I was pre-diabetic about 13 years ago.

I did at times try to follow the medical guidance, but ultimately had little trouble not doing so. Figuring that many if not most people at my age could be viewed in some medical sense as pre-diabetic, I rationalized my way into assuming that the bar had been set too low. In its desire to protect us, the medical establishment does at times include so many of us that we begin to ignore its admonitions.

On the day itself, Lisa and I took in “A Christmas Carol” matinée, featuring an increasingly bemused Keith Allen as Scrooge, at the Alexandra Palace Theater. On to The Ivy in St John’s Wood for a fun and delicious dinner with Charlie! (Gabi was not feeling well, unfortunately). Not sure where he found that pullover!

And I adore chocolate. It is my favorite food, ever since Haslucks Green County Primary School, in Shirley just outside Birmingham, took us lucky kids on a school trip to the Cadbury factory in Bournville (now home of Cadbury World).

To this day, Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate is my favorite food. With hot fudge on a rich and creamy ice cream coming a close second.

As a child, I loved steam engines and trainspotted in and around Birmingham. The family spent Easters of many of those years in Paignton, Devon attending hockey festivals in which dad’s team, the Henleaze Bluebottles, played. This is the Christmas train on the Dartmouth Steam Railway, which runs along the coast from Paignton to Kingswear. It featured fantasy lights and overexcited children. Oddly enough, the locomotive’s number is the zipcode for the Paris arrondissement where I lived for six years!

Over the last few years, my portion of supermarket shopping was focused on snacks and desserts while Lisa spent (and spends) much of her time on the fresh fruits and vegetables which fill our cart.

At home I snacked constantly – on various types of chocolate and chocolate biscuits, as well as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the tasty desserts that the French do so well, like mini black forest gateaux and lemon curd tarts – to the point of missing lunch on a regular basis.

Then I took a call from a French “mutuelle,” or complementary health insurance provider (for coverage supplemental to that provided by the national health system), and the last question in that call’s list designed to identify my level of risk as an insured was whether I had seen a doctor about my feet. I hadn’t, but it was a question that I had never heard before in such a list.

I told Lisa about the question, because I found it odd, and she replied immediately that one of the first signs of diabetes was in the feet. That felt odd too, until I realized that I had indeed been experiencing at night occasional short-term tingling in my toes. Could that have been a first symptom of diabetes? Lisa thought that it could, even that it could well be. That was enough for me.

Ian Summers, another friend from Solihull School, lives in South Devon, and joined us for the excursion. Here we are in a café on Paignton harbor grabbing a bite before the ride. Retired from the physics department of Exeter University, Ian continues to explore musical instruments of different cultures and times. Here are examples. A few days later, back in Brittany, Ian sent me this link to the Christmas train that we took.

I cut out my desserts, cookies and chocolate that very day, and immediately gave away some remaining After Eight mints. One Toblerone bar remained in the kitchen drawer for a couple of months, until I felt less drawn to it.  Snacking changed overnight, first with a sharp reduction to a more normal frequency, and then to newer types of snacks. My current favorite is vanilla yoghurt with fresh blueberries and raspberries topped by a dusting of ground granola and dark chocolate.  That is now my one dessert a day.

That was a key part of cutting out the five or six times daily chocolate, cookies, desserts and ice cream: one dessert and a tiny bit of dark chocolate remain. And I occasionally let myself go. At Alex’s wedding, for example, Haley, his bride, had the bright idea of providing a chocolate fountain. My heart sank, until I realized that this was a one-off celebration where the rules could be broken. I made five visits to that chocolate fountain, and each involved a marshmallow dipped in warm chocolate sauce. Its rarity meant that this one excess brought me much more pleasure than my five or six desserts a day!

And we found this new store just around the corner from the AirBnB where we stayed at the top of Marlow High Street. Finally, some recognition! Across the street is the café where at 16 I found my first job as a waiter, the long defunct White Swan. Mrs. Pickles, my employer there, was often pickled, and at Christmas gave Scott Purser and me coke glasses full of neat rum before we left the café. Don’t remember the rest of that evening!


The tingling in my toes has never recurred, not once. In the first six weeks, I lost 12 pounds (5+ kilos) despite eating a whole lot of food every day.

Lisa is a great cook, and scrupulously avoids processed foods. Her salads are to die for! The soups that she makes from scratch, mulligatawny, minestrone, tomato bisque, French onion, you name it, are all a culinary delight. Not forgetting the fish chowder! And the salmon! And the cod! And the New York steaks! All with potatoes or rice and at least one fresh green vegetable!

And I still lost 12 pounds!!

I digress.

The mental effects of this simple change of diet are almost unbelievable. Not only has my short-term memory improved, so has my balance and even my joint strength. Already, a little over two months on! If I was reading this, I wouldn’t believe it! You’re forgiven.

Wishing all of you all of the good times and luck in 2024 that Lisa and I had in 2023!

2023 Gallery

(Clicking on a photo should enlarge it)