All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Thank you Ma Mite

A very long time ago, Very Lost in France passed on this award to me.

It was not because I was ungrateful that I didn't put it up...I just didn't know how!

I loved her made me laugh out loud at times and I am so pleased that she is returning to blogging now that she has returned to the U.K.

I would like to pass it on to Mary Anne Gruen

whose blog is always alerting me to new things.

Thank you Ayak

Well, after much head boiling, bad language and throwing heavy objects, I have finally managed to get the award up on my blog.
It has only taken, don't ask!

I am very grateful to Ayak, not only for the award, but for being so encouraging about trying to overcome my incompetence with computers.

I enjoy Ayak's work so much, and Turkish friends tell me that she portrays Turkey and its' people very accurately. She also takes pity on abandoned dogs and gives them a happy life which is in my book one of the best things one can do. Her posts certainly add sunshine to my day.

She suggests passing the award on to two more bloggers, so, although I haven't asked their permission and hope they won't mind, here they are.

Jimmy Bastard


Views from the bikeshed

These are two men who can really write...differing themes, differing styles, but both can move you.

James has not been well recently, so I wish him well and hope to be reading him again soon.

Now, Ayak, it's links next......

Woolly jerseys.

february baby sweaterImage by my favorite yarn via Flickr

I wanted some woolly jerseys for working outside in winter. As they were inevitably going to be snagged on wire and twigs, be left outside because I forgot to put them on again and probably receive all sorts of contact with manure, chickens, ducks, paint and varnish, secondhand and cheap was the answer.

Now, in the U.K., years before I would have gone down to the Oxfam or Sue Ryder shop, have had a rummage and come back with the required items and a carrier bag full of other odds and bods that had seemed to be a good idea at the time. Friends tell me that U.K. charity shops have gone distinctly upmarket since my time, with advisors to weed out the best items. The whole delight of the old fashioned charity shop was, after chatting with the volunteers, the prospect that you might find something really good for not very much, so this weeding out process is extremely unfair. And don't tell me that it makes more money for the charity concerned as I bet any extra is swallowed up by paying the advisor's salary. I have distinct doubts about the way in which the big charities work, but I suppose now is not the time to start on yet another diatribe.

However, this is France. Charity shops are not thick on the ground....there is a Red Cross shop in the nearest town, but it has been firmly closed ever since it opened, if you see what I mean, which left me with Emmaus.
Founded after the War by Abbe Pierre, the Emmaus organisation is implanted across France and extends abroad. The idea is that communities of people down on their luck live together and make their own living, repairing and renovating items donated by the public, supported by volunteers. Inevitably, down the years, all this gets over organised and there is the usual profiteering by the people running the charity, but Emmaus is about all France can offer by way of charity shops, so my search for woolly jerseys took me to their weekly open day. In my time I have been lucky with Emmaus...I have found fully lined curtains long enough for my windows, and a horde of the linen sheets with fine embroidery that no one wants any more as they take too much space in the dryer, but I hadn't browsed the clothing section before.
There was a vast table piled high as if a Scouts' jumble sale had just opened, offering garments in a wild variety of disorder to be bought by the kilo, and then the more sedate area where clothing was sorted by sex and by function. Woolly jerseys did not feature. I should be clear here, that to me, woolly means made from wool, not from whatever synthetic fibre which has been produced to make washing things easier. I know wool gives uncle provided proof in my young day by proudly doing the weekly wash and hanging it out in the back garden. My aunt was down from her sickbed in a matter of seconds to remove the evidence from the line before the neigbours could see it....underwear a nice shade of khaki, and men's pullovers reduced to something which would have been appropriate for the children's teddy bears in size had they not been reduced to unyielding felt by the prolonged boiling to which they had been subjected in the copper. On the evidence of my afternoon at Emmaus, my area of France is strong on synthetic fibre and bright colour, but distinctly lacking on the pure wool and subdued shades front.

Then I bethought me of eBay. French eBay, as I reckoned that posting woolly jerseys would be expensive from across the Channel. Sure enough, I found the garment section and pushed all the buttons for size, fabric, style, etc. and came up with a number of possibilities. I bid, and obtained five, from different sellers.
One, a lurid affair in blue with large sunflowers, arrived without would, wouldn't it? You'd do anything to rid yourself of it and it is a measure of my desperation that I bid for it.
Another then arrived, and proved to be made of synthetic fibre. I checked the sales entry and it did, definitely, claim to be made from wool. I entered into contact with the seller who flatly refused to do anything about it. He had my money and I had his jersey. End of story.
A third arrived, which had clearly been washed by my uncle, proving that it was indeed made from wool. I checked the details, and there was no way to see that the item had shrunk. I entered into contact with the seller, with the same result as above.
A fourth arrived with a large hole at the back of the neckband. This time the seller claimed that it had been damaged in the post as well as the usual line about who had the money and who had the goods. I am a great fan of La Poste and will be participating in the citizen's vote about its' proposed privatisation, but I had until that moment been unaware that they had trained technicians who could insert sharp objects into parcels wrapped in paper without leaving any external sign of their activities.
The fifth did not arrive at all. Instead I had a breezy note from the seller to the effect that she had noticed a small hole below the neckband and had decided that she should not sell damaged goods. I suggested that she might consider returning my cheque, but this idea did not appeal. I saw the same jersey on sale again a week later when it received a more generous winning bid. She still did not return my cheque.
Result of eBay experiment? One jersey covered in sunflowers and four dispute procedures, resulting in mutual blacklisting, absolutely no assistance from eBay, and a small financial loss.
I was moaning about my eBay experiences when friends came round and one told me he had had a similar experience when buying a gold coin. The item advertised was a Napoleon III ten franc piece - I think - and what turned up was a tiny gold coloured token! Unrepentant seller who blacklisted him, apparently for being such a fool as to believe the description!
I've always liked playing around on eBay and have only ever had one problem with an item on another national site, which was when a Polish seller could not deliver because he needed an export permit which he didn't have and didn't know he needed. He contacted me and returned my money with no problem. A good few friends play on eBay as well and their experiences reflect mine...all goes well until you hit!
Items described as in working order which are completely seized up, damaged or with parts missing, refusal to make recompense, abusive messages, you name it, French eBay will provide it.
Is the entire nation dishonest? Is it just that element of it who use eBay as an extortion racket? Why are they so proud of having done the dirty on the unsuspecting buyer?

All these thoughts go through my head as, visible to marksmen at a great distance, I take off my only eBay jersey and manage to drop it in the pond.

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Monday, 28 September 2009

The forbidden fruit

Studies have shown that Cabernet Franc crossed...Image via Wikipedia

Picking grapes is still fun after all these years, even though the plots are smaller and the company less. As of last time I am now regarded as a senior citizen thus qualifying for a place on the wheelarch of the tractor, hanging on for dear life as we lurch and trundle down the tracks from the house to the plot of vines far off beyond the lake. It was safer to plod behind, or be bundled into the van with the colleys and the buckets, but age has its' privileges and the wheelarch it is.
The routine never varies...the housework done, the ladies arrive at the house, the vehicles and equipment are already waiting and off we go....three rows and a glass of wine. The year before last, Ziya kicked up at the poor quality of the refreshments, causing a row which spread to the exact nature of the relationship between Guy - long term widower - and the lady who comes to 'do' for him, her alleged hopes for the future, the price and quality of the sheep which Ziya and friends buy from her....and for some time I wondered if the picking team would break up, so violent was the dispute, but all was settled in time for the next vendange. Ziya now supervises the provision of wine, which involves him in several tasting sessions at Guy's before the whole ritual starts up for the year.
Guy sold off most of his holdings years ago, as age crept up on him, so what is left is his last plot of vines giving ample wine for himself, friends and family but the first time I picked there he was rather watchful. I had been brought along by Ziya, who usually has a few foreign waifs and strays at his disposal and it appeared that I was the replacement for the previous year's abject disaster...a gentleman who was very good at raising the elbow, but not so sharp on picking the grapes, so I was an unknown quantity. However, I was experienced, thanks to the years with Papy, and after a bit Guy relaxed and we started to chat at the next break.
I had noticed that not all the vines were the same...the bunches had different shapes, the size of the grapes differed too, and there were some leaf I asked him what he was growing.
'Oh, there's a bit of everything these days...a bit of Merlot, some 154, those rows down there are Castel and up at the end is Oberlin. We'll pick that separately.'
Well, I'd been in the area some time and the only one of those that I had heard of was Merlot....round here the main white is Chenin, with Chardonnay and Sauvignon getting more frequent thanks to fashion, and the Cabernet Franc and Grolleau Gris providing the other reds...though with global warming the Cabernet Sauvignon is now worth planting as well.
There was no time to ask any more questions, as Guy was off with the next trailer load of grapes, but when we finished for the day and were bouncing back in the van, I asked Ziya, self appointed expert on anything and Lord High Everything Else, what he knew about these types of vine.
'They're forbidden.'
'Why are they forbidden?'
'They make you go potty.'
Apparently it was forbidden to plant them and forbidden to sell the was only for personal consumption, as not only was there the question of alcoholic strength - these could weigh in at 18 degrees as opposed to 12 degrees for a Cabernet Franc - but they were also reputed to have a hallucinatory effect. Well, I might have missed out on the Swinging Sixties in London, but I was well placed to make up for it on the liquid LSD of rural France.
Guy was starting up the press when we arrived at the house to clean up and it was apparent that things were not going well as there was a lot of muttering then cries of
'Merde, merde, putain de merde'
as he lifted the cover off the pit into which the grape juice should flow. It was not flowing, even though the press was operating correctly. Grabbing a stick, he inserted it into the exit pipe from the press and withdrew it with a large dead rat balanced on the end. The juice began to flow and he announced that those who wanted it to make pineau should take it at once as it was so warm that fermentation would start very soon. I departed with my share in a large plastic jerrycan which had, years ago, served to contain engine oil. Guy threw nothing away. Rural folk were always well ahead of environmentalists when it came to recycling.
I made my pineau, the other great aperitif of the area, by mixing the grape juice with eau de vie and put it away for a few months. I prefer epine, but 'the ladies' are reputed to prefer the softer pineau, so it is as well to have plenty in the cellar.

Later in the year, still curious about these vines, I dropped in on Guy, who now had time for explanations.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French vineyards were all but wiped out by phyolloxera...a grub which attacked the roots, only vines on a few offshore islands surviving untouched. The problem was not just that the vines died, any vines planted to replace them died as well. What to do? The american vine, which was not the vitis vinifera but, if my memory serves me better than usual, vitis labrusca, was immune to attack by the grub, but the wine was said to have an unpleasant taste - 'foxy' is the word used.
Two solutions were tried, the first, grafting French varieties onto American rootstock, is the one which has won out, but the other method, hybridisation, was what had resulted in the vines Guy was using. He gave me several names....Bacot, Noah, Othello....Roi des Negres, though whether that was the same as a Tete du Negre that Didier later served up, which was the best wine I ever found to go with that notoriously difficult food to match, the globe artichoke, I don't know.
'So why are they forbiden? Is it true they can drive you potty as Ziya says?'
'Anything would drive Ziya potty. No, they're just strong, that's have to watch it.'
'Then why can't you sell them?'
'Because they're easy to propagate...they just touch the ground and need to buy those expensive grafted vines. No one makes a profit.'
Madeleine once told me that the answer to every question as to why something is done as it is in France is money...and once again, she was proved right. There's nothing wrong with these wines, no reason why they can't be bought and sold...except that it would wreck the trade in certified rootstocks.
Guy had been pouring a twelve year old Oberlin for me to try, and it was super.....but at 18 degrees I was glad that I had arrived on foot.

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Land of milk and honey

Holstein dairy cows from http://www.ars.usda.g...Image via Wikipedia

Despite the level of the pound to the euro, despite the problems of selling property or getting a mortgage, people from the U.K. still want to move to France.
Now, a glance at the Daily Mail would convince you that you would move anywhere...Mars, the outer systems of the get away from feral children, microchips in your wheelie bin and institutional prejudice against Christians....while a glance at the Guardian would convince you likewise to get away from the mouthy liberals who seem to have produced what the Daily Mail is complaining of. However, is France the answer?

It depends on your question.

If you are looking to retire, then almost certainly it is.
Property is still attractive, especially if you can drop on a cash strapped Brit who bought on loans that are now difficult to repay, though I don't think that there are all that many about, despite the tales from estate agents about people selling up and taking a drop because property in the U.K. is now too cheap to miss. I don't see very much that is cheap in the U.K. compared to what you can buy in France, and consider this to be yet another ploy from agents to get people to drop their prices to put a commission in the agents' pockets.
A retired person qualifies for health care and unless you have something out of the ordinary, health care is good..though I don't agree with the idea that the NHS is dreadful. My mother has excellent care when she needs it, which keeps her independent in her late nineties. French health care isn't the free for all it used to be, where you could go to as many doctors as you liked until you found one who agreed with your view of your illness, the whole shebang paid for by the state, and waiting lists certainly exist, but on the whole, it's a good deal...if you are retired.
Tax is appalling, but so it is in the U.K..
There are, of course, the wine, the cheese and the smoked fish, among other delicacies, to encourage the move and lessen the pain of the bill for the removal van.
A lot depends on your assessment of your ability to take change. The language is the obvious hurdle, though agencies abound to help you...for a price...and they will also assist with house purchase and all the beaurocratic niceties of life in the Hexagon, as the French media refer to their country. You may have friends or family already in place and nowadays there are so many British expats about that you will never be short of an English language social life.....if that is what you want. A French social life is also takes about as much time as it would do in the U.K., and, like the U.K., areas differ.

The rest depends on your own character. If you are content to go with the stream, pay up whatever you are asked for and be uncritical of your new home, you will be fine. The French love can lay it on with a trowel...but having always been taught 'France good, everywhere else bad' since they first went to school, the faintest note of criticism brings on the cry of
'Why don't you go back home, then?'
No society is perfect and it is by exchanges that we learn that things do not have to be set in stone, but France is not, generally, open to exchange. It is a one way path. The French are taught that they have a 'civilising mission' in the world, and that they have nothing to learn from other cultures. Thus the horror at Sarkozy presenting himself as leaning to 'Anglo Saxon' ways of doing things...efficiency, etc. ...a horror now assuaged as people see that his government is being run by the same people who always run French governments, the graduates of the Ecole Normale d'Administration, well connected dumbos for whom there is only one question and only one answer, the summit of the French education system.

It all depends what bugs you. For me, it is the inequality in France which, living in the country as I do, is exemplified by the power and privilege of the farmers. I have already discussed the unfairness of their taxation status, which allows their families access to benefits designed for the poor and their dubious agricultural practices which pollute the environment for us all, but the latest sop to their bullying has annoyed me beyond reason.
When the Green Tax comes in in January, we, ordinary people, will be paying about four cents extra per litre for fuel, and living in the country with oil fired central heating and miles from the shops, that is no small amount over the year. Sarkozy's glove puppet, Prime Minister Fillon, has just announced that farmers and fishermen will only be paying one cent per litre...and the three cents refund will be in their bank accounts by February! As if they don't benefit already from cheap fuel to run their businesses with no one to check whether the fuel is delivered to the business premises or the house! Furthermore, for ordinary people, getting a refund for anything takes forever. One poor woman who was fined for speeding in a Brittany town...1 kilometre per hour over the limit....claimed a refund on the grounds that not only was she not there, but that the street in which the incident was alleged to have taken place did not exist - with a certificate from the town hall to prove it! She still had to pay her fine, and, months down the line is still waiting for a refund. She should have been a farmer.
The milk sector is in trouble, the price to producer having fallen dramatically as demand has fallen, and dairy farmers have just ended a fortnight of 'strikes'. Rather than deliver milk to the collection points, they are distributing it to the populace in market towns.....a rapid change of front as their first bright idea was to pour it over the fields in protest. According to a newspaper survey ninety per cent of the French believe that the dairy farmers are right to expect support payments and to demand that the interest they are paying on their business loans should be refunded. Ninety per cent of the French need their heads examining. The country is, whatever the figures say, in a parlous economic condition and all sorts of businesses are suffering. Do we see demands for a refund of interest payments for people running IT businesses or B and Bs? Some of those businesses are the size of dairy installations, so why are they less important? What about small family businesses also feeling the pressure.....the builders, plumbers, painters, electricians etc? Small country bars? Where is the rescue package for them?
As always, give in to one sector and the rest will soon be on the neck of the government....just wait for the transport industry and the taxi licence monopoly holders to start blocking the roads until they get their cut as well, while the ordinary person pays for all, as always. Where do governments think the money comes from in hard times?
I watched the dairy farmer at work at my last house......the pasture where his cattle were grazing was killed off by herbicide, the nitrate sacks dumped on the field and the grass resown, year after year. My well water, which had served the house for centuries, was unusable thanks to the level of nitrates leaching from his land. The maize he grew for silage was treated with 'Gaucho' or 'Regent', agents now held responsible for the decline and near disappearance of the honey bee.
The wild irresponsibility of the European Union agricultural policy and the pusillinamity of successive French governments have led us to a rich land where milk and honey can no longer be produced and all that is proposed is to perpetuate the system.

Different things bug different people. If you're not politically inclined, then a retirement to rural France could be ideal, and when the question is posed to you by your French neighbour
'Why did you want to come to France?'
You, like Israel Hands in 'Treasure Island', can reply
'Because I want their pickles and wines and that.'
But not the milk and honey.

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Monday, 21 September 2009

Every rural French woman is a lesbian.

Image by d'Alk via Flickr
The summer visitors have left me with a pile of books...for some reason, a lot of them about expat life in France, the idealised French woman..and a swathe of tourist literature, so, having time on my hands, or more accurately, putting off doing the autumn gardening, I have been reading about my adopted country.
Hours of research over a couple of glasses of wine have convinced me that I have been living in a different country...I must have taken a wrong turning at Calais all those years ago and ended up in Khazakstan without realising. No wonder learning the language posed so many problems!

Elegant, well dressed women sipping fizzy water on cafe terraces seem to figure frequently......well, not round here, they don't. The local version of elegance is supplied by the Barbe Bleu van which makes its' monthly appearance to vend polyester to the masses, or by the supermarket special offers of stretch lycra cotton garments which should be banned in the public interest. You could lose your eyesight.
As everyone goes to the same hairdresser, everyone has the same hairstyle but in different colours. My mother, young in the twenties, has always been firmly convinced that, to judge by the shingled hairstyles, every rural French woman is a lesbian and that the choice of colour must be some sort of signal...a bit like which side some chaps wear their keys, and all that.
I think that the hairdresser having learnt only one way of doing things, does what she knows best and the colour depends on whatever special offer the rep has managed to sell her, but there's no convincing mother.
That's the elegance bit disposed for the rest. Only rarely will anyone from round here drop into a cafe....they have coffee and everything else at home, so why pay for it? The cafe is a place for business discussions, a neutral ground, or a place for men to hide from their wives, nothing very social about them at all, and far from some jovial guy drying glasses behind the zinc, the proprietors tend to be morose individuals calculating how they are ever going to recuperate their taxe professionelle from the miserable crowd clutching the same glass for over an hour. It's no wonder some of them turn to other attractions to lure customers to their premises, like the one in the next village which, according to the postlady, draws a crowd even from faroff Poitiers. They certainly don't come for the ambience, that's for sure. It is a source of continuing amazement on the postlady's circuit that while the gendarmerie are busy seizing cannabis from motorists caught on checkpoints, they don't make the slightest effort to investigate that bar...mark you, they didn't want to investigate the theft of liquor from the supermarket either, but that was because they were getting a cut.
I think that it was A.A. Gill who wrote an article recently on the lines of we see what we expect to see. A French woman is supposed to be beautiful, so we think they all are. English women are supposed to be like a lot of unmade beds, so that's what we see. Well, he had better nip out to the shops round here and test his theory. There is one genetic group in particular with black -shingled - hair who all resemble boxers who had an unfortunate encounter with Henry Cooper's only known punch and another group whose features resemble nothing so much as two currants in a spotted dick. A.A. Gill, I defy you!

While there is always mention of social life in these books about expat life in France......being invited to the neighbours', going out to concerts, finding 'little' - why are they always 'little' - restaurants........they don't seem to mention the village social life at all. The football team passes them by - where do they think everyone is on Saturday afternoons? Down at the field shouting abuse at the opponents, that's where.
Then there is the inevitable yoga class and the weekly get togethers to cook, sew, make scrapbooks and once a year bully unsuspecting people into buying the results at the 'vide grenier' boot sale. There was once a keep fit class for pensioners in our village and it is a great pity that no one made a video as it would be a Youtube hit. Elderly gentlemen in collarless shirts, slippers and caps creaking up and down to music...all with differing rythms...uncalled for remarks as elderly ladies lifted their legs, firmly encased in elastic stockings, all of two inches from the ground, and the inevitable moment when Monsieur Chose's mother, using her zimmer frame as a barre, lashed out backwards at Monsieur Chemineau, whose dodgy knee gave way and sent him flying into the arms of the young instructress...a situation from which he was loathe to extricate himself, the whole thing a cross between Disney's Dance of the Hippopotami and the decks of the Titanic.
It was probably all banned on the grounds of moral turpitude. What was I doing there? Not participating, that's for sure...I know moral turpitude when I see it.

Though I know several expats who have joined, the books make no mention of the Old Age Pensioners' clubs either. The one in my first village had a reputation for miles around. Officially people got together one afternoon a week to play cards, knit and gossip over coffee and cakes and once a year organise an outing by coach, but when, after a murder in the village, the gendarmerie were roused to action and decided to breathalyse the participants as they made their way to their cars at the end of the afternoon, of about forty, more than thirty were over the limit for drink driving.

Clearly, I'm not living in the same country, but I just wonder about these authors of books about life in France. Don't they meet anyone except workmen, owners of chateaux or other expats? In 'little' restaurants? Where elegant women sip fizzy water at tables on the terrace?

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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Seeing his way

FRANCE SARKOZY CHALLENGEDImage by Franck Prevel via Flickr

Dominique de Villepin, former Prime Minister of France, former Foreign Minister best known to the world for his speech of opposition to the war in Iraq at the United Nations General Assembly, is to appear in court on Monday, accused of complicity in a plot to blacken the reputation of President Sarkozy, then just a presidential candidate, by making it appear that he had been laundering money from bribes arising from the sale of frigates to Taiwan.

Complicated? You just bet.

President Sarkozy has let it be known that he wants politics cleaned more of these plots and manoevres which have, he says, been typical of the Vth French Republic. He has also let it be known, rather more colourfully, that he wants the perpetrators of this particular plot 'hung from meathooks'. I have always said that he has so sense of historical resonance.
However, history seems to be what all this is about.

Sarkozy was once a protege of Chirac, famous for his Spanish practices while Maire of Paris and then President of France. As any good protege should, Sarkozy made himself agreeable to his patron's daughter but then, somewhat tactlessly, dumped her for something less dumpy. In for a penny, in for a pound, Sarkozy compounded his error by supporting Balladur, Chirac's unsuccessful rival, which left Sarkozy out in the cold for some considerable time, until his growing support in the party forced him back into government.

De Villepin has always been Chirac's man.... a graduate from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, one of the 'enarques' who appear to think that the government of France should only be confided to one of their number. Sarkozy is not an enarque. Never elected to any office, de Villepin was Chirac's chief of staff before being appointed Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister, and, in the run up to the last Presidential elections, was Chirac's choice of candidate, though Sarkozy, by then Finance Minister, was making all the running.

While the preparations for that election were hotting up, de Villepin happened to meet his old friend Jean-Louis Gergorin, another enarque, and, at the time, vice president of the aerospace company EADS, just before the latter approached an investigating magistrate with a list purportedly showing the names of those involved in the kickbacks from the frigate deal with accounts with a Luxembourg company called Clearstream. Although it quickly became apparent that the documents were forged, de Villepin mounted an enquiry, an enquiry which, according to the then head of intelligence in France, was ordered by Chirac himself. Chirac refuses to answer any questions, claiming the immunity which covers any actions of a President of the French Republic while in office.
Inevitably, news of the enquiry leaked, and Sarkozy confronted de Villepin, accusing him of making it appear as though the allegations had weight by ordering an enquiry after it was clear that the evidence was a forgery. He then brought a civil action to clear his name.

In the meantime, Sarkozy has become President, de Villepin is an isolated figure in his own party, but, more importantly, the investigating magistrates have been busy confiscating all sorts of interesting documents, including the notebook of France's chief spy, cataloguing the little foibles of the country's political elite. Rumours abound of the dirty tricks played against Sarkozy in the run up to the election, including, apparently, alerting his then wife to his infidelities, which might be one explanation of her refusal to be at his side during the campaign.

De Villepin might have trouble wriggling off this particular meathook - I think a lot depends on how much can be put down to Chirac who of course will not testify - but he is mounting an interesting defence. Despite the fact that a court has already ruled that a President can bring actions while in office, de Villepin's lawyers will be arguing that it is impossible for the court to hear Sarkozy's charges as the inequality between the parties is so great....Sarkozy can attack as an individual, while being immune from attack in his turn, as President. It's a bit like being armed with a machine gun while wearing Ned Kelly's protective armour.

Why does this case have any importance for the general public, apart from the wafts of sleaze in the wings? It is important because Sarkozy has announced that he wants no more of these insalubrious plottings and if that is the case it can be nothing but a good thing for the political climate in France. However, as he is also proposing to abolish the role of the investigating magistrate, it is hard to see how we should ever know about any future government shennanigans, since the French press is supine and the future investigators will be the government run prosecution service.

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Saturday, 19 September 2009

Cream teas in the garden

English GardenImage by stevesheriw via Flickr

This weekend France holds the 'Journees du Patrimoine'...when historic monuments, public and private, are thrown open.,..the public ones free, the private ones,usually, not. It is a great chance to see buildings and gardens that are usually not accessible and most years we have friends staying and plan a tour. It has to be said that the planning can be a problem. This year the co ordination seems to be better, but other years I have had to ring up friends in other departments to see what is on offer in their neck of the woods, as information doesn't tend to cross departmental boundaries. We're staying put this year...just not up to a long day...but I've seen several places opening for the first time this year that sound tempting, and new ideas like a walking tour of Resistance sites in town that ends, thankfully, in a cafe!

President Sarkozy has been welcoming people to the Elysee, his official residence, and the culture minister, Mitterand...nephew of the better known Mitterand...has been doing likewise, explaining that he doesn't use his office as all the gilt ornament is too much for him. It is not clear whether he showed visitors his dining room where he has installed a bell to summon the staff at mealtimes, much to their disgust.
'Back to the Middle Ages,' said one, but it could just be the minister's way of celebrating the glorious past for the 'Journees du Patrimoine'.

It can be a good publicity opportunity too....several artists are having open days, as is one enterprising landscape gardener, but I don't see the Belgian lady's rose garden at Chinon on the list, though she seems to have her publicity well enough sewn up as it is with endless streams of Belgians beating a way to her door, thanks to the efforts of her family on the home front. Everything possible to do with roses is sold there...rose soap, rose petal jam...and no one escapes without their souvenir. I would not have even known it existed had not the Belgian part of the family made the obligatory visit when staying with us, explaining that their neighbour would be most upset if they had not visited his relative's garden while they were in France. It conjures up weary Belgians driving up from the south of France and making the long detour to Chinon just to avoid the wrath of the family publicity machine. You can imagine the scene, greeted by the neighbour as they climb from the car on a bleak Brussels winter day.....
'So, did you enjoy your trip to Nice? But you didn't visit the rose garden at Chinon.....?!'
They are wasted on a mere garden...think what they could do for politics with the pressure they exert!

Two 'English gardens' are open to visitors every owned by a French lady and the other by an Englishwoman. Yes, I did choose my words carefully. I like both gardens and it is fascinating to see how each views the concept of an 'English garden'.....they are quite different in layout and in planting, but is has to be said that they are certainly not French gardens! The first uses the 'room' idea, where you walk from one effect to another while the other uses big sweeps of colour and shape and has, though I usually loathe them, some wonderful effects with grasses. I, rather sourly, tended to think that grasses were only worthwhile on a frosty morning in winter at the one moment that the pale sun touched the frozen heads, but this garden changed my mind. It will only take me about ten years to get round to doing something about it....

I think we make the mistake of trying to cram too much into one day...we frequently return with our high hopes somewhat disappointed...though as one visitor says
'Seen one chateau, seen them all...' so he at least doesn't expect too much. He also came up with the comment that there never seems to be much furniture in French chateaux...his theory is that the owners sold it all to the Americans years ago, and now pretend that French style has always been minimalist!
It is true that we always see something worthwhile, like the decoration of a Second Empire chateau which gave us ideas for paint colours for our house, but, with the Green Tax upon us we will have to balance interest with economy in the future...we tend to cover a lot of ground on these open days.

There is one event, though, at which I would like to be a fly on the wall. Friends in the next department tell me that one of their more grasping exploitative expats is on the list this year...her garden is open to the public. However, entry is certainly not free and apparently you won't be able to see much as she has been borrowing garden furniture on the grand scale and the place will be wall to wall tables and chairs ready for serving cream teas!
At a price!

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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Very taxing, life in France

Nuclear Cooling Tower at the William H. Zimmer...Image by benuski via Flickr

So there's another tax I am going to have to pay.
What do we have so far?

VAT...a disgraceful tax which bears on every aspect of life and on essentials as much as luxuries.
The various local taxes which figure on my utility bills, for the local organisms to waste on studies for future useless projects.
Taxe fonciere. More waste on the local and regional level.
Taxe d'habitation. Ditto.
Taxe professionelle. Ditto.
Income tax. Waste on the national scale.
Contribution Sociale Generalisee. Paying for past waste.
Contribution au Remboursement de la Dette Sociale. Ditto.
Prelevement Social. Ditto.

And now I have to pay for another scheme to recycle the tax I pay into other people's pockets, all in the name of the environment! A Green Tax!
As far as I can see, I have to pay more for my heating fuel under this tax. Luckily I installed a new boiler a couple of years ago...the last one was like something off the Queen Mary adapted for oil...roaring as it engulfed money down in the basement. How many more rooms can I close off during the winter? How much more wood will I have to haul out of the river after the floods and cut for burning? How many more chimneys will I have to pay to have opened up, swept and certified?
The house is about as insulated as it can be for its' insulation was installed when I bought the place, and double glazed windows went in at the same time, but it's a big brute to heat, all the same.
Don't tell me to downsize.....just look at the property market. Anyway, I like this house.
I have absolutely no intention of going all electric.....any experience of Electricite de France and the behaviour of its' unions would put you off that option, left in the depths of winter for days without electricity. No wonder they sell so many gas and electric hobs combined in France. Apart from which, though I am a supporter of the nuclear option - come to think of it, the nuclear option is the first one I reach for when perturbed about anything at all - I am deeply unhappy about France's leaky nuclear stations.
Out in the wilds there is no piped gas, I already cook on gas bottles and refuse to be hostage to the prices hikes of Butagaz for refilling those ghastly white gas tanks that sit like massive puffballs on the lawn. Quite apart from being unwilling to pay for yet another certificate that my installations are in order before Butagaz would fill the wretched thing.
Then there is diesel for the car. I suppose that is going up as well...really welcome when you're miles from anywhere. I am already economical, grouping my shopping and other trips insofar as French opening hours will permit, so what else am I supposed to do? Start collecting birds' feathers and gluing them together, then taking off like Icarus from the balcony, a shopping bag tied firmly to each foot?

There is going to be a scheme that compensates those living in the wilds......I shall believe that when I see it. Any money that gets into the maw of the French state stays there and, besides, I can bet my boots that a 'study' would be made proving that I actually live in the heart of the civilised world and thus do not qualify for any compensation, while politicans' second mansions in Normandy would so qualify.

What I need is a system that could run the central heating from my blood pressure. All year round hot water!

I accept that I must pay taxes to have the services that a decent society needs in order to work, but I do ask myself if that is what I am actually getting for my money.
Education..... I don't use it, but I'm happy to pay for it.
Health services, I do use and am happy to pay, except that most doctors now won't make out of hours calls and you are in the dubious hands of telephone service 15.
Social services....happy to pay for our local system of help to keep people independent in their own homes as long as possible. Not happy with the workhouse like conditions of old peoples' homes.
However, where are the blasted gendarmerie when you need them? Out breathalysing someone.....just lately round here, an asthmatic, who agreed he had been drinking, explained his health problem and asked them to take a blood test instead. He has just copped a fine of 300 Euros.
Why are the rivers so polluted and nothing effective done about it, but a lot of 'studies' produced at great expense?
Why do cash strapped local authorities find grants to bring half witted 'performers' to so called 'festivals', and don't want to find the money to help communes do their own traditional thing?
'Why, when there is a functioning state education system does my commune cough up a grant to the local private school?
Why are our roads in such a poor state when there are so many unemployed?
Why are we wasting money on specialists in seeking grants from the European Union when we could do the job ourselves if only we could get our hands on the money?
And, to return to the environment, why do I have to go to the local dump ...sorry, recycling centre..where the uniformed dictator won't help with bulky items and the local travelling people take anything worthwhile for scrap?

The blood pressure powered central heating has just gone up a notch or two.

It's not just the open's all the others.
If I want to sell my house, I have to have 'studies' done to determine its' energy efficiency, the presence of lead and asbestos, the state of its electricity and gas installations, the state of its woodwork, and probably more since I last looked. All this requires the presence of an expert, who is poisoning himself with the radioactive equipment he uses to detect lead, and costs, inevitably, a vast amount of money.
I'd have to be mad not to tell a prospective buyer about the state of all of the above if there were any problems, and what about the buyer using his brain?
Further, I have my doubts about the process. Tell me how, when there are no keys to the house, an expert can enter, make his report and leave no foot or handmarks in the dust to be found when the buyer finally opens the door with a crowbar?

You want to communicate with the authorities, or make a complaint to a commerce? The letter must be sent registered otherwise its'existence will be denied. Amazing how bills, etc always find their way to me without being registered but it doesn't work in reverse. Another small, niggling tax on daily life.

I like the approach of the Turkish builder who used to help us. Hearing over lunch that we were going to buy a television for the holiday cottage, he said firmly
'Now be careful not to give your real name or address in the shop, otherwise you will have to pay the fine.'
In his view, the T.V. licence fee was just that - a fine and I begin to think that he had a point about the nature of taxes. Properly applied, they are taxes...inefficiently used, unfairly applied, they are fines.

It bothers me how many houses of cards we are supporting on our fiscal shoulders. I grew up with English local government when the town halls or council offices were not overstaffed, there was no PR element and ratepayers made regular use of the public auditor, and this free for all style of administration, local, national and European, gives me the horrors. You can't get at it to demand explanations as you could in the past in England.....not that it would give them, your letter wasn't registered.....

Sarkozy wants to do something for the environment? Take a few less jets to Brazil, for a start.

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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Fruit of the vine


Old Wine PressImage by ...-Wink-... via Flickr

I have been picking grapes with friends or neighbours ever since I came to France, with only a couple of gaps due to illness. I have no experience whatsoever of picking on the industrial scale, so cannot comment, but the small scale job gives me a lot of pleasure. For one thing, it is usually only one day, or one and a half and then perhaps another couple of days later, so it is hardly demanding in terms of time, the weather is usually good and the company is always worth having.

Papy's middle son Jean asked me if I would help the first year....Mamie usually helped, but she was getting past it and needed to rest and another pair of hands would be welcome. Now, this was the unscientific age of winemaking, wild yeast on the grapes, no idea of temperature control and the desired result a pink wine a bit on the sweet side to keep the family going through the year. Accordingly, it was not necessary to stumble out in the dark before the dawn to take advantage of the coolest part of the day...we ventured forth in the afternoon, when the housework and the farmwork had been dealt with and the sun was approaching its' zenith. It promised to be warm work, and it was.
Jean organised us. Each person had a wide bucket and a pair of secateurs - so small that I found them difficult to handle and in future brought my own big gardening ones which were more suited to my paws. I was put with Jean's wife, to see that I knew what to do, we were assigned our rows of vines, and off we went. The object was to pick the triangular bunches of ripe grapes and, at all costs, not to include the round balls of immature ones, the secondary growths that an all too casual pruning had allowed to develop. If they went in, the wine would be too acidic. Most people squatted or crouched, but I found my best method was to shuffle along on my knees hoping not to encounter too many thistles or must be a height question, or a lack of attendance at yoga classes on my part. Supple I have never been. The technique was to place the bucket under the bunches you were picking so that they dropped neatly within, and the challenge was to miss no bunch, while being aware that another pair of secateurs was at work on the other side of the plant and your fingers were in imminent peril.
We moved along and I was pleased that I could keep up with the others and not miss anything...Papy inspected each row, with crows of triumph if he found a bunch still hanging on the vine. Conversation was brisk, the gosssip was hair raising and I was quite surprised to find how quickly the buckets were filled and taken to the trailer sitting behind Papy's tractor at the edge of the field. The women were grumbling that there should be someone in charge of the buckets to save them from having to get up and down and then stretch up to the trailer, so Papy was given additional duties which put a swift end to his inspection and crowings....he was too busy coming and going, keeping his pickers busy.
The first third of the vines had been cleared when Jean called a break. Papy, the man of the moment, was prepared. He had the mustard glasses ready....the ones that you buy which contain mustard and then can use for drinking ever afterwards...and the bottles were brought from the bucket which had been hanging in the well....that cool, soft pink wine went down very well the first time - and the second! Papy went off with the tractor and trailor down to the press but for us it was back to work on the rest of the vines and the afternoon began to turn into evening by the time we had taken our second break and were on the last stretch. Papy had taken another load, and this was the last, so we all trailed after him, down to the house to wash our buckets and secateurs under the tap in the yard, stacking them to dry, and then washing our sticky and stained hands. The modern - well, reasonably so - press was full and in action, a long cylinder which acted a bit like a syringe...the plate at the end pushing inexorably forward, but gently enough not to start breaking the pips, which would add a bitterness which was not desired, squeezing the juice out through the pipe at the far end into an underground concrete tank where fermentation would take place. The last of the harvest had to go in the old press, a round wooden structure with a central screw as pictured above where the levels were adjusted with wooden blocks, a long metal pole turned the screw and the juice poured between the slats onto the platform of the press, thence to buckets placed underneath.
The friends and neighbours were heading for home, and so was I when Mamie appeared from the doorway of the house.
'Don't forget....we're all eating down at Jean's tonight.....I always used to do it, but I'm just getting too old.'
It appeared that I was invited to supper, and, checking with Jean's wife, who seemed remarkably cool for someone about to entertain the multitudes, that was indeed the case.
'Should I bring anything?'
'Oh....well, one of your salads would be nice. Jean likes that.'
I hared home, scrubbed my hands with bleach and tried to wash and change while racking my brains to remember what it was I had served when Papy's family had come to supper, and, worse, wondering if I had the ingredients in the house. It occurred to me that it would probably have been my standby.....tinned chickpeas, red beans and flageolet beans, combined with diced onion, black olives and parsley with a good slosh of green and tasty olive oil. Store cupboard stuff. I put it together and included the batch of pork pies I had made the day before for good measure, and was ready when Papy honked to take me down to the village in his old Renault van. He and Mamy sat in the front and the rest of us crouched in the back with our various offerings, swaying in unison on the corners and combining to keep Papy's dog from pushing his nose into the dishes.

The tables had been set in the courtyard of Jean's house, lit by those bamboo outside lights that flare and cast shadows at their own sweet will, and the women were already setting out the dishes they had provided. The whole thing was a glorious buffet, home made pate, rillettes, rillons, ham and charcuterie, salads, bread and cheese, and, of course, wine.
We ate, we talked, we drank, and, eventually, we sang.
My best memory of that long day is the quiet courtyard with the tenor voice of Pierre soaring into the shadows, and the warm full response of the chorus as we sang

'A la claire fontaine.'

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Sunday, 13 September 2009

Raising the ghosts

Eigen tekeningImage via Wikipedia

We were assembled at Madeleine's hospitable table, friends and family, French and British, for Sunday lunch and the aperitifs had been going the rounds...Suze, pineau, whisky and white port...while the clock ticked towards one o'clock. I had been asking about something that had been puzzling me...I was permitted use of the woods of the chateau up the road, and often used to walk there. A week back, I had seen something new - a very weathered stone cross erected in the main clearing. I hadn't seen the chateau owner to ask what it was about, and then a couple of days later, it had fallen down. Artisan francais again, I had thought. I was going to ask if anyone round the table had any idea what it was all about when the dog pricked up his ears as he heard his master's running feet on the pavement outside, and then barked as his master hurled himself through the portals in order to be at the table on time. Master had been winning at cards, but knew where his duty lay...lunch was serious business.
Someone commented on how good the dog was, especially as he could have been hoping to receive his master's portion if the one o'clock curfew had been breached and then a British friend said that his dog had rendered him good service during the week and proceeded to tell us his tale.
He was renovating a beautiful 'maison de maitre', a large, once elegant house which had been regarded as the best house in the commune, but which had fallen on hard times before he took it in hand. His companion was a little black dog who he had found on the road on Christmas Day who followed him everywhere around the house and garden. In the early hours of the morning, the little fellow had woken him, barking frantically, standing up on the bed defending his master. He heard sounds of heavy footsteps outside his bedroom door and got up to see what was going on,accompanied by the dog. Once out on the landing, he could still hear the footsteps, but this time up in the attic. Once there, they sounded from below again, and then from the ground floor as he ran up and down the stairs trying to pin point where they were coming from. Then the noise seemed to be coming from everywhere at once, whirling around him as he stood on the stairs before it suddenly stopped. The dog trotted back to bed and he was following when another noise started up. The door was open and he could see that there was nothing there, but the house was full of the noise of buckets of water being thrown against the walls of the bathroom, smashing and sluicing for what seemed a long time before it too, stopped and there was silence. He went to bed, reassured by the dog's lack of interest in proceedings, nothing further happened, and that was the end of the story.
Or it would have been, except that the next day he was talking to the old chap up the road, Gaston, a man who was cordially detested by all his neighbours as he could and would defend his rights with the force of law, custom or a shotgun as he felt the occasion demanded. However, as a new arrival and a foreigner, our friend was accepted by Gaston, who was always ready to help out with advice and assistance. He recounted his tale, expecting derision, but Gaston just took him into the house for a drink and began to explain the history of the house he had bought.

It had belonged to one of the families of local bigwigs in the inter war period, and the man in possession just before the 1939 - 1945 war had been a big spender. He bought himself an aeroplane which he would land on the lawns in front of the house from the proceeds of a thriving wine business, had a lot of agricultural property and had married a woman with money. His uncle was maire of the commune, and he was regarded as a pillar of the community. What the community didn't know was that this pillar was a different chap once he was out of their sight in Paris on 'business' trips. Then it was wine, women and song and money no object.
As an aside, it strikes me life must have been pretty stultifying in rural France, for anyone with any money seemed to be off up to Paris as often as they could to get away from it all. A friend told me that her uncle had managed to lose the family chateau after too many visits to Paris during which, mysteriously, he had been offering Mistinguette - a music hall star - vast amounts of money 'to sit in his car'.
The war was a godsend to our big spender, who was beginning to get through his fortune. He supplied eau de vie in quantity to the German occupiers and, as all my informants agreed, the Germans might have requisitioned, but they also always paid. The money was rolling in, smart cars were being bought and life was good. He was in good odour with the occupiers. The fancy took him to make a drive from the main road to the house, the old fashioned courtyard entrance not being to his liking, and, I suppose, the 'plane having been grounded for the duration. In the depths of winter, he obtained forced labour and dynamite to blast the frozen ground and level the new approach. It had all disappeared by our friend's time, but he could still see the trace of it where the ground dried out faster than its' surroundings in the heat of summer.
He wasn't the only one making money. A crony who owned the brickworks was making a pile, his neighbour was also in on the eau de vie supplies and there was always the black market. As Gaston explained, a lot of farmers before the war were tenants, subject to crushing leases, but such were their profits from the black market that after the war they could afford to buy out their leases and become independent. Bigger fish could make even more money, while the poor devils of women whose husbands were POWs, or who had been young enough to have been taken up for forced labour in Germany, were trying to keep the farms going singlehandedly or were going under.

All was going swimmingly, until the Allies had the lack of tact not to be thrown back into the sea in the summer of 1944. There had always been a Resistance in France, not numerous, mostly independent groups or Communist trade unionists, but in existence, and they began to make their presence felt. Not comfortable for those with big contracts with the Germans...and not comfortable for de Gaulle, by now recognised as leader of the Free French. The last thing he wanted was to have France liberated by foreign armies with the assistance of a Communist underground! The right thinking were encouraged to form groups and received arms in order to make a political counterweight to the Communists' very real claims to have been the only organised Resistance in France during the dark years of the Vichy regime.
Well, the big spender was right thinking, and, with his cronies and followers, swiftly became a 'Resistant', as the Germans began to pull back out of the area. However, as Gaston explained, there was a problem. While the big spender could proclaim his house a Resistance centre, and could proclaim himself the local Resistance leader, his history was well known and he decided that he must shut the mouths of the dissidents.
In a farm on the other side of the commune lived a youngish man, classed too weak for the forced labour drafts, who had acted as a courrier for the Resistance unit based in the railway works in the next large town. As the Germans retreated, his role became acknowledged...drinks in the bar, etc...and the big spender decided that this was going to be his example. He had the man lured to the house and locked into the outhouses. Whether things got out of control, whether drink had a part to play, whether it was all premeditated, Gaston did not know, but the man was tortured, his ear cut off and sent to his home and he was murdered, his body being buried in the woods in the next commune.

Well, the big spender survived untouched....but he never prospered. His cronies did, going on to bigger and better things in postwar France, but he could not change his ways and a lot of people were reluctant to deal with him given the rumours circulating. His business went downhill, he sold off his property, he sold his wife's property, and ended up in a small house down the road from the scenes of his glory, known to the commune as 'the man who ate three houses'. His wife was a recluse, his two sons were unemployable, except by the maire, daughter of a crony, who gave one a job as a roadsweeper, but being, as Guy remarked, 'allergic to dust', even influence could not keep him the job.

Retribution, then, down over the years?

That was the end of our friend's story, but Madeleine's cousin took over. A quiet man, who collected moths for the national scientific body, he had been a he said, a bit by accident. As a youth, he had been caught by the French police putting up rude posters about the Germans and had been handed over for a bit of rough treatment. So rough, in fact, that one ear was almost completely missing and he was partly deaf. Released, he was adopted by the group run by the doctors at the local hospital, and did his part. Not, that he always said, that that was much. He did what he could, usually passing messages. He never mentioned the risks he had I say, a quiet man.
He and a group of old Resistants had been gathering together the accounts of everyone who had taken part in the movement locally, and he, as the archivist, knew something which linked the two stories.
Yes, the murdered man had been the chateau woods. In the clearing where I had seen the cross. In rural France, everything is seen, it is just not generally commented upon. The man's cousin had taken the man's dogs and they had found the body of their master which was dug up and given proper burial - complete with the ear.
In another account, details were suitably airbrushed. The group to which the young man had belonged were lose a colleague after the Germans had left, and then in such a fashion! They had ambushed the big spender's bailiff, the man who had lured the young man to his doom, taken him to the clearing and shot him. His family were told where to collect the body.

'Why didn't they shoot the big spender, or his cronies? Why go for the bailiff?'

The cousin explained that if the big spender had been shot, the repercussions would have been enormous...the gendarmerie would have been at full stretch to catch someone who attacked an important man...whereas, for the bailiff......
Oh, and as for my idea that the cross had been incompetently put up...nothing of the sort. He was well abreast of local gossip and the grapevine had been agog when, with a new owner at the chateau, the bailiff's family had wanted to put up a memorial and the owner had agreed. Local opinion disagreed. It was thrown down the next day and if it were to be put up again, the same fate would await it.

The U.K. was never occupied by the Germans and it is presumptuous of anyone who did not live through an enemy occupation to say how people could or should have acted, but if there had been something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the war instead of the propaganda trumpeting how every Frenchman was in the Resistance, and vindictively shaving the heads of women denounced as 'fraternising' with the Germans, perhaps the anger nurtured for more than fifty years would have been dissipated earlier.

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Friday, 11 September 2009

Strip the willow in the cheese queue.

French CheeseImage by chez loulou via Flickr

One lesson I learned very quickly in rural France was to address everyone, on every conceivable occasion, but never by name.

In the days of the old baker...who actually made bread from scratch rather than turning out batches of Readymix.......entering the shop at rush hour - ten minutes to twelve - was a bit like Highland dancing as you were passed up and down the queue shaking hands or exchanging the cheek to cheek salutation and it felt a bit like Strip the Willow - in slow time. The queue at the cheese stall at the local big town market was another Highland dancing experience, with the stallholders darting out from behind their stand to join in the ceremony. Entering the then doctor's waiting room was a more sedate experience, given the sticks, zimmer frames and sinister looking bandages, but the salutation round had to be completed even if the earlier arrivals could not rise to their feet. It could do your back in, crouching over Papy, even if the eau de vie on his breath at eight in the morning didn't take yours away. For some reason, people didn't salute each other in the dentist's waiting could be that they were in too much pain, or it could have been the sight of the dentist with blood stained overall returning richly scented from the bar, ready to do battle with the next molar. I have even shaken hands while buying my ticket to enter a junk fair. All this I can handle. I do still have problems as to which cheek to start with, but a sharp eye on the head movement of your co respondant generally solves that problem. No good even guessing how many 'bises' to expect....'furreners' have perverted the ancestral traditions of even darkest France, so no one seems to know whether it is two, three or four...especially lascivious elderly gentlemen who would go for non stop action if not restrained by their wives. It is wise to adopt a certain posture with these gentlemen....feet well back and just the head and neck inclined as their hands seem not to have felt the decline of age and it is regarded as impolite to slosh one as he so richly deserves.
Of course, the cheek to cheek has been adopted by the British in France, just to show how well they are fitting in, but why do they have to do it when mixing with each other? Growing up in an era where the horror of every military man was to be congratulated by a kiss from a French general, touchy feely was not in fashion, except behind closed doors with the lights out and not with French generals. It is always a bit disconcerting to find that some chap thinks he can meet you for the first time at someone else's house and attempt to clutch you to his person while administering hot breath to the approximate area of your chin...and then expects congratulation on how well he has adapted to local custom! It is regarded as impolite to slosh these chaps, as well.
Didier complains that people nowadays don't even shake hands or say 'Bonjour', just rush past with their heads averted and he puts this down to the influx of Parisians to the countryside, where, as he opines darkly,
'No one knows what they got up to in Paris.'
Strangely, he doesn't include the Brits in this, but, given their full on attempts at physical integration described above, he probably gives them Brownie Points for effort in maintaining tradition.

My problem has not been the salutation process...but the recognition process. I read a book published some years ago about the life of women in my area which included some fascinating statistics about marriage. Apparently, the area had a tramway - a light railway - in the interwar period, and, in this period, marriages were registered with partners much further away from base than in the period before and after its' existence. Pre and post tramway, the choice of life partner seemed to be limited to bicycle distance. So, for a few brief years, the gene pool opened up, before returning to the norm. This, in my view, explains the French village clone phenomenon. It has been my experience that while I could not say with any exactitude whether the gentleman who has just saluted me is Georges Dixneuf or Jacques Leboeuf, I do know that whoever it is comes from the commune. I also know that if I attempt to address him by name I will get it many of them look alike, and it's not just the caps and vests. I also know that if he does not look like Messieurs Dixneuf or LeBoeuf then he is not from these parts and is probably an 'incomer' like myself. Inbreeding was exaggerated, not only by the demise of the tramway, but by the loss of life in the two World Wars. If you look at the population statistics, it is only now that some villages are approaching the number of inhabitants they contained in 1914. Further, the absence of men as POWs and forced labourers in Germany in the 1939 - 1945 war affected the choice of partners. I do not intend to discuss the odd fair haired child born in that period...their treatment has been a disgrace to a civilised country...but, in general, the inbreeding had been reinforced again until fairly recently, when further education has taken children out of their immediate surroundings to meet clones from other communes.

I suppose that the breakdown of a closed local society encourages the breakdown of the salutation...after all, who wants to be embraced by some chancer whose grandfather never knew your grandmother?
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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

The black gang is with us

2007-12-04 Walpole Park, Men At Work, Laying T...Image by that_james via Flickr

Determinative sign of the penetration of the British into French life.....the Irish tinkers find it worthwhile coming over to perpetrate the tarmac scam.
The gendarmerie are investigating the case of a person who agreed to have his drive know how it starts.
'Good morning to you. We are working in the area and we're just finishing up and we have a bit of tarmac left....then we noticed your drive could, not being rude, you understand, do with a bit of improvement, and as we have the tarmac it won't cost you much...'
Well, the client agreed, the drive was not laid with tarmac but with what was described intiguingly as 'British gravel' and the whole thing cost a fortune. The disgruntled client legged it to the gendarmerie and, amazingly, it was open and they agreed to accept the complaint. Other rumours, had, it appeared, come to their ears of the activities of the black gang running under the name of reported...'Construction Dany O'Donaghue'. Typo, or an attempt to transcribe Danny with an Irish accent?
I think I can save the gendarmerie a lot of time - just check the 'Irish' pubs in the region.....the ones where they set fire to the bar at the end of the evening..... as the usual habit of the black gangs is to make a killing and not return to work until the killing has been, in the best sense of the word, liquidated.
A further sign of the recognition of the British presence. Those awaiting the flight from Poitiers to Stansted were astonished to see a light aircraft buzzing the airfield and releasing lots of leaflets. These proved to contain disapproving comments on Segolene Royal...Socialist party candidate at the last Presidential elections...and Martine Aubry, General Secretary of the same party. I know that Royal is President of the Poitou Charente regional council...thus Poitiers and its' busy airport is a prime target...but wouldn't you think it might occur to 'cellule sdf75', the supposed originators of the stunt, that most of the people waiting for a flight to the U.K. would be British and, for the most part, ignorant both of French language and French politics?
The indignant and maligned can form a line on the right.....I'm just thinking about most of the expats I encounter.

The resistance of the expat to the French language is quite astonishing. Local authorities set up courses, some of which are amazingly good and some of which degenerate into gossip shops, but it always strikes me that the average expat has no real motivation to improve. There are enough British in France now to allow people to form a social life independent of French, and a lot of people thankfully do just that. I think lack of confidence in learning languages is at the bottom of it, rather than the old imperial attitude of speaking English very loudly, and the age of some of the people coming over is another factor. I am not a good language learner at the best of times and when the brain is poised on its' skis for the downhill slalom it is not the best of times for new acquisitions. I notice that a few services have been set up to deal with your French paperwork and sort out your problems generally, so even that imperative to learn French has been removed. Whether they are any good is anyone's guess...I don't use them so I don't know...but I've seen a few self styled translators in my time and the results would make your flesh creep.
There has always been the exploitative expat around. It started with estate agents and carries on these days through financial advisors and service providers.
The next queue for the indignant and maligned may form on the left. There are reputable people doing all of the above and there are the others. It is of the others I speak.

Years ago, when the trickle started to become a flood, French estate agents used to 'employ' British negotiators to deal with their compatriots. Employ was always a misnomer...they were not employed and worked on do many to this day....nor were they registered with the professional bodies. Not that being registered is any guarantee of honesty or competence, it's just that French estate agents are warier these days and like to shrug as much responsibility as possible off onto their subordinates. Some of these first negotiators were well meaning people anxious to earn a bit on the side while some had ambitions.
There was one very amiable gentleman operating in my area in those days, when estate agents had a habit of dropping a bunch of keys and vague directions into your hands and letting you loose on their properties. He reformed all this. He accompanied all the foreign clients and took a mental inventory of the contents of the empty properties.....he never had to buy wood for winter, he emptied the wood stores of the properties on the firm's books. Choice furniture and ornaments would likewise be transferred to his, you must remember that French and British aesthetics differ, so while the family would have removed anything of interest to them, that left quite a lot of scope for the British collector.
His best coup came on the sale of a rural property which featured a run down house for renovation, stone outbuildings and a large Dutch barn at the back of the property. The client liked it, but, having used up his holiday entitlement, left a 'procuration', a power of attorney, with the agent to represent him in the sale process. Not a problem with the purchase, but when the proud owner came over on his next holiday, he found that he was no longer the proud owner of the Dutch barn. It had disappeared.
He eventually tracked it down to the yard of a local farmer, who seemed intent on covering his entire farm with metal structures. The farmer had bought it from the negotiator, who, when upbraided by the client, explained that he thought that the Dutch barn spoiled the property and was an eyesore, so he had got rid of it.
Not a penny of compenation was forthcoming.
There was a lot more going on than met the eye with this chap. A lot of clients seemed to have entrusted money to him for reasons which they were never keen to divulge when eventually, the gendarmerie were goaded into taking an interest in his activities and it appeared that very little of this was ever recovered, but the victims stayed quiet. I still wonder what all that was about!
Another pair had a different style. They left the card for their holiday cottages in the estate agents' offices, paid a little commission for recommendations, and had the victims to themselves, offering help as long term residents...well, longer term than the victims, anyway....guiding them to likely properties where another commission would be generated for the successful introduction, and, over drinks in the evening, as if by chance, the local builder, plumber and Uncle Tom Cobley and all would drop in, preparing the ground for the renovation contracts, when yet another commission would change hands.
There were any amount of these chancers about, but, how, I ask, as an innocent potential buyer, would you have avoided their toils? Watch out for your friendly neighbourhood expat exploiter is not one of the warnings I have read in the books preparing you for your move to France.

These days there is some protection in that a lot of people buy near friends or family and have a readymade back up system in realising their dreams of starting a new life outside the U.K., together with, as I say, the readymade social life to cushion the shock of change. The danger is that it cushions it so well that they may never really get to know the country in which they have chosen to live.
Sometimes, when I open the post, I think that that might not be such a bad idea!

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Monday, 7 September 2009

Ah, yes, I remember it well

Maurice ChevalierImage by Truus, Bob & Jan too! via Flickr

I know I am old because I can now remember what my cousin Hugh said to make me so upset when I was three. The memory of the upset had lingered, and I knew it involved frilly knickers and a pond, but only now has the full, unexpurgated version returned. So I must be old.
Memories of the France I moved to are clear and always have been, so I'm not sure whether they will stay clear or whether they will be assimilated to the recent period and disappear as I get older and concentrate on the events of childhood as yet unrevealed to me. I hope not, as it was a happy time.
People smoked, drank and drove cars that fell apart if they went over thirty kilometres an hour. Naked women jumped from windows and fled through the vines as their husbands returned unexpectedly early from market. Gendarmes had a bar in their barracks and were much better tempered in consequence. Papy up the road cooked in a cauldron and had a pornography collection which was the envy of several communes around. The man with the three wheeled tractor had not been driven from the roads. Jules slaughtered his own sheep and I could buy the meat. The old people got together in the winter evenings to play cards, knit and tell stories. Andre was soaking blackcurrant branches in his wine to make it taste better. Lawyers went on strike and defendants were left to make up their own stories. Monsieur Untel was cleaning his drains with eau de vie. There were eight bars in the commune and a cafe which was cheap and good. There wasn't a Parisian, an artist or an antique dealer in the area.
As that great collaborator used to sing
'Ah, yes, I remember it well.'

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Sunday, 6 September 2009

Round up the usual suspects....

Le gendarme en baladeImage via Wikipedia

There'll be more than a few uneasy heads wearing caps, kepis and cagoules today. The suspects rounded up with so much acclaim in the case of the envelopes containing ammunition sent to prominent politicians have all been released without charge. The heads wouldn't be quite so uneasy if one of those targeted had not been the President of the French Republic who is renowned for wanting results yesterday in any affair touching his sacred person.
I posted earlier....'Sarkozy's scooter'...about the efforts deployed by the Paris police when his son's scooter was stolen.....and again.....'Sarkozy's septic tank'....about what happened to the local Prefet when mother in law didn't get her sewage sorted, while other officials have been sidelined abruptly for not defusing demonstrations when the President honoured their department with his presence. I wonder which one got brownie points recently for lining up all the short arses behind the President at a recent visit to a factory in Normandy so that he looked as though he were of normal height when his address was televised.

In this case, a number of letters have been addressed to prominent politicians over the last year, some with death threats, some containing ammunition, some making political demands like halting the deportation of illegal immigrants, all supposedly emanating from something called 'cellule 34', all supposedly fairly illiterate and all posted from the south of France. Three have been addressed to Sarkozy and, as far as he is concerned, that is three too many. He wants the matter cleared
The Sdat (sous direction antiterroriste) have been interviewing 'revolutionaries' a tobacconist who publishes a newsheet classed as being 'proletarian' in content - whatever that might mean - and, according to reports in the 'Depeche du Midi' the police have been amusing themselves by harassing anyone who has raised their head against established authority in the area round Lamalou les Bains in the Herault department. Notably those who oppose the massive windfarm that has been installed causing problems of noise pollution. And those who opposed the installation of a waste disposal site in 2003.
None of this activity has produced results. An ex member of the Foreign Legion was interviewed having been denounced by his ex girlfriend - how French - but with no positive results, and there the matter rested until the last letter to Sarkozy was discovered in the sorting office in Montpellier.
At this point, the August holidays being over, the solids hit the fan. Results were required. Action this day. Sarkozy expects that every man will do.....whatever it takes.
They did. In a sudden closing of the dragnet, the police arrested eleven suspects and took them into custody under anti terrorist legislation which allows them to be interviewed without lawyers being present for a period of forty eight hours, the which period being renewable. One thing struck me...usually you see suspects with their heads under blankets and the police clearly visible. In this case, the photographs show the 'suspects' clearly while the police are wearing balaclavas! I know who looks more like a terrorist to me!
Who were these suspects? Well, the tobacconist, of course. Among the others, a plumber, a butcher, several old age pensioners, an architect, a dentist and, wonder of wonders......a notaire! A revolutionary notaire? I don't think so....there hasn't been one since Robespierre, and look what happened to him, dragged to the guillotine with a broken jaw. Enough to discourage any future notaire from revolutionary practices.
Twelve more people were interviewed in their homes, handwriting samples taken, copies of their computers hard drives removed and DNA samples required.

Alas for the careers of the caps, kepis and cagoules, all this was in vain. Gradually, one by one, the suspects were released without charge until the last, Pierre Blondeau, emerged after more than thirty hours of interrogation, directed, according to him, from Sarkozy's HQ, the Elysee Palace, by its' Secretary General, Claude Gueant. Nothing has been proved against him nor against the others and he and they want answers as to why they have been harassed.
The problem is, everyone knows why. It is the secret of Polichinelle...the one everyone knows but no one reveals....the Head of State wants results and his employees strain every sinew to get them, justified or not. Local militants are viewed as dangerous revolutionaries, judges sign permits to arrest them and the police interrogate them. It is not healthy for the state of justice in France...and it hasn't done anything to find the real culprits.

Sarkozy should get a grip.....he is more likely to die from the effects of the diet imposed on him by his wife than at the hands of a few malcontents from the Midi.

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