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.

Friday, 27 November 2009

The river is rising

Finally, the river shows signs of rising. It has taken what seems like weeks of rain to get it to move, but it is finally doing so, sweeping away the muck and rubbish that have accumulated against the banks during the year, and pouring over the weir where the waterfowl amuse themselves by dabbling their feet in the water. It is making music again, having been quiet so long.

It is time that I started to move again too, sweeping away accumulations of irritations and setbacks and starting to enjoy life again. I have been upset by people letting me down, by people who could help who won't lift a finger to do so, by people who think that lying through their teeth is acceptable, by people who think that they have the right to rip me off and are outraged when I don't share their opinion. It has not been a good year and I'll be glad to see the back of it, but there is no point waiting for the New Year to make resolutions.......I'll take the hint from the river and sweep all this away.

I promise not to make music, voice would disgrace a parliament of rooks.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

I wanted a wwoofer

I was green with envy. Why do I always miss out?
Answer, because I don't generally know that there is anything happening that I will be missing until after it has happened and I have duly missed it.

Friends in the next department are in the hospitality business, the sort of place where people start booking for the next year at the end of their current holiday, and they have a huge organic garden. They used to have pigs, sheep and poultry of all sorts too, but it all got a bit too much , so it's back to the fruit and veg and a few chickens.
There have been a few health problems too, which did not make keeping things going very easy, but they, intelligent and resourceful people, have found the solution. They have wwoofers.

When they first told me about this system, I thought they were talking about dogs...well, I would....and visions of St. Bernards in stout green jackets hauling little carts to and fro filled my mind, an appealing vision, but totally inaccurate. What they actually had was human help...the wwoofers turned out to be Willing Workers on Organic Farms and they have been a godsend, not only in terms of physical help but also in injecting variety into their lives. Different people, different cultures, different all leavens life in the country.

The latest wwoofer was a young French guy but they have had all sorts, Chinese Australians, Americans, artists, postgraduate students, youngsters touring Europe and all with lots to offer.

I immediately started to think of all those jobs a wwoofer or two could help with at my place and the imagination was running overtime......I could get the spring cleared out properly and repoint its' stone housing, repair the bridge to the island, move the soft fruit beds, get the watering lines sorted out properly....all the things I want to do and never seem to have time for.

Then reality set in. My friends are open, hospitable people, glad to see a new face and ready to accommodate its owner.
We, on the other hand, have become recluses, embedded in our daily routine and circle, somewhat like trolls busy turning back into rocks, and I doubt we could cope with strangers in our midst any more. It has been a sobering realisation.

In our time we have been the family Borstal...the misbehaving youth sent down for hard labour by their parents... the family holiday centre in the sunshine, a staging post for friends, and we have enjoyed all of it, but whether we could now cope with someone new I do not know. I think not. In theory I would love to be able to talk to someone of a different generation with a different culture, but the effort to prise myself from the rock would be have to explain things that are taken as given by our own circle, to have, in the end, to question or - horror - change my way of life.

Other friends scoff.
'It's only a question of feeding and watering them and giving them a comfortable bed.'

I don't think so. I see what our friends do, and it's not just a question of creature comforts, though there are plenty of those. Our friends give their time and their interest too, they include their wwoofers in their family life so that they are truly in a home while they stay there.

I am ashamed to say that I don't think I could do it and any less would not be fair to potential wwoofers, so, unless anyone can offer St. Bernards in stout green coats, I'm back to being on my Jack Jones in the garden. Still, if I'm missing out, it is entirely my own inflexible fault.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

When did you last see your father, and was he French?

A French soldier serving in Afghanistan has just had the pleasure of being told that he is, in fact, French. Having always thought he was, it should have come as no surprise to him, but I imagine he greeted the news with relief all the same, since he had been obliged to defend his right to French nationality in court not once but twice.

All depended on whether his father, a Senegalese, had in fact aquired French nationality when Senegal achieved independence and some bright prosecutor, instructed by the Chancellory, had decided that the father had not demonstrated that he had French nationality and thus that the son had not aquired French nationality by descent from his father. While all this was going on, the soldier was refused leave to bring his fiancee and their children to live with him in France, as he was not regarded as being French, despite no legal judgement having been made against him. Luckily, the court of appeal of Rouen dismissed the affair once and for all, stating that had there been any question to raise, it should have been raised in the thirty years following the nationalisation in question and not dragged up now, over forty years later.

What could possess any prosecutor to bring such a case as this to court? I am fascinated by the indelicacy of attacking a man who is demonstrating his patriotism by his very action, fighting in what he regards as his country's army. Is there some sort of low level ethnic cleansing of the French army going on here?

I think it is rather more likely to be a decision born of the hysteria of the current debate on French nationality and a lick spittle subordinate trying to curry favour with the politicians who, through the Ministry of Justice, control his career prospects. Politicians like Eric Besson and Brice Hortefeux, who are busy trying to push the question of the nature of the French identity in the direction of a debate about immigration, conveniently close to the regional elections and mid term in a Sarkozy presidency which is rapidly losing its' allure.

It is a debate turning sour, but not without its' funny side. Martine Aubry, currently heading the Socialist Party, has condemned the Sarkozy camp for mixing immigration with the question of national identity, but has declared herself to be not only French but also Basque and proud to be both. First most people knew of her dual identity....she is known as the daughter of Jaques Delors, Eurofuhrer extraordinaire, and as a Parisian, so this sudden rise to prominence of her mother's side of the family seems just a little contrived. Might she not have pointed out the contrast betwen the treatment accorded a French soldier and that accorded a young footballer whose application for citizenship was, as he himself sunnily proclaims, assisted by the fact that he was wanted for the French national team despite having been born at sea of an Angolan mother and having no French affiliation whatsoever.

Perhaps I should change course at this point before I stand accused of mingling the question of national identity with that of national football. However, unable as always to read a compass, I shall maintain my speed and bearing and carry on regardless. Just how far does the French football team reflect the nature and aspirations of the French people? Surprisingly well, in my view.

When there is any physical work to be done, the French rely on the underclass to do it, preferably a foreign underclass, so the players qualify on this ground alone. They are reputed to be unable to make any independent decisions on the field of play - like whether to move from the left to the right leg - without the direction of the manager, so there again they reflect the state of affairs of the world of work in France where incompetent ill adapted managers attempt to control even the respiration rate of their staff.

The players, despite their lacklustre performance on the field, perform well with the mouth, thus displaying their inalienable French character, and, if any further proof were required, as we all now know, on the evidence of our own eyes if not those of the referee, they cheat. This has been confirmed by the great headbutter himself, Zidane, whose idea of support to Thierry Henri - the cheat in question - has been to proclaim that deliberately handling the ball goes on all the time, and it was just a shame that Henri had been caught doing it on film.

Since no one else has used the French national football team as an example of just how successful integration can prove to be, I will advance it as my contribution to the debate.

Just don't send them to fight in Afghanistan.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Suicide on line

Never let it be said that France Telecom is unfair. Inefficient, greedy, expensive, yes, but

It has been the objet of press speculation recently as there have been several cases of suicide by employees of the institution, suffering from stress at work, apparently from the pressure to meet targets as the giant of telecommunications has faced the task of losing its' comfortable monopoly and keeping pace with its' competitors. It has a problem...telecommunications have changed radically in France, people moving from fixed line to mobile deals, but France Telecom, needing to cut costs, cannot shed employees. From its' days as a state institution, it has inherited staff with the right to a job for life, and all it can do is to try to retrain these people for the new business world in which they find themselves, or bribe them to leave, with offers of financial support to set up their own businesses. Should these businesses fold however, France Telecom will take back the people involved and find them a job again! As I have had cause to remark before, the French love to have their cake and eat it too.

Apparently, even the staff union admits that the rate of suicide is 'normal' for France Telecom and is inferior to the national norm, but the phenomenon has been brought to public attention as part of an attack on management practices at FT. Now, if I had been a lineman for years, stuck out on a pole in the middle of the countryside, I think I might find it difficult to adjust to working in a call centre with targets to meet, and, in general, even commercial staff, used to a captive clientele whom they could abuse at will, must find it difficult to find themselves obliged to coax rather than command, but why would one resort to suicide if one was sure of a job for life?

The answer seems to be in part that FT did not anticipate that there might be a problem in changing the mode of work of their employees, and, in fact, announced earlier this year that the old culture would have to change without doing anything to facilitate that change. Only now that the matter has reached public attention has management installed processes of dialogue to defuse delicate situations. The root of it lies in the underlying culture of France, where the state embodies the will of the people. When FT was part of the state apparatus, its' employees could feel superior to their clients...they were part of the governing caste, even if very low down in the food chain. Suddenly, they find themselves in the position of having to conciliate their clients, attract them to what FT has to offer, instead of depriving them of access if not of good behaviour as in the good old days.

France Telecom has only itself to blame for the flight of clients to its competitors...a history of high prices and poor service is difficult to overcome, and changing its name to Orange was clearly not the answer.

The task of the outdoorsmen in the call centres will not be made easier by the latest headline.

A gentleman living near Valenciennes, near the Belgian border, subscribed for an internet and telephone offer at a fixed fee of 95 Euros per month. Figure his surprise to receive his first monthly bill for 45,000 Euros, give or take a sou or two.

He refused to pay, FT...or Orange, already sending reminders, and he discovers that

a) the offer he subscribed to is not the offer he was given


b) he is being charged for international calls at a rate worthy of a business class hotel.

The former point is sort of admitted by FT, while the latter remains mired in mystery, although it has been suggested that, as he lives so close to the border, he has been routed via the Belgian network, which would reconcile the volume of international calls with his claim that he has made none whatsoever.

So, as I say, never claim that France Telecom is not fair....evenhandedly, it drives both its employees and its customers to thoughts of suicide.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sarkozy's season of illwill is upon us

The summer switched itself off dramatically into frosts, then rain, and now gales.....and the leaves started to fall. As did the bills.

This is the time of year when I keep a bottle of whisky and a comfortable chair by the back door, for emergency aid when opening the daily post, which seems to to consist solely of demands for money which I would rather spend on other whisky and comfortable chairs.

I have recovered from the income tax bill....I will never recover from the bill for paying off the various deficits undertaken by successive French governments - the CSG - which just about doubles the income tax bill....the taxe professionelle taxes me considerably in every sense of the word, but, at least, they all come in the good weather. The taxe fonciere, the taxe d'habitation, the water bill, the electricity bill and the house insurance renewal all arrive in the dead season of the year, when the days grow rapidly does, I feel, my life expectancy. I suppose that in summer I am busy, warm and relatively optimistic, while at this time of year the bills are just one other indication that life feels nasty, brutish and short.

Still, worse is about to befall me. President Sarkozy has decided to alter the way in which local government is funded. At the moment, the greater part of local government revenue comes from the tax on business, the taxe professionelle, and, as part of his reform package, he wishes to lighten the burden on the productive part of the French economy by reducing the taxes to which it is subject. Wonderful, one might think, but there is a downside. How is local government to react?

Faced with the loss of revenue on one hand, and growing responsibilities on the other, local government is looking about itself to find another source of revenue to replace the business tax and has, as always, lighted upon the obvious source of revenue, one which cannot, by its' very nature, be hidden. Property.

It is proposed to undertake a re-evaluation of property with a view to increasing the revenue from the taxe fonciere, the property tax, which already reaches obscene proportions. Last undertaken in the 1970s, I believe, this re-evaluation exercise will no doubt be an opportunity for dubious gradings and inefficient adjudication, which will further depress the property market just as it starts to pick up again.

To sweeten the pill, the tax hike will not be visited upon current proprietors, but will come into force when a property changes hands, so that prospective purchasers, already burdened by the exorbitant costs involved in buying a property, will find themselves facing a potential property tax well above the amount paid by the vendors.

All this begs the question of what local government is to do to fill the 'hungry gap' between the demise of the business tax and the realisation of the new property tax. No one seems to know.

The proposal has further divided the ruling right wing party, the UMP. Sarkozy, for all he is a product of the Paris microcosm, needed the support of the rural right wing vote to be elected, and the rural right wing deputies and senators are deeply opposed to proposals which weaken their power base in local government. Further, these representatives are of the Chiracian persuasion - cattle shows and wine fairs rather than the culture of the capital - and Sarkozy, with his recent history of blunders in respect of the Clearstream case, his culture minister's proclivities and his son's abortive ascent to power, is seen as vulnerable to pressure from the old guard of the UMP.

General Cambronne, when called upon to save the lives of his soldiers of Napoleon's Old Guard after Waterloo, announced - it is said -
'The Guard dies, it does not surrender.'
What he actually said is more in tune with the view currently taken by the old guard of the UMP.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Transport of delight

I have been in the UK, visiting mother....for the first time since I moved to France, she has not been well enough to visit me, so the mountain went to Mahommet, and, surprisingly, enjoyed the whole trip. I might want to lie down for a few days to recover from it, but I enjoyed it.

Firstly, I didn't have to take a French train. Kind friends took me to the little one horse airport whence Ryanair flies to Stansted, whose cafe seems to attract a lot of local lunchtime custom, and left me to my own devices.

Noting the cost of checked baggage when I booked online, I took only hand luggage, and did not book priority boarding. I was flexible about dates and got a super cheap far, all positives. At the airport, I was processed without having to queue, the staff were far from draconian about the hand luggage regulations, security was fast and efficient and there were so few people who had booked priority boarding that it would have been a meaningless expense.

The 'plane was on time and I enjoyed the freedom of being able to board at either end of the plane, unlike the regular airlines' practice of making cattle class customers board through the first class and business class section, where I am forced to observe people on expense accounts lolling at their ease with free newspapers, while I struggle through to the lairage at the back. Why, when we have video conferencing, do these people need to travel the world? Why does no one seem to realise that we, customers, citizens, mugs, are paying for their comfort, whether through our taxes or in the price of the products their firms produce? Never mind taking the drinks trolley round....wheel on the portable guillotine and let the cabin crew have some fun for once. It would perk up the flight watching that being trundled down to the first class section. I'd even take up knitting if necessary.

Still, on my short flight the cabin staff were pleasant and efficient, and although they were constantly trying to sell me something it did not bother me as I go deaf in 'planes , nor would it have done if I had retained my hearing as I have also retained the power to decline what I don't want. Ryanair has a bad press, but it was all right by me.

Friends met me at Stansted and took me home for a super evening of good food, many laughs and a chance to investigate the Italian wines they were starting to import.....then on the next day they took me to the get a real train! One which didn't have steps up into the carriage from the platform. One I could board without fear of splitting my tights. Carriages with proper luggage racks so that I could keep an eye on my baggage.

When I was last in the U.K., everything was still British Rail, so the new company names took me aback, but the trains themselves were reassuringly tatty, even if the London terminals had been alarmingly tarted up. When did Liverpool Street stop being a pit of stygian gloom? I could actually see the other passengers as I walked down the platform...most disconcerting. In the good old days of Liverpool Street I think you could have walked about naked and no one would have been able to spot your Lady Godiva apparel, so dark was the station concourse.

The Underground was unchanged...apart from having ticket machines which took all sorts of money and gave change...clanking and rattling through the bowels of London, and, inevitably, on the return journey, when time was of the essence for catching the 'plane, the Bakerloo Line was paralysed by a signal failure at Baker Street. Ah, the nostalgia! Alternative routes on trains already so packed that you needed Japanese station attendants to shove passengers into the ambulant Black Hole of Calcutta within. Trained on the Boy Scouts' jumble sales in the church hall in the days of my youth, I used my elbows to good effect and was borne away triumphant. It has to be like riding a bicycle, the technique for getting into a rush hour Tube train - you never forget.

Buses, both in London and the provinces, that you enter at pavement height....buses that indicate the next stop so that you are not borne on into the wilds, despairingly looking for the first stop after Kensal Rise station...buses with flat fares so that there are no arguments with the driver when you do overshoot your destination.....absolute bliss!

The whole thing, from start to finish was, to quote Flanders and Swann, a transport of delight. And mother wasn't too bad, either.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Healing with herbs

I hadn't met up with Raymond for ages when I bumped into him in the local hospital waiting room.

No he was not ill, he had brought his neighbour for an appointment.

No, I wasn't ill, I was waiting for my husband to emerge from a session of treatment.

We caught up with the news.....

Mme Lebon's alarming baring of her breast in the pharmacy was because she had a tick under her bra and the chemist was going to put ether on the beast to remove it, thus disappointing those agog for tales of illicit lust among the suppositories......

not surprisingly, knowing the maire concerned, the unexpected installation of electricity to a chapel out in the fields had resulted in the land between the chapel and the village, which belonged to a crony of the maire, becoming eligible for construction......

the travellers had elected the field behind the supermarket for their winter quarters with the result that no one wanted to leave their car unattended in the carpark and were decamping to do their shopping at Lidl in the next town.........

in short, life as usual in rural France.

Was Raymond going to have the swine 'flu jab? He gave me an old fashioned look and announced firmly that, as I should know, he did not believe in new fangled remedies. True, he had probably still been using leeches while modern medicine was only just rediscovering their value, and true also, he was a living testimony to traditional medicine, hale and hearty in his mid seventies after a life of hard work outdoors.

Not for him, either, the modern 'bio' or 'natural' products available in the pharmacy.....they cost money which was better spent on other things.

His neighbour emerged, and Raymond rose, ready to leave. We shook hands as he announced

'I'll give you a tip for keeping in good health, and' ....looking around him.....'keeping out of these unhealthy hospitals where you can pick up goodness knows what.'

'Remember, nature is best......just stick to the vine, barley, hops and tobacco and you'll live a long and happy life.'

He made for the exit, supporting his neighbour, a credit to his credo for good health and sublimely oblivious of the outraged expressions of the health professionals in his wake.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Whatever do you find to do in the country?

The question has been posed yet again by a visitor from the city, brought over for a drink by a friend. Over the years, non country dwellers have come up with this one time after time, probably deluded by the fact that we are all sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine, or by the fire with a glass of whisky, into believing that this is all we ever do. What bothers me is why they should think we would want to do anything other than sit quietly with the glass that cheers and also inebriates. Fat chance to do so in my experience, except when I drop everything when there are visitors.

For a start, there is the never ending house maintenance.....I firmly believe that the French have invented the world's only non stick paint....which in this house always seems to involve putting up a scaffold, or the highest ladder we possess and juggling with paint pot, brush and cloth at altitudes which would affect boiling a kettle. And I'm only just up there when a voice will be heard from the kitchen, or, worse, from outside, demanding my immediate presence to sign for a registered letter, look for a form for the taxman or accept a bucket of snails from my neighbour to pass on with my own collection of said to Didier when he comes later so that his wife can put them in the drum of the washing machine to start purging.

There is the garden....acres of it. Grass to cut with the ride on mower, teetering uneasily round the uneven lip of the pond, careering wildly down the slope to the bottom lawn, panicking at having to come out onto the road on a blind bend to get the thing back to the garage at the end of operations. Veg garden to weed, fruit trees to prune. Fruit and veg to harvest and process, asking oneself why malign fate always brings the strawberries on at the hottest moment of the year for making jam. Bringing the tender plants in at the onset of autumn.....instant hernia, given their size and the weight of the pots. Repeat instant hernia in spring, putting them all out again.

Housework.......pass. The annual balancing act on boards between the beams reminds me never again to have a cathedral ceiling and certainly no vantage point from which to see the dust and other objects on top of the bookcases. The hoover is a wonderful tool, but I would love to have one on each floor to avoid the mountaineering feats with the tube coiling round my legs like some degenerate depiction of the fate of Lacoon. If ever I am found at the foot of the stairs it will be no Amy Robsart was the hoover wot dun it!

Cooking, eating and washing up. The insistence on three cooked meals per day means that I am very glad to have a good view from my kitchen window, where the battery radio is installed on the sill, ready for Test Match Special, and also ready to be carried down to the freezer lair in the cave when the game reaches some intense moment.......'they're booing Ponting again'....which cannot be abandoned. Washing up can be a refuge when the house is full of guests.....the well trained ones know that I like a bit of peace and quiet and the sink and dishwasher provide just that while the maelstrom rolls over the rest of the house.

The seasonal occupations. Picking sloe shoots in the spring to make epine....making epine, buying wine in cubis and bottling up. Summer, endless jam and chutney, hunting out wild asparagus. Autumn, picking grapes, making pineau, fermenting the plums for eau de vie, going out to look for mushrooms, drying said on return, going to local mushroom exhibition and being convinced that have eaten all those marked with a skull and crossbones. Winter, sneaking out on the byways to distill the plums into eau de vie and bottling up on return, chopping wood and dicing death with the circular saw. Christmas, answering the door to and providing drinks for the postpersons, fire brigade volunteers, dustmen and sporting club presidents eager to present you with their calendars and accept your token of appreciation in return.

Social life. More restricted these days, thanks to age and health, but our circle is one where an invitation to lunch means that you cross out the whole day on the calendar and make a mental note to do nothing strenuous the day after. Weddings, likewise, especially if invited to the ceremony, the vin d'honneur, the meal and then the party in the evening. Nothing strenuous for a week after that. Baptisms likewise, but not quite so heavyweight. all depends. If it's in a church run by the black cassocked fanatic, then it's always worth annoying him by refusing to cense the coffin and just to touch it as a mark of respect together with all the other renegades gathered in the back of the church...if it's run by his colleague, he just beams beatifically whatever you choose to do. The walk to the cemetery following the coffin can be long..but there's always the gossip to catch up on, and the return walk is enlivened by the prospect of a quick one in the bar. Bal dansant.....too dangerous these days with all those whirling bodies. Couscous evening in aid of the local school.....lethal to any swift movement the day following. Fire brigade ball....for some reason, bacchanalia guaranteed, but at least you can lurk behind the tables while the mayhem takes place on the dance floor, and if you don't go they might not be in a hurry to come out to your house fire.

Participative democracy. Meetings in local village halls to tell us what higher authority has decided to do with our taxes. Start time variable, but they won't break up until everyone has had their say and higher authority has replied that it doesn't care what anyone has said, it has already made the decision.

Shopping. Grouping the trips to save petrol, parking in the supermarket car park which has been specially designed to make extracting your car something akin to the dodgems, discovering that what was advertised in the publicity delivered to your door isn't actually in the shop. Queuing behind the deafest pensioner in France in the post office. Braving the tax office only to find that my taxman is on holiday....again.

I've only touched the surface.....contemplating it in detail would be too much to ask...but I would like the visitor from the city to try it and a year later return to hear her answer to her own question...but I have a suspicion that she would have turned tail long before the year was up.

You can laugh, Ayak, I shall understand....

Apologies to the people kind enough to give me blog awards...I have thanked you all at the time, both on mine and on yours, but for the life of me I can't get your names under the appropriate pic alongside....... I shall probably give up and remove the feature altogether before I return to hurling heavy objects, all too appropriate language and head boiling.

However, I would like to pass on the 'The Icing on the Cake' award to

An old Biddie's life

a super read about what is happening in the life and times of a lady who thought she was retiring to France and then found herself in non stop activity with all that has happened in her life since!