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.

Sunday, 28 February 2010


Medieval dentist extracting a tooth. London; c...Image via Wikipedia
I have never looked forward to a visit to the dentist.
As children, we were lined up at school for dental inspection followed inevitably in my case by dental action. I still think it was unfair...I didn't have many sweets and brushed away morning and evening but my teeth always seemed to need something doing to them. I don't know where these dentists had been trained, but in my view they were part of war reparations....Gestapo torturers handed over by the Germans to harden the children of Britain in interrogation resistance techniques.
Well, I resisted pretty well, but the last straw was a bald man who said he wasn't going to hurt me and then did. A literal child, betrayed, I bit him and was excluded for the future from the line up in the corridor.

In later life, I had super dentists but dashing and kind as they were they could arouse no frisson of pleasant anticipation in me as I sat in their waiting rooms surrounded by posters of teeth. Bald men don't either, so the school dental service has a great deal for which to answer.

Some months after moving to rural France, I had a toothache which oil of cloves would not touch, so I needed the dentist. Papy told me that there was no need to make an appointment, just to go down to the surgery in the village and sit in the waiting room, so that was what I did.

Two gloomy gentlemen were already in occupation - for some reason the usual round of handshakes doesn't take place in dental waiting rooms - and one informed me that the dentist was out but would be back shortly. I passed the time looking at posters of teeth.

The dentist returned. The street door banged against the wall, there was a strong smell of drink having been taken and a tall handsome man with black curly hair strode in.....his white coat liberally splashed with blood.
'Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had a spot of bother just now...Come on Jules, let's get these false teeth sorted!'
I think I was rooted to the chair in shock...otherwise I would have fled.

Georges, the other patient, turned to me.
'Don't worry, he had a problem taking a tooth broke and he had to put his knee on Jean-Paul's chest to get the leverage to get the last bit out. Bit of a shock for both of them, so they've just been over to the bar for a restorative.'

Don't worry! What, I wondered would qualify as something to worry about? A broken artery, dislocated jawbone....If the tooth hadn't been giving me such gyp I would have been away in Olympic record time for the one hundred yard dash - or whatever it is in metric. But it was so I didn't.

Dentists have an unfair advantage. They stick needles in your gums so that your lips turn to wood and then make you keep your mouth open while they talk to you. You have no way of responding.
This dentist talked to me while finding and dealing with my problem tooth.
I was new to the commune. I was British. This was very convenient. He ran the amateur dramatic society. He had decided to put on a Feydeau farce. There was an English governess in it and none of his regular actresses could say 'shocking!' properly. So there it was. First rehearsal on Tuesday evening in the mairie annexe at eight o' clock.
He had a copy of the play in my hand, my role marked in pencil, before I could mumble a word.


So here I was, my French far from fluent, with no experience of amateur dramatics since being in the chorus of 'The Mikado' while at school, being propelled onto the boards by a dictatorial dentist.

I studied the part...small, luckily....and the cues. I turned up at the annexe to the mairie and found I already knew some of the people there. Then the dentist arrived and things took off. He was a ball of energy and enthusiasm, a perfectionist and, inevitably, not only director but also leading man.

Like everyone else, I was pushed and pulled into place, was prompted and scolded and learnt an enormous amount about staging farce.
Timing, timing and timing, keeping the action going, getting his actors to have a signature expression or tone of voice that marked them clearly for the audience, he was dedicated to getting his crew to give of their best.

It was all very convivial...there was always wine and cake at the end of the rehearsal, and I was included in the cake rota automatically which surprised me given the French suspicion of anything emerging from a British oven. I supplied treacle tart and to my relief it was asked for again.

I got to know French improved dramatically...and I learned a lot about the commune as we worked.

Although amateur dramatics - like music - had always had a strong following in the area, until fairly recently these activities had been duplicated. Those who attended mass - known as the frogs in the holy water stoup to those who didn't - supported the priest's theatre group and band and the others supported the republican groups.
In that village, the war between state and church had been such that - Clochemerle like - the public toilets had been set up next to the church on the main square......and were closed on Sundays! Respect for the church or a strong determination that believers shouldn't be able to use the facilities?

The play was performed on the home ground first, in the salle des fetes and then toured neighbouring villages, always to packed houses and vigorous applause, two nights and a matinee a week for four weeks, the cast kept going by buckets of mulled wine backstage, dished out in an enamel mug.
It was fun, and I gladly joined up for several more years. It was always a Feydeau farce, there was always a place for a foreigner and in year two I even graduated to my own little round of applause as I entered, an accolade awarded by audiences to the regular players.

But things were changing.
When I first moved to France, nearly every village had its' doctor and dentist, but as they retired, no one came to take their place. Restricted entry to dental schools meant that young dentists gravitated to the towns, young doctors likewise. The country, where nothing moved after five o'clock in the evening, had no allure for these people, who could now pick and choose where to set up in practice.

It is far worse now. When my dentist retires, the nearest will be twenty kilometres further away and his lists are already full to breaking point. In an emergency, it can be necessary to travel to the nearest university dental hospital if the town dentists can't take you.

When the local doctor moved to town, no one wanted to take on his practice until the maire looked around and found a Spanish doctor who wanted a quiet life for his young family and was willing to come. He is a wonderful doctor, but French beaurocracy has driven him to the end of his tether and he is talking of returning to Spain.(!)  If he goes, the maire will have to get his seven league boots on again, as the ageing population needs a doctor close to hand.

Our dentist did not retire, but he left all the same. The lady from the chateau, whose cavities he had been assiduously attending to for some years, decided that enough was enough. She left her husband and, with the dentist in tow, moved to that Sodom and Gomorrah of the Atlantic coast, La Baule.


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Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Fed up in France

20070512 ANPE viergeImage by piRGoif via Flickr
Who, me?

No, according to the annual report of the 'Mediateur de la Republique', the French.
Taken from the somewhat unbalanced sample of those complaining about their experience with the public services, he states that the French are fed up to their back teeth with the treatment they are getting - or words to that effect.

They are fed up with taking a ticket and sitting for hours in waiting rooms, they are fed up with less than tactful medical staff, they are fed up with the telephone menus that leave them both baffled and unheard, they are fed up with the unbelievable complication of it all.

The public services spokesmen for their part complain that the people they represent are compelled to work to targets, rather than actually do the job people expect of that's two groups of French who are fed up.

Certain commentators have seen fit to remark that if the French stopped living on benefits and got out to do some work they wouldn't be in the position of complaining about waiting rooms, tickets or telephones in the first place.
I expect the bonfires are being prepared for these heretics at this moment.

In my time in France, as I have ventured toes, feet and thigh length waders into  the waters of regulations and taxes, I have noted changes.
In my earliest days, the maire informed me after about a year that it was high time I got myself a 'carte de sejour' - a sort of visa to permit me to live in France.
I filled in forms with the help of the maire and her secretary. Forms which appeared to want to know the ins and outs of a bull's arse. All that was lacking was a question about when did I last see my father.
I was given a temporary carte - a sort of pink thing with a stamp - and the papers went off to the Prefecture.
A year later, the maire remembered asking me - more likely her secretary was doing the annual clean out of the filing cabinet before August - and I produced the pink card.
'But this expired nine months ago!'
A telphone call to the Prefecture elicited the information that there had been a strike about the time my papers would have arrived so they were probably lost.
'You'll have to do it again'.
'No, I've done it once. If they've lost it, that's their look out. It was sent by registered post and I have the counterfoil.'
Mexican stand off.
'What if the gendarmes stop you?'
'You can tell them what happened.'
'Well, I'd better just update the stamp, then.'

I have never had a 'carte de sejour'. It hasn't seemed to worry anyone.

Now, had I been mad enough to fill out the form again, and it had been registered at the Prefecture I would have had to be sure to renew the wretched thing regularly, or the gendarmerie would indeed have been on my doorstep on the expiry date. The purpose of the carte de sejour was to identify its' holder for the purposes of taxation - you got your carte de sejour one day and the next week a tax demand would appear.

Times have changed,though. In those days, a registered letter was enough to show you had sent a document.
Now, registered letters are 'lost' with gay abandon, and it's down to the individual to start the whole process again. That's enough to make anyone fed up.

I have always got on with the taxman, in all his manifestations. On a personal level. They have always been friendly and helpful, within the limits of a system designed by Dr. Strabismus (whom God preserve) of Utrecht, and our disagreements have been purely theoretical. With some of them over the years I have been on a 'come round for an aperitif' basis, and their discreetly expressed grief is not with the ordinary guy but with the loopholes in French tax law which favour the well off.
Every year, they dedicate hours to helping old age pensioners and the hopeless and helpless fill out their tax forms and if the queues are long, it's because you left it until the last minute.
You can do it all online, but there is a certain reluctance to use this service as a number of people labour under the idea that once you give your e mail address to higher authority, it will use it to spy on you.
Perhaps they know more about what you can do with IP addresses than I do.

I can't comment on applying for benefits as I have never done so, but a chap I know who does claim benefit says that whereas in the past there might be a desultory telephone call to ask if you had given any more thought to taking a job, now there is a snowstorm of appointments, of motivational training and all sorts of stuff, as targets have been introduced in the benefits services.
It can be inappropriate.
Last year a woman with two young children living on benefit following divorce was summoned to her local benefit office. This being the country, 'local' meant thirty kilometres away. There was no bus and her only transport was a scooter. She explained all this, together with the difficulties of finding childcare for the day, and found that she had two choices. Get in to the interview or lose her benefit. She lost her benefit.
In an earlier period she would have gone to the maire with the problem and he would have taken up the cudgels on her behalf. These days, a maire ranks well down the list from an internal performance target.

I have never understood why the French health system is lauded to the skies by British immigrants.
I always had good treatment while living in the U.K. and the system was cheap to run and simple to operate - until it started to ape the private sector and money was spent on administrators rather than front line staff.
I can say too that a matron was a far better guarantor of a patient's dignity than any system of 'protocols'. Protocols can't fix staff with a cold eye and suggest a rendez-vous in matron's office.
I have experience of provincial teaching hospitals and country hospitals in France and all depends which doctor you drop on. Some are super, others are not. Same anywhere.
All I can say on the organisation of the French health system is that like the Irishman asked for directions
'I wouldn't start from here.'
Change your job, change your address and it can take months for your health card to be changed and without that card you don't get reimbursed for the carrier bags of useless pharaceuticals which your doctor will have prescribed.

Locally, to apply for your health card, you have to go to the nearest town where you sit in a waiting room until seen by one harassed woman who has to deal with all sorts of problems way beyond her capacity - her only back up a mobile phone. Not even a computer. She has no office telephone, so you can't make an appointment. Does 'third world' come to mind? People are distinctly fed up with that particular situation.

If you are handicapped and want to be assessed for a sticker on your car so that your family can park nearer the supermarket entrance you have to go to an office at the other end of the department. Fine if you live that way, not fine if not. Wouldn't just the fact that it is a service for handicapped people make it appropriate for the service to go to them rather than vice versa?

In my view, the origin of the problem is the over-complication of the French state model. Making changes and then leaving the old structure in place, just in case you want to tweak the system, is a recipe for taking tickets, waiting for hours and pressing the wrong button on the telephone.

No wonder the French are fed up.
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Saturday, 20 February 2010

Unfulfilled promises

Two Helix aspersa Garden snails matingImage via Wikipedia
You are a Frenchman with a British neighbour. Her behaviour begins to intrigue you.
Night after night, all through the summer, when all honest citizens should be watching television, you see torchlight, moving methodically round the garden. Occasionally you hear her cursing. Then she goes indoors again. Night after night.

What, you ask yourself, would you be doing if you were out in your garden at night with a flashlamp?
The obvious answer is that she is burying her money so that the taxman can't get his hands on it. She obviously fears fire in the house which would destroy the traditional mattress. Chapeau, les anglais! They can learn a thing or two from us after all!
But we French can always go one better. You find the catalogue from the travelling tools van and look at the price of metal detectors.

You remember, however, that she owns a metal detector. You have seen the kids using it when the family visit in the summer. No need, then, to buy one. You can borrow hers, and nip over there when she goes shopping.

Perhaps, however, she is using it herself to try to find gold buried in the last war by the then owner, who died without heirs and was decidedly dotty by the time she passed on. Obviously, she would not want to be seen in daylight looking for treasure.
Why, then, did she let the kids try it out?

Goodness only knows with these foreigners. You return to the television.

Well, what I am actually doing, risking life and limb on the uneven ground in the dark, is snailing. And slugging, though the less said about these dreadful orangey red monsters the better. Even the ducks won't eat them.
I get buckets of the things - snails, that is - and another haul when I trawl the stone garden walls after rain.
They can decimate my veg garden in very short order and as I believe in attack being the best form of defence, since they come out at do I.
It's a bit like the phrase I remember being applied  to the football player Norman 'bite your leg' Hunter.
'Get your retaliation in first.'

My idea is to feed the snails to the ducks, who think this is a great treat, but I have to be careful that I only feed as fast as the ducks can eat otherwise the snails live to eat my lettuce another day. I also have to remember to put a cover and a huge stone on top of the bucket to prevent its' occupants from doing a bunk.

Didier's idea is that I should collect the snails, so that his wife can clean them and they can be eaten.
My postlady has the same idea, only differing in that it is her grandmother who will be cleaning them.
There are more than enough for all contenders...ducks, Didier and the postlady.
However, all of them only want the big ones.
What am I supposed to do with the rest?

The postlady suggested keeping them in cages to fatten up...but I'd probably have to declare this activity as being agricultural in nature and would end up having to pay what is called the 'cotisation de solidarite'' to the Mutuelle Sociale Agricole. In other words, coughing up to contribute to farmers' pensions without touching a penny myself as I would not have contributed over enough years to qualify.

I remember receiving the first form from the MSA - the farmers' pension fund - in my second year in France. It required details of how many rabbits I kept, chickens ditto and so on ad infinitum. It demanded money.
I showed it to Monsieur Untel, seed rep extraordinaire, who said I'd got it because the land that went with my house was classed as agricultural. I needed to change its' use to leisure.
He kindly took me to the local office and sorted it out - not without difficulty, because I clearly remember him saying at one point
'Does she look like she keeps pigs?
Obviously I did not. My land was reclassified and I never saw the form again, but I have no wish to be denounced for illicit snail fattening activities at my age.

What I actually do with the small ones is to take a walk and release them near the duckstealer's place.

In France, in the summer, all sorts of villages have fetes and fairs, each featuring a particular speciality in the gastronomic line.
There is the melon fair, the giant cassoulet fair, the mussels and chips fair, the ham fair and, of course, the snail fair.
In the past it was the women related to the organisers who would prepare the snails, collected by the efforts of just about everyone who owned a bucket, and Didier's wife showed me how it was done.

The snails had to be purged of anything toxic they might have picked up and Didier's method was to put them in the drum of an old washing machine so all the muck could  drain through the holes.
After about five days, he would put the hose into the drum and wash as much muck off them as possible, and then transfer them to buckets for a more drastic wash.

His wife then took over. She would lay the snails in the huge stone trough outside the house and layer them with salt, turning them thoroughly. The snails would release the mucus, their defence mechanism, and she would keep turning them until she was satisfied that this process had been competed. She would announce that this process was  very good for softening the hands.
I am waiting for the cosmetics industry to harness this knowledge, but cannot even begin to imagine how the publicity would be phrased.

The snails would be hosed off, then boiled for three minutes after which the process of extricating them from the shells would begin. She used a two tined fork - a bit like a pickle fork. I was fine with this part, having extracted winkles from their shells at the seaside shellfish stands in my youth.

When she cooked snails for the family, she did not return them to their shells, just reheated them in butter with a little garlic and lemon juice, but for the fair, she would wash and dry the shells, put two snails back into every shell and stuff the solid garlic butter - butter mashed with the garlic and lemon juice and chopped parsley added - into the shell.

Nowadays, the snail fair still exists, but the product is bought in, ready prepared. No more soft hands in the village.

I had never intended to eat a snail, but they do turn up on the dinner tables of rural France, and I have, accordingly, eaten them.
It is yet another of the unforeseen hazards of life in the country. I do not agree that they are better than fillet steak, as Guy proclaims - though, given the nature of some of the fillet steak I have eaten in France he might have more of a point than I think - and I do reckon that all you taste is the butter, which is why I prefer the simmered version to the in-shell option, where there is proportionally more butter and I get indigestion.
Madeleine told me never to eat snails in the evening, and, as usual, her advice was sound.
At lunchtime, I can walk off the night, never, and bending over to harvest snails after a meal of their colleagues would be fatal.

What brought about this post?
Well, you know how something becomes so familiar that you take it for granted?
I was messing about with the blog the other day and noticed that in the subtitle I had promised wine, notaires, expats, estate agents, chasseurs, maires, presidents, gendarmes...all of whom or which have appeared...but also sex and snails.
Which hadn't.
This is snails.

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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A burger and a glass of wine...

Swiss Burger with Pickled Red Onions and Frisee.Image by millhouseloves via Flickr
The National Front - right wing party - is accusing President Sarkozy of helping to bring about the 'islamisation' of France...yet another bit of ugly fall out from the debate about national identity.
What has he done? Forced Carla to wear the burqua? Worn it himself? Circumcised himself? Nothing so spectacular...just something the National Front think is more insidious. Islamisation by hamburger.

It has discovered that the fast food chain 'Quick' is serving only halal meat in eight urban branches, where there is a high incidence of muslim customers, including its' branch in Roubaix. The maire of Roubaix  - not National Front -says he doesn't mind them serving halal products, but to serve only halal products is discriminatory. The National Front say a lot more than the maire of Roubaix.

'Quick' changed hands not that long ago. It used to belong to a friend of Sarkozy, one Monsieur Frere.
The National Front say, however that when  the company was put up for sale, it was valued at five hundred and fifty million euros and a generous buyer paid eight hundred million euros.

Who was this generous buyer?
None other than a subsidiary of the state finance organisation the 'Caisse d'Epargnes et Consignations'.
Thus Sarkozy, as head of state, is leading an 'islamisation' policy. In the view of the National Front.

Not content with this, the party also complain that by nature of  'Quick's policy, the state is levying an 'islamic tax'...the obligatory fees paid for halal certification of meat to the appropriate muslim bodies.

I never thought that fast food could be so interesting.

In any case, no one is accusing 'Quick' of adulteration, whereas in the world of French wine that nasty old habit has reared its' head again.

Gallo, the Californian based wine firm, bought what it thought was wine made from the pinot noir variety from firms in the south of France, It has turned out to be just the local plonk which adopted a higher class name to attract a higher class price. Those concerned, vignerons, brokers, wine merchants and others, trousered between six and seven million euros between them....O.K., small beer beside what was trousered by M. Frere, but then they're not friends of the President of France.

There have been wine scandals for years...Algerian wine propping up wine from dubious years in the Rhone Valley, wine from the south fortifying the proud names of Bordeaux when conditions were unfavourable.
Not just for home consumption...this stuff was exported.
I can remember when proper labelling controls were introduced in the U.K., 'Nuits St. George'  disappeared overnight. I think it was O.K. to sell it as what it actually was, blended plonk, but not as as 'Nuits St. George'.
Mark you, a Loire Valley firm has just been taken to court by New Zealand producers for selling its' sauvignon blanc as 'Kiwi Cuvee' on the attempting to cash in on the reputation for quality of New Zealand wines....remember the fuss about trying to sell anything other than wine from Champagne as champagne?

It's not just on the grand scale, either.
About three years ago, a local firm was fined for getting the desired 'oak barrel' flavour into its' red wine by dumping oak chips in the steel vat.
Andre, retired worker in a local winery, was not impressed. This had been going on for years, once local vignerons made contact with foreign buyers who didn't want to pay top dollar for a wine from Bordeaux when one from the Loire at half the price would do as well, with a little tweaking.
He remembered that his firm had a contract with a well known U.K. wine merchant for red wine in which blackcurrant twigs had to be steeped, to acquire the 'berry' scent desired by the customer as a sign of quality.
I told him that Australian wine had to have a label listing everything that went into it. He shook his head, pityingly.
Never happen here,' he said.  'And you really don't want to know.'

The old business of shipping tankers of wine round the country still goes on, despite all the checks that are said to be in place.

There was a vogue a few years ago for celebrities to buy vineyards, where they could pose in open necked shirts among the barrels, and, let us not forget, cash in a bit by selling their produce to admiring fans.
A friend is a great fan of one such celebrity, and nagged her husband to take her to see his vineyard, a pretty-pretty operation deep in the countryside.
They returned with a box of six bottles - the smallest unit of sale, it appeared - which, given the apellation concerned, had cost an arm and a leg.
The bottles were left to settle, and before they left again for the U.K., they invited friends round for a meal to sample the nectar.

You must have been in that situation. The wine was dreadful. What do you say?
Luckily, the husband is a man of quick decision. He rose from the table and cleared the open bottles.
'Rinse out your glasses....I'll get something decent.'

Intrigued, I asked Andre, the man with the answers in the local wine world.
'Well, just look at the amount he sells. No way can all that be produced here. The guy running it for him is good...his proper wine can win medals...but for selling to mugs like your mates, any old thing will do. He buys in from all over.'

Not that medals are all they are cracked up to be, according to Andre.
In his view, you could trust anything winning at Brussels or at Macon, but nowhere else. You get medals for being better than the others, not for being outstanding, at most of the fairs.
Further, vignerons out to make a name for themselves make special vats for going round the shows and you won't necessarily find the same stuff when you go to buy.

Listen to Andre and the whole edifice of French wine and its' mystique crumbles before you.
I should take him for a burger in Roubaix.
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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

When constabulary duty's to be done.....

Gendarmerie guard the Palace of Justice in ParisImage via Wikipedia
The popular press has finally caught on to something that has been causing ructions among defence lawyers for some time, because the treatment of a fourteen year old girl involved in a fight at the school gates is much easier to present to the public than legal argument about the European Convention on Human Rights taking precedence over internal French law.

As Gilbert and Sullivan inform us, a policeman's lot is not a happy one, and the police - openly, because they can  and do have unions - and the gendarmerie - behind closed doors because they are the army and can't have unions - are letting everyone know about it.

Why are they unhappy? Because they feel they are bearing the brunt of criticism that should, in their view, be levelled at the politicans.

The issue? The 'garde a vue'. Police custody to you and me.

Coming from the U.K., one imagines that a suspect, taken up by the police dragnet and hauled off to the cop shop for questioning, has the right to have a lawyer present from the start of things to prevent him from saying anything silly, like
'It's a fair cop, guv'
as they did in the dear old days of Dixon of Dock Green.
Personally I always thought that there was a fair bit of physical persuasion behind some of those admissions in that golden age of respect for the police, but that's by the by.

But this is France.
While the suspect has the right to let his family know where he is, and to be seen by a doctor, his lawyer can only tell him of what exactly he is accused. The lawyer cannot see his dossier and has no way of helping him to construct a defense until he gets out.
As a supect in France, in police custody, one is very very much alone against the system, and it is this which is expressly disapproved of by the judgements of the European Court of Human Rights.

Defence lawyers have been kicking up for some time, complaining that the rights of suspects under the European Convention of Human Rights are not respected due to the very nature of internal French law, and a few courts are now beginning to side with them.

A lucid account of what is involved may be found in journal d'un avocat, among a plethora of other delights, including rugby, tea, and sensible advice.

Now, the case of the fourteen year old girl. She had been involved in a fight at the school gates. The next morning, she is awakened at her home by a call from the gendarmerie. A female officer gets her up and tells her she is to go to the cop shop to be questioned. She is wearing a jogging suit that she uses as pyjamas, and is refused permission to get dressed properly, only being allowed to put on a pullover. She is handcuffed and taken to the station.
It appears that it is normal practice to handcuff all suspects...exception only being made when there is a possibility that the handcuffs would slip over the hands of the younger suspects.

I have no idea of the nature of her involvement, but I do suspect that heightened attention was being paid to school gate fights after a teenager was stabbed to death in one just before this incident.
It also appears that when the current Justice minister was Minister of the Interior, there was pressure to push up the number of suspects held in police custody rather than just being interviewed at the police station - probably so that in the coming elections, the ruling UMP party could whip up support for their hard line on crime.

Before one gets all het up, it might be sobering to reflect on what might happen to the average person who receives a summons to the cop shop for what is always referred to as 'something which involves you'.
I had one of these years ago...and when I took no notice, the gendarmerie came to the house. I watched them from the attic window.
Eventually, they rang me and 'invited' me to come to see them. I asked what it was about and they replied that it was 'something which involved me'.
I declined to come and they said they would come and get me. I watched them from the attic window.
They rang again and eventually the voice at the other end of the line said it was about damage to a car in a supermarket car park. Had I been there on such and such a date?
Well, there's a guy who made a statement that you bashed into his car while reversing and didn't stop to fill out an insurance form.
The guy can go and boil his head.
No, you have to fill out the form.
Because you have to. It's the law.
It's the law if you have an accident. I haven't had an accident.
He says you did.
He can go and boil his head.
But he's made a statement. There'll be trouble if you don't come in. It's only a form for goodness' sake...the insurance companies can sort it out...

Like a fool, I did go in, I did fill out a form and copped a mighty increase in my car insurance for something I hadn't done. That, as they might say, learned me. Never co operate.

It appears that the unwary, summoned to discuss 'something which involves them' can find themselves taken to a cell, have glasses, belts, shoelaces etc., removed to prevent them from committing suicide while in police custody, can be strip searched, including body cavities, and all this at the whim  - no, sorry, on the considered opinion - of a properly qualified police or gendarmerie officer. Having no idea what the police want to see him about, he has had no opportunity to discuss the question with a lawyer before arriving at the police station. where he could be held for twenty four hours, and then for another twenty four on the say so of the local procureur - the Justice Ministry's man supervising the local police.

One British chap round here found himself in chokey when, having been breathalysed - he was negative - he said ' French' as he got back in his car. Twenty four hours on the whim - no, sorry, the considered opinion - of a properly qualified gendarmerie officer.

Lawyers are kicking up on behalf of their clients.

Ther police and gendarmerie are kicking up on their own behalf because they resent being the fall guys for their political masters. If official circulars and unofficial pressure from their bosses compell them to take people into custody rather than simply interviewing them, that is what they do.

One bright spark of a policeman has come up with a real winner of an idea.
As the officers who decide on and control  the 'garde a vue' have to go on a course and hold a certificate, he proposes to turn in his certificate, so that he can no longer do that part of the job. He reckons that if all the certified officers were to do this, the justice system would fall apart in very short order and compel the politicians to stop playing games.

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Saturday, 13 February 2010

Paris and the provinces

VezelayImage by cbertel via Flickr
 I was reading a pleasant article...though I have now forgotten a chap who had been visiting Paris and was surprised how friendly everyone was which was contary to its reputation and his expectations.
I don't often go to Paris....usually crossing it is enough for me, from one station to the other....but I have only twice met with rudeness there in over twenty years of intermittent visits. On both occasions it was from a person safely esconced behind a counter and a glass wall.

As a tourist, I used to go occasionally to Paris, staying in the cheap hotels round the Gare du Nord. Now, if I have to go for any reason, I stay in the slightly more upmarket hotels in the same area...the ones with bathrooms. Then as now, the hotel staff are Algerian. The local shops are Algerian. The little cafes where I look for lunch or supper do not have maitre d's..they have Italian waiters who are kindness itself.

There must be another Paris which I do not have enough money to frequent.

I have met only one other rude Parisian, and I met her in London. She was trying to find the School of African and Oriental Studies of London University and was clearly lost. From her question as to directions, it was clear that she was French, from Paris and that her English was not up to much, so I thought I would help by replying in French. She looked rather as if I had just slapped her between the eyes with a wet fish, then, eyeing me with a contempt that was palpable, she continued in her execrable English.
I am afraid I directed her to Kings Cross where I thought she would feel more at home.

Seeking approval, the British who buy a house in the French countryside are delighted to be told by  local people that they would prefer to have foreigners - well (unspoken) white non-muslim foreigners - than Parisians as neighbours.
I think this is a sort of back handed compliment, and long observation leads me to believe that this is because the Parisian is far more wary and on the lookout for rural craftiness than the starry eyed British immigrant looking for a dream.

There has long been an urban/rural split in France.
When I was househunting all those years ago, it was long before the days when every gite and bed and breakfast was being run by a beaming Brit, and I stayed mostly with urban French who had retired to the country.
To a man they were scathing about their rural neighbours.

'Watch out when they smile at means they've got one over on you.'
'Off to church every Sunday...from what they get up to they should be on their knees in there all day every day.'
'Keep your hens locked up.'
'Count your fingers.'

This view is not new.
'Ignorant, full of prejudices, they have no scruples in craft or in deceit.' Thus an officer speaking of the country people around Le Mans in the 1860s.(1)

Country people were held - by the urbanites - to be uncouth savages, ignorant and cunning.

Well, from some of the stories I have been told about youth and growing up in the French countryside between the wars here, it was a damned hard life if you were on the bottom of the heap, so what it had been like in earlier centuries passes the powers of imagination. Lack of education, superstition, bigotry and poverty are not the best feeding grounds for ethics and morality.

However, the old habits linger.
The village feuds carry on down the years - luckily, as foreigners, we are excused boots in this regard.
The delight in getting one over on someone we are the perfect targets as not being part of the fabric of the feuds so lessening the chances of retribution.
The avidity for land which leads to endless boundary disputes.
The jealousy. Monsieur X might have three centimes...he begrudges Monsieur Y one.

It is far from universal. There are many kind hearted and helpful people in the countryside, but they are not generally the ones wielding any power.

Book after book and blog after blog relate tales of crafty maires trying to put something over on a foreigner and it is all laughed off as being part of the rich experience and privilege of living in rural France.

It is nothing of the sort. The rose coloured spectacles should be lifted to admit that these guys are taking advantage of the lack of experience and lack of language of foreigners moving into their communes. People who pay taxes.
I have posted earlier here about public and private enterprise in the matter of land and boundaries. You can bet anyone's boots that these shenanigans would not have been tried on a Parisian.
There is a Paris based judge with a holiday home near St. Ragondin. He is deeply unpopular with his farming neighbours for refusing them permission to use a ditch which crosses his land for farm waste.
It wouldn't surprise me if the dafter type of Brit would be persuaded it was his civic duty and evidence of his willingness to integrate to accept.

So, if you're moving to the provinces, make friends with your Parisian neighbour. He has suspicion built into his genes and might well save you from a host of problems.

(1). I am indebted to Eugene Weber's 'Peasants into Frenchmen: the Modernisation of Rural France 1870 - 1914' for the quote.
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Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Keeping a dog and whimpering yourself

"Wheatfield with Crows, Vincent van Gogh ...Image by BlikStjinder via Flickr
I know I shouldn't do is like poking my tongue into a sore tooth...irrestistible but to be regretted seconds later.

The latest report of the Cour des Comptes - the body which gives a general audit  of French state activity - has been published, and, of course, I can't resist its' lures.

Apart from the criticism of the government for not acting effectively to reduce France's massive public debt, the criticism in general of the management of the railways - SNCF - with its' wild over recruitment and its' reliance on public subsidy to pay its' pensioners combined with the uncontrolled issue of free railway tickets to Uncle Tom Cobley and all, the section which caught my attention was that of aid to rural development.
Well, I live in the country and I like to know where my money is being wasted. And, preferably, upon whom.

There is a body called the CNASEA, which is supposed to oversee the policy of modernisation of agriculture in France - that is, handing out money to farmers - with funds originating from both the French state and the European Union.
According to the Cour des Comptes, the effect of current policy, by which the Minister of Agriculture keeps most of the power in his own hands, means that a body which was set up to control the distribution of public money has in effect become just a payroll clerk, paying out on the say so of the minister.
The Cour des Comptes doesn't think much of this, and, having read the report, I can see why.

Why should the Minister of Agriculture keep a dog while barking himself? Because he doesn't bark. Rather he rolls over on his back whimpering where farmers are concerned and he is not going to allow anyone to upset the gravy train which keeps the farmers on their farms rather than disrupting traffic with their tractors or burning lorries with live lambs, but you need to go to the end for the item
He also needs to keep on employing civil servants in offices in each department, to allow the Prefet - Paris's man on the spot  - to avoid conflict with farmers, which might arise if the body who is supposed to be in control was in control.

Why is it necessary to placate farmers? So that they will continue to act as the smokescreen for those who really cash in on the Common Agricultural Policy - the big firms in the agro-alimentary sector, like  Groupe Doux, a poultry processor who trousered 62 million Euros in 2008.

The whole shebang does appear to be imploding, by the by. More efficient producers elsewhere in the EU are able to offer lower prices to the big buyers in the game, who in turn are squeezing the small guys in France on prices, confident as they are that the Minister of Agriculture will intervene to save the small guys with more subsidies, thus further subsidising the supermarkets and the agro-alimentary industry. With the public purse looking more threadbare by the day, the Minister might not be able to oblige in the expected measure.

However, back to the report of the Cour des Comptes.

There appears to be little or no control over the validity of the claims for payment.
When there are deleterious climatic effects, like drought or flood, the Minister of Agriculture insists that seventy per cent of a claim be paid a month before it would be due to be paid without any form of control being permitted to block this advance.
Grants to sheep farmers for precautions to be taken thanks to the re introduction of wolves in upland areas, which depended on how many sheep were being grazed, had controls removed pretty damn quick, due to the 'sensitive' nature of the problem - read farmers blocking roads.
Better still, when they finally nailed one guy in the Loir-et-Cher for false claims, the Minister of Agriculture intervened to lift any threat of proceedings because - get this - by nature of the fact the he was president of a farmers grouping and thus demonstrating his devotion to the cause of agriculture, he would be regarded as a special case!

You can read the whole sorry mess here.

I think I prefer a visit to the dentist to contemplating the waste and inefficiency of the Common Agricutural Policy.

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Saturday, 6 February 2010

Clothes maketh the man

In Following the Fashion (1794), James Gillray...Image via Wikipedia

This or last week...time seems to dip and swerve alarmingly in the country....I saw a picture in the paper of a woman dressed as a gold lame earthworm. This making a change from pictures of women dressed in very little, I looked at the title and found that the earthworm was attending the Paris fashion week shows.

More pictures were to be found on the net. It was all quite alarming.

There was a woman whose hair seemed to have been dressed into a pudding on top of her head while wearing a dress like a triangle in layers of net....there were women whose mothers had clearly run out of money for the party dress and had been sewing handkerchiefs together in unusual ways...there were women with their hair dressed into horns...there were greek tunics that had got out of hand, an amazing amount of 'working girls' seemed to have gained access to the catwalks and someone had disinterred a group of Edwardian ladies dressed for the hunt meet. I did see a few hoodies, but no burquas.

There was a very nice long line jacket and trousers which looked normal, but that was about it.

Clearly these fashion shows have some influence on my life...they explain why styles which I like and which suit me only appear rarely in the shops as the clothes buyers start ordering stuff which reflects the 'themes' of the shows from their suppliers.

It has been years since I managed to find shoes I like to wear without having to have them made for me, so I live in espadrilles in summer and a mix of gardening clogs, wellies and turkish woolly sock shoes in winter with the odd foray in proper shoes to go shopping.

For clothes it is much worse. I was a shopper at John Lewis and Monsoon when in the U.K., which, together with descents on the charity shops, sorted me out with wardrobes for all occasions. A visit to the U.K. showed me that while John Lewis was still to be relied on, Monsoon had gone way downhill, especially in the fabrics they used, while the charity shops were suffering from a policy of taking the better stuff to so called better class shop sites, none of which I frequent, so my hopes of sorting out some of the major wardrobe deficiencies were short lived.

Cheap clothes in France are just Or they are cheap clothes sold at a high price. I refuse to pay the earth for something that will unravel, not wash up properly, and is made from chemically treated plastic. I could have got the last bit wrong - chemistry was never my strong point - but I like natural fibres. I draw the line at wearing a tee shirt made from banana fibre, but that only from indignation that it is being marketed as 'green', which is the last thing the commercial banana could be described as being.

I haunt the 'end of lines' shops where the most amazing stuff can be found...not just clothes, but all sorts, from sauces to gardening stuff....garnered from firms in liquidation, fire damaged stock and goodness only knows what else. How does wine labeled as Waitrose get into an odds and bods shop in deepest France? Clothes from Asda? Sauces from Sainsbury? Dulux paint at affordable prices?

However, I have found clothes I like there...wonderful cotton trousers from China, smart enough to wear anywhere and easy to wash...Thai fisherman's trousers...linen skirts....the only thing is, I know they won't be there too long, so I have to buy as many as I think I will need over the next few years.

Before the English found these shops, I once had a super bargain.....there were piles of boxes of wine, red for one euro, white for half a euro....and trawling the display, I found a huge amount of sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. I borrowed a corkscrew and a plastic cup from the manager, bought one bottle, tried it and promptly cleared him out of the whole lot. The poor car was groaning and I drove home very gently, but it was well worth it. The manager was pleased too...the French wine had been selling, but his French customers were not going to touch 'foreign muck'.....still, their xenophobia was my gain.

I do notice that French women who believe themselves to be of a superior class will not buy is social suicide even to be seen in the vicinity, just as it is to be seen in Lidl or Aldi. A local notaire's wife, responding to a barbed question as to why her car had been seen in the Lidl carpark, replied that she had lent to car to her cleaning woman to do her shopping while the latter's car was in the garage. Clearly, only cleaning women and English would admit to shopping in such a place.

The other thing I notice is that status is awarded to those who dress appropriately. The notaire's wife and her peers will not go out of the house without full make up, shingled hair combed into place and the obligatory suit. Floral in summer, pastel in winter. Don't even think of calling on them at home without telephoning first...they need time to get out of their dressing gown and slippers and change into uniform.
Remember too, the great cultural divide.....the English like to relax on sundays in old flannels and jerseys with holes in the elbows. The French are 'endimanche'....dressed up for sunday. Both are making it clear that they are not working, but in totally different ways.

In France, you have to show status to be accorded it and I often think that is one of the sources of misunderstanding between the French and the English living in France. The English tend to go shopping, or to the bank, or wherever, in casual, not so smart, downright indecent....but casual. Accordingly their French interlocutor treats them as people below the salt and xenophobia mixed with social discrimination does not make for a good commercial relationship.

I can remember my first insurance agent coming to the house to give me a quote. We had a coffee, went through his offers, arranged the least financially damaging option - after all, we both knew his company would never pay up anyway - and he took his leave.

'I had no idea that you had so many nice things,' he said.

Clearly, from my general appearance - non shingled hair, gardening trousers and espadrilles for local shopping wear - he had assumed that I was living on the breadline.

His assumptions are shared by his compatriots who, thinking their customer of no account, treat him accordingly.

I just wonder, though, what a shopkeeper in rural France would make of a woman whose hair was tied up on her head like a pudding and who was wearing a sort of net triangle.

How would he categorise her?

Well, she would have one advantage as soon as she opened her would be clear that she was not English.

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Tuesday, 2 February 2010

La douce France

Girls from Cercle Ar Vro Vigouden, Pont l'AbbéImage by finofilka via Flickr

A friend sent me over a collection of photographs of rural France in 'the old days' and it came to me that when I first arrived, I was meeting people who had been through some of these hard times illustrated in the black and white photographs. The old people.

Didier told me about his life....walking six kilometres to school - after helping his father on his round with a cart collecting the milk churns. Gaston remembers Didier, a little wiry boy struggling to get the heavy churns up into the cart while his father drank eau de vie with Gaston's stepfather in the house. Gaston was no better off. His father had died young and his mother wore out a succession of husbands, while the boy took the brunt of the hard work.

Didier remembers how his parents scraped the pennies to send him to the private school...not what you think of today, but the catholic school as opposed to the godless atheism of the state school...because no employer would take on a workman who didn't send his children to the private school and who wasn't seen at mass on sundays.

'Well' says Didier 'you didn't have to be seen from start to finish...they were all too busy eyes front on the priest....but God help you if you were late out of the bar in time to be seen as they all turned round.'

He started work - paid work - when he was fourteen, on a farm some five kilometres from his home, helping with the rough work and sleeping on straw in the barn. Poor little boy....but that was normal life in his youth.

Edith told me about helping her mother when she was young, going to collect laundry from the 'big houses' and washing it in the pond just up the road - no streams in that partof the commune - where the sharp eyed neighbours would be quick to spot if a woman had no bloody clouts to wash, indicating a pregnancy.

She was apprenticed to a seamstress, and would accompany her as she moved from house to house on her annual round, living there while she made the clothes the family required. She would share a bed with her employer in these houses, a child being dislodged to make way for them, and they would eat with the family. These were the days when the women did not have the right to sit at the table at mealtimes. The men would be served and the women would take their plates and eat propped up against the chimneypiece.

By the very nature of their work, travelling from house to house in a period where women were expected to be sedentary, seamstresses were popularly supposed to be flighty and Edith's future mother in law did not at all approve of her son's choice of bride an opinion only reinforced when she turned up at her newly married son's house at lunchtime and found the couple eating together at the table. All her suspicions of her daughter in law's unworthiness were confirmed in one glance.

During the war, when her husband was away for five years as a prisoner of the Germans, Edith decided to keep their farm going on her own. Her mother in law was always popping up to see if she could catch Edith with another man, but Edith's was a love match and she wanted no one but her husband.
To avoid gossip, she took on a maid to do the housework and the dairy work and took on the outside work herself, walking her cattle from one end of the commune to the other to use their widely scattered holdings, taking a hay crop from the verges, pruning the vines, hoeing the sugar beet....out in all winds and weathers. She survived on eggs and cheese, selling everything she could to have a nest egg ready for her husband's return and, to her mother in law's horror, she succeeded, even buying more land as more and more farms went to the wall in the absence of the men to run them.
The maid amused herself by climbing the tree in the courtyard to be able to see the German soldiers bathing naked in the pond up the road.

Papy was another small boy enured to work. He explained the local drinking habit to me by saying that when you got up when it was dark to go out to the cow byre, a glass of eau de vie in your stomach gave you the nerve to get started for the day and by the time you came in for breakfast, a good couple of glasses of wine with the bread and fat pork for your breakfast was very welcome.
He was lucky, he was working for his father and inherited the farm and vineyards, not sent out to an employer, like Didier, who had to make his own way in the world, and did so, very successfully.

Looking at those ploughing behind oxen, men and women moving in gangs over the fields singling the beet, the bread oven being stacked with wood, the women washing in the cold water of streams and the lie to the phrase 'the good old times'.

Then as now, life is good if you have the money to have other people do the hard work. I wonder if there is a photographic book showing the child workers of today making the goods we buy without thinking of their origins.

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Circle of Friends Award

Thank you Previously (Very) Lost in France for the Circle of Friends Award.

I am supposed to state five things that I like to do and pass the award on to five further bloggers.

That is the first thing, then....being able to show appreciation to people whose work I enjoy.

Secondly, I like to put a little spoke in the wheel of the 'everything in France is wonderful' brigade who I think do a dreadful disservice to people wondering about whether to make the move to France. Starry eyed enchantment and self deception are fine as self indulgence, but not as the basis of a radical change of life.

Thirdly, I enjoy my friends, whether to talk with them direct, write and receive e mails and letters or natter on the telephone. Thank goodness for Skype, as they're a far flung bunch.

Fourthly, I enjoy politics. Politics whatever and wherever, from the maneouvrings over the allocation to the local school to the fiasco that is the United Nations.

Fifthly, I like to garden. I like to observe the daily changes out there as I trundle about with wheelbarrow and fork.

Now, to the five blogs.
I don't ask any of the recipients to carry out the 'obligation' that goes with the award...they're all pretty busy people. It's up to them.

Turkish Delight has always been a delight to me.
It will not surprise Ayak to know that I can't make my machine do copy and paste any least, not where I want it to do it, so the URL, as I think it is called, is

The Old Biddie of the Old Biddie's Life is a good, kind and wise friend both on and off the net, at

Pueblo girl, with insights not at all limited to socks, SO and whippet always makes me think at

French Fancy, THE site for boots and bichons, is great in itself, and also for the discoveries to be made on the blogroll - one of the best comments sections, too

Hadriana's Treasures - brings her area of the U.K. to life with her interest in its' history

All lovely blogs.