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.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Time for an aperitif

The blackthorn, the sloe, does not look appealing at first sight, from a comestible point of view. Its froth of flowers on the bleak hedgerows indicates only that you are behind with the pre spring gardening and had better get on with clearing the flower beds, but after that it tends to fade from sight in the battle against weeds and the harvesting and preserving of gluts. It only achieved prominence for me in the autumn when some unwary child had to be inveigled into shoving a ladder into the thorny bushes to climb up to pick the fruit for making sloe gin. Difficult these days to inveigle the same child twice...they seem to have a horror of pricking themselves, tearing their clothes or getting dirty. No wonder the world is going to the dogs. Where is the child of yesteryear, returning from a day out in the country with a jar of newts and looking like an unkempt midden?

However, in rural France, the blackthorn has a great deal of importance. Its' shoots provide the essential ingredient of the ubiquitous aperitif, 'l'epine'...the thorn....which will ease your way into the French language in any house to which you are invited for aperitifs.

I had tasted it in my neighbours' houses, but it was not until I went out on the commune's May 1st walk that I discovered how it was made. French organised walks are a law to themselves....if it is a rambling group, everything goes at a cracking pace, the object seeming to be to get to the house providing the aperitifs at the end of the walk as quickly as possible. If it is the July 14th ramble through the vines then the group keeps pretty close order, anxious not to miss out on the wine distributed by the commune's van at regular waypoints on the route. The May Day walk is something else...the wine and picnic will be delivered to one designated spot and the cask will not be broached until at least the majority of people have arrived, so there is a good deal of dawdling and flower which will be thrown aside before the pickers reach home. There seems to be something dead in the French are free, so you pick them and then jettison them rather than enjoying them where they stand.
On this particular day, I noticed a group congregating around one hedgerow, picking furiously, but I saw no flowers. Monsieur Martin, retired vigneron, enlightened me. They were picking the new pink shoots to make epine. He gave me the recipe...after all, it included wine, I would have to buy some, so it was all good for trade! None of this closely guarded family secret stuff here.

I had some blackthorn in my hedge.....whoever it was who had lived there long ago had had their priorities right....plums for eau de vie and sloes for, with my own supply of illicit eau de vie I was equipped to start. The basic recipe is as follows....
to one kilo of sugar, you put four litres of red wine, one litre of eau de vie and a handful of blackthorn shoots, let it all sit for about a month, stirring the sugar to make sure it dissolves, then strain and bottle. It will keep for years....if you don't invite the ramblers. You can make it with other shoots too...the plum shoots are good, and Didier makes it with wild cherry shoots, just don't mix them. You can also make it with white wine if you happen to have a supply of something so thin that cat's pee would be a compliment to its quality.

I had a supply of wine, a Merlot, which a local upmarket vigneron had sold me, telling me that I could lay it down for at least five years. I suppose he hoped that I would have returned to the U.K. by that time, leaving this treasure behind without tasting it. I had fallen victim to the prevalent idea in French commerce that no foreigner could last the course in France, so it was not worth giving good value to keep his or her custom as they would not be there to become a valued client. The French are a logical nation. I wasn't going to drink the stuff, fearing for the enamel on my teeth, but it was ideal for making epine. I made it on the grand scale....not one bottle of Merlot survived....and was delighted with the results. I could now entertain my neighbours in proper style.

I did so. They were kind enough to approve of my efforts and to encourage me...since I already had the eau de try the other staple of the home made aperitif cupboard, the pineau...but for that I would have to wait until the autumn, for the vendange.

Life has its rythms in the country and there is no rushing the aperitif.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Fat in France

Replete after Sunday lunch, I read of a survey which has found that French women are the thinnest in Europe and worry most about their weight. This seems to bear out the findings of a book proclaiming that French women have the secret of staying thin, though the author of the book admits that her findings only relate to upper middle class women and above in the towns.

Boy, she can say that again! Moving to rural France was an empowering experience for me...I actually looked slim if I stood alongside my female neighbours! I did not and do not mix in what passes for high society locally but I did begin to notice at concerts, etc., that the well dressed women accompanied by men in suits were thin in comparison to the rest of us, and as I watched French TV I noticed that all the female newscasters and presentors were cast in the same mould. This must be another manifestation of the two, the France of ordinary people, the other, the France in control of the ordinary people.

What strikes me is that all demonstrations of status depend on societal forces. In the middle ages, sumptuary laws reserved cloth of gold and jewels for the royal family and the aristocracy, so that you could see who was who at a glance. Later, when access to these luxuries spread down the social scale, access to adequate food became the marker... from Rubens' fat women to the opulent beauties of the pre First World War era. Look at the ladies of Marie Antoinette's court compared with the fishwives marching to destroy them....the shortage of bread tells its' own story.

In the inter war period, access to the freedoms previously only enjoyed by men...such as working outside the home...shifts the aspect again. Women with any access to liberation become boyish in figure, cut their hair and lift their skirts. Their servants are dumpy...access to adequate food...but no liberation.

These days, it appears that to have status, you have to appear as if you do not even need to eat and have the time it takes to present yourself as a perfectly turned out doll, so what is this telling us about society? It's telling us that women who achieved liberation a generation ago pulled up the drawbridge behind themselves and let their fellow women return to achieving status only by attaching themselves to a man.

Food now is so plentiful that status is gained by despising it. Mothers can tell their daughters to stop eating while they are still hungry in the interests of training them for the marriage...or A far cry from the days of shortages during the second World War when in the U.K. a well thought out system of rationing produced a generation of healthy children with their own teeth..who knew it was wrong not to clear your plate because merchant service sailors were dying to bring food to Britain. A far cry from the food shortages in occupied France, when the townspeople sallied out into the countryside to buy black market meat and dairy products, dodging the gendarmerie and fearful of being denounced.

Out here, in the one horse dorps of rural France, people still celebrate with food. They know that they have no power, thus the frequently heard phrase when discussing what is wrong with modern politics,

Nous sommes pour rien.

We count for nothing.

However, the pleasure in preparing your own special recipe for guests who know it and look forward to it with relish is a pleasure that, as yet, the State cannot mar.

Sarkozy's aeroplane

The President of the French Republic is buying a 'plane. He would like to have bought a new one, but, given the current atmosphere in France, even he does not dare to make such a gesture of conspicuous consumption, so he's getting a second hand one from Air Carraibes. It will, of course, be getting a makeover including a bath for Carla Bruni.

Aparently he feels humiliated by the size, age and performance of his existing equipment when compared with that of other world leaders, who may be more stupid than him...step forward the Prime Minister of Spain.....or who need more guidance than him....step forward the German Chancellor...but who manage to arrive at gatherings well briefed and relaxed thanks to having modern planes in which to travel.

Personally, I don't think the President should make the old plane in which he is forced to bum around the world the excuse for his infelicities of language.

Did he fly from the Elysee Palace to the Paris Agricultural Show on the other side of town where he met the man who refused to shake his hand, resulting in the lapid pronouncement

'Sauve -toi, pauvre con!' ?

A reasonable translation of which might be

'Go away, oh illegitimate one.'

Perhaps his car needs a makeover as well. And a bath for Carla Bruni.

Which brings me to another point. The President can address his fellow citizens in this fashion, but woe betide them if they attempt to use the same liberty of address with him. Presidents are protected from prefects and gendarmes and goodness only knows how many other state apparatchiks.

Recently, a French citizen hoisted a placard as Sarkozy's motorcade passed him. It read

'Sauve-toi, pauvre con'.

The said citizen has just been awarded a fine of 1,000 Euros for 'outrage'.

The President has been under attack for his general sloppiness of language and for his scornful disdain for a classic of french literature, 'La Princesse de Cleves', a seventeenth century romance written in the high style, which seemed to be necessary reading for those studying to become apparatchiks. His predecessor, Jaques Chirac, was never held in his time to be a master of the language...a touch bucolic, ideal for patting cows' bottoms at the Agricultural Show or elsewhere, and certainly not up to the standards of the Academie Francaise, whose ex president, the novelist Maurice Druon, has just died, more noted for his attempts to prevent lady ministers from being called Madame la Ministre than for his lurid accounts of the lives of the medieval French kings. President Mitterand, nomatter how unlovely his history and activities, could express himself perfectly in classic French, but things have gone decidely downhill since his time.

Still, citizens can take heart. The President's wife is not protected by the idea of 'outrage', so I can say that Carla Bruni needs a bath without fear of the gendarmes beating down my door at three o'clock in the morning. That is not to say that I don't have to fear a bailiff arriving at 10 o'clock with a civil writ for defamation, but that's another matter.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

We're out of wine.

When I was a timid newcomer to the French rural scene, the cry of

'We're out of wine!'

would mean a trip to the supermarket. That was where I was accustomed to buying wine when I was a tourist, so that was where I went. It also meant that I could just grab the bottles and pay without having to stretch my French beyond "Bonjour' - and why is it never 'Bonjour, Madame" when you greet the cashier and always 'Bonjour, Madame" when she greets you? It's not just me, it's French too, just listen next time you shop.

In the matter of choice, the local supermarkets could not beat the wine stores of the U.K. where the world's wine was displayed for my France, at that point, only French wine was available. What else would the French consumer buy? Well, Algerian and Tunisian, but they counted as French thanks to colonial history and all the old boys who did their national service in North Africa wanted pink North African wine to go with their spit roasted lamb - the 'mechoui', while they gathered together to recall the horrors of the colonial wars....

'Do you remember, Georges, courgettes every day for lunch....."

M. Untel changed my wine buying habits. He was an ex gendarme who was ex because he had managed to go too far even for a gendarme in breathalysing the local doctor when he, M. Untel, having drink taken, was having to hold on to the gendarmerie van for support while proffering the balloon. The doctor was not amused...he was out on an emergency. Consequently M. Untel had the choice of a posting to Devil's Island or retirement on full pension. He was the rep for a co operative selling vegetable seeds when I met him...a bit like

Avon calling!

but preceded by a strong smell of drink and accompanied by the clanking of the bottles he had brought with him to while away the time it took to take my seed order. Thinking about it, his technique could revolutionise door to door cosmetic sales or Tupperware parties. I see it now...... M. Untel, brick red in colour from exposure to the sun and the long term effects of alcohol, surrounded by palpitating ladies, producing the company's latest plastic must-have item........a long plastic spike with a round base upon which to impale empty bottles to make sure of gathering the last reluctant drops of wine. They would be so overcome by the fumes that they would buy anything.

On this occasion, while I was dithering between the Triomphe de Farcy and the latest amazing stringless -ready -for -the- freezer green bean, he asked me what I intended to do with the heap of empty bottles at the side of the house. They had been there when I bought it, they were not in my way, so I had left them alone...there were higher priorities than shifting hundreds of old bottles. The snort told me that I had got my priorities wrong. Those bottles were for filling. With wine. With local wine. From local vignerons. He took me to look at the contents of the boot of his car. It was packed to the gills with bottles of wine, all corked, but not one of them with a tax capsule. This was what the heap was intended for. He closed the boot. I asked him if he wasn't worried about being stopped by his former colleagues. He was not.

'It's for them.'

He would introduce me to a suitable vigneron and then, once I knew what the form was, I was on my own. First, however, I had to wash all the bottles and buy plastic containers. He would lend me a hedgehog. This was becoming surreal. Thoughts of Alice in Wonderland and the flamingos were going through my mind.

I started on the bottles, soaking them in the granite trough by the barn, brushing them out, holding them to the light and then repeating the process until what could be cleaned was clean as a whistle. It was a horrible job...those bottles had been there a damn long time and had become home to sundry living creatures, or creatures that had once lived. M. Untel arrived with his hedgehog, which turned out to be a contrivance about three foot high with circular rows of spikes upon which the washed bottles could be upturned and dried.

The next day he turned up with plastic the ones I used to use for water when camping, with little taps at the bottom, except that these held 20 litres apiece. I could use these,which he called 'cubis'. He also produced a bottling machine...a thing with a hole into which one fed a cork, put the full bottle on the stand underneath and swung down with all one's might on a lever, thus forcing the cork into the bottle. He gave me sage advice.

'Soak the corks in warm water first or you'll do yourself a mischief'.

We were off to see his neighbour to buy wine. He would show me how it was done.
We arrived at a farm, and a small man in cap and overalls greeted M. Untel with pleasure and regarded me dubiously.
Was I a security risk? Goodness only knows how these foreigners gossip giving rise to problems with taxmen. He was reassured by M. Untel that I didn't have enough French to get anyone into trouble, and the ceremony commenced.

We were led into his barn, where huge concrete vats covered the walls, and, in honour of the presence of a lady, the tasting glasses...well, tumblers...were wiped out with a cloth. We started with the dry white chenin , we proceeded to a dry pink then a sweeter pink , we returned to a sweeter white, then switched to a red merlot, then a red cabernet franc and finished on a dessert wine. At no point was a spittoon provided.

What would I like to buy? I had two cubis, so I could have two choices. I took the dessert wine and the dry white, and they were duly filled from the vats. I paid, in cash, of course, and the cubis went into the boot.

At home, I filled the bottles with a funnel, soaked the corks, and M. Untel helped me with the bottling process...I was grateful as I was not at all sure that I had the strength or the technique required for that part of the operation. Satisfied with his day's work of cultural integration he gathered up his cubis, his bottling machine and his hedgehog and headed for home with a final injunction.

'Mind now, no more buying in supermarkets!'

Monday, 20 April 2009

Shifting boundaries in the rural scene.

For whatever reason, you have decided to buy a house in France. The bookshops and the net are awash with advice on how to get a mortgage, the necessity of independent legal advice in your own language, anything, in fact, that can transfer money from your pocket to that of the provider of all these good things.

I have yet to see any sensible advice on boundaries, beyond consulting the land registry map and walking the ground, but boundaries give rise to interminable problems if you are unlucky enough to have difficult neighbours.

Let us take a case. You have bought your rural idyll, a nice house with hedges round the garden, and you decide to repair the rotting chicken wire at the back of the garden to keep your pets secure. Two days later, you have an indignant neighbour on your doorstep, protesting that you are stealing his land. He will take you down the garden which you thought was yours and will show you a discoloured triangular the top of a pyramid for dwarf Pharoahs... which is well on your side of the new chicken wire, tucked neatly away under a hedge. That, he will tell you, is the boundary stone, and the boundary stone is incontestable proof of where the boundary lies.

At this point, you would do well to let him go away without argument, and do a little Sherlock Holmes work. Most difficult neighbours have a superiority complex, and this, allied to the usual rural view that anyone who does not speak good French must be an imbecile, makes them careless and gives you your opening. Check the pyramid and see whether it shows signs of being recently implanted..unnatural cleanliness is also a marker of dirty deeds behind the potting shed. Then go to where you think the boundary should be and see if the ground shows signs of disturbance...if it does, simply replace the pyramid in its' original resting place and put up two fingers to the neighbour who will be watching you from his attic window. Now it is up to him to take action if he wants to persist.

Should he do so, don't count on much help from your notaire, who drew up your purchase documents. While there is much hype about the protection offered by the notaire, it is just that...hype. The notaire's primary role is as a tax collector for the government which is why you are obliged to use one and cannot, as in the U.K. make a private sale between the parties. He will advise you to settle with the neighbour and if you still look mutinous, he will suggest that your only option is to hire a geometre, a surveyor, who will study the situation and impose a boundary on the warring parties by way of a document..a proces-verbal...which has legal force.
So, having just paid the fees for purchase, you now find yourself with another bill to pay and some uncertainty as to the outcome.

If you understood some French, you may have heard the notaire reading out something about 'bornage', which means marking out land, when you were signing the 'acte de vente' and would have thought that the land you purchased had been officially surveyed. In fact, in the context of the acte de vente, it means that the land has not been officially surveyed, thus the need to get it done in cases where there are problems.

The surveyor will take the land registry plan as his starting point, and will begin measuring from all the salient points to arrive at his view of where the boundary should be. You, the neighbour and anyone else whose boundaries are contiguous with yours will have to be present and all will have to sign the resulting document. The surveyor will then plant a modern boundary marker....less moveable than the pyramid - a round sign with the name of his firm attached to a solid lump of iron and concrete set well into the ground. Why can't the land registry plan be definitive, you might ask, since that is what the surveyor is using? Because it is a tax document and not conclusive proof of the nature and situation of the boundaries. And anyway, it it were definitive, the surveyor would be deprived of the chance to make money.

When there are real problems...such as where there are no obvious limits, you may be involved in the process by which folk memory is consulted. All the elderly people of the area will be summoned to give their views, to enable the surveyor to come to a have to watch this carefully. Village and family feuds which have nothing at all to do with you will come to the front....some elderly people may not have even been summoned if their views threaten to be contrary to your neighbour's claims....and claim and counterclaim abound. Mark you, it is a one stop introduction to the people in the area, their family history under the German occupation, and their moral and financial probity. The pity is that at this stage, your French probably won't be good enough to understand it all!

Some years ago, a British couple bought a cottage with land adjoining a farm. The boundaries on the plan were land boundary, a road on two sides, and a farm track on the other, where telegraph poles ran alongside the pathway. One year, they were walking their dogs when they noticed that the neighbour had ploughed land on their side of the track.

A mistake! The contractor hadn't understood!

The next year the contractor misunderstood again and ploughed even deeper into their land.

Not a problem!

Well, no, not for the neighbour.

The third year, they had had enough and confronted the neighbour, who assured them that it would not be in their interests to engage a surveyor as their other neighbour - the one with the land boundary - was a very difficult man and would cause trouble.

Undaunted by this propect, they summoned up a surveyor, who confirmed their original boundaries and, for good measure, found that neighbour A had also been encroaching on the land of neighbour B - the difficult one, who would cause trouble.

It was a victory, but it had to be paid for, and not only in monetary terms. They had not known their place in rural French society and accordingly suffered continual harrassment...their chickens killed by hunting dogs, their harmless moggies poisoned, the hunt hallooing round their house and shooting towards it at close range. They had their land, but never a quiet day afterwards.

It is not just private individuals who can be difficult.
Some years after I bought my first house, another British couple moved into the area, in a hamlet some three kilometres from the village. A private lane formed part of the property, running in front of their house, and local farmers found it a convenient shortcut to and from their fields. The owners were good natured, and did not close it off, but one farmer wanted to be sure, so the maire was despatched to take coffee with the new arrivals,whose grasp of French was, at that stage, rudimentary. She explained to them that ownership of the lane involved them in the costs of upkeep...obviously false as it was a private road...but that the commune was willing to help them by taking it off their hands for the symbolic price of one franc, so that they would have no worries in the future. As it seemed to change nothing, they agreed and signed over their property for one franc.
The sequel to this came some years later when the son of the cautious and enterprising farmer bought the house next door to the British couple and began a campaign of harrassment. The commune, asked to intervene, sent round a councillor who inspected the property and told the couple that the gates to their garden encroached on the commune's land.....the land they had effectively given being less than one metre from the road. They were obliged to demolish their wall and gates and rebuild them further back, in their garden.

So, to be really sure of what you are buying in France you need to ask the seller to undertake an official survey before you agree to purchase, but he probably won't be willing, fearful of what cats might escape from the bag, let alone the cost involved in recapturing them.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Sarkozy's revolution

Finally, my car will have an identity for life.....well, it will if I buy a new one.

In the run up to the last presidential elections, the Socialist Party candidate, Segolene Royal, promised more jobs for beaurocrats and the more right wing candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, promised law and order and economic and educational reform. Monsieur Sarkozy won and all France has been waiting with bated breath to see what would result. A couple of years down the line he has turned round the ship of state and produced.....national numberplates for cars.

Let joy be unconfined.

I don't care for M. Sarkozy. I don't care for Mme. Royal either. I would not trust either of them as far as I could kick them with the future welfare either of myself or France, however, it must be admitted that I do like the new numberplate proposals as a step in the right direction of simplifying life in difficult times.

French local government has several levels. Before President Mitterand, it just had communes and departments, but he thought that this was frustrating for the budding politicians and beaurocrats seeking a chance to get their noses into the trough and invented regions, between departments and the state. Later reforms introduced things called 'pays' between communes and departments, as opportunities were seen to be still unfairly limited.

Harking back to before the French Revolution, the country was composed of provinces, like Poitou, Anjou, Berry, Provence, all annexed to the French crown at different times and conserving different traditions, laws and, of course, taxes. While the French crown did its' best to create uniformity, differences persisted, as in the tax on salt, the 'gabelle'. Regions were either subject to the little gabelle or the big gabelle and salt smuggling was big business between the salt pans on the Brittany coast and the regions on the other side of the river Loire. Thus, the government, or, more exactly, the tax 'farmers' who paid the government for the right to collect taxes, set up tax collection points at the boundaries between regions. There is a very nice tax office at Chinon, beside the river Vienne, for example, and there must be plenty of others if you want to do some research...the tax was known as 'octroi'.

The Revolution abolished the provinces and set up the departments in their place, named after the rivers that ran through their territory. Octroi was abolished likewise, but its ghosts still clanked their chains when it came to registering your car.

All was well if you bought a car in your own obtained a certificate that nothing was owing on the vehicle and that was that. However, if you were so disloyal as to buy a car in another department, then you had to get the first department to certify that it was free of outstanding claims and then pay to register it in your own department, and get another number plate! All time and money which will be saved under the new provisions.

Saving time and money? How unFrench! What a revolution!

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Black puddings and black cassocks

I have just had a Proustian moment. It was not a madeleine dipped in lime tisane....what a revolting combination...but a black pudding from a new butcher..well, a butcher new to me. It was disgusting...gobbets of fat, skin like a black bin bag and no noticeable flavour. It was not cheap. The neighbour's dogs are going to find themselves with something different for lunch today when they make their usual appearance. If their restaurants had customers as loyal as these, celebrity chefs would have no trouble with their banks! However, disgusting though it was, it led to thoughts of happier experiences.

Black pudding used to figure on the breakfast menu of the little caffs in London which I used to frequent when I was first working, all those years ago. Succulent and sizzling from the pan, its' earthy flavour lifted the breakfast out of the ordinary....mark you, the owners of those little caffs knew how to keep customers plates, freshly cooked food and fast service. These days, the London business rates have pushed them out of the prime spots and probably out of business altogether to be replaced by miserable dens where waiters with attitude attempt to make you regret ever contributing to their wages.

French black pudding was different....not hard tubes like the U.K. version, but soft and squishy in the raw state and sometimes with additions, like chestnuts, onions or hot peppers. I had the choice of brand name puddings or the butcher's own...and all were different. I learned another way to cook them, too, spread on bread and toasted under the grill. The hunt for the best black pudding was on!

If buying from the supermarket charcuterie counter I discovered that it was safe to buy them when they were on special offer as the turnover was rapid and the product was super fresh...otherwise, forget it. If buying brand names from the ready use counter, then most were uninteresting, but a new name was worth a try. For a long time I had super black pudding with chestnuts from one of the discount supermarkets, Leader Price, until something went wrong with their supplier's mixing machine and I got alternate mouthfuls of chestnut and pudding but rarely the two together.

Butchers were another matter. Here it was a case of trying them all to see whose seasonings and assembly I liked, and there was plenty of variety. One stall on the weekly market in the nearest big town had a mealy variety like a cross with an Irish oatmeal pudding and managed to keep a consistent recipe...with most butchers, greed would creep in and what started out like a top class pudding...or should I call it a boudin? I never know what is the approved standard for writing about something in another language...would gradually acquire gristle and fat and I would have to look for another supplier. With good butchers, on black pudding day, the queue would be out of the shop, and the absence of queue was an indication that the dirty deeds were going on in the preparation area.

It was difficult, living in the country miles from anywhere, to fit black pudding day into the general round of shopping and necessary visits to offices to sort out yet another fine administrative mess....and what finally finished my black pudding mania was when one butcher, the best, let me down spectacularly by getting religion.
His black pudding day was Sunday, wonderfully timed to attract the most custom to his shop across the square from the church in a far village where I had friends. A group would meet up there for lunch from time to time, all with a previous appointment with the butcher, and Madeleine would harbour all our carefully named parcels in her 'fridge until we went home in the evening.
His black puddings were the best I had ever lumps of fat, no gristle, plenty of soft meat in the mixture and a distinct seasoning. Monday lunch took on a whole new more wondering whether the cold joint from Sunday would go round...the only problem now being whether the baker's bread could live up to the butcher's pudding!

France is officially a country of separation of state and religion. This means that the church pays the priests and the state pays for the upkeep of the churches and presbyteries. In some areas, anticlerical feeling was strong until a few years ago and some villages would have distinct parties...the better off and the 'deserving poor' being seen at mass, playing in the church band and attending the church amateur dramatic society, the others ostentatiously patronising the bar at the hour of mass, playing in the non church band and attending the non church amateur dramatic society. In my village, where this distinction still lived, the church ADS would be performing improving moral tales and the non church ADS Feydeau farces, all swinging doors, trousers and suggestions of immoral living. State subsidy for experimental theatre had not then hit the backwoods of France, so we still had stuff we could understand played by amateurs rather than pretentious rubbish played by conmen masquerading as actors and paid for from our taxes.
This was also a village where the one public lavatory fit for use by both sexes was placed...Clochemerle to the church and, in a crowning act of republicanism, was firmly shut on Sundays.

It was to this village that the bishop sent his troublesome priest. Well, to this village and the four surrounding it, vocations being in short supply of recent years.

This young man had firm views on returning the godless to God...the church should once again be the centre of the village and, moreover, the worship should be traditional. In Latin. This was probably why the bishop had sent him out into the wilds, a bit like Don Camillo but for different reasons. He did indeed shake the place up. The older people liked the return of the mass in Latin and the return of ritual, even if Marie-Yvonne, entering the church on Good Friday and discovering the young priest outstretched on the floor in the crucifixion position, did run to call the doctor. He found that English chapels were closing and selling their organs, so raised funds to buy and install them in his churches and started classes in organ music for young people to try to revive a musical tradition. His churches began to fill as people from a wide radius heard of the brand of catholicism he offered, and he was to be seen everywhere, a tall young man in a black cassock on a one man evangelistic mission.

Unfortunately, his zeal took him to the butcher's shop. As far as he was concerned, the only place that should be open on Sunday was the church. The butcher capitulated, and that was the end of my Sunday black pudding hunt. It was miles away, his black pudding day was never regular, and as the anticlerical took their custom elsewhere in disgust his trade fell off.

Yesterday, for the first time for months, I was tempted by an unknown black pudding but, as I have recounted, it was inedible. To quote a quote of a quote
'Thou hast conquered, pale Galilean.'

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Sarkozy's scooter

Monsieur M'Hamed Bellouti must be relieved. Over three years after the original incident, a French court has overturned the decision of a lower court that he acted maliciously in alleging that a scooter owned by one of Sarkozy's sons damaged his car. He doesn't have to pay Sarkozy's son 2000 Euros, either.

In the autumn of 2005, Monsieur Bellouti was driving his father's BMW in Paris traffic when a scooter barged into his rear bumper in heavy traffic. Not pausing to exchange insurance details, the rider drove off, making a rude gesture. Monsieur Bellouti's passenger had taken the number of the scooter, so there should have been no problem in bringing its' owner to book.

M. Bellouti's insurance company could get no response, however, and eventually told him to contact the police, as it is an offence not to fill out insurance forms in case of traffic accidents. It was at this point that he discovered that the registered owner was one Jean Sarkozy, son of the then Interior Minister, now President of the French Republic. He accordingly made a complaint, but, months later, when he asked what had happened to it, he was told that there was no trace of a complaint ever having been made! He had had enough...the damage was not severe, and he was sick and tired of following it up, so he let the matter drop.

In January 2006, he changed his mind. Jean Sarkozy's scooter had been stolen, and the Paris police were on full effort was spared to recover the vehicle....and recovered it duly was within days. DNA samples were taken from helmets, mobile telephone calls located..and the Interior Minister proclaimed himself very pleased indeed with the efforts of his men. M. Bellouti compared that with the history of the 'lost without trace complaint' and decided to take up his claim for damage once more. This was when his life changed.

After informal efforts to resolve the case failed, he sought a lawyer...only to find lawyers sadly least three refused to take the case, citing fears for their careers, before he found one to take him on. The lawyer tried to settle things out of court, but, finding this imposssible, served papers on Jean Sarkozy. Well, he tried to. He had to try several bailiffs before finding one bold enough to tap on the door of the Sarkozy residence.

Finally there was action from the Sarkozy camp. An offer was made to settle the affair, but, as the date of the hearing approached, no further advances were made. In court, instead of one judge, as would be usual for such a trivial affair, there was a college of three, who passed the buck by demanding a judicial evaluation of the damage before coming to any decisions. The 'expert' announced that it was impossible to make any evaluation, given the time elapsed since the original incident, and the case came back to court for judgement.

In the meantime, M. Bellouti was receiving threatening 'phone calls, advising him to drop the case, and drop it he did, only to pick it up again when he discovered that Jean Sarkozy's lawyer had contacted M. Bellouti's insurance company, posing as M. Bellouti's lawyer, to extract information.

The case came back to court. The expert now produced a report....impossible though he had thought it to do so originally...stating that a scooter could not have damaged the bumper of the BMW, based on a letter he had sent to the new owner of the car asking for photographs!
Jean Sarkozy said he wasn't on the scooter at the time, but in classes at the University. He didn't have any witnesses, but, hey, this is a Sarkozy we're talking about here! He also said he never lent out his scooter.

The court decided that Jean Sarkozy had no responsibility whatsoever, and, further, that M. Bellouti was guilty of bringing a malicious prosecution in that he must have acted in bad faith! Oh, and he had to pay Sarkozy 2000 Euros in compensation.

Outraged, M. Bellouti appealed.
Outraged, Sarkozy appealed...for more compensation.

The prosecuting authorities having decided that no further proceedings could be brought against Jean Sarkozy, the question before the court was that of the malicious prosecution, and, happily for M. Bellouti, it quashed the verdict of the lower court.

What is the moral of this story? Next time you drive into someone's car and they get out waving their insurance claim form, tell them calmly and clearly that you are the son, daughter, uncle, aunt, pet dog your own minister of the French Republic......and advise them in their own interest to pay you 2000 Euros to go away.

Monday, 13 April 2009

The fruitful hedgerows of France

Every country has its own hard liquor, from raki to potcheen, and in France it is eau de vie, made from fermenting wine lees or fruit and distilling the consequences. I was grumbling one day that the hedges round my land were full of plums with very thick skins and not much by way of juice when my elderly neighbour Didier explained that this was not because previous owners knew nothing about fruit, but because these plums were ideal for making eau de vie and that if I used my eyes I would see that nearly every house in the country had a hedge of these useful little things.

Warming to his task, he told me what sort of container to buy....a blue plastic vat which could contain 120 litres with a hermetic seal...and the proportions of fruit to sugar. This explained something else. I had been puzzled by notices in supermarkets limiting customers to 10 kilos of sugar at a time...there seemed to be no shortage of the stuff, after why a limit? Didier explained that apart from its use in eau de vie, it was also extremely helpful in years when the wine was lousy to bolster the alcohol content....thus the limit on purchases. I had visions of vignerons' wives scurrying in and out past the checkout like perpetual motion machines, 10 kilos at a time, until the back of their van was groaning with the stuff.

As the plums ripened and fell to the ground I loaded them into the vat with sugar and when it was full I sealed it and awaited Didier's word to start the distillation process. Distillation is closely controlled by the state, anxious that no drop should escape taxation, so while once vignerons had a right to distill, that privilege is now being the heirs of the last hereditary owner die, their licence dies with them. Needless to say, Didier had a relative, an elderly cousin, whose health was being anxiously watched by the family, and he arrived on the due day with the paper in her name which had already served for thirteen people in the distilling season. I had a large trailer which was low to the ground, which had the advantage that the vats could be loaded with less risk of hernia, so we loaded his vats plural and my vat singular and set off for the travelling still. Despite having the paper, he was cautious...the gendarmes and the customs officers had a habit of lurking on the approach roads to the still and that paper had been well used! As soon as we could, he cut off across country on farm tracks and woodland paths, the trailer bouncing behind, until we reached the still, strategically placed at the junction of a number of earth tracks on the edge of a hamlet. It was an impressive operation, three stills in permanent operation, the customers' vans on one side and buckets and tubs on the other ready to receive the blue tinged distillate. We unloaded and were told to return several hours' later, when our brew would be ready, but the operator showed me how the contraption worked and as he did so he opened a customer's vat to pour into the still...the liquid on the top was thick with the little sticky labels that fruit producers stick on the skins. I looked at Didier askance.

'Well, the guy lives in town, so he uses fruit from the supermarkets. Doesn't matter, it all gets distilled like anything else.'

Already far from convinced that everyone gets his own brew back, distilled individually, given the nature of the operation, I just hoped that my vat was well down the line from the sticky label brew.

At the due time we returned, collected our empty vats and the finished product, nattily packaged in old plastic jerrycans. From 120 litres of fermented plums I had 13 litres of eau de vie which had cost me about one pound fifty pence per litre and a bit of effort picking up plums. Considering that when I was buying it on the black market..boot of the car under a dog blanket had cost me five pounds a litre...special price to foreigners...I was not displeased.

The experience also made sense of an odd episode some years earlier. Driving back to England, I had left in the early hours of the morning, to have a clear run for the ferry. Suddenly, there was a whole lot of flashing lights and torches....I was being flagged down by the gendarmes for a rummage by the customs. Well, they were in for a field day. I was bringing wine in quantity for the family....some from local vignerons, some from supermarkets...the back of the car was full.
Was I a wine merchant? Ever hopeful for something to tax.
No, it was for the family.
All that?
It must be a big family.
They had not had the dubious pleasure of meeting my brother, the man who drives to Belgium to fill his car with cigarettes.
As I was fielding their questions, in total innocence, a horrible thought dawned on me. One of the local guys had made me a present of a few bottles, whispering
No capsule.
I had thought that he was saving himself the expense of the foil bottle top but, as the rummaging went on I realised that the foil top contains the tax stamp the vigneron must pay for every bottle he sells. Those bottles were not very far from the surface and I was sweating cobs. At the least it would be endless forms and I would miss my the worst the poor local guy would be in for the rack and thumbscrews. What a mess!
Luckily, their enthusiasm gave out and I drove away unscathed, but I had always wondered what they were doing out in the wilds of nowhere in the middle of the night. Now all was clear. They had stopped me not far from the site of the travelling still. I suppose they had had a tip off that an illicit haul of eau de vie was to be shifted and were lying in wait for it. They would be so lucky....on a starry night, with all those dirt tracks, the haul would have been long gone, under their very noses.

For a friend of mine, Ziya the Turk, all this picking up plums was just for country bumpkins. He lives in town but has a house near mine, with plum picking rights in most of the neighbouring houses, but the bending is too much for him. Most things are too much for Ziya. One year he did not come down to the house in the country all winter because he could not find anyone to cut the firewood a neighbour had given him! As always, Ziya had a high tech solution to the eau de vie question. He would give me no details, but returned to his flat in town full of mystery. I would see! I would learn!
Later I heard from a common friend that Ziya had been making himself notorious. At the end of the Sunday market in his area of town he would plunge into the pile of discarded fruit boxes, manically sorting containers from contents, carrying on until, smeared with rotten fruit and surrounded by a personal cloud of flies distinctly larger than a man's hand, he had collected everything remotely usable and carting it to his car. Since this was an immigrant and largely Muslim area of town, the obvious had dawned on nobody, but it was clear to me. This was his magic no work formula for making eau de vie.
His wife was far from delighted....he had been making a poppyshow of himself in the market, he had dripped and dropped rotting fruit in the lift thus giving rise to comment by the neighbours and the car had had a resident community of flies for some considerable time. There was one advantage...the police in town were not on the lookout for blue plastic vats containing 120 litres, so he was able to haul it down to the country where in due course it was distilled. He never repeated the experiment. Too much like work.

I did this for some years with Didier, but gave up when my stocks of eau de vie threatened to resemble a supermarket storeroom. I still lent him my trailer, though, and it seemed, like the paper from the cousin, to have become part of the distilling ritual...I would see it all over the place behind different cars until the still moved on and it returned to base.

Last year, Didier did not want the trailer. The government had decided that the still could no longer travel. It had to be in one place where its activities could be controlled and, according to him, the place was like Fort Knox, barbed wire and concrete everywhere, and not a dirt track in sight.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Control yourself, dear.

Policing in France is split between the Police....the people who fine you for having a defective brake light in town and the Gendarmerie...the people who do it in the country. The Police are a civil organisation and the Gendarmerie military.

Living in the country as I did, it was the Gendarmerie with whom I became familiar.

Their garrisons are dotted about the place, defended from the marauding public by fences and locked gates. Should you wish to communicate with them you have to speak into an intercom on the main gate and if it is not too early, too late, lunchtime, or a bad moment, someone might ask your business and consider letting you in. If it is one of the above factors , then you get a recorded message telling you to telephone another well guarded outpost. There is no public telephone near the Gendarmerie station. If only the U.S. cavalry had worked out this system there would have been no Indian Wars. The guy on the foundering horse riding in to report the massacre would have been stymied immediately.

There is an anxiety to avoid incriminating paperwork....the wing mirror has been ripped from your car?

" We'll give you a certificate for your insurance."

It happens again and a rude note has been left on your windscreen....

"Well, we can't be everywhere and all that is clear from the note is that whoever left it is not a member of the Academie Francaise" -
a body founded by Cardinal Richelieu whose task in life is to keep the French language just where it was in the Cardinal's time.

In my village, at that period, there were two bars, one successful because it possessed the tobacco monopoly...we will return to monopolies in due course...and the other unsuccessful, as it did not. The owner of the latter brooded about the situation and finally, on a Sunday afternoon he filled a bucket with stones and headed for his rival's operation. Alerted by the crash of breaking glass, the beseiged proprietor telephoned the Gendarmerie to report the situation.

"Does he have any stones left?"


"Well, call us when he's emptied the bucket and we'll come round and give you a certificate for your insurance."

As long as there is no record of crime, higher authority cannot enquire into why it was not investigated.

On the other hand, there is great enthusiasm for collecting fines. As long as it is not lunchtime or raining, the Gendarmerie van will be found on the roundabout or tucked into slip roads ready to spring on the passing motorist with requests for his papers. Now, in the interests of road safety, you would think that an inspection of tyres and lights would be appropriate, but this might involve contact with dirt...the papers, on the other hand, are clean and thus may be handled. Apart from which, in the French official mind, checking your papers has nothing to do with road safety...if you watch films about occupied France in the 1940s you will see German soldiers demanding people's papers. Nothing has changed, it is all about control of the population. Let no one say that the French learned nothing from the war.

A chat with one of my neighbours, a small scale farmer, led to the dawning of enlightenment on the nature of the Gendarmerie in the French set up.

He had been heading to the fields one morning in his tractor and crossed the path of the Gendarmerie van. It followed him for miles on dirt tracks until he reached his hay crop at which point he was fined for having a defective brake light. He has a wonderful vocabulary and by his own account let rip in masterful fashion, no verbal holds barred, so was not too surprised to receive notice that he had been fined. What did surprise him was that he had been fined twice..once for the brake light and once for insulting the Gendarmerie.

In those days, all was possible if only you knew how and whom, so he called his insurance agent who was a fixer for the local senator in order to have these offences expunged from his record. In due course, the answer came down from on high. No problem for the brake light, but impossible to overlook insults to the Gendarmerie.

Later, I was reading the local newspaper and picked up this story.

In the south of the department in which I lived, a doctor was making his rounds and pulled up onto the kerb in a village with a narrow road and no parking. He put up his 'doctor calling' card in the windscreen and visited his patient. When he came out, he found two the female of the species is known to the public...prowling round his car.

He was parked illegally.

He was a doctor, making a house call.

He was parked illegally.

He lost his temper, got into his car and pulled away. Later, in his surgery, two Gendarmes appeared. He had attempted to run down the Gendarmettes. In front of the people in his waiting room, he denied the charge, explained the situation and, losing his temper again, asked them why they didn't try to solve a few crimes instead of harassing a busy doctor.

The locals were agog and as news of the incident flew round the farms and villages, snowballing as it went, the doctor thought he would call a halt to this by putting up a notice in his waiting room giving his account of what had happened.

Two more Gendarmes appeared, took possession of the notice and the doctor found himself in court charged with insulting the Gendarmerie. He was found guilty and fined.

So, one cannot insult the Gendarmerie either verbally or in writing. By the way, struggling when arrested makes you liable not for what you were actually doing, resisting arrest, but for 'outrage and rebellion', which is how the French legal system views your act of non submission to authority.

In a village nearby, there is a mussels and chips fair every year, run by volunteers. It is a great success, with about two tons of mussels being consumed at lunch and dinner, and the little bar does a roaring trade in soft drinks, beer and light pink wine, just like any bar at any festivity in rural France.
A couple of years ago, an off duty gendarme went along, and spent the afternoon and evening boozing from a bottle of whisky which he had brought with him. Seeing the state he was in by the early hours of the morning, when people were drifting away, someone offered to drive him home, but he refused. He got in his car, and, clearly incapable, drove into another car on his way out onto the road. The incensed owner of the damaged car followed him, and the gendarme drove away at high speed, determined not to be caught. On the way back to the Gendarmerie station, he managed to run into and over two teenagers on scooters, killing both of them. It is an offence in France to drive while over the limit, and an offence not to stop and give assistance to persons in danger, and a gendarme should certainly know all about this..he has training, after all. He drove straight on for the safety of the Gendarmerie, while the driver of the following car called for assistance and gave chase.
Once in the Gendarmerie, it was clear that his pursuer had his car number plate and was intent on making a report of what had happened. Despite all this, the gendarme was not breathalysed until the mid morning, and even then his test showed him several times over the limit, so goodness only knows what level it was at when he left the event.
By this time, the parents of the dead boys had been informed, and feelings were running high. The gendarmes kept a low profile, while excuses were made for what had happened. The excuse most frequently raised was that the man was not on duty at the time. Then it was the fault of the organisers, for serving alcohol. Then it was the fact that both the dead boys' parents were divorced and thus neglecting their children. Whatever happened, clearly the drunken gendarme could not be held responsible.
People finally decided that they had to protest, and organised a march to the Gendarmerie. However, to avoid the risk of arrest, the march had to be silent....can't insult the Gendarmerie verbally, remember....and the placards had to be non accusatory...can't insult them in writing either.

Your child is dead and you have to watch your language. Life in France demands a great deal of self control, n'est ce pas?

Friday, 10 April 2009

Ignorance is bliss

I count myself singularly unfortunate in landing in France when I did and where I did.

Having travelled in France for years, I liked the climate in the Loire Valley and noted that the prices were decidedly reasonable. Holidays in Eymet had given me a horror of what was to become Dordogneshire with its black socked and sandalled Brits in the markets and the pseudo stockbrokers upcountry in their bijou residences.

The voyage of exploration in the 1980s decided estate agent who allowed me to plough through his badly printed factsheets and then provided me with keys..where they existed...and vague directions and sent me off for the day suited me very pressure, no 'buy it now before prices rise', just the enquiry at the end of the day whether I had found anything I liked.

I found some wonderful places...the house with wallpaper picturing the worst excesses of the French Revolution covering cracks into which you could insert your hand....houses without said wallpaper where the cracks furnished a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside...houses like the Marie Celeste where the remnants of the last meal mouldered on the kitchen table...houses with vaulted cellars where the bats hung immobile all day long....just don't mention the question of sewage disposal, proper water supply or telephones.

I bought a small house on the edge of a very rural commune, and this was my mistake, on hindsight, in discovering what France was about.

The place was not crawling with senators, members of the national assembly, media personalities, big business owners, or any of the untouchables who run the country. I had bought only a small house, so none of the local building mafia regarded me as likely prey. I was not running a business, so I was competition to nobody. The commune was composed of ordinary people trying to make a living, and it was among these people that I started to discover life in rural France.

I then made my second big mistake...I improved my French. I had scraped through 'O' Level French many years before, had later made an attempt to upgrade my skills, but the big push came when I found myself in rural France and had to get to grips with the language as a priority. I now know that this was where I went wrong in preserving my dream of life in a new country. Had I been unable to read the local newspaper, I would not have found things to disturb me....I would have been reassured by whatever crap was being dished out by whoever was speaking to me...had I gone one better, as did most of the British expats who came over in later years, and refused to learn the language at all, it is possible that I would still be thinking that living in France is wonderful!

Why did I never listen to the old saying
'Ignorance is bliss'!