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.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Special Delivery

A medieval stonemason at work as shown in a co...Image via Wikipedia

I saw a report which made me laugh...then sigh.

A stonemason in the Rhone Valley took out professional insurance to cover his fledgling business, which cost him an arm and a leg.
He then discovered that other companies charged about half what he was paying and asked his insurers for a reduction.
You can imagine the upshot of that little initiative.
They had his money and they were sticking to it.
In fact, they sent him a bill, just to rub his nose in it.

Somewhat indignant, he bethought himself of what to do about it and inspiration struck.
Taking a large block of stone and the tools of his trade he wrote...or chiselled...a cheque in stone.
Everything legally required was there...names, amounts, order to pay...and he even took a bailiff with him to witness that payment had duly been made.

It can't be often that a bailiff has been asked to accompany a massive block of stone in an ancient van on a journey through the Rhone Valley, but I suppose it made a change from banging on doors demanding to seize the television.

The stonemason, the stone and the bailiff duly arrived....only to find that the insurance company's office had closed one hour earlier than usual.
This being France, clearly someone had denounced him!
Probably the journalist from the local paper whom he had summoned to photograph his arrival.

Disappointed, he asked the bailiff to witness that he had done everything in his power to deliver the cheque...well, short of flinging it through the window which would have resulted in the unwelcome attentions of the police, taking his statement from his hospital bed while he recovered from the hernia operation....and returned home, announcing that if the insurance company wanted their cheque they could come and get it.

Why do I suspect the journalist of being less than sympathetic?
Because he ended his report with the lugubrious statement that the stonemason would probably find that his bank would close down his account...for chiselling their name on the stone without their permission.
I expect he was on the bank doorstep first thing the next morning with a photograph as evidence.

The stonemason appeared to be quite a young chap, or I would have suspected that he had been inspired by A.P. Herbert's tale of the negotiable cow, published in the 1930s....the reported attempt of one Albert Haddock to pay what he regarded as an unjustifiable tax demand by writing a cheque on the backside of a cow of malevolent aspect...not forgetting the then obligatory fiscal stamp attached to one of its' horns.....and delivering the animal to the offices of the Inland Revenue...or the Inland Revenge as a disgruntled friend used to call it.

It is rare for an individual to express indignation in France...they go in for collective action - the solidarity bit - to make it more difficult for the police to pick them off and their employers to discriminate against them, though this relative safety cannot be relied on by bands of youths from the urban high rise estates when the police manage to outnumber them.

Gypsies, 'gens de voyage', 'manouches', call them what you will, are good at collective action, thus proving that they are, as they proudly claim, French and not foreigners.
In the recent events at St. Aignan following the shooting of a manouche by the gendarmerie, a crowd wearing balaclavas managed to take over the town centre, cutting down trees with chainsaws which, as one of them claimed, were lying unattended on the ground and breaking into and robbing the baker's shop!
What happened?
Well, about three of them were taken to court and had their hands slapped. Thus the value of collective action.

I did see one incident of individual action when I had not long moved to France.

It was in the days when banks would have outposts in the villages....usually just a room...which would be open on one or two afternoons a week, as a service to local customers.
Given some of the customers I saw going in there I used to suspect that the banks had these little branches to prevent some of their less salubrious customers from lowering the tone of the branch in town, nattily attired as they tended to be in sagging trousers, vests bearing the signs of their last three meals and torn tartan caps.

Passing the village branch one afternoon on my way to see a friend I was astounded to see that a huge pile of manure had been deposited in the doorway....and that the bank clerk was waving frantically from behind the window.
Now, in a village where the eyes behind the shutters missed nothing, from the priest falling out of his car having drink taken to the unexpected sighting of Madame Machin wearing her Sunday best during the week, the arrival of such an unusual deposit could not have gone unnoticed....but nothing was stirring in the heat of the afternoon except the flies busy working the heap.

I now know that I should have ducked out of sight and continued to my friend's house by the back alley behind the church, but I was relatively new to France and did not know the form.
I approached the window.

'Can you 'phone the town branch for me?'
'Don't you have a 'phone in there?'
'No....the bank don't want the expense.'
'What shall I say?'..........Thinking that if I were the person at the other end of the line when some foreigner called to say that one of their clerks was imprisoned behind a pile of manure I would not tend to take it seriously, putting the whole thing down to a lack of familiarity with the language and an over familiarity with the bottle.
''Tell them Camille says to send Jean-Aymon and his tractor and trailer down here right away.'
'What about the gendarmerie?'
'They don't have a tractor and trailer.'

He gave me the number and I went to the call box by the mairie...shuttered and call his bank.
I told them what he had told me to tell them and there was a sharp intake of breath at the other end and then a pause while someone higher in grade was informed.
A man then came on the line, identified only as Claude, who instructed me to return to Camille with the news that Jean-Aymon had been contacted and would be on his way.

I returned to the window and gave the clerk the news.
Was there anything else I could do?
No, but I would be very welcome to open an account with his bank once he got the door open.

Awarding him full marks for a sang-froid almost British in its' nature, I went on my way to my friend, accompanied by a few hopeful flies keen for a change of diet.

She...and the gaggle drinking coffee and cognac in her kitchen...knew all about it, of course.
Apparently, there had been a falling out between the bank and Monsieur Lacroix, farmer and vigneron.
Unable to come to an agreement, Monsieur Lacroix had closed his bank account and then sent down his workman with a load of manure to close the bank door.
There was general agreement that this was not fair on Camille, who was not responsible for the actions of his superiors and who did not have access to a lavatory and that Monsieur Lacroix should have taken his manure to the town branch, except, of course, that even the local town police could not overlook a steaming heap of the best dumped in the main square,and there would have been unpleasantness.

There may be unpleasantness ahead for the stonemason, however.

Once you have signed a contract with a French insurance company, that contract is automatically renewed unless you cancel it...usually some three months before its' expiry date and by registered letter.
Not that they take much notice.
Eight years after cancelling with one company, their computer still churns out demands for payments and threats of bailiffs every year...that's how I can tell it's October.

I suspect the stonemason will find that he will be renewing the acquaintance of his companion, the bailiff.....when he arrives to bang on the door and seize the television for non-payment of his insurance policy.

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  1. Another wonderful story Fly...most enjoyable.

    How's the book coming along? Can't wait!

  2. Here they don't automatically renew, they just keep sending letters stating under what conditions a policy may be cancelled...
    I was threatened with same if I did not send a cheque for 63 cents...

    This was a funny post...If anyone tried that manure trick here, they'd be hunted and hauled off. What happened to the gentleman responsible?

  3. I look forward to some future Tony Robinson in 3565 AD, filming the latest edition of TimeTeam, uncovering that stone cheque and marvelling at the primitivism of 21st century man...

  4. Unless it happens to be the new insurance company that wants to cancel the old insurance company's contract with you. Then suddenly they seem to be able to do it immediately at the last minute :-)

  5. Ayak, it was a most interesting village in which to live and a great introduction to the contradictions of France.
    Book coming along...but having amassed material I am now appalled by the amount of it!

    e, this is what happens in France. If it's you or me, we get hauled off.
    If it's Monsieur Lacroix, big landowner, and as long as he keeps it to the local scale, nothing.

    Steve, yes....because the stone cheque will survive when electronic banking has disappeared into the ether! Lovely thought!

    Rosie, yes,so they say and sometimes they do...but don't be surprised if the old company duns you in a year's time.

  6. It does sound a but like the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. That's how I viewed Ireland when I lived there.

  7. Zuleme...a suspension of belief did help....dumping a pile of manure would have been unthinkable in the U.K. at the time...

  8. There's nothing like rural village life!

    Great story. You said you were new to France and that is why you went up to help. What would you do now in the same situation? ;)

  9. Sarah, nip down the back alley behind the church, that's what.

    I now know that I need to know who's involved before I put in my two penn'orth, otherwise I might lose my status as 'excused boots' in the various village feuds.

  10. I know more than a dozen journalists; four of them I would trust with all my passwords, livestock,and honour. The rest I wouldn't trust with an empty cardboard box.

    Pity the mason didn't take up residence on the doorstep of the insurance company until they had to open up. And if the journo hadn't jumped the gun, he'd have had an interesting article and some good photos.

    Two more great pieces of material for the book. Don't worry about it being too long, you can always prune it once it's finished.

  11. nodamnblog...thanks for the encouragement and advice. Much appreciated!
    As was the tip on Dropbox!

    My father used to have a phrase from his father..he wouldn't trust whoever it was with his money, his malt or his maidservant.

    I only surmise that it was the journalist....but he was the only other person with the information.

  12. Bless those incorrigible French. It's like paying your taxes in 1 centime pieces. Great post.

  13. Dedene, things are much more conformist these days....unfortunately!

  14. Ah the joys of living in France ! You sum up an entire universe of mentalities here. Too true, too true.

    The act of cutting down those trees in St Aignan was really low however, in my humble opinion. The authors of that act might not be aware that the toward the end of WWI some Germans, when pulling out of areas they would shortly be driven out of in Picardie, cut down entire fruit orchards to spite the French population, as well as poisoning the water in wells... so alot of bad blood linked to the cutting down of trees as an act of revenge.

    I'm getting sick of reading stories about people behaving in barbaric ways here in France. Are they actually "people" doing these things ? The word "people" implies civilisation, and too many two legged creatures these days seem to be clearly lacking in basic instruction and respect for civilisation. The barbarians are at the gates. No, they have already broken down the gates, they are in our village.

    Dumping manure or delivering a check in a block of stone fall into an entirely other category though, again imho, those are acts of indignant artists, steeped in creative expression. High notes for originality there.

    And a deep thank you for your comment on my last blog birthday approaching post...

  15. All I can say after reading these tales is "stone the crows!" or possibly "no shit!" Great blogpost.

  16. Owen, as to fruit trees, I had a German friend who remembered being told the stories of atrocities committed by French Senegalese troops after the first world war...and who saw French troops after the second world war hamstringing farm animals and destroying crops....
    Always the civilians who get the dirty end of the stick in the long run, while the 'heroes' are polishing their medals.

    I sometimes wonder if the French have lost their eyes over the last fifty years....
    In one village I lived in the maire saw fit to cut down an ancient oak that stood in the square to make room for more parking....and tore down the nineteenth century wings of the mairie to cover the thing in crepi to make it look modern...and no one batted an eyelid.
    As to what Architects de Batiment de France get up blood boils. The recent 'renovation' of the thirteenth century chapel near where I used to live saw them removing the stone flags from the floor..including tombstones...and putting down something brown and shiny reminiscent of modern kitchen floor tiles! Among other horrors!

    The barbarians are, as you say, already in the village.

    Yes, the stone cheque tickled you know A.P. Herbert's stuff? He is a forgotten man, but apart from being a humourist he also brought about liberalisation of the divorce laws in the U.K.....and sailed traditional Thames barges...quite a man.

    Dumdad, anything would look good to you in the euphoria of the departure of MIL....but glad you enjoyed it.

  17. You've helped clarify something here - couldn't understand when I see so many instances of collective action in France how our neighbors will do or say nothing about the hideous gravel the mairie dumped in place of pavement in front of everyone's houses. Nobody likes it, but when my husband suggested we all sweep it out into the road in protest everyone balked - they'd know who we were. An alternative plan to dig it up and dump it in front of the mairie was also met with head shakes. So sad, when I see Francoise next door struggling up the hill with a cane, feet sliding in stupid gravel...thanks for an enlightening, entertaining post.

  18. Occasionally when I have a pang about being so far away from beautiful Brittany I think about the trumped up little bureaucrats and pointless rules and feel quite glad we are out of it.

    During the milk strikes in the late spring we saw piles of steaming poo outside all the local supermarkets.

  19. Amy, do you know the pub signs....relics of the medieval theme, of all the ranks of society...the knight fights for all, the priest prays for all, etc...and the worker pays for all.
    Well, that's France.
    'Nous sommes pour rien'...'We count for nothing'...sums up the situation.

    French Fancy, Brittany is beautiful, like a lot of other areas...what goes on there is not.
    I'll be intrigued to hear how you get on in the U.K....the differences you notice, etc.

  20. Great Interesting post.Good work man.

  21. Paris Hotel Bastille...thank you!
    Any chance of a discount?

  22. We have the same problem with our old mutuelle. I think they may possibly have given up now. Great post once again!

  23. P(V)LiF, want to bet? Just wait until they get a judgement in France and have it served on you in the U.K.!
    It happened to friends...who had sold their house two years before...and this insurance was one they had cancelled five years before that!
    Once their post was no longer redirected and they could not send the ritual annual letter the insurers got a notification of course...and the U.K.courts were obliged to enforce it.
    Watch your back.

  24. I have the same problem with an insurance company here, starting with M and ending with F... every year I go through the same routine of responding to their letters with proof that I have cancelled previously. To add insult to injury they refunded me part of my policy (I cannot remember why) when I cancelled so I send a copy of that to them also!

    I think from next year I will just return thel etters to the sender, I have had enough. Or, I will send them a bill for my time! Hah, that will shut them up!

    I love the story of this stone mason and will be keeping an eye on the news to see how it ends. As for the cow pat and the bank, well. I can visulaise a small village I know well in the Languedoc and can even see a bank where I think this type of thing may happen frequently... Thanks for sharing here.

  25. PigletinFrance, I'd love to know what happens to the stonemason, too!

    Those endless try ons from insurance companies drive me mad....billing them for your time looks like a great idea!

  26. Very amusing!

    I suspect that France is very different from the U.S. :-) Makes for good reading.



  27. Pearl, I was about to say that things are not as lively as they once were...but then the mystery delivery of Sarkozy's birth certificates took there's still a little bit of anarchy left in rural France.

  28. I remember well the joys of trying to extricate myself from French organisations.

    I loved the stonemason's response.

  29. Lulu LaBonne, so did I.
    As to French organisations..once they've had a taste of your money...

  30. Fly,

    We've changed banks on the personal side and I am already arguing with them. I think it is the same the world over. Great post!

    We've been away (Dorset, Surrey, Berks and Kent). I'm just getting back to normal. Currently looking after 95 year old grandfather (who's lovely!), children, guiding and teaching. Hopefully be back blogging soon. :)

  31. Hadriana's Treasures, I wonder you get time to breathe, let alone blog!

    Banks seem to forget whose money it is....