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

Friday, 22 October 2010

Down at the dump

Trash cans in rowImage via Wikipedia
Looking at the school kids piling wheelie bins against the doors of their schools - don't French schools ever have back doors? - and in the Place de la Concorde in Paris, I thought to myself that they were lucky that they were doing this in the towns.
Out here, in the wilds, they would find that their blockade material would have disappeared overnight to provide rat-free feed bins for the chickens, who are feeling left out because the rabbits copped all the yellow recycling baskets.
We see things differently in the countryside.

The dustmen are most obliging....they will take just about anything, all hurled into the back of the van with a fine disregard for recycling...which saves too many visits to the dechetterie - the local dump.
Not that you're supposed to call it a is a recycling centre.

Well. it is, I suppose....
It's where the gyppos from the illegal gyppo camp recycle scrap metal into cash, totally unobstructed by the miserable jobsworth who works there who spends his time instead terrifying old age pensioners into dismantling the sofa they have brought in into its component materials for putting into the correct skips.

As you might imagine, we have had words.
He thought I should disassemble an ancient folding chair into fabric, plastic and metal components.
I disagreed.
He insisted.
I demurred.
The noise level rose to that of a local council meeting discussing sewage disposal.
He started flailing his arms about like Jacques Chirac's well known helicopter imitation.
I offered one finger upraised in return.
The gyppos stopped recycling and took on the role of mediation.

They would dismantle the chair.

All parties satisfied by this compromise, they dismantled accordingly, he went off to sulk in his hut and I threw my empty oil containers into the 'tout venant' skip in gross violation of Monsieur Jobsworth's policies.
He wants them stacked in a sort of bouncy castle next to his hut which is too high for me to reach, even by standing on the unsteady pile of concrete building blocks he has installed for the shortarses among us.
I am not a keen recycler at the best of times and I do not intend to meet my Maker with a broken neck and covered in sump oil just to make Monsieur Jobsworth happy.

Instead of the annual leaflet pointing out the error of our ways in not washing out our milk boxes and putting them on Tuesdays into box A while on Thursdays flattening sardine tins for box B - which may be appropriate for the big town whence these leaflets come but not for us where the dustmen come once a week only - I feel that more effort should be made to persuade French householders that their grass clippings would be put to better use in making their own compost heaps in their own gardens rather than using petrol to bring them to a tip whence more fuel will be used by the lorry that comes to remove the skip full of grass clippings to....well, there the trail goes cold.
Goodness only knows where it goes.
Probably on top of the Tuesday milk boxes and the Thursday sardine tins, knowing this area.

There's no pleasure in rubbish disposal these days....

The dumps used to be real dumps, surrounded by wire netting with holes in case the mairie was shut when you needed the key, and you could rake around at a Leclerc with no checkouts.
I used to keep an eye on the local cemeteries after the Toussaint, when families come to put pots of chrysanthemums on the graves of their relatives.
After a while, the council man of all work would come along and pick up all the faded and dying specimens and drop everything at the dump, so once I saw that the cemetery was back to its usual shade of grey I would be off with the trailer ready for the haul of flower pots...which were at that time nearly unobtainable in France without a plant in them already.

Other stuff could be found too, furniture, old tools, bits of bicycle, even a tombstone on one occasion....but never bottles. Bottles were never discarded. They were required for the bottling of wine bought in bulk from the vigneron and every house had its stack.

And you met people....the French and the British have different tastes when it comes to tip crawling, so there was none of the jumble sale aggressive spirit and many invitations to come back for a drink.

There was also a lot of asbestos roof sheeting there...dumped when renovating....which seemed to trouble nobody. Rural France was constructed with asbestos sheeting as anyone renovating in France can confirm.

Then recycling came in.

Councils decided to go for this in a big way.
They shut off their local dumps and opened recycling centres.
Fine if you lived near, a real pain if you did not.
Travelling miles with an unwieldy bed settee threatening to fall out of the trailer at any moment is not zen.

Then they decided that the new dumps could not take asbestos....and you had to have a specialised firm to take it down and take it away.
I never saw any of these firms at work, though I imagined chaps in NASA spacesuits moonwalking a la Michael Jackson, because of the astronomical prices they were charging to take away the roof of your chicken shed, so the first consequence of the recycling bug was that fly tipping rose to mammoth proportions and nearly every dirt track accessible by vehicle was lined with broken asbestos sheeting.

Not that local councils were unaware of the problems this caused.
I had bought a large building lavishly roofed in asbestos which was generally accepted as the winner in the 'eyesore of the commune' competition. Farms excluded, of course.
I wished to convert it into something more desirable, and the maire was all for it, not least because he lived alongside.
But the quote for removing the asbestos was  terrifying.
Clearly the firm concerned had not just bought NASA spacesuits but also the rocket to go with them and was keen to recuperate its costs.
As all the books about France tell you, when in doubt, consult the maire. So I consulted the maire.
He was an old boy wise in the ways of getting round inconvenient legislation and came up with the solution.

I'll get the gyppos to come and take it away. I reckon five hundred euros should sort it.

This being a tiny fraction of the estimate that had driven me to the armchair gasping for brandy, I thought it a good deal and authorised him to proceed.
In due course, the gyppo chieftain came to see me, agreed that five hundred euros should do it and offered me a price for some of the machinery in the outhouses.
The deal was done. I was happy, the maire was happy and I imagine that the gyppos were happy.

What, I asked the maire later, will they do with the asbestos?

Oh, they're 'sub contracting' on an estate some Belgian has bought, so it'll all go down as hardcore for the roads.

So that was all right then.

Recycling centres as such did not, at first, reduce the social element to dumping your rubbish.
The first employee was a cheery young man who unloaded cars and trailers for the elderly, sorted out plants from the green skip to redistribute to local gardeners...thus my iris alley...and practised his English on the British contingent.
Eventually he acquired a girlfirend from the south of France where he is now running her parents' restaurant.
We, in return, got Mr. Jobsworth.
But that was later.

At some point you would meet everyone at the recycling centre, from Annette busy smashing a vase before putting it in the skip so that no one else could use the monstrosity to Hubert pulling out the pieces to glue it together as it had once belonged to his aunt.
I was once there when there seemed to be an unattended bicycle propped up against one of the skips, but as I opened my car door, the son of the gyppo chieftain emerged from a skip and pulled his bicycle inside with him, to prevent it from being stolen. I rather liked that.
It was an alternative to the bar for doing business too....the cheery young man did not listen in as did the bar owner and you didn't have to buy a lousy Robusta coffee either.

It was there that Hubert met Mr. Poubelle.
Mr...not Monsieur...Poubelle - Mr.Dustbin - was English.
He had had a holiday house in the commune for years before retiring permanently to France, and his method of communication was to add 'o' or 'a' or 'e' to English words, interspersed with the odd 'oh la la!', and for some obscure reason 'quel con!'....all accompanied by gestures.
It says a great deal for the average person's good nature and adaptability that he seemed to manage pretty well, too.

He was always out for a bargain and accessed some places into which you would hesitate to put your walking the old boy from whom he bought wine at three francs a litre.
I like a bargain, but nothing on earth would have induced me to buy wine there.
It was certainly atmospheric.

You gained access via a yard where pieces of obsolete machinery made it look as though a few Martians from the War of the Worlds had just lucked out.
Then you went into the shed, where bits of tools obsolete by the time of the French Revolution were hanging awaiting repair under a thick cover of dust and cobwebs.
Finally you reached the 'cave', where ancient barrels leered through the gloom of one dim electric bulb liberally covered in more dust.....and you would be offered a tasting glass.
One of the ones that had once held mustard and which looked as though all the mustard had not been cleaned out before the change of use was imposed upon the receptacle.
At least, one hoped that the high relief streaks were mustard.

The wine was undrinkable. To call it vinegar would have been a compliment.
But as it cost only three francs a litre, Mr. Poubelle was happy.
But I noticed that he only bought there once.
Even Mr. Poubelle had limits.

There are those who would disagree with this statement.
Like the couple who gave him his nickname.

They were Parisiens who had inherited a house up the road from Mr. Poubelle which they used for passing the summer.
Mr. Poubelle had made their acquaintance  and they became quite the extent that they invited him to their daughter's wedding, which was to take place in the Auvergne.....but only after a high powered campaign mounted by Mr. Poubelle to the tune of he had never been to a French wedding before, etc....

Now, the French habit is to make hotel arrangements for guests, and, accordingly, the family had booked a small hotel near the village in which the marriage was to be celebrated.
The idea is that the guests pay their own hotel expenses while the family provide the vin d'honneur, the wedding breakfast and the dance with refreshments which inevitably accompany the ceremony.

Mr and Mrs. Poubelle duly arrived, enjoyed the civil and religious ceremonies,  and after the vin d'honneur settled into the wedding breakfast.....the first course of which proved to be prawns.
Not just prawns, but tiger prawns.
Mr. Poubelle set to with a will. He demolished his own. He stabbed more from the plates of his slower eating neighbours at table. He stood up and announced that if there was anyone who did not like prawns they could bring their plate to him.
The horrified mother of the bride had had enough.
She stood up and said

Yes, give them to Mr. Poubelle.

And to cap it all, he refused to pay his hotel bill, on the grounds that he was a guest!

The story went round the village and the nickname stuck.

On meeting Hubert, Mr. Poubelle discovered that Hubert had a surplus of wine.
It was only 'vin courant' for everyday drinking and Hubert had to shift a lot of it as it had had been badly made and was starting to fizz a bit.

How much?

Seven francs the litre. But're not to bottle it. It won't keep.

How much have you got?

Seventy litres.

I'll take it.

But it won't keep, I tell you.

Then I'll take fifty.

Seeing an answer to the bulk of his problem, Hubert accepted and Mr. Poubelle took delivery.

He bottled it and stored it in the newly redecorated (by Mrs. Poubelle, a dab hand with paintbrush screwdriver and hammer) kitchen.
Warm places, kitchens.
Bottle after bottle blew its stack until visitors reckoned it was like living on a firing range and Mrs. Poubelle announced that if she had wanted her kitchen painted red she would have done so originally.

Down at the dump, Mr. Poubelle encountered Hubert again.

That was some duff stuff you sold me.....I've lost about twenty litres of it.

Hubert knew when he was beaten...he gave the rest of his wine to Mr. Poubelle.

Who duly bottled it up but this time put it and the remains of the first load into the dining room, which bore a strong resemblance to an ancient crypt, being dark and dank.
The explosions were less frequent and it was too dark to see the stains.

Mr. Poubelle's cousin came over for a holiday in the August of that his caravan, which he parked in the garden.....and helped Mrs. Poubelle with a lot of the DIY in return for being fed and watered liberally...both the Poubelles were superb cooks.

He was a beer drinker normally, but readily took to wine and one day just before his departure Mr. Poubelle carefully uncorked one of his bottles from Hubert.
It came out of the bottle like Vesuvius unchained and the cousin was most impressed.

I've got a fair few bottles of this stuff, red'll never see it in's hard enough to get it here. You've been such a help, I'll make you a special price if you want some to take back. It'll be great for weddings and Christmas.

How much?

Well, it would normally be about twenty francs a bottle, but as it's you, it'll be a sort of thank you.

The cousin agreed and on the night before his departure Mr. Poubelle loaded the bottles into the caravan, refusing all offers of help in order, as he said to the cousin, to avoid accidents.
Wine was volatile stuff and needed experienced handling.

The cousin set off in the cool of the early hours, to get well on the road before the sun got up.
Warm places, caravans, when the August sun gets on them as they jolt their way over the roads of rural France, but the cousin drove happily on, deaf to the explosions behind him as he listened to his radio.....

For some reason, he never returned to Chez Poubelle for another holiday....but, as I say, he was really a beer drinker.
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  1. Can picture the corks popping, and people dodging them like bullets during the resistance! Red champagne, indeed.

  2. Another Day of Crazy, more activity than during the Resistance, that's for sure.

  3. Reminds of the red fizzy wine we get from Northern Italy...quite nice it is too!

  4. Hadriana's Treasures, I think I know the one you mean...believe me, Hubert's Cuvee Speciale is nothing like it!

  5. Anal as always I'm stuck on the composting... making your own really is one of life's more satisfying endeavours. It's a wonder more people don't do it rather than letting some council worker hoik it away...

  6. I have never seen a red champagne. In S.Africa we had a sparkling wine called Cold Duck which was excellent, but it was pink. Not allowed to call it champagne in S.Africa :-) Diane

  7. Great blogpost. I must remember that: red Champagne.

    Oh, I've taken the liberty of putting you on my blogroll. Any objections and I'll remove it, of course.

  8. Steve, always composted, probably always will. The French think a compost heap is sort of untidy and a bit downmarket, I think...

    Diane, we had Cold Duck in the U.K. I agree, excellent.

  9. Dumdad, covers a multitude of vineous sins, doesn't it!

    There used to be a sparkling red burgundy about in my young day which my father darkly described as wine for whores....

    Thank you for putting me on your blogroll...most kind. May I reciprocate?

  10. Best tip experience: huge minging pile of shit somewhere near Frejus complete with circling seagulls. Reverse van up to egde of pile, hoof rubbish out, bugger off holding nose.

    Worst tip experience: rolling up at Monetier in February with numerous tins of used fryer oil, only to be told that it has to be poured into special big plastic tubs. Fryer oil doesn't pour at -2°C. Forced to bin all clothes having scraped it out of the tins by hand.

  11. misplacedperson, you'd think they'd have a brazier of some sort..even if only for the Mr. Jobsworths to warm their hands at those temperatures....but then I suppose you'd have frozen to death waiting for the oil to melt.
    You don't read about all this on the lovey-dovey books about France.

  12. I am least the French admit their "palm greasing"...

    Here, people pretend it doesn't exist, though they never explain the job of all the lobbyists they take gifts from...

  13. e, well, you'll love this the 'big' political funding...the Woerth - Bettencourt scandal, the public prosecutor....who doesn't want to so desperate that he has accused the judge in the case of 'leaking information' in the hope of getting her replaced by someone more...shall we say...amenable.

  14. Well I've mentioned before that our rubbish is not collected on a regular basis, so to avoid the bin overflowing, a lot of stuff is recycled. But we do have people in towns and villages who go around the bins collecting plastic bottles, and other things, which they sell and make some sort of living. The Turks are natural recyclers...there's a use for everything.

    I love the story of Mr Poubelle. Reminds me of my first husband in attempting to speak French. He also made some wine once, bottled it and stored in a cupboard in the flat where we lived. The cupboard housed the got very hot...the bottles exploded like a bomb going forced the cupboard door open and the mess was unbelievable. I would never attempt to make wine...too dangerous.

  15. In my neck of the woods all the grass clippings, garden waste and little branches are taken to a composting centre where it is piled up, in small mountains, allowed to steam (you can see from miles away) and turn brown, then it is then packed into plastic bags taken to the supermarket and sold as compost.
    After you have planted your geraniums in the said compost and carefully fertilised and nurtured them, little alien plants then germinate alongside and you have to then spend all summer weeding the geraniums.

    As for Mr Poubelle - well, I wish I had known him as well..

  16. Ayak, when I first came to France rubbish collection had only been available for a couple of years so people had been burning stuff and burying what they could not burn....every house I moved to had these dumps in the garden...usually just where i had decided to put the veg plot.

    I used to make home made wine in the U.K.....but after alarming stories about exploding bottles I was jolly careful to use the big glass jars and the airlocks! that's where Super U gets its compost!
    It used to be the question every year...what will the compost give us by way of new plants?
    One year a parasite plant appeared in the greenhouse and quickly took over the whole place, twining over all the wires and strings...our neighbour, on his weekly visit of inspection of what the foreigners were doing took one look and started tearing at it frantically.
    In his youth, this parasite was well known and it could knock out a field of cereals in about a week!
    Thank U Super U!

  17. I love it when my favourite bloggers discover each other (namely you and the wonderful Dumdad).

    Loved this story - once you've left 'La Belle France' (cough) you must try and get your reveals exposed.

    As for recycling here - did you know the fortnightly recycling van does not take juice cartons or yoghurt pots - you have to take them to a special canister. Daft, eh? As you say, in France they take most stuff in the weekly sacs jaune.

  18. French Fancy, I've been reading Dumdad for ages...but never really made contact until the strikes!
    Super blog, isn't it?

    We still have dustbins...

    And plenty to say about La Belle France once I'm free of it, too!

  19. p.s. - how come whenever I used to visit the dechett there would be a huge (vast vast) mound of compost that looked ready and steaming - with a sign beside it saying non disponible? Is it ever?

  20. French Fancy, I've never seen that but I suppose it's the usual French thing that you're not allowed to help yourself to what has become the property of the council.

  21. Damn the day when the local tip became a "recycling centre". Now the skips are out of bounds. Filled with perfectly good, usable stuff, but verboten by the small fat Kommandant. How many happy hours we used to spend rummaging around for cast-off Le Creusets (which, sadly, were so heavy to use that we realised why they had been cast off by previous owners), as well as fascinating piles of old magazines and newspapers and all kinds of je ne sais quois that were there for the taking.

    On the plus side, we can buy compost directly from the site, provided we take our own bags, and it's quite cheap and usually in plentiful supply. On the down side, somebody we know tested it and said it was full of harmful metals and chemicals and would probably poison all our vegetables if we used it.

  22. nodamnblog, Trisha gets hers from the council..I think...and reckons it's full of weeds...vegetarian version of mad cow disease.