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.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Pulitzer Prize coming up...

Toilet paperImage via Wikipedia
I didn't have much time in France when I was last in Europe....just a flying visit to stay with good friends and see that the house had not been

over run by squatters

looted to within an inch of its life

pulled down as an obstacle

or a permutation of any of the above.

It hadn't, so I returned to England to continue sorting out Mother's care programme with a clear mind.

But you don't have to be there to get the gossip.....friends keep me well in touch with local activities and I'm still close enough in time to know and be interested in the characters and the shenanigans involved.

Thus Gerard, with a snippet from the local rag covering the town close to my first house in France.

Nothing much happens in rural France in July and August...the big chiefs mess off to the coast or to the mountains and the underlings are left in charge, which accounts for the startling piece of investigative journalism in the local paper.
The cat being away and all that....
Now, investigative journalism is not something French journalists tend to go in can bring about all too obviously foreseeable risks to the career as a the person responsible for this article is either foreign - unlikely in that neck of the woods where the Front National prowl the rural areas seeking out the circumcised - or totally reckless.

What has he or she done?

Written a short article about the town's public loos.

Yes, in rural France, this can indeed be classed as investigative journalism, for not only has the journalist named them...he or she has also shamed them.
But not, in my view, sufficiently.

I remember those loos from some  twenty years ago and it would appear that nothing very much has changed except that one of them is now providing paper...actual loo paper!

My first encounter with them was when moving to France and coming to sign the acte de vente.
When house hunting in the area, I had stayed at a hotel near the station and had relied on doing so again.
It was typical of French rural station paid, had your passport confiscated and then carried out the French national sport which should by now have achieved Olympic recognition.
Charging up a flight of stairs with suitcase in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.
This experience alone explains the theory of farce.
Having found the room, clean, but sporting a bedside table upon which every travelling arsonist had put in a training session with matches, you then had to find the bathroom.


It would be somewhere in the corridor, so you had to open your bedroom door while holding your keys and washbag and in the light from your own room identify the light switch.
Then, leaving the light on in your room, sprint up and down the corridor looking for the unnumbered door which would, with luck, be the bathroom.
It wasn't guaranteed to be.
Someone's granny could get a terrible shock as the visitor burst in looking for a loo.
'Allo, Allo' had nothing on it.

And don't think about a bath...if one existed at all it would be one of those tiny tubs with a seat upon which you sat while soaping yourself.
Let no one say that the French lack innovative talent.
They'd invented the shower stool before inventing the shower.
Bit like minitel and the internet, really.

No, you usually had the loo, an occasional bidet and the wash basin. The hook on the back of the door served as towel rail and place to park your garments.
You'd forgotten your towel?
Another sprint along the corridor. And get some soap while you're at it.
However there was usually a loo roll.

So, arriving the the chill dusk of a late February evening, I headed for the hotel.
It was closed.
I asked at the station ticket office for directions to another one.
There isn't another one. Not nearby, anyway.
How close is not nearby?
Oh, on the outskirts of town, a couple of kilometres. But it's closed too. It's February.
The ticket clerk denied all knowledge of the existence of any other hotels in the area. Later experience proved him right.

Well, I'd slept in the car before and so I headed for the big parking area in the town centre, reckoning that it would be a reasonably safe place to park, with streetlights and whatnot.
All this was fine. I pulled out the car rug ready for use and went in search of a meal.
The town was closed and shuttered....not only was there no room at the inn but there was nowhere to eat. Not after seven o'clock..
I tried the main streets first and then, with growing dismay, tried some of the unlit back was like walking the streets of medieval Paris and I wouldn't have been in the least surprised to have seen Quasimodo descending from the church tower croaking

Then a more urgent need than hunger came upon me.
I needed to go to the loo.
I had seen none in my travels through the town, but reckoned that there must at least be a public loo up by the market halls where I had parked, so retraced my steps treading more and more delicately after the fashion of Agag the Amalekite as the innards made their position all too clear.

Action this day!

Yes, there certainly was a loo at 'les Halles'.
I could smell it before I could see it, but needs must when the Devil drives, so it was into the car for a loo roll - I had travelled in France before - and off to answer the call of nature which was by this time more like a bellow.

There was no bolt on the door, and no light bulb either.
In the dim light from the streetlamps I could make out a hole in the ground only a shade darker than the surrounds.
The cistern had no chain.
Still, with the British phlegm and sangfroid for which we are renowned in France - well, we were before they met any of us - I rolled up my trouser legs and took the plunge.
I nearly did, too, slipping on whatever it was that was coating the surrounds, but regained my balance and restored myself to normal functioning.

There was, or course, nowhere to wash my hands and on exiting I found out why there was a nice grassy plot alongside.
It was to wipe your shoes.
Still by prowling around I found a stand pipe behind the building so was able to wash not only my hands but the soles of my shoes as well...essential if the interior of the car was to be bearable for the night....and settled down to pass the night.

I might have slept if the town police hadn't driven up and circled my car like Indians round the wagon train, only to drive off when I emerged to upbraid them...but that's another matter.
As was trying to get a breakfast in the morning.

Further acquaintance with the town convinced me that I had met the worst of the public loos....but not by much - the one where the attendant charged to use the soap will stick long in the mind.for example - and the intrepid journalist has rashly given ratings for cleanliness and sanitary supplies, which is where the investigative nature of the article becomes apparent.

For the only one to offer loo paper - soap is off - is run by the parks department, whereas the others  - hosed out night and morning -are the responsibility of the street cleaning department and in the current climate of belt tightening and economy drives the street cleaning department now have ammunition - loo rolls, provision of - with which to attack the parks department for waste.

Why would two departments of the same council attack each other?
Because they are run by different deputy mayors. That's why.

And that is why the enterprising journalist will be lucky if he escapes with a transfer from Chiottes la Gare to Benitierville, where news in something under the ban of the church, when his boss gets back from the coast, because his boss does not want to be caught in the firing line of two ambitious men angling for the post of mayor next time round.

So, if anyone would like to join in the whip round for the entry fee, I'd like to nominate this brave soul for next year's Pulitzer Prize.
Woodward and your heart out.
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Friday, 8 July 2011

Law in inaction

French Senator Charles Humbert and his lawyer ...Image via Wikipedia
You are sitting in a cell at the gendarmerie barracks. You are in garde a vue....detention.

You are sitting there because when the gendarme leapt out of his unmarked car to give you a speeding ticket you called him something uncomplimentary......and while this was something that the average British policeman would regard as mere vulgar abuse, the gendarme called it 'outrage'. An offence.
Given the sensitive nature of the forces of law and order in France they could probably interpret
'It's a fair cop, gov'
 as some involved insult to their probity so whatever you said you were on a hiding to nothing from the minute you opened your mouth.

You also bit the officer's bare arm when he countered your reluctance to accompany him to the station by placing your neck in a stranglehold so tight that you could not breath.
This attempt at survival was qualified as 'rebellion' - another offence - and while you cool your heels the gendarme is busy booking a couple of weeks off sick to recover from your attentions.

At last...the door opens and you are escorted to the adjutant's office.
He proposes to take your statement.
Not being familiar with French police and legal practice and given the misunderstandings that have already arisen, you ask for a lawyer.
The adjutant smiles.
'They're on strike.'

Witnessing you foaming at the mouth at this news, the arresting officer mentally adds rabies to the list of tests he will require.

Lawyers being on strike is a strange phenomenon, but, as you will have guessed, it involves money.
Most things about lawyers do.

In this case, the duty lawyers who are supposed to attend gendarmerie barracks and Hotels de Police at two hours notice in order to assist the involuntary guests of these establishments are on strike because they have not been paid  for the last two and a half months.
Not as in 'not paid by their clients' but as in 'not paid by the government' who are responsible for coughing up.

Mark you, as long as you keep your mouth shut until you get to court you might be better off without some of the lawyers you might encounter.

Recently one bright spark saw fit to defend two youths caught in possession of a miniscule amount of pot by advancing the argument that they were unable to remember anything about the circumstances in which the packet came into their possession as long use of pot had affected their memories.

I think even
'It's a fair cop, gov'
might have had more favourable results.

I had not long been in France when I read that lawyers were on strike and coming from a U.K. background it seemed incredible...after all, as a lawyer in independent practice, if you don't work you don't drink.

This was before I had grasped the astronomic sums required even by lawyers at the bottom of the food chain in France. They can afford to strike without reducing their intake of Romanee-Conti.
What one of the local hacks will want for a simple matter would enable you to hire a QC and two juniors with unlimited refreshers....and you're by no means sure he will do a good job.
They're not all Maitre Eolas.

Quite apart from his or her level of interest and competence there is always the local factor to take into anyone important involved?
If so, you will find that your lawyer's attention is more firmly fixed on not giving offence in that quarter than on any aspect of the case for his client.....the one that's paying him an arm and a leg.
A client is a client, but a local bigwig is forever.

They claim that their fees are so high because seventy per cent of it goes on keeping their business running...
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.
In the provinces at least they all seem to inhabit seedy premises at the top of ancient buildings which don't have lifts.

One accident compensation specialist of my acquaintance regularly has clients with parts of their anatomy encased in plaster bumping up three flights of stairs on their backsides to reach his office. Both he and they take this for granted.

When my leg was in plaster my lawyer was most startled to be summoned downstairs to have our discussion in the cafe on the ground floor of the building...this had never happened to him before.
Given his unsatisfactory performance it's unlikely to happen to him again.

At the successful conclusion of another case, I was startled to receive telephone call from the lawyer who had handled it.
Bearing in mind that he had demanded money upfront before even starting the case I was even more startled to learn that he was reminding me of what a good job he had done and suggesting a further backhander.
My counter suggestion that he write to me with the details met with an aggrieved silence.
After all, in the conduct of his own affairs he follows the advice he gives his clients.
Sign nothing.

In East Anglia years ago there was an alternative version of the traditional crop rotation.
No longer 'wheat, barley, turnips and clover', but, given the wealth of the farmers concerned
'Barley, barley and a Mediterranean cruise.'
I can only imagine that something similar applies to French lawyers.......
'Boundary dispute, tax dispute and off to Thailand for a month on the proceeds.'

Still, when the lawyers are on strike, the cases reported have more savour and the one that sticks in my memory is the one I read about all that time ago when just arrived in France, in an unreconsctructed rural area.

It was a traffic offence. Drunken driving. A gentleman of a certain age.

Without benefit of representation the defendant rose to present his case to the President of the tribunal.
He utterly denied the offence.
What had happened was this.

He had come in from milking the cows and had had a glass of gnole (home distilled eau de vie at several times the proof of the commercial stuff).
As usual.
He had done a few other outside jobs and come in for breakfast, with a litre of (vin) rouge.
As usual.
He had done another few jobs and then met a friend in the bar to talk about selling some ducks. He had had a few beers.
As usual.
He's gone home for lunch, with another litre of rouge.
As usual.

Then something unusual happened. His son in law telephoned him to announce that his wife had given birth to their first child.
The defendant's first grandchild.
He had split a bottle of champagne with his wife to celebrate.
He had dropped in at the bar to celebrate with the boys. A few beers.
He had then driven to the hospital in the local town and split another bottle of champagne with the proud the baby was excluded from this remains a mystery...before driving home.

It was while driving the wrong way down a one way street that he had met the municipal police car coming up. It was all beginning to sound like Gerard Hoffnung's address to the Oxford Union in 1958.

The officers took it upon themselves to breathalyse him. He was multiple times over the limit.

How, asked the President, did he explain this?

Simple. As M. le President might imagine he was somewhat emotional at the birth of his first grandchild and when the police presented him with the tube he had taken breath several times while blowing into it.
Five times in fact and as M. le President would observe, if he divided the results presented by the police by five he, M. le President ,would note that the answer arrived at was just under the limit.

Therefore he was not guilty.

He was awarded points off his licence and a recommendation to let his wife drive him to the hospital for the birth of the next grandchild, and, knowing that particular court, I expect he just nipped round to the back office and handed over the folding stuff to have the judgement expunged from the computer records..

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Monday, 4 July 2011

Don't forget the diver...

BERLIN - OCTOBER 03:  A giant marionette in th...Image by Getty Images via @daylife
Some time back I discovered that my French internet banking was not working.

Despite having made a list of all and any bodies and persons to which or whom I would ever be likely to want to make payments they had managed to delete from the list the local tax gatherers.....and so my property taxes had not been paid.

Thank goodness for good friends in the tax office.
One of them e mailed me to ask if there was a problem...which is the only reason that I discovered that La Banque Postale had been playing wily beguiled with my arrangements.

Now, in the first place, only the French mind could imagine that you would need to make a list of potential authorised recipients of your financial largesse - I mean, how the blazes am I to anticipate which particular crooked state or commercial body will be after my heart's blood among so many potential candidates?
And then, having come up with such a damn fool idea, it takes the French mind to decide to make deletions from the list without so much as a by your leave or kissing Fanny .

You may imagine that I was somewhat wroth. I had risked a ten per cent penalty on my taxes thanks to their high handed incompetence.

Now, in the days when the Post Office and the bank were one and the same, someone from the local office would have contacted me but now, in the era of separation of powers I'm left to find out the hard way...or would have been, if not for kind friends.

One thing was for sure. They couldn't use the 'in the interests of your financial security' wheeze this time.
They had done that years ago when I was buying a long haul flight ticket.
At that period, booking on line was in its infancy and one had to book on line with an agency. I booked, gave my bank card number and awaited the delivery of my ticket.
No ticket. The bank would not honour my card.
Why not?
For your own security. It's more than you usually spend.
Agreed....even I could not buy enough small logs of goat cheese in Leclerc to match up to an airfare, even if they had been on promotion....but why didn't you call me to check?
We don't do that.

But some time later they did allow someone to buy electrical goods to the value of considerably more than my airfare without raising an eyebrow.
It took me three months to sort out that one, much of which was spent in an exchange of correspondence as to why I had not reported the theft of my card to the gendarmerie despite the card having remained on my person in a different continent at the time in question.
No explanation has ever been offered.

It was opportune that my mother had asked me to come over to England to help her sort out her arrangements before going into enabled me to make a descent on La Banque Postale, thanks to the kindness of good friends in France offering me their hospitality.
Always easier to have the bank face to face as they tend to refuse to understand French over the telephone.

My friends live, as did I, out in the wilds of la France Profonde, so it was the usual story of queuing for a ticket at Paris Montparnasse where only three windows were open as the rest of the ticketing staff were on strike, marching round the platforms with banners aloft...then getting the TGV, then a local train and finally a bus which replaced the push me pull you train at all but peak times until finally being met in the car park and being borne to the haven of peace.

I had booked the interview in advance, so at least there was a representative of La Banque Postale present at the branch.
We went through the details.

But the tax office is not on your list, Madame.

Produces paper....always the final word in France.

I agree, it isn't.

She smiles. An easy victory.

But it is on the original list. Here is my carbon copy.

Smile withdrawn and document studied.

I'll need this to process the matter.

I'll give you a copy.

One thing I have learned from experience in France is never to hand over an original document unless it is accompanied by two armed security guards with licence to kill.
Things disappear.

We agree a new list.....with some additions as a precaution....and I go back to relax with my friends.

But all good things come to and end and duty, stern daughter of the voice of God, summons me back from the fleshpots to wrestle with care agencies and suppliers of reading lamps on the other side of the Channel.

I am decanted at the railway station, buy my ticket and join the bus.
There are three of us, all women.
The driver and two passengers.
We talk.
It appears we have acquaintances in common, so the talk becomes more animated and, as the bus sets off and the noise of the engine isolates us from the world outside the windows, we talk more if in our own little bubble, free from being overheard.

We talk about the state of France, as seen by the ordinary person.
How nothing has changed, despite Sarkozy's promise of reforms...France has remained the country of the ´privileged.
How no ordinary person can affect anything that goes on in the world of business and politics.

The elections for President come up next year....

For all the good that will do....candidates parachuted down by the party leadership, not one of them with a clue about what needs doing out here, what matters to's all Paris, Paris, Paris...

Look at this Strauss-Kahn affair...the man's a menace to women and all his mates know it...but does it matter...not a bit! He's one of the boys....they can get away with murder...and God help the woman who stands up to him!

What about Marine Le Pen? (Front National).

Well, she's a lot better that that old schnock her father.....and she's against these immigrants taking advantage of offence, you're not one of them, I know.

But there's plenty of British who's not just a colour thing.

No, but that apart. at least she's not part of the gang, not one of the boys....

The bus pulls in at the next town.
A gaggle of young people get on and we relapse into silence, no longer alone in our bubble.

I return to England and then, eventually, to Costa Rica.

But now, with the developments in the Strauss-Kahn affair and the pressure from the media and inside the Socialist Party to allow him to stand as the PS candidate, I think back to that conversation.

I remember the Presidential run off between Chirac and Marine Le Pen's father, the PS voters walking into the polling station holding their noses and, in one case, wearing a deep sea diver's suit and helmet to express their disgust at the choice they were forced to make.

I shouldn't discard that diving suit.....because if it comes to a run off between Strauss-Kahn and Le Pen in the second round, some women PS voters might be needing it, unless they have the courage of their convictions and overturn the gang of phallocrats and timeservers running their party......and the country.

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Saturday, 2 July 2011

Heartfelt Thanks

These go to the great people at BlogCatalog who managed to solve the problem that had been excluding me from my blog and, in some cases, from being able to comment on other blogs.

If you don't know BlogCatalog, take a will open horizons.