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, 24 January 2012

When did you last burn Joan of Arc

Painting image of Joan of Arc                    Image via Wikipedia
While living in France, I wasn't one to take Sunday drives...the price of diesel for one thing and disinclination to move from the garden for another.

Friends visiting, however, called for efforts to be made and we used to roam the small roads, with a vague aim in mind for somewhere to by the time you'd shifted them out of bed, stuffed them with croissants and herded them out to the cars it was a sure fire bet that no restaurant would be open by the time we reached any selected destination.

Most friends had made many annual visits to us and 'done' the tourist sites, so were looking for the 'real' France...whatever they thought that might be.

Country drives were the answer.
Not so much in the immediate surroundings where most villages would have been in fierce competition for the 'most banal in France' category, but a little further limestone country, where the houses gleamed white and cream in the afternoon sun.
Picture book France.

With a few favourite brocantes and antiquaires....junk in all its forms and prices.....along the way.

On one journey to a much favoured  junk shop we would descend from the heights...cross a bridge over the Dive...and drive through a village with the remains of a medieval fortress on the hill up from the bridge....Curcay sur Dive.

We crossed without incident...but had we come this way in the Hundred Years War, this would have been a frontier between England and France, or, more accurately, English and French territory and we would have risked considerably more than a gendarme jumping out with a breathalyser.
The tranquil Dive was at that time  not the tamed, canalised stream that we knew, but a series of watercourses running through marshes between the heights on either side...a real obstacle.

The only crossing was the old double arched bridge in the photograph above, said to date from the time of St. Louis  and named for his mother, Queen Blanche of Castille.

There are a whole range of fortresses guarding Loudon (French held territory) from incursions by the English installed to the south and west.....

Curcay sur Dive itself


Ternay....the old fortress destroyed and replaced by the modern chateau which is today a hotel...

While my favourite...Berrie... to the north was held by English adherents, the Tremouille family.

This disputed ground had long been inhabited...surviving dolmens bear witness above ground....while archaeologists find remains of gallo roman and merovingian settlements below....only the experience of war led people to take shelter in the caves in the limestone which exist under all of these fortresses.

Du Guesclin reduced the English strongholds one by one and relative peace returned to the area...apart from the raiding bands of paid off mercenaries.
When hostilities started up again some forty years later the action was mostly up to the north and east, as Joan of Arc galvanised the Dauphin into action to reclaim the kingdom signed away by his father.

As I say, we had no difficulty crossing into 'French' territory physically...but do we find difficulty into crossing into French territory mentally, or culturally?

On holiday, there is not generally the opportunity. Too little time, too many places to see, or just the wish to collapse into a lounger and forget the world of work.

With a holiday home there is some involvement...paying your taxes, having your chimney swept, meeting the same people in the local superette....but I have come to think that it is not until you live full time in France that you get to grips with how it all works, how people think,....and your own reaction to it all.

I'd moved for financial motives.....but thought that, having travelled widely in France, learned the language and studied the history I would acclimatise fairly easily, and in one way I did.
The area in which I began my life in France was not rich, it did not attract important people for the holidays, there were no big houses except the dilapidated chateau up the road which was being turned into a privately run children's home.
Most of my neighbours were elderly, all were friendly, and the maire and her staff were extremely helpful, in the sense that I left them alone and they left me alone.
I made friends...I went everywhere I was invited and used my ears and eyes.

It became apparent that the words over the door of the mairie - Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - were a parody of the reality. 

Coming from a culture where central government was viewed with a high degree of scepticism, where newspapers (pre-Murdoch) investigated and criticised and where (pre-Blair) one was not afraid of the police I found I was living in a society where you could not tell an officious gendarme where to get off (outrage), where the press 'confused' a respect for the private life of people in the public eye with a cover up of corruption and traffic of influence and where government had the last word.

People knew their place.
The phrase I heard over and over again was
'Nous sommes pour rien'...We don't count...

There was a lack of confidence in oneself...nurtured, in my view, not only by the hierarchical nature of society but by an education system in which was there was not only just one correct answer...but also just one correct question; where mistakes were treated with scorn rather than used as opportunities for explanation.
Thus people who had learned English at school hesitated to use it for fear of making a mistake...while I burbled on regardless.

A good French friend, principal of a maternelle, used to joke that I was a woman with no past and no future, such was my lack of acquaintance with either tense when speaking French in the early days...I recognised the tenses when I read them, but for speaking it was the present every time...and I'm going through the same stage with Spanish now.

Friends who talked about politics and explained political structures to me were convinced that the Mitterand reforms, decentralising government, were a force for the bad because they brought about the rise of local political barons, whose snouts were ever seeking new troughs and, over the years since, I am convinced that my friends were right. 
In practice these string pullers are the medieval baron restored to life....they exercise middle and low justice through the local courts; they have a privileged financial position as the local tax offices look the other way and they almost inevitably live in chateaux.

Then there was the chauvinism....not met so much among my elderly neighbours, but prevalent among those who felt themselves to be of a more exalted, architects and suchlike, whose answer to queries was simple and universal.

'This is France!'

French practice was everything.

I beg leave to differ. 
A country which produces the andouillette has a lot of explaining to do.
As does a country which uses coefficients to complicate what should be simple.

The reaction of these people to dissent was speedy and unpleasant.
What would a foreigner know about anything?
Especially one from a country that does not respect reason.
A country that is duplicitous.

And...wait for it...
A country that burned Joan of Arc!

I could not believe this the first time I heard it...but I was to hear it many times over the years.
It always amazed me that the very people who were proclaiming the superiority of France as based on the use of reason could come up with this particular gem.

My reply used to be

Yes, we burned her...but you sold her.'

Which went down like the offer of steak tartare at a coven of vegans.

The Front National (right wing) think a great deal of Joan of Arc....the woman who kicked out the foreigners.
I used to know a number of FN supporters and used to joke with them about how long would I have to pack my suitcases when they came to power.
The answer was always the same....

Oh, not you and people like's the foreigners living on benefits....who won't speak French...who live in ghettos.

So should Marine Le Pen do the unthinkable and win the Presidential election that's most of the British expats on the ferry for home, then...


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  1. Hello:
    It is so true that it is only when one comes to live in a country and carry out the daily round of tasks that one really begins to understand what makes it work [or not work in the case of Hungary]. Our favourite phrase to cover most things these days is...'put it down to cultural differences'...when one really is at a loss to explain a situation any further.

    We can identify so readily with what you say here and the growing strength of the right wing is certainly visible in Hungary too. When we agreed between each other that we should be able, if things got really out of hand,to leave everything behind and just go, it was immensely liberating.

  2. Jane and Lance Hattatt, yes, 'put it down to cultural differences' covers the otherwise inexplicable!

    The situation in Hungary is, as the Chinese might say...interesting.
    I can see that reforms to the age at which judges have to resign gets rid of some of the old communist era judges, but any tinkering with the justice system gives rise to wondering what the next step might be...

    Just getting up and going was what we did in leaving France.
    I would have preferred to be able to sell the house first, but just leaving was the first priority.

  3. "This is France" reminds me of "this is Turkey". There are so many similarities. People here are afraid of the police or anyone in authority. They don't question...they just accept.

    Oh and I am also a woman of no past and no future when it comes to the Turkish language!

  4. you beat Blogger and can do comments again! Lovely!

    I see what you mean....but the French look down on Turkey as a half civilised country...and then act in exactly the same way themselves..(vast generalisation, but still...)

    And when I think what damage EU requirements have done to Turkey I could spit!
    Meddling in something they did not understand they have given us Erdogan unchained and a growing Islamisation.

  5. emmm yes they do tend to 'forget' they sold Joan of Arc to the Duke of Beford and his crew.
    Having now taught for a while [long term sub] in a French Lycee have to agree with you re they way they teach--there is only one right answer and students do not ask questions.
    Poor lambs looked at me as if I'd dropped in from Pluto when I made clear I wanted them to ask questions in class. Antoinette

  6. Niall and Antoinette, I know what you mean about the expectations in education.

    A friend asked me to give a lecture to his law students...just a quick intro to the nature of Common Law.

    Before I'd got past good morning there was some dope asking me why they hadn't been given a schema of what I was going to say!

    I asked him if he expected his future clients to come to see him with a schema and, if not, would it not be a good idea to learn to take notes.

    I got the Gallic friend was ticked off by his department for allowing someone 'unqualified' to address the students...

    And these are the heirs of the siecle des lumieres....

  7. They are a funny race, the French. Funny but I have found not always amusing, as your script indicates. I enjoyed that immensely and loved the photos.

  8. Fly, you're absolutely right. You have to live there to know what it's really like and three months every summer just isn't long enough. That doesn't mean that we haven't had our brushes with officialdom, but they have been minor and manageable. The ability to do more and more online helps too, as it means I can craft my message carefully before sending it and don't have to think on the hoof!

    But the neighbours have been great and we get quite a lot of insights into French rural life from them.

  9. Mrwriteon, yes...funny peculiar rather than funny ha ha....
    It was the sheer despondent apathy that used to drive me wild.
    I'm glad you liked the was one of the areas I liked best.

    Perpetua, online really helps, doesn't it!
    Talking to the neighbours is, in my view, one of the best ways to learn about a scientists scoff at it as being 'anecdotal evidence'...what do they think history is, for goodness' sake...a complete picture?

  10. I never thought that the Common Market (which, today, is probably not PC!) would work, especially as they kept changing the rules.
    And French education is a worry. Too narrow in approach. We just get more of the Gallic shrug and "c'est ca. C'est la France." Another shrug.

    Even here, we meet the same attitude at local Government level:" If we haven't done it, it can't be done."
    Fortunately, there are enough who scoff at that and just "bloody well do it."

  11. dinahmow, I was against going in...and when I moved to France it wasn't the doddle it is today, but I was lucky to have had several years out in the sticks where people just bent the rules and'got things done'.

    France only ever obeys rules if it suits it...never mind their complete over ride of fiscal targets down the years...just look at the regulations on battery cages and force feeding geese.

  12. There is something depressingly distasteful about nationalism - a source of pride and esteem is frequently turned into a weapon of hate and bigotry. So sad.

  13. I agree with you about decentralisation, I think it's given far too much power to people who shouldn't have it unchecked. There should be a happy medium between centralised inefficient government and anything goes decentralisation, but the French haven't found it.

    My son gets marked down in English if he uses an alternative (correct) word to the one in the book. Luckily he rolls his eyes, but he thinks his English teacher is an idiot.

  14. Steve, it is sad....such a perversion of what should be a good feeling.

    Sarah, and can't we all think of several examples!
    I came across your son's problem when friends' grandchildren asked me to help with their English English was not acceptable in the education system, it appeared!

  15. ...and yet, irritatingly, the "French Dream" is still being perpetuated.


  16. Given your assessment of the nature of French beaurocracy and political duplicity, I can see worrying times ahead for old Caledonia.

    When our great and glorious leader "Big Eck" takes Scotland to its full independent status...I hope he's not relying on invoking the "Auld Alliance" to help bail us out. :)

  17. SP...but you're doing your best to give a wake up call...

  18. fatdogwalks, yes, the Dear Leader had best watch his step with French politicians.
    Their motto in negotiations is
    Now you see it, now you don't....while operating a Find the Lady scam...

  19. Now that's a good response "But you sold her" I have tended to say "that's what the Engliash do with recalictrant French", which gets the same reception, but I like yours better

  20. A friend of ours volunteered to help out with English lessons in the local school. Not to replace the teacher, you understand, but to provide fluent, up-to-date English language to the kids.

    She was hauled in to a local education office, asked to comment on where French children might find difficulty with this or that point of grammar, etc. As she said, "I have better things to do with a day my time than waste it justifying my largesse to a bunch of paper-pushers in le Mans." (I paraphrase) So she doesn't do it any more.

    And yep, most of the French I know, the younger ones anyway, have done years of English and can't speak it.

  21. You're right too about the lack of self-confidence (sorry about the bitty reply to your post but you raise lots of different responses)

    People really can't understand that we're making a success of running accommodation and providing meals without any formal qualifications in either. There seems to be a universal belief that you can't do anything without a relevant qualification. I think it's related to the fact that you can't do anything without a SIRET number....

  22. Mark in Mayennne, I've just watched part two of the Meades programme about France on BBC...he too makes the point about the need for a diploma before being able to start up any activity at all.
    It used to amuse me...when I thought of the levels of competence of those holding said diplomas!

    The education thingy used to drive me wild..dull kids plodded along happily, while bright ones had their enthusiasm squashed on a daily basis...
    As for your friend, how would she know how to speak her native language without a diploma awarded in France!
    As to the sale of Joan of Arc, I like your response too...I'm not so subtle!

  23. Enjoying reading through your blog and reminding me of the reasons I left France after 19 years there. yes, Joan of Arc and don't forget Waterloo, the French don't let you forget that one either. And the daily comments by Frogs who have never set a foot in the UK, about English people who only eat boiled meat with jam.
    Just one question though, 'Nous sommes pour rien", I would have translated as "it's not our fault", "we can't do anything about it"