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, 31 July 2009

Play has been abandoned at Edgbaston

Having spent the morning in the company of Jonathan Agnew and assorted Australians, the household is plunged into disorder by the news that play has been abandoned for the day and we all have to find something else to do.

Why cannot Agnew et al continue to talk? It is always learn all sorts of things like Geoffrey Boycott describing his hotel in India as containing the 'corridor of uncertainty', and if, like me, you have been interested in cricket for years, you hear the background to things that puzzled you at the time...a time when the press was reticent, there was no Twitter and real men did not ride pedaloes. Test Match Special on the BBC is rightly an institution, though I do not agree with the widely held view that it is better when rain stops play and the commentators are driven back on their endless resources of gossip and reminiscence.

However, plans have to be changed....and so, if we are going out, will be the clothes. The ladies are already heading for the bathrooms, the hum of the hairdryer will soon be heard in the land and the men are thrashing out a plan of attack. It runs rather like this...
The ladies haven't hit the beer at lunchtime, so they will be driving.
That means they will want to go shopping or sightseeing.
How can the men contrive to avoid the former and make the latter tolerable?
There is a further is raining cats and dogs.

That factor knocks out the favourite solution, a run along the Loire and a visit to a chateau with a pleasant bar nearby where the men can continue hitting the beer while the ladies soak up the culture. No one wants to sit inside in a French bar.
We could stay at home and read, watch television and listen to music. We could, but by now the ladies have changed and done their hair, so we're going out.
What do you do to amuse your visitors on a wet day in rural France? They've bought their wine, so winetasting is out, the men revolt at the mere mention of Ikea, the Resistance museum is off the agenda as far as this party is concerned.....mention of the French army as the sunburned armpit brigade is sure to be made and someone at the museum will understand and we will be banned, historic buildings bring the men out in hives, so what are we to do?
The answer is a long drive, but well worth it and as the ladies are driving, they have the last word.

The chateau d'Oiron.

This is a chateau well off the beaten tourist track, south of the river Loire, built in one go in the sixteenth century so not a ragbag of styles, with a well preserved interior. However, the main point of interest, and the whole point of this visit, is the art collection. Well, yes, art, but not art as we know it.

The chateau is an outpost of the national museum services and houses a collection of modern interpretations of the 'cabinets of curiosities' which were apparently popular with the upper crust of the renaissance. There is one reproduction of the renaissance cabinet upstairs in one of the towers, but the rest are the works of modern artists, including one room resounding to the buzzing of myriad insects. How French. The video which I hope I have managed to download properly will show you more, including the set of crockery featuring the profiles of the local people which is used every summer to serve a lunch for the models...they find their place at the table by identifying their profile. What happens if your nose is broken or you lose your teeth in the interim is something I prefer not to consider.
There used to be an exhibit involving glasses of wine balanced without any visible means of support, but the room was closed this time. Probably knew who was coming. Still, there is plenty else to have the alarm bells sounding as our party tours the building...the sphere was inevitable and I should have known better than to have let the men get near it, but, wonder of wonders, this visit to a chateau is a success!

The ladies loved the architecture and the frescos, while for everyone the art provided a subject of commentary all the way home and well into the evening. Not all of it complimentary, but commentary none the less.

As we unloaded the cars, I noticed that one of the men had his portable radio in his hand. I eyed him and he said sheepishly

'Well, I know they said play was abandoned at Edgbaston...but I couldn't help hoping....'

Thursday, 30 July 2009

More apologies and a cry for help

I thought I had sorted the 'followers' problem..but I'm not sure I have. I can't sort the muddled print on the music line.
Now I have an ad for Scientology which seems to come up all the time. I signed up for Adsense and I thought that Google just put up stuff which related to the content or the geographical spread of readership.

Now, I haven't mentioned I have though. Twice. So why is this ad appearing?

Has anyone had similar experience or could anyone offer any advice? I would be most grateful, as the internet world is something I find fairly baffling.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Sarkozy's swine 'flu

pigs_cropImage by johnmuk via Flickr

While Sarkozy was holding his last cabinet meeting before the holidays and the second wave of holidaymakers prepare to assault the beaches, the Ministry of Labour issued a little circular, DGT 2009/16, giving guidance on measures to keep the economy functioning if the swine 'flu 'pandemic' worsens. Not the first thing on a holidaymaker's mind, you might think, just the ministry covering its' back when things go to pot later and fingers are being pointed.
Up to a point, Lord Copper.
A little holiday reading would be in order, I think.

The circular envisages measures to be put in place should the outbreak be classified as 5B or 6......which it is expected to be by September when the people responsible for so doing get back from the beaches. It supposes that, given the widespread absenteeism due to illness, industry and commerce will be severely affected and that as it is not in the national interest to let the economy suffer, extraordinary measures might need to be taken. All very reasonable, you might think, but what is the conclusion drawn by the Ministry of Labour?

That employers should be able to decide unilaterally whether to ask their workers to work longer or different hours or vary the work they perform to meet the needs of the company and that a refusal by the workers to meet these demands could qualify as an act involving instant dismissal.
Now, a circular does not have the force of is an aid to interpretation...but it will be interpreted by the agencies who dish out the permits to employers to vary their employee's working hours and conditions. The circular asks these agencies to show flexibility appropriate to the circumstances.
Let us look at a scenario....Madame X has arranged her family and working life so that she can take her child to the nursery at 8.00 a.m. and be at the office by 8.30 a.m. If, however, the needs of the business dictate, while the pandemic is rated at 5B or 6, her boss can demand that she comes in earlier, and if she cannot arrange things, well, she is running the risk of dismissal.
Not very likely, you might say? It depends. If Madame X is the member of one of the unions who run the French labour scene in an unseemly alliance with the employers' organisations, then no, it is not very likely. The unions are as yet untouchable.
As recent events have shown, a unionised workforce can kidnap and imprison the bosses, burn machinery and sequester equipment without a hand being raised to prevent them. The unions can still provide big turn outs on demonstrations, cripple public transport and menace the nation's food supplies. If in a unionised plant, Madame X will not be troubled.
If, however, Madame X is not so protected, then her risk will be much greater, and if with the economic downturn there are more Madame Xs employed than her employer thinks necessary, well, the 'flu pandemic is a heaven sent opportunity to get rid of some at minimum cost to the business.
The expats working in the jobs the French don't want might like to keep a wary eye open....with the unemployment levels the way they are, and Monsieur Darcos, the Minister of Labour, pessimistic about the future, the French might start wanting them again, so just be flexible.
Already, French businesses are trying to get round the rigid labour laws by hiring people on short term contracts, which may or may not be renewed, but this proposal opens the door to a new way of contracting the the name of supporting the economy in difficult times.
The French labour system is rotten to the core. Government workers until recently had guarenteed jobs for life...and about one in four workers work for the government. Sarkozy promised job reductions, but I don't see much action...government workers are unionised.
Once hired, the employer can kiss goodbye to firing a worker except in very special circumstances, nomatter how how things go in the business. Bribery is the only way.
Unions are not interested in jobs for all, just jobs for their boys....and girls...and in preserving their position of power. It all sounds so reminiscent of the pre Thatcher era in the U.K. with its stagnant economy and endless strikes.
The status quo is preserved by the high barriers to entry to business start-up. The assessment for social security charges before you have earned a sou is a deterrent to most, so people stay on benefit rather than try something for themselves. It is a waste of talent and energy.

Sarkozy offered reform of a sclerotic system. He is well into his presidency and so far the best he can do is to bring in a hole and corner measure like this under the cloak of the threat of swine 'flu. I think if he were to trust the people he would find many more on the side of reform than he seems to think, but, like all politicians, it seems, he trusts the people about as far as they trust him.

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Monday, 27 July 2009

Mrs. Mop and Maggotry

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Sarkozy's slip

Nicolas Sarkozy, a watermark was present that ...Image via Wikipedia

Jogging at his official residence at Versailles on the weekend, President Sarkozy slipped to the ground, suffering from a malfunction of the nerves controlling his heart. Or just from over exertion in the heat of the afternoon. Or whatever the next spokesperson tells us. He was shipped to hospital and found to be in good general working order, but in need of a rest. So that's all right then, isn't it?

The photographs of him emerging from hospital with his wife, Carla Bruni, made him look like a small boy being dragged along by his mother, reluctant and apprehensive, which as he is supposed to be an intelligent man, he might well have reason to be. As the Cautionary Tales would have it

'Always keep a-hold of nurse

For fear of finding something worse.'

Will he be returning to the regime imposed upon him by his/her personal trainer....exercises to reinforce his pelvic floor...didn't know men had them before...and instructions to lose two dress sizes...or the male equivalent? Will he be forced to continue to jog publicly on all state visits abroad? What will be his fate? Since he is going to spend his hols with the in-laws in the south of France it is to be hoped that their septic tank problem has been solved by now.

You have to congratulate Sarkozy for being relatively open about his health. Previous presidents have carried on in a state which would give grave doubts as to their ability to take important decisions...notably Pompidou and Mitterand. Chirac disappeared into hospital for something that was never properly explained. Mark you, how many important decisions are actually taken by presidents rather than by their advisors is a moot point, so perhaps we worry unduly about their state of health.
Sarkozy has been open about the presidential expenses, too. He like us, is late paying his utility bills and has had to pay the penalty. He, unlike us, has had this paid by the French people, however. He graciously decided to settle some of the items presented as expenses himself when the auditor raised an eyebrow, which makes you wonder what was involved as the staggering bill for flowers was passed nem con.

What did disturb me was the tone of the comments online in some sections of the may not like the man or what he represents, but cheers of delight at his ill health, wishes for his speedy demise and sheer vulgar abuse reveal a side of the French national character that is not at all attractive. The sheer hatred that these comments reveal, the lack of common decency, is something so alien that it took me aback.
It shouldn't have done...there is a streak of spite in the French makeup that comes out in various ways...the rejoicing at someone else's misfortune.
Guy was telling me about a colleague who had put all his retirement bonus into shares in the chunnel company...Eurotunnel...when it was first launched. It had been a disaster, the individual shareholders, investing under the impression that the company would not be allowed to go down by the two governments, had been wiped out. Mark you, only a French investor would assume that a government would back up a failing company as a matter of national pride...this was the Thatcher era, and her governments had a distinctly different view of things! The point is that Guy, a charming, helpful and friendly man, who had worked with this colleague for years, who had bought a house near his in order to continue their friendship in retirement, was delighted by the contrast between his friend's misfortune and his own good luck and frequently referred to it in his friend's presence.
In the dear past days of maiden ladies cycling to matins and cricket on the green, before the Euro emerged, blushing, into the limelight, the U.K. slipped ignominiously from the European Money Snake, causing expat incomes in sterling to crash from eleven French francs to the pound sterling to seven. It's not just Brown and Darling who have these least Darling doesn't tell the House of Commons that
'Non, je ne regrette rien.'
Living quietly in rural France, far from the self satisfied Lawson, I was astounded at the number of people I had thought of as friends or pleasant aquaintances who came round to gloat over an aperitif and other expats told the same story.

Still, Sarkozy is French enough to take all this in his stride and, to return to his working life as President of France. If there is an emergency his staff will always be able to find him. Unlike Chirac, prowling Paris in the evenings, his whereabouts unknown to his wife or to anyone apart from his chauffeur, Sarkozy is always to be found within leading rein distance of his wife. No chance of being found bathing in a pond in the early hours of the morning, falling from a train, running into a milk float in the wee small hours and certainly not dying after an encounter with a mistress. This President is respectable....even if starved.

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Friday, 24 July 2009

Tour de France

Tour De France 2 (Crop)Image by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

I hadn't thought much about cycling before moving to France. Vague impressions of someone called Eddy Merckx riding in lashing rain over cobbled streets in something aptly nicknamed 'the Hell of the North' was about the limit of my knowledge, and I saw no reason to extend my frontiers. I don't ride the things, I don't like the things, and the self righteous U.K. town cyclist of the period always made me wish that they could all be sent to join Eddy Merckx in the lashing rain.
Once in France, however, there was no escape. The nation was obsessed with cycling. Groups of men clad in garments that would have qualified them as customers of some of the more lurid shops around Berwick Street market publicly displayed themselves on bicycles on the weekends, riding three abreast and blocking country roads, and while normally anything blocking the path of a French motorist is hooted at, sworn at, gesticulated at and possibly run over if it is smaller than the French motorist, these shaven legged perverts were allowed free rein!

Travelling in Brittany one year, I came to a halt somewhere near Landernau, in a queue of stationary cars. A marshal with a flag and flak jacket was barring the road while another, without flag, was working the queue with bags of locally produced sweets for sale. The price was outrageous, even by French standards, and I refused. He was hurt....the proceeds were to go to supporting the organisation of the cycle race which was about to pass at the end of the road which his colleague was blocking. I turned the car and found another road to Landernau.
Friends driving up from the Dordogne reported their encounter with the big one - the Tour de France. In their case the road was blocked by a tank, whose crew were having a real grandstand view of the action and no one could move until the whole thing was over. By the time they realised what was happening, they were in a queue of cars and it was impossible to reverse. They sat it out, unable to see anything for the tank, and were released hours later. They weren't keen cyclists either.

Then the Tour came to the next village, and the place went mad. Grants were suddenly available for tarting up houses on the route of the Tour, flower beds appeared from nowhere and a road outside the village which resembled something from the aftermath of the Somme, so great were the potholes, was resurfaced. I could understand resurfacing the road....the Tour was to use it, after all, but why the tarting up.
'Television' said Guy.
I must have looked blank because he continued
'It's not just the race. Everyone in the world will be watching and no one wants their village to look like a dump.'
In my opinion it would have taken a lot more than a coat of paint and a few flowers to smarten up St. Ragondin, as I shall tactfully refer to it. It would win prizes for the most banal village in France. However, its' moment of glory was upon it. The council had even paid the Tour to have a sprint through the village with the finish line conveniently outside the maire's garage, which had the usual complement of ancient 2CVs and Renault vans removed to the back of the premises for the duration. No chance of getting any repairs done until the Tour had passed. In pride of place on the forecourt was the Citroen DS which the maire hired out for weddings. Yes, you do know what the DS is the car used by de Gaulle while being shot at by those disgruntled with his policy on Algeria. It is pronounced just like 'deesse', French for goddess. I like it very much.

Guy insisted that we join him to watch the Tour and started to make his arrangements. His cousin lived in St. Ragondin, but not on the main street where the action was to be. However, his cousin's wife's sister did, and the whole party was to assemble at her place at an early hour, armed with picnic and wine. We were not trusted to arrive unless escorted, so Guy called for us in his car, towing a trailor with planks and we set off, avoiding the gendarmerie roadblacks which seemed to be more intent on preventing anyone assembling along the route than in facilitating their presence. Despite their efforts, the road was lined with picnic tables and chairs, umbrellas and cool boxes and people with flags, all preparing for the great event with food and drink.
The main street was blocked, so Guy drove down the back streets to unload his human cargo and then called for volunteers to unload the planks, before driving off to park the car and trailor at the cousin's house, whence he could be sure of an unimpeded exit. He returned, and chivvied the men out into the front garden, where the planks awaited. His master plan was to build a scaffold from which we could all watch the Tour over the heads of the picnickers already assembled on the pavement in front, and probably profiting from ancestral exerience gained in the Revolution, the scaffold was erected in double quick time, and chairs and tables brought from the house. I have never before or since eaten on a scaffold in the presence of the multitude, but Guy and friends thought nothing of it and before long had invited some of the people on the pavement to join us. It seemed a long wait to me, but there was food, drink and conversation to fill the void until at last the noise of excited people was heard, and a stream of cars passed in front, with the passengers hurling things from the windows.....bags of sweets, chocolate, hats, footballs...Guy said he thought he had seen sachets of condoms, but we all thought that was beyond the pale, even in France. This, it appeared, was the publicity caravan. Then there was an interval, then there were gendarmes on motorcycles and then IT appeared.... a stream of luridly dressed cyclists going like the clappers, with cars and motorcycles weaving alongside, photographers hanging precariously into space. It all seemed to pass in a flash...more cars, one with a broom, and then more cars carrying bike parts....and that was that. The Tour de France. It was a wonderful picnic, I met a lot of nice people, but the event itself left me cold.

Then I discovered its dark underbelly...the drugs, the money and the rivalries. Coming from Britain, even I had heard of Tommy Simpson, who died on Mount Ventoux, pushing his body too hard under the influence of amphetamines. I began to look at the sports pages, and found details of faked urine tests and goodness only knows what else in the war between men eager to win and organisers desperate not to have the Tour banned altogether for its shady reputation. Not something I had thought about as I watched the TV coverage on the giving their utmost on the gruelling mountain stages, or weaving through the pack in the sprint finishes.

France longs for a French winner. Merckx, Lemond, Indurain and, most notable of all, Armstrong, have broken their hearts over the years, and this year looks to be dry again for France as Contador looks unbeatable. But for the British in France, there is reason to go and cheer the Tour.....British riders are doing well as never before. Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins, the British will be out on their scaffolds with their tea and cucumber sandwiches, cheering you on.
Even me...a bit.

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Wednesday, 22 July 2009

PC and pragmatic

French-Cafe-PatioImage via Wikipedia

In the supermarket car park is an unmistakable sign of the holiday period. The travelling people...'les gens de voyage' if you are PC, 'manouches' if you're not, 'bohemiens' if you don't know whether you are one or the other....are with us again. Ladies patrol the parking areas trying to sell wicker shopping baskets, priced as genuine examples of their would be more convincing if they would take the time to scrape the 'Made in China' labels off first. Children offer to wash your windscreen with a dirty cloth guaranteed to leave more smears than you had in the first place, and you lock your car carefully, putting your parcels in the boot.
The men of the community have a role to play also. Divided into the light and heavy brigades they escort the women and children inside the supermarket...that dangerous and alien environment where money is required in exchange for goods. The heavy brigade head for the cash desks, ready to argue about prices, quality and, of course, discrimination and while the fur flies so do the children, rushing in and out with the goods father has marked down and stashing them in the trolley manned by the fleet of foot of the light brigade near the exits beyond the checkouts. By the time the manager has come down, been berated and symbolically beaten with a loaf of bread, the family at the cash desk have abandoned their purchases as a protest against discrimation and the trolleys have departed for the vans tucked away at the far end of the car park.

Those of you who use 'gens de voyage' have probably switched off by now, disgusted by this example of antiquated prejudice, but if there is still anyone out there, let me elaborate.
Clearly, not all behave like this, but the point of my observations is that a lot do and when they do, nothing is done about it. The police and gendarmerie are conspicuous by their absence and increasingly, supermarkets are hiring private security services. I was intrigued on going into my local town to find that even there a security firm had set up its offices......a place where the only movement all day is the opening of shutters at about nine in the morning and the closing of said at two in the afternoon. I was further intrigued to learn that the operators of the firm were....travelling people.
Accustomed as we are to having checks made on our papers when driving, it is more than annoying to be pulled in on a roundabout while a convoy of expensive cars and trailers is allowed to pass unmolested. Why should this be? Unlike politicians, travelling people don't operate the pork barrel, so what is the reason for their immunity? Simple...they like to keep themselves to themselves and resent outside interference. Deeply resent it. And the police respect this feeling, PC and pragmatic as they are.
Towns and villages are required to set up camping facilities for travelling people, which can vary from an area with a standpipe and long drop toilet out in the wilds around here, to something approaching a five star campsite in the nearest big town. Not unreasonably, councils like the facilities to be respected, but experience locally shows that they are not. When leaving, but not before,the standpipe will be run over, so that the next occupants have to get water from the cemetery nearby, where, to save effort, the tap will never be turned off. The repairs are constant.
In the big town, the site caretaker asked one occupant to tidy up around his site, where he was dismantling cars, and for response had the occupant coming for him full tilt with a chainsaw with the motor racing. Not content with this, the occupant later went to the caretaker's house and threatened his wife and child. The police could not identify the occupant....must have gone without their guide dogs....and the caretaker is suing the council for not ensuring his safety. Given the speed of French justice, he'll be waiting a long time.

In the next department, a family of travelling people set up in a large house in a village, parking their trailers in its grounds and local life underwent considerable disruption. In the mornings, a light van would set out from the house, to identify anything not nailed down, and the children would be dropped off to pick up the booty and return it to base. A notice went up on the gate, offering oven ready poultry....rumoured to be stolen to order. There was trouble at the bakers' shop where the newcomers refused to pay for their bread and the glass door was broken. Mark you, I can imagine that there were faults on both sides, there, at least. Time without number in the past I have nipped into a local baker coming up to lunchtime and been served with a loaf which was clearly past its best and fit only for feeding to ducks. As passing trade, one can expect no better, but the bakers have been uniformly upset when I refuse to accept the razor edged brick and I expect that the same thing happened with the newcomers.
Where were the gendarmerie? Keeping PC and pragmatic about things, for there was a context to the presence of the travelling people in that village.
Previously they had occupied a field or two situated on the approach road to a big theme park, where their presence was not held to embellish the image of the establishment. The local senator arranged to find them alternative accommodation, and the sleepy little village was ideal. The senator's son was in property, the maire was of the same political party as the senator, the funds were found from somewhere and the travelling people were translated to their new environment. The gendarmerie thus had two good reasons to remain pragmatic.....respect for the privacy of a minority group, and respect of political authority. No one wanted any problems.
People were not happy locally, but the maire managed to keep things calm, emphasising that all efforts should be made to make the newcomers feel welcome, and the newcomers played their part in integration by taking a stand at the summer car boot sale..the 'vide grenier', literally, emptying your attic. These events have become very popular in past years, so popular in fact that the taxman has struck, insisting that people cannot take stands at more than two events outside their own place of residence......someone might be making money, you understand!
These events can be handy for finding a pattern of stair rod that is no longer produced, or for re equipping your toddler with clothes and toys, but generally it is junk that is on offer...and at high prices, too. Still, it is a chance to dispose of one's retail errors. I have been watching a particularly hideous vase go the rounds from year to year in this area is aways snapped up with glee and inevitably returns for sale. I can understand this as the thing has a distinct presence and must have a baleful effect, glowering at you from your sideboard every day until you long for the date of the vide grenier to enable you to pass it on to the next person who thought gladioli would look well in it. Throw it away? What are you thinking of? It cost money!
The news that the newcomers were taking a stall ensured the success of the event. Everyone for miles around who had lost portable property came in search of it...but in vain. The stall was full of computer towers, screens and keyboards, but nothing else. Clearly the clan had obtained a contract to remove obsolete equipment from somewhere. No gendarmes were present to enquire into the matter, as one might imagine.
Then there was further trouble at the bakery. Someone's arm was broken in an altercation and the maire was forced to call out the gendarmerie, who were forced to appear on the scene. Hearing of their appearance, the clan chief roared out in his 4 x 4 and rammed the gendarmerie vehicle. Repeatedly. The gendarmerie retired and the clan decided to celebrate their victory in the bar, where, inevitably, they refused to pay. The bar owner had had enough...this not being the first such event, and a fight broke out. The gendarmerie vehicle returned, dents and all, and the gallant men in blue plunged into action. They arrested the bar owner.

This time, the village had had enough. Men went home and returned with their shotguns. The travellers sent emissaries to another clan, and returned with their own armed reinforcments. The square was like a scene from a spaghetti western. The local gendarmerie could not cope...reinforcements came from all over three departments and managed to keep the protagonists apart until the riot police arrived in their sinister buses, some hours later.
Even the travelling people do not argue with the riot police, whose policy is to bash first and ask questions of anyone surviving later, so they shut themselves into their property, while the buses sat outside their gates. The maire suggested to the local gendarmerie that an enquiry into the legality of all the local shotguns produced would not be tactful, while the travellers were picked up one by one as they emerged for supplies and were removed to a remand centre. The riot police reluctantly admitted that there was no longer a problem and tore themselves away from the local bars and restaurants. Over the course of the summer the rest of the travellers moved out and the village relapsed into its habitual torpor.

The point I wish to make is that matters descended to this farce because no attempt was made to curtail the clan's activities when the problems first became apparent. The rights of ordinary people to live peacefully are ignored as the police leave troublesome sections of the population well alone, while the law abiding are plagued over trivia. I pay taxes and see the money thrown away while there are problems crying out to be settled.
I can do without the PC brigade, as well, who romanticise the life of the travelling people...probably singing the Ewan McColl song as they do. There was nothing romantic then about a hard life on the road, scratching a living among inhospitable people and there is nothing romantic now in living by theft and intimidation.

The empire is running scared of its barbarians and I'm glad I'm old.

PC and pragmatism don't work.

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Monday, 20 July 2009

Welcome guests

The Louis XII wing at the Château de BloisImage via Wikipedia

Now that we and our friends are older, visitors could come all the year round, rather than having to crowd everything into the school holidays, but old habits die hard. A number now have their own full time or holiday homes in France, so the visits are for a day rather than for a week or two, but there is still an influx in July and August which fills the house to overflowing on occasions. I look forward to it....we live a rather solitary life for a number of reasons, and it is good to have congenial company, catch up on the family news, see the photographs of the new arrivals and have the chance to meet the partners of the young entry. Goodness only knows what these partners make of us, but they are generally too busy entwining with their particular member of the young entry to take much notice of anything. I prefer them to do this in the shrubbery rather than under my feet in the kitchen and they are normally kind enough to indulge my whim.

Having company makes me realise how set I have become in my ways...without their visits I think I risk becoming an automaton, my day's course set in stone from dawn to beyond dusk. Thanks to their influence, I can throw my cap over the windmill and go out for the day for a picnic without feeling obliged to combine it with a shopping trip to get best use of the petrol. I can sit on the terrace with a holiday book that someone has brought without thinking that I should be organising the lunch....because the welcome guests treat my house as their own and are doing the organising themselves! It's great to go shopping together, buying something that I would not normally cook as it doesn't figure highly on the list of preferences of the man in my life....with the numbers involved, two or three different dishes can be served, so everyone is happy. I like to cook for can try things that don't work for two...and it is lovely when the guests take over and do their own thing...including the washing up! I may never be able to find the zester again, but it's not the end of the world. We have had incidents that have become part of our folklore....Mr. Spaghetti, you know who you are....and the summer influx brings the house and ourselves to life.

While whipping in the guests to go out for the day is a nightmare, it is only so because I am hard wired to get out before the shops and chateaux close for the lunchbreak and the markets wind up on the dot of one o'clock. The guests are not infected with this obsession and will happily pause for lunch in places that would normally have me getting back in the car and driving to the nearest supermarket for a loaf and some cheese. Thanks to them, I have found some delightful spots...and a great many that figure in the list of 'the worst places I have ever eaten in'. The andouillette in Chinon lingers still in all its aromatic horror. As does the half defrosted does the place with waiters lifting domes from plates like a synchronised swimming team to reveal the flower arrangement masquerading as food beneath.
The lunch break drives me wild when I am out for the day...I have had shop assistants rushing to shut the doors against me at five minutes to twelve, just in case they could not close down their tills on the dot of noon, so sacred is the two hour pause. The guests are unmoved. To them, this is France. To me, it is France, but we seem to have a different take on the fact. They are on holiday, determined to enjoy themselves, and I should take a lesson from their attitude which would help my blood pressure when dealing with the lunacy and obduracy of French beaurocracy, the complacent incompetence of French commerce and the manners the French don't have.
It doesn't matter...the idiots are only running themselves into the and pass on.
I can manage this in theory...but not in practice! One more artisan francais who calls me 'ma chere dame' while trying to con me that he knows about what he is proposing to charge me a fortune to mess up and the blood pressure is back up in the stratosphere.

Still, it is the holiday period, the beaurocrats are solemnly counting their thirty five hours on the beach, and the welcome guests are here, so it's time to indulge in pleasure. The man in my life will be doing his impression of Rommel, standing on the terrace with binoculars directing the picking of herbs and vegetables for supper, someone will not be able to pull the plug on the jacuzzi, and we will all be going to Blois for the nicest chateau in France and lunch in the surprisingly formal dining room behind one of the scruffiest caffs on the road south therefrom.

Thank you, the welcome guests. You enrich our lives and we hope you will continue to visit the two old cranks for as long as your cars can make it.

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Sunday, 19 July 2009

Sarkozy's handbag moment

Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of Gr...Image via Wikipedia

President Sarkozy has come out in support of a ban on the fishing of blue fin tuna. Pass me a glass of something fortifying.
The European Union has presided over a fishing policy that has resulted in its waters being fished out by trawlers scraping the seabed with fine meshed nets while its attempts to buy out fishing vessels by offering bribes for scrapping the boats has been nullified by its policy of issuing quotas which can be bought and sold...why scrap the boat when by keeping it you can sell its quota?
When I was young...O.K., pass yourself a glass of something fortifying as off she goes again about the good old days....we had proper fish shops with proper fish. Finnan haddies, smoked haddock, whopping fillets of cod, huge herrings to be fried in oatmeal - a cornucopia of nature's bounty brought ashore by men whose trawlers always seemed to be battling killer ice in Icelandic waters protected by what was left of the Royal Navy. Nowadays when I head for the fish stalls all I see is the traditional fish species that appear pathetically small, or fish from far flung seas that I can't even pronounce, let alone identify. Why should this be? It is because our masters have taken no thought for tomorrow...yet again...and allowed our seas to be denuded of fish to the extent that even if all fishing were to be stopped immediately the breeding stocks are so depleted that it is doubtful whether some species could ever recover.

The blue fin tuna is in this category, so why am I astonished that Sarkozy is taking action in its defence? He doesn't strike me as someone concerned about the environment, but yet, in his own way, he is. He is concerned about his environment...the political one.
I think he senses a new feeling in the air in France which has surfaced with the economic crisis. Politicians can no longer rely on their traditional lobbies, and the parties are hunting around to find new identities... or in the case of the Socialist Party starting the traditional witch hunt to pin the blame for their most recent electoral disasters. As Minister for the Interior, Sarkozy projected a tough 'law and order' image which did wonders for his campaign to become President, but since coming to power, his mouth has been mightier than his hand and he needs to reinforce his image.
France has long had a reputation for public disorder...demonstrators in the streets, farmers driving cows down the Champs Elysees, vignerons overturning tankers of Spanish wine...and up to now, this has been handled with kid gloves by french governments. The riot police will take on groups of young immigrants protesting about discrimination...well, small groups...but you don't see them sent out to break up road blocks of taxi drivers protesting at plans to remove their monopoly, or farmers blockading petrol pumps at threats to make a mild reduction in the largesse handed out by the Common Agricultural Policy. I think this is about to change, and the fishermen are going to be the symbolic target, as were the miners for Margaret Thatcher.
As has been apparent in the disgraceful background to the Karachi massacre of French and Pakistani workers, French politicians like to pay off old scores, and Sarkozy has one to pay off with the fishing industry in the Mediterranean, which provided a bastion of support for Chirac...who did his best to bury Sarkozy's political ambitions. This meshes with what he senses to be the mood of the moment in France.... a concern for the environment, unease with the European Union and a questioning of the traditional protectionism of agriculture. No politician in their right mind will attack the farmers..they vote right, after all...but fishermen are a handy target - relatively small in number and viewed as exploiters of the natural world. All those Jacques Cousteau films and snorkelling holidays mount up over the years.
British trying to return across the Channel from their holidays will have experience of French fishermen, blockading the ports and attacking yachts trying to leave....they learned something from the Royal Navy, after there will not be much pity expressed from the other side of the water if the riot police turn their tactic of bash first and ask questions later on the fishermen, but, remarkably, I don't think that there will be much pity expressed in France either as long as the French navy manages to find an undamaged warship to push the scavenging Spanish trawlers out of fishing exclusion zones as well.

Sarkozy, like a lot of European politicians, admires Margaret Thatcher and her relentless drive to change the nature of a whole society - the society which she denied existed. She swung her handbag with vigour in her day, and while British men recoil from carrying such an unmasculine object, Sarkozy, being French, has no such inhibitions.

We are about to see who blinks first.

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Saturday, 18 July 2009


I am having trouble with the layout on this blog and have lost the contents of the followers section, as well as a mess on the music bit.
Apparently it is all to do with Internet Explorer 8.
I wish to apologise for the discourtesy to the kind people who follow this blog, and I hope to be able to sort it out....eventually.
If only all this came with instruction books....I used to be a whizz with those.

And now I discover that past blogs are coming up in blue type on a brown background...unreadable!
Or this is just what comes up on my dashboard?

I am now going to attempt the impossible...alter something, somewhere, somehow, so, given my handlessness with technology, this may be the last post you ever see.

Friday, 17 July 2009

We're out of wine...again

'Image via Wikipedia
Not the good stuff. That's still under lock and key in the cellar awaiting the arrival of the cousins who will enjoy it, the birthdays, New Year, or just waiting to be old enough. Most of the epine is down there too....I am down to about the results of three years' production, and that stuff is better for being aged. There's enough upstairs to last out the visiting season with a bit of moderation, and there's plenty of pineau and a wild concoction suggested by Didier a few years ago involving fermenting a glut of eating plums and mixing the results with eau de vie. The first year it would have blown your ears off, the second year was similar, but now, four years' later, it has calmed down and become acceptable to the groups of visitors to rural France who are to be found hunched round the radio and the TV listening to the cricket from England. It eases the pain.

The problem is the everyday drinking stuff and the quantities that visitors wish to load up in their cars for the return trip. I thought I had stocked adequately when I did the rounds of the vignerons around Easter, and the car's suspension agreed with me, but there seems to have been more visitors than usual, intent on forgetting the economic crisis far away from reality in the wilds of France. Well, that's how they see it. In my view there's a fair bit of economic crisis here as well, but who am I to spoil the wake?

Visitors come at the wrong time for wine. Round here, the best stuff is snapped up early, even before the open days that vignerons hold in Spring. Furtive visits to try the wine as it develops result in firm orders long before the general public wends its' way from cellar to cellar. I was involved in such an attempted coup a few years ago, when I had discovered a wonderful dessert wine developing in the cask of a local vigneron, and had tasted it at two or three stages. He wanted to fine it, to remove the last trace of floaters that spoil the clarity of the wine...I thought he should leave it alone, and agreed to buy the cask on condition that he did not fine it and that he bottled it for me.

Of course, he fined it. I did not know this until I turned up to ask when my bottles would be ready, and encountered his wife. She was always the fly in the ointment in that establishment, intent on selling you what she wanted to shift rather than what you wanted to buy, and she was delighted to tell me that she had not had and would not have time to bottle up such a quantity, and, furthermore, that the wine had been fined as no one but a foreigner would buy a wine in that condition and what would she do with the leftover in the cask? And they say the French are a logical nation. If I was buying the cask, how would there be any wine left over for local taste to disapprove of? However, there are some mysteries best left unplumbed, so I went for the jugular and asked to taste it.

It was still good, but it wasn't the masterwork that I had previously tasted. The fining had changed it...subtly...but enough to decide me that I wasn't buying it. Curiously enough, the lady was not too disturbed by my reaction, agreeing sweetly that there was no point in buying a wine with which I was not going to be satisfied, which roused my suspicions...loss of potential income on that scale does not usually induce smiles and docility in the French. Didier's house...revealed that the lady had been doing a bit of marketing. Another regular had come sniffing round the cellars and she had casually remarked that a foreigner was buying the best wine and that there would be none for the French. The regular had waxed wroth, appealing to her patriotic duty, and probably recalling the fate of Joan of Arc, but, more importantly, offered more money. Indeed, that would be an inducement, as the husband had made me a good price on condition that I took the lot. Accordingly, the wine I had ordered was sold to another. Next time I saw the husband we just exchanged glances and shrugs, and he handed me over two five litre BIBs (bag in the box) of some very acceptable red wine in apology. What could I say? He has to live with her.

Before setting out with the visitors, it is necessary to have a preliminary discussion. I need to know what they think they want before I 'phone the vignerons to see what they have. The rest will have to come from the supermarkets. It starts off with the usual attempted feats of memory...

'What was that one we had last year?'

What does he The speaker covered a pretty wide range on that occasion if my memory serves me right. I try a process of elimination.

'Red, white or pink, still or sparkling?'

That should cover everything.

'It was that nice one.'

Clearly, it didn't cover everything.

Eventually the party sets off. I know where we are going, a few might know where we are going but don't remember how we get there, and one has a GPS on his car and intends to use it. Despite his best efforts, we arrive, a little earlier than arranged, to find no one around except the vigneron's father covertly filling up a jug from a vat for his evening lucubrations. He slips off and the wife arrives, to announce that her husband will be along shortly and in the meantime, she has a very good sweet pink wine all ready in BIB so would we like to tell her how many we want and she'll make out the bill. This is, inevitably, the one wine that no one had wanted to buy and even if they had, they would like to have had a chance to taste it first.
Luckily the husband arrives, heralded by his big Belgian Shepherd dog who strikes fear into the timorous by sniffing the legs of the assembled company.....I suppose it's his equivalent of smelling the wine before you drink...before settling down across the doorway with a deep groan. You feel a bit like Odysseus in the cave of the one eyed giant whose name has promptly escaped me. The wife escapes by a nifty bit of hurdling and we get down to business.

Even though the best has gone, he still has his mainstream wines and we duly sniff, swirl and taste from glasses that are proper wine glasses, and spotlessly clean. This man is serious. However, the glasses are well filled and there are no spittoons, so the enthusiasm rises rapidly among the assembled company, all the cubis - plastic jerrycans - that I have brought are filled and the stack of BIBs is resembling the leaning tower of Pisa. As we are by now serious buyers, he produces his sparkling wine, which he is not allowed to call Champagne because it doesn't come from there and it is made from different grapes. He makes it properly, turning the bottles on their special wooden racks to let the deposit settle on the cork before being ejected and replaced with a shot of new wine. It is not cheap, but give me a sparkling wine from the Loire anyday rather than most of the muck said to originate in Epernay. Not being a rap or hip hop idol I cannot compare it with Roederer Crystal, but it beats most of the champagnes I've tried in my time. I wouldn't waste it on Formula One racers.

Everybody is happy by now, even when paying the bill, and we return home without the aid of GPS because he has forgotten to turn it on. A working party is set up on the terrace to soak corks, fill bottles and cork them up, I head for the kitchen and all is well with the world until some idiot has to say

'I still wonder what that nice wine we had last year was.'

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Thursday, 16 July 2009

The lines are down

Malta; just like being at home!Image by foxypar4 via Flickr

Communications have advanced so much in my lifetime that I still marvel at what I am able to do by telephone, fax and e mail. When I was a child, we did not have a telephone in the house and would use the public call box some distance away if a call was necessary. The family communicated by letter and postcard, officialdom contented itself with letters, and there was always the telegram service for emergencies. I have lost count of how many times my father was summoned by telegram to the bedside of his dying mother, only to find that she was on her feet again and deploring the expense...not of his long anxious journey by train....but of the telegram sent to summon him! In these days of mobile 'phones, it would have sufficed for him to telephone her, announcing, as seems to be obligatory,
'I'm on the train...'
to have him abandon his journey at Crewe and return to base with a maternal flea in the ear.

Now I have the luxury of e mail, although, recalling a prophetic Giles cartoon, I eschew the delights of web cams in the interests of preserving the eyesight of the correspondent rash enough to call me on Skype at some unearthly hour of the day. Come to that...Skype! Even my parsimonious grandmother might have been tempted to install a computer to have free calls to her brood across several continents, but I suspect she would have worked out that if they were to install Skype on their computers they could ring her cheaply on her landline without her having to pay a monthly rent to the computer service provider. Mony a mickle maks a muckle. Especially if it was your mickle and her muckle.

However, all this is fine while everything works. We have recently suffered a breakdown of communications which has affected the whole hamlet, except, mysteriously, one telephone, and which has brought home to all of us how much we now rely on instant communication. I could not ring the Post Office to ask for some forms to be sent out by the postlady, but had to wait for her to arrive and give the message verbally. Monsieur Chose could not contact the man who buys his wife's rabbits, to say that they were ready. Trivial, but things could have been more serious. There are two extremely ill elderly gentlemen in the hamlet, living some distance away from the one working telephone thus giving rise to problems if their wives have to gallop there in the case of an emergency, leaving their husbands unattended. They do not have mobile 'phones, being of a certain age and being reluctant to pay for a second 'phone service that they would never use. Anyway, France Telecom, who own the lines, nomatter which private supplier of telecommunications you favour, claim to repair any line fault within twenty four hours. So there should not be a problem. But there was.

On day one of the problem, everyone used the one working telephone to complain of lack of service, and in the process discovered that
a) a France Telecom van was working the line between us and the next village and
b) everyone whose line was out of order was using a private supplier while the working telephone owner had remained loyal to France Telecom.

On day two, the France Telecom help line did not answer anyone's call from the working telephone, so the lady with the mobile contacted them and explained the particular risk to the two elderly gentlemen. The matter was in hand, she was told.

On day three, worry was setting in. The weekend was upon us, and, more to the point, there was a public holiday on the Tuesday, which meant that no one would be working on the Saturday and Sunday anyway and it was more than likely that no one would be working on the Monday as it is customary to make the 'pont', the bridge, between the weekend and the holiday on Tuesday. Why go into work for one day, after all? Why not go away for the long weekend?
The lady with the mobile tried again. The help line would not answer her call. She telephoned her cousin in the nearby town, where France Telecom maintains an office. The cousin reported back in due course. The office was just for selling had nothing to do with repairs to the line. Madame Chose reported that the France Telecom van was still working the road between us and the village. Monsieur Chose went off to investigate. Monsieur Chose returned, indignant. The saucy young devil with the van had told him that if he was one of those who had deserted France Telecom for other operators, it served him right to be without a line! One of the elderly gentlemen with health problems started wheezing. Another victim revealed himself....the big German biker who lives in a farm way out in the wilds, but apparently also on our system. It was lunchtime on Friday, and time was getting short. The German said that he would try to get in touch with France Telecom. He disappeared on his motorbike, while the lady with the mobile phone tried to find relatives in the town where the telecommunications repair centre was situated. She was having no luck and we were all resigned to a further four, or more likely five, days without communications when lo and behold, the telephones started ringing! Madame Chose was calling everyone to see if the lines were back all over the hamlet, and, mirabile dictu, they were! France Telecom had come through after all!

On the Saturday, I ran into the German guy in the supermarket.
'Phone all right now?' he asked. I said that it was.
'Yes, I thought I could sort it out.'
'Did you manage to get through to France Telecom, then, from someone else's line?'
'Yes, I got through, all right. I went home, took the car I was repairing for a mate, went back down the road to where the guy was working the lines and took his ladder away while he was up the telegraph pole. He bawled and shouted and threatened me with the police, but I told him that if he wanted to make the 'pont' stuck up a telegraph pole for four days, that was fine with me. Eventually he rang someone on his mobile and said it was all working again, so I rang my wife on my mobile to check he wasn't lying and gave him his ladder back.'
'Aren't you worried he will report you anyway?'
'No chance. If they check the car's number plate they'll find it belongs to the maire's son.'
The Germans haven't lost their touch where it comes to France.

France Telecom and its operatives are still sore, after all these years, about losing their monopoly over the nation's communications, but they have only themselves to blame for losing clients to their competitors as the service and the prices during the monopoly period were both abysmal.
Friends live even further out in the country than I do, and their internet was on dial up......expensive and slow. They, and plenty of others in the commune, had been asking their maire for ages to intervene with France Telecom to have broadband made available, but he wasn't interested until one of the local notaires bought a big house in the commune. At that point, things moved fast. France Telecom announced that broadband would be available and held a meeting to sign up clients and try to sell them all sorts of equipment. My friends attended and said it was like a British reunion...every expat in the commune was there, with a scattering of French! They duly signed up for a 2 megabyte service and were told that the equipment would be delivered and installed free of charge in the next fortnight. The fortnight passed, and the next and finally they received a call from France Telecom to say that nothing would be delivered or installed...they were to go to the local office to collect the modem and all the bits and bobs that went with it. The local office was miles away, but they duly went on the next market day, eager to get started.

Their reception was not warm. The staff were busy putting up posters about the benefits of broadband and were too busy to deal with customers. Finally cornering the 'stagiaire'...the kid on work experience....they gave their names and asked for their equipment. She looked at her list and told them that they were not on it. The woman she was shadowing tore herself away from her posters and asked why they were being difficult with the work experience kid. They asked her for the equipment. She too looked at the list, told them they were not on it and turned back to her posters. Spotting a computer, they decided to see if it would be more communicative, and entered their names on the screen. Spotting them, the woman started shouting that the computer was for staff use only and turned it off...but not before they had seen that they were indeed on some list...the computer's presumably...not for the 2 megabyte service for which they had contracted, but for a slower service...which should have been considerably cheaper!
This was too much. They told the woman, reasonably politely in the circumstances, that they were cancelling the contract with France Telecom as they considered they would have had better service in Africa, whence they had come. The reply?
'If you don't like it, clear off back there!'

Happy with their private supplier, some years later they were cold called by France Telecom, which now calls itself Orange. It can call itself what it's still France Telecom to me. Would they consider changing back to Orange?
No they would not. They quoted their experience. There was a sigh at the other end. There was no more to be said.

Well, there is, in fact. Quite a lot of it and none of it good, but my blood pressure is rising and sufficient unto the day is the evil therof.

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Friday, 10 July 2009

Sarkozy's second 'plane

Napoleon Crowning JosephineImage by caribb via Flickr

The world economy is on the turn, and the French bit of it is riding high.

The proof? Unemployment figures, purchasing managers' returns, house prices?

No, nothing so boring.

Sarkozy, having bought a second hand aircraft for his official longhaul travel with the recession at its height, has just bought two brand new Dassault Falcons for short hops....fifty million euros apiece.

Further, he has named one of them 'Carla One' in honour of his wife - he'll probably use this one for nipping down to the Cote d'Azur to see how work on his mother in law's septic tank is progressing.

Sarkozy is currently being accused of having a Napoleon complex, which is a bit below the belt, given his short stature, and of regarding himself as more of a monarch than an elected president. The French should know....Napoleon started out as one of three consuls in the post Revolution Directory period, then became the first consul and then proclaimed himself Emperor. Napoleon I. His nephew started out as France's first the Second Republic...and then turned himself into its' second Emperor as Napoleon III.

The first Napoleon was renowned for advancing the interests of his family. Sarkozy cannot reach the heights attained in that period, when Napoleon's brothers and sisters were installed on the thrones of Europe, but he is certainly advancing his family in domestic political circles - he needs to hire Neil Kinnock as an advisor on how to do this in the European Union - and is taking on a certain monarchical air, as witness his address to the National Assembly at Versailles.

The Kings of France would cow their parliaments by descending upon them in full state for what was called a 'lit de justice', that is, the King would be present in state, seated under a canopy and surrounded by the nobility and clergy. Enough to cow any assembly of the middle class...well, in France, anyway. The King would make the opening statement and would then hand over the rest of the business to his chancellor, but Sarkozy is made of sterner stuff. Having altered the constitution to allow him to address the National Assembly, and having advanced upon them between the ranks of the Republican Guard, he had no intention of handing over the stage to anyone. Certainly not to any member of what is laughingly known as his government, to whom his attitude reflects that reported of Mrs. Thatcher at dinner with the members of her cabinet. She had chosen her main course, and the waiter then prompted her...
'The vegetables, madam?'
'They can order for themselves.'

One would hesitate, if only for legal reasons, to suggest that there are similarities in the wives of the great men under discussion. Napoleon's wife, the Empress Josephine, had had a somewhat colourful reputation before her marriage, after all, but I suppose some link might be made with the plane Sarkozy has named after his wife, in that access to the future empress, like access to the future Carla One, was reserved for the wealthy and the privileged.

But does it have a bath?
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Thursday, 9 July 2009

In the black

A woman defends her castleImage via Wikipedia

In the next door department there is a Frenchman, a successful businessman, who has spent years of his life and unthinkable amounts of money restoring a seventeenth century chateau and its gardens. When he found it, rain had been pouring through the rotten roof for years, the doors were missing, the woodwork and plasterwork hacked by vandals and anything metal had long been sold for scrap. The gardens were so overgrown that he did not know that there had been an ornamental canal until two years after he bought the place, so impenetrable were the brambles.

Luckily, the chateau was not on the list of historic buildings maintained by the French heritage department, 'Batiments de France' or he would have been bankrupt in swift order trying to restore any building under their aegis. Every step of a restoration of a building so listed has to be approved by their departmental architect, who will have his own ideas on what is or is not permissable, all expensive, and it is quite possible that these ideas will change when a new departmental architect is appointed. As so often, what starts out like a good idea - the preservation of historic buildings and their surroundings - has turned into a beaurocratic nightmare. If you have a house anywhere near a listed building and want to repaint your shutters you have to get the permission of the departmental architect....if you want to render your walls, you need his fiat ....if you want to replace your rotten window frames...well, you get the picture. It is considerably worse if your building is the listed one!

Still, as he had escaped this peril, he set out on his task with an enthusiasm which remained undimmed over the years, pouring his own money into what must at times have seemed like a bottomless grants being available as it was not a listed building....and the chateau gradually came back to life, a sleeping beauty rising from its forest of thorns.

Now, clearly, he did not do all this with his own two hands. He had firms of roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, name it, he employed it, supervised it closely and paid it. However, when it came to the gardens, he took on employees, as even when the major works were done, he knew he would need a permanent workforce to keep things in order. He became an employer, with all the normal responsibilities which that entails....paying wages and social security contributions and keeping records. So far, not a cloud on the horizon.

Initially, there was a vast amount of work to be done on the grounds, so he needed more workmen than he would need later as permanent employees, and as French social security payments are a very heavy obligation for an employer, not to speak of the problems of laying off workmen when there is no longer work for them to do, he thought he had come up with a solution. As it was short term, non specialist work, he took a risk and paid a group of guys cash in hand, not declaring them as employees, nor checking whether they had declared themselves to the relevant authorities. Of course, they hadn't, and of course, the local landscape gardener who hadn't got the contract for the job denounced him for using black labour. The solids had hit the fan. An inspector descended, found no paperwork showing that the guys were legally employed, and the chateau owner ended up in court with a hefty fine to pay.

Well, you might ask, what is so remarkable about all this? He broke labour laws and he was caught and punished. Same in any country.

In a way, yes, in a way, no. In France, thanks to the crushing weight of social security charges, it has to be a remarkable small firm which can keep its head above water if it doesn't do some work on the black, cash in hand. Some firms do just that..a little work on the side...others do it on the grand scale, but as long as they can show that all the materials declared as bought are accounted for in work done for clients, no one is going to disturb them. Thus the delight at the advent of the Do It Yourself warehouse, where the builder can buy his goods anonymously if he so wishes. How it works is that the firm will give you a quote for part of the job and do the rest on the black...that way, their presence on your premises is covered if anyone should have an accident. Whether the work done on the black will be covered if or when it goes wrong is another matter. My guess is not, given the nature of French insurers and builders, but that's just my opinion..... based on nearly twenty years' experience.

So, working on the black is institutionalised for registered firms.

Not for you.

You want a man to come in to clean your gutters because you are too old and tottery to climb ladders. The builder has quoted you a price that makes your eyes water, and someone suggests you get someone who will be cheaper, because he is covered by a different system, one designed for domestic servants and odd job men. The odd job man arrives, shakes his head and sucks his teeth at your proposition. He cannot do it, as he cannot, in the rules of his insurance system, climb ladders to the height of your gutters. He cannot actually do anything more complicated than cutting your grass either.....if he cuts your hedge he needs a more expensive form of insurance. In the end, you get the ladder out and prepare to meet your Maker as you climb heavenwards, hoping your own insurance will cover you if you meet with mere injury rather than sudden death.

You want some help in the house...a woman to do some of the heavy cleaning that has your knees and back complaining that at their age they should not be asked to do this. Such ladies are available, but on top of their hourly wage, you have to pay their social security, which nearly doubles it. Certainly, you can claim back 50 per cent of this on your tax return if you are an old age pensioner, but if you merely feel as if you are, you pay the lot.

Used as one is to the U.K., where you pay your cleaner and your gardener cash in hand and no one gives a monkey's, the French system seems very odd. Why shouldn't people have a bit of cash for a few hours' work that the taxman knows nothing about? It's all right for the registered firms, after all.

Here you have hit the nub of what is so antipathetic about France. Not the French, but France. The state machinery is geared to extracting every last penny from the pockets of individuals by hitting every source of income it can trace. You have a house or some shares? Not only will you pay income tax you will also pay the Contribution Sociale Generale..the CSG...which is like paying your income tax all over again. Why do you pay it? Because the state knows what you own. Your house is registered with the tax authorities and your shares are kept for you by a bank which reports to the tax man. What is it for? Covering government deficits. If you are employed, the state knows how much you have.....and can gouge you accordingly, but if you work on the black, it doesn't and that worries it very much. Businesses are left alone, on the whole, as if you tax the boss too much he will just go bust, not pay his creditors and start up again, but the guy who works for the business is fair game.

The answer to the problem used to be the U.K. expat who realised too late that the sunshine and cheap wine was costing him more than he thought so looked around for a few odd jobs to in hand. It was ideal. You spoke the same language, had the same assumptions about how plumbing or gardening should be done and he came when it was convenient to both of you. He...and you...stood little risk of being denounced as the local plumber was convinced that he would get the job of repairing whatever the 'Rosbif' had mucked up, and the local landscape gardener wouldn't touch your small garden with a bargepole anyway.

These days it is different. Jobs are scarcer, and the French think jobs in France are for the French. Thus the expat risks denunciation from the French corner. Further, for fear of denunciation, the expat has become a registered small French business, but, being British, abides by the rules and doesn't work on the black. Some become so French as to denounce other expats who do! I can understand how they feel, to some extent, as, having gone through the ritual dance to achieve registration and faced with huge overheads they are less than happy to find someone undercutting them when they need the work.

I am just regretting the days when it was possible to get someone to come and mend your leaky tap without asking for a loan from the bank.

By the by, the man who restored the chateau is in hot water again. He has been trying to help towards the running costs of such a pile by opening it as for bed and breakfast and doing wedding receptions. He declared the business and its' staff correctly, but forgot one vital thing...he did not declare himself as the owner of the business to the social security authorities. He has, after all, declared properly for all his other business interests, so you wouldn't think it mattered too much...he is already paying a whack in contributions. Well, this is France. It matters. He has just been taken to court again.

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Monday, 6 July 2009

The NENO Award is given to "those who love blogging and love to encourage friendships through blogging, and to help others seek the reasons why we all love blogging."

Well, I was astonished and delighted to be given this award by Sunflower Ranch
whose blog always surprises me with the variety and quality of its offering not to speak of the avenues it opens by the blogs it suggests. It has certainly broadened my mind. Read it yourself and see.
The rules state that if accepting the award one must...
· Upload the image in your post·
Mention the person that gives you the award with their blog link·
Nominate your 5 blogs of choice with blog name and link·
Leave comment on the recipients' posts to let them know.

So, my five blogs are

Michele Philips
a blog from Albany, Western Australia. Find out the meaning of 'roflmao'....I did ask if I could use it, Michele and I do respect your copyright....

Open toe shoes
An American artist and her family living in Costa Rica, with a distinctive view on life, art and people...this is definitely not a 'what I did in my garden today...' blog.

Dirty feet and rubble in my hair
Expat life in rural France...told how it is, not the way it is supposed to be! We've all seen the 'how I converted two old sheds into the palace which I now wish to market by way of this blog'...well, this isn't like that. It's real.

French Fancy
A cumulative story, which keeps inspiring you to do something else with your life other than whinge...I just wish you hadn't told us how expensive the Open University courses are for people outside the piggy bank died of fright!

Not waving but drowning
This could so easily be misery lit...but it's not. It's honest and open about a problem people don't like to discuss and it does us all a service by making us think about how we would cope.

Sorry about the inelegant links, the spacing, the general incompetence in computing......

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Bastille Day

14th July Bastille Day ParisImage by After The Dark via Flickr

July is here, the first wave of holidaymakers have left the towns for the beach or the mountains, and Bastille Day is almost upon us. President Sarkozy will be in Paris for the traditional march past which, while it cannot rival the military might of Russia rolling past the podium in Moscow, offers a vivid TV occasion all the same. The year before last, the armed forces of other European countries were invited to send representatives so we had the enthralling spectacle of the German army marching down the Champs Elysees.......again. I sometimes wonder if Sarkozy has any grip at all on modern history or whether some media savvy total illiterate thought that this image would replace that of the more triumphalist occasion in 1940. That image is indelible for people of my generation and older, but it is in the past and doesn't need reviving. These days the question is not so much how long before the German army is marching all over Europe again as whether the German army serves any useful purpose given the perception of Germany's militaristic past which prevents it being sent to fight anyone anywhere.

I never used to watch the parade, except in clips on the evening news, as the village had its own way of celebrating the day which involved a mid morning start and a bit of advance preparation.

The evening before, the village musicians would be loaded up into a trailer behind a tractor and would visit every hamlet in the commune, accompanied by outriders on bicycles blowing horns and showering passers with white powder....those were innocent days. Now, at the mere mention of white powder you would have police and narcotics dogs crawling over the whole shebang. Every hamlet would show its appreciation by having a table set out with food and drink to sustain the performers, bike riders and anyone else who happened to pass by, so you can imagine that by the time the last few hamlets had been reached the band was in a fair state of inebriation and most people were pushing the bikes. The tradition demanded that the band play something appropriate at every stop, and it is a great pity that Queen Elizabeth could not have experienced her anthem being played on an asssortment of instruments under a cloud of white powder on a warm July night....not to be missed. However, no doubt like her great great grandmother Queen Victoria, she would not have been amused. I was. I loved it.

Once the band had passed and night had fallen, it was time to go down to the village where they played rousing marches to accompany the maire leading the procession of children with chinese lanterns down to the village hall, ready for the fireworks display. I have seen wonderful displays in the big towns, and the atmosphere of the night of the thirteenth of July can be great.....cafes open, crowds of people and spectacular lighting on the historic buildings....but I like the village affair too, friendly and small scale, with someone's cow being evicted from her field to make way for the pyrotechnics and inevitably finding her way back in half way through. After the fireworks, there was always a dance with free admission and a bar and although I did not often stay for that, on the rare occasions I did it always astonished me that guys who had been drinking since mid afternoon could not only still stand, but could even time!

A quick recovery was called for the the following day, the holiday proper, which was marked by a morning walk through the vines which surrounded the village. Some of the views were tourists we miss so much by following the guide books round the obligatory sights....better to take a picnic in the car and just poodle round the quiet backwaters to get a real idea of the beauty of the countryside. People would comment on how the grapes were coming along, nit pick about how M. Machin needed to cut back the leaves if he ever wanted the fruit to develop and nod and smile when coming across a block of the Oberlin vines tucked among the Breton and Chenin. At intervals, the commune's van would appear, and the walkers would take a plastic beaker of wine from the barrels in the back before starting on the next stretch. It was good exercise, it cleared the head and it prepared you for the next event, the communal picnic.
This was the advanced preparation part of things. You had either to have someone at home preparing it while you walked, or do it yourself before setting out as the picnic started at noon sharp....and this was and is the only event that I have ever encountered in France which started on time.
Tables had been set up and you filled them up as you arrived so you never knew who you would get as a neighbour. You brought your own picnic, but the commune provided a starter which was described as melon and pineau. The melon describes itself, but pineau is a drink made from the new wine, where the fermentation is stopped by the addition of spirits. It is sweet and alcoholic.
The maire, councillors and assorted helpers made the rounds with half melons, the seeds already scooped out, followed by more assorted helpers with the pineau, which was poured liberally into the puddles in the bottom for these boys, full measure and overflowing was the order of the day. Inhibitions cast aside, the picnics were opened and you would find yourself sharing with people on either side of you. I learned to ask for a supply of pork pies from people coming from the U.K. in time for the fourteenth as these were always popular, as was the chutney that went with them.
Replete and sleepy after the picnic, it was time for games and people produced cards and boards with which to while away the time until digestions had recovered enough to start the last activities of the day. The barrels of wine provided by the commune were broached, the plastic cups circulated and the buzz of voices rose again in volume. The fire brigade, all volunteers, gave the same demonstration every year involving an incredible amount of knots and tours of the picnic field in the fire engine, and then it was time for the sack race for the maire and councillors and if you have never seen assorted portly ladies and gentlemen who have drink taken being assisted into sacks by firemen in uniform before collapsing in heaps where they stand, well you have missed something in the line of gentle comedy.

Gradually, over the years, the celebrations changed. First, the refreshments for the band were discouraged. Then the band became discouraged and the tour of the hamlets finished. There was still the chinese lantern parade and the fireworks, but the dance was given over to a pop concert, making people spectators rather than participants.
The walk through the vines lasted for a number of years until the commune set up a wine centre and wanted people to congregate there instead. It was a long way outside the village, and participation dropped dramatically. Finally, the gendarmerie finished off the picnic by breathalysing people on their way home, another skirmish in their private war with the then maire, and that was that.

Another tradition gone.

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