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.

Thursday 29 April 2010

Frustrated in France

Don't get all excited, this is not the title of a post in one of the many British immigrant fora in which the disaffected, the disappointed and the downright demented pass their time while living the dream in the depths of rural France.

I drop in on some occasionally - usually by going for the wrong option on the menu of sites presented - and the level of venom on some of them is startling. There are the odd oases of pleasantness, where people are genuinely trying to help others with queries, but the overall tone is one of self satisfied smugness. So my visits are rare.

Neither is it the second of the unfulfilled promises.  I have been alarmed to note that as I mark material for the subject of sex among the snails it seems to be taking on the dimension of the classic three volume Victorian novel......the Trollope of the troglodytes.

No it is the depressing return to the realities of French public life.

Recently, communes have been commemorating the deportation of Jews under the Vichy regime duting the Second World War,  so the maires and councillors lay flowers and make speeches just as in all the other ceremonies over the year.
However, it is customary to ensure the presence of school children for this commemoration and not only their presence but their  participation.

In the next department, one school asked one of the few surviving deportees to describe what had happened to her as their contribution.
The elderly lady did so, producing a simple description of events which served better than any diatribe to illustrate the horror of the process she had undergone, and the contribution was sent off to the mairie.

In her statement, she said that she had been arrested by three gendarmes. Nothing more was said about the involvement of the police and gendarmerie in carrying out the orders of the German occupying power, no perjorative remarks were made about the three officers concerned.

The maire was of the view that no mention should be made of the gendarmerie at all. The occasion was one of reconciliation, not the opportunity to settle old scores and he decided that the statement was not acceptable.

The elderly lady would make no alterations, and the teacher of the schoolchildren concerned made a protest to the maire, who dismissed it as a politically motivated stunt, since the teacher was a member of the Socialist Party while he was a member of the ruling UMP.

Only in 1995 did France, in the person of President Chirac, acknowledge responsibility for the fate of Jews in France under the Vichy regime, but the subject is still one to be treated with kid gloves, and with the UMP regrouping after the disastrous regional election results on a 'law and order' policy, a UMP maire was clearly not going to tolerate any criticism of the gendarmerie, even more than fifty years after the events concerned.

Britain was not occupied in that war. It would be unthinkable for anyone who had not undergone that experience to say how French people should have reacted.
However, the avoidance of the subject by the higher echelons of French society is significant.

A general acknowledgement of error has been made, but, in a hierarchical state like France, the 'hoi oligoi' does not find it wise to let the 'hoi polloi' get it into its' head that criticism of the regime is a possibility. Thus, in my view, the over reaction of the maire.

There is another factor.

Sarkozy came to power offering reform of the creaking, anachronistic French system.
He has been largely undermined and his plans brought to naught by his own folly - the cartoon court of smaller than life characters, the navel gazing, the 'jack the lad' behaviour on public occasions - but his party, the UMP, realised with a shock how much his reforms threatened the comfortable web of control in which they lived and sucked the lifeblood of the nation, and they are fighting hard to reassert control.
Criticism, events which recall the reaction of their predecessors in the period of the Occupation, are unwelcome. They tarnish the myth of 'every Frenchman a Resistant' which was promoted to hide the unpleasant realities of life in France under Vichy. They tarnish the image of the caste which has ruled France ever since.

So, given the political sensibilities, just how is the elderly lady to explain how she was translated from her home to a place of horror and death?

Tuesday 27 April 2010

The Traveller's Rest

This was the name of a pub which I used to pass when I was a child. Very pretty, shaded by venerable trees, set on a village green with benches outside where old codgers could criticise the cricket while sinking the contents of tankards.

I found myself thinking of that on my return to France from warmer climes....kind friends came to meet me after the long journey at no little inconvenience to themselves and took me in while I went through the last throes of the sale of the small house before I finally set off for home.

The last stage of the journey had been a renewed 'welcome to France' experience...the local train had been withdrawn due to strike (in)action and had been replaced by a bus whose delightful driver had never driven the route before. He had given his passengers a wonderful scenic run looking for obscure country stations, but all  I wanted was to be able to stop travelling and make major inroads on a pot of tea.

Fraught and bone weary, the sight of my friends emerging, smiling, from their car was balm to the soul. I could switch off and relax. I was in good hands.
It began with laughter. They had, while waiting, identified a Womble haunting the station and one sight of the lady concerned had me agreeing that we should all be on Wimbledon Common rather than in the heart of France.
There was no litter to be seen either, which I felt confirmed their theory.
It continued with tea, a warm comfortable room and, finally, sleep.

The ravelled sleeve of care knit up, I was able to face the battle over Capital Gains Tax with equanimity - that is to say, I managed to get my own way without blowing a gasket - and could wind up one more complication in life.

I was ready as I would ever be to face the onslaught of paper awaiting my attention in the post least, the bits which had survived the determined attack of the army of snails awakened from hibernation and seeking the three star luxury of the meals on wheels provided by the postlady.

But, knuckling down to it all, my thoughts often stray to my friends and their welcoming house by the river.

They, like us, have decided to downsize.
They have run their hospitality business for many years, with people coming back time after time, but, as with us, health problems are raising their heads and it is time to make changes.
We will all find it difficult to leave the places we have loved so much, but we have all appreciated that it is best to make the move while we have liberty of action rather than wait until we are forced to move by circumstance.

The only thing of which I am sure is that, wherever they move, their home will  always be a haven for the weary traveller, a warm centre of laughter, kindness, good food and comfort.

It will be worth the journey.

photograph by ugardener 2 on Triporati

Saturday 24 April 2010

Gas attack at the bottom of the market

The small house has finally been sold. The bottom of the housing market in France has been called - unless the market detects that I will be putting the big house up for sale soon and decides to wait until the day after that sale for prices to start soaring.

The whole affair has been a nightmare, from agents pushing for low estimates, through endless internet clients who seem to be more interested in house tourism than in house buying, to the final straw, the refilling of the gas tank to test the heating system.

On the way there has been the neighbour who decided to put off potential clients as he liked the house being empty....
The sight of M. Crasseux hirpling over the sward in his cap and dressing gown to warn visitors that all was not as it seemed with the house was enough to deter all but the stout hearted until, hearing about this from one agent, I asked the local maire to intervene.

He reported back, exasperated.

I went to see him and I asked him what he thought he was doing.
He said he was just trying to prevent people from being ripped off by foreigners.
What's wrong with the house, then?
It's owned by a foreigner. Stands to reason there'll be something dodgy.
Because they're foreigners.

His visit must have achieved something, though, as in future M. Crasseux kept himself to himself on visiting days.
His home help told me why, some time later.
Well, the maire threatened to 'take notice' that his septic tank wasn't in order....

Considering that he doesn't have one at all, that was quite mild in the cirumstances, but it seemed to have done the trick.
Personally, seeing that the foreign clients probably didn't understand M. Crasseux' patois, I thought that it was not his dire warnings of
'Blow wind! Come wrack!'
that had done the damage, but just the mere horror of having him as a neighbour.

Living the dream consists of contemplating life from over the rim of  a glass of wine while sitting in the garden listening to the birdsong.
It definitely does not include the irruption of a testy pensioner tastefully clad in ill assorted patterns of plaid, gesticulating wildly while incomprehensible sounds emerge from between the false teeth.
Visions like this only form part of living the dream once the dreamers have fallen into the hands of the local Britpack and have taken to imbibing the rough five litre cubis from the supermarket.

There has been the person minding the house and garden who was never available to show people over it, reasoning that thus his employment would last longer....
Slight error of judgement there, sir. Good luck with the rest of your clients.

There was the man who drove from Holland in a snowstorm, only to say he thought it was a bit far away for a weekend retreat....

There was the woman from Holland who didn't like the kitchen....
Hoping for helpful feedback, I asked what was wrong.
It's much too big. People will expect me to cook.

There was the English man who said he had encountered two English people in the town on the way through and he wasn't going to live in an English colony.
I thought about an introduction to M. Crasseux but rejected the idea as counterproductive.

And so it went on....

Eventually, an energetic French agent appeared with a young couple who wanted a house with a garden, big enough for them, their two small children and all the rest they proposed to produce as long as the process was tax efficient.
Small problem, they needed a bank loan.

Before my eyes, they embarked on a procedure which was about to add another third to the price of the house, in order to satisfy the bank that the house was fit to loan money upon.

Now, this is a house dating from the late eighteenth century.
The stone walls are at least one metre thick, and when it was renovated, the roofs were insulated and new double glazed windows installed. It faces south, is always warm and cheap to heat.
In order to meet new 'green' guidelines, the whole house has to be dry lined!
In order to get the loan, the new guidelines have to be followed.

The young couple thus find themselves saddled with a loan much larger than they had envisaged, for something that does not need to be done, in order to put a roof over their heads.

Undeterred they went ahead, so I was obliged to undertake - pay for - the plethora of obligatory inspections, looking for wet and dry rot, death watch beetle, woodworm, asbestos, lead and, of course, the state of the electricity gas and water installations.

I have had some rum inspections in my time....
The house I was buying where a full inspection was done, which surprised me as the place was barred by a chain without a lock and to gain access it was necessary to break down the door - something the inspectors had clearly not done in order to carry out their work.
The house I was selling where I had stripped all the old  paint down to bare wood and repainted it. The inspector duly found lead.
These machines are really sensitive...they'll find a spot of paint imbedded in the wood under five coats of new stuff!
Pity I'd stopped at four, then, wasn't  it.

We overcame the question of why there wasn't a T.V. point in every room - it hadn't been in the norms when the electricity had been installed.
It had been a miracle in my view that there had ever been an electrical installation at all.
I had asked the electricity board to put power on to the house and had requested an underground connection from the pole on the other side of the road.
Refused. It had to be an overhead connection.
Overhead connection installed.
Request made for an initial working point, to do the renovations.
There was only an overhead connection. A working point could not be installed with an overhead connection.
I managed to find a way round this - oddly enough by using M. Crasseux's electricity supply, at his suggestion.
Electricity installed.
Applied for the inspection.
Installation refused a certificate.
Checked the inspector's points with an independent electrician who said there wasn't a problem at all.
Forced to pay for second inspection.
No certificate.
Many telephone calls and two registered letters later, it appeared that the certificate had been sent to an office of the electricity board miles away.
A month later, the certificate arrived.
So there was something to inspect when it came round to selling, even if there wasn't a T.V. point in the loo.

As the house had been empty, I had not refilled the gas tank, but, to test the system, gas was required.
The gallant agent stepped in here, as I was showing signs of imminent terminal temper failure.
She would see to it.

I am heartily glad that she did, in view of what was to follow.

I had given her a copy of my contract with the supplier, so she contacted their office at Tours, to order 200 kilograms of gas - enough for the test.
Two weeks later she received the invoice -  for 2000 kilograms of gas.
She rang.
No, that was what she had ordered.
No, she hadn't.
Yes she had or it would not have been delivered.
Who was their local rep?
She could not be told. That was confidential commercial information.

As the agent is French, this was not a case of being difficult with foreigners. This is merely an example of the lack of commercial culture in  France. How the place survives at all is a mystery to me.

By approaching the local rep of their commercial rival, she eventually unearthed the company's own rep, who seemed genuinely surprised to hear from anyone at all. As well he might.

She entered negotiations. She produced her written order. He hummed, harred and telephoned Tours.
The gas would come in handy.
Not to her client it wouldn't. She was selling the house.
Then the new owners would like it.
Very likely, but they didn't want to pay for it and her client certainly wasn't going to do so.
But someone would have to pay.
Very likely, but that was his problem.

Two weeks later again, a new invoice was issued for 1000 kilograms.
Good try, Tours, but not good enough.
It took her another week to get an invoice for the amount ordered and, finally, the system could be tested.
It worked.

The sale could proceed. It has proceeded.

I have the money. They have the house.

The agent has high blood pressure.

I know how she feels.

Photograph by Maurizio Blasetti.

Monday 19 April 2010

Let's get back to the sheep....

Heliconius doris Linnaeus butterfly in the Cos...Image via Wikipedia
It is evening on our little farm in Costa Rica.
The heavy scent from the papaya flowers pervades the house.
We planted these trees from seeds from a super tasting fruit eighteen months ago and now we have four trees which are higher than the roof, laden with green fruit which will ripen in our absence.

We have eaten mango from our own trees for breakfast, together with coffee from our own bushes.
We have had elevenses of coconut milk from the green coconuts on the palms behind the house.

The orchids which fell from the trees in the last storm are starting to flower on our balcony.
The vanilla vine is starting its' climb up the support provided for it and we hope for the first pods next year.

We have plantains to cook, guinea to cook or to eat and bananas by the hand.
I would love to be able to bring two or three hands of our bananas to Europe for friends...never being a banana lover I have been converted by eating them fresh from the stem and I would love to share the experience.

Friends will just have to come to see us.

Well, after the Lord Mayor's Procession of our trip into Nicaragua and Honduras, comes the dustcart...I am about to set out for deepest France again and I am not particularly looking forward to the trip.

I also wonder whether I shall be happy to be back. Distance lends perspective and although Costa Rica is by no means a paradise,  time away from France has been time for reflection.

I have finally managed to sell the last remaining small house and the whole process has been a nightmare from start to what I sincerely hope will be a finish on Friday - though I suspect it will be fifteen rounds with the notaire on Capital Gains Tax and a sharp tussle to get my hands on the cheque on the day of the sale.
All hassle I could live without.
When I bought the farm in Costa Rica, I checked the Land Registry for title in the morning and by afternoon the purchase was completed.
The contrast is startling.

We know that we have to downsize - the effects of winter on the garden being the final blow - so I have to start the dispiriting round of agents again for the sale of the big place.

I have already decided that the first one to start sucking teeth will be out of the door on the end of my foot and that any local one who tells me that he knows what I paid for the place will swiftly follow.
What is it about the French that they think that what you paid for a mouldering wreck has any relation to the fine upstanding house you are about to sell many years down the line?
Inevitably I will get one who will gloat about the British leaving France because they have run out of money - indicating that he thinks I am in the same position - so the foot will be employed again before he can offer his insulting estimate.

It occurs to me that I'd best buy a stout pair of boots before starting to contact agents or I'll soon have sore toes.

The tax forms will be arriving soon, the insurance company - from whom I parted company years ago - will be threatening me with bailiffs for not paying them to insure a house I sold seven years' ago , the water technician will be wanting to discuss demolishing one of my weirs - for which read 'we are going to do it anyway' - so that will involve yet more useless lawyers to challenge the decision, and I must remember not to try to change one hundred dollar bills as these have to be passed via the French Central Bank and will take five weeks to return to my bank account in euros.

Still, as Roz's photographs on Dirty feet and rubble in my hair remind me, there will be compensations.

The fruit trees should be flowering and there might even be some asparagus if it hasn't been nicked.
The spring bulbs should be performing which will give me heart as I check the poor tender plants to see if there is any sign of new life after the winter's killing spree.
I'll catch up with friends.

It might be all right after all.

All I now have to do is get up at 4.00 am, get the plane to Mexico City, wait seven hours for the connection to Madrid, then see if Iberia are actually laying on coaches for the Madrid to Paris leg as their website says they are, and if not, leg it over to Estacion Sur to try to book a seat on Eurolines the same day. If I cannot, then get a hotel until I can get a flight or a seat - and don't talk to me about catching a train as the alternatives are either taking local trains which take twenty two hours to reach the destination, or a con trip train which offers showers and inedible meals for a price to take my breath away.

So as the local sheep shagging fraternity say
'Revenons-en a nos moutons'.
Back to France it is.
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Saturday 17 April 2010

Brother in law was seduced by a Sultana....

....the nickname of the town of Granada in Nicaragua.
Everyone is seduced by it except curmudgeons like me  who have discovered that nearly everything in the historic centre was rebuilt after the attempt by a nineteenth century American mercenary to take over the country ended in catastrophe and he burned the town in his wake.
The old town, whence fleets set sail across Lake Nicaragua and down the Rio San Juan into the Caribbean on their annual route to the homeland, is just vanished history.

Never mind. Reality is not everything.

The first time I visited Granada was by international bus from Costa Rica - the pain free way of crossing the frontier.
American friends in Costa Rica had counselled me to avoid muggers by walking in the was immediately clear that to follow the advice courted immediate death by being run down by a car or horse drawn carriage so walking on the pavements was the better option.

As an aside, I must say that in my view most people, anywhere, are just busy getting on with their own lives, earning a living which is not made necessarily by picking pockets or mugging and in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras I have never had the slightest problem with theft of any sort, apart from tourist restaurants where I have been stuffed for the last dollar in my possession.
Except for one incident at the border when it was an attempt to steal a passport, which was thwarted by an elderly lady selling plantain chips who grabbed the malefactor by his ear.
I have also, to be fair, been warned by passers-by and stall holders to keep a good hold of my purse because of the possibility of theft, so perhaps I have just been lucky.

By walking on the pavements in Granada I was able to catch glimpses of the interiors of the colonial style houses....rooms built round open patios for coolness, luxuriant with columns, wrought iron doors and water...and was given advice on a hotel by the ladies sitting in their rocking chairs on the wide pavements.
Good advice.
Local owners in a town where the hospitality industry seems to be increasingly in foreign hands, clean rooms, hot water and great food at the bar. Right in the centre too.

This time we went upmarket, while brother in law adjusted his sights on Central American hotel pricing, but it was in the same street which at night was full of tables spilling out from the many bars and cafes, with music, parades of giants and the endless clip clop of horse drawn carriages taking the tourists round the town.

He tramped the town with his camera before breakfast, returning with more photographs than there were buildings, bewailing the lack of funds to maintain some of the gems, such as the church on the right. He  found some super non touristy ceramics, too, made in the potters' village of San Juan de Oriente some kilometres away, which were for sale in a shop that seemed to be having a hard time keeping going in the face of the New Age tat  vendors in the square and the itinerant hawkers of pots for the tourist trade.

He had also done a reconnaissance for where to eat breakfast and led us to a good spot in the arcades near the cathedral where all sorts of good things were offered.
We ordered and sat, people watching, in the morning cool.
A few minutes later a loudspeaker van turned up.
It played music. Loudly.
Then 'organisers' took it over, broadcasting at top volume that Granada, and Lake Nicaragua on whose shores it stands, were international, not just national. They belonged to everyone.
Further, there was a campaign to stop littering.
Further, they would welcome foreign volunteers to pick up litter.
We were deafened right through an excellent breakfast and then, as we finished our coffee, the din stopped.

Later brother in law strolled down to the lake, where the mosquitoes hum in clouds over the open sewers of the town, and photographed several worthy souls with gloves and pointed sticks, picking up litter. All foreigners.

The organisers would do better to get the town council to provide proper rubbish collection rather than deafen innocent tourists over their breakfast.
But that wouldn't be as much fun as getting the heirs of the supposed colonial oppressors to pick up your litter, would it?

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Wednesday 14 April 2010

Visit your local volcano....

Before visiting Costa Rica for the first time, my image of volcanoes was that of the primary school geography book....some sort of mountain with a hole in the middle through which lava would rise to the surface at unpredictable intervals, sowing death and destruction and, after a considerable lapse of time,  degrading into fertile soil in the vicinity. Living near a volcano seemed rather chancy....too well into the fertile soil era and the blasted thing might be likely to have another go at the death and destruction bit again.
Knowing my luck I know which I'd get.

From our little house in the hills I can't actually see any active volcanoes, but I have visited two which are within easy reach and in each case was astonished to find that I could approach near enough to peer down into the craters - restrained from a plunge to my death only by wooden railings. Not a good place for little Johnny to drop his favourite toy.

I have a feeling that if the U.K. had volcanoes, no one would be allowed to approach them at all and would only be allowed to see films of them in visitor centres on the grounds of health and safety, whereas in Costa Rica you can get close up and personal unless the things are actually chucking rocks about.

I'm sure it will change....the European Union have been here recently, advising local government on how to set up a tax base and I'm sure they're behind the new draconian driving laws too, where the fines imposed for not wearing a seatbelt would bankrupt a family on the average wage.
Where tax and seatbelts lead, health and safety cannot be far behind, so if you want to sniff the sulphur, come to Costa Rica soon - or go to Nicaragua where the EU seems to be concentrating on providing local NGOs with large gas guzzling 4 x 4s instead.

The photograph above is of the Poas volcano, a little north of the capital San Jose, taken from behind the railings which is about as close as I would care to get. The approaches are superb, as you climb from the floor of the Central Valley through pine forests with Swiss chalets and cows to the national park, whence you approach the crater through masses of gunnera bushes and suddenly the verdant green turns to grey rock, yellowish fumeroles and the dark water of the crater lake.

The photograph below is of the Irazu volcano, an altogether nastier looking beast high up above the old capital, Cartago.

The green splotch in the middle is the crater lake - as seen behind the railings again in one of the brief moments that the driving wind, rain and cloud permit a photograph to be taken. The surroundings, unlike at Poas, are burned black and the access points are much more limited.

You can go anywhere in Costa Rica by bus and Irazu is no exception. A bus runs once a day from the capital, and I have taken it twice.

The first time, the warm, sunny weather in the San Jose area began to turn chillier, wetter and windier as the bus climbed out of Cartago to the national park. The bus driver, like most of his kind in the country, was most helpful, collecting our money and descending to pay for the entry tickets at the park boundary.
By the time we reached the car park, it was blowing a gale and, not realising that I had warm clothes and a brolly in my bag, he insisted on my taking his own sweater to wear. It took a bag inspection before he was satisfied that I would be warm enough outside the safety of his bus.

The next time, building on this good experience, I went with a friend who was visiting.
We found the bus in the centre of San Jose, where two other tourists, a Swiss couple, were waiting. The driver, a young man, sat stolidly in his seat, the bus door closed.
We waited. The departure time was approaching. There was movement within and we started to get out our purses to pay the fare.
False start. The driver was sweeping out his bus. Purses away.
He opened the door. Purses out again. The Swiss lady headed for the door. The driver swept the rubbish out over her feet. He shut the door again. Purses away.

We were eventually allowed to board and pay and he drove us towards Irazu.
We had to settle our own tickets at the park boundary and as he set us down in the bleak car park, he announced that we had to be back at the bus fifteen minutes before the time scheduled.
Irazu was blanketed in swirling cloud and was shortly to be overtaken by diluvial rain, so a shortened visit was not too much of a problem.
It all cleared for about ten minutes but then we were driven to take shelter in the visitors' centre, which was quite jolly as we were sharing its' close confines with two school parties - well behaved - and an american tour group who could not believe that we Europeans would trust ourself to local bus services.

They must have been better informed than we thought.

We emerged at the appointed time, only to find that the bus doors were firmly closed and there were no signs of life.
We waited until the scheduled departure time. My friends' hands were turning blue.
The Swiss gentleman had had enough.
Boldly he approached the front of the coach and fiddled with something under the protective housing.
With a welcome hiss, the front door of the bus swung open and we all bolted aboard.

Suddeny, the driver emerged, red eyed and loaded for bear, from the back of his bus.
'Everyone off the bus!'
'This bus will not leave until everyone is off the bus!'
We thought it quite probable - given his mood - that once we were off the bus it would certainly leave, without its' passengers, ticket or no ticket, so chorused as one
'We don't understand Spanish!'
He stormed from the bus, shutting us in, and went off to gather support.
He tried the park rangers.
We could see them shrugging and shutting the window of their hut against him.
He tried the visitors' centre.
No joy there.
He tried the toilet block.
Goodness only knows what support he expected from its' occupants.
There wasn't anything else he could do, except for asking Irazu to overwhelm us in lava, so eventually he came back and drove us down to the capital.

On the way, we discovered the likely origin of his fury.
Half way towards Cartago the bus made an unscheduled stop and a young lady descended from the back door.
A very attractive young lady.
Our Swiss colleague guffawed. And then explained.
Clearly, when he had opened the front door of the bus, the back door had opened as well and our driver had received a sudden gust of Irazu's finest which had most likely dampened his expectations.

Ruddy foreigners. No respect for anything.

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Monday 12 April 2010

Awards Time

Mary Anne Gruen over at Starlight Blog has been kind enough to give me the Happy 101 award, for bloggers who make one happy.

It is very pleasant to be thought of in this way, especially when I consider the people who seem to be quite unhappy with my slant on living in France. Clearly I don't tread softly enough on their dreams.
There is a relate ten things that make me happy.

Number contest. When Mr. Fly is well enough to be his happy, witty, affectionate self.

Number two. The company of friends, whether in person, on the blower or on the net.

Number three. The dog.

Number four. Books and more books.

Number five. Politics, any sort, anywhere.

Number six. Decent newspapers. Don't exist in France.

Number seven. A good wine cellar.

Number eight. Twisting the tails of the unco' guid.

Number nine. Cooking.

Number ten. This is just wishful thinking, but I would love to have the bank account details of the lawyer who tried to stuff me in the interests of a local politician so that I could pass them on to the many Nigerian scamsters who seem to wish to buy my house in cash. It would make me very happy.

I would like to pass on this award to......

French Fancy, which  is a blog I eagerly look forward to reading...such a sympathetic, lively person and with a comments section that is unrivalled for interest. But she doesn't acept awards, so I'll just have to pass on my thanks instead.

Ayak at Turkish Delight is also someone whose blog I appreciate. She is honest, kind and whatever her own situation always has time to encourage others.

And I Still Think So is a blog that gets the little grey cells working...always well written it is a delight to see it popping up in the sidebar.

Hadriana's Treasures kindly gave me the  Knockout Read award....we both love cricket...and I would like to pass it on to Frances at France and the Unknown. I have no idea whether cricket features among her many enthusiasms but her blog is certainly a knockout read.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Return of the lobster

There is a large red object in a number of the photographs that brother in law has been taking during our trip in Central America.
It resembles an oversized, well boiled lobster.
It is me.
No,  I am not putting up a photograph. There are limits. You're getting one of a disappointing clock instead.

I have two regrets about our trip.
One, we did not make it to Guatemala.
Two, I went bright red on day two and stayed that way for the duration, despite hats, shade and aloe vera cream. Is it really too much to ask that I could go brown?

The first regret isn't much of one, as we saw so much to please and fascinate in Nicaragua and Honduras that we all want to go back and explore further. Guatemala can wait.

There was something for each of us.
Brother in law, who kindly took the bulk of the driving, wanted to see Mayan ruins, so we visited Copan and its' little sister site El Puente - which I liked much better, though that could have been because the curator was kind enough to give me two hours of his time explaining the history of the site and the significence of the exhibits in the museum. It didn't hurt that he was extremely handsome and charming as well as erudite and patient.
It would have been nice not to have looked like an overcooked crustacean in his company.
If we had visited El Puente first I would have understood why Copan left me cold, despite all the hype.
A different culture some of whose monuments resembled modern art works until the Copan culture took over later in the history of the site.

Mr Fly wanted to see plants and found lots that were new to him, thus giving rise to hair raising cries of
'Stop the car!'
Usually on a hairpin bend.
He has garnered an alarming collection of seeds and went beserk at a nursery in northern Nicaragua, leading to a guilty session of rolling plants up in the washing in the suitcase in order to smuggle them back across the border into Costa Rica.
And before anyone starts whingeing about introducing non native plants, the two countries are contiguous and the point of buying the plants in Nicaragua is that they were about a quarter of the price demanded in Costa Rica...even if you could find them for sale.

I wanted to see Spanish colonial towns and I had a surfeit!
When we reached one of them, tucked away in the pine forests in Honduras, I could completely understand why its' founder called it 'Gracias a Dios'.
It must be what he said when he finally found a suitable site in the surrounding wilderness!

We were all suckers for sitting in the shady central squares with a plastic bag of fresh fruit drink to be drunk through the straw tied into the bag.
We all enjoyed searching for somewhere to eat in a strange town - except in Copan, which is a tourist rip off on the grand scale - and no one had food poisoning despite all the fears about the ice in the drinks and the water in which the salads had been washed.
This is considerably more than I can say for eating out in France.

We have had memorable meals.
One of the best was in the bus station in Santa Rosa de Copan where the lady only had the water she had lugged in in a large bin so to save washing up the plastic plates were covered in cling film. She deep fried tilapia from the nearby lake in an old saucepan and it was cooked to perfection. Crisp skin and melting flesh within.
Celebrity chefs eat your heart out.

Brother in law discovered plantains in all their manifestations and became addicted. Plantains figured at every meal from morning to night. Boiled in fish soup, fried with rice and beans, covered with refried beans and sour cream, plantain chips.....the only way I didn't see them presented was as a sandwich.

We had setbacks, of course.
Crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua took hours...most of them spent in waiting in a queue of vehicles in the no man's land between the frontiers....but that meant that we spent the first night in Granada rather than pushing on for the north, so could enjoy the architecture and the atmosphere.

The car lost its' brakes on a hillside in the wilds of Honduras.
A minivan passed, stopped, took Mr. Fly into the next village and came back with a mechanic. Refused any payment.
The mechanic took the car - driving it, not towing it - to his workshop, a tin roof on stilts, and analysed the problem.
He could get the parts, so, if we wanted to wait five hours, someone would go by bus to fetch them or, if we were in a hurry, a friend would drive there, but it would cost more.
We plumped for the car and went into town to draw money at the bank.
He asked us if we trusted him with the money or would we prefer to go with the friend to buy the parts.
We plumped for trusting him.

Within half an hour of going to the bank and sitting in the central square we were the object of everyone's attention.
San Juan las Collinas is on no one's tourist trail - and it wouldn't have been on ours had our intrepid navigators not made one of their erratic choices at a fork in the road.

A gentleman in a pick up hailed us in english, and told us that if the car wasn't ready that day we could stay with him and his family.

Another gentleman walking his dog directed us to the lake and the path up the hill above the town.

A further gentleman, seeing that we were reading, asked if we were reading 'The Word' - his way of referring to the Bible.
Learning that we were not, he informed us that all other literature was sinful and for good meaure told Mr. Fly that if he stopped smoking he would not be as thin as a rake but as  fat as his wife.
All with perfect good humour as befitted the town wiseacre.

Children tried out their english.

Not being a tourist town, there were no beggars.

We took a tuc-tuc out to the garage, where the assembled staff and friends were enjoying having a look at the car.
A delightful boy called Brian, all of eleven years' old, was the self appointed guide to events, ranging from an inspection of the litter of puppies to a run down on how disc brakes worked, culminating in the announcement that now that his brother - the mechanic - had fixed the brakes we had better be careful we didn't go through the windscreen when using them.

We were on our way from that hospitable town in five hours flat.
A pity that the frontiers aren't as well managed.

There was a disappointment, too.
I had read that the oldest clock in Central America was to be found in the bell tower at Comayagua, north of the Honduran capital. Originally housed in the Alhambra in the Spanish Granada, the twelfth century piece had been presented to the town by Philip II of Spain.
We wanted to see it.
Well, I don't know what they've done to it but it is singularly unprepossessing.
However, we had landed in Comayagua in Holy Week and that more than made up for the clock.

I have seen Holy Week processions in Seville on the TV, so was expecting something solemn and formal.
Nothing of the sort.
The images on their floats swayed from side to side on their route through the town, preceded by a man with a pole to hitch up the power lines....Christ bowed to his mother to the applause of the crowds....children took the parts at the Stations of the Cross...dear little girls with angel wings who represented the seven last words were borne in sedan chairs before the bier at the deposition....Mary Magdalen dashed about all over the town looking for Christ and word from the Vatican has not reached Comayagua that Saint Veronica didn't exist.
While all this was going on, food stands sold all manner of meals accompanied by a memorable rum punch and the piped music that filled the square ranged from Strauss walzes to the Girl from Ipanema.
A truly popular, happy event.

What was most remarkable to me was the phenomenon of the carpets of sawdust laid to ease the feet of Christ on the roads to be used by the processions.
Not just plain, ordinary sawdust, but art works made in different colours with stencils.
Apart from the expected religious and municipal themes, there were also others using the occasion to express their views on the late political unrest, including one featuring guns and the names of those from the town who had died in the repression.
A peoples' event.

We have had a splendid time, but without brother in law we would not have been able to even think about the trip, given the driving involved.
He returns to Australia on Monday, so we can only hope that the lure of the plantains will bring him back to Costa Rica for another attempt on Guatemala.

Another year.

When I'm pale again.
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