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.

Monday 31 January 2011

Food is in the air for St.Valentine's Day

Pork chops, cooked and served.Image via Wikipedia
There are a number of ways in which Costa Rica falls short of being an earthly paradise, and availability of wine is one of them.
Hideously expensive if imported, thanks to tariffs and taxes...a situation not likely to be amended even under the new free trade treaty with the European Union because, as remarked solemnly by a national daily paper, the reduction of tariffs on wine imports from the EU is a good thing as it will allow shops to make a bigger profit on selling it....
If produced in Costa Rica, then it is one of those tastes I have no wish whatsoever to acquire.
If I want warm, sickly stuff that fizzes then I'll just leave the Coca Cola out of the fridge.

So seeing a new brand of wine in the box on sale at Pali...Walmart's supposedly low price about a euro cheaper than the usual brand.... I thought I'd try it, but it was an experiment doomed from the start.

Firstly, I managed to drop it on the floor and, clearly being made from low price cardboard, it burst.
I then had to balance the remains between my feet while driving home down gravel roads which would give the Big Dipper a run for its money in the thrills stakes...luckily the car is an automatic.
After all that I stuck it in the fridge to give it a chance to show what it could do...and it did.
It took the enamel off my teeth.
Examination of the box showed that it was a red wine from Spain...which claimed to be a world best seller.
As paint stripper, they might be right.

Whatever it was sold for, it certainly shouldn't be for drinking, so, flying in the face of all the advice that a lousy wine will make a lousy sauce, I made a beef stew with it...and the stew was brilliant!

Food was in the air that day.....The Return of the Native had been blogging about a curry competition at her local....then a friend told me about a chilli cook-off at a gringo cafe the other side of the Central after all this I felt like going out to eat that evening.

But there was nowhere to go.

To be more accurate, there was nowhere that I would have wanted to go to closer than the capital, forty five minutes away, where there is a great choice of good places to eat, and I didn't feel like driving that far only to be obliged to go without wine because of the new drink driving laws.
That's why we go to restaurants at lunchtime...and travel on the bus.

Still, even though I had to settle for a home made stew that evening, it was not one of the things which count against Costa Rica as an earthly paradise.....there was nowhere to eat out in the evenings when we lived in rural France either...and there we didn't have the option of getting a bus!

I've always thought the French reputation for gastronomy over rated.....there were a few good places and a lot more for which 'pedestrian' would have been a compliment (here) and because I've usually lived out in the sticks it had to be good to get me to drive there and back.

Mark you, I was visiting my dear friend the Old Biddie, when last in France and she has a restaurant nearby which would have had me driving down there once a week...even if it took me all day to get there and all night to get back!
Food beautifully cooked and presented, a sensible wine list and good service. A real pleasure to go there.
I believe it is run by foreigners....
Why couldn 't they have taken over while I still lived in France!

Twice I've lived near enough to a village to walk down to the cafe in the square....the first time when I'd just moved to France and it was a steak frites sort of place, friendly and good value: the second time many years later in another village, another steak frites type of place, whose doorway I never darkened.

I had met the proprietor before in his previous establishment where he dished out the pork chop and frites that his wife cooked and then, having secured his prey, started moaning on about his hard life and times.
The story was not gripping and the pork chop was not fresh.

However, he clearly gripped someone.

A Dutch couple had been spending their holidays at the campsite at that village for years. The husband's hobby was star photography and apparently there was no loom of lights in that area to spoil his exposure...or whatever it was.
They must have been unusual for Dutch in that they did not bring all their provisions with them to France, but used to go to the pork chop dispenser for their evening meals and became quite friendly with him.
When an order was served on him to retile his kitchen and bring everything up to the norms for establishments serving food they offered to finance him, but then, on getting the estimates, decided it would be better to buy a cafe elsewhere and set him up in business, paying them a small rent.

Thus he arrived in my village.

He must have had a talent for making foreign friends, for an English couple living down the road from me were also friendly with him, and not only recommended him but also took their friends there. Frequently.
They must have been especially fond of pork chops.

French villages being what they are, events are kept he was in line for everything from the old age pensioners lunch to the chasseurs' banquet. Captive trade as it were.
The OAP event passed off pretty well.. Delays in service don't worry the OAPs  as long as there is wine on the table and the room is warm.
The chasseurs' banquet was not a success, however. They supplied the venison and he forgot to marinade it.
Those with false teeth found it hard going. The offer of pork chops instead did not meet with the appreciation he had expected..

Still, heartened by his experiences, he decided to offer a St. Valentine's Day evening...if you see what I mean.
The set menu went up in the window, and he even put an advertisement in the local rag.
Such was the response that he had to open up the second dining room....and by seven o'clock on  the fourteenth of February the joint was jumping.
In honour of the occasion he had drafted in supplementary waiting staff and the aperitifs circulated delays this time!

His customers were seated and the first course was served...all was still going was by then eight o'clock and there was a happy buzz throughout the two rooms as people awaited their main course.

Let it just be said that the buzz became less happy as by nine o'clock only a fraction of the clients had been served.....and my English neighbour said that their party had finally been served at eleven o'clock, by which time the wine had been looked on when it was red and things were getting decidedly noisy.

Guy had not attended the St. Valentine's Day  event...he always considered that the man must be allergic to dust and that the slow service was accounted for by his fear of raising any by some swift movement....but he did have all the gossip.

So what went wrong? He'd taken on extra staff after all.

Ah! In the dining room, yes, but not in the kitchen. He had over one hundred people there for his set menu.

Yes, but with a set menu it must have been arranged to be easy for the kitchen, surely?

You would think so, wouldn't you. So what possessed the cretin to make steak with bearnaise sauce the main course.....when the only cook was his wife and the only source of heat a two burner gas stove?

Just surprised it wasn't pork chops.

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Tuesday 25 January 2011

French Country Style

French country house VarenImage by ahisgett via Flickr
I was at a second hand book sale with a friend when she pointed one out to me....

'That would interest you...French country interiors...'

I took it from her. It was a coffee table book written in American English with colour photographs on every page and text in the interstices designed, it appeared, to encourage the reader to recreate the romantic world of  the tradtional French interior.

Gauzy curtains shimmered in front of open windows with the glimpse of a rose garden beyond.....

Batteries of shining copper pans hung from the beams.....

Chandeliers hung low over dining tables clad in whte damask....

The jewel colours of Provencal tiles reflected in kitchen worktops....

I gave it her back.

I don't have a coffee table stout enough to support its weight.....and I've seen it all before.

But not in real life. Only in the pages of glossy magazines.

French style as I first met it in small hotels and in country B and Bs was strong on wallpaper.
Not only on the walls but on the doors, the cupboards and the ceiling. Not just flowery wallpaper either, but shag pile carpet wallpaper in electric blue and bright orange, that had a certain Edgar Allan Poe feel to it when you wanted to get to the bathroom down the corridor...and couldn't find the door, let alone the handle.

The absence of sofas and armchairs surprised me; the only place to sit was on a high backed chair at the table, or on benches at either side of it.....but as Edith told me, in her young day the women did not sit down at all. The men were served at the table and the women ate what was left standing at the chimney breast.
And for white damask tablecloths substitute oilcloth. I hadn't seen it for years before moving to France...which must be the oilcloth capital of the known world.

Copper pans were for professional kitchens....more common were the earthenware cooking vessels with concave lids, for putting into the ashes in the morning, loading more hot ash on the lid and being assured of a good hot soup or stew when you came in from the outdoor work at lunchtime.
These days, such items sit snugly on shelves as the photographs in glossy magazines.

Even these days, kitchen equipment can be limited...indispensable is the microwave for reheating the coffee that is made first thing in the morning and will have to last all day and the frying pan, the combination of both items being quite adequate to cope with the staple cooking of the French provinces...defrosting the frozen food delivered by the men from Agrigel.

There are any number of these companies....their vans thread the countryside putting everything from fish fillets to homard a l'armoricaine in the freezer of the rural housewife.
I see that one of the firms is currently promoting

'Tripe!' as 'Just the thing!'

So, as you can see, their range is comprehensive.

Should you wish to become a customer you will generally find that Wednesday afternoon is a good time to ask for a delivery.....the kids are home from school and the average housewife thus does not have the time to devote to discussing her needs and desires with the man from Agrigel.
She prefers Thursdays for the contemplation of her cuisses de nymphe.

Is it that I am too down market?

But in the houses of the provincial bourgeoisie I didn't find 'style' as portrayed in the glossies.
I found old furniture, good china and glass, but no 'arty' arrangements of items, while the one time I was inside the country house of an ex Very Important Politician I noted that there was  a distinct odour of not-let-out-in-time dog around the bottoms of the curtains and that the paintwork was the same grey blue army surplus that featured so prominently on the shutters and doors of the little farms around.

I've seen some beautiful interiors French owned and foreign owned houses in the French countryside...but none of them could be said to conform the the image promoted in the glossies.
Each was individual, each house had had the luck to have had an owner with the sense to 'listen' to it, understand its layout and make the most of it...colour, light, comfort more important than conformity to an imposed image.

I remember an acquaintance, long ago now, who had bought a dilapidated cottage and restored it painstakingly, until the day it was complete and he asked the neighbours in for a drink.
One chap kept looking attentively at the ceiling, where our hero had painted the beams and the plaster between them a becoming shade of pale grey so my acquaintance asked him what he thought of it.

'Well,' came the reply 'I was just trying to remember which beam it was that Joel hanged himself from....'

Perhaps if I'd mixed with different people.....
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Saturday 15 January 2011


at least i'm not a bullyImage by Miss Blackflag via Flickr

A part of the French experience that doesn't surface in the books and articles about France, but I think it underlies what we, foreigners, might class as discrimination, as we see it only from what happens to ourselves, without a wider picture.

I have been brought to thinking about this by reading a discussion about discrimination on the Survive France network, then an item  on Marilyn Z Tomlins' blog about the assault on an autistic child by his classmates a side angle... by a post from A Year Down the Line about something which may or may not turn out to be a problem.

A participant in the Survive France discussion, Sarah Hague, who has a super blog at St. Bloggie de Riviere, made the point that you are all right in France until the moment you stick your neck out at which point the knives come out too and I think she is right, but I also think it reaches across the whole of French society, not just, as was the focus of the Survive France discussion, in relation to the French reaction to foreigners.

Before I start, do just bear in mind that my experience of France has been garnered from living out in the sticks and what I say will necessarily reflect that experience, though from the little I've seen of the urban beaufs and bobonnes they seemed pretty similar to their rural counterparts.
Neither am I in any way a social scientist, so what follows is purely anecdotal.

Talking to French friends' children, especially those working in the private sector, the amount of harassment and bullying in the workplace related by them would not be tolerated in the U.K.....yes, just as in the U.K. there is legal resource to combat this, but there is a culture of resignation.
That's how things are.
If you're lucky enough to have a job, then you just shut up or get out....
The pressures can be appalling and the results tragic, as in the case of the multiple suicides at France Telecom, but that is the workplace culture.

The union structure in France does nothing to protect the average worker...outside the previously state run sectors unions hardly exist, after all. The unions exist to look after themselves and any attack on their position is met with crippling strikes.....the dockers want to be included in the 'exceptions' to the raising of the retirement age, so they strike, bringing France's maritime commerce to a halt.
Forget it.....just bully.

It happens in other spheres too.
I blog frequently about the scandal of the septic tank inspections...the hidden quotas, the inequality of treatment...(here)..... where the response of the water boards to the legitimate complaints of  those concerned is to put up two fingers...or rather, this being France, just one finger... and threaten to send in the bailiffs.

A crooked politician wants to underpin the garden wall of his town house.
Does he pay for this himself?
He causes damage to the wall on his side and calls on the neighbour on the other side to assume both the fault and the cost.
The neighbour is undergoing treatment for cancer.
The politician harasses him and his wife, night and day, with threatening telephone calls.
Bullied, they give in.

You do not, in your right mind, speak truth to power in France.

Didier has a phrase which sums it all up...
'Nous sommes pour rien...'
We count for nothing.

He knows.
An electricity line ran across the field behind his house to service an outlying house in the hamlet.
Then EDF decided that they wanted to re route the line via the roads for ease of access and proposed to run it round past Didier's house and garden. This would involve felling his plum trees, which were on the boundary.
The plum trees which supplied the raw materials for his eau de vie.
The owners of the house on the corner of the road, next door to Didier, protested.
If EDF put up new poles, they would block the drain that ran round their house and their walls would become damp.
The EDF subcontractors agreed to put the line underground to meet their objections...after all, the long term aim was to put all lines underground.
Didier asked them if they could not just extend the underground line past his property, another fifty metres...if the lines had to go underground anyway at some point.
Why not?
Because they weren't obliged to do so. And who was he anyhow?
Not to Didier.
And the whole thing was an eyesore in a pretty hamlet.

Conformity is dinned into the French from their schooldays....individuality is not appreciated.
Not only is there only one answer...there is only one question, and woe betide you if you run over the lines of the box provided for ticking.
I don't and didn't have children going through the system but I noted with French friends' grandchildren that it suited the plodders and tended to bore the pants off the imaginative.
No wonder it produces a culture of box ticking and inflexibility.

So, kept in their place and that place well defined, is it any wonder that the French need an outlet for their frustrations?

A friend told me that in Iran the only place people feel that they control any part of their lives is when they are at the wheel...and that the driving is wild!
Well, let's look at French driving habits.
Tailgating....infuriated hooting when the lights change and the first car hasn't gone off at Mach 1...overtaking on the inside lane...overtaking on the brow of a hill...and revving their engines at full blast to do so....the coup de poisson....speeding......and as for filtering one and one at a lane closure...doesn't sound unlike the friend's description of Iranian drivers.

The behaviour I came across most often took place on a hump backed medieval bridge on the back road to town.
There was a right of way system, but just how many times, coming from the disfavoured end with nothing on the bridge, my little A3 would get half way only to find a white van, which had been invisible when I started to cross, just advancing and blocking the way.
Common sense would tell you that if you arrived at the favoured end when something was already on the bridge you would wait for it to clear, but common sense had nothing to do with it.
The white van was bigger and demanded right of way.
I have had threats of violence from the drivers of the white vans when I did not immediately reverse and this is nothing to do with discrimination...the car had local plates so until I replied they had no way of knowing that I was foreign.
It was the wish to dominate.
The wish to bully.

In relation to the threats of violence I cannot say that my replies, when being told to get off the bridge, were such as to turn away anger....more like grievous words to stir it up....but I don't like being bullied and I won't stand for it.

It strikes me that if, in France, you are not born into a family who can make your way for you in society, you are frustrated at every turn...and, if you are not of a naturally peaceful temperament, you take it out on those further down the pecking order.
Thus a frail elderly man, like my husband, was natural prey (here) for a bunch of louts encountered at a vide grenier.
If you have any sort of power, you use it, you demonstrate it, in order to maintain your status.

Now, turning to the sense of discrimination felt by immigrants, add to the mixture of ticked boxes and the pecking order the intense chauvinism of France..the land where the French believe that the best of everything is to be found...and you find a very volatile situation.

The foreigner, just by not being French, is inferior, as is his or her culture.
His or her knowledge and experience counts for nothing as not being French.
Thus, in whatever situation, the French view should prevail.
Even if the French view as presented is totally illegal in the French system and would be laughed to scorn by any other French person...particularly a Parisian. (here)

There is an underlying feeling that a person who does not speak the same language is stupid...and is thus a mark, to be taken advantage of.....and how annoyed are the partisans of this view when the 'mark' refuses to have advantage taken.
How, I might wonder in passing, is one to speak the same language when it is a patois unintelligible to people living only a hundred kilometres away, but this is a problem which does not trouble for one moment the speaker of patois concerned.

I had a problem of this sort years ago with the contractor who was installing a septic tank at a house I was renovating. He was weeks behind schedule and the only way to get him on the job was to track him down every week and nag him.
He didn't like it and neither did I.
Just before Christmas, job still not finished, he turned up at my house demanding payment.
I told him he would be paid when he finished the job.
He looked round at my house and its setting and said

'I see where your money goes, keeping up this wonder you can't pay poor men's bills...'

It was like having a conversation on railway tracks diverging at the points.
He genuinely thought that he could shame me into paying him for something he had not done.
I had money, he wanted it...despite not having finished the job.
It was like dealing with a very primitive organism.
But at least the hostilities remained at the verbal level; he did not try violence, which is what happened to a friend (here) in similar circumstances.

The other side of this coin is the refusal to understand anything you, the immigrant, might say.

One part of this is that common phenomenon....
'This is a foreigner, he or she doesn't speak French - even when you are addressing them in that language - so I can't understand.'
A sort of panic.

The other part is a refusal to believe that anything the immigrant might say could have any value.

I had asked for a speed limit sign on the stretch of road by my house, where the local hillbillies used to come screaming off a bend into a short straight just before running into the ditch on the next bend at the limit of my property.
Formalities and begging letter to the President of the Conseil General completed, a road engineer turned up and so, by sheer coincidence, did the Maire.

Me to road engineer

'You can see the problem...they pick up speed coming out of that bend and lose control on the next one.

Maire to road engineer

'There's no need for this at all, the road is perfectly straight between here and St. Ragondin.'

Me to Maire, pointing with both arms to the bends at either end of the straight

'What are those then? Scotch mist?'

Maire to road engineer

'The road is perfectly straight.'

The matter was resolved by producing the letter from the President of the Conseil General authorising the work..a copy of which had been sent to the Maire in any case, but it was an interesting experience.

There is also the commonly held view that economic life is a pie diagram...and the more fingers in the pie (immigrants) the less plums there are for the French.
Following on from the chauvinism, where everything French is best, it is clear that immigrants only come to France to take advantage of what it provides, thus taking what rightfully should be available only to the French themselves.

Chance would be a fine thing!

The hoops you have to jump through to get anywhere with what is laughingly called a system in France would baffle all but the most hardened benefit cheat....there are times when it baffles even the French!

Like a lot of things, you have to be able to understand French and how France works - not in order to avoid discrimination, but to understand how and why it operates.

It is not universal, luckily, but it does exist and it seems to me that some of the people who claim never to have been discriminated against are those who could be said to have integrated well......

In that they are as supine and unquestioning as the majority of those of their host nation.

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Monday 3 January 2011

Sarkozy plays the Bongos

HandsImage via Wikipedia
I am selling my house in France. I have it advertised on the internet together with contact details.

Now, I gather from a friend in France that you call this 'having a presence on the internet'...or you do if you are the Performing Elephant and her ilk who make up in self publicity what they lack in knowledge and talent.

So, having a 'presence on the net' I receive a number of communications from people anxious to put vast sums of money at my disposal as they have entire confidence that I will give it back to them, minus a token million euros or so for what they kindly refer to as my 'trouble'.

Nowadays, some of them are claiming to be ex or serving American army personnel who have come upon untold illicit wealth in Iraq or Afghanistan and need my help to get it past whatever controls might be supposed to exist in these shreds of what were once countries, but most of them are African state governors and bankers.

I don't feel inclined to 'trouble'...but I have kept a note of those needing assistance and when I have sold the house I will be circulating the private bank account numbers  - not the client account numbers - of the local crooked notaire to all those who have contacted me...and devil take the hindermost.

People tell me that these are scams and that involvement in them will leave one on the wrong side financially, but I have reason to believe that people are wrong.

Would President Chirac, President Sarkozy et al participate in a scam?
Yes, of course they would.

Would they however, participate in a scam which left them on the wrong side financially?
No, of course not.

This is how it worked......

According to what an official of BEAC  - la Banque de l'Etats d'Afrique Central which is the central reserve for six states of central Africa - Gabonese officials have been siphoning off vast sums from the reserves for years, most of which appeared to fall into the hands of the then President of Gabon Omar Bongo.

While the PC among us may be shuddering in horror, fearing some link is about to be made between President Bongo and Alan Clark's remarks about Bongo-bongo land as a general term for sub-saharan Africa, let me just say that the remark caused no offence to the President himself.
He sent Mr. Clark one of his election posters ....... 'Gagnez avec Bongo'......advice which Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy took heed to follow.

President Bongo's perceived need was to maintain himself and his family in power.
He succeeded in this aim. After his death, he was succeeded by his son Ali-Ben Bongo.
However, he needed assistance in maintaining economic stability....for the Bongo family...and in quelling unrest...among the not-the-Bongo family, and this assistance was forthcoming from Gabon's ex colonial overlord - France.
This is the 'what is in it for the initiator of the scam' bit.

Moving to the 'what is in it for the person contacted by the scammer' bit it is alleged that President Bongo helped various French politicians, of both right and left but quite possibly not Jean-Marie Le Pen with financial contributions to their campaign funds. Particularly Presidents Chirac and Sarkozy.

I expect in so doing he was making no vulgar bribe -as in the case of Giscard d'Estaing and the Bokassa diamonds - but trying to assist them in their quest to learn from their colonial remodel France on the lines of post colonial Africa.

To install rule from the top in the interests of national security, where the President, fully informed by the state surveillance services, knows the needs of his people and distributes the goodies accordingly.

A process which might best be described by perverting the sense of Matthew chapter thirteen verse 12:

'For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.'

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