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 21 February 2011

The voice of small town France.....

ThouarsImage via Wikipedia
I came across something today which brought to mind all the good memories of France and which solved a small mystery.
What had happened to 'le chat' who used to write a small column for the local rag in the area in which I lived when first in France casting a kindly but sharp eye on the various doings in his town through the medium of his two characters, le chat and la vache.

Even though I moved away, I still followed his column and was saddened when recently it ceased to appear in favour of something more anodyne.
Election time?
The anti-drink lobby?
Who knows...

So I was delighted to find a reference to a blog which 'le chat' has started and on chasing it down found that his voice remains unchanged.

And then I thought that for people really trying to get to grips with how France it thinks, how it expresses itself....then following this blog will provide an opening.
It echoes small town life...the problems with the roadworks, the local politicians, local beaurocrats, silly stuff seen while walking around, all described succinctly and with humour.
This is daily life reported, not by Poncey of Paris but by.......

Balthazar Fourcalquier

as 'le chat' now wishes to be known, on his blog at

There is a link in my blogroll...but, be warned, it just leads to a page of gobbledygook.

To find 'le chat' you need to go first to


and look for him on the list...among diverse other blogs ranging from taking over a dentist's practice to buying property in the area via two groups of anti capitalists and one description of railway modelling.
The list is a gem in itself.

Don't be discouraged by the fact that you will almost certainly not know the town or its'll soon catch on and if you can follow the goings on of The Archers this will be child's play.

And don't take one look and retreat muttering
'Goodgoddlemighty it's in French!'
It is, but it's simple French and a little perseverance will bring you an insight into cultural references that would otherwise pass you by.

And don't forget the music...there is a little triangle in the top left hand corner to press.

It's all good fun and I heartily recommend it to you.

As 'le chat' used to say

'Soyons serieux...a quoi on trinque?

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Thursday 17 February 2011

Dies Irae...or 'casse-toi, pauvre con'....

Пророческий ряд. Около 1502 года. Из Собора Ро...Image via Wikipedia
We've seen a day of wrath, of anger, in Tunisia and now in Egypt...others in Bahrein, Yemen, Algeria and Libya....days when the people of these countries, denied opportunity, denied expression, denied hope, have risen against their corrupt masters despite the fears of imprisonment, torture and death at the hands of the security forces.

Dies Irae, the day of wrath,which I suppose most of us associate with the traditional requiem mass, comes from a reference in Zephaniah chapter one, verse fifteen....and earlier in the chapter the prophet treats of what will happen to those who have turned from the right path...

'.....I will punish the princes, and the king's children. and al such as are clothed with strange apparell.
In the same day also wil I punish all those that leape upon the threshold, which fill their masters' houses with violence and deceit.
...And....there shall be the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and an howling from the second, and a great crashing from the hils.
Howl...for all the merchant people are cut downe; all they that bear silver are cut off.'

You have to hand it to the King James' version for colour and interest....and have to hand it to the prophet for a neat description of what happens when the unrighteous finally get their comeuppance, although it has to be said that the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters were remarkably peaceable.

In France, the days of wrath in North Africa have had a special appears that the Prime Minister, M. Fillon, spent his Christmas hols in Egypt, at Aswan...paid for by the Egyptian government of President Mubarak, the tyrant overthrown a couple of months later by the efforts of the protestors who just refused to go home.

Before revealing his little escapade on the Nile, M. Fillon had given his full support to his Foreign Minister, Mme. Alliot-Marie - who had offered the Tunisian president, Ben Ali, the benefit of French security advice as dissent in Tunisia became apparent - when it was revealed that as the uprising started she had accepted a trip in the private jet of a Tunisian businessman closely linked to the Ben Ali family.
Unfortunately it later became evident that she was accompanied on this surprise jaunt by her parents, on the point of becoming majority shareholders in her Tunisian friend's company.
These revelations she brushes off as being an intrusion on the private life of her family.

Any number of French politicians and 'movers and shakers' are beginning to wonder the interests of transparency, you understand....they should declare their presence at the pseudo conferences and open jollies held at the swisher coastal resorts of Tunisia, all paid for by the benevolent Ben Ali, friend of France if not of his own people.
That is, in the interests of transparency, whether they should own up before the new Tunisian regime drops them in it from a great height.

A number of those in politics who criticised Frederic Mitterand, the Culture Minister,  for what he denied ever doing with young men in Thailand are now keeping their heads below the parapet...just in case the kicking over of the beehives in Tunisia reveals what they will, in the interests of transparency of course, deny ever doing with young men in Tunisia.

The days of wrath have revealed a very unsavoury state of affairs in French foreign policy...but also a very unsavoury state of affairs in French politics generally.

The politicians are elected...they are representatives of the French people whose interests they are supposed to further while in power.
How can anyone imagine that the interests of the French people are served by preserving the regimes of foreign dictators?

Or perhaps I've misunderstood.....should I be asking rather which French people are served by the preservation of corrupt regimes abroad?

Well, French commmercial interests who were outsourcing to their old colonies long before French politicians denounced this anglo-saxon practice....who are in need of political stability to enable them to go on exploiting a cheap source of labour.
That's who, or what.
That's who or what is at the bottom of the offers of help from a French Foreign Minister to a Tunisian despot....all the free flights and holidays....the tawdry rewards of salesmanship.

A French supported dictator's attitude to his people may be summed up in the lapid phrase of the current French president when faced with a dissident at an agricultural show..

'Casse-toi, pauvre con.'

Or, loosely

'Piss off, loser!'

It is also, in practice, the reaction of a French politician to the ordinary French person....the people who can't afford to reduce their tax bill by investing in the Dom Toms....who can't afford to reduce their tax bill by investing in racehorses...the ones who don't have enough to pay the Impot de Solidarite sur la Fortune but who will be paying to fill the hole made when the ISF is abolished.... the ones who don't belong to powerful lobbies like public sector or farming unions...

A lot of these ordinary French people voted for Sarkozy to get France moving....his party, the UMP, soon put a stop to any such idea, frightened that more fingers might be getting into a pie previously reserved for the rich and their cronies, so where are the Sarkozy voters of 2007 to go?

The UMP doesn't want him to stand...not that he'll take much notice of there's a risk of a split in their vote between Sarkozy,  the dreaded Juppe and de Villepin...if he is not on a meathook by then - another lapid phrase of the current French president - as his case comes to court shortly.

Then there's the PS, the socialist party, as usual quarreling over the spoils before winning the prize...

The centrist parties...

The FN, the National Front....

But that's all from the politicians' viewpoint...this is what they are putting before people.

They might care to learn a lesson from the days of can treat people as 'pauvre cons' for only so long. It might be a long time, but it is finite.
A day of wrath does come....and in countries where democracy is feeble the day of wrath does not take the form of choosing between political parties, it takes the form of overthrowing whole systems of power.
Peacefully, or by violence.

You might judge the health of French democracy by counting the number of republics that have been declared since the big revolution of 1789....they're on their fifth by now, with sundry monarchies in between.....and compare that to the relative solidity of  the U.K. - until Blair got his hands on power.

The difference? The French political caste is just that...many faces but the same interests, imposed from above, whereas until the Blair years the British party system allowed pressure from the bottom to have have a chance of changing things.

Sarkozy came to power offering change and thats what the 'pauvre cons' want. Change....opportunity, an
end to the stranglehold of the 'haves' on power.....

The friends of the friends of the dictators should keep an ear to the ground as the 2012 elections approach.

If the people don't get change then there may be 'the noise of a cry from the fish gate, and an howling from the second, and a great crashing from the hils' as 'all they that bear silver are cut down'.

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Monday 14 February 2011

It's Valentine's Day .....time to get married....

Vintage French Wedding Party 1920'sImage by Vintage Lulu via Flickr
A French friend's grand daughter is getting married in May and we are invited to the wedding.

Unless some miracle happens and the house is sold tomorrow so that we could combine the wedding with the sale I doubt that we shall be going...the journey is not particularly expensive if you choose your flights carefully but it is long and tiring, especially with all the absurd, useless 'security' nonsense the modern passenger has to undergo.
Our governments have erected 'the war against terror' into a shibboleth  which enables half witted 'jobsworths'  to ransack our luggage, ask damned impertinent questions and treat us like prisoners by depriving us of our shoes and belts.
Query the justification for the shibboleth and it's off to Guantanamo Bay in an orange jumpsuit.
I find it amazing that we, ordinary people, are subjected to all this while war criminals and despots stalk the world at ease.......
Can you see a jobsworth rooting round in Robert Mugabe's suitcases....?
Or making Tony Blair take off his shoes and stand on a dirty floor in his socks?

While we're all busy keeping our fingers crossed for a democratic outcome for Egypt, perhaps we might spare the time to take a hard look at our own societies, where real freedom has become a mockery.

Still it's a pity that we shan't be going, as I like weddings in themselves, as well as for presenting the chance to meet up with a lot of friends and have been to a fair number of them in France in my time.
Sending a present just isn't the same.

When I was first in France I saw the wedding parties in my village walking from the square down to the mairie for the civil ceremony and then back up the hill to the church for the religious one.
At that time there were still a few greatgrannies in long black skirts and the characteristic 'coiffe' of that part of the world, which resembled a tall starched nurse's cap with large wings - very severe, unlike some of the other coiffes I have seen, as in Brittany with those towers of starched lace, or the coloured wings of the ladies of Alsace.
Just a few kilometres away the 'coiffe' was much prettier, resembling a ribbon trimmed mob cap with lace streamers behind, rather like an upmarket Edwardian parlourmaid's cap.
Much more flattering....
There's a link to a video here which shows the 'coiffe' of la Rosiere at la Mothe Saint Heray in the Deux Sevres, which will give you some idea of these long gone headdresses.

By the time I had progressed to being invited to weddings, the new generation of grannies were disporting themselves in heels, shiny tight skirts and a decollete that had the old boys all of a lather...change had been rapid and radical.

As is illustrated by the timing of this wedding.

Previous generations had a very limited calendar when fixing an appropriate date.
First there was the absolute ban on marrying in church during Advent or Lent.....then the practical ban on marrying during the harvest or the vendange, when it was all hands to the family pump and no time for frivolity.
And as for May! This was the month dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the spotless Mother of God and woe betide anyone rash enough to approach the priest with a view to arranging a marriage, with all its carnal overtones, in that virginal month of the year!
You might as well proclaim your pre-marital pregnancy to all and sundry as that could be the only reason for marrying in May!

Madeleine had told me about country weddings in her youth....we were taking a walk after Sunday lunch at my house, in order to be in condition for eating the leftovers at supper and had taken the shady walk up past the little chateau and through the woods, passing under the firework bursts of the sweet chestnut flowers to the quiet lanes beyond.
She paused as we were about to pass a house set back from the had been bought recently by English and was being done up...and took a good look.
It had, she explained, once belonged to someone in her mother's family and she hadn't seen it for years.
It had certainly gone down in the world from the time when it was the centre of a busy farm....roofs needed attention, the barn wall sported a mighty crack from top to bottom and the scaffolding was up on the front of the house to replace the cracked, leaking rendering.

A woman emerged from the house and, coming half way towards us, asked in  English
'Can I help you?'
In that particularly English way which indicates clearly that the 'help' that one has in mind is to 'help' you to go away before you 'help' yourself to something which doesn't belong to you.
I explained that Madeleine was interested to see the house again after so long and about the family connection but far from asking us in for a tea and a natter she simply said
'But it's sold now...' and turned back to her door.

As we strolled on, Madeleine described to me how she had been very friendly with the daughter of the house when they were both girls and had been invited to her wedding.
In those pre-war days, not many people had cars...Madeleine's father, who operated an oil pressing business being an when the family gathered for celebrations, it was the custom to put everyone up. However, beds and bedrooms were soon full of the grannies and the aunties and the less robust so the overflow and the young people found themselves sleeping on clean straw in the barns - the sexes strictly segregated at night and watched over by one of the dads or uncles.
Madeleine had gone over a few days previously to help out with the preparations, including the preparations of the bride herself.
Water was left out in pails in the sun to give her fair hair rinse after rinse of chamomile....and more water was heated in a galvanised bath so that she could have a proper bath the night before the wedding, a rare privilege when the usual approach to cleanliness was a sponge and bowl - bringing to mind grandmother's dictum..
'Wash up as far as possible and down as far as possible and leave poor possible alone...'

The women were busy baking and cooking....meat pates, vegetable pates, hams, cakes and tarts, mighty stews, elderly hens cooked in stock with rice, cockerels cooked down in wine....using the farm oven and the ovens of the neighbours...while the men set up the tables that had been hired from the council  and dedicated themselves to choosing the wine.
On the day of the wedding, Madeleine's father drove the bride and her parents to the mairie while the grannies, aunties and disabled were borne to the village on benches set up in the farm waggons, which in that period were drawn by oxen - horses came late to that area. The rest walked.
Civil ceremony over, the whole horde repaired to the salle des fetes for the vin d'honneur, where all and sundry were welcome to have a drink...or six...congratulate the bridegroom...and fortify themselves for the next step, the wedding in church.
Church wedding over, back to the car and the waggons, traffic now increased by the presence of the bridegroom's family and friends and once all were seated in the courtyard the celebrations really started.

But low key compared to today's weddings.
There was no one to remove the cork of a champagne bottle with a sabre....the local sparkling wine was uncorked by hand with due ceremony....
There was no croquembouche, that tower of profiteroles held together by dabs of caramel....the ovens couldn't make something so delicate....
There was no throwing of garters.....the aunties and the grannies would have been scandalised...

But there was dancing.
The old boys with fiddles could play for everything requested...
Traditional dances, to start with.....lines, chains, singing verses and responses.....
Then modern stuff...two step, walzes, and...for the really daring and possibly drunk...the tango!

The tango was still going strong in my day of attending weddings...and at every other event from the PTA couscous evening to the bacchanalia that was the Fire Brigade Ball.
It only made its appearance when everyone was well lubricated - easier on the elderly joints, I suppose - and the sight of a room full of people advancing, retreating, swooping and sliding having drink taken is one of the uncelebrated pleasures of the French rural scene.

From the days of the great grannies in coiffes to their modern counterparts, a wedding is a great excuse to get dressed up, discard the wellies for a pair of heels and go shopping for something new.....but I noticed one big difference between wedding garb in the U.K. and in rural France.
In the U.K., a wedding outfit always included a hat.....not so in rural France where, having had the hairdresser newly shingle your hair and colour it red there was no way you would want to hide the results.

As the British arrived and became part of things, you could tell their women at weddings...they wore hats. Everything from Queen Mum at Ascot via tulle covered flower pots to fascinators....

I remember one English woman who removed her fascinator during the dancing and left it on the table where it was the subject of awed interest on the part of a number of elderly gentlemen.
One finally delivered the jury's verdict.....

'You'd think you'd keep something like that to yourself, wouldn't you.....not go parading it in public!'
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Wednesday 9 February 2011

The cure for all ills

Study at a Quiet French Watering-Place. "...Image via Wikipedia
I was talking to mother on the 'phone and she was telling me that one of her friends was having dreadful pain in her hands.

'Do you remember what it was that I took for that all those years ago?' She asked. 'I'd like to be able to help Dolly, but I don't want to get the wrong name.'

At that time in question I was a teenager but I remembered the remedy without any problem.

Our G.P. at the time was a German chap who believed in self help and natural remedies.I have absolutely no idea how he came to be practicing medicine in England, at a time when the EU was only a gleam in the eye of the European Iron and Steel Community, but there he was. Practicing.

Scrimshankers got short shrift in his waiting room.

He would cross the garden from his house to the annexe where he held surgery, hurl open the door and shout

'Malingerers, go home! This surgery is for people who are sick!'

And on that rousing note the surgery began.
Occasionally a malingerer stood his or her ground - probably not realising that they fell into the 'strang verboten' category - and the noise from behind the surgery door would rise in volume until the unfortunate victim would pop out as if blown from a cannon.
It was all most enjoyable and certainly beat 'collapse of stout party' cartoons in Punch when it came to waiting one's turn.

He used to mix his own medicines and, unlike the chemist, refused to wrap the bottles in paper...
'People will think you are drinking...'
These being the days when grocers wrapped your bottle of sherry in paper to preserve your reputation, with the result that anyone seen carrying a bottle wrapped in paper was automatically suspected of secret drinking behind the curtains.

Mother was having terrible pain in her hands....the joints seemed to be seized she risked going to the surgery, with me in attendance.
Herr doctor looked, manipulated and announced
'I have just the thing!'
Now, since he had recently given me an arsenic tonic as he felt I was outgrowing my strength I waited with keen anticipation to see what mother would receive...strychnine, perhaps? Could I be so lucky?
No, I could not.
'You are to take a glass of white burgundy once a day and come back to see me in three months.'
Then, fixing mother with a commanding eye
'Nothing else will do. No substitutes. White burgundy will have the correct dose of minerals to correct the problem with your joints. Take your daughter to buy it...she has a brain.'
And on this happy note we were ejected to make room for the next patient.

So where on earth were we to buy white burgundy? This was an era where there were wine merchants...posh and expensive....and off licences...dubious and not cheap.

Father had the answer.
'I'll get old Blodge to put me up for the Wine Society.'
A wonderful British institution run by the members for the members to provide good quality drinking.

Old Blodge obliged, father was accepted as a member and the white burgundy made its appearance.
Mother's joints ceased to pain her...or she was anaesthetised....and we all got a taste for the stuff.

So I knew what to recommend to Dolly...sincerely hoping that she had a pension in the stratosphere to allow her to buy white burgundy at today's prices.

By coincidence, just before ringing mother I had received an e mail from a French friend entitled
'Alcohol before 1900'
replete with images of beer drinking mothers whose babies were bursting with health, toddlers proving their manly qualities by attacking father's bottle of absinthe, the merits of a Cointreau 'for the road' being vaunted while train drivers swore by Ricard's true Marseilles pastis and a most engaging list of ailments and their vinous remedies.

You will be delighted to know that for problems with the menopause you have only to take four glasses of St..Emilion a day for your troubles to be forgotten....while for nervous depression it is four glasses of Medoc.
For fever you have to drink a bottle of dry champagne a day,  for high blood pressure four glasses of either Alsace or Sancerre, for high cholesterol four glasses of Muscadet, while for obesity, that modern obsession, four glasses of red burgundy are prescribed.

Should, however, you suffer 'important obesity', you will be obliged to take a daily bottle of rose de Provence.

Sounds a lot better than the products of Bayer and GlaxoSmithKlein to me....
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