All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

When did you last burn Joan of Arc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curcay sur Dive itself


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'This is France!'

French practice was everything.

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

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

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

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

My reply used to be

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

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

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

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

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


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Wednesday 18 January 2012

No Chateaux... no Croissants - My France

Alone in the house, I had been able to rise early (midnight) to listen to the Test Match Special team commentate on the first day of the Test match against Pakistan in Dubai.
The dogs went out dutifully then returned to their beds, flicking the odd glance at me, huddled up in my old djellabah with a cup of tea and plate of Marmite toast alongside the computer.

And then England collapsed....wicket after wicket.....exciting stuff, but not the performance expected of the team rated first in Test cricket.

The light came up, and I went out onto the balcony for the part of the morning I like the best...when the sun rises over the mountain behind the house and hits Grifo Alto across the valley, making that great bluff a soft golden ball emerging from the shadowy woods below.

The solitude ended quickly. I had hardly done the watering and fed the chicks before the Man from ICE was at the door.
ICE - the electricity board - wanted to  reroute its lines along the road rather than crossing private property....fine with me....but needed my permission to cut back two branches of the huge higueron tree which stands guard over the water tank on my land.
There was a consent form to sign, so he came in to the house and accepted a cool drink while we undertook the formalities....and I had to dig out my passport as I had forgotten my passport number.

English! He exclaimed.

I have learned by now not to complicate things by mentioning Scotland on first acquaintance so I agreed.

Big Ben! Houses of Parliament! Westminster Abbey! Trafalgar Square! Nelson!

The Man from ICE was a fan of London...big time. He wanted to go there, but...the money...

He departed and I decided to set up the lap top which I had bought in London.
I looked at looked at me...and I decided to do something else.

The weeding was interrupted by American friends bringing their visitors over for a coffee....
The conversation came round to 'and how did you come to Costa Rica?' as it always does, but on hearing that I had previously lived in France, the jaws dropped, the eyes widened and out it all came!

Paris! The fashions! The croissants! Pavement cafes! Boules! Provence! The food! The wine! The culture!

Slapping down the temptation to say

All good reasons for leaving

Which would have been neither polite nor totally accurate I let them bubble on...but when the house was quiet again I started thinking about my own images of France.....if asked, what would mine be?

The true treasure was the time spent with friends...but that's universal. The sure knowledge that you'll be greeted with a smile is one of the best feelings in the world.

But as for France itself....

Driving back from the hospital in the late afternoons over the plains around Poitiers two sights would always lift me....

The first, lying back from the road, the tiny church of St.Martin at Noize, a place of worship long before St. Hilaire brought his brand of Christianity to the pagans of the area.
Closed for years because of its poor state of repair, locals got together to put it into some sort of order and it is now, once again, a place of worship.
It is a simple building dating back to the tenth and eleventh centuries, but has an atmosphere of stillness and peace sometimes lacking in more elaborate surroundings.

Then, soon after, the necropolis of Taize, the dolmens rising from the surrounding has been here a long time which could be a comforting thought after hospital visiting.

And when feeling in the mood for a good time...nothing better than Le Trianon at Saumur...

with Monsieur Jacques in fine form...
and the fellow customers giving the only example I came across in France of the craic. Good times!

And the end of holiday river festival...le Rendez-vous de l'Erdre....the river running into the Loire at Nantes, lined with the mansions of of the merchants who had made their pile from the trade in tobacco and brandy.
This always gave a great day of all sizes and shapes, from rowing boats to a steam tug via gondolas and traditional working boats....jazz bands on the river and in every nook and cranny ashore...the muscadet flowing like the river and teenagers sniggering about 'voile et vapeur'.

Earlier in the year...and earlier in my years..I used to be invited to sail in what was then le Raid du much more elaborate and called  la Semaine du Golfe, up in the Morbihan....a video clip will give you a taste...

Although as far as boats are concerned, the thrill of my life was to be invited aboard a garbare at Nantes
although not La Montjeannaise shown above, and to sail down the estuary on a cold spring day which promised rain and squalls.....a promise duly fulfilled.
Hair plastered to my face, my jeans running dye over my shoes I was absolutely exhilarated as the squall filled that vast sail and a ton of wooden boat lifted her nose and planed!

Back on dry land I have good memories of the troglodyte village at Tourtenay....not least because when taking my mother on a tour of the landing sites where a Lysander would drop off and pick up British agents during the Occupation we heard an elderly man in the group comment to his mate
'She doesn't have bad legs for her age!'...

The current village stands on a limestone bluff which, since the third century has been used as a place of refuge. Part of it has been sold off as a 'police' training area, but in the part still accessible is a wonderful underground pigonnier...
I love the revolving ladder for checking the nests...and I miss the grandad in the cardigan who owned the vines on the land above.

But my most abiding memory is one which I have no photograph to illustrate....and it comes back to friendship.
Sitting under the cherry tree in Madeleine's garden with the others she'd invited to lunch, the tranny playing in the branches to deter the birds and a glass of Suze with ice cubes in hand - all talking politics!

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Friday 6 January 2012

The dentists waiting room.

Pizza, Frozen foodImage via Wikipedia
The door to the waiting room opens and the occupants look up as the newcomer salutes them.

'Bonjour, Messieurs..Dames'

'Bonjour, Monsieur' comes the subdued reply from a chorus of swollen jaws.

'Ah, Roger! I'll take the corner seat near you. How are things?'

'Oh, not so bad Jean Marie, not so bad...I've got this filling that that butcher over at Partouze le Bains was supposed to have done and it's come out. Giving me gip.'

'You're lucky that Mme. Forage could see you...her list is full to overflowing.'

'Well, I'm on the list, it's just that she was on holiday when I had the toothache....'

'So what happens now she's retiring this year? There's no one else nearer than that butcher and it's no better if you try to find a dentist in Chiottes la Gare or Benitierville...same story, all their lists are full.'

'I hear some councillor had the bright idea of having vets fill in for the shortage of doctors in rural areas....they could fill in for dentists as well while they're at it! They might even do house calls! And come out at night rather than tell you to ring the emergency services!'

'It would never work...the local doctors and dentists would never stand for it....the vets might do a better job...after all, their patients bite if they're not happy.'

No...something helpful, they'll squash that before it starts.'

'Mme. Forage is running a bit late, isn't she? Not like her.'

'No...she's got an emergency. Albert from the superette. He's had a bit of an accident.'

'Not that old Solex of his....I've been telling him for ages he'll have an accident cornering the Place de l'Eglise like that over those cobbles they put down.'

No, nothing like happened in the tax office at Chiottes la Gare.'

'What was he doing there? The nearest he goes to them is posting his tax returns through their letterbox after dark on the last day for returning the forms.'

'It's about the new VAT rules. He got himself into a bit of a paddy about it all and went to see them.'

'Well, how does it affect him?'

'Because they've put VAT up on some of the stuff he sells in his superette and the whole thing's a minefield.
As far as I can understand it, they want to discourage people from eating fast up goes the VAT.'

'What, pizzas and things?'

'Yes...unless they're frozen. And soft drinks and suchlike. According to Albert, if you sell a fruit drink in one of those plastic cups with a's 7 %. If you sell the same thing in a's 5.5%.'

'Mad...totally mad.'

'That's what Albert says. He's having to alter his till to cope with it. They don't think these things through, either. Albert says that if he sells one of those snack lunch know, the sandwich with a serviette and plastic kinife...then it's fast food and it's 7 %. If he sells it on its own...then it's 5.5%.
Now my son in law works for old Duvenin...they've got big contracts for plastic packaging and I bet they do those lunch that'll be another contract down the tubes.'

'So he went in to kick up, then?'

'No, he went in to demonstrate that there was no real difference. That it was absurd. And to kick up.
He took one of his frozen pizzas -5.5% - and one of the chilled ones - 7%, then one of those soft drinks in a cup - 7% - and another in a box - 5.5%.
By the time he got there the frozen pizza was starting to defrost a bit and by the time he got in the office it was well on the way. Just the way it would be if you bought them in his superette and took them home.'

'Not if you had an igloo bag...'

'Albert doesn't sell igloo bags.
Anyway, he pulled all this out of his shopping bag and started to demonstrate that there was no difference.
He opened the plastic cup with his fingers and tore the box open with his teeth. Same amount of time.
'Where's the difference?' he asked.
It was when he got to the pizzas that he had the problems.
He tore a piece off the chilled one and then a piece off the defrosted one. Same amount of time.'

'So where was the problem?'

'That blasted new man. He said he wasn't convinced that the frozen pizza was in the same state as the chilled one and that if Albert expected him to write a report then Albert would have to show him that one was as ready to eat as the other.  By eating them.
Albert said he could try them himself if he liked but he said he had every confidence in Albert's veracity.

Albert managed the bit of frozen pizza, no problem at was when he started on the chilled one that his tooth broke off in the dough...'

'Probably weakened opening the box....'

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