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, 26 June 2012

A Load of Hot Air

On summer Sunday evenings on the terrace I could look up from my book to see a brightly coloured hot air balloon carrying its passengers on a voyage of discovery of rural France from above.
A local firm offered these trips, including one to view the chateaux of the Loire, which were very popular as birthday surprises - or shocks.
There were stories of recipients turning on their nearest and dearest and refusing in no uncertain terms to ascend to the heavens before their time...
Luckily there was always surplus demand and the firm prospered.

Today, the twenty sixth of June, is the anniversary of the first time a hot air balloon was used in warfare, in 1794 at the battle of Fleurus near Charleroi, where the armies of the young French Republic faced the coalition of monarchist powers determined to overthrow the rule of the regicides who had ordained the death of Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, on the scaffold.

Use of the balloon enabled the observers aboard to report movements of both armies to the French commander, General Jourdan, who was thus enabled to take rapid action - no longer reliant on the usual method of sending gallopers through the smoke of battle to receive the reports of commanders only aware of their own sector of hell.

Hot air balloons figure later in French military history, when the Prussians were beseiging Paris in the war of 1870....the famous event being the escape by balloon of the minister of the provisional government, Gambetta, aiming to raise resistance in the further provinces of France.
His example was loyally followed - though by terrestrial transport - by French ministers in the later German incursions on the soil of France.
They all appear to think that national resistance can only be made if they are there to lead it...a manifestly false assumption.

The relatively unknown aspect of the seige of Paris was the use of hot air balloons to carry messages to and from the city....which is an idea which La Poste might do well to consider in its relentless drive for economies that ruin what was once a superb service..

In France, these hot air balloons which drift across the skies are known as Montgolfieres, after the two Montgolfier brothers from the Vivarais who made the first successful attempt to launch a lighter than air device in the Place des Cordeliers at Annonay on the fifth of June 1783....a taffeta envelope lined with paper, one hundred and ten feet in circumference, with a platform below bearing the combustibles to fill the balloon -  a mixture of rope, wool and damp straw.
Before the eyes of the crowd, and the notables assembled for the meeting of the Estates of the Vivarais, the device was inflated, released - and soared above.
Man had invaded the heavens.

And one man was extremely annoyed about it.
Alexandre Charles, who had also been working on balloons - but balloons powered by hydrogen.
A big ask.
While scientific advance had permitted the manufacture of hydrogen, only small quantities had been produced -  and Monsieur Charles required one hundred cubc feet of the stuff!
He had the answer.....a barrel containing iron filings, acid and water. The gas entered the balloon and the barrel was refilled with more water and acid to keep the process running.
It took a thousand pounds of iron and some five hindred pints of sulphuric acid to fill his balloon...but it worked.
Industrial scale hydrogen.

He had also been working on the envelope of the balloon.
The Montgolfier version leaked smoke at a great rate through its paper and cloth.
Charles was lucky.
He was in Paris, not in the wastes of the Vivarais where the Montgolfier family had their paper making business.
He was not working in isolation.

He had neighbours, the brothers Robert, who had just invented a process using rubber - a wonder from the colonies - dissolving it to make fabric impermeable.
He had his balloon.

So entranced are we by the advances of our own day that we forget - if our schools ever told us - of the advances in science, both theoretical and practical, of the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries. I loathed science lessons at school, but if I had then known of the wonderful tale of the search for knowledge, with all its cul de sacs and winding lanes, I might have taken a lot more interest.

I would certainly have liked to be present when the semi-inflated balloon was taken from its workshops near the Palais Royale and walked - like a large flying dog - over to the testing ground on the Champ de Mars on the left bank....then almost in the countryside, among the market gardens which fed Paris.

An enclosure had been set up and no one lacking a ticket was allowed entry. Not even  Etienne Montgolfier who had come to see what his rival could do.
Nothing to do with scientific secrecy....just money.

The crowds were immense. Over one hundred thousand.
Charles and the Robert brothers were making their final preparations and at five o'clock on the twenty seventh of August 1783, their balloon rose into the air, travelling so fast that it was lost in the clouds in two minutes.
In the days when communication was at the speed of a horse and the whim of a correspondent, as far as Paris was concerned, this was the first balloon flight - even if Monsieur Charles knew better.

The crowds went home...but what of the balloon?
It had a rip in its hide, but aided by currents of air it passed over Le Bourget, giving that village a foretaste of the airport which would later come to be built there and finally came to rest in Gonesse - another glimpse of the future, when negligence gave rise to the crash of the Concorde in 2000.

It landed in the trees near the church and the population, knowing nothing of events in Paris, so close and yet of a different world, believed it to be a supernatural phenomenon and thus, in the context of the time, a spawn of the devil.

The priest was sent for, but, as the thing was still rolling and lunging at the whim of the gas inside, he could not or would not get close enough to sprinkle it with holy water.
Bolder spirits took over.
Men with guns.
At the first shot the spawn of the devil hissed so  malevolently that the entire crowd fell to the ground reciting an act of contrition, but gradually it deflated, became limp and, encouraged as always by the lack of any sign of fight, the crowd surged forward, tearing it to shreds with their pitchforks.
It took the inventors days to find the remnants.

So why are Montgolfieres Montgolfieres and not Carlines?

Because the Montgolfier brothers were the first to put passengers in the basket under their balloons..first sheep and poultry and finally men and although Monsieur Charles also managed a manned ascent - going up himself - he was gracious enough to acknowledge the priority of the Montgolfiers while they were humble enough to accept that his was the better method.

So when the round shadow crosses your patch of sunlight, say a little hello to Monsieur Charles...and put down your pitchfork.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, 18 June 2012

The President's Addendum.

François HollandeFrançois Hollande (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
French presidents appear to consider their female helpmeet in the same light as that in which  Aneurin Bevan regarded posession of a British nuclear bomb...without one, they go naked into the conference chamber.

In recent times  it doesn't seem as if it matters that the helpmeet herself has gone naked in any number of chambers....the circulation of photographs of the third Mme. Sarkozy dispensing with garments is here claimed in aid.....just as long as the President of France has something female and preferably human to follow him down the steps of the 'plane when taking his 'mission civilisatrice' abroad.

In the past, Presidents had wives fairly was what you did, part of your CV ....and everyone, including the wives, averted their eyes from the presence, the existence even, of mistresses, so the problem of being a President without an addendum did not arise until the election to office of Mr. Sarkozy.

He started out conventionally enough....he had a wife, the second Mrs. Sarkozy, even if she was reluctant to play the addendum role and preferred going shopping to meeting President Bush the second.
Who wouldn't.
Unfortunately, she turned out to be a bolter, and - worse - bolted with an American lover.

Panic in the dovecotes. The President was wearing horns. Something had to be done.


Because of the macho nature of the French elite where, while women are regarded as nothing more than social currency,  it doesn't do to be bankrupt.

No addendum...and doubt arises as to the rest of your credentials.
Especially if you are the President  - the incarnation of the powerful French male.

The President's friends rallied round and came up with a lady resting between engagements who would resolve the problem.

Carla Bruni.
The self styled man eater, with the scalps to prove it. No man - if he had any money - was safe.

Who better to restore the image of the President!
There could be no doubts as to the credentials of a man with Carla Bruni as his addendum.

And so it proved.
President Sarkozy married Carla Bruni and was able to hold his own, fully clothed,  in the conference chamber.
The lady might have had a somewhat interesting past....but she was Mme. Sarkozy and that was all that mattered.

And now we come to the addendum of the new President of France, Mr. Hollande.
Now you see it, now you don't.

Mr. Hollande is not married. Has never been married.
But he has had two long standing relationships with women.
Which overlapped somewhat.

The current ladyfriend has asserted her right to carry on with her journalistic career.
 She does not wish to be a symbol.
She has a family to feed.
She needs to work.
She can't afford to be just a figurehead for French fashion...indeed, she makes a point of how she buys from (upmarket) high street stores.
A small voice off notes that she is still married to the father of her children, who works for the same gossip rag and that he must surely be paying something toward the maintenance of his offspring, but that might spoil the story.

But what is Mr. Hollande to do?
Clearly not keen on marriage with the first lady of his choice with whom he produced four children he cannot marry the second lady even if he wished to do so...
Presidents of France are immune from prosecution during their term of office, but bigamy is still on the statute books and immunity ends a month after one ceases to be Mr. Sarkozy is discovering.

 Ideas of cake and eating it rise to mind.

But the lady in question is exercising her right to be independent.
She is tweeting against the mother of Mr. Hollande's children who is attempting to  win a seat in the National Assembly.

Wonderful idea ...independence....

But how do you assess it when the independent lady accompanies Mr. Hollande, President of France, to a political pow wow in America  - wearing the French designer clothes she previously scorned?

Is it the journalist or the jealous woman who treats the Sarkozys with scorn and the woman she replaced with hatred?

And how will Mr.Holland  be judged....

Naked or clothed in the conference chamber?

Enhanced by Zemanta

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Shopping in the back of beyond....

Rural FranceRural France (Photo credit: Woolythebear)
Moving from rural France to within striking distance of San Jose in Costa Rica I have rediscovered the pleasure of looking in shop windows and occasionally entering in search of clothes or handbags.
Were I a shoe fanatic, I should be well catered for...I have never seen so many shoe shops to the block in all my life...all displaying shoes with heels higher than the Shard and just about as glittery.

Rural France was never like this.

For clothes shopping there were the supermarkets, there were cheap clothing outlets like 'Vet'affaires' - with the odd Brit roaming the aisles of sweatshirts looking anxiously for the Frontline - and there were the boutiques, offering vastly expensive underwear guaranteed to give rise to a fatal chill if worn in the rural French bedroom or neat little suits for the wives of notaires in colours judged compatible with the obligatory red hair dye used in the local hairdresser's salon.

I had been used to shopping in London...quickly whittled down to Waitrose, John Lewis and Monsoon...or in a provincial city where there were second hand book shops, charity shops and firms making affordable hand made shoes, apart from wine merchants, delicatessen and good butchers so the shopping desert that was rural France came as quite a surprise.

It's not something you notice as a tourist, using restaurants or buying your picnic supplies.....
It's not something you notice as a holidaymaker in your gite, decompressing in a deckchair with a glass of wine to hand...
But you sure as hell notice it when you live there.

Luckily clothes were not my first priority. I needed furniture.
I wanted to buy a bed and found a furniture store in the local town.
The furniture store.
Fair enough, it specialised in foam sofas covered in psychedelic patterns, formica kitchen tables with spindly metal chairs and plastic seat pads...but it did have beds.
Not exactly Design Centre stuff, but beds.
At reasonable prices.

Except when I came to buy one I discovered that the price covered only the bed frame itself.
The mattress? Extra.
The headboard? Extra.
The guessed it...extra.

There had to be other solutions.

I tried the small ads...and as a rule of thumb I reckon that once you learn to read the small adds in a foreign language you are on the path to fluency in understanding, if not in speaking.

Overwhelmed by the antiques on offer - Henri III bedroom set....Lous XV bed and night tables...Louis Philippe wardrobe - it was as well that Mr. Untel took a hand before I set off to purchase any of these items.

He regarded the ads solemnly and then  said

You do know it's all plywood and veneers, don't you?

But they didn't have plywood in the time of Henri III....

And these weren't made in the time of Henri III....they're copies, the lot of them...come from factories....and they won't be cheap either. Why do you think there're no prices?

He introduced me to the depot vente, where people put their stuff up for sale and the owner took a percentage.
The answer to prayer.
You could see everything in one place without traveling miles to be faced with a piece of expensive junk and...a miracle for France...the prices were clearly marked.
It was an Ali Baba's cave....

This was a period when people were 'modernising'.
Moving from their stone houses to the breezeblock bungalows sprouting like unlovely growths on the edge of the villages.
Getting rid of the furniture they had inherited, turning out the accumulations of generations - and buying formica kitchen tables with spindly metal chairs with plastic seat pads.

The depot ventes were full to bursting point with farm tables, benches, sideboards, wardrobes and everything from racks of  hand blown bottles to ornaments and hand tools.
A rummager's dream.

I bought a bateau style bed, rather like the one in the photograph.
You will note that it is just a carcasse....but at least the head and foot came with it! I then discovered that old French beds are not of the same dimensions as modern French mattresses...but that's another tale.

I was tempted by the farmhouse tables, but they were all too narrow to lay out central serving dishes and two rows of places....after all, when they were in use the women would be serving from pots at the hearth...none of your chi chi tureens and vegetable dishes in those households!

There were the plain depot vente establishments and the ones a bit more upmarket, who were picky and tended - even in that period - to be collecting stuff to sell to regular dealers from England and America, but if your taste didn't coincide with that of the dealers there were some nice things to be had, especially lamps and chandeliers.

Emmaus - the foundation set up by Abbe Pierre to help the homeless help themselves - had depots too, though here the goods had been donated and were often from some rather grand houses.
I used to haunt the local ones for things like the floor to ceiling curtains I needed and picked up some beauties..not to speak of the linen and cotton embroidered sheets that people were disposing of because they were a nuisance to dry.

Over the years, Emmaus too went the way of the dealers until it was rare to find anything but junk, but I'd had the good years and was well stocked!

Needless to say, the eye was caught by non essential, what am I talking about, non essential...
No French household is complete without its corkscrew...
Or its wine glasses.....

What would I have done without the guidance of Mr. Untel!

The various depot vente outlets were a continual pleasure, and made it possible to set up home if not on a shoestring, then at least on a ribbon and with some attempt at style.

Clothes would be a different matter.....
Enhanced by Zemanta

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Two ways to retire....

Sort of roses named Pierre de RonsardSort of roses named Pierre de Ronsard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Just recently, my French dentist retired.

She was my neighbour in my second house in France, and had her office in the next village.
An absolute whizz of a dentist, up to date with top of the range equipment in the wilds of la France Profonde where her husband worked as an advisor at the local Chambre d'Agriculture - source of much under the counter gossip over the aperitifs of an evening......

As dentists do, she had a captive audience.
There is something so undignified about gurgling and frothing while trying to talk with a mouthful of steel implements in the mouth that you tend to give up and lie back to be harangued.
I don't know what she talked to other clients about, but to me she talked about the difficulties of getting any young dentist to set up in the countryside - difficulties compounded by past government decisions to limit the number admitted to the schools of dentistry.
Interspersed with mutters of
'Tiens! So that's how the English do it...' as she tapped and probed.
I began to understand how dental records could identify one...

Over the years, other dentists in the area retired and were not replaced. More and more clients came knocking on the door asking to be be taken on until she was working, first on her half day off in the week, then on a Saturday morning...until her family kicked up.

It worried her to turn people would encourage neglect and end in tears, she used to predict....and it used to rouse passions in the waiting room too.
I was there when a gentleman turned up asking her receptionist/dental nurse for an appointment.
She explained the situation and suggested he try the dentist in the nearby town.

I'm not going to that butcher!

But Madame just cannot take on any more patients....


Casting an eye over the waiting room assembled...

But she can take that foreigner! (Me)

Madame has been a patient here for more than ten years....

She's still a foreigner...

The Front National had a lot of votes in that area.....

You met everyone in that waiting room...but , just as in the waiting room of my first dentist, it was a handshake free zone, not to speak of the kissing.
If the mere vibrations of a handshake were enough to set the nerves jangling one can imagine what an approach to the jaw might do.....but it didn't stop the jaws from gossiping.
You emerged from that waiting room fully armed with the latest from four communes, ready to test it out on the postlady who had her own methods of verification.

The expat community would be both surprised and alarmed to know how much of their undercover and under the covers activity was being monitored....but then, I doubt they had read Maurice Genevoix who remarked that everything you did in the countryside was being observed from under the visor of a cap.

My dentist had tried everything to get a replacement....and thought she had the answer in a Roumanian lady with excellent qualifications and references who was very interested in the package offered...until one of her compatriots, a medical doctor, told her what had happened when she took up a contract in darkest France....not too far away.

The maire had offered her a good - not wonderful, but good - package to come to his village.
She had installed herself and patients were happy, their numbers increasing.

Then the local representative of the quacks union  had made it clear that she was not welcome.
Very clear.
Very not welcome.

Despite everything that my dentist could do, the prospective replacement had taken fright.
She - like the Roumanian doctor - set up practice in an area with a large British expat presence where they were made welcome by over worked local doctors and by the community.

My dentist and her husband are retiring to the south of France and the only recourse for her clients is...the butcher in town.

My vet is about to retire.
I met him when , as usual, the gendarmerie failed to come up to the mark.

We had returned from shopping in the late afternoon of a chilly, bright January day. Frost was in the air.
As I unloaded the car I noted a bright spot of red down on the river bank far below and house and wondered whatever a fox was doing there.

Later, from the kitchen window, I saw it again. It had not moved.

I went down to the island and saw that it was no fox, but a small shivering spaniel, crouched in the frozen grass in the rivulets at the water's edge.

I took my shoes off and waded across, worried that the dog would take flight, but it stayed still.
An elderly, blind little lady.

She was soon tucked into a nest by the stove in the kitchen and after a while took warm milk and honey, then a little mince cooked in stock...and then went to sleep.

The tattoo on her ear was blurred, but I 'phoned the gendarmerie and asked if they could check it if I brought her in the next day.

No, they couldn't. Take her to a vet.

So the next day we were going to the tax office and took her to the vet whose office was nearby.
The walls of the waiting room were covered in photographs of dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, chickens, ducks, geese, peacocks, pigs and small rodents, each with a message of thanks or giving an update....quite a sight!
I explained the situation to the receptionist - who turned out to be his wife - and we were shown into the surgery.

He examined the dog.
Then he examined the ear.
Then he examined us before finally looking up the tattoo on the website when he sat for a while, head in hands.

This little lady has come from a puppy mill....I recognise the name and address.
Too old to be useful they put her out in the middle of winter....
Do you want her to go back there?

Clearly we didn't.

Can you cope with her?

Clearly we could.

Ah, well then, I'll just say the tattoo was too blurred to read. I'll drop in to see her later this week.

A super vet who became a friend...dropping in while passing, neat in his linen jacket in summer, last of the summer wine in his woolly hat in winter.

We talked of retirement when we last saw him before we left for Costa Rica sitting on the terrace under the vine, bottles of wine in a bucket of cold water beside us.

Ah..he said...Ronsard sums up how I see retirement.

And this is what he recited, as near as I can transcribe it

Boivons, le jour n'est pas long que le doy
Je perds, amy, mes soucis, quand je boy
Donne moi viste un jambon sous ta treille
Et la bouteille grosse a merveille
Glou-gloute aupres de moy
Aveq la tasse et la rose vermeille,
Il faut chasser l'emoy.

Sitting under your vine,  a fine ham to hand and a big bottle of wine to tempt you, a glass and a red rose...what better to chase away your worries.

A damn sight better than the south of France.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Monday, 4 June 2012

Keel haul the lot of them....

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 03:  The Spirit of Char...Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Though not a monarchist I had been looking forward to H.M. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations....plenty of horses and, uniquely, a parade of boats.
I like boats and there promised to be many traditional craft on action, as opposed to up on blocks in a museum....not to speak of the big ships moored in the Pool of London.

Derby Day was the day before...I switched on the BBC during the preliminaries to the big race, expecting to see the horses in the paddock and was greeted instead by a pair of comperes rather than ex champion jockey and a lady larger than himself, which is to be expected given the ideal physique for jockeys.
Both would have qualified for the description 'found under a big hat'.
His topper looked ready to engulf him at any moment while her gunmetal grey confection resembled nothing so much as a failed Paris-Brest gateau at which the discontented pastry chef had fired bird shot.

The BBC should review what they pay this pair....all we learned during their double act was that the jockey was missing his lunch in order to be performing for the cameras, because the lady had a technique all her own for hogging the screen.
She would fire a question and while the jockey was replying she would immediately shout him down in a voice which would have done credit to Hornblower clawing his ship off a lee shore on a stormy night.

Finally we had a brief glimpse of the horses in the paddock where the jockey worked with another top hatted side kick who allowed him to speak.
As, asked his opinion of the runners, his invariable reply was
'He's a big strong horse...'
I imagine that the liquid portion of lunch at least had been ingurgitated on his path from the stands to the paddock.

Just as I was enjoying the horses - despite the inability of the outside broadcast team to co ordinate  the 'big strong horse' on the screen with the particular 'big strong horse' under review by the pair of patter comedians - the screen switched to some fair haired brat in a stable yard giving his views on his father, or uncle or grandfather's entry for the race.

While I am aware that the accuracy of the offerings of some racing tipsters compare unfavourably with the information issuing from the mouths of babes and sucklings I would prefer a run down of form and starting prices by someone with some experience of the art.
It preserves the illusion that it is not just a matter of sticking a pin....

The race itself was fascinating...a wonderful job by the jockey of the odds on favourite to hold his horse steady and balanced until it was time to let him loose once the terrors of Tattenham Corner had been overcome...the horse running like liquid silk to the winning post.

At which moment the Paris-Brest gateau hove into sight again and I switched off.

It should have been an awful warning...not to switch on in the morning, but switch on to the BBC I did with hopes of seeing some at least of the superb collection of boats assembled for the occasion.

I was prepared for seeing a lot of the was The Queen's jubilee, after all and the populace expects the cameras to focus on them, though from the frozen faces of all except the Duke of Edinburgh, who seemed to be the only one enjoying himself, they might as well have been rechristened the Glums with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge taking cameo roles as Ron and Eth.

I was not prepared for seeing commentators lolling in their luxurious hutches.....barkers working the crowds....and, good goddlemighty, even the Paris-Brest bellowing away on the royal barge....the proper one, the one being rowed by oarsmen, not the overblown cartoon fantasy of the Pride of Chartwell carrying the Glums and assorted hangers on.

There were overhead shots of the participating boats, shots of an empty river, while the BBC has evidently developed a technique for concentrating on a very few boats several times while leaving the rest as crowd scenes.

They had, to be fair, hired an expert, Tom Cunliffe, who really is an expert on traditional boats, but then did not let him speak...Paris-Brest technique all over again.
He wasn't the best of commentators when he did get a word in edgeways - I don't want to know that Uncle Tom Cobbley is flying the biggest flag in the fleet from his Cornish lugger. I want to know about the lugger itself.
However, he is not an experienced commentator.....whereas the motley crew offered by the BBC are supposed to have mastered the art.

And what is that art? Letting us follow proceedings by explaining what is before our eyes.

No gimmicks. No self publicity. No Paris-Brest work.

While the big ships are still in the Pool of London it would be an unmissable opportunity to load one of them up with the BBC executives responsible for reducing that once exemplary institution to the level of Bill and Ben high on Weed, take them down to the Nore and keel haul the lot of them....together with the Paris-Brest.

Enhanced by Zemanta