As the French economy turned down and the votes for the Front National turned up the Sarkozy government thought best to draw the fangs of the FN by starting a debate about what it was to be French, which roused a great deal of noise and fury but arrived at no conclusions.
Waste of time, of course: any reader of the Daily Mail has the answer on the tip of the tongue….
Eats snails, has unsavoury urinatory habits in the male (possible link?) and makes improper use of hand and head when playing football.
And there was even an answer in France among – the beaufs – not that they would be listened to as not having passed the portals of the Grandes Ecoles, except as labourers…..
Anyone born in France who is not a bougnoul.
Someone of North African descent, now extended to anyone darker skinned than the average non bougnoul Frenchman.
The word might be relatively modern….probably from the colonisation of Algeria….but the sentiment is not.
I would often be included in the boules party at Jules’ place when walking the dogs in the evening, followed by the glass or two at the kitchen table, mustard glasses on the oilcloth and a plate of biscuits put out but left untouched.
They were the sign that we were not alcoholics….just there for the booze…but they remained untouched.
Jules was recounting a run in he had had with a man who had bought one of his sheep and was reluctant to pay for it….a man from the next commune just over the departmental line.
His wife was not surprised. She certainly wouldn’t have dealt with the man.
Who is it, I asked, curiosity being my besetting sin.
That man out at Humeau….you know…does eau de vie and honey.
Yes, I did. Sold under cover eau de vie at higher prices to foreigners.
Not that you can trust any of that lot out there, she continued. They all have the ‘teint bazane’. (acute accent on the final e).
Teint bazane? Swarthy.
Not, in my view, noticably so compared with their neighbours on this side of the departmental line…but enlightenment was at hand.
Descended from the Saracens beaten by Charles Martel at Poitiers! They ran and hid in the forests and there they are today!
Given that this was in the 1980s and the battle of Poitiers was in 732 that seemed a mighty feat of folk memory. Clearly these early immigrants from North Africa had about the same level of appreciation as did the later wave of new arrivals.
Further to the south, a commune bears a name referring to a legend concerning the same flight of the defeated from the battlefield…..St. Sauveur de Givre en Mai – Holy Saviour of Frost in May.
Legend has it that a band of Saracens holed up in the local church in the month of May some six months after the battle, defying all efforts to dislodge them.
Eventually they made an agreement…if there was frost overnight, they would surrender.
Coming from southern climes, they could not imagine such a thing, but, lo and behold when they emerged the next morning, the ground was covered in frost and the trees were white.
They marched out with the honours of war…to leave the village in peace.
Ancestors of the honey man at Humeau? Who knows.
Ah! Say those who know their rural France…the Saracens had not reckoned with the Saints de Glace…the Ice Saints.
St. Mamert, feast day on May 11th; St. Pancrace, feast day on May 12th; St. Servais, feast day on May 13th.
One of the first things I was warned of by my neighbours when moving to France was not to let the sudden warmth of spring go to my head in the garden.
On top of not casting clouts I had to beware of the ‘lune rousse’ in April and May when the sudden chill risked burning the young shoots and the Ice Saints.
Only when their three feast days had passed should I even think of planting out the tomatoes….
As in the case of the sheep, a financial reversal can bring up all sorts of reactions, and racism is one of them.
Nothing new under the icy skies of the economic lune rousse.
No, not shopping with mother as of recently…the scythes on the hubs of the wheelchair, the walking device held in rest as if pricking into the lists and the purse providing a safe environment for elderly moths…..
Shopping with mother when I was a child and we had just moved to Surrey.
We moved further into Surrey a little later, but this is the period I remember – perhaps because it was all different.
Different accents, different houses, different schools.
We could go in two directions.
To the right it was a long walk along the ribbon development of thirties houses, detached or semi behind their gates and hedges – privet much in evidence with the sharp smell of its flowers in summer; old man’s beard showing its feathery heads in autumn.
We would pass the unmade up lane with the wooden weatherboard houses one of which was home to an elderly maiden lady who would give me moss roses in season while she and mother drank tea under the trees….
We would pass the house on the corner with the monkey puzzle tree – home to a cantankerous and incompetent doctor who is responsible for the damage to my middle ear (I have a long and unforgiving memory when it comes to health professionals)…
Further on there was the house ruled by the whims of an African Grey parrot, companion of an old Scottish lady – relict of a minister – who used to give me Beauty of Bath apples from her tree while my father tidied up her garden…
Then to the parade of shops near the church to which I was despatched for Sunday School on the dominical afternoon to allow my parents time to dispute the nature and availability of marital rights.
For some little time I suffered a confusion between marital rights and Marian rites – probably due to the High nature of worship on offer at said church as commented upon by the minister’s relict – but kept my confusion and subsequent enlightenment to myself.
The fish and chip shop…working up for its lunchtime trade…the sweet shop next door, beautifully positioned opposite the zebra crossing serving the children from the school opposite.
I remember the dragon of a crossing keeper who would shout at children who crossed the road to visit the sweet shop only to want to cross back again with their booty once selection had been made among the pear drops, wine gums and chocolate bars.
I used to wonder whether she was responsible for the accidents to children on the sharp bend by the church back down the road…but, again, kept my thoughts to myself.
Past the photographer with wedding pictures in the window where mother would drop in rolls of film to be developed or collect the results in heavy paper envelopes, strips of negatives tucked into the special pocket.
The pet shop opposite was not on my mother’s rounds…my father would take me there to buy biscuits for my dog,Sandy; large ones of different colours…I remember beige, red and green…and black, charcoal ones, said to counteract the flatulent effect of the green ones.
Clearly, no one had told Sandy. I learnt to take cover whenever he would stir, heave himself up from his rug and take a stroll down the hall; seconds later the lungs would be overwhelmed by a smell so virulent that you would think that thirty school canteens had simultaneously decided to boil cabbage to death.
Silent but deadly…that was Sandy.
The pet shop was a delight as its owner had a mynah bird which could imitate …as I recall…every regular customer and I was thrilled when I in turn had the mark of its recognition as it gave forth what was evidently my standard cry…’There’s the mynah bird…’
But, back on mother’s path, the road began to run downhill into the main shopping area…butchers, bakers, grocers and – to me the high point – the Co-op.
The Co-op did not stock food…but it seemed to have everything else and above all it had those wonderful change machines…little metal tubs on wires which would whizz at ceiling height between the wooden counters and the cash desk.
There was a Marks and Spencer but we did not darken its doors. Mother objected to their prices and to that fact that they had no changing rooms, so that if something did not fit you were obliged to make a special trip to return it.
I wonder if they were placing their money on the markets overnight even then…
If so they made nothing from mother.
British Home Stores on the other hand, did have changing rooms and their quality was every bit as high as that of M and S so while knickers and liberty bodices – was there anything so ill named – were bought at the Co-op, dresses blouses and skirts were bought at BHS.
This was as far as we went, unless taking the train to London, or when, occasionally, my father would walk us all down to the old fashioned pub near the station where we would sit in the beer gardens – lush borders worthy of a country house garden – while Sandy would eat crisps – the twist of blue paper containing salt having been removed and added to my bag – and I would sip at my sharp, fizzy lemonade.
If we turned left when leaving the house then the walk was shorter…but steeply uphill. We knew no one on that stretch and clearly did not enter The Cock Inn which had no beer garden but did have a door mysteriously labelled Snug.
At the crossroads at the top of the hill was a large pub….white, with car parking space in front. Going straight ahead led to the swimming baths to which schoolchildren would be bussed to have their heads held under chlorinated water in a laughable attempt to teach swimming. Luckily I contracted what was unblushingly known at that time as African Foot Rot which released me from that particular torment.
On the right was the wool shop. I dreaded mother turning that corner as it meant sitting on a chair for a long time while she and the owner discussed exactly what sort of wool would be suitable for yet another knitted skirt and jumper set to make my life unbearable. To this day mention of ‘heather mixture’ can depress my spirits and make me start to itch.
On the corner itself was a butcher’s shop. A proper one. Poultry with ruffs of feathers hung head down; rabbits swung by their hinds, blood at the nose. No turkeys…it was before turkey time…but geese, yes. What were called ‘green’ geese in the autumn, fresh from feeding on grass, and ordinary geese at Christmas.
No meat on display…everything was kept in the cold rooms behind and I used to position myself to catch the waft of cold acrid air as the door was opened.
To the right was the row of shops leading to the cinema.
I remember the Home and Colonial Stores with its gold lettering on a black ground, where mother bought tea and bacon – often, all too often, the ultra salty Ulster for boiling – and J. Sainsbury, all marble topped counters and white tiled walls, where she bought breakfast sausage…a liver based delight which I would gladly meet with again.
On that road too was the bus stop where the chocolate and yellow coaches of Surrey Motors would pick up passengers for day or afternoon trips in the good weather.
Mother and her sisters would sometimes book tickets for themselves and their children; cream teas figured largely as did historic houses, though I also remember a trip to the Cheddar Gorge notable for one young dare devil standing on a cliff edge shouting
Look, Mum…no hands!
No, not one of us.
And on the same road was the ironmongers, delighting in the name of Sprange, which I used to think might be the name of one of the utensils sold there…for it sold everything from buckets to mouse traps via sink plungers and tools.
Crowded shelves lined the walls; there was a wooden counter in the middle; items hung from the ceiling and the men in brown warehouse coats who served knew where everything was.
They might have been traditional, but they were not behind the times.
At a time when aerosol cans were a novelty they stocked them, bearing a product for disseminating scent for use in the loo, which came in colours supposedly appropriate to the smell of the contents….pink for roses, blue for lavender….
Several ladies were interested in these delights to the detriment of their family budget and they were selling fast on a day when I followed mother inside.
What was to happen next would confirm for me that the British – at that time – were a very self controlled race.
One of the brown coated gentlemen approached the elderly lady at the head of the queue.
Yes, madam. how may I help you?
I want an arsehole.
Not a twitch from the man at the counter. Not a sound from the customers.
Certainly madam. Which colour would you like?
A blue one.
Certainly, madam…I’ll just have it wrapped for you.
No comment was made, no knowing looks were exchanged even after she left, purchase tucked in her shopping basket.
Once mother had bought the steel wool she had come to buy we too, left the shop.
Did that lady say….
Yes she did.
And then we both had to sit on the seat by the traffic lights, laughing until our stomachs were sore.
Thinking that I was alone, friends telephoned on Saturday to see if I would like to go to the wonderfully named Multiplaza…a shopping mall between our town and San Jose .
Unaccustomed as I am to the mall concept I would have loved to have gone as the experience is fascinating…
Level after level of a multitude of shops none of which offer me the least temptation to buy anything.
A ‘food court’ with offerings varying from smoothies to the deeply fried…and that’s only the customers…
A high price supermarket where the mushrooms are inevitably going off….
Women jogging round the walkways in the mornings in matador pants and sunvisors…
It is so bizarre it is irrestistible.
But I was obliged to resist.
The Men had returned from their sojourn in San Jose – an urgent need to return a ladder and do some painting over the Valentine high risk period – and my husband had been exercising his hunting and gathering talents on the markets of the capital, the fruits of which enterprise were presented to me by the sackload.
This being the tropics the sackloads needed dealing with pronto…so no mall.
There were highlights.
Thanks to a change of staff at the regular bakery and the new staff not being up to date on his order he had had to try another one round the corner.
He had remembered my request for a baguette – and presented me with the best baguette I have eaten since leaving France.
I should make it clear that the baguettes I liked in France were not the razor edged bricks produced from readimix by the local artisan boulanger, but the crisp articles turned out all day by the big supermarkets with their onsite bakeries, and this offering approached that standard.
The bread in our local town is dire….a wholemeal loaf that looks as if a flapjack had had ambitions and hastily abandoned them; sliced bread to rate with the best or worst that the Chorleywood process could devise; a baguette that subsides into two soft crusts with pap on meeting the breadknife….but for some reason the San Jose bakers get it right and as my bread making hand has lost its cunning we buy there for the freezer.
So, apart from the baguette, enough loaves for a fortnight to be bagged and frozen.
Eight kilos of ox kidneys for the dogs…one batch to cook, the rest bagged for the freezer.
Ten kilos of soup bones…one batch to the fridge while soaking black beans, the rest bagged for the freezer.
A large box of distinctly ripe tomatoes…sorted for those which might stay whole long enough to use in the week and the rest to process and pass through the mouli legumes to be packed for the freezer.
A large carrier bag of sweet peppers to grill, skin, de-seed and pack into the jar of olive oil in the fridge.
Avocados…two ripe, the rest equivocal. Two out for the evening, the rest in the fridge.
Lettuces…wrapped in newspaper and in the fridge.
Spiced vinegar to make and cool to souse fish…..following the success of soused shark a few weeks earlier I had been presented with a half kilo of corvina to try…and more shark.
The trial piece had been amenable to handling…thin enough to roll round the onions and be stuck with a toothpick or two.
This piece was considerably thicker and it was as much use trying to roll it as trying to manhandle an uninflated bouncy castle with a mind of its own.
There is a succint phrase obtained from an old boy when I was young which describes the futility of the effort….you might as well shit in your hat.
So, to keep an unsullied hat the shark piece was chopped in half and put into an earthenware dish with onions sandwiched between the layers; cool vinegar added, into ziplock bag and in the fridge.
Corvina likewise…sod toothpicks.
Prawns..straight into the fridge until I could work out what we would be eating in the next twenty four hours.
The half kilo of baby squid I had asked for had been transformed into one kilo of cuttlefish, to be cut into fine strips to be
a) marinaded in the juice of the limon mandarina (tree handily by kitchen door)
b)mixed with prawns, grilled pepper and garlic in a marinade of half olive oil and half vinegar.
Both to the fridge.
Onions to sort through for the thick necked ones to use first.
Potatoes to be put into a light-free box.
In the midst of the maelstrom the hunter gatherer offered to make lunch…..and made one of the best stir frys I have ever eaten: strips of cuttlefish, peeled prawns, grilled pepper strips and crushed garlic in olive oil with a squeeze of limon mandarina….
The mess was unbelievable….but it beat the smoothies and the deeply fried – into a cocked hat..
With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the hunt for a new Pope is on…..
Deals behind closed doors, dirty work at the crossroads, favourites falling at the first hurdle…if the atmosphere still exists as described by Roger Peyrefitte in his novels ‘The Keys of St. Peter‘ and ‘The Knights of Malta’, not to speak of ‘Secrets of the Conclave’.
And in a Peyrefitte world, anything is possible.
The Church is said to need someone who will be a CEO….as well as being a holy man.
Someone who considers himself an ideal CEO in a global enterprise and who would not…while squirming and grinning at the suggestion….be unwilling to describe himself as holy needs a job.
One with sovereign immunity.
Thwarted in his Brussels ambitions, upset by the unfavourable reception of his efforts to make dirty police states acceptable, it occurs to him that one day he might risk the same problems as General Pinochet.
He’ll touch down at some airport and a local judge will have him in the slammer for violation of human rights…or as a war criminal.
So sovereign immunity would be handy.
And he has the qualifications….
He converted to Catholicism some seven years ago.
Canon Law allows for a Catholic layman to be elected as Roman Pontiff…
But there is a stumbling block.
The Roman Pontiff must be capable of being ordained as a bishop.
And the ideal candidate…in his own mind…has a problem there.
He is married.
And even if he managed to bring the entire English nation over to Rome his marriage would still be the stumbling block.
This morning at 1.00 am, the fire brigade…the Bomberos….were called to a hotel fire in the centre of our little town.
The hotel was on the second floor….over a newly refurbished shop.
It was built of wood…sixty years old and tinder dry.
The cause of the fire is presumed to be defective electrical wiring, though both the fire brigade and the equivalent of the CID…the OIJ….are checking all possibilities.
After all, only a week ago, an exploding gas cylinder killed five people and injured many more in a little caff in San Jose.
Nomatter how brave the firemen nor how well equipped, a building going up like a torch does not offer much possibility of rescue for those inside…asleep….but the firemen managed to get two men out, one with 50% burns, the other with 30%, and have them sent to the San Juan de Dios hospital in the capital.
For five other men there was no chance….four died in their beds…one trying to get down the stairway. One can only hope that they were asphyxiated by smoke…the other possibilities do not bear thinking about.
All hope gone for the hotel, the firemen spent hours trying to limit damage to surrounding businesses…with some success. Old wood is old wood.
People knew the men who died or were injured: even I…newcomer…knew two of them to nod to and a whole community is mourning them.
It’s a small world, our little town.
But that might be one reason why they died…why two men are in appalling pain in hospital.
For this hotel had been closed down by the Health Ministry.
On inspection last year the electrical wiring had been found to be faulty and the fire extinguishers empty. The owner had been given a period of time to make things good.
A second inspection showed that the owner had done nothing and the hotel had been ordered to close by the end of December.
But it was still open for business….
Because the owner belongs to one of the ‘big’ families of the town….and in a town where everyone knows everyone else and everyone knows their place who is going to enforce the order from the Health Ministry?
Not the Mayor…not the police force….
So unless the Ministry enforces its own orders nothing will be done.
You would think I was making a collection….the young lady dealing with the fight against the developer here; the local water inspector-cum-lawyer; my regular one; the Argentinian one in Spain; the Flemish one in Belgium and the English one in England.
At the moment I am rejoicing at being free of a French one in France….but I’m not counting my chickens…
While I have property in France there is always the possibility of a notaire darting from the undergrowth to sink his fangs in my wallet.
And…apart from the proposed development…I don’t have a complicated life.
Yet now I have acquired another solicitor…..who came to see me yesterday evening.
I was on my own, my husband having gone to see a friend, so when I heard a car pass the house and then stop I assumed that it was someone looking for the goat farm further down the valley….I reckon people get so desperate looking for it they turn in at any likely gate to ask for directions.
But when there was prolonged silence, I thought I’d better go out to take a look, remembering that what is normally a clear turning circle has been complicated by having building materials for the extension dumped at salient points.
There indeed was a car…a very new, very shiny, very expensive 4×4.
There was also a driver, who had alighted to try to move the wheelbarrow to allow him to turn.
And there was the Alsatian, sitting between the wheelbarrow and the car. Just looking.
Did he need directions to the goat farm?
No. He had come to see my husband.
Ah…in that case he was out of luck.
I would do instead…..he had come to help me.
Do I need assistance?
Intrigued, I sent the Alsatian indoors while my visitor moved the wheelbarrow, marking his elegant slacks with cement dust, and turned his car.
Could we talk inside?
If he wished. He didn’t have the air of a mad axeman.
We settled on the balcony, the Alsatian sitting between us, just looking, while my pouchy little visitor came to the point.
My husband had been to the Fiscalia, had he not? Where he had confirmed his accusations of The Neighbour, had he not?
Well, fixing me with a compassionate smile, he had come to help me. He was a lawyer…a Costa Rican lawyer.
Ah, not from the Intergalactic Federation, then.
He knew the law…all the details….
So I should damn well think if he was taking money for practicing his black arts.
And he had come to tell me that there was no point in going on with these complaints….I would be wasting money on a lawyer…all for nothing.
So he was not offering to represent me, then.
He had thought it best to come down and advise me before things risked getting out of hand…
After all the Neighbour was a violent, unpredictable man.
Yes, I knew that. I’d seen his then lawyer restrain him from attacking a judge.
And there was no point in having problems if they could be avoided.
So you think my husband should withdraw his complaints to avoid being marmalised by the Neighbour?
Hands raised in horror…. Alsatian shuffling forward eagerly.
No, no…nothing of the sort!
Ah, I had been too crude…missed the subtleties.
He had just come to explain how important good neighbourly relations were in Costa Rica.
Important everywhere, Licenciado. But how do I have good neighbourly relations with a man who has diverted water from my cafetal? I have to take cisterns of water up in the car to do my spraying…
But he has an order from a judge, allowing him to do so! You signed it yourself!
Shome mishtake shurely, ed.
No, Licenciado. What he has is an agreement with someone else to allow him to take pipes across that person’s land.
Then your lawyer must have signed it for you!
No, Licenciado….neither we, nor our lawyer had anything to do with that agreement and it doesn’t entitle him to divert water from my property.
So, pausing and fiddling with his mobile’phone, if you had the water back you could have good neighbourly relations?
Right…that’s the deal he’s looking for.
Anything is possible.
I’ll be in touch.
I saw him to the door, accompanied by the Alsatian.
My husband said that there were about thirty other people in the Fiscalia confirming complaints….
I remember learning to speak French in France…..I had ‘done’ French in school…in later life I picked it up again and had good reading skills, but living in rural France was an eye opener.
For a start all my neighbours spoke patois….
It could have been a disaster had my neighbours not also been kind and patient and had I not been introduced to a retired headmistress who wished to improve her English.
While announcing that in my spoken French I was clearly a woman with no past and no future, speaking as I did only in the present tense she told me not to worry.
Talk to people, listen to people…do what babies do…communicate…and one day what you’re hearing will be what you’re speaking.
She was right. I muddled along, read a lot, especially the newspaper in order to be abreast of the current scandals and one day I got there.
I spoke French.
And now I’m learning Spanish. Costa Rican Spanish, not the Castilian Spanish spoken by my husband.
I was talking about my language learning problems to a taxi driver….one of those chatty, friendly men who have proved to be superb teachers.
You’ve come to the right place to learn Spanish, he announced. Here we speak clearly; none of this limp wristed lisping in Central America!
He might have a point….but I suspect that at some stage in the colonial experience a Glaswegian element intervened as nowhere outside that jewel of the Clyde have I encountered a more pronounced glottal stop.
Ganado…cattle…is pronounced Gannow.
I must be getting somewhere with the local version, though, because when I bought a train ticket in Barcelona recently the ticket clerk replied:
The watchword of Costa Rica.
And that from a Catalan……saucy devil!
But learning the language is one thing….how I’m using it is another.
Costa Ricans refer to themselves as Ticos….supposedly from their habit of noting affection or sympathy for something or someone by using the diminutive ‘itico’.
On the (mainly) North American expat fora, Tico is banded about readily when referring to local people or customs, usually in a somewhat condescending way….
A Tico house as contrasted to one built to North American standards….
What Ticos do as opposed to what the contributor does…..
And when the established expat human mosquitoes invite the newbies to a get together to see how much they can take them for you also tend to hear disparaging comments about Ticos.
So, though my Tico friends refer to themselves as Ticos…I feel inhibited from doing so from the way Tico is used by the expat groups.
I use Costa Rican…….Costarricense.
Then I’ll be with Costa Rican friends having coffee in the Teatro Nacional.
They’ll call the waiter over and address him as
A bit like saying ‘Garcon!’ to a French waiter.
But instead of peeing in the mustard for revenge, he takes it as normal and brings the order.
I can’t do that…or I feel that I can’t.
Yet when, years ago, we were travelling to Nicaragua, I didn’t find the same inhibition.
As we stepped off the bus at the frontier, a lady with a wad of immigration forms approached the passengers, offering to fill out the details for a sum of money. I said I could fill it in myself…but she still wanted money, despite notices all over the buildings stating that all formalities are free of charge.
So at the entrance to the immigration offices…a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene if ever there was one… I approached an unwary policeman and told him that the ‘muchacha’ wouldn’t give me a form.
He went off to the clerks at the desks and came back to say that they had run out of forms…but not to worry…the computer was working so no need to do anything.
So why did it come naturally to refer to her as ‘muchacha’ when I can’t call a waiter ‘muchacho’?
Is it that it was indirect…not to her face…thus not requiring respect?