For a’ That and a’ That…

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hodden grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A man’s a man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a cuif for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

But it won’t come unless we make it so

We have to have trust in ourselves and in each other: open our eyes and our minds, have confidence in our joint ability to create the decent society we all need in order to be the best we can.

We have to stop the rape of the commonweal by private interest; put roofs over heads and food on the table – and this not only in ‘poor’ countries, but in first world countries too where the cynical ruination of the national wealth is blamed on the greed, incompetence, immorality of the very people who are the first victims of that system.

And how do we do it?

For a first step we must stop allowing our masters to divide us: recognise that the ‘benefit scroungers’ are those who avoid tax, whose companies are given the unemployed as cheap or free labour, who award themselves pay and benefits out of all proportion to any benefit they bring to those said companies.

Starve them of funds…don’t use their companies.

Then stop voting for party candidates, locally and nationally.

I know that local government in the U.K. is a broken reed, kept on a short rein by central government and then used as an Aunt Sally to bring the democratic process into disrepute.

We need properly independent councillors who will not toe party lines, who will explain to their constituents exactly why their services are going to hell in a handcart and to take a firm hand on the remuneration packages of their officials.

Only with a solid structure of local government can we hope to reclaim national government from the party system and to build that structure we need to recreate communities – genuine ones, not the artificially empowered ‘communities’  which have a symbiotic relationship with the power structure in which their self appointed leaders deliver the votes and in turn have the recognition – and the funds – to dominate those who are forced to depend on them for a voice..

It is a long road…but our parents and their parents have walked it before us.

We may be but dwarfs on the shoulders of those giants…but what giants!

For their belief in justice they faced what we do not – the gallows.

We have their blood, we have the memory of their sacrifice, we can not only resist, but we can win.

Happy New Year to you all.

Christmas Day in the Doghouse

We had planned a quiet Christmas: Leo was not feeling too good and did not want to go to friends which was just as well as we had an orphan lamb to feed on top of the normal routines.

Jose had come to slaughter some sheep just before Der Tag, so I was fully occupied with butchering and looking forward to the sort of Christmas Day when the feet go up and the gin oges down but one ‘phone call after another announced  that  – as we could not go to them – friends would come to us on the 26th. Not for long, not to tire Leo, but just to say hello and have a chat.

Knadgers! I had mince pies and sausage rolls made but to cater for all eventualities salvaged the sheep offal to make a pan haggis – too late to rescue the stomach, which had been buried with the intestines – then started on the pastry for the Black Bun and whopped together a cloutie dumpling mix while waiting for fish to defrost to make a ceviche.

Too late to set out for San Jose for reasonably priced whisky, as Leo was not well enough to be left for too long, but with beer, wine and fruit drinks that area was covered.

Luckily I had not left Leo as he became very ill – and at one point it looked as though a trip to hospital would be on the cards – but by the time midnight was upon us he had improved so at 12.30 am I fed the lamb and went to bed.

3.30 am.The lamb woke up again and started bleating for milk. I would swear that it has a loudhailer concealed in its blankets…

With the kitchen light on the dogs woke up and wanted to go out. Front door opened for them and milk heated for the lamb.

Lamb fed and returned to its box in the spare bedroom. Lamb displeased. Lamb turned its box over and skittered round the room until the box was packed with the blanket in the exact way desired by lamb. Lamb settled.

An almighty kerfuffle outside shattered the peace of the early morning hours and set off every dog for miles: the night was hideous with barks and howls from Jose’s spaniels up towards the town to Chancho’s pitbulls across the  still unrepaired bridge.

The lamb took up its loudhailer again.

The porch light revealed a view of the agitated hindquarters of five dogs whose forepaws were busy throwing up showers of earth and twigs from the shrubs by the path while the puppies ran round trying to get a better view of proceedings.

Finally The Poodle emerged from the maelstrom bearing a very large dead rat.

Scruff followed with a few baby  rats in  her mouth, neatly arranged with tails hanging down and led her puppies off for a feast by the hen house.

Such is the prestige of The Poodle that the other dogs made no attempt to claim her rat as she strolled with it to the bench by the front door and settled herself to guard her trophy.

They came inside and resumed the sleep of the just.

The lamb decided that it would be more diplomatic to put down its loudhailer.

The local canine chorus ceased.

Tea for me and for Leo  – and off to bed. Again.

Hail shining morn, my backside!

We may be in the tropics and the shortest day may have passed, but it was still not light until after 5.30 am, so we had a leisurely start to the day and after letting out chickens, ducks and sheep took a late breakfast on the balcony.

The Poodle’s balcony.

Digital Camera

Luckily she was still guarding her rat at the other side of the house, so we got away with it.

Peace reigned, the sun rose over the mountain behind the house and the view was a symphony of green and gold. Perfect.

Then we heard the sound of a chainsaw.

It is illegal to fell trees within 50 metres of a watercourse but as we watched a large tree went down by a stream leading to the river in the valley, on the property of a retired money launderer.

No chance of being caught as civil servants do not work on public holidays, which accounts for the frenzied activity in builders’ merchants just before Easter, Christmas and August 15th…ideal time to build a house before anyone can interfere with queries as to planning permission.

We retired to the inner balcony and passed the morning with books, coffee and cake – with intermittent feeding of the lamb in its pen once it was warm enough for it to go outside.

Leo had a nap, we had lunch in peace and Leo returned to bed, feeling tired.I was washing up when it started….a cacophony of snarling and yelping on the porch.

Tea towel – terror of the puppy dogs – at the ready  I shot out there to find The Poodle ensconced on the bench and beside her the puppy she likes best – Napoleon – who was busy eating the rat’s head while his brother and sisters raged below. The Poodle wore a sort of proprietary beam while the busy Napoleon gave every impression of one very happy with his lot, which was to change as the tea towel was deployed, followed by sharp work with brush and dustpan and the carcass thrown to the chickens.

Disconsolately Napoleon went to sit by their run, watching as they tore into the treat. I made a mental note to avoid being kissed by Napoleon…

The afternoon passed peaceably after that until tea time when with an eldritch screech The Poodle took off for the fields like a dose of salts, followed by the adult dogs.

I think the screech frightened the puppies because they all decided to tuck up on Leo’s foot, so I was able to close the front door on them and go down to investigate.

The screeching and barking grew in volume….Jose’s spaniel and Chancho’s pitbulls took up the theme…

A I can’t limbo dance under the wire I had to go round by the gate so by the time I reached the field the scene was  set.

The dogs were encircling the trunk of a tall guarumo tree.

guarumo-with-ants

Experience had taught them not to approach it too closely as the tree has a symbiotic relationship with some of the nastiest stinging ants I have yet met, but they were certainly on guard around it, for perched precariously on the upper branches were a number of vultures…

Every flap of a wing produced a screech from The Poodle and a chorus of barks from the rest – evidently the pack, not  taking into account the wonders of flight, thought that they had the vultures treed for the duration and were intent on making the most of it.

At that point Julio turned up, bringing a home made tonic for Leo – and to help me close up the sheep for the night. He was, he said, escaping from his house which was hideous with the din of over excited children…..

We counted the sheep and lambs…none missing. So why had the vultures arrived?

Julio looked around.

‘There’s your answer. Jose didn’t bury the guts properly when he did the slaughtering.’

It took some persuasion and the use of leads, but together we managed to return the dogs to the house where they threw themselves on their beds with an air of those who have done their duty.

We chatted over a beer or two, then Julio went on his way and we had supper, followed by an early night. apart from getting up to feed the lamb at 10.00 pm

Later I was awakened by a furious scrabbling  from the puppy box and in the darkness a small fat body plopped onto the bed and snuggled up to my ear, taking a comforting nibble of same

Not wanting to waken Leo I switched on the mobile ‘phone on the bedside table and in its dim light found that my affectionate visitor was – you’ve guessed it – Napoleon.

By that time too shattered to care if I picked up the Black Death  I turned off the ‘phone and went to sleep until the lamb woke me on the morning of Boxing Day at 2.00 am….

Christmas in a Warm Climate

posada
As there is yet no sign of the bridge being rebuilt – two years after it was washed away – our Christmas will once again  be quiet.
I have missed taking part in the ‘posada’ when on the nine days before Christmas groups of friends get together to replicate the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, visiting a different house each night for prayers, Christmas songs -villancicos – and, of course, tamales.
I cannot scramble across the stream (now putting on airs as the local version of the Grand Canyon) and refused a kind offer to come to collect and return me on a motorbike….it is a long way round and our road down from town is not the best to navigate in the dark.
The French may hold that riding at the sitting trot is good for the liver but I can assure them that doing so on young Mynor’s motorbike is as good a recipe for rapid corporeal disintegration as I can imagine.
Neither shall I be making the boar’s head this year as it requires masses of hearty appetites to devour it in the tropics….or a fridge which is not full to its eyebrows with  maturing cheeses.
It’s a pity though, as I enjoy doing it: boning out the head, filling it with a pate mix and protecting the ears with foil before putting it in the oven where the heat expands the pate and puffs the flattened boneless head back to its proper shape.
I shall have to content myself with listening to Steeleye Span…
Christmas shopping has been at a minimum – just as well, seeing the price hikes – and I have managed to avoid – so far – two of the main local hazards:
A the man selling fibre glass reindeer recovered from the dump last year then
spruced up in his garage
and
B
the man selling hammocks made from recycled plastic which are guaranteed to take the skin off your backside in a fashion worthy of admiration by Chinese exponents of death by a thousand cuts.
Still, I shall think myself lucky if I manage to avoid Danilo’s cousin ( he has as many as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruler of the Queen’s Navy) who lives in the fond belief that I want to buy a pedigree pup. From him.
He haunts me when shopping,  popping up outside the bank, the agricultural co op, the supermarket, like a portly Jack in the Box.
I’ve got a nice puppy for you..
I don’t want one.
Yes, yes, you do. Danilo tells me what a bunch of  mongrels you’ve got. You need a a dog with style
So what sort of pup have you got?
What sort of pup do you want?
I’m tempted to ask him for a Turkish Kangal but have a sneaking fear that some five years down the line he will turn up with one and claim his price.
Christmas always has its musical associations but neither the vilancicos nor the supermarket pap really do it for me….one a bit too plinky plonk the other too soapy.
I suppose it goes back to my years in England; when I was a child in Scotland, after all, Christmas Day was not a public holiday – or if it was this knowledge was very successfully concealed from me.
In no way would I return to live through an English winter….but the sound of the Sally Ann blasting out carols in the wet streets marks Christmas for me as much as listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio, and as summer has finally begun here, I can listen to this  without automatically reaching for the thermal long johns.
Best wishes to you all and let us hope and work for the time when there will be peace on earth – though for that to come to pass the Lord had better get a move on in respect of
scattering the proud in the imagination of their hearts,  putting down the mighty from their seat  and exalting the humble and meek.

Culture on the Low Road

folk-groups

With the cuts in public expenditure in France, local authorities are reducing funding for what they were pleased to describe as cultural events. While some were well worthwhile, bringing top class performers to areas which would otherwise have no chance of seeing them in the flesh, like the Nuits Romanes in Poitou Charente,  a great deal of it betrayed the belief of official, authorised and therefore paid culture vultures that people should be provided with professional dispensers of approved culture rather than being left to develop their own.

Thus a rural village where some eighty per cent of the inhabitants are over fifty finds itself lumbered with a hip hop band for the Fete de la Musique: professional ‘story tellers’ infest the St Jean midsummer festival – probably sitting in a yurt to peddle their meretricious nonsense – while the only reason that the Bernache et Marrons (new wine and chestnuts) fair does not figure half naked men in red tights swinging from scaffolding towers is because it can be decidedly nippy in November in the Loire Valley.

So, on the grounds of every cloud having a silver lining, let us rejoice that  with the need to find money to pay the salaries of all the local government employees whose jobs have been duplicated by local government reorganisation people can, with a bit of luck, get back to doing what they like by way of culture.

Walks through the commune, pumpkin fairs, local folk dance groups, bands and choirs, fireworks on July 13th, the fire brigade ball (guaranteed bacchanalia) and, in my old area at any rate, amateur theatricals.

Some months after moving to rural France, I had had a toothache which oil of cloves would not touch, so I needed the dentist. Papy, my nearest neughbour, told me that there was no need to make an appointment, just to go down to the surgery in the village and sit in the waiting room, so that was what I did.

Two gloomy gentlemen were already in occupation – for some reason the usual round of handshakes doesn’t take place in dental waiting rooms – and one informed me that the dentist was out but would be back shortly. I passed the time looking at posters of teeth.

The dentist returned. The street door banged against the wall, there was a strong smell of drink having been taken and a tall handsome man with black curly hair strode in…..his white coat liberally splashed with blood.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had a spot of bother just now…Come on Jules, let’s get these false teeth sorted!’

I think I was rooted to the chair in shock…otherwise I would have fled.

Georges, the other patient, turned to me.

‘Don’t worry, he had a problem taking a tooth out…it broke and he had to put his knee on Jean-Paul’s chest to get the leverage to get the last bit out. Bit of a shock for both of them, so they’ve just been over to the bar for a restorative.’

Don’t worry! What, I wondered would qualify as something to worry about? A broken artery, dislocated jawbone….If the tooth hadn’t been giving me such gyp I would have been away in Olympic record time for the one hundred yard dash – or whatever it is in metric. But it was so I didn’t.

Dentists have an unfair advantage. They stick needles in your gums so that your lips turn to wood and then make you keep your mouth open while they talk to you. You have no way of responding.

This dentist talked to me while finding and dealing with my problem tooth.

I was new to the commune. I was British. This was very convenient. He ran the amateur dramatic society. He was putting on a Feydeau farce. There was an English governess in it and none of his regular actresses could say ‘shocking!’ properly. So there it was. First rehearsal on Tuesday evening in the mairie annexe at eight o’ clock.

He had a copy of the play in my hand, my role marked in pencil, before I could mumble a word.

Shocking!

So here I was, my French far from fluent, with no experience of amateur dramatics since being in the chorus of ‘The Mikado’ while at school, being propelled onto the boards by a dictatorial dentist.

I studied the part…small, luckily….and the cues. I turned up at the annexe to the mairie and found I already knew some of the people there. Then the dentist arrived and things took off. He was a ball of energy and enthusiasm, a perfectionist and, inevitably, not only director but also leading man.

Like everyone else, I was pushed and pulled into place, was prompted and scolded and learned an enormous amount about staging farce.

Timing, timing and timing, keeping the action going, getting his actors to have a signature expression or tone of voice that marked them clearly for the audience, he was dedicated to getting his crew to give of their best.

It was all very convivial…there was always wine and cake at the end of the rehearsal, and I was included in the cake rota automatically which surprised me given the French suspicion of anything emerging from a British oven. I supplied treacle tart and to my relief it was asked for again.

I got to know people…my French improved dramatically…and I learned a lot about the commune as we worked.

Although amateur dramatics – like music – had always had a strong following in the area, until fairly recently these activities had been duplicated. Those who attended mass – known as ‘les grenouilles du benitier’ (literally ‘frogs in the holy water stoup’)  to those who didn’t – supported the priest’s theatre group and band and the others supported the republican groups.

In that village, the war between state and church had been such that – Clochemerle like – the public toilets had been set up next to the church on the main square……and were closed on Sundays! Respect for the church or a strong determination that believers shouldn’t be able to use the facilities?

The play was performed on the home ground first, in the salle des fetes and then toured neighbouring villages, always to packed houses and vigorous applause, two nights and a matinee a week for four weeks, the cast kept going by buckets of mulled wine backstage, dished out in an enamel mug.

It was fun, and I gladly joined up for several more years. It was always a Feydeau farce, there was always a place for a foreigner and in year two I even graduated to my own little round of applause as I entered, an accolade awarded by audiences to the regular players.

It came to an end, of course: the dentist left the area.

The lady from the chateau, whose cavities he had been assiduously attending to for some years, decided that enough was enough. She left her husband and, with the dentist in tow, moved to that Sodom and Gomorrah of the Atlantic coast, La Baule.

Shocking!

The last visit from the traveling circus took place in my time in that village…no lions or tigers,  but dancing dogs and the great attraction – the chicken that could count!

Not caring for the circuses I had not gone down to the trestles arranged in the square by the church….but I do rather regret not seeing the chicken tapping on the cards laid out on the sand.

Later, there was a new attraction – one which had nothing to do with the culture vultures.

It started with a man impersonating one of the iconic figures of French rural life..the old woman who ruled her family with a rod of iron: the show would start with this ‘lady’ roaring on stage on a solex, headscarf firmly tied under her chin, ready to wind up the audience with ‘her’ take on rural life: somewhat scatalogical and utterly hilarious.

Others copied….

These days the best known act is that of ‘Les Bodins’: much less scatalogical but reviving in its audiences memories of the old ways of rural life…set in a pastiche of a typical small farm of the not so distant past.

Here is an excerpt: you might not understand the words, but it is slapstick enough to be self explanatory given the title:

A dormouse has shat in the cheese.

High culture it is not…but neither are half naked men in red  tights.

Christmas is Coming…

 

festival-of-light

Christmas is coming,

The geese are getting fat,

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

If you haven’t got a penny a halfpenny will do.

If you haven’t got a halfpenny then God bless you.

Communities in the north of Costa Rica are still coming to terms with the extent of the destruction caused by Hurricane Otto and this coming Christmas promises to be bleak, despite the rescue and restoration efforts of the official bodies.

Who wants to spend Christmas in a shelter, after all?

I have been struck, though, by the volunteer action from all over the country: once permitted to enter the affected areas vans have been arriving at the farthest flung villages with not only the necessities of life – but also the things that make life brighter.

One furniture factory has gone into full production to turn out beds and sofas…basic, but serviceable and attractive, to make houses feel like a home again: a police station had a whip round to provide a wheelchair for a boy who had lost his in the floods…the examples are all too many to quote, but hats off to those involved – and to the emergency services whose plans allowed such prompt access for the volunteer effort.

The children have not been forgotten….for some of them Christmas has come early as the volunteers brought presents too – pennies and halfpennies well spent by those contributing at Red Cross centres and at some of the major chain stores who put their fleets of vehicles at the disposal of the relief effort.

Let us now hope that the government agencies coping with the aftermath…rebuilding houses, trying to compensate for crops lost…will show the same energy and generosity as was brought out by the immediate aftermath of the hurricane.

Away from the disaster areas the Christmas frenzy is now upon us with a vengeance.

The pavements of San Jose, already a hazard to shipping with the vendors of socks, rip off DVDs, remote controls and amazingly random items laid out on black plastic sheets ready for the quick getaway when the municipal police are sighted, now boast herds of fibreglass reindeer upon whose horns you are liable to become impaled while trying to avoid the embrace of the inflatable Santa on the other side of the shop entrance.

A new horror promises to manifest itself: while buying a washing machine I saw that the shop was also selling hideously lifelike and lifesize Santas who sang carols and did a sort of shuffling dance….from ghosties and ghoulies and shuffling Santas Good Lord deliver us…

Music – if so it can be called – assails you in every store. Fortunately for my sanity ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ seems to have fallen from favour, but ‘Jingle Bells’ is still going strong.

I suppose that given the popularity of reindeer, it would be.

Curiously enough, I heard ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in one of the local supermarkets last week, so there is hope of the advance of civilisation yet…despite the horror of the butcher as I described to him how to make a haggis.

Poor man: he is still recovering from my annual demand for suet which he is firmly convinced serves only to dubbin boots.

The price of tomatoes and potatoes have soared as this is the tamale season and they are essential ingredients: luckily we have laid in a store of spuds which, if the weather remains unseasonably cold, should last through the New Year after which prices should fall again.

And unseasonably cold it is too….summer should have started some two weeks ago but for the first time since moving here I have opened the old suitcase containing our woollies and put a second light blanket on the bed as the rain is heavy and persistent and the winds are strong and cold.

This has done no favours to the ewes: accustomed as they are to dropping their lambs outside, Danilo has had to go hunting to bring them in before the newborns get chilled and weak and we currently have one in the house – a twin whose mother abandoned it in the driving rain. Leo is doing his best, but it is touch and go for the little thing.

Stop press: two in the house…

It will be a quiet Christmas for us – the way we like it. Which is just as well, given Leo’s poor health.

Our celebration has been to trawl through the cookery books, now that we finally have most of them out of the boxes and onto  proper bookshelves, to decide on some new recipes to try. An Ethiopian beef stew looks promising, as does  a Cincinnati style chili involving black chocolate and Worcester sauce.

Before Christmas though, things are somewhat more eventful. There is an art fair in San Jose at the end of this week…and we are invited to a christening party on the weekend which will involve the consumption of vast quantities of chicharrones (deep fried lumps of belly pork),  deep fried murpheys and plantains together with endless cold beers accompanied by football on the box and heated political discussion in all quarters of the house.

However, given that the godfather – who will be doing the deep frying – has also invited us to a karaoke evening at his favourite bar the night before I begin to wonder whether the only sizzling at the christening party will be that  of Alka Seltzer tablets hitting the  water.

All of the above are dependent on how Leo is feeling on the day of course…so, as one says here, we shall be going ‘si Dios quiere’.

And if He doesn’t, then we can enjoy our pwn pictures,  look for another recipe and choose some music to accompany the meal, which will be different, but just as enjoyable.

Though we do not go in for them, Christmas decorations are beginning to go up on the houses.

I have it on good authority that the Santa Claus novelty loo seat cover – dumped on me by my mother and seized on by the cleaning woman – still has pride of place on a certain front door, but cannot go to see for myself as the bridge, which collapsed two years ago, is not yet repaired.

Danilo found an engineer at the site in October…and word was that it would be repaired by the end of November…but then Hurricane Otto took a hand and resources were directed elsewhere.

Don Freddy has been round to see us again….the bridge was to be repaired starting on 15th December, but Danilo has since reported that the chairman of the development committee – in charge of the works – has been admitted to hospital as an emergency case.

It is only by the existence of good hospital provision that this most orthodox of Catholic gentleman has avoided the fate of the heretical Bishop Arias in that his bowels burst while he was on the loo.

Well, that puts the bridge repair back again, I suppose….

Might put it back permanently….he’s gone to a private hospital…

They’re not likely to kill him!

No perhaps not….but he’s got the money for the bridge…

 

 

 

Boules to All That

boules-de-fort-2

I was in the queue at Pali – the most downmarket of the local supermarkets – and indicated to a woman carrying only a pot of yogurt to pass ahead of me. Inevitably, the customer first in line at the checkout then had a meltdown with her credit card which I greeted with a mutter of

‘Putain de merde!’

Old habits die hard.

The woman with the yogurt turned to me smiling…

‘You’re French!’

No and neither was she…but she had lived in France for many years, as had we: her husband had worked there as a plastic surgeon and on retirement they had returned to Costa Rica. They lived in San Jose but had come down to prepare their finca for the family gathering over Christmas and New Year.

We exchanged telephone numbers…we talked, we met again…we cooked together.

It was good to share memories of a country we had both lived in at the same time – though in different spheres: hers was Paris, mine La France Profonde.

But one thing we agreed upon…France is not as she is depicted in the tourist literature, nor as in the outpourings of the ‘living the dream’ brigade.

She can be a lot better than that – and a lot worse.

Slower way of life….try that when Madame Untel is elbowing her way past you at the charcuterie counter…

The wonderful fresh bread…stale in an hour…

Romantic villages….with dodgy drains…

The cultural life…wet tee shirt night at the local discotheque…

The cinq a sept …zut alors!

The other thing we agreed upon was that once adopted by a friendly neighbour doors opened wide on the real life of France, from helping out at the Secours Populaire or Catholique to joining the Troisieme Age (not for the faint hearted) on their outings; supporting the local organisations’ fund raising with their couscous or paella evenings; joining the historical society…the sewing bee…the cycling club…because there you would meet the people who really kept France on the rails with their sense of civic responsibility – and their sense of fun!

For me that was exemplified by the game of boules.

I used to know when spring had arrived, as the faint click of metal on metal could be heard from Jules’ yard as I passed while walking the dogs.

They were nothing loth to renew acquaintance with his old Breton spaniel and I was nothing loth to join Jules, his wife and a couple of neighbours in a few rounds of boules followed by a few rounds of drinks in his hospitable kitchen.

Playing and drinking were two separate activities, and probably as well while I was undergoing my apprenticeship in the fine art of boules on a dusty surface where you had to know where the dips were – only to find they had changed by the next time as the Breton spaniel had taken a dust bath on the piste.

It was not competitive, just a way to pass the early evening before locking up the barns for the night and settling down to supper and the television and that was the way I liked it.

As more British moved into the area, more learned the game and it seemed to take them two ways.

Some, like me, just liked the excuse for a natter with the neighbours while others became extremely competitive indeed and started running – British only and by invitation only – competitions…even building boules courts alongside their houses with much use of the spirit level to ensure British fair play.

They also called it petanque. Some of them even wore panama hats and white trousers on competition evenings. Some of them used to practice, too, which I thought completely unBritish.

So there was a sort of divide between the ‘casuals’ – boules – and the ‘professionals’ – petanque.

Then a chap with a holiday home, who enjoyed playing boules with his neighbour, had an idea of furthering integration with a ‘boules day’.

His idea was to invite his British friends while his neighbours invited their French friends, get scratch Anglo-French teams together on the day and have a jolly with a picnic.

All went swimmingly. Too swimmingly. The event began to outgrow his neighbour’s yard, and by the week before the due date, his neighbour approached the maire about using the salle de fetes, which had a huge car park, the idea being to mark it out for boules.

The maire was delighted and signed himself and friends up for the event.

The organiser was getting short of British. The casuals were all about signed up, including one lady with a zimmer frame, but the professionals were holding back…..it was all a bit, well…casual….and it wasn’t petanque.

The maire, a very nice old boy who must have descended from a long line of corkscrews so Machiavellian was his conduct of the commune’s affairs, had the answer.

As this was a sort of community event, a step towards integration, the commune would put on the wine for the picnic. Free. The press would be invited.

As he had divined, no professional ever spawned can refuse free drink and publicity.

The ranks of the British were reinforced overnight.

The maire had also offered the salle de fetes’ trestle tables and benches for the picnic and had persuaded the farmer with the field behind the car park to move his cattle off in time for the cow pats to dry out before the day, so that the picnic could be al fresco, rather than in the stifling air of the salle, which bore no small resemblance to the Black Hole of Calcutta during wedding receptions in the summer.

The organiser, by now relegated to sub organiser behind the maire, bethought him of food.

Since the French – well, the maire – had been so generous with the wine, perhaps the British should make sure that the picnic buffet tables were well replenished in the food line.

He and his wife undertook basic salads and levied contribution on the British participants for the rest.

I’d volunteered to help his wife with the salads, and as we transported the mounds of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, not to speak of beetroot, spring onions and radish, to the buffet area, it was clear that the tournament was going great guns.

The French and the British were mingling and playing amicably and, more surprisingly, so were the casuals and the professionals, but this could have been because the maire had decided that communication on a dry throat is never a good idea and had opened the casks early on in proceedings.

The British picnic contributions were arriving, and it was interesting to link contribution with contributor.

Some had been incredibly generous, plates of ham and charcuterie, cold roast chickens, huge bowls of mixed salads, cheeses…some had even sacrificed their emergency food parcels – pork pies and cooked, cold, British sausages! There were commercial and homemade chutneys and even bottles of salad cream with which to astonish the French.

Trifles, summer puddings, fruit salads, treacle tarts, chocolate mousses – we had to ask if we could use the fridge in the salle to keep them from spoiling.

Others, all straw hat and garden party dress, would deposit their offering of a small bowl of pasta salad – where the pasta element had beaten the other ingredients by a country mile – in pride of place in the centre of the buffet, smiling sweetly at those working behind the tables before turning sharply to the wine cask area and the serious business of the day, tracking down the press photographer.

The tournament had been a great success…I have no idea whch team won, if indeed any did…but then came the moment of truth as the crowd approached the buffet.

How would the French get on with the British idea of a picnic?

We had filled bottles from the casks and distributed them around the tables, but now it was every man for himself.

The maire plunged in and, reassured, his flock followed…..

The sausages and salad cream were the great successes….one lady had to go home to round up some more of the latter.

Chutneys intrigued, especially with pork pies, while the puddings roused the maire to send out for supplies of the local dessert wine straight from the cellars of one of the players.

Clearly, a success, and so it has proved down the years.

I moved away a long time ago, but friends in the area say it is still going strong although with more and more difficulty getting generous donations from the British element, it has for a few years’ now been a mechoui – a spit roast lamb – affair with a professional caterer and a small admission fee.

Still, it was a super idea, founded on the amiable idea of having a few friends round for a quiet game and a few drinks.

And that, to me, was boules.

I was wrong. There was a lot more to it than that.

In August, Madeleine’s cousin used to hold open house on Sundays for those who had not gone off for the holidays.

The wine was cooling in a bucket in the well, we would all bring something to eat and the afternoon would pass with a game of boules, gossiping in the shade or a quiet nap, depending on circumstances.

However, occasionally the mood would take the cousin to be up and doing and he had the entree everywhere…nowhere was a closed door to him, or not for long…he knew who held the keys.

I had been playing boules with the chaps when the cousin came upon us.

‘Let’s show her a real game!’

I thought he was going to take a part himself and up the standard, but it was nothing of the sort.

He disappeared into the house, then emerged, beaming,.

‘Everyone in the cars!’

We headed for the silent, baking town and into the alleys of the medieval quarter, where we drew up before an ancient building with an iron grill in the wooden door.

He shouted, the door was opened, and we found ourselves in a large, cool club room, where a number of elderly gentlemen were having a quiet drink.

There was a lot of joshing around, to the effect of what was he doing, bringing women in here….this was a men’s club…was nothing sacred?….but we were supplied with cold, dry white wine all the same and the cousin explained.

He had brought his friends to show the foreigner – me – how a proper game of boules was played.

La boule de fort.

boule-de-fort

His friend the club president issued us with slippers and flung open double doors to reveal what a vast room, seven metres wide by twenty long, he said, with a concave floor – he called it a gutter – running its length.

He presented me with something heavy that resembled a squashed pear…not round, one side was less so than the other, which was weighted down by a lead plug on the bottom. A metal ring, adjustable, encircled the thing and it weighed a ton.

No mere boule this, but a boule de fort.

The idea of the game was similar to that of all games of boules….to get nearest the jack, but when some of the gentlemen demonstrated, it was apparent that this was a far more sophisticated game.

The slippers were to protect the gutter in which the game was played, and the teams had two sorts of players….the first would select their spot and gently roll the boule as near as they could to the jack.

The second were the artillery..they would roll the boules down at speed to clear opponents’ boules from the track. The noise was unbelievable.

I could see that it would take a lot longer to learn this game than that as practised in Jules’ yard on a spring evening.

Back in the club room, the president explained that these clubs were, like the old ‘amicales’, the refuge of men and very precious too in the days when unless you could afford to marry, you didn’t, so respectable bachelors needed a place to foregather and talk dirty.

The vocabulary could be a bit ‘special’ – nothing these days when filth spews from every television set – but mostly double entendres and very daring in their day, of which the one which has lasted longest is the invitation to ‘partager une fillette’ – to share a young lady.

Before anyone gets all PC, it would be as well to know that a ‘fillette’ is a half bottle of wine, and I’ve shared a few fillettes in my time without any moral damage to either party.

The most important duty of the president was to choose the wine to fill the fillettes…..and make sure he got a good price so that the members paid about half the price of the same stuff in a regular bar.

However, as always, the best was saved for last.

The president explained that after a game, a player who had made no score at all was obliged to pay a forfeit.

.Yes, a round of drinks, the losing team would pay that, but for the man with no points to his name, a special forfeit was in store.

He had to  ’embrasser Fanny’ – to kiss Fanny.

What? I thought this was a men’s club…for respectable bachelors! Where was this woman tucked away?

With a sly smile, the president moved to a cupboard on the wall, which opened out rather like a tryptich to reveal a painting of the luxuriant bare backside of a woman.

fanny_le_rituel

This was Fanny!

I wonder what the panama hat and petanque brigade would have made of her…..and whether the ‘living the dreamers’ would ever have discovered her.