Mind your Language

caedmonIt was my husband’s birthday this weekend and we had the best of all celebrations.
Time to ourselves.

We closed the gates to the drive and settled down to undisturbed peace.

Yes, of course we had to collect eggs, let out the chickens and ducks, change their water, put in fresh feed and then bang them up again in the evening.

Yes, we had to chop banana stems and fodder grass for the sheep and cattle and not get knocked over in the stampede for the bananas as we shut them in for the night.

Yes, we had to give the dogs their wash and deflea session.

But we did not have to speak to anyone else.
We did not have to put ourselves into the mindset of another language or culture.
We could think and speak entirely as we pleased.
All the time.

And what did we find?

For the most part we spoke to each other in English….but when we were talking about local stuff it was surprising how much Spanish we used…I can only imagine because the source of our information, whether oral or written, had been expressed in Spanish which had come, in its turn, to define the mode of discussion.

It would not have ocurred to us that the lunacy of a situation in which the leader of H.M.’s government is a foul mouthed coke head could be discussed in any language other than English, but it was interesting to find that the same process led to discussion of the character of the ex Mayor of San Jose and Presidential candidate using any number of Spanish phrases.

I would not say that it was perfect Spanish, either in use of grammar or pronunciation, but it was the Spanish that came to us spontaneously.

I enjoy the proper use of language, but not to the point of pedantry.
Language lives, evolves; it has to do so to be able to reflect the experience of its users.
I do not understand texting ….but it is an offshoot which has developed to enable those with more time than sense to communicate with each other and as such is no less legitimate than any professional jargon – which is double dutch to anyone outside the charmed circle.

I would never make a translator.
I see languages in their own compartments: products of their own cultures and dependent on those cultures for their meaning.
I can enter those compartments; enjoy the contents, but I can’t bridge the compartments to translate – it is too easy to be clumsy and swift yet takes forever to translate one context to another.

I would be quite capable of the translation classic..the English phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ translated into Russian and then retranslated to English as……. ‘absent idiot’.
But on the positive side, as a translator I could block the work of the European Union for years…..
Any offers?

Expat blogs can be a sort of translation…..illustrating one culture in the light of another in the person of the blogger…and there are many fine ones in the blogosphere.
There are also the others….

Those on Costa Rica which would lead the unwary to believe that the country is populated solely by wild birds and monkeys…like the tropical house at Kew Gardens with the lid off.
Or those which seek to persuade others that Costa Ricans are simple, happy folk, whose only concern is to help the gringo – reminiscent of slide shows of missionary activity in darkest Africa.
Or those that want to sell you overpriced property. ‘Trust me, I’m a gringo!’

There aren’t so many of the rose tinted blogs about life in France these days – if you discount the American girls in Paris rotting their teeth on macaroons – as reality in the shape of taxes eats into the dream world of pink wine and baguettes.
But, by golly, there are still a few blind mouths about….

Those who have a holiday home there and spend their time visiting other expats with holiday homes and eating in restaurants: any criticism of France, any comment on the realities admitted to by anyone French, and they fly up like a fighting cock.
‘Touche pas au grisbi!’ Don’t go for their bundle of golden dreams.

And then there are the pedants: wedded to a certain idea of France (pretty damn far from that of de Gaulle) based on its literature, architecture and gastronomy as they have learned to appreciate them in their home countries. So far gone are they that some of them would even eat an andouillette.
They ‘know’ France…but they don’t know their neighbours.

I was reading of the death of a film director, Georges Lautner, and one of his films came immediately to mind.
Les Tontons Flinguers. A take off of gangster films.
Not so much for his direction, but for the dialogue written by Michel Audiard – a man who had an ear for France.

One of his characters says
‘Les cons, ça ose tout! C’est même à ça qu’on les reconnaît.’
Pratwits…they are capable of anything. That’s how you know them for what they are.

The pedant would soon tell you that is not French…not proper French. ‘Les cons’ is plural and ‘ca’ is singular…
What the pedant can’t tell you is why audiences – French audiences – rolled about.
If you want to connect with old France…find a Youtube download with subtitles to make things easier…and enjoy.
The scene where the assembled crooks sample the products of the illicit still is a classic.

Audiard was also responsible for the dialogue in another of my favourites…but I don’t think that it is subtitled…
‘Les Vieux de la Vieille’ where a trio of First World War veterans decide they are better off in an old peoples’ home than in their own – until they meet matron.
I saw the last of the world that that film depicted….in all its hardship and obstinacy…when I was first in France.
But then…I knew my neighbours.

I’ll let the pedants tell you how to pronounce ‘crapule’ while I leave you with a classic from Georges Brassens

‘Quand on est con, on est con.’
You can be an old ‘con’ you can be a young ‘con’…but you’re still a ‘con’.

Becoming an Expat…Costa Rica

BECR eReader coverWe first came to Costa Rica almost by chance…

It was a foul winter in rural France, the cold just seemed to go on and on and we wanted a break. More than a fortnight.
Friends agreed to house sit and we looked for a destination.

In his working life my husband had travelled widely…but apart from a promotional trip to Miami on Concorde had never visited any of the Americas.
So the Americas it was…the warmer bits thereof.

He had also been worrying for some time about climate change as it affected us in France.
When we were first there you could almost always have Christmas Day lunch outside in a sheltered garden…by the time we were looking for a holiday destination you’d have needed six layers of thermals and a death wish to have attempted anything of the sort.
The summers were rainy and dull, too and there were bursts of extreme weather, both hot and cold.
We needed to explore other options.
He had been thinking about it and came up with the idea that the tropics at altitude would see the least change….so that again narrowed the field of destinations.

So not just a holiday….a recce.

This changed the focus…not just a break somewhere warm…but somewhere we might think about living.
On to the internet to check out residence requirements and, most importantly, affordable and adequate health provision.

I fancied Uraguay…not tropical enough.
Ecuador? Costa Rica?

The flights to Costa Rica were decidedly cheaper….so that’s where we went.
We came, we saw and were conquered.
We bought a house in the country to escape the winters in France and, over time, decided to make the permanent move.

We did our research ‘on the hoof’….but the book whose cover features at the top of the page would have saved us a lot of legwork….and here’s my review of it.

Becoming an Expat in Costa Rica by Shannon Enete

I really rate this book for anyone contemplating a move to this country.
It is chiefly aimed at the U.S. would-be expat – you’ll note this in particular in the sections on tax and education – but the major part of the content has value for everyone.

It covers the usual path…residency, rent or buy, description of various areas of the country, but also takes you through the bus or car decision, the health options and how to move without tearing out your hair.
It is detailed…it lays things out for you.

It gives the author’s personal views, interviews with settled expats and well researched background material and for me it rings true to the Costa Rica I know.

Are there things I would suggest?
Yes, one or two….

Not all Ticos are ‘Angels’ – though a lot of them are: there can be Tico and Gringo prices where these are not clearly marked, and, if you’re buying property or doing a deal out in the sticks, there is the international phenomenon whereby a countryman thinks that if you don’t speak his language or patois you are an idiot and can have the wool pulled over your eyes.
Some can be quite annoyed when you can’t…..

A warning about not trusting someone from your own country just because he or she speaks your language might have been apposite too….the unscrupulous and exploitative expat is also an international phenomenon.

I would have liked a section on San Jose itself….but I’m prejudiced – I love the city and it has some wonderful places to live as well as to visit.

Yes, Costa Rica has greedy politicans intent on running the country into the ground…but tell me where hasn’t!
It is still a good place to live, and this book would be a great help in making up your mind whether it would be for you.

The book is available from Shannon’s own website

http://www.becominganexpat.com/%23!costa-rica/cxbx…

She tells me that Amazon have a wait of between 1 to 3 weeks….or by order from Barnes N’Nobles,and is also available in Kindle, Nook and iBook editions.

Marmite!

greatbritishmag.co.uk

We were expecting friends for dinner…..the dining room table had been cleared of papers, tablets, bills and blood pressure monitors….the kitchen harboured plates, cutlery, glasses and serving dishes…the pud had been made, starters likewise, packets of mixed nuts and maize crisps were ready to have their foil seals violated by the knife…

And then came The Intervention.

I am not always sure if the internet is a blessing or a curse.
I use it to check out stuff…but don’t have a lot of confidence in it…I use it for telephoning family and friends through Skype…and, of course use the e mail and blogging functions.

My husband uses it to encourage his enthusiasms.

We have undergone a number of these enthusiasms in our time, notably kitchen gadgets…but just lately watches which don’t work but which seem to cost a fortune if the customs catches them in transit have been in favour…taking over from bitter almond kernels, seeds from India which arrive in matchboxes and sprout into alarming monstrosities, and, of course, socks.

But, revenons a nos moutons….
I was just sorting out the veg and the main course when suddenly my big saucepan was confiscated.
He had found the lees of the banana wine which I had planned to dump on the compost heap and had…thanks to the internet…decided to make Marmite.

Previously we could buy Marmite at the Queen’s birthday party at the British Embassy…but the new very PC ambassador doesn’t want to continue the tradition….

So we are dependent on visitors for supplies. Unless we want to fly to Miami and I am blowed if, even for Marmite, I will enter the hell that is an American airport with its bullying staff and thieving baggage handlers….not to speak of paranoid immigration officers and customs officials intent on confiscating the ingredients of my picnic.
I have been sorely tempted to thrust a liquorice stick into an orange and mark it BOMB in felt tip pen….but they have no sense of humour and would inevitably take it amiss.

The Belgian visitors are exemplary…not only do we get Belgian smoked fish, the best chocolate in the world and cheese that would knock your socks off but they ransack the English Shop for Stilton, pork pies and, of course, Marmite.
But no Belgian visitors are due for another year and the supplies brought by our last visitor from London will run out before the next batch arrive from Europe.
Though I shall ask the visitor coming from South Africa if Marmite is available in Cape Town….

So, passing the number of jars in review, husband had grown alarmed and had consulted the internet.
Which had supplied the answer.
Yeast….the wine lees.
And my saucepan.

Chef assumes the controls.

An area of the work surface is cleared….carrots, onions and celery commandeered from my prep area, chopped and put on to boil….

I find a smaller saucepan, pick out more veg, and find a corner of the stove to blanch them….

Where’s the funnel? I want to pour off the bit of wine on the top.

Pause for rummagings in the cupboard under the sink as things best left undisturbed emerge blinking into the light.

Why do you keep the souffle dishes in here?

Further pause while souffle dishes are removed to the cupboard where I keep my dry goods.
I seize the moment to drain my veg and run the cold water over them.
Tap turned off.

Don’t get water in my yeast!

Veg rescued and removed to be tied up in chive ribbons before going into the fridge.
Wine poured off and drunk.

Why don’t you leave the wine on the lees longer…this is much better….
Smaller saucepan seized, put on the stove and the lees poured into it.

Just give it a stir from time to time…don’t want it sticking.

Technical details attended to he retires to the balcony.

I now have two saucepans in use and two gas rings. I have dinner to prepare. One involving a few pots and pans.
And I mustn’t forget to stir the lees which look a bit like the estuary of the Amazon on a windy day.
Or let the assorted veg boil dry….

The clock is ticking.

Chef returns.

Where’s the colander?

More rummaging in the cupboard under the sink.

Why do you keep this conical strainer in here?

Pause while the chinois is removed to the cupboard where I keep the spices.

The colander is placed over the saucepan containing the lees and the veg water poured into it.

I thought you didn’t want water in the yeast….

This is stock.

I rescue the pan, put the veg aside for the dogs, and put on water to skin my tomatoes.

All is returning to normal….tomatoes skinned, garlic cloves ready to go, chicken cut into portions, butter in the freezer for the sauce….

Table laid, I retire to the shower.

A head round the door.

Aren’t you stirring the yeast?

I reply that as the shower operates on water, not stock, I had thought it unwise to bring the saucepan in with me.

Do I have to do everything? Why is it that I’m the one who has to worry about when we run out of Marmite……

Chef retires to stir the yeast.

Cleaned up, dressed and aproned (I am a true muckworm when it comes to splashes and stains) I return to the kitchen.
Chef retires to the shower.

Progress is made. I am up with the clock.

Where are my socks?

I had, unforgivably, moved them to a drawer in the new wardrobe without leaving a trail of arrows pointing there from their previous abode.

The estuary of the Amazon now looks as if the tide is going out….

Duly socked…if only…Chef emerges.

Are you stirring it?

Our friends arrive….the mud of the Amazon is removed from the heat and an enjoyable evening begins.

It is while I am turning in circles wondering where my conical strainer had gone…ah yes, of course, in with the spices…. that I hear Chef informing our friends that he had spent the afternoon making Marmite.
Being Costa Rican, they are not familiar with this nectar of the gods so he comes in to take an opened jar and a couple of spoons to give samples.

As I whisk the butter into the strained sauce I hear the voice of Eduardo….

And you spent all afternoon making this?
Whatever for?

Learning the Language


It’s not so simple, learning the language.

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.

Cansado…tired…cansow.

I must be getting somewhere with the local version, though,  because when I bought a train ticket in Barcelona recently the ticket clerk replied:

Pura vida!

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

Muchacho.

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?

A Muddle of Mentalities

costa rica phone lines www. happierthan a billionaire...

I suppose culture shock only exists if you have enough of a handle on the culture concerned to realise that it differs from your own…..and that culture doesn’t have to be foreign.

I remember being on holiday in Luxor years ago where my husband taught me to swim….well, to keep afloat…in the pool at the hotel.
There were not many guests in the hotel, but those around the pool seemed all to be British….middle aged couples and a few families with children, most of whom were in the pool, throwing balls about and enjoying splashing as much as swimming.
We were reading in the shade when we became aware that a little girl was parading round the surrounds of the pool and that in her wake people were gathering up their belongings and heading for the hotel.
Our turn came and we too skedaddled.
The little girl was pulling forward her swimsuit bottom and asking if we wanted to see her willy.

Whatever was going on there, it was certainly culture shock and we wanted no part of it!

Running recently between Costa Rica, France, Spain and England I had an exposure to different cultures – so brief in the case of Spain that I hardly had time to register more than that the cleaners all seemed to be of Arab appearance and the ticket clerks laughed and said ‘Pura Vida’ when I booked my train journey using my best Costa Rican Spanish.

In France friends told me of their troubles with their bank…..who did not take out the standing order which paid their mortgage and promptly took them to court for non payment.
They were lucky enough to have a tough minded retired Belgian lawyer friend to stand up for them as it was clear that the court was minded to ignore the fact that the bank had not taken the money in order to concentrate on the non payment……

How French!

And I have just read the latest episode in the dreadful saga of the Hobos in France blog…apologies, but I cannot get a link to work…which bears out my own and others’ experience of the French legal system…if in doubt lose the papers and if all else fails…lie.

Coming from a background of English law, it shocks me…but I have a nasty suspicion that the English legal system has now gone so far to the dogs in terms of accessibility that it is emerging at the nether end.

The Costa Rican legal system has…so far…been good to me and I do like the attempts made by the judge to reconcile the parties…..as far as possible from the English mindset where it is thought that if the parties have come to court it is because no reconciliation was possible and the court is there to try the matter.

But there is a general reluctance in Costa Rica to have an open disagreement….it is seen as impolite and uneducated to brawl and shout the odds.
You express your disagreement non verbally…by not doing whatever it is that the other party wants.

So I followed the Costa Rican cultural norm when considering what to do after a conversation with another immigrant who lives up on the mountain between us and the town.

He is an American, or, as I have now learned to say, North American, and is a lawyer.
He bought his finca from another North American, and became distinctly disgruntled when he became aware of the difference between the price he paid and the sum his seller originally handed over. In consequence he has become somewhat of a dog in the manger where his property is concerned.

I met him on the back road to town and, amazingly, he stopped his car and got out. He does not usually speak…I suppose as he isn’t being paid to do so he spares himself the effort.

Bypassing the usual courtesies he informed me that the poles bearing the ‘phone line which passes over his property belonged to him. A man had offered him a good price for these poles….but he would give me the chance to buy them, in order to be able to keep the ‘phone line.
Unimaginable…that he thinks I’m stupid enough to come up for that, and that anyone would even contemplate threatening to remove someone’s ‘phone access.
Not to mention that there are several others on this line…among them men with machetes…

My first instinct was to tell him to stuff the poles where the monkey stuffed the nuts…..but, being in Costa Rica, I smiled and said I would think it over.

Up in town I dropped into the ICE offices (electricity and telecommunications) and recounted my tale to Don Carlos on the desk. He telephoned someone in the back office who emerged, print out in hand, to demonstrate that the poles belonged to ICE and that any attempt to meddle with them would meet with disapproval.
He then attempted to sell me a mobile ‘phone to be able to contact them should any such thing occur.

So, sure in my rights, I did nothing.

But if he comes the old acid again I shall encourage Don Antonio to remove the copper cable whch runs over his land, carrying the power for the North American’s water pump.

Pura vida!

Listen to Mother….

I should have listened to mother.

Years ago she had decided to visit me in France using Eurolines, the international coach service. This followed a visit coinciding with a French rail strike when instead of arriving at Lille by Eurostar and catching a connection to Angers she found that the Eurostar had decanted her in Paris at the Gare du Nord.

She worked out that she needed to get to Montparnasse station and headed for the Metro…which was also on strike. Never say that French workers lack in solidarity. So it was a taxi or nothing.

It looked like nothing to judge by the numbers waiting at the station rank, but pushing forward the British Legion badge on her lapel and sweeping ahead of her with her umbrella as if searching for landmines she marched to the head of the queue and commandeered a taxi, whose driver proceeded to try to give her a scenic tour of the French capital.

Not for long. A poke in the shoulder with an umbrella and a sharp cry of

‘Montparnasse, not Versailles!’

had him returning to the straight and narrow and mother arrived safely at her destination. She did not, she informed me, pay what was on the meter nor did she give him a tip. Given the queues at Montparnasse I thought it likely that he’d soon make up the shortfall, even if careful to avoid elderly lady passengers with umbrellas.

So, her next trip was to be by coach.

I came to meet her at Tours, where the coach stop was directly in front of the magnificent station building….I found a parking space and although the coach was late arriving it was pleasant to sit in the gardens nearby.

Finally it pulled in, the doors opened to emit a miasma of blue smoke and mother leapt out, grabbing my arm and hissing

‘Quick! the loo!’

I directed her to  station, persuaded the driver that I was to collect her suitcase by dint of recognising it, then followed her into the building, which always seems as if oversized for the traffic it carries, the main line trains passing it by, using the suburban station of St. Pierre des Corps. Still, the delightful tile depictions of the towns once served from here still adorn the walls, pleasing me as always while I toddled down to collect mother from the loo, only to find her arguing with the gorgon on the gate.

‘She wants me to pay for loo paper’ announced mother. ‘I’m telling her I have my own. Never travel on the continent without.’

‘This lady won’t pay for the facilities. How does she think they are kept clean…?

I coughed up, mother declined the sheets of loo roll huffily and the gorgon subsided.

Over a coffee in the pleasant bar at the front of the station, mother, less ruffled, announced that she would be returning not by Eurolines, but by train.

‘There are limits’.

‘What limits?’

‘I didn’t know when I booked that the coach was going to Madrid. It was full of Spaniards, smoking and playing loud music….including the driver. And I couldn’t use the lavatory.’

‘Was it out of order?’

‘I’m telling you. The coach was full of Spaniards….of course I couldn’t use the lavatory.’

Mother was of a generation that did not use public loos unless in extremis…and if forced to do so would hover over the seat, convinced that she would catch something unmentionable in a place not to be displayed even to doctors should contact be made. But what had deterred her in particular?

‘They were Spaniards! With all that absinthe and Spanish fly goodness only knows what you might catch!’

Spain, then, had been admitted to the list of nations of whom mother held a dim view, thus joining…

Poland – wartime pilots wearing hairnets and silk stockings (how the blazes did she get to know that? Enquiries found her as tight lipped as Ron Knee)….

Belgium, because as a small girl she had seen a First World War Belgian refugee wearing a wig, while everyone knew that Belgians had thick necks (my husband was  examined very closely as to the neck in disconcerting silence on first acquaintance)…. –

The U.S.A.,  thanks to Joseph Kennedy….

South Africa, because her uncle had served in the second Boer War….

and, of course,

France, where nothing more than the name need be pronounced to provide full and complete explanation.

I can’t claim the moral high ground here…I have plenty of prejudices. They just don’t coincide with mother’s.

But I do try to be wary of the stereotype…that handy device which removes the need to think about the person to whom you are speaking by submitting a pre programmed response.

We’d discussed this once when English friends had came to lunch, bringing with them their French architect and his wife. We’d all agreed that none of us were like the national stereotypes we had been brought up on and the talk turned to examples.

My father’s stereotype of the French was as follows..
‘Buggers let us down in 1914…buggers did it again in 1940…can’t trust them as far as you can kick them.’ He also used to refer to the French army as the Comedie Francaise. He applied the faults of the higher echelons of French society to the entire nation and regarded every Frenchman with suspicion, while as for the women….!

My tutor’s stereotype of the French differed from that of my father..
The French were civilised, concentrating on the good things of life, the leisurely lunch, the wine, the foie gras and indulging in sophisticated conversation in cafes about philosophy and literature.
While as for the women…!
While the two views are not mutually exclusive, they would lead their proponents to behave in radically divergent fashions to any Frenchman…or woman…they encountered.

It would not have occurred to my father that a war time generation Frenchman, having been conscripted, would have spent almost the whole of the ‘phoney war’ period being bussed from one garrison to another only to find his regiment in entirely the wrong place when the German blitzkrieg roared across the frontiers, thanks to the miscalculations of his superiors, despite the fact that my father spent a great deal of vocal energy on the idiocy of those responsible for having the big guns at Singapore facing the wrong way when the Japanese came visiting, a lot of his friends having gone into captivity as a result. I don’t think a post war generation Frenchman existed for my father…..his view was formed by two world wars and stayed in that frame.

My tutor thought that every French citizen was a Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre in miniature….if it is possible to be smaller than Jean Paul Sartre…..thanks to their education system which demanded an exam in philosophy as part of the bac…the French equivalent of ‘A’ levels. It probably never crossed his mind that the majority of French kids just about scraped through the ‘brevet’ – a sort of leaving exam taken at the age of 16 – and went on to manual work, because he had his fixed idea of French civilisation which firmly excluded anyone not from the leisured classes.

My own stereotype was based on the novels of Georges Simenon…..only to discover later that he was Belgian (no, I don’t know about the neck) and had his own twist on France!

Our friends’ stereotype was based on the French rural idyll….unspoilt countryside, the vendange and the  peasant in his blue overalls enjoying a drink at the bar. I know where that particular view came from…the magazines pushing property and services!

The architect was astonished by these stereotypes…none seemed to him to be how he thought the foreigners thought of the French. Based on what he had read, he thought that foreigners assumed that the French were logical, serious, hard working people with a glorious military history and unique civilisation.

I don’t know what he had been reading, but it doesn’t astonish me…you do read an awful lot, even these days, about France’s civilising mission in the world…. well, you do in France.

In his turn, he gave us his stereotype of the British. We had let the French down in two world wars and at Suez. We were pawns of the Americans and only joined the Common Market, as it was then, in order to let the Americans and Japanese in by the back door. We were unintellectual, operating on instinct, not reason, and, moreover, we had burned Joan of Arc.

Thank goodness we did not fit any of the stereotypes! Lunch would have been a disaster!

Mother did indeed round off her visit with a return by rail, fortunately uneventful, and I thought no more of Eurolines until this December when faced with the fact that Ryanair would charge more to carry my luggage than to carry me and that the coach would land me directly in London which would avoid heaving luggage any further than the ticket office to book a seat for my onward journey.

I booked. Uneventfully. This was, however, the only thing which went well until my arrival at Victoria coach station in London.

The first incident was my own fault.

I was staying with friends and on the day of my departure they had invited people to lunch. Having no wish to have a beautifully cooked lunch ruined by having to fend off impertinent and persistent questioning from one particular female invitee I decided to leave early and take a walk round Tours, followed by a supper in the bar at the station to fill in the time before departure.

The bus arrived, and took me across a soggy countryside to Poitiers where I hauled the luggage from the bus station to the train station and took a modern push me pull you to Tours….having to sit near the loos as there was nowhere to park the suitcases.

At Tours, disaster struck.

No left luggage facility. There was not, it appeared, the demand for it.

The clerk suggested leaving my bags at a cycle hire operation down the road from the station, so, hauling the bags round and through the chaos consequent upon installing a new tramline complete with discarded take aways and doggies’ calling cards I went in the direction indicated. It was closed.

I returned to the clerk. Would there be a left luggage facility at St.Pierre des Corps… the main line station? He could not say, not working there himself.

I headed for the bar. No, I could not come in with all that luggage. Security. What, then, am I to do with it? Go to the cycle hire operation down the road…..

Thank goodness I had taken sandwiches and water for thus it was that I spent eight hours in the unheated waiting room of Tours station with all the other fools who had thought that a station would have somewhere to leave your goods and chattels.

Thanks to the clerk…sitting in the heated part of the waiting room area…I had already learned that Eurolines no longer took up passengers outside the main entrance to the station.

No…..they now used a halt laughingly called ‘The Poplars’ nearly a kilometre away down a side road. By this time it was raining.

I took myself off to ‘The Poplars’ about half an hour before the coach was due, to give me time to check in, but found that the portacabin bearing the legend ‘Eurolines’ was firmly shut so sat in the bus stop with a Portuguese couple going to visit their daughter in Holland and a Roumanian violinist waiting for his daughter to arrive from Austria. We had a most interesting conversation about economic conditions in Portugal, Roumania and France which was just as well because the rain had become persistent, the cold was all pervasive and a heated conversation was the only warmth going.

A coach! The violinist went to investigate. Not ours.

A second coach. No, not that one either….

A third…Yes! We rose and headed for it to load our luggage. No problem. Then we tried to board the bus. Where were our boarding passes? What boarding passes? The boarding passes we were to obtain from the office…..

A shadowy female figure was just unlocking the portacabin.

We trecked back through the rain, the violinist took the keys from her to unlock the door and we were inside, only to wait while she fired up her computer and printed out a page upon which she could tick us off in pencil. We were given the boarding cards and returned to the coach.

What about the violinist’s daughter?

She’d be on a later coach, he said…but at least he could wait in the office.

The shadowy female figure had succeeded in locking it up before he could get there. He waved to us from the bus shelter.

As the bus started, the man in the seat in front pushed his into reclining position, squashing my knees….bang went any sleep or comfort, but this was only toughening me up for the horrors to come.

After a halt in a deserted car park to change drivers – why there? – passengers for London were chucked out at Lille station at 5.30 am, to stand with our luggage in the wind tunnel produced by the surrounding buildings, unable to get inside as the doors were not open.

It rained, the wind gusted….an employee turned up, shot through the doors and closed them again. Not until 6.00 am did they open and the troupe then divided into those too frightened to miss the connecting coach and those so desperate for warmth that they were thinking about taking the Eurostar.

I was among the latter, haring for the lift to the lower section and then for the loos, manned by the employee who had shot through the doors earlier. It was warm there….and I contemplated sitting on the loo for the next hour until the bus was due, but abandoned the thought and went out into the great chill of the concourse.

The doors above, once firmly shut, were now fully open, letting in great gusts of icy wind. Coffee was available, the usual disgusting robusta dispensed in French caffs, but such was the need for some warmth that I gave in and bought one. It hit my stomach like volatile spirits and I headed back to the loos.

C’est chiant, said the attendent. I agreed. This was nothing like ‘Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis’.

Up again, to stand in the entrance hall, rain now dripping through the roof on to the only seats. Coaches came and went. A whole tour party of Germans arrived and disappeared into the maw of the building. A local tour party assembled and departed.

Finally the Eurolines coach turned up…with no Eurolines sticker and nattily painted with tropical beaches and palm trees – the last turn of the screw. I thought.

Off again. For some reason I thought we were to make a ferry crossing, but instead we headed for the forlorn surroundings of the Chunnel…and more fun!

Luggage off, hauled through security with hulking young men watching weary passengers heave suitcases onto the scanner belt.

Passports. Loos.

Luggage on…but we were a passenger missing. Another hulking young man boarded the coach shouting

‘Bulgarian people.’

Dressed in uniform as he was and sporting the modern fashion of a shaven bonce I wondered if he was about to give a political speech but it seemed that he was looking for a Bulgarian person who could translate for their unfortunate fellow countryman who had just been stopped and searched.

The Bulgarian people disembarked, to return some ten minutes’ later with their compatriot who was clearly not at all happy in voluble Bulgarian. The coach drove into a sort of shoebox with little windows and we were off …back to England, home and beauty.

Never again…..not at any price…not to save any money…..will I use Eurolines.

Much as it pains me to say it, I should have listened to Mother.