Emperors clothes lost in translation

macron pilote

Presiedent Macron of France visits his decidedly unimpressed troops.

As usual he has dressed up for the occasion, this time taking from the toy box a uniform with insignia showing him to be a pilot….

Previously he had had  himself lowered from a helicopter to visit a nuclear submarine…wearing naval uniform….

As President, he is head of the armed forces which entitles him to wear appropriate uniforms, but in a man who had not undergone military service – normal for someone of his age when there was no compulsory conscription – it is a bit rich to assume a qualification – as pilot – which was certainly not awarded during his stint at the Ecole Nationale d`Administration.

No doubt some devotee of the ancient art of Arslikhan issued him with said uniform…but as head of the armed forces he should have recognised and declined the pilots`badge: the armed forces are notoriously chary of those who flaunt what they have not earned.

In the wake of a row with the chief of the general staff  over fiddles in the defence budget to make Peter pay Paul, Macron had proclaimed to a gathering of senior officers that he was the head of the armed forces and that any question as to his care for their interests was out of order.

Tell that to the poor buggers sent to fight in Mali in obsolete personnel carriers…

Needless to say, Macron`s uniform fetishism has formed the subject of exchanges with French friends…none of whom had or would have voted for him even against Le Pen.

For all of us he is the product of a media campaign supported by the proprietors whom he helped into their positions when a minister in Hollande`s government…a creature of the banks and big business.

So, as always, the consolation of the downtrodden is to extract the urine.

We imagined all the situations in which Macron could dress up…..

He could visit a creche wearing a nappy…

He could visit the Pope dressed as a choirboy…fine for this Pope but with his predeccessors better to go dressed as a nun…

He could make a state visit to Russia stripped to the waist and mounted on a horse a la Putin…

Or what about his arrival to salute the winner of the Tour de France…clad in head to toe lycra? No, forget that…the winner was not French.

Having taken President Trump for a meal  in a restaurant  in the Eiffel Tower perhaps he would follow that up by inviting another head of state to the Crazy Horse…clad in a G string with feathers sprouting from his posterior…

And just imagine his costume to receive the organisers of the Gay Pride March!

Come to that, what would Madame Macron, who would have been a worthy winner of a Butlins Knobbly Knees competition in her time,  be wearing?

brigitte macron

Given what she has been wearing to date, the mind boggles….and surmises…but French gallantry negates further speculation.

But then it occurred to me…we were laughing at Macron in a particular context…the context of French history and culture: we were comparing Macron with de Gaulle, with Giscard d`Estaing…we were laughing at a reference from one of Audiard`s films…Un Taxi pour Tobrouk… where one of the protagonists whose father worked for the Vichy government proclaimed that his father respected the law so much that if the Chinese took power he would become a mandarin and that if the Africans took over he would put a  bone in hs nose – while best not to contemplate what he would have to do if the Greeks took over..

How the blazes do you translate the sense of all that?

I know that I cannot…and have every respect for professional translators who manage to convey not only the sense but the nuances of the message of the speaker.

No nuances necessary, though, for Macron`s  speech at the Vel d`Hiv on the 75th anniversary of the round up of 13,000 Jews, including some 4,000 children, by the French police. They were crammed into the stadium for days without food or water before being shipped out to concentration camps whence but few returned.

He proclaimed that France was responsible for this atrocity…echoing Chirac, the first French President to acknowledge state responsibility: he criticised earlier Presidents…Mitterand, de Gaulle, for their refusal to do likewise.

For Macron, Vichy France was France: while one can understand the reticence of Mitterand given his associations with Vichy one can also understand the refusal of de Gaulle to accept that the Vichy regime was a legitimate government given his position as leader of those who opposed it tooth and nail.

Either Macron has no sense of history, or wrongly believes that the scars of the defeat of 1940 and its consequences are healed: in any case, he took the opportunity to condemn anti semitism in round terms in the presence of his guest, Netenyahu, President of Israel, and to agree with the latter that anti-Zionism was but another manifestation of anti semitism.

Which is where another serpent raised its head.

You can be Jewish without being a supporter of Zionism and to conflate the two is either a remarkable feat of ignorance…or a sop to his guest before calling on him to soften his policy towards the displaced Palestinians.

While those who are in fact anti semitic will take the opportunity to call Macron the Rochschild candidate once more those who are not will have further doubts about his ability to master any part of his role other than that of issuing soundbites……and wearing uniforms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solis swallowing wasp

Travelling? Not Just Now…

rain-in-puriscal

We have both been under the weather lately and the weather seems to have been under the weather as well….

Normally at this stage of the rainy season we have sunny mornings followed by cloudbursts and thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening so there is plenty of time to go shopping and get the washing out in safety.

This year we have three volcanoes blasting their socks off, rainstorms for which cloudburst is a totally inadequate description giving of their best at all hours of day and night, thunderstorms creeping up on you unexpectedly at which point you beat  Usain Bolt to get into the house to pull out all the plugs and when rain and thunder take a breather you find yourself living in the clouds – an  occasional glimpse of the top of Grifo Alto being vouchsafed to you when a breeze shifts the white world enveloping you.

And with the rain comes landslides and with the landslides comes an absence of telephone and internet until the men from the electricity board struggle out to do repairs.

Oh…and powercuts. Not many, but neatly timed to catch you when you are cooking supper after dark.

Thus anything involving the oven takes place before lunch: evening recipes favour items which can be stirred with one hand while holding a torch in the other.

Still, at least it is warm, though we must be acclimatising as we found ourselves grumbling this morning at 5.30 am when the temperature was only 21°C which is 69° Fahrenheit for those who have never come to terms with Celsius.

Give me 21°C in the U.K. and I`d probably be shedding the cardies at a rate of knots which would astonish an exotic dancer…here and now I am wondering where I put the woolies.

Not only have we been under the weather…so have the dogs.

Poor Sophie was run over: a visit to the vet sorted her out, but although she came out all bathed and beautiful with a red ribbon bow round her neck she also brought with her a bug which laid her so low that only Leo`s devoted nursing pulled her through.

He sat with her through three days and nights, keeping her hydrated and warm until the little thug returned to herself, by which time the bug had spread to the others, manifesting itself in seas of vomit and diarrhea – just what you need when getting washing dry is not high on the weather`s agenda and washing the floor means going over it with a dry cloth afterwards unless you fancy it being a skating rink, given the absence of breeze to dry it.

Deep joy.

So our  travelling plans have been put on hold until we and the weather are on top of ourselves again….which may be some little time.

Not that we have been entirely confined to the house….

I went to San Jose a couple of times to retrieve documents from the water board and, returning, called Danilo from the bus to meet me at the bus stop nearest the house – now accessible again after three years as the bridge has now been repaired.

As usual, I said I was at Los Abuelos and asked him to pick me up at the Maravilla.

In so doing, I had fallen into the nature of giving directions in Costa Rica… where vital points are not all that they seem….

Los Abuelos was a big family style caff on the main road to the capital….it closed three years ago when the electricity board discovered that paying its bills  had become a very low priority.

La Maravilla was a depot which closed down two years ago.

Danilo obviously knows where both are….but without local knowledge you would be sytmied.

Looking for a government office in San Jose some years ago I was told to follow the railway line and turn left at La Luz.

Railway line…yes. La Luz, however, turned out to be a caff which had disappeared some twenty years ago.

Street directions which involve the Los Pinos depot…which has been closed for ten years  leaving no trace left behind…

Turn right at the fig tree…yes, you`ve guessed it. It is now a six lane roundabout…but you still turn right.

Go past the German`s place and turn left at the football pitch. The German left years ago and the football pitch is now a bus depot.

But, thinking back, indirect directions are not new to me.

At one period in France we had a house in a road called the Rue de la Francmaconnerie; in reality a tiny alley in the centre of the old town.

However, as I was to learn, no one seemed to call it that.

It was referred to as `la venelle qui mene ver La Biche`: literally the alleyway leading to the doe.

Eat your hearts out, Costa Ricans! Make sense of that!

In fact the alleyway, after a few twists and turns, did indeed end up opposite an old door with a doe`s foot serving as a knocker.

pied de biche

But why was the doe`s foot knocker of greater importance than the official name of the street?

Because the door was the entrance to the oldest of the men`s clubs of the town…a place where everything was settled over  a few hands of cards and rather more glasses of wine. It had an official name, but everyone called it the Pied de Biche.

So, just as in Costa Rica…you had to know!

 

 

 

 

Close the door, they’re coming in the window…

Second round of the French Presidential elections coming up….and Macron is well in the lead over Le Pen according to the polls.

How could he not be? The press – whose present ownership was assisted to its position by Macron when a minister of Hollande – is behind him and the established political forces are calling for that hoary old standby – the ‘front republicain’  – to preserve France from the shame of a victory by the Front National.

Vote Macron to keep out Le Pen.

It is 2002 all over again when people walked into the voting booths with pegs on their noses to vote Chirac in order to crush the other Le Pen, this one’s father.

There was even a man who took his wish to avoid contamination to the lengths of going to vote in the full fig of a deep sea diver…boots, helmet, the lot.

And, the power of the ‘front republicain’ behind him, Chirac won 82% of the vote.

But will Macron win by a similar landslide?

Should he?

Before examining the current state of affairs, we should take a look at the rise of the Front National.

A tiny Poujadist movement, it would probably have died out early in its life if not given impulsion by that most sinister man, President Mitterand.

First  President from the PS (Socialist Party) in the Vth Republic he was determined to beat off the challenge from the traditional right wing parties and maintain the PS in power. To that end he promoted the Front National.

He instructed the television channels to give more air time to Jean-Marie Le Pen, so raising the profile of the FN which then profited from Mitterand’s imposition of proportional representation in 1985.  Thirty five deputies from the FN were elected in 1986, giving the party a presence in the National Assembly which it would have been unable to achieve under the previous system.

The Front National was on its way. Thanks to a Socialist President.

In 2002 the FN had again to thank the PS whose candidate, Jospin, was so arrogant – entitled, one might say – that he thought it useless to spend money campaigning in the first round…he was sure to be put through to the second.

I can see him now…self satisfied prat…. pictured walking to his campaign H.Q. called L’Atelier – the workshop. He wouldn’t have known what a real workshop was like if it had bitten him and bite him it did.

The workshop – the real life one – sat on its hands. recognising what the PS was becoming – a party for the entitled where the locals did the  work and the golden boys and girls were parachuted in to safe seats.

As Jacques Brel notes so well, the bourgeoisie can make all the right noises in its youth…but it remains the bourgeoisie.

And with the end of the trente glorieuses – the years of the post war settlement – well behind it, the workshop started to wonder about its future.

Was it safe in the hands of the PS?

Clearly not with Jospin….but it rallied to the call for the ‘front republicain’ to preserve the values of French society when faced with Le Pen senior.

Chirac was succeeded by Sarkozy, whose opponent from the PS was Segolene Royal: her campaign was run by her ‘partner’, the father of their four children, Francois Hollande, First Secretary (boss) of the PS.

He sabotaged her campaign from  first to last. Sarkozy won.

Next time round the PS candidate was…Francois Hollande.  Quelle surprise.

He won, by not being Sarkozy. By saying that he hated the rich. By promising to bring Merkel’s Germany to heel.

We all know where the last promise went…a capitulation on the lines of Petain in 1940.

Hating the rich? Another capitulation.

But at least he was not Sarkozy.

Under Hollande France has stagnated. Unemployment has risen. Ordinary people see no future for their children.

Support for the FN has burgeoned in these circumstances…promising as it does a return to old values….to stability…to the known, rather than the uncertainty of modern life …..and Hollande has been content to see it burgeon because, like Mitterand, he sees the FN dividing the right.

But Hollande sees further than Mitterand: he sees the FN dividing the left as well, to the benefit of the established….the bourgeois, the servants of the banks.

Not content with demolishing the campaign of Segolene Royal, he has demolished the campaign of the current PS candidate, Bernard Hamon, by giving his support to Emmanuel Macron….the man who sunk his own ambitions for a second term.

Hollande has, once again, betrayed his party. One wonders who has bought him…..and for how much.

I find it shameful that these politicians not only sell themselves…but sell themselves so cheaply.

So, we turn to Macron.

The next president of France.

He has a ready made party – En Marche.

Funded by? His well connected friends in finance and the media.

His programme? To gain power.

His backing in the National Assembly? To be determined…..his party’s candidates in the forthcoming national elections have not been announced. Possibly because enough rats have not deserted their sinking ships yet.

Except, of course, from the PS.

At his rally in Lyon all the well kent faces were there….Hollande’s ministers,  looking for another safe billet….those right wing politicians who opposed Sarkosy…

Shown the door by the people…they climb in through the window.

Le plus que ca change, le plus que c’est la meme chose…

Vote Macron and you vote for the incompetents whose rule has led France into the impasse.

Vote Le Pen and you vote for another corrupt party.

Mindful of the struggle to obtain the vote, were I able to vote in France I would vote blanc.

Support neither candidate.

I could not vote Le Pen…but neither would I wish to see Macron with a vote which would legitimate his presidency.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring, Tra La..

I have just returned from an unexpected trip to England and blearily reviewing it a day after my return the images that remain have been those of the flowers that bloom in the spring.

When I left, the trees were blossoming here.

The llama del bosque

flamboyant tree llama del bosque

The roble

roble

The cortez Amarillo

cortez amarillo

On arrival in England the roadsides were covered in gorse in full flower – though its coconut scent was dulled by the chill – while  swathes of Spanish bluebells were taking over  from  tulips in the suburban gardens. Trees displayed that freshness of leaf undulled by the summer heat to come, the structure of their branches still visible under the sheen of green and, to my surprise, the horse chestnuts were coming into flower in the London parks where clouds of blossom were cast into relief against the Cambridge blue skies.

 

hyde park in spring

I remembered then Browning’s ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’..

OH, to be in England now that April ’s there
And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough         5
In England—now!
II

And after April, when May follows

And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover         10
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over
Lest you should think he never could re-capture
The first fine careless rapture!
And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew,         15
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower,
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

There spoke the exile in his Florentine retreat – though goodness only knows what he found to be gaudy in the flower of the melon, that most unpromising  harbinger of sweet delight.

I was happy to see England in the springtime again, but cannot feel the regrets of an exile. I was privileged to have grown up with it, to have known it, shall never forget it, but cannot say that I hanker for it, any more than I hanker for England itself.

There were other flowers in evidence during my trip: those laid by people in memory of the policeman murdered at the gates to the Houses of Parliament.

Poor devil: he died, as have so many of his colleagues before, at the hands of a deranged person while doing his duty – in his case, guarding an entrance whose gates had to be left open to permit ministers to be driven to the Commons in time to cast their votes in a division.

Perish the thought that a minister should wait for an instant at a gate closed in the interests of the security of all those working in the Palace of Westminster.

They might be shot at if kept waiting? Good. The world would be a safer place if ministers were forbidden to have protection. Might give them pause for thought before putting the rest of us in peril and I suspect that – to paraphrase another song from ‘The Mikado’ – they’d none of them be missed.

In the aftermath of P.C. Palmer’s death we had the politicians braying that ‘terrorism’ had not succeeded in bringing down British democracy….

Of course terrorism hadn’t brought it down: the same politicians and their ilk had already done for it with their slavish adherence to the dogma of ‘public bad, private good’ when it came to principles of government, with the gerrymanderings of the Boundaries Commission, with their interests (paying) outside the House.

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation.

Currently, like Ko-Ko in the second verse, there are plenty of people whose attitude to the flowers that bloom in the spring is to say that they have nothing to do with the case.

The Prime Minister has called a snap election, putting her trust in the British media to depict her as a female Moses who will bring her country to the promised land…..the land promised to private enterprise, where access to health care and education will depend on the ability to pay for it; where those thrown out of work will be demonised; where those too ill to seek work will be driven to suicide.

Given her proven ability to change tack while at the Home Office I imagine that once she has gained victory the new Moses will reveal herself to be Aaron, presenting the golden calf  for public worship.

I cannot fathom people….more and more of them are living with the effects of unemployment and the resulting lack of tax revenues to fund proper services and yet the turkeys still vote for Christmas at the bidding of the butcher.

Flowers in France too, for the policeman killed on the Champs Elysees as the country goes to the polls in round one of the Presidential election.

The outgoing President Penguin congratulates himself on his record…yes, well done, thou good and faithful servant of thyself. As first secretary of the Socialist Party you sabotaged the campaign of that party’s candidate (and the mother of four of your kids), Segolene Royale, to gain the presidency and now as President you have sabotaged your entire party and given your support to the bankers’ candidate, Macron, whose chief claim to expertise in economic management seems to lie in having transformed the millions he made while working at Rothschilds bank into wallpaper for his flat.

Panic in the dovecotes at the thought of Marine Le Pen gaining power or, probably worse for the powers that be, Jean-Luc Melenchon  who said of the press reaction to his growing presence in the polls:

“Once again, they are announcing that my election win will set off a nuclear winter, a plague of frogs, Red Army tanks and a landing of Venezuelans,”

Roughly the sort of thing that the British press says about Jeremy Corbyn.

One thing is sure…if the British vote for May and the French for Macron then both countries can forget the years of social justice…..the golden calf will be a full sized Minotaur before they can blink and the hopes of themselves and their children will feed its maw.

Thoroughly depressed I set off on my return….U.K. to Costa Rica via the Netherlands and Canada. Yes, I know….but Scots blood will out: the fare was less than half that of the direct flight.

A change of flight time at the last minute left me with an overnight at Amsterdam Schipol, guarding my luggage like a broody hen its egg as the check in would not open until morning.

It was a salutary reminder of how nice people are: a young woman offered me one of her biscuits and accepted a cucumber sandwich in return; an armed policeman looked after our bags while we went to the loo and the gentleman at the coffee stall brought our drinks over to us to save us  from moving our mound of cases.

And then the flowers that bloom in the spring reappeared. As the dawn broke, the tulips in the tubs outside the Departure area began to glow with what looked like an internal light…strange, other worldly and utterly beautiful.

A good note on which to leave Europe….a reminder that while all seems dark there is yet hope.

And to greet me on my return….sitting on my desk….this little orchid. A true welcome home.

IMG_20170421_150525

 

 

Continue reading “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring, Tra La..”

People Find Costa Rica Frustrating….

sloth

There are, I  must admit, times when you feel like rolling your eyes, such as when you find that the lawyer responsible for the control of water use in your canton was appointed for a one year term some seven years ago and since then has been carrying on his business without having his nomination confirmed by the council.

Then you bring into consideration the fact that no one has contested his decisions – and certainly not on the grounds of total illegality – so when the council gets round to sorting it out and making him legal again there will be no practical difference.

Unless, of course, they appoint someone else….without informing the Environment Ministry or the lawyer concerned…

Let joy be unconfined!

It is a matter of studying the practicalities of life rather than the legalities when you live in Costa Rica, but I have seen some meltdowns on the Wagnerian scale among North American immigrants during the adjustment period.

I have more than a suspicion that I would not have taken things so lightly when living in France….but France goes in more for the letter of the law than the spirit.

Mark you, looking at the spirit of France, perhaps the letter of the law might be less restrictive.

All this came to mind when reading a post on a blog which I enjoy very much dealing with the renovation of a large house in the French countryside: there was a problem with the woodwork..and a potential problem with the man who was to solve it…the artisan francais.

In my experience those who were ‘living the dream’, having moved to France, were united in their praise of this specimen…repository of age old wisdom combined with the most modern techniques…

I can only suppose they had never encountered a proper tradesman in their previous lives.

Thus something I blogged about at the time:

Cometh the hour, cometh the artisan francais.

The problem is not so much the hour as the day, the week, the month, or, in some cases, the year. When will the blighter turn up? Will he ever turn up, come to that? More worrying, would it be best if he never did turn up?

The ‘artisan francais’ is the generic term for the French craftsman and covers everything from the plasterer to the local baker, but I prefer not to think about the baker at the moment, having grazed my gums on the razor sharp crust of a loaf with a lead weight interior, the result of his not following the instructions on the sack of ready mix from which he concocts his burnt offerings. I really must go to the supermarket and get some decent bread, made by guys who do follow the instructions.

All this comes to mind because this is the time of year to have the chimney swept, and I have summoned up M. Lalou and wife to come and see to it. It is a marathon job here, chimneys all over the place and no inspection traps, and they do a super job, even cleaning out the wood stove in the kitchen while they are at it. So why am I so annoyed? It is because Team Lalou cannot touch the chimney which serves the boiler and for this I have to wait for the boiler man…sorry, the ‘artisan chauffagiste’. The Lalous are perfectly capable of disassembling and reassembling whatever would be necessary, but they know and I know and, what’s more, the boiler man knows that if anything were ever to go wrong with the boiler or the chimney, the insurance would not cover the damage, as an unqualified person had intervened. I wouldn’t be too convinced that the insurance would work anyway to judge by my last experience. There was a violent storm two years ago which knocked out some bricks from a chimney stack which in turn damaged the slates on the roof. I duly descended on the bar at lunchtime, hijacked the local roofer, who calls himself Monsieur Misery because he is to be found everywhere – this is what passes for a joke in France – and sent his estimate to the insurers.

Two months later, by which time I had given up and sent M. Misery up to make the repairs to avoid further damage, the insurers smugly replied that according to the nearest meteorological station no high winds had been reported in my area and they weren’t coughing up. Their nearest meteorological station proved to be some 50 kilometres away. It wouldn’t be too much to expect that if there were to be a fire in the boiler chimney, I would be found to have used unauthorised fuel! Anyway, insurers are universal. I sincerely hope that the artisan francais is not.

The boiler man will come when he thinks fit, cancel goodness only knows how many firm appointments when richer pickings loom into sight, will do all sorts of unnecessary things and present me with a bill of eyewatering proportions. Or rather, he will send his underpaid assistant to do the work, reserving to himself the delights of making out the bill. I could not believe the first bills I received…I was paying more in the backwoods of France than I had been in central London! My senses have becomed deadened by repetition these days…the frisson of horror at the sight of the envelope from the builder is nowhere near so powerful.

Why don’t I get another boiler man? Because the artisan francais doesn’t believe in competition and one man won’t touch anything on another man’s territory. To each his prey. Further, he has a strong suspicion that if he touches the lash up the first guy made of the job, he will get the blame when inevitably it all goes for a can of worms.

To some extent I can understand their taking on work which they can never hope to carry out in a reasonable time, infuriating though it is. It is very difficult to sack an employee in France, thanks to legislation cooked up by an unholy alliance of unions and employers which may be appropriate to large enterprises but not to the little firms of electricians, plumbers, etc who also fall under its sway. Thus, even when things are booming, a little firm will not take on staff to meet the demand because if later there is a downturn, the wages of these staff will have to be paid even if there is no work for them to do.

Further, they have to pay an enormous amount to cover the social security payments for themselves and their employees, which is one of the reasons why the bill with which they present you is so exorbitant. Your money is not going to pay the workman’s wages so much as to support the immense waste and extravagance of the French social security system. There are genuine benefits, like paid time off work while ill, but there are also the parasitic elements, like the private ambulance services who are more like taxis than ambulances proper and whose bills are reimbursed by the social security budget. Sit in the waiting area of any French hospital and you will find as many ambulance drivers as patients. Many of these patients are perfectly able to go to the hospital unaided but, as the service is paid for by the state, they take full advantage. Your plumber’s bill will reflect this state of affairs.

Not every part of your massive bill is explained by circumstances outside the control of the artisan. These days, the taxman demands that his estimate and bill include every nut, bolt and widget that he proposes to use, itemised and costed. Gone are the days of ‘one septic tank and installation 50,000 francs’. This is fine for the taxman, even if the artisan has to take a lot more time concocting the fantasia with which he presents you when you ask for an estimate for repairing the gutters, but it does the client no favours.

Being a small business, there are no economies of scale. The artisan typically will have an account at the big builders’ merchants who give him a discount of ten per cent of the value of his purchases at the end of the month. As he passes on all his costs to you, he is not too worried how much he spends…that ten per cent glistens ahead of him at each purchase. Some of the brighter sparks are now buying at the discount DIY warehouses…where the quality is excellent… and pricing to the client at the builders’ merchant prices, which more than compensates them for the loss of the ten per cent.

I have just had a bill from my plumber for replacing the thermostats on my radiators. He is charging me eighteen euros for units I have priced at what I suspect to be his supplier at three euros. Everyone is happy…the warehouse has made a sale, my plumber has made a small fortune on fourteen radiators and the taxman can see fourteen units in and out of his books with value added tax duly paid. Who am I to strike a discordant note amidst all this rejoicing?

If you wish to get to know your area really well, employ an artisan to work on your house. He will start, then disappear without warning. You will have to retrieve him from all the other jobs he has started only to disappear without warning. Touring the area, you will see his van outside someone else’s house and it is now down to you to stand at the foot of his ladder if he is visible, or knock on the door and and seek audience with him if he is not. He will be a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel

‘They seek him here, they seek him there’..

but being made of better stuff than the average French revolutionary you will dig him out of his hiding place and persuade him to return. I used to have a lovely little dog who liked to dig around the footings of ladders….he was a great force of persuasion in his time. Apart from recovering the errant artisan you will meet some very nice people…other clients on the same quest…and discover that your village is more interesting than you thought.

He has returned, and it is now that your troubles begin because he attempts to do the job for which he has contracted with you. You have clearly in mind what you want while he has clearly in mind what he proposes to do…the match will not be perfect.

I wanted an extra telephone line run into the house. It could run along a ledge which circled the house at first floor level and enter the house through a hole on the rendering to come out where I wanted it, in a room on the first floor. Invisible. I explained this, and went off to the garden. Luckily I returned before too long, to find the brute about to make a hole in the ornate plasterwork ceiling of the hall in order to bring the wire through the front door, up the stately stone staircase and along the first floor landing! To make matters worse, he proposed covering the wire with those dreadful white plastic strips that disfigure all French house interiors. Very visible, and using a lot more by way of materials for which he could charge me.

More important was the problem with the builder doing my kitchen extension. Having seen the rest of the house I knew that I needed a damp course. He prevaricated

‘We don’t have damp courses in France.’

That is self evident, you only have to look at the problems of damp in French houses. I insisted. He finally agreed and then I did something stupid. He had disappeared for while, so I went off for a week. He must have had me under surveillance because while I was away he struck. I returned to find the exterior wall in place, but no damp course. The kitchen had to be dry lined, all my kitchen measurements had to de redone and the dry lining was, of course, an addition to the bill.

He and his guys had an endearing habit of mixing a load of cement at about ten to twelve and then knocking off for two hours for lunch. The cement, now well solid, would be chipped out and dumped under any handy shrub. This is so common that there is a phrase for it..’cadeau empoisonne’…the poisoned gift. My lawnmower did not appreciate it.

Well, you might say, why do you reserve your venom for the french craftsman? There are bodgers and cowboys all over the world. Because they’re what I’m lumbered with by the French system.

According to their national assocation, you can trust the French craftsman because he is qualified and knows his stuff.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

You can become a qualified whatever you want if you can show three years’ experience and can pass a course which shows you how to fill out your tax forms. I know of one expat builder who specialises in turning out suitably pre qualified workers….one week they’re drawing unemployment benefit, the next week, when the pressure from the labour exchange becomes too strong to withstand, they are roofers. Working on three storey buildings on crippleboards…the unstable wooden scaffolding what somehow becomes invisible when a labour inspector visits the site….they undertake the skilled job of replacing a slate roof. Or they become plasterers. There is another special word to describe the style of plastering they offer…’rustique’ – rustic. If you see a plastered wall with undulations visible in dim light, surreal scraper patterns and the odd lump of unmixed plaster, that is ‘rustique’.

I wouldn’t place money on the ones who have done an apprenticeship, either.

Plumbers want to leave all the pipes exposed

‘for when there is a leak’.

What do they mean…’when’!

Electricians want to festoon the walls with wires covered by white plastic strips

‘for when there is a problem’.

Why do they think I am employing them, rather than just creating the problems myself?

The only reason I will have the artisan francais on my premises is because, nomatter how bungling his work, nomatter how ugly the results, nomatter what damage he causes…here, lovers of Flanders and Swann will begin to sing ‘The Gasman cometh’ and anyone who does not know Flanders and Swann can jolly well rectify the situation…

the insurers will not pay if anyone but an artisan francais does the work.

Since, given their level of competence, there will be problems, you will need the insurers to pay.

Thus, you have to employ the artisan francais.

QED

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.

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.