Category Archives: france

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

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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.

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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.

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In a Changing world Some Things Rest Eternal

avocats

I have long left France, but news still reaches me.

Not the national stuff – there are newspapers for that – but the important, the local, stuff.

Recently the wires have been hot with the mystery of how the chemist managed:

A) to get enough dosh together to buy racehorses. Answer, the sale of suppositories

and B) whom did he bribe and with what to be able to take over the farmland on which to keep them which should have gone to the new entrant to farming who had completed all the formalities and was just awaiting the final accord. Answer not yet forthcoming, but my hounds are on the scent.

However the geegees have faded into the background for the moment as a new subject has appeared on the horizon: a variant on the old standby of the local lawyers.

They can always be relied upon to be a source of interest, from various estimates of their venality and incompetence to proof thereof as witnessed and paid for by their victims – otherwise known as clients.

Their method on taking on a new client is first to go to the window to see how much his car cost in order to formulate their eye watering demand for an initial provision, followed by a cursory read of the papers to see whether or not any local bigwig is involved in which case they will either

A) discover a conflict of interests

or – for the more machiavellian among them – B) take the case in order to obtain an outcome satisfactory to said bigwig, no matter what the cost to the unfortunate client before them.

However, this time they are at war with themselves.

Every couple of years they elect a council headed by a shop steward (Batonnier) to represent them to third parties and to maintain internal discipline – let no one charge less than the maximum….but this time they seem to have caught a tartar by the tail.

One can only imagine the man to have been a sleeper, placed there by some outside body years ago until his moment came to be elected as Batonnier and he threw off his disguise to reveal himself as someone who thought that the law should be applied to his flock of black robed vultures.

French lawyers are obliged – by a decree dating from 1991 – to undertake training to update themselves as to the state of the law. If general lawyers miss a year they can make it up the next year, but those claiming to be specialists have to do ten hours hard every year and the new Batonnier discovered that several of his colleagues – specialists – on the council not only had done nothing of the sort but clearly did not intend to do anything of the sort.

They complained that he was adopting a legalistic attitude….and then decided to cover their backs by passing a regulation, applying only to themselves,  which put off until 2017  – after the term of office of the Batonnier ends – the obligation to comply with the legal requirements of 1991…

Let us recap…lawyers decide to avoid their legal obligations by awarding themselves immunity….and complain that their Batonnier has no respect for the old Spanish customs of the local legal fraternity when he demands that the requirements of the law are observed.

Infuriated, the Batonnier removed those who in his view were no longer qualified as specialist lawyers from the appropriate part of the official list of local lawyers – where they now figure as mere generalists.

Outraged, the demoted called a meeting and demanded the resignation of the Batonnier.

But there is no known procedure for stripping a Batonnier of his office….and the gentleman in question promptly referred the demand for his resignation to the local prosecutors office to be heard by the regional Court of Appeal.

His colleagues, now decidedly humpty, have decided to ask for the case to be dismissed as they claim that they were not made aware of the proceedings and have not had time to read the papers.

The more cynical of their clients note that that has never stopped them going to court before….but then, this is different. This concerns them.

People here  frequently complain about the idleness, incompetence and general shadiness of Costa Rican lawyers…..but their French counterparts beat them into a cocked hat.

Reassuring to know that some things never change….as long as you are well away out of their clutches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As they Revel in the Joys of Renovation

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It’s not always as much fun as this – clambering about in a roofless wreck dating from the fourteenth century; a stone spiral staircase in the remains of the tower and an unsuspected vaulted cellar below, discovered when the termite specialist from the town hall fell through the floor into its entrance.

‘What bad luck,’ said the neighbour. ‘Fill that in quick before the archaeologists find out about it.’

My husband is a serial house renovator, beginning in the evenings after work  in London as a young man when his haggard looks on arrival at the Stock Exchange in the mornings prompted his then boss to counsel him not to be out on the tiles every night. Stifling the urge to respond that actually he had been under the joists he remained quiet and just smiled mysteriously when colleagues asked him how he managed to pull the birds so successfully.

He continued in France…..but there was an obstacle to progress.

The artisan francais.

In that time and in that place the artisan francais was the bodger supreme and the client did as the bodger told him as he, the bodger, was, after all, the artisan while the client was only the client.

You wanted a damp course installed for the new kitchen? Fat chance.

A. The bodger didn’t know what it was

and

B. The bodger didn’t intend to find out.

Instead, should you be rash enough to go away for a week the bodger would promptly dry line your kitchen instead thus putting out all your measurements for the units.

What with that and the habit of mixing up a barrow load of cement just before lunch and dumping what remained unused in the shrubbery it was clear that the artisan francais was not the answer to prayer.

Then a friend in the village – a Turk married to a French woman – put us on to a friend of his, another Turk running his own building business.

We had struck gold.

His estimates were reasonable and accurate; he knew what he was doing and he had an eye and a feeling for old buildings.

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He and his main men – the mighty Osman and the monosyllabic Ramazan – supplemented by the young men straight from Turkey, undertook the heavyweight stuff; removal of walls, replacement of roofs, replacement of rotten beams with RSJs, laying floors, making arches and doorways….our part was the follow up work; pointing, painting, puttying and grouting. Uncomfortable though they were, given the endless metres of tiling I had to grout the bogging pads certainly saved me from an attack of grouter’s knee – something which sounds as if it should have been celebrated by Rambling Syd Rumpo:

There were arts to learn…an RSJ does not look at ease alongside ancient beams: the answer is to enclose it in a plasterboard case, then mix up a gunge of glue and plaster which is slapped on with a liberal hand, combed to imitate wood grain and anointed while wet with walnut stain.

Sounds naff…looks good and certainly fooled every expert.

To restore limestone mouldings perished by the weather you could buy a powder called ‘Patrimoine’  – but it wouldn’t last unless you first applied Bondex to the site to be restored. And at that period you had to bring your Bondex from England.

Bringing old wrecks back to life was a joy.

Some we lived in, some we rented out, others we sold on straight away, but each was a pleasure.

When you can find this old lady, windows broken, water running down the walls,

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and restore her dignity

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You feel that all the work was worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hope on the Jobs Horizon for France

bearn

France has chronic unemployment….in certain sectors.

If you are the ‘fils de papa” (well connected) you will have a non job which brings in the uckers for the rest of your life, whereas if you are the ordinary sort of chap whose mother did not cavort with her husband’s boss between the hours of 5.00p.m.and 7.00p.m. (le cinq a sept) in the interests of advancing her husband’s career then you are likely to be either unemployed or employed on a short term contract offering very limited social protection.

Are there alternatives?

Yes, setting up in an independent business. A one man band.

That has always been possible  and Sarkozy made it easier, but, France being France, only if the proposed business fits within the procrustean beds of recognised activities.

Severely restricted activities.

So you can imagine the rejoicing when a judge in South West France expanded the categories: a previously unrecognised activity has now been accepted – in jurisprudence  at least, if not by the taxman.

It all happened in Bearn…

Bearn…in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Bearn…home of Henri IV, King of Navarre and France, who brought the country out of the Wars  of Religion by negotiating  when he could  – Paris  is worth a mass – and fighting when he must  – Battle of Ivry – but remaining always his own man.

henri IV

Given the said Henri’s reputation with the ladies it is always possible that the farmer from Bearn who gave rise to this case was one of his descendants as he too negotiated before taking action as we shall see.

Theft from farms has been a growing problem in France and this farmer, like most of his kind, had locked up what he could and nailed down what he couldn’t before setting off with his bulldozer to continue his activities as a guardian of the countryside.

On his return, he found that he had visitors…a couple in an old van who, despite the frustration of finding little that would not need a forklift truck to remove, had stuck to their task and were carrying off the battery from his electric fencing system.

The farmer negotiated. They idea was that they would give back the battery and remove themselves from the premises.

This is the Paris is worth a mass bit: no point reporting it to the gendarmerie as the likely response would be the Gallic shrug accompanied by an inspection of his bulldozer to see if they could fine him for something.

So his visitors started up the old van and turned for home.

Unfortunately in their haste to depart they ripped out part of his irrigation system…which is when the Battle of Ivry bit came to the fore.

He might not have been wearing a white plume in his hat but it was with a certain panache  that he revved up his bulldozer, pushed the van into the bed of a stream and, as his visitors took to shanks’ pony, reduced it to a total wreck.

You can almost see him spitting on his hands and setting off for a celebration where wine, women and garlic vied for pole position.

Some time later, however, he had a nasty surprise.

A summons.

His visitors had complained about his activities and the local prosecutor had taken up their complaint…..the farmer could not take the law into his own hands.

This would come as a shock to any French farmer, accustomed as he is to blocking the highway at will, dumping manure in supermarket car parks, raiding the said supermarket’s shelves for alien produce and burning imported lambs alive in the lorry which has transported them.

None of which activities arouses the interest of the forces of law and order.

So, off to court.

You do wonder, sometimes, about people….their ability to appreciate the nature of causality…

For example, in my little town, an elderly person whose custom was to offer pre teens an Ipad or mobile ‘phone in return for mutual display of genitalia was so annoyed when one pre teen ran off with the ‘phone before the display could take place that he toddled off  to the police station complaining of theft… and was very surprised to find a police squad on his doorstep a few days later, wishing to investigate his computer before carting him off to the jug.

Where he will, if so inclined, have time to meditate on the theories of David Hume while he plays billiards with the Mikado’s elliptical balls.

In the case before us, however, while the visitors had seen fit to complain that the farmer had done them material and moral damage they seemed to have overlooked the chequered history of the male visitor’s encounters with the law.

Which landed the said gentleman with three months in the jug.

If there is room in the jug, which is, at present, running waiting lists worthy of a three star Michelin restaurant.

His lady companion, however, was unknown to the judicial computer and after due deliberation the judge awarded her a derisory sum for the loss of her van…but a considerable sum for the fact that the loss of her transport had deprived her of the chance to earn her living.

Which is where we return to the expansion of employment opportunities in France….

If  thieving is now recognised as an activity worthy of the protection of the law then there are an awful lot of people ready to avail themselves of that  protection….entrepreneurs: no more hiding in the shadows, running around in clapped out vans….buy a BMW and put it down to the company……

Though perhaps she was an estate agent…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Skip ‘2theloo’ in Paris

the louvre

You’re in Paris. You’ve done the sights, you’ve done the shopping and your feet are asking why you didn’t wear more sensible shoes.

You’ve collapsed into a chair on the terrace of an establishment where you order coffee and a pastry.
Your order arrives: the pastry was clearly aptly named being strong on the paste and light on the filling.
The coffee appears to have been made from ground chicory roots seasoned with a suggestion of Robusta beans roast to a cinder.
You understand why the guidebooks recommend that you take a pastry with your coffee when in France….the unadulterated liquid would hit your stomach like a dose of nitric acid and have you convulsed on the floor in seconds, posing an obstacle to the safe passage of waiters.

To cap it all, the price is astronomical, but you console yourself with the notion that you are, after all, on holiday and can afford some of life’s little indulgences, while hoping to goodness that you’d packed the Alka Seltzer.

Then, inevitably, someone needs to go to the loo.
Usually mother.
She departs, only to return at speed to declare that the state of the conveniences resembles old Tangier in time of plague and, with a suspicious look at the crockery, that your cup seems to have a crack in it.
The bags are gathered and your party departs.

But mother still needs to skip to the loo.

You spot one of the Tardis installations on the corner. A sanisette.
self cleaning loos

These are self cleaning loos….and some, to gladden a Scots heart, are even free.
The paying ones gladden a Scots heart even further….yes, you have to pay, but when your sixteen mates slip in as you open the door to come out they get a free shower as the cabinet cleans itself. Thoroughly.
Just the thing after a celebration of victory on the rugby field…who am I trying to kid…

Mother has seen one of these before and regards it with deep suspicion but as the only other alternative is another high risk coffee she resigns herself to the worst and enters.

But these days are over for the highspots of Paris…and in the mainline stations.
There is an alternative to using a public loo….in fact, a whole new concept!

You can use a ‘2theloo’ restroom.

Rather like the old Marks and Spencer advert…this is not any loo, it is a ‘2theloo’!

According to the company’s blurb, these offer an entirely new concept of….going to the loo.

For a start, the usage is – almost – free.
You buy a ticket…and receive an immediate discount on the price of the goods in their online shop….which sells everything…. toilet.
You can buy this combined loo roll holder and magazine rack for only fifty five euros, though you’d need a serious bowel complaint for the ‘discount’ to be worth having there…:distributeur-papier-wc-et-porte-revue-trinium

Or – for those commuters who harbour unlovely thoughts of the ’emmerdant’ suburban Paris metro system – this:
abattant-wc-metro-parisien

And even this….don’t worry, you don’t have to take it away with you:
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The service is claimed to be more like a home experience: for example you can pay a supplement to use a Japanese superloo.
Now, this might bear out the ‘home’ nature of the experience as I reckon I’d need an hour with the instruction book before approaching the thing without a suit of armour and a sharp stick.
In the somewhat hurried circumstances associated with using a public convenience I suspect that the thing would blow me sky high on a blast of hot air worthy of a politician at election time before I’d finished fiddling with my faulds.

Their loos are not only clean…but soundproof.
Perhaps this is to reassure those who run the taps while having a pee. but I’m not sure that that is an advantage. At least those trapped in a Tardis can bang on the walls and shout for rescue.
The fate of the three old ladies comes forcibly to mind.

But ‘2theloo’ have thought of that.

There are attendants.

Not the traditional gorgon with her saucer of small coins and barbed wire entanglements surrounding her stash of loo paper…no, someone who can speak a couple of languages – to explain the Japanese kamikaze machine perhaps; someone who can sell things like the items pictured above to desperate punters whose mind is on other more urgent matters.

And this is where I would urge you, should you be thinking of visiting Paris, to skip ‘2the loo’.
Skip…as in don’t use their facilities.

Because ‘2theloo’ has taken a contract to operate these restrooms with the Ville de Paris (City council).
It succeeds another private operator, which was delegated by the Ville de Paris to run the loos.
That operator continued to employ the ladies who were previously employed by the council – at equivalent, though hardly munificent, rates of pay.

2theloo, holding a straight contract rather than a delegation, has refused to take the ladies with the loos.
The company spokesman has said that the company would be willing to interview the ladies for any positions vacant – though without respect to their pay and seniority – but doubts that they would fulfill the company’s requirements.

The ladies would, it was felt, be too stuck in their ways to accept the company’s way of working…too independent…not experienced in sales techniques.

And anyway, claims the company, they are not running loos…they are offering a concept… so there is a clear break which justifies them in not continuing to employ the ladies.

They tried this when they opened restrooms in the mainline Paris stations, but without success. SNCF – French railways – insisted on continuity of employment and its ladies are still in place. From what I remember of those ladies in my time if they tell you that you want to buy a thousand euro Japanese toilet…then that’s what you’ll be buying if you want to escape with your life, so the company could be making a big mistake in trying to get rid of them.

But the Ville de Paris is doing nothing to support its loyal workforce who face a miserable future, even if they win their claim in the Prud’hommes (the labour claims court): no big union is marching in protest…they are just ordinary ladies whose security has been torn from them by some smart alek set up who intend to make a fortune from human necessity.

The Emperor Vespasian, who set up the first public loos in Rome in the first century A.D,.was reproached as having bad taste in taxing the collection of urine as a source of ammonia to be used in tanning leather.
His response?
Pecunia non olet. Money doesn’t stink.

In this case, it does.

So, please: if you visit Paris…
Skip ‘2theloo’.

And now, just for fun and very little to do with the above, here’s Georges Brassens’ homage to his ladyfriend, the ’emmerderesse’.
Lyrics in French and English here.

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