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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope on the Jobs Horizon for France

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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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:
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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.

Mr. Magouille.

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A French friend sent me an e mail today.

‘Read the paper! Open a good bottle!’

So I turned up the local rag on line and found the item to which he referred:

L’ex maire de ‘St. Supplice’ definitivement condamne’.

Not, unfortunately, to the guillotine, but to a disqualification from holding public office for three years and a fine of seven thousand five hundred euros, in respect of an illegal use of his powers while maire of his commune.

As it was by then lunchtime I did indeed open a good bottle in celebration.

I had known this man…I bought my first house in France from him.

Well, not exactly from him as he was then disqualified from any financial dealings and everything was in the name of his wife.

The notaire, well oiled in the after lunch appointment to finalise the sale, had been discursive.

The gentleman had been involved in property speculations in the Var and had gone spectacularly bust. I was left with the distinct impression that while going spectacularly bust might have been marginally acceptable, doing so in the department of the Var…in the south of France…put the man beyond the pale.
Rural France, la France Profonde, may not be fond of Paris….but it is definitely agin the south of France.

He – or his wife – had bought a chateau in dire need of repair….the last owners, three maiden ladies known as the ‘six fesses’ – three bare arses – due to their parsimony, had finally given up the struggle to maintain life in the one room which was not dripping with damp and the property speculator had struck.

He had a plan.

By selling off the peripheral properties ( thus my house purchase) he had enough money to finance the initial repairs: he managed to make enough of the chateau habitable to be accepted by social services as a foster parent….and as the money rolled in the chateau was fully repaired – to be fair, he and his wife did a great job with the children they fostered – and he was regarded as a respectable citizen.
Not by me…I had had the benefit of the notaire’s indiscretions.

So much so that, with support from right thinking persons, he became maire of St. Supplice.

But the old Adam of property speculation was strong within him….

As so often in France, the local council owns a number of buildings in the commune.

In St. Supplice, it owned the building used for years as the Post Office…and when La Poste, in its eternal quest to reduce services and increase prices, decided to close down its office the council, with the maire at its head, put the building up for sale.

A value was determined by Les Domaines – a government agency which handles public property – and the game was on.

An offer was received from a Belgian resident of the commune.
The offer was rejected, although over the valuation arrived at by Les Domaines.

The maire authorised the demolition of some of the outbuildings of the Post Office.

An offer was received from a company owned by the son of the maire, whose capital depended on a loan to said company from the old dad.
This offer was under the valuation arrived at by Les Domaines.
It was accepted.

The Belgian gentleman protested.
The maire – on behalf of the council – replied that as the outbuildings had been demolished the value had been reduced and the offer accepted reflected the reality of the situation.

You have to realise, when dealing with anything in France that you have to follow the advice of the White Queen to Alice and practise believing six impossible things before breakfast….otherwise madness lies.

So while you might think that the reduction in value made the Belgian’s offer even more attractive, shifting the goalposts – or the outhouses – allowed the council to assume that it would have to accept a lower offer.
An offer made by the son of the maire.

The Belgian, not having been brought up on Alice, was not impressed.
He sued the council.

And, in particular, the maire.

The maire’s lawyer claimed that the maire had been badly advised.

The court was not impressed. The maire was disqualified from public office for three years and fines seven thousand five hundred euros.

The Belgian claimed consequential loss….the court refused to accept his plea.

The maire appealed.

The regional Court of appeal threw it out.

He appealed again.

The Cour de Cassation (Supreme Court in this instance) threw it out.

Collapse of stout party.

But having had a nap to recover from the good bottle which had been opened I turned the matter over in my mind again.

Yes, the maire had been disqualified for three years…dating from 2013. He’ll be free to stand again from March next year.
Agreed, he has had to cough up seven thousand five hundred euros…but – given that he (or his son) has bought the old Post Office for a song – that is chicken feed.

The Belgian, on the other hand, has been deprived of the power to buy the property.

The commune has been deprived of the extra amount which the Belgian was willing to pay for it.

Another triumph of the French justice system.

That wine begins to taste sour.

Cold Turkey

Mother was a very good cook…in the English tradition.

Her roasts were superb….her Yorkshire puddings rose like fairy castles…..her suet dumplings were light as feathers….and, recognising the innate viciousness of cabbage, she boiled it to death, its spirit haunting the house for an hour before lunch.

She could – and did – make strudel pastry; pulling gently at the ball of dough until it covered the sheet laid out on the dining room table.

Her boiled and baked puddings – spotted dick, jam roly poly, Sussex pond pudding, black cap, Saxon pudding, Bakewell tart – were a sheer delight.

Her cakes equalled those of her mother…her pastry was a dream, from shortcrust, sugar crust, to choux and hot water paste….

And then she discovered convenience foods.

Paradise lost.

It all started with a frozen turkey.

Normally we had had a goose from the farm…but the farm had been sold and mother had been seduced by the promises of the Irish milkman – the curse of Cromwell upon him – that the frozen turkey which he would deliver would be a revelation.

It was.

He delivered it on Christmas Eve in the afternoon – his round, you understand, having taken longer to complete thanks to the kindness of customers wishing to share the Christmas spirit whose aroma was thick about him.
By my reckoning that turkey had been on his milk float for at least ten hours but it showed no sign of defrosting…. on pulling off its coverings it resembled the glass mountain of the fairy tales of Andrew Lang – not just in its glossy appearance, but in its size.

In that period beef brisket joints were referred to as ‘oven buster’ as they tended to break loose from their ties and resume their original shape when cooked.
This was an oven buster of a different kind.
It was massive.

Father was out.
Luckily, as he had been decidedly sceptical about the delights promised by the milkman.

Mother and I looked at each other, at the turkey and at the oven.

Six hours to go until midnight when, by our calculations, the beast should enter the oven.
At all costs a meeting between father and the glass mountain was to be avoided.

We put the beast in the sink in the back kitchen and turned on the tap.
The water, while lapping the draining board, only came up to the turkey’s plimsoll line……this would never do.

The dog, arriving to investigate the turkey wrappings, gave us the inspiration.
Out in the shed we had the tin bath which we used for washing him…it was big enough to cover him once he had been wrestled to a sitting position, so it must be big enough for the turkey.

No sooner said than done.

Out to the shed, grab bath.
Drag bath into the back kitchen
Dog legs it to sanctuary under my bed.
Wash out bath with jugs of water and tip out into sink (turkey having been removed previously to glower from the groaning draining board.
Dump turkey in bath.
Fill bath with jugs of water.

Make cup of tea. Eye turkey.

By turning the thing every half hour we finally managed to extract the plastic bag containing the neck and giblets at a quarter to twelve: the oven was lit, goose pan found and the turkey dumped inside. It filled the oven completely, its parson’s nose touching the door.

Father returned in the early hours of Christmas Day having taken it upon himself to travel to the other side of London with friend to visit said friend’s cousins whom father had not met for years.
Doubtless drink had been taken at some point in his peregrinations.

We knew father had returned because – in an attempt not to raise the household – he entered via the door to the back kitchen and fell over the bath.

Somehow we escaped food poisoning that Christmas, and mother was on a roll.

Vesta dehydrated chow mien made its appearance.

Betty Crocker cake mixes leered from the cupboard.

And then she discovered frozen fish.

And tinned condensed soups.

And how to combine the two.

Supper time would be heralded by the a new aroma: that of a lump of indeterminate fish baked in the oven in a mix of milk and condensed mushroom soup.

Forget Proust and his blasted tisane de tilleul…..for years afterwards the whiff of cooked mushroom would bring back those days when food turned to ashes……

So when moving to France, shopping in the commercial sector of my local town – Chiottes la Gare – would often bring back those days….as there was a large factory on the edge of the sector turning fresh button mushrooms into canned sliced suede and on ‘cooking’ days the air was thick with the smell.

Mushrooms were relatively big business in the area, which was rich in the limestone caves ideal for the temperatures required in mushroom cultivation and the roads around were busy with lorries carrying mushrooms for processing and mushroom compost for improving the soil…..so much so in fact that the smell of mushrooms being cooked began to be identified with the town rather than with mother’s latter day cooking epiphany.

But alas….veni, vidi, vale….the mushroom factory is no more.

The parent company – Bonduelle – has shut it down leaving its one hundred and thirty eight employees out of work.

One hundred and thirty eight people – and the families who depend on their earnings – thrown on the heap.

A hard blow for a town which has just lost another major employer.

Jobs were initially offered at a plant in the neighbouring department – quite a commute, and no public transport, but people were willing to take it on. Anything is better than no job in modern day France because there aren’t any other jobs, search how you like.

But the jobs have not materialised, so the one hundred and thirty eight will have to fall back on the generous provision for those made unemployed.

Except it isn’t going to be generous.

The plant was owned by an agricultural co operative – France Champignon – before Bonduelle took a fifty three percent share in the co op and proudly placed a Bonduelle sign on the wall of the factory.

Now, the France Champignon sign is back because Bonduelle claims it is not responsible for the fate of France Champignon (despite its fifty three per cent holding).

What Bonduelle actually means that while compensation for sacked workers is generous in the industrial sector – Bonduelle – it is laughable in the agricultural sector – France Champignon.
Thus the changing of the sign.

A company which can swallow a fine of thirty million euros imposed by the European Union for rigging the mushroom market without blinking is content to fall back on a shabby device to cut compensation for employees sacked through no fault of their own and at the moment that is is refusing negotiations, its publicity air balloon sails over the factory: always a budget for publicity.

But where are the protests? Where the unions filling the streets with their members? Where are the politicians in their tricolour sashes, marching to support their townsmen and women?

Noticeably absent.

There is only a minor union presence in France Champignon/Bonduelle. The mighty CGT doesn’t deign to offer support, local politicians shrug their shoulders.
That’s just the way it is these days.

And the way it is these days goes some way to explaining why ordinary people turn their backs on the traditional power bases in France – venal unions who only represent eight per cent of French workers and couldn’t give two penn’orth of cold gin for the rest: equally venal politicians combining as many elected posts as possible to touch the allowances and pensions which go with them…..is it any wonder people listen to the message of the Front National?

As people in England listened to that of UKIP.

Both parties present themselves as alternatives to the current major parties while in fact they have the same structure, the same fault lines.

But when you feel that the life you knew is going down the drain you don’t look too closely to see whether your lifeline is fraying.

You grab and hope.

If You Knows of a Better ‘Ole….

better 'ole
When we added an extension to this little house it took the form of a wide wooden balcony running the length of the house and more…the further part being divided off to make a large bedroom with more windows than walls: the palms and the guapinol tree with the red orchids in front; the bamboos and wild poinsettias at the side; the bougainvillea and more poinsettias behind, all reflected in the mirrors.
It’s as close as we can get to having the outdoors inside, and to keep the more disobliging insects at bay a mesh screen runs round the room, covering the gap between the top of the wall and the roof supports….breezes can blow through, but the stingers stay outside.
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This is all very well, but just lately the breezes have become gusts…and, for Costa Rica, chilly gusts. We are used to the Trade Winds blasting away in December, but they have obviously decided to visit us for rather longer this year and are still happily ripping off roofs in exposed areas, and, more particularly, keeping our bedroom well aired.

Fine for us…but not for the poodle.
The poodle was born and brought up in Costa Rica…in a ‘normal’ house where the walls meet the roof…where breezes do not play upon its sacred person while it is snoozing on the bed.
The poodle is displeased.

Not so displeased that it does not follow my husband to bed at night…it likes to keep a close eye on him and cannot wait for me to clean my teeth and close up the household for the night – a process which involves digging out the Costa Rican King Charles Corgi from his lair behind the sofa and evicting him before something alerts him in the night and he decides to raise the household; removing Black Tot from the laundry basket into which she has plunged as soon as my back is turned; checking that Arthur is on the balcony and not out hunting armadillos and going six rounds with the Alsatian who goes out, forgets why he wanted to go out, returns to base, drinks the water bowl dry, remembers why he wanted to go out, goes out, finds a bone overlooked earlier….by which time the Costa Rican King Charles Corgi has slipped in behind the sofa and the eviction process begins all over again.
I could have had a promising career as a bum bailiff had that animal come into my life earlier….

Finally getting to bed by the light of the bedside lamp I find that there is a well kent face missing.
The poodle.

Did she not come in with you?
Of course she did!
So where is she?
Try calling her!

We call.
Silence, not even a snuffle….Arthur, roused, scratches at the door.
I go out to see if she has been left behind on the balcony, or whether she is lurking, catlike, to trap a lizard.
No sign.
Did she get left behind in the house?
Lights on, evict Black Tot from the laundry basket and lock same in bathroom to prevent recidivism. The Alsatian wakes up, drinks the water bowl dry again and wishes to go out. And in. And out….
While a shadow slips silently behind the sofa….
No sign of the poodle.

Lights are on on the bedroom into which Arthur has insinuated himself.
My husband is lying on the floor looking under the bed….
Arthur is lying on the bed watching him with interest….
Arthur removed with swipe from towel.
Arthur stands, immobile, looking towards the wardrobe…then his periscope ears begin to swivel.
The right hand door of the wardrobe moves slightly; Arthur leaps in – and shoots out backwards bow legged in a flurry of jerseys and tee shirts.

Those of you who know the Moomin books will know of ‘Moominland in Midwinter’ where as part of Moomintroll’s advenntures he encounters the hairy eyebrowed Dweller Under the Sink
dweller under the sink

The Dweller was not pleased to be disturbed from his hibernation….and the poodle was not pleased to be disturbed from its nest in the wardrobe, carefully fashioned from the softer elements of the clothes contained therein.
It had expended thought and energy on building its shelter against the wild elements and did not take kindly to being disturbed.
It had, faced with the Trade Winds, found a better ‘ole and gone to it, only to be rousted out by a hairy brute with no finer feelings.
Low growls punctuated by high pitched snarls rent the air. The boot button eyes flashed like the rising sun on the obsidian of the sacrificial knife.

Chastened, Arthur slunk back to the balcony.
Chastened, we went to bed and turned out the light.
The wardrobe door creaked slightly.
From the house the unchastened Costa Rican King Charles Corgi made the night hideous until a yelp indicated that the Alsatian had had enough.
The poodle growled a last low warning – and the household slept.

The poodle has the right idea….if things don’t suit you as they are, look for a better ‘ole.

But try to reconnoitre the ‘ole first….otherwise you run the risk of finding that you have swapped one pit of evil smelling slime for another. Not so easy under fire, agreed, but when you have the leisure for investigation – do it. It won’t save you from all nasty surprises, but at least you will have avoided the main ones.

I thought of this last night.
I was too tired to read so turned on the box and enjoyed the latest episodes of the French police thriller ‘Engrenages’ which the BBC translates as ‘Spiral’, all bad language, bad behaviour and attitude on the part of all concerned.
Then I flicked through the other offerings and found one of those ‘Escape Anywhere Abroad’ programmes, where smarmy presenters drag starry eyed punters round unsuitable properties in unsuitable places to the sound of unsuitable background music.
If it’s an accordion, it must be France, and France it was.

The punters on this occasion were a retired couple, comfortably off, who had holidayed in France for years and now wished to make a permanent move. They wanted a house – their sanctuary – with room for the family to visit, a swimming pool ditto, and some land – for reasons which would become clear.
They also planned to use it to run therapeutic courses for retired people – keeping the husband’s hand in as a psychotherapist.

Viewing the first house – and all subsequent ones – the wife would exclaim…
‘Oh, so French….shutters…’ and they would move off on a voyage of exploration.

The presenter walked them through the big open plan kitchen..
‘Oh, I can see myself here, cooking and talking …and – maybe – a glass of wine!…’
The sitting room, where the stairs to the top floor made a bad impression…to the main bedroom which he suggested would be ideal for people attending the courses.
‘Oh no!’
‘We’re not having them in the house….they’ll be in tents outside.

Thus the need for land.

They reminded me of an American I met – briefly – here. He was explaining to an admiring group how he had found and purchased a vast tract of land on which to build his dream home – and then came his Damascus moment:

‘It was so beautiful that it wouldn’t have been right to keep it to myself…I just had to share it!’

I took it upon myself to explain to the group that he was selling plots of building land rather than indulging a philanthropic whim and he was not best pleased, thus the brevity of our encounter.

On the box the search continued…all the properties would need revamping – even if the paying visitors were destined to remain under canvas – and at no point did the presenter mention planning permission, let alone costs….and certainly didn’t mention the formidable formalities entailed when setting up a business.

He took them to meet expats who could show them the ropes….put them wise to the pitfalls….
They themselves had lived in France only six months, did not speak French and the only advice on offer was to be aware that draught beer was not available in the locality.
A lot of talk about the French this and the French that….but without French how would they have known?

Cut to the couple making breakfast in the kitchen of the first house, which had been lent them for the duration of their visit.
The wife is breaking eggs into a frying pan….
‘Fresh eggs from the farmer…’
The yolks are pale and the whites spread across the pan in the best traditions of an egg which has seen better days …many better days….

The husband is cutting up a baguette….it is taking him a great deal of effort. He clearly has one of the French rural bakery specialities – brick hard dough surrounded by crust resembling razor wire.
‘That’s the thing about France, the bread is fresh, not like the stuff in England which lasts ten days…’

Clearly the couple weren’t going to buy any of the places they had been shown…they were coming back to explore the area at leisure….but if their knowledge of France was as stereotyped as it appeared to be, and if they were incapable of telling fresh eggs from stale I reckon that they will need all the money they have to cushion themselves from the realities.

‘.

I’m Not Charlie. I’m The Doorman.

All must by now be aware of the murderous attack on the offices of the French magazine ‘Charlie Hebdo’, leaving so many dead or seriously wounded in its wake while the security forces thrash around in the search for the culprits.

What appears to be the cause of the attack? The publication of rude drawings of Mohammed with more or less witty commentaries. Alongside rude drawings of rabbis, priests, popes and politicians with equally more or less witty commentaries which have, so far, led none of the groupies of those so attacked to assault the offices with kalashnikovs.

I was never a fan of Charlie Hebdo…it drew on the tradition of the muck raking pamphleteering of the nineteenth century where fact could be overlaid by scatalogical innuendo to bring down opponents, allied to the more modern French passion for strip cartoons- Bandes Dessines – where ‘strip’ seems to be the main interest where female subjects are concerned. Macho, sexist, downright rude.

But sometimes extremely funny.
mohamed
Mohammed bewails his sort…how hard it is to be worshipped by stupid bastards.

I also disliked it because it was run, edited and supplied with material by people who used and misused their perceived views of ‘les beaufs’ – the Parisian hoi polloi – to reflect views not publicly acceptable in their own social, PC milieu, however much those views were subscribed to sub rosa.

There was always a whiff of de haut en bas in a publication which appeared to be designed to allow the ‘haut’ to revel in the perceived views of the ‘bas’ without admitting that those prejudices mirrored their own.

France has been on a terror alert for years…there is a programme called ‘Vigipirate’ which seems to consist of putting crush barriers in front of small rural primary schools and not much else. It costs a fortune to administer and is..as events have proved….totally useless.
Ah, says the spokesman, that’s because it was it was designed to reassure the public rather then to be effective.
So you can’t park outside the school without the police moving you on but you can attack a building already subject to threat just as you please.
Or so it seems.

One of the editors of the magazine had a personal police bodyguard…who died in the attack.
Would it not have been better to have had a police watch on the premises? That way the poor chap on the door of the building might not have died.
Still..he’s not a journalist…not someone who matters…except to his family.

It reminds me of the attitudes of an earlier age which we thought – hoped – were forgotten…

All quiet along the Potomac

Not an officer lost, only one of the men, moaning out all alone the death rattle.

I sincerely hope that this incident will not prove to be an excuse for governments to further restrict the liberties of their citizens in the name of ‘security’…because ‘security’ it is not….

The services listening in on Tante Fanny’s conversations with her neighbour did nothing to prevent this incident: neither did the mad restrictions on what you can do with your own money when you move it through banks…and where were the CCTV cameras which are supposed to prevent crime and do nothing of the sort.

How could the police reaction have been so late and so puny in scale, giving rise to the death of officers? They might well be called upon to face danger in their job, but they don’t have to be put into danger by the poor planning of their superiors.

How could the perpetrators drive off through Paris without let or hindrance?

In meeting the threat of terrorism, this incident shows that the authorities have put in place neither prevention nor cure.

Already, politicians are playing games…the Front National should not be allowed to join in a march showing solidarity with the victims, trumpets a Socialist Party politician….
Already this appalling crime has become a debating game for the talking heads.

I hope that people will not let it fade to this…when marching, when putting up ‘Je Suis Charlie’ on their Facebook page, I hope that people will show their determination to defend freedom of expression -including against their own governments.

Windmills in the Head

Georges Michel. Windmills at Montmartre
Georges Michel. Windmills at Montmartre
They formed part our historic landscape in all their manifestations and together with water mills fed us and clothed us before we turned to other means to our ends, careless of the balance between pollution and production.
Now that we are reaping the consequences of our lack, first of knowledge and then, unpardonably, of care we are looking back to natural sources of energy: sun, water and wind.

And what do we end up with? These monstrosities.
wind turbines

Flying over Spain white rows of the things mark the line of every hilltop…beautiful Lake Nicaragua is desecrated by them…
Wherever they are placed they are aesthetic crimes.

But we can become accustomed to aesthetic crimes….we quite like old mill buildings once it is not our generation feeding the maw of the looms and we can browse arty crafty boutiques run by crafty arty people before stopping for a sustainable if not sustaining lunch.
In time we will be accustomed to wind turbines too.

But why should we be? They are inefficient, their unpredictable output requiring power plants to be on permanent stand by…..and they are a scam in which the taxpayer is scalped to produce private profit.

As may be plain, I am agin them.

They were making their appearance as I was leaving France…and locally a group of farmers seeking to install these horrors on their land were threatening people living in the lotissement downhill of the proposed site with consequences should they protest. Those wind turbines were going in!
Luckily, the lotissement dwellers took umbrage at the bullying.
Now that the French have discovered commuting, the traditional village power brokers don’t have it all their own way any more…..people moving out to live in the country hold down decent, responsible jobs…they don’t have land in the commune…it’s more difficult to threaten them.’
They banded together and all these years down the line they have finally won. Those wind turbines will not be going in.

The resistance to the installation of wind turbines is growing. Especially after the hike in the price of electricity paid by the consumer in order to subsidise them….fifteen percent on your bill in these days of straightened circumstances tends to get your dander up, after all and if that doesn’t rouse the somnolent dander it is guaranteed to spring to life on learning that the very people on the local council voting for wind turbines to be installed are those owning the land where the said installation will take place and for the which installation they will be handsomely paid.

Decentralisation of power, for which France has so often been congratulated, is nothing more than an enlargement of the trough so that more snouts can find fulfilment at the expense of the taxpayer – that rara avis who has less than the tax efficient three children, hasn’t enough money to be able to hide it in investing in fictitious resorts out in the Dom Toms or in three legged racehourses at Chantilly and is not able to reduce his liability by having several publicly funded posts the income from which is counted separately when arriving at his liability to tax.

Decentralisation of power has meant that people making decisions are very close to the action….and that requires an advanced appreciation of ethics – something not necessarily conferred on maires together with the tricolour sash of office.
Usually their activities are greeted with the Gallic shrug of resignation….
What do you expect? Of course he’s going to feather his nest….

Sometimes it goes wrong.
In February 2010 a violent storm hit the Atlantic coast of France. At La Faute sur Mer, in the Vendee, the sea wall gave way and 29 people – mostly elderly – died, drowned in their houses.
Stones were inevitably turned….it appeared that the maire and his deputy had actively pursued development in an area which was known to be prone to flooding.
That the deputy’s son in law was the estate agent pushing the sales.
That it was stipulated that the houses had to be on one floor only…where flood risk regulations demand two floors so that people have a chance to escape the flood waters even if taken by surprise….

After the usual kerfuffles – it was argued that it was the fault of the purchasers for purchasing where they did but that time honoured chestnut did not wash this time…the case came to court and the maire has been sentenced to be jugged for four years. He is horrified, and is, of course, appealing the judgement.

But that he came to court at all marks a change from the virtual immunity of elected officials from prosecution and it is this which is worrying the lobbying organisation representing the promoters of wind turbine installation in France…France Energie Eolienne….which has written to all the Deputies in the National Assembly to warn them of the terrible consequences if the law which governs the behaviour of elected officials is not changed.

It appears that consumer groups have been advising those who resist the installation of wind turbines on how to bring their maire to book….shock, horror, outrage on the part of FEE.
If this goes on, maires will be too frightened of being taken to court to permit more installations.
Something must be done!

Their answer is to relax the law which governs the actions of elected snouts in troughs….so that maires will not be inhibited from setting up wind turbine installations on the farms of their grandmother’s cousin once removed…or even on their own.
Considering what the snouts have managed to do while the current law is in force relaxing it looks to me like a recipe for rampant corruption…

But there is always hope.

Hope that their action in lobbying to free maires from the fear of prosecution might bring about two desirable objectives.

To take a closer look at what passes for local government in France, a closer look at the magouilles, large and small, which favour the staus quo and those with status.

And to take a much closer look at the wind turbine industry…its efficiency, its value for money.
Never mind the eco publicity on recycled loo paper….follow the loot.

Nostalgie du Pays

Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the Front de Gauche, after the success of the hard right parties in the European elections in France in May this year.

Even if you don’t normally watch videos, even if politics leave you cold, even if you don’t understand French, please take the time and have the patience to look at this – a man visibly moved by what is happening to his country.

 

Va, la France. Va, ma belle patrie. Allez les travailleurs, ressaisissez-vous, ne laissez pas que tout ça soit fait en votre nom. Ne permettez pas… Ne permettez pas que la France soit autre chose que ce qu’elle est dans le coeur du monde entier…

 

Forward, France, Onward , my beautiful country. Workers, organise; do not permit all this to be done in your name. Do not allow…Do not allow France to be any other than that which she is in the hearts of the whole world.

 

This came back to me in the wake of the murder of the young  Canadian soldier guarding the war memorial in Ottawa….we can know our country is not perfect, but we can love it despite – and sometimes because.

The corpse of that young man travelled the 310 miles of the Highway of Heroes – named as such when the dead from the war in Afghanistan were brought home  -with, it seems, every inch lined by people wishing to express solidarity with his family and solidarity with the values of the country in whose service he died.

Because the people of Canada have not reacted with hatred, but with sorrow, not by instigating witch hunts, but by expressing their love for a young man whose life was needlessly lost – and by setting up a trust find for his young son.

Practical, kindly, level headed people.

 

So why should this remind me of the words of a defeated French politician?

 

Because the love of country is a strange and unfathomable beast.

 

You can loathe  a system yet love the people who live under it….

You can live under oppression yet find relief in the memory of ancient freedom…

You can experience nostalgia for a way of life that once you knew, that you know to be gone, but whose memory lingers like the scent of lavender in your grandmother’s handkerchief drawer.
A scent which comes to you, softly, faintly, when you least expect it and rouses memories of times past.

Apollinaire in his ‘Cors de Chasse’ says that memories are like the calls of the hunting horn, dying away in the wind…but for me those calls bring the past vividly to life…while you live and remember, these things are real.

And the love of country seems to me to be to be a love of your memories…not the abstract ideals trumpeted by politicians who defile the very ideals of which they speak.

Much as I, a Scot, loathe ‘Flower of Scotland’, that dirge now sung on all national occasions…the lines ‘fought and died for your wee bit hill and glen’ conjure up for me my grandfather’s farm…the cattle in the byre, the sheep on the hill, someone cursing the reaper binder and all its works …and although I know that all that world has passed its memory still attaches me to Scotland.

I might know of the Declaration of Arbroath and all the tarradiddles about its real intention; the Wars of Independence, the Darien scheme which brought the country to its knees …but Scotland to me is my own small world when young; the neighbours – ‘canty and couthy and kindly, the best’…the soldiers of my father’s regiment, so kind to me when a child….my grandmother – the terror of the family – explaining to me that every stranger who knocked at the door was the Christ and was to be received with respect and assisted if in need…not that that prevented her from asking the Christ to chop a few logs…

I never really took to England…formed too early in Scotland, I suppose. Perhaps had I grown up in Edinburgh and gone to the right schools…but I had not.
I lived there, I worked there, but despite knowing a number of good kind people, overall life there confirmed my father’s view of the English.

The English? They’re like kippers. No guts and two faces…
Unfair, I know and untrue in private life, but all too evident in the public sphere.

I remember the miners’ strike in the Thatcher years…and how glad were the other union bosses that Scargill would not take the – by then – legally obligatory ballot for strike action…those yellow bellies sold out their own movement and now we have unemployment…people working zero hours contracts…and tax evaders ruling the roost.

I enjoyed the county shows…the magnificent animals and their proud owners…but no landscape held me, no one place anchored me.

But I came to England as an outsider..as a child…

When I moved to France it was as an adult, eyes wide open.

I had made the move as, at that point, property was much cheaper, as was the cost of living and I could still work by fax….without the commuting, without the hassle. Less money, more time.

I was lucky…the neighbours were decent, welcoming people…I made friends with them and, through the man who ran the library in the local town, met others of a more literary bent.
I began to get to know the place through their eyes….

And what a place it was!

I felt at home as I had not since childhood…there was a real inclusion in local life, an expectation that I would participate.
And participate I did, in the Maison Pour Tous – the local centre for activities for all, young or old – in the walking group, in the gardening club, and the Am Dram, playing Feydeau farces under the manic direction of the local dentist.
Unfortunately I wasn’t then eligible for the Old Age Pensioners meetings…a real den of iniquity under the guise of cards and knitting.

Walking the dogs in the evening I would be invited to join the game of boules in front of Jules’ farmhouse, or get hijacked by Papy into helping him fix the window of his little Renault van..Edith would pile us all into her ancient 2CV and we would visit Alice in the next hamlet, her garage full of the implements invented by her husband, who had been a surgical instrument maker…

These people let me into their world and gave me a great love for France – not the France of the caste of vain, incompetent buffoons who run the place, nor the France of the colour supplements where people sit at cafe terraces inhaling vehicle emisssions, nor yet the France of culture and architecture – but the France of ordinary people getting on with their lives as best they can and what those lives bring forth.

I love to keep in touch with it all…I can still see in my mind’s eye the woods at the back of my first house where the flowers of the sweet chestnut trees burst in yellow fireworks against the soft green foliage….I can still ‘hear’ the town band on its erratic way round the commune on July 13th.

Costa Rica has proved to be an amazingly happy place in which to have landed and has conquered me hook, line and sinker…

But, from time to time, I have nostalgie du pays.

Look, Mum! No Hands!

driverless car mouse2house.uk
driverless car
mouse2house.uk
Driverless cars are about to be tested in the U.K., it seems…and if they work what a boon that will be for those who drive from necessity rather than pleasure, though what pleasure can be obtained from driving is beyond me unless on a single track road with passing places in the Highlands – or a German autobahn.

But doubts assail me…..when in France we lived in a sort of GPS Bermuda Triangle. Visitors would get as far as the nearby town and ‘phone in for directions, which was easy enough at the Christmas period when the area was illuminated for the festive season…not just the Santa Clauses making SAS raids on walls and roofs of private houses, but real illuminations: a windmill with revolving sails…reindeer and sleigh running across the tiles of a pavillon…champagne bottle with cork bursting forth on another…sinister purple and green icicles – they had only to follow the trail to arrive at the family fastness, dourly unlit safe for the security light, guaranteed to blind the driver as the car pulled up by the well chained gates.

Not so easy in other seasons. There is a phenomenon in rural France first described to me by an estate agent who had sent me out to visit a house I could not find.
You are, he said, approaching it from the wrong side.
I followed his detailed directions and saw what he meant…you had to approach your goal on roads on which the direction signs were visible – bar an overgrown tree or two – from the side on which you were approaching…not the side in which you might, if lucky, get a glimpse of something in the rear mirror in passing.
So directions had to amended accordingly….disregarding the most direct route in favour of that with visible signs and landmarks. So instead of the reindeer and icicles it had to be ‘leave the town in the opposite direction to that which seems sensible, cross the bridge, pass a chateau with searchlights sweeping the grounds, turn left….third left at the roundabout and if you see a bar on your left you have left it too soon…’
Well, you get the idea…but will the driverless car get it?

And even if they solve the GPS problem, what about local issues?
Not, I suppose, too much of a problem in the U.K., but what about France?

When I moved to rural France, while many people had ‘normal’ cars, and farmers drove around in little white vans,there were two other contingents in evidence.

The first – and least dangerous – was that of the ‘sans permis’. This car, a sort of box on wheels with limited engine power, could be driven by those who had lost their driving licence for over enthusiastic indulgence in bars, beer and assorted additional booze. Should you have any doubt about this, the said boxes were liberally adorned with stickers advertising said bars, beer and booze, variety being provided by other stickers of a dubious nature which indicated that, in France, there were some parts of the human anatomy that beer and assorted booze could not, indeed, reach.
As far as I am aware, the ‘sans permis’ still exists….but even if it could be converted to ‘driverless’ status can you imagine the ‘driver’ trying to download instructions to it at the end of a convivial evening….a bar full of troubled clients asking the patron to set it all up for them…. and even if he succeeds being sure that they are on the wrong road halfway home as it will take them on proper roads and not the tracks they generally use to avoid the gendarmerie patrols.
I foresee doctors’ waiting rooms full of alcoholics with nervous breakdowns…
Doctor, I have lost my way….

The other contingent is, unfortunately, no longer with us.
It consisted of elderly gentlemen – the papys – who had grown up in an era when the mode of transport was the bicycle and who had transferred the learning thus acquired to the 2CV they bought in later life…the model with the suicide doors.
They also imagined that the traffic was the same as when they were riding their bicycles, so would emerge at speed from track or minor road, looking neither to right nor left and go on their way, each one a Fangio crouched over the wheel.
Local knowledge was imperative…so that you knew that M. Dixneuf was likely to emerge onto the bend at the Salle de Fetes, Papy Georges from the track by Les Planches and to watch out for that lunatic Archambault at the mill on the river – especially after lunch.

As I say, these gallant gentlemen are no longer with us, but, in France, local knowledge is still vital to your survival on the roads…and how will the driverless car cope with this?

There were..and probably still are… three systems of priority in force.
Priority to traffic coming from the right.
Priority to traffic on major roads.
A hybrid of the two.

As far as I am aware there is no notification of a change of system…you find out the hard way and I’m unable to see how the driverless car will cope with this.

How will it distinguish between a white bollard at a road junction indicating that you have right of way and a white bollard with a red stripe indicating that the combine harvester approaching from your right can flatten you at will? Especially as the said bollard is probably in the ditch following the last passage of the combine harvester.

And what about the traffic light controlled roundabout where you enter on the green light only to find yourself obliged to give way to a stream of traffic entering from the right?

Or the unsigned change from department – priority to major road – to town – priority to the right?
Perhaps there should be an app indicating towns where the mayor’s brother in law runs a repair garage…

Or places where cars are parking on the roundabout, closing other exits, in order to buy their bread from the bakery situated there…

And what about narrow bridges where, nomatter what the arrows indicate, the driver of the big van will always drive on to force the car that got there first to reverse….

And what about the technology to be used?
With all the current emphasis on ‘buy French’, from striped jerseys to red Breton bonnets via salmon pink corsets, the likelihood is that it would be supplied by Orange – the name under which France Telecom hides its shame.

In which case…it’s back to the driver, drunk or sober…and remembering always to approach objectives from the right side.