Laura Chinchilla, President of Costa Rica, is on a tour of Europe to attend a meeting of the OECD and drum up investment and tourism for her country.
I’m never happy when Costa Rican politicians visit Europe….they inevitably return starry eyed with new ideas on how to separate the citizen from the said citizen’s money following the example of those masters of financial meltdown, the European Union.
Last time it was VAT…what will it be this time?
The ecotax on heavy goods vehicles currently going down with all hands in Brittany?
Paris was the first stop….
Usual meetings with the President of the Senate….and even with the reclusive Hollandouille, President of the French Republic where the usual platitudes as to investment were exchanged – the French want to flog a tramway to San Jose – and the possibility of opening Costa Rican waters to ships of the French fleet was discussed.
The Costa Rican Legislative Assembly need have no fear of approving this measure as every time the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle attempts to leave port either the propellor falls off or they run out of nibbles in the wardroom so there’s not much chance of pom-pom hatted matelots performing the cancan in the streets of Limon any time soon.
President Chinchilla then went to the real seat of power…the offices of MEDEF, the bosses union, to have more meaningful discussions on inward investment in Costa Rica.
While not privy to the session I imagine that MEDEF would have been interested to know to how the facilitation of the social dialogue works in Costa Rica: as we are now belatedly discovering, in France it works by shovelling bank notes to the tune of several million Euros into the hands of union leaders on a regular basis.
I am sure that President Chinchilla was able to tell them how the social dialogue is facilitated in Costa Rica.
Before moving on to the Vatican, President Chinchilla wound up her visit by giving a speech at the UNESCO offices in Paris where she drew attention to Costa Rica’s strongdemocratic traditions in a region more noted for the despoliation of the people by oligarchal regimes…and to Costa Rica’s respect for the environment…for the natural world.
From that point of view it was perhaps infelicitous that on the Sunday the President had attended a mass at Notre Dame de Paris…in the company of government colleagues travelling with her and embassy staff.
She’s a Roman Catholic…so why not? She was welcomed by the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Vingt-Trois, and she heard mass.
Where’s the problem?
In the light of her declarations at UNESCO the problem was that the mass in question was that of St.Hubert.
The patron saint of the hunting fraternity.
If you are not familiar with them, the music of the ‘trompes de chasse’ is based on the calls necessary to direct the mounted hunt…la chasse a courre…. and all over France, in towns as well as in the countryside, you will find the feast day of St. Hubert celebrated by groups of players of trompes de chasse outside and inside churches…from tiny chapels in the forests to the mighty Notre Dame of Paris itself.
Let me leave you with an example of the music that President of Costa Rica may have heard:
To make the best use of my ticket for a fortnight’s freedom of the French railways I used to take a long distance train just after midnight from one of the Paris terminals, though the destinations and the company varied over the years.
There was the train to Brest, full of inebriated sailors returning to base – Genet would have been ecstatic – or the train to the Tour de Carol in the Pyrenees, empty but for myself and the staff once it had passed the red roofs of Foix.
A packed train to Avignon…an empty one to Grenoble.
I soon learned to use the loo on the train to wash and brush up before starting the day.
Firstly it was free and there was soap, secondly it was usually reasonably clean and, thirdly, it had a proper loo, not a hole in the ground with or without raised emplacements for the feet known in France as a Turkish toilet. Goodness only knows what the Turks call it.
I remember travelling in the same carriage as a group of elderly American ladies who resolutely refused to use the train loo for fear of being trapped within.
I saw them again on the platform, clustering wonderingly around something that looked like a corrugated iron sky rocket, painted a virulent green: the station conveniences.
One unwary fart and there would have been lift off.
They were still clustered by the time I had left my luggage in a locker – one forgets the freedom of the pre terrorist days – and headed for breakfast in the station buffet, all hissing coffee machines and blue overalled railway staff looking for sustenance before coming on duty.
It must have been a toss up between drawing straws for the first victim or ringing the American consul.
I seemed to change trains at Avignon quite often over the years and thus became acquainted with the loo on the long distance platform, a hefty walk under the brassy sun of the south.
It had, of course, a Turkish toilet which involved the usual gymnastics in disrobing sufficiently while ensuring no garment touched the floor, light bag slung over the shoulder.
You did not take a heavy bag in there as there was nowhere to hang it when the periodic flush….like opening the Aswan High Dam…bore all before it.
Handbags shot under the doors and rucksacks became sodden.
You could tell if an international train had just come in by the polyglot cries of the afflicted within.
It did not, however, suffer the defect of the time switch on the light, set nicely to have you in gymnastic pose when it expires and you are alone in the gloom.
It had, no doubt, a time switch but someone had nicked the light bulbs.
Stations usually had separate loos for the sexes, unlike civic or caff loos, where you would walk past the peeing men to reach the cubicles…and being a somewhat shy young person, I preferred the provisions at the stations.
But a fortnight in France enabled me to see more than the range of loos available to the traveller.
I had prepared my trip, I knew what there was to see and I saw it, from the temple and arena in Nimes to the black swans in the moat at Nevers and by economising on eating I could afford to hire a rowing boat to go out on Lake Annecy, lying back under the late afternoon sunshine, utterly at peace.
There were still branch lines dodging everywhere….on a drizzly afternoon in Bayonne the single track line up to St. Jean Pied de Port was alight with fiery crocosmia all the way to the little town which was the gateway to Spain via the Roncevaux Pass….site of the death of Roland.
Another took me from Grenoble down to the Rhone valley….mountains giving way to hills and then to plains, passing the tower of Crest on the way to a long wait at Valence and a distinct longing to be able to take the steam train at Tournon….but it was outside the system and pennies were tight.
Inside the system, however, was the little yellow train running through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent, Vauban’s fortified city under the flanks of Mount Canigou, around the Spanish enclaves tucked within the frontier proper since the time of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659…when some legal eagle had blundered because while Spain ceded all villages north of the Pyrenees to France it ceded no towns! The train with its toast rack carriages was a favourite of mine….travelling on spidery viaducts through the mountains from the main line at Perpignan, where I was lucky enough to see people dancing the sardana….spontaneously, not organised by some cultural body…not far from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca…to La Tour de Carol where the express for Paris waited, the carriages hot and stuffy in the sun.
A Sunday afternoon would see me on a slow train from the violet city of Toulouse……passing the twin spires of the cathedral of Niort in the Marais Poitevin, where boats replaced roads…..and the town of Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before his rise to power, eventually pulling in under the walls of the chateau at Nantes which faced an art deco biscuit factory on the other side of the tracks.
But what was I seeing of France?
The sights…and the countryside between.
Who was I meeting?
What was I eating?
Apart from a roll and coffee for breakfast in the station buffets it was cheap picnics…a loaf, some cheese or pate which was soft by the time it came to squash it into the sandwich, cheap wine.
I could look at the pissaladieres and quiches in the windows, but I couldn’t afford them until the end of the trip when there might be a surplus while the idea of eating a meal was in the realms of financial fantasy.
I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.
In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.
I saw this film on the television when a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.Tout de suite.
I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).
Forgive me…..I was young.
A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.
France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.
The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.
Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.
In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.
I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.
I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!
Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.
At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.
You know you are in France.
Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.
Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.
Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.
The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August.
It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.
The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.
I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.
Under normal circumstances we take the bus to San Jose….it’s a lot cheaper than taking the car and it doesn’t get lost, despite the best efforts of traffic policemen, accidents and roadworks to divert it from its destination…like the bomber, the Comtrasuli bus will always get through.
It’s a good service, in clean modern buses, although whatever the age of the bus there are always those signs of religious observance which strike the eye of an anglophone protestant….Jesus bearing a crown of thorns hovers over the entrance; you are informed that He is Lord; His mother is asked to pray for you and some buses even bear the information that one is travelling the same road as Jesus and if one does not return to base it is because one has followed Him.
Whether this has any relation to a new notice behind the driver’s cabin on all buses I am not at all sure.
This one asks passengers to observe the driver and, should he use a mobile ‘phone when at the wheel, they are to take a photograph and denounce him to the bus company.
Perhaps Comtrasuli are worried that the Almighty, omnipotent as He is, will use technology to summon the driver to His bosom and, more to the point, that he’ll take the bus with him.
Taking the car is an altogether trickier operation.
The diesel costs a lot more than a bus fare….which is about 85p per passenger….and The Men are driving and navigating.
Leo – navigator – is used to London driving where you are either quick or dead.
Danilo – driver – has no direction bump.
The combination makes for an interesting ride for the passenger – me.
The whole thing is further complicated by a collapse on the capital’s ring road which has turned the rush hour into the plural at both ends of the day and has led to roads unfit for major traffic being pressed into service.
First port of call is a major clinic, the Moreno Canas, where Leo has an appointment.
With shrieks of ‘Go, go go!’ from the navigator at the Sabana Park interchange The Men manage to get themselves onto Avenida 10 and we crawl past the concrete fortress of the Municipalidad – the town hall – its forecourt sporting a pink cow which was left behind when the Cow Parade hit town.
It also has fairy lights in a tree – perpetually Christmas for our worthy administrators.
Then past the Mercado Mayoreo – the city’s official wholesale fruit and veg market – though much better bargains are to be found up at the Mercado Borbon – where, The Men permitting, I intend to do some shopping later.
Past more traffic lights and we are alongside the cemetery – or cemeteries: first the Cementerio Obrero, the cemetery for the poorer classes – the workers
and then alongside it the Cementerio General, where the better off lie under a gallimaufry of urns, spires, domes and angels…but both places of rest are protected by razor wire and have police in attendance to deter theft, which is endemic in Costa Rica since the drugs trade began to regard the countries of Central America not just as being in transit for drugs on their way from Columbia to the U.S.A. but as new markets in their own right.
Turning right…and squeezing past a lorry which has come to a halt across the junction…we head for the clinic through a depressed area of the city…roadside garages, broken down pavements…and past the waterworks to the clinic entrance. Cars parked in every roadside bay and taxis double parked beside them.
Leo gathers his papers and heads for his appointment. Danilo and I head for the shops.
Swinging back right handed up between the cemetery and the waterworks – what a combination, I think – with the Numar factory behind us, souce of the palm oil cooking fat which fuels Costa Rica’s kitchens, we turn once more onto Avenida 10, squeeze past the lorry again and we’re off on the four lane downhill slalom past the Raul Blanco Cervantes geriatric hospital on the hunt for the shop which carries the best value for money house cleaning products that I know.
We have the car and we’re stocking up.
Well, we will be, when we get there.
We have to get to Avenida 6 and thanks to the one way system that means a left turn and then another…but how far to go before we turn?
At the garage – the bomba?
No, at least another block….yes, by the Castillana…
Are you sure?
No, but we can always go round again..
Yes, look, there’s the.Chinese tat shop. Go straight on another block and then left again.
Yes, we’re on the right road. There’s the dubious looking discotheque and the butcher advertising meat from a nearly virgin cow; but we’re stuck in traffic.
Avenida 6 serves as roadside terminal for a number of suburban buses; its high quota of bars means beer delivery vans litter the place and there’s always someone who just has to park right outside the barbers.
We approach the side street where the shop is situated…is it this corner?
No, we haven’t passed the booze shop yet.
Yes, here we are…that’s the Ropa Americana (new and second hand clothes shop) …turn left.
We’ve made it – and as we’re early there’s even parking right outside.
Loaded up, watches checked – yes, we have time to do the Mercado Borbon before returning to the clinic.
Up the street, another left turn and eyes peeled for the tower of the Banco Nacional to make our turn into the centre.
We crawl up to the junction with the main road through the city – the six lane Avenida 2, wait for the lights and then we’re across and into the street running past the coffee shop on one side and the Banco Central building on the other, with the bronzes of the ordinary people of Costa Rica in front of it.
Down Avenida 1 – an accident between a car and a bus, so a quick right turn up to Avenida 3 with all the tool shops in creation and then left again to return to Avenida 1 and the undercover parking lot.
Now, I like a bargain and I like the Mercado Borbon where you can buy retail at wholesale prices, but if you read the guide books it’s more a question of ‘here be dragons’ so you don’t find many foreigners doing the weekly shop there.
It is a noisy maze of alleys, steps, stalls and warehouses, but once you have your bearings all is well: I buy bacon on the bone to slice and freeze; kilos of tomatoes; Scotch Bonnet peppers; whopping prawns and then cheese for maturing at home.
I seek out cheap potatoes – only just over half the price of my local shops – and strings of onions.
We load the car and walk over to the better known Mercado Central to buy ten kilos of well fleshed bones for soup…a bargain at about 50p a kilo….and corvina to make ceviche.
Off to the clinic…down traffic clogged Avenida 1 and out onto Paseo Colon….looking for the towers of the tax offices to judge our turn up to Avenida 10.
Yes, there they are…turn left, up through the little park at Don Bosco and we’re back by the Muni….traffic lights, the lorry still not towed away and we’re back at the clinic where Leo is waiting by the chap selling fresh orange juice.
We’re off again, but this time following the road by the Numar factory at the back of the cemetery, to join the road home at Sabana.
How did the appointment go?
He said my optician must have good eyesight if she could see cataracts that small….I have to go back in two years’ time but he doesn’t think much will change.
Hoy….where are we going? This isn’t the right road!
No, but the police are up ahead and the traffic’s piling up….we’ll go back on the old road.
And so we do…crawling through the suburbs until we emerge into the countryside high above the Central Valley and head for home climbing up through the hills.
No joke, San Jose traffic…but then I came across this video which shows that things could be worse….pity the poor train drivers shown here!
I like Belgium….but that could well be because that’s where my husband’s cousins live -the tribe with whom he spent his holidays as a child and the tribe which made me so welcome, even though said husband was languishing in faraway Costa Rica raking through the freezer for packs of the meals I had prepared before leaving.
They have to be the most hospitable people I know…and I know a fair few for whom their house is your house and their time at your disposal…with a wild sense of humour and the intention to make as much of life as possible. You cannot but be happy in their company.
I had some business to conduct in Tienen – lawyers and taxmen and land registry officials – and one of the young men took a day off work to escort me and help with the language for while I can understand a fair bit my spoken Flemish is limited to one word the meaning of which is apparently so appalling that I can never use it.
But business accomplished…joy was unconfined!
Based with one family living just outside Brussels in a village set among fields and woodland, the house was so comfortable that it would have been no hardship to have stayed put…but staying put is not on the tribe’s agenda!
We went to one of my favourite places…Leuven, capital of Flemish Brabant. You might be more familiar with it under its name in French – Louvain – but the duality of nomenclature is one of the things you have to get used to in Belgium, though it can come as a shock when driving when you are looking out for Mons and find it signed as Bergen!
Scene of wanton destruction in the Great War the buildings were rebuilt, but you don’t go there just for the monuments…tucked away from the centre is a well tended herb garden with the plants all named, and on the other side of town is the Groot Begijnhof, once home to the women of a lay order in the middle ages and now restored as part of the university and used for housing students and academics.
It seems quiet enough now in the daytime, the brick buildings and grassy squares set amidst the canals, but I can’t see students maintaining the tranquillity of the original occupants when dusk falls on Leuven.
Furthermore…there are cafes, music in the streets…and shopping!
A pause for coffee in a busy street joined by friends who had visited us in Costa Rica…a son arrived…beer was called for….the whole group went to lunch in a pub where the beer arrives by way of a brass pipe from the brewery next door…we went shopping…the sales were on…the son carried the bags…
Oh yes, I like Leuven!
On to another son’s house for dinner…not only is he a chef, running his own place after working in a Michelin two star restaurant, but he is the same kind thoughtful person that he was as a boy when he used to come to stay with us in France.
Grey shrimp…the little ones that are a beast to peel…were served in abundance as he knew I loved them and could not get them at home… before he pulled out the culinary stops for the other courses.
Family, friends, a new boyfriend, we sat round the table in the garden while the collie looked for a free lap on which to cuddle up, the new boyfriend produced a guitar, and the story telling began…the stories everyone wants to hear again as much for the delivery as the content.
The chef told his story of making spaghetti bolognaise for the first time when he visited us as a teenager….his father told the story of how he first met his wife.
It was a time when UFOs were very much in the news – cigar shapes here, saucers there – and as he drove her home after their first date he became aware of lights in the sky…moving lights. He looked at her, but she seemed oblivious and the lights went away….only to return.
They reached her parents’ house and he was invited to sit out in the garden for a beer. Again, the lights. The parents seemed oblivious.
He mentioned the lights, somewhat nervously.
Oh yes…they had the lights every night.
He drove away, severely puzzled and wondering whether his girlfiend and her parents had been subject to alien influence and it was still bothering him when he went in to work the next morning.
He mentioned it to a friend over coffee.
Where do they live?
He mentioned the name of the village.
Idiot! That’s not UFOs! It’s under the flightpath for planes landing at the airport….those were their landing lights!
The next day we wemt to a flea market in an out of the way town…well, out of the way to me, driving on quiet roads under an arch of trees, traditional farm houses back from the road among the fields.
Parking was a beast, but we were soon among the stalls and I could not believe how cheap it was after France…people actually seemed to want to sell things!
The cousin added to his classic camera collection, his wife found a cupboard to house it and I was tempted by…but did not buy…a super dinner service for a stupid price.
But I am sorely tempted to hire a van and do a round of Belgian flea markets and warehouses to furnish the house in Spain. At those prices – and for what was on offer – it would more than pay the transport and hire charges.
And it would be another excuse to be in Belgium!
As a Scot, it takes a great deal to make me admit that anything can equal a Scottish morning roll….but Belgian pistolei come as near as damn it. Crisp crust and a melting interior…what a way to start a sunday morning!
Then off for the day to Namen…or, as it is in the French speaking sector of Belgium, Namur…
its citadel high on the bluff over the junction of the rivers Sambre and Meuse, its subterranean tunnels and casemates open to all now that war has ebbed away from it.
We dutifully puffed our way around it, enjoying the views, but spent most of the day in the town below…. restored after the damage suffered in the Second World War to today’s amalgam of architectural styles from the remains of the medieval town walls to nineteenth century public puildings. A pity the modern town hall is such a cheap and nasty blot on the landscape.
We walked, we took coffee; we walked, took lunch in an authentic Chinese resturant (San Jose China Town eat your heart out) and we walked again. In a quiet street off the main drag we came across a church whose interior was like nothing I had seen before.
St.Laud…a Jesuit church of the mid seventeenth century, particular features being the columns with rings – a feature of Spanish Netherlands church architecture according to the helpful volunteer on the spot – and the high relief carving of the sandstone ceiling.
We walked again…
And everywhere we walked we came across superb backwaters….
Of which this took the cake in summing up my feelings…
It will be fine tomorrow…..
Home…a barbeque with the family and friends topped by my favourite Belgian cheeses…Passchendaele, Brusselae Kaas and the wonderful ‘walks by itself’ Herve…and then it was up sticks and off to Brussels to catch the Euroline late night coach for London on my way to celebrate mother’s 97th birthday.
In a long and sometimes lonely trip to Europe that Belgian oasis of home from home abroad was more welcome than those kind friends will ever know.
Before we go any further…..these are calves…agreed? Small, appealing manageable creatures….
My return has not been a resounding success.
It was not a good idea to leave Spain with mother on Sunday, travel all day, settle her in, cook a meal, pack and leave at 2.00 am on Monday for the airport.
London Heathrow Terminal 4 was not a good idea either.
Very few service staff in the forecourse and an insistence that the clients use ‘print it yourself’ check in slips.
By the time I had fathomed where to slide in my passport and which way up and had discovered that to swipe a bank card you need to move it in and out of a slot I was in an ill humour…the situation not improved by the multiplicity of staff within the tape bound snake toward the actual check in who seemed to want to see the already swiped passport, and ask damnfool questions about where exactly I was resident.
Once past security the shopping area was fine if you’re a fool who likes to be parted from your money but otherwise distinctly useless….and again overstaffed with ladies in mauve who were quite capable of telling you where to find expensive rubbish and not so hot on telling you where to find the decidedly scarce destination indicators.
It had not been a good idea not to bring sandwiches.
The Caviar House and Prunier stand was just setting up for the day, their staff wearing those absurb black hats that these days denote catering staff whose management has ideas above the quality of their product.
Dining Street resembled a cross between a dilapidated Wimpy and something left over from the Olympics publicity team.
And as for Costa and the poncily named Apostrophe…forget it. One look at the stuff being loaded onto the shelves and the hungriest would renounce eating something that looked as though it had been flung together by primary school children inadequately trained in finger painting.
Not to speak of the prices.
You could easily slim if you had to live in the post security area of Terminal 4.
The flight was fine…if you like being in the middle seat with no way to turn on your reading light when every last idiot in a window seat has pulled down their window blind in order to watch crap on the laughingly called entertainment system.
No other seat with a working reading light available.
Breaking my glasses and losing the important lens was not too hot either.
I had to spend four hours on the connecting flight staring at the map that shows how slowly the plane is approaching the destination and then crowning disaster, picked up the wrong case at the baggage claim.
It was the same colour, it had the same purple through baggage tag….but it was not mine.
A working pair of glasses might have avoided that…
The airline were on the ‘phone as I hit the front door.
I returned, and discovered how easy it would be to blow up the airport.
The airline office is behind the check in desks. Without a question, without control, I toddled in to hand in the bag and to retrieve my own.
Yes, there are security cameras, but there is nothing whatsoever to stop you from dropping into the loo, depositing a bomb in the waste bin and toddling on your merry way again.
Oddly enough, the other party had not claimed the missing case….mine had been discovered forlornly on the caroussel….so goodness only knows what that was about.
I returned home. I had supper. I went to bed.
As I switched on the light there was a noise as if of a herd of elephants bellowing.
Underneath my window.
What the blazes is that?
That reply, so small in itself but so pregnant with meaning.
You remember I told you I’d bought some calves?
Yes, I did remember the project being mentioned.
Well, that’s them.
After a night of bellowing and banging about below, morning brought enlightenment.
Five seven month old Brahma crosses, weighing some 200 kilos apiece, testicles still very much attached and missing their mothers.
So far one has escaped via the stream, chased the new neighbour’s horse, charged through his corral upsetting the fire over which he was cooking his mid day soup and returned via the drive taking with him a stand of ornamental gingers.
The new neighbour, far from complaining, helped in the recapture.
It brightened up his day apparently as he is currently living in a horsebox having been thrown out by his wife for losing the contents of his lorry while boozing instead of coming straight home from the feria…and lunch at ours was better than lunch at his.
The Men are busy strengthening the pen….and the sheep are adjusting to the new normality.
I’m not sure that I am though perhaps it is as well that I have returned as apparently the neighbour has opened negotiations with a view to moving into our currently unused pig pen as providing better shelter in the rainy season…..
In the U.K. a friend who was a big wheel in a major accountancy firm gave me a rule of thumb for estimating the trustworthiness of organisations in which you might think to invest or with whom you were thinking of doing business.
If they had a water feature in the lobby of their head office they were either about to go bust or they were running on funny money.
On that basis, then, my regular lawyer is neither going to go bust tomorrow nor is he dealing in narcotics.
I take his office for granted…I grew up in a period when money spent on offices was regarded as sheer waste…so climbing a steep flight of steps to a labyrinth of small rooms around a landing where the lawyer’s office door is closed by a padlock when he goes to lunch comes as no great surprise.
It does to various visitors from Europe who have accompanied me.
They take one look at the wooden bench in the joint waiting area and decide to go elsewhere for a coffee while I conduct my business.
They don’t know what they are missing. Like all waiting rooms, gossip is rife, but only in a lawyer’s waiting room in Costa Rica have I seen a client rise to his feet and sing to entertain the rest of us when the television broke down.
Very good he was too.
I have been frequenting offices lately, as I am off to Europe and need any number of documents notarised, even, in some cases, given an apostille by the Foreign Ministry.
Costa Rican legal documents bristle with fiscal stamps, legal stamps, stamps for the preservation of national parks – you name it there’s a stamp for it, not to speak of the enormous gold stars applied by notaires – as if you had done very well indeed while at primary school.
Whether you can read the text underneath this gallimaufry appears to be irrelevant.
But it’s not all indoor work.
If you need an apostille, then the notaire’s signature has to be confirmed by the notaires’ governing body and as this entity lurks in the bowels of an office block out in the suburbs you get a little tourism thrown in.
You get even more tourism thrown in if your notaire has made a horlicks of the stamps as you then have to go to a bank to buy the appropriate digital fiscal stamps.
Half an hour’s wait to buy a one hundred colon (0.1324 of a British pound) stamp does not appeal to me, especially as no one seems to sing in a bank.
I prefer not to contemplate what you would need to do if the notaire forgot a national parks preservation stamp….probably go out to net an unwary sloth.
Still, by tomorrow all should be in order – as far as the documents are concerned anyway. My packing preparations are, as yet, non existent, apart from bags of coffee for friends.
What will the weather be like? The current heatwave, or a reversion to normality? What to take by way of clothes? Where in the name of the wee man are my comfortable shoes for the ‘plane?
I don’t look forward to a long flight, jammed in a seat and fed buns by the keepers, but far worse is the fact that this trip totally upsets my cricket listening plans for the summer.
It is, should anyone not be aware, an Ashes summer. England versus Australia. The big one.
My routine is to rise at three thirty in the morning, make a cup of tea and switch on the computer in time to hear the start of the morning session on Test Match Special, that gem of broadcasting so far unsullied by the BBC’s predilection for political correctness and paedophilia.
Mark you I did have quite a surprise when returning from letting the sheep out in the lunch interval to hear Phil Tufnell refer to a Duckworth-Lewis blow job….but it turned out to be a reference to fellow commentator Henry Blofeld jamming with the Irish musical group the Duckworth Lewis Method, so that was all right.
But what will I do when in Europe? I’m taking the laptop…but most of my business will be conducted in the hours of play – lawyers on the continent of Europe having no conception of decency.
I think it will be all right in England…the lawyer there is a cricket nut too and mother will be glued to TMS from morning to night, thermos at hand, but until then I shall have to resort to sitting up all night in the guest bedroom of friends’ houses with headset linked to the laptop, listening to a replay of the ball by ball commentary on the BBC iPlayer.
If there’s a plug.
If their computer is switched on all night.
If the wifi works.
It doesn’t bear contemplating.
The First Test has shown that this is going to be an exciting series…and where shall I be?
Stuck in lawyers’ offices.
In a heatwave.
With no water feature.
Those who know my lack of intuition, ability and patience with anything to do with computers – especially Ayak and Perpetua – prepare to sit down before you collapse….as I’ve actually managed to download a map!
To be fair, the instructions were very clear!
It’s nowhere near so elegant and professional as the map Kerry has on her blog post….but for me it’s a triumph and I can try to improve the technique for future posts.
What you have below…though I suggest that you click on the larger map facility as I made a horlicks of downloading a larger version….is a map of the country south of Saumur on the Loire and what I propose is to turn my back on the well trodden chateaux trail and wander upstream on the River Thouet, to look at what can be learned of French history in the hinterland.
The guidebooks are clear on what there is to see in Saumur….the chateau, of course, the town hall, the streets of the old town, the cavalry museum and the wonderful tank museum…..
I would add taking a tour on one of the traditional boats….a gabare or the smaller toue…
While for anyone keen on horses a trip to the stables of the Cadre Noir is a must…even if you’re not there at the right time for the performances.
You’ll find the Cadre Noir out in a suburb of Saumur…St. Hilaire St. Florent where on the marshy land of the then delta of the river Thouet where it joins the Loire, people were living before Saumur was founded.
So let’s follow the Thouet back into the quiet countryside of vines, woods and white villages which lie behind Saumur.
Leaving town on the straight road running through Bagneux – and visiting or not its well known dolmen in the grounds of a caff – at the top of the hill take a turning on the left which will turn into the D360 for Munet and…our target, Artannes sur Thouet which has one of the nicest videos of its commune that I have come across…do follow the link, it is a sheer joy.
This quiet little village bears signs of early human passage….
as witnessed by the neolithic standing stone and the two megalithic bridges tucked away in the quiet woods and streams around the village…..while its romanesque church dreams on among its trees.
You won’t find crowds of tourists at Artanne, just a living village in a beautiful setting.
As you leave it on the D360 you will see a turning to the right which would lead you to another world…to le Coudray Macouard perched on its hill….
The village, which grew within the fortifications of the old chateau, is a model of modern tourism….from it’s windvane exhibition
to the silk exhibition…everything from worm to fabric.
It is so self consciously charming that you begin to wonder if its inhabitants are real…or whether they are as ephemeral as the actors in the historical sound and light shows given in the season.
Instead of taking the turning to the right, we are going straight over the crossroads…as I’m taking you somewhere else.
To Bron. To see this.
This aerial view shows best why this lock is important, marking progress in controlling the level of water needed by boats travelling up and down stream.
The earliest locks were gaps left in solid dams, blocked by a gate which had to be raised to allow boats to pass. As can be imagined, this process let water through in a great rush…the boats shot forward on a waterfall and having to have a line attached for safety, while upstream the millers cursed as the levels lowered dramatically, disabling their mills.
This dam is an oval enclosure, with gates at each end…..limiting the water loss upstream and making the passage safer for the boats and boatmen. A step towards the modern lock which revolutionised fluvial transport.
There are three on the Thouet, dating certainly from the early years of the seventeenth century and possibly earlier…and, according to the local expert, not many elsewhere.
Taking the country road through the fields we will pass the chateau of la Salle, where there is another such lock and the little river port of Ste. Catherine, marking the limit of navigation, crossing the bridge to enter Montreuil Bellay under the walls and towers of its fairytale castle.
This is tourist country….wine tasting in the chateau’s barn, restaurants by the river, a camp site….but we’re not staying in the centre.
We’re going out on the road to Loudon to see the remains of a camp.
Not a Roman camp…but an internment camp.
Not ancient, but modern.
This camp had originally been designated to keep Spanish Republicans, fleeing the revenge of Franco, under surveillance and then, when the Germans invaded, to house French POWs before shipping them to Germany and also to house British civilians rounded up in France.
Before the invasion, the French government had forbidden gypsies to travel, regarding them as a security risk, and the German authorities in their turn introduced a policy of internment.
Little was left of the camp when Monsieur Sigot came across it…and most of the remaining walls were destroyed – needlessly, he felt – so that the place and its purpose was scarcely remembered….a part of France’s wartime underbelly that was not meant to see the light of day.
Single handedly he has changed that by his tireless research and quest for publicity.
Leaving the fortifications of Montreuil Bellay behind we are going to visit Saint Martin de Sanzay.
Not for the church, not for the chateaux and the old commanderie, but for the old flooded quarry…La Ballastiere.
Here is where you will find real France enjoying itself….the salle de fetes houses dances nearly every week end; the huge marquee can hold weddings, reunions…you name it; car rallies meet there; you can picnic by the waterside; you can fish…..it’s a slice of French life, and not on the tourist track.
Away again on the D158 and the D37, to the wonderfully named Ste. Verge and its church with the rare inscription on its walls
Then turn right on the side road towards Pompois and the Reserve Toarcien, conserving two old quarries where in 1849, the paleontologist Alcide d’Orbigny defined the stratotype of a layer dating back to the Jurassic system, the “Toarcien”. This level materializes a time interval comprised between 183 and 176 million years ago…..and to me is always associated with the ammonite fossils found all over the area.
Then you are in the sprawl of the suburbs of Thouars, a town which is a very hotch potch of history.
From changing hands between English and French in the Hundred Years War, to being taken by the Vendeens in the post revolutionary civil war, to becoming a railway town with a vast locomotive plant – and then losing heart and energy and declining into the stagnation in which it now finds itself it, the town could stand as an example of many in rural France….but it has so much to see, from the fortifications
to its churches
its chateau overlooking the river
not to speak of the railway buffs’ delight, the Eiffel viaduct
that this wander upstream on the river Thouet will end here…to encourage you to investigate Thouars over a glass of its very own aperitif…..Duhomard
Find out the story behind the name and I’ll stand you one in the Cafe des Arts. This could bankrupt me…
I suppose culture shock only exists if you have enough of a handle on the culture concerned to realise that it differs from your own…..and that culture doesn’t have to be foreign.
I remember being on holiday in Luxor years ago where my husband taught me to swim….well, to keep afloat…in the pool at the hotel.
There were not many guests in the hotel, but those around the pool seemed all to be British….middle aged couples and a few families with children, most of whom were in the pool, throwing balls about and enjoying splashing as much as swimming.
We were reading in the shade when we became aware that a little girl was parading round the surrounds of the pool and that in her wake people were gathering up their belongings and heading for the hotel.
Our turn came and we too skedaddled.
The little girl was pulling forward her swimsuit bottom and asking if we wanted to see her willy.
Whatever was going on there, it was certainly culture shock and we wanted no part of it!
Running recently between Costa Rica, France, Spain and England I had an exposure to different cultures – so brief in the case of Spain that I hardly had time to register more than that the cleaners all seemed to be of Arab appearance and the ticket clerks laughed and said ‘Pura Vida’ when I booked my train journey using my best Costa Rican Spanish.
In France friends told me of their troubles with their bank…..who did not take out the standing order which paid their mortgage and promptly took them to court for non payment.
They were lucky enough to have a tough minded retired Belgian lawyer friend to stand up for them as it was clear that the court was minded to ignore the fact that the bank had not taken the money in order to concentrate on the non payment……
And I have just read the latest episode in the dreadful saga of the Hobos in France blog…apologies, but I cannot get a link to work…which bears out my own and others’ experience of the French legal system…if in doubt lose the papers and if all else fails…lie.
Coming from a background of English law, it shocks me…but I have a nasty suspicion that the English legal system has now gone so far to the dogs in terms of accessibility that it is emerging at the nether end.
The Costa Rican legal system has…so far…been good to me and I do like the attempts made by the judge to reconcile the parties…..as far as possible from the English mindset where it is thought that if the parties have come to court it is because no reconciliation was possible and the court is there to try the matter.
But there is a general reluctance in Costa Rica to have an open disagreement….it is seen as impolite and uneducated to brawl and shout the odds.
You express your disagreement non verbally…by not doing whatever it is that the other party wants.
So I followed the Costa Rican cultural norm when considering what to do after a conversation with another immigrant who lives up on the mountain between us and the town.
He is an American, or, as I have now learned to say, North American, and is a lawyer.
He bought his finca from another North American, and became distinctly disgruntled when he became aware of the difference between the price he paid and the sum his seller originally handed over. In consequence he has become somewhat of a dog in the manger where his property is concerned.
I met him on the back road to town and, amazingly, he stopped his car and got out. He does not usually speak…I suppose as he isn’t being paid to do so he spares himself the effort.
Bypassing the usual courtesies he informed me that the poles bearing the ‘phone line which passes over his property belonged to him. A man had offered him a good price for these poles….but he would give me the chance to buy them, in order to be able to keep the ‘phone line.
Unimaginable…that he thinks I’m stupid enough to come up for that, and that anyone would even contemplate threatening to remove someone’s ‘phone access.
Not to mention that there are several others on this line…among them men with machetes…
My first instinct was to tell him to stuff the poles where the monkey stuffed the nuts…..but, being in Costa Rica, I smiled and said I would think it over.
Up in town I dropped into the ICE offices (electricity and telecommunications) and recounted my tale to Don Carlos on the desk. He telephoned someone in the back office who emerged, print out in hand, to demonstrate that the poles belonged to ICE and that any attempt to meddle with them would meet with disapproval.
He then attempted to sell me a mobile ‘phone to be able to contact them should any such thing occur.
So, sure in my rights, I did nothing.
But if he comes the old acid again I shall encourage Don Antonio to remove the copper cable whch runs over his land, carrying the power for the North American’s water pump.