Christmas is Coming….

christmas tree hopital de ninosAnd San Jose abounds in fibre glass reindeer and inflatable santas to add to the perils of the streets.
The lights have been switched on at the tree outside the Hopital de Ninos and the municipality has declared war on unauthorised street vendors.

It seems to have worried the municipality that the street vendors have encroached on the muni’s prerogative by hiring out sites to each other, the contract assured by a few heavies, as opposed to the muni’s system of licensing street sellers and sending the police to chase the others who just nip round the corner and come back when the police have given up.

My money is not on the muni.

Christmas music has taken over in the supermarkets….and the decorations are going up in the three valleys.
And very nice they are too though they cannot – could not – rival those of the area where I used to live in France; I reckon that it could have been seen from space over the Christmas period though unknown to the world and to GPS at all other times.

One item catches my eye each time I pass.
A Santa Claus, all white beard and whisker on the red oval background.
I know things about that santa which cannot be revealed to its proud owner.

Some time back I was visiting my mother before Christmas as part of those ‘let’s see if the house in France has been taken over by squatters’ trips.
She was sorting out her Christmas card and present list and held out to me in some annoyance the item which now adorns a door in the three valleys.

Hilda won it in a raffle for the blind and passed it on to me! What does she think I’m going to do with it!

Well if you don’t want it….

I certainly don’t!

Then it will come in handy for wrapping up this bottle of port I’m taking back.

And so it did.
The port emerged from the suitcase unscathed – as I had not passed through U.S.A. airports with their Fagin trained baggage handlers – and I laid the wrapper aside for disposal.

The next day the woman who mucks us out each week came for her regular session which has The Men heading for the hills and the dogs lying low under the balcony while mops are flourished and dusters deployed.
She saw the wrapper and asked if she could have it.
Of course she could.

After all, what was I going to do with a festive loo seat cover?

But I still feel vaguely guilty as I pass the house…..

Needless to say, The Neighbour (some of whose history is available on the page just under the header) has decided to contribute to the Christmas spirit.
He has let it be known that in his view we are responsible for the ruination of local solidarity – that is, his reign of terror – and that he expects every Costa Rican to do their duty and ostracise us until we move out.

And if any Costa Rican does not then he will take measures to encourage them: he will kill off their cattle, poison their dogs and take a machete to anyone he encounters when there are no witnesses.

Clearly a conviction politician.

We don’t know everyone on our road….though we know a lot of people after the mess made of the water distribution by the people behind The Neighbour….

We are not universally liked by those we do know….the ‘soy pobre’s (I’m poor) who think we should give them plantains rather than sell them.
As I’ve said to a number of them…they have plenty of land to plant their own plantains, to sow beans and maize….and if they can’t be bothered, that’s their problem.
I’m not a charity for the idle.

The Neighbour is, I think, at his last throw of the dice.
Thanks to new laws and the courts his power as a sort of witchdoctor is in sad decline….people have seen that he can be taken on.

So now he goes for the race card…..and he will have some success.

But I think I can live with being ostracised by idiots….I’ve had that all my life.

Coffee Break

water damage 039A sunny mid morning finds us on the balcony with coffee, cake…and friends.
Dona Mery, Dona Estrella, Don Freddy and ourselves chewing the fat on life in the three valleys and the upcoming project to concrete part of the road from town.

As no mayor or eminent politician lives in the three valleys the road when we first arrived was simply a wide track with hardcore rolled into it from time to time when the lorry from the pig farm could no longer get traction.
It ran from the main road at the entrance to town downhill all the way to a small bridge whose supports were eaten away by the torrent below and then it rose again on the other side, where it forked.

One track led uphill and is supposed to be the emergency exit from town if the main road were to be damaged by an earthquake: this road runs over a well developed faultline and thanks to a mixture of meddling and neglect on the part of the council is next to unusable, turning into a river bed in the heavy rains.

The other track led downhill alongside our coffee plantation and now continues to the embryo massage parlour project on the other side of a large stream.
It is an embryo project because unless the owner combines it with a zipline the clients are going to have one heck of a job reaching the welcoming ladies in their individual cabinas with all mod cons – well, water anyway – as every attempt to install a bridge has resulted in said bridge being washed away by the stream.

Then the developer appeared – he preceded the massage parlour chap who bought him out when the courts chucked out the development project – and one day, the developer having influence, the bridge supports were replaced and safety rails were installed.
The safety rails lasted about three days before a lorry bringing materials to the development took them out, but the supports are still there.

Then the man who owns a big finca up near the main road decided to get together with his neighbours…a garage, a general store, a man hiring out bouncy castles and sundry others….and concrete the track from the main road down to the entrance to his property.
The developer was all for this and used his influence to get a grant to pay for the materials – hardcore, metal mesh, sand and cement – while the neighbours would supply the manpower.

Except that there were not enough neighbours to supply it, so fundraising to pay for labour was necessary.
Raffle tickets, dances, chicharone (pork crackling) feasts – all were hawked up and down the three valleys for, as the people organising it said, everyone downhill used that stretch of road so it was only right that everyone should contribute.

But not everyone downhill was content to do so.
Those who did not have a car said they didn’t mind what the road was like as they would still be walking.
Those with cars said that those who drove lorries should pay as it was lorries that wrecked the road.
Those with lorries said that the people who said that they walked actually took taxis so they should pay too.
The Indians half way down the hill said that they were indigenous people and should not have to pay.
Everyone who was not an Indian said that they jolly well should.

No one, significantly, said that the local council should pay. There are some things it is not even worth discussing.

Most people coughed up something and the stretch of road was built….a concrete section (known as the motorway) reaching about a quarter of the way to the bridge which is when the materials ran out.

Things stayed like this for a few years until a female dynamo moved into the three valleys.
She and her husband built a modern house enclosed by walls and an expensive ironwork gate; they planted palms along the verge to their house….but something was lacking in her House and Garden world.
A proper road.

She had, of course, joined the development association and she started the ball rolling on improvements.
Her first project was to collect enough money to put down hardcore on the section leading down from the end of the concrete road.
Quite a few people, ourselves included, said it was a waste of money that could be put to extending the motorway.

With a toss of her elegant head she proceeded to beguile the association into backing her project and now, a year later, the road is as bad as ever.

So now she is fundraising for a concrete stretch.

But it won’t follow on from the existing stretch.
No…that would be too simple.

The owner of the pig farm by the bridge has managed to get a grant for materials….but as he suspects the money won’t buy enough to reach from the existing stretch to the bridge, he wants to start at the bridge and work upwards.

It is this that we are discussing when Don Anselmo appears, bearing gifts.
He has brought us pickling onions from Santa Ana and tomatoes from San Ramon, stopping in on his way to check his cattle on grazing he has rented down by the stream.
Fresh coffee and cake circulate and discussion continues.

Well, says Don Freddy, people are putting more in this time than last.

They would, says Dona Estrella. There’s more people down here than up top and most of them have someone working. Apart from that there’s a fair few young lads willing to do the work.

And even Carlos is putting his hand in his pocket, says his aunt, Dona Mery. He’s giving a calf for a raffle.

What’s the matter with him…ill or something? Normally he wouldn’t even give you the time of day! Must fancy his chances with the new senora!

And Mito at the pig farm is giving a porker for chicharones which is decent of him since he was the one that got the grant.

I’m putting in too, says Don Anselmo, as my lorry uses the road a bit, but it’s not a good moment.

What’s the problem?

Well, you know I buy and sell a bit and last week I bought six calves at auction and put them down on the grazing here.
Well, one’s missing. A nice black brahma calf.
I’ve looked everywhere…upstream and down, along the roads, but no one’s seen anything.
I hadn’t even had time to brand them….’

That’s a loss, all right!

Yes…it’s always something with farming…
I must be off. I’ll nip round on Tuesday if you’re fishing out your tilapia then and make you some ceviche! Give me a ring!

He takes his leave and we hear his lorry start up ouside.

I was thinking, said Don Freddy.
From what Mito says, the grant won’t be enough to take the road right up to the existing bit.
The new senora is going to find that she has concrete uphill and downhill of her…but the same old rocks outside her house.

And I’ve been thinking too, says Dona Mery, rising to her feet.
I’m just going round to Carlos’ place to have a look at that calf he’s giving.

Bet you it’s black, says Don Freddy.

Chinchilla Goes A-Hunting

Chinchilla-Comunicacion-CORTESIA-CASA-PRESIDENCIAL_LNCIMA20131104_0006_57Laura 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.

notre dame de paris wikipedia.commons.orgFrom 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.

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les=photos=de=dd=over-blog
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:

Nothing New Under The Sun…

dicese-poitiers.com.fr

As the French economy turned down and the votes for the Front National turned up the Sarkozy government thought best to draw the fangs of the FN by starting a debate about what it was to be French, which roused a great deal of noise and fury but arrived at no conclusions.

Waste of time, of course: any reader of the Daily Mail has the answer on the tip of the tongue….
Eats snails, has unsavoury urinatory habits in the male (possible link?) and makes improper use of hand and head when playing football.

And there was even an answer in France among – the beaufs – not that they would be listened to as not having passed the portals of the Grandes Ecoles, except as labourers…..
Anyone born in France who is not a bougnoul.

A bougnoul?

Someone of North African descent, now extended to anyone darker skinned than the average non bougnoul Frenchman.

The word might be relatively modern….probably from the colonisation of Algeria….but the sentiment is not.

I would often be included in the boules party at Jules’ place when walking the dogs in the evening, followed by the glass or two at the kitchen table, mustard glasses on the oilcloth and a plate of biscuits put out but left untouched.
They were the sign that we were not alcoholics….just there for the booze…but they remained untouched.

Jules was recounting a run in he had had with a man who had bought one of his sheep and was reluctant to pay for it….a man from the next commune just over the departmental line.

His wife was not surprised. She certainly wouldn’t have dealt with the man.

Who is it, I asked, curiosity being my besetting sin.

That man out at Humeau….you know…does eau de vie and honey.

Yes, I did. Sold under cover eau de vie at higher prices to foreigners.

Not that you can trust any of that lot out there, she continued. They all have the ‘teint bazane’. (acute accent on the final e).

Teint bazane? Swarthy.
Not, in my view, noticably so compared with their neighbours on this side of the departmental line…but enlightenment was at hand.

Descended from the Saracens beaten by Charles Martel at Poitiers! They ran and hid in the forests and there they are today!

Given that this was in the 1980s and the battle of Poitiers was in 732 that seemed a mighty feat of folk memory. Clearly these early immigrants from North Africa had about the same level of appreciation as did the later wave of new arrivals.

Further to the south, a commune bears a name referring to a legend concerning the same flight of the defeated from the battlefield…..St. Sauveur de Givre en Mai – Holy Saviour of Frost in May.

Legend has it that a band of Saracens holed up in the local church in the month of May some six months after the battle, defying all efforts to dislodge them.
Eventually they made an agreement…if there was frost overnight, they would surrender.
Coming from southern climes, they could not imagine such a thing, but, lo and behold when they emerged the next morning, the ground was covered in frost and the trees were white.
They marched out with the honours of war…to leave the village in peace.

Ancestors of the honey man at Humeau? Who knows.

Ah! Say those who know their rural France…the Saracens had not reckoned with the Saints de Glace…the Ice Saints.
St. Mamert, feast day on May 11th; St. Pancrace, feast day on May 12th; St. Servais, feast day on May 13th.
One of the first things I was warned of by my neighbours when moving to France was not to let the sudden warmth of spring go to my head in the garden.
On top of not casting clouts I had to beware of the ‘lune rousse’ in April and May when the sudden chill risked burning the young shoots and the Ice Saints.

Only when their three feast days had passed should I even think of planting out the tomatoes….

As in the case of the sheep, a financial reversal can bring up all sorts of reactions, and racism is one of them.
Nothing new under the icy skies of the economic lune rousse.

A Slithering of Solicitors

wallpapers.free-review.net

You would think I was making a collection….the young lady dealing with the fight against the developer here; the local water inspector-cum-lawyer; my regular one; the Argentinian one in Spain; the Flemish one in Belgium and the English one in England.
At the moment I am rejoicing at being free of a French one in France….but I’m not counting my chickens…
While I have property in France there is always the possibility of a notaire darting from the undergrowth to sink his fangs in my wallet.
And…apart from the proposed development…I don’t have a complicated life.

Yet now I have acquired another solicitor…..who came to see me yesterday evening.

I was on my own, my husband having gone to see a friend, so when I heard a car pass the house and then stop I assumed that it was someone looking for the goat farm further down the valley….I reckon people get so desperate looking for it they turn in at any likely gate to ask for directions.
But when there was prolonged silence, I thought I’d better go out to take a look, remembering that what is normally a clear turning circle has been complicated by having building materials for the extension dumped at salient points.

There indeed was a car…a very new, very shiny, very expensive 4×4.
There was also a driver, who had alighted to try to move the wheelbarrow to allow him to turn.
And there was the Alsatian, sitting between the wheelbarrow and the car. Just looking.

Did he need directions to the goat farm?
No. He had come to see my husband.
Ah…in that case he was out of luck.
I would do instead…..he had come to help me.
Do I need assistance?
Yes, senora.

Intrigued, I sent the Alsatian indoors while my visitor moved the wheelbarrow, marking his elegant slacks with cement dust, and turned his car.

Could we talk inside?
If he wished. He didn’t have the air of a mad axeman.

We settled on the balcony, the Alsatian sitting between us, just looking, while my pouchy little visitor came to the point.

My husband had been to the Fiscalia, had he not? Where he had confirmed his accusations of The Neighbour, had he not?

I nodded.

Well, fixing me with a compassionate smile, he had come to help me. He was a lawyer…a Costa Rican lawyer.
Ah, not from the Intergalactic Federation, then.

He knew the law…all the details….
So I should damn well think if he was taking money for practicing his black arts.

And he had come to tell me that there was no point in going on with these complaints….I would be wasting money on a lawyer…all for nothing.
So he was not offering to represent me, then.

He had thought it best to come down and advise me before things risked getting out of hand…
For whom?

After all the Neighbour was a violent, unpredictable man.
Yes, I knew that. I’d seen his then lawyer restrain him from attacking a judge.

And there was no point in having problems if they could be avoided.

So you think my husband should withdraw his complaints to avoid being marmalised by the Neighbour?

Hands raised in horror…. Alsatian shuffling forward eagerly.

No, no…nothing of the sort!
Ah, I had been too crude…missed the subtleties.

He had just come to explain how important good neighbourly relations were in Costa Rica.

Important everywhere, Licenciado. But how do I have good neighbourly relations with a man who has diverted water from my cafetal? I have to take cisterns of water up in the car to do my spraying…

But he has an order from a judge, allowing him to do so! You signed it yourself!
Shome mishtake shurely, ed.

No, Licenciado. What he has is an agreement with someone else to allow him to take pipes across that person’s land.

Then your lawyer must have signed it for you!

No, Licenciado….neither we, nor our lawyer had anything to do with that agreement and it doesn’t entitle him to divert water from my property.

So, pausing and fiddling with his mobile’phone, if you had the water back you could have good neighbourly relations?
Right…that’s the deal he’s looking for.

Anything is possible.

I’ll be in touch.

I saw him to the door, accompanied by the Alsatian.

Licenciado!

Yes, senora?

My husband said that there were about thirty other people in the Fiscalia confirming complaints….

Learning the Language


It’s not so simple, learning the language.

I remember learning to speak French in France…..I had ‘done’ French in school…in later life I picked it up again and had good reading skills, but living in rural France was an eye opener.
For a start all my neighbours spoke patois….

It could have been a disaster had my neighbours not also been kind and patient and had I not been introduced to a retired headmistress who wished to improve her English.
While announcing that in my spoken French I was clearly a woman with no past and no future, speaking as I did only in the present tense she told me not to worry.

Talk to people, listen to people…do what babies do…communicate…and one day what you’re hearing will be what you’re speaking.

She was right. I muddled along, read a lot, especially the newspaper in order to be abreast of the current scandals and one day I got there.
I spoke French.

And now I’m learning Spanish. Costa Rican Spanish, not the Castilian Spanish spoken by my husband.

I was talking about my language learning problems to a taxi driver….one of those chatty, friendly men who have proved to be superb teachers.

You’ve come to the right place to learn Spanish, he announced. Here we speak clearly; none of this limp wristed lisping in Central America!

He might have a point….but I suspect that at some stage in the colonial experience a Glaswegian element intervened as nowhere outside that jewel of the Clyde have I encountered a more pronounced glottal stop.

Ganado…cattle…is pronounced Gannow.

Cansado…tired…cansow.

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

Pura vida!

The watchword of Costa Rica.

And that from a Catalan……saucy devil!

But learning the language is one thing….how I’m using it is another.

Costa Ricans refer to themselves as Ticos….supposedly from their habit of noting affection or sympathy for something or someone by using the diminutive ‘itico’.

On the (mainly) North American expat fora, Tico is banded about readily when referring to local people or customs, usually in a somewhat condescending way….

A Tico house as contrasted to one built to North American standards….

What Ticos do as opposed to what the contributor does…..

And when the established expat human mosquitoes invite the newbies to  a get together to see how much they can  take them for you also tend to hear disparaging comments about Ticos.

So, though my Tico friends refer to themselves as Ticos…I feel inhibited from doing so from the way Tico is used by the expat groups.

I use Costa Rican…….Costarricense.

Then I’ll be with Costa Rican friends having coffee in the Teatro Nacional.

They’ll call the waiter over and address him as

Muchacho.

A bit like  saying ‘Garcon!’ to a French waiter.

But instead of peeing in the mustard for revenge, he takes it as normal and brings the order.

I can’t do that…or I feel that I can’t.

Yet when, years ago, we were travelling to Nicaragua, I didn’t find the same inhibition.

As we stepped off the bus at the frontier, a lady with a wad of immigration forms approached the passengers, offering to fill out the details for a sum of money. I said I could fill it in myself…but she still wanted money, despite notices all over the buildings stating that all formalities are free  of charge.

So at the entrance to the immigration offices…a Cecil B. de Mille crowd scene if ever there was one… I approached an unwary policeman and told him that the ‘muchacha’ wouldn’t give me a form.

He went off to the clerks at the desks and came back to say that they had run out of forms…but not to worry…the computer was working so no need to do anything.

So why did it come naturally to refer to her as ‘muchacha’ when I can’t call a waiter ‘muchacho’?

Is it that it was indirect…not to her face…thus not requiring respect?

A Muddle of Mentalities

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

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

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

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

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

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

How French!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, sure in my rights, I did nothing.

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

Pura vida!

Listen to Mother….

I should have listened to mother.

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

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

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

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

‘Montparnasse, not Versailles!’

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

So, her next trip was to be by coach.

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

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

‘Quick! the loo!’

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

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

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

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

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

‘There are limits’.

‘What limits?’

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

‘Was it out of order?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and, of course,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first incident was my own fault.

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

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

At Tours, disaster struck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A shadowy female figure was just unlocking the portacabin.

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

What about the violinist’s daughter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passports. Loos.

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

‘Bulgarian people.’

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

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

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

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