Culture on the Low Road

folk-groups

With the cuts in public expenditure in France, local authorities are reducing funding for what they were pleased to describe as cultural events. While some were well worthwhile, bringing top class performers to areas which would otherwise have no chance of seeing them in the flesh, like the Nuits Romanes in Poitou Charente,  a great deal of it betrayed the belief of official, authorised and therefore paid culture vultures that people should be provided with professional dispensers of approved culture rather than being left to develop their own.

Thus a rural village where some eighty per cent of the inhabitants are over fifty finds itself lumbered with a hip hop band for the Fete de la Musique: professional ‘story tellers’ infest the St Jean midsummer festival – probably sitting in a yurt to peddle their meretricious nonsense – while the only reason that the Bernache et Marrons (new wine and chestnuts) fair does not figure half naked men in red tights swinging from scaffolding towers is because it can be decidedly nippy in November in the Loire Valley.

So, on the grounds of every cloud having a silver lining, let us rejoice that  with the need to find money to pay the salaries of all the local government employees whose jobs have been duplicated by local government reorganisation people can, with a bit of luck, get back to doing what they like by way of culture.

Walks through the commune, pumpkin fairs, local folk dance groups, bands and choirs, fireworks on July 13th, the fire brigade ball (guaranteed bacchanalia) and, in my old area at any rate, amateur theatricals.

Some months after moving to rural France, I had had a toothache which oil of cloves would not touch, so I needed the dentist. Papy, my nearest neughbour, told me that there was no need to make an appointment, just to go down to the surgery in the village and sit in the waiting room, so that was what I did.

Two gloomy gentlemen were already in occupation – for some reason the usual round of handshakes doesn’t take place in dental waiting rooms – and one informed me that the dentist was out but would be back shortly. I passed the time looking at posters of teeth.

The dentist returned. The street door banged against the wall, there was a strong smell of drink having been taken and a tall handsome man with black curly hair strode in…..his white coat liberally splashed with blood.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting, but I had a spot of bother just now…Come on Jules, let’s get these false teeth sorted!’

I think I was rooted to the chair in shock…otherwise I would have fled.

Georges, the other patient, turned to me.

‘Don’t worry, he had a problem taking a tooth out…it broke and he had to put his knee on Jean-Paul’s chest to get the leverage to get the last bit out. Bit of a shock for both of them, so they’ve just been over to the bar for a restorative.’

Don’t worry! What, I wondered would qualify as something to worry about? A broken artery, dislocated jawbone….If the tooth hadn’t been giving me such gyp I would have been away in Olympic record time for the one hundred yard dash – or whatever it is in metric. But it was so I didn’t.

Dentists have an unfair advantage. They stick needles in your gums so that your lips turn to wood and then make you keep your mouth open while they talk to you. You have no way of responding.

This dentist talked to me while finding and dealing with my problem tooth.

I was new to the commune. I was British. This was very convenient. He ran the amateur dramatic society. He was putting on a Feydeau farce. There was an English governess in it and none of his regular actresses could say ‘shocking!’ properly. So there it was. First rehearsal on Tuesday evening in the mairie annexe at eight o’ clock.

He had a copy of the play in my hand, my role marked in pencil, before I could mumble a word.

Shocking!

So here I was, my French far from fluent, with no experience of amateur dramatics since being in the chorus of ‘The Mikado’ while at school, being propelled onto the boards by a dictatorial dentist.

I studied the part…small, luckily….and the cues. I turned up at the annexe to the mairie and found I already knew some of the people there. Then the dentist arrived and things took off. He was a ball of energy and enthusiasm, a perfectionist and, inevitably, not only director but also leading man.

Like everyone else, I was pushed and pulled into place, was prompted and scolded and learned an enormous amount about staging farce.

Timing, timing and timing, keeping the action going, getting his actors to have a signature expression or tone of voice that marked them clearly for the audience, he was dedicated to getting his crew to give of their best.

It was all very convivial…there was always wine and cake at the end of the rehearsal, and I was included in the cake rota automatically which surprised me given the French suspicion of anything emerging from a British oven. I supplied treacle tart and to my relief it was asked for again.

I got to know people…my French improved dramatically…and I learned a lot about the commune as we worked.

Although amateur dramatics – like music – had always had a strong following in the area, until fairly recently these activities had been duplicated. Those who attended mass – known as ‘les grenouilles du benitier’ (literally ‘frogs in the holy water stoup’)  to those who didn’t – supported the priest’s theatre group and band and the others supported the republican groups.

In that village, the war between state and church had been such that – Clochemerle like – the public toilets had been set up next to the church on the main square……and were closed on Sundays! Respect for the church or a strong determination that believers shouldn’t be able to use the facilities?

The play was performed on the home ground first, in the salle des fetes and then toured neighbouring villages, always to packed houses and vigorous applause, two nights and a matinee a week for four weeks, the cast kept going by buckets of mulled wine backstage, dished out in an enamel mug.

It was fun, and I gladly joined up for several more years. It was always a Feydeau farce, there was always a place for a foreigner and in year two I even graduated to my own little round of applause as I entered, an accolade awarded by audiences to the regular players.

It came to an end, of course: the dentist left the area.

The lady from the chateau, whose cavities he had been assiduously attending to for some years, decided that enough was enough. She left her husband and, with the dentist in tow, moved to that Sodom and Gomorrah of the Atlantic coast, La Baule.

Shocking!

The last visit from the traveling circus took place in my time in that village…no lions or tigers,  but dancing dogs and the great attraction – the chicken that could count!

Not caring for the circuses I had not gone down to the trestles arranged in the square by the church….but I do rather regret not seeing the chicken tapping on the cards laid out on the sand.

Later, there was a new attraction – one which had nothing to do with the culture vultures.

It started with a man impersonating one of the iconic figures of French rural life..the old woman who ruled her family with a rod of iron: the show would start with this ‘lady’ roaring on stage on a solex, headscarf firmly tied under her chin, ready to wind up the audience with ‘her’ take on rural life: somewhat scatalogical and utterly hilarious.

Others copied….

These days the best known act is that of ‘Les Bodins’: much less scatalogical but reviving in its audiences memories of the old ways of rural life…set in a pastiche of a typical small farm of the not so distant past.

Here is an excerpt: you might not understand the words, but it is slapstick enough to be self explanatory given the title:

A dormouse has shat in the cheese.

High culture it is not…but neither are half naked men in red  tights.

As they Revel in the Joys of Renovation

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

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

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

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

The artisan francais.

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

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

A. The bodger didn’t know what it was

and

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

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

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

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

We had struck gold.

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

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

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

Sounds naff…looks good and certainly fooled every expert.

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

Bringing old wrecks back to life was a joy.

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

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

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and restore her dignity

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You feel that all the work was worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Vendange

photopatrimoine.over-blog.com
photopatrimoine.over-blog.com
After a wet morning of picking coffee in a natty outer garment formed from two black bin bags I came back to the house and caught up on the blogs I follow…then fell on a post from Janice about the vendange in her area of France.
In an instant the red cherries of coffee high on their wands were replaced in my mind for the dusty purple grapes along the low wires in the vineyards I’d known so well.

I picked grapes with friends and neighbours all the years I was in France, with only a couple of gaps due to illness.
I have no experience whatsoever of picking on the industrial scale, so cannot comment, but the small scale job gave me a lot of pleasure.
For one thing, it was usually only one day, or one and a half and then perhaps another couple of days later, so it was hardly demanding in terms of time, the weather was usually good and the company excellent.

Papy’s middle son Jean asked me if I would help the first year….Mamie usually helped, but she was getting past it and needed to rest and another pair of hands would be welcome.

Now, this was the unscientific age of winemaking, wild yeast on the grapes, no idea of temperature control and the desired result a pink wine a bit on the sweet side to keep the family going through the year.
Accordingly, it was not necessary to stumble out in the dark before the dawn to take advantage of the coolest part of the day…we ventured forth in the afternoon, when the housework and the farmwork had been dealt with and the sun was approaching its’ zenith. It promised to be warm work, and it was.

Jean organised us.
Each person had a wide bucket and a pair of secateurs – so small that I found them difficult to handle and in future brought my own big gardening ones which were more suited to my paws.
I was put with Jean’s wife, to see that I knew what to do; we were assigned our rows of vines and off we went.
The object was to pick the triangular bunches of ripe grapes and, at all costs, not to include the round balls of immature ones, the secondary growths that an all too casual pruning had allowed to develop.
If they went in, the wine would be too acidic.

Most people squatted or crouched, but I found my best method was to shuffle along on my knees hoping not to encounter too many thistles or nettles…it must be a height question, or a lack of attendance at yoga classes on my part. Supple I have never been.
The technique was to place the bucket under the bunches you were picking so that they dropped neatly within and the challenge was to miss no bunch, while being aware that another pair of secateurs was at work on the other side of the plant and your fingers were in imminent peril.

We moved along and I was pleased that I could keep up with the others and not miss anything…Papy inspected each row, with crows of triumph if he found a bunch still hanging on the vine.
Conversation was brisk, the gosssip was hair raising and I was quite surprised to find how quickly the buckets were filled and taken to the trailer sitting behind Papy’s tractor at the edge of the field.
The women were grumbling that there should be someone in charge of the buckets to save them from having to get up and down and then stretch up to the trailer, so Papy was given additional duties which put a swift end to his inspection and crowings….he was too busy coming and going, his pickers keeping him busy.

The first third of the vines had been cleared when Jean called a break.
Papy, the man of the moment, was prepared.
He had the mustard glasses ready….the ones that you buy which contain mustard and then can use for drinking ever afterwards…and the bottles were brought from the bucket which had been hanging in the well….that cool, soft pink wine went down very well the first time – and the second!

Papy went off with the tractor and trailor down to the press but for us it was back to work on the rest of the vines and the afternoon began to turn into evening by the time we had taken our second break and were on the last stretch.

Papy had taken another load, and this was the last, so we all trailed after him down to the house to wash our buckets and secateurs under the tap in the yard, stacking them to dry and then washing our sticky and stained hands.

The modern – well, reasonably so – press was full and in action, a long cylinder which acted a bit like a syringe…the plate at the end pushing inexorably forward, but gently enough not to start breaking the pips, which would add a bitterness which was not desired, squeezing the juice out through the pipe at the far end into an underground concrete tank where fermentation would take place.

The last of the harvest had to go in the old press, a round wooden structure with a central screw where the levels were adjusted with wooden blocks, a long metal pole turned the screw and the juice poured between the slats onto the platform of the press, thence to buckets placed underneath.

We were all heading for home when Mamie appeared from the doorway of the house.
‘Don’t forget….we’re all eating down at Jean’s tonight….I always used to do it, but I’m just getting too old.’
It appeared that I was invited to supper, and, checking with Jean’s wife, who seemed remarkably cool for someone about to entertain the multitudes, that was indeed the case.
‘Should I bring anything?’
‘Oh….well, one of your salads would be nice. Jean liked that.’

I hared home, scrubbed my hands with bleach and tried to wash and change while racking my brains to remember what it was I had served when Papy’s family had last come to supper and, worse, wondering if I had the ingredients in the house.
It occurred to me that it would probably have been my standby…..tinned chickpeas, red beans and flageolet beans, combined with diced onion, black olives and parsley with a good slosh of green and tasty olive oil. Store cupboard stuff.
I put it together and included the batch of pork pies I had made the day before for good measure and was ready at the gate when Papy hoooted to take me down to the village in his old Renault van.
He and Mamie sat in the front and the rest of us crouched in the back with our various offerings, swaying in unison on the corners and combining to keep Papy’s dog from pushing his nose into the dishes.

The tables had been set in the courtyard of Jean’s house, lit by those bamboo outside lights that flare and cast shadows at their own sweet will, and the women were already setting out the dishes they had provided.
The whole thing was a glorious buffet, home made pate, rillettes, rillons, ham and charcuterie, salads, bread and cheese and, of course, wine.

We ate, we talked, we drank, and, eventually, we sang.

My best memory of that long day is the quiet courtyard with the tenor voice of Pierre soaring into the shadows and the warm full response of the chorus as we sang

‘A la claire fontaine.’

Victor…A Word…

john-piper-mosnac-dordogne.jpgOn a wet afternoon in western France a gendarmerie van pulls into the farmyard…its sole occupant gets out shouting

Hoy, Victor! A word!

Hello Jean-Yves! What brings you here? I’m in the barn…just a minute while I shut the doors and we’ll have a drink…

No, don’t shut the doors, Victor….it’s about what you’ve got in that barn that I’ve come about.

On your own, I see.

Yes, I’m trying to do you a good turn….let me see what you’ve got there. Yes, just as I thought!
Victor, you’ll have to get rid of it…put it back where you found it…and quickly.
There’s all hell to pay.
Everyone’s out looking for it and they’ve even taken us off speed traps and breathalysers.

Must be serious then!

Yes, it is!
Apart from you having stolen property in your barn…what the blazes do you want with a bulldozer that size? You haven’t got enough land to make it worthwhile – and how did you get it here from the new bypass anyway?

Ah! Typical!
Us farmers are getting robbed all ways…..diesel syphoned off, animals killed in our own fields, tools stolen, irrigation pipes nicked – even whole crops gone!
Look at that poor guy who had his whole field of garlic nicked….and the forty hectares of grapes that went missing overnight….not to speak of combine harvesters vanishing into thin air!
And where are the Gendarmerie? Breathalysing some poor sod who’s been out drowning his sorrows!

Well it’s not my fault….only a few more years to the pension, thank goodness.
It’s not what I joined for I can tell you…

No, I know Jean-Yves.
When you started there were still bars in your stations – and you were a hell of a lot nicer for it! I reckon that the rot started when they closed down them down.
You turned nasty about then…applying the law to people you knew…
Still, what I mean is that us farmers can have our stuff nicked left, right and centre…but let some big roadworks contractor miss his bulldozer – you’d think he’d got enough, wouldn’t you? – you’re all on red alert!
No wonder we’ll all be voting Le Pen in the elections!

That’s as maybe…but I can tell you that a big firm like Crapule gets a lot more attention in high places than you lot. Might be different if you were cereal boys…in the big league…but you’re not!
The firm thought the ‘dozer had been whipped off to Germany….like a lot of other stuff. You boys are lucky you’re not nearer the frontier.

Clever buggers, the Germans.

What do you mean?

Well, they worked out they didn’t have to have a war to get what they wanted this time….they thought up the E.U.
See, in the war they had to go round requisitioning…this way government – our government – does it for them.
They get cheap veg and flog expensive cars.
Bit like Vichy, really, but more efficient. Very hot on efficiency the Germans…

Come off it Victor! You’re not telling me the Germans are using the E.U. to nick combine harvesters and fields of garlic…

No, but they run the show, don’t they! Remember when Hollande got in and what he was going to say to Merkel?
Turned out to be ‘Jawohl’, didn’t it…
No, the E.U. lets these crooks from Transylvania in and they nick the stuff, take it to Germany and the Germans get it on the cheap…
Clever buggers, like I said.

Never mind all that! You’ll have to get it back there…or dump it somewhere…and sharpish!

Well, we’ve finished with it now anyway, so I’ll get Laurent to run it into Ste. Conasse tonight, dump it round the back where it’s dark. Just make sure you’re not out breathalysing between here and there.

No, all right…but who is ‘we’? You and Laurent?

No! There’s me, of course, and Jean-Antoine and Popaul…here, you’re not taking notes!

No, just interested to know what’s going on. That’s what policing used to be about…
So what the blazes were you three geriatrics up to? Put together you don’t have enough land to make that ‘dozer worthwhile…

That’s where you’re wrong!
It’s the eco tax…you know, the one on lorries that comes in in January. Going to be taxed by the lorry…tollgates going up all over the main roads…
Gerard over at the roads department in Benitierville put us wise! There’s going to be one between us and the abattoir! It’s only down the road…but we’ll have to pay as if we’d been coming from Normandy!

Well you weren’t thinking of using the ‘dozer to knock the tollgate down, were you?

No! We might be old but we’re not stupid!
We had a word with Olivier down at the abattoir and he reckons that we can get in on the back road from St. Ragondin round by les Deux Biscouilles without any problem.

But how are you going to get to St. Ragondin? You’ve still got the main road to deal with.

Ah. that’s why we wanted the bulldozer.
We’ve made a road across our fields to link up with the footpath that brings us out just this side of the village….where the old railway line used to be. A bit of hardcore in bad weather and we’re sorted.
So they can stuff their tollgate…we won’t be paying!
Eco this, eco that….just another word for tax!
It’s bad enough with their blasted windmills…electricity bill up through the roof…but a tax on going a few kilometres is a step too far!

Well, just get rid of it Victor…tonight! You don’t want anyone else knowing you’ve got it…the adjutant is up the wall!

Hang on a minute, how did you know to come round here?

Well, it couldn’t have been the manouches….they were having a face off with our boys with chainsaws at the campsite that night…..so the only other alternative was a totally irresponsible idiot…and that’s when I thought of you!

That evening, at the gendarmerie station, the adjutant answers the ‘phone.

Here, says a voice, I reckon you should know….

Know what?

Well, that windfarm at the back of Ste. Conasse…someone’s driven a bulldozer in there and there’s a hell of a mess….metal all over the place and the gyppos are carting it off by the truckload…….

The illustration is ‘Mosnac, Dordogne’ by John Piper.

You know you’re in France when…

libcom.org
Even before you get there Air France is ripping you off.
Their menu…in sardine class…offered champagne as an aperitif, then wine with the meal.

What did we get?

As the ominous foil packets were dished out giving a choice between beef -which those accustomed to French beef declined with alacrity – or glue with pasta, only an offer of one or the other beverage…champagne from a long opened bottle on the serving unit or vin de table in a tatty plastic mini bottle.

Following a delay of an hour and a half before take off sitting in a stifling cabin on the runway while the flight attendents hid from passengers praying for the services of Gunga Din it was not the best welcome to France…but probably the most accurate of what was awaiting the sardines once decanted at Paris Charles de Gaulle….incompetence and indifference.

I had missed the ‘good’ train to my destination….so was obliged to take the afternoon train which at twenty five percent more on the ‘good’ ticket price wafted me halfway across France by train, followed by an an unholy scramble for the cross country bus which would take me a third of the way across France back the way I had come to the one horse dorp in la France Profonde whence friends would whisk me to a shower, food and a decent bed.
If I had asked for the scenic route I might not have objected to paying for it….but as I hadn’t I did.
Neither did I appreciate having to retrieve my cases from the bowels of the bus unaided by the driver…unaided that was until I opened the loo evacuation compartment by mistake. That brought him running.
The additional two hours on the journey didn’t do much to rejoice my heart either.

First, off to the bank to settle my affairs.
i needed to be able to make transfers from my online account. This, it appeared, required me to make an appointment to see an advisor in order to set up a gimcrack system whereby I would be forced to buy a mobile ‘phone in order to receive and despatch some code or other to verify that I was indeed the person making the transfer.
I made the appointment for 11 0’clock two days hence in the branch of the town with the station.

The next day, my friends having to rejig their schedule, I rang the bank to change the time of the appointment.
The usual codswallop…your call is being recorded for the benefit of President Obama…music of suicidal brightness… press 1 for incomprehenson and 2 for total oblivion…until eventually arriving at a voice.
I explained.
The voice replied that my appointment was for the afternoon of the day on which I was calling in a branch far, far away. The branch where I had originally opened an account more than twenty years ago.
How, I enquired, had this come to pass?
The voice replied that I had omitted to give my full details to the clerk when making the appointment so the ‘centrale’ had put things right.
When, I enquired, had they planned to tell me that things had changed?
If you’ve never heard a voice shrug you have never lived in France.

Then I needed to contact people who had recently moved house.
The number they had given me did not seem to exist, according to the voice on the telephone service.
A text message on their U.K. mobile raised no response….until two days later when they called to explain that they would be without telephone and internet for a fortnight.
They had only received the text message when out shopping where they could receive a signal.
The ‘phone and internet should have been installed on the day they moved house…but they had had to put back the move for a couple of days.
When calling into the ‘phone company’s office to rearrange things they found that
A. The office only existed to sell mobile ‘phones
and
B. When they finally made contact with the company they were told that as they had changed the date without warning the contract had been cancelled. They would have to start the process all over again.
So instead of settling things over the ‘phone I had to inconvenience friends by asking them to drive over…not a short distance.

Inflexible, infuriating….in France.

A Busy Night in Rural France

la Nouvelle Republique

Hello Victor! You’re an early bird today!

Well, I’ve been at the wine fair with Gerard so I thought I’d drop in for a glass…see who’s around…
Yes, a drop of Claude’s rose will do nicely….

No one here yet, Victor…probably still all at the wine fair! Claude didn’t enter anything, I see.

No…he doesn’t these days. Fed up with all these clever dicks making special vats for the judging from what he said last year when that filthy devil Patrick from Les Deux Biscouilles won a bronze for his Gamay….I reckon he bought that in from his wife’s brother over at Ste. Conasse.

Mark you, Victor, the whole wine world is going crazy….you know Zizi’s place?
Well, three young guys have taken it, split it up in plots under the limit to have to pay insurance to the Mutuelle Sociale Agricole and they’re producing all sorts of stuff the A.O.C. doesn’t allow and they’re doing well!
You wouldn’t believe the labels they put on their bottles….‘Les Cabernets sont au Fond du Couloir’….’L’Enfant Terrible’ but it sells like there’s no tomorrow!

Whole world’s going crazy if you ask me. Now the Post Office is going to deliver the post by drones…

Are you sure that’s not an April fool stunt?

It sounds like one but nothing would surprise me these days….
The drones will probably carry bombs to drop on those who haven’t paid their taxes….and talking of taxes, did you see Hollande on the box?

Did I not! I had it on in here and had to turn it off because the guys wanted to put a hammer through the screen! There he sits, like a turd on the pavement, telling us he’s going to see it through! All right for him stuffed to the gills on public money…let him try making it!

Oh, he knows how to do that all right! Years of double and triple payment as a politician…expenses galore….fiddling his tax returns…we’ll find out next he has a Swiss bank account!

Just like his minister for the budget…busy telling us all we had to make sacrifices and sitting on a pile in Switzerland…not to speak of some underhand contracts with the pharmaceutical firms.
And what’s the prime minister getting out of this project for a new Nantes airport?

It won’t be a camper van he’ll be using for his holidays in the future….probably a private jet on the new landing strip….
Here, give me another glass….

You sure? I’m not being funny but you must have had a few at the wine fair…and you know what the gendarmerie are like these days!

Not to worry; there’s no risk today. The police are getting pissed at the wine fair and there’ll be no gendarmerie out today.
Cheers!

Why won’t they be out? It stopped raining this morning….

Because they’re sleeping off being out all night at the supermarkets.
Didn’t you hear?
All the big supermarkets were targeted last night by the Young Farmers.
They blocked the entrances to the car parks and the doors with piles of stinking old straw…covered the trolleys too so you can imagine the state of it all after a night of rain.
Young Laurent was down there with my muckspreader…he said it was like the War of the Worlds…tractors, trailers, state of the art stuff out there working under the lights, dumping this filth…twenty or so farmers at each site, all starting at once….quite an experience for the lad.
He was too young to go when we blocked the petrol pumps a few years ago…

But what about the gendarmerie?

Oh, once the supermarket bosses saw what was happening on their security screens they went down there…and the gendarmerie turned up to protect the farmers from being attacked.

What…a couple of office slugs against twenty farmers….!

Very nasty these bosses….they can make very wounding remarks…
Anyway, that’s where the gendarmerie have been all night so we won’t be seeing them out and about for a while.

I suppose it was about prices?

Yes….the supermarkets are squeezing the producers until the pips squeak….especially the milk boys.
And not just them. Did you see that tanker that overturned last week? Full of Spanish goat milk!

Well, yes, but the cheese factory boss said it was a one off…the local guys’ production falls in the winter and he has contracts to fulfill…

I’m not so sure….I bet the Young Farmers would like a look at his books!
But anyway, this can’t go on, the supermarkets squeezing the suppliers like this….

Well yes, I suppose they’ve had to cut everything to the bone as it is.

Too right! And if they don’t get an increase in the milk price how’re they going to pay for those state of the art machines they’ve all been buying: that’s what I’d like to know!

Ah, Clement! Just up from the wine fair?
Let’s have a couple of Claude’s rose….

Dancing in the streets at Chiottes la Gare….but only if it rains.

Let joy be unconfined! Sabrer le champagne!

As part of the shake up in the policing of France, responsibility for keeping the peace in Chiottes la Gare is being removed from the Police Nationale (the ones in caps with an office on the main road into town) and given to the Gendarmerie (the ones in kepis with an office next to the Lycee).

The commissariat of the Police Nationale will close….its occupants thrown to the four winds.
No, no such luck…they will be found posts elsewhere….but, as one opined soberly, these posts might be in – gulp – ‘les quartiers chauds’…the hot spots, the high risk, high crime suburbs of major towns…the ghettos for immigrants.

Well, if they are I don’t fancy their chances….they’ve got a quartier tiede…a lukewarm mini suburb…in their current jurisdiction which has hotted up very nicely under their control.
Where once the neighbours complained about loud music now they thank their lucky stars if they come down to find that their car has not been burned out.

They also have jurisdiction over a campsite for what are politely known as ‘gens de voyage’, ‘bohemiens’…known to the exasperated populace at large as ‘manouches’…the gyppos.
One resident took umbrage when the site caretaker asked him to clean up the area round his pitch which looked as if someone had lobbed a bomb into a used car showroom.
Outraged by this impertinence he started his chainsaw and chased the caretaker from the site….he later turned up at the caretaker’s house and threatened his wife and child.

Where were the Police Nationale?

Probably tucked away safely in their offices which, as they say, are open twenty four hours a day to enable people to lodge complaints while the Gendarmerie lurk behind locked gates, access controlled by an intercom on permanent answerphone.
Very true, but if they are too busy receiving complaints to go out to deal with what is being complained about it is no wonder that the populace regard them with a jaundiced eye.

They claim that they provide a presence on the ground….well, not when it’s raining. The first spot and they’re all back in the commissariat receiving complaints.

They claim that their action is social, as much as preventative…..as evidenced, I suppose by the experience of a young lady who, returning from a visit to her mother, her new baby strapped safely in the car, was followed by a police car all the way from the suburbs to her home in the centre, at which point they alighted and gave her a fine for having one brake light out.
She was unlucky with her weather.

Pause for appropriate music….

Local politicians will be, of course, sorry to see them go. Fifty officers and support staff…and families…will be leaving. Fifteen gendarmes will be replacing them.
I must take a look a the census figures to see if the maire is on a borderline between two rates of remuneration according to the number of people in his bailiwick.

But even if the maire does not suffer financially local bigwigs will mourn their loss….after all, they know how things are; how things need to be run.

They know that when an ex maire adjoint parks at the bus stop on market day they will issue a ticket and then cancel it. Appearances are saved…equality and all that…by the issue of the ticket; faces are saved by its cancellation.

They know that they are not to interfere with the social housing louts installed in the old town, where beautiful old buildings have been martyred to provide gimcrack flats for the ‘youf’ who have been displaced from areas of Paris where they spoil the ambiance for the bourgeoisie by parading their pitbulls and dealing in hard drugs.
Why do they not interfere? Because these properties are owned by the town’s bigwigs and they want no interruption in the rents paid them by the social services.

The Gendarmerie are a bit more unpredictable….they have rushes of blood to the head…and they are likely to claim manpower problems when drafted in by an ex maire to close a street to traffic while contractors unloaded materials to martyrise yet another beautiful old building in the town centre.
His beautiful old building, just like all the others on that side of the road.
The Gendarmerie might be prone to ask where was the authorisation from the council.
Not so the Police Nationale.
They closed the road.

I was interested, because I had bought an old house to restore in one of the side streets served by this road to which there was no access to take a lorry except through a garage on the road itself.

I needed to unload sand and gravel there…in quantity.

I went to the Hotel de Ville and asked for an authorisation. It would take at least a month, I was told.
In a month the Turkish building firm I had engaged would be on holiday…and time was of the essence as some of the work was urgent.

I consulted the builders’ merchant.

To hell with the council…his guys could unload the lorry right at the door blocking only half the road…they were experienced…they knew the town backwards.

I consulted the builders.

Yes, they would guarantee to have the materials shifted in twenty minutes if I would agree to them bringing two more men on the site for the job.

I rounded up friends.
Yes, they would act as marshals for the traffic.

We were away.

The lorry arrived on time and tipped the material accurately. Only half the road was blocked. The builders were busy with shovels and barrows in instants, the friends were at each end of the obstruction, explaining and apologising.
There was no problem…it was a quiet time of day….it was all going swimmingly.

Then the Police Nationale arrived. They parked their car alongside the diminishing heap, thus blocking the road completely.

You’re blocking the road.
Shovelling proceeds

No, you are.
Shovelling proceeds.

You’ll have to stop.
Shovelling proceeds.

Nonsense.
Shovelling proceeds.

By this time hooting has started from the cars at both ends.

You’re causing a public nuisance…listen to that hooting.
Shovelling proceeds.

No…that’s down to you. You can park in the side street and talk to me.
Shovelling proceeds.

You can’t tell us what to to.
Shovelling proceeds.

No…have to be a local bigwig to do that: then we’d see you hop!
Shovelling stops as voices are raised.

I’m warning you…this is outrage to a properly appointed officer of the French Republic! Where’s your authorisation from the council?
Shovels are put down to allow shovellers to give the scene their full attention.

I don’t have one, just like the ex maire for whom you blocked the road last week.
Shovellers close in a bit for a better view.

Don’t chance your luck!
Shovellers pick up shovels, scenting trouble.

I don’t have to.
Tahsin! Can you give me Osman and Ramazan a moment please?

Hefting their shovels, the edges silver and sharp as knives, they stepped forward, Ramazan built like a brick shithouse, Osman nearly double the size, stripped to the waist, bandanas round their brows.
They moved forward again.

Don’t you ever pull a stunt like this again!….

And the Police Nationale were off…or would have been had they not been blocked in and forced to listen to somewhat unflattering views on their probable paternity before making their escape.

I don’t give much for their chances in ‘les quartiers chauds’

——————————————-

And if you want a bit of fun, follow this link and see what the wonderful Coluche, founder of the Restos du Coeur, thought of ‘les flics’….and here‘s a link to the video if you want to try your French

Illustration from http://www.victorianweb.org.

A Passing Moment in La France Profonde

http://savvysommelier.wordpress.com/
http://savvysommelier.wordpress.com/

On a wet winter afternoon in La France Profonde the van of the Office Nationale de la Chasse et de la Faune Sauvage (ONCFS) with responsibility for hunting, fishing and wildlife in general turns in to the farm and pulls up at the farmhouse door, which opens immediately.

Jean-Yves! Come on in out of this….

And the garde chasse, armed representative of ONCFS, nothing loathe, follows his host into the kitchen where the television is muttering to itself on a shelf by the door and the newspaper is open on the table.

I was wanting to see you…..but it wasn’t urgent exactly. I told the office that….

Well I was coming out this way anyway Victor….no, I’d better not have a drink…oh well, all right then, but not eau de vie…

Oh, coming to have a go at Alain again, were you…that’s a bit much…it’s persecution, that’s what it is. The office should be ashamed of itself!

Well, you know what I think about it…but that’s the job. He doesn’t have enough land to entitle him to shoot wild boar, even if they are ripping up his fields….

Wild! They’re not wild! It’s that notaire, Plouc…breeds them up there at Montcul for his fancy friends to shoot…too mean to keep his fences in order and then he kicks up when Alain takes a gun to one of them.

Yes, but you know how it is. He’ll probably be the next depute so no one wants to tread on his toes…

I wouldn’t be so sure…this guy we’ve got now, he might be a Socialist but he’s all right.

All right counts for nothing as well you know….by the time this government’s finished licking the banks’ backsides and sending guys out to die in Africa to keep a bunch of crooks in power just because they’re our crooks it won’t matter how all right he is…he’ll be out on his ear, with the rest of the party. So Plouc has to be kept sweet, according to the office.

We had a Revolution to change all that…not being able to shoot animals that were destroying our crops….

Well it didn’t work did it! Then they were nobles…now they’re politicians, businessmen, notaires… and all we can do is shut up and pay up!

They want putting up against the wall, the whole crew….and that reminds me of what I wanted to see you about. It’s those English.

Now come off it, Victor….this gun is to finish off a wounded animal or to defend myself…and whatever you think about your English neighbours they’re not wild animals and they don’t come within the scope of my duties!
What’ve they done, anyway? Complained about your chemicals running into their stream?

No, no..well, yes they have, but that’s not it.

What is it then if you don’t want me to shoot them…?

Well, when they came over in the autumn they had a friend with them who spoke some French…apparently he’s in the wine trade in London..and I gave them a glass of Albert’s white and there was a misunderstanding and they thought it was mine and the man was all enthusiastic and said he could sell it…

Good news!

Well it would be if Albert hadn’t got esca in his vines and is having to pull a lot up…
Anyway, he wanted to see my vines, so I showed him my plot down behind the sheds and he got all enthusiastic and said he could see it was organic…which is what they’re all crazy for it seems…

How could he see it was organic?

Well, it was a bit overgrown…you know how it is, with the farm to run I can’t be everywhere…
And then he asked how I made the wine…did I use special yeast, or sugar.
Well, you know, I’ve always made wine the way the old dad did…no point buying expensive yeast when it’s there already on the grapes…and I don’t use sugar…what’s the point, it’s not worth pushing up the alcohol level for a bit of vin courant for everyday drinking.

Apparently these organic buggers are as tight as a duck’s arse…won’t cough up for sprays or yeast or sugar….

Don’t you spray, then?

Course I do…bit of Bordeaux mixture left over from the potatoes – but he says that’s all right…that’s allowed.
Anyway, he reckons I could make a bomb if I advertise for people to ‘own’ a row of vines…they can come over and join in the vendange, have special labels for their bottles – whatever they like. He can organise that.

But what about the wine! Yours is nowhere near as good as Albert’s white….

They won’t know that! I haven’t worked it out yet but either I can buy in some good stuff with what they’ll be paying me….or I can just say it’s a bad year…or that organic wine doesn’t travel…
Look, if they’ve been boasting to their friends about having their own vines they’re not going to admit it’s shit…are they?
And there’s a fair bit of shit sold as top chateau wine, come to that!

True enough! I reckon Depardieu’s leaving for Russia before all the people who bought his wine want their money back!

Then he came up with another idea…and this is where you come in…

Oh yes! What’ve I got to do?

Well, he reckons organic is out of date…old hat…and the coming thing is biodynamic wine!

What the hell is that?

I’m not sure I’ve understood it all….but there’s some Austrian nutcase…

Hitler?

No..another one, but I expect he’s vegetarian too….
Well, anyway he came up with all this stuff about the harmony of things…you know, the rythmns of the moon and whatnot.

We all know that. You get your lunar calendar from Rustica and from the first quarter to the full moon you plant above ground stuff and from the full moon to the last quarter you plant your root veg…so what’s new?

Well these bobos…these trendies… don’t know anything about Rustica, do they! They want something exotic so they can think they’re spiritual or superior or something…
Go for anything if it costs an arm and a leg…but turn their nose up at something ordinary…

Anyway, he says this Austrian has special preparations to add to the soil….or to compost heaps.
I’ve plenty of nettles…

Well who hasn’t!

And there’s a clump of horsetail to make sprays…

That stuff!

And I can dig up the old woman’s cat to ferment oak bark in its skull as long as she doesn’t find out…
No problem for cow’s horns either… or the manure to ferment in it, though the mesentery might give problems with the way things are at the abattoir these days….

What are you gibbering about?

Well, he gave me a list. You do all this stuff then stir it all up and spray it on the soil..or compost heap..or on the plants and it’s supposed to put the vineyard in harmony with the universe.

You must be stark staring bonkers!

Well I’m not going to do all that, am I…but I need to have the stuff to show the punters!

And that’s where you come in.
I’ve got to use yarrow…well, I’ve got that along the hedge…but I have to ferment the flowers in a stag’s bladder and I was just wondering if…you being with ONCFS and all…. whether you could get me one when they have a cull…..

Off the tourist trail in France

It’s a day for trying new things…..thanks to Kerry Dywer who featured a WordPress challenge to embed and use a Google Maps image on the blog.

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…..

The well known image of Saumur, from the Tourist Office site

I would add taking a tour on one of the traditional boats….a gabare or the smaller toue…

A meeting of traditional Loire boats, from the tourist office website

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.

A wonderful image from Wikipedia

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….

magalithic bridge at artannes

other bridge

pierre fiche

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.

All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet
All photographs from the website of the commune of Artannes sur Thouet

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….

le coudray macouard

The village, which grew within the fortifications of the old chateau, is a model of modern tourism….from it’s windvane exhibition

windvane coudray

to the silk exhibition…everything from worm to fabric.

silk works

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.

aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot
aerial view of the lock at Bron by Jacques Sigot

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.

wikipedia.fr
wikipedia.fr

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.

Jacques Sigot, a school teacher and local historian, came upon the remains while fossil hunting and his researches showed them to be part of the biggest internment camp for gypsies in wartime France.

From Jacques sigot's own archives
From Jacques Sigot’s own archives

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.

Chapeau Monsieur Sigot

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.

deux sevres tourism
deux sevres tourism

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

fondation patrimoine
fondation patrimoine

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.

ammonites etab - ac. poitiers

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

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

to its churches

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

its chateau overlooking the river

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

not to speak of the railway buffs’ delight, the Eiffel viaduct

communaute de communes thouarsais
communaute de communes thouarsais

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

barewalls
barewalls

Find out the story behind the name and I’ll stand you one in the Cafe des Arts. This could bankrupt me…

Proof Positive…….

carla bruni
If proof were needed, that the image of France is nowhere near the reality.
Here is Carla Bruni…..as an example of the propaganda about French women (yes, I know she’s Italian; that probably accounts for the elegance).

Just read the stuff and guff about French women in the foreign press; the ones who are always thin and raise well behaved, cowed children…according to these open mouthed journalists a French woman, it seems, can actually tie a scarf round her neck without strangling herself, find matching bra and knickers in the airing cupboard, and wears high heels if it kills her….alongside whom the wearers of old Driza-Bones, wildly assorted underwear and comfortable shoes are supposed to feel shame and inferiority.

So much for the image in the foreign press.

What about the image of women in France itself? In la France Profonde?

Next time you are beckoned into Henri’s private bar…..you know, the one he has set up in the barn out of earshot of his wife…..I doubt you will find the walls adorned with pictures of Carla Bruni…or of the female portion of what is known as ‘les people’ but there’s a fair chance, depending on the month of your invitation, that you will find this…..

from'girls1 mothais

or this…

from'girls 3 camembert

or even this…

from'girls brillat-savarin

All examples from this year’s From’girls calendar…published annually by the association Fromages de Terroirs to promote the consumption of local cheeses made by small producers.

Like the cheeses it promotes it is the perfect accompaniment not only to the wine which Henri will offer you but also the slightly doggy prurience of the conversation once you have eyeballed it.