Watch the Birdie

With the advent of Spring, albeit three weeks late, the time has arrived for some re-positioning among the feathered residents of the garden.

The single robin which spent much of January and February hopping around under the hedge has left as also has a lone chiffchaff which finally gave up on efforts to spend the colder weather indoors by the direct but completely futile method of flying through a closed window.

I had always understood chiffchaffs to be migratory and assumed that this was a youngster who had been forgotten when mother packed the suitcases or was perhaps another victim of global warming, though there was nothing in last autumn’s weather in Jénou to discourage him from taking the first available flight! Not so, apparently. My copy of that invaluable little book, Collins Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe, assures me that the little fellow is resident across most of western Europe 365 days of the year.

I hope the robin has not fallen prey to the latest recruit to the local cat death squad, an overfed tabby which has also taken up residence in the base of the hedge a discreet distance from the bird-feeder. (Don’t worry; I have moved the bird feeder.)

While the great tits continue to their best to empty a full container of sunflower seeds in the space of a morning they are getting more competition from a recent influx of both greenfinches and goldfinches whose presence since the turn of the year has been occasional only. The greenfinches, when not fighting each other either on or under the feeder (which seems to be their main occupation in life), decorate the flowering cherry, sitting on the branches like Christmas candles on a fir tree. The goldfinches prefer the real thing, spreading themselves around the upper branches of the 30-foot fir in the lawn where pride of place on the topmost twig goes to the senior (I assume) collared dove, recently returned with the rest of his noisy tribe from wherever he chose to pass most of the winter.

The resident noisy tribe, the sparrows, continue to do what sparrows do. The time of day, the time of year, even the weather seem to have little effect. They jostle for position on the ground under the sunflower seeds or the nut feeder, a dozen or more at a time,making a dash for the safety of the fir tree each time one of them is spooked by something — or nothing. After a warm spell with the earth raked and ready for the potatoes and enough sun to dry the surface they turn the seed bed into a bath house.

Amongst all this activity the blue tits continue to nibble away at the peanuts apparently unfazed even by the presence of human beings barely six feet away. Always as long as you stand still. The coal tit (or is it two?) is only marginally more nervous. A pair of bullfinches has flown in, presumably on a reconnaissance mission since in three years these are the first two we have seen, and there is a token representation of chaffinches and a handful of siskins (another new arrival this Spring).

The blackbirds, another breed that spends most of the winter elsewhere, have also returned and are blatantly up to their favourite Spring occupation.

And there, dive-bombing Madame as she brings in the washing, the final piece in the Spring jigsaw. The swallows are back.

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Lest we forget

Our local church, in common with many churches the length and breadth of western Europe, devotes space to a memorial to those in the armed forces who died in the Great War.

While a bare twenty metres away from the door stands the “official” memorial with the flag of the Republic where the official ceremonies are carried out (separation of Church and State in France being an Article of Faith, if that’s not a contradiction in terms) inside the church the celebration of the lives of those who made the supreme sacrifice is of a different order.

The centrepiece of the Memorial is a more than life size pieta, that ultimate Catholic endorsement of the concept that “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. For those unfamiliar with the pieta it is essentially a statue (usually, though the word can refer to a painting) of the crucified Christ taken down from the Cross and cradled in his mother’s arms. In our local version his head is being supported on the chest of another figure, almost certainly John the Beloved Disciple, while a fourth person, head covered and presumably by her posture weeping, is probably Mary Magdalene.

On the marble plaques behind the pieta are the names of the villagers who died between 1914 and 1918, 94 of them from a commune which a century later numbers barely 1100 souls. Whatever views one holds of the French contribution to the defeat of Nazism 30 years later no criticism can be levelled at the sacrifice they made in a war which was mainly fought on the soil of France and Belgium. Less than half-a-century previously France had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a newly-unified Germany, a defeat made the more embarrassing by the knowledge that it was her own declaration of war against Prussia which had been the final catalyst for that unification, an event which irrevocably shifted the balance of power in Europe eastward.In the process, France lost her two provinces west of the Rhine (Alsace and Lorraine) and, or so some said at the time, her honour.

While considering these matters — Good Friday is not a bad time for a little introspection — I was also aware of the addition to this memorial of the plaques naming those who died in the Second World War. There were two tile plaques affixed to the columns marking the boundary of the memorial and the total number of names was ten.

For a moment I felt mildly uncomfortable. In a small village close by lie the remains of the crew of a Lancaster bomber shot down in 1942. The churchyard is an official Commonwealth War Cemetery and every year there is a Mass, usually attended by at least one representative of the RAF. Last year for the 70th anniversary the church was full, with French government officials and politicians and RAF officers and local people and I had the sudden realisation in the middle of all this that we were commemorating an event which happened barely two weeks after my own father failed to return from a photo-reconnaissance flight.

Still looking at the pieta with its plaques it occurred to me that two minor incidents — minor in the great scheme of things, devastating to those directly affected — had claimed the same number of lives as our local village lost in six years of fighting.

But I then remembered another memorial. On the road from Grenoble to the Alps and Briançon where the road makes a dogleg across the River Romanche stands a monument to the French Resistance fighters of the Oisans, the area south-east of Grenoble, best known today for the ski resorts of Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes. And in every commune along (and off) that road — Vizille, Livet et Gavet, Allermont, Bourg d’Oisans — are scattered memorials to individuals “tué par les Allemands”. An ever-present reminder that not all the Frenchmen who gave their lives for France in that conflict were wearing uniform.

And I also began to understand a little of the French attitude to war but if you’ll forgive me I’ll leave that for another day.

Happy Easter!

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Another new year

Christmas is something of a movable feast in France. It may kick off as early as December 6, the feast of Saint Nicholas, when in some places children traditionally receive and give presents and is quite likely to carry on in some form or other until the end of January

Joyeux Noël’ is not a customary greeting though ‘Bonnes Fêtes’ is and applies to the whole of the festive season. As in Scotland the ubiquitous greeting is ‘Bonne Année’ accompanied by ‘Bon Santé’ and, also as in Scotland it is considered obligatory. People who may pass you with only the cursory nod or the mouthed ‘bon jour’ from across the street will go out of their way to wish you a happy new year and continued good health with at least a handshake.

This will continue (along with the sending and receiving of New Year cards) right up to January 31st though as the month wears on the business becomes increasingly stressful as you strive to remember who you have already greeted and who you have not. A mistake either way is considered a faux pas.

As with most celebrations, Les Fêtes wouldn’t be the same without some traditional cuisine to accompany it. Though fewer churches now hold a Midnight Mass at midnight (don’t ask) the custom of Le Réveillon has not totally died out. This feast is traditionally eaten after Midnight Mass and is the major blow-out of the festive season with each region likely to indulge in its own speciality. It has been known where large families are scattered across France to build the meal round the speciality of each region, a potentially daunting prospect.

The Christmas cake, as understood in the UK, is unknown to the French to the extent where many of the ingredients, if they are obtainable at all in the local supermarkets, are only to be found on the section for Exotic Foods — which in practice means weird things that our local Brits (or occasionally Dutch) have asked for. The traditional French cake is the bûche de Noël, a further development of the well-known French patisserie “chocolate cake, hold the cake”.

More complicated are the rituals surrounding the Galette du Roi, a puff pastry concoction filled with frangipani and sold for Epiphany (January 6) or indeed any other time you fancy during January.

A figurine, la fève, which can represent anything from a car to a cartoon character but was originally a broad bean, is hidden in the cake and the person who finds the trinket in their slice becomes king for the day. “These figurines,” wikipedia tells us, “have become popular collectibles and can often be bought separately. Individual bakeries may offer a specialized line of fèves depicting diverse themes from great works of art to classic movie stars and popular cartoon characters.

Bakers usually include a paper crown (or perhaps two — one for a king; one for a queen) with the cake and to avoid any possible cheating, the youngest in the company traditionally sits under the table and names the recipient of each slice as it is cut.

An interesting footnote to this custom is that there is neither fève or crown in the galette which is served at the Elysée Palace on January 6, probably to ensure that the French president doesn’t suddenly get ideas above his station! As if.


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Flying Fish? … and other matters

One thing that can be said without fear of contradiction is that — to date — this year has been quite different to last year.

While last Spring a major heatwave in April was followed by a less than exciting summer it looks very much as if this year a cold wet April is about to be followed by something similar. To be fair there has been the odd hot day and I am writing this in the garden at 8 p.m. with no immediate threat of needing to go in search of a woolly pullover but the days of wall-to-wall sunshine, chilled Picpoul on the terrace, and warm evenings interrupted only by the swooping of the local bats — all the things for which the shivering Brit retreats to the middle of France, in fact — are this year few and far between.

The pond, which by this time last year was almost dry, is full, which at least is a blessing for the goldfish, an unexpected visitor who arrived a month or so ago following a week of rain which almost created a lake where the lawn is and caused Mme Voisine, who has lived in the village for the last 60-odd years to remark that she had never known the pond flood but has never seen it this high.

Like us, she was somewhat at a loss to explain how a goldfish came to have taken up residence, there being no watercourse connecting our pond to any other body of water capable of supporting piscine life.

And if there were … a goldfish? I mean to say!

Since all we know about goldfish could be written on the back of a mnnow with plenty of space left over we were kind of at a loss to know how to proceed. The pond is home to a variety of creatures, mostly of the sort that are — quite rightly, in my view — categorised as pond life though there are rare items of beauty, especially in the late Spring and early Summer when the dragonflies are about the business of creating more dragonflies.

There are also newts which could by no stretch of the imagination be called things of beauty but since the same could be said about me, who am I to criticise?

Not a fish but a thing of beauty nonetheless

But having neither desire nor intention nor knowledge of how to go about “keeping goldfish” or starting an aquarium we left Fish to his own devices. (I say ‘his’ but what would I know?). After a fortnight since he appeared to be (a) alive; (b) content; (c) disinclined to move on we decided that he might benefit from some companionship and the pond is now home to three goldfish who appear, if you will pardon the expression, to be having a whale of a time together!

My readers — thankyou for sticking with me, both of you — will be pleased to know that the wedding went off without a hitch though the Immigration Officer at Edinburgh did take some persuading that the emergency passport was valid for a return trip to France and please would he give it back rather than drop it in that bin behind him.

The replacement is taking longer to acquire, not least because the pages on the FCO website are, as seems to be the case with most government websites, written by whoever happens to be on hand at the moment and without checking to see that the links make sense or that what they have written agrees with what appears on other pages.

So while the site tells you what documents may be required to support a passport application nowhere could I find a contact number to find out what actually was required. 20% of applications to the Passport Office in Paris, the site says, are incorrectly completed. Only 20%? You surprise me.

Since as foreigners we have no vote in French national elections (we can vote for le maire next year) watching the comings and goings over recent weeks from a neutral standpoint has been an interesting experience.

Locally our commune voted marginally for Sarkozy (the next door commune was one of the few that went solidly for Marine Le Pen on the first round!) and then equally marginally for the PS candidate for the assembly. Since the PS succeeded in gaining an overall majority in the Assemblée Nationale they will at least not have to worry about accommodating the Greens which looked the likely outcome at one stage.

Since the French socialist outlook on life is still some where around where the UK was under Harold Wilson the next few years could be “interesting”. The realities of the current financial difficulty have still to make an impact. Talk of 75% taxation on “the rich” is greeted with applause by the die-hards but the reality is that this is no more than “gesture politics”, as was the 50% rate in the UK when Brown introduced it and will almost inevitably do more harm than good.

Fortunately it doesn’t seem that any of the proposed measures are likely to impact adversely on us, or indeed on anyone else who isn’t by some arbitrary definition “rich” — which is probably bad news in itself given the inevitability, sooner or later, of a major belt-tightening exercise.

We shall have to wait and see.

PS For the benefit of anyone taking a driving holiday in France this year, as from July 1 it is compulsory for the car to be equipped with a personal breathalyser kit. Police are (quite wrongly but are you going to argue with them?) already trying to crack down on drivers who do not have these kits so it looks as if a blitz could be on the way.


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When disaster strikes

One sure way to test the workings of a bureaucracy is to lose an official document. If you can contrive to lose all of them at once then you have the makings of a true test.

If those documents also happen to include some French ones then — given the reputation which the French system has for not tolerating fools gladly — a truly marathon event awaits.

Well, not exactly, as it happens.

Imagine the shock on discovering that a sacoche (‘man-bag’ to you) which was safely tucked in the door pocket of the car is no longer there. A search of car parks and enquiries at nearby shops (as well as a look through neighbouring rubbish bins) reveals nothing. It is gone. Whether dropped or stolen who knows? Certainly someone has picked it up and enquiries at the local mairie and gendarmerie proving fruitless the only possible conclusion is that it has fallen into the hands of naughty people.

So where now? What is missing?

Well, there’s the bag itself and the wallet. Then there’s 30€ in cash, two UK credit cards, a UK bank card, a French bank card, a carte vitale (French medical entitlement card), French driving licence.

Oh, and a UK passport.

The bank and credit cards are no problem and it takes three phone calls and half-an-hour to get them cancelled and new ones organised. Except that the French one needs a visit to the bank the following morning.

The passport is a cause of some panic since I need to be in the UK in two weeks time for a family wedding. Oops. British Consul to the rescue here. Cost: 119€ and a day-trip to Marseille. Nice place, Marseille. Nice person, the British Consul. All sorted.

But what about the French paperwork? You hear stories about what happens to people that lose their documents. The guillotine and the Bastille no longer exist but apart from that …

The police interview lasts about 40 minutes and the most difficult question is “What is your father’s Christian name?” Pardon! Nobody’s ever asked me that in my life. At the end of it I have a sheaf of papers including two copies of the statement of what was lost/stolen with a police reference number, one of which will be needed by officialdom (French and British) as proof of the loss and the other will act as a temporary driving licence.

The efficiency of the French system is instantly demonstrated by the fact that this document includes the number of my licence and the date and place where it was issued. Things are looking up.

Next to the local sous-préfecture. “I’ve had my driving licence stolen.” “Fill this form in and bring it back.” That’s it? Yes.

Then to the Caisse Médicale. “I’ve lost my carte vitale. Checks the police report. “Sign this.” That’s it? Yes.

And it was. I have this nasty suspicion that the UK bureaucracy would have been a lot less accommodating.

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Happy New Year

In my last posting I promised a few words on the subject of foires aux vins.

Like their British counterparts the French supermarkets have discovered the beauties of cut price offers (Prix Choc! — which has nothing to do with chocolate and everything to do with small reductions and big bright notices in-store!)

The have also enthusiastically embraced the idea of thematic promotion to the extent where the British idea of promoting only Christmas, Valentine, Mother’s Day, Easter, Back to School, and Hallowe’en is considered mildly wimpish.

The word foire translates as ‘fair’ but also as ‘market’ and, as we have already seen most of the summer is taken up with La Rentrée which is ‘Back to School’ with knobs on, and which is quickly followed by a couple of weeks devoted to all the hunting gear you could possibly need.

That in turn is followed by the biggest of them all, the foire aux vins which across the major supermarket chains and the specialist wine retailers can last from mid-September to the end of October. The rationale is to clear the warehouses of the previous year’s vintage to make way for last year’s vintage which the vineyards are moving out of their cellars ready for the current year’s crop.

So the 2011 foire will major on 2009 wines though some older vintages will be available — usually wines that the chain has kept back thinking that the cost of storing them for an extra year will be more than covered by the extra price.

The catalogues, some running to 50 or 60 pages, cover wines from Bordeaux (mainly),Bourgogne, Rhône, Loire and Languedoc, Alsace, Jura (which, for all it’s only 20 kilometres away, I haven’t yet sampled and I am told is most definitely an acquired taste).

Prices will range from under 2€ a bottle up to 30€ or more and most firms include a handy guide indicating whether the wine is for drinking now (as in ‘quick, before it tastes any worse’) or should be drunk within a couple of years or four years or laid down for the long-term. How reliable any of this is as a guide to the final quality of the wine is anybody’s guess and, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to the price.

A bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1982 is going to set you back £1600 while a bottle of the 1986 can be had for the remarkably reasonable price (by comparison) of only £695.

 The 2010 vintage (which I suspect you will not find in any supermarket foires next year) is available in bond and duty paid and for delivery next year at only £9260.06 for a case of 12!

And they reckon it will need another 15 years before it reaches its peak.

Cellier des Dauphins, on the other hand, is a Côtes du Rhône which regularly retails at a price that will allow you to buy 514 cases of the stuff for the same price!

On the subject of celebrations, the French have adopted Christmas. Like the Scots their main celebration has been New Year which is the time when cards are normally exchanged and — as I discovered this year — you are just as likely, perhaps more so, to find a church with a Midnight Mass on Dec 31 than on Dec 24.

However they have enthusiastically latched onto the idea of hyper-decorating the outside of their houses though in true peasant fashion they see no reason to switch the lights on during hours of daylight. I mean, why would you?

Without the benefit of a traditional Christmas cake they have been forced to make do with a bûche de Noël which consists mainly of chocolate and cream, the rest if it apparently being cream and chocolate and they extend the festivities (as indeed is right and proper) through to Epiphany on Jan 6 when there are traditions surrounding the galette des rois a cake made of puff pastry and frangipani and containing a small trinket often a miniature doll said to represent the infant Jesus.

Whoever finds this trinket becomes king for the day, a custom similar to the ancient English Lord of Misrule or the French Prince des Sots.

Bonne année.

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Down below!

One of the amenities attached to the house is a cellar, or to give its correct French name, a cave.
Until recently it was doing duty as a coal cellar and housing the water meter to which we added a further use as the garden shed, being used mainly for the storage of pots, seed trays, and various other bits of related clobber.
With autumn approaching it will now come into its own.
My only experience of subterranean facilities (apart from the boiler room at one of my early places of work) was the cellar at an aunt’s house in north London which I remember only as being home to a fearsome and somewhat primitive refrigerator. How then were we to approach this addition to luxury living in France? What could it do for us? More to the point what would it demand we do for it?
Since two pieces of equipment which were already installed were a fruit rack and a wine rack it seemed reasonable to assume that it had at one time been used for the storage of fruit and wine. The wine rack was old, rusty and rickety and was quickly removed to a place of safety in its own interests until such time as it could be transported to the décheterie.
Before that could happen we discovered the local DIY store selling racks which differed from ours only in that they were new and had not yet become rusty. At this point our rack was transported with profuse apologies and as much dignity as we could muster back whence it came.
On a solid base in the annex to the main cave (there’s posh!) it was fastened firmly to the wall and we proceeded to start filling it with bottles of wine from the autumn foires au vin which every supermarket runs to clear out last year’s stock and make way for the new.
I shall return to this particular subject in a later blog.
The fruit rack, meanwhile, equally ancient and rusty though less rickety, would have needed an amount of work (of the elbow grease variety) to make it fit for storing apples — of which our new tree has produced four — but it has found good service as storage for this year’s crop of onions and shallots.
Two large wooden boxes will provide a home for carrots, beetroot, potatoes and similar long-term crops stored in dry peat.
A sort of box-like structure which contained about a couple of dozen pigeon holes (circumstantial evidence that the house might at one time have belonged to a notaire or some such official) has also been pressed into service as storage for jars of marmalade, chutneys, cherry jam, mirabelles in syrup and other delights that Madame has been busy creating from our own — and neighbouring — gardens.
And it is also possible that I might at last have found somewhere cool and dark enough to force some hyacinth bulbs for Christmas, something I have never been able to do but at which my mother was a dab hand. Since we lived in a bog-standard Wimpey semi in Scotland and she lived in a bog-standard Leech semi in Northumberland I never managed to work out what the trick was. I digress.
The one question that hung over the use of the cave was, naturally, what the temperature was likely to be in the depths of the winter or, come to that, at the height of a French heatwave. My brother-in-law, who has probably forgotten more about wine than I am ever likely to know, claims to have transported good quality claret (I believe there are other sorts!) in temperatures of -20C without harm but transporting and sitting still are two different things and neither of us fancied daily sessions turning the bottles to prevent freezing at temperatures like that, if it’s all right with you, thank you very much!
Fortunately we had a double max/min thermometer (indoor-outdoor) which we rigged up so that the indoor bit measured the outdoor temperature and the outdoor measured the temperature in the cave.
And we came up with some interesting results …
We moved in a heatwave which was unusually warm for July and this continued into the more normal August. For the seven weeks to the end of August the week’s maximum only twice dropped below 30C while the maximum in the cave never exceeded 21.2. (It did actually creep up to 21.8 at the end of June this year when the outside maximum hit 34.9).
The winter minimum in the cave was never below 5.8 even when the outside temperature in Christmas week went as low as -8.8. And the day to night range was never more than about 5 degrees and sometimes less than 1. Something tells me that might be as important but I’m not sure why.
So job done, basically! Ideal storage; bags of space. Let’s hear it for the cave!

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