Saturday, 28 April 2012

May 2012 in France: a country in microcosm

I've written before about how the month of May in this fair patch of earth is more orientated towards work avoidance than anything else, and this particular edition could well take the proverbial biscuit, still made in France by Lu, probably.

May hosts a slew of public holidays: the 1st, the Fête du Tavail when no-one works (go figure; this is how they define labour), the 8th, Armistice Day, 1945 (Fête de la Victoire, like they had any hand in THAT, right?), where Fritz gets his nose rubbed in it yet again, despite now being Jacques' best friend, sort of a thing; the 17th, Ascension Day and the 28th, Pentecost. Church and State are seperate in France, remember. Do keep up. All these days off are just to get the French in training for the big summer holidays, where three or four weeks away from the desk are usual, so May is their dress rehearsal, their dummy run for greater things to come. May plays out differently every year, depending on when the public holidays fall. Invariably there's at least one 'pont', a bridge where a work day is just basically forgotten as it had the misfortune to lie between a public holiday and a weekend. 'Doing the bridge' is actively encouraged and is as legitimate a lifestyle statement as a lifetime spent on benefits is a respectable career choice in this most divinely self-deluded of nations.

The Fingernails' school recently informed us that Monday, April 30th and Friday, May 18th would be tuition-free; the days being made up on the Wednesday afternoons of those respective weeks; Wednesday being a day where there's normally no school after 11.30am. No doubt they would say that this is to counteract parent-driven mass absenteeism due to the public holidays neighbouring these and the resulting departures for four-day long weekends. Whatever the reasoning, I find it absolutely mind-blowing. In Germany, the parents would be fined if their children did not attend school on those days. Here in France, they just say 'What the hell; have a four-day weekend, even if you do lose a few hours tuition in the process' (The lost half-day is not made up). Who can be surprised when French children grow up with, shall we say, a rather 'relaxed' attitude towards the importance of work when, from a very early age, the state tells them it's not really that big a deal? This year, it just so happens to be a motherfucker of a deal, as the country will probably wake up on May 7th with a new 'socialist' president who seems to have a rather individual approach to budget deficits and public spending, one which is sending shivers down the spines of many other centre-right European leaders. François Hollande, or 'Flanby' - a brand of industrial crème caramel - as one of his party colleagues christened him, alluding to his spinelessness and general lack of substance, is completely untried in the hothouse of ruling politics, having only ever led his party (in opposition) and been a functionary since graduating from ENA, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite civil-service training school in Paris. Not even having held a ministerial post under Mitterand (when everyone else - probably even Chairman Mao - did), he has no experience of actually being part of a body that runs a country. Seeing as his alleged policies contradict those of Frau Merkel on virtually every front, we're in for quite a ride. I say 'alleged' policies because no-one, neither here in France or anywhere in the political world, has been privy to his thoughts. He has run an entire campaign on the 'Vote for me; I'm not Sarkozy' ticket, and it appears to have been sufficient to smooth his way to the Elysée Palace. Oh world. If only Sarko were not so disliked; a great percentage of the rancour aimed towards him is due to what people consider his dirtying of the presidential position: too bling-bling, a lack of gravitas, too parvenu, in short. For a country that got rid of their monarchy over 200 years ago they're still much more traditional, up-tight and stuffy than we are. Maybe because they got rid of their monarchy…They love to overlook the good impression that Sarko has made abroad, but Chirac suffered the same fate back in 2007. That wasn't surprising, though; that man did NOTHING at home at all. I tend to think it was because of his inertia that the French voted in 2000 to reduce the presidential term of office from seven years to five.

Hollande's ex-common law wife and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, failed spectacularly against Sarkozy in 2007. The current party leader, Martine Aubry, daughter of one-time European Commisioner Jacques Delors, is also mayor of Lille, where she's installed a rather unique way of using the city's swimming pools. You can see these two babes with their guru below. The Cock au Vin in the pot belongs to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, ex-IMF President and serial womaniser (to put it, er, politely), whose political career was severed at the root in the Sofitel Hotel, Times Square a year ago. Goodness only knows how it didn't catch up with him before. Well we know, actually: those highly placed in French public life just love to protect their own…

So, this merry month of May, we'll see if France really can impose a new economic model on Europe or whether their election will be just another round of delusional navel-gazing, all the while blaming everyone else for their woes. It wouldn't be the first time, so don't bother holding your breath; that smacks of too much work.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Cheap booze and cigs, if that's what rocks your world.

Just a quick thought : the French can often be very critical of the Brits who head over to Calais on day trips and fill up their vehicules with cheaper booze and cigs than they find at home, but they’re no better down on the Spanish border. I looked at pretty much every trolley our fellow shoppers were pushing, and I think ours was about the only one with rice, fruit and vegetables in it. Four-litre bottles (yes) of whiskey, vodka, pastis and the like rubbed packaging with doorstep-sized cartons of cans of beer, enormous bottles of Rioja and ten-packs of chocolate bars, party-sized boxes of sweets and biscuits…I could go on, but you’ve already got the picture.

The bottom line is that we’re probably going to do exactly the same every month or so. Les and Bossost are an easy two-hour drive from Toulouse, so we can go for the day, stock up on essentials, have a good lunch out and head back. After all, doing things like that is one of the main reasons I bought the car.


I can’t believe it’s only Wednesday ; it seems like we’ve been here for a month, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I woke up this morning in Toulouse around 8am, checked my mails and a few prepaid mobile phone offers, got dressed, phoned my nearest and dearest and got the show on the road : a few books dropped off at the library, a croissant bought from one of our local bakers, a Virgin Mobile Sim card and this month’s copy of Opéra Magazine from the tobacconist and newsagent (I still find it strange not to buy Golden Virginia and Rizlas from him ; I’m amazed he’s still in business with the loss of trade that that means). After that, it was back to the Audi (which must be in seventh heaven with the amount of outings it’s been getting these last few days), radio on and off to the motorway, next stop Maison de la Haute Garonne (look it up) in the foothills of the Pyrenees for an espresso, another croissant and a fight with our Iron Age mobile phone to insert its new Sim card, just as a benevolent proctologist would seek to comfort his patient. As it happened, the patient managed to keep its underpants on. Not having violated a cellular communications appliance since 1997 I was incapable of getting the back off the phone so its honour remained intact until we reached Intermarché, where the entrance hall Figaro, responsible for returns, USB keys, iPod batteries and pretty much every else which can’t be vacuously scanned and dropped into a trolley next to the six-pack of dreadful local beer, passable baguette and two gallon canister of engine coolant, proceeded to defile my ancient Nokia with the expertise of a San Fernando Valley porn pro. Ever the perfectionist, he made me repeat his moves before his eagle eye, anxious that I should demonstrate my new-found knowledge and independence to his satisfaction. Top man, seriously. Within ten minutes I’d topped up my wiper fluid (One gallon = €4 !) and was up and running and, as is the custom with mobile phones, had placed a completely gratuitous and overtly-expensive call to my divine spouse who had, in lifting the receiver in our chalet, confirmed what I didn’t honestly need to know : that she was still alive and well and had not been ravaged either by Slovenian bears or hunky Pyrenean park rangers, although I’m not so sure about the latter, such has been her upbeat mood, today. As long as it makes her happy, eh ? Half an hour and a thousand metres northwards later, I found her and the Fingernails ambling on the GR10, the snow now having completely melted. When we went for a walk there yesterday morning, the snow was a foot deep. Such is April, or so they tell me. We didn’t see any bears, but the Fingernails saw a baby fox.

The weather was so fabulous we had lunch on the terrace. The sky was completely blue, not a cloud to be seen. OK, this was 1.14pm ; we knew all would be different by 1.17, so we grabbed our chance while we could. Then we trotted off down to the car and headed off for Spain, the idea being we’d just pop in and get a jeroboam of olive oil. Right…

The French-Spanish border is a bit like San Diego-Tijuana, but with less crime and far less deodorant. Everything is cheaper where they speak the language of Cervantes, so the barbaric northerners head south for their pleasure. In California it’s stag nights (bachelor parties), sex, drugs and alcohol ; in short, everything that really matters in life. Over here, it’s France and Spain, so different rules apply : the French head south for cheap food and petrol. Not a cat house in sight ; this part of the world rocks to discounted Serrano and Jabugo hams, excellent Riojas and cut-price just about anything else you can think of. We left our shops with more for less than we could ever have got in France and crowned the trip by filling up at 15 cents a litre less than the cheapest petrol station in France ; and that in a place which fleeces French price-tourists as much as it can before they realise it’d be cheaper to shop at home. Imagine how much it would cost in the Spanish boondocks…

We popped into a bakery for the Fingernails to have their tea. My condition was that Fingernail I do all the talking. In the event, she didn’t have to, but we got a genuine taste of the country. Check this out : Mrs. F is of Spanish descent, so she speaks it like a native. Fingernail I heard nothing else until she was 2 ; I started learning it in Los Angeles in 1997 so as not to be left behind in Mexican territory and Fingernail II has just started Spanish lessons in Toulouse. Bottom line : we all speak and/or understand castellano. As we sat in this little bakery, an older man  came in and, not even making the slightest effort to communicate in the language of his hosts, ordered a couple of cakes and bought some bread. The owner, knowing on which side her bread was buttered, replied in exemplary French. Sorry, but I find this insulting and incredibly rude. If you’re coming for the first time, at least ask if the person behind the counter speaks your language. If you’re a regular, then make the fucking effort, particularly as you’re the one profiting from the situation. Arsehole (trou de cul in French). There’s no excuse ; I’m nearly fifty, but I want to carry on learning.

OK, back to shagging tarts. Don’t get me wrong. There are many cat houses on the Franco-Iberican border, but they’re to be found in La Jonquera (including Europe’s largest), so book now to avoid disappointment. You can also get seriously discounted booze and cigs there, so go for it : Serious quaffing, smoking and shagging between Voltaire and Cervantes : you can always tell your WAGS (Wives and Girlfriends) you were on a cultural tour of Europe (Tip : the Salvador Dalì museum is in Figueras, just a bit further south of this particular Shangri-La) and that you spent most of your time visiting the Sagrada Familia (Gaudì’s Barcelona cathedral) while you were, in fact, getting a blowie off some Croatian drug addict. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the glory of Europe. Move to Patagonia if you can. But take a bottle of border-discounted cheap whiskey with you.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Bears in the Pyrenees

I phoned Mrs. Fingers from Toulouse this afternoon once I'd got straight, put a load of washing on (God, how fucking boring one's life becomes) and she said she'd had a visit from a big, tall park ranger. Right! Cat's away, mice will play 'n' all that; so what was this about? When we all set off to the car this afternoon there was a state ranger van parked up near the house and, yes, it was his. He'd knocked on the door and asked if Mrs. F had seen any unusual tracks in the snow, an unlikely chat-up line if ever I'd heard one. Anyway, he just wanted to inform us that there were bears about and to keep everything locked at night. By the summer there'd be fifteen in that part of the mountains, all Slovenian I'd imagine since the brainless hunters around here have 'inadvertently' killed off the entire indigenous stock (as well as quite a few humans, including a friend's father) and Mitteleuropa became south-west France's only hope of continuing an oursine tradition in their mountains. Anyhow, I'm here in Toulouse, lying in bed, listening to Wagner on iTunes and typing this post whilst wild bears encircle my family and hunky park rangers have their sordid way with my fragrant spouse 100 miles away, 3000 feet up a snow-clad mountain. Nice feeling. Work really does get in the way of life - or at least holidays - doesn't it? On reflection, I have absolutely no cause for complaint: since mid-December I've had a month completely free of work commitments and the next time my cast-iron presence is required is May 15th. A month later I'm off to Germany for ten weeks, so you won't hear me wailing any time soon. All I'm hoping is that I get tenure before austerity measures truly hit France, but that's another post entirely. Here's a Pyrenean brown bear, presumably just before it goes through our bins:

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Back in Toulouse

I'm back in Toulouse for a night, fulfilling work duties before heading back up the mountain tomorrow morning. I certainly won't try anything as stupid as I did on Sunday night, but I must admit I'm starting to tire of the climb, even to the bit where the snow plough clocks off and turns round to go home. Sure sign of getting older, I suppose. That, and the fact that other people depend on me, making me a little more cautious than I was in previous lives. I remember a few years ago in American Samoa, when I hired a car and drove off to explore the island. I ended up on a promontory overlooking a 400-feet sheer drop into the sea. That in itself was no problem, the sticking point was that I had to turn the car round through 180 degrees on a rough track only about four feet wider than the car itself with no barrier between me and death. I sweated and lived to tell the tale, but it would never cross my mind to take that kind of risk again. Not until last Sunday, I suppose. Shit, ultimately we never learn, do we?

The ultimate French gîte experience

I’m writing this in a small chalet 3000 feet up a mountain in the Pyrenees, huddled in front of the burning remains of our wood stock in the sitting room where we’re holed up due to the risk of avalanches. Until this morning my car was immobilised by snow and ice on a 45° degree slope overlooking a 300-foot drop, there are only a few euros left on our landline phone card and the nearest shop is ten miles away. Yes, you really need to ask the right questions when reserving a gîte in France.

All we wanted to do was what thousands of people do all the time and what we’ve been doing regularly since arriving in the south of France in 2004 : book a gîte and have a rustic family week away from the grime and incivility of the city. Sometimes our criteria have been financial, sometimes geographical and this time we knew what we wanted : peace and quiet a long way from anyone, days spent hiking and a week’s worth of good nights’ sleep. After typing the dates and ‘Mountain’ into the website’s search engine, the second or third option appeared to be exactly what we wanted. It was. It still is, really, but we forgot to take that one big, unpredictable element into account when running for the hills : the weather.

Our chalet is, literally, the last house in France before you inadvertently trip over the border into northern Spain. It’s at the end of a dead end road six miles after leaving a village which, lacking any form of commerce or actual living resident, was a dead end in itself. The occasional sign reminds us we’re in bear country, otherwise there’s nothing. The road climbs and climbs until it reaches a car park . Beyond that, there’s a steep, cement path marked ‘Residents Only’, and it’s there that the fun really starts. Our landlady advised us not to stop on the slope and we could see why. Still, an Audi A3 eats this kind of challenge for breakfast, even loaded to the gunnels with all a family of four needs for a week (and some). We snaked around the breakneck turns and ended up in front of an extremely well-appointed little house where the waiting owners made us very welcome. They told us the best places to go for shopping and told us to call in case we needed anything. The telephone was there because ‘there’s no mobile reception up here at all’. No matter, as we don’t have a mobile phone anyway.

We unloaded the car, got straight and then headed back down the mountain to get some bread, fresh vegetables and meat. We found everything we needed in an Intermarché about 15 miles away which was just as well, as there was nowhere else this side of Zaragoza to buy anything. Having crawled back up the mountain in first and second gear we settled down to our first evening away from the madding crowd. I still had work commitments in the city, so the idea was for me to pop down every couple of days for a few hours, then drive back to the welcoming familial embrace. I was to leave the next morning and come back around 8pm that evening. Then it started snowing…

Nothing had prepared us for that. The first drops were more like sleet, so I tried to temper the children’s excitement and told them it wouldn’t settle, more to appease myself than anyone else. After all, if snow had been forecast, the owners would have told us, wouldn’t they ? How easily we slip into the city dweller’s facility of explanation. We, whose lives present us no surprises on terra firma, suddenly forget that not every part of the world is as easily navigated as our urban spaces. We woke the next morning to see a thick blanket of snow as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t much pleased, knowing I had to leave for work in a few hours’ time and didn’t fancy phoning in my excuses the first time I was needed that week. After breakfast we took a little walk and found that the track was completely clear. Panic over, I could leave in peace. Less than two hours later I was back home, an easy run if ever I’d known one, phoned the gîte, where Mrs. F told me it had stopped snowing, packed a few more pairs of gloves and snow wear, closed the flat up again and went off to work, blithely saying I wouldn’t be phoning later as there was no need.

I left the city at 6pm and got to the dead-end village at around 7.30pm. It was perfect ! No trace of snow, the sky still the right side of dusk; I was going to be back among my loved ones by 8pm ! So I carried on along the dead-end road, past the bear sign and started to climb. I noticed there was a bit of snow on the ground, but it was clearly no big deal. Eventually, there were no more tracks in the snow ; I was boldly going etc. Only having gone up twice before I couldn’t remember exactly how many more times the road twisted and turned before it reached our house, and it was that that caused my undoing. I just ploughed on, the Audi sinking deeper and deeper into the snow until I had no way of turning round and much less any way of continuing. Climbing a 45 degree rise which ended in a sharp turn overlooking a huge, sheer drop, the car skidded to the left. By this time, it was almost pitch dark. I reversed a few feet down the slope and pulled the car as far over to the side as I could. Pulling on the hand brake with as much strength as I could muster I said to myself ‘This is a nightmare’ ; I had images of becoming one of testimonies delivered by a mountain rescue officer : ‘He was completely unequipped for the mountain ; you can’t get round these roads if you’re not driving a 4x4’ in front of a backdrop of a helicopter lifting my body out of tangled wreckage at the bottom of the valley. Pulling my bags out of the boot of the car, I set off to the chalet on foot, arriving frightened and in a filthy mood, realising I should have phoned Mrs. Fingers before setting off after work.

The next morning, we grabbed a shovel and set off to try to clear the snow from in front of the car. I was able to get it onto the flat after the dangerous corner and thinking that none of the houses were occupied, left it in front of the final slope which led to the car park. We’d come back in the afternoon to finish the job. After breakfast, we headed left out of the chalet to wander a way along the GR10 hiking path. As we were heading back, we could see a young man heading towards us. Was that our car blocking the road further down ? There’s a man who is furious because he can’t get to work, let’s go and sort it out. He worked for the commune and had been phoned by the only resident between our car and the chalet. When we all met up at the car, the man was understandably irate : Did I realise this was a public highway ? What would have happened if there had been an emergency ? What the hell was I thinking of etc. He calmed down very quickly after I offered my profuse apologies and the assurance that there was, in fact, no-one who was more upset by this than I. When my Mrs. F later told him I’d arrived late evening and that we’d already moved the car that morning he relaxed even more. I’d have felt the same if I’d been in his position. He and one of the commune workers then helped me get into the car park which at least meant I was in no-one’s way, anymore. They didn’t leave it there, though : they told me to drive back down to the bear sign and leave it in the little parking area there. When it snows, the snow plough goes that far and no further i.e. even it cannot navigate what I though I could do in an Audi A3. They shadowed me the whole way down, making sure I didn’t slide off the road, too. Not a bad gesture from someone whose day I’d just ruined. At least now I can return to the city when I need to and can get far enough back up the mountain to be with the family afterwards. If the snow stays the whole week, we’ll have to cart our cases and bags a good mile to the car when we have to leave, though.

Being in the mountains is not about driving though, is it ? It’s about going out for scenic rambles and hikes, building snowmen with the children and admiring the breathtaking views where only bears and deer roam. Well yes, if you don’t want to risk your life. Apparently, we’re in avalanche country and hiking when it’s sunny is dangerous, particularly as April snow melts much more quickly than the winter variety. We hear it every night, anyway : from about 1am onwards there’s a regular thundering rumble which is another fifty pounds or so of snow falling off our roof. It kept us awake the entire first night, so factor in my panic last night and this week is not turning out to be as restful as I’d hoped. In fact, about the safest thing to do is to sit in front of the fire and watch TV, which is a declaration of bankruptcy if ever I heard one. Maybe the gîte website is a sort of assisted suicide site where you can choose your preferred natural mode of popping your clogs among superb scenery. I’d give you the address but I don’t fancy a court case…

I suppose the message is this : no matter how bright you may think you are, you can always unwittingly end up in a situation where you are less than a complete novice, and that in the middle of a country you think you know well, having done nothing more subversive than clicking your way through a seemingly harmless online reservation. We can get so easily disconnected from the vagaries of nature if we live in the city, especially if most of our sorties are the the sort of innocuous, climate-controlled lunches out in the country we indulge in every few weeks or so. You take a step back and say to yourself : We booked somewhere 3000 feet up (even if we thought it was only 2000), didn’t even put €10 on the prehistoric mobile phone we’ve got for this kind of escapade and think that a modest family saloon, however high quality it may be, will behave like a 4x4 if we need it to. If, despite having avoided the traffic for nigh on half a century you're still as blissfully ignorant of life outside your immediate comfort zone as I am, take no chances when plungeing into nature: ask more questions than you need to and don't forget the people giving you the information are so familiar with the vagaries of their environment that they'll probably subconsciously assume everyone else is, too. Better to plan for something and not need it than the other way round. Happy travels!

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Business and pleasure

Combining these two is, as we know, a risky thing to do. I had the opportunity to book a gîte and whisk Mrs. F and the Fingernails off out of Shitworld for a week, so I took it. The only condition was that I come back three times during that time to monitor the production currently in performance. OK, no problem. We left yesterday morning, half expecting a nice little house half way up a good solid, mountain road but what we eventually found exceeded our expectations. The house was lovely and well-appointed, but getting there was terrifying. It's literally the last house in France at the end of a road which climbs steeply from Melles, just north of the Spanish border and the path there is frighteningly narrow with a sheer drop on one side, often not fenced off. We woke this morning to find it had snowed all night; the fields were covered in a white blanket and the clouds were so low we couldn't even see the surrounding mountains. Talk about nervous; I was terrified of not being able to get back to Toulouse to work and thus incurring the wrath of my employers. As it turned out, the road was pretty much clear but I understand why everyone who lives around there drives a 4x4. I'm just now back at Château Fingers before going off to the show and will leave again immediately after it finishes. It's been quite a week for travelling: pony lessons in the country, fetching Fignernail I from the Dordogne and now high up in the Pyrenees; our little Audi A3 probably thinks it's Christmas, so little has it been used since I bought it in Germany last summer.

Oh well, off to work.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Samantha Brick

Well, why not? Let's contribute to her blatant self-publicity. After all, she lives about an hour up the road from Château Fingers, is, like my wife, married to a troglodyte and publishes in the English-speaking French press, just like I do from time to time, so we're connected by more than just self-delusion.

Samantha Brick is not bad-looking. In fact, she looks like the kind of girl I used to see down the pub of a Friday evening, retching in the gutter whilst waiting for a taxi home. I'm not not being malicious, just truthful about English urban life in the seventies and eighties. Juicy, pert titties abound in French cities, but in rural Lot they probably do not, hence my compatriot's apparently high opinion of her appearance. Bottle-blonde Tracys and Sharons do not abound in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie the way they do in Coventry city centre, so our Sam is probably not lying when she says she's the object of continual male attention. In fact, the whole episode reminds me of the time I was watching Howard Stern in the USA and this girl came on, claiming she was better-looking than Pamela Anderson. She was quite blatantly not and came in for what we could politely call a bit of ribbing from the shock jock show host. In the end, I wasn't sure what the point of the exercise was. The girl didn't get her point across, she remained plainer than Pamela and had to hear a lot of abuse to boot. Why do women do this to themselves?

All became clear a few days later. Our Sam may not be a great journalist, but people are now looking for her work in the press, which I'm damned sure they weren't before last week. Well played, Ms Brick, and kudos to you for having the courage to flaunt yourself with a surname like that, too…

You can read the original article here

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Côte Pavée...

Just got back from a lovely little event in Côte Pavée, Toulouse's Bel Air etc blah blah. Fingernail I took part in a concert of her violin teacher's students. It was super, and took place in a hall in the grounds of one of the neighbourhood churches. The windows were open, there was a slight breeze blowing through the trees and the air was full of string music, some of it actually quite pleasant to listen to. The courtyard/garden outside was large and allowed all the children to play in peace until the time came to play and the early evening sun made our idle, post-concert chatter pass pleasantly. The strange thing was that the street right opposite this one is called rue du Sergent Vigné, where a certain monster was recently involved in a shoot-out in his flat. We saw the place as we cycled off home but didn't go near enough to see the state it's in. It really makes you wonder. You believe you're protected and safe but evil can be anywhere. I know this sounds brainlessly dramatic but there you go. Live and love while you can, for there are no guarantees. Still don't feel like posting a picture, sorry.