Tuesday, November 20, 2012

French firemen

I'll never look at the Eiffel Tower in the same way again. Last night I caught half a programme about the grimpeurs, or 'climbing', firemen of Paris. I've seen local Provençal firemen in action, struggling against hillside fire at night, and I guess Provence may have its equivalent service - but the guys filmed in Paris were something else.

They're trained to intervene wherever heights are involved in saving life. Hence when I turned on the telly there was a young firemen doing a tightrope walk on an Eiffel Tower girder, hundreds of feet above the ground. At night. He wore a harness, and a dozen colleagues were perched on nearby girders, one tethered to him by a rope. The idea is that if the guy walking falls then the guy tethered to him jumps, in a split second, on the opposite side so that neither of them fall very far.

The object of the exercise was a 25-year old Israeli, a would-be suicide who had decided, as many do, to end it all with a Tower leap. The fireman edged close to him, talking reassuringly, offering him a blanket. Told him whatever the problem was there were people who cared for him (including, clearly, the men risking their lives.) The young man said he didn't want a blanket, didn't want to talk. He put a foot out in thin air, testing the not-ground. Apparently, this is one of the signs that makes the firemen most anxious. The would-be jumpers who stick a foot into space are often ready to go. In this case, the man suddenly jumped and the firemen leapt from the girders, rushing down to the restaurant roof where he'd fallen. The task had changed in a second from preventing the jump to emergency care. But there was nothing to be done. The youngster lay on his back, chest bare where the fall had ripped his shirt, not moving.

The climbers trooped back to their station to talk the events through and come to terms with the result. The next day they were back on the Tower, roped and harnessed, saving a young woman who was not so resolute.

The next drama was in a block of flats. A man who had eaten himself so fat that he couldn't get out of his apartment was dying of heart disease and needed to get to intensive care. He would have to be brought down somehow from the 8th floor. The chief fireman glanced around the building inside and out, then headed for the roof. He ordered two other guys to fix ropes and drop over the building's side. Then the team hoisted the patient through a skylight, attached ropes to his stretcher, and lowered him to the ground, steadied by the firemen abseiling slowly down on either side of him. Oh, and they had to keep him perfectly level throughout the drop as tilting could have killed him.

Next stop - two blokes at a sports stadium stuck up a 100 foot pole where they were repairing lighting. Their small cage/lift broke down and there they were, boiling gently in the midday summer sun. The team, clocking the pole as being perfectly smooth and unassailable, called a helicopter and dropped two firemen on the roof of the cage, Towering Inferno style. The idea was that the firemen would grab the workers and all four would be lifted back into the chopper. Except that the helicopter left immediately for a life-and-death situation elsewhere in the city. So the extremely brave climbers each harnessed and roped a nervous worker to them and then descended the ropes in thin air, chatting casually to the men they were rescuing. Once they were all down one of the firemen went up his rope again, yard after yard, using nothing but his own strength, to detach his colleague's rope and then descend bringing his own down after him.

As well as knowing ropes and harnesses inside out, and having no fear about dropping off the side of a tower block, these men train daily to stay in peak physical condition - also known as looking like SuperHeroes and god's gift to women. They spend 'down time' scaling weird modern buildings and hanging off the side of bridges. They swim, play team sports and follow arduous routines at the gym. Before each shift they all line up in front of a wall from which a ledge sticks out, higher than any of them. Each man has to jump (not run and jump), get his arms onto the ledge, then swing and hoist himself up on to the ledge. (Try it at home.) If a guy can't do it, he doesn't go on shift.

The filming showed glimpses of these men's home lives. One of the most experienced men is married to a beautiful woman, and has 2 sweet kids. His wife said that she knows he risks his life daily and has chosen to live with that. How does she cope with it? "I get on with my work, look after the children, and hope he'll make it home each day."

Another marriage didn't fare so well. Another very experienced fireman sat on a bench with his cute 10-year old daughter. Mum and dad got divorced, she said, because dad was never home and mum was always worried about him. Mum said he was always saving 'other people'. The firemen smiled sadly and said that even if he'd known his marriage would end in divorce because of his work, he would still have chosen to do this job. Why? He hesitated a bit. Being part of this team, he said. Putting your life in the other guys' hands. Having their lives in yours. Saving people.

His little girl beamed with pride.

"My dad saves lives all the time" she said.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Corsica, from Provence

Just spent a few days in Corsica, visiting friends. The boat, whether to Ile Rousse or Bastia, takes between 6 and 10 hours.

I foolishly thought I would 'think' on the outward journey so I took nothing to read and ending up reading the Corsica Ferries safety regulations. Local Emergencies included 'running about on board'. When a Local Emergency gets too much (too much running about?) the captain may call Abandon Ship. In which case you must go to the lifeboats but on no account throw yourself overboard.

There was in fact lots of running about as we were still in school holidays and so the boat was filled with families. Of the 2000 or so passengers on board, around 1000 appeared to be under 5. And very noisy. Pretty much my idea of a Local Emergency. More interesting was the ship's crew. Entirely Eastern European – Romanian at a guess – they spoke heavily accented French and Italian and, between themselves, their own language. When I asked one of the waiters what nationality he was, he said Italian. From Napoli. I used to have a Neapolitan boyfriend and this guy’s accent was not Neapolitan or any kind of Italian. Of course, he could have Italian nationality, just as I might have French if I jumped through the requisite hoops, but here were dozens of men and women wearing badges with Italian names - Antonio, Giovanni, Vasco, Franco, Carla – whose country of origin was clearly elsewhere and whose mother tongue was clearly not Italian. So why the pretence? Maybe a tax issue, or an employment issue? It seemed bizarre that in Europe today a ship’s whole crew could be openly faking, presumably having to fake, an identity not their own. And more bizarre that they were quite visibly and audibly not what they were pretending to be.

Minor questions of national identity were still rattling around in my head when we drove from Ile Rousse to Canari in Cap Corse. Corsica doesn’t, to me, feel like France and many Corsicans, as is well known, do not feel French. Islands almost always have their own identity and Corsica’s feels squeezed between its French and Italian history and its current incorporation in the French state. The Corsican language (again, just my view) is like a Sicilian dialect, heavy on the U’s. A product is “Fatu en Corse” rather than the Italian “fatto” or the French “fait”. "Le" is replaced by "U", so you have U moulin instead of le moulin. Words often tend towards the Italian rather than to French. Corsica’s university is not a French université – it’s (Italian) a università.

My partner and I stayed with friends of his who are also French but live in California most of the year. The wife in the couple has had a family home in Cap Canari all her life. A large house on five levels, it has several terraces that look directly out to sea and on the first night a bunch of us ate out as the burnt orange sun sank far in the west, apparently beneath the sparkling Mediterranean sea. The Corsicans who were present joked a bit about France and the French and also about Corsica and the Corsicans. The famous 'Corsican' charcuterie they said, was mostly from elsewhere. If all the Corsican charcuterie that was exported came from Corsica, they said, there'd hardly be room for humans on the island. All the available space would be taken up by pigs. (We were interrupted at this point by seven wild boar who arrived on the restanque beneath the terrace, rooting around for vegetables to eat.) It seems that it's true however that much soi-disant Corsican charcuterie hails from elsewhere. We bought some the next day and a Corsican guy said with a laugh that it was a genuine Corsican product from Spain....

You can sense the antagonism of many Corsicans towards the French. It's there in the regard and the tone of voice. And yet although the population is tiny they have plenty of tensions within their own community too. Just a few weeks ago, in the ongoing feud between mafia gang members, a local crime boss was shot to death in broad daylight. He was buying....charcuterie in a butcher's shop and the assassin chose to gun him down with a rifle used to shoot wild pigs. Not enough to kill the guy, you see - there had to be an insult delivered as well. The tit-for-tat murders have been going on for years now.

I preferred to shift my attention to fish. The local village restaurant serves fabulous fish, but wildly expensive. On the rocks by the sea, I thought I understood why. Fishermen would return from individual fishing expeditions, small harpoons or lines and hooks in hand, with two or three fish at a time. The fish you see as you snorkel around the coastline are beautiful but small. You can swim with a thousand little anchovies or a few small bream or wrasse but the larger fish are further out to sea. You need a boat and an early morning or night expedition to supply the Bon Clocher restaurant with chapon, rascasse or daurade. Still, swimming around with fish in the sunlit water was a real pleasure. You forget the world of noisy kids, national tensions, commerce and gang warfare. Instead, you float on a warm and tranquil sea with hundreds or dozens of shimmering fish just out of fingertip reach, and you have a profound sense of wellbeing. Sunlight filters down to the rocks around you and you feel perfectly removed from everyday life. You are snorkelling on the Corsican coast and the world beyond is not your concern. Sure, it will drag you back in but for now who cares? The only thing that counts is the sun on your back and the little shoal of fish flitting behind a bank of rock.

I wrote Present Tense a few years ago. But look, it's still available to buy and read:

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I learnt a couple of things last weekend. One was the origin of the word barbecue. The other was the origin of Marcel Pagnol's family. (Author of Jean de Florette, Manon des Sources et al.)

In the 17th century, when French pirates set off to conquer the Caribbean, among them were Breton and Norman sailors. They had a habit of roasting whole animals over wood fires and took the practice with them. They would eat the entire animal, from its head to its tail, and referred to this way of eating as de la barbe à la queue. In the Caribbean, the saying was shortened to something approximating barbecue.

I read this in a book in a wood cabanon by the beach at Frontignan, near Sète, in the Languedoc. Picking up another book I read that Pagnol is derived from les Espagnols. Obvious once you see it. Pagnol's family originated in Spain.

The reason I mention those two snippets is because they reflect the pleasure of lazing by a wooden chalet at the beach, in the sun, in summer. You lie on the grass, pick up a glass of cold rosé, pick up a book, and browse casually.

The chalet belongs to friends who are kind enough to let us use it when weather permits. It's been in Jean's family for three generations, handed from father to son, and is a step back from the beach in a restful tangle of oliviers de Bohème, flowering oleanders, tamarisks, palms and fig trees. It's a small wooden construction with tropical-looking lattice-work which is actually traditional to the Midi coastline.

Though it's set on a small private pathway, along with newer buildings, no-one bothers about the fact that families trundle by every day in July and August, lugging deckchairs, children and picnics. It's a shortcut to the beach and the rusted sign saying Propriété privéé has long ago been pushed to one side and forgotten.

Arriving at the chalet is like an instant stress cure. Calm and relaxation flood over you as you open the gates and walk in. Inside, we found the usual tangle of cobwebs and leggy spiders spiralling away into corners as daylight spilled in. The spiders' webs drift down like super-fine fishing nets as you move around, or, invisible, take you by surprise when you walk into them face-first.

In the weeks or months when the chalet lies unused, ants and other creatures are the only residents. Little heaps of sawdust lie around where the beams have been burrowed into.

Naturally the old hoover doesn't work, so we sweep up and then lug the furniture out onto the wooden terrace. With the water and electricity turned on, everything's ready for the weekend.

The first evening, we dine Chez la Tchepe, a little restaurant on the edge of the Etang de Thau. It offers no-frills simplicity and a counter full of super-fresh coquillage, notably the renowned oysters of Bouzigues which have been hoisted up from the waters we're looking at.

We ask for a local Picpoul - Duc de Morny - but it isn't sold here so we select another. But as Morny is particularly light and fresh, we decide to go to the vineyard in the morning and buy some. Our meal of tielles, oysters, mussels, crevettes, violets, lemon, bread and butter and a bottle of Picpoul comes to 33 euros and we head back to the chalet full of good food and fresh sea air.

When we find the vineyard in the morning, we ask the owner why we never see his Picpoul in the shops. He shrugs and says he doesn't need to market it. He has private clients who order it each year, so he sells other cuvées to distributors, those which are less popular or made in greater volume. He has a few cases of 6 bottles left though so we snap one up for 24 euros. So do another couple who are here for exactly the same reason.

In the evening - 14th July, so a French national celebration - we head along to Frontignan where a local version of water jousting, in gondolas, is taking place. Two teams row past each other with a sturdy young man on each boat and the jousters attempt to push each other in the water. There's also a boat with a band playing trumpets and banging drums and a boat detailed to pick up the guys who get pushed into the water. There's lots of music and cheering and fooling around and the two teams each have their own supporters on opposite sides of the narrow sea inlet. The climax to the event is a spectacular display of fireworks which finished with an effect I hadn't seen before. It's a series of huge fireworks which appear to come ever nearer to you so that the last one seems to be bearing down right on the crowd. After the fireworks, an open-air concert and a dance start up, with an elaborate fair to entertain children.

Sunday is quieter. We drive to Marseillane, a pretty port, and have lunch by the water. The drive back takes us around the Etang with its waters shining in the sunlight. After a dip in the sea and a tidy round the chalet we head back to the Vaucluse. Frontignan and Sète have little in common with the Cote d'Azur. There's no glitz and no jet set. There's a different character altogether and one that takes time to appreciate maybe. The old wooden chalets which have all but disappeared deserve some recognition really and I mentioned to one of the friends who owns this one that it would be good to make a film about them. There must be a lot of stories behind those which have not been demolished and the land sold to make money on new villas. Joelle's a film maker and she agreed but is doubtful that a distributor would pick up on the idea.

But never mind. It's enough to experience the place. The structure and atmosphere, the sunlight and shade, and most important perhaps the sea air make it a blissful break. A lovely place.

Don't be the last person to read Present Tense. Buy it now:

Friday, July 20, 2012

Plumbers in Provence

So I haven't posted for a while. That's because I accepted a job with an American scholarly society in June and I've been trying to get my head round their internal systems. Not less complicated than the inner workings of a human being. Brain, digestive system, veins, arteries, spinal cord, nerves, vision.... all takes time to comprehend.

So, there I am, working away on my computer on a Friday afternoon, when the water pump starts to make what laymen refer to as funny noises. The water pump in rural Provence is roughly equivalent to oxygen when you are in intensive care. If you don't have water here in the Midi you can pack up and go elsewhere. Especially in summer. I don't have a thermometer or barometer but I'd say it was around 37° today and it was therefore not a good sign that the water pump was going clic, clac every 3 seconds. If that pump breaks, I need to book a hotel or sleep on somebody's floor until a new one is installed.

And installing a new water pump is likely to be a major event.

So I called the guy I've been seeing and explained the problem. Like any self-respecting Provençal man, he arrives with a toolbox and a set of strong opinions and after half an hour of tinkering around calls our local plumber. Amazingly, Pierre says he will come at once and, more amazingly, he does. There follow three hours of gushing water, no water at all, squeaky noises, drilling, filthy water spilling into sinks and baths, sparkling water spurting outside the house and large volumes of Provençal swearing.

At one point I am forced to intervene because the two men are discussing re-situating my cumulus and compresseur outside the house in an outbuilding that doesn't currently exist.

"Guys" I say (in French obviously).
"I don't want to build an outhouse for the water heater. Or the compresseur. (Whatever it may be.)"

Equality never really made it down to Provence and local guys are much clearer on fraternité than égalité.
Men still entirely expect to do the manual/technical/heavy work (and are often amazingly good cooks as well) and I'm frankly very glad about it. I am not one of those women who think it's liberating to bleed radiators or climb on the roof and clear gutters. Frankly, you're kidding? And if you disapprove, please go and access another blog.

So. Both guys are both somewhat stunned that I have an opinion on their plans for spending thousands of (my) euros on an outhouse for the water paraphernalia.

I see cogs turning in their brains as they adjust to my objections. And then they just get on with fixing the system where it is.

After a certain amount of competitive hooha ("I'm right", "No you're not, I am" and so on) the water pump stops going clic, clac when I turn a tap on and normality seems to have been restored.

Once again I have a steady flow of crystal clear, unfiltered water that flows silently into the house from, ultimately I think, but no-one is sure - Fontaine de Vaucluse, one of the largest Karst springs in the world.

It still amazes me that I have this natural resource flowing underground year after year and flowing into the house. I have friends in Isle sur la Sorgue who've put glass portholes or large sections of reinforced glass in their flagstone floors, through which they see the clear water flowing, illuminated as it runs by. The water below my house is far deeper, filtered by the limestone before the water pump draws it up, ready to drink.

At the end of the day - Pierre absolutely only had half an hour to spare but it has turned into the entire afternoon - the men are exhausted and ready for a glass of cold rosé wine. Both are soaked but their clothes are drying rapidly in the heat. Both are covered in dust.

Problems with water occur 2 or 3 times a year in the house and take priority over most other household problems. Ants eating the wooden beams or rain occasionally falling in through the roof doesn't compare to the possibility of losing the water supply.

Pierre reluctantly says that I owe him 60 euros (when my partner isn't around he simply asks for a hug) and I say I'll call round to his house with the cash over the weekend. Once the guys have gone, I stand outside under the pine trees, thinking, as I often do, what a delight it is to live here. A blue jay swoops down and takes a bath in a bowl of water that I fill every day. When he leaves, I hear a red squirrel making his way through the dry forest canopy to the same water source. He descends, headfirst, from a tall pine and takes a long drink, his tough claws gripping the edge of the bowl and his bushy red tail extended behind him. Later, the turtle doves will come and drink too.

It's a relief to have the water supply secured again. I know problems will still crop up from time to time. That goes with this particular Provençal pine and limestone territory. But I don't mind. It's just a small problem in a paradise setting.

You know, you really should read my book this year:

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Interesting to see how the Front National has gained ground here in Provence during the recent presidential and legislative elections.

I drove to Pernes-les-Fontaines yesterday morning, continuing my difficult relationship with the Caisse d'Epargne. Caisse d'Epargne is the bank where I chose to open an account when I first moved to France. I based my decision solely on the fact that they have the prettiest building of any bank in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and I thought, if you must deal with a bank, at least choose one where it's a pleasure to walk up the steps and through the door. As Julia Roberts said in her film Pretty Woman: big mistake, huge.

There are plenty of staff in the banks' branches. They just don't serve the customers very often. I see them tootling about kissing each other in the mornings and chatting while glum clients stand in long queues. The technology doesn't work very well either. The ATM can give you a ticket telling you what transactions have gone through your account, and another telling you how much you have left. But for some reason you can't get a ticket telling you both on the same piece of paper. There's a Deposit function at the ATM in Pernes, but not in L'Isle, but sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it takes your cash and gives you a receipt. Sometimes the function simply disappears from the menu (usually when you need to put money in to cover the mortgage) and sometimes it takes your money and tells you something went wrong, doesn't return it and doesn't give you a receipt. It still usually turns up in your account about two weeks later but even so, there's always an element of gambling when you bank with Caisse d'Epargne. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't and it's always unpredictable.

I digress, but just to explain why I drove to Pernes around 48 hours after hearing that Marion Maréchal Le Pen - niece of Marine Le Pen and granddaughter of doughty old fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen - had won the local election there, in the constituency around Carpentras.

Maréchal Le Pen, spearheading the new generation of Lepenistes in France, is a 22-year-old law student with no connection to her new constituency, to the Vaucluse or Provence. Yet she simply walked into the region and beat the incumbent UMP député, Jean-Michel Ferrand, who has been elected and re-elected there since 1988.

True, she's very pretty and has a winning smile. But that's not why she won. It's highly likely that her voters, in their thousands, voted Front National *despite* the candidate being Maréchal Le Pen. These FN voters are builders and carpenters, hard-headed small businessmen, practical housewives and a fair number of professionals. They're unemployed youth and hard-up pensioners. Unlikely to vote for a pretty face, they were not put off by her youth and inexperience either. Nor were they making a protest vote. As Marion herself said in a post-election interview, these were votes of conviction. The people in this part of the Vaucluse, she commented, made a positive choice to vote FN.

It's not hard to understand why. Arriving in Pernes I was surprised to see brightly-coloured posters, everywhere, which said (in French obviously): "Thankyou, everyone. Marion".

Within hours of the result, the FN had its members out flyposting to thank voters. And ahead of the election they'd had the posters printed in order to be ready.

When did you ever hear of such a thing? An elected representative publicly thanking voters in this way? I've never seen that before. Have you? Too often, once the candidate has your votes, he or she is off to a well-heeled life without so much as a goodbye.

And that gesture by the FN was quite revealing. They've understood that many voters, particularly in Provence which has its own set of problems, are sick of mainstream politicians, find them completely out of touch and contemptuous of the voters who elect them. The FN's populist approach is to connect with people's daily concerns in a way that the UMP has clearly failed to do throughout France.

The new, and youngest-ever, député demonstrated this when interviewed after winning the election. When she was asked by the TV presenter what main issue she would be raising in the Assembly, you could almost hear the intake of breath in the studio. Surely she would say "Immigrants!" She didn't. Without missing a beat she said: "Le pouvoir d'achat." Spending power. And went on to talk about the financial pressure her voters are dealing with.

The strategy of keying into local concerns and taking notice of voters has paid off for the FN in Provence and more widely in France. They cannot be entirely dismissed as a fringe party now. Certainly they are still the extreme right, but they're working hard to broaden their appeal.

The defeated UMP candidate in Carpentras, Jean-Michel Ferrand, made a string of errors in his election campaign regarding Le Pen. He dismissed his young rival as irrelevant. He wasn't simply complacent - he oozed complacency. This young girl, he said, knew nothing about the Vaucluse. She would parachute in from the north, eat a few cherries, and go away again. That contempt was dangerously close to contempt for his voters. I've got them in the bag, he was saying. No young pretender can beat me.

He was wrong and it must have been a shock to him to lose. He didn't understand that 'his' voters could quite easily vote, not for an inexperienced student, but for the policies of the FN. And against the policies of the UMP.

The fact that they did just that on the day of the election shows how much ground the UMP has lost in this area. And how effectively the extreme right can exploit the complacency of mainstream parties when economic crisis comes together with social malaise and fear of the future. The right wing in France will not necessarily see off the FN by insulting or deriding them. Nor will the left. They will all have to take on the arguments of the Lepenistes and defeat them.

Fed up with politics? Relax and read Present Tense then:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Meet the farmers - and beekeepers, wine growers, goat breeders, cheese makers

This weekend France had a national initiative opening small agricultural enterprises to the public. Hundreds of smallholders, beekeepers, truffle producers, wine growers, cheesemakers, duck breeders and others opened their doors to the nosy public to show us how they do their work. De ferme en ferme it was called. From farm to farm.

Here in Provence dozens of enterprises took part and around 25 were open in the Vaucluse. My partner and I decided to go and have a look at a few. We chose 4 family concerns at Pernes-les-Fontaines - one keeping goats and producing goats cheese, then Domaine de la Camarette, which produces excellent wine and olive oil and also has a fine restaurant, then a market gardener, and a beekeeper/honey producer.

We started at the Chèvrerie des Fontaines where we were greeted by a loping sheep dog and two robust-looking hens. A shaggy dog was snoozing peacefully in the sun at the top of stone steps. We found the business owner, a young woman called Julie Christol, in the milking room, attaching the milking machine to the goats' teats.

She has several breeds of goat - the local traditional goat breed of Provence, a breed from the Alps and a couple of others. Only 35 in total. With those goats and their milk she has to make enough cheese to earn her living, selling at local markets. The milk is whisked off to a sterile room where it's agitated a bit (I didn't follow the technical stuff very closely) then it ends up on shelves where it sits for a brief or long period of time depending on whether it's to be sold frais, sec, or in-between. Flavours like shallots, herbs or peppers are added.

After meeting the bouc (do we still say billy goat in English?), a handsome animal with a long black beard, we had a look at the room where the milk is handled. Only through a glass door, though, as the hygiene regulations are fierce. Then we had a tasting, tried various textures and flavours and bought a few cheeses. Two little girls, 4 and 5, were helping their mother label little pots of faisselle, a traditional curds and whey product last eaten outside France by Little Miss Muffet. One of the girls made us laugh. My partner asked her what she was doing and she replied with a big smile that she was doing the vaisselle - washing up.

Patting the dogs, goats, chickens and children on the head, we set off to La Camarette. We know the restaurant well and it's well worth visiting - great food and great value produced by the talented chef, Hugo. (32 euros for 3 courses with the Domaine's own wine included.) But we hadn't had a look around the winery which is run by Hugo's wife who also has a small son and baby girl to look after while her husband works long days and nights in the restaurant. She showed us how the wine is produced, from pruning the vines, to harvesting the grapes, and finally bottling the wine, slapping on labels and selling it locally (and to one client in China!) Born into the third generation of a family of wine growers, Nancy Gontier's knowledge of viticulture and viniculture was impressive - the cépages from chardonnay to mourvèdre, grenache, the pinots, syrah and beyond, the machines and processes for making wine, the wine trade in France and abroad, the complex legislation governing the trade, and the protocols for achieving organic - bio - status.

I bought a few litres of red and of white and my partner bought some of the special cuvée she produced to celebrate the birth of her son. Next year, there'll be a vintage to mark her daughter's birth too. I also bought their excellent méthode champenoise which takes a full year to produce.

And off we went to the market gardener. Frederic Deloule's produce is organic and ranges from artichokes to tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, grapes and water melons. A group of a dozen of us took the tour with the farmer's tall, handsome son who smoked roll-ups as he loped about encouraging us to nose around in the rows of vegetables. The obligatory affable dogs - everywhere in Provence - strolled around with us. One looked closer to a bear than a dog but was very sociable. Like the animals, we followed our guide and heard about the irrigation afforded by the Carpentras Canal, the organic compost used to fertilise the produce and the plentiful insect life which somehow maintains a balance and seems to avoid devouring the crops. We were offered several dozen tomato plants at the end of the tour which we accepted with pleasure.

Next stop was the beekeeper and mielerie. Stepping over a large floppy dog, we shook Benoit's hand, the apiculteur, and started our tour. He showed us traditional beehives used in Provence, the Alps and the Cevennes. Some, used way back, were just old tree trunks, hollowed out and with wooden lids slapped on.

Benoit has 400 ruches or hives, which he makes and maintains himself. Each beehive is home to around 40,000 bees. (Yep, 16 million bees.) The hives have to be driven around the region, when plants are flowering, and located in lavender fields and so on. The honey is produced between June and September. We watched his sister filling pots and labelling them. She simply turned a tap on a vat to fill the pots but it's still a time-consuming, manual process, as is the labelling. And then the honey is taken to market. Benoit said his turnover is around 24,000 euros a year which means his net annual income from making honey will be considerably less. We tasted lavender honey, acacia honey and chestnut-flower honey and bought some of each.

As we drove away I reflected on the great day we'd had, courtesy of De ferme en ferme. What impressed me - apart from the beauty of the animals, processes and products - was the incredibly rich knowledge these agriculteurs have. It's the depth of knowledge which is so impressive. Knowledge of the history of making these products. Knowledge of the varieties of animals, of vines and vegetables and the nutrition which suits them and the maladies that afflict them. Of processes and subtle enhancements to them. Of local markets, overseas markets, laws, flavours... it's never-ending. Contrast their work, these small producers, with a person stuck in a shop selling tins of stuff, or someone stuck in an office rifling through files online, and the work of the beekeeper or wine grower seems rather magnificent. Their own bosses, in their own domaines, with their own plants and animals and their own rhythm of working. Each has a whole world of knowledge and expertise to revel in, as well as the beauty of nature.

Want more to read? Buy Present Tense:

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

France is not for the fainthearted

OK, this is only partially about Provence. It's also about living (or trying to live) in France, when you are that dirty word: foreign.

The first round in the election has clarified several issues. The population is somewhere over 65 million. Millions of French voters abstained. Millions were too young to vote. Everyone's talking about percentages so I've seen no actual figures on voters. But let's say 35 million voted. If that's roughly correct, over 10 million of those voters rejected the two main parties. Seven million of them voted for the Front National. Millions voted for the Front de Gauche. Add those figures to the abstentions and you have a truly huge number of French voters who reject Sarkozy and Hollande too. It's a "peste on both your houses".

Marine Le Pen did particularly well in Provence-PACA, as did Carla's husband. It's quite something to walk down the streets of a pretty market town in Provence and realise that one in five of the people around you voted Front National. Fiercely patriotic, one has to assume that many detest or at least resent foreigners. As it happens, I understand why. I know several young men struggling to earn a living who would like to work hard and earn a reasonable wage and they simply can't get a break. I can see how they reason when they think about their lives in Provence. The failure of leadership at national level - and/or the crisis at international level - means they look around for solutions. And Marine Le Pen seems to offer them. What the hell are all these foreigners doing in Provence, for example? As an immigrant, albeit European, I get that. How come I bought a lovely home here while Pierre, who has a young wife and a baby on the way, can hardly afford to rent? It's not immediately apparent to him that I worked hard for 30 years to have that home. Longer than he's been alive! He would reply, no doubt, that he knows plenty of elderly Provençaux who have not been able to buy comfortable homes. I don't know what the answer is. And nor, I'm pretty sure, do any of the candidates in the presidential election.

But I was going to go on to say something about being foreign in Provence/France and it's this. Daily life, in so far as it concerns local people and nature, can be blissful. But the companies you need to deal with are like huge, grinding machines that, once they get you in their jaws, will make you feel your life is not worth living.

The first rule of Fight Club was "There are no rules". Dealing with EDF, France Telecom and others is pretty much like that. You're viewed as a tiny, miniscule, worthless cog in a gigantic machine and you are never allowed to forget it. I've had, since 2004 when I came to live in Provence, four solid years of hassle over health care ('the system' admits that as a European I have a right to a Carte Vitale - they just won't send me one); two years of hassle over internet and telephone lines (I'll spare you the detail); and getting on for 6 months of hassle over electricity supply. The lastest EDF hoo-ha is that their meter stopped working in May 2010 - it was full of ants apparently - and they "estimated" that I owed them another 2080 euros on top of what I'd already paid.

Last week, they sent me a letter saying that they'd bill me for 2011 in 2013 once they'd seen what I spent on electricity in 2012. (Yes, I know....). This week, they sent me a letter saying that since I'd failed to pay 2080 euros - Whaaaaaaa? - they were sending a man to cut off my electricity. Now, I 'm a tolerant person but I fail to see how that equates to any kind of customer service and I imagine it may even contradict laws on human rights. After all, I live in a forest and when my electricity's cut off, I lose my water too. (I have well-water, not town water.)

The casual threat to cut off my supply was pretty shocking. Complicating matters was the fact that my EDF "space online" - instead of showing their guestimate that I owed them 2080 euros - showed a facture saying they owed me 5 euros. Go figure, as the Americans say.

When I discussed this total chaos with my partner he looked thoughtful and then said he thought my problems - with RAM-GAMEX, with EDf, with France Telecom - probably are essentially related to the fact that my name is identifiably not French. Boylan is pretty clearly Irish and quintessentially non-French. In addition he said it doesn't help that I'm female and divorced. It all adds up to being not exactly displaced, but certainly mal-placed.... He was born in Provence and has lived his whole life here. I asked him: "Have you ever known anyone local, anyone Provençal, to have the same problems over such a long period of time?" And he said: "No".

My neighbour however, married to a Swiss guy, said: "Oh yes. That's normal. My husband waited 4 years too, for his Carte Vitale."

Yet during the French elections, we saw candidates addressing French voters in London. And the French in London are accepted as Europeans with the same rights as the English (and just about anyone else who washes up on England's shores.) The same cannot be said, in my experience, of non-French Europeans in France. We may have rights in Europe and the French, officially, agree that we have. They're just not always delivered. It gives a certain depth to the realisation, as I walk down the street in my adopted hometown, that one in five of the people around me voted against the idea of anyone foreign living in Provence.


Er....you STILL haven't read Present Tense? What? You don't have a Kindle or something? Jeez....get with the freaking programme!