Monday, December 28, 2009

France Telecom, oh France Telecom

Living in a forest on a dirt track communications are quite important. In October I bought a Livebox so I could have wifi internet access around the property and a cordless phone. For five years I'd had ADSL that worked reasonably well though it always went off for a day or two after heavy rain or a storm.

The day after I got the internet and phone working with the Livebox, the red light came on. No access. No phone either. Just a blip, I thought. France Telecom will sort if out quickly. Called them. They tested the line. "No problem with the line. It's a problem for Orange." Called Orange. Answered a few questions. "No problem at our end. It's a problem for France Telecom." Called France Telecom. Same response. Called Orange again. Same response. Finally France Telecom agreed to send a team of technicians. The team turned out to be two subcontracted youngsters from Cavaillon, in a hired van, who couldn't even look at the line because they didn't 'have a ladder'. They went away. Other teams of 'technicians' followed. All subcontractors. All young. None brought ladders and ladders were apparently the key to restoring the serivce. There were teams who couldn't find the house. (SatNav anyone?) And teams who refused to go onto a neighbour's property where the FT box is sited, even though the neighbours were fine about it.

Finally, seven teams were sent over 5 weeks. 14 'technicians'. In all that time I had no phone and no internet access. I wrote to the National Consumer Service three times. No reply. Not even an acknowledgement of the letters. On the other hand, FT still managed to collect my monthly fee for the non-existant service efficiently.

When the service was finally restored - and I imagine shareholders paid for the seven completely ineffective, wasted visits - I felt reasonably reassured.

Not for long.

A neighbour this week pointed out to me that the 'repair' to the line was this: the young 'technicians' have draped a line across a neighbour's grounds, all the way over the lawn, through the cherry orchard and up on to the dirt track, draped in hawthorn hedge, before connecting it to the telephone pole.

It's just a loose wire lying on the ground.


I'm not alone round here with this problem. Two friends and neighbours have been offline for three and four months respectively and nothing seems to be happening to restore the service they are paying for. There is clearly something very wrong at France Telecom. The workers are unhappy. Suicides are bizarrely common. Maintenance and repair is being farmed out to younsgters who seem to have little training and no interest in providing a service. Seemed to me that each time they would come out here and go away saying they didn't have a ladder they were probably billing France Telecom on multiple occasions with some nonsense about not having the tools for a complex repair. I don't get the impression that FT checks what the subcontractors are up to.

I'll now have to fight again to get the line properly secured between the poles and the house, before a wild boar stumbles into it and disconnects me again.

France Telecom may need to rename itself France NotTelecom.

March 2010 update. The line is still lying on the neighbour's lawn, months later. I've written and called FT. Received one strange message left on the answerphone which in translation appeared to say: "The arc bobs against a god." Unless it was code meant for a spy I can't possibly imagine what they were trying to communicate. FranceTelecommunications are clearly not communications capable of, you know, communicating.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to make your own olive oil

Each year here we get our olive oil just before Christmas. I have around 30 trees – not many, but a well-maintained olive tree can provide many kilos of olives every winter. Some of my trees are rehabilitated ones, survivors of the desperate frost in 1956 that killed olive trees right across this region. Others are young trees that I had planted three years ago. As my crop is small for the time being I add it to the more substantial recolte collected by my neighbours. Their trees are on land which spans 16 hectares and though much of that land is taken up by homes, pools, a disused quarry, fig trees, a mielerie (honey factory), flowering plants, shrubs and other varieties of tree, they’ve produced around 1000 kilos of olives this year. ( 2009).

Last week we took the crop, in overflowing cases in a rickety old trailer, to the olive mill at Mazan. It’s a modern mill, a bit disappointing with its inox equipment everywhere instead of heavy old wooden presses – but the owners are charming and loaded the olives into crates, ready to roll off into the torrential bac à lavage where leaves, any bits of grass, soil, snails, mushrooms or bits of fertilizer (horse manure mixed with straw since you ask) are washed away. If you have only a few kilos, your olives are put in a general pool and you receive oil which doesn’t come from your own production. Because we had a good weight we get back oil which is exclusively from our own trees. We went back at the weekend to collect 190 litres of fresh green oil, poured into large containers, and dash home to taste it.

My neighbour tasted it directly from a teaspoon – one spoonful of the new oil, then one of last year’s. I tasted it with a hunk of plain white bread. Compared with last year’s, it’s peppery. The 2008 vintage was very soft, and golden in colour. 2009’s oil is citrus-y green for the moment. It will soften with age. Olive oil is best used within a year. Any longer than that and it’s going to spoil and become rancid.

Now we have the oil some will be stored and used throughout 2010, some will be given away as Christmas presents and some will be sold by the neighbours.

It’s the fruit of some hard labour and this is what we do each year to have our own oil:

Each spring we prune the trees. Pruning olive trees is relatively complex and I’m still getting the hang of it. Some people here do their pruning in November or December when they collect the olives. That’s not good practice though as it can be bad for the tree – letting disease in to the cut areas - and it’s also bad for production. We prune as the weather gets warmer, before the flowers arrive on the branches. The most commonly grown variety here is the verdale, or aglandou, which is seen as the traditional olive tree of Provence - but the salonenque, berruguette and grossane are not uncommon. We have mainly verdales but the oil can be a bit bitter so we temper it with a small percentage of olives from trees of the other varieties.

People are often confused about the colour of olives, asking if my olives are black or green? The answer is that they’re both. A black, bluish-black, dark red or purple olive is just one which is more mature than a green olive. Another common misunderstanding concerns the ramassage, the harvesting of olives. People tend to be surprised that it’s done in November or December, and sometimes – depending on the weather - in January. But that’s when they ripen. And in fact, the combination of timing and weather has a big effect on the quantity of oil generated. If the olives are picked too early, during warm autumn weather, they’ll produce less oil per kilo because their flesh holds too much water. After the first frosts, they dry out a bit and get a little wrinkled in appearance. It’s the cold that begins to dry them out, and in consequence you pay the mill less per kilo for the pressing. All that has been lost is water, not oil. As we currently pay the mill 50 centimes for each kilo they press for us, it makes sense to wait as long as possible before harvesting. On the other hand, picking olives outside all day when it’s freezing cold is pretty unpleasant. This year we got them in during December, but before the weather got cold. Up in the trees on special 3-cornered ladders, looking out at the Alpilles or up at the clear blue sky, and stopping for long lunches in the sunny open air was a pleasure.

We picked by hand and using rateaus, small ‘rakes’, but watched a bit enviously as a neighbour used his newly-acquired machine that shakes the olives from the branches and into the nets. He was able to work several times faster than we were, even though the machine was a bit too powerful and whipped a lot of his olives off into the grass, wide of the nets. Next winter, he’ll buy bigger nets and so will we, learning from his experience, if we decide to buy a machine.

Each time a tree was completely stripped of olives, we’d gather the net in, sort roughly through the olives throwing out leaves and twigs and then pour them into cases ready to be stacked in the vault till the harvest was done. At the end of each day the cases were loaded onto the tractor and off they trundled to be stored.

Each winter we enjoy comparing the year’s new oil with oil produced by neighbours and friends at St Remy de Provence, in the tiny but renowned oil-producing area, Les Baux. The variations in taste and texture are always interesting and often just as marked as the differences between certain whiskies or wines. The taste can have elements of artichoke or asparagus. Some are very fruity; others are spicy and almost hot. Some are smooth and velvety; others deliver a bit of a kick to the throat after a few moments. We also always compare oils from the previous year with the new oil.

Our oil is non-traitée – no commercial products are used on or around the trees. No chemical fertilizers or treatments for maladies. The trees – touch wood (sorry…) – are generally very healthy. Apart from regular watering in summer, all we give them is horse-manure mixed with straw which we collect in the trailer from a friend who has healthy, weff-fed horses. If anyone thinks aaah, that’s nice organic practice, I feel obliged to mention that it means we sometimes see an occasional worm inside an olive... If you collect hundreds of kilos of olives untreated by pesticides, you’re inevitably going to have a few worms along for the ride. Which means I guess that the oil we produce isn’t really ideal for rigorous vegetarians. Thinking about it now, there may be a touch of manure in there too.

But it doesn’t matter because the olives are thoroughly washed at the mill before pressing.

Each year at the mill there’s a bit of excitement when you arrive with your crop – discussions with other producers about the year's production, debate on the price of pressing and the current average ratio of kilos per litre of oil. You always hear, too, that the mill is overflowing with olives already and they may not be able to process yours this year. Somehow they always manage.

So you deliver your olives along with large empty containers marked with your name and off you go. A few days later the oil is ready for collection. After the comparative tastings, some of the oil is decanted into the litre bottles we’ve saved throughout the year, to be given to friends as Christmas presents. The rest is stored in the containers to be used and enjoyed all through the year to come.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Shark! Only kidding. It's (more or less) safe to stay in the water.

Various scientific studies of sharks in the Med in recent years have concluded that populations continue to show a drastic decline. There are nearly 500 species worldwide but fewer than 50 are lucky enough to cruise the shores of Cannes and St Tropez. The most common species here, and most commonly seen on fish stalls and menus, is the roussette or saumonette – the dogfish.
It seems sharks are however increasingly ending up on quayside fishmongers’ stalls and in town fish markets such as the phenomenal market at Sete by the coast. One fish merchant was recently offered a 3 metre, 400 kg shortfin which he divided into three huge chunks and sold to local poissoneries. His experience is that fishermen are bringing in sharks more frequently in recent years. And one local fish merchant adds that they’re larger sharks than he was seeing several years ago. Happily the shortfin, like most sharks, isn’t interested in eating you or your lilo. As long as there’s plenty of seafood around, and tuna and mackerel, you’re pretty safe - shark attacks in the Med are extremely rare. It doesn’t mean Mediterranean sharks aren’t scary of course. The basking shark can be 15 metres long and would give you a bit of a shock after your bouillabaisse and half bottle of cold Picpoul de Pinet. But when sharks come close to the coast, to the beach, it’s usually just because of the currents, not to check out the bathers. The 400 kg shortfin, for example, wasn’t caught by a guy standing on the rocks (obviously). It was caught 54 km off the coast. That’s about 30 miles.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Siamese cats and red squirrels in Provence.

Here in the country between Fontaine-de-Vaucluse and Isle-sur-Sorgue everyone has a cat or a dog, or several of each. Often supplemented by hens, kids, geese, goats and a sad-eyed donkey.
A couple of neighbours resolutely refuse to castrate their cats – vets' bills being moderately expensive – so we have a never-ending supply of new kittens which vary on ginger and siamese themes. The cat which lives at my place left his previous home as a kitten and wondered up the hill to my house over a period of several months, arriving on a very hot July day in 2007, emaciated, with dull fur, and crying for food and water. He probably left home because the little hameau where he lived with a neighbour was too full of other siamese and ginger cats and kittens and he didn’t like scrapping for territory. He’s a peaceful soul and once he'd eaten some tuna and drunk some water he realised he’d found a haven of tranquillity, cat-free apart from himself, and promptly settled down on the terrace for a couple of days, then moved into a cupboard in the front room, built into the bibliotheque.
Most animals like their routines. The first one established by Coco (previously Canicule, which means Heatwave) was that starting early each morning he chased the lizards whose routine in turn was to slip onto the terrace at daybreak and catch ants. As long as the ants and lizards played their part, there was no deviation from routine. Every morning the cat waited with bated breath. Every morning the ants arrived. Every morning the lizards pitched up.
Before long, in true Darwinian style, the lizards had all left or been eaten and I had a house full of ants.
So Coco’s attention turned to the squirrels.
Their routine is to descend from a sloping pine each morning at sunrise to drink from the water bowl kept full for them and periodically shared with passing dogs during the day and sangliers at night. There are four squirrels, a deep rusty red-brown, two rather slight and two more sturdy. They had a habit of thundering across the tiles every day to get to the water but started to find the cat lying in wait on the roof. (There's a good joke about a cat on a roof chasing squirrels - if you don't know it Google it.) So now they arrive safely through the trees, making the final ascent with jerky, noisy movements as their claws grip the bark. Coco watches them from a couple of yards away, mashing his jaws silently in his desire to bite into their squirrelly thighs. They used to stay high in the tree and make rapid, cross little scolding noises if I was outside, coming down only when I obediently went inside for a moment. But now they’re used to me and don’t bother. It’s been too hot to sleep in the house recently so I’ve slept on a mattress in the garden and each morning they wake me as they arrive, keeping one foot on the tree, and one eye on me or the cat as they drink from the bowl.
Creatures of habit, they do the same thing every morning, and every evening at sundown.
And twice a year they have a mad half hour much as some cats do daily. At the beginning of spring and the start of autumn they all get together in the trees nearest the house and dash crazily up and down and round and round, chasing each other in a frenetic display that lasts about an hour. After that they calm down for six months and don’t seem to deviate from their routines for a single day.
They stick strictly to their feeding habits too. Day after day they sit on the high branches eating pine kernels, stripping the cones and chucking little bits of discarded cone into the garden. The first winter I was here I offered them some hazelnuts which they resolutely and completely ignored. Provencal squirrels eat pine nuts and that's that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Driving in Provence

Is often dangerous but also often surprising and funny. Hordes of people get killed and injured on the roads and it's easy to see why. The driving style is eclectic and rules are interpreted fairly approximately. One of the first things you notice driving here is that there is always another car practically driving into the back seat of yours. Drivers seem to find it impossible to keep any distance behind a car. It's as if there's a rule saying you must get as close to the car in front as you possibly can. Discussing this with my neighbour a while ago he disagreed that this happens. The same week he braked in town and the car behind ran straight into him.
Overtaking whenever possible and preferably when it's dangerous also seems to be a rule. I watched a driver today tailing another car on a long straight stretch of road and just as we all came up to a bend he decided to dodge out and risk everyone's life. Recently, on the same stretch of road I started overtaking a guy (on the straight bit) and a young driver behind me started overtaking me as I was overtaking. Naturally another car appeared from the other direction and we all narrowly avoided a crash.
Almost every week the papers report young drivers and their friends hurt or killed in accidents. It's not necessarily down to alcohol - the driving is too fast and too impulsive. I have many friends and neighbours who, like practically everyone I know in Provence, are courteous and considerate as a rule. Get them behind a steering wheel though and it's like they've had a brain transplant. I mentioned this to one friend last week. We were driving back from the Saturday market at Coustellet and he had to stop to let a woman driver turn in front of him. After much swearing and instant bad temper from someone normally completely laid back, I mentioned my observation that driving here seems to bring out the worst in people. He looked completely blank for a moment and then, like my neighbour, denied it...
If drivers interpret the rules flexibly, the police sometimes do too in my experience. Thankfully. Driving the wrong way up a one-way road in the village a while ago I realised my mistake when a member of the Police Municipal came dashing out of the tiny police station. Assuming she was going to fine me I wound the window down and started apologising. 'Oh,' she said pleasantly 'I just wanted to remind you it's a sens unique. I'm sure you'll remember next time.' And I have remembered, every time since. That's what policing should be like. A service to the public.
I also got stopped last year for not displaying my insurance ticket on the windscreen. I'd received it the day before and, forgetting to display it, had left it in my bag at home. The very pleasant cop pointed out that he couldn't know whether or not I had insurance. When I explained that I had but had forgotten the ticket he said that was OK but I should attach it when I got home. He could have fined me I guess, but he was using his discretion and figured I didn't look like an insurance dodger.
The police also seem to take a driver-friendly view of speed cameras and radar controls. Every week the papers publish the locations where you might get caught for speeding. I used to think it meant people drove more slowly knowing they were being monitored. But it's also possible that locals, reading La Provence, take the back roads while tourists, reading their Rough Guides, drive on in blissful ignorance and are the ones who get pulled over.
Last point about driving here. Don't buy or rent a big car or a smart car or an expensive car. Big cars have been known to get firmly lodged between the walls of houses in narrow medieval streets. And big cars, smart cars and expensive cars will get scuffed, bumped and dented giving you lots of expense. Best practice is to do what everyone else does round here and get a small, cheap car that will get cheerfully bashed and dented several times a year and wear its dents permanently, without worry.
And last, last point - when you park prepare to find you've been blocked in when you come back to the car. Don't worry though. After a minute you'll hear someone call in a smiley voice: 'J'arrive. C'est moi qui vous bloque!' Anyone who double parks is only parking for a minute and will courteously keep an eye out for you returning.
It's not, clearly, part of the eccentric driving etiquette - they're not behind the wheel when they come to release you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ramadan in Provence

Ramadan starts on Saturday. There are between 5 and 7 million muslims in France, 200,000 of whom live in Marseille. The local paper, La Provence, writes that it’s estimated that until the third week of September around three quarters of muslims will try to abide by the custom and obligation of not eating, drinking or having sex between dawn and nightfall.
In temperatures of more than 30 degrees at present the restriction on drinking will be tough and clearly risky for health.
A regional representative of islam from the Marseille mosque Ennasr (‘victory’ in English) explains the idea is to become ‘morally stronger’ and another muslim commentator adds that during ramadan ‘fatigue prevents us from hyperactivity that can allow us to escape ourselves.’
Participants are expected to be on their best behaviour all month and then try to continue on the same lines for the eleven months to follow.
The region’s mosques will be busy. Last year 3000 packed into the single prayer rooom at Ennasr for the final day of abstinence (Aid el Fitr). The figure has risen steadily in recent years, boosted by the presence of many youngsters. 63% of French muslims are aged between 15 and 34 and use the internet to engage with islamic sites and muslim networks.
The financial crisis is unlikely to play much part in ramadan. Despite the much talked of crise du pouvoir d'achat – crisis in purchasing power – many muslim families spend a little more than usual. Though two meals fewer are eaten each day, the evening meal which breaks the fast tends to be richer amd more elaborate than usual.
And complementing the idea of spiritual strengthening or cleansing, one woman from Martigues explains ramadan is also a time for ‘cleaning the house from top to bottom. And eating on all-new crockery.’

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Buying a car? Renting a car? A Renault? A Peugeot?

Nothing duller than cars unless they're being discussed by Jeremy Clarkson. At least then you get some seriously controversial rubbish, some laughs and a few bits of common sense to lighten up a deathly topic. Plus, the floppy-haired other ex-public-schoolboy, James May, who's quite compelling in an irritating way. And the little handsome one, Hammond, who's sweet and clearly insane.

But, if you live up a track in a forest, you have to have a car. The track is Grade A bumpy and the white dust makes any vehicle filthy within 500 metres. So I wanted a no-frills-at-all, bump-along-the-track-and-park-in-the-forest car.

Being here, the obvious choice - almost the only choice, looking around - was between Peugeot and Renault. I had a Renault Megane in Scotland and it must have been the worst one they manufactured. It quickly developed a fault and started making grating noises as loud as a plane taking off. And would then just stop. In town. On the motorway. On a junction. Every time it did it, it had to be towed somewhere to get fixed. And sometimes it started again on its own and the mechanics insisted there was no fault because the onboard computer said there wasn't one. Useful.

Every time you set out on a journey you had the comfortable feeling that it was likely to turn into a major problem involving the hard shoulder, the (wonderful) AA, a trip home sitting in one of those towing lorries that are so huge they make you feel like a child, and another discussion about the infallibility of the onboard computer at the garage.

So, with very little thought, and some very bad advice from an ex, I rejected the Renault option - Renault Megane or Renault anything- and got the smallest cheapest Peugeot I could find. And hoped for the best.

Hope wasn't effective. The car goes, and it's OK on petrol. But I overlooked the finance. The ex persuaded me to get the thing on a personal lease and it's turned out to be the most expensive Peugeot 206 the world has ever known. 6 years at hundreds of euros a month. Including elusive insurance and maintenance features which reliably result in more bills every time you try to make use of them.

I could have bought the car twice over with the money I've paid if I hadn't trusted advice simply because it was about a car and came from a bloke.

The calamitous exchange rate hasn't helped either. Every time I've looked at the OANDA currency exchange site in the last two years it's made my hair stand on end.

The good-looking charming salesman who sold me the deal has transformed dramatically as the contract has progressed. He started out young and smiley but is now bald and unhelpful. Probably unrelated to my car hire. Perhaps he looks at OANDA too.

I recently asked him if there was any way he could quietly drop the lease and let me just go away and buy a car in a normal way (ie. from one of the many roundabouts where people stick their old cars with AV signs and outrageous prices on them). But he remained rock-solidly bald and unhelpful. He flipped his laptop lid up, tinkered under the bonnet for a moment and then displayed one of those revolting Excel files with thousands of cramped little cells showing that my only exit would be through a new bill for several more thousands of euros in order to ‘buy’ the car. He was deaf to the argument that I've already bought the car at least twice.

So I’m stuck with it. The only other forms of transport I’ve got are an old bike leaning against a tree, with flat tyres, and legs. Which are not willing to walk thousands of miles a year.

A group of neighbours share the swimming pool here.
Perhaps I’ll suggest a car pool too.

The crucial question of water in Provence

The weather this week is officially a heatwave - a canicule. The countryside is flagging, with crisp or wilting vegetation baking in the sun. It's hot all day and all night - sleeping outside in the forest is little cooler than sleeping inside. It has the advantage though that you fall asleep to stars and moonlight and get woken by sunlight filtering through the pine trees at dawn. Straight away you feel the heat. It's dry - not a drop of humidity in the air. And it feels good. But not to the crops and the natural vegetation. Yes, the farmers have their watering systems. But they cost money and can't always save a crop in heat this intense.
For smaller producers and people with gardens, watering is a constant preoccupation. Everone's seen Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources...
The leaves on the few dozen olive trees here are looking pretty crisp and thirsty now. I've resisted putting automatic watering in, partly because of cost but also because the idea of looking at the (forest) garden and thinking of yards of plastic piping and little whirry motors just under the surface is unappealing. When it comes to gardens, I like nature as natural as possible.
So I lug the hosepipe up the garden, threading it through the trees and plants and drop the end into the dip of a tree and leave the water to run for ten minutes. Then go back and move the thing to the next dip. It's a pain, but olive trees need to drink and there's been no rain for weeks. And hardly even a breeze. Inspecting the olives yesterday they were absolutely still on the branches, like they were holding their breath for a raincloud to develop. A storm is forecast for Thursday or Friday. But the forecasts are often wrong. I've had many J de Florette moments, running out of the house at the sound of thunder, staring round at the sky to see if rain's arriving, only to see dark heavy clouds passing over the hills and dropping their rain frustratingly somewhere else but not here.
Rain, when it comes in summer, tends to come during the night. Often accompanied by dramatic storms and thunderclaps that practically shake the house. The thunder and lightning can be frightening but it's always good to hear the rain fall. (Just breaking in to say a little red squirrel - a family of four live here - has interrupted his morning journey past my window to the water bowl to stretch out and lie down on a branch outside the window. He's just lying there and has been for several minutes. Absolutely flat and elongated along the branch. Almost concealed if I hadn't seen him arrive. So-o cute. He's not eating; maybe he's just having a rest. The cat was on the roof earlier trying to catch one of them, as usual, so maybe he's thinking twice about crossing the roof...)

Where does the water come from in Provence? Rainfall, the rivers and melted Alpine snow. The great thing about the region is that the ground beneath it is saturated with water, in the nappe phreatique, coursing through caves in the rock. At Fontaine de Vaucluse nearby, a very well-known source, water gushes out of the rock in an astounding waterfall supplying the Sorgue river and surrounding towns and villages. Well-managed canals, notably the Canal de Carpentras, also supply water to farmers and householders, and supplement the eau de ville.
Water here has a beauty not seen elsewhere (just my opinion.) It's partly that it's so clear and clean that when light catches it, it reflects and sparkles like a diamond. Flowing in the town and village fountains, passing in the Sorgue, beating down on parched vegetation in scarce storms, it's always present. You're always aware how important it is, and how beautiful. It has a crystal-clarity and a sound and movement that lift the spirit.

Many households rely on well water. At my place, water comes only from the well as the commune has never extended water pipes into the forest here. The pump is at a depth of 40 metres. The house here was originally just a cabanon, a single room built by a gendarme from Marseille who came out here to hunt. Whether or not he knew there was a good water supply here I'll probably never know, but he built right next to a well which, touch wood, has supplied water to the property for around 40 years.
Water diviners are still used here - understandably because if you need to sink a well you don't want to pay a forage company to bring their drilling equipment out to the countryside up dirt tracks and sink half a dozen wells before they find water... Anything that increases the chances of hitting a veine first time is worth trying.
My neighbour arrived at the house one summer morning crying out: "Il n'y a plus d'eau. Il n'y a plus d'eau." He's a big handsome guy who maintains the local plane trees in town and has a ramshackle home over the hill from me, filled with kids and dogs and cats and geese and sheep. I ran to see if my water was still running. Luckily it was. But he had to have several wells sunk before hitting a good seam of water.

My own lesson in not taking water supply for granted came this month. (The squirrel just rose suddenly and skipped off down the tree. Taking the ground route to his drinking water then.) The water pressure dropped one morning. What? There's always been water. It's a heatwave. I need water. Then it stopped running. Panic. What about showers and cups of tea and watering the garden and the dishwasher...? I examined the various tanks and dials which meant, frankly, nothing to me.
And then consulted neighbours. It turned out they were having their own trouble with the pump bringing arrosage water from the canal. However, they allpitched in and gave opinions and advice. (My experience - the French lo-ve to give advice. It seems to be part of the culture. When dealing with anyone in authority, or just anyone really, never complain or challenge. Just ask for advice. You'll be immediately awash with it and it will be helpful.)

So, further to the Jean de Florette water neighbour's imagination went into overdrive and moved from his initial assumption that the pump was broken and would have to be replaced at huge cost to the certain conclusion that the nappe phreatique must be exhausted and I'd never have water in the house again.

Let's. wait. until. the. plumber. arrives, I said.

But he and Pierre (plumber, neighbour) & Stephane (neighbour) all had to get involved of course, throwing their arms around, hotly debating the problem - having a little flirt with me on the side, just because they're men and they expect that of themselves. There followed a certain amount of very male behaviour where they all tried to display their superior geological and mechanical knowledge. It could be a veine that had been diverted underground by a rock fall. It could be the pump. How old was it? I don't know. It could be the compresser. Or calcaire might have blocked the system somewhere. (I don't have a filter for the calcaire. It flows into the house along with the water, dusting the taps and sinks, crockery, cutlery and shower curtain with white deposit. People say, variously, that it's wonderful to drink - good for the bones - or that it'll be the death of you. What I notice most is that it turns your hair to straw when y ou wash it.)

Anyway, the fact was, the plumber knew what to do and mended the thing, even though it took all day.

Haven't got the bill yet but guys often take a lo-ng time to present bills here. I've found three months is not uncommon. The last time he mended the water system I asked how much I owed him and he threw his arms wide and said with great (harmless) gusto that he'd accept a hug from a tall blonde. Bill settled.

Good thing too - I've just had a look at Metcheck, THE best weather website in the whole world, and the temperature'll reach 36 today. That water supply is absolutely crucial.

Oh and the last thing. I use a lot of water. It flows underground to the Mediterranean. When some of it is drawn up into the house and used, it goes into the garden via the fosse septique. It waters the forest. And the more I use, the more dilute are the various detergents used in the house. If I don't use it, it will just flow into the sea and turn into salt water.

Very last thing - have a look at Metcheck. If you don't already know it, you'll quickly see why it's worth looking at. So-o many good, useful features.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A question on the Gillette family

This post has nothing to do with Provence but it's French-related. Like me - I think. Here's the question.
My mother's grandmother was a Gillet, pronounced with a soft g, French-style.
She lived in the north-west of England and we know nothing much about her family. My mother was always given to understand though that she was of French extraction, and that her family were Gillettes, and I wonder if anyone knows more about the name's history?
There are a zillion genealogy sites of course but most relate to the US and not England / the UK. The only notable Gillette I've come across was the bizarrely-named King Camp Gillette - he of the disposable razor - whose family was ruined by the Great Chicago Fire.
I found out that he set up factories for the razors in England in the 19th century so possibly he sent a male relative to the North West.
Gillette was a bit of a nutcase as far as I can see. He was a Utopian Socialist, which is pleasant if, well, utopian. (We've all been there.)
He wrote a work called The Human Drift arguing that the US should form a single gigantic industry owned by the public and that Americans should live in a single vast city, Metropolis, with electricity generated by Niagara Falls.
Hmm. Nice.
To follow up, he wrote World Corporation - a programme for creating this US Mammoth Corp. - which sounds a bit like a....job application. Anyway, having had his Big Idea - the ra-zor - he obviously became a Big Thinker. Or perhaps he just took his first name very seriously. He offered to pay Theodore Roosevelt a million dollars to be World Corp. president. But Roosevelt was already, um, American president and he refused the offer. (Probably rolled his eyes and said to an aide: "Do me a favour. Write some sort of polite Not-on-your-life, go-away-and-stop-hassling-me note to that weirdo Gillette. Him and his goddammed World Corp....")
Anyhoo - the business was eventually sold to Procter and Gamble, in 2005, where his razor joined all those other things you use in the kitchen and bathroom. But Gillette died long before, in the 30s. He'd lost a packet during the Depression but was still rich enough to frequent the Desert Inn in Palm Springs, turning into one of those anonymous squillionaires who wanders around in a tatty old dressing gown. The owner, asked how come this vagrant was tolerated, replied: "...that's King Camp Gillette. He has practically kept this place in the black the last few years."

Apart from the vast fortune, it sounds horribly like he could be one of my forebears. But, how would I find out?

Restaurants in and around Isle-sur-Sorgue

Three favourite restaurants - excellent but not too expensive:

Le Vivier

Michelin-starred and with a chic, urban feel to it even though it's right on the Sorgue and a stone's throw from open country. Le Vivier is great for a special occasion, a celebration. You can eat inside or outside looking over the river.

Sample menu? (with cheerfully mixed French & English from their site):

3 plats:
43 euros: menu du marché [le midi en semaine, hors jours fériés]
28 euros: menu Gourmand
70 euros [Menu pour l’ensemble de la table]
Le Chef Arnaud Vaumerel vous propose une variation de 7 plats au fil des dernières créations et d’une sélection des plats à la carte.

• Choice of starters 16 euros
Seared rare tuna, tartar of duck breast with ginger, zucchini flower & coriander oil
Salad of baby vegetables, tender leaves & flower,summer truffles & pata negra
Crabe royale au curcuma, guacamole d'avocat, jus de tomate « green zebra » (sup. 10 euros)
Foie gras and smoked eel terrine, pedro ximénez and rhubarb
Tapas style selection

• Ensuite 25 euros
Filet of lightly salted cod, fricassee of summer ceps,coco beans & baby onions
Filet of giant sea bass, squid ink risotto, razor clam and shellfish emulsion
Roast new season lamb, artichokes & sweet peas
Veal sweetbread, coffee flavours, macaroni with morels & braised gem lettuce (sup. 10 euros)
A pigeon pie with foie gras and porcini mushroom

• Desserts with the choice 11 euros (à commander en début de repas)
Farmhouse cheese
Roast black figs tart, blackcurrant crème brûlée & ewes milk sorbet
Selection of chocolat dessert
Melba Peach, lemon verbena infusion and bitter almond emulsion
Homemade Ice-cream or sorbet
Raspberries & tapioca pearls, green tea & jasmine mousse

More laid back in style is the wonderful Jardin du Quai

You can eat inside, but why would you? The garden is a rambling haven - greenery everywhere, fountains, tables well-spaced or tucked away in leafy recesses. A great place for a relaxed meal with friends.

The menu is Selon le Marché so you always eat what's best and most fresh that day. Check the website for prices.

A sample:

La mise en bouche: Oeuf poché Lard et Truffe
L'entrée: Feuilleté de langoustines
Le plat principal : Saint Pierre à l'oignon doux
Le dessert : Meringue à la griotte

Sounds simple? It's excellent.

And the third is Chez Udo.

You can eat outside here too but the interior feels right somehow. (Just an impression.) The dining room feels like a converted front room, which it is, but it's large and airy and relaxed. Udo appears from the kitchen from time to time to chat to diners and the place has almost the feel of a club where people know the chef and his wife, Carola, or get to know them in the course of an evening.

There is always something innovative or surprising on the menu - Udo is endlessly inventive:

Grimod de La Reynière

Comme éperon bachique espouma de citronelle aux agrumes et figues du jardin de Udo

Velouté de salade aux girolles

Carpaccio de saumon mariné à la badiane et noix de Saint Jacques

Gigot d'agneau des pays d'Apt, ratatouille à l'orange

Chêvre au confit de romarin

Sorbet d'ananas de Provence, du coeur de boeuf , green zébra et basilic


Three recommendations then. Vist any, or preferably all, of them if you're visiting Isle-sur-Sorgue and want to eat really well.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Sex in Provence

Not sure if I've talked about sex yet but now's a good time as I was tinkering around on the net earlier and read some coverage of the BNF's (Bibliotheque Nationale de France) exhibition of porn and erotica last year. On display in Paris was an historical trip through the human mind's endless preoccupation with sex. The writings and images which had all previously been squirrelled carefully away from public scrutiny covered every practice imaginable, demonstrating that whatever your fantasy or fantasies may be, someone's already had 99% of those thoughts in a similar degree of garish detail. What struck me was a comment by a UK commentator who said it was surprising that the BNF would show such material to its visitors. But maybe he forgot he was talking about France and the French. Having lived here for some years, what surprises me is that the collection wasn't on show long before. Sex is hi-gh on the Gallic agenda and perhaps even higher on the agenda here in Provence. The midi throbs with sensuality and sexuality and relations between the sexes are red-blooded and, thankfully, not Politically-Correct. Sex is discussed very openly and usually not in the silly, smutty way that you often get elsewhere (just my opinion.) Just like food and eating, it's totally integrated into the way of life and seen as necessary to a good quality of life. I get the impression there's a lo-t of casual sex going on, at practically all ages. There are also plenty of sexual dramas in the vicinity - jealousies, infidelities, ill-concealed mistresses, estranged husbands and wives, uncertain sexual preferences and sexual diseases. I've heard of several people in the immediate area who have AIDS or HIV. Another with syphilis. Several others with lesser infections. Use of Meetic for casual encounters seems to be rife. And all this stuff is going on among people of my age group (early 50s) just as it does among people in their twenties. When my relationship of 19 years broke down a while ago (rather spectacularly but that's another matter) I was a bit surprised to find I was suddenly viewed more or less like a likely sexual partner by quite a few local men. One called round and suggested, suggestively, that I give him English lessons. Another came up to me in the supermarket and told me he was looking for a partner, not just a woman to have sex with. A guy in town tried to chat to me for a few minutes and then tried to kiss me. Another guy simply asked, after a meal with others, if he could sleep with me. Another just put his hand on my thigh after dinner with friends and asked to walk me home.
All a bit of a shock as I was not yet in anything like New Guy mode.
However, I quickly found out that if you go out with no rings on your fingers it's a bit like having a profile on Meetic. You get approached. I also found out that as soon as you live alone people assume you must want a sexual partner and start trying to fix you up with one. I also discovered how openly and frankly sex is viewed and discussed and enjoyed or refused round here. Young guys chat about their adventures with girls. Not necessarily in a disrespectful way, just factual. Older women talk about the nuisance of their husbands still wanting sex. Friends recount anecdotes about a woman who left her husband because his penis was so large she couldn't bear it any more. A neighbour complains that his wife kicked him out because she couldn't accept he has a mistress. Another friend introduced a colleague and his mistress - as his mistress. (When I said later 'Should you have done that?' he dismissed me saying 'Oh she's been his mistress for years; everyone knows that. His wife knows.') Recently a friend of mine complained that her husband was growing old very quickly. He won't go out as often as he used to, travel or go to theatre or exhibitions. Casually she added 'If he's not careful, he soon won't be interested in anything except his sudoko and his internet porn.'
Sex gets into transactions here as much as money and human courtesy. You spot, and experience, flirting everywhere - in shops, at petrol stations, in the markets, bars, cafes - little glances exchanged, loaded gestures, the hug and the bises that take just a bit too long. And men really notice, and appreciate, and comment on women's behaviour, style, gestures, appearance. There's no neutral pals act between Provencal men and women. The undercurrents are strongly sexual. Vive la difference is a genuine attitude. Men really take notice of women. They notice physical detail. They accept imperfections and ageing. They appreciate women sexually and socially (again just my opinion and observation.) And they're comfortable around women. Women in turn seem to see men pretty much the same way. I think all that ties in with the lusty, healthy, frank French interest in sex. And I'm pretty glad it works that way.

For details of the BNF's pornography and erotica collection in Paris go to:

60 thrushes and an ex-wife for dinner

A friend invited me to dinner to celebrate his 60th birthday. An ex-chef and sailor turned stonemason and painter, Felix is a big, barrel-chested, expansive, local guy of Spanish origin. His new girlfriend has a little girl, conceived late during what her mother mistook for the menopause. He lives in a large agricultural hangar which he's converted into a muscular, masculine, open-plan home with a mezzanine and a bar and large easels here and there holding up big paintings that never seem to be quite finished. His soon-to-be-ex-wife moved out a while ago, to a house in Avignon.
So the idea, he says, is to eat 60 thrushes accompanied by good red wine from Chateauneuf du Pape. 'You probably won't eat a thrush' he said, with a certain disdain 'because you're English. They're not wild, trapped. They're elevage.' I still wasn't keen. So he said he'd give me fish.
On the evening, I arrived with another friend to find him standing over a huge cauldron of fish stew - a bourride from Cassis. He'd made tapenade and laid a great long table for 22. Wine was decanted. His son and girlfriend were handing out aperos. A friend who makes wine arrived from Chateauneuf du Pape with a present - a red wine bottled in 1929, the year Felix was born.
But where were the birds? Why was he cooking bourride? In between stirring the great stew and chucking in additional herbs and seasoning he gave the explanation. His ex still has a key to the place. His girlfriend had recently stayed for a week and the ex had come in one day to be confronted by a cot next to her husband's bed.
Hearing from mutual friends about the dinner plans, she'd returned on the day of the celebration, let herself in again with the key she'd hung on to, opened the huge fridge where the birds were peacefully laid out - and swiped the lot of them.
It was a great meal and a great evening even so, finished off with champagne, cheese and sorbets.
A good birthday but not an amicable divorce in the making...

Learn French - or English - in Provence

Read other posts here and you'll see that I'm based in the Provencal countryside near Isle-sur-Sorgue in the Vaucluse. A beautiful area with a great climate. Many friends have holidayed here, staying in the apartment adjoining my house. After several years of organising and delivering free holidays in this way I'm pretty experienced at all that goes with hosting visits, including translation and taxi services. So I'm inclined to invite paying guests now too, for those of you who may be looking for a lovely place to stay, in a great region, with the sea (and swimming pool obviously), horseriding, golf, local markets, medieval towns and villages and Roman ruins close by. There are masses of festivals too, ranging from the internationally known Avignon Festival to smaller but excellent festivals in towns like Pernes les Fontaines and surrounding villages. The range is very wide - festivals of music, dancing, theatre in the street, strawberry festivals, melon festivals, cheese festivals, and wine of course.
If you want to spend some time here and learn French, or English if you're French or other nationality, that would work too. Contact me for details that can be arranged to suit your plans. (Just use the Comment box.) I've taught English in Rome and Canterbury and have friends here who teach French. And if you don't want to learn French or anything else but just have a blissful holiday, that's very easy here too. Airports nearby are Avignon, Marseille, Nimes - lowcost airlines to get here from the UK are Easyjet, Ryanair, and Flybe. Or Aerlingus from Ireland.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Somewhere to stay in Provence - gites, apartments, villas...

It's mid-summer and the area is full of highly-visible tourists, wearing shorts, holding hands and displaying ultrawhite limbs with sore patches of red sunburn. Tourists move differently. Local people drift along, rather relaxed. They move quite slowly. Tourists tend to stride, slightly ill at ease, with this awkward couple-here-together-in-a-place-we-don't-know habit of holding hands. Bet they don't walk down the street at home holding hands. It looks faintly childish. They look different too. I couldn't say how exactly but I can spot a Belgian, Brit or German a mile off. And often the Dutch and Danes too. Swiss and Austrians? Too hard. Not sufficiently distinct in dress or manner.
Most of my neighbours seem to let apartments, studios or villas in summer. Usually lovely properties in or around the little hamlet here which centres on a swimming pool set in lovely lawns dotted with oleanders.
It's certainly a blissful place for a holiday. Vines draping over balconies. Lavender buzzing with the bees which produce honey for the local mielerie. Cats and kittens here and there snoozing on a wall in the sun or swiping at lizards as they disappear under stone steps. The cicadas sing in the heat all day. The scent of baking bread drifts from the old stone oven in a neighbour's courtyard. And the olive trees add soft foliage to the picture, dropping away down from the old stone buildings to the pretty canal near the village. As I write, horses are passing the house on the chemin de terre - their riders' voices wafting in through the wide open window. They'll ride up into the garrigue between here and Fontaine de Vaucluse, taking in the heat and light, cherry orchards and olive groves, and wander back happily late in the afternoon. It's great countryside for horseriding. Most of the riders are local but some are on holiday, staying in local gites or chambres d'hotes. From what I've seen in the last five years some of the best places to stay are on slightly obscure French websites - gites, studios and apartments rented out by locals only tangentially involved in tourism. They're good places to stay because they're in local communities so you experience local life, which can be pretty blissful. This week a bunch of us had an apero dinatoire and invited a Belgian couple staying nearby. They've been visiting for years and have made good friends here, which adds to their holiday. And last night we were invited to their place in return. It's worth looking around before renting a gite or apartment hermetically sealed off from local life. If you're going to travel to Provence your vacation will be much more fun if you get into the swim of the local community.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Wild food in Provence - morels and asparagus, rocket, cherries and plums

April, and the land is warming up. The winter stock of pieds-de-mouton and hellevelles - a variety of morel - is almost used up, just enough for another two or three meals still deeply frozen. So it's time to look out for spring mushrooms. Morilles are said to grow wherever they want to but some people round here say they're most often found on ground that has been disturbed or on land burnt by forest fire. Each spring I find them around the edge of the forest here close to the soil that was displaced when foundations for the new part of the house were laid. They can be hard to spot, growing under fallen oak leaves and lavender bushes. But they're such a pleasure to find. They're simple to add to meat and fish dishes and release a wonderful truffly scent and flavour after being saute-ed briefly in butter. I had realised that they're probably hunted by the sanglier who lives round here. He turns up huge tracts of ground with his tusks and it's not likely he misses morels as he roots around. What I hadn't known till recently is that they're also taken by jays and squirrels and that may explain why I have to look hard for them. I only get the ones the birds and squirrels are too lazy to get hold of. Robert Carrier had a great recipe for asparagus and morels and it couldn't be more seasonal or convenient - wild asparagus is popping up all over the place now the sun's out. Again you have to look for it - the spears grow from the root of the sprawling, tangly, prickly plant and they grow in any old direction so you find yourself peering at all the greenery for a while before your eye hits on the straight, slim spears. Carrier would chop them in two, drop them in boiling water for a few minutes till tender, cook them in a little olive oil, butter and then add cream and the morels. Very simple and very natural. Morels are also good with duck and with salmon.
I have a friend who found wonderful, good-sized truffles nearby last winter. He's local and has that knack I can scarcely believe of spotting the flies that hover over oak tree roots when truffles are underneath. I'm quite jealous that he can do that but I know my limits so I'll stick with the foods that are easier to find.(Have a look here for hunting truffles with pigs: Gaston and the Truffle Hunters (Home Use Version) )

One of them is wild rocket. It's everywhere. More peppery than the shop stuff it needs to be added to salad in smaller quantities but it's a very good addition.

And then there are cherries and plums on the way. The plums are better than the cherries - small and sweet and easily turned into jam or made into desserts. I'm a bit spoilt for large red cherries anyway as my neighbours have two big orchards of cherry trees producing far more fruit than they can use. The only problem is that, since the trees are not treated with pesticide - happily - the flies get to the cherries and then the worms grow inside them. It's like a massive industrial process - every single cherry seems to get done on the same day so you have to keep checking the progress of the fruit and try to pick them just as they ripen but just before the flies get there. As the cherries are huge and sweet and a rich dark red they're worth pursuing. At present the trees are in blossom - great white petals buzzing with bees from the mielerie along the track - but the fruit forms and ripens with astonishing speed.

Lastly, the other good ingredient right now is the stinging nettle. I've been reading about the now-maligned nettle and it turns out it's a bit of a star. Packed with vitamins and minerals it's said to have about a dozen medical uses from helping arthritic joints to curing thinning hair. It used to be widely eaten during the war and was also harvested to make the dye for camouflage materials. IT can be made into material too. And paper. And very good soup. A friend made me a nettle soup this week, using an armful of young nettle leaves, a few small potatoes and a few small onions. He added a bit of creme fraiche just before serving and it was wonderful. It starts off looking muddy and brown but once it's whizzed in a mixer it turns a luxurious, velvety, deep dark green. You can use it just as you would spinach. It's high time it was rehabilitated and people stopped seeing it as a weed. Amazing the knowledge that society can lose...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Speaking French

French is a great language. Compare it with Dutch, say, or German. It sounds beautiful. Even compared with other languages around the Med, it lilts more, is more musical. It’s soft. But it’s hard to learn and to speak well. Speaking French gives you wrinkles all round your lips if you pronounce it clearly enough and speak it long enough. The grammar is complex. Enunciating subtle French sounds can be virtually impossible for the non-native speaker. And, for the anglo and the saxon, there are individual and structural oddities everywhere you look.

Possessive pronouns, for example, are a seriously missed trick in French. Surely every well-planned language understands the value and use of possessive pronouns? They indicate not just what belongs but to whom. So English has, for example, a nice rational system with his, her, their, my, your and so on ‘Tom was there with his wife and her mother’, you say. Clear enough. The wife was his. The mother was hers. You get into French and all of a sudden he was there with sa femme and sa mere. The wife must be Tom’s you think. But the mother is in question. She could belong to either one. And if you said he was there with sa mere et sa femme it’s possible that his mother has had a civil ceremony and Tom’s mother and stepmother are lesbians. You can’t be sure. You can’t just add ‘No not his mother, her mother’ to clear things up. That would only tell your listener ‘Non, pas sa mere, sa mere.’ Hopeless.It doesn’t work. To avoid confusion, you would need to say sa mere and add, in French, at her - ie. the mother at the wife not the mother at Tom. It would clearly make a lot more sense for the possessive pronoun to agree with the person possessing rather than the thing possessed but I’ve never met anyone French who agrees or even sees there is room for confusion.

Yet people go round all day saying things like: ‘This couple want the house in son name.’ and the reponse has to be ‘His? Or hers? Which?’

Adjectives are a bit less frustrating but like pronouns they suffer from the on-off switch of gender, again agreeing with the sex of the thing they describe. Its hard really to know where to start when talking about French and its assignment of gender to things. You’d think that the linguistic concepts of male and female would bear some relationship to the common concepts of, well, male and female.You might think for example that a female breast would be, well, female. Ditto a vagina. But they’re not of course, they’re both masculine. A penis, on the other hand (to use an inapproriate anatomical idiom) is, just as one would expect, masculine. So is a testicle. But so is a Tampax. There is no real logic to be found anywhere in the sexing of things in French. Your mobile phone is male. So is your laptop. But the bill for your calls is female and so is the toner for your printer. Glass fibres are female though glasses are male. Unless they’re reading glasses – then they’re female. And so it goes. It’s true there are rules about the endings of words and their ‘sex’ but frankly that’s illogical too. Convention has it that ‘ette’ endings are feminine. So what exactly? Can you see why an assiette (plate), a barquette (defined in my dictionary as a small boat-shaped tart) or a lavette (dishcloth &/or wimp) should be seen as exclusively feminine? They all seem pretty neutral and lacking in sexual characteristics of any sort. And why should crevettes – prawns and shrimps – all be female? Doesn’t it depend on the individual prawn or shrimp? I suppose that scientists studying them occasionally have to ask the lab assistant for a male as opposed to a female. What do they say? “Passe-moi une crevette masculine, s’il-te plait Antoine”? A bit like referring to a male princess or a male bitch. And notice too, just back there, that there is, inevitably, a female version of the word masculin (just as there is a male version of the word feminine.) Just add an e for those difficult female words that represent male things.

How do they teach children these things?

“The word crevette is feminine, Monsieur?”
“But the actual prawn is male?”
“So we can say it’s masculin?”
“But we add an e to make it feminine?”
“Even though it’s masculine?”

It’s difficult to picture the scene or imagine the conversations when the Académie française – the national language politbureau of France - meet to determine gender for new words. They’ve been meeting since 1635, with occasional turnover of members obviously, to produce dictionaries and award literary prizes, invent French words for new things like credit crunch (le credite crunch no doubt) and assign gender. There are 40 of them and what they find to do all day long when other languages manage themselves perfectly well without presiding officers is anyone’s guess. But when it comes to language gender, since masculine and feminine have almost nothing to do with conveying anything any of us would understand as masculine or feminine there doesn’t seem to be any real criteria for assigning either. I imagine the attendees must be becoming increasingly embarrassed as the years pass. ‘OK, on the agenda today we have new words credit crunch, iphone, blog and turkey twizzler. Who wants to start?’

Why exactly should a boui-boui (greasy spoon) or freluquet (whippersnapper) be designated as male?

You’d think it would have been, and still would be, a cause for celebration whenever they got an obvious choice – the worthy and grave-faced academicians could breathe a sigh of relief and say “Well, breast-pump – obviously…” and pass on to the next word on the list or go out for lunch. But no. Looking, for example, childbirth straight in the face (accouchement) they didn’t hesitate to make it male.

Aside from whole classes of word like pronouns and adjectives, and the interwoven theme of gender, which can all be frustrating, there are also hordes of individual words which trouble the new user.

Toujours is one that could do with changing. You probably know toujours. Toujours means still. Unless it means always. So if you want to say Martha is still in the toilet, you are also in effect saying Martha is always in the toilet. In my experience, conveying whether your meaning is that she is temporarily still in there and will soon be coming out or whether she is in fact permanently in the toilet is a matter of trying out various emphases, twirling your hands around a bit and making a facial expression that indicates, you know, just still, not always. It’s true that you can use encore for still but encore is compromised several ways frankly because it also means ‘let’s have some more of this’ or ‘let’s do that again’, which is not the same as still, and it also has a role to play at the end of concerts.

Someone should write t0 the Académie française and say: Can I suggest as a concerned user of the language that you (finally) come up with a way to distinguish between still and always? You don’t really want to be saying “Last night’s soup will always be good” when you mean “Last night’s soup is still good” (today). You could have toujours for ‘always’ and decree, or whatever it is you do up there at the Académie, that it always means ‘always’.

Hard to see how anyone would lose out.

Moving back to gender for a moment, lui could also be reviewed. I'd bet a weak pound to a strong euro that lui has direct common roots with Italian lui and Luigi and the French name Louis. Masculine, everyone would agree? And lui does indeed mean ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘to him’. Unless it means ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’. There is a perfectly good word for ‘she’ and ‘her’ – elle – but as it is too difficult to say in amongst other words in contexts where you need to say ‘she’, ‘her’ or ‘to her’ it has to be dropped and replaced by ‘him’ or ‘to him’ and your listener has to figure out that him, in this case, means her. Can you think of a single word in English - leaving aside words used in deliberately annoying combinations to make tongue-twisters of the celeste-thinks-thistles-will-sell-at-sisley variety – that has to be dropped in favour of a less functional word simply because it’s too difficult to pronounce it in the sequence required? I can't.

And the subject of pronunciation leads to dessus and dessous. Even thinking about these two words makes most learners frustrated. The function of words is to convey fairly precise meaning and differentiate one concept or object from another. If you say to young Peter ‘Catch the ball’ and he is up to speed with his English comprehension you can be pretty sure he’ll have a surprised look on his face if you throw a brick at him. Equally, if you serve your guests turnip at dinner and say ‘Isn’t the Beluga caviar delicious?’ you may as well expect sulky faces or at the least puzzled ones. The point is, humans invent words to convey meaning and convey it accurately. Dessus and dessous, as you may know, mean ‘on top of’ and ‘underneath’. However, conveniently, although having exactly opposite meanings, they both look and sound almost identical. I’ve used both many times and have never – never - succeeded in conveying my meaning without either resorting to stooping close to the ground, making a sweeping-underneath sort of motion with my hand or straining to stand up a bit taller than usual, lifting my arm above my head and pointing, you know, up there, on top. It’s frustrating. And the French clearly have a little bit of sensitivity about these two non-words because they often latch au in front of them (yep, both of them) in an effort to clarify what they’re talking about. It doesn’t help of course because if you use, say, ‘ont’ for above and ‘ontt’ for underneath then it doesn’t help much to add ‘oop’ in front of them both. It doesn’t solve the essential ont(t)-ness of the problem to say ‘oop ont’ or ‘oop ontt’. The listener is still going to say pretty much: ‘Did you say ont? Or ontt?’

I wonder if anyone has ever done a study of French history to see how many significant events have turned on misunderstandings created by dess(o)us. (“No, I just blew up the bridge. You meant I should blow up the boat? I thought you said: Put the bomb on top of the bridge. You said under?”)

I’ve been told by a Parisian friend that the difference in meaning is clear “if you send the word dessus up your nose”. I love French very much, but to my way of thinking, spoken language should be composed pretty much entirely of words that issue from the mouth. Otherwise they are not, technically, spoken. Words that come out of your nose are snorted. Or sneezed.

Plus is sneakier than dess(o)us. With plus, instead of two words that look almost the same but mean opposite things you have a single word with two diametrically opposed meanings. Which in my book makes plus that li-ttle bit more sophisticated than dess(o)us (but not as annoying). Some time around seven hunded years ago, give or take a hundred years I guess, the word ‘plus’ worked its way into English. We all know what it means. Two plus two equals four. Teenager plus credit card equals unmanageable debt. And so on. English assigned it a meaning and stuck with it. No equivocation, no room for confusion. In French it works differently. The French allow it individual expression, elasticity. Contradiction in fact. Plus can mean more or, with equal and shameless ease, it can mean no more. So if you speak of bread, as the French do often, and you say Plus de pain it means simply, as you would expect, ‘more bread’. But, if you ask whether there is more bread and get the answer Plus de pain it means, naturally to the French, ‘no, there’s no more bread’. Often you will simply get the answer ‘Plus’, (accompanied by a look of tremendous sympathy and helplessness.) And there it is – the word ‘more’ meaning exactly its opposite: no more. At which early elementary point I would guess many learners with native languages other than French are likely to give up and learn Chinese instead.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Food in Provence

Like the rest of France - but particularly sensual - Provence is overflowing with beautiful produce straight from the fields, fresh in the markets and selling at tiny prices. My local market reminds me of those old Russian novels where people eke out their existence spending a kopeck here and a kopeck there. (Technically, I believe, one hundredth of a rouble.) Individual producers turn up to the market every evening bar Sunday to sell their fruit and veg, herbs and wine, cheese and oil, bread and meat - a bloke here sits behind a trestle table bowing under the weight of hundreds of aubergines and courgettes neatly stacked in little rectangular barquettes, an ancient woman further up the line cuts pieces of cheese fresh from the goat so that you can compare flavours with the cheese made by the young couple two stalls along. Someone else is offering little tumblers of wine to persuade you to buy a bottle or two of his own vintage, and a young woman is doing a rapid trade in large free range eggs – slightly mucky, feathers attached - selling them two or four or six at a time. Coins change hands as frequently as greetings and news are swapped between clientele and stallholders. Everyone (outside the summer months) is local. Everyone knows everyone else.

There’s infinite variety in texture, colour and taste of the produce. Bushy green herbs, grey and yellow mushrooms, chalky-coloured goats’ cheese, fat jars of honey, punnets of figs, long plaits of garlic. It’s relaxed and sensual.


When I’m out doing my food shopping there are also a few spots which are troubling. Cheese stalls, fine. Fruit & veg, fine. It’s meat that bothers me. While at the butcher’s counter most local shoppers (men as often as women because food/recipes/cooking interests men as much as women here) peer into the shelves and display units with visible interest I’m standing there feeling a bit like crying. I’m not a vegetarian and enjoy what I suppose, hailing from unsophisticated Britain, I’d call ordinary meat. A steak. Beef bourguignon. Chicken breast. Lamb. But here in the butchers’ shops you’re confronted with scenes that call to mind casualty wards, car accidents or, well, slaughter houses. Yes I know it’s squeamish. If you eat meat, you might say, you can’t avoid its relationship with living creatures. I’m not sure about that. I want to run my bathwater down the plughole but that doesn’t mean I want to stick my head down the drain. Anyway, I’m constantly recoiling from the sights on display at meat counters. Lamb’s stomach, for example. And calf’s tongue. There seems something intrinsically weird, perverse, about the idea of cutting up cooked tongue or stomach and putting it in your own mouth and stomach. Added to which, lambs’ stomachs look distressingly cosy – like cardigans made from soft, creamy-coloured wool, thrown casually down in a steel tray spiked with a price tag. You can’t help wishing they’d stayed inside the lambs. And how can anyone bite a calf’s tongue? Put its tongue in your mouth next to, or frankly on, your own tongue, and bite it? Bite through it. Couldn’t do it myself. I feel the same way about pigs’ trotters. There’s a shop nearby where they tie tiny little trotters together in neat pairs and lie them out in rows like little socks. I can’t look at them without seeing those little shoes you see in shoe-shops for toddlers. Just about every fibre in my body cries out Don’t disconnect those little feet from those little piglets.

And don’t let’s start on rabbits.

Or the alouettes sans tetes. Errkk. Skylarks seem always to be sold and served trussed up in little bundles with what always seems like a bit of a proud note that their heads are missing. How appetising, really, is that?

It’s clearly cultural and what I was brought up on but it’s only since I’ve lived here that I’ve realised I can eat chunks of meat or slices of meat but I can’t enjoy cuts of animals which include other features. Eyes, hooves, ears, internal organs and body parts with hair or feathers on can all stay in their original setting as far as I’m concerned.

The French are good at organising

The French are good at organising. Very good. They have excellent roads and first class motorways which connect a zillion cities and towns and villages continually fit to burst with things going on. Which is to say, they’re good at organising physical stuff - infrastructure - and social stuff too – events of all types as long as they involve masses of people and lots of bonheur. And people in Provence are super-good at organising. In my local small town, for example, Isle-sur-Sorgue, the Sunday market is an affair of gargantuan, astonishing proportions filling every street and occupying every square metre of road, square and pavement. Starting in the early hours before the birds are up, stallholders set up tables, canopies, displays, acres of bread, cheese, olives, olive oil, ham, spices and just about everything else you can think of and heat pans of paella big enough to feed a city of giants and grill hundreds of chickens. There are clothes stalls with changing rooms thrown together in the backs of vans (floor-length mirrors on demand.) People selling knock-off makeup and jewellery or puppies and kittens and kids (junior goat variety.) There’s everything and more and miles of it.Wall-to-wall mostly small-producer commerce. And the most astonishing thing is the casual, total, lack of fuss about setting up and clearing away. At the start of proceedings the traders all appear from nowhere, park their cars and vans and mooch around smoking fags and drinking coffee. Like some sleight of hand, stalls seem to assemble themselves as people chat and poke each other genially in the chest and claim to make less money than everyone else. At the end of proceedings, the goods, the stalls, the changing rooms, animals, people and vehicles sort of fade quickly and quietly away, with a few packing and stowing motions, au revoirs and a la prochaines, leaving not a sign, not even a discarded paper cup, that they were ever there. In many countries, such a smooth-running event on such a scale would be a major achievement, probably staged in a large city, that could be managed - with subsidies and fanfare, a marketing department and legal team, committee meetings and sub-committee meetings, and everything going catastrohically over budget – perhaps once a year. Here, it happens every Sunday. In a small town. Even in winter.

If the French were to organise the Olympic games and I have no idea whether they ever have or not (having no interest whatever in the kind of games played at the Olympics – why they ever interest anyone is beyond me but I suppose it’s just the hype and context – after all if a friend said to you ‘Do you want to come over to my place on Sunday and watch Bill and Tom throw a chair up the garden to see who can throw it furthest, or sprint to the corner shop to see if one gets there a thirtieth of a second before the other, you would quite rightly decline, thinking you had better things to do with your time) but if the French did organise them, they would throw up the approach roads, stadiums, arenas, seating, changing rooms, ticket offices, car parks and restaurants over a weekend, with charm, efficiency and co-operation and none of the sulky point-scoring or infighting in the anglo-saxon countries and the prices would be reasonable and the food would be great.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Here in Provence

With the economic crisis set to str-etch out for years (some politicians and economists say ten or FIFTEEN) more people than ever in cold northern countries are wondering: Is it really worth putting up with grey skies, cold winds, endless rain and long-long-faces when there's not even any of the frickin' compensation there used to be in the way of secure jobs, decent incomes or sound investments? If you only have one life to live - and, pace Buddhists, that's probably true - do you really want to live it literally under a cloud? Aren't there places on this earth where the sun shines, the air is warm and life is a bit all-round-more-comfortable?
Well yes. There are.
If you've been swithering about going south or staying put, now could be the right time to make the break. Assuming you've got a basic income that's portable (we'll come back to that) you don't have to stick around in the frozen norh just because you happen to have lived there for a long time already or even because you have friends and family there. There are beautiful countries and beautiful regions where life centres on culture, local society and the countryside, where the built environment is stunning, society is designed for people rather than to maintain officious systems or bossy regulations and where you can live outside most of the year. Imagine that - not just holidaying outside once or twice a year - living outside. (With a house or a flat, obviously, that you can go into when you want to.) (We'll come back to that too.)
And with low-cost airlines winging around the place you're always in easy reach of the people you love but can't bring with you. In fact, once they've spent the third week of their summer holiday in your house you may be glad they spend most of the year elsewhere. ('nother thing to come back to.)
This site gives you a good close look at one of those regions - one of the most sensual: Provence.
Here you'll find masses of information about the south of France and answers to some of the questions you have about moving. Is it possible? (yes), is it easy? (maybe), is it as good as I think it'll be? (wait and see.)

Over the next few weeks, February-March 2009, the site will give you an idea of what it's like to live here and answer many of your questions about life in Provence.
This isn't a site about buying property or dealing with tax or shifting bunches of cash from some-place-to-some-other-place at the best exchange rate. There are loads of sites about all the boring stuff. This is about the beauty of Provence. The reasons for living here. The towns and villages, vineyards and markets, the coast and the countryside. You'll read about the rhythm of daily life and the pleasure of each season. And you can contact me any time with questions or comments. Just email me at