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!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Sarkozy, Hollande and Le Pen in Provence

The French presidential election is off to a fine start in Provence, with the usual mudslinging and waffle that accompany political campaigns. Candidates Sarkozy, Marine le Pen and Hollande have all been duffing each other up in Marseille, whipping their respective audiences into a frenzy of enthusiasm, adulation and flag waving. Hollande had his crowd singing La Marseillaise after telling them he loved Marseille because it was the town that gave France its national anthem.

Sarkozy, for the UMP, made a rather strange appeal to his supporters at the Parc Chanot in France's violent second city. With people being slaughtered on the streets and housing estates in the casually murderous Marseille drug wars - kalashnikovs and drive-by killings y compris - you might think he'd offer something in the way of help to citizens trying to go about their business in a hail of bullets.Yet he asked the people of Marseille and France to help him. "Aidez-moi!" he cried. To which a voter might reply: "You're missing the point."

Front National leader and presidential candidate Marine le Pen pitched up at the same hall soon after Sarkozy, confident in the support she has in the south of France. Aiming a direct punch at the president, she risked offending the people of Marseille by telling them bluntly that the city is a symbol of Sarkozy's failure in government. He had failed, she said, to curb immigration and crack down on violence.

Then Parti Socialiste candidate Hollande toddled down from Paris with a checklist of good works he will perform if elected. More housing. Check. More jobs. Check. Better healthcare. Check. The socialist president of the PACA region, Michel Vauzelle, had issued an Appel du Sud - Appeal from the South - before Hollande's visit. His list of demands was far more precise - high-speed rail link between Nice and Paris, a voie rapide between Gap and Grenoble and freight rail links between Marseille and Turin to run through the Durance valley up to a tunnel to be cut through Montgenèvre. This last development, says the Appel, would ‘open up’ the Hautes-Alpes and Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Hollande replied cautiously that if elected he'll organise a 'contract' with southern France.

The other candidates have a lower profile than Sarko, Le Pen and Hollande. Mélenchon, for the Front de gauche and Francois Bayrou for the centrist MoDems get a mention in conversation locally but polls show that the UMP, PS and FN candidates are the three front runners in Provence as in France more widely.

Le Pen has only just scraped together her 500 mayoral signatures to become an official candidate. She complained that some French mayors were pressured not to support her. This is by the by, but I had a run-in with her bodyguards a couple of weeks ago at the Salon d'Agriculture in Paris where she was arguing against halal slaughter of livestock. (See photo featuring Le Pen and skinhead.) Someone threw a glass at her and her squad of skinhead heavies took off in pursuit. There was a ridiculous chase round the hall, where thousands of people were milling about eating spicy sausages from La Réunion and gently admiring exotic flowers from French Guyana. The press and TV were filming Le Pen of course. I followed the heavies and found them circling a tall black guy, snarling at him and pointing fingers in his face. So I took a picture and was immediately pounced on. They surrounded me, grabbed my arm and tried to swipe my camera. One of them said "We're police" so I said "Show me your badges". They growled a bit and twisted my arm a bit more. "Erase the photo or we'll take the camera" they said. Hmmm. I had a lot of photos on there that I wanted to keep and I wasn't at the Salon to film Le Pen's cranes rasés. I erased the photo while an elderly  woman protested (the only one among all the onlookers). "Why should she have to erase a photo in a public place?" she asked. However, I escaped with my camera intact and a sore shoulder.

Talking to people around here about the election there seems to be no great enthusiasm for Sarkzoy although the polls currently tip him to beat Hollande in the first round. Hollande seems the more unsure of the two - he appealed to voters not to abstain, telling them that the extreme right could benefit from abstentions as it did in 2002, when Chirac unexpectedly faced Jean-Marie le Pen in the second round.

There is plenty of cycnicism about candidates and political parties and it's visible on campaign posters around Provence. Here's some expressive handiwork on a poster at the  farmers' market in Velleron. Mélenchon needn't feel bad though. All the candidates are getting the same treament.

And even DSK is on election posters for the right wing. "DSK" the poster proclaims: "the values of the left wing." Ouch! Unfair, surely?, given that DSK's destiny has taken him from the brothel to the courtroom and far from the campaign tail.

It'll be interesting to see how the first round of the election plays out. A feeling at the start of the campaign that François Hollande had it in the bag has, for the moment, dissipated. The outcome seems less predictable since voters are unsure which, if any, candidate has answers to the pressing problems they face. Précarité, or insecurity, is a big issue. The French are worried about jobs, the purchasing power of the euro, the high price of homes, high rent, crime, and many worry about immigration and lack of integration. Sarkozy is saying he'll reduce immigration in a clear bid to pull the rug out from beneath Le Pen. In Provence there is both significant distaste for the Front National and significant support. Traditionally, the FN opposed immigration from north Africa and presented immigrants from the Maghreb as problematic. Immigration is wider now of course and so other races and nationalities are in the frame. The Appel du Sud, with its left-wing supporters, complains that people from northern Europe are taking over Provence and PACA. They are accused of creating 'ghettos of the rich' and a region of second-homes. They are no doubt joined in that view by supporters of Le Pen. I was talking to a young stonemason the other day who was complaining that he cannot afford even the smallest apartment in Provence. "I understand the support for the FN" he told me. "There are too many immigrants in this region. But it's not the Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians causing the problem in my view. It's the Swiss, Dutch, Belgians,Americans and British." "Sorry" he said, looking sheepish. "But everyone in the north wants to live in Provence for the sun and the way of life. We haven't got room. We can't take everybody."

Seems the left and the right are agreed on one thing in this election then.

Fed up with politics and politicians? There's still time to buy and read my short novel while ignoring the presidential election:

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Fire at midnight in Provence

There's always something going on around here. Tonight it was fire on the hillside by my house. All over the hillside as it happens. Lots of it. And in a high wind. So I'm sitting here typing with burnt shoes, dirt on my (sore) hands, ash on my face and twigs in my hair. I'll explain why in a minute.

I heard a commotion after midnight and looked out of the window to see fire engines arriving at speed. As there's only one other house up this track, I feared it must be on fire. But looking out of another window I saw the entire hillside a few hundred yards away was ablaze. There were big fat orange fires all over the place.

I hopped into a pair of jeans, pulled on a jumper and jacket, got in my car and raced up the track. It was pitch black apart from the fire engine headlights - and the fires. The firemen couldn't figure out, in the dark, how best to access the hillside. The narrow limestone tracks around here don't accommodate anything much larger than a wheelbarrow. "Can we get through over there?" they asked. "Or over there?" Nope. You'll have to go through the vineyard, I explained. There didn't seem to be any way they could get to the fires furthest up the hill though. I hoped fire engines were on their way from the other direction, Pernes-les-Fontaines.

Looking around, I wasn't very confident the men could get this under control. There were maybe eight or ten of them - hard to say in the dark with everyone moving around. But there were huge fires blazing and such high winds that thousands of sparks were blowing from each one, creating new outbreaks all over the place. There were streams of sparks flying everywhere.

The guys started rolling out hoses to deal with the big fires. They'd already realised that there were hundreds of sheep about a hundred yards away so they started dousing flames nearest to the animals (who were naturally panicking.) I jumped down into the neighbouring vineyard because there were around a dozen small fires starting up there as a result of sparks flying. They'd already taken a bit of a hold so I scrabbled to cover them with earth and stones. Again, as fast as I put one out sparks created another. I stamped some out and buried others. My hands got scratched and torn; my shoes got burnt. My face, when I got home, was partially black from the smoke. Everyone worked hard for well over an hour and I don't think an hour ever passed so quickly. When I eventually looked up, the large fires seemed to be under control. I alerted the firemen to one persistent small fire that I couldn't put out.

They assured me they'd get it and said I shouldn't worry. I could go home and sleep.

It was nearly 2am when I got back to the house and I heard the fire engines leave after 2. Having seen branches and vine roots smoking and smouldering, I just hoped they'd really doused all the wood that had caught light. Over such a wide area I wasn't sure they could have.

Anyway, it's nearly 3am now and I don't think I'll sleep tonight. An all-night vigil feels necessary...

It was a strange coincidence the fire tonight, though. Everyone knows that if there's one thing people in Provence fear, it's fire. February fire is not the first type that comes to mind of course. Usually, residents fear forest fire in the baking hot summer when trees and vegetation are bone dry. But this morning I was driving along merrily in my car and it went through my mind that the f-word is something I hardly even like to think of or let cross my mind, let alone say. Somehow, it's as if, if you think it or say it, it'll happen - that idea of conjuring up what you think about. And there is something peculiar here in this spot of the Provençal forest - I've often thought of something, good or bad, that has promptly happened or turned up...

Anyway - what appears to have started the fire is that, on land belonging to a local family, the Bressys, old fruit trees have been uprooted over the last few weeks to make way for a new plantation. Trunks, roots and branches have been burnt on the hillside in several daytime bonfires just to get rid of them. I didn't take any notice of the fires really because farmers quite often burn stuff around here and usually know what they're doing. My guess is that another bonfire was lit today and that, tonight, unextinguished sparks and cinders must have been fanned into flames by the high winds. Then fires broke out right across the hillside around midnight.

Except that....come to think of it, I walked by there this afternoon on my way to feed a neighbour's cat and there wasn't any sign of fire then. Odd, but no doubt I'll hear more tomorrow from Lionel Toutlemonde, one of the local firemen who knows all the village news. For the next few hours though, I'll just keep an eye on the hillside and if I see so much as a wisp of flame I'll be dialling the pompiers, fast.


Monday, February 13, 2012

A (sheep) murder mystery in Provence

As elsewhere in Europe, we're having glacial cold in Provence, courtesy of sub-zero Siberian winds. Ice several inches think has lain on the track outside my house for several weeks now with no sign of thawing even on sunny afternoons.

When Antoine, the hardy local shepherd, turned up with his flock this week I wondered if the sheep (and several goats) would survive night after night of -12° out in the scrubby forestland beside my home. "It's no problem for them" he said gruffly, as he secured string fencing beside the track. They are after all covered in leather and thick wool. He reminded me that the great advantage of having the flock down here in the Vaucluse (in winter) as opposed to up in the Alps (in summer) is that there's no danger they'll be killed by wolves. He and other shepherds in the Hautes-Alpes lost around 40 sheep to wolves in summer 2011.

I walked home along the track on the evening the sheep arrived and looked at their ghostly forms and faces in the moonlight. Although it was dark they were still moving and grazing but turned to look at me with vacant eyes as they chewed scraps of freezing vegetation. The huge white Pyrenean dog who guards the flock came rushing at me, barking in his deep, throaty voice. Babar's a beautiful animal. As long as you don't nip over the fencing he'll do nothing more than bark at you. There was a second guard dog behind him, equally large but black. Antoine has always said that his dogs would attack any wolf, person or dog getting in among the sheep so I was careful to speak softly to them and keep walking past.

The only other house around here belongs to neighbours who spend time, variously, in Paris and Casablanca. The daughter of the family is here this week and she has two dogs too. One is a tiny Alsatian pup, just a peluche (a cuddly toy.) The other, Coco, is a French bull dog. Over at their place the other day I noticed Coco eating celery and peppers and was told that, while not vegetarian, she loves fruit and veg. She's 4 years old, very small and structured like a small pig. What I mean by that is that she's absolutely solid - made of compact and powerful muscle. Still, she's a soppy little dog and very affectionate.

An hour or two after I walked past the sheep and guard dogs, Coco's owner appeared at my door in tears. "I've lost Coco" she said. "In the dark. And it's freezing. I didn't know the sheep were here. I let her outside the house and she took off like train. Antoine's dogs will kill her. Even if they don't she'll die outside overnight. She's small and she has virtually no coat."

It was well below zero as we grabbed flashlights and went separate ways in to the forest. "Take care not to go behind the fences" I told her. "Babar doesn't know you and he could attack. And call Antoine" I suggested. As I circled the area where the sheep and goats were, now completely hidden in the pitch black, I could hear one or two bells tinkling as animals moved away from me. I couldn't see or hear Babar or the second dog. I could hear Emmanuelle calling Coco and I called out too. Normally Coco would come if he heard his owner's voice but we searched for over an hour and there was no sign of her. I knew Emmanuelle would be fearing her pet had been killed by the dogs.

Eventually I gave up and walked down to her house. As I approached, I heard her call out: "I've got her! I've found her!" Emmanuelle came over and said: "Come and look at her - she's covered in blood."
"Badly injured?" I asked
"No" she replied. "Most of it's not hers. She's obviously killed a sheep."

We went over to the house and inspected Coco. She looked like a victim in a horror movie, dripping blood, but in high spirits tempered with a touch of guilt. She had clearly been grazed by, presumably, sheep hooves but she smelt so strongly of sheep that it was pretty clear she'd been eating one. We'd spent an hour and a half in the freezing night worrying that she was being slaughtered by Babar where in fact it was Coco who was doing the slaughtering. The reason why she'd ignored her owner's calls was that she was busy butchering one of the flock.

As we stood there chatting, headlights appeared at the end of the drive.
"Who is it?" we yelled.
"Antoine". He jumped out of his van and strode towards us.
"Did you find your dog?" he asked. It was clear that he figured his dogs had probably massacred Coco.
"Yes." Emmanuelle replied. "And I think she's killed one of your sheep..."

The next morning I walked down the track to the neighbouring hameau. The flock had moved off to another spot, but down in the dip to my right I spotted a solitary sheep, on its side, clearly dead and bloodstained.

A neighbour in the little hamlet told me Antoine had called him that morning for Emmanuelle's number. He needed to deal with the dead sheep and Emmanuelle could provide details for the insurance claim.

"Evidently Coco is not the cuddly vegetarian bull dog everyone thought she was" my neighbour commented.
"Nope. She's not. I just saw the animal she killed."
He shook his head.
"Animals" he stressed. "Antoine looked the flock over this morning and there are two butchered sheep."

I walked home a little later and saw Babar curled up by the side of the track. It was still freezing and he had his large fluffy tail covering his nose. He wiggled his eyebrows at me but couldn't be bothered to bark. "How come?" I said to him. "How come you let a little dog ten times smaller than you savage two of your flock and I never even heard you bark?" Like Coco after the killings, he looked a little guilty. I can't figure it out and I guess it will remain a mystery. But it was intriguing to discover that the rough, tough and very large guard dog did not perform as he was trained to - while the little family pet didn't hesitate to go in for the kill.

The blog posts you read here are true. But Present Tense is fiction. If you feel like a bit of escapism, download the book to your Kindle. (You do have a Kindle?....)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Organised crime in Provence

Wouldn't you think that if you were a gangster involved in organized crime on the Cote d'Azur and made your living riding around on Yamahas shooting other gangsters, it would occur to you that one day someone would ride up on a motorbike and shoot you?

Apparently it didn't occur to mobsters Stéphane Tixier and Amadéo Titeux because they were completely taken by surprise when a gunman roared into the MIN fruit and veg wholesale market in Nice yesterday morning and shot the pair of them. (Admittedly it was only 7.20am so they may not have been entirely with it.) Killed in a hail of bullets amongst the oranges and aubergines, the two men may just have had time to say to each other: "How come we didn't this coming?"

The MIN (marché d’intérêt national) is a busy market selling fruit, vegetables and other agricutural products. Tixier and Titeux were at two stands belonging to Cash Fruits - presumably more interested in the cash than the fruit - when two motorbikes arrived and the driver of one opened fire. The assassin escaped with his accomplice and the two killers then burnt one of the bikes, a Yamaha, and escaped together on the other. Police quickly found the burnt out bike at Saint-Laurent-du-Var.

Tixier (49) and Titeux (41) were both heavily involved in organised crime (grand banditisme) on the Riviera and had served prison sentences for taking part in at least one murder.

They were jailed for 12 years each for their part in the killing of Philippe Di Cristo, 30, another big bandit, who was shot dead in front of a video-club at Cagnes-sur-Mer in January 2002. Tixier and Titeux were, no less, the drivers of the two motorbikes used in the murder. It seems the hit was organised by a third man, Jacques Sordi, a key figure in organised crime on the Riviera and known as ‘le Général’. Sordi was jailed for 15 years.

Not long after they were freed (for good behaviour?) Tixier and Titeux were hauled in by police on the Cote d’Azur and questioned about the murder of Thierry Derlan, 39, who was killed in 2010. Derlan was a rising goodfella on the Riviera and considered an expert at evading police and rival crime gangs. His expertise let him down on a lovely May day when he was hit by seven bullets outside his own home in Nice.

There is a strangely satisfying symmetry about murderous gangsters knocking each other off, especially when they're killed in exactly the way they've killed others. The fact that such killings are seen as more or less hermetically sealed wihin their own criminal network was somewhat underlined by the police response to Tixier and Titeux's deaths. They put a tactful 'cordon of security' round the market but told traders to carry on selling their fruit and veg. Notwithstanding two drive-by shootings, trading at the MIN, the local paper reported, was not interrupted.

Organized crime on the Cote d'Azur is making plenty of local headlines recently. A major trial in Marseille started this week which aims to hammer Corsican gangsters who have set up protection and extortion rackets across Provence and in Paris. Jacques Mariani, the main defendant, is a surviving member of a Corsican gang elegantly named Brise de Mer (Sea Breeze.) Mariani is accused of having established a widespread extortion racket in and around Aix-en-Provence. While he was quietly having his breakfast in jail yesterday morning before appearing in the dock, police in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence were breaking down doors and dragging men into police wagons. They arrested 30 sleepy suspects from a rival Corsican gang, Bergers de Venzolasca (Venzolasca shepherds).

Leaving aside the fact that the gang names sound, respectively, like a racehorse and some sort of sports team, you have to ask yourself if being involved in organised crime is really worth it. You get to extort money out of small businessmen who run bars and nightclubs, and maybe you get rich. But one downside is that you never know when the battering ram will hit the door and the cops will haul you off to court. Another is that you're in constant rivalry with people prepared to kill you. Sea Breeze and the Shepherds are just the current crime topdogs, ready to be pushed off their perch. Before them, the Barresi and Campanella crime families controlled extortion and other criminal activities on the Riviera. And right now there'll be some other gang ready to take over from Mariani and his mob.

The guys who end up in jail in Marseille may have the best luck of course. The alternative is likely to be that one morning you're standing chatting to a fellow gangster in the market and a guy rides up on a motorbike and shoots you in the head. It may be justice of a sort, but it's not poetic.

Here's your last chance to read my Kindle eBook, Present Tense. Sales have been so brisk that Amazon have only 5 left in stock...

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Breeding cattle and horses in Provence

Last night my partner and I had dinner with friends, Jean and Joelle, who live in countryside near the little village of Le Thor. During the meal (endives au jambon) my partner mentioned that at the end of February when we go to Paris to stay with his kids for a few days we're going to spend a day at the Salon d'Agriculture. This enormous agricultural fair sees French farmers, fishermen, oil, wine and honey producers and heaven knows how many other agriculteurs bringing their animals and products together under one roof in Paris for a week.

Joelle is a documentary film producer and mentioned that she'd once made a film at the Salon d'Agriculture, on breeding Charolais cattle. We got on to the topic of breeding cattle and horses and my partner recounted an incident he saw at a stud farm near his home. The boss, from the Delgado family, well known in Provence for breeding, raising and selling horses, was in a field preparing to help a stallion inseminate a mare. My partner and a few others were standing around chatting. A young girl - a stagiaire or trainee - was with Delgado to assist the insemination. My partner recounted how the boss took the stallion's erection in his hands to guide it into the mare and after a few seconds turned to the trainee and said: "Here. Take over. Take it and guide it." The teenaged girl, already embarassed, blushed beetroot and took the thing tentatively with her fingertips. "Tiens bien!" cried the boss. "Grab a hold of it." She did, amongst gales of laughter from the onlookers, and successfully guided the stallion into the mare.

This prompted a comment from Jean that the stallion was lucky: he got to mate with the mare. It's quite common on stud farms to use any old horse to 'warm the mare up'. These unfortunate horses used for foreplay often get kicked in the face or stomach by unrecepetive mares and once they've taken the blows and the mare becomes willing, they're led away and the far more valuable stallion is brought forward to finish the work of mating.

Which led to a discussion of artificial insemination in horse and cattle breeding. Lots of stud farms in Provence (as elsewhere) use AI, meaning that the mare and stallion never get a chance to meet, let alone mate naturally. Joelle then told a story about filming Charolais cattle at the Salon d'Agriculture. She was commissioned to make a film on breeding Charolais and what she quickly discovered was that not only is artificial insemination used, but so are surrogate mothers. The cows are inseminated and the resulting fertilised eggs are extracted from their uteruses and implanted in ordinary cows, ie. less valuable cows. The idea is that if an inexpensive cow has medical problems during the pregnancy, or dies giving birth, the loss is less than if a Charolaise is damaged or dies. Even if consecutive pregnancies were to go well in a Charolaise, the reasoning is that there's still less wear and tear if a mere porteuse or surrogate is used. Pregnancy is avoided and the Charolaise is simply used to supply fertilised eggs, giving calves their prized Charolais DNA.

In one conversation we went from the stallion assisted in mating in a relatively natural way to cattle reproduction in which not only do the bull and cow never meet but their calves are bred in 3rd-party uteruses and subsequently fed by machines. Which is reproduction about as alienated as you can get. Strange what the farming community gets up to when there are significant amounts of money at stake.

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

It can be tempting to stay put in the Vaucluse in Provence because it's so attractive, but the region offers such easy access to other great places that you just have to move now and again. Elsewhere I've talked about the ease of getting to the Cote d'Azur, Paris, the Camargue, the Aveyron, Corsica, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Languedoc-Roussillon, Italy, Spain....

Well, last week my partner and I decided to go and ski up in the Queyras in the Hautes Alpes. The pistes looked pretty good online - plenty of snow. We booked a cheap apartment in Molines that turned out to be pretty swishy, spacious and comfortable. And off we went. The journey from Isle-sur-Sorgue took around 4 hours, via Pertuis and Sisteron.

My partner (I find I can't call a grown man a boyfriend) knows the Queyras well and told me that Molines is just beside St Veran, the highest village in Europe. The Parc Naturel Regional du Queyras is one of four such parks in PACA - Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur - the others being the Verdon, Luberon and Camargue. The Queyras is known for its beautiful mountains and valleys, its flora and fauna, its honey, and of course for skiing in the winter months.

We set off without snow chains for the car wheels, betting that the roads would be well cleared. As we neared Molines and the road climbed steeply through snowy mountains, we found the snow ploughs had been out and there was no problem. Although cascades of solid ice gripped the rocky roadside, looking like molten wax from huge candles, the sky was a perfect blue and the sun was dazzling.

The apartment we'd booked was in a new building, Le Clot la Chalp, which was slap bang in front of the alpine pistes, with the pistes ski de fond (cross-country) directly behind the building. To access the alpine pistes, you simply had to cross the road and grab the tire-fesses or take the télésiege. But since my partner broke a vertebra in a skiing accident some years ago, we'd decided to stick to ski de fond. There was a piste running just 100 yards behind the building so access to that was easy too.

Each morning we'd get up, prepare a picnic, get our gear on, pick up the skis and batons from the locker on the ground floor and off we'd go. From Molines you can ski for dozens of kilometres, picking up pistes by the river, up the mountain side, into the forest or off to St Veran. I hadn't skied for years and years and was cautious about the fairly steep ascents and descents at first. My partner was off like a hare though - whizzing over any old precipice and marching up steep slopes à pas de canard. (Like a duck, with skis angled outwards.)

Ski de fond is quite demanding physically as you have to climb quite often. On the flat, you can race along but you're still using your arm and leg muscles all the time. As the weather was so warm and sunny, I skied with my salopette and just a T-shirt much of the time. It was too warm to wear a jacket.

The pistes on the mountainsides around Molines gave wonderful views of the snowy Alps on the French-Italian border. The snow, rock and mélèze pine forest are home to many animals - the chamois, mouflon and bouquetin among them. All three come down to around 1000 metres in winter but we saw nothing but tracks in the snow. By the river we noticed many tracks leading right to the clear running water and away again.

We skied on one piste that led through forest half way up the mountain opposite St Veran. The precipice on our left was rather scary. The mountain and forest to our right were well covered by snow. A cheerful-looking sign announced we were in a zone avalanche but my partner gave a typically French shrug and told me that if I noticed an avalanche starting I should place myself behind the nearest wide tree, hang on to it and wait till the snow stopped 'running'. Right-o.

The Queyrassins build their houses, or fustes, from the local pines - mélèzes - which are well adapted to Alpine conditions. The ground floor these days is built in stone - traditionally animals were kept there - and two or three rickety-looking wooden storeys are plonked on top. The houses have wide, open wooden balconies running round the outside - usually one used in summer, for eating outside and relaxing and one used for storing or drying stuff - like cheese, perhaps, or animal fodder. Again, the balconies look fragile and rickety. Quite a few houses had interesting names - Paradis d'Enfer, was one; Ailleurs another.

In the evening we went up to St Veran. Parking was right on the edge of the mountainside in fairly thick ice and snow. If you engage first gear when you leave, rather than reverse, then your skiing holiday is over. We parked beside a large van which had its wheels about three centimetres from the abyss and was teetering in a dubious fashion.

Neither Molines nor St Veran offered much in the way of nightlife. A couple of restaurants and bars offered lethargic service. If you're looking for tranquility, you can find it in the Queyras in January. Which suited us fine.

During the day it was a different matter. Although the pistes opposite the apartment were far from crowded, there were skiers and one large group of young kids was being taught to ski. Each day the moniteurs took around 40 kids up the mountain and taught them the chasse-neige technique to bring them down gently. There was lots of shrieking and hilarity as the children fell around on the slopes.

Once the piste was closed for the day and night fell, the beautiful dameuses took to the mountain to resurface the pistes. These huge machines looked wonderful surging up into the darkness with their powerful headlights shining on the snow. We watched as the tough-looking drivers climbed into their machines and headed off together, then split in three directions to take different pistes, their lights dwindling as they climbed higher and higher on the mountain. Most nights they worked on the mountainside until after 10pm. As the temperature outside was -7° at that hour, the dameuses need to be well-maintained. Who wants to break down high in the Alps at night on a steep mountainside?

Before we went to the Queyras, we had thought of crossing over into Italy to ski on that side of the border too. But the Col Agnel is closed in winter due to the snow so we had to drop that idea. Instead we decided to investigate the trips offered with chiens de traineau. You can go out with a sled and huskies and the dogs did look beautiful racing through the snow. Four types are used: the Siberian husky (the breed with ice-blue eyes); the white-furred Samoyède; the Greenland, which is the fastest of the four; and the Malamute d'Alaska which is the least swift.

Our other option was to try raquettes which neither of us had ever used. We chose the raquettes in the end since we could go into the forest and right alongside the river with them, getting to spots you can't access with skis or dogs. The modern raquette has a great little gadget you can tip up with your baton when you come to a steep ascent. It fits under your heel and gives the impression you're walking on the flat. When you go downhill or walk on the flat again, you just flip it down with your baton. So using raquettes is less taxing physically than ski de fond.

We'll go back to the Queyras to ski again. But we'll also go in warm weather. The marmots will be out of hibernation and tootling around avoiding predators. The shepherds will arrive with their flocks and the great sheepdogs that attempt to keep wolves at bay. The beekeepers will bring their hives so their bees can make the famous miel toutes fleurs of the Queyras. Edelweiss, saxifrage, absinthe and other alpine flowers will carpet the slopes where we only saw snow and pine trees. And we'll follow the same pistes we skied along, under the same blue skies.

If mountain air practically drugs you, and I believe it does, then I can imagine becoming addicted to visiting the Queyras. This is an alpine paradise where you can skate in Abriès village in winter on a natural outdoor skating rink. Where the dark orange water in the two sources at Guillestre flows at a steady temperature of 28°. Where you can go kayaking, birdwatching or ice-climbing. Or drive a team of huskies. Or simply ski and fill your lungs with clean mountain air while gazing at the beautiful Alps.