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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