“Aux Armes Citoyens!”

French FlagBy now you will have seen and read so much coverage of the attacks in Paris that you won’t be interested in much more from me, but I’ll just offer you this:

Before Harfleur, Henry V urged his English army to “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage”. Well, I’ll nail my colours to the mast and say that, as things stand, Islam is incompatible with secular, liberal, Western democracy. Since the attacks I’ve read a very good piece in The Times written by Usama Hasan a Muslim and an academic. He argues that an Islamic reformation is, in fact, under way, and he cites several admirable examples. My concern, and that of many others who commented in the newspaper on that article, is expressed in the question: how long do you want? To me, Islam has been going backwards for centuries. In the 10th and 12th centuries it could boast learned people such as Avicenna and Averroes. The latter was even portrayed by Raphael in his fresco masterpiece, “The School of Athens”.

The nihilistic extremists of IS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram etc are beyond any reformatory arguments in my view. At the same time we should remember that such groups are killing far more people in other countries than in Western Europe. They need to be destroyed. Period. My concern is that there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions of ‘ordinary’ Muslims out there who may be open to persuasion but that the process will take far too long. I’m referring to the very many who protested against, and even burnt, Salman Rushdie’s book, ‘The Satanic Verses’, and who protested against the Danish cartoons. Then there were the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo shootings, although they claimed affiliation to one of the al Qaeda offshoots so could be put into the ‘militant’ bracket.  In the case of ‘The Satanic Verses’ and the Danish cartoons, the protests were violent and Muslims were seen on the streets of London bearing banners saying such things as ‘Death to those who insult Islam’.  An Islamic leader, the spiritual leader of Iran, even issued a death warrant against Rushdie Those actions represent a widespread rejection of western culture. Any internal reformation within Islam -and it does need to come from within- needs to happen quickly otherwise the West may well descend into fear and paranoia as appears to be happening with the rise of the far right in France and Holland and  in some Republican circles in the US; the idiot Trump has even called for Muslims to be registered.

End of sermon….for now.

One positive aspect of these dark events has been the outpouring of support for France. Prior to last Tuesday’s soccer international between England and France in London, everyone, English and French alike, sang La Marseillaise while the Wembley arch was lit up in the colours of the tricolore and the French national motto of ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité‘ was displayed in lights at the stadium. From my observations, the French have been extremely grateful for all the support they have received.

Sue’s vernissage, the official opening of her art exhibition in nearby Pré-en-Pail which I mentioned in my last post, wasn’t a success, I’m afraid. The organisers, those council officials responsible for art & culture, made no effort to create any sort of event. The instructions we received said that we could invite only 3 guests and that the council would issue all other invitations. It’s just as well that our three came, as otherwise there would have been no-one there apart from three officials and two reporters from local papers. This was a real let down for Sue after her successful vernissage at Condé-sur-Sarthe last year. At least we got a couple of free glasses of cider plus some nibbles.

On a brighter note, here are a couple of autumnal photos of Alice & George. Alice only goes on short walks now because of her arthritis.

And on an even brighter note, sunset across the road….As the British humorist and author the late Alan Coren once wrote: “Red Sky at Night, Refinery’s Alight”.

"Im Abendrot"

“Im Abendrot”

A final word on the Rugby World Cup. It occurred to me that all the matches were played on pristine green pitches. Back in the day,  in cooler, wetter climes, you didn’t consider yourself as having played in a REAL game of rugby unless you came off the pitch covered in mud….This is from the 70s. It’s the England forward, Fran Cotton, plus two teammates (?..Who would know?) taking part, I believe, in a match in New Zealand:

Fran Cotton

Fran Cotton

Just a thought. It appears to me that as channels of communication multiply, we sometimes find our vocabulary decreasing. There is management speak, of course, with phrases such as “24/7” and “going forward” but I can’t help notice the proliferation of the adjective ‘amazing’. It’s everywhere. I recently heard one person on the radio  use that word five times in the same interview. Don’t they know that there is such a thing as a Thesaurus and it isn’t to be found in the Natural History Museum? Astonishing!

Gallery Susan: Here are the latest from Sue’s brush. She has continued with the Maori theme but, lately, she has rowed out further into Polynesia, even as far as Tahiti. I hope the currents bring her back. À Bientôt

 

 

Autumn leaves….

…..but not just yet. The first two days of November were gloriously and cloudlessly hot and sunny; all the better to highlight the rich russet textures in the trees, and other such effusions about autumn.We even took breakfast on our terrace on those two days it was so warm.

Prior to that we had performed the usual end-of-summer rituals such as storing the hammock and the large garden table in the shed as well as lighting the fire. So far, though, the woodburner has only seen service on three evenings. Even though I had previously stocked up with more wood than ever on the basis that, after two mild winters we’re bound to have a brass monkey one, I have this fear of running out of logs before the warmer weather arrives. When this happened two winters ago, our usual supplier had no more on hand so I had to get what I could from other sources, which proved to be rubbish. Will 20 stères (approximately 20 cubic metres) suffice? I’m not confident, though, as the wood I have bought burns too well!

William the Conkerer.…Perhaps, wherever you are reading this, you won’t have had

Horse chestnut peek-a-boo

Horse chestnut peek-a-boo

the pleasure, but growing up in the Sussex countryside, along with other young lads, I used to enjoy gathering large horse chestnut seeds, drilling a hole through them, threading string through them and playing “conkers” against other boys. The idea was to hit the other boy’s chestnut (conker) and, if possible, split it. Some lads even used to resort to “underhand tactics” such as soaking their conkers in vinegar to toughen them up. What was good for Sussex is also good for Normandy. The grounds of the chateau at Carrouges are littered with conkers and this has led me think about William the Conqueror. As the audio guide at the Bayeux Tapestry tells visitors, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, The Duke of Normandy went from being

Conker

Conker

called Guillaume le Bâtard to Guillaume le Conquérant. My theory, though, is that something got lost in translation; he always was a Conqueror, but of the game of conkers. He was nobility after all and if he had wanted to coat his horse chestnut seed

in lead, who was there to  tell him nay? In any case, as like as not they didn’t stop at horse chestnuts but used the heads of men killed in battle! They were tough in them days, ay! If you don’t believe me, think on this: an old English word for head is conk!

Mushroom season almost passed us by. After we returned from Australia and New Zealand we found very few out in the countryside. When two good friends visited us

Wild mushrooms finally tamed.

Wild mushrooms finally tamed.

 

from Sydney towards the end of September we took them out on a forage for fungi but although we returned with some, there were no real treasures amongst them. In fact, it took longer on our return to decide which ones might kill me – no-one else was game to try any – and which I might survive. Sue and our two friends, Janett & Lisa, have around 60 years experience as scientists. Indeed, Lisa is the CEO of the NSW Food Authority. What

It's so easy to tell the good from the bad!

It’s so easy to tell the good from the bad!

does she know about anything?! So, after a couple of hours of poring over our guide to mushrooms, their

conclusion was that they couldn’t definitively rule on any of them but they thought I wouldn’t need a stomach pump. Comforting..not, but it is very difficult sometimes to tell the difference between edible, inedible and downright life-threatening. Each autumn our local pharmacy puts two boards in its window to try and indicate to people which mushrooms are good and which are not so. Some from both sides are almost identical. In this case-  Taste test: Bland, but I’m still here.

 

 

 

Before went on holiday, we could tell that our Standard Poodle, Alice, was having difficulty moving and that was confirmed after we returned. She has found it increasingly difficult to jump into our car or onto a sofa or a bed (Yes, we’re tough parents, aren’t we!) and she is also having difficulty in climbing stairs. We didn’t really need the vet to tell us that she has arthritis but that issue was, and is, being compounded by her mental state. She has always been a nervous girl, but now, if she slips, she just sits down and gives up. In that situation Sue and I just have to lift her up. I’ve put non-slip tape on the stair treads and we will be buying her an electric blanket. In addition, and on the recommendation of a good friend, we’ve put her on Glyco Flex 3 tablets. These have a high concentration of Glucosamine and MSM plus a host of other ingredients listed in very small print on the jar. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that there is dried essence of eye of newt and toe of bat in there somewhere. Medicos sometimes poo-poo such remedies but my friend says that his dogs have benefited greatly from Glyco Flex and, besides, the medication prescribed by the vet also had Glucosamine and MSM in it.

The other treatment Alice is receiving is a weekly session at a hydrotherapy centre near Caen. That’s 86kms away but she is already showing some benefit from a swim in the pool plus massage and heat treatment. She loves the massage and the heat lamp and sleeps well in the car on the way home. Oh, I was amused to discover that, under her jacket, Cecile the hydrotherapist’s work “uniform” is a wetsuit!

Well, you are meant to be a water dog, Alice!

Well, you are meant to be a water dog, Alice!

Alice on the treatment table

Alice on the treatment table

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Boulardiere “International” Aerodrome! A couple of sunny Sundays ago, Paraglider close-uphearing some strange sounds emanating from the field behind our house, I investigated and found a man using it as a launch pad  and landing strip for himself and his motorised paraglider. Such excitement in rural France!  The “motorised” bit seemed to be just a giant fan that the man strapped to his back. It worked though. He took off effortlessly, flew around for about 30 minutes and then landed again. For the latter operation -landing- it always helps to have some indication of wind direction lest one overshoots and ends up in a pond, or worse. In this case, Monsieur Paraglider had simply stuck a short metal rod into the field and attached a length of red & white barrier tape to it. Simples!

Paraglider landing

Every Hallowe’en for the past several years we have always stocked up on treats for any children who may call round. And every year up to now, we have been left with Halloween Ewen and Elsaenough to stock a small candy store because no-one has knocked on the door. This year we decided not to bother, with the inevitable result that two of our neighbours’ children, Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West, came calling. Fortunately, Sue had bought a packet of sweets for use on car journeys. Having never played it myself who decides on whether or not it should be a trick or a treat? What form can tricks take and who performs the trick?

 

This & that, here & there…..What are we going to do now that the Rugby World Cup is over? For the past six weeks or so Sue and I, plus some occasional Kiwi visitors, have enjoyed a feast of great rugby. We won’t talk about England. They disappeared from sight very early on, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of advertisers on British TV who had used people such as the England captain in their ads on the basis that the national team was bound to make it beyond the first round….wasn’t it?!  Fortunately, I had a back-up. Sue was born and brought up in New Zealand so it was an easy task to transfer my loyalties to the eventual, and deserved, winners. She only had one nervous moment. During the last five minutes of the semi-final, with South Africa only two points behind the All Blacks, she had to put her coat on and go for a walk down the road.  Up to and beyond the final whistle in the final itself, I though that the highlight had been Japan’s defeat of mighty South Africa. That was, simply, the greatest upset in the history of the world cup, and possibly in the whole history of rugby union. But then, magic happened. After the final, the All Blacks team walked around the pitch at Twickenham on a lap of honour. At one point a young Kiwi lad, only 14 years old, and slightly built, ran onto the pitch to greet the players. Immediately he was crash tackled by a security guard but, one of the New Zealand players, Sonny Bill Williams, stepped in quickly, calmed the situation down, spoke to the young man and took him back to his parents in the stand. So far so good, with everyone happy, but then….SBW took his winner’s medal from around his neck and presented it to the boy. Price of a ticket to the final: probably well north of £200. Win Bonus for the New Zealand players: almost certainly in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The look on that young man’s face after he realised that he had been given a winner’s medal by one of his heroes: Priceless.  Look it up on YouTube; it’s worth it.

Country matters….A lot of maize remains unharvested in the fields. I’m told that’s because the weather hasn’t been dry enough for the crop to reach full maturity. I wonder if farmers have to give back their EU subsidies?

I’m used to seeing fields of yellow oilseed rape in the springtime but I’ve noticed several fields of it this autumn. That’s a first for me.

Sorry, this is the best I can find in the way of local wildlife……

Caterpillar

Caterpillar

Thought for the Day: With the diesel emissions scandal enveloping the Volkswagen group, perhaps Audi should change it’s advertising slogan to read “Vorsprung durch Schwindel”?

Gallery Susan.….Since visiting New Zealand, Sue has taken inspiration from Maori culture. Here is a gallery of her latest work, mostly based on modern Maori women but with a memory of an albino girl she saw in Tonga back in 2000.

Vernissage.…On Friday evening, Sue has a Vernissage (opening) of her work at the Communauté de Communes du Mont Des Avaloirs in our nearby town of Pré-en-Pail. This is an umbrella body responsible for services in 27 local communities. France is a very cultural country and councils have budgets to promote the arts. Last year Sue had an exhibition in the town of Condé-sur-Sarthe, near Alençon, sponsored by the local authority. This time she is closer to home. Last Friday was hanging day and, as you can see from the photo, Sue and I didn’t have to do much. The staff at the Communauté building did it all for us. I’ll let you know soon how the evening went…..À Bientôt!

L'Équipe

L’Équipe

 

Travel broadens the mind

Goodness, you wait nearly two months for a post and then two come along almost at the same time.

Holidays are, of course, an excellent time to catch up on one’s reading, especially if you throw in extremely long flights at both ends. Thanks to Emirates, (but not so much to Qantas whose range was a little limited) Sue and I watched some excellent movies: “Mr Turner”, Mike Leigh’s film about the painter JMW Turner; “12 Years a Slave” and  “Selma” for example.  Sue would also like to give an honourable mention to “Boychoir” which stars Dustin Hoffman, and to “The Water Diviner” with Russell Crowe. Our joint pick, though, was “Woman in Gold”, a true story about an elderly Jewish woman’s struggle to regain possession  from the Austrian authorities of a famous painting by Gustav Klimt that had been confiscated by the Nazis in the late 1930s. Played by Helen Mirren, Maria Altmann recruits a young, but determined lawyer (Ryan Reynolds) in her quest. Some of the reviews were lukewarm but we both found it moving and inspirational. Emirates was plugging “Furious 7”. We resisted that siren call.

My main reason for writing this post, though, is to laud Roberto Saviano’s latest book, “Zero Zero Zero”. The author is Italian and in 2006 published “Gomorrah”, an exposé of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mafia. It was later turned into a film.  For daring to lift the lid on the putrid smell of the underbelly of Italy,  the godfathers  put a price on his head, so that Saviano now has a permanent team of bodyguards from the Carabinieri. I suppose you wouldn’t expect his next work to be a collection of children’s stories but with “Zero Zero Zero”, Saviano has chosen to stay in the underworld rather than pay Charon to ferry him back across the Styx -assuming the ferryman was willing or able to do so. (You might guess from that, that the other book I read on our trip was on Greek & Roman myths and legend). It is about the world of cocaine and is both compelling and depressing. it also made me angry that there are scum out there who not only make huge amounts of money out of  human misery but cause it.  I think it is an important work and that’s why I’m writing this post. For a critique of the book, I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting my comments on it from the Amazon website. For reasons of brevity, I chose not to mention the tentacles of the Russian and Italian mafias that have probed deeply into this particular underworld and which Saviano also describes.

“Welcome to the Sewer”

“The sewer that is all around us. The world of barbarity, evil and also of money, especially of money. It’s the world of cocaine that Roberto Saviano takes us into and, right from the first chapter he is telling the reader that it is all around us. If you live in Europe, as I do, it might be easy to think that the brutal world of Mexican and Colombian cartels is far away and doesn’t really impinge upon us, but Saviano describes how narco money is laundered through western banks with household names and how that money helped finance those banks during the recent GFC.
As he did with his book (and movie), “Gomorrah”, on the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, this book made me both angry and full of despair. That there are so many people who have made themselves super-rich on producing, transporting and selling cocaine to a receptive public, is bad enough but what makes me despair is the thought that all of “our” efforts hardly put a dent in the drug trade that produces those riches.
I would like to hasten the day that sees interplanetary travel. Then, convicted narco-traffickers could be deported to a distant plant. At the moment, as Saviano makes clear, too often, these scum often escape justice through such devices as “lack of evidence”. Saviano, though, has another solution in mind: legalisation. Risky? Yes, but attempts at prohibition seem at present to be a Sisyphean task.
This is a very important book. I just hope that, with the aid of his many 24hr-a-day Carabinieri minders Roberto Saviano’s voice will make a difference in combating the evil he describes here.”

Coda

After I had written that review I came across the latest edition of the respected magazine, ‘The Economist’ at a newsagent. The cover article was entitled “The Two Mexicos” and refers to modernity and poverty. The article completely fails to mention the third Mexico, the one where huge amounts of money are made by the drug cartels,  nor does it really say anything of  the slaughter of the innocent and not so innocent that is involved in making that money. There is no mention of the drug barons (why are they always barons?) who have whole governments in their back pocket. The only reference is one sentence on the poor whose lives are blighted by the curse of the drug trade: “Violent, drug-related crime stalks Mexico’s scruffy barrios, where city-dwellers live”.

À Bientôt

 

Ah, there you are!

It would appear that France survived our absence while we visited friends and family in Sydney and New Zealand. Not only France but our house and “children” also seemed to thrive in the care of our housesitters, Georgie & Peter. At one point they sent us a photo of themselves, together with our dogs, in a bar in nearby Carrouges. Underage drinking, indeed; Alice & George are only 10! Oddly, though, on our return, we found our back garden almost bare of its usual population of birds. Perhaps all the tits, finches and sparrows got fed up with their regular diet of sunflower seeds, fat balls and peanuts, and moved elsewhere. I don’t see any increase in the number of raptors such as buzzards and kestrels so I doubt that they have been the cause.

I’ll post some photos at the end but this account of our travels will be a collection of observations rather than a day-to-day diary, so you don’t have to worry, at least not unduly so. There will not be any “On Tuesday we visited friends on Auckland’s North Shore”. Promise.

But to start at the beginning, there is always a frisson of excitement and anticipation when one sets off on a trip, isn’t there. One of the aspects of France that I’ll miss when we eventually leave here is travelling on the TGV, the High-Speed Train. We took one from Le Mans directly to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris (CDG). I get a real thrill when I see the sleek, streamlined shape of the TGV as it glides into a station. Well, I used to be a trainspotter in my youth; but I ditched the anorak years ago.

A word of warning about CDG. Beware the oyster & champagne bars. Perhaps they only have them in the terminals used by the rich arab airlines such as Emirates, but they are still a rip-off. Silly us thinking that the microscopic dob of caviar on a spoon to accompany the aforementioned champagne & oysters that we treated ourselves to was  “on the house”. Ha! €10 per spoonful!

Australia describes itself as The Lucky Country. Those who live in Sydney with its beautiful harbour and wonderful light certainly are lucky. No tits, finches or sparrows here. Yes, they do have those annoying and noisy Indian Mynahs (pesky immigrants!) but they also have such startlingly colourful birds as Rosellas, King Parrots and Rainbow Lorikeets. The last named even match the Mynahs in decibel level and overall bossiness.

At last, Sydney also has -cue fanfare- a working travel card system on its public transport. One was meant to be in place in time for the Sydney Olympics…..in 2000. Hong Kong has had its Octopus card for years and London has the Oyster card. Sydney did have a system but it wasn’t ready in time for the Olympics and it didn’t work anyway. Finally, the city has the Opal card for users to swipe when getting on and off buses, trains and ferries, and it does work.

Bus travel in Sydney is educational. Riding in to North Sydney I was astonished at the number of Asian pupils boarding my bus outside one of Sydney’s selective schools. These are state high schools but you have to pass a test or tests to gain entry. Our son, Jeremy, with whom we stayed, told me that parents of Asian pupils coach their children from about the age of two in order to pass those tests. That’s why their faces predominate.

I guess the nicest surprise was realising that not every country’s shops shut for two hours over lunchtime and on Monday mornings. In Sydney, many are even open on Sunday! How very unfrench!

Back at the bus stop, I came across adverts for a new Giorgio Armani men’s fragrance called ‘Profumo’. For people d’un certain age, that name conjures up a somewhat different odour: the smell of scandal. In 1963 a senior British government minister, John Profumo, had to resign his post because he lied to the House of Commons over his involvement with two, ahem, high-class call girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. That gave rise to my favourite quote. When it was put to Ms Rice-Davies in the witness box during a court case associated with the scandal that Lord Astor, at whose stately home Profumo had met the two women, denied all the accusations made against him, she replied, simply, “He would, wouldn’t he”. There endeth centuries of forelock-tugging deference to the ruling classes. Unsurprisingly, Armani chose not to use the image of the former Minister of War in its advert.

The main purpose of our trip to Sydney was to visit our granddaughter, April. She’s now 2 1/2 and delightful; of course! The Artist Known As Sue gave her painting lessons while we were there. You’ll see the photos later. Her parents, Jeremy & Giselle lead incredibly busy lives so April goes to daycare where, being 2 going on 20, she reportedly bosses all the other little mites.

A word on architecture. The suburb where Jeremy & Giselle live, and where we stayed, is Castlecrag. The whole suburb and some of the houses were designed by the American architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion. Walter designed the city of Canberra, the national capital of Australia. His and Marion’s idea for Castlecrag was to design houses that blend in with the local flora and sandstone rock. They do that but I’m glad he didn’t repeat the exercise for Canberra as I find his Castlecrag houses depressing. Not so the Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was designed by Frank Gehry, the man who couldn’t create a cuboid building if he tried. His work has the most startling facets and angles. This one is no exception. Photo later, but it bears the name “the squashed brown paper bag” with good reason.

Another word, but on Aussie celebrity chefs. We enjoyed catching up with a particular group of friends at the restaurant at the Art Gallery of NSW. The restaurant there is run by Matt Moran, a well-known name in culinary circles in Australia. My meal was average but Sue chose as a starter something called “school prawns”. In Sydney the word prawn conjures up something of a decent size that you can chuck on the barbie as Paul Hogan used to say, or even put a lead on and take for a walk down the road so big are some. These were tiny and reminded me of potted shrimps.  Sue said they were barely edible. Guess we should have asked the waiter. At least the wine, conversation and ambience was good.

I’ve discovered a new figure of hate. It’s called Travelex. The currency exchange people have refined the term usury. Normally when exchanging Aussie dollars for the New Zealand variety you come away with more in your hand. Not with Travelex you don’t.  When Sue exchanged AUD300 at Sydney Airport she only received NZD270 in return. And Travelex now monopolise airport exchange bureaux. Still, the reason she had the cash in the first place is because she had sold some of her paintings whilst in Sydney. Sue did the same in N.Z. She sold some of her art both to friends and at a stall at the sunday market run by her brother.

I really do like New Zealand, and New Zealanders; when I can understand them, that is. Those who know the old chestnuts about sex/six/sux and fush and chups know what I’m talking about. For me NZ has always been the quiet achiever. It has arguably the best rugby union side in the world. And when their yachtsmen won the Americas Cup, the noisy, brash neighbours on the other side of the Tasman -or the ditch, as the Kiwis like to say- ignored the return fixture in Auckland totally.  Those could be said to be niche activities, but they do make some excellent wines; Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of the South island in particular. In addition, NZ is busy making itself the adventure capital of the world with all sorts of wild on- and off-water activities. That’s when they aren’t cashing in on the Middle Earth/Lord of The Rings phenomenon. Native, i.e. Maori, culture is very strong. Indeed, I saw numerous adverts inviting applicants for positions in Maori tourism. But how do you pronounce the word? The traditional method for us pãkehã (people of European descent) has been ‘Mowri’, but lately I have heard something halfway between ‘Maari’ and ‘Moori’ spoken by people in a position to know, like Sue’s niece, Polly, who until recently held an important position in Maori affairs in the government in Wellington. Oh, and the Kiwis definitely have a sense of humour; Air New Zealand’s inflight safety videos are never less than entertaining. They certainly get your attention. And see the photo later on of the “recycling” bin in Auckland.

Apart from visiting Sue’s brother and partner, Mike & Gwyn, in Auckland we also spent time with Sue’s very good friend, Gill, on the Bay of Plenty, a few hours drive to the ESE of Auckland. If Australia is the Lucky Country, Gill is a lucky lady. She lives in a beautiful spot, atop a cliff with views out to sea and native NZ birds in the pohutekawa trees around her house. It wasn’t all beach walks and bird watching though. We have decided to sell our 15th century house in France; That will go on the market next northern spring and we plan to buy a house in NZ in that area, probably in or near Opotiki or Whakatane. We looked at several and most were at ‘popular prices’ i.e. we like ’em!

The Butterfly Effect theory says that a butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazon can cause a hurricane in New Mexico, or some such. Well, there is something in that. While we were in NZ there was an earthquake and tsunami in Chile. Even though the effect where we were wasn’t very large, there was, as a result, a 50cm swell that hit the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island at Gisborne on the other side of the Pacific. The tsunami alert was enough to warrant the local Civil Defence volunteer, one of Gill’s friends, alerting everyone in her local community. What they are really concerned about, though, is an eruption of the volcano on White Island, 50kms offshore and very visible. But as you can see from one of the photos below, the Tsunami Warning System at Opotiki is on constant alert!

While on the subject of knock-on effects, the refugee crisis in Europe has washed ashore in Wellington. The government there has agreed to double its intake of refugees; that is only from 750 to 1500 but NZ is a small country where sheep outnumber people (just…I think) and it was a change made willingly without all the bickering and fuss that has gone on within the EU.  What there is a fuss about is the Prime Minister, John Key’s desire to change the New Zealand flag. My radar detected that the whole business is a non-issue and people are happy to stay with the one they’ve got.

Sue’s brother-in-law lives just outside Auckland near Ardmore Airport. That is the home of NZ Warbirds, an association dedicated to the preservation and operation of ex-military aircraft. How nice of them to give us a flying display to remember NZ by on the day we left Auckland on the first stage of our journey back to France. There were Tiger Moths (in the plural) and Harvards and there may even have been a Mustang or two. The camera I had with me wouldn’t have been able to capture them adequately as they flew overhead so I have stolen a couple of photos from the nzwarbirds.org.nz website.

Meanwhile, back in France, we missed the fifth French season, La Rentrée, the first full week in September when schools and government departments re-open after the summer holidays, but arrived back in time for the first week of the hunting season. What that means is: don’t walk in the woods at the weekends with your dogs and make sure your cats are safe and not out there acting as target practice for hunters.

There are other flying hazards. Driving past the prison at Condé-sur-Sarthe last week I noticed that there is netting over the entire prison area. Looks like the authorities have woken up to the many uses of drones!

It wasn’t a completely soft landing. Before we left on vacation we had noticed that Alice, our Standard Poodle, was having difficulty climbing into our car, but we discovered on our return that her condition had worsened and she is now on anti-inflammatory arthritis medication. We are also looking at taking her for regular hydrotherapy sessions at a centre near Caen. I guess she is 10 years old and old age comes to all of us, unless you are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin und so weiter, but we don’t like to think of the future.

I’m sorry but I don’t have any new art from Sue to show you. She has only just (today) started painting again after our return and after a visit from a lovely, bright & breezy, and stimulating couple of Australian friends. She is working on painting modern Maori women. I’ll include some images in my next post. I’m not sure when that will be. I hope to maintain one post per month but, frankly, I’m running out of topics.

Enfin, we come, of course, to the German language…..The other topic that I’m not going to mention is the rugby world cup, especially now that England have been eliminated, thanks in large part to a defeat against Wales. The Celts have been crowing, as they always do when they beat England in any sporting contest. The word that describes their feeling rather well is Schadenfreude, that wonderful Teutonic word which describes delight in the misfortune of others. I have another for you: Altenlebensangst: the dread of meeting, quite by chance, someone from your past life, whom you had hoped never to see again, while walking down the street. For example  it could be the  date you stood up and left standing in the rain at a bus stop. I have a dread of meeting some folk who once turned up at Gatwick Airport to catch a flight to Athens to play a game of football but…that’s for another time! Here’s another one: Fotogelegenheitshoffnung: that secret hope that you will be in the right place at the right time with your camera or smartphone ready when something completely unexpected happens. The photo you take goes on to make millions for you when you sell it to media outlets. I mean, a Martian spacecraft could land in the field next to you……

Here are the promised photos. Just run your cursor over the photos and the captions will appear…..À Bientôt 

 

Just a quickie…..

….to say that Sue and I are going on holiday in a couple of days. We’re heading to Sydney and then on to New Zealand to VFR – Visit Friends & Relatives. We left Sydney three years ago and, for me, it will be my first time back there since.

This will be rather short as, frankly, I’ve found little to write about of late. There are no migrant crises in rural western France. They are all around Calais; the migrants and the crises.  The farmers hereabouts haven’t been staging protests such as pouring milk all over the roads and

Harvest time on Orgères

Harvest time on Orgères

herding their cattle through supermarkets to complain about farm gate prices for their products. And now that the Tour de France is in the past tense, the French have stopped moaning about a Brit, Chris Froome, winning ‘their’ tournament. It’s all been rather sleepy, really. Well, perhaps not for the farmers. They haven’t been protesting because they have been busy harvesting the many fields of wheat. As we can testify, it’s been a 24hr-a-day operation. Fortunately, the weather has been kind and the crop  gathered in while the weather was dry. Next month, it’s the turn of the maize for the chop.

One for the road.....

One for the road…..

“Every day is a faded sign” according to a song by Sheryl Crow. That reminded me of an aspect of France that I’ve not touched on before, and which I would like to mention before we head off. It’s the old habit of painting adverts on the side of buildings. These days, so much of life is transient, especially advertising; through technology, adverts can roll around in quick order so a great variety of products and services can appear before you in a very short space of time. It wasn’t always thus; I still see the faded remnants of advertising that provide a reminder of, perhaps, a less transitory age. Here’s a Martini ad. Back then, scrolling down to the next advert meant waiting a day or two while painters got to work.

In other French news….

  • Migrants seeking a better life in Britain continue to congregate at Calais seeking any way, no matter how dangerous, to cross over or under La Manche in search of what they obviously see as a pot of gold at the British end of the rainbow. This situation has caused chaos in the transport industry in Britain with thousands of trucks backed up on the approaches to the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone in Kent, unable to proceed further. The tunnel has had to be closed on numerous occasions because of ‘incursions’ by migrants. Fingers have been pointed in various directions but surely, the best solution would be to set up an assessment centre near Calais. Those who are genuine asylum seekers, fleeing persecution in countries such as Syria and Iraq, could be granted entry into Britain or other EU country while economic migrants could be returned whence they came. There is no orderly queue or ‘front door’ where genuine asylum seekers come from. For economic migrants, sorry, apply through your local consulate or embassy.
  • Every year, during August, to make up for the lack of a proper beach of their own, the city authorities in Paris create one along the banks of the Seine; palm trees, sand, the works. This year, in honour of one of the cities Paris is twinned with, the mayor, Anne Hidalgo, decided to hold a “Tel Aviv sur Seine” festival. This did not go down well with everyone. Pro-Palestinians held their own “Gaza-sur-Seine” event next door while police had to screen those who wanted to take part in the Tel Aviv event. The timing was unfortunate for Tel Aviv as it is just about a year since Israel launched attacks into Gaza including one missile attack that killed Palestinian youths playing soccer on a Gaza beach.
  • Continuing the ‘holiday’ theme, I know that the south of France is very popular with visitors, especially during July and August but I had no idea that the whole of Holland and hordes of Belgians decamp there. While in the Ardèche last month, it seemed to me that every other car on the road had Dutch or Belgian plates, many towing trailers full of camping gear. Nearer to where we live, on the border between Pays de la Loire and Lower Normandy, foreign plates are less numerous but mostly British. It’s not too far from the Channel ferry ports. You can also spot the Brits of a certain class; they affect shorts, sandals and black socks….

Finally, before heading out the door, here are some of Sue’s latest works, all as lovely as ever…..

A Prehistoric Sistine Chapel…..

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…is the best way I can think of to describe the Palaeolithic cave art of the Caverne du Pont d’Arc in the Ardèche region of southern France. Also known as the Grotte Chauvet after one of the three speleologists who first discovered the cave in December 1994, it contains spectacular rock art that has been radio carbon-dated back to 36,000BP*.

As with the much later cave at Lascaux in the Dordogne, the actual site is not accessible to the public. Too much carbon dioxide from human breath would destroy the paintings.  To allow visitors to appreciate these prehistoric wonders, the French have spent a vast amount of money, time and effort to recreate exact replicas at both sites. In the case of Grotte Chauvet, 8500m2 of the real thing have been reduced to 3000m2, partially because some areas of the original are difficult to access and also because through the technology used, you supposedly get a realistic impression of the original volume.

Sue and I visited Lascaux last year and were very impressed so when the replica Grotte Chauvet was opened in April of this year, we booked our tickets straight away. We were not to be disappointed.

Getting there wasn’t easy for us. The limestone country of the Ardèche is deeply scarred by gorges. It provides for spectacularly beautiful scenery but does nothing for our vertigo! On the way home, for our peace of mind, we took a 100km detour through less nerve-wracking countryside. Limestone, though, means not only gorges, but caves as well, hence the presence of Palaeolithic man. Caves mean shelter.

This newly opened reproduction is about 7-8km from the original which, in turn, is close to the Pont d’Arc itself that straddles the River Ardèche (see photo below). I guess we had high expectations but the overall effect is stunning. The quality of the reproductions force you to suspend disbelief. You are transported back in time. Not only has the cave, with its art, been reproduced authentically, but so have the temperature, humidity and light (the last-named with a little modern help of course). Then there is the art itself.

The artists didn’t live in the cave. Well, you wouldn’t if it was occupied by such as cave bears during their winter hibernation, would you. But in the summer, when the bears were away, the artists did play. What they depicted were a wide variety of beasts including bears, lions, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, ibex, horses and megaloceros elk. What they didn’t paint was the human form. There are hand prints, both positive and negative, but no men, women or children. That throws up questions such as why did they paint what they did, and why did they paint at all? To the latter I would answer that the urge to depict the world around  has been with us for a very long time; at least 36000 years! To the first question, one theory I have read speculates that to enter the cave was to enter the world of the spirits and perhaps even meet them. These spirits, the theory continues, can emerge from and disappear into the rock itself. The cave bear could have been seen as a messenger between the supernatural and natural worlds. At one spot in the cave there is a bear skull on a large altar-like stone and surrounded by other skulls on the floor of the cave so perhaps a form of worship took place. In this shamanistic world, spirits can take animal form so perhaps reproducing them in art form was also a type of worship.

Whatever the motive, the art itself is spectacular. the skill of these 36,000 year-old artists is awe-inspiring, no matter if it was in red ochre, charcoal or in finger painting on soft rock. Perspectival accuracy is astonishing. Michelangelo may have lain on his back for three years painting that Sistine Chapel ceiling but these guys using just charcoal sticks for light as well as for drawing, created something truly wonderful. At the end of the hour-long guided tour we both felt that we had had something of an emotional, if not to say, spiritual, experience.

*BP = Before Present. As we discovered, “Present” means 1950 in archaeological terms

Here are some images. They are all off the internet as photography is NOT permitted inside the cave.

Stage 7…

… of the Tour de France, from the home of a great cheese, Livarot in Lower Normandy,  to Fougères in Brittany, duly arrived in our village of Lignières-Orgères on the 10th of July, as I mentioned it would in my last post. And everyone was en fȇte -in holiday mode. Madame at the boulangerie had prepared a good supply of crudités and the cafe/bar had provided tables and chairs on the pavement under an awning. Monsieur Le Patron was busy all the while ferrying drinks out to thirsty customers on what was a bright blue 30ºC+ day. It must have been his busiest time for years.  The local pompiers (firemen) seemed to enjoy their beers. Fortunately for them I guess, they didn’t get called out.

Our friends Mike & Mathilde came down from Paris for the show and on the ‘first-in-best-dressed’ basis we  took up our positions at around 1130, nearly 2 hours before the arrival of le caravane, the cavalcade of sponsors’ and advertisers’ vehicles, and 3 1/2hrs prior to the expected entry of the gladiators themselves. Supplies of paté, cheese, ham and bread had been laid in, as well some Prosecco – well, we’re all European now and it’s cheaper than champagne. And so we waited.

There wasn’t an overabundance of banners to welcome Le Tour but the two young girls next to us created a great atmosphere all on their own, dressed as they were in red, white and blue wigs and waving tricolours. They became particularly animated, as everyone did, when le caravane rolled through. All manner of freebies were thrown to the waiting crowds. Fortunately there was nothing that could cause much damage. Included in the cavalcade of vehicles were mobile shops selling various items of Tour merchandise. They performed several laps of the track to rake in every last euro they could. A couple of helicopters overhead got people excited but they proved to be just carrying tv crews who were filming footage of the route to edit into coverage of the race itself. A friend in Sydney spotted the War Memorial in Lignieres from aerial shots of our village, but not us, even though we were only about 3 metres away from it.

And then, real excitement, the arrival of a breakaway group of 5 cyclists, les échappés, including an Eritrean rider who was not only the first African rider ever in Le Tour but certainly the first to wear the polka dot jersey which denotes the current King of the Mountains, the best hill climber. Whoosh, gone! It was almost as quick as that. They had to slow down for the s-bend past the café/bar, but for the most part, on flat stages such as this one, riders average over 50kmph. A few minutes after that, more woosh,gone! This time it was le peloton, the rest of the chasing pack, so it was an elongated w-o-o-o-sh. I would like to say I spotted some great names such as Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Mark Cavendish but it was all too quick and, besides I was concentrating on taking photos.

And that was that. Almost immediately after the last cyclist had passed, someone in a support vehicle announced that it was all over. Other people started clearing barriers from road junctions and  everyone, including us, packed up and went home. Fortunately, on the way, we dropped in to see friends and discovered that Le Tour is being broadcast live on free-to-air TV, instead of just on Sky, as I had thought, so we were able to watch the “Manx Missile”, Mark Cavendish win a thrilling sprint finish. After several disappointing stages for him, that really put the icing on the cake for us.

Here are some images of the day

 

 

 

It’s been a while…

…since I last posted anything here. Blame it on the belated arrival of summer, with temperatures to match. Villages are holding their summer fȇtes and vides greniers (French car boot sales) while outdoor activities are advertised everywhere. But it feels as if the countryside has moved to that mythical land of Soporifia. In our local village of Lignières-Orgères, on the other hand, excitement is building ahead of Friday 10July. This is the day when the Tour de France, the world’s greatest cycle race, rolls right through le village. Everything is precisely planned. A few weeks ago I dropped into our local mairie (town hall) to ask the lovely Isabelle approximately what time would le caravane and les cyclistes be coming through. There’s no ‘approximately’ about it. Le caravane, the cavalcade of sponsors’ and advertisers’ vehicles that precedes the race itself and from where freebies such as caps and other goodies are thrown to the waiting crowds, will start to arrive at precisely 1317 local time. The cyclists are expected at 1504. It’s that exact. We saw le tour pass near here 8 years ago. Le caravane was the most entertaining part as it took at least 45 minutes for all the vehicles to make their way through, while the cyclists went past in a flash. We then went home and watched the rest on Sky. Not this time; no Sky. If you are a major sponsor of the Tour de France, it must be like the exposure afforded to those who advertise during the Super Bowl. I wonder how much Skoda pays, as it provides all the vehicles? There’s a downside to the jollity, though. A few years ago, large polystyrene hands were thrown to the throng. One young chap waved his hand so vigorously that Tour de France banner 1it hit and injured one of the cyclists. If you’ve ever watched any of the Tour, especially any of the mountain stages, you may have seen a madman dressed all in red as a devil, complete with pitchfork, running alongside some of the riders. For the record that is not and will not be me. I’ll be trying to take photos, particularly of the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish. The early stages of the race, such as this one, are sprinter Tour de France shopfrontterritory as they are fairly  flat. I’m hoping he can add to his tally of 25 stage wins. I expect there will be more in evidence on the day but here are a couple of early signs of excitement. Don’t hold out much hope for the guy on the bike in the window of our village shop. Even if he starts now, he stands no chance. As everyone knows, you’ve got to have all that go-faster Lycra stuff to succeed in cycling. I like the inclusion of ‘cycliste’ in the banner. Do you mean that there are people who don’t know what the Tour de France is?!

It all kicks off today in Utrecht, Holland,the home of the bicycle. I just hope that by the time it reaches here, the cobbles of Holland, Belgium and northern France haven’t led to riders crashing out of the tour through injury.

Coat of Arms of Normandy

Coat of Arms of Normandy

“Three Lions on the shirt…”  As the Tour negotiates Normandy, you may well see images of the Normandy coat of arms. It features two lions, or leopards. In heraldic terms they are Gules two lions passant gardant in pale or armed and languid azure. (Isn’t the internet wonderful!)  If British people think they look familiar it is because they are. Those arms are based on William the Conqueror’s coat of arms which went on to become the basis for the royal arms of England after his successful invasion. They haven’t changed since the reign of Richard I in the Middle Ages. The only major difference

Royal Arms of England

Royal Arms of England

apart from the number of lions – 3 instead of 2-

England football shirt

England football shirt

is that the tails are different.  The reference in the opening sentence to “three lions on the shirt” refers to the badge on the shirts worn by  England footballers. In addition, the England women’s team, which has just been knocked out at the semi-final stage of the women’s world cup in Canada, calls itself the Lionesses in honour of the badge.

Different countries have different pests. Those cute-looking possums, for example, are pests in New Zealand. I have a hot-water bottle cover made from possum fur. Here, pests are called nuisibles. As I’ve mentioned before, coypu (ragondins) destroy river banks and are definitely persona non grata. So are crows, and not just from attacking crops. The pair of geese at the chateau at Carrouges, one of which I showed a photo of in my post of 12April, recently produced 5 goslings. Only one remains and when that “disappeared” a week or two ago, I asked one of the staff there what had happened. He told me that the little chap is now in witness protection after crows had killed the other 4. I reckon it’ll be the case of the century. “Which one did it to your brothers & sister?” “It was a black one!”. “OK guys, you know who to look for. Go get him!” I guess it’s no accident that the collective noun for a number of crows is a murder.  As an aside, the collective noun for owls is a parliament. Owls are meant to be wise, but parliamentarians?

Hamza licence plateTerrorism in Normandy? I took this photo as a joke but after recent events in the south-east of France when a man was beheaded, thus showing such attacks can occur anytime and anywhere, it pays to be vigilant. Still, I think this is innocent enough…  Abu Hamza is currently serving life imprisonment in the US for terrorist offences after being extradited from Britain. The car has Belgian plates, though, and it was there that police carried out arrests in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish grocery store attacks. Mmm.

Meanwhile in other French news….

– The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium has just been commemorated. Result of the battle: Anglo/Prussian Alliance 1: France 0.  To commemorate the event, Belgium wanted to mint a €2 coin. To some French, that battle never happened. As I mentioned in a recent post, the author of a book on D-Day wrote that General de Gaulle managed to write a complete history of the French army without once mentioning the defeat. So, France said non! to the coin. A compromise was reached, of course. Political Europe is good at fudges and compromises. A €2.5 coin was minted but it is only legal tender in Belgium. Honneur satisfied?

– It is sometimes said that if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there. I can, so, obviously I wasn’t. I remember that one of the leaders of the momentous student-led uprising in Paris in 1968 was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Do you remember him? I was surprised to learn recently that he is still around! I even heard him talk on the radio. After all these years, France has now granted this German-born man citizenship. Not to be left out, for reasons best known to themselves, Russia has placed him on a list of people whom they will not allow to enter that country. I’m sure he is heartbroken.

– Another person whose potential travel plans have been upset is Julian Assange. Bizarrely, he wrote an open letter to President Hollande which was published in Le Monde newspaper, asking, we were told, for asylum in France. Assange’s lawyers denied that he was asking for such treatment, but the office of the President turned him down anyway on the very good grounds that there is a European arrest warrant out for him. The Swedes would like to talk to him about rape charges.

– Ségolène Royal, the president’s former partner, is the Minister of, among other things, Ecology. She’s made the news for two reasons recently. She said on live TV that Nutella should be banned because of the decimation of palm trees because of the use of palm oil in the spread. What is she thinking of? So many people think that Nutella is delicious that she was forced to apologise. She’s also bringing in a ban next year on Round Up, the weed and everything else around it killer. I don’t have that on toast in the morning so she’s safe there.

– Greece. OK, it’s not France but the fate of that country is important. On the day before the referendum in Greece on whether or not to accept the terms offered by the EU and others, I’m hoping for a “No” vote. The Greeks may have contributed to their woes in the past but the terms of the bailout since 2010 have resulted in the Greek economy shrinking by 25%.  The Euro is a political construct and the various bodies such as the European Commission and the European Central Bank just want Greece to “get with the programme”. They don’t care for the suffering of the Greek people. They want to get rid of the Syriza government. Even the IMF is now saying that the austerity measures foisted upon Greece are unsustainable. That did not prevent Charlie Hebdo depicting the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, waterboarding a Greek on its front cover recently.

Photo Gallery. Here are some recent images….(roll the cursor over the photos to see the captions)

And finally….As ever, here are some of Sue’s paintings. She was asked recently to enter a competition by an art gallery in London. These are the three works she has chosen. I think they are all great but this gallery doesn’t go in much for figurative art so we shall see….À Bientôt

Give us this day……

Baguette-o-mat

Baguette-o-mat

….Our daily bread. The French love the stuff, but it has to be fresh. Leave it overnight and you can use it as aggregate for a new driveway. But what to do if your local boulangerie  est fermée? Why, hotfoot it down to your local baguette-o-mat!  I thought that the Japanese had refined the art of the vending machine; you can get just about anything out of a dispenser there, but I’ve never seen one that coughs up bread.

Grandes Randonnées are a feature of France. These long-distance paths criss-cross Europe so you can go on very grand walks indeed. The phrase reportedly used by Captain Oates in the Antarctic,  “I’m just going outside. I may be some time.” could certainly apply here. There are 60,000kms of Grandes Randonnées in France alone. The one signposted here is GR22

Les Chemins de Mont st Michel

Les Chemins de Mont Saint Michel

and is relatively short. It starts not far to the east of us and wends its way westward to the abbey at Mont St Michel. As you may imagine, it’s an old pilgrimage route, as indicated by the shell symbol. The colouring for GR signs is red and white but this sign is in yellow because it’s also part of a local network of paths, Petites Randonnées. Every village has a network of these but for my taste too much of the length of these shorter paths is on road. As for walking to Mont St Michel, we prefer to take the car.

Bocage near Lignières-Orgères.

Bocage near Lignières-Orgères.

I mention footpaths because it leads me back to the subject of D-Day and the battle for Normandy, which I wrote about in my last post. Like me, you may well have heard of the bitter fighting that took place among the hedgerows & small fields -the bocage– of the Normandy countryside. I had never given much thought to what that word meant, but Antony Beevor’s book, which I also referred to last time, provided me with a description of sunken lanes between high hedgerows lining postage stamp-sized fields. Allied troop losses in that fighting were high because it was easy for German units to mount ambushes from the thick foliage of high summer as the Allies tried to advance. And then it really came home to me the other day as I walked our dogs up one of those narrow tracks overhung with a dense green canopy. It was a very pretty scene but the thought that there might be a company of men in field-grey uniform waiting unseen round the next bend must have terrified Allied troops.

Beevor’s book is an excellent account of the D-Day campaign and eventual breakout  towards the Seine and beyond, but what stand out for me are the personal vignettes and occasional flashes of humour. On the morning of D-Day a young student nurse returned to a beach hut on Sword Beach to retrieve the swimming costume she had left there the previous day. Finding so many wounded soldiers she set to and tended to them eventually meeting a British officer whom she later married….I find it difficult to imagine anyone willingly walking into what must have been an apocalyptic scene, but then I wasn’t there.  I was also amused at stories of British infantry men who felt it was their right, as they advanced up the beach, to stop for a “brew up”, a cup of tea!  And there was the Frenchman who tried to charge Allied soldiers 100 Francs for wine and Calvados on the basis that that was what he charged the Germans. The best story I came across, though, was of the French gendarme who, on the day after D-Day, arrested 3 local woman who had set up a brothel in a wrecked landing craft on one of the beaches used for the landings. That’s enterprise for you!

Surprisingly the humour comes from the German side. Much as British troops at Dunkirk in 1940 are supposed to have criticised the RAF for being conspicuous by its absence, so the German troops in Normandy despaired of seeing the Luftwaffe come to their aid. The joke was that if you saw silver planes, they were American; khaki-coloured planes were British; but if you saw no planes, that was the Luftwaffe. Another joke concerned the K-rations given to American servicemen. They weren’t popular because the high salt content caused constipation. These same rations were also handed out to German prisoners-of-war. They said that that constituted a breach of the Geneva Convention.

Boeuf Francais

Boeuf Francais

It’s a cow…..Not that we eat much of the stuff but it took us ages to realise that French cuts of beef are different from both British and American ones. Well, the French are different of course. The meat is different, too. Neither Sue nor I are particularly fond of the popular cuts such as faux-filet but what we do like, filet, is just too expensive for us. As a comparison, here are diagrams of French, British and American cows. I have to tell you, though, that they don’t look

British beef

British beef

Murcan cows look like this

Murcan cows look like this

like that in the fields…

Meadow flowwers & broom

Meadow flowers & broom

Yellow fields of Oilseed Rape have disappeared. Well, the flowers have but not the plants. I still think my theory that the farmers are in it just for the EU subsidies holds true as the crop itself is still in the fields. There is still colour a-plenty to be found everywhere and much of it  yellow with broom and roses in flower. French meadows are a particular delight  and especially colourful, with pink, white and deep cadmium red, as well as yellow.

Rose at Carrouges

Rose at Carrouges

Yellow Flag Irises at Carrouges

Yellow Flag Irises at Carrouges

While on the subject of colour, although the weather over the past few days has been cool and overcast, we have had some sunny periods this spring. On bright blue cloudless days, from the many condensation trails** it’s obvious that overhead our part of France are  high-level aerial autoroutes. But even after a lifetime spent working at the civil aviation coalface, I still look up and think “I wonder where they are going?”. I also think of those lines from “Amelia” by Joni Mitchell: “I dreamed of 747s over geometric farms”  They may have such regularity in Kansas or, where Joni comes from, in Canada, but here it’s small irregular fields and all that bocage that passengers are looking at from 37,000ft.

**By the way, I’m not one of those  conspiracy theorists who believe (seriously) that what one sees is not condensation at all but  trails of chemicals that “they” are using to control both us and the environment. Wikipedia even has a page (Chem Trails) on the subject.

“We’re from the EU, we’re here to help”. As I have mentioned before, Amazon is aYellow sticker real boon, especially if, like us, you don’t live within easy reach of a grand metropolis. Normally, of course, like most people I discard the packaging and concentrate on what’s inside, but when a book I had ordered arrived last week, I was curious about a yellow diamond-shaped sticker on the outside. Initially it occurred to me that for certain people of a certain age yellow diamonds or stars can have an unfortunate connotation, but it was the wording that intrigued me. It almost goes without saying that, these days, you can type just about anything into Google and come up with an answer. An exception is, as a friend told me recently: “Is there anything you can’t look up in Google?” There was no meaningful reply to that one, he told me. What I learned, in this case, is that, what this sticker means is that, although the package was transported within Europe by a European transport company, it originated outside the EU and customs duties and other fees are still liable to be paid. By whom? My search didn’t enlighten me on that aspect and I’ve not been asked for any money. It’s all a bit odd as I ordered the book from Amazon in the U.K. and the packet arrived with a German postmark. My thought in all this, though, is how many hours/days/weeks/months were spent in committee in Brussels producing these regulations and labelling requirements? And how many volumes do they occupy?

In other news from France….

– The centre-right political party UMP, which is led by the former and, he hopes, future president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, has renamed itself “Les Républicains”. I reckon it was a smart move as it means they can lay claim to the values of the French republic: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  Their main opponents, the Socialists, fought it in the courts but lost. I wonder if Les Républicains will receive fraternal greetings from across the Atlantic? Possibly not, as the Republicans in Washington once mocked John Kerry for speaking French, so they would not want to be hoisted with their own petard.

– The Panthéon in Paris, as you may know, is the mausoleum where the remains of some of France’s greatest citizens are interred. Recently four members of the Resistance from WWII were ceremonially reburied there. I say ceremonially because the coffins contained only soil from their graves. Their living relatives had not wanted their remains disturbed. What gave the event a greater importance than it already had, was that two of the people were women. Prior to that, the only woman in the Panthéon had been Marie Curie. Yes, she was born in Poland but she became a French citizen.

– Some good news. France has passed a law that requires supermarkets over a certain size to pass food, that has passed its sell-by date or has failed to meet other requirements, on to charities that help the poor. Up to now large food retailers had not only thrown such food out but had poured bleach on it to combat vermin. In our year in England prior to returning to France, one of the churches we attended ran a food bank. It shocked me because this was in The Cotswolds, one of the most prosperous areas of Britain.

– Finally, not a French item but a phrase to add to modern jargon. Listening to BBC Radio 4 the other morning I heard an interview with the CFO of Ryanair. The airline had just posted record profits. The interviewer questioned the man on Ryanair’s  history of poor customer relations. In his answers the CFO kept referring to their improved “product offering”.  I must remember that. A seat is not a seat it’s a…..And paying extra for every last thing is just part of their “product offering”.

Studio Sue has been really busy of late. Here are just four examples of the lovely work she is producing…..À Bientôt!

Orange Lady

Orange Lady

Tea Lady

Tea Lady

Brown Study

Brown Study

Flower Print Lady

Flower Print Lady

La Couloir de la Mort

The Corridor of Death

The Corridor of Death

The Corridor of Death is the sort of road sign that tends to get your attention, isn’t it. This one is not a comment on the speed of modern drivers but refers to events during the battle for Normandy in August 1944.

Instead of attending the 8th of May VE Day commemorations in our local village, as we did last year, Sue and I drove to Montormel, about 45-50kms away, where a memorial and a museum commemorate the last battle in the liberation of Normandy post D-Day.

In mid-August 1944 Allied forces, American, French, British, Canadian and Polish, were closing in on and surrounding the German VIIth Army as it tried to retreat eastwards towards the Seine through what became known as the Falaise pocket. There were few avenues of retreat and all within range of allied bombardment, especially from the heights of Montormel overlooking the valley of the River Dives. As the noose tightened, the destruction of German men, equipment and horses became ever more devastating, hence the name given to one of those roads. Only a couple of days afterwards, viewing the carnage, Eisenhower declared that it resembled Dante’s Inferno. The images at the museum, of dead and dismembered horses are particularly upsetting

Today, that memorial and museum occupy the top of what was known as Hill 262, Mont Ormel. From here the Poles were able to seal off the last escape route but it wasn’t all plain sailing as  they found themselves being attacked from the rear by a Panzer corps.

The museum has an excellent audio/visual  animated map display as well as other descriptive signs and plaques to guide you through the battle . From these you get a good sense of the destruction that took place and the role played by the various allied units – especially the heroic actions of the Poles – but the museum displays don’t offer opinions. For those I went to the British historian Anthony Beevor’s authoritative, you might even say magisterial, account: “D-Day – The Battle for Normandy”.  From that book I learned that  Montgomery, the British general in charge of the operation, came in for a great deal of criticism from his own people for indecision in failing to close the gap soon enough, thus allowing many Germans to escape. In addition, one senior Canadian officer was relieved of his command for failing to support the hard-pressed Poles. I also learned that, so confined was the battleground in the late stages, friendly fire incidents were common. “Look out boys, it might be one of ours” was a common cry.

Numbers vary depending on which account you read but between 20,000 and 50,000 German soldiers were able to escape eastwards while 50,000 were taken prisoner and 10,000 were killed. Sobering figures. It’s fitting, therefore, that one of the pieces of sculpture in what is known as The European Way of Peace – in fact, I think it’s the first-  is at the memorial at Montormel. Below are some photos from there but as a coda, a couple of matters arising from the book I referred to. The cover photo of the paperback edition that I bought is taken from a landing craft and looking out of the bow towards US infantry wading towards the shore. Inside the vessel is a lifebuoy. They obviously didn’t want anybody to drown before they had had a chance to be shot at by the enemy. Secondly, I came across one line in the book that made me laugh out loud. So totally Franco-centric was the leader of the Free French forces that, as the author says: “Only de Gaulle could have written a history of the French army and manage to make no mention of the Battle of Waterloo”

The valley of the Dives from Montormel. Looks very peaceful today!

The valley of the Dives from Montormel through which the Corridor of Death ran. Looks very peaceful today!

La Couloir de la Mort then and now.

La Couloir de la Mort then and now.

Memorial at Montormel

Memorial at Montormel

Explanatory sign at Montormel

Explanatory sign at Montormel

Sculpture at Montormel as part of the European Way of Peace.

Sculpture at Montormel as part of the European Way of Peace.

Nothing….reminds me more of England than the song of the blackbird. There is one in our garden which defies our cats, as well as the buzzards and kestrels in the area, to serenade us. I even heard larks in the neighbourhood a few days ago. They used to be quite common but I thought they had disappeared – maybe through the loss of habitat or maybe through the use of agricultural pesticides – so it was good to hear them again.

Nature continues to delight on other fronts as well. The yellows I mentioned in my last post are still with us through buttercups and broom while that special, vivid, expectant shade of green you only see in spring is in full bloom now.

Close encounter of a buttercup kind

Close encounter of a buttercup kind

Springtime in the forest at Bagnoles de l'Orne.

Springtime in the forest at Bagnoles de l’Orne.

New evergreen growth

New evergreen growth

Dandelion down

Dandelion down

That’s not a tractor!……

How tractors used to be...before EU subsidies!

How tractors used to be…before EU subsidies!

THIS is a tractor!…..

Tractors since the EU provided agricultural subsidies!

Tractors since the EU provided agricultural subsidies!

I’ve not seen much local wildlife of late. Even those pests, the coypu that live in the   banks of the pond at the chateau at Carrouges have been a rare sight this spring. I did find these guys, though, enjoying their own version of Playstation….

Goats on their Playstation!

Goats on their Playstation!

Everybody loves a holiday, right?  Well, the French certainly do. There are 4 public holidays this month: May Day (1st), VE Day (8th), Feast of the Ascension (14th), Pentecost (24th). Just so no-one feels overworked, the holiday for Pentecost, which falls on a Sunday, is being held on the Monday.

The last two are religious holidays, of course. France is a Catholic country, after all. In that case, why isn’t Good Friday a holiday as well? It’s not celebrated in that cauldron of Catholicism, Italy, either. Odd.

A word about phone calls.  Sometimes it pays to play on the fact that we’re not French. This country is as prone to marketing calls as much as any other. Lunchtime and early evening are the favoured times. Fortunately, the French can tell a foreign accent very easily and 19 times out of 20 the call is cut at the other end even before anyone there has spoken a word. One exception are the calls in English, but with an Indian accent, informing us that they are from Microsoft Windows and they have detected a problem with our computer. Those require a different approach…

In other news….

– The French media are having great fun with the infighting in the Front National between the party’s leader, Marine Le Pen and its founder, her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.  It’s open warfare fought on a public stage. Le Pen père hates the way his daughter is, as he sees it, betraying his far-right principles and taking the F.N. more towards the centre. As you would expect, Charlie Hebdo is having great fun with the feuding family. This is one of the more family-friendly cartoons.

The Le Pen family at war.

The Le Pen family at war.

– The French government has enjoyed a surge in interest from other countries in its multi-role fighter, the Rafale.  After years of no overseas sales, Egypt and India have bought  several and now Qatar has bought 24. Charlie Hebdo has even found one more use for the plane: to stone female adulterers….

I don't think anyone could accuse C.H. of pulling its punches!

I don’t think anyone could accuse C.H. of pulling its punches!

– Unfortunately, the party I voted for in the UK General Election did NOT do well, so now the Conservatives, who did win, are to offer an in/out referendum on EU membership to the people of the country. As an expat I hope that people see sense and opt to remain part of the union, even if it is in dire need of a kick up the posterior, to make it less of a bureaucratic monolith.

– The big news story at the moment is the Cannes Film Festival. Somewhere along the line my invitation to walk the red carpet on La Croisette must have got lost in the mail, so instead, Sue & I contented ourselves with a visit to the local cinema. I look out for movie listings that say “VO” -Version Originelle. That means that if it’s a film originally made in English, then that’s what you will hear and French will only appear in subtitles. So, not only did we see the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game”, an excellent movie about how the British broke the German codes during WWII, but also we received a French lesson by reading  the subtitles.

Meanwhile, back at Cannes, that enduring stalwart of the festival Catherine Deneuve is once again in the spotlight with her latest film. However, just to prove that it can aim at more than one target, Charlie Hebdo has portrayed her in a somewhat less than flattering light on its latest cover. The magazine labels her as a “suspect package”.

Finally, as ever, here are the latest elegant works from Studio Sue……. À bientôt

1920s Ladies in Burgundy...or as I prefer

1920s Ladies in Burgundy…or, as I prefer “I started out on burgundy”, but not many would get that reference.

Lady in fur

Lady in fur

Redhead on chair

Redhead on chair

Foxy Lady!

Foxy Lady!

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