….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
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.
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.
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
like that in the fields…
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.
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 a 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!