Friday, May 8, 2009

Bread and Cheese

Whenever the subject of holidays in France comes up in a conversation you can guarantee that someone will ask what it is about the country that keeps you coming back. The resulting list usually includes French markets, the wine and the bread.

The big difference between the holidaymaker and the ‘immigrant’ resident (people like us) is that when you live here you are experiencing these 'magical 'things on a daily basis

French markets? Well, they still do what it says on the box. They are a great place to observe the ‘Frenchness’ of the French, to buy fresh fruit and great cheeses, to sit outside a café in the sun and watch the endless round of kissing and handshaking that accompanies every chance encounter, and to try and fathom the unfathomable: how, in a European alliance obsessed with health and safety rules and regulations, do the French get away with it? Live chickens stuffed into plastic carrier bags and taken home on a bus. Cubes of cheese, saussison, jambon cru for free tastings sweating in the sunshine on deli counters, having been delved into by fingers that have could been anywhere (don’t even think about it). Stillyards (you know the old spring weight thingy grandma used to weigh the baby with) dragged out from under a table when you ask for ‘livre’ (500 gms) of scabrous, but organic tomatoes from the old crone selling a handful of veggies from her allotment. And on the subject of these ‘dames anciennes’ …. Why,when you ask for a ‘livre’ which strangely turns out to be a kilo, do they suddenly develop a complete incapacity to understand your French when you protest? Apart from that, and a few other things, markets are pretty much as they have always been, which I suppose is why they still figure large on the holiday ‘lurve’ list .

No 2 on the What- I -Love- About- A -Holiday -In -France agenda is the wine. Hmm…well that’s thorny subject. There’ s been a lot of hot air spouted about French wine in the past, some rather difficult publicity about chemical nasties being added to some supposedly high quality wines, and the famous French obstinacy when it comes to modernising their production techniques. Perhaps if they stopped sneering at New World Wines they might learn something useful. And the day of the pichet of lovely cheap plonk in a cosy bistro are long gone, if they ever existed. Cheap French wine can taste like battery acid – or maybe it’s just the effect it now has on my poor old stomach and serially abused liver.

Ah, but what about the bread? Rack upon rack of golden, ramrod straight baguettes, little flutes, huge couronnes, grey pain de siegle….. surely the mysticism of the boulangerie still remains? Well, within a few months of our permanent arrival we were….dare I say it?....totally fed-up with bread that staled as you looked at it, a village bread shop that sold out before you were out of bed, and the sheer immoral waste of several yards of day-old bread being consigned to the bin. I had been given a bread machine as my new French house –warming present . I am now on my second and they don’t owe me a penny.I can make the sort of bread I like, using ingredients such as whole grains and nuts that are never seen in village boulangerie. True, the supermarkets now sell a bigger range but they are so stuffed with chemicals I'm loath to buy them .

Now Steven Kaplan, a professor of European history at Cornell University in New York has fired a broadside at the traditional baguette on the eve of La Fête du Pain (National Bread Week) in France The Times reports today that after a lifetime of studying — and eating — le pain francais, Professor Kaplan says that he has witnessed with despair the slow death of the crust.
“This is a significant and catastrophic trend,” he says “The crust is what stands between France and the Armageddon of soft, mushy, repugnant loaves that we get in the US and you get in Britain, too. A baguette de tradition should be a “voluptuous pleasure and an exulting moment” that speaks to all our senses, but I am getting hacked off because the basic quality is essentially being thrown away.”
The baker’s response is predictable : they are responding to customer demand, who don’t want a well cooked crust. Well that isn’t the case down here in the Haute Pyrenees. The traditional baguette sold in both high class town boulangeries and village depots de pain is a torpedo shaped loaf which tapers to twisted ends and is as hard as hell.The points on the ends could be classes as lethal weapons. Some even more traditional bakers pull the dough up into little spikes before baking them at nuclear heat for as long as possible, removing the loaves from the oven just before they actually combust. Those you could use as a knuckle duster. It could also be used as a hammer. What you can’t do with it, is actually eat it, without losing several teeth that is.
Mr Kaplan poses an interesting question…’Do the French care any more, do they care about taste? When you eat their tomatoes, their carrots and their merlotised wine, you start to wonder. Are they not collaborating in their own cultural demise?”

Hmm ….Answers on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009


A Vide Grenier in the Village

Most of the time I love my life in France, especially today when the sun is shining, the cows are manfully (or should that be 'cowfully'?)chomping their way through lush, knee high, buttercup- spattered meadows, and the snow is creeping away from the mountain sides.

But into each life a little rain must fall....and we've just had the wettest month since we came to the village five years ago. That I can put up with, as long as it's another five years before we get an April as wet as this last one.

No, its the dark cloud of customer service that really rattles my cage. We've got used to the two hour lock-down experienced in every French town from 12 to 2 pm, so we adjust our retail expeditions accordingly. We've got so used to it that the speeding cars, and log-jams outside the bakeries are a subject of jokes:-
'Oh that car's just shot the lights, it must be five to twelve.'
'Why are those cars parked all over the road? Has there been an accident ? Oh no, there's a boulangerie over there.'
I'm also accustomed to asking for something in a shop to be told they've sold out, and recieving a shrug of the shoulders when I ask when they will be getting it in again. Four or five months ago Captain Sensible wanted two small replacement wheel for his mower . They had them in just the right size...he was overjoyed, small things please him no end,but there was only one in the display unit. After what seemed like hours I found an assistant. I enquired if they would be having more.
'Mais oui, madame.'
' Ah, bon' (standard reply) 'Quand?'
'N' sais pas .'...shrug
Every time we go past the shop, he insists on stopping to see if the wheels are in. I stay in the car....the shop's a cross between a garden centre and a farmers supplies, it smells of fertiliser and rubber wellies and bores me stiff. I watch him go in, and I watch him come out, still no wheels. The grass is almost high enough to graze those cows on.
Today was a totally new customer service failure. As we walked past the tourist board we thought we'd see what was coming up in the next few weeks. Now, if there's one thing we like to do on a sunny Sunday it's to find a car boot sale, or vide grenier'.... 'attic emptying' is the French term for it. We don't buy much, if anything, but it's fun to see some of the ancient French farm implements, and pointless bric-a-brac. It's also a great way to see more of the area we live in. We've found some beautiful little villages we would never have seen if it hadn't been for the lure of a vide genier.
So, I was really pleased to see a calender of forthcoming car boots displayed on the wall in the entrance to the tourist office. Vide greneirs aren't regular events as they are in Britain, a village is only permitted to have one a year (I think this is the rule, but as with all things in France there is conflicting information on this). This makes it difficult to keep track of them.
The list was photocopied onto a sheet of A4, just the thing to stick next to the kitchen calendar.
I go in to the office..
'Avez une calendreir de vide greniers?'
'Oui madame, sur le mur, a l'entree.'
'Je sais,mais je voudrais un à emporter.'
'Vous n'avez plus?'
The long and short of it was.. ..yes, they had a list, it was on the wall as I came in, no, they couldn't let me have one as that was the only one they had.
If I'd been in England I would have said;-
'It's a photocopy, for God's sake. How much effort is it going to take to run me one off?'

Sometimes, for the sake of international relations it's a good job my sarcasm doesn't kick in so quickly in a foreign language.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Love Thy Neighbour

A French Refugee Camp for Spanish Refugees


Spanish Refugees entering France February 1939

A couple of days after my last blog, on the death of the trades union stalwart Jack Jones, I read a long article in a local journal on the plight of the Spanish Civil War Refugees who flooded into France in February 1939. After a four year struggle Spanish Republican forces had been overcome, and General Franco declared himself El Caudillo, a position he held for nearly 40 years.

It is the 70th anniversary of that great flood of humanity that poured over the Pyrenees into South West France, known as la Retirada. There have been a crop of books and newspaper articles produced in honour of this anniversary, and as most of them are written for French consumption they are slightly skewed (to say the least) in their analysis of the event. I suppose the expression ‘distance lends enchantment’ can be applied to this reportage. After all, seventy years is a long time, and those, like Jack Jones, who were eyewitnesses to the events of the Civil War are becoming scarcer as these old combatants die off.

In too many cases the warm welcome that the Spanish soldiers and civilians had anticipated from their neighbour was sadly lacking. Instead , the soldiers were immediately marched off to concentration camps on arrival , and those unfortunate civilians who had no friends or family to offer them shelter found themselves in miserable tented camps in the back-end of a bitter winter.

From the last few months of 1938 to February 1939, something like half a million Republican refugees crossed the border into the Basque region of France, where 17,000 were herded into the concentration camp at Gurs; and into the Pyrenees Oriental on the Mediterranean coast where the camp at Prat de Mollo, just inland from the fashionable town of Collioure, was a sea of displaced humanity.

In the months that followed this exodus more than 20,000 emigrated, by various means to America,but when Hitler invaded France thousands were sent to German concentration camps. Many of those that managed to evade the Nazi round-ups joined the French Resistance and continued their struggle against fascism.

The Civil War itself drew sympathisers from all over the world. One of the many women who volunteered to join the International Brigades as nurses was a girl from. England. - Lillian Urmston.

Born in 1914, Lillian lived in Stalybridge and attended St. Paul's Elementary School. She trained as a nurse at Lake Hospital in Ashton-under-Lyne and at the age of 22, in 1936 Lillian applied to the Spanish Medical Aid Unit after reading how Government troops were short of doctors and nurses. In June 1937 she left for the Spanish Medical Aid in London where she and another nurse left for Paris and journeyed through France to the Aragon front in Spain, where they rendered medical assistance to injured government troops and civilians.
In September 1938, Lillian returned to England to raise funds for medical supplies and food for the wounded in Spain. She was sent with an ambulance, from which she addressed many groups in surrounding towns. Some were very sceptical, even when they saw the ambulance, but she had deliberately left it as it was; blood stained inside.
In response, the people of Stalybridge started the ‘Nurse Urmston Fund’ in support of the Spanish Medical Aid Unit. There were house to house collections and money was donated at various meetings; the fund itself raised approximately £700.
Lillian accompanied some of the refugees into France where she herself was interned and she recorded her thoughts in a collection of writings from women who served at the front in the Civil War:

The things seen during the last days of our retreat from Spain, and the experiences undergone in the concentration camp of St Cyprian, near Perpignan, I shall never forget... The last few days spent in Spain, working close to the front, yet within sight of the Pyrenees, were utterly ghastly. Operating work was done, and efficiently, just inside houses by the roadside. In innumerable instances, we came upon families of refugees wounded whilst fleeing to safety. We cared for them and kept them with us if they were seriously wounded... On the late evening of the 8th we received orders to go into France. Although sad at leaving our Spain, we all realised that this had to be and looked forward to a rapid reorganisation in France which would result in our going back to another sector of Spain to carry on the struggle against Fascist aggression.
But we were soon disillusioned... We were led to believe that France had opened her frontiers to receive our soldier refugees and wounded, thus preventing a complete massacre. We expected sympathy and humane treatment. We had neither. The vigilance of hundreds of armed guards made sure that all people entering France entered the concentration camp. Ours was a stretch of sandy desert land, surrounded by the usual formidable barbed wire. Wounded men were even without treatment for about six days. We were not allowed to tend our sick comrades. One small spring supplied water for about 15,000 to 20,000people. Food was not supplied until the fifth day... Men attempting to dodge out to buy bread and send letters were treated brutally by the guards. Our comrades received bayonet wounds at the hands of these soldiers of the French army.
My friends turned to me and said: 'Would we be treated like this in England?' And I wonder, would they? Spanish soldiers told our men to return to Franco Spain and then they would get away from all this. Our soldiers felt deeply about this, and called out to those men who were collected to be sent to Barcelona, deploring their conduct. Then the camp resounded with 'Viva la Republica! Viva nuestra Independencia!'

Extract from Lillian Urmston from the book ‘Voice of Women’