31st October 2008

A shocking situation occurred yesterday when we were driving into Montauban, the capital of the Tarn et Garonne region, for a meal with some friends at our favourite restaurant, Les Relais d'Alsacienne. Although it's hardly 'down the road' for us, we all thought it was worth the 50 mile journey. The route is very picturesque along the D115 river valley road, through numerous old tunnels that trace a time when the road used to be a railway line.
We were almost at the junction with the A20 autoroute when a situation occurred which shocked all of us. A car coming in the opposite direction clipped a car which was jutting out of a side road, spun out of control on the wet road, momentarily flew through the air right in front of us and landed nose first in the ditch on our right! It was very surreal - almost virtual reality. No noise or screeching of tires, just a silent black car flipping up in the air and landing oh-so-slowly right in front of our car. I was driving. I pulled up and parked a little further on to a safe spot. In France, it is illegal not to stop and help at such times. By then, our friends' car and others following them had also stopped. The woman in the clipped car was O.K. so everyone went to try and help the man in the ditch. But, no-one could open the door. The man inside was conscious, sprawled across the front seats. People shouted to him that they had called the emergency services. (In France, the emergency number from a mobile is 112, annoyingly different from fixed-lines). It was surprising that, although the man looked O.K., he wasn't trying to get out, just continued to use his mobile phone. If it had been me, I wouldn't bother with the phone - I'd just want to get out of there in case the whole car blew up or something. But everyone felt that it wouldn't be a good idea to try to move him in case there was a neck injury. Eventually, we felt we'd done all we could so drove off again. We could hear the approaching sirens and felt that our lack of French-language skills probably wouldn't help the situation as there were plenty of other local witnesses at the scene.
Scary though. You never know what's around the corner - literally.

30th October 2008

French Health minister Roselyne Bachelot says she wants to reform the 1991 Evin law that regulates alcohol abuse. Dating from a time before the internet, it doesn't allow for promotion on the web - but now that's all changed apparently. For me personally, alcohol means just one thing: French wine. In cafes and bars over here it's usually served in small (petit) and large (ballon) sizes for around 1 - 2 euros and can also be ordered in a quarter-litre (25cl) or half-litre pitcher (pichet) for around 3 and 5 euros respectively. You usually order simply red (rouge), pink (rose) or white (blanc). But don't do as Him indoors always threatens 'I'll have it mixed!'. At home when I'm cooking for the two of us, I do something I would never have done in the U.K. Instead of using cooking oil, I use wine - lots of it. At the local Intermarche supermarket I buy 2 litre plastic bottles of vin rouge (just for cooking with) for 1.50 euros and use it liberally on everything, but especially chicken and rice dishes. It tastes superb, is cheap and I'm sure is healthier. But afterwards, I must remember not to drive! Another thing I use here is milk. It's great for basting scallop potatoes and garlic in the oven. I use a pastry brush and brush each slice with ordinary milk and then dust with black pepper before putting in the oven. Again, I avoid using oil in a desperate attempt to cut down my weight. Not sure if that works, but what milk does do is leave a crispy, tasty coating on the potatoes and garlic - which gives extra flavour to, say, bland fish dishes. Of course, the best wine of all is champagne - always great for celebrations, but at around 12 euros for a large bottle over here it's not too dear to cheer you up when the world gets you down. Cheap at half the price. Keep smiling and enjoy your life.

29th October 2008

I've always thought that men can't cope with pain as well as women. Yesterday proved that Him indoors is no exception. It was time for a trip to the dentist. Of course, knowing him as I do, I expected the usual array of jokes nonetheless. Tell them I want an appointment at tooth-hurty (2.30). No! So, we set off for the picturesque Cordes sur Ciel, a beautiful bastide village in our region, where our local dentist is situated. The terrain all around the cite is very high, stony lanes impossibly steep leading up in a circuitous route, past the inevitable ancient castle, high up into the hills. But the day wasn't the day for sight-seeing, even though Him indoors said we should look for the plaque on the wall!
There are excellent dentistes throughout France, around 330 dentists per 100,000 inhabitants, but few in rural areas offer an emergency service. We were lucky to find one who speaks English, as most don't. However, 'Aaargh!' is the same in any language. Inside, the surgery was scrupulously clean. We found the salle d'attente waiting room and Him indoors insisted on practising his French through the tinny intercom on the wall. C'est Monsieur.......... A few seconds later, after some tinny shuffling of papers, came Oui, attendre un instant.... After the inevitable half-an-hour wait, trying to understand the many French magazines chronicling the Boer War (!), H was summoned by the tinny intercom. I waited for the inevitable Aaargh sounds, but surprisingly all was quiet. Maybe Madame la dentiste wasn't looking down in the mouth. Oh no, it's now getting to me too. Soon H came out, holding his jaw. What did she say? 'She said my tooth is cracked and I've got to come back again to have it taken out.' Oh no. 'Yes. I asked her why and she said it was normal at my age. But I told her 'all the other teeth are the same age and they don't hurt!'
Some things never change.

28th October 2008

Every Saturday morning when we walk to our tiny village market, I like to walk past the 15C castle and through the crumbling stone arch which heralds the ancient walled cite within. Either side of the arch are stone ledges at sitting level, their surfaces worn away by weary people taking a breather. Just above the right-hand ledge, looking out over the river valley in the distance, is a man-made vertical slit in the stone where, many centuries ago, brave men poked their bows and arrows in the war of the French v the Cathars. One of the original Cathar parfait vows was to live 'in community'. It was one of the great strengths of this region back in the 13C that the Cathar church functioned so smoothly in the heart of the Aveyron and Languedoc regions - until, that is, they encountered the inevitable 'tribal warfare' from elsewhere.
Today, as we enter the narrow cobbled street, each side is still framed by crazy, leaning houses that used to house the blacksmith and horse farrier. The windows either side of the street are so close, the occupants wouldn't have to lean out far to shake hands with one another. But shake hands with each other they do. Although yesteryear's wars were hard-fought and bloody, the eventual peace in this region benefited everyone.
I, myself, being a lateral-thinker, look forward to the day when we are all members of Earth, have an Earth flag, an Earth language and Earth currency. Only then can the world live in peace together. That is, until Earth has to fight alien invaders from another planet. That's me - ever the worrier!

27th October 2008

I am always intrigued by how the French deal with their mainly Catholic faith and the secular nature of the government. So it was interesting to see the reaction of locals to the death of Sister Emmanuelle who died last Monday at the age of 99. She was a Franco-Belgian nun, who like Mother Therese, was known for her work with the poor in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere around the world. In her last minutes on this earth, a representative from ASMAE, an aid organisation she founded, said that Emmanuelle spoke of being tired but was not suffering from any particular illness. She died in her sleep overnight - something we all wish for ourselves when the time comes.
It's amazing that more and more people are living to a hundred these days. Sister Emmanuel was born Madeleine Cinquin in Brussels on Nov. 16, 1908 to a French father and a Belgian mother and spent her childhood in Paris, London and Brussels. In 1931 at the age of 22 she took her vows to become a nun at the Notre Dame de Sion congregation, choosing the name Sister Emmanuelle, meaning "God is with us". In 1980, she founded ASMAE, an organisation she described as "secular and apolitical", to provide health and education assistance to poor children and their families. Today, ASMAE is active in nine countries worldwide. Noted in particular for her work with garbage workers in the slums of Cairo, in 1993 her superiors asked her to leave Egypt to retire to France. A mass will be given in her memory in Paris. No date has been set as of yet.
And yet the locals living near us are quite reticent about their own faith. Every so often our local hardware store starts stocking pots and pots of chrysanthemums, which the locals buy to make pilgrimages to the cemetery up the road from us. But never a word to anyone. We just see them quietly buying the plants and that's all. I must admit I do like this way of living: keeping your personal faith to yourself, praying quietly at home if that is your wish, but expecting the nation's government to keep its secularity at all times. Hear hear.

Bruno - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

One sunny day Bruno and his master, or was it the other way round, went for a walk up the stony path around the back of our house to a very quite country lane which runs in front of a large densely-wooded copse. I had been used to taking Bruno off the lead, training him that I always had his favourite bits of cheese in my pocket, which he could have as long as he always returned to me instantly on command.
This particular day was the first time that this manoeuvre would be attempted by Bruno and his master. The lead was duly unfastened and the dog went haring off, as usual, into the wooded copse. In due course, his master called him to heel. No response. After several calls and whistles, his master, not known for his phlegmatic temperament, began to get rather irate.
‘Come here you little bugger.’
Eventually, Bruno was spotted chasing a rabbit or some such and his master edged ever nearer, the trusty Rambo lead in his hands. Just when the task was almost completed, Bruno went haring off again, this time along the shady lane towards the farm fifty yards away. In the fields which border our property, the farmer’s flock of woolly sheep and goats grazed peacefully, contentedly munching on their daily diet of grassy forage and hoary tree branches which were pulled down to their level by several intrepid goats.
‘No, no Bruno. Come here,’ in increasing velocity. In response Bruno, with a wild, wall-eyed Marty Feldman look to his eyes, ducked his head underneath the farmer’s electrified fence wire and galloped towards the grazing herds. In France, farmers are legally entitled to shoot any animal that endangers the lives of their flocks. Back at the house I had heard the commotion. I had been washing up in the kitchen which faces the distant back lane and with mounting alarm took in the scene unfolding directly in front of my horrified gaze. I dashed outside, frantically pulling on my garden shoes and chased up the lane.
By now, the farmer had rushed outside and was running towards Bruno who had by this time managed to do a rugby tackle on an unfortunate sheep, felling him heavily to the ground. By the time both men had arrived breathless on the scene, Bruno was busy biting one of the creature’s back legs. The farmer and the dog’s master between them managed to pull the now salivating dog off the poor sheep and Bruno’s trusty lead was firmly clipped to his collar again.
‘In France your dog must always have his lead on, always,’ said the irate farmer, even though we saw his own dog regularly wandering up and down the lane, clearly having to exercise himself. Anyway, at least that was what we understood of his statement. There seemed to be a few ‘merdes’ and other unfathomable words which our dictionary didn’t for some reason contain.
Sheepish faces all round.
Thank God the farmer had not used his gun, but he looked none too pleased. What a start to my dreams of making friends with our new neighbours. That evening, the offending dog and his master in disgrace in the sous-sol (cellar), I collected our windfall of sweet plums from our garden and took a carrier-bag full around to the farmer’s wife. I had noticed that in this southerly part of the world, the fruit crop is plentiful but ripens much earlier than in the UK. The farmer’s wife was busy in her garden, evidently planting and weeding. I coughed to attract her attention, whilst leaning on her garden wall. She looked up.
Je suis desolé pour mon mari et pour mon chien. Les deux sont maintenant dans le sous-sol.’
The farmer’s wife stared at me, incredulous. Surely I hadn’t meant that the dog and his master had been sent in disgrace into the dark dungeon that was the sous-sol? She suddenly started laughing until tears streamed down her face. Her bony, liver-spotted fingers scrabbled in her apron pocket and hastily dabbed at her face with a well-scrubbed handkerchief. Another neighbour came over, an old lady of over eighty years, whose large whitewashed stone house was just discernible from our kitchen window. The farmer’s wife gabbled something pretty incomprehensible to her, and she too laughed hysterically. Oh well. At least they hadn’t shooed me off their land. So what if we have become the amusement spectacle of the region? I handed over my peace offering, and there were smiles all around. I told them as best I could that in future there would be no more running of the dog without a lead.
Quel catastrophe, mais c’est la vie!

25th October 2008

France seems to like having special 'weeks'. Last week was a new one - the Semaine de Gout - a national event aimed at promoting kids' taste-buds. Sounds like the producers have heard of our own Jamie Oliver's food programmes. (Let's hope the kids aren't encouraged to watch Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen series, or they'll be learning something entirely different - *!!!). Strangely, in a land famed for dismissing anything culinary coming from the other side of the Channel, there's a new kid on the block in France. I'm talking about Trish Deseine, a 44 years old, Irish divorced mother of four. The daughter of a beef farmer and a teacher from Ballyclare, Co Antrim, she moved to her sixth floor Paris flat after meeting her French husband at university, tried cooking when she lost her job as a press officer and worked her way to the top of Gallic gastronomy. She now writes a bimonthly cookery column for French Elle and her practical recipes have been acclaimed by French dinner-party hosts weary of complicated recipes by Michelin-starred chefs.
This Irishwoman may have taught the French how to throw a dinner party, but getting them to shed some of their many other prejudices may take rather more time.
P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's episode of the 'Bruno' serial.

24th October 2008

In July it was much reported around the world that film-star Angelina Jolie had given birth to twins in France. It meant that she and fellow film-star Brad Pitt now have six children, the family dividing their time between their homes in Correns in the Var and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The big question here: should such a megastar couple be allowed to claim France's generous family benefits? Getting out the calculator, even with their income levels, as parents of 6 children they are probably entitled to welfare benefits of 1,724 euros per month. Such a shame, though, that they'll miss out on the prime a la naissance because their income as a couple is above the threshhold of 80,234 euros p.a. But they can claim 648 euros towards the cost of a nanny. That's all right, then. It has long been known that France is a great place for large families, famille nombreuse, as the combination of high family allowances and other benefits (including lower taxes) encourage couples to have more children - as we've seen above! As well as maternity benefits, France even offers a 'school start allowance' and a 'parental education allowance', amongst many others. In direct contrast, much to our gloom, there are absolutely no benefits to which we, as English retired French-residents, can claim. We aren't eligible to claim a French pension or any other French welfare benefits, because we've never contributed to the French social security system, but neither can we claim English pension credits because we no longer live in the UK! That means that, although we must be grateful to receive the standard, miniscule, UK pension (having paid UK national insurance all our working lives), there are no top-ups at all - not even winter fuel allowance. Oh well. Onwards and upwards.

23rd October 2008

Do you ever ask yourself 'what am I doing with my life?' Am I really happy? Analysts say that, despite current economic woes, improvements in prosperity over the last 30 years have had absolutely no effect on reported levels of life satisfaction or happiness at all. Moving to France seemed to happen for us like a stack of leaning dominoes. One minute we were in England, the next..... It all made me think about the consequences of our actions. George Bernard Shaw said he didn't want to be a feverish clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making him happy. Many seem to live their lives like that. So, what's the solution? Look deep within yourself. It's no good chasing around the world, if your inner demons are still there to cause havoc wherever you go. Forget your childhood with all its disillusionments, regrets and irritations. Many entrepreneurs had childhoods like that but overcome them by recognising their own talents and using them proactively. They didn't expect others to help them. But, at the same time, look for a less driven, more fulfilling way of life, even if you don't have that expensive car. That's what we like about France, whatever our original motives were in coming here. At last, it's no longer necessary to worry about the Joneses next door. The world has moved on, and so have we.

22nd October 2008

This week a new phrase has entered the French vocabulary - la semaine bleue. What is it? It seems that it's a new French initiative to celebrate the burgeoning numbers of retired and senior citizens. I'm not sure about the 'blue' part though; reminds me of all those blue rinses back home. But, on the whole, I'm all in favour of recognising this sizeable part of the population. In our village, the local seniors' club, V.A.L. Joyeux, decided to celebrate this annual weekly event, naming its 2008 theme Jeunes et vieux, connectez vous. Good idea, but in practice the only youngsters connecting with the old at yesterday's celebration were the waiters! It was a jolly meal though. I always enjoy these kind of events, with lots of small courses so that if you don't care for one of them, you just wait awhile, and sure enough another comes along - just like the buses back home really. The wine was readily replenished all afternoon, literally keeping him indoors' spirits up. And, la creme de la creme is always the entertainment. There was one singer, in particular. She wasn't much to look at - tiny, rotund, with grey hair - but her voice! It was Edith Piaf all over again. Merveillaise. It made me wonder what would've happened if she'd walked onto the X-Factor stage in London. Would they have dismissed her out of hand merely by how she looked? That's really why I like writing: because most people don't get to see what you look like, talent might just out in the end. Chance for me yet then.

21st October 2008

I feel more European since we came to live in France. Britain seems so isolated now, somehow - cut-off by a stretch of water. Watching the French TV news, we get a far more balanced view of what is happening in other countries, but particularly elsewhere in the EU. When did English TV news cover a country like Belgium, for example? Never. Of course, you'll all be shouting at me: what is Belgium for? Not just for the beer, surely? It's a question which many outside its borders have jokingly asked themselves. So, I was amazed to find out recently that even the Belgians are doing so as well, and in deadly earnest. They've seriously started asking themselves whether rich northern Flanders, with its 6 million Flemish speaking people, should break away? There is certainly no love lost between the linguistic rivals in Belgium. It seems that although the Walloons (who speak a French-like dialect) and the Flemings (who speak an entirely different language - a bit more like German) are happy to sup the same beer, how on earth do they understand each other? But the main problem is the ridiculous six governments – at federal, regional, linguistic and community (for the 70,000 German speaking community too small to get their own region) level.
So, what can this tiny country do? The first logical option is to split. The irrational solution is to add yet more bureaucracy to accommodate the different groups. Although I can't believe the people themselves want to split, perhaps the 3.5 million Francophone Walloons should simply join France. Of course, Sarkozy himself couldn't suggest that for fear of inadvertently, but literally, moving into Lebensraum territory. Heaven forbid - especially with his own family roots. History sometimes moves in mysterious ways.

20th October 2008

We knew it would happen. The economic crisis, which until now seemed only to be affecting those movers and shakers on Wall Street, is now actually affecting the ordinary man in the boulevard. That awful phrase 'negative equity' is affecting everyone and banks have started to repossess. So, the crooks of this world are having to dream up more and more scams to prop up their finances. Even the French President was affected last month when Parisian thieves obtained confidential numbers and passwords to withdraw, undetected, regular small slices of his annual salary of £195,000. I wonder how he noticed. But what can the ordinary man and small businesses do about their own problems? France has never been famous for customer service, but something appears to be happening. Some estate agents feeling the pinch have begun to offer online discounts, insurance and offers to pay hefty notaires' fees as the slump continues. Developers Kaufman & Broad recently put some new houses up for sale with a discount of 5-12%, attracting 500,000 visitors to its internet site. All over France prospective house buyers are being inundated with incentives as estate agents suffer a dramatic slump in business. There's even an insurance policy called securite-revente. In the event of the buyer being forced to sell the house at a loss within 2 years of buying it, the policy will apparently add financial protection. Methinks: there's bound to be small-print which will prevent them from paying out when the time comes, but that's me being cynical again.....or shall we call it realistic from a lifetime's experiences! But, if you're not buying, if at all possible ride out the current economic storm by paring down your outgoings to a minimum. It's bound to all be over within a few years, isn't it? Then, if necessary, downsize and use the capital to cut down the highest of your debts. I know - easier said than done. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.....

Bruno - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Part 2.
Uh, je cherche un chien.’
‘Oui. Va devant, je te suis.

‘What did she say?’
‘Not sure, so let’s go ahead and she’ll probably follow us.’
We followed the noise and soon were faced with the most heartrending sight. Dozens of small cages, each housing about six dogs of single sex, each dog jumping up and wagging frantically as we passed. It felt that each dog was saying to me: ‘Take me, take me.’ And I wanted to, desperately. But I knew that the practical side would win in the end. We could probably only cope with one. A dog is for life, not just for Xmas.
In the end we chose a handsome gun-dog with similar colouring to Brandy of old. He was a long-legged spaniel with mercifully uncut tail. Madame told us that she thought he was around two years old. The vets gave them all a check-up on arrival, making notes on their condition and deducing their likely age from their teeth. Good job they didn't look at mine then.
We had one or two questions. ‘What is his history? How did you come to get him in the first place?’
How did you come to fall in the water? I didn’t come to fall in, I came to do some fishing…
Madame replied that, as with many of their dogs, his history was unknown. With gun dogs it is sometimes the case that, for one reason or another, a dog fails to obey the master’s commands or fails to do a good enough job in the field. She told us that it is quite common for people to abandon their dogs for a variety of reasons. She said that around one hundred thousand dogs are abandoned by their owners in France every year, many after the hunting season is over or at the start of the long summer holidays. She and her staff were always kept busy rounding up stray dogs, bringing them to the pound and ensuring they get checked over and tattooed in the ear. It is a requirement that all dogs in France must be tattooed with an identity number inside one of their ears (tatouage). This enables owners to quickly find their lost pets and it also prevents a vaccination certificate or similar from being used for more than one dog. She told us that our dog’s identity number would be kept in a central computer, so that if we should subsequently lose our pet, we can contact her.
Looking around Madame’s office we spotted several items that we would need immediately, so purchased from her a sturdy ‘Rambo’ lead – our dog looked pretty strong to me – plus two metal dishes for his food and water. After completing all the formalities, including our personal details which she immediately inputted onto the computer, I paid her the required seventy-five euros and led my companion to the car. The husband followed.
The dog stood on the pavement and despite several ‘Hups’ from us, refused to jump into the back of the car.
‘Maybe he’s bilingual?’
‘Yes. Il n’ecoute ni en anglais ni en français!’
It was true. He didn’t listen to us in either language. In the end we managed to hump him up and over the sill, nearly giving us both hernias into the bargain. The dog stood resolute and dignified in the back as we slammed the rear door down firmly, returned to our seats and accelerated away. Behind us retreated the upsetting whines of the unfortunate dogs we had to leave behind.
Back at home, the dog’s new master took him on a tour of the premises, walking round and round in the hope that he (the dog) would perform. What we didn’t realise, though, was that ever after, the dog would think that this would be his new job: parading round and round the house, like some sort of resident caretaker.
We named him Bruno.
Over the next few months we discovered that Bruno only liked to be outside. He remains intensely nervous of coming indoors, leading us to think that a previous owner might have enticed him inside and then slammed the door on him, imprisoning him for hours or days on end.
Little did we know the sort of adventures that were to follow.......
..........Continued next Sunday

18th October 2008

There's a village in the Var region, on the southern Mediterranean coast, which has recently made a surprising change. Shops there are accepting francs as currency again. The trend was begun by baker Nathalie Lepeltier, who says that people still have a lot of old notes at home, and the last series of franc notes can be exchanged at the Banque de France until 2012. Apparently all the businesses in Collobrieres, the village in question, are now taking part in the experiment and Mme Lepeltier has agreed to collect all their francs and to send them to the bank. I can't imagine that happening in the UK - too much chance of the collector disappearing abroad with all that cash, I'd have thought! But then I'm an English cynic and have lived a bit. Anyway, all the shops in Collobrieres now have pictures up showing the notes that are allowed: the last series which includes 500s with a picture of Pierre and Marie Curie, 200s with Gustave Eiffel, 100s with Cezanne, 50s with Saint-Exupery and 20s with Debussy. All said they didn't like the Euro notes anyway - all those pictures of buildings no-one's heard of. They much prefer the colourful personalities pictured on the old notes. Apparently four out of 10 households in France still work out their budgets in terms of francs, then translate painfully. Some still even think in ancien francs, the currency that went out in 1960 (when a hundred old francs became one new one). Although elsewhere in the EU they have euro 'cents', it's actually still 'centimes' in France now, avoiding confusion with the word for 100. The name of Madame's Collobrieres shop, Le Pain de Jadis, actually means 'the bread of yesteryear'. It made me think of the current Hovis advert on English TV, with scenes of wartime neighbourliness. When times are hard, take people back to an airbrushed past when everything was good, neighbours actually spoke to one another and everyone was content with what they had. Trouble is, the dream soon fades when you're faced with the hard reality of the present again, but it's nice while it lasts.
P.S. Don't miss Part 2 tomorrow of the Bruno serial.

17th October 2008

One of our highlights every day is seeing the little yellow La Poste van scuttling down our lane. The lady who drives it zooms up to our gate-side green postbox at 10.30 a.m. six days a week without fail, giving us a cheery wave as she posts something mysterious for us. Our driveway, like our life, is a long and winding one so it's always good exercise to walk down and investigate, even if it's nothing special. I wonder, though, what's going to happen in the future as a special commission has been set up in Paris to discuss the future of La Poste against privatisation plans. La Poste is staffed by French civil servants (fonctionnaires); there aren't any yet run by private businesses as in the UK. But like most locals, I like La Poste just as it is. I like the yellow vans, yellow post office signs and yellow postboxes set prominently in every village and town. The post office logo itself though looks like a blue paper aeroplane on a yellow background. Lately there've also been strange American-looking signs proclaiming: I (red-heart) L.A. Many people have been puzzled, wondering why La Poste loves Los Angeles. But it's the new Livret A - a high-interest post office account - they're promoting in an attempt at modernisation. Of course, trouble's already brewing with the Post Office unions. General secretary for Trade Union CFDT Francois Chereque recently said: 'We have to have a public debate on the matter otherwise we cannot understand it or accept it'. But there's the usual stand-off between him and the head of La Poste Jean-Paul Bailly, who said the company would be open to full competition, without fail, on Jan 1st 2011. So, battle-lines are drawn and boxing gloves are at the ready. Pity. I like living in my own little toytown village. You remember Trumpton on children's TV: Drew, Drew, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub...or something. Perhaps the days of our delightful little yellow post van are over. Quel catastrophe!

16th October 2008

So, unemployment in Britain has reached catastrophic proportions yet again. I remember just after Mrs Thatcher took power when unemployment passed three million for the first time since the 1930s depression. One in eight people was out of work. I'm also old enough to remember the '70s Winter of Discontent when electricity supplies were rationed in the UK and binmen and even some gravediggers downed tools. And here we are again. But people can be surprisingly resilient. Some, particularly those with a latent artistic talent have moved to France to try, for the first time, something new. But like everything else, it's not easy. There are two English ladies who work as artists in the Lot, not far from here near Cahors. One works as an interior illustrator and portrait artist and the other has won awards with the Royal Society of Oil Painters and is a member of the Societe des Pastellistes de France. This entitles you to run classes to supplement your income and to hang your work up on public display. Like most painters here, they came to this area to get the space to paint, finding France an inspirational place for colour. (They're a sentimental pair, always full of emulsion, but we'll gloss over that!)But the registration process has really tightened up over the past few years. English-speaking artists established professionally and resident in France are self-employed workers unless they have a binding contract of employment. They must register at the Chambre de Metiers of the departement where they live and apply for a SIREN reg. no. If in difficulty with all the administration, the Franco-British Chamber of Commerce can help. The best thing of all to do, though, as some of our friends here have discovered, is to simply come to France when you've retired. Then, you can simply enjoy your artistic talent, whether it be painting, writing or roller-skating(!), without all those hassles. (As Him indoors would say: no-one asked Van Gogh for anything, because he said he'd got one 'ere!). Enjoy your life, whatever your talent. C'est la joie de vivre.

15th October 2008

Some time ago I wrote a book called 'Je ne regrette rien', which explored how people's minds and political attitudes can change, particularly during times of conflict and war. In France in 1940, before the tides of war swung the allies' way, the then President (Philippe Petain) went with the views of most of the country at that time in thinking that Germany was going to win. Better to side with Hitler then, if France was going to survive. Then everything changed, including people's attitudes. It was interesting, therefore, to read a recent story about the family of a Jersey man shot by the Nazis after joining the French Resistance. The descendants of John Soyer have now been invited to Brehel in Normandy, where he is buried, to commemorate his heroic deeds during the Resistance. The family had been tracked down by a 92 year-old lady, who had helped M. Soyer all that time ago. The residents of Brehel organised a flag-lowering ceremony in Normandy in M. Soyer's honour and renamed an apartment block in the town Residence John Soyer. As Petain himself would have said: how war and conflict change things! It's as if every so often someone stirs around the whole mixing-bowl world with a giant spoon, changing our mindsets in totally different directions. I wonder if the current conflation of serious economic downturn plus the possibility of the first black US President, will have the same effect on us all, changing our views in previously unimaginable ways. We'll just have to wait and see.

14th October 2008

In studying the French over the last few years I've noticed how insular they are, even worse than the Japanese and that they are generally impatient with foreigners - especially with us! But at least we English don't seem to be the butt of their few jokes, these being reserved for the Swiss and the Belgians, whom they poke fun at due to probable jealousy over their superior cultural heritage and more refined French accents. It's strange how we all need someone else to make fun of. I think I heard that the Americans use those in West Virginia for some reason? Certainly the red-necks anyway. But in all the world, I love the English approach to humour the most: self-deprecating irony at its best. Take a look at this:

Now you’re 60:

No one expects you to run - anywhere.
People call at 8pm and ask, Did I wake you?
People no longer view you as a hypochondriac.
There is nothing left to learn the hard way.
Things you buy now won't wear out.
You can eat supper at 4pm.
You can live without sex but not your glasses.
You get into heated arguments about pension plans.
You no longer think of speed limits as a challenge.
You quit trying to hold your stomach in no matter who walks into the room.
You sing along with elevator music.
Your eyes won't get much worse.
Your investment in health insurance is finally beginning to pay off.
Your joints are more accurate meteorologists than the weather report.
Your secrets are safe with your friends because they can't remember them either.
Your supply of brain cells is finally down to manageable size.
You can't remember who gave you this list,
or who you sent it to, so prepare to be told a few times, that you've sent this before.

Did you laugh? You must be as old as me, then!

13th October 2008

'It's a scandalous attack on 500 years of French history', say the masses. Yet more economic woes? No. Someone has actually had the temerity to tinker with their beloved language. What chutzpah. Yes, France is in deep shock because dictionary 'Le Petit Robert' has relaxed its language rules. In the most sweeping linguistic reform in France for centuries, the nation's premier dictionary has cast aside tradition to allow alternative spellings for thousands of words. Accents have become optional, consonants can be doubled on a whim and hyphens will float in and out of literary texts under the changes imposed by Alain Rey, the linguist responsible for the opus. “We have to make spelling simpler,” he said. “It's too complicated and it's not surprising that schoolchildren have trouble learning it.” Well yes. It causes a few problems for we immigrants of a certain age too! A few weeks ago, for a bit of fun, I went along to a local village hall to participate in one of France's annual, national, dictee competitions. It was all very formal, with sealed envelopes which were opened at a precise time all over the country. I don't think I did very well, the problems, as usual, being all those feminine endings, accents and tenses. But the hall had its usual number of local French all sitting down to concentrate hard. Can you imagine that happening in England? But I've long noticed different French spellings anyway, e.g. clé or clef (for key), or imbecillite or imbecilite....enough said. However, the initiative has sparked a furious row in a country that has clung to la langue française as a pillar of its identity ever since King François I made it the official language in 1539. The controversy has now spread to internet forums, where users have denounced the arrival of text-message terms at the heart of Gallic culture.
So, how are we old codgers dealing with all this? Him indoors will still use the pictures in his Brico depot catalogue to point to things he needs. That is, of course, until he's suffering from something unmentionable and then it's poor old-suffering me, of course, who needs to translate in the Pharmacie. Nothing much changes here.

Bruno - extracted from 'Pensioners in Paradis'

Part 1.
Thirty years ago when the children were small, we had a gorgeous pedigree Cavalier spaniel called Brandy. With her enormous soft eyes she was a beautiful creature but, probably because of much in-breeding, was of limited intelligence. However, in Brandy’s latter years I had by then returned to full-time work but always felt guilty at having to leave the dog inside for most of the day. Himself always seemed to hanker after a dog like the one he had as a child; one that had a bit of personality, intelligence and big enough to suit our new wide-open spaces.
So, one sunny day, several months after we had arrived in France, we decided that we would very much like to give a dog a good home with us. After asking our neighbours, we soon discovered that for this area, there was only one place to look: the local SPA (Société Protectrice des Animaux) in Montauban.
Although France is a nation of dog-lovers with around seventeen dogs to every hundred people, many French dogs are kept outdoors and some are almost permanently penned. We had to admit we have never seen anyone in our village actually walk their dogs, and we knew that many people, especially the farmers, kept them merely for practical purposes, to guard their homes or to catch vermin.
But we are English, and you know what that means. The dog will probably be treated by me as a grandchild-substitute and probably hugged to death. Anyway, once the idea took route, I was ready and eager to go and buy one. He wasn’t so sure but once I’d got an idea in my head…..
He did the driving, I was chief navigator comme d’habitude. This meant that we kept to the right side of the road but that we usually took the scenic route. Today was no exception. Many were the puzzled fermiers in the middle of nowhere who were accosted with the question: ‘Où est le chenil pour chiens?’ But eventually, after much reversing and skidding on obscure farm tracks, the dogs literally found us: we heard the barking from afar. As we approached, the sound became louder and louder. There must have been hundreds of the poor creatures in there.
We parked outside and clanged open the heavy metal gate. Madame was inside the entrance hut, inputting data onto a screen. Technology seems to have infiltrated just about everywhere and appears in the most unlikely of places, like right here. My first question: ‘Parlez-vous anglais?’ usually meets with a polite ‘Non, désolé.’ This was no exception. But in situations like this, with the two of us as likely paying customers, it’s amazing what sign language and combined efforts can do to effect a comprehensive understanding.
‘Uh, je cherche un chien.’
to be continued.......................

11th October 2008

Driving in France is a whole new experience. However, as we've discovered, most French drivers invent their own rules. I must admit to being terrified of being stopped by the gendarmes, not just because of language difficulties or worried about that glass of red wine I drank at lunch, but because of our international driving licence. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, we ordered it specially before leaving the UK because of its photo - a useful thing to have with you at all times instead of carrying your passport. However, if we should be given any penalty points, it would mean we'd have to apply for a French licence. Help! I'm terrified that that would mean having to take another driving test, with all the difficulties of having to take a written test in French. It's difficult enough in English. So, I'm being especially careful on the roads. Unlike others, especially the thousands of English tourists. The gendarmerie are now getting wise to what happens at ferry ports. Thousands of Britons flashed for speeding in France each year may soon be getting points on their licence back home, it has emerged. What they don't seem to realise is what happens to an English driver when faced with an amazing open road spreading out in a wondrous vista in front of his tired eyes. Nowhere in England nowadays is there such a thing as an open road, free of other traffic. Even Lewis Hamilton, the Formula One driver, was banned from driving in France last December when he was pulled over on the A26 doing 122mph in a Mercedes. The limit on French motorways is 81mph in dry conditions and 65mph in the wet. But, don't forget the difference between mph and kmh. Seeing the many motorway signs permitting 110 kmh can go to an Englishman's head. Oh, and don't forget the new law that you must have a warning triangle and yellow vest in the car (even though the triangles have been proved to always blow over in the wind!) Anyway, you've now been warned. Oh, and if you see someone driving oh-so-carefully at a snail's pace on the inside lane - that'll be me.

10th October 2008

When we made our first tentative foray onto French soil proper three years ago, the plan for our lives was simple really. Him indoors would spend more time on his carpentry hobby and I would explore the world of writing. Since then, we've both learned a few things. One: that making things out of wood is more difficult than at first envisaged - hence many of our new wobbly wooden acquisitions. Two: that I've discovered a lot - not about writing so much, but about agents and publishers! Little did I think when I set out that it isn't the quality of writing that is sought after nowadays, but the relative fame of the author him/herself. To get published these days it's necessary to be: famous, beautiful, young and, if possible, featured recently in a TV reality show. Unfortunately I score zero on all these things. What happened to the old love of beautiful writing as an art in itself? If Will Shakespeare himself were to submit one of his plays today, it would no doubt be rejected. A modern response to this phenomenon has been the mushrooming of IT sites catering for the masses of furious wannabe writers, denied outlets by the old standard routes. Trouble is, I sometimes wonder if these act, not as an instant route to fame, but merely as a Disneyworld queue. You know the scene: move people around barriers and through hoops ad infinitum. This makes everyone think something is happening when in reality it just keeps them occupied. Time will tell. A writer's world is a long and winding road, as Macartney sang. If you want my tales of life in France to lead to your particular 'door', click on the 'Paradis' icon on the right.

9th October 2008

Today is a significant day for many people around the world. It is a time to reflect on the past year, its joys and sorrows, and vow to improve onself in the year to come. I've always considered it a good idea, once a year, to think about your life and how it's panned out. Whether you choose today, Xmas day, 1st January, Ramadan....whatever....is immaterial. We all need time to stand and stare. Of course, some people reading this may be atheist or agnostic. There have been several high-profile cases in the news recently whereby France has proved itself to be a secular, rather than a religious state, bravely insisting on no public displays of religious identity in order to prevent 'tribal' warfare on the streets. Many would say this is the most intelligent national global policy ever. Time will tell. But for me, time is the essence. As I grow older I realise that I dwell more and more on the past. Growing up in the austerity of post-war Britain with its rations and deprivation, life was grim. I was poorly fed, chronically insecure and miserable for long periods of time, so why do I look back? Once you reach 60, the future becomes less enchanting and the past is at least safe. Above all, I realise that life is precious. It's all we have so grab its essence before 'nightfall'. There may still be originality inside us that has not yet been unpacked. As I look outside my office window, the sun is rising in sparkling clarity above the golds, russets and browns of the distant hills and I breathe in deeply. I love la qualite de la lumiere here that so inspired Degas and Monet. I'm no 'still life' painting just yet.

8th October 2008

In a place called Beavais in Picardie, horses have replaced bin lorries as part of an experiment by rubbish company Sita France. Unfortunate name I would have thought. Anyway, as well as the economic and environmental advantages of the experiment, it is also a way of saving abandoned horses. A spokesman for the animal charity Equiterra which provide the horses said recently: 'It has gone really well. People don't normally stop and chat with the people who collect the rubbish but it has proved very popular with the town.' Well, yes. Everywhere else no-one really talks to binmen other than that old song via the late Lonnie Donegan: 'Have you missed me?' says an old lady rushing up with her bin bag. 'No - jump up on the cart'. At the top of our lane there is the usual assortment of coloured recycling bins where everyone is supposed to sort out their rubbish before depositing it in the correct container. And woe betide anyone who gets it wrong, by putting glass into the plastics bin, for example. 'Don't see the point', said him indoors the other day after coming back from his daily trip up the lane. 'Why not', said I innocently. 'Saw the rubbish removals truck this morning. The men jumped out, quickly cleared all three containers of their contents and dumped the lot wholesale into the back of their truck'. 'No!' 'Oh yes', said he. So, what was the point of all this recycling message then? To some things, there are no answers, so comme d'habitude I put it into my mental DB file. What's DB? Disbuggerment. Trouble is, here in France, my DB file is getter larger and larger. Oh well, c'est la vie.

7th October 2008

Every evening when we switch on SkyTV, there's a strange sense of confusion. All day we've been experiencing the tranquility of a French mediaeval village, and then, by the flick of a switch, there's Nostradamus saying 'I told you so'. We're apparently nearing the end of the world via the demise of Capitalism. I'm pessimistic enough as it is, but now? Then I look across at him indoors, chuckling over his latest bout of wordplay scenarios and think: is it all in the mind? Is how we live our lives merely the way we choose to think? Take yesterday when we went to nearby Caussade. H needed an eye test. We went through the usual foreign confusion before we understood that we couldn't just go into the French version of Specsavers, wait an hour and then go home with a new pair of specs. First we had to find the ophthalmologist, with me acting as interpreter. It's difficult being asked 'which is brighter, red or green?' when I'm not the one sitting in the chair! But we managed it and, armed with the vital prescription, we were able to walk into the optician shop over the road and order his glasses. The point of all this is: can I change my attitude to that of H by constantly being cheerful, despite all the doommongers on TV? I laughed when H asked if the ophthalmologist was called Mr. Bannister and whether he used to be a teacher - because he has to control the stares and his pupils. Maybe that's what's wrong with me. I need to put sticking plaster over the glasses of my nervous life so as not to make a spectacle of myself! With H by my side, laughter is the best medicine for all the world's ills.

6th October 2008

Every once in a while, amidst the normal daily routine, something happens to disturb our equilibrium. So it was a few months ago. A family emergency demanded our immediate return to the UK. There wasn't a moment to lose, so thankful for my PC, I quicky searched for a budget flight from Toulouse to Birmingham. Nothing until two days time, as it was out of season, so reluctantly I booked EasyJet to Gatwick - that Gd forsaken place. We'd just have to rent a car when we arrived. It wasn't until I told him indoors that we thought: what about Bruno? I rang Gisella who runs a doggie holiday camp near Toulouse, but as luck would have it, she answered from her mobile in Morocco! Oh no. What were we going to do? We had just 2 hours before the plane was due to leave. We tried everyone. Because of Bruno's notoriety, no-one locally was prepared to take him. All the local rescue centre could offer was the number of a kennel we'd never heard of in Montauban. Throwing everything in the car, not forgetting the 'passports, tickets, money' mantra, we raced in the general direction of Montauban. H was worried about the car. 'What's that whine coming from the back?' It was only Bruno. And then, guess what? We got lost. The rain was pelting down, the day was as dark as night, my mobile wouldn't work in the car and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere with the seconds ticking away. Frantically I climbed out into the torrents of rain and, miraculously, my phone suddenly worked. I dialed the kennel. 'Er...venez-vite et me trouver.' Miraculously the man understood my stumbling French and agreed to come and find us, guided by the late-Xmas flashing lights of a nearby shop and my frantic arm-waving at the side of the road. Success! We dropped Bruno, dashed to the airport and just managed to catch the final check-in time with minutes to spare. You know what EasyJet are like. Huge sighs of relief from him. And me, of nervous disposition? As usual every silver lining has a cloud!

How to buy a dream home in France with very little money

We shook hands all around.
It seemed that we had bought our dream house.
Let the future begin!
One stroke of good fortune was discovering that the B & B landlady’s husband was a civil engineer. The agent told us that French people don’t usually bother with a survey before purchasing a property, merely doing structural work as and when needed. However, we had been conditioned to seek some sort of survey so were pleased to find an English professional to give our property the once-over before the end of the seven day cooling off period which purchasers are given in France before signing the compromis de vente or to retract after having signed the deed.
‘Just as well we found the house in our first week then,’ responded him indoors to this news. And, of course, he was right. It meant that we could await the engineer’s report and, if all was well, sign the agreement before leaving France. We discovered that house purchase solicitors in France are called notaires, and unlike in England, are disinterested parties to the transaction, i.e. they act for neither the vendor nor the buyer. They seem to act solely for the government, as far as I could see. We learned that the seven day cooling off period runs from the date on which the notaire notifies the potential purchaser of the completed draft deed of sale or gives him a copy in return for a signed receipt. Apparently the deed of sale may not be signed before the expiration of this period.
We needed also to ensure that our compromis agreement contained the following provisions:
identification of the property being sold (well yes!);
a guarantee of the absence of asbestos;
certificates regarding elimination of termites, lead etc.;
the terms of the purchase;
the price and date of payments (‘hah hah,’ from you know who);
the date for taking possession.
During that final seven days in France we waited with baited breath for the engineer’s report. It was hardly life or death, but it felt that way. Dependent on what he found would be our whole future. We weren’t so much buying a house; the house was the catalyst which would give us a new future. Two days before the end of the seven days the engineer arrived with his ten page report. My eyes, long trained to skim-read and summarise wordy university documents, flipped frantically to his final conclusion:

Overall opinion…

‘He wasn’t wearing an overall,’ from him indoors.
‘Shh, I’m trying to read.’

The property offers good, spacious and airy accommodation with good-sized rooms and has a gas central heating system. I found no evidence of any significant defects or shortcomings other than those mentioned in Section F…..

‘F’s a good letter to use for telling us we’ve been stuffed……’ says he. I’ve given up on his laconic sense of humour after nearly forty years of suffering, so I blithely continued reading.

Readily occupiable upon vacant possession.

By now we both fearfully flipped to that ominous Section F, labelled Action:

Dampness in external render needs to be addressed…

Chimneys should be swept and the steel flue liner and access point to the flush fitted insert burner should be checked with the owner.

Need to discover how storm water is disposed of – could not be seen on inspection.

It should be established by the notaire where the responsibilities lie with regard to water escaping from someone else’s property and what the insurance position is.

With some relief I turned to the engineer.
‘So, what does all this mean? Are you saying that in your professional opinion we’re O.K. to sign the compromis de vente?
‘Yes. The points I made under Section F are the normal types of action that purchasers should expect to carry out when buying an older property, but are nothing unusual. I therefore see no reason why you can’t sign the compromis and go ahead with your purchase.’
And so we went ahead. The process of buying and selling houses is so different in France, and on reflection I much prefer the French way of doing it. Every time the purchaser needs to sign anything at the notaire’s office, the vendors and the participating estate agents all attend and discuss the situation in the one office. The compromis agreement even included a statement testifying to the absence of such things as termites or asbestos, lead etc. These are all things I probably wouldn’t have thought to ask in the heat of the moment. Whereas in England….everything seems to be handled over the phone and by post, sometimes not meeting the solicitor in person throughout the whole transaction.
Another thing I’m surprised about is that we need to add a special clause to the final sale agreement, effectively altering French final testament laws in leaving the property to a spouse instead of to any surviving children. You live and learn. What was also a particularly nasty shock was the size of the notaire’s fees. At eight percent, this was considerably higher than the one percent charged in England.
‘At least the agent’s fees were already included in the selling price,’ said he, ‘.. so we didn’t need to pay anything to them.’
‘I suppose so,’ grabbing the calculator to work out whether we would shortly be in hock to all and sundry to pay for it all.
Well, tomorrow we return to England. Everything’s been done and signed for. We’ve arranged to sign the final paperwork and pay the final ninety percent when we return in May. Pleased, smug smile of satisfaction. May is the end of the six-month flat rental period in England.
‘Have I been clever or what?’ to no-one in particular
‘No, just smug as usual’.
Pillow throwing time.
End of Extract. Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know by your comments whether you want me to include another one next Sunday.

4th October 2008

Marseille has been voted the European Capital of Culture for 2013. The city is one of the oldest settlements in France, positioned on the Mediterranean waterfront two hours south of us. In its bid, Marseille themed its city as les ateliers de la mediterrannee, the melting pot of the Med. Among its planned celebrations will be the centenary of the birth of Albert Camus, a philosopher who saw Marseilles as the 'gateway to the east'. In these times of multiculturalism and terrorist threats from the east, the judges chose a place which can host the major cultural questions Europe will be called on to address in the future. Immigration, clashes of cultures and religions, gender relations are all top political priorities. Makes me think of our home city of Birmingham in the UK! A walk down Soho Road in Handsworth gives you a flavour of the West Indies, a walk down Ladypool Road with all its balti restaurants and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in Pakistan, or Belgrave Road with its magnificent central Mosque, not to mention the Sikhs and Hindus....the list goes on. And are we better for all this multiculturalism in our cities? In theory it should help to bring all the different faiths of the world together. But in practice? The key word is integration. We must learn to separate culture from religion. Pray at home in private, but on the streets of your chosen city live as the locals do. Then, whether we live in Marseille or Birmingham, we can all live happily together. Hallelujah.
P.S. Don't miss tomorrow's final episode of 'How to buy a dream home in France with little money'.

3rd October 2008

When did all this media-hype start? There was a time when leaders were elected because of their experience, wisdom, education and knowledge. Think of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle. Today, neither of them would probably have been chosen because of their looks. One was a bulldog, the other a tall, gangling Toby jug. But, without their true, real capabilities, what would have become of us all? So, my message is simple. Whether you're currently living in France, as we do, in the UK, the US or anywhere else in the world: don't choose your leaders by the glossy image fed to you by the media. Delve deep inside to see the essential person beneath. Are they intelligent enough? Educated enough to be able to weigh the balances of conflicting strife around the world and come to a reasoned solution? Personable enough to be able to talk with humility and understanding to those less-fortunate? Clever enough to debate the issues tactfully with leaders from entirely different faiths and backgrounds? And, above all, if you live in a land which is a super-power: would you trust your leader to have the strength not to push that fateful button on the bomb that will annihilate us all! I can do no better than quote Rudyard Kipling:
"If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise; ..
If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools; ...
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: "Hold on";
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

2nd October 2008

Living as we do in rural France, we've come to realise that there is a strange conflict. On the one hand France seems a dynamic raring-to-go nation, ready to seize the global initiative. Only yesterday the President, as the EU Chairman, recommended that Europe provide a 300 bn Euro rescue fund to rescue crippled banks across Europe. As the world held its breath on the fate of America’s own $700 billion bank bailout plan, President Sarkozy set up his own emergency meeting for next Saturday. However, nothing runs smoothly and there was the usual scepticism from everyone. To a man, the other EU nations said that their particular country could not and would not issue a blank cheque for all banks, regardless of whether they behave in a responsible manner or not.
So, as usual, modernity versus the usual confusion and bickering everywhere. France denied at first that it had put forward a proposal for a fund at all and then, after admitting that it had done so, denied that it would cost 300 billion. Paris said that the figure had come from the Dutch Government. But officials in The Hague said that they had no idea what the French were talking about.
The usual strife, contention and argument then! What was it Confuscius said long ago? Bring in new people and everyone will think that things are going to turn out better. But in practice? It's like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic!

1st October 2008

For most men, the only thing that makes French politics interesting at the moment is its first lady, former supermodel Carla Bruni - heiress to the Italian tire manufacturing company CEAT. I don't know exactly what it is about her, but like Princess Diana in her time, she seems to entice paparazzi around the world by her elegance and that indefinable je ne sais quoi. During a state visit to Britain last March, the 40-year-old singer caused a sensation among publishers and television companies who fought to get an interview with her. Her elegant style received rave reviews from fashion stylists who hailed the Dior outfits she donned for the occasion. So, it's understandable that the French President, not wanting to miss a trick, will take the adorable Carla with him on his visit to Quebec this month. M. Sarkozy will attend the annual Canada-European Union summit in Montreal on the 17th and the Summit of the Francophonie - a club of about 50 French-speaking countries - in Quebec City the following day. Meanwhile, Sarkozy's colourful love life and reforming zeal is to be made into a big screen documentary by an American director, although the President does not yet know it apparently! Maybe Nicolas will agree to it in order to climb back in France's popularity polls. And as for Carla? Since her marriage to Nicolas in February, she has released her third pop album called Comme si de rien n'etait (As if nothing had happened). As if, indeed.