To make the best use of my ticket for a fortnight’s freedom of the French railways I used to take a long distance train just after midnight from one of the Paris terminals and the destinations and the company varied over the years.
There was the train to Brest, full of inebriated sailors returning to base – Genet would have been ecstatic – or the train to the Tour de Carol in the Pyrenees, empty but for myself and the staff once it had passed the red roofs of Foix.
A packed train to Avignon…an empty one to Grenoble.
I soon learned to use the loo on the train to wash and brush up before starting the day.
Firstly it was free and there was soap, secondly it was usually reasonably clean and, thirdly, it had a proper loo, not a hole in the ground with or without raised emplacements for the feet known in France as a Turkish toilet. Goodness only knows what the Turks call it.
I remember travelling in the same carriage as a group of elderly American ladies who resolutely refused to use the train loo for fear of being trapped within. I saw them again on the platform, clustering wonderingly around something that looked like a corrugated iron sky rocket, painted a virulent green: the station conveniences. One unwary fart and you’d have had lift off.
They were still clustered by the time I had left my luggage in a locker – one forgets the freedom of the pre terrorist days – and headed for breakfast in the station buffet, all hissing coffee machines and blue overalled railway staff looking for sustenance before coming on duty.
It must have been a toss up between drawing straws for the first victim or ringing the American consul.
I seemed to change trains at Avignon quite often over the years and thus became acquainted with the loo on the long distance platform, a hefty walk under the brassy sun of the south.
It had, of course, a Turkish toilet which involved the usual gymnastics in disrobing sufficiently while ensuring no garment touched the floor, light bag slung over the shoulder. You did not take a heavy bag in there as there was nowhere to hang it when the periodic flush….like opening the Aswan High Dam…bore all before it. Handbags shot under the doors and rucksacks became sodden. You could tell if an international train had just come in by the polyglot cries of the afflicted within. It did not, however, suffer the defect of the time switch on the light, set nicely to have you in gymnastic pose when it expires and you are alone in the gloom. It had, no doubt, a time switch but someone had nicked the light bulbs.
Stations usually had unisex loos, unlike civic or caff loos, where you would walk past the peeing men to reach the cubicles…and being a somewhat shy young person, I preferred the provisions at the stations.
But a fortnight in France enabled me to see more than the range of loos available to the traveller.
I had prepared my trip, I knew what there was to see and I saw it, from the temple and arena in Nimes to the black swans in the moat at Nevers and by economising on eating I could afford to hire a rowing boat to go out on Lake Annecy, lying back under the late afternoon sunshine, utterly at peace.
There were still branch lines dodging everywhere….on a drizzly afternoon in Bayonne the single track line up to St. Jean Pied de Port was alight with the bright crocosmia all the way to the little town which was the gateway to Spain via the Roncevaux Pass….site of the death of Roland.
Another took me from Grenoble down to the Rhone valley….mountains giving way to hills and then to plains, passing the tower of Crest on the way to a long wait at Valence and a distinct longing to be able to take the steam train at Tournon….but it was outside the system and pennies were tight.
Inside the system, however, was the little yellow train running through the Pyrenees from Villefranche de Conflent, Vauban’s fortified city under the flanks of Mount Canigou, around the Spanish enclaves tucked within the frontier proper since the time of the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659…when some legal eagle had blundered because while Spain ceded all villages north of the Pyrenees to France it ceded no towns! The train with its toast rack carriages was a favourite of mine….travelling on spidery viaducts through the mountains from the main line at Perpignan, where I was lucky enough to see people dancing the sardana….spontaneously, not organised by some cultural body…not far from the Palace of the Kings of Majorca…to La Tour de Carol where the express for Paris waited, the carriages hot and stuffy in the sun.
A Sunday afternoon would see me on a slow train from the violet city of Toulouse……passing the twin spires of the cathedral of Niort in the Marais Poitevin, where boats replaced roads…..and the town of Lucon where Richelieu was bishop before his rise to power, eventually pulling in under the walls of the chateau of Nantes which faced an art deco biscuit factory on the other side of the tracks.
But what was I seeing of France? The sights…and the countryside between.
Who was I meeting? Ticket inspectors.
What was I eating? Apart from a roll and coffee for breakfast in the station buffets it was cheap picnics…a loaf, some cheese or pate which was soft by the time it came to squash it into the sandwich, cheap wine. I could look at the pissaladieres and quiches in the windows, but I couldn’t afford them until the end of the trip when there might be a surplus while the idea of eating a meal was in the realms of financial fantasy.
I really was on the outside looking in.
I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.
In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.
I saw this film on the television while a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.
I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘Organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).
Forgive me…..I was young.
A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.
France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.
The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.
Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.
In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.
I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.
I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!
Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.
At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.
You know you are in France.
Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.
Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.
Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.
The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August. It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.
The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.
I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.
In France, the vendange is starting, but I shan’t be there to see it.
My days of riding out on the wheel arch of the tractor to spend hours gossiping my way along the rows of vines are over.
I live on the other side of the world now, where the wicker basket at the waist has replaced the plastic bucket, fingers replace the secateurs, and the bright coffee berries the dark grapes of my Loire Valley.
What follows is an acount of my twenty odd years in rural France while the twentieth turned into the twenty first century and the society around me changed from the old ‘System D’ – making things work – to bone headed adherence to rules.
It is my view, based on my own experience and those of my French friends who taught me so much.
There are plenty of other views…..usually featuring sunflowers, lavender fields, pink wine and sodding croissants…..but they are not my views.
Here you will meet people.
Gendarmes, lawyers, local politicians, vignerons.
Bakers, butchers, civil servants.
Expats even….but above all elderly ladies and gentlemen with long memories and caustic tongues.
To be continued…slowly….
Which should be the motto of Credit Agricole, where I had an account with one of their branches in La France Profonde.
Rome was not built in a day, so I was prepared to wait for a relationship to develop with the counter staff…..I was aware that without a second cousin once removed in common my conversational appeal was limited and was content to join in the other ritual of making a transaction at the counter, that of shifting from foot to foot while the state of Tante Fanny’s fanny took priority.
It would have been a long wait at the best of times…..and in fact that relationship never was consummated due to the relationship with other parts of the Credit Agricole
I had sold a house and by some administrative mix up the demand for the taxe fonciere went neither to me nor to the new owners.
I was not expecting it. They weren’t either – despite the best efforts of the notaire to enlighten them when they signed for the house.
Accordingly, none of us paid it.
The reminder went into the black hole as well.
As did the demand which imposed a ten per cent fine for late payment.
Then I received a statement from Credit Agricole showing an unauthorised overdraft on my current account, where I kept just enough money to maintain activity.
My savings account was still virgo intacta.
I telephoned and was told that there was a problem with the tax office.
The tax office told me that they had appropriated the taxe fonciere that I had not paid from my bank account.
My dealings with the tax office are another story, but my dealings with Credit Agricole demonstrated clearly the difference between having an account with them and having one with La Poste, where I kept the bulk of my monies.
The Post Office in similar circumstances would have telephoned me as soon as the taxman struck to warn me and to let me transfer money between accounts. Credit Agricole smugly charged me for the overdraft and waited until the next statement day in order to collect as much as possible.
About this time I wanted to buy shares, and as the Post Office could not buy on the markets outside Europe, I had to go with Credit Agricole.
I impressed upon the ‘financial adviser’ that time was of the essence, given the state of the market, but, of course, by the time their regional office geared itself up, the markets had risen and I had missed a good opportunity.
I was following the share price on the internet and saw no buyers in the market for the amount I had ordered, so went into the local branch to complain.
The ‘financial adviser’ first told me that I could not possibly know whether or not the shares had been bought, and then, when I kicked up, telephoned the regional office, who reassured me that they were indeed getting round to entering the market, but, due to the amount of intermediaries they were using, it all took time.
Finally, the shares were bought and, as the market went on rising, I swallowed my annoyance until I received the statement with the charges for holding my shares…as in France the individual cannot hold his or her own shares…a financial institution does so and charges handsomely for this ‘service’.
Eyes watering from the financial pain, I went into the branch again and asked which registration institution was holding my shares…these days it is all electronic and the lovely old share certificates are no more.
Once more the ‘financial advisor’ called the regional office,and I put my question again. There was much huffing and puffing about why I wanted to know and I was finally told that this was confidential information which could not be divulged!
I later discovered, by other means, that my shares were being held in a nominee account, in the name of Credit Agricole!
Back to the ‘financial advisor’….who called the regional office. Oh, it was more efficient to handle shares this way.
But what happens if Credit Agricole goes bust? My shares are in its name and will be swallowed up by the creditors.
You have nothing to worry about, madame – said in such a way that the unspoken message of ‘stupid foreign bitch’ came over clearly. It could never happen!
This is Credit Agricole…a major French bank.
Well, I’d been with Credit Lyonnais when that major French bank went down the tubes few years earlier so her reassurance on that point fell on stony ground and I nipped down to La Poste to talk to them about transferring the shares….they couldn’t buy them but they could keep them.
Much shaking of heads. No way. Credit Agricole would just sit tight and I’d never get my hands on them.
They knew….. they had a client who’d been trying to transfer her shares for over six months.
So in the fullness of time I sold my shares and as I was leaving the ‘financial advisor’ asked me if I needed any advice on what to do with my gains.
She was a nice little girl, her lack of training was not her fault, so I did not say what was bouncing up and down on the tip of my tongue. It would not have been fair.
I waited until a Friday afternoon, went to my local branch, waited while the assistant had a conversation with her uncle and then asked to close my accounts.
No attempt to persuade me to stay was proffered, so I signed all the appropriate forms and was asked to wait while a cheque was prepared.
No, I want it in cash.
It took a time, because the safe had to be opened and they even had to have a whip round among the staff, but they finally made it.
I walked down the road and deposited it all in the Post Office.
And now this major French bank, which appropriates customers’ money for its own ends, is faced with its exposure to bad debt in the eurozone.
The regional office is closing.
And while I am sure that President Hollande will ruin every European taxpayer before he will let a major French bank go down….it may just be Credit Lyonnais all over again.
Sunday morning in Costa Rica.
A warm hazy morning with a slight breeze lifting the humidity as I sit on my balcony listening t0 the Test Match Special team describing the annihilation of the England cricket team at the hands of the South Africans.
As Jacques Kallis thumps a ball from Ravi Bopari to the boundary yet again, I see on the laptop that Bradley Wiggins has won the Tour de France and led his compatriot Mark Cavendish into a fourth sprint victory on the final stage in the heart of Paris…..and turning to the French newspapers see with no surprise that while the journalists are fair, the comments on the victory articles are sour and jealous.
The voice of France.
But not the only one as, turning to the politics reporting I find with delight that old friends have made their reappearance.
Sarkozy? Chirac? Mitterand?
No! Much more interesting….
The Shadocks. Birds with vestigial wings, long legs and big clumsy feet. Heroes (?) of a television series.
They were a cult in the years in which I first stayed in one place in France long enough to watch television….and even then those series were repeats of the early stuff which I think came out in the 1970s.
They lived on a two dimensional planet from which it was easy to slip off into the void and their aim was to colonise the more stable Terra, inhabited only by retired dinosaurs and an obnoxious insect…but their plans went always awry.
Harmless enough you might think…sort of a French version of The Clangers….but it roused passions, even on second and third repeats, because it was felt that the Shadocks were being used to represent the French people by their creator, Jacques Rouxel.
And the image presented was not to the taste of all.
The Shadocks were ruthless….and stupid.
So stupid that all of which they were capable was blind obedience to orders: whereas the other group in the series, also seeking to move from an unstable planet, the Gibis, were presented as intelligent and cooperative, capable, efficient and peace loving.
They even got along with the obnoxious insect.
Rumour had it that these Gibis – whose collective brain was housed in their hats – were meant to represent the British!
The delight in the Shadoks rested in their perversion of those qualities on which French culture prided itself….logic and mathematics.
What was the nature of a colander?
Anything could be a colander which had an exterior, an interior and some holes.
The holes were not very important.
It didn’t matter how many holes there were, or if you reduced the number of holes by a half, or even if there were no holes at all.
QED…. that the notion of a colander was independent of the notion of a hole and vice versa.
In the same vein, there were three types of colander…
One which let through neither noodles nor water.
One which let through both.
One which sometimes let through one or the other and sometimes did not.
A colander which did not let through water or noodles was a saucepan.
A saucepan without a handle was a bus,
A bus which did not move was a saucepan (slang term for an old banger).
The use of language too was subversive with its twisting of common phrases and proverbs….
Everything which is not clearly authorised is strictly prohibited….
If it is hurting, it’s good for you….
Why do something the easy way if you can make it difficult…
If you don’t know where you’re going you have to get there as soon as possible….
The only way the poor Shadocks could escape to the stability of Terra was by building a rocket…..but the fuel was a substance floating in the air and their leaders told them that the only way to succeed in trapping the fuel was by pumping…..and so the Shadocks pumped.
And were told that it was only by pumping that they would get somewhere….and if they didn’t get anywhere at least they hadn’t done any harm….after all, better to pump even if nothing happened than that something worse happened if you did not pump.
So why have the Shadocks…under the radar for so long…emerged in the political columns of Le Figaro?
Because the German ambassador must be a fan…he was expounding on the problems of the eurozone recently and deliverd himself of the well known Shadokism…
If there is not a solution, it is because there is not a problem…..
Which led the author of the article, Jean-Pierre Robin to consider the attempts to control and master the crisis in terms of the two dimensional world of the Shadoks.
In which context the phrases cited above may take on a new resonance.
As may these…..
In a parody of probablility theory, if something has only a million to one chance of succeeding the sooner you try the 999,999 attempts doomed to failure the better….
While remembering that to finance the said attempts, there are less malcontents if you always hit the same targets…
Le Figaro July 22nd 2012. Article by Jean-Pierre Robin ‘Quand les Shadocks eclairent les aradoxes de la zone euro.’
The first illustration comes from this article.
Wikipedia on the Shadocks…the French version.
http://www.archimedes-lab.org/shadoks/shadoks.html for the other illustrations.