Tebbit, Thompson and French wiring – How integrated are you?

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Norman with Jimmy. Sound chaps.

Norman with Jimmy. Sound chaps.

In 1990, Norman Tebbit, a Tory politician so profoundly vile that he made Margaret Thatcher look cuddly, decided that the best way to judge whether an immigrant to the UK had integrated was to ask them about cricket. In particular, who did they support when England played against the country of their ancestors in a test match? It was a terrible idea that probably said a lot more about just how deeply scarred racists were by the brilliant West Indian sides of the preceding decades than it did about the loyalties of black and brown Britons.

Tebbit’s test was deliberately crude and controversial and it triggered a debate about whether immigrants should completely adopt the culture of their host country. Putting aside minor considerations such as whether host countries actually have mono-cultures that even the keenest immigrants can adopt, regional variations and deep-seated religious beliefs the general consensus emerged that a bit of integration is a good thing.

Many British people in France have picked up the ball and run with it. Far enough to impress Mo Farrah. In fact,integration levels have become the key arbiter in deciding a person’s worth. A kindly vicar who spends almost all of his disposable income on opening wells that allow some of the world’s poorest orphans a chance to attend school instead of labouring beneath a bucket-carrying yoke can be roundly despised if he spends his last few pounds on a Sky Sports subscription.

Equally, a braying, bullying snob can be forgiven all of their sins if they opt for the paté de tete entree followed by a dish that includes gesiers. If they can round it off with an ile flottante without mentioning that the custard is very runny all the better. Gleefully downing a digestif that could power a Bunsen burner ensures sainthood.

Assessing the levels of duck fat in the bloodstream could possibly work as a food based Tebbit test for anglophones in France but there is a real human rights issue with pinning them down to take the samples as well as a problem with vegetarians. You could of course argue that being a vegetarian in the land of foie gras completely rules out integration anyway but I daren’t. Better to look for a food-free, non-contentious way forward.

Attitudes to the chasse could be the litmus test. If you start to see them as harmless country folk who respect the land and eat what they shoot you’re integrated. If you still think of them as borderline psychopaths, grown men who enjoy dressing up as soldiers and discharging their weapons in public, you’re not settling in. If you think they seem disturbingly like the hillbillies from Deliverance and, despite the Gersoise accent rendering their conversations impenetrable, you’re convinced that one of them muttered, “Squeal like a piggy boy!” you might as well get back to your urban headquarters in London, Melbourne or Los Angeles. It could work if it wasn’t confused by issues involving gun control, the tastiness of wild boar, the desirability of white vans and whether hunting is better or worse when you use a crossbow. We all know that a bow and arrow makes it very much worse and opens up a whole range of issues best reserved for students of Lord of the Flies.

Hunter S

No, the Tebbit test for anglophone immigrants in France has to be based on attitudes to mixing electricity with water. Anyone brought up in the UK, USA, Canada or Australia knows that this is very wrong. So wrong that it haunts our psyche even at the most uncontrolled moments.

In one of the best passages in his masterpiece ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Hunter S Thompson, father of gonzo journalism and breaker of almost all social taboos considers killing himself. He is listening to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’ in the bath while spending a few days in a hotel that has is hosting a conference for narcotics agents. He has taken a vast cocktail of hallucogens, opiates, booze and random chemicals and decides to plunge the radio into the bath water just as the guitars reach a crescendo and Grace Slick screams “Feed your head!”

But he doesn’t. Even after spending several days operating as a human drug hoover one of the most depraved social outlaws of our times knew deep down not to mix water and electricity. Somewhere in his addled brain a deep-seated instinct said, “Hunter, that would be dangerous.” And he listened.

This contrasts sharply with the actual death of Claude ‘Clo-Clo’ Francois which left the world of Gallic pop traumatised. He was the smiling, dancing and singing, clean living antithesis of the likes of Thompson. Outside France he was viewed as a French Cliff Richard, which was a compliment at the time.

Inside France he was revered and ranked alongside Johnny Halliday as a star whose unthreatening appeal spanned the generations. On March 11 1978 he went for a shower and, just as he was finishing, he noticed that the bulb in the light directly above the cubicle had gone out. No deep seated instinct spoke to him so he started to adjust the electrical fitting while his feet were still in the water. Claude saw no problem with mixing electricity and water and, as a result, died instantly.

Adoring fans try to remind Claude of the golden rule of DIY electricals -Don't Involve Yourself.

Adoring fans try to remind Claude of the golden rule of DIY electricals -Don’t Involve Yourself.

Now, Clo-Clo might have been particularly cavalier in his approach but his demise is a reminder that one fundamental and distinctive element of French culture is a complete disregard for electrical safety procedures. Which leads me to my Tebbit test – would you consider installing this integrated sink/draining board combined with a hob? Choose one answer and then check beneath the photo for your results.
a) No, it is clearly extraordinarily dangerous.
b) Not in my house but it might be OK for the gite. I’ll provide rubber gloves.
c) Yes, why not? I can see the space saving potential.

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If you answered:
a) After all this time you’re not even a bit French. If Britain leaves the EU you’ll be deported.
b) You’re part-French, part-British but all landlord.
c) Hoist the tricolor! You have become fully Gallic and might start to find the lanes at roundabouts confusing.

Time for some old tat…

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The ‘vide grenier’ season is here. There were a few in April but May and June are the months for really frantic rubbish buying action. It literally means ‘empty the attic’ and at a visit to a good one you’ll find that the population of the village has done exactly that. At others it is more like empty your uninsured van of the lightly soiled underwear, stolen garden tools and broken electrical goods that you have collected. The only way to find out which is which is to get up early and spend Sunday morning careering about the countryside in a determined search for the sort of stuff that costs a fortune if you buy it on crafty and folksy websites called things like ‘Emily’s French Vintage’.

Well, that is what one person in our car looks for. My own quest is to buy a playable Serge Gainsbourg record for less than 15 euros. I got my hopes up the other day in Auch when I spotted a deranged looking stallholder with a box of vinyl for sale. He was small, fat and at least 70 years old but this hadn’t stopped him from dying his hair black, squeezing into some fake leather trousers and donning cowboy boots with spurs. The whole look was cranked up further by a black shirt that was decorated with the silver outline of an electric guitar and an excessive use of Brylcreem that had left his dark locks plastered completely flat to his scalp. He looked like a particularly vicious pervert from a David Lynch film so I naturally assumed that he would have plenty of records by the man who is widely and warmly acknowledged as France’s most depraved musical hero.

Unsurprisingly, I was wrong. But he did have a copy of my all-time favourite vide grenier buy – a 45 from the early seventies bearing a picture sleeve showing a rather unpleasant picture of Jesus that appears to have been painted by a very disturbed child. It includes the lyric, “Jesus won’t you come back, for the marijuana?” You can only marvel at the sheer lunacy of whatever cult it was that decided to attempt to lure down the son of God, presumably triggering the apocalypse in the process, by offering him a big spliff. Fortunately for us all, Jesus either said no to drugs or decided to hold out for some stronger stuff.

Anyway, I already had a copy and have seen an alarming number of others over the last few years so, wondering how such a bizarre recording could have ever been a hit, I moved on to a pile of magazines that were printed on the sort of paper they used to use for The Beano. They were copies of ‘Rustica’ from 1949-55 and at first glance appeared to be the internal publication of some sort of rural Nazi movement. Closer inspection revealed that they were no such thing and that their splendidly colourful cover illustrations were simply concerned with the joys of rural life. Giant Vegetables! Produce of the Midi! Grow Big Red Flowers! The Destruction of Foxes! Force Feed a Goose! Fettle That Duck!

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Ok they weren’t all to everyone tastes but we soon negotiated a good price and bought all the copies we wanted except for one that divided opinion too strongly. I thought a big picture of a rosy cheeked chap sniffing a chicken’s bottom would have looked great framed alongside the man in very short trousers who is almost bursting with pride as he dangles a dead fox but you can’t expect to agree about everything.

On arriving home with our haul I soon realised that the wave of ‘Ooh lovely’ comments that greeted my wife’s choices on Instagram has given her the trump card. Our kitchen wall will be adorned with vintage veg and flowers of the early 50s while my own selection will soon be settling down in a new attic.

We’ll need to find some nice old frames first though so that’s next Sunday taken care of.

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Vintage voiture or garden feature?

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vintage voiture 1

You know you’re in the depths of the campagne when you start spotting decaying cars, vans and buses rotting away next to old farmhouses that would be worth a fortune if they were within an hour of an internet connection that allowed skyping. This is true in the UK as well as France. I used to visit Nenthead in Northumberland and most homes had a redundant coach gathering moss somewhere nearby. Mind you, the only residents I ever met resembled the bald bloke from “The Hills Have Eyes” so I’m not sure they are truly or fully representative of all rural communities.

Still, there is certainly something in the DNA of the hardcore country dweller that makes them want to hang on to ancient vehicles no matter how ravaged by time they might be. In some cases this is understandable. A couple of years ago I very nearly acquired a Porsche Speedster that had been quietly slipping into its dotage in a barn for a few decades. You don’t have to be a cannibalistic mutant to find yourself unable to part with the car that James Dean died in. Hanging on to it in the belief that you’ll get it back on the road one day makes perfect sense. Refusing to let go of a severely crash damaged Renault Twingo doesn’t.
I can only think of two possible explanations for this behaviour. The first is that these people genuinely feel that they are somehow landscaping their gardens. You wouldn’t see it on Gardener’s World but when my friend glimpsed the front grille of a 1934 Citroen at the centre of an impenetrable bramble patch it added some glamour and excitement to an overgrown area that otherwise held little interest. The bloke near us who keeps his chickens in an extensive collection of dead Renault vans won’t be appearing at The Chelsea Flower Show this year but his fowl are dry and his plot has a distinctive look that wooden huts could never achieve. Maybe some people just prefer dirty oil features to water features.

The other, specifically French reason, is a splendidly stubborn approach to prices. Ever since moving here nearly six years ago I’ve regularly driven past a trailer with a hand painted AV sign attached. When I first saw it next to the entrance to someone’s drive I stopped and looked. The dirty green emulsion that had been slapped on did nothing to hide the rotten wood and any metal parts were heavily rusted. The tyres were perished and the wheels had sunk into the ground. I honestly thought that any attempt to move it from its resting place would cause immediate and complete disintegration. The owner was after 800 euros for it!
Last December I noticed a change. Nature was even further into the process of reclaiming the trailer but old AV sign had been replaced with a piece of white formica board. The price remained the same.

Maybe this indefatigable optimism when it comes to prices explains the widespread hoarding of useless vehicles. If, as seems to be the case, any car deemed roadworthy by the somewhat liberal Controle Technique testing regime is immediately worth €2,000, regardless of condition or accumulated miles, then any automobile, even one that isn’t mobile, must be worth half that. This impeccable financial logic might fly in the face of the fact that nobody will ever actually pay the asking price but why else would so many people want to have their own miniature junkyards?

Propre potatoes

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They look great but don't think you can just run amock using them as you wish...

They look great but don’t think you can run amok cooking them however you like…

You may live in a country where you can do what you like with vegetables. This wild and anarchic culinary background with a devil may care approach will not equip you well if you come to France. The deep seated French belief in things being ‘propre’ extends to, and indeed dominates, the quite complicated transactions that equate to routine shopping for groceries in most countries.
‘Propre’ means right or correct and sometimes clean. It plays a crucial role in the French psyche.

For the ‘functionaires’ and assorted bureaucrats that litter French society ‘propre’ means that paperwork being in ‘impeccable’ order is more important than any underlying mistake that it might be masking. For a sports shop it means selling trainers for specific athletic activities and sending anybody who might just want some comfortable, casual shoes elsewhere. For market traders it means asking what your intentions towards their vegetables might be. Take care, wrong answers can lead to a refusal of consent and your cooking plans could be dashed.

If you come from a fairly potato-centric culture, such as the UK or Ireland, this worship of ‘propre’ can make a simple attempt to cook a shepherd’s pie infuriating. God only knows how the German and Scandanavian hardcore potato lovers manage to eat at all.

By the way, for the culinary pedants out there, when I say shepherd’s pie I obviously mean a cottage pie – the price of lamb means that only millionaires now have left-overs from a slowly roasted leg to throw into Monday’s meal.

An example of how not to vegetable shop might be helpful. Not long after arriving in France I went to the market to buy some spuds to mash as the topping for my kids’ favourite meal. What I wanted was something like a King Edward or a Maris Piper, fluffy potatoes that make a fairly smooth but dense mash that sits firmly on the minced beef and vegetable base and seals in the juices as it finishes in the oven and the cheese on top browns and crisps a little.

After trying three stalls I realised that no varieties were being shown so I just asked for a couple of kilogrammes of ‘pomme de terre’. This what happened next-

Man in fleece and beret: What for?

Me: To eat ( Admittedly not the best answer but I was surprised at this inquisition).

Mifb: How?

Me: Parmentier (I knew that anything topped with mash was a parmentier).

Mifb: Of duck?

Me: No, beef ( I had not yet learned about the deep love of duck in the south-west).

Mifb: Why not duck? Duck is best for parmentier.

Me: Maybe, but I’ve got some beef that I want to use up (I’d clearly caused some offence so I needed an excuse for my ridiculous rejection of duck).

Mifb: Pierre over there could sell you some duck and you could use your beef tomorrow.

Me: OK I’ll go to him next, please could I have some potatoes? ( I was trying to be clever and find a way out)
Mifb: Yes, these are for purée – they make perfect parmentier.

Me: (knowing that none of my family like the overly moist and terribly smooth French puréed potatoes) Thanks, but I’d prefer those others.

Mifb: No. They aren’t for parmentier. You need these.

Me: But….

Mifb: Monsieur, for parmentier these are propre. Those would be wrong, they would spoil your meal.

Me: (resigned to defeat through lack of linguistic and cultural know-how) OK thanks.

After this experience I realised that all supermarkets here sell potatoes labelled by cooking method, not by variety. They are for purée, risollé, vapeur or possibly for use in a salade. Ingredients have specific, pre-ordained destinations that were decided years ago by the French culinary gods. For example, only white or yellow onions can be used in a tarte. You might like red onions but they are not even vaguely ‘propre’ and you can only use them if pretend you want them for something else.

This isn’t about making money by always selling you the priciest option, it is an entrenched cultural belief. I once went to buy some tomatoes and the stallholder explained that she had some fantastic tomatoes that had been grown on the foothills of the Pyrénéees on ‘terrain’ that only got sun in the afternoon. She believed that this had slowed their maturation to give a much deeper flavour than most tomatoes could provide. They were eye-wateringly expensive.

I must have looked shocked because she then asked what I wanted them for. When I said pasta sauce she replied that they were far too good for that, these were for salade only and she couldn’t countenance the idea of anybody cooking them. Instead she returned them to their hiding place beneath the stall and sold me a huge box of mis-shapen ones for a euro.

So, I have two pieces of advice on vegetable buying if you don’t plan to cook in an entirely French style. The first is very practical. Decide which variety of potato you want and then construct a culinary web of deceit to justify your request. Use a French recipe book to do this and you’ll get the veg you want as well as the approval of the veg seller. Everybody will be satisfied and comfortable knowing that your spuds will be used in the correct manner.

The second option is more fun. When you are asked what you want the vegetable reveal that it is for a non-French cuisine. In the case of potatoes say it is for Bombay Aloo. This will throw the stallholder into crisis.

The rules of ‘propre’ only apply to France and French speaking former-colonies. Therefore Indian food is by definition not ‘propre’. This does not mean that the concept of ‘propre’ falls though. Indian cuisine must have its own ‘propre’ but admitting that they know nothing about this does not incur any loss of face for a market stall holder in south-west France. As the person with the superior understanding of Indian cuisine it is entirely ‘propre’ for you to choose your own tatties.

Just don’t go back and accidentally admit that you couldn’t be bothered with the curry so you baked them instead.

I’ve got wood!

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DSC_0397Not in the unsuitable for blogging American way though.

What I mean is that after much careful research and many stressful decisions we have a good stock of ‘bois de chauffage’ and should now stay reasonably warm for the next few months. That might sound like a simple thing to those of you who don’t live in rural France but the whole business is far more complicated than you could ever imagine from the outside.

The first facts for ‘campagne’ dwellers to face up to are that it does get cold here in winter and that all forms of heating other than wood are out of the question. The electric heaters popular with landlords dry the air out to such an extent that by the middle of our first January here I was suffering nosebleeds with a regularity that would have been familiar to Francis Rossi and his Status Quo chums when they were busy destroying their septums in the mid-80s.

Anybody entirely dependent on these heaters for the whole winter would just be a pile of dessicated skin by the end of March. They could possibly be used to replace coconut in some recipes but that isn’t really a fully productive role for a human.

The other alternative in rural areas is ‘fioul’ which is often referred to as oil but is actually red diesel. This is a bit cheaper than diesel for your car but that hardly makes up for needing to provide an extra room for the colossal boiler that is a about the size of a juggernaut or the tank needed to hold the couple of thousand litres that might get you through a couple of cold months. As long as you never have baths and make your children wear enough layers to prevent their arms from straightening.

Only insiders know this but the popularity of the ménage a trois in France is nothing to do with the sexy antics of libertines. On the contrary, what appears to be an exciting and free alternative domestic arrangement is actually the only way anybody with fioul heating can afford to run it at a reasonable temperature all winter – two wages just aren’t enough to feed the boiler so you have to get a third earner in to help.

The problem is that once you opt for wood you have to embark on a very steep learning curve before buying any. Measurements present the first obstacle.

Wood is sold by the ‘stere’, an ancient measurement originally used by hobbits. Nobody now knows exactly what a stere is. Some vendeurs claim that a stere is a cubic metre of one metre long logs but others advertise cubic metres of wood on the grounds that these are bigger than a stere. It is best to work on the basis that a stere means some wood but that the exact amount will vary. Streres also shrink if the logs are cut smaller than a metre. If you want 50cm logs you pay more and the stere reduces by 20%, 33cm and it goes smaller still. Fans of the tiny 25cm log have told me that a stere can sometimes fit into a child’s backpack. French kids do carry a lot of books but that has to be wrong.

The next question is how moist is your wood? If that sounds a bit too personal don’t be offended. It just means that the moisture left in logs will have an impact on how well they burn. The lower the level the better but under 20% is pretty much essential. Given that most wood sellers say that their product has been seasoned for two years this shouldn’t be a problem but, unless you buy an instrument to measure the moisture with, you can’t really tell until you chuck it on the fire. If it sizzles and moisture drips out of the end of the logs your wood is far too moist but best of luck returning the minimum order of five steres without a fairly substantial tipper truck and a crane. Easier to leave it to season for another year.

A local wood expert told me that all French people assume that they will need to do this and wouldn’t expect to be able to burn a delivery straight away even if they had paid more to get wood that was ready to burn. This explains the need for all homes to have at least one, and possibly four, crumbling outbuildings that are stuffed with neatly stacked logs and the presence of little mounds of logs in the middle of fields. They are all at different stages of seasoning. I’d always thought of that as something TV chefs did with salt and pepper but it turns out to mean drying wood too.

Luckily, you’re now approaching the end of your wood experience and chopping it up is the easy part. Simply equip one of your children with some gloves, a warm hat, a powerful chainsaw and a huge axe. They have to be young enough to feel enthusiastic about the challenge facing them but old enough to handle the tools. I’d say between 9 and 13 is about right. Offer them 10 euros to sort it all out and then go and have a sleep on the sofa. Some people have criticised this approach and suggested that it could be dangerous. Perhaps, but it works for me, as the photo proves, and we shouldn’t mollycoddle the young. If they want to stay warm they must learns the ways of wood.