Monday, July 23, 2012

A Bulgarian connection

The sun was making one of its many false attempts to get summer going so I sat in my favourite Perigueux cafe with white wine spritzer, pencil and newspaper open at the cross-word. The car was parked under a tree in the official car-park. The earliest of the habitual summer beggars were hanging around the parking ticket machine. All was well, all was as usual. Then my sun warmed concentration was rudely disturbed by the arrival of three very noisy men, sub-species large biceps with tattoos, dark glasses and hair mowed on an excessively low cut.

One of them ordered three beers, three black coffees and one brandy in passable French. Three mobile phones were taken out of pockets, cocked, checked and placed on the table along with their elbows. All this kerfuffle, whilst mildly annoying, was not the root of my displeasure, nor was the high decibel level of their conversation. No, what really perturbed me was that I could not place the language they were speaking. Even when one started shouting down his mobile phone, my ears could not send any remotely recognisable words to my brain.

Working on the (arrogant) assumption that I would or should be able to recognise elements of northern and southern European languages, I offered myself the idea that they might be speaking Russian or Serbo-Croat. They looked like possible Russians or Croatians from ' LA central casting', definitely Eastern Europeans. (I excepted the Romanians for whom I have a vague affection merely based on the fact that I have a Romanian name - long story, not a good ending, for another time). 

So, having decided they were Russians, my mind abandoned the crossword and started to speculate on what they could possibly be doing in Perigueux. The trouble with living in an isolated place and not inter-acting with a wide range of people frequently is that one succumbs to sloppy, prejudice laden thinking. I did not think that three men with those kind of looks would be interested in Perigueux's Renaissance architecture, or the remains of the original Roman city. The food, maybe, but I could not visualise starched napkins spread over those burly thighs.

Suspicious, I decided to take a closer look at the 'beggars' as I went back to my car. Beggars are rather a summer phenomenon in Perigueux, presumably they drift to the Côte d'Azur for the winter months. There are some that I recognise, especially the ones hanging around the car-parks who have constituted themselves handy-persons for putting the exit ticket in the machine if the car is at the wrong angle. To me that's worth 20 centimes. Those at the ticket issuing machine are a bit more of a nuisance. But if you are in need of small change for that wretched contraption, they can usually oblige but will get the best of the deal. Banking was never free. The beggars near the cash machines are an embarrassement and have to be ignored.

As I drove off I concluded that, apart from a few North Africans, it was the usual crowd of indigenous beggars, not people who had been shipped in by baddie Russians, skimming a percentage off the takings. A few kilometres out of the Perigueux conurbation, back in the country, there was a car in a lay-by with all four emergency lights flashing. Next to it stood a man wiping his brow. The car's registration plates looked vaguely British. 
Guilt at my probably baseless slurs on the 'Russians', vague goodwill created by the mild warmth of the sun, made me pull over to see if I could help. In a mixture of English and French, sweating, the burly not so young man explained his problem. His credit card would not work at the petrol station and he was nearly out of petrol. 'Uh-Oh' went my brain, 'we've been had....'. My hand-bag was safely on the floor, strap hooked round brake (accidentally). And my Audi is intelligent, it locks its doors as soon as it has been driven a hundred yards or so. 'I am from Sofia' said the man, 'you know it is capital of Bulgaria, I am Bulgarian'. A five euro note got me out of that trap.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The rat-catcher's daughter


We brought our first female Labrador,  Czeta, over from England on the car ferry from Portsmouth. She behaved beautifully except when left alone in the cabin, locked in the shower room for hygiene's sake. Then she howled and JP was summoned by the steward. As long as people were in attendance, she was fine.

And she was fine in the car, too, especially since Harry and Clea were leaning over the back seat to talk to her through the grill. (This was before compulsory child restraints). About an hour away from home, we stopped at a friend's house to say 'hello' and let Czeta out for a short rampage and the necessary physical functions. As still inexperienced Labrador owners we did not realise the extent of the breed's omnivorous characteristics. Czeta licked clean a plate of rat poison pellets.

Total panic. In our first year at La Chaise we had called in the rat-catcher who had skilfully placed his delicious pink granules in strategic places. Within 24 hours we were finding feral cat sized rat cadavers in the barns and out-houses, on what would hopefully one day be a lawn. JP became a one man rat burying platoon.

Full of this memory we looked up the nearest vet who was some 10 kms away – did I mention this was a Sunday? – and rushed over to him. He injected Czeta with a purgative and said, if she had not 'voided herself', either end, by the following mid-day, to go to our local vet. We drove home as fast as prudent, conscious of the fact that there was a dog in the boot who might either be sick, or shit, or die, within the next few hours. To cut my dear readers' suspense short – Czeta lived a longish and happy life and eventually gave (controlled) birth to eight puppies, one of which became Edward, the Black Prince.

But we became faithful clients of the rat-catcher – which is a bit of a misnomer as he placed poison, rather than traps. He certainly never proposed to come with gun and rat-catching dogs. After the first blitz we had many fewer rat corpses to deal with and very seldom saw any mouse remains. We followed where he placed the poison in the first few years, noticed how carefully it was situated where domestic animals – ducks, children or dogs - were unlikely to be able to get at the tempting pink grains. Then we let him get on with the job, even when we started bulk stocking winter grain for the sheep. Once a year either he would call us when he was in the area, or I would call him and ask him to come by. He came with his pails and his poison, did his job, got paid and went away.

However, this year the usual telephone call was late and slightly odd. A chirruping voice said the rat-catcher would be in our area the following day – would it be possible to call? Naturally I said yes and thought no more about it. Duly the following day the usual small white van arrived and I went to greet him. Only he was a she, slight with long curly hair, a short skirt and tight tee-shirt. She opened the back of the van, got out the buckets of pink poison, the neat tube containers and her dungarees. I recovered slightly as she was pinning up her hair and stepping into the dungarees.

'Umm' I queried, ' where is M. le rat-catcher'? She replied cheerfully, working on another site, 'shall I start with the farm?' I said yes and went back to the kitchen to recover. About an hour later she knocked on the door, back in her civilian guise, and sat down to make out the usual bill. Curiosity got the better of me. 'Who are you?' She looked surprised: 'well, I am Amelie, M. le rat-catcher's daughter. I am working with him now.' Oh, says I weakly. 'This is a much better job, more fun,' Amelie confided as she pocketed the cheque, 'I used to be an accountant.'

Sunday, July 8, 2012

of cherries,roses and hailstones

Counting sheep has been abandoned as sleep inducement. I have replaced it by self-hynosis and deep breathing....flat on your back, start by relaxing the toes, go up the leg, etc etc. This sometimes works. Counting sheep now just reminds me of things I have not yet done, such as getting their ear-tags, or filling in forms, hardly sleep inducing. Last Friday no sleep magic would work as the roof was hammered by a mega hailstorm. Seriously large hailstones hit our aged roof tiles so badly that I had to take a torch and change the bucket under the official leak.

An official leak is one of which I am aware and for which I have not yet summoned a roof tiler. It is almost a superstition with me now: keep one roof leak and you will not have many scattered ones. We have been here so long that our roof will have to be re-done a second time which, for me, is seriously weird. As someone who comes from rainy countries I expect a roof to keep out rain, hailstones and other undesirable features of the climate. Never having lived anywhere longer than five years – before La Chaise – I am not used to replacing things such as roofs, never mind replacing them twice. Nor am I used to the attitude whereby you – or rather a handy-man who does not suffer from vertigo – goes up on the roof to temporarily re-jiggle the tiles until the next proper replacement falls due.

For us, that time has come. Fortunately roofing practice has advanced greatly since we had our first two roofs installed – the original and its replacement. To start with it has been conceded that there is really no excuse for roofs to let rain in, that there are methods for stopping the rain coming in. The fact that some of these methods are from outside the Dordogne, indeed possibly even from outside France, no longer devalues them. So shortly I shall have the joy of summoning various roofing contractors to ask for estimates. I shall be scolded, tutted over, told I should have done it x years ago – indeed should have done it differently in the first and second place. But that is an expert's privilege.

Meanwhile the hailstorm has totally done for the cherries. All those not already damaged by unseasonal frost, or intermittent heavy rains, or greedy birds, are now on the ground. It has also battered the roses which are looking quite bedraggled, especially the prolific climbers on the garden fence and gate. Already their flower heads had dragged them down, now they are totally beaten down, beyond repair by pruning.

Fortunately, the red rose hedge round the Farmhouse and the pool garden, with its intervening lavender bushes, has resisted superbly.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Country Mouse Travels

If one has to travel – and travel is supposed to broaden the mind which is universally considered a Good Thing – then by air it is probably best to go from small airport to small airport. Smaller hordes, nicer officials, seem to be the rule.

So, on the way to 'marry our son' as the French expression would have it, we went from Bordeaux to Bristol, neither of which would probably be flattered to be considered small airports. On arriving at Bristol came the choice of renting a car or using public transport to get to Hereford in lushest rural England. I opted for trains as this seemed simple, only one change at Newport, time probably two hours. The great thing about trains, like buses and taxis, is that other, experienced people drive them, then take them away. Yes, yes I confess I did not like the idea of driving in England after such a long absence.

Unfortunately, a just missed connection meant a long wait at Newport. My punishment for cowardice, obviously. The wait was made unpleasant by cold weather and the fact that the station facilities were inoperative. The café was closed (not even 19h00!) and the vending machine (prop. A Merkel doubtless) announced in German that it was out of order. Just as well - it only dispensed chocolate in various forms. Fortunately, after twenty frustrating minutes the refreshments trolley with attendant from the third Cardiff Express to stop at Newport came down to the platform. We promptly kidnapped him and it. He went home a happy man with a lighter trolley and a £15 sale better off. We had a variety of alcoholic beverages to beguile the next forty minutes.

Then for couple of days we dashed between Hereford and Ross-on-Wye in a variety of taxis. Hereford is a very elegant cathedral town; Ross would probably win a national prize for having the most charity shops. The weather was sufficiently damp to give a proper blessing to the new bride and groom who will doubtless recount the event themselves.....

Then by train to London, post Jubilee, pre-Olympic Games. Oh dear! Security mania and an urge for 'improvements' have overwhelmed the common sense of the public authorities in London. There was a time when a human being could be dropped off at a discreet side entrance to Victoria station, walk a few yards to the Gatwick Express platforms. Then board the train, buy refreshments from a nice East European ladies whilst waiting for the train inspector to come along and sell you a ticket. The distinction has gone.

This time one had to buy tickets from a machine, cunningly placed to catch the sun so that it was difficult to read the screen. Then, encumbered by luggage, one had to go through a gate operated by scanning the ticket, a gate not wide enough for luggage and owner to pass side by side. To add a small insult to the ruffled ego, the nice East European ladies asked to see this same ticket before selling you a drink. Going to Gatwick Airport is no longer the mildly pleasant experience it once was.

It has occurred to me that those who are supposed to manage people flow through railway stations and airports ought to consult Dr Temple Grandin of Colorado State University. It is probably too late for London's Olympic facilities. Dr Grandin is world famed for her design of livestock handling facilities which cause the least possible stress to cattle.(see Travellers are now so numerous that they are harassed, herded and corralled like animals. We deserve better. We are the people.