Sunday, November 25, 2012

Absence, Love, Real Life.

This last ten days I have taken leave of absence from La Chaise. Of course, as a control freak, I could not go without leaving many, many written instructions. I don't know why I bother to bother my little blonde head with these instructions. Arnold knows perfectly well what he has to do – he does what is necessary and is a better judge of that than I am..

And Michelle, my 'housekeeper' to borrow the American term, is only to glad to see us out of the house, so that she can really get on with what she likes doing. This is mostly polishing everything that stands still, windows, copper, silver, floors and airing everything else – beds, bed-linen, sofas, chairs, rubbish bins. Oh, and I must not forget the plants, she takes them over totally, pruned, watered, brought in if the cold, in her view, is too great.

Clea and Jérôme deal with everything else, strange postal deliveries (usually JP's wine), hopeful money collectors for the local football team, the pompiers with their annual calendar of the local fire-brigade volunteers. They also deal with people who come to do things, such as M. Angibaud junior (!) who came to empty the main septic tank before the Christmas invasion. (One day I shall write a brief dissertation on septic tanks and the management thereof.)

A lot of this could be managed by telephone but it is a curious truth that people seldom telephone people who are not in the same country. In fact, in the Dordogne, very few artisans return telephone calls at all – M. Doly of chimney fame being the notable exception. The invention of mobile phones has made life a little easier for, without those, one was always telephoning at the beginning of meals – not good for the digestion of either party.

So the question is: will this absence make me fonder of La Chaise as the ancient proverb (which actually applies to people) likes to indicate? I don't know. Our return is always greeted by a pile of paperwork and old newspapers. The house will be warm, the bed and the fire made and the Rayburn lit. But there is still that slight sinking feeling of jobs left undone when one went away, jobs which get no easier for having been left to stew.

Comparisons are often apples versus oranges and, in the case of La Chaise v. Miramina (the flat in which we are staying now) this is particularly true. The houses at La Chaise are probably a couple of hundred years old; the flat block that houses Miramina dates back to the 60's. How can one contrast and compare views over a green valley with cliff-top views over a working fishing port? Or being woken up by the cry of sea-gulls as dawn breaks ('aaargh' or 'ow-ow-ow') with the screech of the white owl that tears through the night to let in the day?

But there is no doubt in my mind that a stay at Miramina in Sant Feliu de Guixols is a holiday. In other words, it is time off from real life. Real life happens at La Chaise.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Legal realities

Drama in Perigueux's courtroom! A woodland proprietor was claiming damages, with interest, from her neighbour who had carelessly allowed his bonfire to damage her trees. Claim: her financial loss was otherwise irreparable. (Yes, the price of wood has recently shot up.) Unfortunately her lawyer mumbled, so many details were lost to the entranced audience. Fortunately the defending lawyer had a strong sense of the dramatic, refuted all the claimants plaints. Not only was her claim untrue, the opposite was true – the 'accidental' burning of the 'rubbish' on the floor of her woodland had cleared and improved it. The judge hearing the case, a slight middle aged lady, consulted the advisors from the Ministry of Justice and, probably wisely, decided to withold her judgement till later.

Given that the lawyers were likely to cost the plaintiff and the defendant around 80-100 € an hour, one wondered why no court has been established on the basis of 'knock their silly heads together'. Bring on the Red Queen. This feeling was reinforced when a young man presented himself at the bar, determined to quarrel with the traffic police as to whether or not he had gone through a red light in the centre of Perigueux. The dispute centred round which red light was concerned, the police had one in view, he had another. The judge hummed a little and said she would deal with him later, too.

Then we came to the meat of the cases before her: cases brought by the département de l'inspection du travail. This was where we – officially Clea as the 'donneur d'ordre' for La Chaise – were involved. Most of the cases, including ours, were about the lack of 'correct' book-keeping. The early cases concerned restaurant owners with part-time employees, pregnant wives, new establishments the defence was generally boo-hoo-I-did-my-best. The judge fined them all.

And then came our turn. We, too, had transgressed the rules laid down, no daily attendance book, no regular monthly printed salary statements, just bank transfers. The charge was impeding inspectors from doing their work of inspecting the books. When I mentioned to Arnold that he had to note down every day his arrival and departure times, in an official book countersigned by his employer – aka Clea – he became unusually loquacious. Dutch can be a most descriptive language.

The visit of the inspectrice was rather a shock for us. We are used to dealing with the rigidities of the French administration which are usually skilfully managed by French bureaucrats so that it works. The inspectrice had no sense of proportion at all. I lost patience (I'm Dutch, too) and left her to the diplomatic tact of JP.

When called to the bar, a very innocent, very pregnant Clea explained that, as she had a full time job as well as the farm – which did not provide a decent income – her 'aged' parents did the paperwork. The judge asked how old were her parents. Mild panic as Clea turned towards to me to ask. The judge explained that the rules were for the benefit for both employer and employee and was Clea now en regle? Oh, yes! Fine 70€ each on two counts.

But we are in France. The judge pointed out that if the fines were paid promptly there would be a 20 per cent discount.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Is there a Doctor in the Woods?

Arnold is no longer simply 'the wonderful Arnold' but 'the wonderful, eagle-eyed Arnold'. Amongst all the leafless trees around, he spotted an oak that was dead, dangerously dead. Of course, sod's law – la loi de l'emmerdement maximum' – dictated that this particular tree had grown on the bank of the Black Pond in the Woods, the roadside bank. The road is a departmental one with heavy, fast traffic at breakfast, lunch and dinner times.

The metre or so wide roadside bank of the Black Pond is mostly ditch with some poor clay either side and it drops steeply towards the water. It is not the most stable of banks. Oh, and there is sheep fencing in the middle, to keep the sheep in and mushroom thieves out.

The ditch is cleared twice yearly by the departement d'equipement's services. A tractor equipped with bucket for digging out the accumulated rubbish and armed with a brasher for cutting back scrub growth of all kinds, proceeds slowly along. It is shadowed by a largish truck with flashing lights announcing debroussaillage driven by a half asleep man in yellow visibility garments. It is the kind of combination one always meets just on a right hand bend....We remind ourselves we are deeply grateful for the work for, as far as we know, the Black Pond is mostly filled by rain from the road side ditches. (It might have a spring, we are not sure.)

Of course the dead tree is leaning slightly and, of course, it is our responsabilité civile to make sure it does not fall onto the road, or onto any cars using the road. So it has to be dealt with quite soon.

Fortunately Arnold had pointed out the dead tree to me just as the gardener who had dealt with the dead elm and the dying willow was back to deal with the stumps. So JP and I, with M. Bernard went to look at the problem from the woodside where the Black Pond has a wide bank with a number of trees, created when it was last dredged. The dead tree is about sixteen or so metres high. In order to bring it down safely a large number of its branches will first have to be cut off. This means some agile person, plus chain saw, will have to shin up the tree. Then a rope will have to be attached to the tree and to a heavy tractor on the ground to make sure the tree falls in the right direction - not on the road.

M. Bernard started talking about light weight carp fishing boats, to get to the tree, then making the tree fall across the Black Pond and then pulling it onto the larger woodside bank with his Chrysler camping car. Only that bank is about three metres higher than the surrounding land. My eyes closed and I began to think, no, no and no. The last person to take a boat into the Black Pond was Harry when the intake valve of the irrigation system had got blocked (tadpoles). There is no jetty to reach the water in the Black Pond, the depth of the mud is horrendous. No, no and no. We need a tree doctor, not a gardener. It needs to be done on the roadside, with flashing red triangles and impressive trucks to guide its fall. The cost will be quite another matter.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

men problems

Since last week I have been brooding about Ahmed, the fork-tongued, pointy shoed, fast talking, self declared roofing expert. Or rather I have been
brooding over the almost impossible task of selecting excellent, reliable artisans.
One way is simply to pick up a card near whatever till you are at and ask the cashier (usually a girl) what is known about the artisan who is advertising his skills. I did this at the Mensignac baker's only a few days ago and was promptly warned off: he's a drunk, his wife's a cow, and he's lost his licence . A pretty comprehensive indictment which confirmed my telephone experience, always a semi-comatose woman answered the phone with the refrain he's out.

References from previous clients should be reliable but are not always so. Work styles and attitudes that suit one person may not suit another – we have had at least two experiences along these lines. On the other hand, M. Doly, he who is repairing Ahmed's omissions, was recommended to me by the local fire-brigade. I had telephoned to ask for help with a wasp's nest, a service it no longer offered. But M. Doly, a part-time fireman, had taken over. And every time I call him in a panic, either for myself or for the holiday makers, because there are hornets – Asian or local – he arrives within the day. Sometimes, much to the joy of visiting children, he puts on his full anti-hornet/wasp gear, helmet with all round shoulder length veil, elbow length gloves, trousers tucked into lace up boots. Very impressive, very effective.

On the whole we have been very lucky with the artisans we have employed. Some have been more skilled than others, some develop businesses that outgrow our relatively simple needs. Indeed, apart from Ahmed (my fault) only once in the thirty plus years we have been here, have we been truly taken for a ride.

It was in the very first few years and seemed so simple. JP had always wanted to plant trees of differing kinds at La Chaise. There are two very successful cedars, also two magnolias, some holm oaks and an entire pine plantation. He had plans for putting more walnut trees in the fields, for the existing trees were getting quite old.

Thinking back I cannot remember quite how the paysagiste who said he could undertake this job came into our orbit. But, like Ahmed, he was very plausible, talked knowledgeably of the different types of walnut – franquettes, parisiennes, – and was not dismayed when JP said he wanted the trees to be a double fin. That is, trees for wood as well as nuts, which implies a different way of pruning them.

The fields were selected, the emplacements for the young trees marked with a stick. The paysagiste suggested we employ a local entrepreneur with his own tractopelle (JCB). He said to give him a cheque for 3,000 francs, payee name unmarked, which he would take to his favourite plant nursery. Of course, we never saw him again, or our 3,000 francs, or the trees. And this is how we learned that cheques in France are sacrosanct, as good as money in hand. You cannot just stop a cheque because you are in a snit with the recipient. The upside of which is that one can accept cheques in all confidence – writing a cheque in France without the means to meet it is an offence which could deprive you of our checking account for several years. But it was an expensive lesson.