Saturday, June 29, 2013

France: What changes, What Stays the Same


Let’s start with what has changed as this list will definitely be shorter.

Currently taking my vacations in France, I was pleased to be able to fill up my refrigerator in the evening (except on Sundays). An increasing number of small neighborhood super markets now stay open until 10 pm. Even in La France Profonde, the name given to the whole of France outside Paris and the French Riviera, many restaurants now welcome patrons until 9 pm. The most extraordinary event took place in Tours, a small town in the Loire Valley renowned for its magnificent Renaissance castles. On a week day, we were served lunch at 2 pm! This is unheard of.  The Saint-Honoré restaurant deserves a Michelin star.

Another noteworthy improvement is the opening hours of department stores in Paris. Nowadays one can shop until apéritifs, drinks before dinner. A visit to le Bon Marché, the upscale Rive Gauche department store, can be enjoyed until 8 pm. This schedule hasn’t really caught up with the locals as the store was nearly empty except for a few Brazilian tourists checking Brazilian swimsuits. With summer in mind, le Bon Marché is promoting trendy Brazilian items from accessories to body care.

On the other hand, the -what stays the same list- is long.

There is something which, year after year never changes: that is the feline invasion of my small garden in the village of Calvisson in the south of France near Provence. The neighbors’ cats use it as an oversized litter box.  One of my first task is the time-consuming and malodorous poop scoop. At the same time, cats have to be bluntly warned not to return. In this area, human ingenuity shows its limitation as felines consistently outsmart man. It is very frustrating to learn that Calvisson cats react to chemical repellents as if catnip weed! Spraying fresh pepper keeps them away for a limited period of time until the next rain. The local cats belong to a fearless breed and to this author’s despair always return to the crime scene

This requires major remedies. All other solutions exhausted, a toy gun was purchased with a magazine of plastic foam bullets. Even from a very short range, the gun scares the living day lights out of the cats. It is very satisfying to see a cat running for its life, even if these stubborn beasts sneak back in when one looks the other way. Scoreboard: Humans 2, cats 1 until October, when owner gone, cats will re-occupy the garden.

Slow changes epitomize France. Visitors sometimes wonder if France lives on a different planet. It holds out against its perennial foe, la mondialisation, or globalization, like Asterix the Gaul against the Romans. French people only work 35 hours a week and enjoy five weeks of vacations a year.  Work stoppages are nonetheless recurrent. Strikes are a way of French life. Labor strikes are answers for everything. In the matter of strikes the French are head and shoulder above the competition; they even go on pre-emptive strikes, just in case. The French word for strike is grève, but it is not used in France. The customary term is mouvement social which sounds innocuous and less offensive than strike! In English, social movement doesn’t mean strike!

Mid-June, in a four-day period, France suffered two mouvements sociaux in the transport sector. One affected air transport and the second SNCF, the state railways. For good measure, during one day these two strikes overlapped leaving millions of travelers and commuters stranded, scrambling for alternative transports. Fortunately, the patron saint of travelers St Christopher was on my side, I providentially escaped both strikes. I flew to Paris one day before the beginning of the air controllers’ strike. The railways strike ended the day I took the train back to Calvisson.

During my trip to the Loire Valley, a UNESCO World heritage site, friends and I visited the Renaissance castle of Azay-le-Rideau (photo). This small 16th century castle looks like a gem reflecting in the river. It is one of the most visited in the region. Like many French castles it was largely built with ill-gotten money. Azay was the property of the King’s treasurer-general who doubled as the mayor of the near-by city of Tours. After a damning royal investigation, fearing for his life the treasurer fled France.  Since it had been built with money looted form the public purse, the king rightly confiscated the chateau.  Recently, another French treasurer (budget minister) had to leave his post in disgrace for having hoarded dirty money in a secret Swiss bank account. Et plus ça change….


                     azayle rideau

Actually, this year a change took place in my Calvisson garden. Contrary to previous years, the persistent villains, the cats have been one-upped by… snails. At night, an army of gastropods munch all the garden’s new plants. In the morning one can see the snail’s shiny slime on the garden slabs. They ate my potted basil not even leaving the stems. Hearing my misfortune, friends from Cannes on the French Riviera suggested that all the basil-fed snails should be harvested for cooking. To add insult to injury, they even emailed me recipes for basil & garlic escargots. Instead, I purchased some slug control and let it work. Finally, one by one, I picked up the survivors and threw them over the wall into my neighbor’s garden. Let him eat snails.