Saturday, 29 November 2008

Les Anglais disent "bye bye".

Fortunately, nobody's asked me yet if we're 'living the dream' here in France. Clearly we move in the wrong circles, which is probably just as well, because both the phrase and the whole concept provoke in me the same kind of response that I have to tripe, or to chalk scraping on a blackboard, or to badly cooked aubergines. It conjures up an endless round of hot sunny days sitting on the terrace by the pool sipping wine, while drifting around in long flowing skirts and every so often popping a couple of hundred yards along the road to pick up just-baked baguettes and call in at the thriving and impossibly picturesque local café for coffee or pastis. Quite apart from the point that a life like that would have me swiftly joining the other 10 million plus French people supposedly reliant on anti-depressants, the facts are that I possess neither a pool nor a long flowing skirt; most local cafés here are more impossible than picturesque and are probably in their death throes anyway; and the boulangerie is 3km down (and up, and then down, and then up ...) the road. Oh, and - are you ready for this? - it rains here too.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because a couple of days ago our regional paper, La Depêche du Midi, ran a prominent article entitled 'Les Anglais disent bye-bye'. Because of the fall in the value of sterling, the increase in the cost of living and the effects of the financial crisis, the British are leaving France in droves: "For them, it's the end of a dream, the story of an attempt at integration messed up by the crisis". Apparently, one British immigrant in five goes back within the first three years - and it seems that not only is this figure is on the rise, but now, because of la crise, they are not being replaced by newcomers (to the great chagrin of the immobiliers, who have to some large degree traded off the British for the last few years).

La Depêche goes on to point out though that la crise is only partly responsible. With a touch of understated glee, it describes how the British can no longer afford to buy in the south-west, where property prices have risen sharply over recent years (although it stops - just - short of suggesting that they might now be hoist on their own petard). And, it says, "The British are also wheeler-dealers. They bought their houses when prices were low and expect to sell them at a profit, so that they can go off and buy cheaply somewhere else - in Croatia, for example".  There are other issues too: homesickness, isolation, boredom, difficulties of integration, disappointment with the winter climate ... in other words, the souring of the dream. 

We don't 'do', and can't be doing with, expat circles, so I don't really know how much this phenomenon comes close to home. There are other British people living in Ariège, and yes, we're even friends with some of them, but largely (and pretty much exclusively over in our 'bit' of the department) we're just people who've come to live an ordinary life, not a dream, in France, warts and all. We didn't come to be part of an expat community or to get away from an England that's 'going to the dogs' as have, I'm told, a number of Daily Heil reading settlers; nor are we about to go 'home' (sic) to get away from a country that is, now we've taken our Blytonian glasses off, even more unpalatable than the one we left in the first place. The only sizeable British community in Ariège is around Mirepoix: a very pretty and beautifully preserved small bastide town over on the far eastern border which has seen an extraordinary influx over the last few years - try and get a café table after the Monday market and you'll find almost every one jealously occupied by groups of British expats with golf club voices (sits back and waits for flak ...), plus there are English book groups, discussion groups, art classes and so on. But that's very much the exception here, thank heavens. 

So in spite of la crise and the weakness of sterling and the high cost of living; in spite of the fact that we're considerably poorer (in money terms, that is) than we were when we first came here; in spite of the fact that there are aspects of French life that are just as bizarre and frustrating as are parts of British life; in spite of the fact that so many things - like renovation! - take so long to happen; in spite of the fact that it rains; in spite of the fact that my Saturday night entertainment runs to sitting here writing this blog; even in spite of the fact that the Parti Socialiste has well and truly (and possibly terminally) shot itself in the foot and therefore that we'll have Sarko, or his look-alike, in power for the foreseeable future: in spite of all of that, we're going nowhere. These Anglais are definitely not saying bye bye.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

It's snowing!

Well, well, well. It's snowing. Now this is a Grillou I haven't seen before.

I love snow. It turns me into a big kid with a new toy. It makes me want go out and kick around in it and make snowwomen and throw snowballs. I wish I were a skier, but if you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know all about my legendary skiing prowess (I do want to get some raquettes - snowshoes - this year though). But when we woke up this morning and looked out of the window and saw everything covered in snow - proper snow, I mean, not that horrible wet stuff that disappears as soon as you puff at it - all I really wanted to do was go out and walk in it. I made a valiant attempt to go on working, I really did. But given that today's delectation was the scraping of thirty year old cork tiles from the walls of our downstairs loo, my willpower very soon simply gave up on me. I mean, what can you do when your garden looks like this:

So out we went to walk a bit of the GR78, La Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen, which runs across country just a few minutes walk away from Grillou and is part of the Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle. While not one of the four major Chemins, it's a superb walk of, in total, around 450 kilometres (140 in Ariège) that runs through the Corbières, the Couserans, the Comminges and the Bigorre regions to join up with the Arles to Oloron-Ste Marie route at St Jean Pied de Port in the Basque country. Phew. (That was for the sentence, not the walk). It's a classic Slow Walk, and definitely destined, I think, to be as much of a guest favourite as it is one of ours. One day, perhaps, we'll do the whole thing instead of piecemeal bits.
The light was fantastic at times:

After descending from Grillou into the valley, the chemin climbs gradually back up to around 500 metres and the views open out to the south and west, giving some lovely views (well, usually!) over the high peaks and some nearby hamlets:

The strange thing is that having walked 3 kilometres or so along the chemin, Grillou is less than a kilometre away (over to the left on the picture above) ... but you can't see it. We've walked the paths and woods all around the house now, and come to the conclusion that Grillou must be one of the only houses that nobody can see, from anywhere ...
On the way back there's a great view of Rimont, our village, in the distance, with the Pyrénées behind (almost hidden in the snowy mist):

More snow tomorrow. Yippee!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Er ... who am I anyway?

Unlike others, we've encountered few of the frustrations with France's legendary bureaucracy that seem to be experienced by so many other EU immigrants. Reading any of the hundreds of 'how to do it' guides that have proliferated since the heady Amanda Lamb era, you'd be forgiven for thinking that only with (amongst a tonne of other things) eighteen copies of six generations' birth, marriage and death certificates would you be allowed to darken the country's doors at all, let alone open a bank account, buy a house, re-register your car, join the health system, pay taxes and social contributions, start a business or association, and so on and so on and so on. No, in the last eighteen months we've done all of those things and more, and for us it's been relatively plain sailing; indeed every fonctionnaire in the book has only been too willing to take money from us ... Apart from one thing, that is. My name.

Now I admit that the whole situation around my name is probably not normal. My legal name - that of my passport, driving licence and every other bit of identification I carry - is not the name that I was born with. So what, you might say. But I don't mean just my surname; I mean both my first name and my surname. Some years ago I changed both by statutory declaration: Kalba is part of a spiritual name given to me nearly 25 years ago by the spiritual master Osho (it means 'heart' in Arabic, although I am also reliably informed that with a slight difference in pronunciation it can also mean 'bitch'. Hmm. You choose ...); Meadows I took some time later just because I liked it, and because I wanted a name that was mine and not given to me by anyone else. The UK, bless its little cotton socks, took all this on board without a murmur. I only wish I could say the same about La Belle France.

The problem is that name changing just doesn't happen here, probably because you have to have the permission of the President to do it. So there's no precedent for a bizarre foreigner who turns up with a birth certificate in one name and a passport in another, with nothing to link the two other than the rather ordinary looking, battered piece of paper which is the only proof I have that I have Statutorily Declared. No wax seal, no Royal thumb print, no Prime Minister's blood ... nothing. Not even the inevitable dossier, without which no French person may exist. I've lost count of the number of French fonctionnaires who have gone into a major crise at the sight - or rather lack - of my documents. So far, though heaven knows how and not without endless explanation on my part - I've managed to avoid receiving any vital pieces of paper in my birth name. Today, though, a whole new saga has emerged.

Because UK and French tax years run differently and so we only had to declare for a part year (while being able to claim the allowances for a full one), we've managed to stay below the income threshold for paying any tax this year. This is great, because it lets us claim the French government's special heating allowance for non tax payers who have oil central heating. A year ago I might have felt a bit guilty about doing this; actually, at the moment I don't, because our income - which is still all in sterling until we finish the renovation and was not huge to begin with - has actually decreased by over 35% in 12 months as a result of the exchange rate and interest rate cuts, and I don't mind admitting that times are A Bit Tough. So today, I thought, I'd fill out the claim form. So far so easy, until I got to the bit where you have to provide your 'avis d'imposition' (tax statement) and your oil bill. "These two documents must obligatorily be in identical names!" screamed the form. Well yeeeesss ..... but no.

I ordered and paid for the oil, but - and I only noticed this this morning - our avis d'imposition is in John's name. Not mine. (Here, partners are taxed as a household, not as individuals). No problem, I thought, I'll just give them a ring and get it put right, friendly helpful tax office that they are. No, they are. Really. In spite of the bizarre conversation we had for over half an hour today. I have, it appears, committed a Sin. I (being the one who does all things business and financial) completed, and put my name first on, the tax declaration, thus pronouncing myself to be the 'chef de famille' - the head of household. Nothing wrong there, I thought. It seems, though, that there is - I, being a woman living with a man, can simply not be head of household, and therefore I should have put my name second. And moreover, putting my name first in such an erroneous and upstart-ish fashion means that I have lost the right this year for my name to appear on the tax statement at all, which is why it isn't there. If, apparently, I had put it second, thus demonstrating that I knew my place in the world, it could have appeared as a secondary name on the avis. Yes, I know you don't believe this story, but it's true. Honestly. My tax conseiller couldn't quite grasp why I was laughing uncontrollably (disbelief? hysteria?): for her, this was the Natural Order Of Things, and when I finally picked myself up off the floor and explained to her that I'd always been the main player at my tax office in the UK she couldn't grasp that either.

So now I have to go back to my oil supplier (who is - how can I put this - a couple of centimes short of a euro when it comes to admin) and ask for a revised bill in John's name so that I can get my heating allowance ... . I think I've said this before, but you really couldn't make it up, could you?

Monday, 10 November 2008

Spot the Anglo Saxon

Sometimes, particularly in the supermarket, or sitting on a café terrace, we indulge in a little game playing, our favourite being the politically incorrect but entertaining 'Spot the Brit'. I remember exactly when we got hooked into this one: we were at Rhodes airport, sitting out a seven hour flight delay in the café overlooking the main departure concourse. There were lines and lines of people waiting in check-in queues for flights to the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Russia ... but we found that without even looking at the destination boards we could tell just by looking at the passengers which ones were British. It's hard to quantify how exactly, but I think it's something to do with a particular way we Brits tend to have of carrying ourselves, of being in ourselves: slightly apologetic, with a vague air of discomfort about being in the world.

Having said that, here in France I often get taken for a Belgian, apparently something to do with my French accent (which was honed in Switzerland many years ago - complicated or what?). Not exactly a compliment, given that the Belgians are the butt of ethnic jokes by the French in the same way as the Irish are in England. I recently shared a lift (as in thing that goes up and down) with two people, one of whom was acting a little strangely to say the least with the effect that we all ended up after ten minutes back precisely where we had started. When the offending person finally disembarked, the other guy yelled after her "T'es Belge ou quoi?" (Are you Belgian or what?). Then he looked at me and said, rather sheepishly "Ben, vous n'êtes pas Belge, madame ...?" (Er - you're not Belgian, are you?). I laughed, said I wasn't and made some innocuous comment about our 'adventure'. In pure John Cleese style he covered his face with his hands, bent over double and said "Merde - vous êtes Belge - je suis desolé ..." (Shit - you are Belgian - I'm really sorry ...").

There is, however, one sure fire way of spotting the Anglo Saxon in France, or indeed in any other southern European country. The Anglo Saxon is the one that gets their kit off whenever the sun shines, even if it is November. I guess that to those of us who've grown up in a country in which grey skies are the order of most days and strappy tee shirt days can be counted on the fingers of one hand, it's perfectly natural to want to 'profit from', as the French say, the warm sunny days that we get throughout the year. So, for example, I've spent the last three beautifully sunny afternoons working in the garden in shorts'n'strappy. For me, c'est normale; it was a good 20 degrees, maybe 10 degrees more in the sun - a pretty nice English summer's day. For our neighbours down in the valley though, who are the same ages as us and pretty alternative in other ways, it's verging on insanity, as is our habit of eating outside several times a week even in winter.

One of the great things about living in the far south of France is that there's real heat in the sun even in the depths of winter, but go to the market or a fête or foire on a sunny day and it's easy to spot the blow-ins; we're the ones in tee shirts, while everyone else is huddled in jumpers and jackets and ponchos and hats. There are exceptions, of course: a sunny restaurant terrace on a Sunday lunchtime seems to offer some kind of implicit permission to break the normal rules, and I've even seen people (and yes, they were French) in bikinis on the Languedoc beaches in January. But on the whole, as soon as summer's over - and that means September - arms and legs are put away for another eight months.

Integration's all well and good, but there are some ways in which I'll always be the token Brit.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A good day

It's over. And could it be that the whole point of George Bush was to show America, and the world, just how bad it could get without integrity, and responsibility, and relationship?

From today we can all sleep a little more soundly in our beds. And we can breathe, and we can hope again.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Produce tyranny

What is it with Metéo Chance - sorry, Metéo France? The forecast for today showed us being gradually 'squeezed' between two mega-depressions until all hell/rain/giant flying lizards broke loose this afternoon. So given that we still had one enormous pile of wood from our beheaded ash tree to saw up and stash before the weather finally broke, we were out there at the crack of dawn. (And guess who got to operate the chainsaw today? I'll give you a clue. There are two of us, and it wasn't me. No, I was the one sweating with the nineteenth century wood saw ...). By lunchtime it was so incredibly hot and sunny that I was forced to strip right down to - no, too much information. And it stayed that way, until it got dark.

On the other hand, and I never thought I'd say this, but Thank Goddess It's (Nearly) Winter. Don't get me wrong: I'm not about to go and live in an inner city high-rise, but there comes a point when the sight of naked fruit tree branches, wilting courgette plants and the odd patch of bare earth in the potager starts to fill me with relief simply because I don't have to deal with any more produce. The walnuts are shelled (and my hands are finally losing their Gauloise-addict look); the plums and figs and cherries are bottled, compôted, jammed and chutneyed for the winter; and we've got onions and potiron and potimarron in store, and broad beans and French beans in the freezer, to see us through the hungry gap. John is, as I write, juicing the last of our strange gnome-like apples, and our pitiful (my fault - I forgot to remove the rotting fruit from around the trees last year and so they lost most of this year's blossoms to rot) harvest of quinces is staring pointedly at me from the rack daring me to get on and turn them into membrillo (oh God. Another two hours at the jam pan ...). I've got a box full of aubergines, and I've just picked what will surely be the last peppers of the year:

Phew. It's a tyranny. this produce business. Bring on the Big Macs ...