Roofs, ants and cicadas

As Jean de la Fontaine (and before him, Aesop) so rightly observed, some of us are cicadas, chirping away merrily without a care in the world; others are ants, ceaselessly scuttling and toiling for the good of all. When it comes to Europe, the division is clear: the ants, virtuous and dour, are in the north, where they endlessly churn out Mercedes, while the feckless cicadas laze about on the beach down south, piling up debts and paying no taxes. It’s very easy to know which part you’re in because in the north it’s always raining and in the south it’s always sunny. France, which straddles the divide, applies this rule quite consistently, having fixed the Loire as the demarcation line. Few people north of the Loire watch the weather forecast, as they know there’ll be a big black cloud above the spot where they live. In the south, people only watch it in order to gloat.

However, due to the occasional aberration, it has been known to rain in the south. This has to be lived with, unjustifiable as it is. Over and above the trauma, it can cause disorientation, since you’re no longer sure where you are – Antland or Cicadaland? Fortunately, there’s a rough method of knowing, whatever colour the sky is – the roofs.

You might well find a few ants who,  hoping to brighten their existence, adopt a red roof, but the reverse is unlikely. On the whole, it’s slate in the north, tiles in the south. The roofs in Provence, you might think, need no looking after because cicadas, concerned only with singing all summer long, can’t fix a roof to save their life. Well, that may be true enough when the tiles are recent, but after a few decades, they start to crumble and crack. On the left is the roof on our garden shed, built (not by me, don’t worry) in 2012. On the right, the roof over our study, formerly a garage, built circa 1920.

‘Have you noticed,’ said Mrs. B. one day last summer, ‘those patches of damp on our ceiling?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I think they might be due to the garden on our roof.’

‘We’ve got a garden on our roof?’ Mrs. B., who keeps up to date with gardening trends, was impressed that we had a living roof. All the same, fearing for the plaster on our ceiling, we decided it ought to be removed. As luck would have it, our friend Bruce was visiting at the time, so after waiting for the roof to be in the shade, we climbed up and scraped the garden away. Then we replaced the tiles that were already broken, plus all the ones we broke ourselves when replacing the ones that were broken.

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If you’re doing this, it’s wise to wear gloves, as I found out to my cost when a splintered tile dug itself into my finger. With great fortitude I stitched myself up, just like Matt Damon in The Martian, then donned a couple of Mrs. B’s gloves, which not only protected me but won me the Most Fashionable Roofer Award.

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The tiles were the curved type, known as canal, which are very easy to place because they just slide under one another like playing cards. The technique was used in ancient China around 2000 BC, and the Romans adopted it throughout the Mediterranean, so Bruce and I were pleased to be carrying on the tradition. According to Mrs. B., in olden times the tiles were made on people’s thighs. This seemed plausible, since they look the right shape, tapering as they get towards the knee. After a little research, though, I discovered it’s a myth – in fact they were moulded round a block of wood called a gabarit. Which is only logical when you come to think about it: what if you ordered a batch of tiles and got a mix of George North and Cara Delevingne?

Having fixed the roof, Bruce and I retired to the garden (the one that’s where it should be), where we opened a beer and sat back listening to the cicadas. Which was all very enjoyable until I looked up and noticed that the entire house was circled by a column of ants.


 

This post (again in the nick of time) is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up.

Lou Messugo

Three new pages!

They’re all on my other blog, the one where I get to be a serious indie author posting about writing, promoting and… well, nothing else really, because that’s all indie authors do.

Aware that even the smallest exposure can help, I’ve added an Indie Books Page with bite-sized reviews of books I’ve read. Not many for the moment but I’ll add more as and when.

There’s a One Green Bottle audio page – the first four chapters recorded. If you who don’t like reading on screen, or want to be entertained as you cook, this is for you!

Finally, win a holiday break in Provence! That’s right – a short story competition, first prize being a long weekend in Provence as a guest of yours truly. Check it out!

A Glorious Rock

Anywhere a French minister goes, other than the toilet perhaps, they can expect hostility. They don’t mind much – it comes with the territory. In this case, the minister is George-Pau Langevin and the territory is Mayotte. No longer a territoire, in fact – since 2011 a département. Mme Langevin, Minister of Overseas, does just that – oversees (sorry…) the DOM-TOM, the départements and territoires d’outre-mer. So obviously, her visit to Mayotte sparked grumbles all round – health, security, education, environment, infrastructure, housing… When it comes to bringing Mayotte up to the standards of the Metropole, it’s difficult to know where to start

This post, though, is not to do with Mayotte, about which I’ve written elsewhere,* but about the Glorioso Islands, or Îles Glorieuses. Because the first grumble around the minister’s visit was her timetable – yesterday morning, rather than discuss the problems of Mayotte, she whizzed off in a military jet to Grande Glorieuse, the largest of the islands that make up the Glorioso Archipelago. ‘Large’ here is relative: there are two actual islands, a few rocks and sandbanks, and the whole lot together cover 7 square kilometres.

So what did she do in the couple of hours she was there? Officially, she observed and encouraged the efforts undertaken by France to protect the biodiversity of the area. The coral reefs are indeed among the earth’s most treasured assets, definitely not to be messed with. She would also have had a little chat and a cup of coffee (no croissants, though) with the islands inhabitants, 14 soldiers and one gendarme, who doubles up as the postman. Nothing too taxing and no great issues to debate. So why did she even go there?

Well, it just so happens that over the past few months, the matter of who the islands really belong to has flared up in Madagascar. Not just the Glorieuses, in fact, but the whole of the Îles Eparses, or Scattered Islands, of which the Glorieuses are a part. A glance at the map shows just how completely Madagascar is surrounded by French territory. Only La Réunion is indisputably French: the five tiny spots of the Îles Eparses are contested by Madagascar, while Mayotte is contested by the Comores.

Now far from me the idea that France is not devoted to the biodiversity around these scattered rocks, but when you bear in mind that the territorial waters are also rich in fossil fuels, you begin to see why such devotion is so convenient. Madame Langevin’s little chat with the soldiers was also saying to Madagascar, ‘C’est à nous!’

The conflict goes back to the 1960s, when Madagascar became independent. In 1979, the UN ‘invited’ France to return the Scattered Islands to Madagascar, but for some reason the invitation was declined. A proposal last year by Madagascar to manage the islands jointly was similarly turned down. France is quite partial, it seems, to uninhabited rocks.

* A brief, tongue-in-cheek history of Mayotte is here, whilst a more general overview, including the immigration issue, is here.

Just in the nick of time, I believe (the minister omitted to consult me regarding dates), this post is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up, not forgetting TJ Paris’s French Friday feature.

Lou Messugo

All a bit fishy

The name intrigued me: poutargue. As a brand name, it would have the marketing team holding their heads in despair. When I asked a couple of French people what it evoked, one said, ‘Quaint and old-fashioned.’ The other said, ‘Disgusting.’

So I went to the Caronte Channel in Port de Bouc, some 20 miles west of Marseille, where every Friday this summer they opened the calen fishing to visitors. Calen refers to the net that stretches from one side of the channel to the other, and when the fishermen raise it, they’ve caught thousands of mullet come to spawn. Well, that’s how it used to be anyway – these days the mullet are more in the hundreds, and calen fishing is very much on the decline. But the ones they do catch suffer the same fate: sliced open for the roe to be extracted, salted and dried. The end result is poutargue, also known as the caviar of Provence.

Unfortunately, we saw none of this, because a boat was due to pass and the nets couldn’t be raised. Instead we saw Raymond, a silver-haired fisherman who explained how it’s done and showed us lots of photos. Rather a swizz, I thought, a bit like going to a concert and being shown a slide show instead. Still, being a good-natured group, none of us complained and those of us who understood what Raymond was saying listened enthusiastically. I too was enthusiastic, but apart from his accent he spoke a bit as if he had a hard-boiled egg lodged in his throat. All the same, I managed to get the gist.

The reason the mullet are waning is not due to overfishing but the water. What they like is brackish water, typically found where an estuary meets the sea, providing just the right level of salt. But in the 1960s, the balance was altered when the Durance Canal was built to bring fresh water to a hydroelectric plant nearby. As a result, there are only five calen fishing outfits left.

It may be, then, that the days of poutargue are numbered. Raymond didn’t appear too bothered, but then there’s not a lot he can do about it. In the meantime, he makes a decent living, as demand for poutargue is very strong. I think some of the visitors had come along expecting to taste some, in which case they were disappointed. If you want poutargue, you’ll have to place your order several months before and pay almost 200 euros a kilo. That’s still a long way from truffle territory, but it’s three times the price of foie gras. It seemed almost hard to believe, as we huddled on the tiny platform where the mullet are brought ashore, but poutargue is sent all over the world, notably Japan (where they know a thing or two about fish).

So what does it taste like? Well, according to Raymond, anchovies. Basically, in other words, just very salty and fishy. I couldn’t help thinking there had to be something else, a je ne sais quoi that Raymond wasn’t revealing. After all, anchovies can be bought for a quarter of the price. But Raymond wasn’t there to give a sales pitch. He was happy enough knowing that the mullet roe he prepares in Port de Bouc will end up pleasing the taste buds of a few connoisseurs in Tokyo. As for me, I made do with a couple of bream sold by some fishermen nearby. They were delicious.


This post is part of Phoebe’s All About France link up, as well as TJ Paris’s French Friday feature.

Lou Messugo

A bit of history

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My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.

Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?

Do you hear what I hear?

In the second half of the last century, one persistent and irreversible trend was decolonisation. Or rather, not quite irreversible – France has managed to buck the trend by making Mayotte a French department in 2011. Why? When talking to people here, the question arises often and no real consensus emerges. One answer often put forward, though, is Big Ears. This is the name given to two large radar dishes on Petite Terre, operated by the military, protected by high wire fences and forbidden to all cameras.

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Big Ears is jointly run by the DGSE (Direction Générale de Sécurité Extérieur) and the BND (Bundesnachichtendienst), the German secret service. Compared to the NSA, they’re minnows, but by adding the Mayotte ears to those already installed in the Dordogne in France and Kourou in French Guyana, they’re able to cover a large part of the globe. How reassuring to know we’re being listened to – all for our own good, of course.

Gazette Issue 2 and other writings

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Many thanks to those who signed up for The Gazette. Issue 2 will be sent in a couple of weeks, and of course, to anyone who wishes, the first issue is also available – the subscribe link is on the right. Just a reminder – The Gazette is a free magazine containing two or three of my stories which may vary considerably in style or topic. For me it’s a useful way of sifting through ideas I’ve had for a long time but never got round to writing. So now I’m getting them into what you could call beta shape – not the finished product perhaps, but worked on enough to be put out for the judgment, and hopefully the pleasures, of others. Subscribers aren’t officially beta readers, since there’s no obligation to provide feedback (even if feedback is welcome). Details of the contents of Issue 2 will appear shortly.


Following my interview of T.J. Paris (author of, amongst other things, the wonderful Papa Bouilloire series), he has kindly reciprocated, with my answers to his questions appearing on his blog today. Many thanks, TJ!

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Finally, after writing a first piece about Mayotte to kick off Clara’s excellent series People Who Live In Small Places (now including Gibraltar, the Seychelles, the Netherlands and a village in the west of France), I was asked by Phoebe at Lou Messugo to do another piece, her series being devoted to France and its overseas territories. I didn’t want to repeat the same post as I did for Clara, so it’s quite different in fact, with the negative side (i.e. illegal immigration and its consequences) given more prominence.

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And that’s probably enough of me for the moment so I’ll sign off here. Ta ta!


Thursday Interview: Grosbisou

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– Now, Grosbisou, you’re perhaps the most famous of the Bisounours. But having heard of you only after I moved to France, I was under the impression you were French. That’s not the case, though.

-Pas du tout, non. I was sent here from America to represent Tenderheart Bear from the Care Bears. Bisounours isn’t a bad translation – ours means bear and bisou is the child’s term for kiss.

– Was it hard to adapt to France?

– Well, there were fears at first the French might be suspicious so we underwent a cultural awareness course before leaving, but as it turned out, we caught on straightaway. Toys, films, TV series – we were all over. And we’ve barely gone out of fashion ever since. Basically, our philosophy transcends national cultures.

– And what exactly is your philosophy?

– Spread love and friendship! If we all care enough, we can change the world!

– Do you think you’ve had much effect? You’ve been around for more than 30 years and I can’t see much improvement myself. Some might say that behind your ‘philosophy’ was just a cynical ploy to make money.

– Typical of a journalist, that! You’re so damn – I’m sorry… No, we Care Bears are utterly sincere, believe me.

– The French have a saying, On n’est pas au pays des Bisounours – We’re not in Care-a-Lot – meaning you live in a fantasy world with no relation to reality.

– Well, to quote T.S. Eliot, human kind cannot bear (no pun intended!) too much reality. And I do believe that little acts of kindness can indeed change the world.

– Yes, I’m not saying they can’t. But you have to admit it was all about the money, surely?

– There you go again. Look, you really press my cider, you do. Why don’t you just – Oh, I see my agent’s calling me. It was lovely to speak to you. Take care!

Non, rien de rien… Cheer up!

A few years back, we attended the wedding of our friends’ daughter, quite an enlightening experience as we were seated at a table with eight communists. Despite the festive occasion, they were uniformly glum, which, to be fair, is understandable for members of an endangered species. Being the only Brit, I was slightly uncomfortable, knowing what French communists think of all things Anglo-Saxon. But although they stuck to their glumness, they weren’t actually hostile, and indeed perked up a bit when I expounded upon the superiority of France over Britain in food, wine, climate, countryside, health care, social security, public transport – basically everything that makes life worthwhile. ‘But,’ I said, expecting general agreement with this universally recognised truth, ‘The opposite holds in one area. Music.’

Silence. The glumness turned to indignation. ‘Do you actually know French music?’ one of them demanded.

‘Well, yes.’ (I omitted to add, ‘unfortunately’). For the next ten minutes I was bombarded with the names of French singers, some of whom I do indeed appreciate – Nino Ferrer or Alain Bashung are perfectly good to listen to. ‘No, all I’m saying,’ I argued, ‘is that, you know, The Beatles? Or The Stones or Dylan or Joni Mitchell, I mean, it’s not quite the same league.’ More silence, heavy now with a barely concealed outrage.

‘Wow,’ I said, ‘this strawberry cake’s delicious, don’t you think?’

***

I actually have a story on the go where one of the characters is called Fabien Chansonnier, which means singer or songwriter (it’s not quite the same as chanteur because for a chansonnier, the lyrics, often satirical or political, were at least as important as the music). Fabien isn’t a singer himself but the story takes place in the war in Marseille, when communists were plentiful and la chanson française was thriving. This prompted me to look at what was popular at the time. In 1942, when the Germans occupied Marseilles, the big hit was Mon Amant de Saint Jean, sung by Lucienne Delyle.

And of course, Edith Piaf had by then started her eventful and illustrious career. I was delighted to tell my companions at the wedding that Je Ne Regrette Rien may well have unconsciously influenced my move to France. Bought by my parents in the 50s, it was our first record, which I listened to constantly (I didn’t have a lot of choice – for a long time it was the only record we had). Everyone round the table agreed that Piaf was unique, and amicable relations were restored. I would have liked to report that by the end of the evening, they’d emerged somewhat from their gloom. Sadly, it wasn’t the case.

The bouéni ticklers

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Zaïna Méresse

Bouéni is the Shimaoré word for woman, but it conveys more than that. A bouéni is mature, imposing and plump. No zero size models here – buxom wives are seen as a sign of vigour and prosperity. Nor are they in any way shrinking violets, Mayotte being traditionally a matriarchal society. There was thus considerable sadness last year at the death of Zaïna Méresse, the last of the bouéni ticklers. The tickling women movement began in the 1960s, a reaction to the threat of independence from France, which the bouénis were keen to avoid. Whenever a Comorian politician arrived in Mayotte, he’d be surrounded by a goup of bouénis who tickled him into helpless, squirming laughter while they repeated their demands. In the 1975 referendum, the three other Comoros islands voted for independence, while Mayotte opted to remain French, a result due in no small part to the ticklers. If only today’s world leaders could be tickled into making good on their promises.

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Les Bouénis, Cyrille le Corre

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