Poubelles

One winter evening 14 years ago I was by myself in the house when the door bell rang. Three men were just departing through the gate but stopped and called  back to me “ Poubelles “. I didn’t understand why they wanted my dustbins. They repeated “Poubelles” but when they could see I didn’t understand they left. I shut the door, but couldn’t stop wondering what the purpose of their visit had been. 

         Slowly, I started to remember something in the excellent book that had helped us so much in our preparations for moving, ‘Living and Working in France’. After much searching I found the part I wanted under ‘Tipping’.

I read the extract with mounting horror, ‘Christmas is generally the time of giving tips to all and sundry, including the postman, rubbish collectors and firemen, who will often call in early December ‘offering’ you a calendar, for which you’re nevertheless expected to pay (unless you don’t want your post delivered, your rubbish collected or any house-fires extinguished for the following 12 months)’ Oh, no! I had just refused to give a tip to my dustmen! Would our rubbish be strewn over the road for all of the next year in retaliation?

Poubelles is a word to rank with Biro, Hoover and Wellingtons because it’s the name of the inventor of the object. Monsieur Eugèné René Poubelle was the Préfet of Paris. In 1884, he ordered that everyone must have a receptacle for their rubbish that must be put outside their doors to facilitate street cleaning. The boxes became known as ‘poubelles’, hence the French word for dustbins.

The dustbin men are called ‘éboueurs’ from the mud that they had to work with in the streets. It’s not a very nice name but whenever I see the dustbin men at work I think it’s much more exciting job here than in the UK. 

In the UK the dustbin men trudge along behind the dustcart. Here they are more ‘macho’ and have a little footplate and a handle at the back of the lorries. After emptying a few bins they hop onto their wagon and ride to the next bins like naughty schoolboys clinging onto the back of an old double decker bus. They don’t seem to be governed by so many health and safety regulations either. The man who empties the big double bins in our cemetery often lifts the whole bin by himself. They are also extremely efficient. Many streets are closed for weekly markets and the rubbish that is left is unbelievable, yet within half an hour of the last stall closing, the streets are pristine again.

For the €1100 we pay our local council we receive an excellent service. (For those British readers with weak hearts and high blood pressures, please skip the next sentence). The bins are emptied 3 times a week. We can also put out our yellow topped recycling bin once a week and that takes plastic bottles, paper, cartons and tins. Strict codes of conduct are expected from residents. We must only put out our bins after 7 p.m. and must take them in as soon as possible after they have been emptied. In our area the bins are emptied at about 5 o’clock in the morning, but I haven’t seen anyone going out at that hour to bring in their bins. 

For bigger items of rubbish such as tree prunings, old furniture and rubble there are 4 municipal dumps located around the city. There are also rubbish skips that are supplied by our local council. When a skip appears in your street it saves you the effort of loading up the car and going to the dump.

There is no household collection of green waste but anyone can get a compost bin for the subsidized price of €15 from the local council. A short time after signing up for one a pick-up truck arrived at our house. The bin was delivered in pieces, but the delivery person also dug over the patch of soil where it was to go, helped to assemble it, gave us an instruction book and then wanted our signatures in triplicate.

The nearest bottle bank is just across the road at the end of the street, but again there is a notice saying ‘7h-22h only’ in case you disturb the neighbourhood with the sounds of breaking glass.

One year when it had been snowing heavily for 2 days, buses have stopped running, classes have been cancelled but some people in the street put out their wheelie-bins. Did they really imagine the ‘éboueurs’ would be at work in temperatures of minus 10 °c?

Fortunately, our bins were emptied during the following year. David Hampshire, the author of the book, was just having his little joke! I did not need to buy a calendar in order to guarantee good service. But of all the jobs in the world from the night soil collectors in India to the rubbish collectors of Cairo, handling everyone else’s waste is the least honoured of all occupations.  Showing our gratitude once a year is right and proper. Was the foolish optimism of my neighbours justified? Yes! The bins were emptied at 5 am even in that bleak mid-winter.

Our Cemetery

Do you like visiting cemeteries ? In the UK we lived very close to one and it was a popular route to take into town, with plenty of mature trees, squirrels, birds and  a large wild flower patch yellow with dandelions in the spring.

We had no problem with buying a house that overlooked a graveyard here in France. The advantages are many. No-one will be able to develop the land and build a block of flats that blocks out our light. It is locked at night and surrounded by a high wall so thieves would find it very difficult to break into our house from behind. It is also very calm. No noisy neighbours for us! We have a little joke that we like to tell people when they visit. The family across the road have the very un-French surname of More. So we tell visitors that we are ‘entre les morts’. We have the dead – ‘les morts’ on one side and ‘Les Mores’ on the other, so we are between the dead!

We have been very surprised to find that the average French attitude is very different. People will refuse point blank to rent or buy a home next to the dead.  The reticence to have tombs near to dwellings can be seen in the placement of cemeteries. In the UK the local church usually has a large patch of sacred ground round it, but this is rarely the case in France. Cemeteries are often far from the village and out of sight behind a high brick wall. 

When I was researching the history of my grandfather’s brother who was killed in France in 1917 on the Somme, I wanted to find the local cemetery in the village of Courcelette. (George Tinsley Loveley – ‘He fought at Gallipoli and died on the Somme.’ Available on Amazon) My Great-uncle was killed at the age of 24 during a German advance. His body was found and his papers were sent to the British by the ‘enemy’. The family were told that he was buried in German Cemetery No 1. But now that graveyard has been lost. I wanted  to see if there were any isolated German or British soldier’s graves in the local village amongst those of civilians. I searched maps. I searched the village website. Nothing – no mention of one. I knew this could not be the case. There was one in every village. In the end I went onto Google Earth and virtually ‘walked’  along every road out of the hamlet. Along a country lane, was an unusually high, neatly trimmed, hedge. I said to my husband, ‘That is where we must look.’ We visited the area and hey, presto, I had found what had  not been marked on any map – the well-hidden burial ground.

If you are in France during October the cemetery is one of the places to be. At the end of the month are two weeks of half-term holidays for school children, culminating in 1st November Toussaint national holiday. The tradition is to put flowers on graves for All Saint’s Day.  I must add that the right to have a grave space is often only 30 years. If the grave is left untended and neglected the local council will repossess it and re-use it! Terrible news for family history addicts. Thus, during October far more visitors than usual come to see where their loved ones are interred. The grave must be weeded and cleaned. People arrive with buckets and cleaning materials to give the marble headstones a good scrub. Nearly everyone comes armed with a large pot of chrysanthemums. Modern intensive plant breeding mean that these ‘golden flowers’ , for that is the meaning in Greek, can now be bought in all shades of yellow, red, pink, white and purply-bronze. The view from our window becomes more and more florid as the days pass. Families come with little children in pushchairs, couples arrive, older people with mobility problems do their duty to their sadly missed defuncts.

            There was an advert on British TV quite a long time ago for an Italian product. In it a young man left a bunch of chrysanthemums on the doorstep of a girl he was hoping to impress. Grandma came home, saw the flowers and burst into tears. The viewers were supposed to know that chrysanths are associated with death in most of southern Europe. Don’t ever take a bunch as a present to anyone. They will be very taken aback.

We often take a walk around at the close of the day to appreciate  our own Chelsea flower show. Sometimes there are poignant flower arrangements. The Victorians were known for using ‘the language of flowers’ to transmit secret messages. Three vases of identical Chrysanthemums with a few red roses among them, surely spoke of ‘love’ separated by ‘death’?

Sadly, these hot house grown plants don’t last very long as the November weather takes hold. Sometimes strong winds wreak havoc and pots are overturned and can be seen rolling around on their sides. Cold rain soon kills these tender plants. The council gardeners come with a pick-up truck and any dead or dying ones are quickly removed. The big green bins are overflowing with discarded floral arrangements. However, rich pickings can sometimes be had by removing the nicest pots before the bin men arrive. Gardeners can never have enough recipients!

I feel a bit like the unofficial guardian. When, one evening at dusk a man staggered along the path, I was concerned. I was even more worried when neither I nor my husband, from the vantage point of our dining room table, had noticed him leave as night began to fall. I had always wondered what would happen if someone fell among the tombs, unable to get up. I decided to go and check. I entered, but saw nothing, I continued, still nothing. Then right at the far end, I saw a body lying over a ground level memorial. I hurried towards him fearing the worst but was relieved to hear sobs and breathing. I encouraged him to get up and to come with me. Fortunately, some younger family members soon arrived and took charge. I explained that I had seen him enter and indicated my house. Later on in the week someone knocked at my door. It was the man who had been in deep distress. He thanked me and explained that the tomb was his wife’s who had committed suicide.

Cut price tombs! Every October time there are adverts in the papers for reductions in the price of memorials. I wonder what happens if you buy one. Does it get delivered and you store it in your garage until needed? I heard of someone who wanted a marble table for his garden, but needed the help of half a  dozen friends to lift it into place. I wonder if the reductions in October are attractive, we could make use of the slab as a luxurious outdoor eating surface in the mean time!

A few days in Switzerland

When train companies send you cut price deals and you also have a senior citizen rail pass, sometimes the offers are too good to resist. My husband read out a list of European destinations we could visit for next to nothing. For me Geneva grabbed my attention as it was one of the centres of church reform, so much so that it was once called the Protestant Rome. It would be a chance to discover more of Reformation history.

What were the differences we found having left France for a few days in Geneva? Having traversed Paris and lugged our suitcases up yet another flight of stairs, in train stations, parks and underground networks, the first thing we noted after arrival at Geneva station were the 2 slopes that led us from the train to the street. There was even a little slope beside the half a dozen steps up to our budget hotel.

Switzerland uses the Swiss frank (CHF) but we could spend our Euros as long as we don’t mind getting our change in Swiss coins. Upon seeing the bank notes that the cash machine issued, our reaction was ‘Wow, they are beautiful!’ Their notes have won prizes in ‘The Most Beautiful Bank Note’ competitions.

We were very pleased to receive a free bus pass along with our room key. As we often buy a bus pass when we visit towns by rail, that was a very pleasant surprise. The bus and tram network was impressive and we seldom had to wait more than a few minutes for one to arrive.

Eating out is often fraught with problems as I am on a gluten free diet. However, A quick search on the internet revealed more than enough establishments to give us a choice of venues. In France, being a vegetarian is considered strange and a few vegan products are just beginning to be available in supermarkets.

Geneva is in an interesting location at the foot of one end of the upside down crescent that is Lake Leman. We took a bus trip up the eastern side of the lake until there was a terminus, because any further and we would be in France.

We also took a bus trip in a westward direction as CERN was marked on our map. Once again we reached the frontier with France. To the south is France as well. Only the strip of land on the western side of the lake joins Geneva to the rest of Switzerland.

I had wanted to visit CERN- the European centre for nuclear research – as I wanted to find our what it felt like to have a 27 kilometre ring of tunnels under my feet with particles whizzing around them. A number of impressive exhibition centres are being built just beside the tram tracks, but we had to content ourselves with reading information of various free standing boards.

I had always been fascinated by the story of how Henry Dunant had thought it would be interesting to see a battle taking place, but was then horrified by the maimed and dying soldiers that were left untreated at the end of the day. His experiences led to the founding of the Red Cross. The headquarters and exhibition centre was to be our first port of call. I was disappointed by the too ‘Artistic’ exhibits that didn’t explain Henry’s involvement but were housed in lovely curved wood panelled rooms. I didn’t learn that he was one of the founders of the Y.M.C.A. and had a deep personal Christian faith.

Who would have guessed that Patek Philippe watches were named after the two founders? The top floor of the museum contained a library of all the 8,000 books ever written about time and watches, starting from ‘Learn to Tell the time with Noddy’ up to books on the universe.

For me one of the most amazing timepieces was made to look like a big vase of flowers. A small clock was part of the vase and the flowers were made of feathers. Almost hidden in the floral display were many small feather birds. On the hour they didn’t just chirp, but turned around and flapped their wings! It would be well worth while going again on a thematic tour of the enamelled watches or the automatons.

We found the giant wall that commemorated the reformers from Luther to John Calvin and surprisingly our own Oliver Cromwell, warts and all. However the Museum of the Reformation was closed due to refurbishment! How could they do that the week that I wanted to visit? I thought that the Museum of Art and History would fill the gap, but although there was plenty of Art, ‘History’ was only Archeology. A temporary exhibition of fans didn’t help me with my desire to find out about the Genevan reformers of the church. A tantalising video on https://www.musee-reforme.ch/en/the-reformation-in-seven-minutes/ gives us 1 minute of this 7 minute presentation! Oh, well, we will have to visit again after checking whether the Reform Museum is open!

Our nearest vineyards

When we step outside of our town houses’s front door and turn left along our road we can see a nice green hill in the distance. Sometimes we can just distinguish a tractor working there. On a recent Sunday afternoon I said, ‘Lets climb to the top where there is that small wood.’

To get there we crossed a deserted trading estate and then over the Reims by-pass, followed by a walk along an almost non-existent verge beside a busy main road. We jumped across a ditch onto a farm track and started a gentle climb. We were surprised when the purple alfalfa crops gave way to rows of vines. We have lived in sight of champagne vineyards for 15 years without realising it.

Champagne vineyards are divided in to ‘parcels’. French inheritance laws have meant that property gets divided up between the number of children that survive their parents. The houses, land and of course vineyards get smaller and smaller. When one vineyard owner marries another, they might have a sizeable inheritance but of ‘parcels’ dotted all around the region. The average size of a plot is only 1,800 square metres of several long thin rectangles.

Walking past the short ends, it is obvious that ownership changes every few rows. Some had a few leftover green grapes, some had a few unpicked red grapes. Some had weeds growing in the space between the rows, others were weeded , while others had neat alleys of mown grass. A grower who is trying to be organic would probably want to encourage insect life and so allow weeds, while another viticulteur doesn’t like weeds as they encourage pests, while another thinks that grass between the vines is a bad thing as the taste of it goes into the grapes via the roots.

Reaching the brow of a hill is always difficult as the closer you get the more hill there seems to be. I wanted to know what was on the other side – I was determined! Eventually we could see and were amazed to find that the vineyards continued for several more kilometres and that our recently discovered part was just a lip, an overhang of the total surface area.

We turned to go home via a track though the vines and realised that we hadn’t got as far as the small wood that topped the hill. Oh well, another adventure for another day. But, looking at Google Earth on our return to see which commune the vines extended into, we could see the outline of one of the forts that was built by General Raymond Séré de Rivières to protect Reims in 1870. Yet another discovery!

The Organisation that looks after British Soldier’s Cemeteries

Before the First World War soldiers were generally buried in mass graves. Only those who were in the upper ranks would have been accorded an individual burial and a memorial.

As it says on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, “It is difficult for those of us who have become familiar with the cemeteries and memorials that commemorate our war dead to appreciate what a revolutionary idea remembrance and, therefore, the Commission was in 1917. Nonetheless, the Commission was a pioneer and what it was doing during and in the aftermath of the First World War was extraordinary.

Never had a nation, let alone an Empire as vast and multicultural as the British Empire, attempted to commemorate all its war dead from a given conflict. No template existed for the task of commemorating the dead on such a mammoth scale. Everything we now take for granted, every facet of remembrance, had to be worked out, debated, costed and delivered.

The Commission, and the establishment of remembrance as we know it, is largely thanks to the vision and determination of one man Fabian Ware.”

I have used the Commission’s site many, many times to look up information on British First World War Cemeteries in my area of France. Simply by typing in your postcode you can find all the gravesites in your area.

When I saw that the Commission was having an open day at their headquarters in Beaurains near Arras I jumped at the chance to know more.

I have always been impressed by the amount of information on a British war grave. There is the badge of the regiment such as the Royal Naval Division, or simply the Suffolk Regiment or the more poetic the Princess Louise’s Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Next comes the number and grade of the soldier, then as much of his name as is known, his battalion name followed by his date of death and his age. Usually there is a large cross and space for a few words, such as Rest in Peace or something more personal that was chosen by his family. By contrast French memorials are simple crosses with the name of the soldier, rank and only the initials of the regiment. If you don’t know that R.I.C is Regiment of Infantry Colonial then R.I.C. is not much use. The date of death is written on a French soldier’s grave but not his age.

German war graves have 4 names on the back and front arms of wooden crosses – hardly any information at all.

First of all we were shown the supplies of stone that could be used for memorials. I was surprised to see reddish ones and slate stones waiting to be engraved. In France the usual stones are white Portland stone but other materials are sometimes used. We were surprised to see finished headstones waiting to be shipped to Nigeria.

We learnt that there are subtile differences in the top shape of stones. For instance, a rounded top may indicate not a soldier but an administrator of the commission.

All the iron work in a French cemetery is made or repaired at Beaurains. The decorative finials on top of fences or gates are made in the smithy at Beaurains as are the metal boxes that contain the Book of Remembrance at each cemetery. A worn or degraded piece of metal work can be recreated or repaired in the CWGC workshop.

Then we were shown how the engraving was done and could even have a go ourselves at etching our names or tapping away with stonemason’s tools.

Inside the building was an explanation of how exhumed bodies could be identified by the types of buttons or the shape of a helmet. The presence of a wooden baton would indicate the rank of officer.

I have just found that I can join a Facebook site that gives news of the CWGC. I haven’t mentioned the meticulous work of keeping the cemeteries beautifully cared for with neatly mown grass and flowers in front of each grave. That is part of the legacy of Fabian Ware – he wanted the graveyards to be peaceful and pleasant and not sad, morbid places. I was touched to see a flower picture – it was the blue and red Pulmonaria – also known as Soldiers and Sailors!

A Light Lunch

Even after 15 years of living in France we are still learning things and being surprised by French culture.

In the UK being invited to come for ‘a light lunch’ might mean a ham salad, or soup followed by cheese and biscuits. Jamie Oliver suggests crab cakes or potato rostis. The fail-safe option would be pizza whether the location is Italy, France or the British Isles. My mother used to take the ‘Woman’s Realm’ weekly magazine in which were short stories of the ‘Romantic fiction’ genre. She noted that when an impromptu romantic meal was called for, a fresh herb omelette was often rustled up by the handsome hero.

Twice in the recent past we have been invited for a ‘light lunch’ by friends. Arriving around midday, we have been greeted with an apéritif of either champagne or a gin and tonic. On the coffee table would be a selection of bowls containing nibbles such as dried fruits and nuts, crisps, toasts with smoked salmon on a bed of cream cheese – things that can be eaten as finger food. Sliced pizza may also be served as it is considered as an apéritif and not as a main course.

We learnt this when invited to participate in ‘bring a contribution’ type meals. Our home-made pizza disappeared from the buffet where we had placed it and reappeared in pieces to be passed around as an appetiser. If your offering happens to be ‘gluten free’ and was what you had planned to eat, this presents a problem!

A pleasant time of conversation and friendly exchange ensues while seated in an informal manner. The next step is to be invited to the dining table already set with cutlery, glasses for water, napkins and wine glasses and possibly a simple vase of flowers.

The next courses could start with an entrée, avocado and parma ham, some prawns and salad in a Marie Rose dressing, a pâté or an egg dish. Do not serve anything to do with cheese as that is catered for later! Bread will be offered but never with butter. The bread has an unexpected use as a way of cleaning your plate of any sauces -because the plate will not be removed but will be also used for the main course!

Fish, casseroles, sliced ham, almost anything could be served as the ‘plat principal’ but don’t expect any vegetables except the ubiquitous green beans – les haricots verts. Starches -‘féculants’ such as potatoes, rice or pasta usually accompany meat. A student who stayed with us asked if our ‘light lunch’ of mixed salads could include some ‘féculants’ otherwise she would feel light-headed in the afternoon!

So far we have had apéritifs, un entrée, le plat principal but we have not finished! Next comes the salad either separately from or with the cheese plus more bread. Several cheeses are usually offered a blue veined one, a hard cheese, a goat’s cheese and a camembert. Be careful not to cut across the pointy end of a wedge of cheese as this is considered the best part. Try to leave the cheese in the same basic shape as when it arrived.

We are nearly at the end of our light lunch! Desert! Perhaps a Crème brûlée, mousse au chocolat, crème caramel or a simple yogurt.

The students who stayed with us were adamant that they would not drink a coffee with us at 11am. French people drink coffee with their breakfast and after their lunch.

That was how our ‘light lunches’ ended and we were even treated to After Eight Mints!

The End

The last post entitled ‘Zoos’ brings me to the end of what was supposed to be a book. However, I haven’t been able to find a good title or an appropriate design for the cover. ‘The Definitive Dictionary of the Differences between Dunkirk and Dover’ sums up the salient key points, but isn’t very catchy. If any of you have a better idea for a title or are budding book cover designers, let me know. Or perhaps you have some of your own thoughts about the differences between our two cultures that have surprised you that I did not mention.

Next week will be a reflection on the subject of ‘Light Lunches’. If you are British – what would you serve? If you are French- what would you serve guests that you have invited for a Light Lunch?

Bye for now!

Joy

Zoos

In France the zoo comes to you! One day we had a very bad smell in the house,  reminiscent of when local farmers used to spread pig manure on their fields near our house in Bedfordshire.  It was horrible. My husband returned from a trip to the shops to report that we had a circus on an old car showroom forecourt at the bottom of our road.  The circus featured lions, tigers, camels,  ponies and other animals. When there was not a show taking place in the big top we could visit the site to see the animals for a small charge.The proprietors were also happy for us to fill sacks from their dung heap! What fun!

X-RAYS.

When you go to have an X-ray taken, you will be asked to wait until the doctor has written up your notes and the pictures have been developed. You are given a copy of the report and the X-ray. I have a folder of mine in the office. Friends who moved to a new house found an envelope of images of someone’s ribs and knees in the wardrobe. It was a novel day when I received pictures of my breasts in the post – X-ray pictures that is!