4. La rentrée

 

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La rentrée; except that it isn’t; it just feels like the real thing.  It’s a fausse  rentrée if you like. Schools that have been closed for weeks are now starting to re-open, cautiously. What is missing is the frenzied rush to the supermarket or papeterie for the stationery that sets parents back a tidy sum each year.

The first sign of activity was the re-appearance of the primary school bus. This is driven by Jean. One word to describe him would be ‘substantial’. He  towers over everybody like an amiable bear; an  ours des Pyrénées. He often had something witty to say to us which we pretended to understand. Madame, who has  been a volunteer at Lourdes for several years, said he was a tower of strength on the annual pilgrimage for the old and infirm.  He owned the cobbler’s shop in the square (more romantic than shoe repairer’s). He didn’t advertise his opening hours. As a part-time fireman his hours were elastic. I use the past tense because Jean has just retired, but more of him later.

The authentic  rentrée  in September is regarded with as much deference as a religious festival. It’s not just an educational phenomenon; it marks the entire country’s return to normality after the summer break. Does France shut up shop before the  rentrée then, you might ask? Well, yes, in a word it does. The government ceases to function as usual, businesses and shops are en congé and people head for the beach or their second homes. If you stay at home you could find your favourite restaurant has closed. It might be different this year of course; how we do not yet know. Now might be the time to review the scholastic terms. France was a country of paysans (small farmers; not a derogatory term here). Labour was needed for the harvest. Perhaps it’s time to introduce a four term year?  Doubtful; this is France, which is resistant to change. The expression à la rentrée doesn’t just mean ‘back to school’, but more like  ‘See you in September’.

Back to Jean. His shop had that comfortable smell of leather and rubber and machines that needed a drop of oil. Chaos surrounded him but he could lay his hands on what he needed. Over the shop front was a sign with ZAPETATEGI on it.  For several years I knew him as Monsieur Zapetategi. It was in Spain that the penny dropped (sou or centime if you prefer). The Spanish word for shoe is zapato and only then did it register that the sign was his shop, not his name. He had reached 62 and decided to retire.

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Jean’s business card

His retirement put us in a spot. It is not a thriving trade in SW France. In summer men prefer espadrilles, which are made locally. You can visit a factory in Mauleon if you’re down that way. In winter trainer type footwear is popular. It doesn’t wear out easily. The Spanish a short distance away over the border emulate the British fashion of conventional shoes, leather uppers and leather/rubber soles. The only repairer within a generous radius is in Saint Jean Pied de Port.  More about  DonibaneGarazi  in a later post.

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We don’t know his name but he’s a craftsman and one of a rare breed. The town is on  the Camino de Santiago and a useful point if pilgrims have boot trouble. He keeps soles of all sizes. Two weeks before the lockdown we had taken shoes to him. On the Monday when  France started to close down we realised we hadn’t collected them and rang him. He opened the shop especially for us, but he was nervous that the gendarmes would come past and fine him. That afternoon the lockdown began. He has re-opened this week in the imitation rentrée. His is a vulnerable small business  that deserves to survive.

 

Next post: 5. No Camino

Being the only male in a dormitory of females………….

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3. To get to the bottom of…………

i.e. to discover the truth about………

No prizes for guessing which supermarket shelves were cleared first.

Yes, these……….

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………but followed by a short  head by flour. May seem odd, but down here in SW France home baking is part  of everyday life and those shelves haven’t yet recovered from the onslaught. Our neighbour, who is in a senior position at Leclerc, cannot obtain any for us, yet.

How much loo paper do we actually use? Well, if you trawl the internet you will come across  toilet paper calculators; yes, really.  One survey gives the total as 100 rolls per person per year. The statistics make sobering reading; to make paper you need trees.  If you cut down a tree it should be replaced by two more. In our part of the world that doesn’t happen. One pensioner, who remembered the shortages after WWII, said he didn’t know what the fuss was about. He had to make do with old newspapers. Only problem was that printer’s ink left its mark.

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During a visit to Sydney we took a tour around the Q Station. This austere barracks was open from the 1830s until 1984. Migrant ships arriving in Sydney with suspected contagious diseases stopped and offloaded passengers and crew into quarantine to protect local residents.  Could it have been reopened during the  lockdown?  Not realistically; the plumbing would rule it out and it’s now the site of a smart hotel.

This picture could have been taken in the dormitory of my boarding school, apart from the candle holder (we did have electricity!) Beds with iron frames are common enough but the china accessories you’d only find in antique shops now.  A set should include a basin, large jug, soap dish, tooth mug and, most important, the chamber pot; otherwise known as a jerry, pisspot or thunder jug. The task of emptying ours fell to an aged family retainer. Mabel was tall and austere and wore a long, severe black dress softened by a white apron and starched white cap. She was closely followed everywhere by her aged jack russell. He was endowed with a generous undercarriage which swung  dangerously close to the floor. He was also partly blind and bumped into the bed legs. Mabel didn’t notice.

While the bidet didn’t supplant the chamber pot it did add quality to the bedroom accessories of the aristocracy and wealthy. One of the earliest-known bidets was installed in a bedroom of the French royal family in 1710, but in all likelihood it was on the drawing board well before that. Present day dictionaries translate bidet as a horse, or, more precisely, a nag (and an old one at that). Pony, small horse, whatever you like to call it, it was plainly meant to be straddled, although it was up to the occupant to decide which way to face. French soldiers were known to have enjoyed  cleaning their sore undercarriages in basins of water after a long day of horse riding. It caught on in France and eventually you’d have been hard-pressed to find a hotel bathroom without one.

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The bidet became fashionable in Britain when mass travel abroad was in vogue from the 70s.  To have one installed in your house, together with the avocado suite, was definitely one up on the neighbours. It was a short-lived fad though as new houses tended to be economical with space and the en-suite became a must-have.

The bidet did not catch on in America to the same extent. In a scene from Crocodile Dundee Mick  stands in the bathroom of his elegant New York hotel puzzled why the bathroom had both a toilet and a urinal. Coming from the outback of Australia he wasn’t familiar with modern trends in plumbing. American homes were more likely than European ones to install walk-in showers, so there was no demand for a bidet. Elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and South America, people would find it unsettling to enter a bathroom lacking a bidet.

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Japan is the leader of high tech bidet/toilet units, with heated seats, hot and cold jets of water. a dryer and deodoriser. Tricky if you pressed the wrong button.

 

 

Should you be fortunate enough to fly first class when the airlines are back in the air you’d  find that onboard bidets are a regular feature;  more likely to be found in the gigantic A380  and far/middle eastern airlines.

Finally this gem, reproduced here  by kind permission of   the Royal Pavilion & Museums Brighton & Hove, tells you all you need to know what la perfide Albion thought of Napoleon.

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Next post 4.  La rentrée 

 

 

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2. A bad hair day?

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Definitions of bad hair day………….

a day when one’s hair is  unmanageable

a day with many problems

Boris Johnson fits both definitions  unlike Macron                                               

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French towns you have visited will have had at least one coiffeur; probably more.  Our local town, population c 2,000, has eight! Will they all survive when lockdown is eased?  Some may not; small businesses that the coronavirus has destroyed

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Les coiffeurs s’arrachent les cheveux pendant ce confinement; in other words ‘they are tearing their hair out during the lockdown.’    As they start to open again how will they cope with social distancing? No answer to that yet.

 

 

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Madame and I used to patronise Christelle, a medium sized coiffeuse in the town. Her time-keeping was erratic and we parted company eventually; opening time was, shall we say, flexible. A middle-aged woman of indeterminate age she had a penchant for high heels and short skirts. From a male point of view her leaning over, thigh to thigh, was a beguiling distraction. On the female side customers had to navigate a field of hair before sitting down. Sweeping up was not one of Christelle’s  priorities. 

Eventually madame asked if there was a possibility of my trying some hair colouring. As it happened I’d ordered a new set of paintbrushes before the lockdown, plus I had just finished painting some fencing, so I had my eye in as it were.  The paintbrushes were rejected as the smallest size was 2 cm. Eventually found a child’s paintbrush and madame issued me with a pair of thin latex gloves.

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It was tricky; head over the basin. Make two partings, one longways back to front and one sideways, like a hot cross bun madam said.  Painting was uncomplicated, the partings  not so easy. Anyway it made a change from fencing. Only later did I find traces of blue and red paint on the handle  of the paintbrush. Madame might   have ended up looking like  the French tricolore.

For me Madame thought that I could have a top knot or a ponytail (Sean Connery had one, but then  he is rich and famous. I might just have looked eccentric). I rather fancied the ‘Peppery Texture’ as modelled by Richard Gere in ‘ 84 Sexy Hairstyles For Older Men’ in ‘Hairstyle on Point’s latest trends.  

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It’s intriguing how President Macron’s hairstyle has  not  changed these last two months. Is his hairdresser always by his side and what about social distancing? Did he inherit President Hollande’s personal hairdresser, reputedly paid 9000 euros a month plus accommodation for his family? When this was queried by parliament they were told the hairdresser had to be available 24/7. When Hollande set out on his secret nightly  assignations on the back of a scooter did his hairdresser follow behind disguised as a secret service agent?

Hair cuts in my youth were simple affairs – short back and sides – take it or leave it. It was a short bike ride to Cyril’s ‘salon’, a shed on the edge of town, not even a barber’s pole to advertise his trade; inside  a  wooden bench to sit on while waiting and a table with old dog-eared copies of adult magazines. When you went to pay him Cyril would wave his hand vaguely in the direction of the neat tray of Durex discreetly stacked beside the till. 

‘Something for the weekend, Sir?’

 

 

 

Next post: To get to the bottom of………. 

 

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1. Sacré bleu!

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Zut alors! The French are being encouraged, ordered even, to abandon a cherished custom. France is urging her people to cut back on the customary double-cheek kiss in order to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The health minister has advised the country to avoid this traditional greeting, known as ‘la bise‘.

A popular joke says that you can recognise where a person comes from by counting the number of kisses. It’s disconcerting to opt for two only to find that a third, or even a fourth is required; and where do you start – on the left or right? Right seems to win, at least in Paris, which means you home in on your left, but even the French can be confused. If Paris leans one way you can guarantee that the rest of France will, out of sheer cussedness, do the opposite, which is the case in the south. The accuracy of this bise map is not guaranteed!

 

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How much of a cherished custom is la bise?  France 24, the TV news channel which takes  humorous digs at French customs, said that kissing outside an intimate social circle was restricted to the lower class; the tradition of young men and women kissing really dated from the mid-twentieth century. Now everybody’s at it. A spin-off perhaps of the swinging sixties in Britain?

Do the French, in times of stress, really say “sacrebleu!” (written like this according to my heavyweight dictionary), or is it a myth put about by ‘la perfide Albion’? Literally meaning “sacred blue,” but bleu was substituted for Dieu to avoid using the word God and upsetting religious sensibilities. One reason the British presume all the French say ‘sacrebleu’ could be blamed on the fictional Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. He was very fond of the phrase (and he is alive and well on French TV).

Two years ago the mayor of a town in eastern France said that she found the kissing ritual ‘tiresome’ adding that ‘I have had enough of giving la bise to dozens of people.’ She admitted to arriving late at meetings, or using a cold, as an excuse to avoid the kiss greeting, adding that she thought it was unhygienic. She may well have helped to avoid spreading the coronavirus in her town.

She was referred to as Madame le Maire, which would not go down too well in the UK. The strong-willed, first female mayor of Paris had other ideas. She defied the French language police and insisted on being called Madame la Maire and not, at that time, the grammatically correct male version. The custodians of the  French language, the Académie Française, officially established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu no less, are considering introducing new words to cover feminine occupations, but unwillingly one suspects. Only two years ago the academy had this to say  “It is unclear what the goal is and how it could overcome practical obstacles of writing, reading, visual or aloud, and pronunciation”!  Any change to the status quo will plainly not be universally welcomed.

The Immortals, as they are known, now have another thorny problem to address. Virus in French is a masculine noun so le coronavirus should logically be masculine. What the illustrious members might lose sleep over is Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease. Now, disease in French is feminine so what would be wrong with la Covid-19? Where is the problem? Perhaps American readers, if there are any, might like to reflect on la CIA and le FBI. Why not just abolish the definite article? 

 

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The ‘Immortals’ of the academy

 

A word of warning to the uninitiated; the verb to kiss, baiser, is a depth charge waiting to detonate under the unwary. While it means to kiss it is also a vulgar slang term, depending on the context. One example will suffice; if a woman says ‘il m’a baisée‘ it does not mean ‘he kissed me’. He might have done but, put politely, they made love.  Better to stick to ‘faire une bise à quelqu’un‘ or, even safer, ‘embrasser‘. Lesson over.

Soon it will be time for our leader to speak to us again (Emmanuel Macron, of course). The verdict on his first speech in this crisis by a British journalist was that it was ‘prolix’. Yes, I had to consult the dictionary as well. Was Prolix a relation of Astérix or his best friend Obélix? (Prolix for President perhaps). Just tediously lengthy was the answer.

 

 

Next post:  A Bad Hair Day?

 

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