And speaking of stereotypes (well, I was, but you wouldn’t know it, as that essay hasn’t been posted yet), let us not deny, we Americans, the bulging sack we bear of images of our French brethren that are none too complimentary. With the onslaught of recrimination that ensued the French refusal to implicate themselves three years ago in our adventures in Iraq, that sack well nigh unto burst, with a renewal of invective, a revival of old stereotypes, and a passel of largely invented, if inventive, new ones built on somewhat twisted views of history, and utterly devoid of any true experience in the vicinity, never mind the company, of a living breathing French person.
All that being said, and my bona fides consisting chiefly of having lived among them for increasingly longer periods of time over what will soon be two decades, I will say, certain things are true.
I won’t indulge the more rabid appetites of my red-blooded countrymen who are ready to brand the French as inveterate cowards, and devour them whole. The propensities of the French, like that of Americans, to pick their fights and engage sometimes in the worst of fights for the worst of reasons are not material to this discussion.
Rather, it is more the perennial domestic behavior, the true nucleus of the national character of a people, if not a whole continent below a certain parallel (I’ll get to that by and by) that is under my scrutiny. It is the disposition of the French toward work and their fellow citizens that is my subject, and my thesis is, it’s true, the French national character is to be summed up non-verbally, as a shrug.
Let me instance you some for instances. I am here on a mainly administrative mission on this trip. The necessity for it and the compulsion was shared, if not inspired, by my beloved wife, who could not accompany me, and whom I miss terribly. I got on the plane somewhat reluctantly, much as I love it here short of comparison, but not of being exceeded, only because of my feelings for Linda, for the few paltry tasks that one must do as a homeowner anywhere. They all fall into the category of you gotta’ be there or it won’t get done.
We’ve owned our house here, it will be five years in February, long enough, and had enough work done—to the tune of many thousands of dollars, lest you think these are ordinary chores, better suited for Monsieur Bricolage [“do-it-yourself”]—to know the latter thought is a truth and a truism. You can count on an artisan, kind of a jack-of-all-tradesmen (who does a little electrical, a little plumbing, a little carpentry, a little masonry, etc.) to get work done unattended, and only with the promise of payment, even if you are an eighth of a world away, and incapable of supervision or scrutiny. It’s especially reassuring and there’s a stronger guarantee of completion if you are away for extended periods of time (that is, months, not mere weeks or days) with no stronger bond than a handshake and a farewell. But first, you must get the artisan to agree to begin, and accept a key to the premises.
We have had two excellent artisans work on our house, both at the recommendation of my dear friend Yann, who knows more about these things than I will ever know, including how to do the work himself if need be. The first of these excellent gentlemen is now off in some posh place, engaged in a two- or three-year process of renovating from roof to basement a magnificent ruin, purchased by some baron of industry or commerce here in France, who has the predicated patience, and the very deep pockets, necessary for such an enterprise.
The second is actually a transplanted Brit, who spent parts of his youth in Provence and speaks the lingo fluently, and now has lived here on a permanent basis for almost 20 years himself. He did a wonderful job tackling what turned out to be an arduous and dirty job of ripping up our rooftop terrace and making it waterproof (which the previous owner was only led to believe had been done by his favorite artisan). In the process the job got dirtier and more arduous because he discovered that a very short wall (thank goodness for short) separating the kitchen up there from the terrace, and also serving the very important perpetual mission of having a very large window installed in it, was rotten, in a word, and either had to be re-built or have a new wall built alongside it, like an intentional Siamese twin of masonry. We chose the more difficult and expensive recourse of ripping out the bad and building anew—on the verge of the rainy season in spring. That he managed it, without getting more than a few drops inside our property, endeared him to us further.
However, some smaller, less challenging, spit on your hands and leap into the fray, dare I say, picayune, projects remain. And these are not his meat, or his daube de boeuf. They are not even his pot au feu. And so he eludes us—easy enough to do by email. When I arrived here, I left a message on his mobile. Unanswered as yet. I sent another email. Rien.
Then I stopped in to say hi and chat with his wife, who owns a little boutique in a nearby market town, painting in the inimitable local provincial style—the main decorative motifs being floral, including native flowers and lavender, plus the equally inevitable olives and olive branches. The style is attractive, if you are well-to-do and have decided to bend your decor in this direction, and the work is professional, nay artistic. In short, she is an artisan in her own right. She always assumes a certain gentle, but steely-eyed, air of amusement, or, possibly, bemusement whenever I ask about her husband.
I asked if he was in the country, meaning the terroir, meaning anywhere within 250 kilometers. He likes to go on adventure expeditions. Our last trip here, this past summer, he assured us that after his kayaking trip somewhere near Kashmir, assuming he didn’t break anything or render himself permanently invalid, he would be ready to tackle our little projects—even with marching orders only from afar.
Having not heard from him, I gave him the benefit of being somewhere exotic and involving gear you buy from Eastern Mountain Sports or REI. But no. “He’s in his tower,” she informed me. Which I immediately understood to mean he had a chantier [work site] in operation, and it was located in a tower somewhere nearby. It’s possible he didn’t get his email, because their computers had been screwed up, sometimes she was getting his email (though she didn’t receive the one I had sent), etc. etc. And, they were about to leave briefly, until yesterday, which was Sunday. A visit to their college-age daughter, in university in the motherland of England.
Saved by circumstance for another five days! But I must track him down and pin him down. The wife offered no excuses, except to note that their son was getting more and more like him everyday, being at home at the moment doing homework, which would be due on his return (that would be today) and hence taking advantage of the holiday last Wednesday, the day I went into her shop, but which he should have done before this trip, etc. etc. I noted that hubby had gotten very French. She didn’t demur. Indeed, she observed that it seemed to be a quality that deepened with each passing day.
What one would expect, right? Situation normal, all Frenched up… The sort of thing you read about in those obnoxious fictions created by Peter Mayle, who re-ignited all the fuss among English-speakers for Provence, and raised property prices at a faster rate than anything else might have—except that his colorful, if lovable malingerers are always quintessentially French. And, in such a circumstance, one can always pretend incomprehension on both sides of the conversation. But my guy is British! It’s something in the air, in the earth, in the food and the wine. It gives me an idea for what I can tell Linda, when I have to report not exactly getting to everything we needed to get done here.
I’m not done.
I ordered some items on-line to assist in implementing the expanding communications needs of the household (don’t scoff, dear reader, as you are a beneficiary; broadband has finally reached our tiny out-of-the-way community, and now we must outfit ourselves with new paraphernalia and gadgets to make the most productive use of the technology). I ordered from Amazon, whose long profitable arm has long since reached France and the rest of the European Union. I ordered the items delivered rapide, that is, by expedited means through the French equivalent of Express Mail from the U.S. Postal service.
I ordered the items on Wednesday, the holiday I referred to earlier (and, in part, the subject of another blog entry, stalled in the parturition, so to speak, and still not posted) and this meant, as they made clear, that they would not ship until Thursday, for delivery Friday, guaranteed, before 1pm.
It is at the moment, Monday, past noon, and they still ain’t here. Here’s what it says on the ChronoPost site, where they allow you to track your shipments:
07:22 TOULON CHRONOPOST
Envoi en cours de livraison
05:29 TOULON CHRONOPOST
Envoi mis en instance le samedi au point de retrait
05:29 TOULON CHRONOPOST
Tri agence d’arrivée effectuée
01:31 ROISSY CHRONOPOST
Envoi ayant pris du retard pendant l’acheminement
18:36 ORLEANS CHRONOPOST
Tri agence de départ effectué
12:07 ORLEANS CHRONOPOST
Envoi prêt chez l’expéditeur
The package was prepared for shipment on the day it was supposed to leave at the shipper’s quarters, though it was, essentially, in the hands of the post office. That was at noon on Thursday. By 6:30 that evening it had been sorted. All this took place in Orleans, a city to the south of Paris.
On Friday, the day it was intended to arrive at my door, eleven-and-a-half hours before the promised latest time for deposit in my hands, it was at Roissy, the town in which a little airport called Charles De Gaulle is situated, in honor of the national hero of World War II and later (I know, I said I wouldn’t bring these matters up). For those of you not aware, Roissy is north of Paris. It can take an hour by car to get there, as any of you do know knows, trying to get from Paris to your flight home. Having arrived there, the shipment was delayed (“having taken [part in] the routing backlog”). It’s the fault of the package.
Nevertheless, in only 28 hours it reached Toulon, which is a 70 minute flight away. However, it arrived on Saturday. Hence, the moment it arrived, or at least during the same minute, it being Saturday, the package was put in a holding area (a point de retrait, given the ambiguous and multi-purpose functionality of so much of the French language, could also be interpreted as a “retirement home” or, perhaps, the staging area for a retreat, but, as I said, I’m not going there…) The plain and simple fact is, although the mail is delivered on Saturday, the banks are open for business, and posting to accounts, on Saturday, all shops are open on Saturday, it’s Saturday, for God’s sake! You can’t expect an express delivery to be made on Saturday!
Then this morning, everybody woke, refreshed, renewed, and hungry for providing service, and at 7:22 this morning, my packages were en route from Toulon, and now they are in my hot and sweaty little hands, having arrived while I was writing this paean to the wry sensibilities of those who determine the French way of life—the very people who live it. Indeed, all the electrons making up the bits that form the bytes that constitute these less than sanguinary, but also less than sanguine, more than sarcastic, doubtless ungrateful, words will for the briefest of moments, briefer than the imagination of a native Frenchman can conceive of, pass through one of the marvelous high tech devices I procured with so much trial on my part, impatient American that I am, and so much imposture and mastery of indecipherable euphemism, such is only one facet of the genius of the French (none dare call it turning the obvious into pure bullshit).
By the way, another shipment, two audio CDs that are a lot cheaper here, even with the egregious value added tax, than in the U.S., where there is little call for the wonderful new music that is hard to categorize, sort of an amalgam of World music and cabaret, arrived in the mail this morning, before my express packages. I ordered those on Friday, and I relegated them for standard shipment, which is free. My express packages will also be free, as they didn’t deliver on time. But still. [One CD is the latest, but one, of my absolutely slap-down, Han Sho King Duck favorite French singing group, called Lo’Jo, whose music is indescribably wonderful, well, to me: check it out, http://tinyurl.com/y6pdap; try listening to anything, but in particular, try De Timbuktu à Essakane. or C’est la vie.]
I give. I admit it. I’m an American. I have to be taught a lesson once in awhile. A true Gallic lesson.
As a coda to this sad tale, let me tell you that, not having learned as of last Thursday the fate of my packages and their premature, if brief, retirement-to-be in a bonded warehouse belonging to the French government in Toulon, I foolishly ordered a really big item. It’s a new dishwasher, because our old one, the main unit, in the kitchen where I do all my cooking on the first floor (remember, there’s another kitchen, fully equipped, sort of for show, on the third floor, just next to the terrace; probably intended to make sure ice cubes are always at hand, and that the brandade de morue stays warm, and the lobster salad stays cold) has shit the bed, as we so impudently like to put it in the ‘hood. It overflows.
I bought the new one from Darty, which is kind of the Best Buy of France. They are all over the country, and they’ve got the Web thing sewn up tight. I hope. They deliver on Wednesday afternoon in their own trucks, and cart the old clunker away, for free. So they say.
Supposedly, it is the behavior I describe, in the land of farniente, and bordered to the southeast by Italy, and to the southwest by Spain, if one should not say the whole of the Iberian peninsula, lands where the concept of tomorrow takes on eternal proportions, that makes France an innately Latin country. It’s certainly hard to tell otherwise down here in Provence, but let me remind you, all of France is warmed by the Gulf Stream. And we excuse it in Italy and Spain somehow, because, well it’s warm and soft and dreamy, and you can’t count on either of these countries for anything when it comes to a good honest fight. But the French! The French! Our bankers in the Revolution (never mind that it bankrupted the country and the king, and was the proximate cause of their own Revolution)! Lafayette! Montcalm and Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham!
Baloney. Or should I say, saucisson! Sit down my dear, have another glass of rosé, and try the brandade de morue, it’s fresh and warm.