Tuesday, August 26, 2003
Today there is no trace of yesterday’s rain. It’s 34° in the shade and 29° on my desk; so that’s a bit better.
Outside everything is hot, hot, hot again and my car has developed a strange noise when changing from 2nd to 3rd.
Monday, August 25, 2003
Today it rained. During the morning - for eight minutes - and then again for much longer in the afternoon and into the evening. Quite a lot of rain, actually. We start to think that life can get back to normal.
This evening I dodged the raindrops to go and turn the automatic arrosage off.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Power to the people
The French social system is incredibly supportive of the working man and woman. Incredibly.
If you come to France to start a small company, you will find that the social charges above and beyond what you pay to the employee are huge, indeed so often crippling. Whereas in the UK and elsewhere you might figure the total cost of an employee as 150% of his or her salary, in France that would be more like 200%.
The upshot is that if you come to France, as I did this time, as an employee, you are amazingly cushioned against the natural result of this exorbitance, the demise of your employer. It balances out in the end of course, but I suppose it leaves the entrepreneur feeling victimized.
I may get some of this wrong. Don’t use it to plan your start-up in France or to negotiate with your employer. This is just how it appeared to me as an employee.
There’s unemployment in France. There’s recession or the gloomy prospect of it. There’s a need to find a deterrent against economic hardship.
To the French, this suggests outright social engineering. In other countries, you might hear of tax-breaks for start-ups, venture capital being encouraged to invest, youth training schemes and programmes to encourage returning to work for less.
Here, the government decided to limit the working week. If nobody could be made to work longer than 35 hours a week, more people would have to be employed to do the jobs. Perhaps that’s how it was thought of. Perhaps not as simple as that.
Either way, an act was passed by the French government to limit the working week to a strict 35 hours.
Then the professional classes, les cadres, protested (along with their employers) that some jobs required more dedication, more flexibility, offered more rewards for unsocial commitments. Either way, white-collar workers, they said, couldn’t be constrained by this law.
So Mk II of the law was passed allowing for professionals and executives to work 37, 39, perhaps 41 or 43 hours but… in return, their employers must give them, outright and without prejudice, extra paid holiday. Yup. That’s the deal, Mr Entrepreneur: if you want to be able to ask any of your workers to stay until six or seven in the evening to get the project on the road, you’ll just have to let them have more holiday. Permanently.
The calculation is severe. To establish the possibility that your staff might be asked to work 39 hours a week, you might have to give them another 15 or 20 days a year off. The negotiation must be entered into formally by management and workers. It is supervised and specified by approved third-parties who will represent whoever is getting the worst of this deal until the terms of the law are met squarely. The ‘accord’ must be approved by all concerned.
It’s tough. In other countries, I’d guess, the working week might be defined as 37.5 hours but many workers would quite casually work a little extra when the pressure is on. Overtime might be paid or time given in lieu. In France it is specified by law that you should not do so unless your employer has given you extra holiday, permanently in your contract, not casually in lieu or pro rata.
The whole scheme is called RTT, réduction du temps de travail, reduction of work time, and, while feeling like a blessing to the worker, is, no doubt, a blow to the employer.
It’s all part of that great socialist experiment, the French republic.
Starting up on your own
Well, I did it - twice - in England. I’d think twice about doing it in France.
Firstly, there’s the social charges.
Second, the RTT, which means for a start-up that you’re going to have to concede some difficult conditions of work and - much more frightening - some of your new employees will have come from firms where the RTT negotiations gave them what might to you seem like ridiculous contract terms.
Thirdly, there’s the bureaucracy. I can only imagine what that’s like.
And if you don’t speak perfect French (and I certainly don’t) you’ll never know what’s going on.
However, coming here as an employee is a much better prospect.
I am very pleased to say.
A consistent style
One of the problems buying property in the UK, I know, is that sometimes houses look, well, sub-standard. There are old charming cottages that everyone loves. There are modern houses that work very well, but nobody loves very much. There are Victorian houses which look good and substantial and everybody mucks them about (and then restores them). There are 1960’s houses which everybody says they don’t like but many live in. There are all sorts and all sorts of quality.
Here in the South of France, almost all houses look the same, whether they were built yesterday or a hundred years ago - possibly three hundred years ago. They all look equally charming, all equally liveable-in and all almost exactly identical.
No, to be a little more realistic, there are three distinct sorts of dwelling here. The ‘villa’ (like ours) - cream, orange or pink or any colour in between. The bâtiment - block of flats (or apartments) - generally the same colour as the villas but toned down and eye-wateringly repetitive and boring. And there’s the ‘old town’, stone and cement and tightly packed across cobbled lanes.
Nobody gets to live in the old town. Forget it. We all live in villas and apartments built in the last… well, who knows. They all look the same with no hint of a nod to fashion or technology.
When we first came here, we were due to move into a brand new house in a small lotissement (an estate really but with a nice French word). On visits here, I watched it being built and became less and less enthusiastic about our moving in.
The standard construction method these days is to pile up cement blocks (the lightweight, pebbly variety - not the diamond-surfaced ones we had in Switzerland)… loosely. Then they bash holes in them for the services.
(And in one memorable occasion down the road from us, they bash doorways in the newly set cement blocks when they appear to have misread the plans.)
They then have a few problems with project management, financing, human resources, perhaps and leave the naked blocks for a few months. They weather nicely gaining a beaten, rustic look… and more holes.
Doors and windows are cemented in place and the whole shebang is covered in a sort of plaster daub. This appears to be the source of all structural strength. When drilling into such a wall, it is clear that this outer shell is indeed much harder than the core.
This coating is allowed to dry and is painted - orange! There are variations. Within a lotissement, you’ll get cream (pale orange), rust (dark orange), even lavender (bluey orange), pink (embarrassing orange). Over the windows (which are often doors as well), they attach shutters. These are generally in a contrasting colour: blue, grey, green.
The whole landscape has a sort of toyland look which, if it were anywhere else in the world, would have the Disney Corporation suing for copyright infringement. Here it looks exactly as it should… except for the sneaky feeling that we’re not actually in Provence and we should have a vernacular architecture of our own.
Perhaps, indeed, the old town look is the true local architecture but this cartoon version has taken over and has been the norm for decades.
Anyway, we didn’t get the house. There are laws in France that allow a builder to declare a project delay if it rains. It’s something like that. Anyway, the date got put back and back and back. We found this house, finished - so I didn’t have to see its innards.
Long after we moved in, we could take a trip to the original house and watch it being beaten into the oh-so-familiar shape.
Inner walls in houses down here are slightly thicker than cardboard. Slightly.
Living with the weather 1.1
It’s the 24th August now, three weeks after my first post on the weather, and it still hasn’t rained. Any suits sitting in air-conditioned meeting rooms dismissing global warming should try and live here.
Since the forest-fire risk became so severe, the authorities have put barriers and attractive red and white tape across all the entries into the extensive woods and parklands in the region. You can’t go there any more. You might start a fire and then it would never stop.
Even the woods across the road from us, where we occasionally walk down to the Brague and along its banks to Biot - they’re closed. You’ve got to keep to the roads.
The local English-language radio station, Riviera Radio in Monaco, broadcasts its local weather forecast and exhibits a strange, possibly typically Engish, attitude. On the half-hour the announcer on duty will read the local news: fires, water problems, deaths amongst the elderly, sunburn amongst the tourists, cracked roads, traffic delays, fractious motorists, shortage of air-conditioners, short tempers, pain, death, trouble - ‘and now a look at the region’s weather: well, it looks like another gorgeous day tomorrow with lots of lovely sunshine for the weekend!’ What? Pardon? Are you listening to yourself? Enough is enough. Very, very strange.
It is noticeably cooler at night, now. We’re getting to sleep. In the evenings, when we have dinner on the terrasse, the temperature sometimes drops below 30°. That’s nice.
Saturday, August 09, 2003
All Brits know that the French love their bureaucracy and love putting mountains of paper between you and the easy life.
What is also true is that this bureaucracy is manned by some of the nicest people on the planet. No, really! I’m not just trying to get off easy when my yearly interview with the tax man comes around.
The first thing you must know about is the ‘necessary document list’. Before any first contact with a government office, bank or public service, you will be given a list of documents you must have. This presentation of evidence is absolutely crucial. You can never hope to obtain X without showing A, B, C, D, E, and so on.
The scary one is that to get a bank account, you should be able to present evidence of your domicile. This would normally be an electricity bill with your name and address on (or a gas bill,…). Of course, the electricity people won’t even look at your request for a supply without a ‘RIB’. A ‘RIB’ is a copy of a piece of paper supplied to you by your bank to show that you are a customer of good standing with an established account from which the service may withdraw cash at any time.
You see the hitch. Chicken. Egg.
This happens all the time. Bank account, car insurance, car importation, house insurance, electricity, gas, membership of the local gym - they are all interdependent. None can be got without evidence of some other to prove your bona fide status.
Worry not. The weak point in this blockage (or rather the point of strength) is the bank. Talk to them first. You can get an account with any address - such as temporary accommodation. They at least will trust you if you offer them money (your money for your account, I mean).
Then when you want to proceed into the dark jungle of French life, you have at least one torch to hold high: your sacred RIB.
You will have many documents to obtain and registrations to perform. Before any progress can be made, you need to find out where you have to go (to the centimetre if possible) and the list of documents you absolutely must have.
The Web is good. Most French administrative offices have excellent web sites and many of these are just lists of documents.
Other sources (even better in most cases) are other foreigners who have gone before. But, a word of warning: find a foreigner like yourself. If you are a Brit, an American’s experience is bound to be different. Most Europeans (that is Community dwellers, not the Swiss) are open to the same treatment. Another word: there’s a lot of folklore about not having to actually get one of those forms or not needing to actually go in person. Mistrust all this. Take a cautious stance and take the trouble.
Often a simple act of signing on for something will grow into a multi-stage affair. Your first visit, equipped with all documents, will simply get you a docket (with a stamp: oh, they do love their rubber stamps in this country) and a handy leaflet telling you where to go next and with a list of documents - notably including the new docket. So you know that progress is being made.
Very often there will be a necessary ‘delai’ before your next visit This is to give their documents time to go behind the scenes and meet you at the next rendezvous. You wouldn’t want the other side to be under-equipped.
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Let me tell you a story.
When we arrived here, we needed to get an official government-issue ‘Carte de Sejour’ - resident’s permit. My firm gave me the official handout: just drop in to the Prefecture (in Nice), anytime, with the following six documents: passport, birth certificate, recent photos, work contract, dee-dah, dee-dah… My colleagues gave me more advice. Be outside the so-and-so building of the Prefecture (which is a vast complex looking more like a university campus), standing on the right of the door, before 8:45, preferably mid-week. When the doors open, go in through the right hand door (not the rotating doors) and run into the alcove on the right. Go straight to the reception desk towards the only clerk who will be there. Try to be first. Have your documents ready. By the way, you don’t need A, but do take B, C, D and a RIB. All ex-pats have advice… and so do I.
The queueing up on the right hand side is because asylum seekers and those having a spot of immigration bother attend the same concourse but must go left on entry. Not using the revolving doors saves delay. The queue forms quickly and each supplicant takes a long time: be first.
We were. We were given a number and asked to sit in a waiting room. Our number was called and we sat and chatted to a very pleasant man who had a little English and had visited our homeland. No, he said, you don’t actually need F, G and H. Have you got your J? We had. We carried an enormous file of stuff between offices in the early days.
So, he said, that’s all fine. The forms were filled in, we checked them over with him - two Brits of good standing with no dubious records - and the happy forms were passed back to the office with the glue and the card laminator. We were instructed to return home and wait to be invited back to be awarded our ‘papers’.
We waited, not too long, returned to the same front desk and received our finished cards, thanked the man, exchanged the final pleasantries and went on our way.
In the train back I noticed that I had been laminated as a Portuguese citizen. Now I’m sure being Portuguese is very fine but I’m not. Phoning the Prefecture, we found out that mistakes like this can only be corrected in Paris but you can post the card with a note asking for re-nationalisation. You’ll have to wait for the papers to go from Nice to Paris…
A few weeks later, I was summoned to the Mairie in Biot (our village): my card was ready.
I nipped round to the Mairie and approached the lady at the counter, explained my problem. Ah, yes, she said (in French of course but let’s not get bogged down with details), we do have a bunch of permis to hand out. Now, where were they? They turned the Office upside down looking for the damned things. They were found (about a dozen permis - all of them mistaken?) under another counter in another part of the building. Here we are, she said, holding a plastic lamination and reading the attached sheet. ‘Monsieur Horner?’ ‘Oui, c’est moi, merci - mais ça, ce n’est pas moi.’ Smiling out from the card was a charming, young and certainly female face. Well, she said, its your form. And so it was. So I guess that’ll be that then. Bye.
No, she said, wait a minute. Searching through the box, she found my picture stapled (and I mean stapled - two huge holes in my identity) to another bloke’s form. And notice that: bloke. So obviously this was a continuing problem, Probably everyone’s card was stapled to the next person’s form until the last form’s card was probably in Calais.
Luckily my face was attached to my details including ‘Britannique’.
Of course the big deal is importing a car. This is a long process involving a first attendance at an office in the same Prefecture building but behind the asylum seekers’ rallying point, not very clearly marked and manned by the most dismissive individual we were ever to meet. He dismissed our entire list of offered documents and merely issued us with a stamped docket and another leaflet detailing a location somewhere up in the hills with another list of documents. He was right about the location. He was wrong about the documents.
Wednesday, August 06, 2003
The big places
Cannes. The Film Festival.
OK. That’s it. On to Nice.
That is so much the impression that you get from outside France and so much the impression that, I think, seriously, Cannes would like you to have. There is worry that the Film Festival could go elsewhere. If so, I think Cannes will commit a sort of social suicide. But Cannes is actually fascinating to anyone who likes to figure out how towns work.
The Film Festival used to be more accessible for locals and, of course, for tourists. The first time I was here during the festival, I recall, you could see film people, even stars, on the Croisette (the English-style promenade along the front) and the buzz was palpable.
Now the festival is a trade show like any other. People come to it because not to come to it might hint at your demise. People come to make deals, to sign and to commit. They come to evaluate and to judge. You, me and Joe and Joanne Public have no rôle in this performance.
Even the facade which always was just a facade has diminished. The intense visual show that used to get the news cameramen down to the Croisette consisted (and still does to a lesser extent) of a plywood layer tacked to the fronts of some otherwise beautiful, elegant frontages: the Martinez, the Carlton, the Majestic. All the hotels would gladly deck themselves in this tawdry bill-posting just for the fortnight.
Along at the end of the Croisette is the Palais des Festivals, which is, for the rest of the year, as for the Festival, just an exhibition centre no posher than the UK’s National Exhibition Centre and similarly appointed as a vast void. During the Film Festival it is, of course, laid entirely to red carpet.
Last year, Renault negotiated the rights to deliver the stars to the end of the carpet. This meant a fleet of about six Velsartisses, their huge saloon, cruising round in a sufficiently large circle that the cameras caught no sight of them picking up actors just along the road and dropping them almost immediately at the cinema. The public hanging around for a glimpse (I saw Sting from about 200 metres! Yay!) can see this charade in full. The crowds are not large and they are mainly foreign tourists. Many French stars of the sub-Depardieu, sub-Paradis roster can be seen to pause, as they are dropped off, for adulation which does not come from an unrecognizing public. They shrug and go off to enjoy the movie. This sort of cynicism is easy to catch in Cannes during this fortnight. It is not typical of the town and I regret even relaying it to you.
The Croisette is indeed a facade. It is, of course, a crescent running around a pretty bay from the Palais to the Pointe Croisette where sits the Palm Beach Casino. For more than half of this run, the latter half, it is a smart, quiet residential district. For the first part it is the front which transforms itself for the Film Festival but which is normally a very elegant series of hotels in the very best of modest good taste. Nestling between the hotels are shops, some just tourists post-card shops, some just ice-cream, but mostly very, very expensive, belonging to the major Paris and Rome fashion marques.
But Cannes, like most coastal towns fits itself to the sea and grows its thick skin in layers against the glare of the sea and international publicity. Just behind the Croisette starts the real town.
The Rue d’Antibes, layer number two, has the normal shops, banks, pharmacies, FNAC, etc. The prices drop by 50% and life is normal.
Layer number three between d’Antibes and the railway is where Prisunic are, most of the boulangeries and the fruit market. Prices are now even further down and life is frantic.
Then there’s the railway and the station and the slightly transformed RN7 - calling itself the Voie Rapide (and they say the French have no irony).
Behind the railway, Cannes shrugs off the pretence, takes control and stops arranging itself like the flats on a stage. The Boulevard Carnot plunges into the hinterland at right-angles to the coast and the area around République, relatively poor and distinctly urban takes over with its hundreds of small roads, its immigrant population and its supermarkets and flea-markets.
Nobody hoping to make the traditional bomb renting out their apartments to directors and producers for the Festival but located further back than Rue d’Antibes or further west than the Palais or further east than the Martinez - nobody outside this zone need apply. This area is Cannes as she wants to be seen - but not the real town we know - and, I must say, love dearly.
West of the Palais is Cannes old town. As befits the old, this part feels no need to emulate its younger neighbour and drapes itself over a handful of small hills with almost complete irregularity. This is where the restaurants you really need are to be found.
They even had a Planet Hollywood until America’s recently discovered agoraphobia struck them dead.
Nice is nice.
Well, having got that out the way… No, I really mean it: Nice is a fine, fine town.
If your idea of Nice is limited to the Promenade des Anglais and the elegant sea front, you might find Nice a bit of a surprise.
For one thing, it is big. About 350,000 people live in greater Nice which stretches way back up the valley and round behind the hills to accommodate them. Everything about Nice is bigger than you think. The Promenade des Anglais itself is about seven kilometres long. Starting at the very centre of Nice it has its elegant part in the first kilometre, up to and past the Negresco - which is a very expensive hotel and probably deserves its fame. The P des A carries on getting gradually less and less salubrious before ending up at the botanical gardens and the airport. For most of its length, it’s a six or eight lane highway, still looking very urban and urbane but packed with humble Renaults and Citroëns.
Nice has the shape of a city on a river mouth but the river was covered over years ago; so now it is a city with an axis consisting of (counting back from the sea) a public park, a public car park, a bus station, a modern arts centre (with theatre) and an exhibition venue. Behind this the river appears again but is hemmed in by urban motorways in not the most attractive part of the town.
Back down at the sea, one bank of this river-that-isn’t is the old town which has a splendid food market - the sort that everyone remembers France for and which still thankfully exists here - and some of the best restaurants.
The other bank is the modern centre. The main axis is Jean Medecin which has the main big shops. When we first came here it had a reasonable Marks & Spencers (bigger than the branch in Marseille and bigger than the one room basement they seemed to occupy in Vienna). Then came the year that M&S had to admit that they were finding life hard (less hard in their foreign branches than in the UK but ssshh, don’t say that); so they closed down their foreign branches. This had an interesting effect. In their Paris site, all that could be seen last time I was there was temporary cladding announcing that a French shop chain had taken the site and would, surely, be opening something there real soon now. In Nice, the site has just been closed and abandoned and bears the largest collection of artless graffiti in Nice. It is an eyesore of the worst kind because it still looks quite simply like an abandoned M&S and, in that manner, rather like an English insult to a handsome French street.
Forgetting this little ex-patriot grief, let’s go on to say that Nice is where you go to get anything - well anything that can be got in the region. It is still rather short on big book shops. It doesn’t have anything like a PC World either (which I find annoying). In the general line of department stores, there’s only Galleries Lafayette. It’s certainly no Paris. There’s not a lot of culture.
Recently, Nice Matin, the excellent local paper, carried reports of the two really big, well-attended concerts in town. Johnny Vegas, the sosie (or look-alike) of Johnny Halliday (the undying love for whom is still a complete mystery to the non-French) and another guy (whose name escapes me) who is the sosie (and revival) of Claude François (a pop-star of France’s yé-yé days in the 60s). We get the fakes.
Still, I like Nice. It’s big, well laid out and has a lot of good urban design about it. Not least of which is its very natural partition by the river-that’s-not-there.
Tuesday, August 05, 2003
Living with the food
One reason for moving to France is always valid: food.The French still have more respect for food and more love for it than any other nation. Well, certainly the British.
As Jonathan Meade recently said in one of his excellent TV programmes, only the British use the word ‘wicked’ when referring to food. The French would never.
Food is a pleasure and to create pleasure well is to be civilized.
There are bad meals. I’ve eaten badly here. But this is more to do with statistics than attitude. There is a joy in preparing food, in presenting it and serving it that transmits itself to the consumer and to the consumer’s digestive system.
Some highlights and some not so highlights…
We used to have a bakery down the road from us in Cambridge (England!). I won’t name it. It was a ‘traditional’ English bakery, not a modern bread shop. One day I stopped by for a ‘French stick’. They were out; so I was offered a standard tin loaf: ‘It’s the same bread’.
Oh no. Not here.
Bread is poetry. Bread is art. Bread is… not always as good as it looks.
The best French boulangeries are the best shops in the world for care, tradition, standards and (somewhat arbitrarily) friendliness. There’s something about making and selling bread that instills a quality of life found… not everywhere.
If I want to make visitors feel welcome to France, I go out at 7:30 their first morning and buy croissant, pain au chocolat and baguettes a l’ancienne at a superb bakers just a kilometre or two away in Biot called Angelus (which lends an unlooked-for Buffy aspect to it all). I offer their name with a strong recommendation. We sit on the terrace and breakfast on these works of art while gazing at the blue Med. Me, I’m as happy as can be. I always suppose the guests are impressed.
Croissants vary so much. In Switzerland all patisserie was stacked with butter and very, very filling. Most pastries, if they had any air spaces in them, would be stuffed with the famous Swiss nut paste - which I liked a lot but isn’t everyone’s best buy.
In France pastries are generally lighter but not consistently. Fresh croissant from Angelus are angel kisses, light as a politician’s promises.
Just a few steps away, at the backup boulangerie… not quite as light but tasty.
One of the great mysteries of life in modern France is where did the baguette go? I remember the traditional baguette of my first visits to France 30-odd years ago: thin, fragile with a leathery, polished crust and practically nothing inside, a nutty, malty taste and a moist, but quickly fading texture.
These days, here at least, a ‘baguette’ is a fairly normal length of white bread, still - it must be stressed - a thousand times better than bread in other countries but with a more even texture and a somewhat more pliant crust. The usual alternative on offer - the baguette a l’ancienne - is a strange, pointy-ended affair with a drier, harder crust and a slightly greyer, denser inside. Not the ‘former baguette’ I’d expected.
Perhaps it’s the result of EC regulations about the pasteurisation of flour: perhaps it’s just dying traditions, changing tastes, globalization. Who knows? It seems to be gone forever.
But now be careful. Although I’d say that 80% of bread bought at random from boulangeries in this area will fill your mouth with joy, some shops are bound to disappoint. Nothing is inedible. Nothing is even unsatisfying as such. It’s just that some of the bread seems a little pedestrian. I’m thinking of one shop (again, I won’t name it) somewhere on our route to and from Cannes. This is a grand shop with a huge frontage and car-park. It looks like a bakery with history and clout. Their cakes and sandwiches are some of the most expensive in the region. They offer the usual dozen or so types of bread (these are not all the same bread).
However, their baguettes (ancienne ou non) are thoroughly boring. Nothing bad. You couldn’t take them back and complain. They are just boring. It happens. Don’t be disappointed. Try a selection of bakers. You may find your Angelus.
Moules et frites
I have not much to say. Moules et frites. Mussels and chips. Wonderful and so usual that you can have a banquet for €8 in Antibes or Nice. In Cannes you might have to pay 10. It’s a posh place.
Le menu à…
It still amazes me that you can sit down in a splendid little restaurant, be served by lovely, warm, friendly people, food cooked with love by enthusiasts and on the menu will be listed a three course delirium entitled ‘le menu à €20′. ‘Twas ever thus and will ever be so. Lovely France.
Wine is still very heavily marked up in all restaurants, something I have never been as happy about. We always ask for a carafe d’eau. It doesn’t cause offence.
Monday, August 04, 2003
The look of the land
The shape of the land
Many Brits come on holiday here. Around this time, you can hear little but English in old Antibes. Many more know the area by its famous bits: the Cannes Film Festival, the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, and so on. I admit it, before I came here, my idea of the area was set by Elton John’s I’m Still Standing video. Bizarre.
This is the eastern part of the south coast of France. It is not Italy - but is near it. It is most certainly not Provence but the souvenir shops pretend it is (nobody knows why). It is not the Alpes - but we can see them. It is a narrow strip of land some twenty kilometres wide along a coast facing Corsica and Italy. It is not straight: although you might think of it as mainly east-west (as I used to), it kinks and bends, has capes and bays and where we are it even faces due east for a stretch.
Being coastal, it follows a distinctly coastal shape but history and technology have played their part.
Our bit of the Côte d’Azur
If you take a section through our bit of coastline from the sea to our house and onwards and upwards, you get a pretty typical picture of the French southern coast - for good and bad.
First there’s the sea. The Mediterranean. It is not polluted as we Brits were told. It is not tidal, that much is true. It is not always calm: in winter it can rain rocks and whole trees down on the coast road and break the cafes that occupy the beach all summer. It is, most of the time, as blue as you would hope.
Then there’s the beach. Here it is stones, generally about 2 to 3 cms, grey, fairly uniform, clean. Southern French beaches are remarkably clean and tidy: bins are provided and the residents and (thank you!) the tourists take considerable care. The beach, fronting on to a non-tidal sea, tends to be short, permanently dry in the summer, fairly steep and have cars parked on it.
Next comes the Bord de Mer, the coastal road, for a long time our manically preferred way of getting anywhere. Always a good view, in winter a stormy thrill, in summer a topless treat.
Next comes the railway. SNCF’s southern TGV route along with the two types of train régional, the cool double-decker and the grotty orange old stock. Coming to Nice by train wins you over if you took the trip as we did to decide whether you want to live here.
Next comes a bit of scrubland that nobody wants, occasionally occupied by second-hand car lots and near-the-beach restaurants. Then the RN7, the national, non-toll-paid road (and therefore naturally a tad bumpy). Next comes the commercial sector, some handsome like Antibesland, our seaside funfair (mostly closed) and Marineland (orcas, dolphins, seals and associated wonders), some intensely, heart-freezingly ugly like the region with the Pizza Hut, the cheap shoe shops, the closed bread shops, the DIY stores. This bit is ghastly: truly the backside of the sea front.
It does have nestling in it one of the typical-for-the-region wild parks, Vaugrenier, which is a small blessing and a cool delight.
Next comes the autoroute (English: motorway), the lovely A8, a toll-paid six-laner which joins the Italian border with Lyon via a broad sweep past Nice, Cannes, Aix, Marseille, Valence and then on northwards.
Next comes a lowland section mysteriously occupied by practice golf courses, plant nurseries, potteries, glass-blowers’ shops and suchlike. One of the strangest parts of our landscape and filled mostly with tourists who are lost.
Then variously the land rises to a series of real, ancient towns. These are the genuine historical human reality of the landscape. Towns like Biot, Cagnes, Vence, St Paul, Valbonne, Mougins. Generally they occupy a hill or a rise at least and are old, well looked after, loved. A hill which was not occupied from olden times now groans under the weight of Sophia-Antipolis, the great science park of the south-east which includes on one of its highest points our little lotissement, our modern village.
Behind the old villages are older smaller villages, clinging rather grandly to the edges of the pre-Alpes. Mountain eyries like Gourdon, Tourette, superb places with good food, good views and exciting roads.
After that we’re up to the Alpes.
The famous coast
There’s an irony in the geography here. The ancient towns like Biot, on the map, seem to extend their domains from their hill-top perches right down to the sea like spilled pots of paint dribbling down the landscape to the water. Apart from the major cities such as Antibes, Cannes and Nice, the coast-line has no identity of its own and borrows its names from the inland towns. So, since they must be on the railway line, the stations of Biot and Villeneuve-Loubet are indeed on the coast, just behind the beach, but Biot and Villeneuve-Loubet are several kilometres away up the hill. Getting off at Biot station was until the very recent provision of a bus, a very, very bad way to reach Biot.
Even when the beach itself has a very famous, even prestigious, name such as Juan-les-Pins, it is still part of an inland borough, in this case, Vallauris (a small, modest, rather troubled little community some way behind the monied beach restaurants).
It seems that this might be all the fault of the Brits. The coast used to be more-or-less ignored by the French, occupied by fishermen and itinerants. Even the Romans when they conquered the region, considered the beach not very useful (you can’t really imagine Roman matrons letting slip the toga for a bask on the pebbles, can you?). Then the Brits decided that spending vast amounts of cash to rent a grave-sized patch of shingle on a daily basis at Juan-les-Pins was just the ticket. Just as they got the French road-builders to build a ‘prom’ just like Brighton’s along the ‘Promenade des Anglais’ in Nice; so they prompted the expansion, consolidation and exploitation of the beaches between the cities. The fishermen who owned the huts that now were luxury hotels called for local government protection and the ancient establishments reached out their nurturing hands and took the beach. So now we have Villeneuve-Loubet-plage where Villeneuve-Loubet for centuries couldn’t have given less thought.
Sunday, August 03, 2003
Judicious use of water
Everywhere there is foliage. Even though this is one of the driest parts of Europe, it is also the greenest. Every street is lined with trees; public areas are stacked with bushes and all the bushes are in frantic flower. Our landlord insisted that our garden be laid to lawn. Grass in the South of France is a fantasy. We have an automatic ‘arrosage’ system which pops up out of the ground twice a day and sprays the lawns with water for three quarters of an hour. The first year, this cost us €1200 (about £800) in water charges alone. Crazy.All this public greenery is fed by hidden drip-feed systems that supply millions of litres of water into the parched earth.
Unlike in England, there is never a hose-pipe ban (our neighbours consider this to hint at the fall of society), never a drop in the quality of water. The reservoir that feeds Cannes serves also as a freshwater swimming resort. Last week it was a clear two metres down from the previous visit. Much of the water has been scooped up by the ‘Canadairs’ and dropped on the blazing forests of Var.
Britain doesn’t know anything like this. When it gets to 30°, water becomes short, hose-pipe bans are announced and everyone stops working because of the heat.
Living with the weather
It’s midday, August 3rd. It has rained once in two months. The temperature is 33°C; so today is cool. It has been between 33 and 38 now for ever. Our house doesn’t have air-conditioning: that’s normal for this region. In my room, where I sit and type this, I have a fan blowing upwards from beneath my desk. The temperature here is 30°. The house, a standard modern bungalow, is quite good at keeping that few degrees of difference. It has shutters on all the windows (almost all of which are really doors - what we used to call ‘French windows’!). Keeping the shutters that face the sun closed as the sun drifts round from east to west helps. We have an ‘abri’, a covered area for storing gardening stuff at one end of the house. This has a window inside it opening into the bathroom. This is kept open to supply slightly cooler air throughout the house.A large proportion of the neighbouring region of Var has been on fire - started by arsonists, they say. This region (Alpes-Maritime) is at great risk of starting without human assistance. It is dry underfoot but humid in the air.
It rained one day last week. It started at about 6 pm and went on for much of the night. Next day, it was a trifle fresher; the air was cleaner; the car was washed. By the afternoon, 37° and back to normal.
A British body is only just partially adaptable to this sort of climate. Every now and then your body’s tolerance of this incessant heat gives up and it fitfully perspires: you can never explain it. Just sit still and it will pass. Keeping dry is everything.
Saturday, August 02, 2003
Living with a car
This is a sad story… for our car at least.
I bought our Peugeot 405SRI (I know, it’s a boring family car - don’t tell me - I used to own sport cars…) eleven years ago, brand new in Switzerland. It was lovingly serviced by first the main Peugeot dealer and then by a most charming Italian in our village. Every scratch, every wheeze and rumble was corrected immediately. Eight years on we left Switzerland with a car that (changing styles notwithstanding) looked and felt new.
Three years in France and she is a pathetic wreck.
Driving in France
The French still drive… er… quickly. On the whole French drivers are not reckless. That is a vicious slander perpetrated by English and Swiss drivers over for their holidays. Look more closely and for longer and you’ll notice that the French style of driving is more, shall we say, negotiative.
They do not give way naturally. There has been a mania for building roundabouts (just like English ones) in a land where the previous principle for negotiating precedence at a junction was ‘priorite a droite’ - that is, give way to the right. Think for a moment about a roundabout in a country where they drive on the right and you’ll see that this is actually the reverse of the old style. Before every French roundabout is a sign saying: you do not have priority. Not ‘yield’ or ‘give way’. No, for the French the message is you have lost priority: the other guy will have to be the winner. Deal with it.
They are competitive but the standard of driving, the raw skill behind the wheel, is high. Speeds, when we arrived were scarily high. Speed limits were ignored by a margin of 50%. On the Promenade des Anglais, the grand frontage that stretches seven kilometres from Nice airport to the centre of town, the limit is 50 but they used to drive at 80 habitually.
The police started a programme of fearsome advertising - including black life-size cutouts of people on the spot where they died in an accident every few metres along the road - and stringent radar control. Now, more-or-less magically, speeds have dropped to a mere 20% above. Quite tolerable and, according to the statistics, a lot safer. This is not just getting used to it. This is a sea change.
The problem that remains is the motorcycle.
It is a social convention here that a motorcyclist must overtake. It is impossible for a motorcyclist to drive behind a car. So strong is the instinct to overtake that almost every manoeuvre fills the heart with dread. Risks are taken which would bring traffic to a halt in Britain (which I note on my visits has become an extremely cautious and temperate place, driving-wise) and would result in road-closure and deportation in Switzerland. Along with your crash-helmet and keys, every motorcyclist round here must receive an injection of stupid disease. I don’t understand it.
Most Brits on holiday complain about the condition of French roads. We all know this is why Renaults and Peugeots have always had soft suspension. Ha-ha.
Yes, the roads are generally not billiard-table smooth. The autoroutes (which are paid for by tolls) are excellent but the ordinary roads are quite laughingly pot-holed and bumpy.
It can only be explained away by considerations of money. The French can build excellent roads; they just don’t want to. They are great patchers. They are always applying tiny amendments to the surface when it seems quite obvious that the whole road should be re-laid.
There again, when they do it they do it with style. The old road from where we live down to the coast used to be a typical French country road, barely wide enough for a 2CV with no wing mirrors but it was replaced just before we arrived by a swish new mountain-style road which twists back and forth across the face of the hill to make it an easy climb and a safe descent. This was improved last year (only a few years after it was built) and widened with a new surface to two full lanes for the whole ascent. It is such a fine piece of work, we habitually call it the ‘Swiss road’. There, what more can one say?
The car parks
For some strange reason, French car parks are still designed for 2CVs only, perhaps Renault 4s. They assume a turning circle which our car can only dream of. They assume (very, very scarily) that your car has a regulation-short overhang: the ramps between floors in the car-park at Cannes main station scare the bejesus out of me. I always think our spoilers will get it.
So, while we cringe at the competitiveness of French motorists and while we hold our breath at the axle-breaking quality of the roads, it is in the car parks that we have met the greatest dangers and not from other cars.
Our car is dented so badly now, we can’t even begin to consider mending it. The first little nudges all came from parking incidents.
But we look around and we see hardly any cars on French roads without a few bruises. It is absolutely normal to drive with dents. No shame at all.
So we stopped fixing ours. Our lovely Swiss miss is now a raddled old hag. I’ve driven her into gates in the dark and shrugged as the sound of ripping steel echoed off the walls of our neighbours houses. Why worry?
Importing a car
If you come to France with a car (which you would only sensibly do coming from a drive-on-the-right country), you will need to import it and get one of those three part number plates with your departement number on the end.
Don’t get anxious about it. It is as much an introduction to the French way of life as your first plate of moules et frites.
Our importation took months. The general style is: take your car to garage A or office B; let them look at some feature such as the number of wheels, the number on the engine block, the colour; sign something to say thank you; they will give you a piece of paper with a stamp on it (French rubber stamps are what makes their world go round); they will then tell you where to take your car and this new bit of paper; try to fix a date at this new place; repeat.
We’ve been to garages where they lifted the bonnet, grunted, stamped, charged us €100 and sent us on our way without us understanding a single thing.
One appointment was at Nice Airport. It appears that the act of bringing in a car (which we actually did by driving over the border with Switzerland about three months before) has to be re-enacted at the airport, as if you were flying the thing in. This is where the big customs guys are. Or should be.
The day we turned up as instructed at the customs office at the airport, the car importing official was busy with some number he had to read or seats he had to count. We, instead, were put in the hands of the official with time on his hands: Nice Airport’s cheese excise man.
He sat us down, got out the forms and started to fill them in. Lots of stuff about our stay in Switzerland, our journey here and the history of the car. What is the power of the car? I don’t know. Let’s guess. He guessed wrong. What’s the value of the car? We don’t know. It cost us a bomb in Swiss francs eight years before but… So he gets out a copy of the French version of What Car and looks it up in the guide price table. Or rather I do, because he wasn’t sure what model we had. The car, it appears was worth about as much as a bag of pork scratchings but still…
Half way through, someone knocked and entered and asked about the load of Emmenthal going phew on the hot runway. Now our man was in his essence. The look of relief on his face was sad really. Cheese: now you’re talking.
Ah, France. Bureaucracy and cheese. They do both with such style.
Friday, August 01, 2003
Living in France
I moved to France in 2000 after eight years in Switzerland. I’m a Brit with most British traits. Wherever I go I am by definition an ‘ex-pat’ but I try not to advertize it. We’ve always made an attempt to ‘integrate’: this is very much easier in France than in Switzerland.
I see on British television a never-ending parade of programmes about ‘life in the sun’, ‘making a break’, whatever the producers feel sums up the age-old British urge to relocate to the Med. I did it for a job but with no reluctance. Now that job has ended, I sit here with no particular direction in life writing these notes. We guess it’s time to move on; so this is the time to get it all down. If you are a Brit thinking of moving to the South of France, these notes may help. If you just watch the programmes and wonder, you might find them amusing and perhaps corrective.
We live at the edge of Sophia-Antipolis, a giant high-tech business park just four kilometres in from the coast behind Antibes. Our postal address is actually Biot, an ancient and beautiful village just two or three km away on the next hill. From the garden, I can see the Mediterranean through nearly 120 degrees. To my left is Nice - I can see the airport which is on our side and beyond that Cap Ferrat. In front of me as I face almost directly east are the coastal fungrounds of Antibesland and Marineland. Beyond that, the sea, mostly that deep blue that gives the Côte d’Azur its name. Beyond that, there must be Pisa in Italy, though the curvature of the Earth hides it. To my right I can see Cap d’Antibes with its lighthouse. Just out of sight to the far right and over the headland of Antibes, just 25 minutes away by car, lies Cannes - the film festival place.
Yes, it’s a dream location for many of my compatriots.
It is a dream but with tiny hints of nightmare. Be warned, escapists: life is never without its problems. On the whole, I love this place. I love France (for a lot of reasons I’ll deal with later). This is a very extreme part of France, quite exceptional in many ways. Even the French think of the Côte d’Azur in these terms. My love of the place is tempered with familiarity.
We use Euros now. A wonderful currency that is just the right size, beautifully designed and is actually valid across international borders. Now there’s a thing! How did we ever hold on to our national identity? Gosh, I don’t know. Sorry, I mock.
When I need to quote a price, it’ll be in money - euros. If you’re a Brit multiple by 2/3 to get £s. If you’re Swiss, multiple the other way by 3/2 to get CHFs. If you’re an American, $s and €s are about the same: it’s just that you’ve got more of them. If you’re European, you don’t do a thing: we all use the same money. Now isn’t that a good idea?