Weeks 42 – 44 Accordions, Hypochondriacs, and Kitchens: Everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux

A week or so ago, we were standing outside our elegant village hall. We were, accidentally, half an hour early for the great village event, the Accordéons de Nîmes, having thought the event started at 14.00. Now I’ve discovered that it’s usually a good idea to arrive early in time for social events anyway, as it gives you time to circulate the other participants, shaking hands with or kissing everyone you know. This happens before keep-fit and before the summer walks (and in fact it’s very disruptive if anyone arrives late for keep-fit, but can’t bear to forgo the ritual politeness). However, we realised how few of the village “ancients” we even recognised. Standing outside in brilliant sunshine, we greeted the former shop-keepers and were relieved when Danielle Laine and her sister, Giselle Duhaut, turned up. The change in the weather brought forth comments on spring having arrived – and they seem to have been true.

The hall, a lovely light, airy modern building with a high roof (supported by the laminated wood beams so often used here rather than metal joists) and pine clad ceiling, had been laid out with long tables. Some tables had names written on their paper tablecloths. Later it turned out that these were the tables which had been set aside for a large contingent from the neighbouring village of Mandray, most of whom arrived late, thus delaying the start. “Don’t know any of them”, sniffed Mme Laine, despite being married to someone who was born and brought up in Mandray. There seems to be a degree of rivalry between the two villages. However, Entre-deux-Eaux has a better village hall and so President of the Mandray group had proposed it to the Accordéons de Nîmes as a venue, and our Mayor had kindly offered to waive charges for such a cultural event for his community.

Marcel, our former shop-keeper, had been known far and wide for his accordion playing on Saturday nights in his village bar (the centre of village social life before the building of the village hall) and at weddings, and clearly the ancients of the village were expecting a jolly event, with plenty of dancing and drinking (with the bar staffed by the several ancient barmaids/organisers – after all, they had to cover cleaning and other costs).

After the Mandray contingent had been specially welcomed by the Voluminous Lady draped in black silk, velvet and chiffon and our Mayor had been thanked for generously donating the hall, the accordions (who included violin and percussion) broke into a foot-tapping medley to break the ice. The most sociable of the farmers’ wives and a lady-friend took to the dance floor, old village women circulated the tables taking orders for bottles of wine, squash, and coffees, and a party of children dressed and face-painted as clowns, tiger cowboys and a diminutive scarlet and black ladybird also arrived. The costumes were because it was also Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Carnival. The event seemed poised to be a great colourful social success.

But then the mood changed. Voluminous Lady clapped her hands and hissed, insisting on silence, as she introduced her young soloists, all of whom were medal winners and accordion or violin prodigies, and announced they would all be giving individual contributions. Baptiste, aged fifteen and three quarters, was particularly special, she announced, as his voice was still that of a soprano and he would give us a particularly beautiful rendering of Ave Maria, accompanied by his big sister. So Baptiste put down his violin and, with a soulful expression, took the microphone. The ancients of Entre-deux-Eaux continued, unmoved, to order their drinks and converse, despite appeals and ssshing noises from Vol. Lady. After all, Baptiste wasn’t an accordion, his half-strangled voice hit a few odd notes and anyway you couldn’t dance to Ave Maria. Partway through, Baptiste’s Big Sister, in a fit of artistic fury first thumped the piano keys, then stopped playing. Bar orders and chatting continued. Vol. Lady requested silence and no movement. The bar ladies continued to ferry drinks and collect money. The group President from Mandray stood up and imperiously told the country bumpkins of Entre-deux-Eaux that this was a concert and that they should be quiet, sit down, and appreciate the beautiful music in silence. This did not go down well. The reproved villagers glowered. The elderly barmaids were crimson and mortified. Baptiste resumed his soulful expression and his singing. The Mandray contingent applauded loudly, to make up for the peasants of Entre-deux-Eaux. After a while the clowns, cowboys, and ladybird started sliding on the floor, the visual highlight being when the scarlet ladybird swapped headgear with one of the clowns. Despite the earlier set-back, Baptiste was later prevailed upon to undertake the role of Carmen, though it was very hard, as he again looked soulful, to imagine him in a flounced skirt and with a rose between his teeth rather than as the bespectacled fat boy we can all remember from schooldays. The villagers were beginning to wonder about the promised dancing, as the interval approached. However, they’d paid their ten euros, so were going to make the most of it (and show Mandray that they could be cultured too). Fresh bottles of wine and crémant were ordered. We had no such qualms, and slipped out into the sunshine at half-time, muttering that we had a lot of outdoor things to get on with in the sunshine.

There are times when the highlights of our week seem to be the visits to local bricolages or DIY emporia. This week we seem to have been haunting the local pharmacy. “They’ll think we’re hypochondriacs”, I murmured as Snowy pulled up Pharmacie Barthelemy Bombarde (splendid name). But perhaps we’re just becoming integrated into the French way of life, which seems to involve large quantities of prescriptions. You can’t buy aspirin and the like in supermarkets – French pharmacists have a monopoly – so, if you have the time, it is easier to get a prescription from the doctor. There are no shops like Boots, only para-pharmacies which seem to sell slimming compounds and beauty products.

Nicola has experimented with various GPs including the rugby playing one who took out Toby’s stitches (following a painful encounter with a soap holder when he slipped in a shower) and the orchid fancying one in her village who always insisted on hugs from Nicola as part of his payment. However this doctor struck her as more serious, as his huge study is lined with medical books. You don’t need an appointment; as most GPs work on their own there is no receptionist unless it is the doctor’s wife. You can just turn up, ring the bell, usher yourself into the waiting room and wait for it to be your turn. (Who said the British were the masters of the queue system!). Actually, there are so few people in the waiting room that it isn’t a great problem deciding whose turn it is! We suspected sometimes the doctor might do as much waiting as the patients. But perhaps the two sunny days we chose were untypical, although one was only an hour into Monday morning surgery.

Doctor Tarralle’s study was huge and imposing with dark heavy furniture, his desk was like an old fashioned solicitor’s desk but littered with computer equipment, and his couch reposed in splendour in the middle of the floor, with illuminated panels for viewing X rays behind, and cupboards containing packages of common drugs (and there were indeed medical volumes on the glass fronted bookshelves). He spoke very quietly and very fast, and wrote prescriptions in a small, apparently neat hand (however he must have been to the usual doctors’ school of illegible handwriting, as later his prescription had to be passed around four assistants at the medical specimen analysis centre and then a phone call made to him for interpretation). It still feels very odd to hand over money at the end of a consultation, but he had his machine handy to scan our Carte Vitale, which will enable us to get an automatic refund! And consultations are unhurried with hardly any other patients waiting.

Following our visit to the centre specialising in X-rays, echograms, etc. (now there you do have to make an appointment and there are several receptionists and a maze of examination rooms), the conclusion is that there is no longer any trace of a kidney stone identified when John went for a check-up last March; he just has a bad back. Is that really good news for someone who enjoys DIY? However, after taking the x-rays back to Tarralle, he collected three more prescriptions (including the aforementioned one for urine tests) before passing Go, and will probably get a massage prescription next time round. We’ll need a new filing cabinet for our medical records; the x-ray plates are ours to keep – in France you can go to any GP so need to hold onto the evidence. And also a computerised medical accounts system will be needed to track our payments and repayments from CPAM (Social Security) and complementary medical insurers for the doctor’s, x-ray centre, medical analysis centre, and pharmacy bills. And the pharmacists now greet us as regulars!

In between haunting medical establishments and pharmacies, we’ve continued to make plans for the new kitchen. When Danielle Laine came with the lady selling accordion tickets, she prefaced the sales talk with, “I’ve come to look round”. I think she far prefers the heavy oak “rustic” look in furnishings to the light and airy birch/beech look that we have. But what left her speechless was the lack of a kitchen. It fully confirmed her long held opinion that the English do not know how to cook. Otherwise, how could John possibly cook down in the farmhouse kitchen and bring the food up on a tray? It must be inedible. In the days when she looked after the holiday lettings of the farmhouse, we used to bring her typically British presents – marmalade, pickled walnuts, Scottish shortbread, gingerbread. She never made any comments, but once when I asked if there was anything she’d like me to bring, she looked at Pierre and said as politely as possible, “well anything, except food – we didn’t like any of the English food, it’s too sweet for us” – which is surprising, given the sickly- sweet cream of the standard French Christmas log.

However, I think it was a casual visit John made to the new showrooms of Cuisine Schmidt (handily situated between our supermarket Cora and our builders’ merchants Gedimat), rather than Mme Laine’s distress at our lack of kitchen, that prompted our latest thoughts on a new kitchen. John was impressed by the extra-wide work surfaces and some of the fittings inside the Cuisine Schmidt units, especially the enormous smoothly gliding drawers variously adapted for foodstuffs, bottles, pans, and cutlery (no more rummaging at the back of low cupboards). We’ve already written about the difficulty in obtaining unit prices for shelving and other furniture, and Cuisine Schmidt’s catalogue and sales persons were no different. So before he dragged me in to look at the range of units, we decided that if the routine answers of “we’d need to come and measure up before we can give you a price” were given, despite John always having a plan with accurate dimensions in his pocket, that we would resign ourselves to the French way of doing things.
We were indeed pounced on by the young kitchen designer and salesperson, Murielle, as soon as we were inside the showroom doors, and again after we’d looked round, so we acquiesced to a visit to measure us up and propose a fully costed design. Thus it was that Murielle, accompanied by a bumptious young man who lectured John at length on how to Measure Up Properly (and survived to tell the tale), arrived a couple of days later to look at our blank space (well, perhaps not blank, as the floor was covered with John’s tools, though he had hastily done a lot of tidying up so that they could actually reach the walls to measure up). Murielle filled in her questionnaire about our requirements and a few days later we received a phone call to say that her proposals were ready.
When you see things in a 3D computer representation, you begin to see the things that won’t work well with the way you’re used to moving around a kitchen (in our case the master chef in front of a broad surface, with the washer-up/assistant peeler safely out of the way in a corner). As we suspected, the total came to a lot more than we wanted to pay. So negotiations started. The patron brought us coffee; a 7% discount was offered, John asked about the “magic prices” advertised for the next three weeks (one could hardly fail to notice in the entrance the dummy dressed as a fairy with a huge magic wand), but it is hard to see what the magic prices are when no starting price is given! So le Patron was consulted and offered 10% on the electrics and 20% on the fittings. We took the plan away to reflect upon and went back with more suggestions, which Murielle patiently incorporated. However the price hadn’t come down, as, despite removing the expensive upper shelving, we’d added other options. Poor Murielle began to look desperate as we said we’d continue to think about it. “But why can’t you decide now?” she pleaded, envisaging le Patron’s wrath as she yet again failed to sell us a kitchen. At one point the brash young man muscled in to give us his opinion on what we should buy – a rather counter-productive tactic. Exasperated, he looked John in the eye and demanded what his profession used to be, as if that would explain all. A vague response about IT did not satisfy him, a programmer or system analyst would not behave thus. However “chef de bureau” worked wonders and he nodded as if to say, “I thought as much”. It’s a bit hard to know how far to push the discount system – it’s not as obvious as haggling for carpets or trinkets in craft markets in India or Africa, where you get to know the rules as you go along. (And cabinet handles seem to be ridiculously priced compared with the same items at local bricolages.) Negotiations resume next week.
However, in all our preoccupations with tailor-made kitchen solutions, we haven’t entirely forsaken IKEA, and made a trip over the hills to order a couple of sofas, and to buy another light and a duvet cover. The sofas will be delivered mid-April. Unfortunately we’ll need a return trip as the duvet cover has been unusually very badly cut and sewn in some sweatshop in India.

Our UK plug mountain continues to grow. The number of electrical appliances John has had to fit with new plugs is surprising, indeed horrifying. John now reckons there are more than thirty standard UK plugs in the mountain; and that does not include non-reusable moulded plugs which have gone in the bin. Nor have the computers been converted – they still have UK plugs but are plugged into multi-way adapters with a French plug at the end. Then there are items like the mobile phone transformers which plug straight into a mains socket so will need plug adapters until they die. Recent unpacking and re-organisation of yet-to-be unpacked removal boxes has highlighted more appliances which will need re-plugging, including some for the new kitchen.

It seems very frivolous writing all this house furnishing stuff on the eve of a possible war, with the television on in the background, giving all the latest details of war preparations and diplomatic manoeuvring. However Nicola and I have not been entirely passive. We were contacted by Françoise, the organiser of the St Die anti-war march we went on, proposing that we took part in an interview with one of the local newspapers for International Women’s Day. We assumed that the focus would be on women’s attitudes to war against Iraq, so duly brushed up on our vocabulary for that. I felt that the insults of the British gutter press had bewildered the French (“why do they call Chirac a worm?”) and Nicola wanted to explain how she felt that the American public (including women!) were being brainwashed with fear tactics. We were thus surprised to be asked bland questions like “what differences do you notice between French women and the women in your country?”, “who is the woman you most admire?”. Françoise tried her best to focus the discussion back to the proposed war. However the next day’s half page report, which included interviews with a Venezuelan and a Russian woman who also live around St Die, was an odd and bland mixture of views, hardly mentioning the war, and unlikely to sway Bush or Blair should they chance upon “Liberté de l’Est” in their perusals of the world press. (And it was not a flattering photo! Hopefully no one will have recognised me).

Given all the difficulties and days of delay that Leila faced in trying to fly from Stansted to Strasbourg, it was ironic that her flight with Zöe from Heathrow to Bangkok went so smoothly. They’d prudently booked a hotel for the first couple of nights, but soon met up with seasoned back-packers and at the end of the first day bumped into some former university friends of Zöe, found a cheaper hotel, and planned the next leg of their journey, southwards by bus and boat to the island of Ko Pha Ngan. It sounds as if they’re thoroughly enjoying the beaches there!

It’s now getting dark. Our new sitting room has windows which face south and west and we have a spectacular view of the mountains blue against the red sunset. Au revoir!

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