Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Matters Mechanical

My first car was a clapped-out Mini. It had lowered suspension and alloy wheels, and was a strange shade of orange. I made all my mistakes in that car, after passing my test and being officially allowed out on the roads to play with the other hooligans. (He Who Does Everything Around Here believes that I’m still a hooligan behind the wheel, but I beg to differ.) The good thing was that, being so small, I could mess up the parking and there would always be room around me, no matter what the angle (and I did leave a note for the owner of that car that wasn’t quite as far over as I thought). 

She served her purpose – she kept me out of the rain, carried my shopping, and did the school run. She changed my life. I called her Edna the Inebriate Mini, and I was very fond of her, right up until the day I was preparing her for an MOT. It seemed to me that if you presented a clean, well-cared-for looking car, it would do a lot better than an obvious heap of junk, so I washed her and polished her, and hoovered her out – and sucked up half the floor panel on the driver’s side. 

Edna had to go to a new home, where a young man learned to weld on her. I’m not sure what he did, but she ended up being called Barney, and came to a final stop nose-down in a ditch. 

I was reminded of this the other day when I read a story about two retired farmers (though that seems to be a contradiction in terms); brothers – you only had to look at the nose – who fifty years ago put their work horse out to pasture and bought a tractor. 

Fifty years ago means 1963. Carnaby Street, The Beatles, The Mini, the E-type Jaguar; and in this part of France, people farming with horsepower. 

Their new tractor was a revelation. They could do everything the horse had done, at twice the speed. They could use it for forestry, for ploughing, for harvesting. It revolutionised their lives: and they respected it, as they had their horse. After all, without it, and without the horse, they may as well be back in the Middle Ages. 

For fifty years that machine worked their farm, whatever the weather. It had no cab, so it was still fairly brutal work at times, in heat and rain and cold, but it provided the muscle, and they were grateful. 

So much so, that they have celebrated its half-centenary by giving it an overhaul. It’s been repainted, its engine sorted out, everything made to be just as it was when it left the factory – to the tune of some 20,000 euros. 

They wanted to give back something for all those years of loyal service. 

Our sheep-farming neighbour down south had to replace his ancient Czech Zetor tractor (bought in the distant past for 700 francs) that had carried his logs from woodland to farm and then to us, and all the feed for his sheep, and the million and one other things he had used it for (to the point where his doctor told him to get off and walk for the sake of his health. He climbed onto his daughter’s bicycle instead). He went for another old machine, because it would do what he wanted. He didn’t want to pay for a cab and a soft seat and suspension, or shiny green paint: he just wanted an engine to pull and carry. 

The value of a thing isn’t just in the monetary worth; it lies in its ability to do what you need it to do. When times are hard, maybe that’s something we should rediscover.  Forget built-in obsolescence: bring back the repair man and the spare parts stockist. A bad workman may blame his tools, but a good one will respect them.  If he respects them highly, maybe he’ll buy them a 50th birthday present.

©lms 2013

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bonne Année!

It’s traditional at the start of the year for each commune to hold a gathering called The Mayor’s Wishes.  Ours was on Friday. Everyone was notified, and we wandered up to the Salle des Fêtes at the appointed time to meet and greet. 

It’s rather like ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ where Aunt Ada holds the counting, just to check that no-one’s sloped off to better things, and escaped her Doom. 

We went in, and had to kiss everyone present twice (chaps do the manly handshake thing) whilst wishing them ‘Bonne Année,  bonne santé’. Then we stood around for a few minutes, chatting to all and sundry, and eventually sat at the long tables which had been set with glasses, plates, teaspoons, napkins, and coffee cups. 

The Mayor started by explaining that the turnout was low, as a lot of people are ill: gastro, bronchitis and flu are sweeping France, aided by all the warm damp weather this winter. 

Suddenly all that kissing and bonhomie seemed a bit foolish, not to say downright dangerous. 

She then told us all the civic news: who died, who’s been born.  The population of our commune has dropped by 10, to 179, since the last census. (Aunt Ada Doom wouldn’t have stood for it.)  She also told us about major expenditure last year - lots of road resurfacing, and a new workshop for the Commune Man - and what's planned for the year to come.

Once the speech had been made, it was time for the galette des rois. This is a pastry and frangipane concoction with a hidden surprise: a fève, or bean, rather like the sixpence in a Christmas pudding. The bean is a little china figure, and the person who finds it is crowned king or queen for the evening. The crown represents the one you’ll need to acquire from the dentist afterwards, if you have been incautious. 

We spent the evening talking to a couple who had been to Scotland recently. They had eaten haggis for breakfast (though I’m sure she told her neighbour that it was made from beef, and I really didn’t have the heart to enlighten her), but had been aghast at the price of food. 15 € for a single plat! And the whiskey so expensive – they’d had to drink beer! The husband’s main interest, though, was whether we’d had Christmas Pudding this year. He seemed deeply let down when we said no. 

So as the plates were filled (and refilled twice more) people sat there poking about with their teaspoon to test for dental danger.  It’s actually quite hard to eat a warm pastry with a blunt teaspoon – try it sometime. 

Our glasses were topped up regularly, possibly as there were far fewer people present than had been catered for, with sparkling wine, and the conversation was deafening. Last year’s wishes included a plan to sort out the acoustics in the hall – obviously this was side-lined by road works and workshop-erecting. 

Eventually the plates were cleared away, and coffee poured: the teaspoon was retained for mashing the sugar lump into the cup. 

At the end of the evening, we spilled out of the hall into total darkness. The street lights go off at ten here, no matter what.  I have never actually been unable to see my hand in front of my face before: it is very unnerving.  Suddenly I understood the reason why people retired when the sun went down, with a gazunder under the bed: how would you ever find your way to an outside privy? Our little torch barely penetrated the black night. 

We came away glad that we had gone, if only to fly the flag: we were the only English present. Some were on holiday, some had moved away, and some were possibly struck down by one or all of the current maladies. I have a copy of the Mayor’s Speech to translate for them, so they’ll get the news without the beans, emergency dentistry, or any germs they didn’t have to start with. 

But they’ll have missed out on being made to feel part of it all, being with friends and neighbours who are pleased to see us, even (especially?) if it’s only once a year, and being, just for a little while, very French.
Bonne Année, et (and I mean this most sincerely) bonne santé!