Friday, 11 November 2011

A dull 11th November in Surrey

You might wonder what a Welshman residing in Surrey has anything to write about today in France?

Well the answer has two threads, the first is though I was born in Wales my paternal grandfather was French, and the second thread is that 200 yards from our house in Pirbright is the Commonwealth Graves Cemetry in Brookwood.

Gabriel Funning
In 1898 my Grandfather left Le Havre for South Wales eventually ending in the Vale of Neath at Resolven. With him came his mother and father, brother and sister and his two year old nephew Gabriel. Gabriel grew up in the Welsh community and from family tales could speak little French. Come 1914 because they had not become nationalised British, both he and his father were called up for the French Army.

On the 12th June 1918 he was due to come home on leave, when he met a British Soldier, who also came from Resolven, and they agreed to come home together a few days later. Sadly on the 13th June 1918 Gabriel was killed in action. For his bravery he was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre with a silver star  as the citation says for "leading an attack on enemy positions".
Mass grave at Mery-la Bataille where it is presumed Gabriel lays

Liz and I visited the graveyard at Mery la Bataille where he died, and found the mass grave where 251 unidentifiable bodies from Gabriel' s regiment lay.

So today I visited the French War Graves section at Brookwood Cemetry and proudly planted my poppy on a wooden cross in memory of Gabriel.
French wargraves at Brookwood Cemetry

The folly of war is illustrated by the fact that his grandfather who arrived from France with him was Prussian. Our surname originally had the German Umlaut over the "u" in our surname, and I have discovered that there were German "Funning" casualties in the mass slaughter that was the War to End all Wars!

Monday, 5 September 2011

Essentially British

Have no fear francophiles this is not a description of myself (difficult with my Heinz 57 genealogy) rather it is a small part of some distant shelves, in a distant supermarket that shall be forever British. (apologies to Blake)

Our local Intermarche Supermarket has an area about 1 meter wide and 6 shelves high dedicated to what it thinks we Brits use. It provides an ideal view of either:
  • What the French think of our cuisine
  • What some Brits miss when they live in France and can't do without,
Here are a selection of goods on offer

  • Top shelf- Shredded Wheat, Readybrek
  • Second Shelf- Digestive biscuits, Shortbread, Hobnobs
  • Third Shelf- Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Marmalade, Lemon Curd
  • Fourth Shelf- Birds custard Pouder, Amroasia Deven Custard, Gravy browning
  • Fith Shelf: Fray Bentos Steak & Kidney Pies, gravy browning, Coleman's mustard, Heinz Tinned Tomatoe Soup, Oxo cubes
  • Bottom Shelf- Robinsons Barley Water, 
Reminds me of a Michael McIntyre observation of Brits on holiday abroad, whilst visiting a local supermarket. They become very excited when they discover a packets of Cadbury Chocolate Fingers on the shelves, so much so that they take the packets back to  Blighty as a present for friends and family. Sad but in truth I can see it happening.

It then started me thinking what would we put on the shelves of Tesco, Sainsbury etc in a section called Essentially French. When we started coming to France some 30 years ago there were many items in the French Supermarkets that were not to be found in their UK counterparts such as Bon Mamon Jam, the huge variety of cheeses, little"madeline" cakes,etc. Sadly this is no longer the case, it seems the UK has assimulated the best of  everywhere. The things we bring back now tend to be local specialities of which there are many in France such:as:
  •  The local Poligny goats cheese from the market (pyramid shaped), 
  • Rillons, belly pork that has been marinated and cooked 
  • Torteau fromager- a goat cheesecake with a burnt outer coating
  • Many varieties of flavoured dark chocolate.
What you do notice is the shear variety and quality of certain products, e.g. the fish , cheese counters. The fruit and vegetables in the main come from France or surrounding countries. By and large the fruit and vegetables are seasonal and thus are much more flavoursome than items flown in from all round the world or forced in those large greenhouses
    It does seem to me that in the UK we have gradually lost the joy of celebrating differences in the clamour to provide all things to all.

    Thursday, 11 August 2011

    8th August 1991

    Driving back yesterday from a visit to the town of Vouvray, which is on the Loire, having been to purchase some wine with a friend. We passed a place where we know we had stopped for a picnic on the 8th August 1991.

    Strange you may think, but on that date about 1 p.m. as we were getting into our filled baguette a gentleman, obviously English from his dress, rushed over to us. ""Do you have a radio, have you heard any news? " he anxiously enquired. "Yes", we replied, " isn't great that John McCarthy has been freed ". "No no" he replied,"what's the cricket score?"
    You can take an Englishman away from cricket but not the cricket out of an Englishman (spoken by a Welshman)

    Thursday, 4 August 2011

    Le Tour de France

    As a cyclist who presently only cycles up to 8 Km (if its flat) at any one time,  any further than that would leave me walking like John Wayne for days, I have total admiration for the competitors who for 6 days a week for 3 weeks cycle 150 Km per day over the Alps. Pyrenees and any other mountains they can find.

    I enjoy watching Le Tour edited highlights, as you are able to see the varying countryside as the tour crosses and recrosses France.  Although the scenes when the cyclists are battling up 1 in 10 inclines, on roads overcrowded with spectators, then find themselves accompanied  by an overweight man dressed as a chicken, who then runs alongside them shouting(or should that be clucking) encouragement, I find  somewhat bizarre. A few years ago on a wet day in France I had to resort watching it live, it was somewhat unfortunate, as all the cyclists were protesting about something,  it meant they did not race each other, but merely ambled along for five hours. It was like watching paint dry. C’est la vie.

    In my university days I was very interested in the behaviour of social insects, such as ants and termites. The pelaton (main group of cyclists) behaves in a similar way in that it seems to develop a persona and behaviour of its own. It swarms around roundabouts and swallows up (mostly) any cyclist who has the temerity to try to escape from its clutches.

    In July 2008 Le Tour passed through the neighbouring village of Le Grand Pressigny. We were excited at the prospect and searched in the village’s Office de Tourisme, and neighbouring ones, for information about the event to no avail. Eventually we found a small note saying the caravan would pass through at 1.00 p.m. and the race at 3.00 p.m.  Caravan, what was that ? Would it be a procession of cars towing trailers?  Time would tell.

    Gareth shows off his prizes
    The day arrived and on the route, just outside a friend’s house, was parked a bus with a small stage in front, sponsored by PMU, the group involved in the French betting industry. On the stage were a compare and two lightly clad young women. The day was looking up. They started holding competitions, and we were extremely proud when our son Gareth, won a prize of big hands, a pen and a hat by answering the question in French. C’est mon garcon!!

    The caravan duly arrived, consisting of sponser’s floats and floats made up of racing horses , lions etc and also with young women poking out of cars sun roofs. It passed through for about half an hour. During its passage they threw into the crowd hats, pens, bottle openers, mini saucisson etc for which we all scrabbled around  on the ground picking them up. It must have been a sight watching a professional accountant elbowing children away (rather gently persuading them to move) to pick up a mini saucisson.

    Excitement started to rise along the road, which was only 5 or 6 meters wide, when  3 cyclists (a break away) came into view. Three minutes later the swarm of the pelaton arrived 6 to 8 abreast and nose to tail. They were so close that you could touch them and then within 20 second it was gone.

    Hope it comes again soon.
    The peliton arrives with Alberto
    Contardo in the yellow
    The peliton leaves

    Monday, 1 August 2011

    Watching the Olympics whilst in France

    The announcement recently that there was only one year to go before the start of the Olympics in London, reminded me that since the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996 we have watched the games (along with various World Athletics Championships) here in France.

    Are there any differences in the coverage? You would expect no but there some subtle and some not so sutable differences. France seems to have the same two comentators who cover virtually all the major sportrs, athletics, football and rugby and others I am sure. I can remember David Coleman getting excited at the end of close races etc but its nothing compared to this duo especialy when French athletes are involved. "Extrordinaire" is uttered many many times. So if it happens so often is it that extraordinary?  Nevermind lets move on.

    Are we as two nations different in our nationalism ? I remember when there was a British athlete just about to take part in a semi final race,  which we were getting quite excited about . All of a sudden the coverage switched to a horse dressage competition. We hurled abuse (mildly) at the TV until we realised that a French competitor was about to win a medal in the dressage. I am sure we would have switched from dressage to athletics if the reverse was to happen!

    If a French serious medal hope is a day away from a final the whole news media goes into a frenzy. I remember the fuss around Marie-Jose Peric, a fine French athlete, who won gold medals at the Barcelona and Atlanta games at 400 meters. The pitch of the comentators was rising by the minute as her event approached. The race before her event was just about to take place when the coverage suddenly switched to the warm up track where we saw Marie-Jose gently jogging around the track doing her warm up.

    We are all to some extent nationalistic but to be fair to the French if the event does not contain one of their countrymen or women they are very supportive of British athletes, Linford Christie for instance was well thought of, and they absolutely loved Paula Ratcliffe as she spoke French to them when interviewed. I suppose better a european than an american.

    Our greatest enjoyment as a family watching the games came from watching the French interviewer who took his place in the line of international journalists who spoke to the athletes just after they had completed their event. His name is Nelson (Montfort) who is fluent not only in French, but also in English, Spanish,  Italian and possibly others. The sure look of bewilderment on the face say of  an athlete from the USA  who answers in English for about 10 seconds a simple question from Nelson , then hears Nelson expounds his excited translation lasting at least 30 seconds. Then there is the bemused look on the face of a Russian male high-jumper when asked what he thinks of the chances of Marie-Jose in the ladies 400 meters in two days time.

    Nelson's most surreal moment when he interviewed an Ethiopian athlete after his 10K race. The athlete spoke only his native tongue so he had his coach with him to transate. The interview went thus: Nelson asks the question first in French, then in Italian for the Coach. Coach then asks the question in the athletes native tongue, athlete answers , coach translates the few words into Italian before Nelson expounds for 30 seconds in French. Priceless.

    Les araignees- spiders

    Anyone who has an old house in rural France will know about the problem of the spiders. Consulting my nature books the ones who are the vast majority in our house are Daddy-Long-Legs-Spiders (Pholcus Phalongiodes). They are described as usually found in buildings and houses, typicaly haning upside down and who spin a tangled untidy web. That's the little critters alright.

    You do not have to be arachnophobic to have a severe dislike/hatred of the little blighters they just seem to be everywhere.Nevermind the cobwebs theres nothing like looking up to the eave's ceiling above your bed to see a large one just sitting there gloating at you, just waiting for your other half to say "get up I can't sleep with that thing there get rid of it". It's not that you can just swat them as they leave a mark on your nice white ceiling oh no you must remove it quickly and efficiently in a tissue or such like.

    No sooner have you think you have thoroughly cleaned your house when there they are again. At the end of the season as you leave the house for the last time you spray insectocide in all the places they haunt hoping to have got rid of the blighters. The following year when you enter the house for the first time you feel that slight touch on your hair from the cobwebs and you know they are back. They congregate around the windows and doors, on the ceiling, under chairs, on the beams you name it where else. They just seem to be "breeding like rabbits" if you can excuse the expression. Where to they get the energy to grow from? There are not mega-numbers of flies caught in their webs.

    Mr Henrie
    Yesterday my able assistant (Mr Henrie) and I had completed a full sweep and suck of the premises, got you  I thought as I sat on the throne in our white tiled bathroom in the evening. Looking over my shoulder I saw not one, not two but three of the little s--s casually walking up the tiles. When  I returned in the morning to do battle once again they were not to be seen. Do you ever get the feeling they are taunting you.

    One last thought if all the house spiders in all French houses were gathered together how many tons do you think they would weigh. Food for thought - well not food -yuck

    Sunday, 31 July 2011

    Randonnee en France

    Many villages in rural France will have a series of signposted walks around their area described as "Randonnees". These walks are of varying lengths from say 5 to 16Km, The local "Office de Tourisme" will often, for free or a small charge, supply you with leaflets giving a map of the routes usually pointing out places of special interest. There seems to be an increasing interest in these walks as there is now a growing list of published books covering most areas of  France. 

    On your leaflet the differing walks are colour coded and are signposted using the various colours on signs, painted on trees and posts to help you navigate your way. The colour coded signs will also by way of signs indicate where to turn off a path and by a colour coded cross indicate which way you should not go. The walks we have been on are on a mixture of minor roads and tracks.

    Villages will often have a local association who organise group walks once or twice a year. They take several forms: " Randonnee Nocturne" an evening or night walk, "Randonee Gourmande" a walk which ends with a meal. Our village , in the Vienne, this year has a "Multi Randonnnee" this is a route that on a certain day can be completed on foot, by bicycle or on horseback. This "Multi Randonnee" is organised more on a regional basis and seem to move around the area.

    How popular are these "Randonnee", certainly the group walks seem very popular but whilst doing a walk using the leaflet we have rarely seen other walkers. On one such walk, admittedly going the wrong way round (see "Advice" below) we walked on the path shown on the leaflet (as mentioned admittedly the wrong way round) through someones back garden where a family meal was taking place. We were stared and even glared at as if no one ever had walked that path. The walks can certainly take you deep into the countryside, through wooded areas along ancient pathways, past old abandoned buildings and can give you the chance to see some of the wildlife of the countryside.


    • Make sure you start going the correct way around the route. This is often not as easy as it sounds so take time to study the route before setting out.
    •  Follow the colour coded signs carefully, and if  turns and landmarks are not where they should be as indicated by the leaflet carefully consider your route again. On a recent walk with friends we were intending to take a comfortable 7 Km stroll. The portion through the forest seemed very long and we did not come upon a turn we were expecting nor was there a "panorama" to be seen. But we kept following the red and yellow route as signed. We later discovered that we had strayed onto the red and yellow route of the next village and ended up walking in excess of 16 Km to get back to the car.
    •  Make sure you take something to drink with you, we were mighty thirsty during the 16 Km walk.
    •  Its useful to have a mobile with you, not only for emergencies but also with the number of a friend who can come and pick you up if you wander astray!
    •  A compass would also be useful as whilst following wndy paths a sense of direction can easily be lost. Its good to find a randonnee that ends in a village with a bar! 
    • Remember bars may not be open on Sunday afternoons.
    •  Lastly if possible walk with the french version of the ordinance survey map of the area. The map on the leaflet may not be to scale or include other  landmark such as farm or hamlet names. Having one would certainly have saved us the extra 9 KM.