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Friday, 27 March 2015

Dogs on Tour

Due to unforseen canine circumstances, the next episodes of our exploits in France will have to wait until next week. And why? Because the dogs have decided to take us on holiday. Many apologies, but please rest assured that normal service will be resumed next week.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

A minor incident at La Poste

On the whole the French postal system (La Poste) is one of the few public services in France that does have a good reputation. Or at least that’s what I thought. I did a little research on the subject and found that this might need to be qualified somewhat. Here’s what I learnt from scanning several websites:

‘Post offices emblazoned with dashing bright yellow La Poste signs are generally open 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 9:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday.’

 But then I read:

‘Don’t depend on these hours!’

In our experience this is a sensible caveat. It’s true that in smaller towns and villages the post offices may close earlier and, often unexpectedly, for lunch. This can leave customers milling around confused, undecided on whether to join the post office workers for an extra-long lunch, or give up and come back another day.

If one is lucky enough to chance upon an open post office, a further thorn in the side comes in the form of waiting times. I referred back to my research which states that:

‘In Paris the main post office is open 24 hours.’ (Bravo!) 

Equally, clients are advised to:

‘Avoid lunch hours and late afternoon, when office workers are dealing with business customers who create endless lines.’

In the countryside we don’t have quite so much inconvenience from business traffic, but we do have the local tittle-tattle to deal with. Particularly on Mondays, the priority is always focused on getting up to speed on births, deaths, the weather and any seasonal bugs that might be trying to incapacitate the population.  In a rural environment, where time pressures are not quite the same as the trading floor of the London Stock Exchange, the inevitable periods of unnecessary waiting are generally regarded as a feature of local life. The cheery internet advice is to try to view this minor inconvenience as an opportunity:

‘Waiting times are sometimes necessary (without a seat) on busy days. Nevertheless, the queues provide everyone with plenty of chances to gossip!’

The one (and only) time I sent my husband, Jack, to the post office with a parcel he returned looking as though he had lost the will to live.  Apparently this was due to “being there longer than it would take to do a full 15,000 mile car service,” and the added trauma of “being drawn into chatter that should have been reserved for a tabloid’s agony aunt.”

A further claim to fame is that France has one of the highest number of post boxes of any country in the world. This is marvellous, if one could only manage to put the intended mail item into them. There are two challenges that face the would-be sender. First, the post box is usually very small, so anything other than an ultra-slim standard-sized envelope or postcard simply won’t go in without a fight. The other problem is that rural post boxes are often already stuffed full, so one ends up spending an inordinate amount of time trying to thread the end of the envelope between a stack of others, or turning it into a sausage and spearing it down one side. These techniques can work, but at a cost to the envelope which, I dare say, looks fairly tattered by the time it reaches its destination.

In a typically French way La Poste offers clear guidelines on how to create a successfully addressed envelope, i.e. one that might end up being delivered. These rules forbid the use of commas in the address, and clearly define the proper use of upper and lower case characters. These well-known rules also explain why I occasionally see our post lady looking askance at some of the post we receive from England.

So, to give your French mail the best chances of reaching its destination, just follow these tips:

1. Try to use special envelopes with an address box for your handwritten letters.
2. Use six lines maximum to write the address, with a maximum of 38 characters per line.
3. Never put a comma, full stop, apostrophe, underline or dash anywhere in the address.
4. On the final line put the postcode before the name of the town or city and always use capitals, for the name. Write the five numbers of the postcode very distinctly. If you are not sure what the postcode is, then ask at your local post office. Failure to do this may result in your envelope getting delayed or lost.
5. Write your own address on the back flap of the envelope near the top. But, be sure to mark it expéditeur (sender), otherwise, it could end in tears.

This latter point I learnt to my cost when, on one occasion I dutifully entered my address in neat, tiny letters on the back of my envelope and carefully eased it into the box. Two days later my letter re-appeared in our post box. This was foxing. The destination address was correct, so I took it to the local post office to ask where I had gone wrong. After a moment of scrutiny, and with magnificent disdain, monsieur frisbee’ed my envelope back to me with the obvious explanation. I had failed to write expéditeur next to the return address, so how could La Poste possibly be expected to know which address to use?

La Poste also prides itself on processing and delivering parcels efficiently. And now, it seems, inventively. It is currently considering the use of drones to enhance the service normally undertaken by humans. I read up on this too:

‘Tests, conducted recently in collaboration with the company Atechsys at La Poste’s special test site in the Var, southern France, used a six-propeller drone able to carry loads of up to 16 inches by 12 inches by eight inches in size and weighing up to nine pounds in all weathers and terrains within a 12-mile radius. (Note the typical precision in the parcel dimension and weight.) The idea is to be able to fly the drones in remote areas or places difficult to reach by car – up very steep roads, down hillsides and areas with few roads and over water.’

According to a local newspaper, the subsidiary testing this service, Express Internationale GeoPost, seems to be happy with the results. Geopost reports, ‘We now know that we can reach isolated zones very rapidly.’ Furthermore, ‘It’s very interesting, notably for urgent medical needs or blood deliveries,’ it said.

Although this does seem to be an excellent idea, in theory, I would have severe concerns about the survival of such an object in our rural community. Hunting is a passion here. Most anything with fur or feathers (unless it has a sign ‘cat’, ‘dog’, ‘farm animal’, or ‘neighbour’ stuck on its back) is fair game. I certainly wouldn’t put it past one or two of the more mature, less keen-sighted, amongst our shooting fraternity to accidentally blast one out of the sky with his 12 bore.

Whilst the parcel service provided by La Poste may be good, and quite similar to the UK, the quality of contract delivery companies can be extremely varied. When we first moved to our house, which admittedly is in the depths of the country, the only person we could rely upon completely was our trusty post lady. She would, without fail and despite a worn-out hip, stride up to our door and present our packages with great aplomb, and some drama. Deliveries from the other service companies were different, and usually preceded by a telephone call saying, “How do I find your house?” What followed would be a lengthy, but generally unproductive, description of how to get from where they were, to where we are. And, in most cases, the end result was that they never actually arrived, or gave up and told us to meet them at the local Mairie (town hall) where we could collect the parcel ourselves. I think the technical term for this might be ‘couldn’t be bothered.’

Nowadays virtually all the delivery drivers know where we are, and we rarely have to visit the Mairie to collect our deliveries. However, and again much like the UK, it appears that anything marked ‘fragile’ means it must be thrown underarm and stored underneath heavier items for stability and safekeeping (crushed).

In the case of one particular firm, who mostly handle our dog food orders, I’m convinced that they throw our parcels out of the van’s window as they drive past. This leaves us, and the dogs, dealing with the aftermath. Happy dogs playing 'find the dried pigs' ears, dental chews and croquettes games', and unhappy customers trying to salvage what's left of the ensuing canine-related carnage.  On several occasions I have been sorely tempted to offer the delivery drivers a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ regarding the careful handling of packages, but I’ve so far failed to zip out there quickly enough to intercept them. Jack’s position on the matter, probably due to spending too much time in the States, is to tip them.  That way they’ll always arrive at the door with a pristine parcel and an expression of eager anticipation.  All very well but, in the case of this particular firm, I still have to catch them to start the process.

But it is on the subject of sending parcels that I have encountered the most recent difficulties. I took three nicely wrapped packages to our local La Poste to be despatched to overseas destinations. I’m always a little anxious about doing this job because, apart from anything else, I have great trouble in actually getting in. The doors are securely locked, and entry is activated by the client pressing a nifty little button which alerts the post master, who then releases the lock. Seems simple? Well it isn’t.  I can spend quite a long time prodding and pressing to no avail, and then ending up waving pathetically at the post master in my efforts to attract his attention. It really doesn’t make any difference whether the post office is full or not.  The electronics never seem to work for me and contacting monsieur by semaphore is difficult. This regular routine of mine is made all the more tense because our post master is extremely fierce. When I finally gain entry he habitually glares at me over the top of his tiny reading glasses, nostrils flared and giant moustache fanning out either side of his grimly-set mouth. With a resigned expression, and looking rather fatigued, he will reluctantly spit out the words, “Bonjour madame.” Our encounters have never begun well.

So, on this occasion, after I had fought my way in I saw that there were no other customers present. Perfect! This meant I had neatly avoided the chit-chat brigade who, lovely though they may be, can spend hours talking about nothing in particular.

I walked up to the counter, made my usual apologies for general button-related ineptitude, and placed my parcels on the counter. It all went severely downhill from there.

Monsieur (sitting on a very low stool) took my parcels and dropped them theatrically on his side of the safety glass partition. Taking one look at the addresses the conversation went like this:

Monsieur:  Ooh là là!

Me:  “Is there something wrong monsieur?”

Monsieur:  (Grave wagging of head.)Ooh là là! là LÀ. Where are you sending these?”

Me:  “Two to England, and one to New Zealand. Erm, what’s wrong monsieur?”

Re-focusing on the parcels he did a double take at the words ‘Nouvelle-Zélande’ and clutched the edges of the counter, staring goggle-eyed at the address labels. His expression a mask of horror. I genuinely thought that he was about to pass out.

Monsieur:  “But this is not possible!”

Me:  “Oh sorry, oh dear… But why not?”

Monsieur:  “But these, they are far too heavy and too thick. Look!”

With that he proceeded to squash one of the packages energetically. Suddenly he stopped, looked at me, and then rather more cautiously, started feeling the package all over – tracing an outline with his digit. I could guess what he was thinking, and for no reason at all other than nervous tension, I felt I needed to explain.

Me:  “Oh I think that’s a big dog bone you can feel. My friend Gill has a very big dog and it’s for him.”

He gave me a searching look, muttered “Bizarre” to himself and started to frisk the other parcels. Apparently, other than the weight and the fact that I was insisting on sending them somewhere other than la France, he could find nothing terminally wrong. Faintly vanquished, he gave me a huge lecture about the problems with the changed postal regulations in France, all the new documents and the increased postage costs; all of which were causing him a great deal of extra work. In the middle of this rant the buzzer sounded to alert him that a new customer was trying to get in. Clearly irritated, he tutted, then completely ignored it. Further, more staccato buzzes indicted that the customer really did want to come in. With a huge sigh and a loud “Merde!” (shit!) he pressed his button to allow the offender to enter.

Things then got a bit more complicated because, with the door now wide open, about ten new customers walked in, all chatting merrily, and carefully holding open the door for each other. This obviously irritated him because they hadn’t observed the proper security rules that required them to buzz individually. Eventually satisfied that the old ladies probably weren’t about to commit an armed robbery, but still thoroughly annoyed, he turned his attention back to me.  He thrust a wad of forms into my hand and told me to fill them in at the table on the other side of the room. As I dutifully followed orders, with all seven triplicated forms in hand, I had a moment of regret. With this sudden influx of clients, I knew my strategic advantage, which might have allowed me a quick getaway, was now doomed.

Meanwhile the clients had started a riveting debate about the emerging mushroom crop and were becoming rather rowdy. Poor monsieur. He ended up having a devil of a job trying to restore order and work out which customer he should handle first. Nobody took a blind bit of notice of him until he stood up and banged his fist on the counter top. This caused a momentary pause in the debate, and one lady reluctantly peeled herself away from the thoroughly engrossing discussion, and took out her envelope to be stamped.

Monsieur had dealt with about eight customers by the time I had filled in my forms, so I took my place at the back of the queue and waited. Then the buzzer went again. Monsieur steadfastly ignored it which led me to conclude that he was obviously not a multi-tasker. But, of course, it kept buzzing because the client still hadn’t gained entry. To make matters worse the client then started knocking on the door. This caused monsieur further anguish. He glowered accusingly at the security door and stabbed his entry button.  Unfortunately it seems that the customer had been knocking just at the very moment when monsieur hit the door release button, so the magical timing opportunity to open the door was lost, and precisely nothing happened. ‘Ah well, at least there’s another of us who struggles to master the open-door system, I briefly thought.

The buzzer sounded again, persistently now, then immediately followed by more banging. I could see that poor monsieur’s nerves were close to maxing-out as the pattern of buzz, bang, door-release-button-push activity consistently failed to allow the customer in. It had to happen – Monsieur snapped. Puce with rage, he jumped up, grabbed a big key and walked out of his office area.  I think we could all hear what he was saying in the corridor. Moments later he appeared through the front door with his equally dishevelled customer, and order began to be restored.

My (second) turn finally arrived, and I re-presented my parcels together with neatly filled in forms. He grabbed them from me and studied my work. Then his moustaches started quivering at the end. I was convinced that he was going to burst in to tears. Now what had I done wrong?

Monsieur:  “Madame, but this one is wrong. Look!”

With that he jumped up again and flattened his moustaches against the security glass in his endeavours to show me the error of my ways. Unfortunately the glass could not mask the fact that he had eaten garlic for breakfast, but at least it prevented him from landing on my lap. In mid stab of the chitty he stared wildly around him and muttered “Merde! Wrong form!” With no apologies for the fact that he had supplied it, he hurled it in the bin and produced a replacement set and pointed at the table. There was nothing for it, I had to return to my seat and start all over again.  At least it was only for one parcel this time.

After what seemed like a very long time, I returned to the counter with new form duly filled in.

Monsieur:  “This is better. But you know the parcels they are too thick. There are different regulations when they are this thick.”

Me:  Monsieur, I really don’t think they’re that thick.”

Monsieur:  Oh là là, madame, but this one for the dog it is more than three centimetres thick, I am certain.”

Me:  “Oh dear, well never mind, I want them to go as they are please.”

Monsieur: (Muttering “Bizarre” again under his breath.)  “I see, very well. And is there anything else you would like today?”

By this stage I was surprised that we were still ‘today’, and quickly shook my head. The prospect of asking for a book of ten stamps was simply too risky to contemplate. With a wonderfully diffident French shrug of the shoulders monsieur proceeded to perform a tap dance with his fingers on the calculator. He presented me with a bill that I felt sure belonged to our entire group, but reached for my wallet anyway, just thankful that our transactions were nearly at an end. Monsieur presented me with my two cents change and wagged his head sorrowfully.

Monsieur:  “The next time madame, you must not have the fat parcels that weigh too much.”

As usual I found myself apologising profusely for my insensitive oversight, thanked him for his kindness, wished him ‘goodnight’ and hurried out of the door.

The happy end to this story is that, in spite of my poorly completed documents, each of the recipients received their parcels. They were sent speedily and arrived intact, and Gill’s big dog loved his bone. Unlike monsieur, I wouldn’t have wanted to change my parcels at all, and I am grateful that the French postal system is every bit as efficient as it is reputed to be.

My experiences at La Poste that day weren’t entirely unique. But they do present another example of what it’s like to live in our part of France. A place that’s rich in eccentric personalities, and simple living. That’s why we love it so much.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Chicken Riddle.

There we were, working at our desks as usual, when our peaceful concentration was shattered by the harsh ringing of the telephone. If there is such a thing as smalltalkaphobia then Jack has a bad case of it. This means that he normally avoids answering an incoming call in the same way one might an infectious disease carrier. However, on this occasion, my luck was in. After taking one look at my face that was still rigid with concentration, he evidently decided that I was involved in yet another software battle, and reached for the receiver himself. That was his first mistake.

Although it was not immediately evident, it transpired that the caller was Martine Dussan, one of our farmer friends. She and her husband, Claude, are amongst the kindest and most generous people we have ever met. Martine is a typical farmer’s wife. Always dressed in dark clothes, with pockets stuffed full of interesting bits of binder twine, bolt-shaped bulges and the occasional chicken egg. She also wears steel-capped boots, presumably to guard against the hazard of a rogue tractor tyre rolling over her foot.

But she has one particular mannerism that sets her apart from the others. It’s always the same, and quite persistent. Every now and again, for no apparent reason, she will issue a noise that is similar to the sound made when taking a mouthful of red-hot coffee, or being stood on by a beefy heifer cow. A kind of uooooff sound. The first time we heard it we thought something awful had happened to her, but since she looked perfectly normal, and didn’t seem to notice that she’d made a strange noise, we let it go. We’re quite used to it now.

As usual, the conversation that followed was in French, so I’ll give you a translation of events:

Jack picked up the telephone.

Martine“Yes, Jack?”
Jack“Erm, yes, and…”
Martine“I have them uooooff!”
Jack:  “Right, got it. Good morning Martine, what do you have?”
Martine:  “It’s MARTINE DUSSAN, Jack, your neighbour uooooff and now I have them!”
Jack:  “Yes. I recognised your voice Martine. But what is it that you have?”
Martine:  “I have your chickens of course!”
Jack:  “Chickens?”

This caught my attention. I looked over at Jack who was staring at me accusingly. I rapidly shook my head fearing that I was about to be implicated in a clandestine chicken order that I knew nothing about. The haphazard conversation continued.

Martine:  “Yes the chickens! Claude told me you needed them. I am at your gate this minute uooooff. Can I come in with them please?”
Jack:  (wondering why she hadn’t come to the door):  “Oh I’m terribly sorry Martine I had no idea that you are actually here. Yes, of course. I’ll come out and open the gate for you.”
Martine:  “Good, thank you.

Jack, now looking at me even more suspiciously, said he’d go and fetch Martine and invite her in for a coffee. I readily agreed, thinking that a conversation over a cappuccino and a biscuit might help us get to the bottom of this strange chicken mystery.

Within a couple of minutes Jack was back with our blustering neighbour, dressed as normal, with the exception of an additional tell-tale feather or two embedded in her jumper, and a couple more sticking out of her hair. But no chickens.

Me:  “Hello Martine, what a lovely surprise. Gosh, we had no idea that you might be bringing some chickens. Sit down and have a coffee.”
Martine:  “Ah, yes please uooooff, a very quick one would be nice. Claude told me that you would like these birds, they are very big and lay enormous eggs.”

I had a moment to mull over this last remark while I was brewing our drinks. It struck a tiny chord. I had the faintest of recollections that I might have heard about it before, but I couldn’t for the life of me think when it might have been.

Me:  “Well that sounds excellent. Here’s your coffee. Careful, it’s a bit hot.”

Martine took the mug and began blowing energetically. This caused small waves to appear on the surface of the drink, and sounded extraordinary when combined with her other sound effects.

Martine:  “Ah yes, thank you uooooff, UOOOOFF – it is hot isn’t it?”
Jack:  “As you may have deduced from the feathers darling, the chickens are in Martine’s van. So, Martine, how many birds have you brought?”
Martine:  “About nine, I think. You can have as many as you want uooooff and I’ll give the rest to my mother. She probably needs some new ones.”
Me:  “Honestly this is so kind of you, we must give you some money for them.”

Martine looked absolutely horrified at my vulgar suggestion. Then, whilst checking her watch, replied:

Martine:  “Ah no no – absolutely not! They are a present. And look I am late. Now I must go. Can we take the chickens to your pen?”

We decided it would be easier if Jack walked through the field and opened the gates, whilst Martine and I followed in the van. Hers was a typical French farmer’s van. White (or it used to be), probably dirtier inside than out, rather smelly, and covered in dents. This one was made additionally colourful by the presence of several very indignant-looking chickens.
We parked outside the pen and Martine threw open the rear doors, grabbed one of the large plastic crates and lobbed it in amongst our flock. She opened the lid and unceremoniously started grabbing birds, turning them upside down, and chucking them in the general direction of the existing flock. Jack leant in to help and made his second mistake. As he gently drew one of the ladies out of the crate head-side-up, his careful handling was rewarded by an extremely loud squawk from the bird followed by a drizzle of fetid fluid that carelessly made its way down his jumper. That could only have come from one place. I now saw the sense of Martine’s upside-down technique. Not only did the bird immediately become calm, but she also avoided being squirted with an unwanted avian deposit.

During the unpacking process a fifth chicken popped up and made a rapid escape to the far corner of the cage. Thinking that this was probably a chicken too many, I commented:

Me:  “Oh dear, we’ve got five out now. Is that too many Martine? We can always catch one up again (whilst really thinking: no, we probably wouldn’t stand an earthly chance of catching any of them.) if you need more for your mother.”

Martine:  “No, that’s no problem uooooff; they are a present for her too. She only needs a few.  She then stopped, peered into the crate and exclaimed. “Aha!”
Jack:  “What’s wrong?”
Martine:  “Very good! Look! One of them laid an egg on the way here.  It is very big, just like I said.”

With that she thrust the warm egg in Jack’s hand, packed up the crate and flung it back into her car. But I was still intrigued, and determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Me:  “Just tell me again Martine, when it was that Claude told us he was going to give us some chickens? I know this sounds terribly rude, but I honestly can’t remember.”
Martine:  Uooooff well I think it was four or five years ago, perhaps more. But the ones we had before were too old. We had to wait for them to breed first because we wanted you to have young birds.”

So that was it. I do vaguely remember Claude declaring something about us needing bigger chickens to join our hybrids, and that he would sort it all out. But, to be honest, that was indeed a very long time ago. It was also said during a period when our lives were rife with day-to-day builder disasters, so a short chat about chicken sizes could easily have got lost in the general chaos, and translation.

Our strange conversation with Martine also reminded me how our life in this rural area ebbs and flows with the seasons. This means that a simple matter of dates and times has reduced significance. That said, promises made here are rarely broken, but the actual execution of the pledge may not occur exactly when one might imagine. This causes unexpected moments of great pleasure, and surprise, when a gift (that one might reasonably assume had been long forgotten) turns up unannounced. Today’s event was another perfect example.

 Martine took a moment to check the now happily foraging birds, and prepared to resume her morning of chicken deliveries. After the customary frenzy of hugs and kisses, she strode off purposefully, tinkling across some loose gravel, and looking like a sparkler on legs as her hobnails struck the stones. She got in her van, gave a final hearty wave, and a noisier than usual uooooff as she connected with the accelerator. The remaining chickens bounced around in the back as she sped off to her mother’s house.

Waving goodbye, Jack said, with a broad smile on his face, “Well, that solves the chicken riddle. Typical of our farmer friends, they’re every bit as good as their word – eventually. And there’s another bonus, I’ve now got an extra-big egg for my tea.”

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Shopping Trolley Treachery

As most people who live here will tell you, the French are devoted fans of the weekly market. The smaller ones are usually set up in the centre of the town, whilst the bigger versions may also take over streets and alleys, surrounding fountains and other civil adornments. Whatever the size, the designated areas are cordoned off from traffic, enabling the workers to set up shop. Stands, stalls and mini tents are erected in double-quick time, as the market traders prepare to offer endless selections of interesting (and sometimes dire), goodies to the discerning consumer. The sights, sounds and smells are heaven, and I absolutely love them.

Our local market is small and, although it’s attended by a wide range of people, the majority of shoppers tend to be quite elderly. It takes place every Monday morning and fills the tiny town centre plus one street. The number of traders ebbs and flows according to the seasons and the weather, but there are always those stalwarts who brave it, come what may. These are the people that our sturdy regulars do business with regardless, and why? Because here is a place where one finds produce so fresh that it is likely to have been plucked out of the ground earlier that morning. It’s a place where prices are fair, and bargaining is rife. It’s also a place where the weekly gossip is exchanged, where new babies are slapped on the head, and where much debate can occur over a particular recipe or jar of recently purchased pickles. It is an intrinsic part of our lives. As is our indispensable team member, the market basket (panier), an essential receptacle for those hard fought-over bargains.

As one might expect in a deeply rural spot like ours, we all wander around with our woven hazel or willow market baskets, gently filling them with mud-caked veg, and other produce. It’s an accepted form of luggage for the weekly groceries and, in many ways, eminently practical. The basket can be dumped on the floor when an aching back needs to be eased. It can be placed onto a market stall to enable the trader to fill it with goods. The mud from extra-fresh produce drops through the holes in the sides, and an accidental glancing blow from a fellow passing shopper amounts to nothing more than a gentle nudge. It’s a bit like the dodgems. In spite of the fact that they can become rather weighty, we have all coped perfectly happily with the state of affairs, or at least we did, until the advent of the market shopping trolley.

The market shopping trolley as we all know is a bag on wheels supported by a metal frame. Practical though it may be, it is viewed with deep suspicion by the locals. Many are seriously concerned that this new-fangled, and often garishly-decorated, shopping aid is going to become an unwelcome feature of our otherwise traditional market place. This means that most of us still stubbornly slog around with our paniers, steadfastly ignoring the occasional trolley users as they skip youthfully up and down the street with their wheeled ‘paniers of fire’.  It was during one such demonstration of gay abandon that our orderly market was transformed into a place of chaos and general devastation.

We’re all a bit frightened of Madame Canorgue. Well at least I am. At full height she’s probably just about touching 5ft, but she’s often weighed down by her abnormally heavy basketful of goods so it’s difficult to be accurate. I’m not sure how old she is, I’d probably do her a dreadful injustice if I guessed. However it’s safe to say that she’s likely to have lived through several major wars. Her face is often partially obscured by her black woollen scarf, but the expression is there for all to see. It is one of grim determination towards the task in hand. On Monday mornings her total focus is, as usual, on the vegetable stall. Madame Canorgue likes to charge to the head of the queue, and woe betide anyone getting in her way. In her endeavours to achieve this she’ll scan the assembled company with hawk-like, dark brown, beady eyes challenging anyone who might be brave enough to step in front of her. Nobody does. This is not a lady to be messed with.

So there we were, a typical market day, going about our own business, and learning about that of others. We had the odd interloper with wheels, but determinedly ignored the ease with which they tripped along, their trolleys gliding seamlessly over humps and bumps rendering the prospect of making further acquisitions an act of simplicity itself. Instead we carried on lugging our baskets that were becoming heavier with every purchase. Then it all kicked off.

Madame Canorgue, as usual, had stamped to the head of the queue at the vegetable stall. She plonked her basket on top of a hapless mound of carrots and started making her order. This sounded to me rather like fire from a machine gun, but the trader followed her instructions with typical good humour. There’s no doubt that this lady loves her vegetables, especially asparagus. After much prodding, poking, and close scrutiny of the legumes that caught her eye, her selection was finally made and packed into the basket until there wasn’t a single inch to spare. I watched on in amazement wondering how on earth she was going to lift the thing off the table. I needn’t have worried. Madame Canorgue is a farmer’s wife and I could quite clearly see her little biceps bulging gamely through her housecoat as she hoisted the basket and turned to march towards the bread stall.

During the vegetable examination process her scarf had slipped forward a little, and was now acting like a pair of flexible blinkers. Unfortunately this newly-developed tunnel vision meant she had no awareness of any activity to either side of her. A trolley was approaching stealthily, and at speed. Oblivious of the danger, she took a step sideways and walked directly into its path. Her foot then somehow struck the inside of one of the wheels thus causing her to lose balance. Our queue of vegetable buyers looked on in horror as, in her efforts to avoid an unladylike backward flip, she threw her hands forward, and with them, the basket laden with legumes. Vegetable shot everywhere, it was mayhem.

Desperately hanging on to her asparagus tips she shrieked at her goods, many of which were variously flying through the air. Help was definitely required. The more able-bodied of us rushed to her aid and gave chase to the rapidly-disappearing miscreant vegetables. I could see that the cabbage had become lodged in the leg of the vin man’s stall, so knew that it could be retrieved fairly easily. I left that for the moment. Simultaneously I saw an airborne bunch of parsley ricochet off Monsieur Dupond’s shoulder. It fleetingly reminded me of a bride’s bouquet being gaily thrown towards competing singletons. However, in this case it was Monsieur Dupond who caught it. Whilst extremely pleasant, he is a rather unique personality who normally only converses with himself, and whose independent eyes can often be a distraction. I was astonished at how well he made the catch.

But then I saw the apples. They were a different matter altogether. There must have been eight or ten of the blighters cheerily bowling down the street, gaining momentum as they glanced off the cobbles and cracks in the road. Happily most of these were retrieved by Monsieur Choi, the roast chicken man who parks his mobile oven at the bottom of the slope. But, sadly, some were lost forever. The potatoes posed similar problems, but my fellow fielders deftly gathered many of the offenders leaving just a couple to escape down the drain. During the general pursuit I felt a passing moment of utter relief when I realised that there were no loose sprouts involved, and that madame hadn’t made it to the grapes stall.

With much of the now battered and bruised produce finally corralled, we collectively returned it to madame. Although speechless with rage, she had fully recovered her equilibrium. She now wore an expression that spelt revenge. In a moment of suspense that would have made even the most die-hard horror movie fans quake in their boots, we watched to see how she would deal with her assailant. Murder was in those eyes as she turned, a little stiffly now, towards the offending trolley. Would she bring back the guillotine? I wondered.  But, fortunately, the opportunity for retribution had disappeared... Light as a feather, with not a care in the world, sporty trolley lady was already disappearing into the distance. She was apparently unaware of the chaos that had been caused by one of her wheels. All we could see now was her departing form as it rounded the street corner with trolley trundling effortlessly alongside.


Following the trolley incident it seems that the darkening veil of uncertainty is now descending over our rickety market-going community. In addition to the latest pickles or conserve recipe discussion, the new question that’s being debated (but never in front of Madame Canorgue), is the relative merits of this ultra-modern labour-saving device. Should we stubbornly persevere with our traditional basket-lugging, which finds us physically spent after a morning at the market? Or make the switch? There are those who will always consider the trolley to be a vulgar, dangerous piece of equipment, only acceptable if the user has a class one heavy goods vehicle licence. But there are others whose joints might altogether seize up if they don’t consider investing in wheels. They could well be forced to make the change. It’s a tough one to call, but one thing’s for sure – if I end up buying a trolley on wheels, I’ll keep well away from Madame Canorgue!