Vacation Experiences

Sig Carlsen


I suppose that a letter from rural France on a very dull and rainy day might be in order because I haven’t written to you for a long time. Last night before going out to dinner at a local Ferme Auberge, for the very first time Jane baited a mouse trap among her dishes, and this morning sure enough she discovered a cute but very dead moulot in the trap. I don’t think that you have them, it is a little bit bigger than a mouse but strictly supposed to, and I thought also inclined to stay outside the house. Speaking of a Ferme Auberge, just don’t do it gentlemen unless you simply cannot do without totally greasy and fattening foods, be it canard, magret, lapin, foie gras etc, of course all grown or raised just outside the dining room. For a very serious Recession/Depression, or call it what you will, what with 15% unemployment hereabouts, you wouldn’t know it because the dining room was completely full with locals.

For the first time I bought (and simultaneously resold back to the factory) a Peugeot 407 110 hp diesel. We drove down here from CDG airport some 560 km on less than half a tank, and since arriving I have hardly had to fill it up. Moreover it starts up and drives with the same zip as a gas car, a very far cry from my last Mercedes diesel with black smoke belching out at the back from time to time. In other words, I am now quite sold on the new diesels.

We were late arriving this year and the hay has not yet been cut, swathed and bailed. So I recently had a serious talk with Alain the guardian. It seems that the big tractor is in very big trouble and acting somewhat nervous to boot. To get at the whole sad story I poured him a persuasive tournevis (lots and lots of vodka with very little orange juice), and after roundly cursing Sarkozy, the government, taxes, les gendarmes, the meteo, the world in general, and obviously all politicians (you know them by: “if I am telling a lie it is because I believe that I am telling the truth”), I was reminded of old Ross at our Arthur farm some 40 years ago doing the very same thing, but truth be told I have yet to find a man who can out curse old Ross. By the way he went on to become one of the more successful standard breed racing fellows in Ontario. I can still see the two of us stripping and knotting together strings from the old fashioned bales of hay (now we have 3 meter boules left on the fields until needed) to attach to a pole set in the ground in order to lay out the half rounded ends of a half mile raceway on the farm all in accordance with the measurements and requirements of the Ontario Racing Commission. That is all gone now and replaced by corn grown for ethanol, an utterly insane and totally irresponsible way to produce gasoline motor fuel. But to revert to the here and now, it was a good thing that the hay wasn’t cut because I could then persuade myself safely to follow the tracks of the chevreuils in order to avoid the poisonous serpents always lurking about in order to reach two big trees that had fallen down in a field and cut them up with my trusty chainsaw before the haying; that was good for a day’s sweaty work to be sure. By the way, if you are really quick then one manner of  telling the poisonous serpents apart is to look at their eyes. If their eyes appear vertical they are bad news, whereas if they are horizontal they are quite harmless.

Bastille Day this year as in all years was quite up to snuff, this time the weather just didn’t cooperate, but the show must go on as they say even if in pouring rain. To me the big hit, as always, are the well rounded and bearded sappers with their brown leather aprons and with axes slung over their shoulders marching at a majestic120 paces to the minute before the review stand at the Place de la Concorde. That evening we attended a lovely dinner here at a friend’s house just by the edge of the Dordogne river in old downtown Bergerac. It would simply have been impossible to get a better view of the annual feu d’artifice than from there. It is in fact the second biggest annual fireworks in France ranking just after the Paris one at Champ de Mars because the family that puts it on in Paris hails from here, and the explosive stuff is made from and at the huge Bergerac pouderie. I will send some pictures to Bill which he might want to show on the web site including one of Jane on Bastille Day by the Dordogne, and two of me on the roof resetting some tiles that had been lifted by the fuines (a nocturnal weasel kind of animal that we are not allowed to trap or shoot by order of the Prefecture in Perigueux) and that are always in search for honey in the hives of the gueppes (a sort of wasp, and you really don’t want to be stung by them let alone the frelon a very big cousin of the gueppe also found hereabouts). Unfortunately these hives are often found under roof tiles including ours.

We have all heard of Global Warming, and I venture that most if not all of us are now persuaded that it is so and that a good part of it is caused by mankind. It seems that right here where we are in the Dordogne we must be the happy exception. In contrast with the soaring summer temperatures experienced in Germany, Russia etc 25 C is more or less the norm here, and it was so last summer as well. From time to time I even put the furnace on in the morning to warm the thick stones walls from the chill of the preceding night. However it is fair to note that in Bergerac just 20 km south from us it does get grindingly hot, some 35 C is not unusual, who knows maybe it is the river?

One thing that both Jane and I really appreciate is the classical music available here. Our local St Amand de Vergt music festival starts in a few days in the 14 th century church. There are three evenings of performances, and being long time subscribers we have seats right up at the front, maybe too far up because the performers are just about in our lap, but the acoustics are fantastic. During the intermissions one sees friends, and at the end of the evening there are drinks, an art show and of course an interminable speech by monsieur le Maire etc. And every night we also have the Mezzo TV channel which is dedicated to top flight symphony music, ballet and opera performed by the very best that Europe can offer. True, sometimes we are singled out for Jazz and other such sounds on the channel; and it seems that one must sometimes endure all manner of things in today’s world, much like airport searches.

As to reading, and as a welcome break from the classics, and also trying to keep up with my reading in order to make sense of the economic mess that we find ourselves in, I am now half way into Ken Follet’s  “Un Monde Sans Fin”, a sequel to his “Les Pilliers de la Terre”. But how can you deal with a pocket book of some 1335 pages? But for sure it is a very good 14 th century tale indeed, and I recommend both books in either official language.

 I’ll end the French part here by telling you about our weekly shopping that we do in Bergerac, now with the very much improved road conditions since we first came here 13 years ago. We are at le Grand Leclerc supermarket in 20 minutes; first we get two chariots, one for Jane’s general shopping and the other for my “control stores”. You know, booze, wine, chocolate bars, peanuts, bottled water etc. It doesn’t take me but 5 minutes or so to do that, after which I settle down in a comfortable and well padded lawn chair somewhere in the store together with several recent books from their store librarie and I wait and read there for Jane perhaps for 1 hour or more before she picks me up with a fully loaded up chariot . By the way, she must weigh all the fruits and vegetables herself before we reach the cash register where the check out girl is seated, a very sensible arrangement for their staff and one which we should adopt. Obviously there are no bags and check out boys to pack the groceries, so we place them ourselves in big plastic garbage bags, and then on back to the car. Things don’t change much from year to year in this very rural, small town and thankfully non tourist area, a nice antidote to Florida. Well there are some changes of course, for example in the last few years people have started saying “bonne journee” instead of good bye or the locally used “allez”.

Just mentioning Florida brings to mind the very perceptive discussions on our website about condo living. Perhaps I would have done well to heed some of the comments posted because this winter I was asked and foolishly accepted to review a formal and angry letter from a homeowner regarding our deteriorating sidewalks needing repairs. Strictly speaking we are not governed by a detailed statutory condo regime such as discussed on our web site but rather the much older common law as affecting single family homes with certain shared common areas such as roads and sidewalks, nevertheless there is much in common between the two types of situations. Now one would think that a large gated community (such as Prestancia in which we live) would have crossed all their legal “T’s and dotted all their surveyor “I’s”. But not entirely so; the sidewalks that obviously should have been entirely located within a defined “common area” and therefore “owned” by all, instead were so placed that the limit of the homeowner’s lot line meets somewhere in the middle of the sidewalks with the limits of the homeowner association common areas. In that case who then “owns” and are responsible for any repairs to the sidewalks? To make matters worse the registered covenants that run with the lands only obligate the homeowners “to clean and maintain” their particular adjoining sidewalks free of dirt and debris, even though up to this point everyone assumed and acted upon the notion that the repair responsibility rested exclusively with the adjoining sidewalk “lot owner”.

In point of fact no mention of responsibilities for the repair and replacement of sidewalks (and lampposts) can be found anywhere at all!  For sure the County is not interested nor is it obliged to do anything, ditto for the Master Association for all of Prestancia, and of course no overarching statutes enacted by the State exist on the matter either. In short we, a small and modest homeowner association of 74 homes, were totally on our own to solve the sidewalk repair problem, and indeed the lamppost problem as well, because all 74 wrought iron lampposts sit as fixtures on the lands of the Homeowner Association instead of on the lands of the homeowners. Figure a loss of one lamppost per year at $1500 a pop. Now only half of the 74 homeowners have an adjoining sidewalk, and therefore the financial interests of half the homeowners obviously collide with those of the other half. It fell on me to tell them about the fact and law situation to be faced. Surely a witch’s brew if I ever saw one, and one quite unsuited to the capacities and understandings of a typical homeowner association. John Milton’s words come to mind: Truth … never comes into this World but like a bastard, to the ignominy of him who brought her forth.

I don’t know how many such condo and homeowner associations exist in Florida, but certainly they must number in the ten of thousands. They have unfortunately often times merited a well deserved reputation for small mindedness, bovine stupidity, illiteracy, lack of foresight etc, all coupled with the seemingly unrepressed personal ambitions to wield petty powers on insignificant Boards of Directors in the greater scheme of things. Therefore right here is where the rubber meets the road, and where the human comedy has a stage on which to play itself out in its tawdry splendor. In our case it may charitably be noted that perhaps all or some of these factors managed to display themselves in full measure. One was also forcibly reminded of Morgenstern’s apt words “And thus in their considered view, what did not suit could not be true”. You would surely not be amazed to learn how so many also fancied themselves as thoroughly knowledgeable on the applicable common law, legal draftsmanship and on the actual (and most inconvenient) facts involved, thus demonstrating themselves quite innocent of the proposition that a man who is his own counsel has a fool for a client. They all had to draft their own remedial amendments to the covenants and then persuade a super majority of  75% of their neighbours in the wisdom of their craftsmanship. In short, it was all quite hopeless, and, proved to be a thankless and totally frustrating experience. I rest well persuaded that I have wisely resisted being on the Board from day one of our arrival there, now some 6 years ago.

Well this has become much too long a letter so I shall mercifully end it here.   Sig.