Friday, August 28, 2009

Local farmers

I love agricultural fairs and farm animals. Is it my particular rural childhood in South Grafton that is resurfacing? Or is this some kind of universal human sentiment? No doubt a bit of both.

I took these photos on a hot afternoon at the annual fair in the nearby village of Saint Just-de-Claix.

There weren't many animals, and not many visitors. I think this is a consequence of the simple fact that most of us, living in this Royans district, are in constant contact with farms and animals. So, we don't really need to visit a fair to see them.

I find that the faces and expressions of farmers are no less fascinating than those of their non-human friends. Often, you can read the feelings of farmers on their faces, through their physical forms, just easily as you can judge the weather by gazing up into the sky. They have a psychological and moral heritage of being direct and honest, and this renders them friendly. They can be complex individuals, capable of selling a five-legged sheep to somebody who's prepared to purchase it, but they are ruthlessly authentic human beings, who never call a spade anything other than a spade.

At an agricultural fair, though, I remain fascinated, first and foremost, by the beasts. When I look at such a litter, I have a terrible physical desire to grab hold of one or other of the squealing piglets and hold its writhing little mass in my bare hands. I recall experiencing this same muscular sensation of touch when I used to caress newly-born lambs at Gamone. (Psychologists such as Corina might detect, in my words, some terrifying sex-oriented affliction.)

Choranche lies just beyond the mountainous slopes that you can glimpse in the background. So, it was normal that the livestock of our commune should be present at the fair at Saint Just-de-Claix. In the above photo, my wild neighbor Frédéric Bourne (son of the present mayor of Choranche) is parading their prize horses.

Nice creatures... including a local cowgirl.

This is a portrait of my neighbor Bernard Bourne, mayor of Choranche, descendant of folk who have inhabited Choranche for centuries. Bernard has always maintained a courteous and timidly friendly behavior with me... even though he probably sees me as some kind of alien invader from outer space. To my mind, Choranche remains pure Wild West cowboy territory.

Visitors might get a kick out of agricultural fairs, but I'm convinced that many of the otherwise calm animals are greatly annoyed by all this silly fuss. After all, a cow couldn't give a shit about being awarded a prize. Many of them are unhappy at agricultural fairs. All they desire is to be left in peace, back on the farm.

Here, on the other hand, is a happy human creature, proud of his new-fangled metallic machine.

The above photo shows a cow emerging from his contraption. But what exactly is this device? What has been going on behind the jail-like metal bars?

That's a closeup view of the hardware. Can you guess what it's all about?

I myself had no idea what it was all about until I asked this fellow a lot of silly questions. He's a specialist in the chiropody of bovine hooves. Does that mean he's like a blacksmith, who cleans up the hooves of horses and donkeys? No, not at all, because the latter animals have a single "toe", whereas cows have two. The general idea, if I understand correctly, is that dairy cows often have hoof problems, which can influence adversely the animal's general state of welfare and productivity. So, the purpose of this giant steel contraption is to hold the beast safely in place while the hoof specialist gets into action with his various tools. Apparently, bovine chiropody is a new and lucrative professional specialty in the farmyard domain.

Talking about lucrative professions, I've been impressed during the last few weeks—while on my way to my regular Internet rendezvous at McDonald's on the outskirts of Saint-Marcellin (in fact, in Chatte)—by the intense activity in the two or three remaining fields of tobacco.

The harvesting takes place rapidly in August, with an armada of agricultural machines, and teams of hired hands to hang the precious leaves on racks. (I avoided taking photos of workers, because they might imagine me as an employment inspector.)

In case you still imagine that French farmers are miserable, with hardly enough money to buy shoes for their kids, here's a photo of a local tobacco farmer:

Driving past his place, I've often wondered about the role of all the vast hangars alongside his modern home. Today, I discovered that half of them house his impressive array of tractors, trailers and specialized farming machines, while the others are drying sheds for his tobacco production.

Tobacco is a sideline activity, because he also runs a prosperous dairy farm, and his house is surrounded by endless fields of corn. The problem with tobacco is that the market prices vary constantly, from one year to the next, and you have to be solidly settled—with cash in the bank, and not too many outstanding debts on your investments in machinery—in order to play the game safely. Outsiders might imagine that, with the drop in smoking, growing tobacco for a living would be a risky professional choice. Not at all. All the old-fashioned tobacco farmers have disappeared, and the demand for high-quality tobacco leaves exceeds greatly the supply. The three remaining farms at Chatte are run by young fellows (like the guy in the photo) who operate in a high-tech style, with computers, etc.

My question: "When growing tobacco, does your crop encounter risks of an agricultural kind throughout the year, such as diseases or other possibilities of degradation?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, not really."

My question: "Does growing tobacco involve a lot of manual work throughout the year?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, there's not much to do while it's growing."

My question: "So, what are your major problems?"

Tobacco farmer: "Finding and hiring seasonal personnel. Besides, these workers are becoming more and more demanding, more and more expensive."

He might have added that this management task lasts for no more than a week or so every year. What he was trying to say, I think, was that old-fashioned farmers (such as his ancestors) carried out the harvesting by calling upon family members, and then helping one another, working first in their own field, and then in their neighbors' fields. Today, on the other hand, you have to run your farm like a business. The fellow actually gave me a figure (which I've forgotten) indicating the precise number of hours of required labor, and its cost, for a hectare of tobacco. And I'm sure he uses the Internet to keep track of the evolution of the price of tobacco in the planet's markets and stock exchanges.

The leaves dry for a year in the farmer's hangars, and then the blending process takes another year. So, customers won't be smoking this stuff before two years' time. Naturally, it is a highly-controlled activity, because the authorities don't want farmers to be setting aside leaves for home consumption, or maybe with a view to setting up a business in home-made cigars.

With all these agricultural images in mind, I can imagine a dialogue between a teacher and her juvenile pupils Penelope and Pierre in a rural primary school:

Teacher: "Penelope, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

Penelope: "My dream, Miss, when I grow up, is to become a bovine chiropodist."

Teacher: "And you, Pierre?"

Pierre: "I want to make a fortune growing tobacco, Miss... so I can buy a McDonald's restaurant for me and my friends."

Place with a name

I can safely predict that the chances of my name being given to a village square in France are slim, to say the least. And I might add that this improbability has never discouraged me unduly, or prevented me from sleeping soundly through the night. But I think the next best thing to having your name attached to a village square is to propose the name of somebody whom you admire... and then to find that your proposal has been accepted.

The individual in question was a 19th-century priest, the historian Jean-Louis-Alexis Fillet [1840-1902], commonly referred to as Abbé Fillet. He was the author of several scholarly monographs (published in Valence) on townships and villages in our Royans district, including:

Religious History of Pont-en-Royans

Religious History of Saint Laurent-en-Royans

Historical Notes on the Parish of Choranche

Historical Notes on the Parish of Sainte Eulalie-en-Royans

Aware that Abbé Fillet was born in the nearby village of Saint Laurent-en-Royans, I suggested to the municipal authorities that their illustrious native son should be honored in the village. The place they chose is modest, like almost everything in this village.

It's a tiny square behind this monumental gate, located between the church and the former presbytery (seen on the right).

Abbé Fillet paid such microscopic attention to names, events, dates and terms in Old French and Latin that he would have surely been dismayed to find that the municipal authorities of his native village have left a letter out of his surname. But it's better than nothing. And I'm happy to think that the abbé has at last come home, in a way, to his beloved Royans.

Dog know-how

The question I'm trying to answer is: Who taught my dog to swim?

It wasn't me. I have no experience whatsoever in teaching animals to swim. Besides, I wouldn't have the financial means to hire a talented swimming coach to give Sophia lessons... which are no doubt highly expensive. The only plausible answer that comes to mind is that my daughter Manya has gone to the trouble—secretly, without ever informing me—of initiating Sophia into this sporting activity.

To be frank, I find that Sophia's style in the water could be improved considerably. For the moment, it's fairly primitive: a sort of paddling action, like a child. I don't think my dog has ever tackled anything in the way of breaststroke, butterfly or backstroke. But I guess that'll come, if she continues regular training.

Suddenly, I'm reminded of a delightful true story concerning a knowledgeable but eccentric lady in Sydney named Beatrice Miles. She was notorious because of countless amusing and less amusing incidents, often involving city taxis. Although "Bea" (as she was called) had inherited amply financial resources, enabling her to reside in the posh suburb of St Ives, her specialty consisted of often taking lengthy taxi rides, and then refusing to pay the fare... for reasons that were hard to fathom. Whenever she was in need of cash, she would resort to highbrow busking, reciting lengthy extracts of Shakespeare on street corners in Sydney.

The anecdote that just sprung into my mind has nothing to do with taxis or Shakespeare. Miss Miles had decided to visit the famous surfing beach of Bondi with a pet sheep. An inspector complained that it was against the law to bring animals to the beach.

Bea Miles: "The sign says that dogs are prohibited. This is a sheep, not a dog. The sign says nothing about sheep."

Beach inspector: "Lady, this is ridiculous. There's no grass here for your sheep to eat."

Bea Miles: "My sheep hasn't come to Bondi Beach to eat. It merely wants to do some sunbathing."

Getting back to my dog, Manya and I noticed that, after a minimum of swimming and basking in the sun, Sophia definitely likes to visit the Bourne with eating in mind. That's to say, she's likely to forget suddenly the chilly stream and the warm limestone rocks, before disappearing into the riverside weeds and bushes and searching excitedly for scraps of food left there by campers and other visitors. She always seems to be tremendously happy to find a fragment of abandoned food in the wilds, so to speak, as if her archaic hunting genes were getting back into momentary action.

It's a fact that Sophia at Gamone, like Bea's sheep at Bondi, likes to spend a lot her time simply sunbathing. And, these days, there has been a lot of sun around. Then, as soon as her internal temperature has peaked, Sophia dashes into the kitchen to cool off by lying on the cold floor tiles.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Good timing for bad communications

August is an unusual month in France, because one has the impression that half the nation is on vacation. Paris, in particular, closes down to a large extent, or at least quietens down considerably (from a traffic viewpoint), and certain residents prefer to remain there in August to appreciate calmly various aspects of the capital. The rue Rambuteau, where we lived for ages, used to take on a village atmosphere in August. You could sit down at a sidewalk table at the corner café, without being swarmed by pedestrians, and read the newspaper. Obviously, what I've just said does not apply to touristic quarters of Paris such as the Champs-Elysées, the Eiffel Tower and the Latin Quarter.

So, you might say that my Internet connection chose the ideal time to break down... when most people are outside in the sunny weather, rather than seated in front of their computer screens. Incidentally, in McDonald places, I've got accustomed to choosing a table in a corner where the sunlight doesn't affect the readability of the MacBook screen. I've also realized that, to avoid dirtying my nice little machine, it's preferable to stick to stuff such as ice cream and Coke, rather than McDonald's greasy products. For health reasons, too, this was no doubt a wise decision.

It's not impossible that many of the technical employees at Free (my Internet service provider) were on vacation at the moment that my connection went down. In any case, over the last three weeks, no Free technician ever phoned me up (on my iPhone), let alone came here to see what might be broken. Fortunately, yesterday, Free accepted immediately my request to end my contract. In my letter, I didn't even have to get around to using nasty words to describe their faulty service. So, in a few days, I'll have a new telephone and Internet service, provided by the state-operated Orange company, along with a new email address (which I do not know yet). I'll even have a new phone number:

04 76 64 18 32 (inside France) or
33 4 76 64 18 32 (from another country)

As before, I'll be able to phone free to most countries in the world (including, of course, Australia).

[Click the above banner to mail me.]

Here's a photo of my recently-acquired set of McDonald Coke glasses, to which I'm still adding new specimens:

This precious collection will be a personal souvenir of the events of August 2009. Meanwhile, I'll wait until my new Internet connection is operational before describing in detail the genealogical jackpot that hit me, when I was least expecting it, on the eve of my Internet collapse. In a nutshell, I've just discovered precisely that my 27-times-great-grandfather from France, named William, invaded England in 1066... exactly nine centuries before the birth of my French daughter. The connection (I'm talking of genealogy, not the Internet) has nothing to do with ancestors named Skyvington, but exists through my paternal grandmother, Kathleen Pickering, who grew up on a bush property in Australia. Her brother was a World War I hero who, through his sporting and military prowess, was nicknamed King. My father, born at the time "King" Pickering returned from the Western Front, then received his heroic uncle's nickname (to my mind, a silly choice) as his own official given name. My dear father could not know that, among his distant ancestors, there were no less than four genuine kings of England, including the monarch who signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Obliged to change my ISP

In spite of phone calls, emails and even a registered letter, the Free company doesn't appear to be doing anything to repair my Internet connection. This is an unexpected situation. So, I'm left with no other alternative but to change my ISP (Internet service provider). This afternoon, I drove to Grenoble to obtain details concerning the offer from the state-owned Orange organization. I was amazed to learn that they are proposing not only very fast Internet and free phone, but also satellite TV. Maybe this explains why Free has given up trying to compete with Orange in a rural region such as Choranche. Weird...

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Still at McDonalds

I wander around with my iPhone hung around my neck, so that I won't miss a call from the French Telecom technician. Tomorrow, if there's still no appointment, I'll start screaming once again. Funnily, I'd often imagined this kind of scenario, and I guessed (correctly) that it wouldn't be simple. The other day, at Romans, I explained my predicament to an employee of the French Telecom firm called Orange (used to be Wanadoo). I asked: "If I were a customer of Orange, rather than Free, would I obtain better service in this kind of situation?" He hesitated a moment, then replied: "Not necessarily."

Meanwhile, as my former neighbor pointed out this morning, my gardening accomplishments have soared exponentially since this crash. Also, my work on the translation of the movie adaptation of Rilke's Malte has advanced enormously, since I don't need the Internet to work in that domain. Besides, I've learned how to send text messages on my iPhone... which is not a really earth-shaking achievement. The only major learning problem consisted of realizing that you can't really send messages in French from an English (virtual) keyboard. As soon as I switched to an AZERTY keyboard, the words flowed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Internet is down

No, I'm not on vacation. My Internet connection went down a week ago, which has also meant that I've been without the telephone. In this kind of extreme situation (this is the first time I've been hit by such a problem), the Internet service provider leaves their customer to scream for a few days, just to make sure that he has made an effort to prove that his connection is well and truly down. This might mean, for example, borrowing a neighbor's hardware in an attempt to identify the problem. (At Choranche, I know of no such neighbors.) Then, when you've screamed for a few days (using, in my case, an antiquated public phone cabin, along with a little extra screaming kindly supplied by my daughter in Paris), the service provider finally agrees to ask a France Telecom technician to make an appointment to drop in. So, that's the stage I've reached as of this afternoon.

Meanwhile, I'm lucky to have both an iPhone and a MacBook. So, I'm tasting the joys of sending the present post from the local McDonald's in St-Marcellin.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Final family

After fiddling around in genealogy for over a quarter of a century, and getting held up joyously for many years by maternal rural bush-ranger ingredients from Ireland, I've finally got around to starting to set down in words the essential paternal stuff.

The truth of the matter (which isn't necessarily "true" in any sense whatsoever) is that I've always felt that my dominant genes were essentially English. They're labeled Skyvington and Pickering: the surnames of my paternal grandparents. I would be incapable of proving (if this idea had any sense whatsoever) that my Skyvington and Pickering genes overpowered, as it were, the recessive X-rated Walker and Kennedy stuff in my DNA (not to mention the wild Hickey contribution). I'm convinced that this is what happened... but I'm ready to be contradicted.

The modest family-history typescript upon which I'm embarking will concern two marvelous individuals whom I've always referred to as Pop and Ma: Ernest William Skyvington [1891-1985] and his wife Kathleen Pickering [1889-1964].

For a long time, I had imagined that Pop came from a celebrated family whose origins coincide with the arrival of William the Conqueror in England. I still believe, more than ever, that this was the case.

But I'm amazed and delighted to discover that Ma, too, through her Pickering antecedents, was hugely ancient English... and that her ancestors included an aunt of Jane Grey.

So, I intend to write their Anglo/Australian story.