France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

May 3, 2010

Les Eyzies Law and Order

Well, after a week in which the dead chicken sat on a stake in Mr. Malraux’s cornfield waiting for the fox that had killed it and its sister chicken and two roosters to return and get snapped up by one of the five traps that encircled it, the long arm of the Law finally caught up with it.

On returning today from the little Monday market in the village, where I’d scored six bottles of Bergerac from the last millenium for 15 Euros, directly from the producer Marie-Rose, to impress my Parisian potes with, I saw Mr. Malraux’s mobilette not at his house but above the house at the other end of the path, and him standing below in the garden doing nothing. Approaching our end of the road, I waved at what looked by the tell-tale walking stick like a tourist emerging from the plain leading to the cornfield. Two minutes later he startled me by appearing at my door, whereupon I saw the “police’ insignia on his tan uniform.

“Ca va?” he asked, looking into my eyes as if something wasn’t. “Do you know who put the chicken there?” “Mr. Malraux put it there to trap the fox that killed most of his chickens.” “Is that his house?” the officer asked, pointing across the path. “Does he ride a mobilette?” “Oui!” “Si non, ca va?” I made mundane comments about our six-month winter of discontent here in the south of France, which does not seem to want to end, and this or perhaps my stumbling French (my level depends on who I’m talking to; Mr. Malraux, tres bien; a beautiful fille or the long arm of the law, barely understandable).

I quickly divined that Mr. Malraux must have spotted the policeman as he drove up to his house, figured out it was about the dead chicken that had been sitting in his dead cornfield for a week, and kept on driving, and was now hiding out.

The officer patiently waited, emerging from his yellow four-wheel-drive occasionally to take photos with a camera on a tri-pod, and not just in the direction of the dead chicken.

After about an hour, Mr. Malraux surfaced, in the company of another officer — they were neither gendarmes nor the police national, but forest rangers.

All three quickly marched down the path by our house to the cornfield, where, after one fetched a stick from the riverside, they sprung all five traps, gathering them up but leaving the chicken.

From my post behind the curtained bathroom window, Mr. Malraux did not seem unduly alarmed, but continued to bavard with the rangers, until he bid them, “Allez au revoir!”

I quickly ran over and knocked on his door to get the scoop, above all to find out if he was in trouble. “Not me, because I didn’t put the traps there! The guy who put the traps may be.” Essentially, it wasn’t leaving a dead chicken to roast in a cornfield for a week that was interdit, nor even using it to set a trap for the fox, but the type of traps (which to me had seemed antiques), which is why they had confiscated them. Above all, Mr. Malraux was upset that he’d lost two good traps, which he uses mostly for rats. “It seems to me that you’re the victim here,” I told him. “And they said they’re not going to help me trap the fox!” he added. Yet another way in which France version 2010, with its infinite interdictions, doesn’t seem to be working for the little guy, above all the beleaguered farmer which just last week, the fish and agriculture minister was giving lip service to sympathizing with. A fox had killed four of the five fowl that were all that remained to Mr. Malraux after a lifetime of farming, and which help supplement his social security by providing a few eggs he can sell. Before he gets any more chickens to supplement the one that’s left, he needs to trap that fox. And yet the long arm of the Law is more concerned with the form of trap than with Mr. Malraux’s livelihood.

I thought maybe the fox trap man Michel might feel betrayed that Mr. Malraux had apparently ratted on him, but no, he was back at 6 this evening, rushing down the larger cornfield next door where one of the four remaining farmers in Les Eyzies was turning the earth with his tractor. He held a little bucket and Mr. Malraux trailed him. Thinking it must have some rapport with the fox — the fox traps prohibited, were they now looking for smaller bait? — I braved the wind and rushed out and over the wet turned soil to ask what it was about.

“We’re looking for worms!” Michel said. “Large ones!” The fox trapper was going fishing. I joined in as they continued to traipse down the edge of every new gully Frank the farmer unearthed. “You’re the only one that’s working!” Michel thanked me as I tossed a palm-full of wet creatures into the bucket. “Oui,” said I, “mais c’est degoutant (disgusting)!”

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April 28, 2010

The burka that covers the wheat-fields

Yesterday thousands of farmers from all over the country descended on the Place de Nation in Paris in a desperate call to save their profession, in particular that of wheat cultivators, who spend more to produce than they earn. In general, agriculture minister Bruno le Mer said, farmers earn 15 percent of what most workers make. Considering the essential and enduring place of farmers in the life of the country, you’d think that the government might have stopped everything to listen to them. But no, the cabinet had been convened by prime minister Francois Fillon to discuss a more pressing problem, a law to ban the burka, which afffects at most 2,000 women (as opposed to wife beating, which affects 250,000), and which became a priority for the right-wing government after it lost the recent regional elections, in large part because extreme right voters abandoned it for the National Front. (Whose leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is now saying he doesn’t necessarily favor a law banning the burka, because it doesn’t get at the heart of the problem.) So obsessed is the government with distracting the French from their ‘end of the month’ problems with this red herring, the interior minister jumped on the case of a woman who filed a complaint after she was stopped for driving with a burka by threatening to take away her husband’s citizenship because, he says, the man has four wives. (The husband says that like any good Frenchman, he has one wife and three mistresses. “Since when do we take away someone’s citizenship because they have mistresses?”)

As is often the case, my retired farmer neighbor, Mr. Malraux, has a simple explanation for the disparity between earnings and costs today’s farmers face: the tractors, and the gas they consume. While he used them in the latter part of his career, for most of it he propelled his farm machines — antique devices now lined up in front of his shed presiding over the path below — with cows or horses.

PS: Meanwhile, out in the cornfield — that of Mr. Malraux — it’s Day III and the one remaining live chicken is still there, as is the dead one lashed to the stake to trap the fox. We’re expecting 90 degrees today, Farenheit — ca va commence a pu.

April 24, 2010

RIP, coq au vin

I was thinking of calling this one ‘cock-a-doodle-dead’ or even “I had a little red rooster,” but when you actually live in the country across the path from two roosters, and find yourself asking, “I fled the sound of 7 a.m. jack-hammers for the sound of 5 a.m., 6 a.m., 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., noon, 1, 3 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m. rooster crowing, sometimes in stereo?” the cock-a-doodle-doo of roosters is nothing to cackle about. And as my subtly referring to his roosters as coq-au-vin has not yet convinced my neighbor, a retired farmer we’ll call Mr. Malraux, to reduce his rooster roster, I have to confess that as anguishing was the cry which awoke me at 1 a.m. this morning, I found myself hoping it was the rooster, not one of the chickens, that had met his death this night.

When I opened the storm windows (I know, it’s not even winter, but I close them to try to reduce the rooster noise) this a.m. and looked across the road, I was initially disappointed, as the thing lying on its back with two claws frozen in the air in clawing position was all light brown with no red to be seen, thus, I thought, one of the three chickens as opposed to one of the two roosters. It’s head seemed to be missing. The chicken was on the incline under the grand walnut tree leading from the farmer’s shed, tractor garage, and chicken coop to the path/road. Above it next to the shed and below strewn for about 20 yards along the path was a detretious of brown and white feathers. I waited until 7:45 to gingerly knock on the farmer’s door, but he was still asleep. Finally at 9 I moseyed over and,hearing him open the storm doors, announced, “Mr. Malraux?” “Oui?” “J’ai du mauvaise nouvelles.”

When he opened the door, I said, “I think you were right about the fox, come and see.” He too remarked the trail of feathers above and on the road, and, seeing the bird, turned it over. “It’s the rooster. The mean one.” According to Mr. Malraux, this rooster was wont to attack him without provocation from behind, to the point where he carried around a baton whenever he went near him. Then he held it up to me. “Do you want to pluck it?” “No merci, but can we still make coq au vin out of it?” I kept insisting it must have been a fox, but he pointed out, “If it was a fox, it would eat it or take it with him,” and not leave it there. He also dismissed the possibility of another creature, whose name I couldn’t make out, but which is black and white and the size of a small dog. “It usually bites the head off… It must have been a dog.” Then he started looking around for the three chickens. I could have sworn that after that terrible cry, I’d heard the chickens chucking as normal, as if slightly perturbed, then silence. In the end, though, he found only one chicken and the remaining rooster. (Which, fingers crossed, must be the one that sleeps in as he didn’t get going until 7:30.)

A couple drove up, the male half of which Mr. Malraux later explained to me is a retired sgt. of the gendarmes. “Fox,” he concluded. I tried to console Mr. Malraux by reminding him he’d been planning on buying some new ones as the chickens weren’t laying anyway, but he said he could at least have eaten them. I think I finally convinced him — by the fact of the disappeared two chickens who must now by fox baby food — that it could have been a fox. Tonight he’ll be laying a trap, hanging poor dead coq-au-vin as bait.

“Well, can we at least eat the fox?” I said. “Ca se mange pas,” he answered. “There was one particularly muscular guy that caught one and tried to eat it, but it was inedible.” The remaining coq au vin is laying low…

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