Thursday, 9 December 2010

Coming to Costa Rica..or getting away from France?

checkbox, check box, tickbox, tick boxImage via Wikipedia
Well, both, isn't it obvious?

Not, so it seems, to Madame X, translator to beat all translators, and, in her new manifestation, the English expat version of Madame Recamier in the commune of Ste. Mere Maquerelle in darkest France.

A friend has 'phoned me - thank you Skype - to bring me up to date on the news...local doctor breathalysed by the gendarmes.....surprising reappearance of an expat family who had left France last year for loudly proclaimed better things in Dubai.....dubious quality forecast for this year's local wine....maire found to have fiddled the tenders for local projects (and been prosecuted, which was indeed a wonder, but then his protector lost his seat in the last elections).....Monsieur Soixanteneuf in court for his naughty habits (same protector)....just the normal run of the mill stuff which keeps me in touch with an area where I lived for some years before moving on to another department.

Given the bad weather, attendance was down at Madame X's salon...where she hopes to assist English speaking newcomers to France to adjust to their new culture at a cost of a 20 Euro 'participation'.... but Britain's hardy sons from the same commune had made it and Madame X was apparently very eloquent on the subject of the importance of integration...using me as an object lesson.

Well, I was safely the other side of the Atlantic, wasn't I, so she was safe.

Friend informs me that I am held to have run away from France, unable to cope, because I was unwilling to integrate.
I tried to ignore French society, culture and language(!)  and go my own way.
Worse....hushed tones as mention was made of something sacred....I went where the living was more important to me than the quality of life in France which, as future attendance at the 20 euros a pop... ..would reveal, was beyond price.

What an epitaph for my time in France...used as an advertising tool for Madame X's salon!

So, did  I come to Costa Rica as a positive choice..or was it a bolt hole having not been able to integrate in France?

Well, it was a positive choice...but one that crept up on me.

Some years ago the winter was so vile that we had had enough...other years we had messed off to Turkey or to Egypt, but only for a couple of weeks at a time...but that year it was so cold for so long that we looked for somewhere to forget the French winter..for at least six weeks,which made a long haul flight worthwhile.

There was another motive too.

Climate change, whether man made or part of a natural cycle, was certainly affecting our area.
Colder winters and summers ranging from the very rainy to the extremely hot made life a lot less comfortable than in the earlier years in France, so we were thinking quite seriously about having a holiday home in order to escape the vile winters and thus using this proposed break as a scouting exercise.

But where to look?
It seemed that the best chance of avoiding radical change was to look at the tropics at there were a lot of destinations in the mix.....but climate would not, could not, be the only determinate.
A language we could cope with, a culture which was recognisable, good health provision and the ability to own property directly were important elements which reduced the mix considerably and, although we were initially looking for a bolthole to escape the vile winters, we took into account residency requirements too....which reduced the mix yet again.

Needless to say, Scots blood told, and when looking at the shortlist a cut price flight threw its weight on the side of Costa Rica and when, having collapsed with shock at the hotel rates on offer, we found a local tourist initiative on the net, a log cabin with all the amenities of a hotel room at half the price, the matter was settled.

We could not have been more lucky.

Our hosts, while having absolutely no clue as to the needs of self catering guests...we were their first and the learning curve was steep with plenty of laughs on both sides .....certainly knew how to make us feel welcome and were the best possible ambassadors for their country.

They showed us how to see the sights by public transport at a  fraction of the cost of the tourist sites on the net.

They included us in their family for meals and local events.

We exchanged five o' clock our host would descend with his Spanish-English and Spanish-French dictionaries and we would exchange information over glasses of Castro...Irish coffee with rum.

He didn't give us the tourist guff.

He told us about and showed us the local wildlife and plants...of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge, but, more importantly, he told us about life in general....all the ordinary work, pay, conditions, shopping, housing, transport, taxes, social security, family life, weather,....and politics.

He encouraged us to go off on our own and explore...and gave us his mobile 'phone to call him in case we had problems.
This after the day we went by bus to the Pacific Coast.

The road from town was paved for the first half hour, but for the next three and a a half the bus travelled over a stony track up one side of the hills and down the other...through forest and grazing land, with the bizarre appearance of gated community sites in the middle of nowhere, the lots mostly unbuilt behind the imposing security barriers, until hitting the lowlands and the palm oil plantations.

The coast was too sticky for after lunch we took the next bus back.
Same bus, same driver, who had started at five o'clock that morning and would finish at eight o'clock that night.

Now, the road had been a little skiddy on the way up...everyone in the back on hills to obtain traction....and it had rained in the meantime, which made things just a little hairier on the way back.
The bus had been hailed by passing trucks several times, passing on news of the state of the road ahead, and then the driver commanded his crew into the back again and revved like a teenager with his first car.
The aged American school bus lurched forward...throwing us all over the place....and came to a sudden halt.

'Everybody out!'

The doors opened and from the rear exit we looked down at a drop of about two hundred metres as we followed the rest to the front where all became clear.
The road had opened up and the bus had dropped into the hole.

It was the middle of nowhere....just a farrier's house up the road where two horses were being attended to.
The mobile 'phones could not get a signal to ask for help.

How were we to get back?

No one seemed very worried.
A lad on a motorbike appeared on the other side of the hole and took one of the lady passengers pillion to raise the alarm on the other side once they could find a landline in use.

Kids began to appear, and then men armed with shovels...shovels for themselves and shovels for the male passengers, and all set down to filling in the hole.
The shovelling was still going on when a cattle truck appeared on the road behind the bus and the driver descended.
He listened to the bus driver, inspected the state of shovelling and announced that he would see to things.

He did. He fixed a chain to the rear of the bus and pulled it out backwards.

More shovelling.

'Everybody on the bus!'

All huddled in the back again, clinging on to the seats while being sure not to wake the drunk who had snored through the whole thing.
The engine revved again and we were off....and this time we made it as the bus jumped the chasm now made less dramatic by the shovelling work.

We only just made the last bus home and our host was waiting at the stop in his car.
If we hadn't made it on that bus, he had been coming to look for us...all the way to the coast.

Anecdote, but it made us think.

Faced with a problem, people did not flap like headless chickens. They did something practical.
They didn't worry about what could not be helped...being late...just got on with not being later than they could help.
Our host took his responsibilities seriously. We were his guests and it was his duty to look after us.

It left us a with a good feeling for that area of Costa Rica.

We bought a house before we left and, our good feelings reinforced by our winter holidays over the years, eventually decided that our life in Costa Rica was so much better than our life in France that we shifted ourselves accordingly.

So what was wrong with France?

Is Madame X right that I failed to integrate?

I had many happy years in France and made a number of friends.....but, as they say, birds of a feather fly together and my friends were like me....of an independent nature.

It was they who opened my eyes to the realities of life in France...far from the popular images of  shabby men in berets and smart tarts in frocks.

To the inequalities built into the the the realities of the famous the shabby behind the scenes the corruption.

To the terrible jealousy that corrodes life.

Against all that they showed me the good side of life in France....acceptance into a social circle in the countryside which offered everything from intellectual enquiry to picking grapes with the neighbours.

I have an uncomfortable feeling that I integrated all too well.

It was a good life if you could ignore what lay behind it but coming from a background where the experiences of the Second World War had freed people from 'knowing their place' to find a semi feudal society still in operation was disquieting.

I suppose if the winters had been just a little warmer, the decision to move might have been postponed.....but it would still have been taken.

Madeleine described life in France as being encompassed by the squared paper of its school books....if there is a box, it has to be filled....if there is not a box then the question of what there should be in its place does not arise.

Costa Rica, a small 'c' conservative society, is no paradise...but, apart from its misleading tourist literature, it doesn't pretend to be.
It will has changed under my eyes while we have been holidaying there....but I'll enjoy the lack of boxes while I can.
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  1. Amazing story of the hole. Hard to imagine many people coming to the aid of a stranded bus like that.

  2. Hmm. Snidey France or friendly Costa Rica...? Tough call!

  3. That's a lovely initiation story, and similar in some ways to my own initiation to Spain, arriving on the Camino de Santiago and being helped (unasked) every inch of the way by people who lived along the route.

    Madame's cynical use of her own warped version of your life to boost her own credibility hardly deserves attention, but it's the kind of thing that gets under your skin, isn't it?

    As if money doesn't affect quality of life! In Spain, I've been able to buy a reasonably sized house and garden in the country for the price of garage space in the UK. That isn't quality of life? For years, life in Spain was so cheap, I could afford to work part-time and still survive comfortably. That isn't quality of life?

    And so on, and so on.

    Personally, I feel that an important step in integration is being able to see the failings of where you live (although not exclusively in terms of comparisons with where you've come from). I stoutly defend my right to criticise shortcomings as much as the natives. So there!

  4. Madame X sounds like someone to be glad you left behind, stupid cow.

    These expat 'helpers' always make me laugh. People can do a lot of stuff now by looking on the internet, so why do these people think they can charge money for doing the same or less? And as they are catering to the expat community, they are hardly integrated into the nitty gritty of French society.

    Anyway, you can go where you damn well please and have nothing to justify!

    Maybe Mme X is outraged that you left because that is exactly what she would do given half a chance. Costa Rica - so exotic!

    No one can live here that long and stay naively enamoured. Can they?

  5. I'm convinced there is no paradise anywhere...One person's green grass is another's bed of thorns as it were...

  6. Enjoyed that post Fly. I've had similar experiences to the coach in Nepal - no drama, just get on with it.

    Sometimes it is simply time to move on - and the analysis of those who stay is ill-informed or envious or both - why not go if you ant to? What is so virtuous about staying?

    Well done you I say

  7. Another Day of Crazy, what I didn't know then and do now is how many houses lie off the road...unseen down tracks through the trees...and how good the bush telegraph is!
    I could not believe how people kept just appearing!

    Steve, you can imagine the difficulty of choice, can't you?

    Pueblo girl, it certainly started us thinking.....
    As to Madame X, yes, it does annoy me to be used...but as she uses everyone and everything why should I be left out!
    As to quality of life...I think this is the standard she brandishes to justify the high cost of living in France...and the high cost of her services!
    I agree about seeing the problems...though in their own context, not a sort of 'we don't do it like that back home' attitude.
    French friends did nothing but moan...Costa Rican friends do likewise!

    Sarah, the Madame Xs of this world are the pits...real exploiters of the unsure and nervous.
    They exist here too.....the leaders of little coteries of immigrants and I'm already in disgrace.
    I think her like may be a bit less than delighted that I was able to up sticks and be off...they are stuck.

    e, how true that is. You just try to make the best of what you have and if it is no longer working, then try something else!

    Mark, the lack of drama, the lack of people drawing attention to themselves really attracted me and we have had other experiences which are of a similar nature.

    I wish the Madame Xs amused me...they would if they were not preying on people as in general their ignorance is matched only by their high opinion of themselves.

  8. quote " have an uncomfortable feeling that I integrated all too well"

    I thought this before I reached it in your post...and that's exactly hy you were sensible to get out.

    Costa Rica sounds just right..I was going to say perfect, but of course there is no such place...but we have to find somewhere that feels just right for us...and it seems like you've found it. I'm really happy for you and Mr Fly.

  9. I wish there was a box on posts for 'read, very interesting and thought provoking, will ponder........'. Thank you

  10. I know we have talked about this before - the expat community. The whole thing in fact is a complete farce, isn't it? A load of expats meeting up to learn how to integrate ... slightly self defeating, methinks. When I lived in France the Brits were starting to discover my 'coin de paradis' and I admit, snobbily, that I avoided them like the plague. Just because we lived within a few miles of each other and were English does not make us into best friends. As I was the only English person in my commune, when there was communication breakdown at the mairie, the maire would ring me and ask me to come down and translate which I did with pleasure - I certainly didn't take money off anyone.
    France is a lovely country but like everywhere else there are things that are wrong - why are the expats so afraid of saying that certain things don't work well in their adopted country? Beats me.
    I have some very dear friends that moved down the road from where I lived - they did all their homework, they tried to speak the language, they did everything they could to adopt and be adopted by France, yet after three years they admitted defeat and are now back in England.
    Home is where the heart is and after being invaded by friends and family in the summer I think many of these expats just want to come home as they find themselves sitting twiddling their thumbs through the long, long, winter months!

  11. The French just like to gossip. I'm glad you've found a place that you enjoy and that feels right. Screw everybody else.

  12. Dedene, well don't we all, to some extent!
    I'm just annoyed at being used by this woman....

  13. Glad I figured out you've got another blog going here (I've been slow at catching up with people's posts). I loved reading how you found your way to Costa Rica - there is no methodical way to go about finding the "right" place, is there? Just a string of events to follow, if you're open to the idea of moving on.

    Reading about Madame X, I realize we've been going about things all wrong, trying to play music (often for no cover charge in France) for people - instead we should call the gigs "salons", charge 20 euros, trash our current and former neighbors, then bring out the guitars.

  14. I can relate to all that about France, I'm so glad I had my time there, but not really missing it ...'cept the cheese ... and the charcuterie ... and the fruit ... maybe those walks were lovely too...

    No really not missing it at all ;) xx

  15. Lulu LaBonne, it would be nice if wine were cheaper in Costa Rica...and charcuterie is something extruded from bone scrapings in plastic tubes, while for decent cheese I have to travel fifty kilometres up into the hills.....
    but those are no more than passing regrets.
    I'm glad I had my time in France too...

  16. That's what I like - you had some time in France to enjoy. When it was no longer working, you were free to move elsewhere. I don't know if there is any place I could stay for too long - there are so many good things to discover in other places it's like there isn't enough time to live in all of them.

  17. Valerie, I always think I am where I am for the duration...I've never renovated a house I've lived in with a view to selling on...but inevitably I do!

  18. Fly: That tale of the horrid Madame X really got on my tits, it did. People who take advantage of others and their fear, insecurity or 'lack' of whatever it is... well, I do hope karma slaps them back, and hard, sometime in their miserable existence.

    I'm here in France because it's good for my children. But, I agree with the ending of 'Fiddler on the Roof', after the sad dirge of 'Anatevka' as people are mourning being forced from the only home they've ever known... "Eh, it's just a place."

    I've lived in a dizzying array of 'places'. I have no sense of home and never had, something I've always longed to experience. Perhaps someday I will.

    I like the saying, "If you don't like your current course of action, if you don't like where you are in life... then change it!
    After all, you're not a tree."

    I'm currently blooming where I've been transplanted, here in Côtes d'Armor. But it too is, "just a place."

    I'm happy for you both that you've found a place you can call home.


  19. I've never come across an expat with as much insight into French culture and community as you Fly, so if you're not integrated how on earth are you able to provide such insight and such humour on all these French things?

    Don't answer, just be glad you left such unpleasantness behind and feel sorry for the people she is going to "help".

  20. PigletinFrance, I think Madame X's idea of 'integration' is paying her to muck up your life with her translations.
    I do feel sorry for the people in her clutches...but a lot of them swear by her, even when it all ends in expensive disaster.....she's made herself indispensable.

    Mark you you should see some of her equivalents in Costa Rica...I shall post on the Human Mosquitoes in due course.
    Thanks to Madame X and her like it was instant recognition!