Image via WikipediaWell, 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 cheaper....money more important to me than the quality of life in France which, as future attendance at the salon.....at 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 altitude.....so 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 languages...at 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 things....like 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 us...so 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.
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.
'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 system...to the authoritariansim...to the realities of the famous demonstrations...to the shabby behind the scenes arrangements....to 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 change...it has changed under my eyes while we have been holidaying there....but I'll enjoy the lack of boxes while I can.