24 January 2007

A Day at the Castle

Having been summoned to the Gendarmerie for my failure to display a current insurance sticker, I show up at Fort Oscar the following morning at 10:00 hours, valid insurance certificate in hand. My instructions had been specific. The English-speaking gendarme had said "There will be nobody there who speaks English, and you will not be able to approach the Fort directly. There is a gate at the bottom of the hill, with a box that allows you to speak to people inside. BE SURE TO GET THERE BEFORE NOON, press the button, and when they answer, just say "Assurance valide" and they will buzz you through. Then just climb the hill, go into the fort, and show your proof of insurance, and that will be the end of it."

Bright hot day. I have spent my professional life preparing for engagements like this one. I know the importance of making a good appearance, especially inasmuch as I am totally at the whim of these foreign-tongue devils. So I dress carefully in my best impress-the-jury outfit: the flip-flops Sandy Herzfeld gave me because they were too big on him, one of my thirteen bathing suits from Camp-Mor ($16 each, your choice of any color you want as long as it in khaki or blue, quick drying, free shipping on orders over $50.00.),one of my cut off tee shirts known in some U.S. circles as "wife-beaters", and the large very dark sunglasses that fit over my regular spectacles. (Pinks says they are so unfashionable that mine is the only pair on the island.)

The approach to the Fort is impressive. It a massive building, really a collection of attached mis-sized rectangles and curves, walls of huge brown and beige stone blocks, each the size of my new 42' flat screen. The building is about four stories high, no windows, just slits, right out of "Three Feathers". (That reference is for those of us old enough to remember sitting in the movies on Saturday afternoon watching the serials and action movies about the French Foreign Legion.)

The harbor in Gustavia is shaped like a square cornered hairpin. The north side of the hairpin is "downtown" Gustavia, and the south side--the seaward side—consists of a thin strip of mountainous terrain that separates the harbor from the sea. At the very tip of this strip, about 200 feet above sea level, stands Fort Oscar. (Oscar, btw, was King of Sweden. )

The gendarme was good to his word—up to a point. There is indeed a high chain-link fence about 200 feet down the hill from the Fort walls. Set into that fence are two gates. Reading from right to left: a closed center-opening double gate to allow vehicles to drive up the improbably steep driveway to the Fort building proper, then a door-sized gate for pedestrians, and just to the left of that is a buzzer panel similar those found in most New York City buildings sans doormen, except that here there is but a single tenant, and therefore but a single call button.. Makes sense right? The panel also had a number pad, presumably for members of the club. But my gendarme had not shared his code with me, and lacking my trusty Green Hornet secret decoder ring, I could do no more than press the call button.

I did so, and baked in the sun waiting for an answer to my call so that I could utter my "assurance valide" shiboleth so diligently practiced earlier that morning.. But my push of the button yielded ten seconds of martial music out of the tinny speaker in the call box, a recorded announcement in machine-gun-speed French, followed by the same martial music, followed by the same recorded announcement, etc. You get the picture. I was in trouble. No chance of calling on the phone—the Fort is not on my cell phone speed dial list. No chance of ringing another tenant's bell and getting buzzed in that way. I needed either an Order to Show Cause extending my noon deadline while I consulted with counsel, or an angel.

I got the latter. Up drove two vehicles,a truck bearing two gardeners and a van driven by an attractive woman. With a great smile and perfect English, the woman advised me to park my car on this side of the gate because I would not be allowed to drive it inside. Then she simply walked up to the pedestrian gate, TURNED THE DOORKNOB and pushed the gate open. So much for the lack of my decoder ring. Having gained access to the inside of the fence, she unlatched the vehicle fence, the gardeners drove their truck in, and unloaded their tools.

No metal detectors, no pat-downs, checks for liquids in bottles larger than three ounces, not even a look-see. Ah, national security St. Barths style.

The rest is anti-climax. I walked up the hill, and gained entrance to the fort through a small steel door that had just been opened by a female gendarme on her way down to talk to the gardener lady. Entirely pleasant. She wore the standard Gendarme uniform: black army boots, sweat-pants-like dark blue trousers cinched at the ankle, and a powder blue short sleeved polo. Oh, yeah, and a large automatic pistol on her hip. I waived my insurance documents at her, repeated my mantra, she led me inside, told me to wait, came back a minute later and said something in French that I took to be a dismissal with prejudice. For the non-lawyers, when you are the accused, that's a good thing.

We finished our morning by visiting with our local lawyer who is trying to help us prevent the French from deporting Pinks, who lacks her long-stay visa because some official lost a piece of paper on which the necessary tax stamps need be pasted, and the local prefecture lady says that though she has the stamps we bought (220 euros for the year November 2005 – November 2006) she is barred from processing Pinks' already-approved application for the long-stay visa because of the requirement they be pasted on a letter the French lost.

So, no letter, no pasting of the stamps, no visa, no Pinks? Nah. My guess? Sometime around April, 2007, an official in Martinique or Guadalupe, or somewhere else in the French West Indies will send the St. Barths prefecture lady another copy of the letter, she will paste my stamps thereon, the completed application will be sent to France, and in June, 2007, Pinks will get her carte de sejour for the period December 1, 2005 thru November 30, 2006, and she can start the renewal process, which involves another letter, more stamps, etc.

You gotta love this place.

A bientot.

12 January 2007

The Right to Remain Silent

Hey, live long enough, you get to have lots of firsts. Recently, I had my first breathalyzer test.

Pinks and I spent the morning doing chores: replacing lightning-struck computer routers, hanging side-by-side pictures in the garden bedroom -- an activity that, in itself, goes to the core of who we are:

She: "They are not straight."
He: "They are perfectly aligned."
She: "They are crooked, I can see that clearly. The one on the right is much higher than the one on the left."
He: "Okay, I'll check them with the carpenter's level .... There, see, the are perfect."
She: "I hate those things."

I digress.

After the battle of the pictures, we picked up two jambon et fromage heros and four beers and went to Saline beach. We settled on the sand in brilliant sunshine at 2:00 PM. Lunch was over at 2:10. Hey, we had put in a hard morning, n'est ce pas? With lunch I had two cans of Heineken, Pinks one. Delicious. Outstanding. Then a short nap, some reading, some swimming, and at 4:30 we departed the beach, did some errands, and headed for home. What a life, huh?

The Gendarme was, I would say, exceptionally polite. He stepped into the road (no traffic at that hour), waved me over to the curb ( just in front of Le Repaire) and asked for my documents. I am not sure what words he used in French, but I knew what he was asking for, and gave him my registration and driver's license. All in perfect order, of course. Then he walked over to the sticker on the lower right corner of the windshield, looked at it, and said something that I did not understand but instinctively knew was bad news, and it was time for his partner to come into the picture. The latter's English was tortured, but sufficient. He told me my insurance was expired. I said impossible. He went over to the sticker, looked for himself, and said "Il a expiree 31 Juillet, 2006, aujourdhui et 14 Novembre, 2006." Or something like that. Whatever he said, I got the message loud and clear.

Okay, they got me. My insurance sticker was expired. Big deal. I'm a highly trained litigator. This should be no problem for me. A piece of cake. So I simply launched into an erudite discussion of the Rule in Shelley's case and it's effect on three- generation trust instruments. I was brilliant. He listened politely, and said, "Twelve o'clock tomorrow. Noon. Fort Oscar, the Gendarmerie. If you come there before then with documents showing your insurance is valid, it is okay. If you do not come, it is not okay and we will look for you." Very Clint Eastwood. Very effective.

Wow. Fort Oscar. For those who have been here, it is the large fort-like Fort at the point on the far side of the harbor. Up until recently, it bristled with antennas and was occupied by French Secret Service (SGDE, or something like that), where they presumably listened to Henry Kissinger's coded messages to Donald Rumsfeld, assuring the latter we would win the war in Iraq if only we would bomb Cambodia. But I guess the French tired of Rummy's drivel even before the US voters did, and abandoned the Fort about a year ago. The Gendarmes (the French National Police, who are actually a part of the French military) recently moved their Gendarmerie from a quaint house in Corossol to the imposing Fort. When I go there tomorrow, I'll ask for a guided tour.

Back to the roadside: The English-speaking officer gave me specific instructions how to gain entrance to the Fort. It is surrounded by a security fence, of course, and the entrance for people is a gate with a speaker-box at the side. Specific instructions on what French words to speak into the box were necessary because nobody in the Fort speaks English, and my English-speaker would not be at the Fort in the morning. (The Gendarmes do a 3-month tour of duty here. I think it is interesting they choose people who speak no English for this assignment. How my tormentor got this posting, I dunno. Maybe he lied about his language skills.)

So I get ready to put the car into gear and get home and find out about my auto insurance, when this guy reaches into a pouch hanging from his belt, pulls out a small plastic bag with an attached tube, and says, ever so kindly, "Would you mind blowing into this please so we can test for alcohol?"

Oh, boy. The real deal. What the hell do I do now? What are my rights? I haven't the slightest idea. Do I have a real choice? Can I say, in a manner every bit as polite as his, "Actually, I do mind. I am busy. I need to get home to feed the dog, so I'll see your friends at the Fort in the morning."? Hmm. I know that in NY, if you say "No", they can take you in for blood test, or at least suspend your license, or something like that. But in France, who knows? Devil's Island?. Or worse, the motel at the airport in St. Maarten?

You may have seen the recent article in the New York Times headed "Remain Silent." The thrust of it was that tho EVERYBODY knows you should not speak to the fuzz when you are the object of a criminal investigation, everybody speaks anyway. The gist is summed in this quote from the piece:

“Everybody talks,” said Daniel J. Castleman, chief of investigations for the Manhattan district attorney. “Almost nobody doesn’t talk. And the reason for that is that people think they can either talk their way out of it or mitigate the crime. It’s human nature.”

Submitting to the alcohol test is one thing. Blabbing to the cops is another. I am trained for this. I have tried criminal cases, negotiated with big-time prosecutors (including the aforementioned Castleman,) and I know how the system really works. These Gendarmes were not dealing with some unsophisticated tourist. So I did just what you would expect me to do. I blabbed.

With as much charm as I could muster, I said, "Wow, I had two beers for lunch." Brilliant, huh? That surely would dissuade him from pressing forward with the testing idea, right? He smiled, and ever so coyly responded, "Hey, it's five o'clock now, the beers are gone." Trapped. I said okay and blew up the !@#! balloon and handed it back to him. Officer Javert squinted at some gauge at the neck of the balloon, and said, "No alcohol." I re-commenced breathing and we drove home. Yes, to feed Frank. I never lie to he cops.

The moment we are home I call Dawn, our house manager, and ask about the insurance. She checks her file and calls me back in two minutes. I take the call with a Dewars on the rocks in my hand. Yes, she did procure the insurance in a timely fashion, but forgot to put the sticker on the car. She feels awful about that. She offers to go to Fort Oscar for me in the morning and handle the matter. I say "No way, I am dying to get into that place, and I'll do it myself."

Dawn comes right over with the renewed insurance sticker. We chat. She marvels at the fact I got pulled over in a random stop. And tested for alcohol, at that. Pinks says, "If they are going to do random alcohol testing, it's amazing they don't arrest lots of people cause the entire island is drunk by 9 PM." Dawn laughs. "They do not catch anybody because they all go off duty at 6 PM. Except in case of emergency, there are no Gendarmes on duty after dark."

Gotta love the French, non?

04 January 2007

A Christmas Story

On our first night here, we decided to take Frank to dinner with us. Pinks was feeling sorry for him, and she just knew he didn't want to be alone his first night. I have long since learned not to question Pinks' ability to read Frank's mind. The two of them communicate at a frequency not found on my receiver.

The French are very tolerant of dogs in restaurants. Much more so than I. We settled for an outdoor café on the waterfront, where Frank could lie at or under the table and still be outside enough to make me less uncomfortable.

The food was so-so, and the service poor. (The service is always poor at Le Bucaneer—I think they are proud of their distinction in that regard. I can think of no other reason for that extreme departure from the norm on this island, where, properly so, restaurateurs think it is ill mannered to ignore ones patrons.) And of course the view of the harbor and the passersby was sensational.

At some point during our boeuf bourgogne, we slipped into our practice of deducing the life story of the people at the next table, based on nothing but their appearance, demeanor, and an occasional snippet of non-substantive conversation when available without leaning so far over as to fall out of one's chair. Our conclusions are never wrong. Well, more precisely, our creations have never been proven to be wrong, so we must be right, no?

At the table next to ours were two women and two well behaved children, approximate ages 4 and 6. Both kids were stunning blonde girls, one of the moms was an equally stunning blonde in her late early 30's, and the other woman was a barely noticeable brunette of indeterminate years—early 20's I would say. No men at the table.

Clearly this was a moneyed family. The little girls were wearing embroidered tops that were classic St. Barths. Pinks said she had one just like them that she got at Calypso. The lingua franca was American English but we heard no substance, other than an occasional instruction to "please keep the napkin in your lap, dear", "put the fork on your plate if you are finished" etc. All very quiet and poised.

This was too easy. I announced my findings based on the overwhelming evidence: StunningBlondeMom was clearly the mother of the four yr. old—they were virtual identical twins—and probably also the mother of the 6 yr. old as well. The not-so-attractive young brunette woman was a niece or a nanny or a friend. MouseyBrunette barely spoke, if at all.

At the end of their meal, StunningBlondeMom asked for the check and put her credit card on the table.

It was perfectly clear that StunningBlondeMom mom was pissed that her investment banker husband wasn't the one paying the bill. He was back at the villa on the phone, or had flown back to Greenwich, or had never came down in the first place. He was a "buy-sell" hotshot doing a deal, or that's what he told his wife and was at this moment snuggling with his 19 yr old honey in Tribeca. In any event, I admired SBM's poise in not taking her anger out on the little girls, who were delightful.

Now asking for the "l'addition" at Le Bucaneer and actually being presented with it are distinct acts in a seven-act play, each separated by a lengthy intermission.

That intermission, together with our decision to bring Frank, combined to shatter my heretofore flawless record of correctly minding other people's business.

What happened was this: The little girl, no longer busy with her dinner, could not take her eyes off Frank. She asked his name, could she get off her chair and pet him, did he bite, was he nice like her dog back home, and etc. She was instantly involved with Frank, and he with her. StunningBlondeMom took it all in with a smile, turned in her chair, and began to chat with us. (Pinks always says that if she dies before I do, all I need do is take Frank for a walk and I'll be re-married in a month.)

I offered the polite compliment that the girls were so well behaved and StunningBlondeMom smiled and said, "Yes, that's because their mother is not here."

Yikes! Time for an agonizing reappraisal. StunningBlondeMom was indeed stunning and blonde, but not a mom. She told us she was a nanny, and not even the nanny of these little girls. The mousey brunette held that job. StunningBlondeMom was the nanny for another family, also from Stamford, CT. SBM's employers were friends of the kids' parents, were here on vacation, but their child—SBM's charge-- is off skiing with friends. (SMB's employer-family owns a yacht in the harbor, but it is on charter, and they will return, on the boat, with their child and SBM in March. We saw it in the harbor this morning. Gorgeous.)

So SBM said to her employers, "Hey, I don't want to be alone here in Greenwich for New Years. Take me with you to St. Barths and I'll hang with Mousey." So they paid her airfare, gave her money for expenses, and here she was dining at a waterfront café three days before New Years. Nice, huh?

Her check came, she paid for the gang at her table, and we said goodbye and exchanged assurances we would probably run into each other in March. She did not invite us to dinner on the yacht.

Fast forward three days. Pinks and I are sitting on Flamand beach. It's a long beach on the north side of island, home to the prestigious Isle de France Hotel, and a great place to people-watch because while it is not crowded, people are much inclined to stroll from one end to the other. There are two public entrances to this beach. We usually go to the one at the west end of the beach, (the hotel is on the east end), but this day we chose the one closer to the hotel because during the holidays the west end tends to attract the teenage kids home from school, who play ball, fly kites, and otherwise act like teenage kids and who needs that, right?

So Pinks and I are parked about one hundred yards west of the herd of hotel beach chaises, reading and dozing, and who should stroll by but our Miss StunningBlondeNanny, looking drop-dead gorgeous in a teeny weeny white bikini…..rubbing shoulders with an attractive, fit, 50 yr. old guy. Whoa! Who is he? Her employer, Mr. Yachtowner? Where is Mrs. Yachtowner? Where is Miss Mousey and the girls? Just what is going on here?

I thought I was good at this deduction biz. The truth is that up to now I was a big fish in a small pond. New York is Double A ball: this is "The Show".

Okay, I gotta take one more shot at this:

I figure SBN's beach companion was not her employer, but rather was Mousey's employer, father of the two little girls. Two weeks ago, Mousey's employer and his best friend Mr. Yachtowner were at the nineteenth hole and the former said to the latter, "Y.O., ya gotta take StunningBlondeNanny with you to St. Barths. She is threatening to blow the whistle on us if she can't come along, and I can't handle that. I owe ya big, buddy."

Yeah, that's it. How did I miss it the first time around?

Is this Paradise, or what?