29 April 2007

A Typical Sunday Lunch

There are said to be fifty eight restaurants on this small island. Today we ate out, but not at any of them.

The table setting was simple enough: heavy crockery plates, stainless silverware, paper napkins. In the center of the table was a large aluminum pot, full to the brim with a stew of some sort. There was also a platter of white rice, a bowl of onions and tomatoes in oil and vinegar, and a plate of French bread. Sounds like nothing extraordinary, except that I ate the stuff in the pot, two helpings in fact. The dish was fejuwada (ph) a Portugese stew prepared by our host Jaime, a stone mason. When I asked what the ingredients were, the hostess, the wonderful linguist who cleans our house and is the companion of the cook, asked if I was sure I wanted to know. I said yes and she told me. The main ingredient was white beans. Then comes the good stuff: pork snout, tripes (cow stomach) and chicken. Put it all in a pot with a list of spices I could not recall, simmer for who knows how long, and, voila, a meal for a Prince, and a stonemason, and a couple of New York City retired professionals.

The luncheon was, of course, accompanied by a little "energy" stuff. First, a cold glass of a Portugese port wine, followed by lots of cold beer, and, as a digestif, a clear form of a gasoline-like liquid that is the Portoguese version of grappa.

The occasion? Nothing special. Dina said she wanted to have us to lunch before we left the island, and we went to the charming house she and Jaime rent in Vitet. A bashful 26 yr. old Portugese steel welder who rents the other bedroom was also in attendance. I never did get his name, tho everybody called him the "Ugly Duckling"--a name in which he took great pride. From what I was able to gather, he is expecting to meet and marry and American tourist from Boston. Hey, it's a plan.

The quintet was completed by another St. Barths couple: Rebecca, a California gal who next week is marrying Orlando, a Portugese tile-setter. The three men spoke not a word of English, or French for that matter. Rebecca speaks perfect English, of course, and knows a smattering of Portugese, and Dina speaks English, Spanish, Portugese, French, and one other language, I forget which.

While the first ten or fifteen minutes were a bit awkward-- the guys spoke only to the guys-- a few beers and glasses of wine later, we got along fine. Orlando is very gregarious guy and a non-stop talker. Between sign language, cognates, and a little translation help, we did great. And there is no doubt our language skills improved dramatically the more we drank. Lots of jokes, laughing, and talk about American television and movies--McGiver, Hulk Hogan, John Wayne are very big on French tv re-run stations.

We sat outside on plastic chairs, at a round wooden table covered by a brightly covered oilcloth. The breeze was great, the guys were wearing shorts and t-shirts, the view of the garden and mountains was exceptional, and even the instant espresso was outstanding. You make it yourself. Put some instant coffee in the demitasse cup, add some grappa and a few tablespoons of hot water out of the pot in the center of the table. Who needs a coffee machine?

And just to make me feel like a real techno-moron, after lunch Jaimie dragged me into his bedroom, sat me down in front of his computer, hit a few keys, and there was his brother, in Spain, live on the screen, in a frame just above Jamie and me. The brothers talked for a few minutes while I smiled at the camera. I could make out nothing but the word "Americaine" spoken several times, and the words "Hulk Hogan", a nickname Orlando gave me several beers back. It was clear I was an honored guest, and was being shown off to Jaime's family.

How did he do that electronic magic? Duh, an MSN program. Free. Why don't I have it? Why don't I know about it? Why am I spending all those euros to talk to New York? Okay, thats it. Next year, we put the final nail in France Telcom's coffin.

So after a very slow drive home, two advils, a nap, I sit at my keyboard watching a rain squall work its way across the Carib.

How do you leave a place like this?

28 April 2007

Flash: Even in the F.W.I, All Politics Are Local

Herewith a hot news report on French national politics en St. Barth.

While this island is in the midst of a change in the form of its of local government because of newly granted home-rule rights, most people expect little real change, i.e., the island will still be part of France, the same people will be running things locally, and aside from some new tourist and port taxes, not much will be different. The local election is in June. Ho, hum.

But to my surprise, the French national election has been a matter of significant attention here.

That contest, for those who do not follow it closely, is in two rounds. First round was Sunday, 22 April. (They voted Saturday here.) There were 12 candidates for President, with only four being talked about seriously. The top two vote-getters are in a run-off on 6 May. As expected, the winners of the first round were right-of-center Nicolas Sarkozy, and to his left, the Socialist Party candidate (first woman ever to be in the running for President), Segolene Royal.

Surprise, surprise, no candidate visited these hustings. Perhaps, just perhaps, the numbers played a role in that. Of the 81 million votes cast in France, this island contributed exactly three thousand nineteen. The turnout set a record here and in all of France as well. (63% of registered voters here, 83% in all of France.) (Next time you want to pee on France, think about whether George and Dick and Karl would be running the sandbox today if we had that kind of national voter turnout.)

No one here resents being ignored by the candidates. Barthians do not worry about being chopped liver. It is close enough to pate that nobody cares.

The really significant numbers are in the individual totals. In all of France, Conservative Sarkozy beat Socialist Royal 31-26%. In St. Barths, Sarkozy beat Royal 59% to 13%. That is some disparity. And Royal's 13% is the highest percentage ever won by a Socialist candidate on this island. (My own view? She is an attractive woman who is not married to the father of her four children. En France, that's mainstream.)

Notably, St. Barth's "sister" islands in the French outremer were far more enthusiastic about the Socialist candidate: while Sarkozy won in both places, the margin in Guadeloupe was 42-38, and in St. Martin, 42-32.

Those islands are quite poor. People here scoff at Guadeloupe, the administrative "capitol" of the French West Indies: One hears comments like, "They are always on strike there." Barthians, though very French, are much more like Americans when it comes to l'affairs economique. People here are inclined to be leery of government. The island economy is in good shape and the locals want to be able to manage their businesses and their homes without official interference. A Socialist stands little chance here. There is no unionized labor, no serious political unrest, no downtrodden minorities. At worst, too much rain in March, but its difficult to blame Sarkozy for that.


While I am in my political reporting mood, a small personal anecdote tells much about the mood in France, which parallels some current political discussions in the U.S.

In previous accounts, I have talked about our several visits to the sousprefecture and our dealing with the French bureaucracy in connection with getting visas to stay on the island for more than three months at a time. The process is excruciatingly slow and a PITA, but we do it anyway. Hard to give up an hour at the beach, but it's great blog material.

Last week we were informed that our "long stay" (one year) visas had been issued, and the documents had made their way from France to St. Martin and thence to the St. Barths sousprefecture. We were invited to come in and pick them up. We did. But we had both of them in our possession for only a moment. In classic French bureaucratic function, Pinks was given a card that, on its face, had expired two months ago. So after looking at it, she had to return it! Not to worry, the sousprefecture issued a her a temporary card. That one expires before we return in November. Hey, you can't make this stuff up.

When we return, we will both need to apply for renewals--a real nuisance involving letters from insurance companies, banks, etc. I asked the lovely lady behind the counter, who is the manager of the sousprefecture, if we had to do this every year indefinitely. No, she said, after five one-year visas, one may apply for a ten-year resident card. But, she said, there was a new French "integre" law requiring all applicants for ten-year resident status to show proficiency in written and oral French. Doubtless the French National Assembly was not thinking about Marty and Pinks London and their ilk when they passed that law, non? This is particularly relevant to the hottest political issue in the French national election, the recent visit by Sarkozy to one of the unintegrated Muslim suburbs surrounding Paris, where he called the residents "scum." That is the reported English translation for the French word he used, but I suspect it is worse than that.

Okay, enough serious talk. Our days in paradise are few, the sun shines, and it's time to get back to my regular job.

A bientot.

26 April 2007

First half score: Island 1, Hi-tech 0

Soooo, not content with spending two zillion euros to demolish the living room wall in order to open the room up to the sea so we could sit on the new French living room couch and view the fantastic tropical sunsets framed by beautiful green mountains, the British island of Saba in the distance, and the Bahamian and Pelopenisian megayachts in our front yard, we decided we wanted a television set to look at too. Not the absolutely perfect 5 year old cathode ray tube Phillips 19" with a built in video cassette player (TAPE? UGH) that came with the house, but something a bit more upscale.

Caraibe Electronics, yeah, that's the place. Whatever you want, they've got it, will install it, guaranteed, no problem. Experts. Everybody agrees. The best. And at a DISCOUNT (every French merchant on the island can pronounce that English word. Not one of them knows what it means. I think there is no equivalent en Francaise.)

So starts a third-world adventure: bringing hi-tech to an island where the technical standard is set by the French bureaucrats who run the telephone system (France Telecom) and the electric grid (Electricitie de France)s, if you get my drift.

Christopher is the hard-working small businessman who owns Caraibe Electronics. My conversations with him began a year ago. My wants were simple: an HD flat screen tv, a dvd player and a cd player. Period. Simple, non? Non, pas de simple.

Did I want a regular tv or a monitor tv? The latter. And I insisted on HD of course. There is no cable on the island. Did I know the French satellite had no HD programming and the American satellite (which, on this island, may or not be a legal signal) has only a few HD channels at this time? Did I want 720 ip or 1028 ip ( or something like that anyway) plasma, DLP, LCD, moonbeam, or what? DVD, of course, is in total confusion, with two conflicting systems, and even CD players come in upright, circular, "jukebox" and who knows what else modes. Surround sound? Outside speakers?

I'm tough. I made all the right decisions. Wrote a check. (That is not an easy chore. Learning the words for French numbers is only the beginning. Then you have to figure out how to combine them. There is not a lot of sense to it. There are words for 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60, but the French are frugal, and they decided to recycle the words they already paid for. As a result, there are no new words for for 70, 80 or 90, only arithmetic tests. So 70 is "sixty ten" and eighty is "four twenty" and 90 is "four twenty ten" and if you want 97, it is not 'four twenty ten seven," it is "four twenty seventeen.", but there is no separate word for seventeen anyway, just a hyphenated "ten-seven." And even when I learned how to spell out the numbers, I still have great psychological difficulties writing "Mille" when the word I want is "Thousand".

Back to my tv set. Six months after writing a check for half the total cost (en Euro, naturellement) nothing had yet been installed. Nothing. The 42" Panasonic plasma TV I wanted was not yet available in South America, where all the local 240 volt tv's come from. Panasonic could not say when it would ship. The Bose sound system came in, but would not work with the outside Bose speakers. Why? I dunno. The satellite box would not work with the Bose remote, one was infra red, and the other was whatever.

And when the pieces all did ship in, they discovered the conduit the electrician put in the wall to hold the cables was too small. Didn't the electrician know the Bose system cable had a large plug at the end that could not be removed and then replaced? And that plug could not fit through the conduit? Duh, I sure didn't tell him. Didn't the satellite guy tell me that the receiver I ordered would not work with the Bose remote? Didn't the electrician know I needed a special cable for the DVD player, and that cable didn't fit in the conduit either?

In the end, I would say Christopher and his crew spent about thirty hours installing these few components. In a moment of great physical and mental weakness, he confessed to me that I was the first person on the island to order such a complex set of appliances. Complex? I ordered a Panasonic TV, a Bose DVD player and speakers, and a Yamaha CD player (holds five CD's). Period. What was the big deal? Well, no one on this island had ever tried to stitch them together before, so I was the first. When I said, "Christopher, you recommended this system. You mean I was the guinea pig?", he lapsed into French and reacted as if I had just accused him of having noxious body odor. (He doesn't, of course, but there are French persons on this island who will make your eyes tear at twenty paces. What is it with these people?)

Of course I was the guinea pig. The first monitor HD tv, (he confessed there are four other HD's, but not monitors,) the first monitor tv-Bose combo, and the first DVR (think Tivo) sat box, which I still do not know how to use, and so what, since I go to sleep every night after watching Seinfeld and John Stewart re-runs. Worth every one of the 1,000,000 centimes I paid for this stuff.

The installation of the components proceeded at a painful pace. Christopher was here so often, he became a virtual family member. On his fourth or fifth visit, we got down to serious talk about his business problems. He could not keep good help. The young men tended to drink too much, and crash their motor scooters. When they did work, they came and went whenever they pleased, so an appointment with a customer was at best a target, certainly not an obligation. On one day, a tech was supposed to be here at 9 AM. I patiently waited. At 10 AM I was told he would be a half hour late. He arrived at 3 PM without proper tools and he accomplished zip. I lost it. I called Christopher and actually complained. How un-island. He came by the next day, and when he finished telling me his problems, I asked if there were anything I could do to help him.

On one visit, Christopher told me he fired all three of his techs. I asked how could he conduct his business, run the store, drive the truck, do the bookkeeping and install everything with no help. He shrugged his shoulders and kept on sweating all over my new appliances. Later that day, one of the fired techs simply walked in and started to work as if nothing had ever happened. He was hampered by a large cast on on one arm. (Christopher earlier told me he called in sick on Friday and Saturday, went out drinking Saturday night and crashed his scooter and had to be evacuated to St. Martin to have his arm set.) A half hour later, fired tech #2 walked into my living room and eagerly helped tech #1 wire the outside speakers. Christopher said nothing, just worked on the TV and at one point, when no one could see, winked and smiled in my direction. I did not envy him. Apparently this was a dance island employers perform on a regular basis.

Bottom line, its nice to be a retiree, not an employer here. In the end, the stuff installed works irregularly. TV reception is okay as long as it isn't raining anywhere in this hemisphere. ( From where we are, the relevant satellite is very low, just barely above the horizon. So what if we missed the Bears' second touchdown because of a rain squall just east of Saba. Picky, picky. This is the Carib.) The Bose system (necessary only if you are not an accomplished lip reader) is back and forth from the shop. And the dish recorder, the very first on the island, maybe, just maybe, works after two hours of diligent attention by Zachary, my 16 yr. old grandson. (Remember that old Sony VCR commercial where the parents are sitting on the couch crying because their son has gone to camp and now they can't work the VCR?)

When it comes to electronic appliances, we are all slaves to our remotes. I have five: tv, Bose, sat, cd player, outside speakers. Christopher, out of a sense of guilt re the delayed installation, gave me a gift: a master remote that ran four out of the five gadgets. He spent four hours, --no exaggeration—four hours, programming the thing so it could talk to the tv, the sat receiver, the CD player and the Bose. But the operation is so complicated, the lcd screen so difficult to read, I have given up and now have five remotes lined up on the table next to my chair. I am the only person in the house who knows how to turn the TV on an off. I really like that a lot. Makes me feel wanted.

But I do believe I will have "the entertainment system" this squared away inside of a year.

The computer story is different. Those problems are now well into the second year. But even there we have definite improvement. Both our laptops (of course we have two; I want this marriage to work) now can and do connect to the internet on a pretty regular basis. In fact, I would say we are on line now all the time that France Telecom is on line, which is most but not all of the time. The solution to the problem of inconsistent service was to hard wire both computers to the upstairs dsl modem. Without going into too much detail, that is done via the house's unused telephone wires —a system I have not yet seen in the United States, but what do I know.

But in order for me to read the NYTimes at the breakfast table, I need my wi-fi. And that ain't working, at least not most of the time. My local computer tech Jessica, whose grandchildren, I am convinced, will be educated at my expense, now says she has finally diagnosed the wi-fi problem in this house: My hi-tech tv is interfering with the wi-fi signal! But I never watch TV except at night. No matter, says Jessica, the tv is never really "off", just sleeping. Sounds like somebody I used to work with.

What, me worry? I am the happiest guy you know.

A bientot.