Three Cords of Wood – Part 2
It’s August 2007 and I’m stacking firewood in my back garden.
....... Large stands a bit taller, rests his right hand on the flap that stops his gun falling out of the holster and looks serious. The next thing he says has my bladder loosening.
‘’Have you bought any fire-wood recently, M’sieur?’
I drop the oak log I’m holding back into the barrow, and I say ‘Moi?’
He gives me this old-fashioned look and says something in French to his boss, Little. They do that thing all French officials seem to learn as soon as they’re issued a uniform. They ignore me, talk at each other very quickly, and wave their hands frantically. Neither seems to be listening to what the other has to say. I stand very still, because Large’s right hand is still resting on the butt of his automatic, he’s gesticulating with his left.
Little, the Officer in charge, cuts Large off with a dismissive wave of his hand. He turns to me, ‘Oui, M’sieur. ‘Ave you bought any firewood recen’ly.’
Bloody hell, he sounds just like that bartender from ‘Allo ‘Allo, (a bloody awful UK ‘sitcom’ set in WW2 France). It’s all I can do not to burst out laughing.
He looks from the large pile of firewood I’ve just stacked and back to me a couple of times to make sure I’ve got the point.
‘Oui.’ I reply, looking directly at the officer’ gun holster.
Little takes over since I really do have the message.
‘Where did you get the wood from, M’sieur?’
‘I’d rather not say.’
He says something to Little who looks at me like I’ve just blow up the Eiffel Tower. ‘But you must, M’sieur!’ He absolutely flabbergasted that I won’t answer his questions.
‘It ‘as been reported stolen, M’sieur.’
I can’t believe it. I paid four-hundred- and-eighty Euros for three cords of nicked firewood. Just wait ‘til I get my hand on my neighbour the Captain, the guy I bought it from.
Now, in a similar situation in the UK, I’d throw my arms in the air and say something jokey like, Okay Officer, you’ve got me bang to rights. I’ll come quietly.’ But I don’t do that for two simple reasons. One, I don’t know how to say it in French. And, two, they’re Gendarmes, not you local neighbourhood Bobbies.
I think I should take a little time to explain the difference to people who’ve never been to France.
The word Gendarme literally translates as ‘John of Arms’ or ‘Man at Arms’. Over here they’re a national service and almost para-military in operation. The larger communities have a local Municipal Police force, but they’re little more than traffic wardens, and as far as I know they’re not armed.
Unlike your British Bobbies who are generally unarmed and police by consent, Gendarmes police by force. Let me see if I can demonstrate the difference between the two.
You’ve all heard of the Tour de France? Well, it’s a rolling three-week Festival. Wherever a tour stage finishes, the host town throws a huge party. Last summer (I’m talking 2012 now) the nearest stage finish to us was in a place called Redon.
Thousands upon thousands of us queued all afternoon under the broiling sun not wanting to lose our place, our special view of the finish. I managed to pick out a wonderful position on a slight hill just after the final roundabout that marked the place where the riders would gather for the big sprint finish. There were hundreds of us crammed into a small area and we’d been there for hours.
The commentator began winding up the crowd in preparation for the arrival of the peloton when a troop of three Gendarmes planted themselves in front of us and partially obscure the view we’ve been guarding for the past hot hours. A load of French guys at the back started shouting and telling them to move. There were hundreds of us, but only three of them. Terrifying for them right? Oh no.
One of the Gendarmes, the Officer, turned imperiously and looked down his nose at us, even though, standing on a bank, we all towered over him. He shook his head and wagged an admonishing finger at us, and then, calm as you like, he slowly turned round to watch the race.
Just imagine a British Bobbie trying to get away with the same thing.
‘But you must, M’sieur!’
‘Oui, M’sieur. Did you buy it from votre voisin?’
‘Yes, my neighbour. Jean-Luc.’ I’m a bit sheepish because I hate dobbing anyone in the merde, (you’ll have to look that one up), but its either him or me. And like I keep harping on, they have guns.
It turns out that Jean-Luc, or ‘Capt Picard’ as I call him, didn’t just steal a load of logs. Oh no, the Captain actually felled the trees, and chopped and split them too! It appears he’s a very hard working thief. Or is that an oxy-moron?
So, now I’m worried about the wood I’ve just spent three days stacking. ‘But what about the wood? Will I have to give it back?’ I ask Little.
‘No M’sieur, we will leave that to the avocat (lawyer).’
Jan comes out and we give them a statement. I carry on stacking the rest of the wood, and we hear nothing more about the matter.
Strange here isn’t it?
I swear to you, all of the above is true and I haven’t needed to resort to ‘artistic licence’. Not that anyone could call me an ‘artist’.
It turns out that the owner of the trees in question has a long-standing feud with our Captain Picard who thought the forest was part of his father-in-law’s estate. The guy that made the accusation was fined for wasting police time. As for the Captain, he had to give his hard-earned money back to the owner who used it to pay the fine.
Another bit of gossip - Jean-Luc spent eight years in prison in the 1990s for stabbing a Gendarme who’d run off with his wife. It seems that the Gendarmes have long memories and are happy to believe anything of our giant French neighbour.
I wasn’t actually going to write a second part to this story, but my wife insisted. You will recall in Part 1, I complained about her being ‘too tried to help’ and that I didn’t know what was wrong with her?
Well, two weeks after the above incident, we discovered a massive tumour in her abdomen. She was diagnosed with colon cancer and she nearly died. Thankfully, three operations, three months of chemo-therapy and five years later, she’s fine. We’ll never forget the treatment she received from the wonderful French health system. Another reason we love living in France.