It is 7.30 in the morning and I am in the courtyard of the Mayor’s office in Pezenas. No, I’m not in trouble with the authorities again, but am here to sell fresh almonds.
There is a bustling market in Pezenas on a Saturday and my husband’s latest money-making scam is that we sell the almonds from our almond grove.
In order to get a stall at the market one has to queue up with about 30 other hopefuls at the crack of dawn. Needless to say my husband is still in bed and I am queuing. My step-son Hugo has agreed to come with me, with the proviso that he is home before the start of the test-match.
I was amazed when I phoned the mayor’s office earlier in the week to ask what one needs to do to secure a stall.
“Just show up,” said a seriously surly woman who was clearly already bored even though it was only 9am.
“That’s all? No papers to fill in? No birth certificate translated by an official translator? No need to know what I’m selling?”
“No,” she said.
I could have been coming along with pornographic literature for all she knew, or even worse, Wellington memorabilia.
But as we check out our fellow stall holders, I realise things aren’t that simple. In front of me in the queue are two men. They not only have papers with them but are clutching great folders of official looking documents.
I explain what our plan is and they both shake their heads.
“They won’t let you do anything without papers. We’ve been coming here for years but we bring them every time,” says one, waving his impressive folder in my general direction. He tells me he is here to sell goat’s cheese. The other is planning to sell fruit and veg.
“One man last week drove three hours to get here and was turned away because he had no insurance certificate,” adds the fruit and veg man. Our little venture seems doomed to failure.
“I know,” says Hugo. “If we don’t get a stall, the fruit and veg man could take our almonds and 50% of the profit he makes on them.” This boy will go far.
I suggest Hugo’s plan to the fruit and veg man who agrees it’s a good one. Hugo then suggests we could take 50% of the profits he makes on his sales as well, but he doesn’t seem so taken with that idea.
I ask our new friends how the system works and they tell me you have to register the goods you’re selling and then you’re given a ticket with a number on it. At eight o’clock there is a raffle where if your number is picked you are taken to a corresponding spot in the market.
Finally the door opens and we start to file in to an office. Behind the desk sit a police officer and a woman from the mayor’s office.
“Oh dear, this looks scary,” says Hugo. “You’re going to need all your French for this.”
As he speaks he leans against the wall, inadvertently turning out the lights in the room.
“Uh, uh, that’s not a good start,” he says, switching them back on as the policeman behind the counter sighs.
“You can always tell the newcomers,” smiles the goat’s cheese seller. “They invariably lean on the light switch. We all know it’s there.”
Finally we get to the front of the queue.
“We’re selling almonds,” I tell the policeman.
“What?” is his response.
“Almonds,” I repeat. I have changed nothing in the way I pronounce the word almonds but this time he seems to understand.
“Where are your papers?” he demands.
“We don’t have any, this is just a one-off. We’re selling the contents of our almond grove.”
He and the woman look at each other in despair.
“You can’t just sell to the general public without any papers,” thunders the policeman. “You need papers. Everyone before you had papers, you need to be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, you need insurance,” his list goes on and on. I am beginning to understand how an immigrant trying to bluff her way into France must feel. In fact I’m amazed they have a problem with immigrants here at all, such is the efficacy of their bureaucrats.
Hugo and I have no option but walk out of the office without our ticket to the day’s lottery, heads bowed as the rest of the queue stares at us.
Once outside we try to find our fruit and veg man. He is nowhere to be seen. But we find the cheese seller who asks another stall owner he knows if she would like to sell our almonds.
“No, we don’t even bother picking ours,” she says. “No one wants them. The only place you can sell them is the beach.”
We walk past our friend Jean-Luc’s grocery store.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he asks, looking at his watch.
We tell him what has happened.
“Bring your almonds here,” he says. “I’ll sell them.”
We collect the almonds. Jean-Luc weighs them. There are nine kilos.
“How much were you going to sell them for?” he asks.
“I thought five euros a kilo.”
“That’s what you get for dried almonds,” he tells me. “It’s too much.”
I do some shopping while I’m there. My bill comes to €44. Jean-Luc charges me €28 and says the balance is for the almonds.
So we bought the land and the almond grove for several thousand euros, had the trees pruned by an Irishman for €100 and the ground rotivated for €60. We have made a total of €16 on the sale of almonds. As the saying goes, God hates a primary producer. Even in France.
If you are away from your property during July and August and you inform the municipal police (gendarmerie) they will patrol and check things in your absence. You need to leave them with a contact number and address. The service applies to rural and urban areas and is called operation tranquillité vacances.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018