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WE'RE IN Essex, having flown in from Carcassonne for a long weekend. We're staying for a few nights in a bed-and-breakfast. When we arrive for breakfast, there's a fellow-guest already tucking into the full English.

Demonstrators in ParisDemonstrators in Paris

WE'RE IN Essex, having flown in from Carcassonne for a long weekend. We're staying for a few nights in a bed-and-breakfast. When we arrive for breakfast, there's a fellow-guest already tucking into the full English.

(I digress for a moment, carried away by the image of fried eggs sunny side up, crisp bacon, golden fried bread, sweltering Cumberland sausages, hash browns, fried tomatoes and mushrooms. Every time we return to the UK, I drool - taking care not to let Josephine see - in expectation of a morning delight practically unknown in France. But Oh! Shock! Horror! When I actually sit down at the breakfast table, tragedy strikes. I find I've lost my taste for it. The siren song of the egg and the rasher falls on deaf ears. Have we lived in France too long?)

We say 'Good morning' in the unobtrusive, almost apologetic manner of British dentists' waiting rooms, commuter train compartments, funeral services. Our fellow-guest mumbles something in reply. Maybe in current bed-and-breakfast etiquette, a grunt is enough.

Our landlady comes in to take our order. (Mine, alas, won't detain her long.) She introduces us to our fellow-guest: Josephine, Christopher, this is Armand. Armand, this is Josephine and Christopher.

Armand, she tells us, is French. He's in England on business. It soon becomes clear that his English is limited, although given the English habit of no one speaking to anyone else in B & B or hotel dining-rooms, it wouldn't matter much if he only spoke Sanskrit. Anyway, the three of us chatter away happily in French, and I'm very glad to defy this dreadful convention of dining-room silence because Armand turns out to be a very interesting man.

We sometimes wonder how on earth France survives as a going concern. Maybe our view from our valley is blinkered, and maybe the deep South, where we live, is nowhere near as prosperous as the North, but we do ask ourselves how an economy beset by strikes and other industrial (in)action and a state rocked by unrest can possibly survive. Who in their right minds is going to invest in an unreliable, expensive and short-fused work-force whose conditions are the already the cushiest in Europe?

Armand tells us that for what he wants it's either Essex or China. France can't compete. In China, where labour is cheap, he can get it for next to nothing, but if you add in transport, delivery dates, guarantees, ease of contact and after-sales service Essex might just have the edge. Armand's company - his own - manufactures giant screens, the sort of thing you relay football matches, pop concerts, royal weddings to overflow crowds on. They're inflatable, like bouncy castles, with a surface that will accept distortion-free projection. Because they're inflatable they can be erected and dismantled in short order. What he needs are air-pumps capable of inflating his screens fast. There's a factory not very far away that makes such pumps. He's going there today to see what he can negotiate. We wonder if his English will come up to scratch.

We see him again briefly in the evening. All has gone well, he says. The deal's done.

We meet again at breakfast. He puts aside the book he's reading, something called Qui suis-je? Et si je suis, combien? i.e. Who am I? And if I am, how many [are there of me]? We talk at length about the state France has got itself into. Strikes, demonstrations, lockouts, séquestration (workplace kidnapping of management until demands are met), opérations escargot (where lorries and tractors proceed at snail's pace along all motorway lanes), picketing and closure of refineries, railway sabotage, threats to pollute water supplies, deliberate cutting-off of electricity to government officials' houses. And so on. While quite often the police appear to stand by.

Armand shrugs his shoulders. That's France, he says. We're used to it. It will all fizzle out. Besides, you can't blame people for clinging (he says qui se collent, who glue themselves) to advantages they've accrued over the years.

We're surprised. The merest quivering of French social unrest sends us into siege mentality mode. Best stock up on flour/rice/sugar/nourishing soups/aspirin. Best keep a full tank and a can or two of diesel beside. The woodpile will see us through the winter, if the electricity fails. Best clean all that muck out of the spring, though, you never know if the local waterworks . . . and we find ourselves furtively looking at UK estate agents' websites in case the balloon really does go up.

We learn a lot from Armand, although Essex seems a long way to go discover it. Why can't we see things in such a laid-back, detached way? Why can't we be more...what's the word I want? Philosophical, that's it. Why can't we be more philosophical about it?

One of the results of this chance meeting was that I bought the book he was reading. Not one normally one to plunge very deep into philosophy, I'm really enjoying it. As yet there's no English translation, but I can quite see how its direct, energetic approach would appeal to a direct and energetic French manufacturer. Just to cap the irony of all this, I'm expecting to hear any day that the French trade unions have ordered large quantities of Armand's giant screens, so that at mass rallies everyone can see what's going on.

* * *

The Olive treeThe Olive Tree

AS A wedding present three and a half years ago Les Jeudistes, my little choir, gave us an olive tree. In due course we took it out of the tub it came in and planted it, sat back and waited for this most characteristic of Mediterranean trees to flourish.

Nothing happened for a long time. Then, last spring, there was a heavy blossom of tiny white flowers, promising a good harvest in the autumn. We're gathering them just now. The traditional way to harvest olives is to spread nets or old bedsheets round the spread of the tree and then beat the branches with long sticks. Our tree is too tiny for that, so we're picking them, and at last we know what variety our olive tree is.

There are as many varieties of olives as there are, say, of apples. Ours are a variety called Cailletier, which gives very small but oil-rich dark red or black olives. They're most familiar as the tiny but highly-flavoured olives you get in salade niçoise, a hefty salad with greenstuff including rocket, hard-boiled egg, tuna, anchovies - and Cailletier olives. (And dressing, of course.)

If we wanted the oil we would take them along to the nearest oil-press, but the fruit of one rather small tree would only produce something to be measured in thimblefuls, so Josephine is going to process them for eating. This involves multiple soakings in brine and will take several weeks.

The olive harvestThe olive harvest

So if the balloon does go up in spite of Armand's relaxed attitude, we'll be well stocked with olives to put in our salade niçoise. So that's all right, then. Maybe we needn't trouble ourselves looking at UK real estate agents' websites. Not just yet, anyway.