Don't blame the French for this, although the French can be extremely bloody minded about their politicians. This time, it's the Spanish, in a country that seems not only to be on the verge of breaking up but having a little revolution at the same time, all over the appalling austerity its people are suffering. These caganer santon figures have been a tradition in Catalonia, the region that desperately wants to break away from the rest of Spain, since the 18th century, and they've lost none of their popularity.
These little figures of the bare backsided cagener has long been a great Christmas seller in Catalonia, where they've made them in recent years of such figures as Carla Bruni, Barack Obama and the Pope. See what I mean, seriously irreverent. The figures shows noted figures relieving themselves and in Catalonia, the tradition was to put them in the crib so that the deposits will make the soil in the crib rich for the coming year. Sticking one of these figurines in the crib was supposed to mean that you'll get luck and happiness in the new year.
There's a similar tradition in Provence but what has given these little figures a big sales uplift this year, especially in France, is the new one that has been done of French President François Hollande. The disillusion with the new French president is astonishing and even though it's only six months since he came to power, the way in which public confidence in him has waned is quite astonishing. So many people in France were keen to dump Sarkozy and now they've got an even worse presidential figure, who seems totally incapable of leading France out of the recessionary mire.
This could well be a Mediterranean tradition that catches on in this part of the world, Britain and Ireland. We can all name politicians who came to power promising miracles and who, in the event, have delivered bugger all squared. If you're short of a party game at Christmas, here's an idea. Get
everyone to name their favourite political pooper as an ideal candidate for a caganer figure! If you want to buy one, all you have to do is go to the website http://www.caganer.com/and you'll be doing the business!
Talking about such matters, French actor Gérard Depardieu is in the news again for all the wrong reasons. Very recently, he fell off his scooter in the 17th arrondissement in Paris and it turned out he was well over the alcohol limit for driving. So it looks like he's going to be in big trouble. Earlier this year, he got into an altercation with a fellow motorist and ended up beating up the poor man. Then in August last year, when he was in an Air France plane preparing to take off from Paris for Dublin, he wasn't allowed to go to the loo, tried to urinate into a bottle while he was in the first class section, failed and did it all over the carpet, giving new expression to the phrase "pissed off".
While we're on such matters, I must tell you about one of the most intriguing museums in
Paris. It's not quite as popular as the Louvre, but it still gets about 90,000 visitors a year. It's the sewers museum, near the Pont d'Alma. You pay a small entrance fee, then climb down into the sewers and go for a little promenade, all rather different from your usual bucket and spade seaside
Paris has a great underground tradition; as well as the sewers, it has nearly 300 km of catacombs, caves and galleries. In the late 18th century, to relieve overcrowding in the city's cemeteries, the mortal remains of six million Parisians were put into the catacombs. A small section of them can be
Then eight years ago, in 2004, an amazing underground site came to light, literally. Some 20 metres beneath the Palais de Chaillot, which is in the 16th arrondissement, directly across the River Seine from the Eiffel tower, the sewer police discovered this huge cave that had been turned into a fully equipped cinema. It even had three working phones! This was literally just the tip of the iceberg-Paris has a maze of these underground caves that have been put to all kinds of uses. You can well
say that what lies beneath the surface of Paris is just as interesting as what you see everyday above
On a similarly byzantine tangent, I'd like to mention a very unusual plaque at the top of the rue de
Bellechasse in the 7th - it's at the top of the same street as the Musée D'Orsay. In 1910, Paris had the worst floods for 300 years and much of the low-lying parts of central Paris were flooded. The
mark in the rue de Bellechasse shows just how far up the water came. There's a great book on the
subject, with some magnificent photos. It's called Paris Under Water - How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910. It's by Jeffrey H. Jackson and was published in New York in 2010 by Palgrave Macmillan. If you can get hold of a copy, it's well worth having, for the photos alone.
Meanwhile, all France is preparing for another apocalypse, which to my mind sounds all
phoeey to say the least! The ancient Mayan culture in Mexico devised a calendar that ran in cycles each of which lasted for over 300 years. The calendar began 5,000 years ago and the Mayans sculpted it so that it runs right up to December 21, 2012. After that, the calendar is a blank. Many cults
have intrepreted this as meaning that the world's going to come to an end on December 21. Down in the south-west of France, beyond Carcassone, there's a very odd looking mountain, called the Pic de Bugarach.
Locals say that the rocks at the top of the mountain are younger than the ones further down, which does sound very odd. Many cults believe that on the big day, December 21, this mountain will be all that will be saved on earth and all kinds of strange rumours are going round, like the one that says
the mountain will burst open, revealing an alien spaceship. So strong have become the rumours in recent weeks that even the Pope has come out against them. I'm perfectly sure we will all be here on December 22, attending to all the preparations for Christmas.
Which reminds me of the time we decided to spend Christmas in Paris. It was tricky, because the weather was so lousy and so many places were closed. French people aren't really keen on Christmas -wise people! - and prefer instead to put all their energies into New Year's Eve, looking forward
instead to the new year. One New Year's Eve in France we were amazed to see that one of the attractions on one of the main TV channels was an admittedly mild enough striptease!
But anyway, back to this particular Christmas visit to Paris. We arrived at Roissy late on
Christmas Eve, having booked into one of the gigantic hotels at the airport. It turned out we were the only guests in a place that had nearly 600 rooms, but the staff were great fun and very decent. They opened up the disco just for the two of us! We also saw snatches of a great French tradition at Christmas, a screening on television of one of the greatest French films ever made, Les Enfants du Paradis. It was made while France was still under German occupation and released in 1945. After all these years, the film is incredibly fresh and appealing.
Still, during that trip, the taxi ride from the airport into central Paris on Christmas morning was something rather special.
Just shows, no matter how adverse the circumstances or the weather in Paris, you'll always find something to fascinate you. And while I'm on the subject of fascinating things for Christmas, don't forget your caganer santon!