Yesterday morning was market day in the small town of Mazan and, amongst the chard, oyster and cardoon sellers, we had our rendez-vous with Monsieur Thurin. Our itinerary was Mazan, Bedarrides, Althen les Paluds and Chateauneuf du Pape, and we were to be inspecting shit.
The purification station we have stumbled across may be the one that could save our – well, you fill in the word - and we were to see four examples of it in action, two of whose owners had the same problem as us: No Land.
At the first stop we greeted the proud new owner of the ‘mini station d’épuration’
. He was lovingly planting little box hedges around the grey disc which covered the system, which, through four different chambers, transformed all the household’s poo and washing up liquid and olive oil and goose fat into a clear liquid good enough for irrigation.
‘Have you done any good ‘crottes’ today, Mister?’ asked Monsieur Thurin as we gaped into the first chamber.
‘Ah, an excellent dump today. My wife cooks such good food’ said the client pointing to the fourth chamber.
‘I can vouch for that’ said Monsieur Thurin ‘and she makes an excellent p’tit ponch too’. He winked.
I gazed at the second chamber where the bio-masse was starting to form. Being highly oxygenated, it was bubbling away, busy breeding bacteria to break down the matter from the first. ‘Ooh look, champagne!’ I said.
‘I have to admit know some better ones in the region’ said Monsieur Thurin.Julian
was looking at the first chamber. ‘Sir, I pronounce you in most excellent health!’
After that we visited a little man doing up his son’s mansion who was only too happy to sing the praises of his new system since it has cost him five thousand euros instead of fifty – the sum quoted for a traditional septic tank – and he could put it snug in the driveway, meanwhile watering his nearby cypresses. Then came a wine maker and, lastly, a small house in the middle of the gold-dust that is the vines of Chateauneuf du Pape.
‘The water board wrote a letter telling this guy he had to buy a hectare of Chateauneuf vines’ said Monsieur Thurin. ‘You know how much they are worth? More than constructible land for sure; would probably have cost him about two hundred thousand– all so he could soak away his excrement.’
Monsieur Thurin, we were discovering, had a scatological bent.
I thought of my recent visit to the local lawyer to whom, desperate to find a solution to our problem, I had shown the same letter. Granted, Côte du Ventoux vines don’t cost the same, but the farmers can’t be arsed about selling them anyway – not for a garden nor for a waste water system, and certainly not to ‘Les Anglais’.
Our lawyer was, at that very moment as we cruised round Provence in a Honda, and on the instruction of Madame Perrier – yes that really is the name of the woman at the water-board! - preparing three letters to the three people with land bordering on our house to ask if they would sell us a ‘bout’. If, but more realistically when they said no (the water board informed me) we would have to proceed to ‘the next step’. We were not told what ‘the next step’ would be (nightmares of having to sell the house for a piece of shit) but, as our journey continued with monsieur Thurin, we began to understand how many pockets would be lined along the way:
First of all, by 2008, all departments are supposed to have carried out controls on all private waste water systems. Because they were charging (illegally) 153€ for this ‘service’, most people (rightfully) were refusing to pay it, and so they had (illegally) stopped the controls.
In all my communications with Madame Perrier over the last two years, she had insisted that we have a soil test. Each time I replied we didn’t HAVE any soil to test, and that that was the problem, to which she just wrote again that in order to have a septic tank (that we didn’t want) we would have to have a soil test. Funny that, the test costs 1000€.
With a septic tank you need a lot of sand for the soak-away, and that sand needs to be changed every five years. There are of course back-handers going around from the sand suppliers, which means that the water board, though Monsieur Thurin presented himself as soon as he arrived in the department, ‘know absolutely nothing’ about systems that don’t need loads of sand.
(As Monsieur Thurin continued to explain, we passed one of the fancy roundabouts being built all through France. This one had some very curious iron-work and rather a lot of sand. We all nodded sagely at the implied corruption.)
And so, in a place in the world where for the last ten years there has been a drought, ignorance and corruption continue to damage the environment, and rob its folk. Our neighbour, for example, an honest peasant, did what he was told: He cut down half his olive grove to make a soak-away because his septic tank and soak-away system had to be:
. 5 m from the property
. 10 m à 15 m from any banks,
. 3 m from any trees
35 m from any wells used for food or drinking water.
If he had been better advised he could have probably saved 40,000€ and we could have shared a system that would have served the whole hamlet; a system that would not have forced him to kill his olive grove, but would have nourished it, given him toilet flushing and swimming pool water, and fed the organic garden his tenants grow. The water board, however, would have had no benefit.
We have no idea yet if we can do it. The current mayor’s brother is the guy who is supposed to dig our hole (in the terrace we have just laid, unfortunately) and we’re not yet sure whether this is a good or a bad thing. He has never heard of such a system. The old mayor, who will be presenting himself as a candidate again in the next elections, happens to be the person at the head of the water board. Then again who would trust a man named Helen?
One thing is for sure, with a system that has all the European norms in place for 2012, I am not being a good citizen any longer and lining the pockets of those who are more concerned with earning a few thousand euros for their cousin in sand than helping relieve its land from drought or save its community from ruin. Knowing all we will be doing is putting clean water into parched earth, if it can be done on our small apron of land, we will do it.
They all came round to inspect the site tonight. It was not looking as easy as we had hoped.
'I hope we can get something done by Christmas..;we really need to have a wee...' said Julian.
'And a shit, I imagine' said monsieur Thurin, his coloured hair glowing in the moonlight.
There is something about him - greasy scatalogical salesman perhaps (but then again so was Mozart) - but I like him. He's solid.
The salesman and his stoodge, and the terrassier all disappeared into the starry night. We took our washing up water out and threw it down the road.