Sunday, April 20, 2014

Veni, Edi, Discessi ...

... came, ate and buggered off. Old Jules, despite his undoubted talent for turning a Latin phrase, was writing in simpler times, and I guess didn't have people turning up unexpectedly at his doorstep.

Anyway, I find the yoof of today undemanding, and rather rewarding, when it comes to the food department. It fair warmed the cockles (St-Jacques, as it happens) of my cynical old heart to see how rapidly it all disappeared - yea, even unto the bretonne aux fraises  that followed the cheese - and I'll spare you the comments, lest you think they've gone to my head. But I did find the sight of all three of them getting out their cameras to take photos of the food before they ate to be somewhat - alarming.

The next morning (given the hour, only nominally so) after they'd devastated the cereal and laid waste to the jam, we managed to stuff them and their backpacks back into little Suzy and Margo pootled off to decant them at Narbonne, from whence the day's plan was to hitch down to Barcelona before heading to points even further South. Hope they make it to Marrakesh for the big party on the 23rd.

I remember reading an article in The Register by Alastair Dabbs, the gist of which was that he couldn't work out why it was that mentioning that you're in IT seems to make you irresistible at parties. Women still avoided him like a six-months-dead otter with psoriasis, but males he'd never met would come up unasked and engage him in serious conversation about the merits of this that or the other hard drive, which would inevitably lead to the confession that their PC was running rather slowly and did he think he could spare a moment to come look at it?

I only mention this because it is in fact true, and I would seriously recommend that anyone thinking of a career in IT forget about it and become a trainee sewer inspector or something or, if you absolutely have to do it, make sure no-one ever finds out. If you are planning on having a normal social life, anyway. Kevin has said that much the same phenomenon occurs to electricians as well: he might be at a party with Janet, hobnobbing with the academic crowd, and then somewhere off in a corner someone whispers that Dr. Soler's husband is an electrician and suddenly he's the centre of attention.

The Dean of Education hangs on his every word, senior lecturers fawn at his feet, and elegant faculty wives invite him around for the afternoon, when they excuse themselves for only being able to offer him whisky but every time they plug the kettle in to make tea the fuses blow all over the house ...

I suppose there must be some professions where supply is sufficiently ample that people are prepared to consider paying for their services, but electricians in England are apparently rare enough that if you manage to lay your hands on one you don't let the opportunity slip through your grasp, and so it is with computer people. Just admit that you know something about it and you are promoted on the spot to tech support for friends and family (if you weren't already - I said to make sure no-one ever finds out, just lie to them, say you've given up your university studies to go on the game) and most of the neighbourhood.

The point I was getting to here was that old Neville around the corner picked himself up a PC for 80€ at Emmaus the other day, and was having one or two little problems with it ...

So I turned up one afternoon with a couple of Homeplug adapters so that he could at least get on to the internet without stringing 30 metres of CAT-5 cable between the ground floor where the Livebox is and under the eaves where he's built himself a very neat, tidy office.

Which is where the first hiccup occurred: their twisted little house has two entirely separate power circuits, one for the ground floor and the other for everywhere else. So much for the easy connectivity solution: I told him to go off and buy a USB Wifi dongle and read the manual.

And he did, and got it installed and working and everything, no small feat considering that he's in his seventies, speaks sod-all French (although trying his hardest to learn), and was doing all this on a PC with the French version of Windows 7 installed.

Too good to be true, of course, and it wasn't long before he was back with a tale of woe, and how slowly the PC was running. Having better things to do, and being of a naturally kindly disposition, I headed round again to take a look at the pestilential thing. Fairly quickly it became evident that this was not going to be a simple five-minute in-and-out job, so I grabbed the box and took it home.

Oddly enough, as I sat there waiting for it to boot I could not but notice that the boot logo was a Compaq one. Anyone else remember them? I thought they got borged by HP back in 2002, but I guess they must have kept the name going - out of respect for the dead, maybe.

Around midnight I finally worked things out, more or less: the thing hadn't been used for some time, a backlog of Microsoft updates had built up which needed to be loaded and installed, and one of them seemed to have gone into an endless download/update/fail loop, and the update task was eating about 90% of the CPU time, and all the band-width.

Luckily, fixing that was fairly straightforward and whilst I was at it - told you I was sweet-natured - and as the previous owners had paid through the nose for a copy of Windows 7 Ultimate, I set it up in English. Which means that the next time Neville has a problem - and I fully expect he will - he will at least be able to tell me what it is.

You know, the life of a tech-support person is not really that sexy: in fact, re-reading that lot it looks, even to me, to be rather boring. I cannot see why we're so popular at parties, it can't be because of being good in bed.

One of life's little mysteries - why are animals so gross? Came down the other morning and went out onto the terrace (nearly all tiled now! Yay!) to enjoy the first coffee of the day in the warm sunlight, and Shaun scurried furtively off into a corner with what looked suspiciously like a bird's wing waggling out of one side of his mouth.

When I finally convinced him that it would be a Good Idea to spit it out it became evident that the poor beast had not been of this world for some time: I can only assume that the cats had been out foraging earlier and, coming upon this mummified carcase, had brought it back as a special treat.

Very thoughtful of them, I will admit, but I could wish that they had not done so. Disposing of surplus-to-requirements fleshy envelopes is not really part of my job description, and even if it were I would much rather not have to do it before I'm set up for the day.

I recently came across a marvelously simple recipe from the excellent Jacques Pépin (a French chef who is, incidentally, virtually unknown in France but very popular in the US, and whose two primers on cooking - La Technique and La Methode - are amongst the very first cookbooks I ever bought) with a new take on saucisson. Why, he reasoned, do I take all the trouble of mincing fat and meat and salt and stuffing that into sausage casings when, with much less effort, I can simply and rapidly brine a whole pork fillet and hang that to dry?

And as it is - according to tradition, or an old charter or something - a grey rainy Easter Sunday over in these here parts, and as I happen to have a couple of excellent pork fillets on my hands (don't know why, but Lidyl - a German hard-discount chain - has splendid meat. I wouldn't touch their vegetables with a barge-pole, but the meat - and the butter, and the bûche de chèvre - is above reproach.) I have just, following his instructions, trimmed them, rubbed them well with a cup of gros sel mixed with 2tbsp of brown sugar and a bit of saltpetre, and put them in the fridge.

The saltpetre is optional, and only toxic in large doses, but it does mean that the meat keeps a lovely bright rosy colour. If you happen to be able to get sodium nitrite use that instead - about 6% by weight - or just use pink curing salt if you can get that.

Anyway, tomorrow I shall take them out, dry them, and rub them with a bit of cognac, cracked black peppers and some herbes de provence before wrapping them and hanging them somewhere cool and airy to dry for four or five weeks. I'll let you know how that turns out.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

How Hard Can It Be?

I always look forward to April Fool's Day here at The Shamblings. Although sometimes it can be difficult to work out just who the joke is on. Usually, I guess, it's on me.

Anyway, the more alert of you - those who've had their morning coffee - may have noticed a brief hiatus. This is nothing sinister, just due to the fact that once again I headed off to Chambéry for a week's worth of working, and for once that meant exactly that - sod-all spare time for anything else.

The general idea was to recuperate Jeremy, the eldest son, and bring him down here for a few days: he actually had a week's holiday, and has never even seen the place, so it seemed a reasonable concept. The idea was simple, as always: reality tends to be messier. He went off to a party on Saturday, ETA chez lui sometime Sunday afternoon, so we arranged to meet up there at 16:00 before heading back down.

Let it be admitted, I was late - all of fifteen minutes late. No sign of life, I rang and I wandered around Montmélian until I was thoroughly bored and still no Jeremy. Two and a half hours and five calls going straight to voice-mail later I decided to call it a day, but for some reason as I was heading down the hill towards the autoroute I gave one last call. "Oh fuck" squawked my phone, as the son awoke.

Only fallen asleep on his sofa, hadn't he? Margo had suggested that I count to ten and take a couple of deep breaths and it worked because four hours later (admittedly, three hours later than planned, which kind of screwed my ideas for dinner) we were home, without mayhem being committed. Mind you, we're neither of us great ones for chatting in the car, which probably helps under such circumstances.

On the bright side, I had at least gone round on Saturday and we'd loaded the oven hood from St-Pierre (which, for some reason as yet unknown to me, had wound up at his place - go figure) into the boot of the car on the grounds that it might eventually turn out to be useful (we'll see about that one) and there was also a good kilo of decent Beaufort lurking in a chilly bag, awaiting its imminent date with destiny.

For Jeremy, you see, has realised that good cheese Costs Money, which he would rather put to other purposes, such as the purchase of mildly illegal mind-altering drugs, and so he no longer falls, like a wolf on the fold (although, to be fair, rarely have I seen him gleaming, whether it be in purple and gold or anything else) upon the cheese in the fridge, for there is none in his apartment. Cheese, that is, for a fridge there is: I know it well, it must be twenty years old or so and once adorned our cellar in St. Pierre, relegated to the noble calling of keeping copious amounts of wine and beer at a reasonable temperature. And it still does sterling service, even though in its dotage the temperature regulation is a bit iffy, so things are either tepid or half-frozen, but given what Jeremy keeps in it this is not really a problem.

Whatever, we finally left around 18:30 and I was starting to feel a bit peckish when I pulled in to the service station at Mornas, so it was a shame that when, having fed Suzy, I went off to do the same for myself, I discovered that the decent-ish sandwich joint was closed (it was, I admit, Sunday, but even so ...) and that my options were to buy a sorry-looking Vienna roll enclosing a bit of limp lettuce and sad watery ham all wrapped up in cellophane, or to go hungry. I have learnt my lesson, sometimes Experience manages to stop Hope getting up with the simple expedient of a quick kick to his balls, and we carried on.

At Tavel even the coffee bar was closed, so I got a watery café americain from the vending machine out back, promptly wished I hadn't, and drove off into the night. Fortunately at that point we weren't too far from home, and when we arrived Jeremy spared five minutes to make the acquaintance of the dog before retiring to the kitchen, where he appropriated our solitary baguette and set about some serious work with butter and cheese.

It is sad but true that this is that awful season where we have but limited choice in fruit and vegetables: right now, for instance, we are more or less obliged to subsist on asparagus and strawberries. It is hard, but we force ourselves, for one has to eat. To add to my misery I had to go off to the supermarket this moaning - happily, there is one open at Lézignan on a Sunday - to get food for five, as we got a phone call last evening from a niece to say that she and friends were hitch-hiking to Morocco and could they stay the next night? (Assuming, of course, that they manage to get from Bordeaux to Carcassonne.)

Now not only have they reorganised the Intermarché there, so that things are no longer where they once were AND none of the helpful signs that hang from the ceiling indicating the contents of the aisle actually correspond anymore to what you will in fact find down there - and come to that the price tags are more or less random as well - it is barbecue season and they have cut back on their meat selection so my vague plan of a leg of lamb went out the metaphorical window and I was forced - forced, I tell you! - to buy some coquilles St-Jacques instead. Hope no-one's allergic to the little sweeties.

And as I was swallowing my disappointment at life's little cruelties and getting ready to pull out and drive back home I found myself with an unexpected ten minutes of time to dedicate to further contemplation, as about a hundred or so OAPs turned up on their shiny throbbing Harleys to fill their tanks, paralysing the parking lot.

(Yer French bikies are not the fearsome crew that you lot tend to get, and I suspect that their only ties to the drug trade are in the form of purchase of industrial-scale amounts of Viagra and haemorrhoïd cream. The only ones who can possibly afford to buy - and to run - a Harley are those with large amounts of disposable income, which pretty much rules out anyone under the age of 65. Sometimes it brings to mind that Python sketch, with the evil grannies.)

Be that as it may, nothing too depressing that it couldn't be cured by sitting out in the sun on the terrace for a bit, wistfully imagining what it will look like on the day it is actually finished and has real tiles on it and everything. (For at the moment, although it is now waterproof so that even if it does rain heavily we will not be able to take showers in the garage underneath, there are only two lines of tiles down because Cédric turned up yesterday afternoon to get started on that. Maybe for next weekend ...)

Around the church, the little place next to us where the yoof of the village tend to hang out during those long sunny evenings of the summer holidays is littered with sticks. Crows are lousy architects and worse builders, and given that they apparently think that a beakful of two-foot sticks, some of them with the original thorns still on them, make a good nest I'm rather surprised that the species is still a going concern.

Or maybe it's just the male of the corvidae that labours under this impression, and in his eagerness to woo (and get around to doing the fun parts of reproduction) thinks that quantity rather than quality will do the trick: what we find on the ground are the results of careful selection by Mrs Crow, who sees little point to brooding with an acacia thorn up the jacksie.

Anyway, I shall make a gigantic leap of faith here and believe that these young persons are really going to turn up some time in the more or less immediate future, which means that I really ought to head off into the kitchen and start work on a few minor trifles, such things as might help stave off imminent death by starvation. Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Quiet Day Out ...

It comes to my mind - such as it is - that you may be unaware of the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year*. So, in keeping with the mission statement of this blog ("Rubbing your face in shit you didn't want to know", amongst other things), I would like to inform you of this year's winners:

Third place-getter, The Origin of Feces. A round of applause, please, for David Waltner-Toews for this fascinating Darwinian introduction to the wonderful world of crap. Suitable for children.

Second place goes to Are Trout South African? by Duncan Brown, a mesmerising story of love and fishing on the veldt.

And a ponderous drum-roll please for the happy winners, Mats & Enzo, co-authors of How To Poo On A Date. A useful self-help guide to those delicate moments. Which is bound to come in useful at some point.

More importantly, the electricians have been and done their stuff and gone: the top floor has cables hanging everywhere like long gray wrinkly house-worms, so Cédric and Alain can get back to work up there. Being as what the occasional and unforeseeable showers that are on the menu right now in these parts make laying the concrete on the terrace a bit of a risky business.

Anyway, in keeping with the general idea that we ought to get out more, decided to head through to Beziers for the market this morning. That may have been a mistake.

Now don't get me wrong, Beziers is a nice old city, even if its inhabitants do have the misfortune to call themselves biterrois (which, to my ear at least, sounds vaguely obscene - helps if you know what the word bite** means in French, I admit) but ...

We found our way, unimpeded by the GPS of Doom (for we had cruelly turned it off) to place Jean Jaurès in the middle of town, where - according to the guidebooks, anyway - the "vibrant, bustling" market was to be found. There was one stall, with a few manky fruit and veg on display: I had to admit that I was underwhelmed. So we headed vaguely north, to what looked as though it might just possibly turn out to be les Halles, but it turned out to be the theatre instead, to my considerable disappointment.

Never mind, there'd been a sign a way back pointing off in the direction of the Office de Tourisme, so we duly turned south for a bit and followed the trail of breadcrumbs until we came to the place: which was, naturally enough, closed. Still, there was a sign up on the door with instructions on how to get to the other branch, so back north we went.

This time, by dint of persistence, we actually came across les Halles, with a little marché des paysans off to one side, which seemed promising. Sadly, by 11am most of the paysans seemed to have sold their entire stock, and what was left looked to me as though it was still there for very good reasons.

So I wrote that one off and went into the actual building which - from the outside at least - looked promising. Typical belle époque style, all wrought iron and ceramic tiles and skylights: unfortunately the inside was pretty much deserted.

Which made me sad, all over again. Still, there were a few vegetables that didn't look any the worse for wear for falling off the back of a lorry, and in any case one has to eat something, so I shoved a few articles into the shopping basket I'd so hopefully brought with me and we went about our way, trying to find where we'd hidden the car so that I'd be slightly less encumbered.

Felt better with only a man-bag and the camera, and we boldly set off in search of our dose of kulcha for the day: another bloody cathedral, to wit the Cathedrale St-Nazaire which is, as any fule kno, built on the site of the Romanesque church which got burnt to the ground when the Crusaders sacked the place in 1209. Apparently Simon de Montfort was having another bad day that year.

Seems that the papal legate was not really in a better mood when he ordered the entire population, Catholics and Cathars alike, to be slaughtered in the church in which they'd taken refuge: in his considered opinion, "God will recognise his own". Things were simpler then, none of these pesky moral conundrums.

As usual, the place was closed. Well, the cloisters were open, and the jardin des évèques which does, I admit, have a remarkable view out over the river (and is also remarkably well-ventilated by the prevailing wind, I might add) but the doors to the church remained obstinately bolted.

A shame, for I felt a pressing urge to pray and have my multitudinous sins pardoned, also the rose window looked rather nice from outside, but too bad, I shall just have to muddle on in sin.

And there's the thing, the cathedral was closed, and so were half the shops we walked past. I guess one in four on the main streets, and let's not go into the sad state of affairs in the ruelles and the alleys. Hell, even the options for eating were kind of limited, unless your tastes run to an exclusive diet of kebab'n'chips.

Also, there seemed to be sod-all people around. I mean, compared to Carcassonne or Narbonne which always seem thronged, the place was empty. Especially for a fine sunny Saturday.

Still, by dint of sheer bloody-minded persistence and a refusal to eat a kebab (don't get me wrong here, I like a kebab as much as the next man, but there are times when that just won't do) we found a restaurant that looked like it might be open, wandered in and were invited to plonk our arses at a table in the sun streaming through the windows off the courtyard.

(It was also as far as possible from the fire burning in the huge old hearth, which I'm kind of guessing they actually still used for doing grillades and such-like, when custom merited it. And a damn good thing too, otherwise I'd have melted down into a puddle of grease.)

For they too were not exactly run off their feet: there were four people, us included, in there for lunch, in a place that could easily have seated sixty.

But mustn't complain, at least that meant that the service was good, and I had an excellent steak with grilled polenta whilst Margo satisfied herself with a thick slice of steamed cod on a rice timbale, with a purée des poivrons on the side. Followed, I'd like to say, by a profiterole that I can only qualify as frikkin' enormous.

Washed down with a bottle of Corbières it made for a very pleasant meal, and quite frankly I don't really like eating in crowded restaurants anyway. Too noisy, and there's always some arsehole with an amusing ring-tone on his - or often, her - bloody cellphone.

So that was Beziers. I could doubtless spend hours wandering around the place, camera in hand and poking my nose into all its crooks and nannies, but the overwhelming impression is of a place that's dying. Or at least, one that has seen much better days.

Which is, incidentally and quite accidentally, totally true. Back in the glory days, when Ricquet built the canal du Midi (with his own money, yet - well, maybe not quite his own, technically speaking, he made his fortune as a tax farmer after all) the place was filthy rich. And of course it was the centre of spline production: artisanal at first, before the big factories were built. They're all shuttered now - demand has dropped, and the Chinese can turn them out cheaper - but there's still the "Hotel Imperator" bearing witness to turn of the century grandeur.

But that kind of faded, as the economic importance of the canal dwindled, and now it's slowly going to sleep in the sun, with the paint flaking on the shutters. I guess there could be worse ways to go.

And just saying, but sometimes I really do feel that people should run their ad copy past someone else before they go run with it and have posters stuck up and everything.

*Credit where it's due, to the usual suspects.
** So a dick, despite being eminently masculine last time I bothered to check, is a feminine noun - "une bite", whereas we have "le vagin". Go figure, it's beyond me.




Sunday, March 23, 2014

Nids de Poule, En Formation ...

Where else but in France would you find road signs warning you of the possibility of stunt-flying chicken nests? (Or, just possibly, chicken nests that are being trained: for formation comes from the verb former which can, reasonably enough, mean both to form as in to shape or to mould, and also by extension to form, like forming an opinion, as in educate. Such are the delights of a language which lacks a sufficiency of verbs.)

Sad to say the truth is rather more mundane - did you really expect anything else - for a nid de poule is also a pothole. Which are, apparently, in training around here.

Anyway, for my sins, I have just been made aware - thanks to the seemingly infinite resources of thar innatübz - of an undeservedly obscure fact, the importance of which is difficult to underestimate: you cannot hum whilst holding your nose. Try it some time in the shower - the acoustics are always best there - and call me a liar.

But whilst I was doing that, and other things, I was also getting extremely off-pissed, for my stubby fingers were morris-dancing across the keyboard and every other sentence I'd suddenly have a 'Q' when I'd pressed 'A' as Windoze decided to swap from French to English keyboard layout. (You may not have this problem: you probably don't have multi-lingual machines. I do.)

I learnt a while back that when you hit that silly flying window key (which I shall, from henceforth, refer to as the "splat" key, at least until I am contacted with prejudice by Apple's lawyers) and the spacebar at the same time this would happen but that is, let's face it, an unlikely sequence - and then I noticed that it seemed to happen more often when swapping between RDP sessions with the Linux boxen and wondered if that wasn't related ...

As it turns out, no. All kudos to Microsoft, by the way, for ensuring that various system parameters have, under Windows 8, been scattered to all four corners of the screen so that actually getting to one that interests you - or even knowing that it exists - is rather like playing roulette. (You know, they used to make a big thing of having a usability lab. Not so much these days.) Whatever. It turns out that if you hit Splat+X and run the control panel you should not try fiddling with the keyboard options, for that will do you no good at all.

Neither will going to the regional settings, although you could be forgiven for hoping that it would. No, you must go to "Language". From there do not try to change formats, because that will just get you back to the regional options which are no bloody use at all - no, you must select "Advanced settings", and then "Change language bar hot keys". (Which sounds, when you think of it, rather like one of those meaningless phrases you see on T-shirts, dreamt up by some illiterate Burmese peasant whose acquaintance with English is purely notional.)

I did not know this - why should I? I have better things to do with my time - but by default Shift+Ctrl will also shift between your keyboard layouts. (OK, why didn't I just get rid of the English keyboard layout? Because it is tied intimately to the English input method, which I happen to use. Don't ask silly questions.)

I only mention all this because quite frankly, losing a half-hour's work through pressing what you fondly imagined was Ctrl+W but turned out in fact to be Ctrl+Z gets to be kind of annoying. Okay, the first time you can almost see the funny side of it,  but the third or fourth you just want to kill something. Preferably, something small, furry, and helpless enough that there is no risk of its doing you any damage.

One of the few signs of life around here on a Friday is the appearance, just around the corner from us, of the white van and its proprietor, the volailler. Sometimes his coming is announced over the municipal Tannoy system, more often than not he just quietly turns up and parks, waiting for the customers. Who always seem to turn up, little old ladies in dribs and drabs, coming along to buy a farm chicken for the weekend roast, or some blanc de poulet such as might be sustaining for an invalid ... and always, within a short distance, most of the neighbourhood cats - nicely groomed, as befits the occasion, purring like mad, and waiting patiently for scraps. There's usually a particularly elegant white Persian: looks as though Blofeld has come down in the world and can't even afford cat food.

Speaking of the Tannoy system, that's been working overtime lately. It may have escaped your attention over there in Bottoms-Up Land, but over here we is having municipal elections. And despite the fact that, in the best Russian tradition, there is only one slate up for the vote, at least twice a day the mighty valve amplifier hidden deep in the bowels of the mairie gets 220V stuck up the jacksie just when it least expects it, and the nesting sparrows are blasted from the speakers strung about the village with a preliminary high-frequency fart.

That's just the warm-up. Then comes the stirring brass-band music, complete with the hisses and crackles from the original 1950's cassette, and then "Allo! Allo! Aux habitants de Moux ..." for on Sunday everyone must get tarted up and go off to vote. Or so it seems. Me, not being of the French persuasion I shall lounge disreputably on the terrace - which is now, by the way, thoroughly waterproof - and possibly, for entertainment, chuck cigar butts on passers-by. One of life's little pleasures.

Whatever, Margo's off at Grenoble for a few days and I was kind of looking forward to spending a bit of quality time in bed this moaning, given that she's taken the car and all so marketry is not really an option: sad to say that some time around 7am PSC and EBK saw fit to dispute the ownership of one small patch of bed (the fabled "hot spot"), sufficiently vehemently to drag me from the arms of Morpheus and send me lurching downstairs in search of a caffeine fix.

Although I'd had the forethought to get a couple of loaves of Barm Brack ready to bake - and surprisingly enough, had sufficient wits about me to turn the oven on when I made it down - I had inexplicably neglected to get the coffee machine ready to go: a shame really because it seems to take at least five times longer to do that in the morning than at night. When I'm actually awake, or at least sentient.

Still, I managed to get that going without the actual coffee pot dropping to the floor and shattering into a thousand slivers, just as well really because cleaning up a mess like that at such an hour is not really one of my strong points, and made it back to bed hoping for another ten minutes of peace and quiet until the coffee was ready and the oven hot ...

Sadly, about half-way through that PSC decided that it really was time she went outside to perform her toilette, which involves her thumping down the stairs, realising half-way down that I haven't followed, thumping back up to make sure that I appreciate the gravity of the situation, then going down to sit by the front door with crossed legs. So I stagger down and open the door, at which point she decides that this is too easy, also no fun at all, and skitters off into the pantry.

After playing that little game for five minutes I decide that I might as well stick the bread in the oven and go put some clothes on while I'm at it, so that I can at least go out on the terrace with my coffee while the bread's cooking. And it's whilst rummaging through clothes baskets that I discover that although someone has indeed deigned to use the dirtbox so thoughtfully provided, her aim is - approximative.

Looking on the bright side, barring something catastrophically unlikely the day could only get better from then on.

And truth to tell, it could've been much worse. Alright, the clouds were drifting about purposefully, but - as I reflected after only ten minutes with the camera around my neck and Shaun eagerly trotting along beside me - it was almost too warm for a jacket. But we passed the local pharmacist - he of the impressively large, semi-autonomous moustache - and chatted a bit as he sat in the sun on a bench outside old Henri's mausoleum before going off into the garrigue.

Which never fails to remind me of one of the reasons we're now here rather than somewhere else. Without wishing to come over all Mayleish, wherever I walk I can't help but step on clumps of thyme, or rosemary, or lavender, and the warm air is full of the smells of Provence. Unless, of course, it's one of those days when the tramontane is blowing, in which case the air is not warm, and what it's full of is flying leaves and old plastic bags, for yer average Provençal tends to regard Nature as a providential, never-full land-tip.

Of course after a morning like that it had to go titsup and as the clouds got darker and the hail started clattering on the roof I started flicking through online cooking porn - godnose why, it's not as though I have any actual need for any more inox frying pans, nor saucepans for that matter, or a handy plastic and steel device for deseeding raspberries - and as I was trying to justify buying a full set of de Buyer sauteuses came across the stainless steel mixing bowls.

I really must get around to looking up the etymology some time, for the French call these things a cul de poule: literally, a chicken's arse. The great google, curiously, is silent on the matter: Whackywheedia is content to say that is because "the implement resembles a chicken's bottom" which merely indicates to me that the collective authors of that esteemed institution are unfamiliar with the appearance of either.

No matter, my current, admittedly deplorable, state of ignorance will not prevent me from stuffing flour, milk and suet into a chook's bum and making some decent suet pastry, fit to contain a beefsteak pie. (Yeah, you guessed it - got an attack of the leftovers again.) Mind how you go, now.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Vegecide ...

You know how some dogs tend to be tightly defined in time and space? Take a Rottweiler, for instance: this is definitely a point source. Contained, the wave-form collapsed. Jack Russells are much the same, except that they yap, and their bark is nowhere near as bad as a Rottweiler's bite. Classic Newtonian physics, they just move around in straight lines and their only interactions with other things are banging into them and bouncing off. (Or, in the case of a Rottweiler, savaging it.)

Shaun, on the other hand, is much more quantum. I think it's the hair. He has a lot of it, and about 95% of it is strictly localised about him, but the remainder just seems to go on, possibly to infinity. Hard to pin down.

Occasionally as I'm skiving off researching I get dragged into the dark archives where the old things lurk - and yes, Virginia, there are computer systems older than I, not that many of them are functional, but some would argue that I'm not either - and the other day I got reminded of BeOS, illegitimate spawn of Jean-Louis Gassée, once of Apple. You have to wonder about what passes for a sense of humour amongst those who write operating systems for a living: it had one system call which was is_computer_on() (returned 1 if the computer was on - the result was undefined if not) and also is_computer_on_fire() which, it seems, returned the temperature of the motherboard if the computer was on fire. If this turned out not to be the case, it returned some other value.

Now as will happen around here on a Saturday, I once again dragged myself from bed sometime around the crack of dawn, walked the dog, guzzled a coffee or two out on the terrace with a cigar, and then headed off to the market at Carcassonne. And as will also happen, it became clear to me as I wandered around poking and prodding innocent vegetables that nothing would do for dinner but something involving mushrooms, because really it's been yonks since last that happened, so I wound up with a kilo of shitake, pleurottes and plain old champignons de Paris at the top of the basket (along with the big bunch of fresh flat-leafed parsley that they kindly chucked in), nestling in there with some baby wild asparagus because I am a sucker for that.

It also came to my mind (such as it is) that the huge hunk of rouelle de jambon that was sitting in the fridge waiting to be marinated and then barbecued would be lonely without something to go with it, so buying a kilo of saucisse de canard, neatly rolled up and skewered into a disk, seemed like a no-brainer. And the huge plump artichoke, the poivrons, the poireaux and the chèvre frais just jumped into the basket of their own accord: I did not lure them with honeyed words or sweeties, it is Not My Fault.

Mr. Brain slowly ticked over and, as we headed out of the place, stopped me urgently at the Arab butcher and wholesale food place on the outskirts of town, because with all those mushrooms and the bit of leftover chicken meat (if Margo hadn't devoured it for lunch) a mushroom strudel seemed the only reasonable thing to do, and I was pretty sure that there were only two sheets of filo left in the fridge and with my luck they'd be going green ... come to that, those pears that had followed me home were crying out to be turned into a pastis.

I really shouldn't be allowed into places like that unsupervised because when I left I not only had the filo pastry but also two huge côtes de veau rose, some bourguignon (for a carbonnade, which is made with beer, actually, but let's not get picky), lamb leg steaks, two souris d'agneau (not some unspeakable bastard hybrid between a mouse and a lamb, but lamb shanks which are absolutely wonderful when braised) and a certain number of cuisses de poulet fermier, which just happened to be on special and can go in the freezer anyway, so that's alright. Not My Fault!

The concept of the barbecue seemed like a Good Idea at the time, which is probably why the clouds started to roll in and the wind got up, just to spoil my day. But at least even if they are direly predicting gusts up to 83kph (I know, I know, just a light breeze around Wellington) it is making sure that we are not suffering from the pollution that plagues Paris. Where public transport is currently free, I gather they're putting in alternate days for car driving, and the very young, the elderly and the pregnant are encouraged not to go out unless absolutely necessary.

Actually, the only real problem with the wind is that when we go out for a walk, I'm convinced that it gets up Shaun's bum and goes to his head, which makes him all excited and even more of a bubble-head than usual.

Sadly, it does not discourage the velocipede artists, who seem to thrive on the stuff and have all come out along with the flowers and the fine weather, and are a general menace on the back roads. Which reminds me - I know there aren't that many of our friends and acquaintances that could be accused of living an actively healthy lifestyle, but if you do ever turn up and feel that way inclined, it's a great place to do a bit of VTT. Just stay off the roads, will you?

Also, rain is not, it seems, on the agenda, so with luck Cédric will indeed turn up as promised on Monday to finish off the terrace. Which would be rather nice.

And the electricians are supposedly available this month, and as most everything else is kind of waiting on them, that would be rather good if they did in fact put in an appearance. Once they've done that and festooned the place with cables Cédric and André can get back to putting up the gib-board and installing some of life's little necessities, like showers and toilets, and then I can start putting down the parquet flottant, and do some tiling. Oh, and the velux need to go in too.

Then some basic painting, and we'll finally be able to install ourselves upstairs, whilst the first floor gets demolished, and then rebuilt. It seems unlikely that we'll actually be open for business this summer, but that's alright. No rush.

In other news, it seems that Number One son should be down for a visit at the beginning of next month, having finally managed to wangle some holidays. (This would not be a good time to mention the notoriously generous holidays enjoyed by most French-things, minimum five weeks paid leave per year. In the hotel trade, this tends not to happen.)

Somewhat later ... we were enjoying the first barbecue of the year, relaxing with the neighbours and the smell of burnt flesh and wine, when we got a welcome phone call: the electrician, ringing to say that he'd be turning up Monday moaning as well! So the weather's looking good -  bright and sunny, with occasional workers. Good stuff.

And as it happens, everyone did in fact turn up. The electricians are happily burping or whatever it is they do up at the top of the house, and Cédric and his apprentice are out on the terrace with a blowtorch, putting down rolls of what looks suspiciously like tinfoil and tar to do a definitive job of waterproofing it before putting down a layer of cement and then tiling it.

Which goes some way to explaining how it was that Margo and I found ourselves at Lézignan late this afternoon, placing an order for 37 m² of exterior tiles: thought we'd better get the damn things before it snowed, or Cédric came down with a gastro, or something.

I missed most of the fun, had to head off to the préfecture at Carcassonne to pick up my new carte de résident and, with any luck, my new driver's licence. Got there, waited patiently until I got to the head of the queue at reception, where the woman who bites the heads off chickens for pleasure snarled at me that she'd already announced that the service étrangers was closed, due to a panne informatique, and couldn't I bloody read?

Whatever, I eventually got buzzed up to the first floor to find that my licence was in fact waiting for me (and why the hell couldn't they have sent me a letter to say so?) and then puzzle, on the way down, why for godsake they ask for colour photos when what they put on the card is snazzy gray-scale - and then, back on the ground floor, saw someone actually sitting behind a desk at the service étrangers.

I very politely asked if by any chance she could see if my card was there - she agreed that it wouldn't cost her her job to look, did so, and walked out with yet another miniature B&W plasticized photo of me in my wallet. I knew you didn't need a computer to find a folder in a filing cabinet.

And on top of that, the sky above is a dome of deep blue, the sun is shining bravely, and there is no wind. A good day, all in all.