Monday, September 29, 2014

Learning To Fly (Aint Got Wings) ...

For those of you blissfully unaware of current events, it can now be revealed that Margo is winging her way across various oceans and the odd continent, destination NooZild for three weeks. Originally she'd planned on going with Malaysian Airlines but had second thoughts after the first little incident, so finally she settled on an Air France flight from Montpellier to Paris at some ungodly hour of the moaning, then from there to somewhere unpronounceable in China, and thence to Orcland.

The timing was kind of tight, as she only had four hours to get across Paris from Orly to Roissy, but it was doable if there were no hiccups ...

Of course it all went titsup, as while she was off swanning around in Alsace the Air France pilots decided to go on strike in order to a) protect their grossly inflated salaries and b) inconvenience as many people as possible, and when I checked on the website I discovered that they couldn't tell you whether or not you were going to be able to fly until 24 hours before the flight, which is kind of short if you have to make alternative arrangements. Given that Paris is not next-door.

Stupid EBK! That is yore dirtbox!
It could have been boiled down to a little statement along the lines of  "Thank you for trying to fly Air France. If you're planning on doing so, please don't count on it for the next few weeks. We appreciate your custom." So I booked her on the TGV from Montpellier direct to Roissy the night before, just in case ...

In the meantime I had to head back up to Chambéry so I dropped the retards off at Margo's friend Mimi at Canet and puttered off in little Suzy. (Mimi has a swimming pool outside, and the garden around it has all been gravelled. Thanks to Indra and her OCD, she is still finding gravel all through the house, sometimes in the most unexpected places.)

When Margo arrived back at the house she finally found an email from Air France (for the internet does not yet extend to the darkest reaches of Alsace) to say that her flight to Paris had indeed been cancelled (godnose what contortions we shall have to go through to get reimbursed for that) and so she was definitely going to have to take the train: of course that meant that I had to be back on the Wednesday, before 15h, to get her off to Narbonne in time to catch the TER that would (hopefully) get her through to Montpellier before her TGV left.

Managed that: sadly the TER ran late so she missed that TGV. By dint of pouting and jumping up and down on a small controlleur she persuaded them to let her on to the next TGV to Paris: that did not - of course - go through to Roissy but stopped at Gare de Lyon, which meant hopping on the RER to get out to Roissy. And when she got there it was around 23:30 so the meal she'd kind of hoped to get was down the tubes ... she spent a sleepless night in the uncomfortable seats in the departure lounge, but finally boarded and as I write I guess she's on her way to China.

Sadly the Brit Food Stop Shop (or whatever) at Narbonne is closing down: it's conveniently located just across from the gare and I went in to see if I couldn't get Margo a proper sticky bun or something for sustenance on the train but the shelves were almost bare and when I indignantly protested the Scots guy who, with his Swiss wife, owns and runs the place gave me the bad news. She's having both hips replaced, which means that she won't be able to work for about a year, and rather than his working 12 hours a day six days a week all that time they decided it was perhaps about time to retire and learn to play golf.

On the bright side what stock there was left was all at half price, so I picked up the last packets of suet and some emergency supplies of golden syrup and a few bags of demerara sugar and more malt vinegar and, because I could, some decent sherry. Also something I hadn't suspected even existed: freezer bags of mushy peas. (I'd always thought that to attain this nadir of gustatory delight required personal attention from an English cook to turn each individual pea into a revolting squishy green bag, but apparently - such is the pace of technological progress - the process is automated these days.) Neville's from Barnsley and has often sung their praises, so I picked up a couple of sacks for him.

In other news, by dint of careful application of all those bushcraft skills I learnt so long ago in Scouts, I hunted down and trapped a plumber in the wild. Yes, André finally turned up on Thursday and started hooking various bits and pieces of pipe and stuff up, and on Saturday I got a text to tell me that the wooden benchtop I'd ordered from Lapeyre had in fact arrived so I went off to Carcassonne and stuck that in the boot, headed home and lugged it up the stairs.

Somewhat to my surprise André was still there so I set that up on its trestles and he set about things with a will, and didn't leave until all was done. So now we have a hot-water cylinder connected to the central-heating boiler up there (the electric cylinder will be disappearing in a few short days), the heaters are connected (as are, no doubt, the hip-bone, the thigh-bone and godnose what else) and - very important - there is a shower, a handbasin and a toilet, all three functional.

To celebrate, I immediately went off and had two showers, just for the fun of it, not because I was particularly filthy.

These little things may not seem very important to you, but as on Thursday Cédric and his little helper come and start demolishing the bathroom on the first floor, and our bedroom, it means quite a bit to me. I'm no stranger to privation, and I can live under rough conditions, taking things as they come with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, but I do insist on having a toilet, or a reasonable approximation thereof, and a shower handy. If not, I am not a happy camper.

But now, even if I have to sleep on the spare bed in my (temporary, for the past year) office downstairs until such time as Margo returns to paint the bedroom upstairs so that I may lay the flooring in there and we can move in (for I am not going to have time to do the painting myself, have to earn money somehow and I still have my bathroom up there to tile and floor in the near future), I do not care for I will still be able to rush upstairs and have a shower when I feel like it.

Haven't had much time for photos this month: sorry about that. Things will get better, I promise. But right now it's persisting down - not in the brochures - and I think maybe I'll go have another hot shower.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Purple-Rinsed Dinosaurs Roam The Earth ...

Return of the Technically Dead Dead
I know it's kind of masochistic and just a little bit perverted, not to go so far as to say actually disgusting, but given that "Dirty Politics" and various claims and counterclaims of wholesale surveillance in NooZild have managed to make it to the front pages even over here in Ole Yurrup, not to mention a sick secret fascination with Winston Peters, I try to keep up with your imminent erection by following

Which is where I found this photo (original attribution retained, please note), which has to be one of the most frightening I've seen in a while. Who the hell was responsible for the lighting? Reminds me of something out of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, or maybe Bad Taste. The old bastard has obviously been cryogenically preserved and wheeled out of the crypt, you can even see the dry-ice smoke in the background. And I'm guessing they used plaster of Paris as a cheaper alternative to botox. Absolutely terrifying, do NOT let your children watch politics on TV.

Also, this: "According to psychiatrists specialising in sexsomnia, a condition that has not been widely researched yet, it is a sleeping disorder close to sleepwalking that includes sexual behaviour. Those affected by sexsomnia are completely unaware of their acts, specialists say. However, the affliction is very controversial among physicians and lawyers." If you ask me, it needs more study. And a semi-literate sub-editor, for it should read "has not yet been ..." Definitely more university grants. Mostly to statisticians, so that they can work out just how to do the double-blind trials. And I think that lawyers should be paid more.

Come to that, just how do you get to be a "specialist" in this? Do you get to make it up as you go along? Does having an erection at 5am count? Or having sleepy sex? An enquiring mind would like to know. Yeah, I know, they laughed at Freud too. Just saying, they're still laughing at Freud. (A barrel, in fact - of laughs, that is - every Friday on "Interpretation of Dreams" night down at Le Vieux Pissoir in Conilhac. You really don't want to know.)

And he's dead - Freud, that is - last time I checked down in the vaults. (Reminds me, I better go down there again and check that the real Winston is still in his drawer, if not there'll be hell to pay what with the accountants, and the family paying for maintenance and everything.) Which means that the last laugh is not his.

Whatever, at this time of year you're reminded that Moux, like Arbin, is basically a wine village. The tractors rattle incessantly through the streets towing their trailers heaped with grapes and when, as one must, you head off to the cave coopérative to pick up another twenty litres or so of wine (yes, I'm off to Chambéry again on Sunday, and Bryan put in an order) the air's heavy with the sticky, slightly foul smell of fermenting grapes. Could be worse.

Anyway, I need to go: got a long drive ahead of me tomorrow and as Margo's up in Alsace I have to drop our two retards off to be tutored for a couple of days: also, there's still some parquet flottant that isn't going to lay itself. Mind how you go, now.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dorian Gray's Shaving Mirror ...

So everyone is now back working on the house, as if to make up for lost time: I've tiled the shower in our bathroom (the one in my office can wait a bit) and the terracotta/raspberry crush lino that's going on the wall arrived today - anyway, we are having to seriously think about décor.

The tiles we chose were huge Italian ones, 30 x 60 in anthracite and pale gray - and may I just say that they're a bitch to work with? OK, we'd already bought the electric saw with a diamond blade to cut them as required (and that has been well amortised already): when it came to cutting out the holes for the taps and suchlike I had planned on using the old tungsten bit and handsaw I still have lying around but soon changed my mind when it became apparent that it would take me about three days doing it that way.

Cue a trip off to Lignières to pick up a hollow diamond-tipped 8mm bit for the big Bosch drill: it did the job. Tedious, but by some miracle I managed to avoid cracking the tile I was working on - always a good thing.

Another reason I hate tiling is that it requires some thought beforehand. One thing that you can be absolutely certain of is that the surfaces you're tiling will not be square, maybe not even flat: neither height nor width will be a multiple of the tile size. So if you start off as a novice is tempted to do, starting from the bottom inside angle and working out and up, you may be sure that you are going to have some very ugly, very fiddly cuts to do.

Also, I am paranoid, and measure things about three times before actually cutting anything on the principle that I may have got it wrong first time, or forgotten 4mm for the grouting, or things have just changed anyway because of quantum, and measurement collapsing the waveform.

Luckily for me, when we had the St-Pierre Shamblings done up Jean took me aside one day and explained how to do it correctly, which involves marking a cross at the centre of the surface to be tiled: that's where the first tile goes, and you work out from there. You will have a bit of waste: never mind, the end result will look a damn sight better.

Of course I still managed to get it wrong because we had Cédric build a seat in there - well, more a ledge really, somewhere to park the shampoo bottles and put your feet up when you're shaving your legs or whatever - and I failed to take that into account so there's a strip only a few cm deep at the back but what the hell.

So anyway, there's the shower in gray and black and the wall next to it, where the handbasin will go, sitting on its slab of wood on trestles, will be mainly red/orange, so we decided that for a mirror we would like a big old one, with an ornate gilt frame with naked ladies, bunches of grapes and cherubs everywhere if possible. Which means op-shops, and various brocantes.

Margo went off all on her lonesome and found one at Emmaus which was not exactly what we wanted, being mahogany and actually relatively restrained, but it was suitably huge, the silvering is going on the actual mirror so it definitely looks ancient, and on top of that it was cheap. So cheap in fact that she also bought an enormous pure wool rug for the dogs to sleep on.

We unloaded all that, brought it inside and settled down to more serious business like dining, and watching Dr Who, and then went to bed ... now it's a funny thing, but you'd think that they'd have little warning signs on articles such as these, along the lines of "May contain maggots".

At least, we strongly suspect that it was in fact the mirror that was harbouring the troop of the white wriggly buggers that we found all over the floor the next morning ...

I headed off to Carcassonne, leaving Margo to deal with the invasion, and after the market headed off to a big brocante of which I know, where I found not one but two mirrors that were just what we were looking for. The guy at the desk sucked his teeth, and opined that the shop was probably, in fact, open, and might actually remain that way until midday, although from the shrug he gave he didn't seem entirely certain about that - so I went back and found the car and navigated the one-way system through Carcassonne, went in, paid, and walked out with them.

In an excess of generosity he chucked in an old blanket (actually, as it turns out, a tablecloth complete with rude cherubs) free, gratis and also for nothing as a bit of padding in the boot, and I happily went back home. I suppose I could have bought a few other bits and pieces - just to encourage his unexpected enthusiasm - but quite honestly we don't actually need, nor do we have room for, a metre-high chicken in cast-iron, nor a marble statue of some Grecian bint discovering auto-eroticism. Nor, for that matter, a C19 bronze reproduction of The Emperor Trajan With Medusa And An Erection.

In other, unrelated, news I headed off on Sunday to see if I could find Bezier aerodrome International Airport, where I was supposed to be picking up my brother. I went prepared, with a large inflatable cushion, because I'm not sure that Ryanair actually bother touching down at such places, and I was half-expecting to see him hurtling from the cargo doors at 100m altitude ... as it turns out I need not have worried, the plane landed - maybe they needed more packets of overpriced peanuts to sell to the punters - and debarkment was sufficiently quick that I didn't even have to pay for the carpark.

Where, to tell the truth, I'd only gone because a short fat stuffy little man blew a whistle at me because I'd had the temerity to park on the place reserved for buses: this may be true but they could at least have had the decency to put up signs saying "Bus Only!" and in any case on a Sunday afternoon the things are pretty few and far between.

Just to complicate matters, later that night a nephew and his partner turned up a few days earlier than expected, fearing that their hire car was marked for instant depredation in Barcelona - who knows, they could well be right. So now the dogs must sleep outside, as the living-room floor has been commandeered as impromptu sleeping quarters, and EBK is pissed because there are New People with whom he will have to put up.

My brother left - I took care that we left the house heading for Narbonne with 20 minutes to spare, because I am wary of traffic in Narbonne, and then we left a second time, 20 minutes later and with no time to spare, because on arriving at Conilhac he remembered that he'd forgotten to pack the dead rat for his laptop. Luckily, although they had closed the TGV doors they were not actually in lock-down so he managed to hop aboard, about two minutes before the thing pulled out of the station.

A snail tree (immature)
It may not even have been the right train, I could care more.

Then we decided to take nephew and partner (N & P?) out to show them what a traditional French lunch is (although you no longer get a litre of really cheap rotgut plonk per person slapped on the table these days, I blame the government myself) and so we headed off to Le Cers at Conilhac. The midday menu goes for 11.50€, can't complain, we were out on the terrace under the sun and although I was wise enough just to go for a salad everyone else opted for the menu and none of them managed to finish it off. Kinda copious.

Of course they get the odd tourist passing through and so the chef speaks English - although oddly enough the waitress didn't - but this still brings me back to a pet peeve which is why, oh why, do people trust the translation of their menus to Google Translate? It's the easy option, I admit, but quite frankly when cuisses de grenouille flambées au cognac turns out as legs of frog (with outbreaks of cognac) I really have to wonder what the value-added proposition is here. Maybe I'm just being picky.

Seriously, how in hell does a flambé turn into an outbreak? Metaphorically, I suppose, if you're talking about genital herpes, that could happen ... I will not go there.

Anyway, I had to head off to Chambéry on Thursday - which goes some way to explaining the hiatus, sorry about that - and once I'd headed back down on Saturday and duly admired the 15km traffic jam in the north-bound direction at the péage at Montpellier Sud and arrived home, it became pretty obvious that work was going ahead and that Things Needed to be Done.

So Margo got into full-on Painting Mode (and let me just say that the little Bosch spray painter really is rather good, at least for putting on the undercoat) and I managed to finish the tiling in our bathroom, did the grouting (gods, I hate that!), stuck silicone around top and bottom, got the lino up on the wall, hung the mirror, cut out the sisal matting and got that down on the floor ... once André gets arse into gear and puts up the glass partition, hooks up the shower and (very important, that) installs the toilet, it will be usable.

Which would be rather convenient, given that they'd like to attack the first floor now - which will involve destroying the bathroom there - and now that they have their élan it would be a pity to slow things down, especially as we can begin to discern some progress. So even if the top floor is not, technically speaking, ready for habitation - missing a few of those optional extras like paint, and flooring - I guess we might just be moving up there next week.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

More Golden Weather ...

The weather may be is foul up in Savoie, to the point where friends up there are already thinking of turning on the central heating and in some cases have gotten to the point of lighting a fire in the evenings, but down in more southerly Furrin Parts we're still enjoying warm, sunny weather - fingers crossed, of course. Still, autumn's on its way: we can tell this from the road signs that have gone up around Conilhac warning passing drivers to be wary - "Attention! Vendanges!".

I hadn't realised just what a sweet tooth our dogs seem to have - it's bad enough their scarfing up road-kill figs from the tarmac, but going past the blackberries they hoover up as many as they can, tugging hard to get over to the masses of brambles, and should ever you go through the vines, with all those low-hanging bunches of grapes ripe and hot under the sun ... maybe it's time to make a grape flan. Nicking a few bunches from somewhat higher up, as a nod to hygiene. It has been brought to my attention that some people prefer their desserts without dog slobber.

From time to time I get email from the Chambre de Commerce back in Chambéry (they don't seem to have noticed that I've gone - fair enough, I never told them, but then I never told them I'd arrived either) which is usually harmless enough, like dead yeast in beer, and truth to tell I usually just delete them because they're almost always asking for money. For some reason I clicked on this one: just occasionally they like to go through the motions and show that they really are trying to help entrepreneurs, and here they were advertising a little morning session for start-ups.

I mean, I can see the point - in France entrepreneurs tend to be harried, furtive pallid people (comes of not seeing the sun enough) who slink around the edges of rooms hoping not to be noticed (for it is a shameful thing to be, and on top of it everyone else believes that you have illegally or immorally accumulated vast wealth to which you have no right, and they - especially the administration - will try to relieve you of it) and who knows: a morning with like-minded individuals, maybe a chance to do some networking, at the least get a decent coffee.

Unfortunately the programme reserves only about half an hour for this potentially useful activity, most of the morning being taken up by a presentation entitled "An entrepreneur is NOT a super-hero" (who'd have thought it?) by some guy who is noted as being "spécialiste de l'entrepreneuriat", and another by a fellow who is apparently a "specialist in Mindfulness" and also a business consultant in "accompaniment in change". Only after you've been overcome by the fumes from the joss-sticks and stunned by the whale-song do you get thirty minutes for "un slow meeting" (yeah, that is apparently French) with everyone else.

I mean, "entrepreneuriat"? What the hell is that? Come to that, how do you get to be a specialist in it? Go bankrupt several times, maybe.

Our estimable maire, M. Mazet, appears to have picked up an old copy of How To Win Friends And Influence People, but sadly his grasp of English is - shall we say, tenuous - and he has got it all arse-backwards. Mind you, that's a normal state of affairs for him. Whatever, we have been informed by a highly-placed mole (one of the Sources family) that he has asked the conseil municipal to authorise him to call in the gendarmerie to police the "situation de parking anarchique" in place St-Régis. Good luck to him with that one.

For godssake, either they ban parking in the square, they paint neat little parking lines, or people continue to park as they have since the invention of the mule ie where they can without bothering anyone else.

Coverage of NooZild politics is a bit spotty over here, but I have been able to discover that everyone's favourite right-wing sickness beneficiary and bloviator Fish Blubber is sad, for reasons which escape me but apparently involve a Minister of the Crown, a prostitute, and unmarked envelopes of cash completely unrelated to anything else, they just keep turning up. Just goes to show that you can make money from writing. (These people used email for "confidential" exchanges? Oh dearie me.)

Also, that nice Prime Minister of yours (I would say "ours", but I'm picky about what I walk in and in any case haven't been able to vote anywhere in the world for the past 20-something years) is not a happy person either, whereas that senile old git from Tauranga is extremely happy indeed because everyone's paying attention to him. For five minutes, at least. And Mr Cunlipps, of the Worker's Party, is happyish too because he has a chance to say "Hey, look at that! That totally wasn't our fault! Is that a unicorn?"

Like I said, I'm not entirely sure that the whole story gets correctly reported over here in Ole Yurrup and in any case my grasp on reality can be tenuous at the best of times, so do feel free to correct me if I've got anything dramatically - or libellously - wrong.

Be that as it may, with our usual selfless dedication to duty (also, there was no food in the house and I couldn't be arsed cooking what there was) we forced ourselves off the other night to l'Auberge Coté Jardin, just up the road in Conilhac, as part of our continuing mission to discover just where around these here parts you may, and should not, eat. (Re-reading it, that was perhaps not entirely clear. I am not trying to say that you should not eat at places where you may eat, nor the inverse: just that there are some places where you may eat, with a more than reasonable chance of satisfaction, and others where you should not eat, unless your tastes happen to run that way.)

The Samsung software is crap but provided I don't try to edit things with any luck words don't disappear into thin air, so whilst around us happy German bikers were taking photos of their meals I was writing up my tasting notes. Not that I have anything against taking photos of my food, just that I won't use a phone to do it because the quality is always invariably crap (it's not the number of pixels, it's the bloody optics for god's sake) and hauling out an SLR at the table is kind of obtrusive. Also, the strap always seems to land in the sauce.

Anyway, for those of you that may make your way over here and get bored with my cooking, Coté Jardin is but a five-minute drive from here and the ambiance is, let's face it, rather nice. Even if the armchairs are designed more for slumping in than eating. So after a quick discussion as to whether or not there was room we were parked at a table overlooking the terrace and menus were dished out and we ordered, and a helpful young woman brought us a little amuse-geuele, in the form of some rillettes de sardine.

Nicely arranged in an oval in a pristine dish with a sprig of chives, but let's face it, they're sardines mashed with butter and could have done with a bit of lemon juice, in my opinion. Also, a bit of decent bread to smear them on would not have gone amiss.

Margo just wanted the main course (and, of course, dessert): I am made of sterner stuff and so, dear readers, just for you I went for the menu. Which, as I didn't want slugs that evening, started out with a tarte fine aux sots les laissent, which turned out to be a chicken pizza with lettuce on top. Don't get me wrong here, let me deconstruct. The sots les laissent (lit. "idiots leave them") refer to those delectable little nuggets that everyone fights over on the roast, on the backbone just at the thigh joint - you don't fight over those? Hell, around here wars have been started for less.

In any case, I have no problems whatsoever with a crispy pastry base, nor with tomatoes reduced with a hint of balsamic vinegar to a chunky state, and even less with pan-fried nuggets. But like that, in a thick wodge - and with artistically torn roquette on top ... could've been great, was bleah. Sorry, no other word for it. And a royal pain in the arse to eat, politely. On the other hand, the extremely healthy ('cos of being full of seeds, and stuff) bread rolls on the side, fresh out of the oven, were excellent.

Once that had gone down we went on to more serious stuff, and I have to say that the dos de cabillaud with reduced fish stock and a sauce involving aubergines and cream, smoky-sweet, was excellent. But calling it "en croute" was, in my opinion, going a bit far: generally speaking that should be crispy, not a soggy mass of fine breadcrumbs and butter. Just saying.

A mi-cuit au chocolat for me and a deconstructed lemon-meringue tart (that's what it said on the menu, don't blame me) for madame rounded off the evening pleasantly enough, and we rolled out into the evening only 75€ lighter in the pocket, including a very generous glass of excellent wine. (At least we're in the right place for that.)

General conclusion? Not bad, but should be better. The chef is young - well, in his thirties, which counts as "young" for me these days - and I'd have liked to have been excited, or inspired, or challenged, or something. As it is, you're probably better off going to le Comte Roger at Carcassonne or (only they're not open in the evening) the resto routier just down the road, for good simple food and a half-litre of wine per person for 11€. Your choice.

And just to end the week in la joie et la bonne humeur, as they say, old Hélène invited us to her annual al fresco dinner, on a little piece of land she owns close to Ferrals. A couple of hectares on the slopes of a colline, planted with olives and cypresses under the pinède at the summit, facing due west out over the valley, and the warm golden light as the sun goes down is just magnificent. We ate - and drank - abundantly, and I could quite happily have gone to sleep there with the smell of herbs in the dry air, but I do like my bed.

The very next day - not too early, luckily - Charles turned up on the doorstep. Having also been on the receiving end of a missive from M. le maire, on the occasion of that little impromptu street party that occasioned such distress, he has taken to us as kindred spirits and oppressed underdogs, and as he just happened to have the boot of his car full of bio muscat grapes (for he, like so many around here, is a vigneron - and if you're looking to buy an 8 ha vineyard and a house in the village, I can give you his phone number) he thought we might like some. Definitely be a grape flan for dessert sometime soon.

Whatever, I'd better go and start tiling a shower. A messy business, I find - perhaps because I'm particularly maladroit when it comes to sticking the cement on the wall - but it needs doing if we're to move up there.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Nun's Tale ...

So I was sitting happily at my old desk up in Chambéry playing Freecell trying to work out why my RS-485 ports should not be working, when who should tap at the door but the weedy red-headed delivery guy? We greeted one another as long-lost friends, he offered me a coffee from the least disgusting of the vending machines, and talk turned - as it will and in fact invariably does - to cooking.

Somehow, it turned from the delights of cassoulet onto la cuisine moleculaire, and once we'd decided that a) you can't find a decent restaurant around Chambéry and b) all those with pretensions are, at best, merely competent, he went on to regale me with the tale of how once he went off to a restaurant managed by a friend of a friend up in the mountains above Grenoble for a twelve-course meal.

He was positively salivating as he described the sensation of eating the little billes of crystallised foie gras surrounding a heart of liquid foie gras - the crunch of biting down onto the hard shell and then the explosion of taste on the tongue - but he was only warming up for the trou normand, a variety of different lemon-flavoured mousses, essences and gels that came to the table set out as a platter of drug paraphernalia.

Oddly enough I mentioned this to Jeremy the next day, when he consented to have lunch with me, and he told me that he knew of the place: in fact, one of his friends from lycèe had worked there. Maybe I should try to get the name.

Our friend Mad Karen and her present husband Philippe have abandoned Mumblefuck and gone to live in a convent in Seyssel. I hasten to point out that the convent in question is not a going concern, for it would be unusual to have such a place accept Philippe even as a novice (or Mad Karen, come to that): rather, due to an absence of nuns it became surplus to the requirements of the Church, and they bought it. At long last, after a long and tortuous series of meetings and dealings with sordid bottom-feeding bankers, with the details of which I shall not bore you.

Seyssel is actually quite a nice little town on the old road through to Bellegarde and Nantua (you will recall that sauce Nantua, or any garnish with it in the name, refers to the fresh-water crayfish that have since disappeared, victims of over-fishing and pollution) built on both banks of the Rhône. As that used to be the frontier between France and Savoie, it thus has the particularity that the eastern part of the town is in Haute-Savoie, and the western part in the Ain (which is properly French, although the local accent is particularly impenetrable no matter what side of the river you find yourself on).

Anyway, the river runs through it and at one point back in the 1600s the Bernardine Order bought - or were given - some rich guy's place, latched onto most of the surrounding block of houses, and set up a convent. Which, due as I said to a lack of nuns, not to mention the Revolution, fell into desuetude ... whatever, Mad Karen and Philippe bought it.

Not the whole thing of course, that would have been prohibitively expensive, but they are now the proud owners of about 1000 m² on four levels, plus dépendances and maybe 800 m² of garden in the interior courtyard.

The courtyard had of course been left to its own devices over many years but after a bit of dedicated hacking and selective napalming you can see that the wood cyclamens are still there under the trees. I guess the main problem now is going to be getting rid of a couple of cubic metres of wood, given that there's no easy access, and certainly no way to get a rubbish skip in there: maybe they'll just have to befriend someone with a wood-chipper.

Preferably one that doesn't mind a bit of extra splatter when (sh)he's operating the machine, for Floyd The Psychopathic Terrier is unfortunately indiscriminate concerning the placement of bodily wastes. "I wouldn't step there ... " said Karen as I made my way about the cloisters, "oh, too late. Never mind, it'll probably wash out."

Rather to my surprise there's actually about 250 m² inside that are in fact habitable, even if the prior owner's taste in bathroom tiles was more than questionable. And the kitchen definitely needs a bit of work - like plumbing, for one thing - but it has a beautiful wooden floor. Although I can see it going down like a lead balloon with Health & Safety, maybe she should not look at doing table d'hôte.

Have I ever mentioned, by the way, that she's Italian? God, do they eat. When I turned up, about two, no way was I going to be allowed to escape without having a wodge of frittata, bread and cheese at the very least, and of course that needed to be washed down with wine.

Then there were mutual friends turning up for dinner, so around 6 I was banished to the kitchen to start a brace of chickens off slow-roasting (incidentally, one of the better ways of cooking the beast) with cherry tomatoes ... a good thing that Joc and Hervé brought dessert.

So their house is a big project - rather too much for us I'm afraid - but should ever it get finished it will be quite wonderful. And we will know people who actually live in a chateau, of sorts. Should ever they run short of cash I suppose they could always hock off a couple of the marvelous stone fireplaces, godnose they've enough to spare.

I headed back down home on Sunday with an unfortunately smug smile on my face once I'd got past Valence, which came from admiring the three blocked northward lanes for about 100 km. Then I got onto the A9 just before Orange, and my heart was still light for all was going swimmingly ... until I got to Montpellier.

Rather usefully, in these here parts the big overhead signs show an estimated trip time to the next few destinations, and as I got closer to the péage after Montpellier-Ouest I couldn't help but notice that they were advertising 2h30 to get to Narbonne: this is not good. Throwing caution to the winds and demonstrating, once again, the inevitable and tragic triumph of hope over experience, I got off whilst there was still time and headed onto the départementales towards Pézenas and Beziers - reasoning that it could hardly be worse.

Of course I was wrong. It's about 65 km to Beziers, all on narrow roads where there's sod-all chance of overtaking - of course man + dog had all had the same brilliant idea as I, and on top of it I had the good luck to wind up behind a white van man who hadn't read the manual, for his feeling seemed to be that 60 kph had been good enough for Jesus (I'm not sure in which of the Apocrypha this obscure factoid is mentioned, but what the hell), and it was certainly good enough for him.

I toyed with the idea of forcing him off onto the shoulder and eating his liver raw, but it came to me that if I did so I would be held up for another fifteen minutes and that sometimes one just has to ignore the siren call of instant gratification, and luckily a passing lane appeared at that point ... then I arrived at Montagnac. I guess that the traversée of the place is only about 2 km, but the mayor has apparently put his idiot nephew in charge of running the traffic lights - of which there are three, don't ask me why, I didn't do it - and it seems to be done with bits of string and, when all else fails, by the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

It only took about half an hour to get through there, and then I got to Pézenas which was mildly better, and a bit after that I ran out of road signs and everything conspired to push me onto the A75, which was at least heading roughly in the way I wanted to go ... and that was fine, and I got back onto the A9 which was all clear (probably because everyone had, like me, got off and were still desperately roaming the countryside, lost and destined to be eaten by the autochthones) and at Narbonne I got onto the A61 knowing full well that Lézignan is the first exit ...

My last chance to get off having disappeared, of course I came across another of those handy overhead signs that was advertising a ralentissement and about two hours to get to Carcassonne: one of those days when you really shouldn't have bothered getting out of bed.

I finally made it home by 21:00, only seven hours after I'd set out: still, the dogs were glad to see me.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Newspapers Do Me 'Ead In ...


"What's this?" I thought, blearily glugging down the first coffee-and-cocaine of the moaning*. "Why on Earth has the world's most peaceful, prosperous and technologically advanced nation weaponised the clergy?" In a parallel universe I would probably have slapped the newspaper down onto the breakfast table with a triumphant "harrumph" at Margo at this point, narrowly avoiding a cornflakes-related disaster, but in this Shamblings we don't actually do breakfast, and in any case avoid being together until we've evolved a bit.

(Also, to be totally honest, the actual physical paper newspaper has gone the way of the clepsydra and the button-hook, rendered obsolete by technology. But slapping a tablet down just doesn't have the same ring to it, and could also get quite expensive, what with the little buggers being kind of delicate and all. So we're stuck - metaphorically - with dead trees.)

As it will (must cut down on the medications which are not, strictly speaking, mine anyway - and truth to tell I'm not entirely sure that powdered doggy worm tablets are really that hallucinogenic, although if you cut them with baking powder they are kind of fizzy) this sent the dinosaur hind-brain running off down memory lane looking for something to play with, and all it could find was the old Monty Python sketch "The Bishop", which it dutifully brought back and started to gnaw. Would be nice, if one day it just brought me my slippers ... 

Anyway, visions of booby-trapped baptismal fonts, bishops with bazookas, Kevlar chasubles and exploding aspergillae started weaving in and out of more normal daydreams involving improbably-dimensioned young women, and it wasn't until I clicked on the link and realised that some sub-editor over at was probably going to be told he was a very naughty boy that things started to calm down.

At long last EBK is learning the fine art of cohabitation with SOD. He still refuses to find himself in the same room as her, but when both the dogs go out on the late-evening "Avoiding Unpleasant Incidents In The Night-time" walk he prances along with us and dives in to see what's going on. Patting a cat whose head is covered in dog slobber is less than pleasant, but I guess it could be worse.

Our new(ish) maire, M. Mazet, is a small stumpy man with a Panama hat and the harassed air of a self-important minor bureaucrat; walks stiffly and seats himself with an uncomfortable grimace. I would not be surprised to learn that a stick was surgically implanted into his arse at some point. Or perhaps he just has haemorrhoids (as well as an idiot nephew, which as I've said before seems to come with the job). Whatever, he is not winning any prizes in the popularity sweepstakes in our little corner of Moux.

Tuesday, when I was off in Chambéry (decanting Bryan and Beckham and vast quantities of wine back there after their week in the sun, amongst other more serious things) Reets (that's how "Rita" is pronounced in bloody Barnsley) reached the ripe old age of sixty-mumble and had a birthday party.

She and Neville have a house which can only be described as "teeny" and anyway it was hot and sunny, so as will happen it spilled out onto their extremely narrow street, which sort of came into being back in the day when plumbing was invented so they decided that paving over the open sewer might be a good idea. Also, at that time "transportation" meant "donkeys" so I suppose that technically speaking it is in fact a two-way street: personally I am not about to try and take Sarah down there because I would probably get stuck for the rest of my life.

That is not the point: the point is that at some time in the evening M. le maire came out to ostentatiously close his shutters and I guess he must have a photographic memory or maybe he's the French rebuild of the 6-Million Dollar Man because the next day all those present - including, I'm sad to say, Margo - received a Letter.

The very first sentence ended with an exclamation mark: a bad beginning, being almost invariably the sign of a diseased mind. It reminds us that Moux is governed by the laws of the République, that roads may not be closed without permission from the mairie, and - just by the way - that there should be no noise, vulgarity, drunkenness or lascivious behaviour in the streets after 10pm. Sadly, it did not end with a "longue vie à notre Président, vive la république", but the sentiment was there.

He also seems to have a mild obsession with parking spaces in the place - better that than penis size I suppose - and under normal circumstances that would be harmless enough, but it has led him to upbraid Margo on occasion. He seems to feel it very deeply that we have two cars, one of which is bigger than his, and neither of them are in our garage, and this cuts him to the quick. Personally I am impatient to get all the furniture out of the garage and into the house, which would at least leave the possibility of sticking a car in there, but this seems of little consolation to him.

Whatever, I could give a shit.

Pouring fat on the flames, or adding insult to injury, or whatever, old Hélène was also on the receiving end of a Sternly Worded But Uplifting Letter, which did not please her. As a good soixante-huitard she of course did something about it: consisting, quite simply, of asking Mr. Stick-up-bum whether or not she needed an arrêté municipal to park her car in the street outside her house in order to unload it. The splenetic response was apparently quite edifying.

I kind of wish I'd been around to hear it, I'm sure I'd have learnt something. Or if not, I'd probably have laughed myself sick.

As is traditional around these here parts the day arrived with a bright sun in a flawless blue sky and - kind of exceptionally, this one - no wind. Of course I had better things to do, so I resolutely ignored their siren call and headed off to Paraza, a bit north-east of here, instead.

It's a pretty little village, baking under the sun, and the canal du Midi winds slowly around it under the platanes and on a hot Sunday afternoon the only people moving around are the tourists, who hop off the house-boats to see if they can't find some decent wine for the apéro a bit later on.

I know it will be my downfall, but the gates were open and there seemed to be a dégustation going on in there, so I followed my nose through the imposing gates and on into Chateau Paraza. Which I can now heartily recommend. Even if it is Minervois, rather than Corbières. I'm quite broad-minded, in that respect.

Started off with a couple of whites, then the rosé, then onto serious work with the reds. Beginning, as one will, with the youngest and least complicated, and working up from there ... the vin du pays is not to be sniffed at - the 2011 was really rather decent - and the 2010 AOC Minervois (les Baronnies, should you be wondering) was extremely good.

From then we worked our way up to the top level, In Vino Veritas, which is a syrah/grenache blend picked when very ripe so sod-all natural acidity: don't expect it to last too long in your cellar. For a number of reasons. Lovely stuff, I'll take you there. But be warned, it's rather treacherous at 14.5°, going on 15°, so don't plan on doing much after the wine tasting other than lounging on the banks of the canal idly heaving stones - or German tourists - at passing ducks. (I am made of sterner stuff. They had a vinaigrier on the table: I spat. Shame, really.)

It had not in fact been in my plans for the afternoon, but somehow I found myself heading home with a dozen bottles in the boot and a thirteenth - a present - rattling around on the front seat. I really must think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but quite frankly off the top of my head I can't.

And in my spam folder today, a very poetic message which almost moved me to reply:

Good day Upstarting
Now You Can Buy Tabletz :-)
I slept on leather ate right off the knife a shepherd thou a shepherdess john and georgiana reed

Eat your heart out, ee cummings. Strictly speaking I suppose I really should give the real url as some form of attribution, but
  1. I can't be arsed.
  2. I shall plead "fair use" if sued.
  3. I am guessing that you do not really want a brown-paper wrapped container-load of Viagra and "natural human testosterone" - possibly extracted from Ukrainian war orphans - turning up on your doorsteps, should you by accident or terminal stupidity click on the link, so I'm doing you a favour here by redacting it.
Well, mind how you go now.
*You may say "morning", I say "moaning". I find it a more accurate description. Arthur Dent screamed.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

RSI: Really Stupid Idiots ...

I had kind of hoped that Indra (or Spare Other Dog as I suppose we shall have to call her, in the three-letter acronym style favoured around here at The Shamblings) would be slightly less dim than Shaun - not really a high standard to aim for - but sadly her brain too seems to be only running on 6V.

There are balls to play with, what little is left of Rasta Ted (who actually looks more like the Flying Spaghetti Monster after a really bad accident these days), a gross and slimy green rubber bone - so what does she pick? Go out to the terrace, lovingly lick up a microscopic piece of grit and then come over to you to deposit it - after careful mastication - onto the chair if you're lucky, up the inside of your shorts if less so. Then you're expected to throw it.

She does have good eyesight, I must admit: nine times out of ten she manages to catch it on her tongue. Then she swallows it, which at least means a five-minute truce whilst she snuffles around trying to find another microscopic bit of grit so that the game can continue.

And then Shaun has, virtually overnight, become middle-aged: walks that exceed requirements for a good piss and a healthy bowel motion are out of his comfort zone, and when he gets back home you can see him metaphorically putting his slippers on before settling down in a shaggy heap. If he could, he would wear a knitted waistcoat and smoke a pipe. And the nice old lady who does for him (for he is one of nature's bachelors) would complain about the hair clogging up the shower.

At least Indra is still up for a decent trot, which means I get out a bit, which also means that I'm reminded of just how long this area has been inhabited. No matter where you walk around here, in the garrigue or up in the hills with the scrub oak and the scraggy pines and the juniper, you can see the ancient drystone walls.

You may or may not be aware of this, and I suppose that maybe you could care more, but over here in Ole Yurrup if ever you actually manage to make some money the state  - via its incompetent organs - are pretty insistent on wanting some of it. How much? Just let them think of a figure.

Fair enough, I'm an independent and so it seems reasonable enough that I should pay, along with income tax, money for my retirement (they're bound to turn a profit on that one) and health insurance. These last are collected extracted (with a maximum of pain and fuss, they've learnt nothing from Colbert) by one of the afore-mentioned organs, possibly the most incompetent of all: we are talking about the RSI here.

So they sent me a bill a while back for 8000€, which was the sum they'd calculated conjured out of thin air representing what I owed them for 2013. I tried to ring them, I really did, and eventually I did in fact get through to one of their droids rather than an answering machine that just keeps you on line (at 80c/min) before hanging up on you after ten minutes and endeavoured to put across my point of view.

"I have sent you" I said, "my declaration des revenus 2013, and I do feel that asking for 8000€ cash is kind of excessive ..." "La situation semble compliquée, je note votre numéro et quelq'un va vous rappeller ..." Of course, no-one ever rang back, but I did get a letter asking for my declaration des revenus 2013 and on the grounds that it probably couldn't hurt I sent a copy off again.

A week ago I got two letters from these people (I am using the term loosely here): the first was to inform me that they'd recalculated plucked another number out of thin air and that I owed them 360€ and that they'd send me a letter Real Soon Now telling me how much I owed them. I can't complain, because it's quite a mark-down from the initial sum. The second letter was to ask me for my declaration des revenus 2013. Go figure.

Whatever, today dawned bright and sunny and a bit fresh, thanks to last night's thunderstorm I guess, so at least I'll have fine weather when I'm stuck in the bouchons on the autoroute heading up to Chambéry.

As it turns out, that was too gloomy by far. There was indeed a lot of traffic, and in the vallée du Rhône between Orange and Valence - the traditional choke-point for vacationers - it was moving slightly faster than a brisk walk. Going south. Northwards - my way - was fine, so having left early expecting the worst I arrived unseasonably early. OK, I admit to a five minute slowdown at the Valence péage but that's par for the course.

All of which left me at a loose end, so I had no choice but to seek a dissolute drinking companion (hello, Bryan!) to see whether or not the service at O'Cardinals has improved. The answer is "marginally", I still think that it's a shame they tarted up the inside and got rid of the cracked old leather seats so that it looks like any other slightly up-market bar. Personally, I preferred it shabby. The only thing to do is sit outside, where you don't get to see that, and learn to live with the fact that the servers only come out there once every half-hour or so, and then are totally unequipped to give change ...

The other drawback to that is that when the heavens open, as they did halfway through the second glass of vitamins, you tend to get rather quickly soaked through. Which brought our otherwise agreeable evening to a rapid, sodden end.

It is said, somewhere or another, that the Devil makes work for idle hands: in my case he appears to be making me write cheques. Like the other day, when nothing would do but I buy a semi-professional deep-fryer from Matcol, in Lézignan. Margo had been past the place and saw that they had one: eight-litre capacity for only 230€, so I felt it my duty to go take a look at it.

Twas cheap because second-hand: the first owner had bought it, taken it back to his restaurant, tried it out and bought it back the next day, saying something along the lines of "I need a bigger one!" but for my humble purposes I rather think it will suffice. Haven't yet fired it up - for one thing I don't happen to have that amount of oil hanging around in the pantry, and for another it's too damn hot to even think about making chips - but I'm sure I'll get around to that Real Soon Now.

In other news, we are currently enjoying the company of Bryan and Beckham. I drove her down on Monday, pausing but briefly to top up the supplies of beer and wine once we got down to civilised parts, and then Bryan, pleading that he had work to do and that the world may well come to an end if it weren't done, took the train down Friday night.

Luckily I'd planned a cold meal that night, for Margo toddled off - without, of course, her phone - to pick him up from Narbonne and of course it was shortly afterwards that I got a phone call to say that although the train had indeed left Montpellier it was currently stuck in Agde, waiting for the gendarmerie to finish the job of stuffing a rubbish sack with whatever bits they could find of the inconsiderate sod who'd taken it into his head to got for a walk along the railway tracks.

I mean, if people really want to commit suicide then I've nothing against that per se, and I guess that being smeared over the landscape by a train going at 110kph is probably quick, and certainly definitive, but you'd think the buggers could at least have the common decency not to inconvenience honest taxpayers such as myself, who find their dinner plans put on hold indefinitely.

Speaking of which, you can see that there's a glut of tomatoes around here just at the moment, so I suppose I'd better go think of something to do with them. Mind how you go, now.