Sunday, July 20, 2014

Blink ...

Y'know, sometimes I look back at the sheer technological progress that's been made over the last thirty years in communications, and despair. Way back when, when we were living in NooZild, if I actually felt the urge to let friends and family know how things were - pretty rare, because as a rule we all lived more or less within a radius of a five-minute walk, which might go someway to explaining a lot of things - I would pick up the new-fangled telephone, and call them.

This involved a highly-skilled Telecoms operative actually making a physical connection between the piece of string coming into his or her office from the tin can in our house and the other piece of string connected to the tin can in the other person's house, and then pulling on it to make sure that it was tight. Otherwise call quality was poor, and it sounded loose. This cost money, but it was still easier than engraving stone tablets.

Then when we moved to Ole Yurrup the cost of phone calls rose from merely eye-watering to absolutely astronomical, partly because the pieces of string concerned were so damn long, and all wet because most of them went underwater, and to keep them tight the operator (so we called them) had to have a body like Charles Atlas, and so as I had available the very latest word in technology ie a Compaq "luggable" weighing only thirty kilos, I changed methods.

I started engraving bits onto floppy disks using what we used to call "word-processor technology" (almost as quick as onto stone) wherein I could actually see on the 9" CRT display more or less what might - if I was lucky, and had the right driver - come out on the printer: if you didn't mind, for instance, that the bold display on the screen was only distinguishable from italic text by the fact that it had a big CTRL/B in front. And of course it was displayed in any font you liked, so long as that was Courier.

Then I would print it out - using a daisy-wheel at first and then on a dot-matrix printer - usually in what we called "fantasy" fonts like Unicorn because they were unreadable, but we thought they were cool - and mail off five or six physical copies (paying through the nose for the privilege) to some lucky people who were supposed to read it and send it on. If ever it arrived.

Kind of like a more modern version of an eighteenth century lending library, and if any of you didn't actually send it on you can rest in peace, I've forgiven you.

Then Al Gore invented email, and on his days off the Internet so that it would work, and eventually more and more people got funny addresses like "gf12385.nz@aol.com" and I decided that it was time to take the next step, which was to laboriously type words and stuff into Microsoft Outlook Express, hope it didn't eat them or decide to purge the drafts folder (the database that they used for Outlook back in the day was the precursor of the JET engine that eventually grew into Access - it was shit back then too) and then cc everyone for whom I had what I hoped was a valid email address, hoping that at some point in the next month they'd turn on their 56K modem.

The excitement of that wore off after a while, especially when random mail servers would decide for some reason that wanadoo.fr was a blacklisted spam server, at which point I sold my soul to the great google and decided that I might as well cut out the middle-man. (Anyone remember that TV series, by the way? Great comedy.) So these days I still bash the keys and bits fly to do my bidding, but it's inside a "Rich Text Edit control" inside a "Javascript" which is somewhere inside my machine. (No longer, incidentally, a Compaq.)

Then I hit the "Publish" button, and if blogger is feeling happy my words will spring forth and go look for people with an active internet connection and spray themselves all over their screens like a dictionary with projectile vomiting, which is the only explanation I can come up with off the top of my head as to why, yesterday, 83 Russians apparently saw what I wrote the other day.

Taihape, eat yer heart out
Anyway, my aching head and I rolled out of bed at some ungodly hour this lovely Monday moaning, when all other right-thinking people were still lying in thinking about how much they'd like to go to the Bastille Day parade if only they could be arsed, to drop the yoof off at the péage at Lézignan where they were to be picked up  - they'd organised a car-share, which has become big over here. We were late - but in my defense let it be said that the car took an unreasonably short time arriving from Toulouse, I rather suspect the driver of not having respected the speed limits 100% - but I handed over a bottle of rosé as an apology, and also to ensure that they actually left. Mind you, I quite miss having teenagers around, now that they've gone.

And now the temperatures are crawling back up into the mid-thirties, and I am forced to work - or at least to retreat to the relative cool of the office, where it's only 26° - because out on the terrace it is just too hot. The air is still - which is kind of exceptional - so there's not even a breeze to stir the heavy air under the parasol, and the sun beats down on the tiles.

Some people have cats that do Useful Things. Friends or neighbours of Margo's family, for instance, had a cat that did the rounds at the local race-course picking up unconsidered trifles, and came back most Saturdays with a nice haul of banknotes. EBK, sad to say, is not in that league. Case in point, he went hunting tonight, out in the little square between us and the church. Eventually, he came back, scrambled three metres up the wall onto the roof of the terrace and then plonked down to the ground, proudly bearing in his mouth ... a plastic cup.

Which STD then grabbed, because they are fun to chew on and make a hellish noise when you crunch them between your teeth. Just saying. Also, I wouldn't have minded quite so much if only it had not been empty. Was a bit of red so much to ask for?

Anyway, a double dose of Kulcha today: having better things to do and being, as you probably know, of a religious bent ("Pass another choir-boy, Cuthbert?") we headed off to the abbaye de Fontfroide, east and a tad south of here. Started out as Benedictines, somehow got attached to Clairvaux and thus became Cistercians. I guess it didn't worry the monks too much.

Until of course one of them, who just happened to be a Papal legate, got assassinated and so quite innocently set off the Albigensian Crusade, thus allowing Simon de Montfort to show off the caring side of his psychopathic character. It all ended in tears, of course: good Catholics that they were, God saved them for the Black Death a bit later on.

Then the place got titivated as the kings of France exercised their right to appoint the abbot: these were often second sons or bastards of the nobility who saw no reason to sleep on the floor or do without a tennis court, so they improved the place a bit.

A (rich) local guy - an artist and a patron - bought the place back in 1907 for the princely sum of 50,000 gold francs - I don't know whether it was a replacement for his art collection or not, but it seems he sold most of his Cézannes to pay for the repairs. (Personally, I'd have kept those and hocked off the Gauguins, but that's just me.) It's still in the family, and still being tarted up little by little.

Although I do find all those white marble statues scattered about the place and popping up where you least expect them to be just a little bit creepy, don't these people watch TV?

We got back from that, suitably uplifted, and as Young Hélène had given us freebie tickets to the vernissage we made the 4km trip to Conilhac-Corbières to see an art exposition, "L'art dans le Ruisseau" (lit. "Bacon in the stream*").

I have to admit that the main reason for going was the prospect of drinks and nibbles, thinking to myself that it'd be mostly "art" from the senior citizen's club and let's face it, in a village of maybe 800 people the odds of finding something decent would be pretty dim. Maybe some interesting tatting, a primary school project involving toilet rolls or something along those lines ... But as it turns out, I was surprised.

For one thing, I was surprised to discover the network of alleys and flash-flood drains that run through the place, sometimes connecting streets, sometimes like a separate walled-off maze, sort of a hidden town within a town. Italo Calvino, anyone? Then I was even more surprised to find that they'd used this and some of the private gardens that open onto it, as an open-air exhibition space for what turned out to be a very good show indeed.

Okay, I'd expected daubs, but these were professional artists from all over. Drinkies in paws we went our different ways and met up again in the food scrum (people around here always seem to bring their kids along to things like this, cuts the food bill I guess but you do have to take care to avoid trampling them underfoot - not that I care that much but the parents can, I've found, get irate about it) to compare notes and head back round together.

Fortunately for the bank account, we didn't actually agree on anything - some rather strange photos I liked, but Margo didn't because there were people in them, and personally I can't see the point to rusty chicken-wire on wood.

With the exception of some paintings by a guy of, at a guess, Spanish descent, one Felip Costes, which turned both our heads. But not having a spare 3000€ floating around in my man-bag or down the back of the sofa, I was rather more modest and contented myself with the catalog.

Anyway, after a month's hiatus (or maybe more, I've given up counting because it only raises my blood pressure) Cédric turned up again and upstairs is starting to move ahead once more. Just as well because the parquet flooring stacked in the verandah is rapidly approaching its use-by date, and we are both getting very impatient to stop camping and move up there. Whatever. I have learnt not to hold my breath, and when malicious (ex-)friends ask innocently how it's getting on, I can manage a non-committal answer with a straight face, and hardly the hint of a sigh.

* A bad joke, I admit. "Lard dans le Ruisseau". Sorry.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Drinking Water ...

Another one for the collection
... is not good for you, for it rusts you from the inside, but I may just have to start for the price of wine is going to go through the roof, what with 15000 square hectares* of vines being destroyed by hail in the Aude alone last weekend. Well, when I say "destroyed" I guess the vines themselves are still there but there'll be no point in harvesting this year because they no longer have any grapes.

Actually, reboot that. I had occasion to fill up the wine tanks the other day, in anticipation of Beckham's impending visit and the damage that could do to the stocks, and the nice guy at the cave coopérative suggested that I go take a look at the damage around Homps and Olonzac just a few km to the north, so having better things to do that is what I did. Just looking, you could be forgiven for saying "so what?", but when you look closer you can see that half the leaves are on the ground, and those that are still on the vines are starting to wither because the stems have been twisted and bashed about. And the odd thing is that there's a very clear line: just out of Homps on the right of the road the vines were healthy and happy, to the left - not so much.

I guess that most of those vignerons who had insurance might just tighten their belts and hang on until next year - those who didn't will probably close up the shop. Just hope that the uninsured turn out to be those making mostly cheap rotgut and floor polish, in which case I shall shed no tears, but those are rare these days (a far cry from twenty-mumble years ago) and it will probably turn out to be small producers, and startups, that go under.

Much to my relief - and to that of my proof-reader - the delivery guy turned up Friday in a squeal of tires and to an excited chorus of barks from STD (who seems to reckon that his job description involves protecting all of place St-Régis against people that he has not personally authorised) and hastily handed over my new keyboard, so I now no longer have random characters appearing as I type. Any future misspellings will be entirely my fault.

Kitties! Look at them whilst I steal your wallet
Somewhat to my surprise Microsoft still make - and the rueducommerce website still stocks and ships - the "Comfort Curve" line of ergonomic keyboards, so when I discovered that my computer had virtually overnight become dyslexic I hastily ordered one. To my mind they're one of the best ever made - a matter of taste and habit I know, much like using a trackball instead of a mouse. I mean, I've seen Renaud try to use mine up at the office, and I swear that he just can't resist the urge to pick it up and move it around the desk, trying to get the cursor to budge.

Now there's something I am going to have difficulty replacing when eventually my Logitech one dies on me as I can only reasonably expect it will sometime in the not-too-distant future, given how long I've had it. So far I've been able to get away with cleaning out the accumulated greasy gunk once a month, but I don't know how long I'll be able to get away with that. And the only one I've been able to find is some cheap Bluetooth knock-off, which will probably try - and perhaps succeed - to pair with my phone, and stubbornly refuse to talk to anything else. (Now that you ask, no, I don't particularly like Bluetooth. My experiences with it have been - mixed, at best.)

Then, after the keyboard, Beckham and a flatmate turned up for the weekend. Forewarned is, as they say, forearmed, and I'd had the good sense to load up on thirty litres from the cave coopérative just to avoid one of those embarrassing moments when the wine runs out half-way through dinner.

We squeaked through in that department but the meal was not without its mishaps: in an excess of enthusiasm I took the heavy baking tray with six individual soufflés au chèvre et citron atop it out of the oven one-handed, and had almost got out to the table when the damn tray warped as it cooled and delivered all but one up to the mercies of gravity and a very hard tiled floor. I am afraid that I used a few of the choicer, more robust rude words in my repertoire. Bitch, Bruce.

Whatever, Zair promised to cook the next night (possibly hoping to avoid a repeat performance of the flying dessert): and if you think I'm too proud to have someone cook for me, especially when they're proposing a home-made Lebanese meal, you're wrong. So Saturday I took him through to the market to find flat-leafed parsley and adequate amounts of mint and lemons and tahini and chickpeas and all the other fixings for a decent Lebanese salad and hummus, and we sort of organised to have the girls come through and we'd meet at la cité so that they could do touristy things.

The fête de Carcassonne starts next weekend, which probably goes some way to explaining just why it was that, as we gratefully put our feet up for a glass of vitamins in the sun in a friendly little bar that just happens to be more or less on the route back to the car, an oompah band struck up with a medley of Abba - climaxing, if I may use the word, with a rousing rendition of "Fernando" scored for tuba and piano-accordion. If there are any circumstances in which the use of waterboarding as a deterrent technique is justified, I think that would have to be one.

We fled, and went our way up to la cité more or less as planned, and about the first thing we did was find somewhere to eat. And, of course, drink. Yes, Beckham went for the cassoulet, which would not be my meal of choice in summer but there you are: Margo, wiser, went for terrine and then just a cuisse de poulet and of course I had no option but to choose the foie gras followed by a magret de canard poelé. I must admit that I had not expected to be served an entire duck breast all to myself, nicely cooked though it was.

And let it be said that the foie gras was, although nice enough, under-seasoned as is very often the case - just a little more pepper is all I ask, people - and godnose what possessed them to serve puréed pumpkin with cinnamon and perhaps a bit of maple syrup on the side. Not really the happiest of combinations. Still, the chips were irreproachable.

We rolled out after dessert and tried to walk off some of the surplus-to-requirements calories, unfortunately coming across a coutellerie selling some rather interesting hand-forged cutlery which we may have to revisit sometime soon, but after a couple of hours forcing our way through the masses of tourists (I had, I must admit, forgotten that Carcassonne is kind of a tourist Mecca, being a World Heritage site and all) we all got thirsty again and decided to head stop off at Trèbes on the way home for a refreshing health drink in a shady bar on the banks of the canal du Midi.

That done and out of the way I was more than happy to show Zair where things live in the kitchen and let him get on with it before retreating to the terrace to check up on the state of the rosé, and to get the barbecue ready for the lamb leg steaks we'd picked up earlier.

Beckham had expressed a desire to go off to the beach on Sunday, but when she finally made surface there was a gentle breeze playing around, and I guess that the thought of being sand-blasted on Narbonne-Plage didn't really appeal all that much for a after a late, leisurely lunch of left-overs we decided instead to go get a dose of kulcha at Lagrasse. Where, in addition to other virtues too numerous to mention, such as its C14 covered marketplace, the abbey, the river and the rabbit-warren of narrow twisty streets, there are also a number of bars - all of them, at the start of the tourist season, open on a Sunday to welcome the thirsty footsore visitor.

And we were lucky enough to leave sufficiently early to make it to CDD at Lézignan to pick up a couple of 5l Chateau Carton (to go back to Chambéry) and a few cases of le Petit Spencer to ripen in the cupboard under the stairs that, for want of a better place, serves as the wine cellar around here, before it was time to put on our glad rags and head off to the feast.

Made it there and the tables were bare, so we were forced to mingle and chat with various people we know until, surreptitiously, serried lines of glistening bottles appeared and the fatted pizza was slaughtered and laid out. Any semblance of order disappeared as the able-bodied and small children descended in droves, milling around trying to snag the tastiest bits of pizza or a half-full bottle, leaving the senile and the grannies sitting on the sidelines and smiling benignly. Far too bloody much food, as usual, and I really should warn you that "Label 5" Finest Blended Alcoholic Shoe Polish is considered down these parts to be an acceptable substitute for whisky.

Even old Neville, who should know better, managed to snaffle a bottle and was happily downing the stuff, despite being well aware of the consequences.

And after about an hour of that the whistle blew to remind us that we were here for a serious purpose, ie major eating and we went off to find our seats between a very gai gendarme and his Camerounais family, and a serious but very pleasant family who turned out to own the couple of Ferraris I sometimes see parked out at the top of the village.

One thing led to another, and after the trou Normand and the fireworks but before the dancing had really got seriously underway it started pelting down, and after ten minutes sheltering under the tables it became apparent that this was likely to continue so with some regret we decided that discretion was much the better part of valour, and stumbled back home.

* Don't bother going all medieaval on me. I am merely specifying that the hectares of which I speak are in fact square, rather than oval or star-shaped, or something that looks like a splodge of vomit.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Salmon Run ...

 So let me get one thing straight right from the start, I have absolutely nothing against the Belgians as a species. Apart, that is, from the fact that they are, more or less by definition, Belgians, and that every time spawning season comes around they feel this irresistible urge to return to the ancestral breeding grounds - in the south of France, apparently - and they need to get there in the ancestral Mercedes. Preferably, towing the ancestral caravan. With two bikes hung off the back, and what looks like a year's supply of potatoes strapped to the roof. (For it is a well-known fact that you just cannot get decent potatoes for making chips in France, and no self-respecting Belgian holiday-maker would be without his/her steaming-hot moules-frites under the baking sun at midday.)

Whatever, they will drive down in convoys, in the fast lane, at the breath-taking speed of 110kph: maybe, being notoriously dim-witted, they have not noticed that they have left Brussels. Also, they are unaware of the existence of rear-view mirrors, or they prefer to ignore them, and so do not see the long line of traffic that has built up behind them. Sadly, although the Alfa has just about every option under the sun, I have not yet found the rocket-launcher control.

At some point they will arrive at their destination, park the caravan and erect the awnings, and boot the kids out to go play at "Bury the Body" on the beach: whilst Madame is preparing the moules-frites Monsieur will stroll around, shirtless - unfortunately - and beer in hand, to exchange a few words with the neighbours at the camp-site, whom he has not seen since they all left Brussels together about ten hours earlier.

Completely off-topic, but sometimes I feel an urge to find out just what is going on in your little green and pleasant land - even if only to catch up on the doings of your alien reptile overlord. And in so doing I came across what is, I feel, the stuff of which proper journalism is made - this is what deserves a Pulitzer - I can only stand in awe and refer you to the stuff.co.nz headline which read "Man falls from roof, hits head". Deathless prose.

(Yeah, I know, the guy died. I'd be pissed off if that was my epitaph.)

As a general rule, the French celebrate Bastille Day (and don't ask me why that is pronounced "Bastee", it just is) on July 14th, but here in Moux it is done on the 13th. The reasons are not clear to me, but I suspect that it has something to do with the fireworks and the food, which the mayor's idiot nephew bought just after the official celebration a year ago, when it was on special, coming rapidly up to its use-by date.

Whatever, I toddled off to the mairie the other day to buy our tickets, the guy at the desk dragged out the seating plan and said "where do you want to be" and I replied something along the lines of "I could care more". Apparently the English contingent around here usually buy their tickets en bloc and so get seated together and have to talk to one another: I am not sure I want to go there.

(Update: I have since learnt that the idiot nephew has unilaterally decided to stick all the known English-speakers together anyway, I suppose to stop them bothering anybody else. Turns out for the best I guess, as it appears that Beckham will be turning up, I shall have to get her a ticket, and we do not want her molesting any of the studly young things.)

For one thing, there will be more than enough time to mingle and chat if so inclined whilst we're swilling wine and nibbling on the quivering masses of quiche, pizza, pissaladière and godnose what else that are set out just to whet the appetite for the real meal, and for another, I can think of  better things to do. Just suppose, for instance, that I get seated next to Anthony and Sarah-Jane: WTF am I supposed to say as an ice-breaker? "Sold any good ships lately?" Can see that going down like a cup of luke-warm sick.

I should perhaps point out at this point that Anthony is, apparently, a ship-broker. Buys an oil tanker or so once a year, sells it on, and the margin is enough to keep up the house here, the chalet in the Alps, the little baise-en-ville pied-à-terre in London and the holiday home in  the Caymans. Or so I'm told. Have actually met the guy - once - but I got the distinct impression that my native charm failed to impress, and that he thought I was a poorly-trained trick cockroach.

About this time a year ago - give or take a couple of days - you'll recall that we were still frantically stuffing things into boxes and taping them shut: I'd say about 90% of them are still stacked, unopened, in what will eventually become the dining room here at The Shambles. The other 10% are stacked, also unopened, out in the verandah because the putative dining room is only about 35m² and I do need to be able to get at my desk.

And this same time, this year, I'm out on the terrace under a sun umbrella, with a soleil de plomb above in the bright wide blue sky. So it's been almost a year we've been down here now, and neither of us regret the move. We put up, albeit grudgingly, with the inconvenience of sun and hot weather, and being obliged to have barbecues: after all, that only lasts for eight or nine months of the year, and it's a burden we're willing to support in exchange for relief from the snow.

It helps, too, that I don't wake up in the morning these days dreading what shit is going to fall on me when I get into the office. I get up, get the coffee ready - studiously trying to ignore Needy Kitten who insists that he hasn't been fed for years and WANNA NOW! - and take STD out for his morning trot under the sky before getting back and out onto the  terrace for coffee, fruit juice and nicotine. And, finally, giving Bloody Kitten some Gourmet Cat Jelly With Lark's Tongues.

Don't get me wrong, looking at the spreadsheet where I note down my hours I actually work more than before but a) it's all billed and b) it's at my rhythm. Stuck on a problem? Take the time to think about it, preferably with another cigar. Bored witless? Take the dog off for another walk, enjoy the countryside. Or bone out the leg of lamb and get it in the marinade ready for the evening. It works for me.

I can see we shall have to buy yet another bloody Kindle, for Jeremy The Destroyer has struck again. I've said it before, our eldest son is not, it seems, able to live with electronics. A couple of motherboards, three power supplies and a few other bagatelles later I am convinced of this. (Mind you, using his keyboard as an ashtray may not help.) But still, I have to wonder how he does it.

This time he was walking home from work, with the Kindle that Margo so nicely got him and stocked up with books in his backpack, when he got overtaken by a thunderstorm. The backpack got damp - as it will - and somehow the Kindle got water up its USB port and died - how does that happen? For godsake, I've had snow in the Ethernet ports of various laptops, and they just laughed it off.

And as luck would have it, just a few days before he called with the news Margo -knowing him as well as I - had ordered a fancy waterproof case from Amazon: sadly, it has not yet turned up. I guess he gets an early birthday present this year. (But still, WTF?)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sourpuss Grumpyface ...

 Maybe I don't know what I'm doing, maybe my machines are - fragile - or just could be there's something sinister at work here, but I cannot help but get the feeling that every time I get a "security and stability" patch from Microsoft, things get worse. In the stability department, anyway.

It's bad enough that the system has to reboot maybe two or three times,  taking fifteen minutes in the process, and worse that sometimes the sucker will reboot all by itself in the middle of the night, having got bored of waiting for a reply from me. (I know, I should always save my work when I go to bed. Sometimes I don't, OK - one gets used to computers that just keep working for months,  like the mainframes I had to cosset as a youth - and even if I have done so bloody OpenOffice will still insist on recovering any documents that may have been open, even if unmodified,  when shut down - and about half the time it manages to corrupt them in the process.)

No, what really puts the fear of god in me is the certain knowledge that, some unspecified time after the update, I will plug in some USB device or whatever, and a while afterwards the screen will go a fetching shade of blue displaying the cheerful message "Windows has encountered a problem and needs to shut down. We'll just log some data and then restart for you". I do not know why this happens, but it does. Every bloody time.

And of course there's always the lurking dread that at some point I will try to start up a virtual machine under VirtualBox (which is, quite frankly, flaky enough on its own without any help from Microsoft: Oracle can do crap too), and it will stubbornly refuse and tell me that my machine image is corrupt, would I like to delete it or would I perhaps prefer to just delete it? (Have to love the error messages too. Not joking, the one I see most is "Failed to create a virtual machine. Error 7xxx (don't use this message)". Thanks for the QC, guys.

Mind you, I'm not entirely sure that it's Microsoft's fault. Wouldn't surprise me to discover that they've just yanked some error-handling code out of the core drivers, where it had no reason to be in the first place, and handed it off up the stack to the actual USB driver that came with the hardware. And as that driver was written about thirteen years ago and even back then didn't respect the guidelines, it dies horribly and, being itself a kernel driver, pulls the whole damn edifice down about my ears. Which doesn't make me feel any better, I still want someone to blame.

Also, when it comes to crap software, there's plenty of blame to go around. OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, to name but two culprits. Or Eclipse - which seems to be written entirely in Java so as to negate any speed advantage your grunty multi-core CPU might otherwise give you - and which, on my Linux machines, just ups and dies on me regularly, and for no apparent reason. Maybe I should retrain as a hairdresser.

Perhaps I should spend less time on the innertübz too, would stop me finding out about things like this*.

And once again, as Edmund remarked, the devil throws up on my eiderdown. I got Sarah back on Tuesday, and drove her home, and our plans for today were to head off to the market at Carcassonne and then on to Roullens, to learn about the elusive truffle. It all went well enough until the truffle part, for once I'd done at the market and the cherries, apricots and nectarines were nestling happily in the bag with the baby courgettes and the two kilos or so of duck sausage (I have become a dealer in that -  a duck dealer! Cash & Carry are starting to place orders.) and the sweetcorn - first of the season, yum! - we circumcised the place, going south of la Cité towards Limoux, when I noticed that I had no power at all, the fuel gauge was obstinately on empty ... you get the picture.

At that point we were only 5km or so from the garage so we limped there and various people came out and sucked their teeth seriously but - if I may give you a bit of advice, do not have your car break down in France on a weekend. Mechanics, when they work, do so only during the week. As do, it seems, the  people who handle the car guarantee. Also, as it's the start of the holiday season, everyone else has had their cars break down or in for servicing or something, and so the Alfa garage was fresh out of voitures de courtoisie ... eventually I got in touch with my insurance, who sent a taxi to take us home, and I confided Sarah and her keys to the tender mercies of the guy at the garage.

All that meant that we were kind of later than planned getting to the rotting mushrooms. So when we finally did turn up there was but one left, huge and warty, and I wasn't ready to pay the kind of money that'd be asked, so I am sadly deprived of truffles.

Not that we left empty-handed mind you: another mixed dozen of wine has been added to the cellar here in The Shamblings. Some of it might even stay there for a while, but hopefully we'll get to drink it in the next ten years or so: the serious guy behind the stall of Cave la Malepère reckoned it wouldn't last much longer, and I am not one to impugn his judgement.

Anyway, one of the reasons I was so pleased to get Sarah back is that I have a meeting tomorrow morning in Chambéry, and rather than travelling in effortless air-conditioned comfort I shall just have to slowly make my way there with little Suzy, whose a/c options are limited to how far down you wind the windows. Kind of limited, and when it's hotter out than in is of little use but never mind, at least she's still firing on all four cylinders. Better go pack, I guess.

*Bonus update: the link above stands corrected. Bloody blogger.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Pissup In A Brewery ...

Big day in Moux this Saturday: yes folks, it will be the annual fête de la cave cooperative and I have, in common with just about everybody else, gone off and bought tickets for the affair. I'm not entirely sure why, because they only cover the meal and the wine is free to all and sundry - they just have to run a hose-pipe from the vats to the tables - but I guess that one of the delights of being down here is the chance to eat great lashings of aligot and barbecued sausages on what promises to be a stinking-hot day.

Aligot, in case you're wondering, is nowt more than the humble mashed potato of your youth raised to a sublime level: it involves potato, I admit, but also vast quantities of garlic, cheese and cream - it should be thick, glossy, served in heaping mounds and above all, it should be hot. Not a light meal, and I'm thinking about as well-adapted to summer as a tartiflette, but what the hell.

And speaking of summer, it seems to have been going on forever: the earth is baked dry by the sun, the cicadas are doing their monomaniac chirping out in the garrigue, and I'm dropping into lizard mode. Roll out of bed, slip on jandals and shorts, then out onto the terrace under the bright wide sky for fruit juice and nicotine before it gets too damn hot - like, around 9am -  and I have to retreat to the relative cool of the office.

The cats lie stretched out, draped over various boxes still awaiting unpacking in the verandah, or sprawled inelegantly upstairs in the bedroom, and STD can't be arsed going walkies during the day and flops in a shaggy heap on the cool tiles downstairs. There's not that many people out and about - not that Moux is exactly a buzzing hive of activity at the best of times - and those that absolutely have to leave the shade tend to do so in the morning, or early evening.

I know I said that these days I am beyond surprise, but it turns out that I can still be shocked. Like this morning, going around the market at Carcassonne, where I came upon some baby yellow courgettes, about the size of a finger (yeah, I know, depends on the size of your fingers. Mine were not built for playing the piano, your mileage may - as they say - vary), and was picking out the prettiest to snuggle in my basket before meeting their fate. Which I rather feel is to be lightly steamed and then marinated in olive oil with a few fresh herbs, although that may change. Hardly grounds for shocking, I agree, but I had to raise both eyebrows when the woman next to me started picking some out for herself and then asked, in all apparent sincerity, whether she should peel them. She didn't even have the excuse of being English.

I needed something to settle my jangled nerves after that, and as I was sitting in the sun nursing a glass of vitamins a cheerful lady bustled past and thrust a leaflet into my paw: a flyer for the fête de la truffe d'été in someplace vaguely south-west of here,  around Limoux.

So as I is a sucker for truffles, and they are promising not only a marché aux truffes but also dégustation des vins and ateliers de cuisine (also, I admit, pony rides and makeup for the kiddies), you can probably guess where I am going to be next Saturday. Might even take them up on the picnic lunch that's available, although I am curious as to the exact nature of the "truffle-based dessert".

Who knows, I might be pleasantly surprised. Although I'm not going to be betting on that.

At least I'll be able to get there in relative comfort, for I have been informed - after a plaintive wheedling phone call or two - that Sarah will once again be ready for action Tuesday night: always assuming that they do in fact get the parts on the Monday. Seems one of the various chips had fried, and was cutting off the injectors - hence her putt-putt progress. I will be very pleased to get her back.

As it turns out, the cave can organise an orgy in a brothel. We turned up, like the nice man had said, at 19:00 and I for one was pleasantly surprised to find two long rows of tables set out down the track that leads up to the building, barrels around the door with what looked like an adequate sufficiency of glasses in serried rows on top, and even better we were not the first to arrive. And we didn't have long to wait before they started bringing out the bottles, white and rosé glistening with condensation.

The only blot on the horizon was the sono set up at one end of the tables, for what indeed is a village fête without incredibly loud disco music (and the mandatory glittering disco mirror ball), but we managed to snag seats at the far end on the grounds that 100m distance would surely ease some of the pain.

So we milled around and mingled as best we could and drank and made serious inroads on the nibbles until about 21:00 when someone decided that it was time to eat: three bottles appeared on the table in front of us along with a huge wodge of paté and a fresh crusty baguette,  and off we set.

Once that had been washed down and another trio of bottles had transpired everyone queued up for their plateful of mashed spud and sausage: creamy, stringy and elastic, like melted mozzarella. They're used to bigger appetites than mine; no way I managed to finish it off, despite my best efforts. Memory gets a bit hazy from then on, for more wine appeared to accompany the cheese, but I vaguely recall that the "music" started up around then - probably on the grounds that there was no point bothering people with it while they were stuffing their faces.

Whatever, we acquitted ourselves honorably and made no frightful gaffes of which I am aware, but I must admit that we piked out fairly early and headed back home (it is particularly convenient that the cave is, quite literally,  but a five-minute walk away, well maybe ten if you're not in a hurry) before the dancing started in earnest.

Being the summer solstice it was also, as Jack Lang decreed all those years ago, la fête de la musique. There is some old charter or something that decrees that it should always rain that day, which means that the saxophones at least are silenced, but somehow that didn't happen this year. (Actually, the sax players are usually not that bad. It's the head-bangers that tend to make up in undirected energy for what they lack in technical competence.)

But Moux doesn't do that: I guess they decided, sensibly enough, that one festival a night was quite enough, thanks very much, and that wine was more important than song ...

Anyway, I have those courgettes of which I told you which need some attention paid to them for they are not, I suspect, going to marinate spontaneously: I also have a roti d'échine de porc from the nice butcher at les halles in Carcassonne who brines the joint for a bit which is just crying out to be roasted gently and served cold, maybe with a bean salad and baby potatoes.

And as it seems kind of silly to turn my huge oven on just for one teeny roast, and I happen to have some apples, making an apple sharlotka seems like a perfectly reasonable idea to me.

I shall worry about the kilo of chicken wings, the cote de boeuf, and the fillet steak later on. Not to mention the lamb shoulder, which still needs boning, stuffing, rolling and tying before being coated with a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated parmesan, rosemary and butter before being roasted with white wine and potatoes and olive oil. Be good, mind how you go now.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Trials And Tribulations ...

Tomb of the Unknown Squirrel. I guess.
If you want my honest opinion, this whole gluten-free business is going a bit too far. I'm not trying in any way to minimize or belittle the sufferings of those unfortunate souls who are gluten-intolerant, but when it comes to getting out a packet of bacon chunks from the fridge and noting that on the garish label it proudly proclaims itself to be "New Recipe! Gluten-Free!!!" I think it's time to say something. I did not check on the back of the packet to see if there was a warning along the lines of "May contain nuts", but I am beyond surprise.

Before heading up to Chambéry the other day I actually took the time to read the user's manual for the Alfa, just to confirm that I knew how to operate such useful things as the cruise control and the air-con, and discovered that the beast also has sat-nav, the ability to pair with my phone over Bluetooth, and to play music from a thumb drive. Not shocking these days, but back in 2008 it was pretty advanced.

Sad to say, these three last are all tied into Fiat's "Blue&Me" (twee, isn't it?) vehicle management system which is, I'm sad to say, nothing more than Microsoft Windows CE Automobile. Which means that it's pretty much a steaming pile of shit. Although the phone pairing didn't work too badly in the Doblo, in the sense that my phone did actually pair with the car on occasion, so maybe I will try that ...

Anyway, having a five hour drive ahead of me I thought that rather than take a stack of CDs I'd just stick a swag of albums in MP3 format onto a spare USB key, plug that in and listen to what I wanted: sadly, I failed to note the paragraph of the manual wherein I was assured that "the Microsoft Media Player will organise your media content ..."

I had blithely assumed that I would have access to the different directories containing music and could just ask the thing to play the tracks in a given directory, in plain old alphabetical order as god intended but, effectively, the thrice-damned media player had other thoughts in mind. It had indeed organised my music, but exactly how I do not know.

Maybe it did an MD5 hash of every track, and then sorted on inverse order on the last eight digits. Just possibly it did a spectral analysis in the time domain and grouped tracks by similarities between the back-beat frequency. I really have no bloody idea, all I know is that it started off with a couple of Alice Cooper tracks, then Roxette's "She's Got The Look", a bit of Billy Idol and then "Call Me" before ten minutes-worth of Sisters of Mercy. I just may go back to carrying a pile of CDs in the car. Like I said, I am beyond surprise.

Whatever, despite that petty annoyance all went well until I hit the péage at Grenoble, at 18:00 on a week-day. Just saying, you don't really want to do that if you can possibly avoid it. Everyone around here just says "Oh, mais quand c'est comme ça faut pas prendre le rocade, il faut juste ..." and my eyes inevitably glaze over because they start gabbling on about short cuts on unspeakable roads through little places I've never heard of lost in the mountains or off in some bucolic valley (Countrycide, anyone?) somewhere and I really can't be arsed because I will get stuck behind a combine harvester or something, the road signs will be brief to the point of non-existence, and I will be found the next day sitting in a ditch with underpants on my head going "Wibble!"

Quite frankly, I just accept the circumstances, sit in the series of mobile traffic jams and try to keep my blood pressure under control and not hate everyone. Actually, as such things go it wasn't too bad, only took me an hour and a quarter to circumcise the dump. Could've been much worse: I have never, for instance, tried it on a journée de départ en vacances. Except once, and that day has been expunged from my memory thanks to the selective use of various hallucinogens.

Having finally made it to Chambéry I sought a rendez-vous with the eldest son - cooks have anti-social hours, it is not always easy to meet with them. He assured me that he had Friday off so I rang that day to confirm: what he actually meant was that he had Friday afternoon off (you see the subtle difference here?) so we met for about a minute in the restaurant, I handed over the loot (a Kindle, for he asked for books and damned if I'm going to let any of ours leave the place for it has happened that they do not come back, a saucisson and a bottle of Ermitage Saint-Jeremy, because it was there) and we went our separate ways.

And then, as it will, the time came to head back down, and as the work I'd gone up to do had gone reasonably well it was with a smile on my lips, a song in my heart, and Alice Cooper (when it wasn't, for some inexplicable reason, Julie Andrews) blaring around my ears that I set off. Of course we all know where this is going, which is titsup - or pear-shaped, according to your idiom of choice - and it was shortly after Orange that every single warning light lit up and I was informed that

a) ASR was unavailable,
b) VNR was unavailable,
c) assisted hill start was unavailable and
d) it would be a really good idea to hie me to a garage sooner rather than later

and just in case I was sufficiently dozy to have spotted none of these, the fuel gauge was oscillating between half-full and completely empty, and I was going up hills like a 2CV firing on only one of its two cylinders.

I suppose that the reasonable thing to do would've been to pull over onto an aire d'autoroute and call for help, which would've entailed a four hour wait for a tow truck to pull up (on a Sunday? You jest?) and cart both of us away but I am not always reasonable and in any case the phone battery had just expired so I carried - very slowly, to the point where I was overtaken by Dutch caravans, which somehow makes it worse - on and finally made it home, about an hour after I'd hoped.

Luckily there is a gold-plated guarantee on her for the next three months (good thing she broke down in that period, wasn't it?), so I can see that Monday moaning is going to involve a few phone calls to the garage. I will be very calm, and shall try not to yell or get all excited.

Once again the sparrows are rousted from their slumbers by the preliminary farts from the ancient valve amplifier, and then "'Allo, 'allo! Marcel a des cerises en vente place St-Régis, 4€ le kilo ou 7€ pour deux ..." - yes, another public service announcement courtesy of the mairie, to let us know that some horny-handed (and, as it turned out, incomprehensibly-accented) son of the soil would be selling cherries (doubtless on the black) from the back of a beaten-up white van parked across from our front door.

It is such things as this that let you know that you are in a small village in rural France. And I have to admit that the cherries aren't half bad. I asked for a couple of heads of garlic whilst I was at it, seeing them lurking in a cageotte at the back, but he very jovially said something to me that I could not for the life of me understand and carried on piling cherries into a bag, so I did not push my luck.

I rang the garage this morning to explain my plight, and the charming secretaire commerciale (who, incidentally, speaks pretty good English, not much of a shocker there I suppose) told me not to worry, just come in and drop her off at Auto Discount and they'd look after everything.

So I tootled off, straining to get up to 70kph up the hills, found first the place and then the workshop manager, and once again I trotted out my explanation. She commiserated and sucked her teeth rather dubiously, then rang the secretary back and after a fairly rapid-fire conversation which I guess she won, she pointed out the VW dealership halfway along the long line of garages that stretched north and told me to go there, and the chef d'atelier would look after things.

(Now would probably be time to explain that in our little corner of Ole Yurrup, every single car dealership of any size seems to belong to a single family, or more likely to their company. I went past the Seat dealer, the BMW dealer, the Alfa dealer, the Citroen dealer ... and they all belonged to the Tressol family. I guess that anti-trust was one of the things they'd not heard about, back in the day.)

I got where I had been told to go and hung around a bit whilst the guy shooed another client away, and it was time for the third explanation of the day. I was starting to get pretty good at it. But the guy seemed less than stunned by my eloquence and asked - reasonably enough under the circumstances I suppose - just WTF I had brought my Alfa to him, when there was a perfectly good Alfa dealer just 50m back a ways?

Remembering my promise to be good I refrained from the retort that rose to my lips, also I had no intention of explaining things yet again, so I told him, perfectly honestly, that Virginie had told me to do so, and what did he want me to do about it? He shook his head, doubtless in wonderment at the vagaries of mankind, grabbed the papers and promised with a sigh to get everything organised: with enough feeling that for a moment I almost believed him. I can see that I shall have to ring back tomorrow. If I want to get my car back before August, that is.