Monday, October 15, 2018

Hippo Birdie ...

Once again, the French bureaucracy reveals it self in all its Byzantine glory. Now that we have a new window - one that actually functions, and lets light into the place - I have received a letter from the Direction des Finances Publiques, with a few questions for me. I say "a few", but that is an understatement. For a slight, simple change to the façade, they are asking for the total surface area of the house, the surface area on the ground, the number, usage, and surface area of every room in the house (do not forget that a "salle d'eau" is not the same as a "salle de bain", as the former may or may not have a shower in it, but the latter has an actual bath), the principal construction materials, whether or not there is electricity, gravity, and ... the list goes on.

Always the optimist, I do like to believe that as they have all this information anyway the issue can be resolved with a simple, cordial phone call in which I gently explain all this, and the droid at the other of the line replies something along the lines of "Oh certainly sir, no need to bother yourself, I'll just mark your dossier as closed, shall I?" but as usual this turns out not to be the case.

First of all, the phone lines are only open on random half-days in the week, and secondly, when you do not get a recorded message telling you this, you get a recorded message telling you that your call is indeed important to them but everyone is frightfully busy right now and could you please call back.

Oh well, it's not as though I had anything better to do than waste a morning sitting in a dingy waiting-room in an ugly, grimy prefab concrete office block in Carcassonne.

And while I'm happily whingeing, why not whinge about Orange? One of our neighbours is an English bloke who bought a house here as a holiday home, but has decided to spend more time in France so thought that perhaps getting the phone line reconnected and getting a Livebox for the innatübz would be a good idea. But his French is kind of approximative, and trying to organise that from the UK would be rather problematic anyway, so I rather foolishly said that I would see what I could do.

Rather to my surprise the initial phone call to organise everything was actually a rather pleasant experience: the guy that took my call was courteous and helpful, and in about 20 minutes max everything was done: the Livebox to be sent off here to The Shamblings with an appointment for 8-9am the following Monday for the technician to come past and do whatever it is that they have to do (sod-all as far as I can see, apart from smugly manipulating a multimeter, but what do I know?).

I got a swag of SMS over the weekend to confirm the appointment, the Livebox duly turned up (I cheated and opened the box, just to make sure it wasn't full of empty), so on Monday I didn't worry about things, thinking to myself that Cliff could probably handle stuff from that point on. As it turned out, I was mistaken: no fault of his, I hasten to add.

For around 15:30 that very afternoon, as I was browsing the industrial cheese and yoghurt aisle at Carrefour, I got a call from some bloke announcing himself to be a technician from Orange, but I bent down to inspect a tub of mascarpone and the call got cut off - doubtless blocked by the rubber Gruyère. He'd a masked number so I couldn't call back, and apparently he felt he'd done his duty because he didn't call back either, so when I got back home I had a little rant at Orange.

Which seemed to have some effect, because the very next day I got an apologetic call (from a non-masked number, this time - yay!) proposing a new appointment for 10am on Wednesday, which I guessed would be just fine, and took it. And around 12:30, still no sign of a technician on the horizon: and the phone number went straight to the answering machine, and I was starting to get kind of pissed off.

At which point I rang Orange - yet again - to make my displeasure known (and also, if truth be told, to see if I couldn't piss someone else off, just to spread it round) and they managed to get hold of this second technician and patched him through to me. He was very apologetic indeed, said he'd not been able to make it himself and had despatched one of his minions but said minion apparently didn't make it: someone would, he promised, be there forthwith.

This word, "forthwith", seems not to mean what I think it means, for it is now 17:00 and still neither hide nor hair of any sort of technical person of any description. This is the south of France, I know, and "time" is an elastic notion, slippery to pin down: nevertheless I rather think that I shall get all mediaeval on them very, very soon. I think that I shall also suggest that it would be good PR to not charge the 60€ "frais de déplacement", under the circumstances ... That will be when I can get through to them, of course, because right now it goes straight through to a recorded message to the effect that "Awfully sorry but there's a shitload of irate people calling us right now, please check out our really neat web site? Oh look! A squirrel!".

Anyways, in other news I is now officially 60, and feel none the worse for it. Spent much of Friday afternoon getting stuff ready because I loathe last-minute rushes: rolling out puff pastry and smearing it with grated cheese and mustard and cream to be rolled up into logs and go into the freezer ready for later baking, making fillings for club sandwiches, using that pristine mandoline of mine to slice potatoes and make proper tortillas de patatas ... which left me time to go off to the bar, as is only right and proper.

Speaking of the bar reminds me that Magali and Lionel have invested in a kebab spit and grill, so of a Wednesday evening you may - if you feel in the mood - head up and get yourself a reasonably decent kebab. (Personally, I like the meat to be rather more crispy, but there's no accounting for taste.) On the other hand, for the next little while it might be prudent to ring and order in advance, for Lionel tends to get inexplicably flustered when there are more than five people in the bar at a time so if you turn up without warning your order will be late, and personally I'd be surprised if, when it did come out, it was actually what you ordered.

Whatever, all that prep paid off because it meant that when I awoke on Saturday moaning, with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, I had plenty of time to do a swoop through the market with Mad Karen before coming back with a half-dozen baguettes and slicing some rather nice authentic Corsican coppa, pulling a kilo of foie gras out of the freezer just on the off-chance that someone might want some, and buttering sliced bread for all those club sandwiches. (Let it be said that the smashed banana/honey with Marmite and sprinkles met with a - mixed - reception, but person or persons unknown liked them enough to ensure that there weren't any left over at the end of the night. Or maybe they met a more ignominious fate, discreetly tipped into a bin.)

Also at the market there's a woman who makes and sells bread, one of which, the Vollkörn or something like that, is the closest I've come across to good old Vogels whole-grain bread. Looks rather like a German black bread, dark and heavy: not really the sort of thing you'd want to throw to ducks, as they would sink. But quite delicious, and as Bob! had told me of the guy just close by who sold real, fresh fromage frais I picked up a kilo tub of that too, which got slathered onto slices of the bread along with chives and garlic and freshly ground (is there any other sort?) Madagascar pepper.

Eventually people started turning up, which meant it was time to slice the cheesy logs and slip them into the oven (I am so glad I bought some more decent baking trays), stick the bread in a plastic bucket along with a breadknife, and take everything out to the table on the terrace - along with copious amounts of rosé. Of course, because one does.

Our friends down here know me perhaps too well: I am now richer by three bottles of good gin, an excellent Cognac, a bundle of Cuban cigars and more bottles of rosé than even I can shake a fist at. All in all, it could well have been worse. I can even say, quite honestly, that not too much later that Sunday I woke up with a mouth like a baby's bottom: sadly, not smooth and soft to the touch. But still feeling chipper enough to wake Sarah up and persuade her to take me out with the camera that afternoon.

Sadly, that was the last day of decent weather: from about 26° it has plummeted to maybe 18°, and the sky is overcast and grey. Plus there has been torrential rain, which - with the wind coming from the wrong trouser-leg - meant that I spent some time Wednesday moaning out in the verandah with the industrial wet+dry vacuum cleaner, sucking up about 30 litres of water. Not one of my favourite jobs.

On an unexpectedly fine Sunday, you could actually do worse than leave Moux for Douzens, thence through Comigne to Montlaur, and from there to Labastide-en-Val, through Saint-Polycarpe (the abbey's well worth the detour) and then off to Alet-les-Bains. This is the scenic route, which - luckily - avoids such places as "Dead-man's Peak", and just as well too. I've been driving around in mountains and through hairpin bends for 25 years, and I was thankful to have the experience. Let's just say that on those roads you do not want to meet someone coming the other way, especially if it's some local chasseur in his huge frikking 4x4.

Still, provided you've remembered to pack enough brown paper bags for those in the back seats, the scenery is in fact nothing short of spectacular, especially at this time of year when the trees (there's quite a lot of deciduous stuff up there, rather than the omnipresent pines and cypress over this side) are changing colour, and the low sun plays on the occasional bit of pasture off to one side. Much greener, too, than here. Were it not for the fact that I can't persuade anyone to come with me when I go out on a photoshoot in the benighted backblocks I'd have packed a picnic, or taken the CampingGaz burner, a pan, some scallops and cream, a bit of foie gras, decent bread and some wine ...

Alet is worth the visit: ancient stones and half-timbered houses. I wandered around until the battery of my camera gave out: at which point I debated having a drink but decided to head home instead. But I took the quicker route, via Limoux and Carcassonne: it seemed prudent.

Finally, if anyone out there is worried about us - don't be. Although it might be a little tricky to actually leave Moux just at the moment, what with the roads being underwater and all, the village itself is at the magnificent height of 90m above sea level, whereas the plain is at about 30m. So apart from the streets being awash with water heading - as is its wont - to a lower level, we're fine. Better here than at places like Trèbes, or Carcassonne, where either the Aude, or the canal du Midi, or both, have burst their banks.

That's the thing about a Mediterranean climate: you never know if you're not going to get a flash flood at some point, and find the river at your doorstep has suddenly risen by seven metres or so.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Pond Scum, and Used-Car Salesmen ...

Both are unsightly, but at least the pond scum is useful ... seriously, if there's one thing I loathe (not actually the case, there are many things I detest with every fibre of my being - orange crimplene shirts, to name but one) it is chasing people up to get them to do something that should have been done, and would have been done much more easily, yonks back.

Case in point, two years ago we bought Margo's little Mito at a garage in Carcassonne. ("Prestige Autos 11", if you want a name to avoid: "Ah, the wide boys", as John sighed later on. Maybe I should have asked him before venturing onto the lot.) In principle it came with cruise control - as it turns out it had a speed limiter, not exactly the same thing but we live with that - but what it did not have was the handbook and, more importantly, le carnet d'entretien - the service booklet. "No problem, squire, I have but to ring the previous owner and I'll have it in a jiffy ..."

Fast-forward two years and a goodly number of phone calls, and I am starting to get exceedingly annoyed. Getting actually angry I find to be usually counter-productive, but I am so close ... especially when, on today's fruitless call, the guy had the temerity to say that he'd willingly give me the owner's phone number and I could chase it up myself.

At which time I pointed out that perhaps it was his job, rather than mine, to do that; that it was in fact illegal to sell a car without these documents - then I said I'd ring again next week, wished him a lousy day and hung up the phone on him.

That last will rankle, I know. It was cruel of me, but a French-person who is not allowed to end a conversation on a superficially cordial note will not be happy. He has not been permitted to make an implicit excuse, nor say that it's not really his fault, you understand, and now he will just have to swallow the guilt. (Mind you, car salesmen may prove an exception to this general rule.) Whatever, I'm glad I don't know if he has a dog, because I'd hate to feel responsible for it getting a couple of unwarranted kicks when he gets home.

For thirty years now I've laboured under the misapprehension that "37°2 le matin", title of a book and then a film, was referring to the temperature. An easy mistake to make, especially as it starts off in Gruissan, in summer, where it really does get that hot in the morning.

But finally, thanks to a hat-tip from a friend, I actually bought the book ("Betty Blue", in English, but just maybe I should get it in the original and re-read it, to see what was lost in translation) and discovered that I was, as usual, completely wrong. Well, maybe not entirely: it does refer to the temperature, but more precisely that of a pregnant woman - 37°2, in the morning.

Those cultured few of you lot out there who've read it before may now snigger up your sleeves at my ignorance if you wish, but I would still recommend it. A rather beautiful love story, for all that the author is French.

End of lit-crit, on to the rest.

Is it something in the water, I wonder, or am I getting cynical, or are they actually breeding kids to be retards these days? I mean, I went off and did something I don't do enough of these days - to wit, grab the camera, fold myself into the car and head off to take some photos. So I was wandering the quiet sun-baked streets of Luc sur Orbieu, snapping merrily away, and I acquired a cortège of two bratlings - ten, twelve, I guess.

And having watched me take photos of buildings and godnose what - I guess the only entertainment in the place is what you make for yourself - the eldest piped up and asked "Sir, sir, what are you doing?". Department of the bleeding obvious, I replied "taking photos?". "Oh. What of?". "Buildings, young fool. They tend not to run away". No, but seriously: you ask someone with a camera pressed to their eye what they are doing? Yoof of today.

Anyways, we is now mid-September and we are still enjoying what passes for summer. Bright, blue and warm; but I have dragged a pair of jeans out for the morning and late-night walks. The cool is pleasant, but still ... Margo tells me that the beginning of next week it should drop to about 21°, before going back up to 26° or so: I can live with that. If it could only stay that way through till November that would be much appreciated, and who knows - stranger things have, as they say, happened at sea.

What I'd really like is for it to be warm(ish) for the first week of October, for on the 6th - the 8th being, most inconveniently, a Monday - shall be commiserating my 60th birthday with a not-so-select group of friends and other semi-professional alcoholics. I shall have to lay in another 40 litres of wine, I feel, and Margo rather maliciously suggested making club sandwiches ("les tartines d'association?") because they always go down well with the French. I am seriously toying with the idea of making up one lot with smashed banana, honey, and Marmite ... would that be bad of me?

And still in this festive vein, I is a Happy Camper, for my birthday present arrived rather early. I am sick to death of bloody box graters removing my knuckles, and the sheer excess (and the cleaning overhead) of thinly slicing potatoes using some special disk-like blade (which you can never find when you need it) in the kitchen whizz is enough to put me off the idea, and in any case I am supposed to be able to do it quite adequately with a knife ... which is true enough but life's too short, so I ordered a de Buyer mandoline.

It is very pretty, and quite spotless, and I think I shall leave it unused for the next six months so that it stays that way - just take it out from time to time to look at it - which brings me to my current problem, this being "where the hell shall I store this thing, in my tiny kitchen?".

Because all the cupboards are full, and chucking out cooking gear is not an option because despite what one might think there is in fact very little of it that I do not actually use. (Apart from the bread-maker, which followed us down from Savoie and sat in the pantry for five years until, just the other day, we managed to palm it off on Julian & Batu, and maybe two of the three waffle makers we seem to have. And a number of the six muffin tins. Also the electric frying-pan that Margo bought some years ago, unwrapped, and put on a shelf - from whence it has never, to my knowledge, moved an inch.)

As a temporary (and, therefore, permanent) measure, I suppose I could shift one of my huge cast-iron casseroles someplace else: it's only moving the problem around, I know, but if I can keep doing that long enough it will eventually cease to matter.

Also, going off to MatCol and buying another couple of decent, sturdy stainless steel 30x40 baking trays that won't warp in the oven (making a hideous pinging noise in the process, and incidentally tilting your little gratin dishes just enough so that the crème brulée custard runs out) didn't really help matters in the storage department.

Whatever, the bells started a random cacophony this morning, bidding the faithful to prayer, as it seems that the ambulatory vicar is here today. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of the faithful, and even more sadly they are mostly on the elderly side, and thus arrive by car.

And being as what they probably got drivers' licences - if in fact they did - back in 1914 or something, the concept of not double-parking, thus blocking in we innocent heathen folk, seems to be totally alien to them. Probably a Good Thing then that I didn't really need - or want, come to that - to head off to the supermarket this morning.

Be all that as it may, it is far too nice a day to worry about such small matters, for there are more important things to occupy my mighty brain. Such as, for instance, just how shall I while away an idle afternoon, waiting until it's time to head across to Montbrun for drinkies, and whiling away an idle evening?

This is the sort of problem with which we are constantly confronted down here in the south, but I (rather nobly, I feel) suffer it so that you don't have to.

Cheers - speaking of which, maybe it is time to open another bottle of rosé. Need moah vitamins.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

No News is Good News ...

I can almost see tomorrow's headlines in "Midi Libre" or "l'Independante" (both rags, incidentally, taking their names from the comforting fiction that somehow, southern France was so not under German control during the most recent world war): something along the lines of "MOUX (11700, Aude): les habitants de ce petit village paisible sont encore sous le choc: ça fait depuis 70 ans que rien s'est passé la semaine dernière."* Well, we rather like it that way. True, it does make things a bit predictable sometimes, but what's actually wrong with boring?

In fact, "boring" is a very appropriate word for cleaning stoves. I have my huge stainless steel English stove with five gas rings and three ovens (a grill, one natural convection and a large fan oven for patisserie) and it takes an entire Sunday after-groaning once in a while just to keep it pristine. Unmount shelving, spray, rinse and repeat. There's a lot to be said for watching paint dry.

There seems to be something about a pristine wall that brings out the worst in the French. Case in point: the wall of the Musée des Beaux Arts at the eastern end of rue Verdun, leading off from place Gambetta in Carcassonne. I went off to the market there today, for the first time in about six weeks (most of the tourists have now gone, good riddance), past this wall, and there was a mother - with her mother (I'm guessing) in tow - encouraging two young boys to piss on it.

I suppose I wasn't the only one to comment on this - I mean, there are actually public toilets inside - but at least I said something offensive in English: someone else was not quite so lucky for as I ambled off towards place Carnot I could hear the elder harridan screeching something rather like "Ok, mossieu doesn't like it? Too bad for the dainty mossieu! I bugger your mother and I piss on your shoes!". Sadly, I was out of earshot by the time she started on the really inventive invective: one should never miss out on a learning experience.

As it happens, the revised DP for the glass-brick window in the wall came back, approved, ten days or so ago, and now that French parents have done the rentrée and gone back to work (for a given value of "work", your mileage may vary) and the bratlings are all back at school, Cédric turned up to finish off the job.

It's going to take me a while to get used to it being so light in the stairwell now: had rather got accustomed to going up and down something that looked like the gloomy stairs in some watch-tower in Mordor, lit only by sputtering sheep fat. And today he replaced the two rotting pillars that nominally held the verandah roof in place: I say "nominally" because in actual fact it was only supported by the metal framing of the sliding glass doors. So now we have light, and access to the terrace which does not require a hydraulic jack to get the doors open. A great advance, here at The Shamblings™.

For the first time in a very long while, I went off to the little Vival on avenue Henri Bataille - the local superette, if you will. The very first time we'd been living here but a year, and I wanted a baguette and maybe a croissant, but it was made clear to me - without this actually being said - that this was a local shop, for local people, and that all the baguettes in that vast pile were reserved: truth to tell I felt rather lucky to get out of there as myself, rather than as part of the filling for some sort of meat pie.

But the other day I really wanted some garlic sausage, and I absolutely could not be arsed driving 10 km off to the Carrefour at Lézignan to get some, so I went back to the Vival. It being 15h, it was of course closed: it's kind of quantum, and only opens whenever the manager gets entangled. I think. But Margo told me that I needed to go back about 17:30, when there was a 90% chance of collapsing the wave-form, and this is what I did and lo! the door was open, and I stiffened my spine and walked in.

Not only was there a garlic sausage on the shelves ("a" garlic sausage, because it was singular, and I did not check the use-by date), but I was not told that it was reserved for a regular customer and she actually allowed me to pay money for it! And rather to my surprise, she, our Dear Leader, and I then spent the next ten minutes chatting away merrily about the history of our house: the granite slabs on the floor (sadly, now covered beyond recovery with rather gross floor tiles) and the marble chimneys, ripped out and thrown away.

And I returned triumphantly home, holding my sausage proudly over my head as others might hold a banner, and then I cut it into thick slices and stuck it into one of my vasty cast-iron casseroles with the lamb shanks, dried beans, leeks, stock and garlic that had been simmering away, on and off, for most of the week: and then we had it for dinner.

Anyways, it came to me last night that a decent Thai prawn curry would be a Good Idea for dinner. I had raw prawns in the freezer, coconut cream, red curry paste and onions and peppers: what could possibly go wrong? In point of fact, nothing did - it was quite delicious, although hovering at the heat level above which Margo will not touch things (her personal Scoville line, if you will) - but I now remember why it is I don't cook prawns as often as I might like, for peeling the little bastards must be one of the most tedious, thankless tasks known to mankind.

Whatever, you may have noticed that August is over, marking the unofficial end of summer in these parts. Everyone has gone back to work, and every moaning small children trudge unwillingly to school. And in the mornings and evenings, when I take the hairy retards out, it is a pleasantly cool 17°, and I know that sometime soon I shall have to bring my jeans out of estivation.

But it is still one of the most beautiful times of the year around here: the low sun lights the house all golden in the morning, when I'm out on the terrace with the first coffee of the day, and at night the sky is deep blue overhead, with stars shining so hard.

But the days are still bright and warm, and although the barbecues have been tucked away we may well head off mid-week to la Perle Gruissanaise, to eat seafood and drink the excellent la Clape wine under the sun, watching as the yachts go past and the seagulls turn overhead.

Mind how you go, now.


*"The inhabitants of the quiet village of Moux are still in a state of shock: every week, for the past 70 years, nothing happened last week."

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hairy-Minded Sweaty Pink Bare Bear ...

As I sit up here in the office typing away, I am reminded that down on the terrace, on the table under the big sun umbrella, it is currently 44°. Up here, under the roof tiles, it is quite possibly more ... and I do not wish to know what would happen if I put the thermometer out in the sun. (Poor thing only goes up to 50° anyway.)

Were it not for the botheration and the general embuggerment involved, I swear I would shift my office down to the ground floor for the duration. Come to that, despite these things, I think I shall do exactly that anyway: when you are sitting at your desk performing no effort whatsoever and yet still your T-shirt starts to get huge damp splodges, it is too hot.

As a side-effect of certain things* I now find myself completely bald. You'd think that this would be kind of convenient, given the weather, but this is not the case: instead of the sweat being soaked up by my (admittedly almost non-existent) hair, there is now a glistening cap on my scalp, starting from around 9 am. And I shall have to change my ID photos. On the bright side, I need spend next to nothing on shampoo (damn that urge that made me go out and buy a spare bottle of the stuff, just in case!) and the hair-dryer has been retired.

Also, should ever I find myself at a child's birthday party, I could terrify everyone by jumping out from behind a curtain, pretending to be a giant suppository. Such are the simple pleasures of life, when you get to my age. Could also do it on a paying basis I suppose, to top up my miserable pension.

Anyways, the big thing in our particular corner of a foreign land these days is so-called "zero phyto", ie no weedkiller use. In practical terms, this means that the mayor's idiot nephew and his team of minders use small flamethrowers to kill the weeds that grow in the many cracks in the pavements and roads of Moux, and I guess you can already see where this is leading. Yes, the other day they fanned out about place Saint-Régis, enthusiastically fanning flames at every tiny bit of greenery poking through the cracked concrete of the trottoirs.

Sad to say, they lingered just a bit too long in front of Mme Morettot's (wooden) garage door, and four hours later some innocent passer-by noticed a wisp of smoke curling up ... yes, one of the uprights inside the door had caught, and was happily turning into charcoal. Cue some excitement as the fire brigade turned up, and doubtless some words were spoken at the mairie: to little apparent effect, for three days later they only went and did it again, to a door in someone's remise. That one burnt very well.

The puzzlement is that this treatment is totally ineffective: they incinerated the weeds at the foot of our steps maybe two weeks ago (I am not a silly man, I moved both the cars) and now they are back, healthier and lusher than ever.

Last night The Smashing Burritos played at the café de Marseillette, and after a restrained drinking session oop't bar Sarah and I headed off there, taking with us an English couple who are currently staying with Jamie and who fancied a bit of "Electric Blue". (Yes, I know, I tried to tell Réné that the reference that leaps to mind is softcore porn from the eighties on one of the pay channels in American hotel suites, but no-one ever listens to me ...)

Heard them before, at Fabrézan the other year, and was not disappointed. Also impressed, at how these - let's face it, elderly - geezers can keep an energetic first set going for 75 minutes. But at 22:20 it was almost my bed-time, so I left my charges there - secure in the knowledge that the (English) bartender had assured them that a taxi to Moux would be no problem - and drove sedately home, to lie sweatily in the bed, hoping for sleep.

I am not, as all know, a man given to obscenity or intemperate language, but right now I think I can be forgiven for swearing to the gods that I shall turn to strong drink and then, when sufficiently illuminated, I shall exterminate our dear leader Réné Mazet and all his bastard spawn using only a box grater and three cloves of nutmeg, and I shall burn down his house and then sing comic songs as I dance on the ruins.

OK, that's perhaps just a wee bit over the top but I do have some justification ... about a year ago I went bravely off to the mairie with a DP (that's a déclaration préalable to you lot, a statement that you are going to do some work on the house which modifies some aspect of the façade and consequently requires permission) to the effect that we were going to rip out the teeny window in the stairwell and replace it with a big block of translucid glass bricks, the object being to let in a bit more light.

Done, granted, no problem ... and a week back Cédric turned up (finally) to start work. So there is now a large hole in the wall for the new window, and a smaller hole in the wall where the teeny window used to be - and this afternoon a young man from the Police Municipale turned up to ask me if I realised that I was possibly in infraction? Now it is true that due to physical constraints Cédric had to rotate the new window by 90° in order to avoid removing the staircase, and shift it down and across by maybe 50cm, but otherwise nowt has changed ...

I can only assume that Réné is feeling particularly sexually frustrated (not been able to get his fill of young Tunisian lads this summer, on his annual holiday) or maybe the stick up his bum is giving him pain, because this causes him problems. I have been up to the mairie twice today: the upshot of this is that the old idiot insists that the hole of the old window be filled before anything further is done, also that I must re-submit a DP showing the correct orientation. And whilst waiting a month for that to be approved, work may not continue. Leaving us with a large hole in the wall, covered with planks. It is definitely a Good Thing that it is not the dead of winter.

Tomorrow moaning Cédric and I will go up to the mairie - again - and I shall doubtless have moaning words with Philippe, but I am most emphatically not a happy camper.

Speaking of Philippe reminds me that he and Caroline came round for dinner the other night, and as they are both carnivores and I happened to find myself with a large and rather tasty côte de boeuf about my person, I decided to do that (sadly, neither of them like blood so it was slightly less rare than I would have done it just for Margo and myself) with some beurre de Café de Paris on the side. The ingredient list for that runs to a couple of pages, including the chopped fines herbes, white wine, mustard, maybe some curry powder, a couple of anchovies, paprika and cayenne ... On top of that you really should let it ferment in the fridge for a few days before using it, so that the flavours meld.

It is a bit of work, I admit, and also requires a bit of forward planning if doing the job properly, but it is well worth it and Caroline was most impressed. I gave her the name, but she didn't want the recipe from my trusty old edition of Pellaprat: "I shall Google it", she said. I'm not sure that I really want to know what she found, for Philippe told me later that the actual search term she used was "beurre de garçon de café" and the possibilities there are enough to make my mind, such as it is, boggle.

I mean, the first thing that springs to mind - to mine, at least - is some sort of cholesterol-rich substance made from the cream of young waiters, and I do not want to go down that road.

Anyways, there's still another week to go before we hit September, and over here in Furrin Parts the vendanges have already started. Combination, I suppose, of a wet spring and a hot dry summer ... I shall make a special point of testing all the vintages which happen to come my way, purely for your edification and in a spirit of scientific enquiry, you understand. Mind how you go, now.

*Things such as, for instance, running a razor over your scalp, which does tend to remove any hair thereon, despite what you may have thought.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

The Midday Sun ...

Either Gordons have started bottling a special "Made in Marseilles" gin for the French market, or up at the bar Lionel has taken to washing out the empty gin bottles with pastis and then refilling them from the vat of industrial alcohol out back. And it's not just me, Angela spotted it too. It's ... interesting, not totally unpleasant but not an experience I'm really looking forward to repeating, just saying.

I guess that most of you are - sadly - familiar with the over-rated oeuvre of Peter Mayle, in all its condescending glory. He did however, through some oversight, manage to get one thing right: when summer really starts, it's as if life has come to a sudden and mysterious end. The bleached stone houses bake in the sun and the air shimmers over the empty narrow streets - there's not even a mad dog, nor an Englishman, to be seen. Were you foolish enough to wander about  - keeping to the shade as much as possible - you might sometimes come across ambiguous signs of recent occupation: a fly screen curtain moving lazily, despite the complete absence of any movement of the air, or it might be a thin wreath of charcoal smoke. But otherwise, just the incessant chirping of sex-starved cicadas.

It's all just tricksy and deception, of course: those who can retreat to the dim cool of the ground floor rooms, behind the metre-thick stone walls, or if they happen to have a shady garden they might be found out there, around the pool.

I have spoken before of Julian and Batu: she is the rather unforgettable, larger than life African woman, and he is her British now-husband. At some point he must have read A Year In Provence and drunk deep of the Kool-Aid, for he decided that nothing would do but that he come to the south of France, buy a vineyard and make wine.

It is not good wine - not yet, at least, because he started off not knowing the first thing about wine-making - I've bought a couple of boxes from their first year which now sit in the cupboard under the stairs, and I take them out from time to time to look at them and wonder what the hell I'm going to do with them: they may improve with age. Whatever, he is happy, because he's doing what he really wants to do before he dies.

Anyway, he definitely belongs to the mad dogs and Englishmen school of thought, for rather than - like all the other vignerons around here - get up at 4am for a couple of hours work in the vines and then go out again around 9:30pm, when it's nice and cool, he prefers to go out in the midday sun. Godnose why. But so it was that the other day, around 13:30, I was out on the terrace and saw him coming wearily up the road and into place St-Régis, at which point he called out and asked if I happened to have such a thing as a pair of bolt-cutters. Or a hacksaw.

Now why, you may well ask, would he want such things? A fair question, and I put it to him. He has some vines in the garrigue around Montbrun, and he had taken his Toyota 4x4 out there to do a bit of work - at midday! - and had driven it over a rock and burst a tyre. Not having a mobile about his person he had then trudged 4km under the blazing sun back to Moux to seek help. Still doesn't answer the question "why bolt-cutters?", because in my experience these are not very useful when it comes to changing a tyre: but recall that it is a 4x4, and the spare tyre is hung on the tailgate, and so that people don't nick it it is attached with a chain and padlock. And when he came to unlock the thing, he found that had rusted solid over the years, and would not open.

So I got out the boltcutters, and the hacksaw just in case, and he actually thought to take his mobile this time, and he was driven back out to Montbrun, watched as he cut the chain and took the spare down, and left him to it. What could go wrong?

Just about everything, for ten minutes later - just as I was thinking idly of a nice cold drink chock-full of vitamins, such as a nicely chilled rosé - there came a call from a UK number and it was Julian, to ask if I had some WD40 and a hammer, because the wheel bolts were - like the padlock - rusted in place. And so it was back to Montbrun with these things and hanging around this time and watching as he started to remove the bolts: at which point it was evidently pretty much "mission accomplished", and time to go back home.

Ten minutes later, another phone call: all the bolts were out with one exception, the anti-theft bolt, for which the special key no longer worked. Cue a third trip, with a roll of duct tape and some of that aerosol stuff you can inject into a tyre as a sort of emergency measure so that you can at least get to a garage on a flat without completely knackering the rim of the wheel ... duct tape fixes an awful lot, but here it had met its match because when he'd driven over the rock he had more or less split the tyre over more than 30cm, and despite the tape the expanding foam stuff was pouring out of this gaping hole.

Finally gave it up as a bad job and got him to drive - very, very slowly - back to Moux: luckily the tyre was so badly damaged that it looked almost as though the wheel was wearing slippers, so the rims weren't in too bad shape when he made it back. And this explains why there is a beaten-up Toyota parked outside The Shamblings, waiting until he can order a new anti-theft key.

Did I mention, by the way, that although they've been here more than three years the damned thing is still registered in the UK, has no contrôle technique and to top it off, is uninsured? Which is probably a good reason for not doing what any normal person would do under the circumstances, and call a tow-truck. (The car disappeared at some point on Friday. John has - in addition to his Corvette - an entire mechanic's workshop in his garage, and locked bolts do not daunt him: in fact, I rather think he takes them as a personal affront.)

Went off the other night with Philippe and Caroline to a little restaurant in Ferrals called Chez Bembe, and I can heartily recommend the place. The food is very simple - a choice of four or five grillades done over an open hearth, excellent chunky chips and salad - and extremely good. The eponymous Bembe (a very cheerful ex-rugby player, tall and about the same diameter as his height) sources thick pork chops from a local poacher farmer who lets his pigs run wild and live on acorns, the huge entrecôte steaks come from some other local place, and I don't know where he gets the jamon ibérica but I am pretty sure it's never seen the inside of a freezer.

It's small - probably seat maybe 25 tops - so you do have to reserve, but it is definitely worth it: and to top it off he comes round after the meal with a conical metal jug with a long thin tube in lieu of a spout, full of carthagène. Which you are then expected to drink in the approved fashion, which involves holding the end of the tube about 10-15 cm from your wide-open mouth and tilting the whole thing so that a stream of sticky-sweet alcohol goes neatly down your gullet. That's the principle, anyway: in my case most of it went down the front of my shirt, or up a nostril.

(Purely as an aside, we repaid the favour by having them around for dinner: a decent bit of onglet, with beurre café de Paris slathered on it. Caroline was quite taken with it, and apparently googled the recipe: unfortunately she misspelt, and looked for "beurre de garçon de café", which is not the same thing.)

Google, you is drunk. I have just had the occasion to pull up Goofle Maps for the charming little town of Olonzac, where there just happens to be the Café de la Poste - I know exactly where that is, for I have drunk there (listening all the while to English tourists complaining about their sunburn, and the difficulty of finding decent porridge oats ...). And according to Google, there are at least four of them, one of those (the original article, I assume) which seems to have swapped places with the actual Post Office - another couple are randomly situated on the same street, and the fourth is slap in the middle of someone's swimming pool off on a side street. This, I guess, is only to be expected when you crowd-source your location data to ratshit GPS and an incestuous self-referential mix of Wifi hotspot locations.

But right now I am even more idle (and foul-tempered) than usual, due to the fact that the big muscle at the top of my left calf spontaneously and quite gratuitously decided to rip in half the other evening. So now I have an elastic bandage wrapped tightly about it to keep everything in place while it (hopefully) heals, and a bad case of limited mobility which really pisses me off. Still, it does serve to reinforce my determination to not go through to Carcassonne of a weekend at this time of year, given that the roads are awash with bloody tourists.

Anyways, mind how you go now: I shall go back to sweating like a pig in the heat.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Morning Regrets ...

One of these days I shall successfully integrate the knowledge that I am not as young as once I was. It's all very well, in your thirties, to stay up drinking wine and then whiskies until 2am whilst listening to Motorhead with the volume turned up to 11, and even now it seems like a Good Idea at the time: the only problem is that when the time is past, and the morning has brutally flooded the bedroom with light, you start to have second thoughts about the wisdom of the whole thing. Ben's good company, and I'm not actually regretting it, but just saying.

At least I've worked out what to do with that bottle of balsamic vinegar (heavily) flavoured with truffles: you can put a few drops of it onto your asparagus spears once they're cooked. (As an aside, this would have to be one of my least favourite times of the year, for the only things available at the market are asparagus and strawberries. You cannot begin to imagine just how sad this makes me.) And how many ways are there to cook asparagus, anyway? Not that many, really.

Also, when we shifted down South five years ago we had a chance to start a new life, one at which I really should have jumped. I would have had but to explain, when asked, that I was a male prostitute, sadly unemployable due to leprosy of the vital member: anything but say that I was "in computers". You pay for your mistakes; most recently I spent a few hours helping a neighbour set up her home Wifi, which has not been working for the past two years - not, in fact, since the day she took home the sparkly cardboard boxes. Can't say I'm surprised.


For out of the box, the Freebox sets up an open Wifi network with no Internet access, and that's it. Which is at least pretty secure, but also about as much use as a cardboard barbecue. RTFM, people. Please?

You can tell that the winter of our discontent has ended, for the French have set aside such pastimes as rugby and enthusiastically embraced the national summer sport of rolling strikes and protests against whatever reforms it may be that the gubblemint of the day tries to sneak past. (You can tell Macron's an amateur at this game, else he'd have snuck them in July/August, knowing full well that no French-thing worth their salt would ever waste a day's paid holiday doing something as unrewarding as protesting.) I sometimes think that if the government tried to introduce a programme involving a 10% pay increase across the board and an extra two weeks of paid holiday per year the French would be out on the streets en masse.

And just saying, the evils of auto-correct mislead us to believe that there are some medical men who do not rent out rooms in their houses (just to make ends meet, I assume). At least, if you can believe the article in Ars Technica which had "Médecins sans Frontières" down as "Doctors without Boarders".

Whatever, we've had some pretty seriously shitty weather recently: what seemed like incessant rain, and chilly enough that, having turned the central heating off some time ago, I was obliged to lug buckets of pellets up from the garage and start up the fire of an evening. At least things are now back to normal for these parts.

Johann rang the other day to suggest a little three-hour walk around le Roc Gris, which is part of our end of the montagne d'Alaric. Now had it been Mary I would have been highly suspicious, for she has a tendency to fabulation when it comes to little details like time and distance, but as a German engineer I was more willing to trust Johann: so having other, more profitable, things to do I naturally accepted.

So at 13:00 a few days later five of us, plus Emma, set off past old Henri's mausoleum, under the autoroute, and then unleashed Emma and went along a track to the west, which takes you up to a point above the huge quarry that was set up back in the eighties, purely to provide stone for the autoroute construction. From thence to a cave where, it seems, bodies got chucked at the time of the Black Death (Emma was very happy, she found a bone), then on and up to the summit at about 490m - where there is a dolmen. At least, the remains of one.

I really need to get more exercise: climbing only about 410m should be a doddle, but in my defence it was over only about two km, and much of that was on loose and very slippery scree. And truth to tell the going up is not so much of a problem, it's the coming down that's a killer. Still and all it was worth it: a magnificent view all over the Corbières, and found some beautiful spots that I hadn't suspected even existed, just ripe for a picnic some fine day.

As no good deed goes unpunished, I am condemned to dine tonight with an elderly Dutch couple, at the ungodly hour of 6 pm. I mean, can you imagine? Whatever, about a year back this couple turned up in Moux: they'd bought one of the Huc mansions - the Huc family being one of the principal landed gentry families around here - and for months they brought stuff down from Holland in an enormous trailer; then they'd empty it, go back to the polders, rinse and repeat ...

The last time they came back with over a dozen double-glazed windows in their frames, each weighing in at about 60kg if I'm any judge, and as Johannes seems to be constructed from sticks, string and spit and moves by kicking a leg out vaguely in the direction he wants to go, falling that way and then kicking the other leg out to avoid the ground, Johann and I gave them a hand unloading the bloody things and shifting them around.

As recompense for which we were both invited for a good Dutch meal, at a good Dutch hour. I only hope that Johannes does not expire from an excess of excitement, and keel over with his head in the soup bowl.

UPDATED: despite my forebodings, Johannes survived. He spent much of the festivities with a nondescript yappy dog in his lap, shedding fur, fleas and - for all I know - scrapies madly. (The dog, not Johannes.) I too survived; happily I was rescued at 8pm by a fortuitous phone call from Mad Karen, which I was able to pass off as a work call from the US which required my urgent attention. And so it was that I was spared the rest of the bottle of sticky sweet Californian rosé, smelling rather like grenadine. Vile stuff: I'm told that - for reasons which quite escape me - the Dutch prefer their wines that way. Bloody Zinfandel, complete crap.

We seem, with Widdling Emma, to have acquired one of the ancient gods, more particularly Dog-Sothoth, Eater Of Socks. For some reason she has taken to sneaking into the dining room where, by one of the armchairs by the window, I tend to leave my boots with my socks stuck into them, and then she trots out. If I am lucky enough to be present I may notice that she is bustling about with a sock in her mouth and an air as though butter would not melt in it: if not, I will find it out in the verandah, or abandoned somewhere on the terrace.

Wailies, for the asparagus season is now more or less over. We are now condemned - for a short while - to subsist on snow peas, butter beans, strawberries, cherries and apricots. You lot just don't know how lucky you are.