Wednesday, November 28, 2018

We Shall Overcome ...

Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends ... the always unedifying spectacle of the French, taking to the streets to protest - although against what exactly is not always entirely clear. I'd actually started to think that, just maybe, we'd grown out of it - for there's been nothing like a proper mass demonstration for the last few years - but sadly, this turns out not to be the case. This time it's mostly about the admittedly eye-watering hikes in the price of diesel and so, as one will, everyone is out with their cars, blocking the roads.

So it's a day of enforced immobility for me, no point to even thinking of heading in to the market at Carcassonne ... on the bright side, the subliminal hum of traffic from the autoroute has stopped, and it's eerily silent. Apart from the occasional sharp report from the vines, as some hunter takes a pot-shot at a group of hikers.

Speaking of which reminds me that if a friendly local hunter supplies you with a pheasant or two, you could do a lot worse than turn them into faisan vallée d'Auge, just saying. It's an especially good method if you're unsure of the age of the bird - not really a problem here as most game is farm-bred and then flung out into the wilderness to be shot at, but you never can tell - as it involves braising rather than roasting. It also has the advantage of being quite simple.

Basically, take your bird and wrap it in slices of bacon, then truss it and brown it in a suitably-sized sauteuse over high heat before getting to the fun part, wherein you slosh a shot glass full of Calvados over it and flambé the poor thing. Wipe away the remains of your singed eyebrows, turn the heat down to low, pour an appropriate quantity of dry cider into the pan and then, once it's come to a simmer, put the lid on and let it bubble quietly away for a while. Depending on the age and the size, this might be anything from twenty to forty minutes so do check from time to time, you don't want to have the meat actually fall off the bones.

While that's going on, take a couple of apples (Golden Delicious are pretty good, they hold their shape quite well), peel and slice, then fry the slices on both sides in butter, sprinkling with sugar as you go: you want them to caramelise nicely. And if there's still some calva left, you could flambé them too.

Finally, when the bird is done to your taste, put it aside to settle before carving and reduce the sauce, if necessary: add a healthy dose of cream and continue to reduce until thick, remembering to stir in all the nice brown bits. Rather than serving on an elegant dish such as the porcelain monstrosity you got years back from some distant aunt, just put the bits back into the pan with the apple rings on top, and spoon a bit of the sauce over. Even though buttered noodles would be the traditional accompaniment, you should remember to have hunks of baguette on the table, to make it easier to mop up the sauce ...

OK, cooking class is over, normal service will now be resumed. But you may thank me for it later.

The taxman is still doing his very best to get as far as possible up my nose. There are two sets of taxes paid on property over here: there is the taxe foncière, paid by the owner, and the taxe d'habitation, which is paid by whoever happens to be living in the place on January 1st. Lumped in with this latter is the redevance audiovisuel, better known as a TV licence, which you pay for the privilege of being able - in principle, but finding anyone who will admit to actually doing so is difficult - to watch the uniformly dire public TV chains.

So in 2016 I actually got off my arse and sent off a little déclaration sur l'honneur that we did not in fact have a TV here at The Shamblings™, and rather to my surprise, in 2016 and in 2017 I was not charged 136€ on top of everything else - so why, oh gods, do I find myself in 2018 being asked to pay for the TV I do not have? I mean, I'm sure I'd know if I'd gone out and bought one during the year ... never mind, another series of fruitless phone calls ending up in a rabbit-warren of twisty little full voice-mail boxes before I finally decide to go in and moan bitterly in person. You get used to it.

In later news, the yellow jackets blockading roundabouts and autoroute péages have mostly folded their tents and gone home, which is kind of good news for those of us who enjoy being able to go out at any random moment and buy - let's say - toilet paper. Because I went off to Carrefour yesterday to get a few basic necessities and, luckily, bog-rolls were not amongst them, because in the usual spree of panic-buying the entire alley dedicated to such things had been emptied. (Come to that, there was exactly one packet of doggy-poo bags - such as one carries about to clean up the inevitable déjection, for so it is called over here - left on the shelves, which I suppose goes to show that the French are rather more civic-minded than one might think.)

There was also no fresh milk, only two pats of organic butter, and virtually no meat. An embuggerment, 'cos what I really wanted was, as it happened, some meat, some butter, and some milk ...

Still, I suppose that even hardened protesters like to have clean bottoms, for now the supply trucks are once more rolling in to stock up the shelves and we may again wallow in the luxury of wiping our bums with luxuriously soft pale lavender rose-scented paper, rather than glossy pages torn out from last year's Home & Garden (which are not, if you're wondering, really fit for purpose).

It is now, I note, a week since I last set fingers to keyboard: the trucks are still rolling for - possibly for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (yeah, we index them over here, possibly something to do with Cartesianism) - the CRS have apparently been told not to turn a blind eye to unlawful behaviour, such as it might be emptying a dumpster-full of pigshit at an autoroute access.

Be that as it may, there was still a manif planned for Saturday moaning in place Gambetta, which is where I always park, so I thought the hell with it, there's always the Olonzac market of a Tuesday so why go looking for an emmerdement?

And as it was - for once - a glorious day, the sort of day you're supposed to have in autumn down in these parts, Sarah took us off to Montséret down in the southern Corbières to see a little expo d'artisanat. And if that sounds like dribbly teapots, hand-made jewelry and earnest basket-weaving to you, you'd not be too far off. (Actually, I exaggerate. It was nowhere near that bad: no teapots, for one thing.)

But it is a pretty place anyway, apparently full of maisons de campagne and "artists" - both for the same reason I guess: it's cheap, and the weather is - usually - good. It also nestles at the foot of a colline, which is sort of a bonsai mountain, at the top of which there is a ruined chateau fort. From a distance it's easy to mistake it for part of the rock, but closer up you can see that it's actually a built thing (for a given value of "built" which involves piling stones one atop the other and hoping gravity gives them a break and they don't fall down out of sheer boredom).

There's a walking track up there, and I am willing to bet that the view out over the Corbières would be really spectacular, but feet were not appropriately attired for that sort of thing and I will put that one off for another day.

Apart from these minor logistical problems, and the existential dread that the bar will in fact close (I'm giving it another month or two, there's no official book been made on it yet but that will doubtless come), we know that in another month the winter solstice will arrive and then the days will start to get longer and before you know it, spring will arrive.

Whatever, I must have lead a virtuous life - either that or I have been rewarded by mistake instead of some other poor sod who really deserved it - for I went out this morning to take the dogs off and lo! on the doorstep was a large box of what I have managed to identify as lactaire délicieux, aka the saffron milk-cap.

Let it be admitted that I'd completely forgotten about meeting old Jean-Claude last night, over at the bar in Montbrun, and that he'd asked if I liked mushrooms. Not being a complete idiot I replied with a yes, and he murmured something about dropping some off some time ... and then one thing lead to another, as it will, and it had totally slipped my mind.

Just goes to show that you really should cultivate an amicable relationship with such people. At least I know what's for dinner tonight - after cleaning them delicately and making sure they're not worm high-rise housing, they will go into a very hot pan with a large lump of butter. Once they've started to sweat, get rid of the water, turn the heat down and add garlic (of course) before sprinkling with parsley to serve. Sounds good to me, anyway.

Any left-overs, by the way, go down quite well scattered on a sheet  of puff pastry which you have previously slathered with sour cream and - why not - thinly sliced strips of bacon, then sprinkled with moah parsley before baking in a hot oven. Just so you know.

Anyway, I should probably get back to more profitable pursuits ie work. For some strange reason my petits suisses want my favourite blue boxen to work as Wifi access points (with, of course, all the security problems that poses, but that is parked in the "Not My Problem" department) and so I have spent rather more time that I care to recall looking for USB Wifi dongles for which I can locate drivers that a) will build under Linux 2.6.35 and b) actually work with the dongle in question.

This is not always as easy as I think it should be. Especially when products which are advertised as using one particular chipset in fact use another, requiring a different driver ... never mind, these are my problems and I am reasonably well-paid to solve them. It keeps the wolf from the door, anyway.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Toilets, And Taxes ...

So Sarah very kindly consented to take me off to Boutenac and Gasparet yesterday, so I could get my fill of the autumn colours. Driving along the twisty little roads amongst the huge stony outcrops and pines, I don't think I will ever get tired of the landscape in our little part of the world. It's not what you could call "pretty", and certainly not for everyone, but it suits me just fine. The sky could have been bluer, but you can't have everything ...

Also, can't go out every day taking photos, which is why I found myself at home today, bored witless ... and as he will, the Devil found use for idle hands, and I now have a sparkling-clean knob.

Nine of them, in fact, for not content with cleaning the stove-top and the grills, I pulled off all the knobs and cleaned those too. Do you know how boring that gets? I must have had something really important to put off.

Someone once asked me why I don't just let Margo take care of that sort of domestic task: but she takes the not-entirely unreasonable view that not only am I the one that wanted this hideously expensive stove in the first place, but also I am the only one allowed to use it, on pain of pain, so I can bloody well clean it. No-one's ever asked that particular question again. Not since I mentioned the state of the chainsaw, anyway.

Now Boutenac is a nice little town, centre of the appellation of the same name: sadly, they seem to have decided to dig up all the streets in one fell swoop and so whichever way you arrive you will be confronted with a large and alarmingly yellow sign saying "Deviation" pointing you off on to some side street. Which, as a law-abiding citizen, you will follow.

Later on, there will be yet another such sign - "good", you think, "I'm getting out of here" - and then, somehow, in some godforsaken carpark, they seem to have run out of signage, leaving you lost and abandoned. It is at times such as these that I tend to remember that excellent episode "Countrycide" from Torchwood, way back in the day.

Not helped, I may say, when after I'd parked in the unsigned carpark and got out to wander a bit and met no-one for ten minutes or so, an elderly woman with a stick appeared from a crook or nanny and said something along the lines of "Ooh! Are you taking photos of our village?"

At that point I should probably have knocked her to the ground, stolen her stick and dentures, and been on my way - but there was a group of small children between me and the car, so I thought it better to be prudent.

And I explained that yes, I was indeed a visitor - from Moux, almost 20km away, and that I was indeed taking photos - I could just as well have said that I was some tentacled monstrosity from Mars because she took no notice, other than to say "I've just walked around the village, and it's deserted. As if there's no-one here". Then she tottered off into the distance: I weighed my options, made my way as calmly as I could back to the car, and left as discreetly and as rapidly as possible.

Gasparet, on the other hand, is the sort of place that you know will be empty as soon as you arrive. Not so much a town as a cross-road in the middle of nowhere: and even the chateau/cave was closed, despite the welcoming signs announcing "dégustation et vente de vin".

Still, I had nowt better to do, and the other chateau - from the early 1800's if I'm any judge - was worth a look, and there were no frighteningly calm old ladies wandering about. In fact, there was no-one. Not a single human being. (Apart from two Parisians, who don't really count and in any case quickly got into their Volvo and headed off.) Didn't even see a cat - at least, not one that was moving.

So from thence I went to Thézan, where at least the presse/tabac was open (the young guy behind the counter was suspiciously friendly, which leads me to suspect that they don't see too much new blood in those parts), so I bought a couple of cigars and smoked one to calm my nerves ... which was probably a good thing, because from there on the way back to Ferrals and an approximation of civilisation I had to start by following a Spaniard in a BMW who had obviously not entirely come to grips with the facts that a) you are at the wheel of "the ultimate driving machine"; b) yes, roads twist - that's what gears are for, not to mention the actual steering wheel and - if you absolutely must - the brakes; c) the speed limit in these parts is not 50kph.

Last I spotted in the rear-view mirror he had not ended up in a ditch, so I suppose all's well that ends more or less satisfactorily. For Sarah and I, at least.

In other news, it seems that our bar may not actually be closing! Bloody rumours, frightening me like that. What in fact happened that Magali, for reasons which escape me, is pregnant - which does, I'm told, rather cramp one's style - but if the financials are such that they can afford to take on Benedicte permanently behind the counter then they will do this thing, and stay open.

You cannot imagine what a relief this is to us.

Anyways, this weekend got off to quite a good start, apart from the Incident when I woke Sarah up. I'd plugged my phone in to charge, and then when I pushed the go-tit I was all of a sudden surrounded by hysterical drug-addled Daleks, screaming "Exterminate!" in unison. In my usual befuddled state (hey, Saturday moaning, remember?) it took me a while to realise that Sarah had recognised my phone as a storage device, found some music on it, and had then turned the stereo on for my listening pleasure - consequently playing my ring-tone in a never-ending loop. At very high volume.

In the Grand Scheme of Things that's really pretty trivial - once I'd found the off button for the stereo (although I know, from bitter experience, that from now on until some random time in the future she will continue to turn the stereo system on every time she starts) and things went well, until maybe an hour ago.

Not quite true, because there turned out to be a gaggle of Catalan bag-pipers in place Carnot, which was a bit of a bugger. The pipes are not, despite what you may think, the exclusive preserve of the Scots: they are just the most notorious practitioners. It seems that almost every civilisation arrives at a point where they say to themselves "Hey! Wouldn't it be a great idea if we stuck some pipes up a goat's rectum and squeezed to see what kind of noise it makes?"

To which I can confidently reply that no, it is possibly the worst idea you could ever come up with, do not even try it because the kind of noise it makes is not a nice one. You'd think they'd have learnt by now ...

But true calamity struck when José came past, pulled up, opened the boot of his enormous Beemer and handed me a large plastic bag. I was wondering why he had chosen today for a wine drop, and then "You will, of course" he said, "have to plume it". Because as it happened, the bag contained a rather freshly-dead hen pheasant.

I had not planned on spending my afternoon plucking and drawing a bird, but these things do - I'm told - gang aft agley, and so that is in fact what I shall be doing. But it will be after going off to the butcher's to pick up a nice bit of lamb (for I have no wish to turn up with feathers coming out my nose) to be roasted with the giant parsnip I picked up at the market.

I don't know why, because I'm not really that keen on the things, but Margo likes the stuff: I have received strict instructions that the meal will involve roast parsnip (check), roast potato (check), roast kumara (check), steamed Brussels sprouts (check) finished off in the lamb fat while the roasting draws to a close, and - of course, more as an afterthought than anything else - roast lamb.

If all that seems a bit heavy on the carbohydrates to you, you are not alone: but I have my orders.

But back to the bird - I have never, in all my life, done that sort of thing to any animal, although I had vague ideas that one should maybe drown them in boiling water (seems redundant, the beast was already dead as far as I could tell) and then enthusiastically pull out great wodges of soggy feathers. And as for removing the entrails, it's true that such things are usually done for one, but I have your cook's basic knowledge of anatomy and anyway how hard can it be to stick your fingers up the poor thing's bum and pull everything out?

As it happens, and luckily for me, there's any number of videos up on YouTube illustrating the act of sexual hygiene pheasant-plucking, one of which seemed remarkably simple and involved no faffing about with water at precisely 83°C or anything like that, so I watched that - twice - and set about doing it.

A bucket-load of feathers later, and with some rather disappointed dogs who were convinced that gizzards would make a great doggy snack, I found myself with an admittedly scrawny but definitely bald bird on my hands: following advice I stuck a paper towel where its digestive tract had once been, wrapped it in more paper towels, and stuck it into the fridge to - um, mature - until Widdlesday, when I shall bard and roast it.

Unless, of course, things start getting a bit whiffy in there, in which case I shall have to stick it in the freezer until required.

Please pardon a slight digression here, but over in these here Furrin Parts you can head off to the supermarket of your choice and take your pick from a bewildering array of toilet paper. They range from rolls of what look like badly-recycled newsprint up to the top-of-the-line 5-layer stuff, luxuriously soft and infused with aloe vera or other essential oils. (Margo's preference is for "Just One", a complete misnomer in my opinion because if you can get your bum clean with just one square of toilet paper then you are a much better man than I, just saying. Or, possibly, extremely parsimonious, and willing to live with the consequences.)

In fact the only sort you can no longer buy - I suspect it's reserved for public toilets and the SNCF - is the stuff that comes in what appears to be boxes of paper tissues (bet that's fooled more than one) and looks like shiny squares of nicotine-stained baking paper: also, completely useless at its stated job.

Anyway, the point is that I am informed by a member of the prominent Sources family (you know, "Reliable", "Highly-Placed", and "Confidential", to name but three of the cousins) that in inner-city Aldi supermarkets in Germany you may buy a brand that is called - and I am not making this up - "Happy End"*.

Whatever, I spent this moaning most unproductively: off into Carcassonne to queue for two hours just to make an appointment to see a tax-person. Under normal circumstances I would have arranged that by phone - yes, I did think of that - but right now any time you call and go through the comedy of punching in numbers to get through to the right department, you inevitably wind up speaking to an answering machine that says "Hello, your call is important to us. Voice-mail is full right now, please press 8 to leave a message which will not be recorded, because we're full. Thank you."

It seemed easier to stand in line and listen to other peoples' ringtones, and the odd intimate conversation. (Do these people really not give a shit that I now know things about their sex life that I really, really did not want to know?)

Whatever, huge dark clouds are rolling in ominously from the Mediterranean, and I have a rolled pork rib roast slowly cooking in the oven with garlic and herbs and milk, so I should really go occupy myself with that. Mind how you go, now.

* See? I told you so ...

Monday, October 29, 2018

Things I'd Not Planned on Doing ...

By now, world + dog probably knows that we've had a once-in-a-century flooding event: one of those Rumsfelds. You know, as in "shit happens". We got off very lightly - thank gods we didn't buy one of those picturesque houses on the banks of the canal du Midi, nor in Trèbes (where there is not only the canal, but also the river Aude), nor in Lagrasse, through which the Orbieu runs (only under normal circumstances, it runs well below street level). Truth to tell, the only problem we had was the verandah being awash in the morning, and when it all cleared up and the blue sky came back in the afternoon, we discovered why.

The verandah was roofed by a twisted evil genius - or a complete idiot, take your pick, although I'm going with the latter option - and so there's a sort of sheltered gully in it, with its own gutter, which goes into its own downpipe which then spews water all over the terrace. When it works. What we found was that the gutter, and the downpipe, were completely blocked with a few decades-worth of dried cat-shit, and the water had to go somewhere. Dripping into the verandah, as it happens, as a vaguely extremely unappetising turd soup.

So cleaning that out turned out to be our afternoon's job, and let me just say that I'd much rather not have had to do it.

The vines, of course, have very soggy feet, and around here - where the transport infrastructure is pretty much third-world quality anyway - some roads now have places where they're covered with other bits of road, where slabs of tarmac have been undermined and then come free and bobbed happily around for a bit. At least they'll now have to do something about those potholes which is perhaps just a little more sophisticated than chucking the odd shovel-full of hot-mix into them from the flatbed of the municipal truck (every once in a while, when they find a bit of spare petty cash down the back of the mayoral sofa, they splurge on a tub of tar and a cubic metre of gravel), but this being the south I'm not going to hold my breath.

In other news, it is once more time to drag the hi-viz jackets out of the wardrobe and dust off the doggy bells, for the hunting season has opened - with, of course, a bang. You can tell this not only from the occasional sharp report up in the pinède or in the vines, but also from the odd dazed pheasant wandering about the village, with what passes for its mind preoccupied with major existential questions like "what the hell am I doing here?". It would probably be better off pondering "how long am I going to be here?", but there you go, I guess that prioritisation has never been a forté of the bird brain.

(Just as an aside, there's a "fake news" site over here that I look at from time to time: one of their later articles reported on the joy of the various hunting associations on discovering that the competent ministry had significantly raised the quotas on hikers and trail bikers.)

Hunting season also means it's Autumn, and with that come the gentle breezes (gusting up to 50 kph, today) which make it quite a hard slog walking into the wind. And when you're walking with it at your back it's not so good either, as it blows straight up the dogs' bums and up to what they are pleased to call their brains, making them even more bubble-headed than usual.

José, the menuisier from Montbrun, came past a while back to drop off two large wardrobes that were surplus to requirements, and now that the borer has been put to the sword one of them is in the verandah by the front door, ostensibly for stashing coats. But it is capacious enough to conceal a multitude of gins, so Margo ever-so-gently suggested that it would be a Good Idea if I sorted through the (large) box of boots that came down with us on our epic voyage five years ago, and has been sitting out there ever since.

Quite frankly, I don't know why we bothered. Bringing them, that is. Probably because they were sitting at the front door in Saint-Pierre, and towards the end of the proceedings, when it became evident that there was not nearly enough time to sort things properly, it was a case of "fling it all into bags or boxes, load it into the lorry, and we'll sort it out at the other end".

Which has, finally, been done. Of eight pairs of boots - some dating back to the Bronze Age - seven are now in black plastic bags to go out on the street for the next time the mayor's idiot nephew comes past with the truck to do "les encombrants", and one pair is in the wardrobe, waiting for me to attack it with a brush and the vacuum cleaner.

Which I shall do with some trepidation, for over the years they have become full of dog hair and dust and godnose what else, and I rather expect that at the toe end there will be a highly-developed civilisation of fluff which I shall have to wipe out.

I has news! Not, unfortunately, good news. It would appear that our bar is to close at the end of the year, which is a complete embuggerment. OK, it wasn't entirely unexpected, but still ... the thing is, Lionel gets all a-flustered as soon as more than four people come in wanting food, and when he's busy chatting with a mate you could die of thirst before getting served at the counter. The best part, it seems, of running a bar is when you get to pop out and sit down for a fag, with no-one importuning you for service: otherwise, it's too much like hard work.

Still, it's hardly a spur of the moment decision, I would think, so I have to ask myself why they invested in a fancy kebab grill and a huge - and doubtless hugely expensive - sound system only recently. Makes no sense to me, but then it's not really my problem, I guess. I mean, apart from the fact that we will, once again, be barless. Which is not good.

Oh well, we shall just have to fend for ourselves again, I suppose, hoping all the while that the mairie doesn't take an age to find a replacement - preferably one that's competent, and doesn't mind working.

Whatever, we are currently "enjoying" a cold front that seems to have come direct from Scandinavia. From 22° about a week ago it's plummeted to 6° today: the sky is grey, dull and dismal, there is sporadic spiteful rain, and the wind is gusting enthusiastically. Also, thanks to the end of daylight saving, it is dark and gloomy around 18h, which is emphatically not nice.

Still, it could be worse. I had occasion to drag myself away from the fire and brave the weather to go help Nicole out, as she had not Internet: the phrase "computer-illiterate" was invented for her. So I reset the router, and then re-entered the WiFi key into her iThing, which had decided, for some reason, to forget it. And don't get me on to the subject of why the bloody things can't use WPS for key exchange ...

And then she had gmail working on the tablet but not on the laptop because somewhere along the line she - or, more probably, her daughter - had changed the password: you can't actually see the password on the iThing because it's protected by TouchID, which didn't seem to want to work, so I couldn't put the right password into the laptop (also, frikking Edge seems to have saved every password for every site except that for gmail), and if I reset the password via the laptop (because Google won't allow you to reuse an old password) I would have had to edit the password on the tablet and as that's protected I couldn't do that either ...

I do not know why complete strangers come up to me in the street to tell me that Apple gear is so simple to use, I really don't. I now have a brief answer for them, but I fear it may be impolite.

Anyways, the point was (originally) that we are having only light breezes compared to Corsica, where gale-force winds have kept the ferries in port. So think of us, will you?

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.