Tuesday, January 31, 1989

French Gazette Vol 3 N° 1 31/01/89

Hello chaps, how’s life?

Had a nice Christmas and all that? Super! We’ve been having an absolutely grotty winter -  virtually no snow at all to speak of, hence no skiing. Well, not entirely. I got back from a few days in Paris last Saturday, and we went up to a teensy little station called La Feclaz for the rest of the weekend with a crowd of other Arbinites. We had a bash at ski du fond (cross~country skiing to you) and a stroll about the mountains, and it doubtless did our French no end of good, but it’ll be the ruin of my liver. Anyway, ski du fond is hard work. The skis are long and skinny (hence more difficult to balance on), you’re wearing sneakers, the toes of which only are clipped to the skis (hence no support from your ski boots) and then you have to try to walk with this peculiar gliding motion which is not at all self-evident. And to cap it all off, there were bits of grass and dirt and wotnot pushing up through the snow. I only hope it’s not like this in 1992, or the events of the forthcoming winter Olympics are going to be somewhat curtailed.

About the biggest excitement we’ve had so far was going through to Lyon and getting a bookcase. (Which only just fitted in the back of the Renault 21, but never mind that.) Having lugged it back home and erected the thing, it has become evident that we’ll have to go back and get another: the number of books, memorabilia and just plain junk that we accumulate is astounding.


And back again. We’ve just had a visit from another New Zealander: one Greg Collins, with whom I worked at Allflex. He’s currently in the UK, and he popped over to see us, bearing gifts (more Angostura bitters for me, and patty tins for Margo), As it happened, Jacques had invited us up to his holiday home in the Jura for the weekend, so we all of us went up and had a rather nice time. The aforesaid house is an oldish place - last renovated in 1729 - which Jacques bought for 400FF about twelve years ago, and he’s been in the process of doing it up ever since. It’s very cosy, with a big log fire downstairs and all, just right for passing those long winter nights out of the snow that there was much of that - about a foot or so close to the forest and rather a bit more in the forest itself, but enough at any rate for Greg to have his first bash at ski du fond. I had another go myself, what with that and throwing snowballs for Tim the dog, I’m still a bit stiff. (Tim really is the name, by the way - he belongs to Valerie from Miqro, who also came up, with her brothers and boyfriend, with the aim of passing the week there.) And having mentioned Angostura bitters (which is that pink stuff I stick in my martinis, in case you’re interested) I’ll say also that I have actually managed to find it in France (which surprised me no end), although at a hideous price - evidently feel that only perverts drink the stuff, and want to see us pay for our vile habits.

Well, the infamous “Black Weekend” has been and gone without any problems. In case you’d forgotten, this is the weekend when the Parisians, bless their little souls, descend on Savoie like Attila the Nun and the Bretons return to whence they came. This usually means immense jams, but traffic was light due to the lack of interesting snow down here (only 3 million on the roads on Saturday) so it was all a bit of a letdown. The weekend before was more fun: both lanes of the autoroute from Chambery to here (about 14km) were jammed coming in our direction - I mean not moving. Stopped. Mobility nil. All quite impressive, really. Anyway, the weather continues at “set fair”, as they used to say on the barometers - in the southern half of France anyway, and that’s what interests us. Temperatures up to 16°, which isn’t too bad considering it’s still officially winter, and tops have all come off along the Côte dAzur. And to top it all off, Dr Who is on! At the ridiculously early hour of 9am Sunday morning, on the kiddie shows, but I’ll do anything far a Dalek. (Incidentally, I really cannot recommend the particular kids show concerned. They play interesting little games: in one of these, a kid gets to ring up and sing a song - if they get the song right the three male members of this show, who are sitting, bound hand and foot, in open stalls, must each pull a large bucket of cold water down over themselves. This is passed off as healthy entertainment - small wonder if they grow up with odd ideas about blowing things up.)

We went for a walk on the lakefront the other clay, too - a very French thing to do on a Sunday. afternoon. Half the population of Aix-les-Bains had apparently had the same idea. Heaps of families, all dolled up in their Sunday best (the kids usually toting their roller skates along, these being big amongst the weeny set) and of course the family dog(s). Which range from a matching set of those animated clothesbrush things all the way up to a Great Dane. (The term ‘Sunday best’ is pretty comprehensive, by the way. It includes a fetching little track suit arrangement in purple with a tastefully coordinated yellow and purple tartan shawl, also a leather miniskirt, ditto top sort of cape thing which looks as though you’ve got a dead sheep on each shoulder.There are some interesting checks for mens’ trousers, but I’d rather not go into that.

Anyway, one strolls around, greeting old friends and avoiding the dogshit (or vice versa, according to taste), casts a benevolent eye on one’s offspring as they attempt to dismantle one another with teaspoons and, when tired of this, goes off to a bar for a coffee or a beer before heading back home to kill more brain cells in front of “The Wheel of Fortune’ or the Lotto draw on TV.

And now for a spot of bad news: I have been reliably informed that Margo is going to become a parent. Please give generously - send a bootee. This is going to mean a safari into the hitherto unexplored backwaters of yet another part of the French bureaucracy - and me without my elephant gun. Speaking of that sort of thing, we got a second demand for the ‘taxe d’habitation” - rates to you - for the apartment in Vitré. (You pay the rates for an entire year if you are living in the joint on January 1st: as we were still - officially - in Vitré up till the end of January 1988~ we pay a year’s worth of rates there, but none here. If you’re going to move somewhere with appallingly high rates, do it at the start of the year, and then move out before the end.) This may not seem odd, but I had already received and paid the first demand. Rang up to find that the silly people had cocked up again: not only have they pointedly ignored every change-of-address notification I’ve sent them, but it seems that the first (paid) demand was for an apartment on the ground floor: the second was for one on the first floor. We lived on the second floor, One day they’ll notice.

Further bad news: the weather’s getting worse. This is, I think, related to the fact that the weather forecasters have just gone back to work after a week or so on strike. Most depressing really: just hope we don’t get a sudden cold snap ‘cos all Margo’s plants have poked their heads out, thinking that it’s spring.


And I’m back again. Our little cold snap has turned to snow, so I can at long last wear the big wool overcoat Margo’s made me without feeling like an absolute prat. At least it’ll make farmers happier - there’ll be a bit of water for the summer. (Around these parts, water is only melted snow, and with the weather we’ve been having they’d had to start rationing it in some places. Especially in some of the ski stations, where they’d used godnose how many million litres to feed the artificial snow machines.) Well, tax return time has rolled around again and I have to fill in the “simplified” declaration of revenues. At least the bill is not going to be a nasty surprise this year, as we pay monthly. On top of that we spent a few happy hours filling in the forms for future mothers: two copies to the place that pays us (they pay you to have kids!), another to the organ of the social security that looks after sickness benefits and health insurance, and a fourth copy to the p1ace that got the first two in order to let them know about the first two they got. After that I might have to at getting a livret de famille, which is the little booklet in which you and yours are registered – yea! even unto the seventh generation,and then we’ll probably have to call into the NZ Embassy in once the shouting’s over to see about getting the putative offspring registered on our passports and registered as a Kiwi citizen.

Actually, according to French law the whatever it is will be a French citizen as well, at least to the age of 16 (or 15, I can’t remember exactly) at which point it gets to choose whether or not to stay French. I assume that this is something for those countries who don’t really like you having dual nationality, but there’s another consideration - if it’s a boy, then by choosing to continue as a French citizen it’ll have to do national service for a year. (Although there are a number of outs for this - if you’re certifiably paranoid, for example, or the sole visible means of support for your aged parents, or if you can manage to keep on collecting exemptions for doing degrees. And if you really can’t the thought of being in the army, I gather that they’ll let you — albeit reluctantly - do your time in other branch of the bureaucracy.) Another thing we’ll have to do at some time is pick a name – or names - which’ll be acceptable to the busy minions of the French Institute of Standards, or whatever august body it is that occupies itself with such things. Tobias Lancelot lolanthe would be right out, for instance - too unFrench. On the other hand, Amédée Stanislas Fiacre would be fine, Still, we’re not exactly short of time in which to worry about such things.

The past few months have been pretty quiet, really: no great natural disasters to speak of, no plagues of locusts/rains of blood and frogs, and nary a piglet farrowed with the claws of a hawk  (vide Livy). We may thus conclude that the end of the world is comfortably far off - sometime after this weekend, anyway - and that the barometer will continue to read “Set Fair”. The depressing thing about this is that there’s sod-all that’s really newsworthy (apart from Boeings falling out of the sky but that’s rapidly becoming more of an everyday event than the exception). Perhaps I should invent a civil war. Oh, while I remember, Jean-Marie Le Pen has emerged from whatever septic tank he calls home these days to pronounce on “The Satanic Verses”. As it is now evident to even the meanest intelligence that the Arabs are one and all barbaric heathen wops (so runs his thesis) it is clear that they must all be expelled from France. I should point out that not everyone agrees: some of the more socially enlightened of the right-wing favour flogging instead; Speaking of the right-wing, poor old Jacques Chirac (still Mayor of Paris, and proud possessor of the biggest nose since Concorde, but not much else) seems to have faded from view. It’s as if the poor fellow had died no-one had noticed. These days it’s all bloody Giscard d’Estaing (remember him?), Raymond Barre, and of course good old uncle Mitterand. Who has, by the way, managed to keep his nose remarkably over the little insider-trading scandal at Pechiney.

In fact, it had been put forward by some otherwise respected wotsits that the whole affair was a put-up, revealed in an attempt to damage the Socialists at the forthcoming municipal elections. True, local-body politics in France is almost Byzantine in its complexity (and double-dealing, but never mind that) but if that was the case (which I doubt) it seems to have backfired rather with Mitterand’s latest speech, in which, hardly mentioning the Pechiney affair at all, and certainly not stooping to deny any involvement, he castigated the money-grubbing, egoistic (and dare I say it -  somewhat American) attitudes exemplified in the Bourse as undermining the social dimension of France and Europe. I imagine that the stockbrokers are quivering in their boots (come to that, Margaret Thatcher is probably doing the same - with rage) but it certainly seems to have upped Mitterand’s stock as a concerned socialist who won’t stand for corruption and naked greed - he prefers it decently clothed.


And here we are, back from Paris. We bowled up with Jacques on the Sunday morning (ie at the loathesome hour of 6am, which meant that I missed Dr Who) and arrived at about midday in time to grab some lunch and then hop on the Metro to Marie and Ians’. (The Metro cleaners are having a strike - or were - which accounted for the rather riper-than-usual aroma down there. Thought it was cheese at first.) Then on the Monday we went off to SIMA, which is the mega A&P show. Now I’ve mentioned before that this is rather big, but I’ll say it again. Spent the morning wandering around looking at sheep and goats and prize boars etc (also met Bill Gallagher, of electric-fence fame) and then about noon, feeling rather peckish and thirsty, we wandered off to the food and wine section. It’s actually rather good being a foreigner, ‘cos all the merchants are a) flattered if you’ve heard of their wine on the other side of the world and b) happier than usual to encourage you to taste (“just one more little wafer, Sir?”) And so taste we did. Vouvray (a fresh and delicious white), Tavel (the best - and probably the most expensive - rosé around), Bordeaux (just a common old AOC that one, but not foul at all) and vin de paille du Jura (literally, “”straw wine”, very special, very nice, and exceedingly expensive). We wrapped that lot off with a crepe suzette drowned in Grand Marnier (from the Grand Marnier stand – seems it’s their bicentenary or somesuch) and then soggily rolled our way out. Then we wandered around Paris for a bit, back to our old haunts (1st and 2nd arrondissements): into Marks & Sparks to spend our Christmas vouchers (dry sherry and makeup) and then to Brentano’s, which is the English-language book in Paris. (If you don’t count Shakespeare’s on the Left Bank.) For some bizarre reason books are cheaper there than almost anywhere else - either the books don’t get VAT on them, if from an English publisher, or perhaps French publishers are just more rapacious than their English and American counterparts.

Tuesday was grotty. The day before we’d been wandering around in shirtsleeves, soaking up the sun: Tuesday it poured down. A real sod, as we’d planned all our embassy-visiting for then. We went ahead anyway, and got sodden. New Zealand embassy first off, then to the British consulate. Slight problem there as they’d moved, so we arrived at the embassy (in the middle of renovations) where the cop on duty told us that he rather thought it was here - then one of his mates gave us the right address, not too far away fortunately. Got there to find that the British consulate goes to sleep until 2:30, so we popped into the bar next door to wait and discovered the entire consular staff as well, Anyway, having got that out of the way (we were looking for certificates of patrialitv, as it happens) we went to the British Council to see if we could get the names of institutions offering courses in “Teaching English as a Second Language”, which is what Margo would rather like to do, and having been-mis directed around three floors of the building (which is. in case you’re ever in the neighbourhood and start feeling a bit peckish, not too far from Maxim’s) we went off in search of the afore-named institutions. We found them too, which was very nice ‘cos it meant that I could stay in the warm and drip all over their carpet whilst Margo chatted with them.

Having dried off, the next day we went museuming. Only one, actually, as we got up rather late - la Musée des Decouvertes, which is where you learn that electrons are about the size and shape of a small pea, and depending on which way they’re spinning around their respective protons (or somethings) the bathwater will either gurgle or not when you pull the plug out. They’ve got ants’ nests and fish and lab rats and all sorts actually - great stuff. Sated with learning, we took in “Baron Munchausen” (yes, in English) before heading off with Jacques on Thursday. All in all, rather a nice week.


Hohum, another day, another dollar. We’ve been off to yet another wine fair: this time, “la Foire du Vin et de la Cuisine” at Annecy. This may well have been an error, as we wound up purchasing a crate of 1983 ChateauNeuf du Pape. A very nice fellow, the vigneron who sold it to us: inisisted on our tasting the ‘86, ‘85 and ‘83, just to give us an idea of the differences between the years (don’t buy the ‘85, it’s a bit thin), and then some of their white wine as well. Having arranged all that we carried on round: tried some Côte Rôtie and Côte du Rhône from the charmingly named Montre-Cul vineyard (which has an interesting and only mildly obscene label), some Régnié (which is the latest addition to the Beaujolais appelation, and which tastes just like any other Beaujolais) and some wine from Chateau Ripaille, on the French side of Lake Geneva. We have also been told that if we’re ever in the district, we must come in and visit ... the poor dears really are fascinated by foreigners. We took a look around the cookery side as well: tasting cheeses, sniffing coffee, looking at aspic jelly that had gone rather runny (it was the second day of the affair, after all:) ... personally wouldn’t have cared to sample any of the fish. But from far enough away that you couldn’t see it wiggling, the set pieces were very striking.

We’ve been off for Margo to have her first echograph, by the way. (The gynaecologist bloke who did it doesn’t seem too keen on the English - he refuses to write his papers in English a a matter of principle, saying that if it’s good enough for the English to publish in the native toingue then it’s good enough for him too - but is willing to make an exception for Kiwis.) It seems that is something in there, with the usual complement of heads and other appendages: it is for this that the Sécurité Sociale pays Margo SOOF per month.

Spring has sprung - officially, at least - and as a result the weather has turned bad. More of these rotten depressions and very anti cyclones sweeping in from north and south to sit on top of the country, bringing rain with occasional periods of precipitation. I’m unimpressed. At least the daffodils and suchlike on the balcony are in good health. And with the somewhat warmer times we’re having, the Academic Française has come out of hibernation again, ready to wage war on those horrid foreign words that are creeping into and debasing French. It seems that “Walkman" has to go - it’ll probably get replaced by the glorious (but totally unusable) phrase “lecteur portable des cartouches amovibles magnetiques”. Never mind, it keeps the superannuated literary gentlemen (and lady) of the Academie occupied and off the streets (where they would otherwise be obliged to write more of the same unread tomes of lit. crit. as those that won them their seats, in an effort to survive). Oddly enough, although the members of this illustrious body are collectively known as "Immortals", in a reference to the fame that will everlastingly be theirs, no-one can remember who they are, how many of them there are, or even where they stick the dead ones - when they notice. You may be forgiven for thinking that the whole object of the exercise is in fact to provide a comfortable club for retired professors where they can dress up in silly clothes and snaffle the seats at the Opéra. Which reminds me that among the attractions at that Salon du Vin at Annecy was the initiation of some politician - Rocard, I think - into the Order of Fraternal Creme-de-Menthe Sniffers. A bit like Capping, reallv, with the robes dragged out of the cupboard again and the scent of mothballs heavy in the air: still, at least you get to have a decent drink.

And before I leave you, a small note from the wonderful world of business: the French banking association has started a campaign to improve the public image of bankers and banking (currently lower than that of Genghiz Khan, whose worst enemies could not say that he’d ever raped a fund or helped strip an asset). One of their ads is a full page spread, multiple-guess format with pictures:

“Which of the following animals” it asks "does your bank manager most closely resemble?"
    a) a shark          b) a rat
    c) a vulture       d) a sloth
    e) a hyena         f) a snake

Difficult, isn’t it? Especially as there isn’t an “all of the above” option.

And another bit, this time from the “heroic failures’ department - it seems that the French Gendarmerie wished to institute a sort of prize for good driving, the idea being that they wouldn't’ stop bad drivers, but would congratulate and give cash awards to good ones - a sort of incentive scheme. To be eligible, you had to be driving at the limit, signalling with your indicators rather your fingers, not doing anything too stupid, wearing your seat belt, observing road signs ... a pretty tall order, admittedly. The first bloke they stopped (an otherwise perfect specimen) was so alarmed at being (he thought) arrested that instead of pulling over he zipped out into the fast lane in front of a lorry and promptly crashed. The next one they had to book for being over the limit ... the scheme was cancelled after a few months, as they’d not been able to award a single prize, even after whittling requirements down to just being on the correct side of the road.

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