Thursday, May 11, 1989

French Gazette Vol. 3 No. 2 11 Mai 1989

Hello again, everyone!

We’ve been trying to buy a car! In fact, weve signed the contract for a nice little red Alfa Romeo 33, which is currently having all its rust removed by the garage, so it’ll be a few weeks yet before we get to run around in it (which is probably just as well, considering what else has yet to be organised). But what a story to get to that point. First of all I went to the Credit Lyonnais to see if they would give us a loan to help pay for the thing. “Yes Sir of course Sir no problems Sir just come back in a few weeks after I’ve checked things out.”

Did that, and guess what? Not possible. First of all, we hadn’t had an account with the branch for the requisite 2 years; secondly, even if we had passed that test, we’d still be eligible for a loan of only one year’s duration ‘cos we are regarded as foreigners. At this point I started thinking of the last letter and the little bit on bank managers. . . then I went off to the Credit Agricole, who were happy to give us a loan. Thanks in part to Mr Quesnel, who knows the branch manager (and I suppose it helps that all Miqro’s banking goes through the branch too). Anyway, having put the car on a conditional contract (subject to finance etc) we rus~ied down to the garage to say “yes, we’ve got the cash and can we have the car please”, and then I thought it would he a good time to start looking into the intricacies of car insurance. I’d thought that this would be complicated: it is in fact very simple. It’s a ripoff. The first agent I went to is one of the ones that does house insurance and all the rest: he quoted me (please be sitting down) the paltry sum of 15000 francs per year (he said this with a straight face, too) - or just half that if I just wanted third-party. Considering that the car is only worth 27000 francs, I found that excessive.

Went off to another agent, who quoted 700F/month and that only out of the kindness of their hearts: to get that price we’d have to get a letter from our insurers in NZ saying that we had actually been insured, and if we couldn’t get that they wouldn’t be able to give us all-risks insurance at all, seeing as we’d not been insured in France for the last two years. Arrgh! However, various people to whom I related this sad tale soon put me right: you have to hunt down a mutual insurance group. Did that, and they’re happy with a letter from Mr Quesnel saying that I’ve been driving the office car during X months and have had no accidents (only a little lie, that), at a price of about 4000F. This is still daylight robbery (admittedly that’s the price for the first year ie no no-claims bonus, but even after two years of trouble-free driving the price is still double what I’d pay in NZ) but I suppose it’s better than outright extortion.

OK, enough of that. After a few weeks of grotty weather summer has at last a-cumen in, so we’re basking in 24 degree days again and back to leaving the windows wide open all night to give the mosquitos a chance. (And, of course, so that we can be woken up in the weekends by the jolly buzz of lawnmowers and Mr le Maire above us practising banging on the floor with a hammer. Or his wife, banging on the piano with a blunt instrument. I wouldn’t mind so much if only she showed some signs of improvement.) Anyway, what with all the sun floating about the prospect of dining on the balcony becomes more and more attractive, so having (relatively) successfully cobbled together a chest for Margo to put things in (a sort of dry run), we must now look at making a sort of folding table thingy for those long warm lazy evenings.


Back again. Margo’s gone off to London for a week to visit family and stock up on cheapie baby clothes and suchlike (they’re 0% rated for VAT over there) so I’m sitting at home in the thundery evening of rather a nice day, tapping this out on yet another PC (the latest Compaq portable, if that interests anyone) which has - of course - yet another keyboard layout to which I’m trying to get accustomed. Not to mention having a different feel to it, being too small etc etc ... complaining isn’t really what I do for a living, you understand, just that I’m getting good at it. Thundery evening ... for the past week or more we’ve been having beautiful days, hot and sunny, and then religiously at about 6 pm the clouds come up and at about 8:30 we get beautiful thunderstorms right overhead. With, of course, the concomitant power outages, TV going fizzle sputter and so on. According to the weatherman it’s all due to lots of naughty warm moist air over Italy (where else?) which rubs in a sensuous fashion up and down the Alps all day until finally something gives.

Been quite a momentous day for me actually: I finally went and picked up our car. They’ve done an excellent job of replacing the rust (they cut it all out and put in some brand new, guaranteed unused rust just for us), repainting, fixing up scruffy bits on the seats and all sorts. Only thing is that the rev counter doesn’t work, so I’ll have to take it in and get them to fix that up (all under guarantee, which is apparently not all that normal). And of course I have to get used to it, after driving the tank around for so long. It’s nice to have something that doesn’t make parallel parking into a complete nightmare.

This is impossible! This little computer, nice though it may be otherwise, has one of those disgusting LCD screens and if things move too fast - or if they blink - they’re impossible to see. Now you may not know this, but the word processor I usually use for churning these things out uses what they like to call a “pointing device” these days - a mouse, to the rest of us - and when I move it round the screen I have terrible problems ‘cos I can’t see it as soon as it starts to move and then I don’t know where I am. And I keep missing keys - or not bashing them hard enough - and so I have to flit around the place sticking in missing letters like nobody’s business, and of course you do have to use the little rodent for that (see whinge n° 1, above). I’ll probably just get used to all its little foibles and then they’ll take it off me: we’ve actually only got it to do some work for a crowd called Merlin Germ, who want a superduper program to show off all the nice features of their sophisticated circuit-breakers at the big electronics fair in Hanover. That’s what they want: what they’ll get is another matter, but so far they don’t seem too disappointed. I liaise (if you’ll excuse the word) with rather a nice chappy there who is, by an odd turn of fate, headed off to your end of the world: he’s being sent off to their Sydney office. (And by the way, the Australians pronounce “Seedney” exactly as the French do.) I suppose that I really should give him a friendly warning as to exactly what he can expect - the rituals, the quaint mating dances, the fact that everyone’s called Sheila (when it’s not Bruce) and all the rest - but we’ll see how this project goes: if they start make too many suggestions for “improvements” I shall become malevolent.

Business rolls on as usual: Jacques seems to be doing well - Allflex, to their own surprise - and that of everyone else - have managed to sell lots of his pregnancy detectors (in Hungary, of all places) and the market for his little electric prod is apparently very good too, so they seem to be mustering up the nerve to actually sign the distribution contract with him that they proposed some months ago. As it’s worth about 11 million francs, that’s rather good news. Miqro is ticking over as normal, although Renaud (a nice fellow, about my age, who looks after the industrial software side of things) is thinking of leaving to set up his own business - be interesting to see how he gets on. In fact, France in general seems to be blundering on quite nicely, thank you. We’ve had no gross administrative hurdles to overcome lately - they seem to have decided to leave us in peace for a bit. Apart from the social security, of course. In France, you do not get subsidised medicines, doctors visits etc. - well, they’re not subsidised at the point-of-sale, as it were. What you do is go in and get your ears reamed, take the prescription for gallstones down to the chemist (who’ll probably be fresh out of them, hut that’s another story) and pay for those ... then, when your little folder of official documents is getting a bit full (or your bank account a bit empty) you send off all the receipts and forms for these things and the social security reimburses you according to the going rate. (As Margo is pregnant, that’s actually 100%, which is rather nice.) The problem arose when I got a bunch of these back, with a note saying they lacked the vignettes. I didn’t know it at the time, and nowhere is it explained to the ignorant foreigner (I suppose I really should have asked ...) and even worse, they’d accepted other forms in the same state (it depends on which bureaucrat you get), ~if on the forms which the chemist gives you once he’s handed over the gallstones you must stick - in the place provided, of course - the price and identification stickers which should he (and sometimes are) found on the back of the packaging. Quite simple, really. God alone knows why they want the things, and of course we’d thrown out all the packaging ... do you keep the boxes your bottles of Disprin come in? How strange. So we missed out a bit there, anyway. Not to worry, I’ll know not to do it again next time.
8/6/ 89

And here I am once more. Margo got back safely, having bought the entire stock of BabyCare in Brighton (that’s what it felt like anyway, going by the weight of the suitcase) and a few bottles of this and that - including a NZ red for Renaud to have a sneer at (“A well rounded peppermint Burgundy with just a hint of wool in the bouquet ...“). Then we spent the rest of the week recovering from the shock of discovering that we’d managed to save a bit of money. (Speaking of which reminds me that I went into one of the higher-tech branches of the Credit Agricole to draw some out on the Saturday and discovered that they have a continuously-turning revolving door which starts to turn in the opposite direction to throw you out onto the street again if it doesn’t like the look of you. Well, it actually has a metal-detector somewhere about, and it won’t let you pass with too much metal about your person - watch, keys, belt-buckle etc. - and as it ejects you it mutters soothing phrases, asking you to stick all loose change and valuables into the buckets provided. After you’ve done that it might let you in - provided that you don’t happen to have a pace-maker, titanium hip-bone or other spare parts.)

The Sunday we decided to be very French: the neighbours invited us to come along on a picnic to watch the bike race up one of the local mountains. (Not really a mountain, I suppose - it’s actually the start of the Massif de Bauges, but in any case it’s a climb of about l000m to get from the bottom to the top.) As the day dawned bright and sunny we took them up on this, and armed only with a bacon-and-egg pie and other such delicacies we set off. By the time we got to the top the sky had clouded over and the wind had got up: a short while later the temperature started plummeting. What the hell, we had our picnic anyway. (We couldn’t have left in any case: the gendarmes had barred the road to descending traffic so as to avoid problems with the bikes coming up.)

Quite frankly, I’m of the opinion that bike-racing lacks a certain something as a spectator sport; entertainment value, perhaps. At least, watching sweaty young men ride - at about ten-minute intervals - up a 1 in 3 slope in sub-Arctic temperatures with a howling gale playing gently about my ears does little for me. Apart from freezing me solid, that is.

Enough whinging. Having stated above that we’ve no gross problems with the French administration, you are now honoured to be the invites at a special soirée during the course of which I shall eat my words. It’s not that bad, actually: just that the auditor-general or somesuch has decided that what Margo’s paid by Mr Quesnel doesn’t count as an honararium, and that she should be paying social security on it. Normally no problem, but due either to a typing error or sheer bloody-mindedness on their part, it’s backdated to mid ‘88. Mr Quesnel (who received the same letter as we) will be appealing. (He has lovely big brown eyes.)


Another weekend rolled round. The rose is blooming, the tarragon is working on stage #2 of its plan for world domination, the fuchsias are out and aphids are trying to eat my chives. Or were, until we sprayed the entire balcony with Paraquat (or a derivative thereof) which is guaranteed to cure any problems one might have with marauding insect pests - or anything else, come to that. In the fine print it tells you not to touch the sprayed plants for at least a year or two, which is a hit of a shame as the mint already needs trimming after only a day or two of my not plucking some off to go in a salad or whatever. Yes, we’re living on salads (and cherries, and asparagus and suchlike): it’s defnitely that time of year again. And after all, why go to the trouble of preparing a hot meal when you can pick up a few slabs of magnificent ham (guaranteed to not have been injected with water, sugar and other additives to bulk it out), a spot of pâté and then whip up a quickie salad to have a gourmet treat?

Margo has been off making enquiries at the hospital recently. They wouldn’t let her into the actual hospital rooms; probably afraid of Antipodean infections or somesuch. However, she did learn that she has to spend a minimum of six days in hospital after the blessed event. She’s also got antenatal classes starting soon, carefully arranged so that they’re all in the afternoons to avoid possible interference/attendance by fathers. Probably a good thing really, don’t want any of the poor frail things fainting at an inopportune moment, do we? (Personally, I intend - at the moment of birth, that is - to turn a delicate shade of greenish-white and then slowly slide down the wall on which I had previously been leaning in a nonchalant fashion to wind up rigid on the floor. I’m told it’s good for your posture.) Oh, we bought an electric drill the other day. This means that I can take up my correspondence courses on brain surgery again. (Only joking - it’s appendectomies that you can do by mail.)

While I remember, Jacques’ back from Paris having signed his contracts with Allflex. He’s feeling quite happy about the whole affair, and justifiably so, I should think. Godnose it’s taken long enough. (Actually, the real reason he went up there wasn’t to sign contracts at all - it was to catch a bit of tennis at Roland-Garros. Somehow he manages to wangle a few tickets each year. If there’s anyone there who gets tired of everlasting rugby in the winter and then cricket come summer-time, spare a thought for poor us: we manage to escape the cricket at least, hut we get tennis instead. Not sure which is worse - speaking purely, of course, in terms of viewing pleasure.) Ian’s wedding draws closer and Margo pops down to the cellar every other day to pour more alcohol over the cakes maturing there. Don’t know how they’ll go down: in case you didn’t know, the piece de résistance at a French wedding is a thing called a croquembouche, which is a sort of tower affair made out of cream puffs glued together with caramel. Rather a far cry from your traditional Anglo-Saxon fruity wedding cake.

Actually getting to the wedding is going to he fun. It’s not far from Pesselières (a godforsaken hole miles from anywhere where Ian and Marie have their country seat) or, in other terms, about 400k north of here. That in itself is not a problem: the timing is. We shall have to leave on the 13th to avoid the mad rush of provincials heading, lemming-like, to Paris for the festivities - it is, after all, the 200th anniversary of the Revolution (the official champagne of the Revolution is, by the way, Canard-Duchene, which is in fact not too had - I find it rather difficult to imagine hordes of sans-culottes quaffing the stuff whilst watching the guillotine come down, though) and of Parisians descending to the provinces to avoid the crowds. (Did you know, by the way, that if you had a two-bedroom flat in Paris you could lease it out for about 3000F per day during the celebrations? [Outdated: please refer to the penultimate paragraph.] The rumours have it that Mitterand is letting the ground floor of the Elysee Palace.) So we’ve stocked up on Michelin maps so as to be able to get there one way or another: could either take the autoroute most of the way, or we could travel - as usual - by the back roads or the nationales, where the petrol is cheaper and you don’t pay a toll. At least we won’t have to take the Nevada. Rather a good thing really, as we’ll be bringing Margo’s parents back here with us, and I don’t know how they’d take being slung into the back of the wagon and told to behave like sacks of chicken-feed. Probably not too well.


Once more unto the breach and all that, witha view to getting this finished and maybe even posted before winter rolls round again. You may have heard that we’ve been enjoying a bit of a heat-wave lately - or at least that’s what it seems like to the poor French, who get sweatily bedraggled at the mere thought of temperatures over 32°. Personally, i’m rather enjoying it, but Margo is starting to find it a bit much, something to do with carting all that extra weight about no doubt. In England it seems that it’s got so hot (only 27° actually, but that is I suppose hot for a land where “weather” is a euphemism for “lousy climate”) that lawyers have - gasp! - been permitted to remove their wigs in court! Can see the headlines in the tabloids now - “Q.C. Bares All! Bald Barrister Braves the Beak!”

Back onto the topic of the glorious revolution: if any of you want to come over for the festivities, it seems that there’s a nice little apartment going in Paris - only 500m from Place de la Concorde (could be Maxim’s, I suppose), 2brm, view (of Maxim’s rubbish bins, no doubt), 10,000 $US per week. I don’t ~ it was a misprint, and I assume that someone’s taken it - at least, the ad hasn’t appeared again. Alternatively, you could always doss down under a bridge or in the Metro in the best Parisian tradition. Under a bridge is probably the best bet: there won’t he any traffic noise to disturb you ‘cos they’re banning all traffic from central Paris for about a week. Which seems pretty stiff bikkies on those who actually live there - forced to ride on the Metro with their country bumpkin cousins reeking of garlic and Gauloises and getting poked in the ribs by 7-foot long telephoto lenses carried by the invading horde of all-too scrutable Orientals and having to listen to potato farmers from Idaho saying “isn’t he just such a typical Frenchman?”. Still, they could always go on holiday. Which is not, now that I think of it, such a good idea after all - one million or so Parisians haring
through the countryside like Stirling Moss on speed in search of a quiet spot away from it all in which to have a picnic lunch, scrap with the wife, abuse the kids and then dump all the garbage accumulated during the last Paris cleaners’ strike might be one million too many. Better that they stay in Paris and riot - burn down the Matignon or somesuch, “to the guillotine with tonton Mitterand”.

And that really seems to be about it for this little letter. Should anything really fascinating occur before the end of the day I’ll tack it on, but I somehow have my doubts that it’ll be necessary. Oh yes, I see that Ronald Reagan too has become an immortal (see N° 1, Acadèmie Franqaise, Rights appertaining to members thereof) and is thus entitled to wear a sword. Whilst in France, anyway. Good thing he’s not Gerald Ford, I suppose - ~ have managed to stab himself with the thing at the induction dinner. (Jacques Cousteau got inducted last night, by the way - his sword was a beautiful crystal-hilted affair of rampant dolphins and suchlike. Very nice indeed.) OK, bye now, and enjoy the ski season.

Trei’or & Margo