Wednesday, July 5, 1989

French Gazette Vol. 3 No. 3 5 Juillet 1989

Back once more, I’m afraid.

First of all, on the international snobbery front: for all those of you who thought that Auckland was inferior to Wellington - it’s true. According to an international survey on the price of urban life with New York as a benchmark (score of 100) Wellington came out as n° 41 with a score of 101, whereas poor old provincial Auckland only got a measly 93. Not really very good for its cosmopolitan image, I must say.

Time is flying by, and it seems like it’ll be only tomorrow that I start a well-deserved week’s holiday. It will in fact be tomorrow, as a week has gone by since I committed the first deathless paragraph to disk. Sorry about that. See if I can’t do a bit better this time. We’ve not really done a great deal: we watch ‘Allo ‘Allo most evenings on Canal+ (I’ve no idea how many real Frenchmen actually watch it, but I suppose some must), we went through to Lyon again on the weekend to finally pick up a second bookcase, been having marvellous thunderstorms, and Margo’s parents arrived in the country on Sunday. At a rough guess, these events are unrelated. Anyway, come Thursday morning we load up the car, get a baguette or somesuch to munch on the way, and head off into the back of beyond to attend this wedding affair. Shall let you know how that goes; it could be interesting.


OK, it was interesting. We headed off on Thursday morning according to plan (not counting a small stop in Chambèry to pick up another 5 gallons of mint sauce to cover emergencies) and had a pleasant little trip via the routes nationales up to Macon and thence onto the autoroute. (All done with an eye on avoiding Lyon like the plague.) We got there about 4 in the afternoon, I suppose: the only real problem we had was trying to find the correct road to get to Pesselière (as they’re all marked as being at goat-track level on our Michelin maps). Quite nice countryside if you happen to like that sort of thing - gently rolling hills as far as the eye can see, nothing but fields of rapeseed, sunflowers and wheat (or grain of some sort - I’m not an agronomist, you know) broken by the odd belt of trees and inconspicuous little villages. Personally I find that it palls on me very quickly, but there you are.

Herewith, cribbed from the guidebooks: Pesselière, description of: readers, for the use of -

“a charming pastoral village, close by the justly celebrated city of Auxerre (once a world centre of the leech trade, the invention of the hypodermic syringe has all but killed the old craft of leech-farming, but the impressive Halitosis Research Centre is still well worth a visit). The architectural styles to be found are diverse, many of the houses being in Gothic Lean-to, contrasting prettily with the Squat Norman church (now, due to an unfortunate accident, in ruins) and the asylum (admission 7F50, ask at the 3rd cottage on the left). The old cottage industries of sheeptickling and moneylending are still practised, and on market days (once every 17 years) the village square becomes once again the centre of activity as conmen, thugs and village idiots, some from as far away as Sougères (the neighbouring hamlet), come to buy and sell raw Taiwanese plastic and oil futures. The traditions of yesteryear are very much alive: even the casual tourist cannot help but be charmed by the way in which the inhabitants cheerfully try to misdirect him (a delightful relic dating back to the thirteenth century and the depredations of Albert the Wall-Eyed) while the local children remove his hubcaps, and the visitor with more time to spend will be amply repaid by the opportunity to experience a traditional ‘tarring and feathering’. Considerable wine is grown in the district, some of which will recall to the discriminating taster the subtleties of a fine Indonesian Sauternes, with its rich, manure-like ‘nose’ and firm body, leaving a lingering aftertaste rather like silage. A culinary speciality of the region is porridge -generally flavoured with trotters or tripe - which is also much in favour as a diuretic: for feast days and holidays, the pièce de résistance is likely to be a dish not unlike the celebrated haggis of Scotland, being a sheep’s stomach stuffed with porridge, garnished with chocolate eclairs, pigs’ feet and blood pudding, but eaten lukewarm, with custard.”

References in boldface are to the Michelin Pink Guide.

And I’d like to thank the editors of the Michelin Polkadotted Guide for permission to include that extract. Sorry about that, something just came of me all of a sudden like, and now I suppose I’ll have to go back and make a few retractions before I get slapped with a libel suit. Auxerre is in fact a charming city, and has never - to the best of my knowledge - been involved at any time in the shameful trafficking in leeches which has tarnished the reputations of so many. There.

All that apart, their little farmhouse isn’t bad at all. From the ground up: the ground is, in fact, about 95% pebbles, the rest being large bits of gravel: I can’t recall offhand whether that bit of France was once a glacial bed or just the sea-bottom, but something sure left a lot of stones floating around. This is actually quite handy, as the house is (was) built in the traditional manner around those parts: to wit, hunks of stone with mud to fill up the gaps. (Not just any old mud either - this stuff lasts for a couple of centuries at least.) When I say “house”, there are actually two bits of it: the house proper, which is a sort of two-storey strip with its back to the road, and then the old stables, separated from that by a courtyard. Ian and Marie are currently working to get some bedrooms into the house bit which was, when they bought it, pretty much an empty shell. (One of them’s on the second floor, where the old granary was, and is reached by an outside ladder. In a promising start to the weekend Ian, having put this ladder in place so that some of the lucky guests could clamber up to sleep, managed to put his feet through two of the bottom rungs. We slept downstairs.)

All passed very well, anyway. Four days of sunbathing, eating and drinking and generally idling about can’t be all bad. The actual marriage ceremony was quite good too. They don’t actually have a Maine in Pesselière - the place is too small - so we walked to the neighbouring village (which also has a tabac and a boulangerie). That was Marie’s idea - the walking hit. Off we trotted, 40 or 50 of us, some brave souls wearing suits, in the blissful 35° heat: happily, the dog was the only reported case of sunstroke. (Incidentally, this neighbouring village happened to he all of 1.4 km away and - I promise it’s true - one of the inhabitants of Pesselière said that yerss, he’d heard of it, bit he’d never been there. “They do say it be a big place, and a fair step away and all.”) Having got there we all crammed into a small chamber tastefully decorated in shades of municipal green and with a bust of Brigitte Bardot peering down from the wall (in case you didn’t know, she was - until a few years back - the lucky one chosen as the model for Marianne, the spirit of the Republic, in all official statues, busts, portraits etc. These days it’s Catherine Deneuve, I think.) where we placed bets on the likelihood of the mayor getting through the ceremony without touching a tranquiliser. The poor chap had to read the names, you see: “Vickridge” was bad enough, but when then confronted with “Renualdo” (Portuguese) and “Nematchoffski” (Russian, what else), these being the witnesses ... he did a very creditable job, in fact, and hardly stuttered once.Then we tottered back to the farmhouse for drinks (of course) and the speeches - a tn-lingual affair in French, English, Portuguese, with a mock-Chinese version just for laughs.

Shan’t bore you any more with details of exactly how and in what order we did nothing for the next day or so: suffice it to say that on Monday morning I decanted Margo, her mother, aunt, and cousin Julia off at the railway station in Auxerre before heading off with Leigh and Howard in the car. Ian suggested that I take the scenic route: down through the national park of the Morvan to Vézelay (yet another ancient city absolutely dripping with history, or so it seems) and thence to Avallon, where you can get back onto the autoroute. “Dad and bro will love it” he cried enthusiastically, and so off we went. It must be my personality or something: the pair of them slept until Vézelay (only woke up there to take on a hit of food) and slept again till Avallon. Never mind, I’m used to it by now. At any rate we got back here (side-stepped Lyon again, not that I’ve anything against the place mind you) in time to pick up Margo and Jeannie from the railway station.
Tuesday’s excitement was getting rid of Howard (not, perhaps, the most fortunate turn of phrase, I admit). He wanted to pick up a few souvenirs, so we went into the Carrefour supermarket so that the garage close by could twiddle with my carbunettors while we shopped, and he bought -

-           one (1) dual-porpoise coffe machine (espresso, filter, and two dolphins)
-            one(1)coffee grinder
-           1 (one) kitchen whizz
-           two (2) kilos of coffee
-           one (1) suitcase.

We managed to get him to the station a few minutes ahead of time, lugging two suitcases and carrying the coffee machine as hand baggage.

I think that you can probably get by without too much on the rest of the week: we trotted off to Grenoble, Annecy, Chambery and Geneva - went up to Jacques’ for the day on Sunday - just a nice, calm holiday. I would rather like to know, though, why it is always overcast and a tad grotty whenever I go to Geneva. Perhaps it’s always like that, and those photos showing the famous fountain playing against a clear blue sky are all meticulous Swiss fakes. (Did you know, by the way, that you’re supposed to stop your car at red lights in Switzerland? Something to do with saving petrol and reducing pollution. Seems a bit bizarre to me.)

And that’s about all the excitement we’ve had lately. Apart from baby-sitting a squirrel, that is. It belongs to one of the kids downstairs (Margo gives him English lessons) and as they’re all off on holiday he asked if we couldn’t look after the little thing. We let it out for a run around the lounge most evenings, which thrills it to bits. Its favorite hobby is hiding behind the bookcases and performing unspeakable acts with all the power leads, followed closely by hiding nuts down the back of one of the folders. Don’t know why, ‘cos it can’t get down the back and so its little cache is totally useless, but it’s happy to pass its time running into its cage, stuffing its mouth with grain and things, running back to the folder, dropping all this down the hack ... you get the picture. That, and leaping around the furniture ... it’s easily pleased. We’ve discovered that the best way to get it back into its cage is in fact to twiddle with its nosh: it’s rather defensive about this, and rushes back to defend it. In fact, it’s so possessive about food that it’ll nip you when you try to take its little bowl out to fill it up.

Oh, I see that David Lange’s resigned too. For “health reasons”. It made the 8 pm news over here. Was it expected? I must admit that it came as quite a surprise to us - mind you, we hadn’t heard that Roger Douglas had been re-elected to Cabinet, which may, I imagine, have had something to do with it. I gather that Palmer is your new P.M. (He’s not ours: we don’t have the right to vote any more. Been out of the country too long.)

While I remember, who watched the Bastille Day celebrations? Not us, I’m afraid. I understand that it was all a bit shambolic, but better than expected. Better than the French had expected, at any rate. They did go to some rather ridiculous lengths about security, though - what with the heads-of-state meeting at the same time - even so far as to put an anti-aircraft battery on the Tolbiac bridge (which is right in central Paris). A bit silly really - as Jacques said, if they ~ managed to shoot down an aircraft, where the hell did they expect it to crash? But apart from the usual complaints about the money spent on the whole affair (somewhere up around “untold”) the sole whiff of scandal to come out of it was the celebrated dinner, where Mitterand invited the heads of all the rich countries to dine under the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre, while all the second-raters had to fend for themselves in a two-star hotel somewhere (and no doubt lucky to get that). Raised a bit of a stink overnight, but nothing lasting - probably because 50% of the journalists and a good 90% of their readers were off on holiday.

What else is new? David (my brother, for those of you who’d forgotten) is probably coming over from England to see us at the beginning of September before heading back to NZ. Usual impeccable timing: he’ll arrive just in time to start folding nappies and things. We’ve lugged the spare bed down to the dungeon, so he’ll either have to sleep down there (not a good idea, as that’s where all the wine lives) or on the joke exploding sofa.) Be good to see him again, anyway. I have no idea what the French’ll make of him.


And as you can see, time has gone by. The squirrel has gone hack to its rightful owners (arrived back from holiday at 11:00am, kids popped up at 11:01am to check up on it), and a good thing too. We cleaned up after it’d left, you see, so I moved out the bookcases to hoover up its little grain stores and discovered that, as well as nicking bits of paper from Margo (in order to keep its food warm, I suppose) it ~ taken to nibbling on the odd power lead. That for the tape deck, in fact - it had munged its way through the insulation and left us with about 4 strands of wire. Good thing we didn’t feel like any music during the week. (It also ate one of the speaker leads - it must have a thing about two-core cable.) A cute little beast, but its taste in food leaves something to be desired.

We have our birth certificates and such-like tranlsated and covered with official stamps, so we’re all ready for the bureaucratic aspect of birth. The translator seems to he a reasonable chap: he wrote a covering note saying that if we had any hassles wc should get in touch with him to see if he couldn’t help. We probably won’t (cross fingers) but I’ll keep his phone number handy for a while OK, time to go and get something to eat, I think. Have a drink while you’re waiting.

All fed and watered, I hope? The weather is still fine (and hot - too hot still for poor little Margo) which I know is getting rather boring (foggy and wet where you are, is it?) but there you are, it is summer after all. I’m actually looking forward to September - it’s normally a little cooler, although still fine, and best of all there are very few tourists/Parisians around. Who knows - we might even get to go on holiday. Perhaps - if possible - go across Toulouse way, where Josette and Pascal (the people who lived in the apartment beneath us) are now living, and visit them.

In the news at the moment is the general grumbling of the gendarmes, who are muttering rude things about too much work, no overtime pay, not enough holidays etc - not content in fact with just muttering they’ve started sending letters to the big papers and proposing - not a strike, because that’d be illegal - but a campaign of “civil civility”, let’s say - flagging down motorists to warn them where the speed traps are and things like that. As the poor things -ire actually part ol’ the army (you can elect to do your military service in the Gendarmerie, although ii you asked to they’d probably put you into the Presidential Ballet Corps by mistake) it’s the Minister of Defence who’s supposed to be dealing with it, and he doesn’t seem at all impressed. And of course Rocard, the prime minister, is in Australia at the moment - a meeting which the French are anxious to portray as something of a love-feast on both sides. Seems that after a few years of somewhat strained relations (nuclear testing, cowboy tactics in New Caledonia and general club-footedness in the Pacific basin) they’re trying to be liked again. Just so long as Rocard doesn’t get kidnapped by a kangaroo or half-eaten by a dingo on the other hand, that might just boost Australia’s image over here. (Just kidding, he’s actually reasonably popular in France: somewhat surprising wher you consider that he looks a bit like a constipated ventriloquist’s dummy, but there you are, they’re a strange lot.)

And, of course, at Chambèry they’re gearing up for the world cycling championships. The really big day is the 24th of this month - I think - but they’ve already started closing off streets for the qualifying time trials and suchlike. The roads are thus full of sweaty-loOking people, bum-up and head-down, wobbling over the road for all they’re worth. It’d be quite funny if it weren’t for the fact that we’re now obliged to stop every 5km or so to scrape another crumpled hike off the underside of the car.

Work is going quietly along: it’s what they call “the hole”, being as half the staff and virtually all the clients are off on holiday. Consequently I find myself just pottering about doing this and that:
putting the finishing touches on some more stuff for Merlin-Germ (a rather pointless little piece of development work, if you ask me, but no-one did and they’re happy to pay, so who cares), nailing down the odd little bug or two that I’ve not had the time or inclination to locate during the past year, mulling over the design for a little network, and of course writing this lot. While I remember, the last time my brother wrote he mentioned something about having heard that some French company had been looking at buying Allflex International - is there anyone out there who can confirm or deny this rumour? Jacques would really like to know (and there’s no point in asking Aliflex France - they probably wouldn’t know themselves, and certainly wouldn’t tell).

Well, it’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon and I’m just thinking vaguely about going down to the bank, getting some cash, and then heading off home to get ready for yet another idle weekend, hut before I do that I’d like to just finish this off and that way there’s a chance that we’ll get it posted before September rolls around. We’ve an anniversary coming up too, by the way: on August 23rd it’ll be the second anniversary of our (official) entry into France. Congratulations and bank drafts may be sent to the usual address, care of Otto. I have to take care of changing our bank accounts into real French ones (instead of foreigners’ accounts), which probably means that we’ll be subject to the same limits as the poor French (no transfers exceeding 2000F out of the country, have to be polite to bank managers ... at least until 1992, anyway). I may look at forgetting to do that at the Credit Lyonnais -after all, it’s only the Credit Agricole who told me that I’d have to.

OK, that’s it. If by some stroke of fate the sprog drops before we do get around to sending these I’ll scrawl size, sex, and distinguishing marks (“looks more or less like a prune, has something that could be described as a nose in the middle of what one can only assume to be its face, full complement of limbs and lungs apparently in working order”) somewhere: if not, expect a carrier pigeon. Bye.