Thursday, November 1, 1990

French Gazette Vol. 4 No. 5 1er Novembre 1990

Back again, folks

And with any luck, we’ll get this finished and sent off for Christmas. At least we’ve started off with good intentions. In the news lately: the liberation of the French hostages in Iraq (for once, everyone seems to believe Mitterand et al when they say “cross our hearts and hope to die, we really didn’t do a deal, honestly”), the discovery of plutonium waste in the rubbish tip of a small town near Paris, and a bit of muck-raking in the Renseignements Generaux, the equivalent of the Special Branch (implicated in the disappearance and death of a liberal pastor and, by the confession of one of the officers concerned, in attempts to compromise and then blackmail the head of Antenne 2 and FR3, these being two TV chains).

What hasn’t been in the news lately: the results of the New Zealand elections, which I’m given to understand took place on or about (as the rozzers say) the 27th of last month. Have to wait until The Economist arrives this weekend: they should have something on the affair.

News has reached us of a revival of Odin worship in some Scandinavian countries. Rather unfortunately, far from being the swashbuckling and unwashed heroes of yore, the current lot are meticulously clean and mostly vegetarian, which renders the traditional blood sacrifices somewhat impractical, or at least rather immoral. So what they do - and I am not making this up, I promise - is sacrifice ... a water-melon. God alone knows what they do instead of raping and pillaging.

Bit of a let-down, isn’t it? There’s also the Italian magic service - kind of Dial-A-Witch. A full range of services is available, all the way from the cure or causing of warts to the summoning of spirits from the vasty deep and healing gall-bladder afflictions. Most major credit cards are accepted.

Be that as it may, today is All Saints and thus a holiday, which is why I’m at home writing this instead of sitting at my desk pretending to be productive: it being Thursday as well, tomorrow’s also a holiday (for us at least) resulting in a nice four-day weekend. In which to enjoy the grotty weather. Mustn’t complain, there’ve been four or five decent snowfalls (all above 2000m, of course, which kind of leaves a bit lacking, but never mind): about average for the season if you ignore the last few years, two ski stations are already open and if this keeps us we’ll have a snowy (and extremely cold) Christmas. ‘Cos it’s already a bit on the chilly department: time to think about getting out the leather gloves, dusting off the overcoat, things like that.

It’s now Friday. No events of great import to the world (viz, stars appearing at some cardinal point or another, pigs flying, politicians telling the truth etc), but it’s been a reasonably good Friday anyway, as such days go, improved by my not having to go to work. On the down-side, Malyon decided that it’d be a really good idea to get up at 6:45 this morning, and it was my turn to get up with her. Then she decided that it would be an even better idea if I played with her, and as the only thing I feel like playing with at that hour is thoughts of mass murder and other acts generally considered sociably unacceptable (except in Colombia or Miami) this went down like a ton of toxic waste. Never mind, she’s still alive, and both of us can count the morning as a learning experience (as they used to say in Social Work papers).

New this week: King Hassan of Morocco is not impressed with France. Not only did a French author have the ill manners to write a little (big) book about human rights abuses in this delightful country, but the French government failed to have him imprisoned for thirty years or until bits of him get bored and start falling off (this is perfectly normal, it happens every day to political detainees in Morocco): to top this off, Danielle Mitterand, wife of the French president of the same name and active in promoting the more fundamental human rights (access to a flush toilet, not having your head or other parts cut off for saying you don’t like the rough scratchy brand of loo-paper in prison, having finger-nails still attached - even if only loosely - to your fingers) has publicly stated that things could do with improvement over there, and has not been publicly reprimanded by her husband.
All this apparently makes the king feel sad, and just to show how sad he feels he’s cancelled what was to have been a year-long extravaganza in France, a celebration of Moroccan art and culture planned (and paid for) by Jack Lang, Minister of Kulcha. Now not only is King Hassan sad, but he’s hurt poor Jack’s feelings as well, and those of the sizeable French Moroccan community, who’d rather hoped that the affair might have helped the cause of mutual tolerance and understanding (between them and the “French” French, whatever they may be).

I mentioned that J-F Quesnel, my esteemed boss, was getting married to a Romanian, didn’t I? Never mind, according to reliable eyewitness testimony, the deed has been done, the wotsit spliced, and the halter hitched. Now he just has to be able to get her back into the country. (Angry note: this filthy keyboard is hardly a touch-typist’s dream. Please excuse any letters of the alphabet you may find absent without leave, they have excellent reasons.) It appears that the only cloud on the ceremony came from the absence of a large percentage of the wedding party (of French origin) who got stuck, no fault of theirs, in Yugoslavia (or Hungary, I can’t for the life of me remember which) due to a truckies’ strike.

And for the time being, that’s about all the news that’s fit to print. (Apart from the sad deception today when I thought that I’d maybe found filo pastry in a supermarket, only to discover on arriving home that, whatever it may have been, it most closely resembled spring roll wrappers: not to worry, tasted good either way.) Until tomorrow then, or perhaps a bit later: see whether anything interesting happens.


Somehow I get the strange impression that the French “intelligence services” are a pack of cretinous cowboys. (Someone once remarked that the phrase itself was an oxymoron, and I can’t really argue with that.) First of all the DST and the French Watergate (they tried to bug the offices of La Canard Enchainé, the satirical weekly), then the business of the real fake passports (they were official fakes), then the DGSE and Rainbow Warrior, followed by the affair of Renseignements Generaux, and now the Army intelligence/reconaissance unit that managed to get itself lost - by more than 50km - in the Arabian desert and then got itself captured by Iraqi troops, who promptly let them go again. I doubt that anyone actually believes that they really got lost (the newsreaders pretend to believe it, but then they’re paid to, aren’t they) but getting captured smacks of gross carelessness.

I gather that Jim “Potatohead” Bolger has the dubious honour of becoming New Zealand’s fourth PM in the space of one year, congratulations Jim, nice landslide. Is Mike Moore’s head still attached to his shoulders, or has the Labour Party caucus been and gone? Let us know from time to time how things are getting on, won’t you - it’s nice to know these things, even if we’re not allowed to vote anymore.

News has also reached us of a new French technical innovation in shipbuilding: you only build the front half of a ship - in this case, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. You’ve heard of the “pocket battleship”, well this is the next step on the road to making the things truly portable. Some minor technical problems to resolve - like getting them to actually float - but let it not be said that the inexorable march of French technology has ever stumbled over little details. (Actually, this is not entirely fair. Due to defence budget cuts, the Navy decided to only build half: in a few years they’ll crack the piggy-bank and have a go at the next half, and if there’s any money left over they’ll try to stick the two together.)


-    Back once more and this time, good news in the war against cockroaches. It seems that New Yorkers have taken to buying geckos and liberating them in their apartments, as the little beasties apparently have an almost insatiable appetite for crunchy insect parts. Works well, the only problem is that they do tend to bark a bit. “Scurry scurry bark bark crunch crunch” is the new night sound, beats listening to the Feline Top 50 I suppose.
Canal+ has a new show on Saturday nights, “Les Nuls” (an odd surname, but that’s the French all over) which is a collection of sketches, fake ads and news items, the ritual humiliation of a guest, and the odd bit of surprisingly good music (the other week they had Guesch Patti, of whom many of you won’t have heard, but never mind that just now). F’rinstance, “Count the costs ... how many quasi-chickens tortured, how many vegetables mutilated ... give generously to the Food Protection Society”. I mention this ‘cos my brother sent me an article on French television entitled “I Was a Stringer for Clive James”, the basic (and basically correct) premise of which was that it is, in fact, totally null. (Not entirely true. There are some shows - “Wheel of Fortune” and anything with Patrick Sabatier in it - which are actively and aggressively bad, and others - like “Santa Barbara”, “West Coast” and other American soapies - which are merely passive rubbish. Shows like “The Weekly Lotto Draw” are peculiarly French, and stand above - or below - all comment.)

We finally cracked last weekend and went out to buy a CD player, now that the things are down to halfway reasonable prices. It was quite painless once I’d found a sales-thing authorised to sell me one. It even plugged into the faithful old Rait amplifier without any trouble, worked first go. Now all we have to do is get some discs. For classical music, this is not too difficult: Carrefour sells them at about 10F (that’s three dollars last time I looked) each, and good quality too. This is due partly, I suppose, to the fact that Bach, Albinoni et al are not around to claim royalties, and partly to the fact that lots of the recordings are done by Eastern European orchestras. Like, the Zagreb Symphonia. Not bad, though. Discs of French “variety” (a word which covers a multitude of gins, basically means anything that’s neither classical nor jazz) music (another gin-coverer, includes things by Patrick Sabatier and Johnny Hallyday) come in varying prices (contrary to some malicious rumours, they do not pay you to take Charles Aznavour recordings) whilst for most of what interests us you’re looking at 100F to 150F a pop.

This is not a particularly easy letter to write, as Malyon is sitting next to me blowing bubbles through her yoghurt. This would be nicer if it happened to be in a yoghurt tub, but unfortunately it’s in her mouth. Or was, mostly. Charming little creature.

While I remember, another item to add to the list of current French scandals: the affair of the five Lyonnais cops (from their equivalent of the Flying Squad) who have been indicted for armed robbery, holding up Brinks vans, and murder, amongst other things. And speaking of cops, it appears that for the European Security Conference about to start in Paris they’ve not only blocked off the whole quartier to all except the iinhabitants (and they’re only allowed in under protest, as it were) but they’ve got more police on the ground than there are common-or-garden civilians.

Oh yeah, the Beaujolais Nouveau is out. Purplish, fruity, slips down easily down the throat - put shortly, much like last year’s Beaujolais Nouveau - or most non-Nouveau Beaujolais, come to that. It’s a hit wasted in the Northern hemisphere, though, it being such an excellent summery sort of wine. It’s still nice, don’t get me wrong - it’s just that I personally prefer to drink it after May.

While we’re on the subject of drinking, there’s an interesting French habit that you may not have come across, probably related to their mania for healthy eating (pommes frites, carrots drowned in butter, meat in Madeira sauce, all that sort of thing), is the downing - in cold blood - of a tisane. In its pure form this is - or can be - relatively innocuous, being nothing more repugnant than a herbal infusion (dandelion leaves, persimmon flowers, potato peelings, stuff like that). Typically, they carry things too far. Like Evelyn the secretary, who confesses cheerily to drinking - for breakfast, would you believe - an artichoke tisane. Supposed to be good for your throat, I understand. (As it happens, I misunderstood. I have since had it on excellent authority that it promotes the circulation of the blood and helps in cases of rheumatism. I sometimes wonder whether the rheumatism might not be preferable.)


It’s snowed in Arbin - we woke up one morning to find the world covered in white stuff. This is getting pretty low, like down around 400m. At the moment it’s retreated a bit, though, up to about the 800m mark. Morning temperatures already down below zero, and it doesn’t get much higher in the afternoons either: it is Winter. (Out with the fur-lined boots, the gloves, the woolly hat and the interesting knitted undergarments.) How’s it with you? - shorts and barbies on the patio, I suppose.

Considerably later ... like December 21 ... we’ve had more snow. More so far than fell in both the two preceding winters put together, in fact. Nice powder, the stuff that doesn’t stick together and go all lumpy, got absolutely no traction when you try to drive on it. Consequently, quite a number of little accidents on the roads - people unable to stop at intersections, cars not wanting to take corners, things like that. Today, though, it’s fine and sunny, and the calm is punctuated by the “Plit! Plit! Squdge!” of snow slowly melting and plopping onto the ground from a great height. They hope for a bit more for Christmas, and it would be rather nice.

We’ve just about got things sorted out for the bathroom (repairs of, flood damage, following from). The insurance company for the apartment sent me a letter asking me to ask my insurance company to pay up (I thought we’d already been through that with the syndic, but never mind): when I called up they assured me that it was a convention amongst the insurance companies that, in cases of this sort, it’s the poor sod who rents the apartment whose insurance pays for repairs - it’s supposed to speed up claims handling. I couldn’t help but laugh - if it takes two years for them to get around to thinking about maybe doing something when things are going well, you probably wouldn’t want to hold your breath waiting if they were planning on dragging their feet. (Actually, I suspect that that’s what they’ve done - it seems that the enquiry pinned the blame on the mayor, who lives, as you’ll recall, in the apartment above us, and who had some unauthorised modifications made to his balcony which resulted in its no longer being as leak-proof as it should be. He doesn’t want to pay, the apartment insurance doesn’t want to pay, and they’re trying to push it off onto someone else. That’s the impression I get, anyway.) Be that as it may, the syndic has apparently authorised the start of repair work, and the painter should pop in Real Soon Now. Like, sometime next year. (Madame Magnin is also planning on having him fill, while he’s around, some of the grosser holes left in the walls by the previous occupants, who apparently had a thing for hammer-action electric drills.)

And it’s time, once again, for the seasonal moans about How Difficult it is to Get Any Shopping Done, what with Everybody Milling Around and Other Peoples’ Spotty Children Screaming and Having Fits, so here goes. It’s actually extremely difficult to get any shopping done, what with hordes of shocking people milling aimlessly around in the streets like lemmings (I think) and their appalling spotty children screaming and generally perfecting their impressions of grand mal epilepsy. Most inconsiderate, there ought to be a law. And that’s just in the streets of Chamhèry, it’s total mayhem in the aisles of Carrefour, especially as various extended families take advantage of their inalienable right to hold intimate conversations in the middle of the sugar, coffee and rubber goods aisle, thereby totally blocking access to the smoked haddock chunks. They’re not too keen on being interrupted, either. Then you discover that the group in - front of you at the express check-out (8 items or less, please) have got at least fifty in their shopping trolley, from 49 of which their children have ripped the prices, they want to pay with an expired credit card ‘cos they’ve run out of cash and they only speak Portuguese. Then the check-out closes, and it’s not until you manage to get to the head of the queue at the next one that you find out that someone’s little girl has dribbled a mix of ice-cream and Coke over one suede shoe, and you’ve managed to stick the other one into the all too mortal remains of a McDonald’s hamburger.

And that, children, is why we always have a Jumbo pack of Valium and a pump-action shotgun in the car glovebox. (Which has the same name in French, by the way - "la boite a gants”. Isn’t that fascinating?)

Anyway, it’s the last working day before Christmas and I’m busily winding down, to such good effect that I really can’t be bothered writing too much more just at the moment. So I’ll copy it across to the little Compaq and take that home tonight, and we’ll see if we can’t get this wrapped up this weekend. (With a bit of luck I’ll also be able to get started on some work for Jacques, which is going to pay for getting the car engine refurbished.)

And here I find myself, with a bit of spare time on my hands, at the tag-end of Christmas day. Saturday was hectic as usual, dashing about Chambèry doing our last-minute Christmas shopping (namely, presents for one another), picking up this, that and the other, usual story at year’s-end. Then on Sunday Isabel rang to see if we wanted to go skiing up at La Feclaz, not too far above where they live. Seems that they had some English friends of Steve’s staying, and the males were scheduled for the morning’s skiing, ladies and guests in the afternoon. Margo decided to stay and do the housework (shame, it was a beautiful day) but I said yep, and duly turned up before 1 pm. Steve and Andy turned up just before 2, and by this point Isabel and Rose had started to seethe a bit. Rather a lot in fact, especially as it had started to cloud over a bit by then. I hung around a bit before heading up myself, sheerly out of male solidarity, you understand, I actually planned on borrowing a luge and taking Malyon up for some sledding, but theirs is a strictly one-child affair (made to he towed by some long-suffering parent, often but not exclusively the father - cries of “Go on Dad! Be -a reindeer!”) so that one went out the window, and I didn’t really have the heart to dump Malyon on them and head up on my lonesome. Two three-year olds and two of 8 months already seemed a bit too much for them, adding Malyon might have been just a bit too much. So I hung around and tried to improve the atmosphere by singing Improving Songs (as recommended in the Scout Manual), but things were still strained when I left. (Not helped by the fact that no-one had thought to take the leg of lamb, destined for dinner that night, out of the freezer in the morning.)

Monday night Jacques brought round a dozen oysters for Margo to eat, which she promptly did. It appears that Malyon has inherited my allergy to these otherwise charming shellfish, and I can only assume that some of the juice found its way onto the chopping board and thence into the salad we had with dinner, this being the only way I can explain the rather convincing demonstration that the said allergy is still going strong in me. Rather a shame, ‘cos that meant two of us rather under the weather when we went out today for lunch with Sue and Serge. A great shame, in fact, as I was unable to do justice to a lovely meal. Life is tragic, at least now I know to steam-clean the kitchen when it’s been within spitting distance of an oyster.

And that was our Christmas. Malyon was happy, Santa brought her heaps of books, which she loves (ranks up there with her favorite soft toy - Papatte, a floppy leopard, if anyone’s interested - and banging on a computer keyboard - and pay no attention to the slanders of my co-workers, who claim that her keyboard style closely resembles mine) and insisted on reading straight away. Twice through. Great. Be that as it may, here’s wishing a merry, although belated Christmas to all and sundry, and a happy, if equally tardy, New Year. Ciao!

Trei’or, Margo and Malyon

PS: Just for a change, it’s started raining now, which means that instead of Zippy the snow-man down in the garden we now have Zippy the snow-pinhead.

Tuesday, August 21, 1990

French Gazette Vol. 4 No.4 21 Aout 1990

Hello again, everyone.

What’s the price of petrol being doing lately? Keeps rising like anything over here: latest was 6 francs per litre, and it’ll be higher tomorrow. It’s almost enough to make you think about buying a diesel. Incidentally, did the rumours about the perfidious French reach you? In case they didn’t, here goes for a quick resumé. During the first week or so of the affair, the French government denied that there were any French citizens in either Kuwait or Iraq and, whilst always claiming to be solidly with the EEC viewpoint (but against sanctions), seemed to be acting their usual shifty selves: an aircraft carrier was sent to the Gulf, but in such a way that it’d take two weeks to get there, and it seemed that it’d only be carrying transport helicopters. Suddenly a few feet of backbone crawl into Mitterand’s spine: Iraq is roundly condemned for hostage-taking and it transpires that the aircraft carrier is in fact carrying attack copters and going full steam. What happened? If you can believe the word of certain diplomats in the region, at about the time of this volte-face the French negotiations with Iraq, carried out through the PLO, for the release of all French citizens (in exchange for something or other, no doubt) fell through. No-one knows, but it’s interesting, anyway.

We’ve had a reasonably busy time: Jill and John Julian spent a few days with us on their way to a conference in Florence, and then Ian and Marie passed through on their way back from Austria. My faith in human nature has been restored: they managed to take a plate with them when they left this time. They must have had a great time: it rained almost solidly in Austria while they were there, and Marie had a cold. She claimed it was Margo’s fault, due to leaving the windows open and the resultant draughts. Their departure was as disorganised as usual: the Friday Ian won a gold piece at Carrefour, and so he had to go in on Saturday morning to pick it up. They planned on leaving at 11am to be in Valence at 1pm to see some of Marie’s family, so off Ian went at 9am to pick up his coin. He arrived back at about 10:50 (Marie was gently fuming by this time), had a coffee and set about packing the car. About 11:30 they went down to the car for the last time, quarter of an hour later they were still parked down below, trying to work out where they’d put the oil so that they could top up their thirsty Peugot. I somehow have my doubts that they arrived on time at Valence.

News has come in of a new leap forward for medical science: American researchers think that they’ve isolated one of the chemicals in human sweat that causes under-arm odour. (And they wonder why they’re falling behind the Japanese.) It appears that the beastly little chap has in fact been isolated before: as the article puts it, “about 20 years ago it was thought to play a rOle in schizophrenia, but this research was discredited when it was discovered in the bloodstreams of perfectly normal non-schizophrenics: at the time, no-one thought to try to link it with body odour.” A perfectly understandable lapse, in my opinion.


One month later, isn’t it? Little Frog has just had her first birthday party, lucky thing. She endured the whole thing very stolidly, but she wouldn’t eat her nice cake. Anyway, she’s up and walking about happily now - still needs a hit of a hand to get over obstacles (like the edge of the carpet) but other than that she has no problems. She also goes off to the halte garderie - a sort of creche affair - a few times a week: gives Margo a chance to have some peace and quiet for an hour or so in the afternoons. Doesn’t seem to worry Malyon being left with strange people, which quite surprised Margo.

That being a Saturday, the next day we went off to another birthday party at a place called St Hilaire du Touvet, the rationale for this being that it was the annual hang-gliding and parachuting festival. (Plus it was the day appointed for Rémi’s birthday party, he being a young lad of three years, and you don’t mess around with someone like that.) Sunday being the last day, there was a great deal of silliness going on. Someone took off disguised as a dinosaur, yet another as a cherry tomato. (At least, I think that’s what it was. It was small, round and red, anyway.) Then they got on to the novelty items: parachuting off disguised as a snow-plough, or abed, or sitting in a bath ... the sort of person that wants to jump off cliffs is warped to begin with, stick him in company with like-minded wombats and he is likely to become dangerous. Just grin a lot (but not so much as to appear alarming), and back slowly away.

On the way back down we met - or saw, at least - Mr Reaper (first name Grim). He seems to have come down in the world: he still has the scythe slung over one shoulder, but he’s been reduced to riding a beaten-up bike and, judging by the string of onions round his neck, has taken up market gardening to try to make ends meet.

Still waiting for our nice shiny new cartes de séjour, too. I went in to ask a short while ago: Margo definitely has the right to work, which is nice, and our dossiers were only sent off to Paris on July 12, so I suppose that it’s reasonable that they have not yet come back. No problem, we’ve just had to go off and ask for an extension of our extensions, usual story. (In Germany, it seems that you can go on doing that for about seven years before they find out that you’re on a tourist visa -assuming that you have a visa, that is.) This time at the Prefecture they directed me to the infamous Room 8 (General Foreigners), from whence I was redirected to Room 11 (Algerians & Students) who re-redirected me to Room 8 (again) whose inhabitants, on learning that it was about a 10-year carte, admitted to this being their responsibility, and answered my questions. (It seemed rather a shame to disturb them, really - they looked to be having such fun when I walked in, certainly didn’t seem to be overloaded in the work department.)

Oddly enough, my boss started asking me about the problems of getting into France - work permits, all that sort of thing - for a Romanian woman, he said. Married to a Frenchman, he said. It still didn’t click. It appears that Jean-François Quesnel, a man I’d have sworn to be a confirmed bachelor, is in the throes of organising himself to get married. “I”d never have thought him an amorous man” said Margo, and it’s true enough: romantic possibly (given an extremely active imagination, and even with that Margo was tempted to deny the possibility), but I find it difficult to imagine him getting down to. the sweaty realities, off with the clothes and on with the heavy breathing. And there’d always be the temptation to laugh ever so slightly at his little pot tummy. (Whilst he was away arranging all this last week - unbeknownst to us, of course - Evelyn brought croissants along for our morning tea. I disgraced myself by eating two - one was mine, the other was for Valerie, I can only say that she really should have turned up earlier for work and anyway I’m a sucker for proper croissants. Beware of imitations: there are “croissants” and then there are “croissants au beurre”, which are the real thing, accept no other. Anyway, someone - and it was wasn't me - asked why she didn’t do this more often - “so that the boss doesn’t get any tubbier”, she replied.)

Come the start of October, I have to take a few weeks holiday so that we can go off to Pesselière to see Ian and Marie off to New Zealand. Thought we’d profit from this to hang a left at Auxerre toward Orleans, and from there go down the Loire valley to Tours, looking at various chateaux en route (I’m lead to understand that there are one or two worth a visit down that way). The main problem is finding out where to stay. I’d thought - innocently enough - of going into the nearest bookshop to pick up a copy of a guide to the auberges (a word for which there is not really ~a proper translation, “inn” will probably have to do) but discovered that I can’t do that just now. Yes folks, last years edition has vanished from the shelves, and the 1991 edition will not he in until October this year (at the earliest). This is slightly annoying. Never mind, we’ll just have to trust to luck. (Ian suggested we go camping. Bah humbug.)

The end of summer’s arrived - not officially, you understand, but quite definitely anyway. (Not the case. It now being September 23, it is, according to the competent Ministry, Autumn.) It has rained. And rained. Then it rained some more, as if to make up for the waterless summer. Not only has it rained, in fact, but it has also snowed. Not a lot, but snow is snow. I imagine that the farmers will be happy, but I have my doubts as to the vignerons. Due to the nice hot weather they’d all been planning on a really early harvest, but with this weather the poor little grapes will have become so waterlogged that they’ll just have to wait. And hope that they don’t split. However, it’s all cleared up nicely now. Just taking advantage of the fact that I’ve absolutely nothing to do at the moment to type up a bit more of this before we head off. The rest of the place is a hive of activity: Renaud is busy packing up all the stuff to go down to Toulouse on Monday, when he has a system to install, and most everyone else is hanging around with their heads and other appendages buried in the obscene innards of test gear for washing machine controllers. My responsibility there was the little steam-powered network that connects all the different bits of test gear together, and as that works and nobody has enough time to think up anything else for me to do, I’m idle. So what? you ask, what’s new? Not a lot, I must admit.

16/ 10/ 90

Back again, all happy clean and smooth. We have our nice shiny new cartes de séjour - not, let it be said, without one last wheezing effort (a successful one) by the administration to get as far up my nose as possible. For my card I was asked to supply fiscal stamps to the tune of 224F, these to be stuck on my card to show I’d paid. (Mango didn’t have to do this, I don’t know why - she has the same type of card as me, now. Anyway.) You can’t just give them the money and get a receipt or a nice impressive-looking stamp, this is too simple: you have to join a queue of smelly men in raincoats holding suspicious-looking parcels in plain brown wrappers, buy these silly stamps and then hand them over with your whatever it may be - drivers licence, whatever - the person to whom you have handed them then licks them and sticks them on your whatever, which thus becomes Official. All this means that you have to queue at least twice, often in the same office - buy your stamps from one secretary, and hand them over to the one at the next desk (assuming that you get to the head of the queue before they close for lunch). If they could only think of a guaranteed way to make you stand in at least five queues they’d be over the moon.

This is not too much of a problem: it did annoy me, though, that for the first time in three years they complained that the stamps I’d handed over weren’t the right type, would I change them please for ones with “Travailleur Etranger” written all over them. Even that’s not too bad: what really gets my goat is that, once having bought these blasted fiscal stamps, there’s virtually no way of cashing them in if you discover you don’t need them. Grrr! (Postscript - I actually handed mine over to the local rates/tax office, who managed to sell the things for me, so it didn’t actually turn out too badly, I suppose.) On a merrier note, we left here the 1st October and arrived at Pesselière after a rather squealy (thanks to Malyon) trip on the good old RN6. Only real problem was getting into the house -the key was with the neighbours, but they didn’t respond to our knocking. Finally asked a native what to do, answer’s quite simple - don’t bother with the door, just walk in, go down to the other end of the house, pop your head in the kitchen and say hello. Easy.

A little-known fact to put into your diaries (might crop up in Trivial Pursuit, you never know): in Auxerre there is a suburb which goes by the delightful name of “Rat’s Foot Enterprise Zone”. Nice, hmm? We know this because we criss-crossed it looking for what I suspect is a completely mythical LeClerc supermarket. Be that as it may, Ian, Marie and Elise arrived Wednesday night. Supposed to be in the afternoon, but Marie’s mother, when we rang, was a little less sanguine - around 11 pm was her guess. In the event it was just as we were sitting down to dinner, and they ate all our chicken.

Thursday we decided to get out of the way and went off to visit Vezelay, a town which is in pretty much the same state as its builders left it, some time in the Middle Ages. (Flush toilets apart.) It has rather a grand abbey, and lots of craft shops (rare in France). From there we went down to a litle hamlet called St. Père, which has a much smaller but very nice Gothic (I think) church which they’re in the process of restoring (the last repairs having been carried out in the 1800’s by the indefatigable Viollet-le-Duc) and, a few kilometres further on, Les Fontaines Salées: the site, as usual where there’s smelly water, of Roman baths. Didier arrived that night, too. We could tell this because, owing to a misunderstanding (either he thought it was a butter stockpile, or he thought be was to be sleeping there), he flung open the door to our room about midnight.
Saturday, of course, was the party. I stuffed a sheep, for the first time in my life, spit-roast sheep being on the menu. The stuffing was not, let’s face it, a great success - a rather dismal failure, in fact. On the other hand, Marie’s coucous were somewhat rate themselves, so I wasn’t alone. The sheep itself was fine, though. The next day was a bit rough - leftover champagne for breakfast.

Monday we managed to pack the car and get on the road as far as Auxerre, where a money machine ate my bankcard thanks, once again, to the Credit Lyonnais. I admit we set them a difficult problem, going in just before we left to change our accounts from “Foreign, in French francs” to the “Standard French-person” model, and I did ask them to make sure not to invalidate our bankcards before the end of the month, so I suppose it’s our own fault that they closed our accounts and cancelled the cards the very next day. “Efficiency” and “customer service” are words not much used in French banking circles. Anyway, we then wasted a couple of hours running round Auxerre trying to find a bank branch which was open (most of France being closed on Mondays, this is not a trivial task.) Finally headed off into the sunset in search of the Loire valley - surprised to see a deer calmly watching us from the roadside as we drove through the forest of Chambord. A perfect end to the day as Frog threw her dinner over mine host at the hotel.

The next morning we got to the chateau of Chambord itself. Very impressive, very big, very nice - but the heating bills must be ridiculous, and reroofing would be a hell of a job. Thanks to Francois I and his wife Anne of Brittany, salamanders and ermine figure prominently in the decor (in point of fact, this is true of most of the chateaux on the Loire). Then, to everyone’s relief, we got to Blois and found a laundromat (there is no washing machine at Pesselière). It is an interesting fact that when you go on holiday the boot of your car actually gets smaller and smaller, and everything you’ve packed increases in volume by a factor of up to 10% (in cases where the boot is small to begin with), which helps to explain why, when you’ve set out with all the luggage packed neatly and a few cubic feet to spare, you always arrive home with the back seat awash in odd socks, grubby sheets and biscuit packets. Blois is a nice town, with its very own chateau which has a famous staircase erected by, you guessed it, Franqois I - more salamanders. We left Blois and headed past Chaumont-surLoire (no salamanders, it’s a proper mediaeval castle) and finally found a chambre d’hote for the night.

Next day, time to do Amboise, which happens to be the property of the Count of Paris, heriditary pretender to the (nonexistent) throne of France. One of the outstanding features of this place (apart, of course, from the usual salamanders) is the main stairway, designed for horses. Practical hint: should ever you visit the place, don’t forget to duck when going through doorways (unlike one of the Charleses, who neglected this elementary precaution and was, as a result, trepanned by the lintel). Then we thought we’d try to get down to Ussé, which is - supposedly - the chateau which inspired Sleeping Beauty. We made the mistake of going into Tours (a large city which has all of two signposts, as far as I could tell) and consequently wound up on the wrong side of the Loire. Eventually managed to get back on the right side and found the place: unfortunately, a tour is expensive and we’d have wound up going through with a gaggle of schoolkids, which didn’t really appeal. So we went to Azay-le-Rideau instead, which is rather nice and possesses the distinction of being only the second chateau to he built with the staircase inside.

Finally, on Thursday we made it to Chenonceaux, which is perhaps the loveliest of the lot (shame about the low water-level, though) and then a nice relaxing 10-hour drive home to empty out the mailbox. Where we discovered that, two years on, The Story Continues ... the story of our ceiling, that is. You may remember that, about two years ago, I wrote of the interesting sensation to be had sitting on the loo with water dripping on you from the light fixture overhead. You may also remember that I’ve written precious little about that since, and you may have assumed that this meant that all was well. Wrong! Two years now the paint has been chipping off the ceiling in the bathroom as a result of the soaking it got, and some of the plaster around the shower is turning to mush, and the syndic (who is, in theory, responsible for such things) still has not got off his fat rude parts to do anything about it. Until a few weeks ago, when he wrote to Mme Magnin saying that it was ~jjy responsiblity to contact ~y insurance agency about the repair work. I did this, and once they’d finished laughing they very kindly phoned the syndic to laugh at him. They told him firmly that they could see no point in paying an assessor to come round and look at work that was not at all their responsibility, and that he’d better think again. Assuming he does so, we might hear more in a few months.

Anyway, I think that’s about it. Slowly wInding down at work in preparation for the weekend (not that I’ve done any winding up to speak of), you’ve heard pretty much all of what’s new with us, so all in all it seems the prefect place to stop. Ciao!

Monday, July 9, 1990

French Gazette Vol. 4 No.3 9 Juillet 1990

Salut, enfants de la patrie!

All geared up to celebrate the 201st anniversary of the Revolution, I hope? We might be headed off to a barbecue: depends whether or not Renaud gets himself organised enough in time. Anyway, get out the old red white and blue, remove your culottes, and settle down to the serious task of overthrowing the aristocracy - you’ve nothing to lose but your brioches.

Guess who rang up the other day! Wrong, it was in fact Allflex (France) grovelling for a bit of a hand. Longterm readers of this rubbish will recall that I started out in France working for them on a little portable data terminal which could, amongst other things, read from and write to a dinky little electronic badge. Now, some time ago Jacques was contacted by a firm called Omnium Plastics which is, amongst other things, the French number 1 in rubbish skips, to help keep track of these things. I wrote a little program for the terminal to do this thing: later on Aliflex got in on the deal and matters lay there. Until Friday, when I got a phone call from Ailfiex, followed rapidly by one from the computer consultancy they’d hired. They’d been a little too smart for their own good: seems they’d decided to use the terminals to create the badges (one per rubbish skip) and build their own little interface thing to read the information thereon and load it into the humungous IBM or whatever it is that Omnium uses.

Well and good, and they went off and created about 20,000 badges and stuck them all over rubbish bins about Paris, and a few weeks ago they got around to testing their little home-brew interface only to find that they couldn’t ~ any of these badges, the data on them being encrypted. Panic as they realise that they’re a bit stuck, and what’s worse they’re headed into penalty clause time on the contract with the City of Paris. Hence the phone calls.

Now when I left Allflex I left copious notes and all the programs lying around, these last being on the computer I used. It appears that, in their wisdom, they threw out all the notes and, after erasing the disk, sold the computer to Jacques. Consequently, I’m about the only person around who knows how the encryption is done, so who knows, they may have to pay me to reconstruct the program. I’m waiting with bated breath to see what comes next.


Another week rolls round, eh? Well, we didn’t go barbecueing (Renaud being as disorganised as usual) so we went on a little drive instead, skirting the Massif de la Chartreuse, passing through Voiron (where Chartreuse liqueur is now made, the monks having found that the attractions of a distillery on the doorstep were incompatible with their calling ie they were inundated by tourists) to wind up at Lac du Paladru, which is quite pleasant as muddy-botttomed lakes go but which was - it being the holiday season now - packed with serried ranks of Frenchpeople wearing knotted hankies.

Never mind, all this gives one a chance to see the average French tourist in action. (Not to mention the average Dutch tourist, of which there are far too many, wombling around in their big fat underpowered cars towing their enormous caravans loaded to the Plimsoll line with cigars and diamond merchants and arms salesmen and keeping a sharp eye on the speedo to make sure that they never ever travel at the speed limit, for preference leaving a good 30km/h margin just in case.) Anyway, should you ever go driving about scenic parts of France in the holiday season, you will note that, at every rubbish tip, quarry or eyesore, there are lines of cars (many with caravans) pulled up: in front of the oiliest, foulest-smelling gravel pit to be found in the chosen spot will be sitting (comfortably installed in deckchairs) the French. Enjoying themselves. Having a nice snack, taking in the open air. Show them a spot of great natural beauty, graced with bosky turves and banks where the wild thyme grows and primrose nods its head etc., they whizz past on the way to the next gravel pit.
Some say that this is because the French respect nature too much to wish to pollute it by their presence: my personal opinion is that a good number of them (probably Parisians, but let’s not be prejudiced) just don’t feel comfortable having lunch (picnic or otherwise) out of sight of a chemical plant or oil refinery. Margo is somewhat more charitable than I: she’s just suggested that the reason they like rubbish tips is that these are the closest they’ve ever come to nature: anything less appalling is totally outside their experiential frame of reference (if you’ll excuse the phrase) and is therefore ignored.

Another odd thing about the French on holiday: the urge to expose one’s body at the beach is inversely proportional to its desirability (except at Cannes, during the film festival). So anyone who comes visiting in the hope of being able to ogle serried ranks of breasts and bums glistening with exotic lotions is likely to be disappointed. (Except, of course, at Cannes ...) What you are more likely to see is Mr and Mme Average Frenchperson, he with a hairy and rather flabby belly exposed between a ripped, grayish singlet and a pair of purple, green and yellow checked Bermuda shorts, she (with a figure charitably described as over-generous) topless and far from bottomless, reclining in a deckchair puffing on a filter-tipped Gauloise. Their delectable, sultry brunette daughter, on the other hand, is muffled up to the ears in a shapeless felt bag (probably from Chanel), chatting earnestly to the spotty-faced son of Mr and Mme FrenchPeople Nextdoor (despite the fact that they live in neighbouring apartments in Paris, the only time they talk is when they’re on holiday: this is called Tradition, and is almost always respected) and keeping half an eye on Uncle and Aunt, who have apparently come on holiday with the sole purpose of playing boules (so as not to disturb the rhythm of life, ‘cos they play boules at home in Paris too).


Well folks, today is a day of some celebration, as I’ve learnt that I actually ~ have a patron saint. It came about on Saturday, when we went out to a birthday barbecue in honour of Sue, an Australian girl who’s married to Serge, who just happens to be French. (This upsets the administration something terrible, by the way, ‘cos she went and got married on a tourist visa, and you just can’t do that. Or so it seems. Bit late now, she said.) Anyway, she’s pregnant (this too is probably against some regulation or another, but to date no-one’s complained) and so at this barbecue Serge had out an old book of Breton first names (he being not only French but Breton French, who are more stubborn than anyone else except, maybe, the Auvergnat French) and as I was looking through it in search of a few choice tongue-twisters who should I come across but Saint Treveur? Hopeless spelling, but that’s the French for you, and I don’t mind too much.. Prince and martyr, his festival is the 10th September (don’t forget the presents): his emblem is the warthog and he is believed to keep a benevolent eye on septic-tank cleaners.

A notable party it was, not least for the fact that the centrepiece after the meal was the most repulsive fruit with which I’ve ever had the misfortune to become acquainted. I can’t remember its name, which is a shame ‘cos if I could I’d be better able to avoid it, but it is large (about the size of a water-melon, which means that there’s more than enough to go around, even if you happen to have about 500 guests), covered in spikes, and comes from somewhere in Asia. As if the spikes weren’t enough to put one off, the thing stinks - almost aggressively so - and a particularly rich, powerful and fruity stink it is indeed. There are certain people who, undiscouraged by all this, actually try to eat it. You do this by clamping a clothes-peg firmly over the nose, then hacking the ghastly object open with a machete or chainsaw, whichever you happen to have to hand. The stink will - at the very least n- redouble (you did put the clothes-peg on, didn’t you?) which is a sign that you are getting to the really good part, where an intimate friend scoops out lumps of the aromatic, pale-green quivering flesh (if I may use the word) and forces them between your gritted teeth.

Now Serge found out about these things whilst travelling through Asia and, for some really bizarre reason, took an instant liking to them, so when he saw a couple in a Parisian grocery he bought one, doubtless saying to himself “This here is the very thing I was looking for to wrap up our birthday barby” and wrap it up it very nearly did. Perhaps it was the trip down from Paris that did it, but even Serge confessed - before opening it - that he thought it smelt a bit strong - could be overripe. We very nearly threw the foul thing into the lake: just as well we didn’t, ‘cos there was a fishing competition the week after, and it’d surely have killed off the trout.
There’s yet another excellent reason for getting out the bunting, and it goes like this: a few weeks ago the Mairie sent me a little note saying that, as they were all going on holiday, could I take or send the fiscal stamps required for the renewal of our cartes de séjour directly to the Prefecture at Chambèry (also hoping, I imagine, to avoid a repeat of last year’s little problem, where they took my fiscal stamps but forgot to stick them on). The weeks passed tranquilly, until yesterday I thought I’d better get around to doing so, so off I went, bought 550F worth of fiscal stamps, and toddled off to the Prefecture. (Who are, of course, only open between 9am and 4 pm, closed at lunchtimes, stiff bikky if you can’t get time off work.) Having there been misdirected to the appropriate office and persuaded someone to come to the counter, said person said it was all a terrible mistake, the Maine hadn’t understood at all, I shouldn’t have had to come in for another month or so yet, when our brand new computerised cartes de séjour would be ready, and by the way they’d be good for 10 years this time round, was that all right by me?

I had to admit it was. I can’t imagine what came over them: perhaps it’s because of Malyon, could be they got tired of seeing our dossiers come in every year, maybe they thought that after three years we deserved some sort of reward for perseverance if nothing else, but most likely they’ve just started to run out of space in their filing cabinets. A bit of a shame, all things considered: the annual encounter with the administration always gave me something to write about. Helped keep the people who make photocopier paper in business, too. Anyway, that’s that: in a few weeks we should receive our spanking new cards, which we’ll have to renew in 2001. Might actually be able to wangle a work permit for Mango now as well, which’d be rather nice.


Well, here I am again. Today being a Thursday, I thought I’d give you news of Malyon. (Those of you who are not interested in babies may skip this paragraph.) At the ripe young age of 10 and a bit months she has four teeth (sharp) and another two coming down, walks happily around the furniture, crawls at an alarmingiate of knots and has learnt how to climb up onto the sofa. Climbing down again is a bit more problematic, but this is, I’m told, perfectly normal. She’s in excellent health and, unfortunately, enjoys early rising: a bit disastrous but, once again, perfectly normal. She is also getting quite good at climbing stairs: once she learns how to go down them we’ll be able to send her down to get the mail all by herself.

We’re still in the middle of the “canicule”, which is what the French call the dog days: the temperatures are up in the mid- to high 30s. Did you see that when the Tour de France arrived in Paris it was over 40’ there? The forecast temperature for St Tropez today: 22’ at sunrise, and getting hotter. It’s all supposed to last for at least another week.

While I’m here, its’s probably time to talk to you about the new French tax explained on Canal + not so long ago. It’s called the “wally tax”, and to pay it, you have only to tick a box on your tax return saying “I am a wally because ...“ (please tick one) “ ... I read at least three Harlequin super-romances (in which the hero is really nice, and kissing is only allowed after marriage) each week, and what’s more I believe in them totally” OR “... I have at least four halogen spots mounted on my car”. So, if you think that you too might be a wally, just tick the box, and pay 20% more tax. It’s a nice idea, I think.


And now a warning to fish-lovers everywhere: flounders are dangerous to your health. I have this on the excellent authority of Dave Barry, well-known amateur expert on exploding animals and such things: the originator, incidentally, of the Barry Alert Scale for self-destructing wotsits, ranging from Potato Alert (exploding potatoes) to Yuckorama Alert (exploding cows). A man to whom the free world owes an enormous debt. Anyway, as you may or may not know, this man, masquerading as a dilettante CIA agent in the Far East, has a network of spies all over the globe: it appears that his Wellington agent informed him that, one night, the flounder she was to have for dinner exploded. I admit that on the Barry Scale this only rates a Fish Finger Whoopsie, but I still think that those of you who really like eating flatfish should do so in an informed manner, being aware of the potentially enormous risks involved.

Last weekend was fun: barbecue on Saturday and then dining out on Sunday. It all came about quite simply really: Saturday lunchtime in Chambèry Margo suggested that it’d be quite be quite nice to have a long lazy lunch: riposting to the effect that Malyon was currently being a little pain, I suggested dinner instead. All this having been decided, we headed off home to be greeted by a phone call from Steve (an English real-estate agent, but really very nice despite that) and his wife Isabel (French, and thus no excuses needed) saying what about a nice picnic this evening. Now you may not know this, but I actually enjoy picnics (providing that use of a chemical loo or other substitute for the real thing is not obligatory) so we said yes. As our contribution to the evening, I man-handled the barbecue into the boot. Yes, we have a barbecue. I must admit, the first few times I used it I had the urge to throw the damned thing off the balcony (hoping vaguely that it’d hit someone, and that I’d be sentenced to at least 20 years on Devil’s Island, far from barbecues) but since Renaud introduced me to the joys of the flame-thrower we’ve had few problems getting it lit and persuading it to stay that way.

Speaking of the boot reminds me of the car, which in turn reminds me of the day last week when I tried to buy a replacement for the little joint-come-filter affair which lives in the water line to the windscreen-washers, the old one having given up the ghost. I had to go to the one and only Alfa Romeo garage in Chambèry to find it, and it cost me 60 francs: between $15-$20 for an inch-and-a-half of plastic tubing with a bulge in it and an arrow printed on one side. Even the cashier had the grace to blush. Never mind (or not too much): at least I got to ogle the latest Alfa Spyders (pant pant, drool).

Anyway, having barbecued until about 11 at night (yes, it ~ take me that long to get the thing going, stop laughing in the cheap seats) we arranged to meet on Sunday: consequently had dinner on the lakefront at Aiguebellette. This is the same lake at which Margo and I saw our first snake: reputedly one of the cleanest in  France, second only to Annecy (the lake, not the snake) which may well be true, but not around the swimming beaches. (Your best bet is probably to stop on the roadside and clamber down the bank if you want a nice calm swim in beautiful clear water.) Dinner was nice, at any rate. (Handy hint for travellers: it’s amazing, but the French tend to go home at about 7 pm. Go anywhere scenic at about 7:15, the few Frenchmen still there will be packing up and leaving and in about 10 minutes you’ll have the whole place to yourself.)

By the way, the name of the fruit comes back to me - it’s a dunan or something like that. Just to be on the safe side, steer clear of all smelly, spiny fruit beginning with the letter D.

Tuesday, Ian and Marie and Elise descended. Ian and Marie were headed off for a camping holiday in Austria, and as Elise is the same age as Malyon (give or take a few days) she didn’t have much say in the matter. They’ve gone now, and despite careful checks there appear to be no odd socks under the sink and the toothbrushes are all present or accounted for. Can’t think what’s gone wrong. The two babies seemed to have fun: eating apples together, dribbling in harmony, nicking the other’s toys, reeling, writhing and frothing in fits - antisocial little beasts at that age, they are.

I think I might wrap this up with an excerpt from a chemist’s handbook from 1750 or thereabouts which Renaud dug out the other night (he finally got his barbecue organised). It starts off innocuously enough: “Take the head of a healthy young man, preferably not dead of violence ...“ and goes on to say (skipping some of the more repulsive details of the recipe) “... after boiling ... the liquor thus obtained is sovereign against the vapours, but by reason of its colour and foetid aroma is but rarely used.” Which is rather reassuring, I must say. Bye!

Friday, May 4, 1990

French Gazette Vol. 4 No. 2 4 mai 1990

Hello again everyone.

I’m still all on my little lonesome, Mango having decided to delay her return by a couple of weeks. Before you dash off to write letters anxiously enquiring after my condition, let me state that I’m bearing up well under the strain, all things considered. I pass my time reading, cooking, working on the Ferrari (a Dino, but only a model, I’m afraid) and generally idling. Getting good at that, actually.

Got the car muffler fixed, and it’s amazing the difference it makes. We no longer roar past sounding like a flock of maddened motor-scooters and frightening little old ladies. She accelerates a bit better too, which I suppose is normal. Nothing major has fallen off recently either, so all is going relatively well in that department.

Made it through to Annecy and the wine salon, too. After prowling around a bit tasting this and that (including a very nice ‘84 Bergerac, a wine which doesn’t seem to get around very much) I eventually wound up at the stand of the chap from whom I bought a case last year (Domaine Paul Autard: should you ever see any about, buy it), and to my considerable surprise he actually remembered me and, what’s more, my name! (Did my last cheque bounce, I wonder?) Anyway, I was so stunned that I was easily persuaded to buy another case - six bottles of the ‘85, and another six of the ‘86 - and he threw in a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape white as well, this last being something you’re unlikely to come across in New Zealand. (I did see a bottle once, in a LiquorLancl store of all places, and it cost about $40.) Drank it a few nights afterward, when I had people round for dinner, and very nice it was too.


As you may or may not be aware, Europe is currently undergoing what the English are pleased to call a “heat-wave” ie the temperatures are sitting pretty steady around 26~. Today being a holiday (Armistice Day 1945, if memory serves) I’ve passed most of it (since getting out of bed this morning) in lying out on the balcony and basking, trying to get a bit of colour back into my pallid skin. (A few weeks ago I looked like The Thing that Lives in the Cellar.) Anyway, I borrowed the portable on which I’m currently writing this from work last night, and as the thunderclouds are now coming up, as they have every night for the past week or so at about this time (thereby forcing me away from sunbathing), I thought I’d get a bit of this done. So here I am, gazing at a (typically) grotty LCD screen and pecking away at a ludicrously small keyboard and trying not to make too many typing errors.

The general amnesty law which traditionally accompanies the election of a president in France has had some rather unintended consequences this time round. In an affair involving numerous deputies and mayors, both Socialists and Gaullists, accused of accumulating money for their electoral campaigns by means which would commonly be regarded as fraudulent (typically, false invoices), the judges have decided that they are not competent to sit on the matter (or whatever the legalese is) as the alleged offences are covered by the amnesty law. General outrage, seized upon eagerly by the Communists and the RPR, who only howl the louder (in an effort to drown the voice of sweet reason, I suppose) when it’s pointed out that this particular law was passed with the almost unanimous consent of the deputies, including them. In another twist, I saw someone on TV the other night claiming that the fraud - if such it was - wasn’t really fraud, the persons concerned had to do it to get the money to be re-elected because the French election system doesn’t give them enough to do so honestly and anyway, everyone does it: the fault is thus really in the system and we should give them more money. A case of special pleading, if you ask me, but no-one yet has.

On the brighter side, Rocard has proposed a law which would ban any person inciting racial or religious hatred/intolerance from holding office in France. This is widely - and probably rightly - seen as an effort to undermine Jean-Marie La Pen and company (there’s only one National Front deputy in parliament these days, and he’s not it) and it seems reasonably likely to succeed. I see also that the arbitrator in the Rainbow Warrior affair has decided that France should pay New Zealand the sum of about 12,000,000 francs, to go toward a fund to promote understanding between the two countries. That’ll really hurt the French to the quick - however did you manage it?

And while I’m just nattering away, they’ve finally got around to sticking another aerial on the apartment, which means that we now get La Cinq and M6, these being the other two private TV channels. In practice, this means that Miami Vice, spaghetti Westerns, and low-budget soft-porn are added to the nightly viewing menu. Although they do screen “Dangerman” (remember Patrick McGoohan?) and “The Saint” (Roger Moore before he grew up) on M6. Usually just before the soft-porn, in fact: this is called ‘balanced programming’.

Work is going reasonably well, much as usual (I think I mentioned that Greece is just about wrapped up, which leaves only the actual installation, and I don’t know whether or not I’ll be involved in that at all), leaving me only the aluminium factory at Saint-Jean to get up my nose. This is the never-ending affair of the oscilloscope/data acquisition program I inherited, which I’ve a growing urge to redo from scratch. In theory, I should then be able to touch it without being afraid of breaking it, which is currently not the case. I’m also “minding” an apprentice, something which takes up too much of my time (she seems incapable of exercising a bit of initiative, and consequently tends to seek approval before so much as crossing a “t” or dotting an “i”). Probably not enormous fun for her either - my “explanations” are likely to be incomprehensible at the best of times, and it must be worse when I try them in French. Never mind, I’ve signed up for a few weeks holiday when Mango gets back, far from the madding crowd and all that.

I found out something new about French insurance the other day, too. Got the bill for next year’s house and contents insurance on Thursday (the due date for payment was the preceding Monday, three cheers for efficiency and customer service), this being from the same people who’d quoted the staggering sum of 15,000 francs for simple third-party insurance for the car, and I thought “Hoho!” (or words to that effect) “I shall not pay this, rather I shall wander in to the nice people who insure the car and get them to do this lot as well, especially as I shall thus get a reduction on the car insurance.” It is not that simple (did you think for a moment that it would be?). When, in France, you take out insurance, you enter into a contract, and said contract cannot be terminated at will by the contractee (me, in this case). Oh no. You must give the poor insurer at least three months notice of your intention to terminate the contract (to give him time, I assume, to embezzle a bit more) and, even when this is done, do you think he’s going to refund that portion of the premium which is, shall we say, “unused”? Not on your life he’s not. In fact, with house and contents insurance, the only way to terminate the contract (apart from this three months notice business) is either a change of residence, or death (which I suppose counts as a rather special case of the first), and in neither case is a refund considered. The upshot of this is that, come Novemberish, I shall toddle back down to SAMDA, say something along the lines of “I wish to insure myself with you”, get them to write a letter to the current insurance people rudely notifying them of my intention to stop paying them, and happily accept the rebate on the car insurance. It still seems an unnecessarily complicated way of doing something that’s really rather simple. Never mind, at least I know now.

Hullo, the first rocket has just gone up. The anti-hail rockets, that is. The vineyards are heavily populated with these things, and whenever a thunderstorm comes up they fire a few of them off to frighten off any hail which might be thinking of coming down and damaging the young tender sprouts of the vines (not to mention the bunches of grapes, although it’s too early for that just yet). If no hail falls, the vigneron is extremely happy and thanks the day he had the system installed: if the vines are ruined he is reduced to bemoaning the fact that he fired them too early, or too late, or they’d gone off or something, at least until he gets a sniff of the insurance money. It’s a system which, if it works, opens a few interesting legal questions: assuming that the hail is not intelligent enough to comprehend that the rockets have been fired from vineyard A, it may in fact refrain from falling not only on vineyard A, but also in the surrounding vineyards B, C and D, and it’s common knowledge that the owner of vineyard C never ~ fires off rockets. Does the owner of A have a right to recompense from that of C? (The answer is given on page 4.)

At any rate, whether or not the rockets can be credited, it’s not hailing. Heavy rain, yes (rather pleasant, actually - cools the place down a bit), but no hail. Chalk one up for the vignerons. Whups, there goes another one. Some people are never satisfied.

Anyway, just at the moment it’s probably time for me to go off and start preparing lobster Newburg for my dinner. (For those of you who don’t know, this is lobster flesh sautded, flambéed with a dash of cognac, then finished off in a cream and Madeira sauce. It’s nice, if you like that sort of thing.) Happily, frozen Canadian lobsters are cheap here, and in my opinion the end result is worth it. OK, I’ll be back soon.

And here I am, as promised. You know, the only problem with writing on a machine like this (apart from the screen and the toy keyboard) is that I’ll have to remember to squirt everything I’ve done so far back onto my machine in a feeble attempt to ensure that I’ve goVthe same copy of everything all around. (And to get it printed off, but that’s another matter.) Admittedly, this is not too much of a problem with all of the utilities we’ve got floating around whose sole porpoise in life is to do just that, but it does mean that my desk (currently occupied by only three PCs, which must be some sort of record for me) permanently resembles a rat’s nest with cables flopping in all directions. Not to mention screws and brackets and suchiike from odd systems which have, at various times, been disassembled and - more or less - put back together there. I suppose that this is the price you pay for technology. Things could be worse.

By the way, have I mentioned that I got to see a New Zealand film on Canal+ the other night? A charming little thing entitled “Bad Taste”, produced, directed by, and acted in by some chap from godnose where (one Peter Jackson) and his three mates. The plot is reasonably simple: entire population of a seaside village disappears, taken by aliens as raw materials for an intergalactic hamburger bar; NZ Secret Services special brigade (“the Boys”) save the day. It got the Gore prize at the Paris Festival of Fantasy Films not too long ago (which is probably why it cropped up on TV), and it has a marvellous scene with a chainsaw. I’m not sure why, but the thing did have a distinct Kiwi flavour to it, even in French: could have been the obviously low budget. Recommended, but don’t plan on dining out after seeing it.

Be that as it may, the time has probably come to put this to bed for the night. I’ve eaten and have a glass of wine to hand, night has fallen, and The Stranglers are gently savaging my ears in the background: more to the point, I’ve got to go to work tomorrow and I have the dishes still to do tonight (“and miles to go before I sleep” - Robert Frost, freely adapted). On which note I’ll leave you for the time being.


Back again. Margo turned up a week or so ago and we had a nice week’s holiday not doing terribly much at all. Even managed to go for a picnic at Lac d’Aiguebellette on Wednesday, and it was very nice: we had the place to ourselves. (If you don’t count the swans, that is.) Malyon practiced eating grass, and I puddled around trying out our nice new camera. Thanks, by the way, to all those of you who put up with Mango and Malyon while she was in NZ: it’s much appreciated.

Anyway, this week I’m back at work tinkering with a little box for Merlin Germ (them again). Much to my surprise, my machine was still intact when I arrived, and no-one appears to have cluttered up my disk with new, unwanted and probably useless software. I’ve even got my nice colour monitor still. (The desk’s a bit clearer than it was, though.) Renaud’s off in Greece tippling retsina and trying to install the system there, and not much else is going on. There are a couple of biggish projects in the pipeline though, so that probably won’t last too long. A shame. Never mind, next week I’m on holiday again: Janet Hendry (that was - currently Janet Julian, I think) is supposed to be coming to visit.

Seems there’s another New Zealander at Montmélian, by the way: that makes four, counting us. A rugby player, according to the landlord, who’s been imported to play for the local team. Must get around to finding out a bit more about that, I suppose. Speaking of the landlord reminds me that the Syndic and the insurance company between them still haven’t got around to having our ceiling repaired. That makes one and a half years so far: perhaps it’ll get done before we leave the country, but I’m not too hopeful.


A month later ... doesn’t time fly? I promise that I’ll finish this Real Soon Now, though. How’s life with you, anyway? Over here the weather is fine (at the moment, anyway), and we have Margo’s cousin Mandy and her 16 month-old lad staying with us for a bit. This makes it extremely difficult to get anything at all done, but at least he doesn’t try to eat the paper when you’re trying to read it.

We got invited to a baptism the other day, too. Angeline and Tony’s son (this being, you may recall, the Irish-French couple we met) was to get dunked in a trad. Catholic ceremony, so off we went. An oddly assorted lot we were too: the godmother (an Australian) and one of Angeline’s numerous sisters and brothers-in-law for the English-speaking side, us, Tony’s family who arrived, a bit late, from the Ardèche speaking various mixtures of French and Portuguese and of course the vicar, who spoke French, some English, and Japanese. Plus a couple of little old ladies from the village who snuck in to enjoy the show: I suppose you can hardly shoo them away. (“Go on, you little old ladies, shoo! Out from behind that font!”)

And after that it was time for the party. A typical French family gathering: eating, drinking, much loud discussion of this, that and the other, and a few games of boules (or pétanque, if you prefer) for the gentlemen: the ladies sat around in the sun getting tiddly on port and discussing little Sean. An entertaining afternoon, really.

On the polical front, the only snippet of any interest would be the mayor of Grenoble, who has been suspended from the RPR. Seems they were having a by-election or something which the RPR could not, by any stretch of the imagination, win: this lad’s horrible crime was to suggest to his constituents that, this being the case, they should vote for the Socialist candidate rather than for the National Front. Chirac et al were unimpressed, hence the suspension (although they’d probably happily have voted for guillotining instead), and as far as I’m aware the matter rests there.

And we’ve just got around to demanding yet another extension of our cartes de sdjour. Yet another contract to sign, more photocopies to take of just about every document that comes to hand, signatures - in ~ ink, if you please, stamped self-addressed envelope and to top it all off they’d changed the forms (Wanting to know, amongst other things, your socio-professional category: 1 or 2, and your mother’s maiden name). Anyway, that’s that out of the way for another year.

Almost out of the way, at any rate, except for the fact that the Prefecture cannot find the fiscal stamps which ought to have been stuck on the cards at last year’s renewal, and we’re willing to believe them: it thus seems likely that the secretary at the Maine did not in fact stick them on our cards as she ought to have done, but did something else with them instead. No great problem for us, ‘cos she signed and sealed our cards an’ all, but if the stamps are not found somewhere she’ll probably have to pay for more.

On a lighter note, I gather from the Dave Barry column in the IHT that killer flatworms from New Zealand have invaded England, coming over on commercial flights disguised as attorneys. I’m not entirely certain that it’d be a good idea to believe this, though, as he is sometimes a silly man. (He it was who first broke the news to an anxiously waiting world that lust-crazed walruses were probably involved in the finding of a dead cow at the bottom of the Potomac river in August last year: from time to time he paints his lawn.)

Trevor, Mar go and Malyon

Tuesday, January 2, 1990

French Gazette Vol. 4 No. 1 2 Janvier 1990

Hello everyone, and welcome to the New Year!

We’ve just come back from a jolly little Christmas en famille at Pesselière (faithful readers will recall that this is the country seat of the eminent Ian Vickridge): ourselves, Ian, Marie, their sprog, Manes’ parents and good old uncle Roger. A nice chap, if a bit on the neurotic side: a bachelor of advancing years, he lives in his apartment in Paris (this Christmas makes the second time in 137 years that he’s left the place, the first time being for the wedding) on a diet of boiled potatoes and slices of ham - for his health, you understand. This did not stop him from wolfing down roast duck in orange sauce, leg of lamb in honey and ginger, rabbit doused in cognac, set alight and then drowned in red wine

M. Vivion himself is a keen do-it-yourselfer, reasonably rare around these parts. We arrived in time to help put a wardrobe together, and to put a door into the room we were going to sleep in. Then he wanted to do something with concrete blocks, but got dissuaded, and he was rather disappointed when told he couldn’t pour any concrete on Christmas day.

We also heard the story of one of the neighbours, a chap of about 80 years who, a few years ago, had his first ever encounter with a lift. He wasn’t overly impressed at first - you go into a small metal box, the doors close, then the open, and you get out of the small metal box and where’s the pleasure in that? (Unless, of course, you Jjic~ small metal boxes.) “Well and good,” replied his guide “but you do not, perhaps, appreciate that we are now on the 8th floor.” The poor chap thought it was a joke at first, until he looked out one of the windows.

Anyway, we had a lovely time: beautiful weather, if a bit on the chilly side (there’s still no snow, unless you’ve got enough cash to head up to one of the higher ski stations), too much to eat and drink, and not too much to do. Headed back on the Thursday, and promptly ran into a bank of dense fog covering the entire country. Typical.

New Year’s Eve we spent quietly at home, watching the rock special for want of anything better to do. Spoilt a bit by the appearance of French groups, in particular by the presence as “special guest commentators” of Les Rita Mitsoukos, who’d have to be two of the most pretentious, posturing prats I’ve come across in a long time. (Sample - “Madonna can’t sing or dance, and her body’s not that hot either - can’t imagine what anyone sees in her. No relevance whatsoever to modern life.” No dears, and she sells more records than you too.) Never mind, the avant-garde has to have its say, I suppose. Which brings me to my favourite quotes from the evening (both of them from the real host, a nice young fellow with gloriously bad taste in waistcoats and matching ties):

“French rap music is just like French rock music - the English do it so much better” and

“I’m keeping my Stones records so that in 20 years or so I’ll be able to blast the ears off any kids unfortunate enough to be mine.”

An interesting and little-known fact - two out of three French singers are actually glove puppets manipulated by tone-deaf, brain-dead literary critics who’ve read rather too much of the works of Schopenauer than is good for them. The remaining 33% represent a bit of a dead end in the evolutionary tree which Mother Nature somehow never got around to pruning, which I suppose is good news for the anthropologists.

For those of you who hate writing letters, ~by the way, there’s a bit of good news: Margo will be going back to New Zealand for a bit in April (probably), so you’ll be able to say everything and save on the envelopes. She’s taking Malyon back to be cooed and gurgled at by the rest of the family in the traditional ceremony, which goes something like this:

“we, the uncles, aunts, great-aunts twice removed and cousins here assembled in solemn congregation, do hold these truths to be natural and self-evident, to wit

- that it is beyond a doubt the prettiest baby in the whole world
- that her little sparkling eyes are the nicest little sparkling eyes in the whole world
- that she just has the chubbiest little cheeks

and furthermore that we will uphold and defend these truths, and smite with contumely those who dispute them, at least until the time comes when we have to change her nappies.”

We have received a number of letters along the lines of

“Dear Agony Aunt - is Malyon a French name or what? I’d always thought it was a sort of pumpkin, but my boyfriend tells me not to be silly, the lipstick was on his shirt when he bought it. Please help me, Confused. (Name and address withheld)”.

The reply is simple:

“Dear Confused - No, it’s not French: it is in fact a family name dating back to the days of the Crusaders and one William of Malyon, who changed his name from William of Pumpkin in an attempt to avoid being harrassed in vegetarian restaurants. As for the lipstick, I’d recommend changing your washing powder and, if the stains still don’t come out, your boyfriend.”

Simple, really.

Having got all that out of the way, on to other matters. I’m still cobbling bits together for Merlin Germ - the affair is starting to get up my nose a bit, actually, it’s rather disheartening to work with such a sorry pack of amateurs. On the software side they’ve got a large team, each member working busily away at his or her little bit of the project: I’ve yet to meet anyone there who knows (or wants to know) how the bits are going to fit together. (One of their “programmers” ordered from us a reasonably complicated, and typically ill-defined, bit of software to synchronise two processors, generate and count timing signals and check the ignition on your car, rather grandly called “the ultimate and indispensable stage of validation”, which was duly delivered and paid for: I have since discovered that the sole object of all this was to allow the fellow to test a routine he’d written which converted a count into a date. There are easier ways.) As to the hardware, they’re currently on revision 4 of the card which is the key piece of the project (they designed it themselves, and are terribly proud of it), and the thing still doesn’t work.

On the brighter side, Pechiney (the aluminium people) have ordered a system similar to those we installed in their French smelters to control energy use for a new factory in Greece, so with a bit of luck Renaud and I will be off there later this year to install it. That, I think, would be rather nice.


Hello again, children. Awfully sorry to be this late in getting back to writing ... just leave it for a day or two, I thought ... what with one thing and another I’ve been working flat out and just haven’t been able to spend an hour or so enjoying myself. However, the last project I was working on - a sort of oscilloscope imitator for one of Pechiney’s aluminium smelters, which took about two months to get going properly - is now finished and I have a bit of time before getting on to the affair of the Grecian urn, so here goes.

On the off-chance that this arrives before she does: Margo is leaving here April 6 to arrive - all things going well - on the 8th. She’s planning on passing a week in Hamilton, one in Palmerston North, another in Wellington and a last week back in Hamilton, so those of you who want to should be able to see her.

Spring is here: temperatures are climbing back up into the 20s. For all that we have had a bit of snow and we’ve even managed to go skiing. Once. We were going to go again last weekend, but both Malyon and I had colds so we decided not to do anything at all. Had to go out anyway, as we got a phone call from the friends we’d planned on going up with to say that they’d just had an accident on the route national and could we come and give them a hand? About this time of year the garage owners on that particular stretch of road make quite a nice living from accidents.


Yeah, so much for having a few days free. However, I’ve just finished the Greek business, so this time I really do have a bit less to do. As the more astute of you will have deduced, Margo is - at
the time of writing - actually in New Zealand. With luck, I’ll get this finished and in the post before she arrives back here.

Next weekend it’s off to Annecy, I think, for the annual Salon des Vms et les Arts Culinaires ie the food and wine fair. The wine-maker from whom we bought a case of Chateauneuf du Pãpe last year very kindly sent me a couple of invitations, so I feel honour-bound to go along. Maybe buy another case, who knows? This weekend I’m booked up: out to dinner on Sunday with friends (Angeline and Tony, an Irish-French couple) and spend the rest of it trying to baby-proof the stereo in anticipation of Margo’ arriving back with a baby that crawls. A simple job, you may think, but I’m sure that I’ll manage to take at least five times longer than need be.

We finally got around to braving the legendary Lyonnais driving a few weeks ago, by the way, and drove into the place. As usual, we got a bit lost, case of missing signposts and suchlike, got onto the Pdripherique, missed the turnoff, got off at the next one, accidentally got back onto the Pdripherique going the other way, went too far, got off and found ourselves on the street we’d been looking for all along, heading tranquilly toward the railway station (this being the only place in all Lyon where I ~ there’ll be a parking slot. Usually, anyway).

A brief note on vocabulary: in French there exists the verb “englander”. When you’ve been Englanded, you’ve been swindled. (I doubt somehow that the word has anything to do with the English across the channel, which is a shame. The noun “Engliche”, on the other hand, definitely does have something to do with them: it means “English(wo)man: stuck up person: hoity-toity”. Isn’t language a wonderful thing?) There are many other interesting words in French, and a number of them are not rude.

Anyway, tonight I’m off to get the car exhaust replaced. I thought she was making a little bit of noise, and when I got around to looking under her the other night I discovered that the silencer had split from one end to the other, and on top of that the actual exhaust pipe at the rude end of the silencer, from which the whole assembly is suspended, is only hanging onto the silencer by sheer will-power. As I’ve no wish to be stopped by the cops for noise pollution, and even less desire to have the exhaust drop off if I change gear too quickly, I thought that getting it changed ASAP might just be a good idea.

Life is very tranquil: the place is always clean (relatively so), no piles of purée on the shagpile after feeding time, I’m sleeping very well, and the only fly in the ointment is the Pile of ironing to be done. Do not mistake me, I know perfectly well how to iron things. Just that, personally, I’d much rather not iron things, and I think that the ironing is of much the same opinion, and in any case I can always think of something more interesting to do (clean out the septic tank, for instance) and so the Pile just sits there. I look at it, it looks back at me, but generally speaking it’s not much of a conversationalist. I’ve a funny feeling it’s getting bigger, though: perhaps it eats the odd shirt that goes wandering past, or maybe it just sneaks out at night and steals washing. I’ll get onto it Real Soon Now, I promise. Just as soon as I’ve rebored the gaskets on the toaster.

OK, I think that had better be it. Time to run off a couple of copies before I head home, then drop them in the post tomorrow. With luck.