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!