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.

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