Thursday, March 21, 1991

French Gazette Vol. 5 No. 1 17 Janvier 1991

Hello, and officially welcome to a new year and a new edition.

One of our readers has written in to complain that New Zealand TV is so bad it gives her cat boils. I don’t know whether what we get is actually worse - we haven’t got a cat here - but I can tell you it’s pretty bad. F’rinstance ... as you probably know, unless you’re currently living on another planet, we’re in the middle of the Gulf crisis at the moment, and so last night the head of state and the chief of the armies (both perhaps better known as Francois Mitterand) spoke to the nation: a speech which began, as always, with “Frenchwomen, Frenchmen, everybody ...“ and ended up with “Vive la France!”.

Then they started on the in-depth analysis. “Well, we’ve just heard the speech of the President and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, a speech which lasted for 7 minutes and 15 seconds, something of a record if you recall that the longest prior address to the nation (Tuesday, August 3rd, during the Algerian crisis) lasted only 5 minutes and 37 seconds. Addressing his speech to the entire nation, male and female alike, the President’s closing words were ‘Vive la France!’, rather a trademark, and now it’s over to Boris for detailed parsing of the sentence structure, then our guest Françoise Sagan will have some commentary on the use of feminist imagery. Boris

I swear that I am making very little of this up.

Anyway, current affairs in the Gulf are attracting quite a lot of attention here just at the moment - there’s a war on, you know. Some people know it all too well and have gone out to stock up, which means, in practical terms, that if you try to buy sugar, pasta, rice or oil in the supermarkets you’re likely to be stiff out of luck. The shops must be laughing all the way to the bank - in fact, we know they are, ‘cos they interviewed the head of one of the big chains, an interview in which he said that he couldn’t understand it, France was self-sufficient in all these things and anyway the supermarket chains themselves have 6-months-worth of stock on hand, but if people really wanted to spend money he could think of worse places to do it than in one of his stores. (Personally, I think people are rushing out to buy oil because they think there’ll be a shortage if the Saudi oil fields are damaged and, being more than a few shillings short of a pound, haven’t yet worked out that the olive oil they’re buying is not quite the same as the crude that comes out of the ground.)

The only reason I’m doing this today, it being a Thursday, after all, is that I’ve just finished typing up Margo’s CV in French so that she’ll have it for her job interview tomorrow. Didn’t mention that, did I? She actually had one in December too, up at Annecy: picked a day when it was actively snowing to drive up, the car started playing up, she got soaked (snow is wet) and when she got there they said sorry, we were actually looking for someone completely bi-lingual, forgot to mention that on the phone. Be that as it may, she’s got an interview with a language school at Chambery in the morning, so we’ll see how that goes.

Did you have a nice New Year’s Eve? We did. Spent it with Steve and Isabel and their friends and assorted children, eating snails and lamb and cheese and assorted desserts, drinking too much and staying up till all sorts of ungodly hours. They’d already had quite an exciting day, as little Rémi came in and said “Maman, wotsit’s coughing a bit, please come and look” and it was all true possums, wotsit (about the same age as Rémi ie 3 or in that vicinity) was indeed coughing and it was because he was turning blue and strangling, due to the tinsel from the Xmas tree that Rémi had thoughtfully arranged round his neck. Delightful things, children are. Anyway, we all made it home safely, even Raewyn (not at all a sure bet, it being the first time she’d been exposed to snails and hordes of screaming French kids).

Raewyn, for those of you who don’t remember/don’t care, was Margo’s bridesmaid, and she thought - having got over the shock by now - that she might pop in to visit. Which she did. Weather was particularly foul, but we decided that she had to see a bit of the countryside anyway, so we dragged her off to see Chambery in the rain, then to Grenoble (it rained) and finally to Annecy where (you’re beginning to get the idea) it poured down. Then she toddled down to Italy for a few days just as the nasty depression which had been hanging over France causing all the rotten weather decided to get off its chuff and slouch down to southern parts - result rain in Italy and fine weather here. She did have one nice day with us: we profited from the occasion to go up to La Feclaz and get some skiing in. Bit icy, but beautiful weather. And, to top it off, they only have chairlifts there, with no trace of the horrid Pomas, so I didn’t fall over!

She treated us out to dinner at Les 5 Voutes, by the way, and anyone else who wants to is welcome to do the same. The decor is best described as “over-stuffed English armchair”, silver service, grande cuisine. Well worth a visit if ever you’re in the neighbourhood, just mention my name and, they’ll put 10% on.


Doesn’t time fly? Next weekend we’re off to England for ten days to see Cousin Julia get married, so I thought I’d better get my act together somewhat. Someone gave us the name of a travel agency that had cheap flights: to wit, FF 650 for the round trip Paris-Gatwick (fortuitously enough, Gatwick is where we actually want to get to), and as Raewyn kindly left her unexpired Eurail pass with us and Frog travels free anyway that leaves only me who has to actually ~ to get up to Paris, and we can profit from the occasion to stay with the Vivions (these being Marie’s parents) for a few days on the return leg and with a bit of luck I’ll actually get around to going to look at the Musée d’Orsay (modern art up to 1920 or thereabouts, supposed to be very good and a place I’ve always wanted to go and look at but somehow have never quite found the time). Here’s hoping they haven’t decided to close the museums for fear of bomb attacks.

Speaking of which, I must remember to check, when I go in to pick up our plane tickets, if we’ll be allowed to carry a camera with us. If we were flying on a German carrier I wouldn’t bother to ask (along with hair-dryers and microwave ovens, I rather think they’re banned), but as it’s British (Air Europe, actually) I’ll give it a whirl just on the offchancc.

I spent an interesting Friday night with the Association des Amis d’Arbin, a group of which I am, due to a moment’s inconsideration, a paid-up member. (Actually, it came about ‘cos they sent out two issues of a sort of newsletter/bulletin, rather better-produced than most and containing some rather interesting stuff on the history of the village, and enclosed with the second was a subscription form which - in a weak moment - I signed.) Anyway, it was the AGM Friday night, so along I bravely trotted (to find myself - to my not inconsiderable surprise - the only New Zealander in the room). General business out of the way, it was time for a slide-show (the French are very keen on these) on - guess what - the local history. It really was interesting stuff: seems that the place used to be the favoured suburb of the local Roman aristos and then (somewhat later, of course) of the Cistercian monks. Wasn’t until the Revolution that the parvenu Montmelianais got ahead of us. It actually inspired me enough to go out for a walk with Malyon and the camera today, looking for picture-skew bits.

Which I thought was extremely brave, seeing as we spent last evening (well, until early this morning in fact) at Steve and Isabel’s, indulging in a raclette with them and some friends. Malyon had a lovely time playing with Rémi, we had a great time eating, drinking and talking: very nice. We had a - I suppose “wide-ranging” is the word for it - discussion, starting out with the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy for some, Completely Absurd Policy for others, depends on what you think about wine lakes and butter mountains. Latest idiocy: the European taxpayer - me included - is paying the Russians to buy Euro-butter before it goes off in the cool-stores and, at the same time, seem likely to be asked to pay more to small Euro-family-farmers as minimum price supports [anyone in NZ remember SMPs?]) going through the right to vote (Michel thought it normal that, as a taxpayer, I have no right to vote in France but found it a denial of my fundamental human rights the fact that I cannot vote in NZ) to nappies (one of the reason that cloth nappies are not used in France is, it seems, the time taken in washing and then ironing them).
Seven degrees below zero is what the smart money is betting on for tomorrow morning, rising to a high of zero during the afternoon. I hope you all feel suitably smug. Personally, I already feel cold.

Somewhat later ... not only has it been cold, but it’s been snowing: in Nice, of all places. Doesn’t do a lot for the reputation of the Côte d’Azur (but then, neither has the affair of Jacques Medicin, ex-mayor of Nice, currently in hiding somewhere in South America and in possession of certain sums which, strictly speaking, do not belong to him). And Margo has a job. A bi-lingual kindergarten, with whom she’d earlier left a copy of her CV, called her up to go in for a job interview, so off we toddled in the driving snow (always seems to snow when she has interviews) and later that day they called back to say that she had the job if she wanted it. It’s part-time (which is good) and badly paid (which isn’t so hot) but never mind, it’s a good start: she should also qualify now for part-time work at the University, which is much better paid. Anyway, we’ll see. Must dash, got luggage to pack and a train to catch.


Here we are, back again. We got up to Paris with no problems, found Philippe waiting to take us in hand on the platform at Gare de Lyon, spent the night with the Vivions and then flew off to Gatwick (after leaving at a ridiculously early hour so as to get to Roissy about two hours before takeoff). We left Paris in the snow and arrived to find London in the same state, which gave British Rail a marvellous new opportunity to look ridiculous. They didn’t squander it: they claimed that the reason two-thirds of scheduled train services weren’t running was not that it was snowing: the problem was that it was the wrong sort of snow. They weren’t expecting the stuff to fall from the sky, or something like that.

Fortunately, we weren’t relying on BR to get us to the church on time. It was an interesting wedding: English-style vegetables and Turkish dancing afterwards. The only hitch came at the end when, in time-honored fashion, everyone stood in the slush outside for the ceremony of Hurling the Bridal Bouquet. Now Julia is a big girl (used to play rugby for Wales, I believe), strong, but apparently lacking a strong sense of direction: she hiffed the thing onto the hotel roof, from which the biggest, hairiest male of the party later retrieved it.

Monday the IRA decided, as you probably heard, to liven up the London scene by blowing up a couple of tube stations. As train services (those that weren’t cancelled anyway due to snow) were promptly stopped, this led to the horrid possibility of Uncle David’s being stuck in London and thus unable to pay for the swish dinner arranged for that night - a possibility happily unrealised. (It really was an excellent meal, I must say.) Another disturbing event came to our notice that day: we learnt of an Air Europe pilot who had to be summarily removed from the plane just before takeoff on the grounds that he was rather under the affluence of incahol and not really in the best of states to deliver a planeload of people to Paris. Disconcerting.

And now for an humanitarian appeal: please run - do not walk - to your desks and write to the American ambassador to protest US brutality to the English language. The other day we were privileged to hear a briefing from an American military spokesman, reporting that Iraqi troops gave in. What he actually said was “As a follow-up to the on-going offensive situation, EPWs (that’s “Enemy Prisoners of War” to those unused to YankSpeak) went into surrender mode”. War really is hell, isn’t it?

On a happier note, we got back into Paris on the 20th with nary a problem (plane didn’t wobble excessively, all the hostesses appeared able to walk a reasonably straight line ...) apart from the suitcase, which had developed a definite list to port (eaten too many tins of golden syrup), and the gall of Parisian taxi-drivers (who wanted 250FF to take us from Roissy to one of the northern suburbs. Took the train instead.). Got a few bits and pieces done while we were there: off to the NZ Embassy for a start. (Ours is, by the way, one of the few embassies which is not protected by gun-toting Neanderthal paranoids from the CRS: goes to show how high up we rate on the diplomatic scale, I suppose - although I must admit that we’re a bit in the low-rent district as such things go. So much so that whereas other embassies have lines of Mercedes and BMWs with CD plates outside, we have an old 2CV parked next to the ambassadorial Mk II Zephyr - means you don’t get the hub-caps lifted as often.)

Went off to Brentanos again to stock up on a few books and then, taking Philippe’s copy of “Paris Pas Cher” (“Paris for Cheapskates”) firmly in paw, in search of a reasonably priced pair of jeans. (Should the bottom fall out of your last pair whilst in Paris, try Jeans Stany, Bvd Magenta.) And we finally got to the Musée d’Orsay. Heaps of Rodins around the place, Impressionists by the bucketful, an excellent section on French and Belgian Art Nouveau. And a fascinating model (well, it fascinated Malyon and I, anyway) at 1/100 scale or something, of the Opera district, set in a glassed-over pit in the floor so that you can walk (or crawl) over it. We weren’t actually sure that we’d bother to go in when we got there, as the queue stretched about 400 yards, ‘cos they were passing everyone through the metal-detector: they must pay the guards on a per-head basis, though, as it moved quite quickly. Definitely worth a look: don’t miss one of the grand salons from the hotel (originally part of the Gare d’Orsay) which they’ve preserved in all its turn-of-the-century opulent bad taste. So gaudy it’s glorious, dripping with crystal chandeliers, oozing gilt and plush.

Malyon got on well with the Vivions despite being - to all appearances - a confirmed dipsomaniac. At least, every time we had an aperitif (and this was quite often - before every meal except breakfast), she’d make a bee-line for the glasses. Port, pastis, all one to her. When she’d finished amusing herself with that, she’d start grabbing handfuls of Apericubes (which, for those who’ve never come across La Vache Qui Rit, are little flavoured cubes of processed cheese) and give them out to all and sundry before reclaiming them. Then she’d head back for the liquor again. Endless fun, she’d do it for hours given half a chance.

Finally, we made it home on the 24th. The TGV was stuffed to the gunwales with Parisians coming down here to ski and on top of that it was hot: never mind, we made it anyway.


Since which report Margo has undergone her first week’s work. So far so good, might get better (like, she might start getting a petrol allowance, which’d be nice). It’s an interesting job anyway, I suppose (moulding the tiny minds of infants, or the other way round, I can never remember) andd the school could well develop and expand. As far as I can gather, it doesn’t really serve the English-speaking community of Chambdey (which is surprisingly extensive: Margo said that the chap who installed the cable TV line at the school was an Irishman), but rather the French: either they want their child to learn English (fear of 1992 and all that, plus Europeans in general seem to be keener on having a second language than the somewhat insular English) or they’ve noted that the fees are not hideously higher than those of yer normal kindergarten and they plonk the sprog in there ‘cos the local halte garderie is booked solid for the next few years Which rather puts them in the invidious position of having some parents who don’t particularly care about the educational side and some (who do) worrying that yes, their little blossoms may start learning English but will they get far enough ahead in the rest of the French educational system to be assured of a place in the lycée? (Which is what counts.)

In any case, she now has the car and I get dropped off at work in the mornings. Although this week things could be tricky because the Alfa goes in to have her engine completely re-done on Monday. (Shouldn’t really be any problem, they’ll lend us a car for the few days it takes - I rather doubt it’ll be the 1991-model Zagato they had in the workshop when I went in, though, which is a shame. Only 400,000FF, brand new.) Malyon spends her mornings with a friend at Chambery and seems to enjoy it, Margo gets out of the house, away from Malyon and has something to occupy her, no problems so far.


As it happens I was right, it wasn’t the Zagato: it was a beaten-up Austin Maestro with a poorly regulated automatic choke, a rear-view mirror which spent most of its time on the floor, no insurance or registration and a very thirsty engine, but it got us about for the week. Now we’ve got the Alfa back all right, but we’ve got to run it in again: no going over 3000 rpm for the next 1500 km. Which means that our effective top speed is about 100 kph, which leads to the embarrassing situation of being overtaken by Renault 4s and other little piles of tin. Never mind.

We headed up to Annecy last weekend to stock up on wine: the food and drink show rolled round again. Half a dozen bottles of Rioja from the Spanish stand and another case of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. A pleasant little outing, and Malyon seemed to enjoy herself. The big news, though, is that the painter starts work on the water damage to the flat tomorrow! (Remember hearing about that, do you?) Difficult to believe, and I’d sort of got used to the flakes of paint dropping on my head in the shower: I’m going to miss them.

Anyway, the daffodils are bobbing their heads about (or should be - ours are rather slack, they flowered once two years ago and although they pop up religiously in around this time of year we’ve had no flowers off them since) and the trees are in leaf, small furry animals perform unspeakable beastly acts every night (to judge by the squeakings and snufflings), with luck you might even surprise a fugitive smile running for cover across a gendarme’s face, up and under the képi: it’s Spring, innit? And a happy Autumn to all and sundry, but I plan on printing this off and then heading for home. Bye.

Trevor, Margo and Malyon

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