Friday, May 17, 1991

French Gazette Vol. 5 N°. 2 8 Avril 1991

Back again, folks.

Well, we were so inspired at the sight of our nicely redone bathroom (holes bogged up, more tiles stuck in, repainted) that we went out and repainted our kitchen to go with it. It now looks awfully Mediterranean - not that there are clots of sewage floating about, and the topless sunbathers are mostly notable by their absence - but it has the walls in a slightly agressive sky blue and the roof in ultraviolent white, which is a bit of a change from the government-surplus shade of “Muddy Cream” it was before. (To be totally fair, some of that was due to the walls not having been washed for a goodly number of years: the original designer “Ivory Cack” had been overlaid by what people in the art trade call a “patina” but which most of the rest of us over here are inclined to call “crud”.) Anyway, we’re now trying to get used to living with the municipal swimming baths.

Things got pretty difficult over here during the Gulf crisis: so much so, in fact, that even vital supplies of imported music were interrupted for some time. Which left us in the unenviable situation of sitting down one night to watch “Les Nuls” and discovering that their “musical” guest artist that night was Boy George. I’d thought he was dead! (I’d hoped, anyway.) But there he was, surrounded by a pack of rather anaemic-looking Buddhists (for so I assume them to have been, although if it hadn’t been for the flowing yellow robes you could have mistaken them for a flock of vegetarian Mormons) chanting about love, peace, living in harmony and the primal path toward reconciliation of the atman with universal oneness. I think.

Anyway, just at the moment the weather’s fine and all the dinky wee spring vegetables are popping their heads out for the slaughter - asparagus, strawberries, all that lot. And right now Margo can’t profit from it, ‘cos she decided to come down with the dreaded lurgy yesterday. Seems there’s not really an awful lot of it about, so she did very well to catch it.

And now for a (mostly) true story, a snippet from the “Faits Divers” column in one of the papers: “Man Injured by Photocopier”. You may well ask how this came about: your average photocopier is a pretty placid sort of beast and, apart from the occasional one which goes rogue and starts nipping the secretary on the ankles as she passes, or eating every second copy, have an excellent - you could almost say dull - safety record. As it turns out, in this case the poor thing was provoked: for reasons best known to himself the man involved wanted a photocopy of his bum. (As far as I am aware there are no branches of the French administration which currently demand such a document, but there may well be a Ministry in Charge of Haemorrhoids somewhere which does. Best perhaps not to ask.) He removed his trousers, therefore, sat on the glass, and was about to stick his one-franc piece into the slot and press the button when he fell through the glass, causing lacerations to his nether parts and leaving bloodstains on what are technically known as the “guts” of the photocopier, the removal of which required the intervention of a specialist from Xerox. A rather sad story, particularly as (so it turned out) the contrast was maladjusted and the required photocopy was unusable.


And, as usual, we’ve fallen a bit behind, so here I am, trying like mad to rectify this situation. Last time I wrote I was boasting about the good weather: you can hear the sound of syllables being munched as I eat my words. Things took a distinct turn for the worse a week or so back, temperatures dropped back into the horrid ones which have a minus sign in front of them, and we’ve even had more snow. In fact, we’re having some now - admittedly more slush than snow down this low. The end result is that (it is claimed) about 90% of the Champagne vineyards have been frost-damaged, the Touraine has been wiped out for the year, altogether ‘91 may be an expensive vintage. On the other hand ... I’m always inclined to take these claims of sudden poverty with a largeish pinch of salt, especially so when you know that the winegrowers are really looking for another government handout disguised as “disaster relief”. We’ll see, anyway. (PS: scepticism is advised. The vines are already putting out new buds.)

Headed off to Grenoble on the advice of one of the secretaries and managed to find the Toys’R’Us shop, which is really good value even if you do have to wade through piles of Mutant Ninja Turtle Dressing-Up Kits and the Complete Barbie Omnibus Wardrobe, which comes with its own DIY bankruptcy declaration for Dad to sign at the checkout counter. Margo found some stuff she was looking for, I finally managed to get my hands on some Japanese acrylic model paints (sure beats cleaning out the air-brush with white spirits, and it dries in 20 minutes) and Malyon would, if she could, have happily gone off with a 2500F Ferrari kiddy-car (none of this pedal-pushing stuff either - the things are motorised). Then the next day we went to the annual spring-time second-hand fair at Chambery (which is sort of a garage sale spread out over the city centre) so that Margo could look at getting stuff for the school. I was sorely tempted by the remnants of an ancient rocking-horse, but what with the price the chap was asking for the bits (the body, two legs and its head, all in pretty bad nick) and the fact that he started off addressing me as “My poor sir, if only you knew the prices these things fetch, you can’t get the wood these days” I decided to forget about it.

More Lyonnais policemen have been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from simple assault (which isn’t really considered an offence by the police, especially if you’re in the Arab quarter of Lyon or Marseilles ... ) all the way up to grand fraud, larceny and extortion. It’s a funny thing, but surveys showing public confidence in the police forces don’t seem very popular in France. Not, at least, just at the moment.

Hands up all those who’ve been watching “Twin Peaks”? Noticed last night that La Cinq had started screening it, so we came in on the second episode. (Normally I don’t bother looking too hard at what’s scheduled on La Cinq: it’s the chain that does low-budget soft-core, Italo-Polish coproductions of “Conan the Inland Revenue Inspector”, cheap martial arts films and early Schwartzenegger. Bad.) So far so good, anyway: I gather that the second series flopped in the States, partly because they couldn’t decide who really killed Laura (artistic differences between screenwriter and director), partly because (it seems) they were so blatant about trying to milk as much money from it as possible, with the “Who Killed Laura” T-shirt, beer mug and probably suspender belt as well, that even an American audience noticed. The other bright spot on the TV landscape is that M6 seem to have acquired the entire “Star Trek” series and have started screening an episode each night. (The gloriously named Canal Jimmy - available on cable TV at Chambéry - has since started screening Monty Python. Pooey.)

Anyway, Margo’s on holiday at the moment (two glorious weeks of vacances scolaires, unfortunately ingloriously unpaid but that’s too bad) so next week we’ll profit from that to head up to Pesseliere for a few days If we sneak out of Arbin at about 4am on Saturday there should be sod-all traffic on the roads for the first few hours at least (which means that if we really want to we can take the autoroute up and go through Lyon, something I normally avoid like a rabid toad), and with a bit of luck Malyon will go back to sleep in the car and stay that way for a while, which gives us that many hours of trouble-free driving. The car’s out of its running-in period too, which is comforting: be able to travel at a reasonable rate of knots.

Then we’ve got a wedding to go to next month: Renaud and Sophie have decided (Sophie has decided, anyway) to finally get married, so at long last we’ll get to see how the French do such things. (From what I can gather from films, it’s much the same as the way we do it, but they tend to go in rather more for piano-accordions as the “musical” accompaniment.)


Sorry for dashing off like that without saying good-bye but never mind, we’ve made it back again. The idea of heading off early worked well in all but one respect: Malyon didn’t go back to sleep. But at least we made it through Lyon without problems, as planned (read “hoped”). Then we settled down into some serious lounging. Apart, that is, from going off cellar-visiting and winetasting on the Saturday afternoon and then doing an antique and second-hand fair “somewhere in the region of” Vezelay on the Sunday. I say “somewhere in the region of” ‘cos it was exactly that: according to the ads it was at Vezelay, when we asked there it was actually at St. Something, not far down that little road just there, when we finally got there we’d done a fair few kilometres and learnt a lot about the local geography. The prices were, as usual, exorbitant: I sometimes suspect that antique dealers are only let out of the asylum on weekends, especially when I see a corkscrew - identical to, apart from being a bit rustier than, the one at Pesselière, admittedly functional - with an asking price of FF200. I did come across one rather intriguing little curio, which I didn’t have time to look at closely: carved ivory, might have been a salt-cellar but I rather fancy its purpose was a little more intimate than that.

Can someone please explain to me, by the way, why it is that people with silly names seem curiously attracted to the world of cinema, where they get stuck up in the credits for all the world to see? Like, for instance, one David S. Hamburger, assistant executive director of “Silverado”. And, of course, the Brothers Broccoli. Or Quintin Radish, stunt-man. (Invented, that one. Sorry.) Whilst on the subject of silly names and things like that, something that really gets up my nose (or, sometimes, tickles my wotsit - fancy, that’s the word) is the way people seem willing to pay a small fortune to place an ad somewhere, but nothing at all to make sure that the ad itself is good or even literate. Noticed this a lot in BYTE, where Taiwanese computer companies pay the GNP of an African republic to get a full-page spread, which they fill with an ad translated (by a half-drunk Swahili-speaking Hungarian) into what could loosely be called English, and illustrated with a mug shot taken with someone’s Box Brownie and developed by Attila the Your-Photos-in-5-Minutes-Or-Else at the local dairy.

All of which leads us inexorably to the publicity handout produced (in 5 languages or so) by the Office de Tourisme of Beaune (of which more later), which advises the innocent English-speaking tourist (if this is not a contradiction in terms) to visit the Chateau of the Ducks of Burgundy. Gotta be worth taking a gander at.

Monday the 29th of April, a black day in the annals of music-lovers everywhere, the day (as it happens, and this is true) of the Annual World Reunion of Bagpipers. Held in Burgundy this year (obviously not too worried about the wine being turned), featuring instruments ranging from the ludicrously simple (ie two straws stuck into a pig’s bladder - what the pig thought of this is not recorded) to an affair which resembles a cross between a pipe organ, one of those machines that goes around putting new tarmac down, and a rather unfortunate road accident. No deaths were reported. The same day saw the signing of a treaty of eternal amity (or at least temporary peace) between France and New Zealand, the X’s being placed on the appropriate dotted lines (after having being vetted by Treasury officials) by Jimbo “Potatohead” Bolger and Michel Rocard, well-known Pretender to the Presidency. According to the French news services Rocard was both conciliatory (apologising - a bit - for blowing up a boat in Auckland harbour) and firm (insisting that France has the right to blow up bits of the Pacific - or boats - if it feels that way inclined), which makes him sound a bit like a blancmange.

Be that as it may, on Tuesday we decided to do some sightseeing, come what may. So we decided to go down to Clamecy, a charming town with Mediaeval bits and the added attraction of one J. (for Jacques) Potts, who makes pottery. (This too, is true. Promise.) Picked the wrong day, we decided, having been blown past the cathedral for the second time, not to mention being soaked to the skin (or at least, the underclothes). So we gave that one up as a bad job, and I decided to fill up the car and then head back to the house. Now generally speaking I do not fill the car at supermarkets, their having a somewhat clouded reputation in the purity-of-petrol department (small floaty bits, origins indeterminate, absence of) but having spent a good half-hour searching - in vain - for a petrol station I gave in. As luck would have it the supermarkets were still open, and weren’t too proud to serve me.

That night Malyon decided to try sleep-walking. I’ve no idea why, I know only that around midnight I looked around the bedroom and saw a white blob in the middle distance (or what passes for it when you’ve been asleep for a while and aren’t too sure if opening your eyes is a good thing, or even what eyes are for that matter) and said to myself “Hullo! There’s a towel hung over the back of that chair, or my name isn’t Norman Furtwangle.” At about that point I remembered that that is not in fact my name and, logic being one of my stronger points, concluded that in that case it probably wasn’t a towel at all. And I was right. It was in fact Malyon, who’d got out of bed (not too difficult, she was sleeping on a mattress on the floor), walked a few paces and then stood there, still holding Nounours (the French-speakers amongst you will realise that this means “Teddy bear”: a big raspberry to them ‘cos what she means by it is her fluffy portable rabbit) and still fast asleep.

Wednesday she decided to try suicide for a change. She managed to loop the curtain cord around her neck, and you should have seen the look on her face when she tried to walk forwards. Margo and I stopped laughing soon enough to be able to get to her before she turned too blue. We picked up some wine, too, as you might expect. Half-a-dozen bottles of Pinot Noir, aged in oak, from Ian’s favorite vigneron, Mr Maltoff, and ten litres of plonk from the same source, with which we amused ourselves by bottling it.

And on Thursday we headed back home. Having a bit of time in hand, and finding ourself in the region, we thought we’d take a quick detour to Beaune. So we hung a left on the D9wotsit, and found ourselves going though villages with names like Meursault, Volnay, Pommard, Puligny-Montrachet -you know, the wine-label ones. Eventually we got there: according to the Guide Michelin it’s worth the trip, but architecturally I found the bit we saw to be rather null and void - I’m perfectly willing to admit, however, that we only spent a few hours there and that perhaps not in the best of circumstances (Malyon having decided to go running on the admittedly picturesque but totally impractical cobblestones and, as a result, fallen and cassé sa gueule - which is one way of saying she fell flat on her face, with the attendant cuts and bruises) so why not go and look for yourselves? All that apart we had a rather nice meal with good wine (what else would you expect) and apart from a few problems getting out of the place (the local Town Planning department being ideologically opposed to road signs) rather enjoyed the visit.

Those of you who remember a bit of your geography will (or will not) recall that from Beaune, to get to Chambery and other points south, you go through Chalon-sur-Saône and then, if you want to, Macon. Macon has the air of being a town founded by camp followers: every second street seems to be named after a regiment. (Or, failing that, a squadron or, at the very least, a colonel.) For instance, Place du 4eme Bataillon de Choc. A nice name, and it intrigued me enough to ask around a bit: according to Renaud (who has, like every male French-thing who hasn’t been able to get out of it, done his military service and who should thus know) this group of elite troops are trained in the arts of disguise and free-form yodelling to the point where they’re able to hide behind almost anything and, at a given signal, leap out, shouting “Boo!” in unison, thus alarming the enemy (whence the name - the 4th Shock Battalion) and provoking one or two second thoughts as to the wisdom of his current course of action. (You expected perhaps a retreat? They’re good, but not that good.) They’ve never yet been proved in combat - even during the Gulf crisis they were held in reserve - but all of France sleeps the sounder for knowing that they’re there.

It was whilst musing on these and other points that I forgot to take the turning to Bourg-en-Bresse, which was rather silly of me. In fact it was even sillier to have gone through Macon in the first place, I could have turned directly toward Bourg at Tournus and avoided Macon and cut a few kilometres off the trip, but there you are, I forgot. In any case, we promptly dived off the N6 (which was bent on taking us to Lyon, where we emphatically did not want to go) and into the complex system of routes departmentales, communales and - ugh - forestières which makes navigation in the French countryside such an interesting affair. We managed to escape, pretty much as planned, at Amberieu, from whence it’s a doddle to get down to the autoroute and home. Although should you ever decide to do it, follow the signposts toward Grenoble, rather than Chambery, unless you’re a dedicated amateur of the pictureskew. No matter which you take, you’re probably doomed to spend half your time behind a Belgian furniture removal van, following a Danish septic-tank cleaner who, himself, is following an extended Dutch family who, with friends and relations, are taking fifteen or so caravans on what feels like a walking tour of France. Don’t bother overtaking: a) you can’t, b) there’s no point ‘cos two kilometres further up the road you’re going to bump into the same situation, just lie back and enjoy the scenery.

Somewhat later ... it’s next week now, which is rather nice because it’s a two-day week: Wednesday and Thursday being holidays (Armistice 1945 and Ascension, or something along those lines) we get Friday off as well which is all remarkably nice. So we’ve a lovely long weekend which we plan to pass at St Jean d’Arvey, as Steve rang up last night to see if we could house-sit for them while they’re away on holiday in Spain. It was then that he sprung a small surprise on us: not only have they two floppy and rather cretinous dogs (which we knew about) but also two doubtless equally cretinous lambs (about which we were not totally in the dark) and several chickens (which came as news to me, at least). So we’re going to play at being farmers (in the broadest possible sense) for a while.


Been there, done that. You really all ought to try it some time: nothing like getting up at the crack of dawn to take a pair of half-witted Labradors for a good hour-long walk up a mountain. It’s even better when it rains. Not only because you then get rained on (and rain is wet), but also because Allie and Pip, who together can just about muster up the intellectual capacity of a cockroach, take it as a heaven-sent opportunity to roll in the mud and then leap all over you. Then there’s the question of the chickens, whom I suspect of developing psychopathic tendencies. Malyon loved it anyway: dogs to stroke, chickens to chase and sheep to try and feed. Only one sheep now, ‘cos the other one got savaged by a dog the day we checked out and had to be put down: rather upsetting for Steve (and, of course, for the sheep). Sunday we’re going round for lunch: roast lamb’s on the menu.

The more clued-up amongst you will have realised that Michel Rocard has just resigned to pursue other interests (ie, the Presidency, next time it’s up for grabs) and the rumour-mongers would have it (with, to all appearances, some reason) that he didn’t fall, he wuz pushed. By Mitterand, no less. Suitable recompense, no doubt, for signing a treaty of everlasting friendship and cooperation with the perfidious Kiwis. The news here is full of it, even down to the usual in-depth analysis (we don’t seem to be able to escape it) of the President’s speech (only 5 minutes, 31 seconds this time - yes, they really did time it) announcing the resignation and the appointment of Edith Cresson. Be that as it may, France has stolen a march on New Zealand by appointing their first ever female Prime Minister: rather a back-handed compliment to Margaret Thatcher on Mitterand’s part, really. Roll over, Jimbo: Ruth Richardson wants your seat!

Anyway, tonight Margo has gone off with Sue to see some modern ballet at Chambery: next week I go off to see “Measure for Measure”, in French, directed by the rather Germanic Peter Zadek. We’ll see whether I manage to understand what’s going on. Other news: we’ve decided to buy a camescope. Rather than pick one up in France (where, in the usual attempt to protect state industries, ie Thompson, from the indignities of competition with the perniciously efficient - and quality-obsessed - Japanese, the absolute minimum price you can pay is about $2000) Margo’s parents have promised to get one in NZ, from whence it’ll be express-delivered by Ian and Marie when they come over in July. Which I suppose means that we can’t really avoid going up to Pesselière again, ‘cos they’re unlikely to come all the way down here. So eventually those of you who haven’t managed to make it over here might get to see where we live.

OK, tomorrow we’re off to Grenoble again to see an exhibition of Celtic artifacts at one of the museums and try to pick up a wedding present for Renaud and Sophie, but just at the moment I’m listening to a CD of odds and sods by Jethro Tull from the past 20 years, so I’ll sign off here. If anything really fascinating crops up in the next few days I’ll let you know: otherwise, it’s ciao for now from us all -

Trevor, Margo and Malyon

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