Wednesday, December 2, 1992

French Gazette Vol. 6 N° 1 2 janvier 1992

And a Happy New Year to all and sundry!

We really are on the to sixth volume of this thing, aren’t we? Which, according to my calculations, is going to make this the fifth year that we’ve been here. Come the 9th of April, to be exact (around 8:40 am, Paris time, to be even more precise): legally speaking, of course, it was in August. We’ve been saving up goodies since the last letter went out, and here’s one to start off with - remember, you read it here first!

As you are probably aware, the EC is slowly moving toward economic and political union, all of which entails a certain degree of harmonisation of rules, standards and whatnots between the various member states. Driving this procedure is the EC Commission (headed by Jacques Delors, prospective candidate for the French Presidency), which is currently stuck on a very tricky point: what is the right size for a condom? Agreement has been reached (in principle) on the length - 152mm seems to satisfy everybody that’s been asked - but the Italians are holding out on the diameter: they want 54mm instead of the proposed EuroNormal 55mm. I won’t say that the machinery of the EC has come to a grinding halt over this little bone of contention, as it were - that would be rather an exaggeration - but it does rather start you wondering which cretin in Brussells thought it important to set a standard for such affairs. (What about the ones with feathers on the ends? Will black be the only colour permitted? Will they have to be recyclable?) Sometimes you get the nasty sneaking feeling that maybe Margaret Thatcher was right. (Although whenever I start to feel like that I go and lie down with a good book and a hunk of EuroMoines - I am not making this up, it is the honest-to-god name of a type of cheese with a picture of a jolly fat monk on the box, produced - for their sins - in France, from milk of unspecified but European origin and conforming, it seems, to all applicable EuroRegulations. There being none such concerning taste, the cheese doesn’t have any, either, apart from a vague aroma of rubber.)

By the way, the bit about recycling is semi-serious. If the EC lets them get away with it, the Germans have introduced a law which provides that, in addition to the current obligation to collect all transporting material (which means the cardboard wrapped around your new stove when it’s delivered, but not that around your new toaster when you buy it), manufacturers will, in 1995, be obliged to collect all packaging material (that's the cardboard around the toaster) - at, of course, their own cost - and will furthermore be responsible for recycling something around 80% of it. I get the funny feeling that there’s also a clause on recycling the leftovers of the product itself once the consumer’s finished with it, but I’m not too sure on that one.

Christmas was good, thanks awfully for the cards and loot. We’d pretty much given up hope of its snowing, the magic date of November 22 having long since been and gone without a trace of white fluffy stuff down here, when on Friday it finally started. First it rained, then it slushed, then it hailed, slushed some more, and then it snowed. It was going great guns when we went up to St Jean d’Arvey to visit Steve and Isabel that evening, and it was snowing heavily the next day when we went in to market at Chambery. In fact, it snowed so heavily that despite the emergency procedures prepared for the Olympic Games (only another five weeks or so before we stop hearing about it, thank god), the roads leading up to the stations were closed (for fear - justifiably enough - of avalanches), hundreds of holidayers hurrying up for a ski trip were trapped in their cars on the autoroute and thousands were forced to sleep in various railway stations (the SNCF having decided, in its wisdom, to ferry them up as far as possible and then dump them, despite its knowing of the road and track closures). The news was full of interviews with these unlucky folk, and one chap was rather more philosophical than most: “Well”, he said, “last year there was no snow and I got stuck in a traffic jam on the Nationale just across the river, this year it’s too much snow and I’m stuck on the autoroute. Just like old times.” He should be made an honorary Briton.

Meanwhile, up at Courcheval, they were getting things ready for the Games: the ski jump, in fact. There not having been enormous amounts of snow, they’d had fleets of lorries working for a week or so trucking snow from wherever they could find it up to the site - overnight, they had far too much and had to start trucking the stuff away. Some people are never satisfied. Be that as it may, we missed out on a white Christmas anyway: it started raining on Saturday evening, to such good effect that there were floods left right and centre, and by Monday there was no more snow. Shame, really.

I hear that PotatoHead caved in under French pressure and decided not to seek the extradition of that French agent who surfaced in Switzerland. I suppose he didn’t think he had much choice, but if memory serves me rightly (unlikely, but still possible) he wasn’t willing to accept that as an excuse back in the dim distant days when Lange let go of the two we did manage to nab. In fact, I rather thought that at the time he was spluttering about “Selling out the honour of the nation”, “unfit to be PM” (about Lange, that one, I think), “wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t chucked in ANZUS”, things generally along those lines. I guess that times have changed.

In case you’re wondering, we passed a jolly festive season - a quiet Christmas unwrapping the loot under the tree (slightly embarrassing moment there as I’d meant to get Margo’s present on the Monday, alas I got called back into work unexpectedly that day and consequently didn’t get a chance, Margo very kindly refrained from hitting me) and then New Year’s Eve up at Steve and Isabel’s. We did the dinner and Steve supplied the wine; we were in bed by 4 am which I suppose isn’t too bad. What was better was that Malyon, having stayed up with us (she finally fell asleep in the car coming home), was happy enough to sleep in and let us lie in bed till 11 - much appreciated. How was it with you? The usual riots in Queen Street and at Mt Maunganui?


As you can probably tell, time’s gone by. News story of the month is the affaire Habache, that being how the French spell “Habash”. As you’ll be aware, this well-known Palestinian terrorist - or freedom fighter for those who prefer not to call a spade a bloody shovel - turned up in Paris for a medical checkup, having apparently decided to profit from his having neglected to bomb the hospital a few years earlier. His arrival was not exactly kept a state secret, and even if it had been the hordes of CRS thugs stopping all but the semi-dead from entering the place would probably have caused even the least suspicious to start wondering a bit, and the end result was an enormous political stink. Ministers denying everything, senior civil servants resigning in droves, and over all the sound of the French National Conscience being Exercised. Rather futilely, as it turns out, ‘cos despite being placed under preventive detention by the juge d’instruction investigating some minor matters of arms caches, assassinations (diverse) and bombings dating back a few years he got shuffled out of the country and back to Tunis in pretty short order on Saturday night. More denials, more resignations, more cries by opposition politicians for a “full and frank” investigation, and no doubt huge sighs of relief being heaved at the Elysée, Mitterand having been out of the country at the time. Still doesn’t do any good for his popularity rating, which is slumping toward levels previously only attained by Edith Cresson (still Prime Minister) and used-car salesmen.

On to more cheerful matters: the Olympic games. About ten communes are so far technically bankrupt: the worst in sheer financial terms is Brides-les-Bains, which spent something like $100 million on a nice shiny new casino and municipal complex, but in terms of debt per capita it’s probably Pralognan, a village of some 600 souls, which spent an enormous sum to stick up a skating rink (for curling, which isn’t even a real Olympic sport) and discovered that it cost about $400 a day to keep it frozen. The mayor and council which planned the affair have since been voted out. And I really do wonder exactly what Albertville is going to do with the thousands upon thousands of hotels which have gone up in the past year or so: the place is not exactly a tourist trap (despite the presence of the excellent Hotel Million, which serves marvellous food but whose name, unfortunately, is an accurate reflection of its prices), being basically a steel and metal-working town. Ah well, we’ll still be paying for it in 20 years, I suppose. Grenoble’s still paying for theirs, and they were back in ‘60-something.

At least the gendarmerie is entering into the spirit of things. They were staking out the cemetery on Sunday as I went past for a walk, for reasons which are perhaps best left undiscovered (a mundane explanation, which I reject contemptuously on the grounds that it’s important to leave some play for the imagination, is that it’s amongst the best places on our little départementale to put up a speed trap) and I couldn’t help but notice, boldly blazoned on the sides of their Renault 4 (Renault’s equivalcnt of the 2CV, but lacking its somewhat bizarre charm, and incidentally official issue to French country cops) the notice “Ministère de la Defense - Partenaire Officiel des J.O. d’Albertville”. Really sweet - where else would you find the Defence Ministry (through the gerndarmes, them being a wholly-owned subsidiary) sponsoring a festival given over to promoting sweetness, light, harmony and New-Age awareness amongst athletes of all races, colours and creeds? (Don’t even think about the proposed dope-testing for the supposedly female Russian competitors in the ladies giant slalom.)

Arbin is also entering into the right spirit: we got a note in the mail the other day to let us know when the Olympic flame would be passing through the village (17:05, Feb. 7, at the old well at the western end, if anyone’s interested), encouraging those who wish to do so to decorate their windows and illuminate their garden gnomes, and inviting all and sundry to partake of mulled wine and brioches afterward. Suppose it must be one of the more exciting events to occur here since the Revolution, and we couldn’t really let it go by uncelebrated. I’d like to be there, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to manage it - from what I hear they’ll be closing the roads at about 3pm, which’ll make it rather tricky getting the car home.


As it happens I needn’t have worried: got home without any worries at all and went down with Margo and Malyon to watch. Everything went off swimmingly: a few balloons, somewhat ineptly launched by the kids, flopped to the ground with a thud and an elderly jogger set off after the procession, followed by anguished squeals from the thug with the load-hailer imploring him to stop (displaying, I thought, remarkable tact - the usual CRS response to something like that is to hit it with a stick, and the larger the better). Then the souvenir van came along, selling little plastic copies of the torch - doubtless made in Taiwan, which is a bit of a blow for local industry (Edith Cresson, who is toujours Prime Minister, would not be amused) - and that was that.

So we headed off to the salle des fêtes, and the local village idiot went around singing at people (Mme the mayor’s wife came in for a particularly heavy earbashing): a special Olympic song which I imagine he’d composed especially for the occasion, and he accompanied himself on the harmonica. At least when he was doing that he wasn’t singing, which is about the best you could say for it. I suppose there’s one in every village. (I should apologise for saying “village idiot”. The chap is not, in fact, a member of this honourable profession, but is a bio-dynamic evangelical type who unfortunately will insist on opening his mouth when he sings.) It actually reminded me of the bard in the Asterix books, only we were missing someone to tie and gag him.

I don’t know whether you bothered watching the opening ceremonies of the Games or not, but we plopped ourselves down in front of the idiot box for a couple of hours of lethargy. Beautiful weather for it - by presidential decree, I imagine. Let it be said, the spectacle at the end was definitely spectacular - the bungy-jumping ballet in particular was great (I particularly enjoyed the beginning, when one of the dancers got let loose accidentally and spent a few minutes bouncing helplessly up and down, doubtless feeling more and more prattish every second, until her partner managed to grab her) - but the entrance of the athletes was a little on the gross side, I thought. Each team preceded by a girl wearing a goldfish bowl full of polystyrene beads, coming on to the most appalling doggerel I’ve heard in a long time. (A sample, for those fortunate enough to have missed it; “They come from a country far-off and hilly, 3 cheers for the team from the land of Chile” or how about “Its viennent, ils viennent, une toute petite bande, voici les moutons de la Nouvelle Zélande”. I made the last one up, but I could as well have spared myself the effort. They really were as bad as that.) From what I heard it was one of the chaps who does the scripts for the French equivalent of “Spitting Image” who was responsible for the verses, I suppose he just couldn’t help himself.

I find myself in a slightly embarrassing situation: after months of grousing (in true Savoyard fashion) about the Games, all the fat German tourists and - even worse - the Parisians who’ll be all over the roads, the cash we’ll be shelling out in our impots locaux for the next godnose how many long years, I’ve been given a couple of tickets to the women’s downhill. Suppose I’ll just have to eat my words, accept that I’m as hypocritical as the next thing, and go off to it. Can’t really miss out on what’ll probably be my first and last chance to go to the Olympics. I’ll take the camera; with a bit of luck I’ll be able to get one or two shots of a few unidentifiable Lycra-encased buttocks hurtling past at unreasonable speeds. They say that the ambiance is marvellous - I just hope it’s not too cold. It will mean leaving here at some ungodly hour of the morning to get up to Albertville, find a park and then grab a shuttle bus up to Meribel, but as it’s Wednesday I have to drop Margo off at the station so that she can go through to Lyon so I’m up early anyway. (Do not start mumbling about my being chauvinist as well as a hypocrite, shoving poor Margo out to work whilst I revel amongst the rich and famous: she was the one who decided she’d rather skip it. And in any case, there won’t be that many rich and famous up there - most of them are as poor and unknown as I am.)


Been, seen, and got away. Lovely weather for it, hot and sunny (good thing I didn’t wear the thermal underwear - as it was a ski-suit was sometimes a bit too hot, although it’s a great help at keeping you dry when trudging through thigh-high snow looking for a quiet place for a quick slash) but somehow I’ve come to the conclusion that skiing is not a spectator sport. I admit that I’m not really a great follower of ski technique, and no doubt a passionate amateur of the sport can happily spend hours analysing and criticizing every second of a descent, but personally I find one aerodynamically-suited blur much like another (only the colours change, really). In fact, I rather regret not having gone skiing instead. (The beauty of the Olympics is that there’s hardly anyone at all on the slopes, apart from the pistes which are reserved for the competitions. Everyone’s either staying away or watching keenly, which means that there’s plenty of room out there.) To be quite honest I was somewhat disappointed - I’d expected something a bit more - well, Olympian. More excitement in the air, a bit of festive spirit, something like that.

Never mind, it was quite fun anyway. Watching the chic and trendy in their fantastically expensive (and apparently unused) ski-suits, knowledgeably discussing the state of the pistes and the chances of so-and-so for a gold - the Norwegians, not at all trendy or chic and whose diet apparently consists of potatoes, gold teeth and prodigious quantities of beer - the average French-person queuing up to buy tickets and getting extremely irate at having to wait 30 seconds to be served (just imagine how excited they were getting after an hour, which was when I spotted them) - other average French-people, trying to see exactly how long they could ignore the person waiting to be served whilst concentrating on getting their nail-polish dried just so, or discussing last night’s extra-curricular activities with their bosom friend at the next ticket counter. (This is a good one, because not only does it block two queues, the total blockage time of those queues is, due to a quirk of conversational mathematics, more than twice that of a single blocked queue!)

And I learnt why the French are rude about the Swiss. It’s not so much because they’re slow, not really because they speak funny (although they do), not just because they come to France to drive like idiots and chase French women (for such is the belief): it’s because when they do come they insist on bringing their cowbells with them. And they make an awful lot of noise with them. There was a manic-depressive-looking type not too far from us, who looked as though he’d be much happier in a bank vault counting ingots, and every time a Swiss skier started off on the run he and his partner would pick up these enormous sets of bells and clang them until she’d got safely to the finish line. Which made for about 90 seconds of 110 decibels each time. I wondered, fleetingly, how they’d sound with the clappers stuck up a pair of Helvetic nostrils, but as the chap had pretty obviously been working out with wads of share certificates in his spare time I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and let him live.


And I take back some of all that. I got another pair of freebies, for the ski artistique this time, and that was worth watching. You know, it’s the one where people launch themselves into space and do somersaults and twists and suchlike before - with any luck - landing without breaking anything. That was up at Tignes on Sunday, so we all went up (except for Cato) and started regretting it, ‘cos the weather was appalling - luckily, once we’d passed the lake just below Tignes we seemed to have climbed above the clouds, and it was beautiful and sunny. Lovely crisp powder, with very few people actually skiing on it, but Malyon enjoyed sliding down on her bottom. Three or four times. It got rather tiring, lugging her up and then running down to catch her. And she made friends with a CRS sergeant and his dog.

Tignes seems a nice place, although peopled - in winter - by members of that strange tribe who like to put a streak of colour-coordinated zinc ointment along each cheekbone and down the bridge of the nose. Never been able to find out quite why, it doesn’t actually do anything, apart from prove that you’re capable of reading Vogue and don’t mind looking like a complete prat.

Incidentally, the French sporting press is particularly bad. At least for coverage of the Olympics. Not content with having the evening news consist of how many medals the French got that day (or nearly got, which is almost as good), it’s pretty much restricted to events in which there is a French competitor - in fact you might be forgiven for thinking that there were only French competitors. When Piquard (or Picquet, or something), the Great White Hope for a gold in the downhill, fell and consequently did not win, did we find out who actually came first, second, or third? Did we hell, none of them were French. All the journalists could think to do was rush up to Picquet (or Piquard) to ask him how he felt, and then conduct in-depth interviews with his fan club to see how bad they felt. Patriotic fervour is all very well, but someone ought to tell the silly gits that it can be carried too far. (Mind you, the spectators are almost as bad. As soon as the French team have finished in an event half the crowd disappears, and when it gets round to presenting the medals the athletes must be feeling pretty lonely. A general lack of the sporting spirit - comes of not being brought up to play cricket.)

Be all that as it may, you might be wondering exactly what I’m doing typing this up on a Monday morning when I really should - in theory - be working. The answer is simple: I had in fact intended to massacre a device driver in an effort to get something to actually work under Windows, had loaded the contents of about 14 diskettes from Microsoft onto the file server, decompressed them all (Microsoft do not, of course, respect their own official guidelines affirming that all Windows products should come with installation programs that are not actively user-hostile, and do not supply one at all - although it must be admitted that yer average user is highly unlikely to be installing that sort of stuff, and the people who do probably deserve all they get) and was just getting ready to type in the magic words (“Shazam!”) when our nice newly installed network carked it. And as I have no wish to go through the whole tedious installation process again (nor, to be totally honest, do I really want all that garbage from Bill Gates polluting my disk drive) I thought I’d wait until it came back to life and what better to do (as most of the good games are also on the network file server, and consequently inaccessible right now) than carry on with this? (That is, by the way, a rhetorical question. Do not bother to write in with suggestions, I have heard most of them before.)

That seems to be about it for this time: I’ve pretty much run out of news and the network’s back up and running, so I think I’ll wrap this up and print it out. Don’t forget that March 18th is St Cyrille, so give a big hello to all the Cyrils of your acquaintance, and for all you Scorpios out there it’s probably a good day to undertake minor repair work, such as changing the spark-plugs on the septic tank. Your lucky colour is plaid, and the lucky Lotto ticket belongs to someone else, so don’t spend

Trevor, Margo and Malyon

Thursday, March 5, 1992

French Gazette Vol. 6 No. 2 - 5 Mars 1992

Here I am again.

Well, it’s all over bar the groaning when the taxman calls - the games, that is. Nice to see that New Zealand did get one medal - by a weird quirk of fate that fact actually made it into the news headlines (pretty unusual in itself, given that she wasn’t, as far as we know, French), and as luck would have it I was in the kitchen with Malyon squealing at the time and missed it. Shame, really. Anyway, life’s pretty much back to normal - now they’re grumbling about the fine weather we’re currently enjoying, ‘cos the snow’s melting too soon under the sun and if this goes on there won’t be any left for the Easter holidays, which is when everyone heads up to the slopes to get a last few runs in before summer. Personally, I like the sun - we had about 18° yesterday, which is pretty good for winter.

And I have my name on my first-ever patent application! For a glorified RMS multimeter, but never mind that, I’m still listed as co-inventor. No hope of royalties, of course: the thing was developed and paid for by Merlin Germ, but it’ll be something to tack onto my CV should I ever feel desperate. (“And what do you do in your spare time, Mr Bimler?” ‘Well, apart from my principal hobby - molesting photocopiers - I am coinventor of the Merlin Germ miracle multimeter and am currently developing the Mitterand microprocessor-controlled mousetrap.” Aspiring job applicant is quickly shown the door.)

Got to do a bit of proper wine-tasting the other day, too. We went along to the AGM of the Association des Amis d’Arbin and they’d laid on a professional winetaster and about half a million bottles (at a rough guess, more than half the inhabitants of Arbin - or at least of the old part of Arbin, which is where we live - make wine, bottle it or are otherwise involved in the wine trade, so it’s not too surprising, I suppose) so after a quick bit of general business we got on to more serious matters. It was extremely interesting, but I guess I’m not cut out for the job - I personally find that after the eighth glass or so my poor little nose gets somewhat overwhelmed and confused, and has rather a tough time identifying the predominant note in the bouquet or, indeed, anything at all. (And no, I didn’t actually swill all eight glasses - did it properly, take a mouthful and spit the rest into a spittoon - not like others I could mention.)

We also went out and bought a video. It’s about two years since we had anything on tick, and the strain was starting to tell, so when we went out in search of a new iron we were easily won over by the whispered blandishments of the PAL/SECAM recorders hanging about on the display shelves. They are, unfortunately, more expensive than straight SECAM ones, but also a damn sight more use - to us, anyway. We’ll fmally be able to watch the videos people have kindly sent us. And we won’t have to sit up til midnight to watch films in VO on Canal + any more (unless we really want to, of course). And just in case you’re wondering, we did actually buy the iron as well - a flashy thing with a Teflon base (which is very handy when you want to fry - or rather steam - eggs) which bears a vague resemblance to the TGV.

And just to keep you up to date, our Etymological Research Unit (set up in the hope of attracting a government grant, no luck so far but if it does catch on it could become quite a little money-spinner) has discovered that a “limpet” is in fact a dwarf with one leg shorter than the other. Didn’t know that, did you? Don’t you wish that you too had an E.R.U. to keep you up to date with important world facts like that? It’d stop you looking dumb at nobby parties, you know.


Time has, as usual, passed, and I am starting to get seriously concerned about Malyon. She headed off to the loo the other day with a good pile of reading matter - nothing extraordinary in that, you might think - except that she’d picked out a set of abstracts of World Bank economic reports. I hope we’re not nurturing a future accountant or central banker here. (What, you may ask, was I doing with literature like that about the house? They just arrive, from time to time, the fmancial equivalent of junk mail. Comes of subscribing to The Economist, I suppose.)

And time is still passing at its usual rate of knots, ‘cos it’s now 17/4/92, just for a change. I gather that the French have stopped nuclear testing at Muroroa for a year or so - we had Mitterand on the idiot’s box the other night (looking as though he’d much rather be tucked up in bed with his second cocoa of the evening, but that’s another thing again) and he sort of mentioned it in passing, in between the demise of la Cinq (personally, I’ve no great regrets over its passing) and a discussion of his piles.

First it was bats, now it’s monsters - it seems that a baby, invisible orphaned monster has come to live at our place. According to Malyon, anyway. It’s most unfortunate, but Margo seems to keep standing on it. Or sitting on it when she gets in the car, or otherwise managing to damage the poor little thing. What’s really difficult - it seems - is giving it a wash when it has a bath with Malyon. First of all you’ve got to get it undressed, then shampoo its head, but the tricky bit is soaping its armpits. How many arms do baby monsters have?

Anyway, we had a nice trip to Lyon for Margo’s first practical exam - much to my surprise. It meant getting out of bed incredibly early in order to leave before 7am to be reasonably sure of getting in to the centre of town by 8am, but as it happened navigating around Lyon was easier than I’d feared. There was sod-all traffic at that hour, which probably helped, but basically all you’ve got to do is ignore the signposts they’ve carefully put up to misdirect the casual visitor out into the suburbs, and follow your nose. Malyon and I spent the morning trotting around looking at toyshops (jigsaw puzzles for her, a Mercedes 300 SL for me) and playing in Place Bellecour - which may well be one of the largest in France, but is almost certainly one of the most boring, consisting as it does of a large expanse of reddish gravel enlivened only by an equestrian statue of a somewhat obese Louis XVI and a light breeze fresh out of Siberia with a rather high wind-chill factor.

That took care of the morning - then once Margo’d got out of the place of torture we headed off and had lunch, did the toyshops again and then took in the silk museum, which has some glorious stuff in it. Not that it impressed Malyon very much - she fell asleep halfway through and a good thing too, probably. Anyway, having got through all that we thought we might as well look at heading back home and stopped off to look through IKEA en route - just a quickie, you understand - and came out having spent rather more time and money than we’d intended. Never mind, I’ve at last got a marble slab for doing flaky pastry and croissant dough on.

As those of you who haven’t been living in a broom cupboard for the last few months will know, it’s this month that Microsoft brought out the latest and greatest, all-singing all-dancing version of Windows, version 3.1. (Do not suggest to a Microsoft employee that this implies rather a lot of goes to get it right: they are not noted for their sense of humour. Rumour has it, indeed, that Bill Gates has created a special SWAT team of Basic programmers who, as part of their training, are locked into small rooms with IBM accountants and taught to bite the heads off chickens. Dead ones, I hasten to add - the man is basically a humanitarian.) Anyway, I got invited along to the opening hoopla at Lyon on Thursday, so off we dutifully trotted, Gilles and I, in a Renault Clio stinking of dog. I won’t say the affair was a waste of time, because I at least found out that there was a rather more serious seminar on this morning (to which I went - this time in a Renault 25 stinking of dog), but the highlight of the morning was a video called “Paul et Virginie”, which looked at the start as though it was going to be a low-budget soft-porn movie (even the title is vaguely reminiscent of some of the films that pass late at night on M6): unfortunately it failed to live up to its early promise. Still, I came out of it with le pin’s de Microsoft Windows, which’ll doubtless become a collectors item in time.


Back again after our little holiday, folks. It didn’t really start off all that well: it was pouring down with rain all the way up, there were Italians on the roads, and when we arrived we had to turn the water on. Nothing too difficult there, you might think, and you’re quite correct - you’ve just forgotten one small but vital detail. The temperatures go down below freezing in wintertime, and so if you’re not living permanently in a house you purge all the water from the pipes before going away. Which had been done. We didn’t bother to check that the purge taps - located in the kitchen - had been put back in place, did we? The result was a rather cleaner floor than before, by the time we’d scooped all the water out. (To make it even more fun, the floor of the house is set somewhat below ground level and - Murphy oblige - has its lowest point as far as possible from an outside door.)

Anyway, once we’d got all that out of the way and the fire stoked up Malyon loved it -wandering around outside, getting as mucky as possible in the sandpit and feeding the horses - and so did Cato: a shame the weather was lousy. We should have stayed here, where it seems the whole week was glorious. To top it off I came down with my favorite disease - exploding tonsils - and Margo’s glands decided to blow up as well, so we had to dash off and find a quack on Thursday to pump the pair of us full of antibiotics.

Phillippe came down from Paris to spend the weekend there working on what will, eventually, be his room and didn’t really have that good a time of it either - his actual stay was fine, but the radiator hose split in the vicinity of Nevers when he was heading back home and as a result the cylinder head decided to follow suit, so he’s up for a new engine.

Never mind, despite these little inconveniences it was actually rather nice to get away from it all for a week - and let’s face it, Pesselière is about as far away from it as you can get. Even the roosters seem to have had laryngectomies - the rural calm is only broken by the baker’s van doing the rounds on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and the occasional Air Force Mirage cruising about 50m overhead with afterburners full on, heading down to Marseille to pick up some bouillabaisse for lunch.

In a more serious vein, did you realise that the French are different from you and I? Not just in the little things, such as liking Charles Aznavour and reeking of garlic, but in the ways they think. The tendency - or cultural imperative - to Analyse is a case in point. If Mitterand farts it gets onto the evening news, but not as an interesting fact which is - presumably - worthy of being reported for itself: far from it. It’s an event which must be discussed and analysed in order to bring out its significance, and the guest of the evening (there’s always a guest who’s supposed to comment on the news stories) will be expected to kick in his or her bobs-worth. “Well, compared with previous presidential petés this is quite exceptional, 47 seconds and thus well above the average length -Alain, what effect will this have, in your opinion, on the external trade deficit?” It can go on for hours, and often does.

Hand in hand with this can go a rather surprising cultural insensitivity (the British say it’s arrogance, but they’d be fine ones to talk) mixed with sometimes astounding ignorance. Everyone knows that France is the best country in the world - goes without saying and as a matter of fact the percentage of Frenchpeople who’ve gone off to verify the hypothesis is miniscule - and that, naturally enough, her cuisine is the greatest (following from which, if a dish is not French by birth or naturalisation, it ain’t worth eating). I remember once preparing petits pois a la francaise and being accused of serving up some bizarre Kiwi hybrid, no matter that it’s traditional French food. Maybe it’s genetic, or perhaps it’s just something in the water.

Anyway, it’s Thursday afternoon, the day before May Day - which is, of course, like much of the rest of May, a holiday (note that some low-minded humourists have reported that the French Federation of Labour are pushing for legislation to have the 1st of May always fall on a Thursday, ‘cos then you get Friday off as well) - and I’m sitting here typing this up and generally recovering from a couple of whiskies at lunch time. I have not taken to hitting the bottle hidden in the filing cabinet, we were just cleaning up the bits and pieces left up after last night’s little do, it being the inauguration of the new building we’re in (in fact, it’s the old building with a sort of jerry-rigged outhouse affair tacked on at the back, but it’s a good enough excuse). People were wandering through the place all afternoon to look around - I was left pretty much undisturbed, most people being apparently content with staring at me through the glass. Perhaps they think that NZers bite. (Some do, and with good reason.)


It's now Thursday afternoon, anyway. But time has gone by and we’re already well into May, which probably indicates that I’d better finish this and get it out the door before December rolls around. To cheer you up, summer’s come back to us: we even managed to go off and have a picnic lunch today, which was pretty brave. The only problem was with the cows, who decided to wander over and have a good look as we were getting onto the chocolate gateau and who eventually sort of pushed us out of the paddock. Which was a bit of a shame, as we were getting quite used to being there, soaking up the sun, admiring the view down below, the usual story. Never mind, we stopped off on the way down (I perhaps omitted to mention that we go picnicking halfway up mountains) to look at a friend’s ruin and admire the way in which it is gradually becoming a house before coming home to have a quiet nap.

I found out something I didn’t now before, too. We were vaguely thinking of going off to Strasbourg to see a friend at the beginning of June (even better if we can stop off at Mulhouse to see the Musée Nationale de l’Automobile, a.k.a the Shtumpf collection of Bugattis) so I toddled down to the railway station to find out about ticket prices and such like - imagine my surprise when the (surprisingly) helpful clerk informed me that, as a salaried-type person, I am entitled, once a year, to a 25% reduction for myself and family. All as part of the French obsession with holidays. It works out quite nicely, actually - about $200 for the three of us to get there and back, and we can even get the TGV from Lyon, which really cuts back on the travel time. (Another nice stunt, it seems -Malyon doesn’t pay for her ticket, not being of an age to do so, but if we pay the derisory price for a reservation on the TGV, she can have a seat to herself anyway. Handy to know.) So it looks as though we might be going off to northern parts for a few days. Use up some more of my holidays left over from last year.

So what with that cheerful news, we had quite a nice weekend. We’re still having it, in fact, it being Sunday night. (And before you ask, no I am not at work, I just brought the machine home for Margo to play Solitaire on and get a bit of work done.) The sun’s been busy shining away, everyone is cheerful, there are still tiny green asparagus at the market and the first cherries of the season are out ( although at ludicrous prices - about $30 the kilo) - to top it all off Malyon spent Friday night up at Steve and Isabel’s for the first time ever, which gave us the evening and a fair whack of Saturday in relative peace and quiet. (For the first time ever - or at least since she was born, which feels pretty much like an eternity.)

And there you have us - alive and well and - for the moment at least - enjoying the sunshine. To those of you who are waiting for replies to the letters you wrote months ago, may I just remind you that Rome wasn’t built in a day and I’ll get on to it Real Soon Now, please stop sending the reminder notices. To all and sundry - have a nice winter!

Trevor, Margo and Malyon