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

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