Thursday, September 4, 1997

French Gazette Vol 11 N° 3 4 September 1997

Rather like a migratory bird - summer comes to an end, and a letter flies off. Well - gets started, anyway.

Today is in fact an important day in French history: don’t ask me why because I really don’t know, what I do know is that there’s a street in the Opéra district of Paris called “rue du 4 Septembre” (we used to stay there, if you recall, back in the Palaeolithic era when I was working for Allflex) and I assume that if it’s got a sort of commemorative street it must be an important date. On the other hand, I do know why it’s important this year, at least: it’s the beginning of the school year, for Malyon at least (Jeremy starts on Monday).

We met up with another New Zealander, by the way: my sister Alison’s friend Patricia. She married a Frenchman and moved over here about ten years ago, and they live down in the south-west, in the Gers: not all that far from the Pyrenées, if that means anything to you. Anyway, she’s into patchwork and that sort of thing in a big way, so Margo suggested that she come up and stay for a week and raid the shop, and these things were accordingly arranged. So one fine day we all climbed into the car and headed off to Lyon to pick her up from the train station there. The train didn’t get in until mid-afternoon, but we thought that we might as well make a day of it, so we parked at Part-Dieu and took the bus to Parc de la Tête d’Or, which is a very nice and rather extensive park in the middle of Lyon. Apparently it got built there sometime last century at the instigation of a local philanthropist, who thought that it’d be a good idea if fresh milk were available daily for the poor of the city (consequently, a herd of cows were amongst its first attractions) and on top of that, the building work (which entailed moving hills and such) would provide employment so that they could afford to buy the milk.

The cows have gone, but it now houses the municipal zoo, the botanical gardens and a reasonably sized artificial lake which is kept well-stocked for the amusement of the local fishing community. The main attraction for us was the zoo, which has deer and bear and elephants and giraffes and a well-stocked monkey house, where we almost succeeded in losing Jeremy. After all that we headed back to the station and Marks & Sparks for some serious shopping, and it was when I was taking all the bags back to the car that I discovered I’d driven over an enormous screw on arriving in the car park. This pissed me off no end, because changing a tyre in a hot, humid, stinking underground car park in the middle of an August afternoon is not one of my very favourite things.

On top of that, once we’d picked up Patricia we had to get out of Lyon and back home: at this point it was about 5 pm and yes, it was a working day Now normally to do this you just have to find one of the major avenues and blast along that like a dose of salts until finally you reach escape velocity and get onto the autoroute, but given that rush hour was starting and Part-Dieu is not a district I know terribly well and on top of it there were road works everywhere, we thought we’d just follow the signs saying “all directions” until we came across the one that we wanted. What we didn’t know - or had forgotten - is that since July these signs are part of a conspiracy: they funnel cars onto a road you can’t get off, and which eventually spits you out onto a sort of toll ring-road which costs 16F for 10 km! (Which is a bit steep, especially given that large sections of it were still under construction and were limited to 90 kph. lf I have to pay, I want to be able to do at least 110.) There was quite a bit of public outrage about this - understandably so - and fortunately for my blood pressure, the day we’d picked to go through was also one of the days that autoroute employees were letting cars on for free in order to show their solidarity with the oppressed motorist.

After that unfortunate start, things went very well, and the kids adopted Patricia (who is rather older than us) as an honorary grand-mother. Her husband Jacky turned up at the end of the week to take her back home in the car and dropped off a couple of rabbits, a pot of home-made foie gras, a couple of bottles of wine ... we have arranged to head down to see them later in the year, probably at Toussaint.

Other than that, we didn’t do a great deal during the holidays. We’d planned to go off to Peaugres in the Ardéche one day: they have a wild-life park there which is very popular and apparently quite good, but Malyon chose the day before the trip to stand on a bee. She is, like me, rather allergic to bee stings: she had a bit of difficulty walking for a week afterwards. But we did manage to go walking in the mountains: she’s been asking to do that for ages, and I finally got myself organised and went off with her to get some halfway decent hiking boots (as much for protection from snakes as for anything else). At the top of the massif behind us is a lake, lac de la Thuile, and she’s taken it into her head that she wants to walk there. We’ve had a couple of attempts now, but I think we’ll have to wait for next year before we get to the summit (at 1100 metres - mind you, on the last try we got to within about 100m of it, height-wise. Not too bad.) At least we’ve come out of it with loads of blackberries.


Celebrating Germany’s defeat in WW I today (not France’s victory, no matter what they try to tell you): yes, it’s Armistice Day and of course a public holiday. As happens every year, the kids get a little note reminding their parents to send them off to the war memorial for the ceremony, and to depose a gerbe. (“déposer une gerbe”, lit. “leave a bouquet”, but knowing that “gerber” is “to vomit” it’s always struck me as an unhealthy activity. Mind you, Mitterand and Kohl always used to do it together when they could. Makes you wonder - at least, it makes me wonder.) We slept in today, and were having breakfast at about 11 am, so I rather think Malyon missed the festivities.

Anyway, the big news is that we did in fact head off down south to see Patricia and Jacky. It’s about 800 km from here: you can strike out across country on the nationales and departmentales (which takes about 11 hours) or you can do as we did, which is take the autoroute down to Narbonne, across to Toulouse, and then you’ve got about 150 km of fairly busy nationale (the famous N 124) towards Biarritz before arriving at Barcelonne du Gers. We had a very nice trip until about 19:00, when some cretin decided to come around a corner and up a hill on my side of the road. Like most accidents, it happened like a really bad film - in overdone slow motion - and after the mandatory crunch we just drifted across the road (in front of a truck/trailer who managed to stop in time) and wound up at a 70° angle on our side in the ditch on the other side of the road.

Once we’d climbed out of the car and made sure no-one was hurt, I wandered back up the road around the corner to see whether the other sod had bothered to stop or not, and was surprised to see an ambulance parked in the middle of the road - “Hell!” I thought, “they’re bloody quick off the mark! Shame no-one’s hurt!”. Then I got a bit closer, and saw that the ambulance driver wasn’t really in the best of shape, and that the reason that the ambulance was parked in the middle of the road was that it wasn’t going anywhere without an engine, and the engine was in the middle of next week. The fellow that hit us had in fact stopped - not perhaps voluntarily - but having had a head-on collision with the ambulance that’d been following us, he wound up unconscious in a car about a metre shorter than it should be somewhere in the middle of a paddock.

Which really annoyed me, because we had to wait for three hours or so while they cut the car into small pieces so as to be able to get him and his passenger out (neither of them with seat-belts, when will the silly buggers learn?) and I had a cold, and the night air wasn’t doing it any good at all. Once all the victims (everyone but us, basically) had been carted off to the hospital, we had to go to the gendarmerie and give our version of the facts, and then they very kindly took us the last 10 km of the way to drop us off, at about 23:00, at Patricia’s place. (At least, while we were waiting, I learnt why the car didn’t handle too well after the collision. We’d been scraped all along the driver’s side, and the first thing to go was the front left-hand wheel, which was still hanging bravely in there but was no longer connected to the steering wheel.)

Anyway, after that we had a really good little holiday. They have what’s called a “maison de maître”, an enormous old house with about 3m stud and 5 hectares of land, on which they’ve planted - amongst other things - feijoas (which were apparently bought from a French catalogue!). Malyon slept upstairs in an enormous antique bed, whilst we shared a room downstairs with Jeremy ... humbug. Exceptionally in a French household, Jacky cooks (Patricia being more or less vegetarian) and knows the same basic food groups as I (fat, sugar, grease and burnt-on crunchy bits) so we ate and drank really well, what with homemade rabbit pâté, foie gras de canard, rabbit and such-like. And of course, like every region of France (with the possible exceptions of Paris itself and all of Brittany, their locale has its own wine (Tursan, comes in all three flavours of red/white/rosé and isn’t that bad at all) and even better, being the heart of what was once Gascony, has Armagnac.

Despite the lack of the car, we did actually manage to see a bit of the countryside, thanks to Jacky and his trusty old Citroen BX. We made it to Geaune, in the Gers, home of the Cave Co-operative de Tursan (naturally, we were running low on wine, with only a couple of hundred litres in the emergency reserves), to the coast, and to Pau, birthplace of Henri IV, for those who care.

Despite appearances, there’s quite a bit of France that’s not really too far from the sea, and where we were is one of those places. I suppose it’s about 80km going due west from Barcelonne du Gers that you get to the Atlantic: once you’ve done that you can either head left (sorry, south) to get to Biarritz or north to Bordeaux. You’re at the southern end of the Landes, the 100-odd km strip of beach which consists mainly of pine forests (with the odd cork tree thrown in for good measure) and 40m high sand dunes. They have real waves there! Anyway, we clambered down the dunes, ambled along the beach, picked up shells and interesting stones (which, curiously enough, are never as interesting as they were once you take them away from the beach) and poked beached jellyfish until Jacky suggested that the kids might like to wade in the surf. Fair enough, they both loved it and Malyon even stayed fairly dry, but Jeremy took the first big wave as an excuse and threw himself into it, crying “Mine fell over! Boom!”

We let them go on like that for ten minutes or so and then, fearing that the Social Security were going to jump on us for child abuse, though we’d better get them dry and out of the place: Margo had cunningly brought a change of clothes for Jeremy but had left it in the car, so we stripped him off, dried him off as best we could and then stuck his coat on him and Margo’s big eiderdown on top of that. He looked like the marshmallow man, and extremely proud of himself. We finally made it back to the car, got him dressed in something more reasonable, had lunch, and then went for a bit of a walk in the pine trees. It feels rather funny, because the forests are really quite light and airy - a tree every 10m or so, perhaps, nothing like in NZ - but they’ve been like that for 200 years or so, and the soil is about 50% rotting pine needles and 50% holes for you to stick your feet in and hopefully break a leg. Quiet, too - considering the ocean is just a couple of hundred metres away.

Pau is another kettle of fish: reminds me a bit of Geneva, to tell you the truth. OK, there’s no lake, there’s no fountain, it’s not Swiss, generally speaking there’s not much resemblance at all, but there you go. The thing is, the place is definitely solid bourgeois, and all up around the château there are these big turn of the century apartment blocks which rent out at about $1000/m2, and quiet little restaurants in mediaeval buildings where the cheapest fixed menu starts at around $100: the place reeks of old money and discreet snobbery. I said it reminded me of Geneva! Still, quite a nice place for all that - at least to visit.

Anyway, we eventually had to leave, so the insurance arranged a rental car for us (a Mondeo diesel: I hate power steering) and we set off on Monday morning. We had to stop every 15 minutes on the nationale so that Malyon’s stomach could stop churning (not only do Mondeos have power steering, they also have blancmange where normal cars have suspension, so the back end tends to wallow about a bit) but we eventually made it to Toulouse and the autoroute. (Would’ve been nice to have stopped off in Toulouse for an hour or so, it really is very pretty, but we really didn’t have time, we’ll leave it for another trip.)

The truckies were on strike, of course, and open petrol stations were getting to be rare, given that they were blockading the refineries and storage depots. At least everyone else had evidently decided to avoid travelling that day (probably expecting hassles) because the roads were empty and we actually did very good time getting back. Only one slight hold-up around Valence, where you have to get off the autoroute (it stops there) and go round the town on a sort of ring road before getting on to another autoroute: they’d set up what they call a “barrage filtrant” which basically means that cars are let through - on one lane - but the trucks got stuck. This is all very nice, but when you have 5 lanes of cars arriving from the autoroute and getting squeezed into one lane, it can slow things up a bit. Never mind: we arrived - not too late - to a freezing cold house (winter’s set in now) and anxious cats who’d just started to wonder where we’d been.

Incidentally, the house is now more or less fully equipped in computer gear. Not only do we have the PC itself, the speakers, the colour printer ... we now have the colour scanner. That was Margo’s birthday present - on special at Carrefour, 790F or about $200. At that price, I really couldn’t see the point to not buying the thing. Even if it does only get used once in a blue moon. (A bit more often than that, actually. Margo went out last year and bought a bit of software that will take bitmaps and convert them to cross-stitch patterns, and she’s slowly getting people in with their holiday snaps or whatever who’d like to have them done as cross-stitch. For that, of course, you have to be able to scan their photos in ...)

In fact, about all we’re missing (apart from a faster PC, I’ll get on to that) is the microphone and camera for Internet video-conferencing. That will doubtless arrive too, eventually.

Trevor, Margo, Malyon & Jeremy