Monday, December 11, 2000

11/12/00 Happy Christmas

Welcome back all of you.

To those of you who enquired whether or not the house was still standing after the storms over here the answer is "yes". Those who didn't enquire can have the same answer for free. Look, the place (or bits of it, anyway) has been here for a couple of hundred years and if the roof hasn't blown off in that time it seems statistically unlikely that it's going to blow off with the first winter breezes.

Our main news is that we now have a puppy. Mother a Griffon (which I always thought was an extinct heraldic beast with the hindquarters of a wotsit and the head of a wossname and halitosis that petrifies you where you stand, but it turns out to be an authentic doggy-style breed, with the hindquarters of a dog, head of ditto, halitosis that petrifies you where you stand ... and, incidentally, the kind of fart that turns minor diplomatic incidents into nuclear exchanges) and father unknown. Several fathers to the litter, going on appearances: one Labrador look-alike, two Alsatians, and two mongrels. We've got one of the mongrels. A bitch, apparantly calm and sweet-tempered, and stupid. A dog.

We've had her two weeks now and are trying to educate her in the basics of communal living. "Come!" she understands and obeys, "Out!" (of the kitchen, for instance) she understands and obeys when not hungry or if Tess is standing guard, "Down!" (do not jump on guests wearing silk suits) we're working on. She has feet the size of soup plates and the brain of a lobotomised cockroach, with luck she'll stop growing at about the size of a Labrador. But skinnier.

Malyon has just started moaning about doing German at school - too hard. We remarked that her last two notes were, respectively, 19/20 and 20/20, implying that she was doing bloody well, and that 'too hard' is not the same as 'having to do a bit of work for a change'.

We also have two of our three new doors in. Those of you who've passed through here will (or not) remember that the kitchen door and the door from the lounge out to the balcony were hopelessly twisted and let great gusts of air in at the slightest breeze, while the big iron and glass doors in the entrance (scrounged from a demolished apartment block would be our guess) were even worse. A couple of days back the workmen turned up (with no prior notice, of course) and started at it. Naturally enough there had to be a problem and there was, the specially built-to-order kitchen door had the hinges on the wrong side. So we'll have to wait till January at the earliest to get that done, and they can bloody well wait until January to get paid. At least the most important two are done, and we'll no longer have the north wind swirling through the lounge.


Sorry about the two week delay there, just got a bit of momentum up for doing nothing and thought that as it was going so well there was no point spoiling it. Seriously, been busily running around like mad things: planting trees in the garden, delivering websites, seeing friends and now I have to learn Perl in 3 days.

Last weekend we made it around to Magali & François for dinner on Saturday night - a raclette, which suited us fine. We'd only been there five minutes when Magali asked "Where's the raclette machine?" and sure enough, we were supposed to bring the raclette machine and hadn't. Wasted ten minutes with frantic phonecalls to all the neighbours and not-so neighbours trying to find someone closer than St Pierre d'Albigny that had one, but eventually admitted defeat and I drove back home and picked the beast up and took it back to Montmelian. The raclette was nice, though. Worth the wait.


Well, that didn't get very far, did it? Here we are in the middle of December and still no snow - in fact it feels almost like a NZ summer, with afternoon temperatures around 17°, and lots of rain. Having carefully wrapped the feijoa trees in plastic bubble-wrap to protect them from the frosts I feel a bit of an idiot, they're growing like mad in their little plastic glass-houses. To date we've had one frost, and that was a rather sorry affair anyway. The ski stations are probably not happy.

Last time but two that I was up in Geneva a friend mentioned a magnificent site he'd come across with all sorts of weird music that's normally unobtainable - he'd ordered a gross of Van de Graaf Generator - and it was based in Montmelian! I logged on that night and ordered almost the entire back catalogue of Split Enz and a bit of early Simple Minds: at around 60F the CD why not?

In fact the first lot arrived a few days ago - most of the Split Enz has to be sent from the US and will take a while longer to arrive - and I rushed upstairs to listen to some music whilst working. Slid "Sons and Fascination" into the CD and marvelled as the music played! Mumbled rude words as that was all the computer would do: play music. I couldn't do anything else. So I foolishly decided to remove the CreativeLabs sound card software and reinstall it. Called up "Add/remove software", clicked on "Creative Labs", and removed the video card drivers. Found myself with a 640x480 screen, in 16 colours yet, looked everywhere for the latest drivers I'd downloaded earlier, couldn't find them. Pulled the card out and went back to the built-in Intel video card (now 1024x768 instead of 1280x1024) and downloaded the very latest drivers, to find that the machine no longer recognised the Creative card at all. Went to bed, extremely frustrated, at 2am.

The next evening, after apparently doing things in just the right order, I finally got the video back. Then, very carefully, I removed and reinstalled the sound card and its drivers. Same result: the machine would play a CD, but do nothing else. Then I had a brilliant idea and changed CDs. And it suddenly worked. For some strange reason this machine will not play the first track of "Sons & Fascination" correctly. Why? Don't ask me, I'm just a poor programmer.

We made it down to Grenoble again on Saturday: Margo had someone ring her (apparently been trying to get in touch for the past three months) to see if she was interested in giving patchwork courses. So off we went and bravely took the tram from the Maison de Tourisme to Cours Berriat (an enormously long avenue named after the megalomaniac who built it back in the 19th century) only to find ourselves at the wrong end of it, and had to trot back a couple of kilometres to get back to civilisation and where Margo wanted to be.

Wandering around while Margo chatted (and incidentally picking up a quarter-kilo of Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee beans) it became clear that Grenoble (like Paris, or Lyon, or any other big European city) is a disparate collection of quartiers. I'm not sure that English has a word for that - probably does, but I can't remember it - a part of the city that has its own separate cultural identity. I suppose most people visit a city and see the center and think that's all there is to it: I know I was surprised when I spent 4 or 5 hours lost in Brussels slowly working my way back to the center of town on foot, about 13 years ago now. Anyway, I'd kind of forgotten (Chambéry being so small, and almost uniformly bourgeois), and it was fun to find that off this enormous avenue there were little windy streets (with names like "rue des Bons Enfants") full of Chinese shops and Indian restaurants (and the occasional sex-shop, promising "High-tech video viewing rooms" and unnamed marital aids) and Bang & Olufsen showrooms worming their way off towards a cathedral, or whereever. The funny thing is that in summer streets like that just disappear: the shuttered shopfronts (closed for holidays) must become invisible in the heat-haze and the streets themselves turn into cul-de-sacs with a couple of rubbish bins out the front. Maybe it's just that old cobblestones with a hint of rain on them and lit-up shop windows as Christmas comes are more enticing than a dusty alley baking under 38°.

(While we were wandering about we came upon a magnificant Harley-Davidson and Jeremy hung around it saying "Cool! Cool!" and would probably have licked the saddlebags had not the owner come out of the bar and offered him the keys. He doesn't yet have Malyon's presence of mind, and politely refused them.)

Anyway, Happy Christmas and a Furry New Bear to all of you, and with any luck some of you will get off your fat chuffs in 2001 and come over here to say hello. Whatever, have a really nice Christmas.

Sunday, October 1, 2000

01/10/00 I do not have a drinking problem ...

And it's true, I do NOT have a drinking problem. The contents of the glass only rarely miss my mouth. It's just that now is the vendange, time to get the grapes in and make wine! So the departmentales are blocked with tractors hauling trailer-loads of grapes of to the caves and the hill-sides are covered in people clinging desperately to near-vertical slopes whilst trying to hack off bunches of grapes. In a few weeks the place will smell like a refinery.

Autumn's come in quickly this year - not too long ago we were complaining about the heat, and now night comes in around 8pm, it rained steadily all morning and it's a bit chilly in the mornings. Not yet enough to turn the central heating on, but it won't be long.

By now it may have made it into your Olympic-crazed heads that France is having - once again - a Major Political Scandal. This time it's a posthumously released video by a leading political fixer (condemned for corruption) asserting that a certain Jacques Chirac knowingly received kickbacks from public-works contracts when mayor of Paris. It was of course not for personal use and all the cash went into the RPR's piggybank, but even so ... The Socialists have also been dragged into the affair, and not only for also receiving their own share of the graft: Strauss-Kahn (until fairly recently Minister of Finance) is being investigated for destroying evidence - seems he actually received the original of the video in question and rather implausibly claims to have stuck it in a drawer somewhere without bothering to look at it, unfortunately it's no longer in the drawer, the cleaner must have tidied it away somewhere.

Malyon and I finally made it back down to Grenoble. She needed special pencils for art classand although I'm sure I could pick them up at one of the specialist shops in Chambery the sods close their doors on the stroke of midday (which was when I turned up) and I didn't feel like going back in that afternoon and anyway I really needed some more 5-spice powder and stuff. So off we went and got her pencils at Arthaud, which is an enormous bookshop/fine-arts supplies, then off to the little district between the Halles and the original cathedral where the antique shops and exotic grocers lurk. The streets there are narrow, twisty and cobbled, and all the shop-fronts are done in dark wood panelling that probably dates back at least a couple of hundred years, and I don't know why it's been colonised by such a peculiar mix but there you are. I love the smell of Chinese grocers, must be the spices and the Peking duck cooking out the back, and we left with another 6-months supply of hoi sin and char siu and duck marinade. Lovely!

Malyon celebrated her birthday in style, with a party down in the field. The happy guests turned up around 1900, I lit a big bonfire and they ate fajitas before we turned them loose to make damper and then sit around the fire telling horror stories until 2100. As birthday parties go it was a raging success as far as we were concerned: no balloons to blow up, no excruciating games to organise, and above all no cleaning up afterwards - just toss the leftovers onto the fire.

The kids have both signed up for their extra-curricular activities with school. They're both doing judo (Tuesday and Thursday evenings), Jeremy has music on Wednesday mornings, and Malyon does theatre on Friday evenings. Luckily they're all just up the road, so Malyon at least can go there and back under her own steam. At least while winter holds off.

As part of my ongoing effort to have a heart attack before I reach 50, I decided to try installing Windows 2000 on the home machine.I though it might be more stable, more fun ... so I dragged out an old 18 Gb hard disk that was floating around, stuck it in, and started off. The first hurdle is that the install program requires a formatted hard disk, which I didn't have. So instead of wasting my time creating the 4 installation diskettes, I just swapped drives around again, booted under Windows 98 and created a recovery diskette. Swap the disks around again, boot of the diskette, format the hard disk , start the installation process again ... It very kindly told me, before starting to copy the required files, that "this operation may take a little time". A slight understatement, as it in fact took about two hours. I went and read a book while it went on. I must admit that after that was done it went rather smoothly, recognised my modem and in fact everything except the second printer port, and I spent a bit of time then installing software, copying e-mail across and so on, until I became aware that a) the CD writer wouldn't work and b) if the modem isn't turned on when Win2K boots, the modem won't work either. At this point I decided that I had no really compelling need for the thing, swapped hard disks around again and wrote off the weekend.


Been a quiet weekend, setting up a new computer for our Aussie friend Sue and then trying to upgrade the graphics card and get an old sound card to work in this one, so I thought I might while away a bit of dull, rainy Sunday afternoon by reproducing for your amusement an article by Dave Barry from yesterday's Herald Tribune. It's entitled "Cosmo goes Overboard", and here it is.

"When I'm in the supermarket checkout line, I always look at Cosmopolitan magazine to see if the editors have made eny progress in the ongoing effort to figure out men."

"I'm sure you're familiar with Cosmopolitan ('Fun - Fearless - Female'). It's the one with the cover that always has a picture of a woman who looks as though she has a prestigious and rewarding executive career as a hooker. Roughly half the articles in Cosmopolitan are devoted to explaining how you, the Cosmo reader, can make yourself look like the cover model. All you have to do is follow the two-step Cosmopolitan Beauty Regimen:"

"STEP ONE: Using a combination of fun and fearless beauty procedures such as the Eyebrow Yank, the Hot Wax Torture, the Hydrochloric Acid Skin Peel, the Hoover Vacuum Home Spleen Removal, the Cage of Thigh-Eating Wolverines and the Industrial Drain Cleaner Enema, you remove all of the physical elements that make you unattractive, such as your fat, hair, skin, fingerprints and internal organs. At this point you are essentially a skeleton with eyeballs, or, to put it another way, Ally McBeal."

"STEP TWO: You smear your entire self with a complex system of foundations, bases, creams, lotions, gels, powders, moisturizers, conditioners, mousses, sprays, mascaras, eyeliners, lip glosses, enzymes, lacquers, organic papaya-enhanced roofing tars, etc., until you are encased inside an impenetrable layer of beauty products thick enough that there is no way for anybody to tell, without giving you a CAT scan, what you actually look like. You could be a Shetland pony under there."

"Once you have achieved this fun and female 'look', it's time for you to get started on the other topic that is discussed endlessly in Cosmopolitan: Figuring out what men want. It's a tough one! Cosmopolitan editors wrestle with it day and night, and they're constantly announcing new break-throughs. Pick up any issue, and you'll see articles like: '23 Ways to Drive Him Wild in Bed!', '127 Ways to Make Him Want to Get Naked Right in the Foyer!', or '387 Ways to Make Him Completely Lose Biological Control of Himself While He is Still in the Driveway!'"

"Over the decades, Cosmopolitan has printed literally thousands of sure-fire techniques for driving men insane with passion. If these techniques actually worked, by now the entire male population of the United States would have been wiped out by lust, literally exploding into little mushroom clouds of vaporized bodily fluids."

"But this has not happened, except in the case of President Bill Clinton. The problem, I think, is that Cosmopolitan is making this issue way more complicated than it actually is. I mean, we're talking about MEN here. You don't need rocket science to drive them wild in bed: all you need to do is to get in there with them. Or, just leave them alone for a while. Because men don't need much. Using a complex, sophisticated technique to get a man excited is like preparing a gourmet French meal for a Labrador retriever."

"So I think Cosmopolitan is trying too hard.In fact, it may be doing women more harm than good. For example, the August issue has a feature entitled 'What to Say to Make Him Ache for You - Whisper these frisky phrases if you wish to drive him wild.' One of the frisky phrases Cosmopolitan advises you to whisper to men is - really - 'We'd better hurry home, because at midnight I turn into a vixen.' This frisky phrase might actually alarm the man, especially if he knows that the dictionary defines 'vixen' as 'an ill-tempered, shrewish or malicious woman.' Basically, you're telling the man he could suddenly find himself in bed with Lorena Bobbitt."

"Another frisky phrase suggested by Cosmopolitan is - get ready - 'My bikini waxer went a little overboard.' Listen, women: if you actually say these words to a man, he's going to assume you want him to take you to the Emergency Clinic."

"So my advice to the editors is: just drop this subject for a while. Trust me: even without technical advice from you, your women readers will have no trouble getting men excited, as long as the men are aware (and believe me, they are) that the women, underneath their clothes, are not wearing clothes."

"And consider this: if you Cosmo editors stopped obsessing about men, you could focus your brainpower on the Middle East peace process, health care, Social Security or the federal budget surplus. I bet you could give us some important insights into these issues! Or at least tell us how to drive them wild in bed."

After a couple of months of not actually looking for anything, Margo is now employed by the education department as an assistant English teacher. What actually happened is that the college principal must have twigged that she was an English-speaker, and rang one day to ask if she'd be interested and if so, could she phone the Rectorate in Grenoble. It seems that the minister has decreed that all children shall learn English, from primary school on, and even better the department has released the cash necessary to take on the supplementary teachers. They are still having difficulty finding enough people to fill the new posts - they have to be native English-speakers and, in theory, students - so they even raised the maximum age to 40, which means Margo just squeaked in. Anyway, she rang and made an appointment, turned up and had a nice interview and then left, with them saying theycouldn't promise anything, especially where she'd be posted if accepted (could just as well be Nouméa, knowing the Frog bureaucracy). That evening they rang back to ask for a few more bits of paper, and to tell her that she'd been accepted and posted to St Pierre d'Albigny. She starts tomorrow. She gets all the school holidays, of course, and is paid somewhere around FF4000/month for 12 hours a week, 9 of them at the college (at least she won't have Malyon, as she's not doing English) and another 3 hours at the primary school.
Anyway, that's probably enough from me for now, so I'll stop here and send this off.

Monday, September 4, 2000

04/09/00 Mad Dogs & Englishmen ...

Back again, and it's the middle of the silly season.

In France, the whole country goes on holiday or just closes down for August, and given the weather we've had recently you can understand why. After a really grotty month of cold rain the summer has at last unfurled its wotsits and we're baking in 35° heat. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out and about - and the odd retarded Kiwi family, such as us, who headed down to Grenoble this afternoon hoping to pick up vital supplies like oyster sauce, five-spice powder and chilli sauce at the Chinese grocery. Sheer bad luck that all three of them are closed for the summer holidays. Like 90% of Grenoble. We wandered down the wide avenues in the baking heat, shuttered shops on each side with scrawled notices along the lines of "Closed for the Summer" taped to the doors, with only the occasional dehydrated tourist or furtive native for company. Even the dogs had had the sense to go inside where it's relatively cool and lie panting on the tiles. Occasionally a breeze comes along, which would be welcome if it hadn't come direct from the Sahara. The only shops that are open are the ones with air-conditioning, and even there I suspect that they're open more for the benefit of the staff than anything else.It's a bit like I remember Tauranga really: the zimmer frames of those too old to leave are stacked neatly away and the heat's too much for the young people who haven't yet got a car in which to go somewhere else, so the whole place just sits empty, waiting for rain.

Mind you, we'll complain when Autumn comes around too. And as for winter ...

Even here, where at least we're not at the bottom of a giant bowl formed by the mountains all around and consequently don't suffer from an inversion layer at 800m (or whatever) with attendant greenhouse effect and pollution, it's too hot to move around too much. A little trip down to the beer cellar from time to time is about as much as I can manage.

Despite all that we did manage last weekend to go off to the "Journée des Jeunes Agriculteurs" at Chamoux-sur-Gelon - think "small A&P show" and you've got the idea. Prize cows mooing miserably in the heat, prize goats ditto, resigned-looking donkeys, a guess-the-weight-of-the-pig competition, haybale hurling ... and, because this is France, the buvette offering weak headachy beer (or warm red wine, if you'd prefer), chips and merguez to go. Once the excitement of the "Plough-a-straight-line" competition (bring your own tractor) had left us legless we watched something that I must admit surprised me - sheepdog trials, just like on Country Calendar! Well, there was only one shepherd, and he was giving a demonstration, so it wasn't really like a real contest, but it did bring back memories. These people are so primitive that they've only just discovered that dogs can herd sheep, for god's sake!

All in all I count myself lucky as the fellow was too occupied talking farmer talk with other seriously agricultural types to tell Malyon how much the Pyrenean sheepdog pups he had for sale cost. Otherwise I can see that we might have ended up with one in the car on the way home ("Honestly Dad, it was only 500F [plus 800F for vaccinations and tattooing] and I promise I'll take it for walks every night [and pick up the dogshit in a plastic bag] and look after it and love it [no smart answer to that one leaps to mind, except "OK, you explain it to Tess then"]). The odd thing about the berger du Pyrénées is that it's actually pretty useless as a sheepdog, preferring to get in behind with its master to actually chasing sheep. Smart, no? This is probably why French shepherds prefer Border collies.


Monday evening now and we've just come back from the big Ikea store at Lyon getting bits and pieces for Malyon's room, to wit an enormous dresser and a wardrobe. Well, ordered the wardrobe actually as, as luck would have it, most of it it wasn't in stock in the colour we wanted. Which means heading back in a couple of weeks to pick up the missing bits, whereupon I can once again demonstrate my male prowess at DIY by erecting it - with a minimum of bloodshed - so that it leans only a little bit to one side.

The thunderstorm that's been lurking heavily around the place for the last couple of days has finally broken and we've had a real tempest: buckets of horizontal rain and wind, with broken branches all over the roads and impressive lightning flashes. It's at least cooled the place down a bit, but that's unlikely to last as the anticyclone is supposed to come and squat on us again tomorrow. Another week's worth of oppressive muggy weather. Humph!

And as it's still summer there's still no news fit to print. Investigators are still raking through bits of carbonised Concorde trying to find out why an inherently unstable, 30-year old plane finally crashed, and just yesterday an apparently harmless young man was struck by lightning in the centre of Paris. But no-one knows whether or not Chevènement, the Interior Minister, will resign - as seems fit and right - over his disavowal of his own government's Corsican policy, and I suppose that in a couple more weeks no-one will care.


Well, summer is definitely drawing to an end. Woke up a couple of days ago to find it fine but foggy, with a distinct nip in the air: a foretaste of autumn. Just a warning, as the days after that were stinking hot, but the general idea is fairly plain: get all the barbecues you've planned done Real Soon Now, or it'll be too late! Time too to get the boiler looked at, chimneys swept, and wood for the fire in.

The school holidays are almost over and a damned good thing too, the kids are starting to grate on one another. Not their fault, just that there's five years between them and they can't play together too long without one or the other getting upset. Both Malyon and Jeremy have the strong belief that they're always right (in case of disagreement, Jeremy's usually wrong, but not always) and the wronged one"s reaction is a either a fit of whining or a case of the sulks (guess which one does what). It's worse when, like today, the weather is foul and we can't send them outside to run around and work some steam off. God alone knows what we'll do when it starts snowing.

Getting a bit dilatory here, aren't I? Well, Autumn has come in, Jeremy's back at school and Malyon heads back tomorrow. Yay! And the annual petrol shortages are back. This time it's the farmers and the fishermen, irate at having to pay for petrol like everyone else, who have decided that the price is too high and, to show their displeasure, are blockading all the refineries and storage depots so that no petrol goes out to the pumps. This until they receive satisfaction (read, "subsidies"). Very disingenuously, their spokesman said that this should not cause any problems for the average Frog-person as the effects wouldn't be felt on the forecourt
for a week and they hoped to have resolved the problem by then: knowing full well that the reaction of the average Frog-person in this sort of situation is to rush to the nearest petrol station and fill up the car, the scooter, the tractor, the rubbish bin and any old plastic containers lying around for good measure. Result tonight, just 24 hours after the announcement: no more diesel between here and Chambery. Why they don't just line them up against a wall somewhere and get it over with once and for all I'll never know.

The big problem - and one of the things that so baffles foreigners here in Frog-land - is that the right of an aggrieved (and preferably politically important) minority to foul up the lives of everybody else seems to come above the law. It is illegal to prevent a company from going about its business (like, by blockading refineries), it is also illegal to block the highways (with 500 tractors doing 15kph on the autoroute), it is considered in bad taste to destroy McDonalds restaurants (as José Bové did in his rather singular protest against globalisation, pillaging a place whose employees and products were entirly Made in France) - this
doesn't seem to matter. If I tried it I'd be hauled off in short order, but then I'm not a farmer/fisherman truckie/whatever. It is, as they say, a "sensitive" issue, and the police are told to stand back and ignore the fact that the law is being broken. I suppose that one day someone will get fed up enough (or a bright young lawyer will see the possibilities) and a civil suit will be filed against the perpetrators for swingeing damages, and I must admit that when the day comes I'll be standing there cheering.

Why does this happen? The best explanation I've seen - and it may even be true - is that in France, contrary to any civilised country with a history of democracy, changes in government have only ever come about through revolution (or something violent enough to look pretty much like it to those concerned). So as no government wishes to risk such an upheaval, any time some issue that looks nasty comes up and gets people out on the streets, they'll back down and temporise and wait for it to go away. Which probably doesn't help the vicious circle of "lack of faith in government" = "tendency to direct action", but there you are.

Having got rid of all that I can report that Chevènement did resign, as expected - one loose cannon less. Martine Aubry, having complicated the lives of thousands with the 35-hour working week will soon do the same in order to inherit the mayoralty of Lille, although I don't know what the place has done to deserve that. And for connoisseurs of bad taste, let me bring to your attention the Air France ad of not so long ago which started off "Land in a hotel with Air France" ...
Anyway, that's it for now - goodnight, all.

Monday, July 31, 2000

31/07/00 What we did in the holidays

Here we are in Pesselières for the traditional rainy 14th July celebrations, en famille for once. I managed to get a mockup of my website running and e-mailed off to the client on Wednesday, so we left as planned (although not in quite as organized a manner as the word suggests) on Thursday.

On Day 1 of our stay the kids went tadpole-hunting and of course wanted to take the lot back to Paris with them. "But what" we asked "will you do with them when they have beome little frogs, and you go on holiday?" Quick as a flash Jeremy replied "Cuddle them!" and then, after a moment's reflection, "or eat them."

The weather's been 'mitigated', which makes a change from unmitigated rain and temperatures down to a high of 18°. Which is what we've been "enjoying" for the past week or so. I'm seriously considering turning the central heating back on.

Just spent an agreable afternoon mainly chatting in a chateau. We went off to a brocante yesterday and quite by chance Margo went into a tiny patchwork stand where they gave her the address of the place and suggested that we stop by. Which we did, and were glad we did so. They were a very pleasant couple who bought the place about 10 years ago and have been doing it up ever since, partly as chambre d'hote and partly with the intention of making it into a sort of patchwork centre. The sort of thing Margo would've liked to try if we had the money and the time. We promised to try and keep in touch.


Well, we made it back home - a day earlier than planned, but as everyone else was headed back to Paris and the weather was so grotty, we thought we might as well leave too. Took the scenic route this time, rather than head back to Avallon and catch the autoroute from there: as it happens there's a C13 chateau in the Morvan which, every year, hosts an international quilt competition at around this time. On top of it Margo knows the quilter-in-residence for the year, and a number of the exhibitors as well (the theme this year was, it seems, Australian quilts), so it was pretty much a must. So we headed more or less dead south from Pesselières, and had a picnic lunch on the banks of the Laughing (or chuckling, if you prefer) Yonne (the Frog name is actually La Rigole d'Yonne - you translate it if you think you can do better!). Then we arrived at the chateau: not a chateau-fort, just a nice little country home with three floors and a dungeon, a couple of towers at each end, walled park and garden, stables and dove-cote, stuff like that. A bit crumbly now for want of enough money to do it up properly, but definitely a chateau. The 4m stud is a dead giveaway, as are the 80x80 oak beams in the ceiling.

It's actually quite interesting - if you're into that sort of thing - to see where a place like that fits in to the general evolution of chateaux over time. This one is very definitely a house - as opposed to a castle - but a very modest house to boot. The Bordeaux wine chateaux have the same general look, but they all have a fairly massive front entrance a couple of metres up from ground level giving onto a large balustraded terrace with sweeping flights of steps down from each side. The Chateau de Chassy (such being the name of the place we visited) has the same idea, except that the steps are narrow and the terrace is just about large enough to put a humorous welcome mat on. More modern chateaux have the same pepper-pot roofs on the towers, but with slate rather than earthenware tiles (thank Catherine de Medicis and her Italians for that one). And then there's the use of internal space: the early chateaux tend to have enormous roms opening off the central staircase and from corridors on each side (a model taken up again in C18) whereas the C15-17 ones tend to real rabbit-warrens of small rooms.

Anyway, the place is definitely a domestic, human-sized chateau, and we left the kids downstairs curry-combing the ponies and avoiding attacks from the chickens in the courtyard (no peacocks here) while we went off to look at the quilts. Up in the attics. Which are also quite fascinating. St-Fargeau, near Pesselières, was built by ship-wrights, and its attics look like the ribs of a boat: Chassy was evidently put together by Boris Build-on-spec the Cowboy, and its attics look like something put together in a hurry and never mind if it doesn't last more than a century or two, some bugger's sure to come and burn the place down soon enough. But noone did, and the pile is still there, sort of grown into the surroundings (more vice-versa, really - the surroundings have grown into it) and slowly decaying. Very slowly.

The quilts themselves were a surprise to me, at any rate - more figurative or abstract art than what most people who've seen "The Making of an American Quilt" would think of as a patchwork quilt. They're pictures of things, or expressions of ideas, or a combination of both, using fabric quilting as a medium. Perhaps they should just call it "textile art". That aside, there were quite a number that I wouldn't have minded having and hanging around the place, if we had the space and the cash.

We eventually left and took the D985 (or something) vaguely southeast through to Autun (which has important Roman ruins) and then through vineyards and forests to Chalon and the autoroute. A very pleasant drive, through places like Mercurey and Gevrey which I think we'll repeat - in the opposite sense, and with ample time for stopovers - next time we go back: early August, with any luck. This time round there was no time to get some Burgundy to replenish the cellar, and it's starting to look a bit empty down there.


Last week we had a man in, as they say, attacking our terrace. He finished putting the stairs down to the courtyard, restored my decking to its previous state and then went on to repair the concrete railings on the balcony, which were, as visitors can testify, in a precarious state supported mainly by string. All for the very reasonable price of 5500F, material included. Margo is very happy. And I must admit, it really changes the way we use the place. "Going down to the courtyard" used to be the last resort: now we can just wander down and enjoy it.

Jeremy needs to learn to read. He gets a rather idiosyncratic view of things from just looking at the pictures, as witness what he told me last night: "And you know Daddy, they put the baby Jesus up on nails, on a croix, and then he woke up and went picking flowers in his dressing-gown.". It seems unlikely that religious studies will be his strong point.

We seem to have had the wettest July on record. About double the usual rainfall, it seems. And I'll spare you the temperatures - we might as well have been in NZ for the winter. At least it's started to clear up - at least a little bit - and as Sunday dawned clear and fine we had a barbecue again. Steve and Isabelle and Joc the New York lawyer and her husband Hervé and assorted kids, and to general surprise no casualties were reported. I had vaguely been hoping to get some work done so as to e-mail off the results on Tuesday before heading back up to Pesselière on Wednesday, but as usual we didn't wrap things up until about 18:00 and at that point I was wandering about in an alcoholic haze so I'll just have to catch up tonight and tomorrow, and then submit things late as usual.

I shall also have to bring my rudimentary carpentry skills out of hibernation so as to build a couple of units for Malyon's bedroom: one with a desk in it and the other with lots of shelves and drawers and things. We could buy a very nice one if we were willing to pay at least 10,000F, which I'm not: if I'm careful and work nicely I ought to be able to knock together the equivalent for about 2,000F in wood and accessories, which sounds much more reasonable. Time to dust off the circular saw, I think.

Anyway, I'm going to pretend to get a bit of work done so I'll send this off now rather than next month some time.

Sunday, July 2, 2000

02/07/00 Of marbles and meatballs ...

Welcome back, everybody.

Well, we've had an interesting couple of weeks trying to reintegrate Malyon into the family and get used to having two kids again. Not that easy but Malyon (and Jeremy) have done really well. She's grown up a lot and it's (almost) a pleasure to have her around. For the last couple of weeks they've been sleeping in what is now Jeremy's bedroom; now that Jean and Leigh have left for England Margo has started attacking the bedroom to get it up to scratch for Malyon ie strip the old wallpaper, paint walls and ceilings, stick up the bad-taste dolphin frieze and then, finally, put in her mammoth antique bed and shift her in.

As I said, Jean & Leigh left today: I took them off to Satolas (now confusingly signposted "St-Exupéry" on the autoroute). Just to make sure they didn't forget their stay Jeremy chose today, abot 15 minutes before we were due to leave, to swallow a marble. Don't ask how it got into his mouth, I don't know and don't really want to know, but I came down from my shower to find Jeremy sitting bolt-upright, looking pale and panicky, while Margo phoned A&E to find out what to do with a six-year old that's just swallowed a marble. We left together: Margo, Malyon & Jeremy in the ambulance and Jean, Leigh & I in the Alfa. Waved as we overtook them on the autoroute - I don't think anyone noticed. We now have a souvenir X-ray of Jeremy, showing a big white blob in his stomach. Acording to the quack, it should move out in 48 hours or so. We'll know when we hear a "Ping!" as it hits the porcelain.

On arriving back home I took their bed down, we emptied the room and Margo started getting the wallpaper off so that we can turn it into Malyon's bedroom, tastefully decorated in cream and brown with a frieze of jolly grey dolphins leaping about. When that's all done we can move her big bed up there and get her properly installed. Also have to get a couple more quotes on replacing the doors downstairs: got a first one for about 28,000F (which was about what I was expecting) but I'd like to have a second (and a third, why not?) opinion before I go spending that much.

I also finally got off my chuff and shifted machines around so that the home machine has at long last gone downstairs for the kids and the new machine is upstairs for Margo and I. It all went swimmingly until I tried to import the old mail messages from Outlook Express 4 into Outlook Express 5, at which point it told me that there were no mail folders present. I've tried pleading, when that failed I tried threats, but I still haven't managed to get two years-worth of e-mail onto the new system. This is extremely annoying.


Ah well, seems it was my fault after all. I checked up on the appropriate MS site for Outlook Express and found (not under the error message I got, but never mind that) that to import mail you must NOT select the folder actually containing the mail, but its parent folder! As is so clearly marked (sarcasm) in the dialog box for the mail import wizard, which asks you to select the folder containing the mail to be imported. Microsoft proudly boasts that it has more usability testers than it has programmers: I already know that the programmers don't do a lot of work, and it seems to me that their testers are on permanent holiday. Or permanently pissed. Or both. Never mind, I've got you all back, all those beautiful words I've written and all the silly things people have sent us ... I feel much better!

I really ought to be working on another website just now but I really can't be bothered, and Margo is down below doing another translation for AXE: about 18 pages this time, an offer for a communications strategy for one of the companies nvolved in the Sydney Olympics. Which, of course, they'd like for tomorrow evening. They'll pay for this. She's probably made more monry translating in the past month than in all the time with the shop. Speaking of which, the bank has been alarmingly forbearing. We got a recommended letter more than a month or so ago demanding repayment of the loan they took out when they opened the shop, and after a simple phone call back we haven't heard a word more from them. Worrying, really. Shall have to ring back and find out what's going on - still like to hear from the lawyer and know what the insurance company has offered before doing that.

Met one of our neighbours for the first time the other day, by the way - the female half of a young couple that's installed in one part of the rambling old house/farm next-door. She speaks perfect English, with a slight Surrey accent - result of a mixed marriage (one male, one female - no, father English, mother French). Her attention was apparently drawn by our yelling at the cat in English.

Anyway, I'd better stop here for the time being as I have to take the machine to bits (again) so as to extract the Firewire card from it so that I can hand it back (along with the little Sony video camera) to a client tomorrow. I'd planned on doing a bit more work with it but I haven't had the time so tough titty, they'll just have to live with the driver as it is.


Sunday night here and the cars are honking like mad as it seems that the French team won some provincial soccer match or other and thus have a chance at becoming European champions. Didn't even know it was on, personally - been too busy out at a 4th of July BBQ with Hervé and Joc and some of their friends. (An odd mix really - them, us, an Italian-American of Panamanian nationality/Italo-French couple and an American/French couple.) Been incredibly hot today - if I can believe the thermometer down in the courtyard it was 33° in the shade. Thank god for air-conditioning!

Malyon finally has her own room - there's a bit of finishing-off to do (like sand back the skirting-boards a bit and giving them a second coat, and putting up the frieze she chose) but her mammoth bed is installed and she's actually sleeping in it. We've also had a man around for a guesstimation on putting a staircase down from the balcony to the courtyard and repairing the bits of balcony that are dropping off, and he came up with the totally reasonable figure of 6000F all up, which I can certainly live with. (All work paid for under the table, of course.) He also took a look up at the attic and reckoned that it'd cost us about 100,000F to get it done the way we want it ie at least three bedrooms (including a massive one for us) plus extra for sticking in an ensuite for us, a bathroom and a toilet. I think we'll be able to manage that over the next few years. When it all gets done, we should have a house with about 250 m² living area, not counting balconies, terrace and courtyard: with a bit of luck we'll turn a tidy profit when we eventually come to sell the place.

I have some pages for a website to set up in the next week or so: it's an online marketplace for machine-tool buyers and sellers and they want to get the auction side of it up and running. In theory it should be done for mid-July but I really don't know if that'll be possible, especially as we're all taking off to Pesselière for a couple of days on the 13th. I haven't been able to get the existing site to access the database on my machine, no-one at the company actually knows how - or why - the database interface works ... I have a progress meeting with them tomorrow afternoon so I can see that after installing my stock control system at Rumilly in the morning I'll have to stop off at a bar somewhere and invent some sort of status quo to show that I have actually been thinking of them. Not really the case, but Bullshit Baffles Brains is still my motto.

And on Tuesday Margo takes off to England for a week, ostensibly to attend the quilt exhibition in which she's a competitor. The kids will be in my gentle care for an entire week - luckily they're still at school so I basically just have to get them there in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, which'll leave me all day for adrenaline-fuelled development. Right now they're screening the entire lot of the original Star Trek series on Canal Jimmy, and the first episode is about to start and I am going towatch it. So goodnight all!

Saturday, June 10, 2000

10/06/00 On visiting the police station and other subjects ...

Thought I'd at least get an early start in on this, even if it does take me three weeks to get finished. Reality has come home and it's only two weeks now before Malyon arrives back in the country, so we're working like mad in what little time we have to get the upstairs kitchen converted into Jeremy's bedroom. The plumber comes round tomorrow or Wednesday to cut off the sink so that we can lug that down to a cellar waiting for us to put it up elsewhere, and I have to organise a couple of healthy friends to give me a hand shifting the wood-burning stove downstairs as well. While waiting, Margo has been having fun with my big jack-hammer drill (and an SDS+ masonry chisel attachment) getting rid of the tiles around the sink and most of the cement under them so that when the sink actually disappears we can plaster over the holes and paint. Be cutting it short, but we should be able to do it, and at least it'll mean that at long last Malyon and Jeremy will have their separate bedrooms. (Don't really know why I say "at long last", 'cos it's been de facto the case for the last 10 months, but there you are ...)
I wasted last night (until about 2am, in fact) reinstalling Windows 98 on my new machine. Trying to find out more about these bloody video cameras I installed the Unibrain software, and when I didn't learn anything new I deinstalled it and discovered that I no longer had any video devices at all.So I grinned, bore it, and reinstalled Win 98 (the English version this time, at least) and after rebooting 5 times (at least) things fell back into place. Then, as this machine is destined to replace the home machine, I thought I'd better at least install the modem and Outlook Express ... you'd think I'd know better. Perhaps I should just reformat and stick NT onto the thing - only then I'd have to pay for fax software. 
Been looking over offers and I've decided to get an Alfa 146 as a work car - as long as I fall in love with it on Friday, when I'll head off to look one over. A Fiat Barchetta would be better (from a fiscal point of view) as I'd be able to claim the GST back (being a two-seater, it's classed as a work car) but it's a bit impractical. A shame. 
Well, that's one week lopped off my three-week timetable to get this out. Margo has been busy plastering and tomorrow the last layer goes on and then we can sand it back, put on the undercoat and finish painting. 
Yesterday we had a big BBQ: the English class she taught at Voglans finished up for the year and so we hosted an end-of-course bash: everyone sprang a bit of cash and we bought vast quantities of food and wine and I brought the big BBQ in the paddock out of hibernation. I must have lost about 5 litres sweating in front of it, it must have been about 35° and I'd stuck on at least 20 litres of charcoal, so it was HOT. 
Everyone had a great time, the kids went exploring in the stream (almost dry already, we've had an exceptionally dry spring so far, not really relieved by the small thunderstorm that's just passed over), and we managed to detail the four biggest, hairiest males to get the wood-burner down into the end cellar. Unfortunately - such is the dismal level of male talent in France - I qualified as one of the four. And let me just say that it was bloody heavy! Luckily one of Margo's students was a rugby fullback or something in that line, 2.5m high and built to match and he took the heavy end down while the rest of us nancied around at the other end. No-one was permanently injured, and the thing is now residing in the cellar and if anyone wants to move it from there they're welcome to do so and I will quite happily watch while they rupture themselves. 
Anyway, everyone had a good time and we'll really have to do it again sometime - soon, preferably. But maybe on a Saturday, so that we'll have Sunday to recover. I also have to find some spare time to reorganise the computer situation here. There are currently five machines squatting the place: one for the kids, one for Margo, mine (on which I'm writing this), my office machine, and the new one which is destined to replace this one. When that happens this machine becomes the machine for the kids, the kids machine gets dumped off on friends who don't know an obsolete PC from a paperweight, and Margo hangs on to her machine which, whilst obsolete, is her friend. 
Other than that I should get my nice shiny new car sometime this week: I did go off on Friday to look at it and I did indeed fall in love. Being unreasonably promiscuous I also fell in love with the bright red Spyder pouting in the show-room but once again it's not entirely reasonable. I'd have liked to try one of the models with the gearshift buttons on the wheel (à la F1 racing machines) but that's only on the top-line models - perhaps in a couple of years. Got flashed by a radar on the autoroute on the way home too - I was only doing 140, can't think why it snapped me. Have to wait and see if I get a little note from the gendarmerie in the next week or so. If I do I'll be rather hurt - it's not as though 140 is really breaking the limit. Honestly, we're not even talking 10% over here. And lots of people were going much faster than I.  
And after getting photographed on the autoroute last night Margo hauled me out of the shower this morning crying "The gendarmes want to see you!" "What, so soon?" I thought, as I looked about for suitable prison garb (unfortunately the cast-iron codpiece and chastity belt ensemble was at the cleaners) but I needn't have worried, just her sick little joke, yes the gendarmes were in fact hanging around in the street but just to get an appointment to interview me for our request for Frog citizenship. I must say that it's moving quickly. Only three months since I dropped the completed dossier off, and they're already on to the police checkup! (This, for those that don't recognise it, is sarcasm.)  
And Malyon rang - the last phone call before leaving for Kuala Lumpur and then, eventually, Lyon. I must admit that I'm rather wondering what she's like now. Grown a bit, I suppose. And she's getting to an age when music ("French music is crap! You'll have to buy some decent CDs") and fashion ("Should I paint my nails purple?") are becoming Important Things in Life. A big thank-you to Ali & Barry for looking after her and generally putting up with her. Now I suppose we'll have to do the same - after almost a year's leave of absence. I suppose that after a while we'll get back into the swing of things and having two kids again.
I suppose I'd better get this finished and sent off or it really will be three weeks since I started. We've each had our little interview with the commander of the local brigade of the gendarmerie - the "enquête morale" of which the main aim appears to be getting us to say things that we've already written down on the papers that got sent off to the Préfecture. They also try to work out whether or not we've a criminal record, check that the kids aren't maltreated and try to determine if we've "integrated" into French society. With our wine consumption I think the last is pretty much a walkover.

They even asked if I took an interest in politics - I replied that as I wasn't allowed to vote anywhere in the world I didn't actually bother following it that closely. And in France it's too depressing anyway. A Green député just recently claimed that Jacques Chirac (unbelievably president) was, when mayor of Paris, elected partly thanks to the votes of people who turn out to have been technically dead (vitally-challenged? existentially-deprived?) at the time and got slapped on the wrist for revealing Parliamentary secrets. Jacques Tiberi, current mayor of Paris, is standing again ("auto-succession") is the term in French, if anyone cares), despite the mud being flung about his own crowd of loyal-unto-death-and-even-beyond supporters (some 18000 voters being no longer with us) and false billing and make-work jobs for the boys. This against the official mayoral candidate of the (dis)united right, Phillippe Séguin. Séguins' competitors for the post (including Edouard Balladur, ex-prime minister and onetime presidential hopeful - against Chirac) have withdrawn with much noise and bad grace, not perhaps too surprising given that the choice seems to have been made behind closed doors in a game of "Dip dip dip my little ship" by the RPR leadership. Cynical souls are saying that Séguin got the nod to get him out of the way before the next presidential election, as he'd have been a strong challenger to Chirac's bid for a second term: he will either have won, and be running Paris, or have lost, and been exiled to the political wilderness.

It's not just the right that are in disarray, mind you - they're perhaps just more visible. The left have their own problems, with bloody-minded investigators digging into the Mitterand years (back when Elf, the big petrol firm, was Mitterand's personal slush fund) and the rather creative financing of the Socialist party. Roland Dumas (once Minister of Justice) seems headed for jail, Strauss-Kahn maybe, and there are at least two other investigations underway into sitting ministers.

All of which might explain why, when yet another scandal is published with great fanfare on the evening news, people tend to lean back in the sofa and say "Yeah?".

Margo has been busy - not ony getting the bedroom ready but also doing translations for a client of ours in Geneva, Axe Communications. First it was a user's manual for a moulding analysis program from Dupont, then an offer to redevelop the UNDP website. If she can keep doing that she'll be pleased: light work, all done via the net, and pays well. Can't complain.

And I certainly can't, because I picked up my new Alfa yesterday. The first car I've ever owned that is actually technically, verifiably, new - with only 200km on the clock. I'm quite pleased with it, and I must say that I do appreciate the air-conditioning. You lot may laugh, but over here it's very nice to have. So now we will in fact be able to pick up Jeannie & Leigh & Malyon from Satolas on Tuesday and bring them back in reasonable comfort. And as Margo got Jeremy's bedroom finished today (have to move him in tomorrow) everyone will have somewhere to sleep.

Sunday, May 28, 2000

28/05/00 And of course, the peasants are SO picturesque ...

Hello again, everyone.

Well, we made it down to the Gers - eventually - with trailer in tow for a nice relaxing four days doing sod-all. We'd planned on leaving Friday 5th to take advantage of the long weekend (Monday being Armistice day) but when I took the Clio down on Thursday to get the towbar fitted it turned out that the towbar in stock wouldn't fit, they could get one in for Friday but there's be no-one to fit it until Tuesday, so we grinned and bore it and left the following Wednesday instead. Probably worked out for the best, given the traffic on the roads on a long weekend: at least we had a calm trip. Slow, too, after Avignon - we ran into the thunderstorms that the met. service had been promising all week.

Reminds me that I now have to buy another car (more to the point, the company has to do that) as Renaud rang up just as we were leaving on Wednesday to say that he'd just blown up the motor in the 205. Not too surprising really, the poor old thing had about 250,000 km on the clock, but it could have come at a better moment. I'll have to get onto various garages to see what their offers are - I must admit that an Alfa 155 is very tempting - but that'll have to wait for a week or so until I have some spare time.

Anyway, we made it down to the backblocks of the Gers and on to the wiggly track that leads up to Jacquy's place, and then had to stop for a peacock to move off. He looked rather insulted at our being there, but eventually scrambled up the bank on the side of the road and then stood there making rather gross noises at us as we headed off.

The Gers, for those of you who care, is in the heart of Gascony, which is Dartagnan country. They eat and drink a lot (and rather well), tend to swash their buckles, and as they're 99% peasant, hate tax inspectors. We went off one afternoon to buy some foie gras - probably illegal in NZ but we love the stuff anyway - and first of all we stopped off to see the farmer that took over Jacquy's beehives. You pull up into a muddy driveway mostly occupied by a tractor and three rusting hulks that may once have been cars, and stop at the open end of a U formed by the farmhouse on the left, a two-storeyed barn in the middle, and a glorified cowshed on the right. On the barbed-wire fence in front of the actual house a couple of overalls are hanging out to dry, the courtyard is full of mud, hay, and dubious byproducts of bovine digestive processes, and the 97-year-old granny is twitching aside the fly-blown curtain and peering suspiciously at us through the kitchen window. It's almost 3rd-world - the place looks like a dump. I wouldn't be surprised if, when not staring suspiciously at strangers, granny didn't go off and haul a bucket of water (with a few frogs in it) from the rather septic looking pond by the cowshed and wash the dishes in it. But Jacquy reckons that, with subsidies and all, they probably manage to bring in 15,000 F/month, plus granny's pension. Not too bad. Maybe it's a lifestyle choice.

Then we got to the foie gras man. Neat house, clean driveway - fair enough, don't want dirty ducks when their livers are worth 300F/kilo - and the usual couple of mongrels looking longingly at the tyres. Jacquy got out, went up to the door and spoke for about 5 minutes (either presenting us or negociating a commission) before we were allowed out. But once you've been accepted as a client - a little "prune" (plums preserved in Armagnac - they plop one or two in your glass and cover them with the Armagnac, and you have to finish it) followed by a coffee and a bit of a chat before the serious part, where a couple of preserving jars apparently full of unappetising yellow scum get pushed across the table in one direction, and a number of banknotes go in the opposite direction. Then it's time to go, as the man has ducks to force-feed, and the little sods don't like it that much.

Apart from that, we did as little as possible, which is pretty much my idea of a holiday. Oh, we went off and bought a couple of feijoa trees just to see if they work in Savoie, and we wandered about a bit in Jacquy's two hectares of forest and frightened a deer, which took off and went crashing back along the path (Jeremy was thrilled) and then found some wild boar tracks (or so Jeremy thought, and he was even more thrilled - if only Margo had thought to bring some plaster of paris along we could have taken casts), but it was too hot really to do much and let's face it, after a little whisky at 11:30 as an apéro before lunch (with its couple of bottles of wine), you don't actually want to do too much before the little whisky at 7pm before dinner (with more wine) in case the appetite gets spoilt.

They've an odd local custom down there too - as you drive around on the back roads you'll come across little metal shields with the tricolor painted on them and a bit of squiggly writing, planted on poles in front of houses or by the roadside. I'd never bothered to read the squiggly writing and had gone through life with the impression that they marked places where someone had heroically died for France, but this time round I became convinced that there can't have been that many Resistance heroes in the whole of France, let alone the Gers. On closer examination, what is actually written is "All honour to our Mayor, Lucien Machin", or "All honour to Councillor Pierre Chose". What it seems happens is that when a new mayor and council get elected (which is not as often as you might think, especially in rural France where, once you get the job, you tend to stay there for life and even at the end of that there's a good chance of handing it on to the kids) they all get together at one of their houses and go on, from councillor to councillor and winding up at the mayor's house, for a monumental day-long meal (copiously washed down with Gascon wine, of course), and at each house they plant one of these poles. Just to remember them by. It seems that it's all a very festive occasion, and I assume that the village gendarme gets told to stay at home on the day, because at the last house on the Nth glass of wine and about to tuck into a half jam-jar of Armagnac I know that I'd be feeling a bit wobbly.


Sunday evening and just recuperating a bit from last night - Sophie organised a little party which apparently finished up at around 6am this morning, but we piked out around midnight. Then this afternoon we went off to see Jacques and give him a hand unburdening his cherry tree and came back with 4 or 5 kg of cherries which are destined for the freezer.

The weather's been grotty today - been raining steadily (can't complain too much, we need it) and a bit chilly, but otherwise it's been marvellous. The fledglings are learning to fly in the hedge and garden, and Tess spends time down there lying on her back with her mouth wide open, hoping that there a few slow learners in the flock. She's also discovered catnip. She doesn't eat it, but if you give her a leaf she'll sniff it and then pin it down under her chin and rub it across the floor, drooling gallons as she does so. It's a pretty gross sight, and the pool of tepid catspit that's left isn't any better.

Renaud seems concerned that Margo isn't working any longer, and keeps finding her Things To Do. Last week it was the translation of a user's manual for one of our clients, and soon the same client wants some stuff scanned in, tweaked and then posted on the Nestlé breast-feeding site we did. So she should get about 20KF in over the summer, which is nice.

And I am trying to finish off a Windows driver for Sony videocams for a Swiss crown called Gespac. For which I had to buy a shiny new machine so that I could test it under Windows 98, and when I've done it'll become the new home machine and all the other machines shift along a rung. When that gets done I'll find out if they hand me the application development as well, which is quite on the cards, but can't wait for that as I have another website to develop for the Auchan supermarket chain. It's a busy little world.

I'll send this now and free up the machine so that Margo can get onto the serious business of reading her accumulated e-mails, but first here's a letter to the editor from The Economist:

"SIR-I must protest against your portrait of France as an illiberal, self-centred nation. French culture is exceptional and unique.

This has given rise to an efficient education system whose graduates are among the most competent administrators imaginable, endowed with an extraordinary capacity to manage one of the world's best performing economics while remaining close to the nation they rule.

This has led to an exemplary social consensus which spares the country such scourges as industrial action while serving as a shining example to other countries for its free-market, decentralised approach. This is coupled with a traditionally outstanding foreign policy, universally appreciated for its team spirit, openness and flexibility. This is why the world loves France."
I rather think it's tongue in cheek.

Tuesday, May 2, 2000

02/05/00 A sorry spectacle ... several apologetic glasses

Back again.

I did get around to mowing the lawn on the 9th, promise I did, and I really would have mowed it last weekend too had it not been too wet. So now it's nice and sunny and warm and the grass is back up to knee height, and I am going to have to get back out there Real Soon Now and try to bludgeon it back into submission.

At the moment I'm trying to get a website together in a bit of a rush (like, for in 8 days): the layout is all prepared (read "is in the process of being prepared", which is not what I really want to hear) so all that needs doing really is sticking in the bits that handle database access and stuff like that in order to make the site a "life-style-enhancing experience". Or something like that.

What makes me laugh is that the site is a throwaway - it has to be up for the end of the month, and on the 24th of May it will cease to exist. Its sole porpoise is to let about 100 top managers for a Swiss drug/chemicals firm sign up for a 2000AD pissup in Montreux. The really funny bit is that the company knows the names of the managers that it's inviting to the bash, but it either does not know - or cannot extract from the IS system in place - exactly which country they work in and what their phone number might be. It's not a website that they need. Still, why should I complain? They're paying me to learn how to put up an interactive site with access to an industrial-grade database behind it - I can handle this.

Just being looking over the latest newsletter we got from NZ and saw one item, under a headline of "Neo-Nazi Row" which worried me a bit - a Dr Pratt of Waikato University who seems to be asking why they have not expelled a student who has - I quote "been identified by overseas experts as an anti-Semite". Did Jörg Haider publicly say that he knew the fellow, for god's sake? If the resumé of the article is correct, I have to cringe for academic standards in NZ. If it's not, perhaps I should start worrying about journalistic standards.


Well, mowed the lawn again (fascinating news, that) and as it was lovely and hot today (about 26° in the shade down in the courtyard) I took all the necessary tools down and put together a new bridge for the stream. This involves - at a minimum - the circular saw, small B&D drill (for pre-drilling screw holes), the big Bosch hammer-action drill (for use as as a screwdriver, the battery-operated screwdrivers give out after about three screws in the sort of wood I used), set-square, clamps, assorted hardware ... took about three hours and incidentally served to remind me just how hot it gets down in the courtyard when the sun gets in there.

Tomorrow is Easter Day and, as is traditional, it'll be grot. About 16°, they reckon, persisting down and snow at about 1500m. Might as well be in NZ, really. Jeremy is really looking forward to it and made us promise to leave out a couple of carrots and some water for the Easter Bunny. My idea of a shotgun and buckshot didn't go down at all well. Margo's patissier/chocolatier friend Jean-Luc has already givern him a chocolate dinosaur full of lollies and this morning she picked up his proper Easter egg, so he's likely to overdose tomorrow.

Last week one of the few French documentary programmes that's worth watching - Thalassa - did a special programme on NZ. A number of our friends watched it - either from some warped sense of duty, or just because they've been sensitised to the idea of NZ - and most of them asked us the same question afterwards: "What on earth are you doing in France? You could be in New Zealand!" The only convincing answer I've been able to come up with is that we've been exiled for some crime too heinous to even talk about and are only allowed back (with paper bags on our heads so that we can't see the scenery) every five years or so for a brief visit. I've tried giving the real reasons - that we're actually reasonably happy here, Savoie is - in its own way - quite beautiful too, and I actually quite enjoy - in a twisted masochistic way - trying to run a company here and make some money - but it's not paranoid enough and no-one believes me.

(In fact, we can't leave until we've managed to get Renaud and Sophie over to NZ for a holiday. I will then be able to return happy in the knowledge that they will no longer be content to live in France, knowing what they're missing.)


Got back safely on Friday night from Geneva and installing my little website. I can now put "JSP experience" down on my resumé. Our clients (a reasonably big "communications agency", whatever that maybe) were impressed and so they should be - it actually worked! They now want to buy us - or at least enter into some sort of meaningful relationship going a bit further than us selling them our services from time to time. I'm all in favour of that - especially if it means that I can retire at 50 with an Alfa Spyder in the garage. Unfortunately I don't think it'll come to that, but we'll see what they have to say next Wednesday, when Renaud has a meeting with them to discuss such things.

So it's been a reasonably busy week. Up in Geneva for most of it, but still managed to find time for a BBQ on Tuesday and then Renaud and Sophie came round on Thursday night and we pigged out on foie gras and smoked salmon and drank unreasonable quantities of wine. Rather enjoyable, really.

This coming weekend is yet another long weekend - can't remember exactly why May 8 is a public holiday, but it is - and we're going off to the Gers to see Jacquy and hopefully pick up Malyon's bed and a big dresser. So in the next couple of days I have to work out how we're going to get them back here - it'd be nice to rent a van for a one-way trip, or even better send them off by rail - but this being France it won't be easy.

Jeremy had his two friends Pierre & Florian round for the day - six-year old twins. I wasn't there for most of it, as I had to go off and fix up a few problems with my stock-control system. Nothing particularly dramatic, but as it's the end of the week and, on top of that, the end of the month (and thus billing time), important for the client. So anyway, I missed much of the fun involved in having three five/six year-olds at home on a rainy day. Margo reckons it involves at least five times more mess than just Jeremy multiplied by three. It's probably some sort of boy thing.

By the time I got home they'd been safely delivered back to their parents and I was able to take a Martini down to the garden and watch the grass grow. Which it does, almost audibly. (Except on the bits Margo napalmed the other day.) It really is rather nice. Something a lot of you probably take for granted, but in Europe it's rare. You can almost understand why the French have this sentimental passion for peasant farmers, and why every Parisian dreams of having a patch of land of their own in the country.

Strange, really, as the actual peasant farmers are a dirty old lot that think that government subsidies are a god-given right and that clear running streams are Nature's waste-disposal system. I'll have to go down soon with boots on and clear out the three or four empty oil cans, the seeding cabbages, and general household waste that's currently bobbing around in our stream. Good thing Malyon's not here to see it all, she'd probably give us a lecture on respecting ecosystems and then march off to the Mairie to lay a complaint against person or persons unknown. Morally she's quite right, but I'm patient - I can wait four or five years until they all die off and are replaced by gentrifying "jeunes cadres" trying to escape the city. Who will throw their lawn clippings into the stream. Evolution is a slow process.

... Still trying to plan our trip off to the Gers, and it's not easy. The SNCF actively discourage people from using their services directly - wouldn't even give me a price. I don't really want to rent a van, as that would mean taking the BM and the van down and I, as the happy van driver, would have to go down one night and come back the next day and even at that it'd cost 2300 F or thereabouts (without petrol) which is rather expensive. So Margo had a brilliant idea which involves putting a tow-bar onto the work Clio and taking Sue & Serge's enormous trailer down. As getting a tow-bar fitted costs only 1000 F it's a no-brainer - now I just have to get it done. Can I find a garage that can stick a standard tow-bar on a stock-standard Frog car in the next three days? Does a pope shit in the woods? Is the Bear a Catholic? Answer is no. Bugger! (With feeling.) So we might wind up going down during the week rather than over the weekend.

Which is perhaps not too bad an idea anyway, as it'll give me a little more time to attack some of the work I have to do. Having got my website out of the way I now have a DOS-mode video driver to do in a couple of days and then - if the client I'm off to see at Geneva tomorrow agrees to our exorbitant prices - a Windows 98 driver for a video camera. To be done for the end of the month. And there's always paperwork to get out of the way, and all these strange people who keep sending us bills and who, for some strange reason, expect to get paid. There are times when it'd be nice not to have to worry about any of all that.

Just to supply another good reason why those of you who have no children want to keep things that way - found Jeremy in the shower this evening, lying on his back with the water beating down on what, for the sake of decency, we'll call his "lower abdomen". I asked exactly what he was up to and he replied - rather defensively - "Nothing! I was just giving my willy a drink!".