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!".