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.