Monday, October 8, 2001

08/10/01 Back on the radar screen again ...

Summer's been and gone, and September's going out as gloriously as it came in, which is to say not very, as it began with rain, is finishing with rain, and was, incidentally, mostly rainy from start to finish. If only the French hadn't stopped the bomb tests at Mururoa we'd still have a decent climate. Now all the whinging Greens have got their way, and it rains all the time.

Well, we had a busy summer - didn't personally move around a lot, but we had a few people come through. First there was Janet Soler and Kevin who bravely turned up from England (well, Milton Keynes) in their old Bedford ambulance, then there were Laurence and (eventually) Mandy Hobden (the English cousins on Margo's side), then Jill & John Julian, and lastly (only just got rid of him on Monday night) Tom Livingstone. And in between visitors we managed to make it up to Pesselière.

Laurence is Margo's first cousin once removed (or something like that) - avoiding technical details, he's her cousin's son. About the same age as Malyon. Anyway, it was arranged between the pair of them (Mandy and Margo, not Laurence and Malyon) that he would come over here and be subjected to a semi-Frog lifestyle and a cousin, this being an Enlarging Experience and a Good Thing. Which, oddly enough, it probably was. The poor lad turned up as unaccompanied baggage at Geneva one morning to be welcomed by a hero-worshipping Jeremy and a somewhat sceptical Malyon. Fortunately both he and Malyon turned out to have similar tastes in literature and, having introduced her to Warhammer they now communicate regularly by e-mail.

The Julians arranged, one way or another, the loan of a house in the Lozère, which is one of the more isolated districts of France. It's not that after a day there you feel that Taihape is just too crowded, but it's not far off. The place is called Bassurels, a village of some twelve houses a good fifteen minutes drive from anywhere, where the main excitement is counting cars coming up the road. (And given the state of the road there aren't that many.) It's actually rather pretty in a savage way: great gorges, enormous bare rock outcroppings and the occasional C15 fortress perched up somewhere which was once considered strategic.

Anyway, we drove down there the day after dropping Mandy and Laurence off to Geneva airport, found the place no trouble (thanks to Autoroute Express, don't know how we managed without it) and spent four days doing as little as possible. Well, we did make it off to La Grande Motte, which was an experience: this is where - apparently - every single French family there is goes for its summer seaside holidays. The beach isn't bad, I suppose, as beaches go - lots of sand to get up yer bum, and warm brackish water in the appropriate places (and, at any one moment, about 327 Parisians piddling in it, which is why it's warm) - if you can discount the apartment blocks and flash hotels 30m back from the high water line. Then you get the crowds, and it's true that yer average Frog-person is a sociable animal. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that there's a beautiful, spotless, pristine beach stretching for miles in each direction. You arrive and park yourself, Esky, radio, sun umbrella and all the usual paraphernalia, and get settled in to work on a serious case of sunburn, whilst inwardly lamenting the fact that women will keep their bikini tops on. So far so good. Then a French family - or a single French-person, the quantity doesn't matter - arrives. As previously mntioned, there's something like 15 km² of beach space. So, where do the new arrivals settle in? Why, just next to you, of course! As close as possible without actually infringing on your personal space (which is, in Europe, much smaller than it is in NZ). Why is this? Some serious analysts for whom I have much respect (Dave Barry, for example) say that it is because they really want to piss you off and see if they can't make you go away, personally I think it's because they get lonely. Missing the fact that, in Paris, the nearest person is about 30cm away.

Then lunchtime comes around, and all of a sudden the beach is again deserted. We were there, eating Dagwood-style submarine sandwiches and drinking red wine (put it in the Esky to keep it cool, a sin I know but it's still a damn sight better than HOT red wine), and everyone else had disappeared. Retreated, in fact, by about 30m, back to the restaurants, salons de thé, and fast-food joints promising boiled mussels with French fries that lurk on the ground floor of all the apartment blocks and posh hotels. I'm not complaining, I'd just like to know why people think that boiled mussels and chips are an appropriate lunch on a day when the temperature in the shade is something around 37°.

On the way back we did something I've always wanted to do and stopped off to admire the Pont du Gard, the enormous Roman aqueduct that crosses the Gard a bit below Orange. Still didn't make it through to the vigneron in Orange where I used to get my Chateauneuf-du-Pâpe, though. (Perhaps next time ...) It was very, very, impressive. Even the kids were silent for all of 30 seconds - although that may have been for lack of ice-cream.

Spaeking of the kids, we're in for a musical year in 2001. Jeremy is learning the oboe ("hautbois" in French), and Malyon has decided to do the clarinet. Fortunately we can stick them in the library to practice their scales. (TOOT toot TOOOT!) When it starts to get too noisy we can banish them to one of the cellars.

Last week of August Margo took the kids and dog up to Pesselière, and Jacques and I drove up on the weekend in his little Express van to drop off the old coal-burner that's been sitting in the garage for a couple of years, as well as a spare double bed that's been lurking in the attic. Got to see the work that's been done on the place (been quite a while since I was last up there) and I at least managed to spend Saturday not doing very much at all, although Jacques got roped in, as resident expert, to go mushroom hunting at some ungodly hour of the morning.

The stock management system I developed more than a year ago has turned into some sort of Frankenstein's monster, with a life of its own. When I took the job on I dropped the price by about 20,000F and took a cut on future sales, not really believing there'd ever be any: unfortunately the guy has so far sold about 20 copies (at 50,000F/copy that could be worse) so far, has gained an entrée in the big firms and is set to hock off another 50-100 copies next year and the thing has turned itself into a product, which has to be maintained, must evolve from time to time, needs support - all those ghastly things at which small businesses such as ours do NOT excel. We're just not built to do that sort of thing - more "do it quick, do it cheap, get it signed off and move on to the next job" is our style. But now that has to change. I can't complain (although I do): the royalties come in and I bill for evolutionary changes (maintenance is more or less under guarantee) but it would have been nice if he'd managed to sell five systems, each requiring various modifications and add-ins (all billed, of course) at some time other than now. Because right now is not a good time, I'm already up to my neck and the extra just means that I'll get to take a breath of air alternate Wednesdays. Still, better too much work than none at all. I'm starting to learn to say "no" to clients too, which is probably a good thing.

Just to complicate matters Margo has started working virtually full-time as well: 12 hours a week with the state schools at Montmelian (caused some frumping at St Pierre when she didn't get sent back there this year) and the same again (at least) with a private language school at Albertville, some 25km further up the valley. Given that her hours do not necesarily correspond with those of the schools at St Pierre, this involves some juggling of work time on my part so as to be around to pick up or deliver (as appropriate) kids to and from school or whatever. Good thing I'm self-employed, otherwise we'd never manage.

One of the other things that came out of the closet over summer was a system I did years ago for swimming pools and the like - a sort of enormous jukebox thing that brought up the box containing your clothes, knickknacks and wotsits when you went up to it with a sort of badge and a PIN. (The original development was done about 4 years ago and we nearly went under as the customer declared bankruptcy, walked off with the software and never paid. This is another problem with being a small company.) Anyway, a system of this sort was installed at St Quentin, near Paris, and since year 1 they've sent out a request for tender for the software, to which I replied with the original price, and since year 1 there's been no response. This year, when the request arrived on my desk I toyed with the idea of upping the price by 30% (then 30% more in 2002 etc, just to get them off my back) but unfortunately didn't, because as it turns out this year they were serious and actually ordered it. Which meant a couple of weeks in Paris in June/July, which would not count as my favourite time to be in Paris. Hot, stinking (usual cleaners' strike in the Metro) and too many people. Looking on the bright side, I usually managed to stay in the 13th arrondissement and consequently got to eat some pretty good Chinese food. On the bad side, on the last trip I had to stay in St Quentin itself, which has two restaurants, one of which is unspeakable and the other merely vile. At the least bad of the two I ordered a Coupe Colonel, which is normally a lime sorbet with a dash of vodka splashed over it: what I eventually got was a ball of sorbet bobbing about in a beer-mug of vodka, which started me wondering about exactly how they made a profit. Even if they were just using industrial alcohol and flavouring, they must have made a loss on it. Maybe they made their margin on recycling the left-overs from the main course.

Today, incidentally, is the 8th of October and I'm now 43. Alarming but true. I don't FEEL 43. Even if the mirror tells me that I am. Who looks at mirrors anyway?

Saturday, April 21, 2001

21/04/01 Out of Africa

Well, there's not much other news (as far as I'm aware, at least) so you're going to get my African diary. All those of you (and I know who you are) who thought I'd explode were in fact wrong: I really loved my time there and I'll be going back as soon as I can (ie whenever Michel will pay for it).

Cameroun 04/4

Traditional trip from Hell, starting with getting up around 3am to get to Satolas with my 40 kg of luggage so as to catch the first leg of the flight, through to Brussells. Where we spend a fascinating 3 hours waiting in the terminal for our boarding call, followed by an even more interesting hour or so on the tarmac whilst the luggage of a non-showing passenger is identified and unloaded. (Which means, of course, unloading and then reloading the entire contents of the hold.) At least it's comforting to know that some things really are eternal, and airline food hasn't improved while my back was turned.

I still think Sabena's a bit cheap for dishing out plastic cutlery with the food, though. (SABENA apparently stands for "Such A Bloody Experience, Never Again)

Happily surprised to find that the cellphone works (more or less) in Yaoundé so we're able to call the hotel from the airport to find that, as usual, Michel is totally disorganised and we have to get from A (the airport) to B (the hotel) under our own steam, which we do in 3 taxis. Despite being ripped off by the porters who latched onto us as soon as we got into the terminal. (I say "ripped off" but it's not really true, they did get us around - rather than through - customs. Which, considering the contents of our luggage, was probably just as well. Otherwise we'd still be in the terminal.) Odd personality - you get quoted a price, haggle and get abused, but once things are alll settled there's no problem. Odd to me, anyway. Temperature around 28° and humidity 75%, so not too bad: better than Hong Kong anyway.

Dinner at a Camerounais restaurant - ate crocodile, which is fairly gelatinous (rather like lamb shank, really) then back to the hotel to squash a few cockroaches before bedding down ready for tomorrow's trip, when we leave at the crack of dawn (about 9am, to be exact) for Nyos.

Cameroun 05/4

11am and a minibus of the aptly named Vatican Express Cab Co (our friendly motto: "Honk when you hit someone") delivers us - more by luck than good management - to a meeting with the Minister - no less! - of science + research where I for one discover that the mission was cancelled on Saturday, only to be reinstated this morning. Much pointing of fingers and slinging of mud trying to establish that no-one's actually responsible for the total lack of organisation. The current plan is to get as far as possible this afternoon in the minibus and RDV with a couple of 4x4 pickups tomorrow for the last leg of the trip.

The road code is fairly rudimentary: honk like mad just before overtaking or arriving at an intersection and then - insofar as the vehicle allows - accelerating.

Arrive after the easy part of the trip - 400 km to Boufassam. Only a couple of hundred km to go. Incredibly lush countryside, with unbelievably red soil. Numerous police road-blocks (we were advised not to travel after dark): the country won "Most Corrupt in the World" twice running a couple of years ago.

Cameroun 06/4

Bafoussam looks like a town which started on a building spree about 30 years ago and then abandoned it 6 months later. The Hotel President, where we spent the night, is a monumental pile, plonked as if by accident in a shantytown, which has evidently never had a cent spent on upkeep and which is slowly crumbling away as a result. Enormous rooms with a 4m stud, electrical cables festooning the ceiling, and only cold water in the shower. (Although oddly enough there was hot water in the handbasin, the plumber must have been a twisted genius of sorts.) At least the flush toilet did, although going on the evidence that must have been an intermittent state of affairs.

Heading further north now, up into the highland plateau where the tea and coffee plantations are. (At least you can get a decent cup of coffee here - in fact it's likely to be better than in France.) It's also the muslim zone, so there are little lath and red mud mosques every couple of kilometers.

The interior of the minibus is adorned with various uplifting slogans like "no conversation with the driver", "no fighting" and "no vomiting" but the one I like the most reads "do not send your head outside".

Climbing higher and higher now, towards 2000m, and we left the tarmac behind a couple of hours ago. This high up there's less planting and more pastoralism, with the emphasis on impressively-horned cattle.

We perhaps made a mistake in leaving today as it turns out that the President (can't remember if he's one of the "for-life" variety or if he gets ceremoniously re-elected every few years) has sent the PM off up here to see exactly how the money allocated to get the road up to Nyos has been mis-spent or diverted, and as a result we're permanently held-up behind the ministerial motorcade. Still, we've hopes of making it to camp before nightfall.

Cameroun 07/4

Not yet 11am and already I've been up for 5 hours. They believe in early rising around here. Bloody frightful. The good news is that there is a shower, with a magnificent view over the lake, but I'll spare you the sordid details of the other toilet facilities.

Still, I don't regret coming for one instant. We arrived just after sunset to see the jet of water rising against the mountains behind: a really fantastic sight. So far this morning I've shot off 3 rolls of film, so when someone next makes the trip into the village for supplies I'll have to see if they can't pick up another half dozen. I'll have to keep some in reserve for the return trip, if only to get some shots of the termite mounds to keep Malyon happy.

Brings home to you just what a poor, disorganised mess this country is when you realise that not far from us there's a little army barracks, with two lorries. A month ago one of the lorries broke down, and two weeks ago the brakes failed on the other one and it went into a ravine, where it rests to this day. Despite repeated calls to the MoD in Yaoundé they still haven't got any spare parts, the military base 3 hours away has neither the spare parts nor the money to buy them, and they're dependent on the camp here to send them food from time to time. Occasionally they send someone out with a Kalashnikov to get some dietary supplements in the game reserve. (The captain of the garrison stopped by tonight - informally dressed in a shocking-pink tracksuit - and was very pleased to find that there was freshly killed pig on the menu.)

What's surprising is that there are still a lot of serious people who really want to make the country work - "like a normal country" - and who work their arses off just trying to do their jobs so that it does, somehow, carry on.

Cameroun 09/4

Well, after two days hard work I've finally got communication sort of established between the station and my PC via a pair of packet radio modems. It's not particularly reliable, and certainly not fast, but it works sometimes. Things haven't been helped by the fact that my HP is not 100% hardware compatible with a standard PC (from HP I suppose that's not really a great surprise) and the radio modems aren't really transparent either. Never mind, I've only wasted a day or so.

Our two septuagenarian geologists are in heaven. They came over to check on the natural dam at one end of the lake to see if it was likely to give way in the near future and, if so, what could be done about it. The elder of the two, Pierre, is tall, skinny and has a habit of going into long rambling discursions of an academic nature. Very nice chap. Anyway, he spent much of yesterday abseiling around a 50m cliff, apparently just for the fun of it. Despite a bad back and an iffy hip.

To add to the pleasure they've found a cave under the dam, which they plan on exploring tomorrow. With an open invitation to any other members of the team who might feel like coming along. I think I shall pass - speleology is not one of my hobbies.

We've been very lucky with the weather so far: apart from the two days on the road we've had no rain. According to the hyper-precise temperature gauge I have beside me the temperature at 19:15 is 26.1742° so during the day it doesn't get much over 32 I suppose, and at 1100m the humidity is supportable. And although there's no shortage of insect wildlife there don't seem to be any of the biting or stinging variety. The ants get to about 25mm long though, and I've just seen a beautiful moth, snow-white all over except for a fluorescent red face.

Cameroun 10/4

The food is excellent: mainly European-style but with a local flavour (much of it due to the heavy use of chili peppers). The vegetable of choice is either potato chips or fried plantain - a bit reminiscent of kumara, really. Lots of fruit - bananas, mangos, watermelon, pineapples and oranges - and plenty of wine (Château Cardboard from Spain), beer and whisky. Alas, no gin, and definitely no dry vermouth.

I do find it difficult getting used to being waited-on all the time, though. There's one guy whose job it is to pour the coffee at breakfast, another who hands the bread around, yet another couple who serve the main course and then there's the beer gofer. If I so much as sit down after grabbing a beer and start swigging from the bottle Pius yells "Trevor, no! Marco! A glass for Mr. Trevor!" (This is Anglophone Cameroun, remember.) I'd better not adapt too well or I'll have problems at home.

A couple of demented toads seem to have the idea that our home is theirs and spend much of the evening hopping about amongst the tents looking for a place to call their own.

Cameroun 13/4

Well, it's been a busy few days. After complaining bitterly about the lack of rain I now have to eat my words as the thunderstorms started on the 11th. The clouds just sort of sneak up on you and before you know it it's pelting down - horizontally, if you're unlucky. As I said, we had the first one Wednesday afternoon, and when I got up on Thursday and went in to the tent which serves as a computer room I found it awash. No harm done, fortunately, and at least I now know how to batten down the hatches properly (or whatever it is you do with a tent - there are lots of toggles and things involved).

Marcus, our chef, has really excelled himself lately. Pierre was getting quite attached to one of the camp cockerels - upset when it turned up on the menu as a rather nice coq au vin. Preceded, may I say, by hedgehog in a slightly piquant sauce. First time I've ever eaten that, and I must say it was rather nice. Then yesterday, as Michel Halbwachs, the guy who runs the show, had to head back to France, Marcus arranged a special treat - spit-roasted kid. First thing in the morning there are a couple of little goats gambolling around and bleating happily, come lunchtime there's one goat less and a goat-skin drying in the sun. It was excellent, but I must admit that the tripe and "organ" soup which preceded it wasn't really to my taste.

Tomorrow is a big day: the villagers from Upper Nyos (they're the ones who escaped the '86 disaster) have all been invited for a look-around to see how the project is getting on, and then in the evening we're all invited to the village for a party. That should be interesting. But it doesn't leave us much time, unfortunately, as on Monday we have to head back to Yaoundé for a meeting on Tuesday with a couple of ministers (science and mines, I think) to give a progress report, and then we fly out on Wednesday. I'll be sorry to leave, really. At least with luck I'll have time to pick up some presents for the kids and Margo - I have some very interesting rocks (pyroclastic splatters from the eruption which formed the lake about 100000 years ago, and a rather pretty but very fragile olivite occlusion in a basalt node which Pierre tells me came up from about 70km below the surface) but I get the feeling that they might not be enough.

Anyway, I'd better get back to work: it's already nearly 11 and I need to test the Inmarsat link again as Michel is really looking forward to starting the thing going by pressing a couple of keys on his PC in Chambéry.

Cameroun 14/4

Well, it's getting on for mid-day, which means I've been up and working for at least 5 hours now. Better put "working" between quotes, because the better part of the morning was taken up with speechifying and visits.

First time, I must say, that I've heard a speech in pidgin, and rather to my surprise I managed to understand a reasonable amount of it. I know I got introduced as a New Zealander who "makes much-big programs for the machines" but I got a bit lost after that.

It was clear that the people had a rather touching faith in the mission that Michel has set up here, and that they really believe that the place will become safe to live in again - I just hope they haven't overestimated our capacities and underestimated the time it'll take. That said, things seem to be going in the right direction, even if the time is getting rather short.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to tonight, even though some of our hosts have interesting skin diseases. And in passing I seem to have established a small legend in the area: no-one here has seen a cigar before. So apparently a certain reputation is going to precede me tonight.

Cameroun 16/4

A few last-minute changes of plan meant that we didn't leave yesterday, as originally foreseen. Instead we leave sometime tomorrow, so I don't know how much time I'll have for shopping at Yaoundé. Didn't make it to the village fête on Saturday either, which pisses me off rather more. But it's true that the 5-hour hike there and back might have been a bit much.

On top of it our working time has been rather curtailed by the weather, which has turned foul. Yesterday it pissed down for about 4 hours, and today we've been treated to a spectacular storm. We were actually out on the lake this morning, doing a few last-minute checks, and decided to head back to shore to pick up a few bits and pieces that'd been forgotten - just as well really as when we arrived the surf was well and truly up and the raft in the lake was rocking back and forth like a rubber duckie in the bath. Hopefully things will calm down a bit soon.

And if it warmed up as well that'd be nice, as I've no great objection to a cold shower when the ambient temperature is up in the 30s, but at 20° I start to squeal a bit.

Cameroun 17/4

After 3 hours in the 4x4 here we are at the Hotel Central Bar-Dancing Complex, as its sign proudly proclaims it to be, at Nkambé. The ambience is something special - 20W red and green lightbulbs in the bar, no running water and decidedly flaky electricity in the rooms. And a very evil-looking black hen perched above the main door. Still, it's somewhere to crash for the evening.

Another of those places that were built in better days and have been disintegrating ever since: the door to my room (rotting around the edges) has - rather optimistically - a lock, but the key I've got fits the padlock which has been retrofitted. And as luck would have it there's actually grass growing in the toilet bowl, so its chances of actually working in the near future (like, tomorrow morning) seem remote.

An eventful day all round, anyway. Went out to the raft in the middle of the lake this morning to check up on the system, settled myself comfortably,opened up the housing and plugged in the CRT and keyboard and went to work. Finished a few minutes later and went to unplug everything, then said to myself "Funny, I could have sworn that the cabling on that flow-meter moved. Must be water pressure." Then I took a second look, which is when I realised that most cables don't have scales. Very very quickly closed the housing again and headed back to shore to find someone whose job description involves snake removal.

It turned out to be 1.5m long and somewhat venomous, so I'm glad I called the experts in. Not really something my time at university equipped me for. Must have been the day for wildlife, as there was a dead wild dog being exhibited around the kitchen shack when I came up - a big ugly brute, with the colouration (and somewhat of the build) of a Tasmanian devil.

Despite that we did what needed to be done and left, even though it was at 19:00 rather than 13:00 as "planned". But I've come to realise that planning in Africa has not yet been elevated to the status of an art-form, and tends to be more of a none-too pious hope rather than a definite statement about the future.

Anyway, the lights are flickering more urgently than ever and we've a long drive ahead of us tomorrow before arriving somewhere we can shower before catching the flight home, so I'm off for a quick slash in the courtyard (NOT going to use the "urinary", I'm afraid to) before turning in for the night. Just hope the bedbugs aren't too active.

Cameroun 18/19-4

Well, from Nkambé to Yaoundé is a good 12-hour drive in a Vatican Express minibus, not counting the stopover at Bamenda. Not that I regret that, at least we got to eat lunch and I managed to buy some material for Margo. Just going from the highlands to the lowlands makes an amazing difference: down here it's definitely tropical, I've already seen a baboon squatting in someone's banana patch, a toucan perched smugly up in a eucalyptus and a flight of beautifully vivid neon-green and red parrokeets. Only five police roadblocks so far, and we still have hopes of arriving in time for all of us to be able to shower before catching the plane.

So much for the shower. Another couple of roadblocks delayed us enough that we arrived at Yaoundé at about 9pm, and we decided to head off directly to the airport - wisely as it turned out, as it took 2 hours to go through the various boarding formalities. As usual 20 porters descended on us even before the minibus had stopped, but we've learnt a thing or two: do NOT hire them all, but you MUST hire one or else you'll never make it to the boarding gate. You'll always find yourself at the back of some line or another - unless of course yu pay someone military to get you through. Whatever, we made it, with half an hour to spare, and what I am really looking forward to is a good gin and tonic, maybe a cognac and then, on arriving home, a really long hot shower. The last one (cold) was on Tuesday morning and I feel greasy!

Now on the Sabena flight from Brussells back to Lyon. Still unshowered and smelly, and as they only let you sleep for about 3 hours on the night flight over and I managed to rack up an hour's sleep at Nkambé that makes 4 hours sleep in 3 days, which isn't really that much. On top of it I uncautiously ate the bread roll that counts as breakfast on Sabena flights and it is really twisting my guts: I might finally find a use for some of those pills the quack prescribed for me before going over.

Still, and rather unexpectedly, I found Cameroun a beautiful place with wonderful people: I'm glad I went and I'll happily go back again: the next time (in June, maybe) I'll do on my own time (as it were) and Michel will just have to pay transport and upkeep. Having seen what the Camerounais are willing to do, I find it difficult to do less.


Monday, March 26, 2001

26/03/01 I HATE camping!


Back again so soon? I'm afraid so.

Finally moved into the modern world and the faithful mouse has been replaced by a trackball - my right shoulder was starting to play up after a couple of hours mousing around so I though it was time to try something that required less movement. Once you get used to it, it really is quite good. Luckily I've a friend who buys one of everything new that comes out, so once I've finished with the Microsoft trackball I can try the Logitech one ( which does feel a bit better in the hand, but costs about 400F instead of 150F) and go on until I find something I'm really comfortable with and am willing to pay for. But I think the mouse is definitely superannuated, and can take a well-earned retirement. (For info, Tom, the list price here is 159F or something under $50, so if you bought one "on special" at $50 I think someone's getting ripped off.)

In two weeks time I head off to Cameroun for a couple of weeks - to some godforsaken hole called Lake Nyos, near the border with Nigeria. It's a crater lake, and carbon dioxide comes out from the lake floor and dissolves in the water, to such an extent that at 200m below there's something like 15 litres of CO2 dissolved in each litre of water. Unfortunately this is not, long-term, an equilibrium situation - the last time (in 1986, I think) it went out of balance half the lake bubbled up into the air and then godnose how many litres of CO2 went rolling down the slopes of the mountain and suffocated 1600 people. So a client of ours had the bright idea of sticking a pipe down from top to bottom of the lake, inducing a low-pressure zone at the bottom (which causes the CO2 to come out of solution and go bubbling up the pipe in a self-sustaining reaction) to slowly bleed off the gas. So far so good, and it's all in place and apparently working perfectly (he's created the world's first 45m high soda fountain) but none of the remote monitoring equipment seems to be working.

Which is why I get my yellow-fever shots in a week's time and then fly out to a place so primitive that the only phone link is the Inmarsat satellite phone that got set up so that we could monitor the operation from France, spending a day or so in a 4x4 getting there and then ten days with no toilet facilties and a tin bucket with holes punched in the bottom as an excuse for a shower . Oh, and sleeping in a tent. I absolutely, totally, HATE that! At least in theory it's not a malaria-risk zone, but I think I'll take the tablets anyway. As I've no wish to end up with egg all over my face I shall go armed for bear, which means that in the next few weeks I shall have to buy a portable, install all the necessary software on it, and in between time try to set up in the office a close approximation of what there is out in the wilderness so I can do some more testing. Once happy with that all the hardware will get packed up and accompany me over, which means that my excess baggage bill is likely to be alarming.
Fortunately it falls in the school holidays, so Margo and the kids might head up to Pesselière while I'm away. Jeremy had two things to say - the first was "Can I come too?" and the second, after a bit of thought, was "Mummy, I'm not going to be eating nothing but pasta for two weeks." Food is taken seriously in this household.

I went off to see the quack and he told me, very reassuringly, that Cameroon is classed 4 on the 1 to 4 scale for malaria ie it is prevalent and resistant to most drugs, which means I'm on Larium starting one week before leaving and carrying on 4 weeks after returning. The accompanying note states that "sudden mood changes and attacks of vertigo are not unknown, if they persist see a doctor", which is nice. I also have my tetanus, typhoid, polio, diptheria and hepatitis vaccines to get up to date: as he said, I won't be sitting down for a while. And in the same line I have tablets for runny diarrhoea and stubborn constipation, just hope I don't get both at the same time. His final words of advice were "ne fréquenter pas les filles" ie resist the urge to sleep with whatever moves, which I thought was very thoughtful of him.

Whlist I'm away Margo will look at taking the kids and dog up to Pesselière for a week, helping clean up. Ian and Marie have had more work done on the place, including major masonry work, which means (if our experience is anything to go by) that there'll be dust everywhere. Which is not, in itself, unusual for Pesselière, but never mind, Marie has decided that enough is enough.

For the past few days we've been having torrential rain and the usual at-risk zones have once again been flooded, with the usual cries for compensation. The Isère isn't far from the top of its banks, and our stream is running full tit (and very dirty) which doesn't stop Kelly from going and wading through it. The worst was last night, when the wind was strong enough to wake me up about 4am and wonder whether we would still have all our chimney-pots in the morning, but the place was still intact when we got up. From now on it's supposed to dry out a bit, which'd be nice: I'm really looking forward to the first BBQ of the year.

What I'm not looking forward to is the annual ceremony of "dusting off the lawnmower", because as it's been so wet and warm everything is growing like mad, including the grass. This weekend we'll have to sprinkle petrol over the pile of branches from the tilleul we had topped so that they will burn, in the hope that the weekend after we can rent a rotary hoe and go over that patch of wilderness so that it's ready to get grass sown on it while there's still time.

Well, we tried that today - after sprinkling vast quantities of every inflammable liquid to hand (gin supplies excepted) over it the heap still refused to do more than smoulder sullenly for half an hour, and the lawnmower wouldn't work. So the grass gets a week's respite from the blades whilst the mower's off getting serviced, and I think that our plans for grass-sowing are just going to have to be put on hold until my return, when hopefully the wood will be a bit drier and more amenable to immolation. Which pushes things back to the end of April/beginning of May, which is not really the best time for starting a lawn, but there you are. As Blackadder once remarked to Percy, "Once again the devil throws up on my eiderdown".

At least after a week's anxiety my portable finally got delivered yesterday - I was starting to get worried that the supplier's website was a complete tissue of lies and that rather than having 34 of the little beasts in stock they actually had twice that many on order, and that I was going to turn up in Cameroon with an abacus and a picture of a computer cut out from a catalogue. But I'm now the proud (and relieved) owner of a little HP Omnibook xe3, onto which I shall have to (after my return) install an English version of Windows. But for the time being I can live with it in Frog, and I've no wish to get halfway through the installation process only to discover that it requires some warped Hewlett-Packard-specific variety of Windows which is only available by snail mail from their service centre in Mongolia.

Anyway, our two quadrupeds seem to have settled into a reasonably peaceful cohabitation, which involves Kelly trying to lick Tess' bum at every opportunity (godnose why, it's daggier than a back-country sheep back there - maybe that is why) and Tess slicing her with a claw when she feels she's had enough. Kelly still has only two brain cells to rub together but she's a good-hearted dog: she'll obey me (when she feels like it) but her mother is Margo. She follows Margo about the house, and should ever she go out - even if only for 5 minutes - on the return it's as if she'd disappeared for a year.

And at 2am tomorrow I shall have to get up and rush about the house setting all the clocks forward an hour - yes folks, daylight saving again. It will be so nice to have that extra useable bit of daylight.

Back in three weeks -
Trevor & Margo

Saturday, March 10, 2001

10/03/01 The new millenium has come, and the sky is falling!


Well, that's perhaps a little alarmist, there's just a tiny meteor shower from the Hesperides or whereever.

I hope you all had an overfed Christmas and a gluttonous New Year, I know we did. We headed off to Paris on the 22nd to stay with Ian & Marie for a week, and true to form something had to go wrong. This year it took the form of the firewood being delivered, not on Thursday as promised but at midday on Friday (the 22nd). They also delivered 9 stère instead of the 7 I'd ordered (think 4 tonnes instead of 3) and as they have little choice here but to dump it in the street that left me about 4 hours to shift it off the street and down into the courtyard. It makes for an awful lot of wheelbarrow-loads, but I did get it done. And, incidentally, regretted it for the next two or three days as some of the muscles I didn't know I had kept complaining.

Anyway, the TGV did its usual job and delivered us to Paris, and then we just had to lug ourselves and baggage across Paris to the Gare du Nord to catch the repulsive suburban train out to Ermont-Eaubonne. Our average speed took a hit: down from about 200 kph to somewhere around 15.

The French actually celebrate Christmas with an enormous meal on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day itself is given over to eating the leftovers. Its no sillier than the way we do it, but it takes a bit of getting used to. There was, as it happens, some excitement on Christmas Eve as the plat de résistance (after the oysters and the foie gras) was to be the traditional goose, stuffed and stewed in its own abundant fat and served with chestnut purée (something which I personally find sits as lightly on the stomach as a half-dozen breeze-blocks but that must be just me, 58 million frog-persons can't be that wrong). The stuffing involves apples, the chopped and minced private parts of the goose in question, and truffle shavings. This is not in itself exciting, I admit. But then Phillippe and Lorraine turned up with a jamjar containing something that their poodle had found in the garden (why, you ask, would they want to preserve something so gross and, indeed, exhibit it to friends and family) which was in fact a truffle. Melanosporum, the black truffle, to be precise: looks a bit like a dogs nose -feels a bit like one too, if it comes to that - spongy, and a bit whiffy.

Unfortunately, their hopes of selling Quetsch (that's the dog) as a chien truffier for large sums of money were dashed when we pointed out that to date she'd found only one truffle and that one smelt like a decomposing sheep, which is not what fresh truffles smell like. I know I said "whiffy", but I didn't mean "rotting". Still, I'm quite impressed, as Paris is not really truffle territory. Perhaps the previous owners had buried one hoping for a crop of little truffles in the spring - perhaps a leprous dog's nose dropped off. Whatever, we used tinned truffles for the stuffing. It seemed the prudent course.

We didn't move around a great deal: it seems that half of France came down with gastro-enteritis in the days after Christmas and the Vickridge household was no exception. Fortunately the Bimlers are made of sterner stuff. We did make it to the Louvre to take a look at the Egyptian section (only an hour or so in the queue, not too bad really) then convinced Marie to take the kids back with her while we wandered around rue de Rivoli and into WH Smiths and then Brentanos to pick up a few books.

We made it back home (with Jeremy's Christmas skateboard packed in my suitcase) on the 28th, and Margo threw us out at the front door before rushing off to pick up Kelly from the kennel. Between debouncing the dog and retrieving the cat from the neighbour, Mme Perrière (who spoils her shamelessly - "She's such a little eater" she says, oblivious to Tess' 5kg on her knee, "it's no trouble to just cook a little more and we eat together") we wasted most of the evening.

New Years Eve was fairly quiet: I convinced Jacques to come over with his daughter Claire, and Jean-Christophe (who shares our office) and his wife Babette, and we ate rabbit terrine and filet de boeuf Rossini and a clafouti and cleaned out some of the older wines in the cellar. Then we crawled into bed at around 3am and didn't surface again until midday, which was still too soon.

Well, I've had at least one of you asking whether the keyboard had frozen over or something, and I must admit it's been a while since I knuckled down and actually wrote anything. Sorry. As it happens, there's no chance of the keyboard freezing: this must have been one of the mildest winters on record. It's snowed down here two, maybe three times, each time weedy soft flakes that melted as soon as they hit the ground. I think that in the entire winter we may have had five frosts. Of the nine stère of wood I carefully stacked, we've burnt maybe two. Not that I'm complaining - I like it warm. But most of the smaller, lower-down stations are weeping: no snow = no skiers. Didn't stop the usual horrendous traffic jams during the February holidays, mind you - I think half Paris must have been stuck at the Montmélian péage last weekend. Serve the buggers right!
Ian & Marie and the kids came down during the February school holidays to see if they couldn't get a week's skiing - by sheer good luck the weather was lovely and there was still snow up at Margeriaz, the closest station to us and one which is well-adapted to kids and learners. The kids get on well together (as I've probably said about a hundred times) so it all went quite well, although we never did find the time for Ian to go off and pick up andother crate of old Mondeuse. It can wait for the next time. What we do have to do is borrow Jacques' little Express van next time we go up to Pesselière so that we can empty out the garage here a bit by taking up the old coal-burning stove and a spare double bed. While we're at it we might as well borrow Jacques and drag him off there for a couple of days holiday.
Something has finally clicked in Jeremy's brain (or whatever it is) and he's started to read. So after he's done his homework ("Elodie goes to school. 'Look', says Jacques, 'Pierre has a bigger ball than I have!' Jacques is Elodie's brother. Jacques is a prat. Elodie takes Pierre's big ball, and squashes Jacques' face in with it ... ") he goes off and works his way through a proper book. Like the one about the wolf whose favorite meal is strawberry jam and pickle sandwiches. Luckily this has not yet worked its way into his own dietary habits - starting the day with a slab of bread spread thickly with hazelnut purée sprinkled with hundreds & thousands is quite bad enough!
Carnival 27.02 Jeremy wasn't inpressed and refused to get dressed up -took off his costume in the school playground! In the afternoon the preschool & primary school ( all dressed in their disguises) paraded through the streets of the village - made a detour to the Old Peoples Home then wound up in the village square for gouter (afternoon tea). I went up to see them all and the ones I teach English to all called out " 'ello Mrs Bimler". They were quite pleased I went. They were lucky this year as there was a man who did a few tricks on his unicycles. One was about 2.5 meters high (the unicycle, she means, not the man). He (the man, not the unicycle) also did some juggling and firebreathing.
Right now it's local-body election time across France, with all its attendant implications for the national political parties. Remember that in France the mayor is never just the mayor, he (and I can say that without blushing because statistically the average mayor is 99.5% masculine) is the RPR/Socialist/Communist mayor, and while the mayor of Morveux-les-Crottes may never become a government minister, many ministers started as mayors (or at least, councillors and with a good degree from the ENA or the Ecole des Mines). So these elections are seen as a good guide to the government's popularity (or lack thereof).
Which is one reason why Jospin (our eminent PM) has recused himself from going off to canvass for various Socialist dignitaries who happen to be standing for mayor - in certain circles he's about as popular as a dead otter. "Certain circles" meaning farmers, who feel that he's not been sufficiently supportive during the BSE, and now the foot'n'mouth, crises - ie he didn't say immediately that they'd be compensated at 5 times market price for all the mangy beasts that were slaughtered. He's now trying to catch up, as the presidential elections come up soon enough and for all that farmers make up only 2% of the population, no-one ever won an election by ignoring them. (Fair enough, the buggers are difficult to ignore when they take their tractors out and spread a 3m high pile of silage across the autoroute. Which is highly illegal, but this is France after all, and there's bound to be an election coming up soon. They'll be first up against the wall when the revolution comes ...)
Anyway, as there seems to be nothing else happening in the world the national TV chains devote 30 minutes every evening to an in-depth analysis (usually conducted by some tired old hack or has-been politician) in various cities. Tonight we had Charles Pasqua (remember him? Think "Rainbow Warrior" - minister of defence, slimy old swine, Marseillais as well which means there's virtually no chance he isn't corrupt) offering his thoughts on the Parisian elections.
Paris is quite exceptional in that it's one of three cities (the others being Lyon and some hole no-one's ever heard of) where the mayor is not elected by direct vote. The city is divided into arrondissements, each of which has its own mayor, and when they've been elected they all get together and vote (strictly along party lines, of course) for the city mayor. It may seem strange to you, but the French seem to like it that way, and it's certainly no worse than the American presidentials. Anyway, the current mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, is plagued by scandals (many of which, like featherbedding, fake jobs, cheap housing for friends, and dead voters, actually date back to the years when our revered president was mayor, and some of which are entirely his own, like the 200 000F paid to his wife as consultancy fees for a 40-page report a 15-year-old should have been ashamed of) and as he was a good friend of Chirac's (until the day the scandals came into the open) the political right has fissured. The left smells blood, and with it the chance of winning the mayoralty for the first time in living memory.
It's nothing to sneeze at either - the mayor of Paris has at his disposal an annual budget with the same number of zeros in it as NZs GDP and - up till now, at least - no oversight or nosy auditors asking what's happened to it. (That was a small joke. Of course there are auditors. Probably PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who apparently do a wonderful job of auditing Russian companies and who have never yet found anything wrong with their figures.) This means, for instance, that Alain Juppé, one-time PM, could (and did), when director of public housing, arrange a nice little flat for his son at about a tenth of the going rate. Be that as it may, the stakes are large and daggers are drawn - we can expect a bit of blood on the floor this weekend. Incidentally, Chirac's wife - Bernadette, she of the handbag fetish - is standing for mayor of Dijon. Given that when she's not off on an overseas junket hobnobbing with African heads of state or anyone else unfortunate enough to still have French as their official language, she's suposedly tidying up after Jacques at the Elysée, you really have to wonder how she'd find time for the presumably demanding job of mayor of a big city two hours drive from Paris.
We've got a number of things to do this year - amongst them rotary-hoeing, then smoothing, tamping down, and sowing grass on the part of our paddock that used to be the vegetable garden - but mainly trying to get an idea of what we're going to do up in the attic. The idea is to build an extra floor up in there - godnose there's enough room - and then shift ourselves up there and have the first floor as living space. The first thing to do is to measure it all up and see how much useful space there really is. Hopefully enough to get four bedrooms and a couple of bathrooms in.
And just to remind us that the French aren't the only nation that know how to make le fromage qui pue, here's an article which appeared in the International Herald Tribune in 1926. "Fumes from a cargo of New Zealand cheese overcame two officers of the steamer Suffolk at Liverpool when they entered the hold to investigate an odour reported by stevedores. They failed to return after half an hour, and a search party found them unconscious. One officer recovered on deck, but the other required hospital treatment." So there you are, 50 years ago we were making world-class cheese!
Right, that's all. Goodnight!