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Finally moved into the modern world and the faithful mouse has been replaced by a trackball - my right shoulder was starting to play up after a couple of hours mousing around so I though it was time to try something that required less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!