Wednesday, December 18, 2002

18/12/02 The state of the nation ...

Here we are again: time to wish all of you a Hairy Gristlemouse and a very Furry New Bear. With chocolate sprinkles on it.

As Malyon has just reminded me, only three more days to go before the Christmas holidays, and then on Sunday or Monday we head off to Pesselière for a week's holiday stuffing our faces. I'm going to cause great cries of anguish because I'll take the portable along in the hope of getting some of the work done that really needs to be done before mid-January - for once I'm actually going on holiday with everyone else, that surely ought to count for something! At least I'll be more or less incommunicado, given that my cellphone only works there if I wander 500m down the road and stand in the middle of a turnip field, which is fine in summer (if you like turnips) but not much of a thrill in the middle of winter.

Not that winter, so far, has been up to much. We're still waiting for some snow down here, but it's been amazingly warm (well, above or about zero) and all we've had to date is rain. Ploppy rain, on a couple of occasions, but rain nonetheless. I can't say that I'm personally too put out by this. Maybe all the Parisians will stay at home instead of coming down here to block the autoroutes.

Got Jeremy's school report the other day, and I was pleasantly surprised. The state of his exercise book is, as his teacher delicately put it, "unacceptable", but his French is passable (we may have to work on that with him, though godnose how, as I'm certainly not competent to do it) and his maths is excellent. He decided to learn how to do division last weekend (they don't learn that yet at school) and found it easy. We'll see.

He'll finish the rugby season and then we'll see what happens with that: he still enjoys playing but complains that the other kids pick on him because he's a New Zealander, and make rude remarks about how Kiwis don't know how to play the game. Unfortunately, advice to eight-year-olds on ignoring the stupid comments of other eight-year-old titheads is invariably ignored. Ah well.

All in all, I think we're gaining ground and he may eventually graduate to join the human race. He was very - and deservedly - proud of buying all his Christmas presents with his very own money: he managed to save up his pocket money for two months and then went out with Margo and blew it all buying presents.

Malyon on the other hand needs to pull up her socks (or sockettes, for the fashion now is to wear socks that just cover your feet up to where your shoes end): she only managed an average of 18/20. There's a bit of extra work to be done there. She's 13 and feels that she should be treated as an adult: for the moment, as far as I'm concerned, she's still on probation. Even if she does remind us very strongly of Saffy, from Ab Fab.

She's much in demand at the college at the moment, as they're off to England early next year and she's the nearest thing they've got to an English-speaker in the class. She'll be able to teach them all about the delights of stodgy pud.

What she really wants is for me to trade up the Alfa 146 for a Zagato or an old Spyder. Not for any practical reason, just so that I can ostentatiously drop her off at school in a racy convertible, and she can murmur to any of her friends who dare to ask "No, that's just my Dad". She'll have to settle for a 156, I think. (Reminds me that some parents have made comments to Margo about my appearance when I drop the kids off to school. "Zombie" is one of the kinder words they've used. It's true that I'm not at my best first thing in the morning, but I still find that a bit cruel.)

Margo is waiting for the end of the year as impatiently as the kids. She finds 20-odd hours a week in intimate contact with ill-mannered, badly brought-up high-school turds rather wearing, and I can't blame her. (I'd probably have committed criminal acts by now, not being nearly so patient or forgiving - or not being paid enough to be so, at any rate.) Next year she's planning on demanding no more than 8 hours a week with college brats, the rest with adults, thanks very much.

As for me, business is ticking over nicely at the moment, even if we do have to make our accountant cut a few corners from time to time. Like today, when one of our clients, Novartis, asked us to bill them - before the end of the year - for about 50 000 euros for work to be done next year: question of finishing off the budget so that they can put justifiably put in a request for the same budget next year. ("If you've got it, you'd better spend it before budget review time") Don't want all that extra cash appearing in our books for this year, so we'll have to put out a false bill - for their eyes only - this year, and another (for the French authorities) next year. And hope they don't pay us before we do the official bill. And for once we've actually got cash in the bank at the end of the year, some of our clients having kindly consented to pay us. (But there's still about 50 000 euros sitting out there waiting to come to papa: if it all comes in at once I may succumb to temptation and flee to Bolivia with the cash. Serve the bank right, useless pack of illegitimate mother-loving offspring of female dogs that they are.)

And my Frankenstein stock-control system continues its life: we're due to roll out the web version Real Soon Now, and we're going to move to version 5 (with EDI interface) in the near future (like, in a couple of weeks, whenever I find the time). Can't complain, it's the first cash-cow we've had, and I plan on milking it for some time yet.

What else is new? Not a great deal, I'm afraid. In theory the builders turn up in March to start work on the attic extensions, after first of all ripping through the first floor here to redo the electricity and bash out a few unwanted walls over the stairwell. Margo is starting to have shivers at the thought of packing things and moving them from room to room as the work advances. The kitten has finally adopted the dog as some sort of cheap biological electric blanket, which is fine.

Merry Christmas to you all

Trevor & Margo

Friday, November 15, 2002

15/11/02 Apostilles and other religious artifacts


November has come blustering in as usual: rainy and cold. Luckily we had the chimney swept a couple of weeks ago and I got the wood delivered and stacked a while back, so the poele in the kitchen is now doing its job. One thing that has to go into the list of things to be done in the not too distant future is getting a proper pipe stuck up from top to bottom of the old brick chimney and coming straight down into the kitchen where the poele can be hooked up to it: the current arrangement, which we inherited when we bought the place, involving twisty bits of tubing in the kitchen coming up into the bottom of the fireplace upstairs, is illegal, impractical, and unsafe. The problem is that the smoke, instead of heading up into the atmosphere and doing its job of polluting somewhere else and generally contributing to global warming, gets slowed down in the bendy bits and all the tar in it condenses on the inside of the tubing and chimney, where it sits as a chimney fire waiting to happen. Our chimnery-sweep (who used to be a fireman in Paris) has thus given me instructions to take the tubing down every two weeks during the winter and clean it out properly, which is a right pain but I'd rather do that than call the fire brigade.

Tess the cat walked out the front door on a Sunday afternoon a month ago and never came back: sad for all of us, and especially the kids. So now we've a replacement, a little black and white kitten called Mischief who likes to live on shoulders and terrorise the dog (in so far as it's possible for something about the size - and weight - of a box of tissues to terrorise a small hairy pony with the brain of a cockroach). She arrived a week ago, returning with Margo, kids & dog from Halloween at Pesselière.

Speaking of which reminds me that I really shall have to borrow Jacques (or at least his little van) for the next time I head up to Pesselière (probably Christmas) so as to be able to take up our old stove and its (never-been-used) range hood, to replace the centenarian gas range that's there now. 'Cos I got a new oven not so long ago, a great big stainless steel monster of a semi-professional stove that is my friend. Jeremy thinks it's a bit ugly and would like to paint it pretty colours. No comment.

Unconfirmed reports have it that our attic renovations have been pencilled in by the builder for January/February 2003. I just hope that we'll get a few weeks official notice so that we can pack away stuff on the first floor before they start doing electrical things there: and, incidentally, order the radiators that we'll need for the attic. And tell the bank that we want their money NOW.

Speaking of banks reminds me that our bank has once again managed to "mislay" a bank transfer: only 5000€ this time, I suppose I should be grateful. Six weeks after it should have come through I rang the bank and insisted that they check and lo! there it was: "waiting on written confirmation". You may well ask what is the use of electronic transfers if they have to wait for some scribe at the counterparty bank to carve a confirming note on a stone tablet to be delivered by monthly pony express before it's validated ... This time they've gone too far, the transfer was credited the day after my call (odd, that) but effective at that date, rather than six weeks earlier. They evidently take me for an idiot, but this particular idiot is changing banks.

And last Monday, with my client from the SNCF turning up on the Wednesday, was of course the day my office machine chose to wipe out the C drive. No great harm done, apart from the loss of all the e-mail for the past three months (that being when I started using Outlook instead of Outlook Express, and Outlook of course sticks everything - address books, calendar, mail and the kitchen sink - into one enormous file that it puts where it pleases, rather than where I thought I'd asked it to) and two or three days spent reinstalling NT and all the various programs I depend on. And at that I managed to get it wrong: by installing service pack 6 BEFORE installing networking (a note on the Microsoft CDs tells me this is not good) I've a system where I can neither remove the service pack (because IE 5.x, which is no longer present, depends on it) nor reinstall it (because it doesn't want to: my encryption settings are too high, at, variously, 36, 58 and 128 bits). Everything works except e-mail, so I can see I may well wind up (deliberately, this time) reformatting the C drive and trying to reinstall everything in the right order. Either that or I give up and migrate to W2K, which might fix my problems with e-mail (or then again, it might refuse to install, citing inappropriate encryption levels) but would leave me without an NT4 development system. Poohs.

On top of that, yet another registered letter arrived from the Ministry of Employment, Solidarity and Immigration, asking this time that I: return the enclosed birth certificates "revetus d'une apostille"; supply a marriage certificate established by the authorities in the place where the ceremony took place, in the language of the country, specifying our respective origins (and furnished with an apostille as well); supply all possible details on my father's birth, death and marriage (failing which it's the High Court at Nantes that gets called to do the necessary).

I rather feel that I shall contact the embassy, find out what an apostille is (Renaud thought it was some sort of hat, but I think it's either a female apostle or some sort of wax seal) and how much it costs, then write a courteous letter back to the effect that we don't do things that way in NZ and they'll have to be content with our official marriage certificate as it stands, and that by the way all the papers concerning my father were destroyed in the Napier earthquake. Don't know if it'll work, but it might buy a couple of months' silence.

Apart from all that, life's going not too badly. Malyon has a boyfriend (or had, last time anyone bothered to keep me up to date with such things) and yer usual adolescent problems (apart from acne, but maybe that'll come) which mainly seem to involve parents who don't understand anything. Quite right too: no-one actually pays me to understand other peoples' problems. Jeremy still seems to be enjoying rugby (gather that NZ lost against the UK this weekend?) as it's a great excuse for sliding around in mud, and he still wants to learn to play the bagpipes. According to Margo he's getting a chanter for Christmas, so I may have to spend more time in the garden.

Just in case any of you were wondering, the dog has not gotten any more intelligent.

Trevor & Margo

Thursday, August 15, 2002

15/08/02 A weeks-worth of Valium ...

Here we are on holiday, for once, at Palavas-les-bloody-Flots, Mecca of the Francais moyen. (Not quite true. Mecca is la Grande Motte, just up the coast a way. Palavas is one of the lesser holy places.) Benidorm it isn't, but the coast is built-up, in varying degrees of hideousness, for at least 40km to each side of us.

It's one of those spots where, by tradition, the average Frog-person comes to spend their holidays, and there are many magnificent examples of the species to be observed and even, if you can get close enough to take them by surprise, photographed. The usual collection of bare breasts about, many of which would, unfortunately, be better suited to a museum than a family beach. Still, there are always a few delightful exceptions.

Thanks to the mother of a friend of Margo's, we have a small studio in the casino complex, about 20m from the sea. Directly in front of us is the port, with about 800 boats of different sizes moored at the moment (it's not Monaco either, so don't bother thinking of ocean-going palaces) and just a bit off to the left are the beaches. The apartment itself is a perfect size for two wife-swapping couples, and adequate for us, given that neither of the kids have yet discovered hormones. Be impossible once they develop mood swings and pimples.

Personally I find the water far too chilly for anything more than a quick paddle just to keep up appearances, but Jeremy and Malyon demand to be taken down at least once a day, even if it's only to build sand-castles or, in Jeremy's case, to dig a hole and bury himself in it. The water, it seems, is too cold, and the sand keeps him warm.

We came down here on Monday 5th, hoping to avoid the weekend traffic jams. I suppose we were successful in that, but it didn't stop us taking a couple of hours to do the last 70km of autoroute. Good thing we left reasonably early (or, as far as I'm concerned, unreasonably early).

One of the minor inconveniences of the Mediterranean is the mistral, the south wind which can reach alarming speeds. It hasn't been that bad, but there have been a couple of times when Margo and the kids have been forced to abandon the beach to avoid being sandblasted to the bone.

Anyway, yesterday - Friday - wasn't particularly nice so we decided to go off and have a wander around Montpellier. A charming city. The name comes from the latin "mons pistillarius", spice hill (because the spice merchants - the then masters of the universe - lived there). And the old city is indeed built on a hill - or several of them. Low hills, admittedly, but still hills, or what passes for them around here.

Apparently they tried to do a Haussmann on it in the 19th century and turn it into some sort of southern Paris: luckily they didn't succeed. There is a mini-Opera, more or less a direct copy (in miniature) of the Palais Garnier, and a few grands boulevards, but most of the old city is still a labyrinth of old buildings on tiny cobbled streets and around miniscule courtyards. As luck would have it we went down one of these, attracted by the bridge across the street at the third-floor level, and stumbled across an English bookshop, where we were able to stock up.

Then, investigating a C14 first-floor off-the-wall privy (still, to all appearances, in use, although I imagine that the plumbing has been redone since the installation of the original long-drop) came upon a discreet window with a tasteful display of exotic leather and chain lingerie. The prices seemed excessive for something that was mainly holes. Sort of thing that'd leave nothing to the imagination, were it not that shop dummies have no primary sexual characteristics.

For some strange reason, possibly related to the fact that Margo was with us, we then wandered into the sewing-machine district (yes, there is one, bizarre as it may seem) where Margo came upon a patchwork shop, which made her very happy. The kids do not share her enthusiasm, so the rest of us waited outside in a litte square and amused ourselves with watching grass grow.

Today being fine we spent the afternoon on the beach, making sandcastles, while Margo went off to - guess what - a patchwork exhibition. When that was over she came down and joined us, so I went off to do some serious degustation at the wine fair that took - is, in fact, still taking - place today. As a result we'll be heading home on Monday about 20kg heavier, and that's without counting the collections of interesting shells and the omnipresent sand.

Back home again to discover the lawn overgrown thanks to all the rain we seem to have missed out on whilst on holiday, and the faithful dog is just as cretinous as she was. Jeremy is now all of eight years old, Malyon will soon be thirteen, and the summer is slowly winding down.

On a practical note, some of you may remember Anne-Laure, the young lady who came over with us last time we were in your neck of the woods. She's at university now ( how time flies) majoring in computer imaging, 3-D animation and complicated things like that which I don't pretend to understand. Whatever, she wishes to do her doctorate and for some really strange reason she'd like to do it either in New Zealand or in Canada. Is there anyone out there who knows if such a degree is possible in NZ, and if so where? There's no great rush, but she'd like to know.

Carry on having a really grotty winter: I personally am going to get back to doing some really disgusting things with a DSP (nothing personal, it's for the SNCF, so that must be alright).

Trevor, Margo & everyone else

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

13/08/02 Rising damp


Here we are, having closed the final chapter of a pretty mediocre summer (weather-wise, I'm talking) and starting on what will be, if we can extrapolate from current trends, a grotty autumn.Cool, and wet. Excessively so.

Well, things are moving - at a glacial pace - on our naturalisation dossiers: we got a letter a few weeks ago asking us for "legalised" versions of the documents (birth certificates, marriage certificate etc) with which we'd supplied them - God nose what it means but the NZ Embassy people seem to have some idea. It just means getting recent copies of the said documents (they apparently don't like to work with old ones - must be allergic to dust) and sending them off to get translated and struck with some sort of magic wand (or ambassadorial stamp, I have no idea) and, of course, paying for the privilege.

As an aside, they also asked for the birth certificates and, if it existed, the marriage certificate for Margos' parents (not mine - why not?) in order to facilitate the process: "failing which, the High Court of Nantes must be asked to establish the appropriate equivalents".

The big news from our side is that future visitors will be able to stay in rather more comfort. The bed may still be a joke exploding sofa that folds up with you still in it, but at least it'll be in a room that isn't shared by five cubic metres of material and a decade's worth of accumulated junk.Yes, we have the plans for doing up the attic and the bank has agreed to pay for it, so in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future we'll have an extra three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a reasonable living area up there: and if we're lucky and our menuisier friend Philippe gets off his arse, we'll have a staircase so that we can get to them.

It won't really increase the number of rooms available, because the plans are that Malyon's bedroom then becomes my office, our bedroom becomes Margo's junk room, the upstairs living-room becomes just that (rather than Margo's junk room) and Jeremy's bedroom turns into the landing for the staircase. But it will give us another 90 m² in which to complain about the lack of space in the house.

All that remains to be done is to get in touch with the guy that did the quote and see when he can get started. Unlikely to be before 2003, but with any luck he'll be able to fit us in at the beginning of the year rather than at the end. It is, let it be said, a perfect winter job: inside, dry, and reasonably warm.

I've also managed to do something that everyone ought to be forced to do at least once in their lives, namely installing Windiws 98 (or "Windows mille neuf cent quatre-vingt dix-huit", as Jeremy insists on calling it) side by side with Win 2K. It took some time, as only Win98 SE has a utility allowing one to create a bootable diskette that will recognise FAT32 disks (which, of course, Win2K uses by default). Unfortunately, the said utility requires access to a hard disk to create a boot diskette (and doesn't tell you if it hasn't got access, it just goes ahead and creates a totally unusable diskette with all files at 0 bytes) which left me somewhat stuck, as it works only under DOS and the only DOS boot diskette around was one for Win95 (which doesn't recognise FAT32 disks). I finally had to boot my office machine (which has a FAT16 drive) using the old Win95 diskette and do the job there. On arriving home, much to my surprise and alarm the whole thing worked - and for what? So that Malyon can use Encarta 2000 (which won't install under Win2K, with the rather cryptic error message that KALLISTI.EXE is trying to violate something) and so that Jeremy can play a couple of games (one of them was, I must admit, his birthday present, and having a present that you can just look at but can't play is a bit tough). It only took a day or so.

Spent a fascinating afternoon scraping down the windows upstairs: the last three weekends I spent replacing all the panes in the french doors onto the balcony on the north-west side of the house. They were put in when the upstairs was built, some sixty years ago, and the putty had perished and was falling out and anyway the glass was only 1mm thick, so we reckoned it was about time to replace the lot. Not a perfect job, but at least now the wood's stripped back ready for revarnishing, and when the wind howls down from the north it won't be coming into the bedrooms around the window-panes.

Back from a couple of days in Paris, where I luckily missed out on some of the worst flooding in years down in the Midi. Apparently there was just very heavy rain here - drove through some of it heading up. And despite Meteo Frances' promises, things didn't really get better until today. Hope it lasts: we've a BBQ scheduled for Sunday and everyone is busy getting the grapes in for what may well be a somewhat watery vintage.

Have a day of hard physical labour planned for tomorrow as someone turned up with an enormous rotary hoe and dug up the old vegetable garden in the paddock (the one we've been talking about having dug up for the last three years): now it needs rolling down, a big level patch (just big enough for a swimming pool) made in it, and then sowing with grass. Luckily there's only a few hundred square metres to be done. Anyone care to come over to give us a hand?

To round off the day, I discovered where 10000 euros can disappear. Back in April, I billed a Swiss client for doing their website and waited for the cash to roll in, as it usually does with them. After a few months, still nothing: I ring and enquire. Turns out that the temp worker they had in at the time had put the bill on the top shelf and left it there. Time passes, as it does: where's my cash? Ring again, the company has out-sourced its accounting to Young, Rubicam: a few hiccups. Still later - beginning of August - I ring again: goodness me, the outsourced accountants don't have our bank references, so haven't been able to pay us (haven't said anything either, until I asked). We are promised payment that same day, if only I will fax them the bank references. Done. Today, still no cash. Ring the client. Yes, payment went out. Ring our bank. No, nothing's come in. Ring client again. Their account has been debited. Ring our bank again. Still no cash. Ring client a third time, get the bank transfer order details. Ring our bank, give them said details. Miracle! the money is found, sitting in our bank's holding account (gathering interest at LIBOR, no doubt) while they decided what to do with it. Ring client to apologise. Make mental note to change banks, preferably with extreme prejudice. Honestly, sitting on 10000 euros for 24 days whilst "the transaction was being handled"? I want the interest!

They apologised fulsomely (like, "Sorry, see what we can do about getting you your money, perhaps by Monday") but I rather think that we can do without them any more. Such incompetence is rare and doubtless deserves to be rewarded, but not by me.

Margo is back with the language school at Albertville and her hours have been finalised: the good news is that they entail no evening work, and in fact most days she'll be home in time to pick up Jeremy from school. The bad news is that four days out of five she has to be at Albertville at 8am, which means setting the alarm for 6:15. An hour at which (unless I've spent the entire night working and am still awake) I am only barely recognisable as belonging to the same branch of the evolutionary tree as the rest of you. Not that Margo's much better.
And the more brutish amongst you will doubtless be pleased to hear that Jeremy has decided that he wants to play rugby, and has started with the Montmelian rugby club. We'll see how long it lasts. I might be being over-cynical, though, as according to Margo (who gets the job of taking Jeremy through to Montmelian every Saturday afternoon) there's a good atmosphere about the club, and Jeremy is quite capable of deciding that he really does like rugby and will work at it.

Goodnight, all
Trevot, Margo, brats & animals