Tuesday, December 23, 2003

23/12/03 Seasonal Greeting

The subject says it all. Hairy Gristlemouse, everyone, and a very Furry New Bear.

Being in Old Europe, where such things happen, it's snowed here - at last. Unfortunately the kids aren't here to enjoy it: Margo took them off to Pesselière on Monday, where it seems that they're still anxiously awaiting snow. They may be disappointed. I head off tomorrow, which is why I'm now in a mad rush trying to get things organised: clothes, finding forgotten packages and leaving them out conspicuously so that they don't get forgotten again, get files on the portable up to date and get it packed away ...

The house alterations have been legally declared finished, so we must believe this to be the case. As it happens it's true, if you don't count a myriad little details, and right now I don't feel like counting.

Anyway, it's another year down the drain. Nothing particularly notable happened - not a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned - and if I've any luck at all, and have lived a good and moral life, as I believe I have, 2004 will be much the same.

To finish, a short excerpt from The Economist: "... without its hyphen, extra-marital sex would be in a completely different moral sphere ...". And try to remember that the ratio of an igloo's diameter to its circumference is Eskimo pi.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, November 15, 2003

15/11/03 So far, so good ... this is not an advertisement for Viagra

Although I'm sure, with the special offers that keep pouring in, I could get you some cheap if need be.

Anyway, we made it back from Croatia - of which more later - to find Jeremy's bedroom destroyed (it had, as planned, turned into the landing) and our putative bedrooms upstairs accessible via a ladder. We quickly arranged a hotel room for Jean & Leigh that night, and then for the rest of their stay we managed to park them at Sue's place, she and the kids having gone off on holiday. We squatted on mattresses on the floor for a month until, coming back from Pesselière, we found the stairs had been put in, so quickly painted and moved upstairs before Jean and Jean-Michel (the builders) could have second thoughts.

Right now it's almost over, and we even had the builders round for dinner last Saturday to celebrate. I got the kids' bathroom finished last weekend, after heroically wrestling with lino that didn't really want to fit in such a small space, and now there's just our ensuite to get finished: painted, silicone all around the shower box and the lino to go down. I hope to get the painting done tomorrow, and I am not looking forward to the lino.

Still, we're living up there, we're very pleased with it - lovely and luminous with all the windows - and at last we have a bit of room. And when - in a couple of weeks - our bathroom gets finished, guests will have their own bathroom on the first floor which doesn't have to be shared with Malyon wanting to wash her hair for three hours.

My office - what used to be Malyon's bedroom - needs repainting and shelving putting up so that I can move fifteen years oif BYTE magazines and a cubic metre of junk off the floor, but that can wait. Who knows, I might even find time to get it done over the winter. There's a staircase to be varnished and a couple of windows to be done as well, which is probably higher priority.

Margo's been busy: put crépi up in what was our bedroom and turned it into her sewing/junk room, which has allowed us to empty out the library and the living room downstairs. She's also plastered and then waxed the walls in the first-floor living room, and at long last the TV has moved up there. The walls are a warm terra-cotta, and we're planning on painting the skirting-boards in a sort of raspberry-crush: we like it, even if the kids don't. We'll sell the place before they can inherit, so their opinion doesn't really count.

There are still about five zillion things that need doing: the skirting boards upstairs, light fittings to be bought and installed, pictures to be hung and half the first floor to be redecorated (finally get rid of the incredibly kitsch "Venetian Festival" wallpaper!) but I think we'll slow down a bit for the next few months. Done enough. Shagged out. Bored witless.

There have been no fatal accidents during the renovations so we're all alive and kicking. Work's going nicely - although I may have to head off to some godforsaken hole up North, near Metz, on Tuesday to look at some problems for the SNCF - and Margo's working fewer hours, which seems to please everyone. Malyon is a teenager starting to suffer from the "oppressive parents" syndrome - mind you, we managed to send her off to England for ten days a couple of weeks ago, for a walking trip in the Lake District with cousin Mandy, and very nice it was too (for us, mainly) - and Jeremy is still Jeremy. He asked to see the school psychologist a month or so ago, and the upshot of their interviews is that he's a bright kid, not particularly at ease in his body, and afraid of failure to the point where he has two primary and five backup reasons as to why it wasn't really his fault. Runs in the family, I suppose. Still, Margo turned out OK in the end, so there's no reason he shouldn't.

France is - slowly - modernising and with luck ADSL will arrive at St Pierre sometime next year (according to the Mairie, "very soon. Like, December 2004". We must have different ideas about the meaning of "soon"). When it does I shall jump upon it and get the place outfitted with a router and radio network, and waste a weekend getting it all set up Whilst waiting I've done something I've been thinking about for a while and ordered a webcam, the idea being that I can then waste another weekend installing it and the necessary software for doing video over internet. Then, assuming that Jean & Leigh pay someone to install things at their end, the kids will be able to chat with their grandparents.

The grape harvest is done and the wine is bottled, we're enjoying a beautiful Autumn and I'm going to bed. After a bit of cut'n'paste, to give you the few follwoing paragraphs -

As for Croatia - which we loved, to the point of seriously considering heading back next summer - what follows are my admittedly terse notes made at the time (you try writing a novel on a Palm):

Well, here we are - Margo and I, the kids, Jeannie & Leigh and Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all, comfortably ensconced in a villa in Trogir, Croatia. We left rather later than planned - as usual - on Friday morning, leaving the house in the hands of the builders after extracting a promise that it'd still be standing on our return: they were going to attack the electrical renovation of the first floor during our absence and if we've any luck the staircase up into the new part will be there too when we get back. The dog is staying with friends - hopefully she won't walk straight into their swimming pool without noticing it, as she did last time - and a neighbour is looking after the kitten.

Did the trip down in two legs, probably just as well as it took fifteen hours rather than the twelve that Michelin rather optimistically planned. Not really Michelin's fault, just that the last 400 km we did at an average speed of 45km/h, rather less than I'd expected. Everything went swimmingly down to Trieste (apart from losing our way around Turin and taking the southern bypass rather than the northern, but that only cost us 30 km and it seems that everyone gets it wrong) and then we went through Slovenia and into Croatia and found a zimmer for the night with a shade under 400 km left to go, but the next day we attacked the coast road between Rijeka and Split. As did, apparently, 90% of the planet's population, with the majority being Dutch people with caravans. A very scenic - dare I say it beautiful, if a bit desolate - road, but what in France we'd call a departementale, and poorly maintained at that. I am so glad that air-conditioning is standard on modern cars.

Anyway, we made it to Trogir - not as early as I'd hoped - and got shown to the villa, settled in and took the kids down to the Adriatic, about 50m from the doorstep. Where they plan on going at least twice a day, or until they get sick of it. Tomorrow we might make it into the old town - if we can find a park - and wander around so that I can play with my brand-new digital camera, an Olympus C5050 that the company thoughtfully bought for me just before we left.

As far as I can see, the economy of Croatia seems to be based on renting out one's house to tourists over the summer. Oh, there's doubtless other things, but that does seem to be the principal activity. Godnose where the actual people go - into the cellar for the duration, perhaps. Or perhaps, like the house we're in, they build 'em specially with an extra floor, to be rented when possible and used as extra living space when not. Maybe they decide to spend summer with the grandparents - maybe they go somewhere even poorer - Albania, say - for their holidays. I really don't know.

Whatever, in France you'd be paying probably twice as much in rent and general living expenses, to find youself on a dirty beach with twice as many people around, so personally I'm not inclined to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Trogïr is a walled mediaeval city on an island just 30m from the coast, classed world heritage by UNESCO and effectively extremely charming, quaint and touristic. Also no doubt expensive by Croatian standards but dirt-cheap by Frog ones. It boasts a small port, a drydock and a marina where you can find lots of small craft, ranging from 20m schooners to small Italian motor yachts - small meaning 30m long minimum, three floors above deck, a couple of radomes that'd put NASA to shame, two or three gorillas bulging out of their suits and registered in the City of London. I suspect we're talking serious money here. Split, about 20km south, is also a world heritage site, as is Dubrovnik, about 200km south. The country seems to be festering with them. We made it to Split -via public transport - but didn't really want to try taking either cars or the bus to Dubrovnik - especially as the thermometer didn't get below 40° during our stay.

Oddly enough, Margo arranged everything over the internet - that's not odd in itself, I know, what's odd is that it all turned out so well. The villa was all it was represented as being, if not more; the guy (Mario?) that ran the tourist agency was charming, honest and looked after us above and beyond the call of duty; one or other of the grandmothers (couldn't tell which one, I think they're interchangeable) of the lessors inundated us with tomatoes and cucumbers ... which is odd really because in Croatia the vegetable seems to be a protected species. When you order your meal it will be copious (as are the beers: the small glass is 50 cl) and will generally consist of a half-kilo of meat, some chips, and a lettuce leaf. Unless you've ordered salad on the side, in which case you'll get a trough of tomatoes. Think to order vegetables, which will get you (in our experience) a half-dozen wisps of barbecued aubergine.

Mario also arranged us cut-price tickets on a boat trip (his boat) to one of the islands about 10km offshore, and that's where I'd like to go back, if not next summer then the year after (whenever we have some cash). We stopped in at one end, at a bay which had fairly recently but quite tastefully been set up as a vacation center - small 2-storey villas hidden amongst the trees in a ravine leading back from the bay - and then, at the northern end, at a small port. Which had a big auberge, a few shops, and that was about it. Apart from the deserted bays, in one of which I nicked Malyon's schnorkel and mask and had more sheer pleasure than I've had on holiday for a long time, just diving around in crystal-clear water annoying the fish. I think I could happily spend a couple of weeks there, perfecting the art of doing nothing.

The trip back home was relatively uneventful, apart from managing to lose one another - godnose how we managed it, but we wound up with Margo a hundred km ahead of me. Of course her cellphone didn't work in Croatia, and Malyon's phone chose that moment to run out of credit for voice calls and would only do SMS - unfortunately Margo had Malyon's phone and Malyon was in my car and Margo couldn't work out how to write SMS on Malyon's phone (it uses T9 and is set up for Frog). But we managed to catch up with one another and stayed at the same zimmer we'd stopped at on the way down. The owner was quite chuffed (it was, incidentally, very nice - large rooms opening out onto a huge private balcony) and pressed a couple of bottles of Croatian grappa onto us as we left. (And extremely nice it is too.)

Then of course we made yet another wrong turning around Turin (which, as already noted, everyone does: a lack of clear signposting does NOT help) and arrived home under the first rain for months (literally) to find that the entire first floor had been rewired, the staircase was not yet in, and Jeremy's bedroom had turned into a landing. So we put Jeannie & Leigh into a motel for the night and camped on the floor.

Trevor & Margo

Thursday, July 3, 2003

03/07/03 The rain in Spain

The rain may, in fact, be in Spain but as it happens I don't care, the problem is that the rain is not here. Nor has it been within spitting distance for a month or so. Consequently the garden is dry as a bone - actually reduced to watering the lawn to avoid desertification - and on top of it it's stinking hot, been floating around the 30's mark for the past three weeks. All rather exceptional for June.

As usual, now that it's summer and all right-minded people are contemplating their month's vacation on the beach, the orders come in. So far I have a Windows CE platform to get up and running, a keyboard device driver for some rather special hardware under W2K, a few radio terminal/barcode reader and EDI interfaces to do for the stock-control system and a weather station to hook up to the surveillance system in Cameroon. Business as usual. A quiet summer would've been nice, but I can see that it's not on the cards. Oh, I also had to head off to Geneva again to take a look at an embedded system (under Windows 3.11) where there's a slightly litigious conflict between Gespac (the supplier, and my client) and Alsthom - had to dust off my 10-year old CDs and drag out the old DOS toolbox.

Reminds me that when at Gespac we started chatting about retirement, as you tend to do (and it's also a rather hot topic in France at the moment), and one thing led to another and Vincent, my client, asked Sandrine, one of their programmers, what year she was. The answer was 1978, and I sadly reflected that she was busy being born while I was undergoing my last full-time year at Massey. This makes me feel no younger.

A quick word for Ken Ashman - I finally got to go on the TGV trip I'd been promised by the AEF. Made for a long day: Chambéry-Paris, then on to the test TGV for a quick trip up to Brussels (riding in the driver's cabin), then off to Calais, then Lille, back to Paris and home again to Chambéry. When you're sitting in the front, watching through the windscreen as posts flash by at 320 km/h, it feels FAST. Now what I need to arrange is to go on one of the speed trials.

I know I mentioned the saga of our naturalisation proceedings: for the moment it's on hold. I did in fact write a rather shirty reply to their last request, and eventually received a form letter to the effect that if we couldn't supply all the documents required the dossier would be closed - leaving us until December to decide. The mairie and the Préfecture were very sympathetic, but said that the matter was out of their hands: personally I'm tempted to let the whole thing drop. It's not as though I need to be a Frog-person.

The work on the house is going ahead full-tit: the builders have been at it for the last six weeks or more, and two weeks ago I actually got the building permit! So now the windows have gone in up in the attic, and we can actually see what's been done. Which is, in fact, quite a lot: the floor's down, all the interior partitions are up, this week the showers and toilets go in and Jeremy's bedroom disappears (well, metamorphoses into a landing) ... we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and are pretty sure it's not a train coming in the opposite direction. I do still have to get the permit allowing us to be connected to the sewers - odd, giving that we're no longer allowed to be on a septic tank - but that should be relatively painless (although I'll still have to pay, of course).

I spent some (a lot) of time a while back upgrading various machines, thanks to getting a new Dell a the office. So as usual the old office machine came home, the home computer got downgraded to Margo's machine and Margo's old machine went to a worthy cause ... except this time I didn't just swap machines around ('cos the old office machine was very noisy, having an industrial-grade fan in it) but decided to swap motherboards. Which I did, expecting the worst. And much to my surprise, it didn't happen! Each and every machine booted up, said something along the lines of "Windows has discovered new hardware and is now installing the necessary shit" and carried on! Almost as simple as in the old days. I still find it rather difficult to believe.

It's also been new car time. The lease on the 146 ran out mid-June so I arranged for my new car: a bright red Alfa (what else?) 156 station wagon. What the French call a "break de chasse" because it looks like a station wagon but you can't actually fit more in the boot than in the standard version - I don't care, she looks beautiful and I love her very much. Only problem is the leather upholstery, which is a bit sticky when it's 35° and you're wearing shorts. Shame they don't do a convertible version of the 166 for the next time I change up. The BMW has also gone, replaced by a little Suzuki Sport Wagon (also bright red). What Margo wanted, what we needed as a second car, and hideously cheap. They actually gave us 1000 euros as a trade-in for the BMW (about 5 times what it was worth) and then they didn't actually want the thing: rather than go through the hassle of trying to get rid of it ourselves we made them pay us the symbolic 1 euro for it and they filled the tank up on the new car. More than I'd expected, actually.

Other than that life just goes on, more or less as usual. Jeremy has headed off down to the Mediterranean with Sophie, Lucas and Rémi for a week's holiday on the beach, and Jeannie & Leigh should turn up here on the 11th (or thereabouts) before we all head down to Croatia for a week. Raewyn, our bridesmaid, is turning up on Friday (that's tomorrow) for a weekend in France - that's about it, really.

Trevor, Margo, sprogs and animals

Thursday, April 3, 2003

03/04/03 All about the snow, deep and crisp and even ...

Basically a foolish lie, designed to entice you into reading this. There is no snow, there's no point in coming here to find it.

At least it meant that Christmas was reasonably painless ie no need for chains to get from Pesselière to the outside world. In point of fact it was so warm that we had not one, but two barbecues.

Warm and wet: so wet that when Ian, ever the optimist, took off to look for mushrooms (not really the time for them, but as I said, he's an optimist) we managed to get the 806 stuck in the mud. Mud is even worse than snow: with snow, you can spin the wheels like mad and hope that at some point you'll break through to something solid below, but with mud the tyre treads get filled with the stuff and there is nothing more solid below, just more mud. Made for an interesting few minutes, with the wheels spinning madly and the car slithering in reverse gear all over the place, and me wondering exactly when we were going to end up in the ditch.

Made it back here for New Year, and ten days after that winter started. All rather fun, really: the last convoys of disconsolate Parisians had left, having spent a rather expensive week's holiday strolling around admiring the scenery (mainly mud), and made it to within 100 km of Paris when the snowstorms hit them. Some of them spent 12 hours or so stuck in their cars on the autoroute, and to add insult to injury they still had to pay when they got off. (There was, incidentally, a very rational - if not very public-relations-friendly - excuse given for why people were directed onto the autoroutes four or five hours after it was known that these were completely blocked. "Like that, they may be stuck, but at least we know where they're stuck. They're on the A6, somewhere between Orléans and Paris.")

All that marked the start of the cold snap, as I discovered when I went down on Monday to get the car and take the kids off to school and wound up walking them there - quickly so as not to be late - as the handbrake had seized up with the cold. Finally thawed out at about 4 that afternoon, so I grabbed the opportunity and moved the car down to the flat below the cemetery, and parked it in gear without the handbrake on. Now, after ten days or so of extremely chilly weather (when, naturally, the central heating decided to cut out on a regular basis - the burner wanted its annual overhaul) it's warmed up again and the days are starting to get longer. Hoorah!

And now that there actually is a bit of snow, Margo went up to Margeriaz with the kids this afternoon whilst I swept the chimney and did other manly things. It was fine, started snowing when they got up and they needed chains to come back down again, even then had a few hairy moments (but the BMW is a pig on snow) but mainly Margo wanted to bring up a delicate point of etiquette: how do you say "hello" correctly to friends or acquaintances you see on the slopes? Because of course this involves a kiss on each cheek, and when you're both on skis and pointed in the same direction, this is none too easy, unless you happen to be a contortionist. It seems that the person higher up the slope must ski down and then do a 180° turn bringing them up to the level of the other person, when kisses may be exchanged. Otherwise, if this is not feasible, one or other of the persons must do that really amusing ski shuffle business (usually involving crossing your skis at the front and falling over) until the same effect is achieved, kisses are exchanged, and the person whose skis are pointing uphill is left feeling a right bloody prat.


As usual, time has passed and I still haven't gotten around to sending this off. Also as usual, lots of things have been happening, none of them particularly earth-shattering taken individually.

First off, just to make Ken Ashman jealous, I went off on a test TGV: Paris-Brussels-Lille-Calais-Paris, and got to go in the driver's cabin. When you're staring straight down the tracks at 320 km/h things do seem to be going rather fast. Gets a bit boring after a while. There were a lot of fascinating details that would bore anyone but a railway buff absolutely witless so I won't bother going into that: let it just be said that we made it to Brussels in time for a beer and made it back to Chambery 2500km and 12 hours later. A pointless exercise (I can buy Belgian beer in Chambéry) but fun.

The old BMW has finally gone to the scrap-heap. Car sales being - to say the least - tepid, there are currently lots of interesting offers on the table and the one made by Suzuki - 1000 euros for your old car, no matter what shape, style or state - was too good to pass up. So Margo is now the proud owner of a demonstrably new Suzuki Wagon+, which is a sort of boxy thing with a small motor (she finds it difficult getting used to not having the effortless power of the BMW, but you can't have everything) that's perfect as a second car. And cheap, which is even better, given that there's no way I could have arranged for the company to pay for it.

On the other hand, the company IS going to pay for my next car - went and signed up for it a week ago, take delivery in June. An Alfa 156 station wagon (don't look at me like that, they look marvellous), bright Alfa red and all options (except GPS and the SpeedSelect buttons on the steering wheel), including the leather upholstery. I hadn't actually expected the leather, but there you are, it comes with the car.

And the builders have finally turned up. Haven't done much - currently waiting on our menuisier friend Philippe to turn up and put in the floor in the attic - but there's half a wall in cellular concrete, three palettes of the same, an electric winch in the door above the garage and diverse bits of scaffolding to reassure us that, even if they're not actually working, they're not going to run away either.

Finally, Malyon is currently off in England, on a school trip which nearly got cancelled, thanks to a couple of hysterical parents concerned about their darling brats going to a war zone. Fortunately good sense prevailed and off she went, with strict instructions as to the purchase of golden syrup and other such delicacies. Its been remarkably quiet this past week.

The weather's particularly foul: after a month of warm, dry weather (temperatures up around the 20s, which isn't too bad for March around here) we've been having rain (can live with that, the garden really needed it), snow (no-one needs that) and high blustery winds. With any luck things will calm down soon and we can get back to a normal life in a normal climate.

Here's hoping, anyway.

Trevor & Margo