Sunday, December 28, 2008

28/12/08 DNA testing exonerates Ms. Claus ...

... but police are still holding three reindeer and a garden gnome of undisclosed gender for further questioning in this rather sordid case.

I assume that got your attention. As you probably know, the festive season is rapidly approaching and it's with difficulty that I can be restrained from biting small children and scowling at old ladies. Not that they'd notice. Still, a rare smile did flit across my face at the market on Saturday when I saw one particularly unpleasant specimen of the genre get hopelessly entangled in her scythe-wheeled shopping caddy, from which I hope the emergency services took their good time cutting her out. I really, really hate those things.

Of course, for you lot Christmas means barbies on the beach and time to get a sun-tan: over on the wrong hemisphere it means -3° in the morning, soaring heating bills and, of course, snow. Which I also dislike intensely. Because it is wet, and cold, and a right bitch to drive on. Why we can't just banish it back to Siberia where it belongs I don't know, but apparently we can't and so we just have to live with it. Whatever.

It is not, I admit, actually snowing at the moment down here, but the weather forecast is not particularly promising. We're supposed to have another couple of days of fine, sunny (hence, cold) weather before it turns to - you guessed it - snow. Time to look at getting new tires on the front perhaps, the Alfa is tending to get a bit wandery on roundabouts under the rain at anything over 60kph, which as far as I'm concerned is walking speed.

I seem to have failed to mention that we had Thanksgiving up at Karen's. I'm pretty sure that we came away with more turkey than actually went in to the oven: some sort of loaves'n'fishes job, I suspect. But I still find it difficult to imagine what people see in yer traditional pumpkin pie - an inch-thick layer of spiced pumpkin purée on piecrust makes me quiver, I admit, but not for the reasons one might wish. And personally, you can take your chestnut stuffing and stuff it where - oh, right, that's what you did. Um. Just don't expect me to eat vast quantities, that's all.

Jeremy had hoped to play fluffy bunnies - which I expect you know about but of which I was blissfully innocent: apparently you stuff marshmallows into your mouth until you can no longer say "fluffy bunnies", and shortly after that you either throw up or go into a diabetic coma. But when we proposed sticking plastic rubbish bags over their heads to minimise the mess, the kids backed out.

Malyon is well, if extremely poor, and - apparently - working harder than ever. Getting good notes, too. There was apparently a bit of tension in the flat over kitchen hygiene - some people apparently thought that washing-up was something mums did whilst Malyon, who's a year older and has already cohabited for four years, thinks that it's not, and that three-week-old bacon grease is gross, not cute. I can't argue with that.

Whatever, she speaks a lot about food. On her return in January we shall load her down with pancetta (note to self - do not wrap it in tin-foil, don't want anyone thinking it's Semtex) and maybe some confit de canard (well wrapped, so as to avoid grease explosions in the baggage hold).

Jeremy is alive and happy, and his latest school report gives us every reason to be so as well. Definitely an improvement to see his marks in English shoot up to top of the class (where they bloody well should be, all things considered), his French marks are very encouraging - in fact, everything is improving. We're very pleased. On top of that, I found a small hole-in-the-wall joint at Chambéry today that actually makes decent burgers (including one I must try - the Savoyard - which involves potatoes and cheese and cream) so he now knows where he can go on the days when he eats lunch in town. It's cheaper - and probably healthier - than Flunch or Quick.

It's now the 13th, and its only gone and bloody well neiged again. Wednesday and Thursday we had about 40cm down here - great gloppy flakes - and there's supposed to be more coming. Which is good for Jean and Howard, who turn up on the 19th - they might even have a white Christmas - but as far as I'm concerned (see above) I'd be happier if global warming turned out more as advertised. Burn the rainforests, I say! Oh, and nuke the whales. And joss-stick burning people who listen to whale-song CDs, while we're at it. Did you know, by the way, that the right whale has the longest penis in the animal world (at about 2.3 meters) and lugs around one tonne of testicles? (We're talking about the male of the species, here. I assume that the female right whale is suitably adapted. She probably has monumental headaches, too.)


As this was supposed to be a "happy christmas" mail and not a new year's one, I thought I'd better get on with it and send it off. So here goes with our Christmas celebrations: I hope yours were at least as pleasant.

Jean & Howie arrived on schedule at Chambéry on the 19th, although I must admit to a moment of panic when I turned up 10 minutes late (bloody last-minute phone calls) and couldn't find them. They'd got stuck in a lift, or something. Then on the Sunday I headed up to Geneva to pick up Malyon. Who also arrived on time, although she did take 45 minutes or so to whip through customs and pick up her baggage. And I'd like to give a big round of applause to the cretins responsible for the signposting around Geneva, who have arranged it to direct the innocent tourist by the most circuitous route possible onto the Swiss autoroute. If I'd wanted to go on the bloody Swiss autoroute I'd have stumped up for the damn sticker (because you need one in order to drive legally on the things) and gone straight onto it, rather than head into the centre of Geneva only to be misdirected onto it anyway. Next time I'll trust my nose.

Whatever, that's just what I did for the return trip and it worked out quite nicely - straight into the centre, across the pont du Mont Blanc and through to Annemasse, where we got back onto the French autoroute. And I finally got to see the famous fountain against a clear blue sky - every other time we've been to the dump it's either been blowing a gale or gray and dismal. Then we drove straight through to Jacques' place to meet up with the others and devour (literally, in Malyon's case - she hadn't eaten since 5am) some terrine de sanglier and his famous vol-au-vent (which is not something in a nancy pastry case, but a rich stew of veal, veal quenelles, bacon, croutons and as many mushrooms - especially morilles - as you can fit into the dish).
Accompanied by vin d'Arbois, the lot followed by raspberry tart and wild blueberry tart ... mmm.

We made it up to Pesselière more or less as planned on the 23rd and, as usual, spent most of our time either preparing or devouring food in meals I can only describe as Rabelaisian. A small sample: Christmas Eve, oysters, foie gras, smoked salmon, chapon (that's castrated cock to you), followed by bûche de Noel and Christmas cake; Christmas Day rather more simple, just foie gras, cuisses de canard confites with salad and pommes dauphiné, cheese and more bûche; Boxing Day, scallops in white wine and cream sauce, jambon à l'os caramelised with honey and mustard, cheese and still more bûche.

To go with all that lot Philippe made a heroic, if misguided, attempt to start emptying the cellar (have to make room for new arrivals) so we were more or less forced to polish off an alrming amount of ten-year old Burgundy and Bordeaux, punctuated with Sauternes and vendanges tardives. Without mentioning the bog-standard rosé and Muscadet we used to wash lunch down with.

All of which left me personally feeling a bit pear-shaped, so I tried to work a bit off by strolling briskly around in the icy wind direct from the tundra which blew over the beetroot fields for the entire time. At least it was bright and sunny.

Ian has a little Piaggio mobylette (or cyclomoteur, I don't know which) stashed away in one of the various junk rooms there and Jeremy fell in love with it. Having persuaded Ian to let him ride it (by the simple expedient of greasing up to Marie) he was out and about on the noisy thing at every available opportunity, despite the aforementioned arctic gale. I suppose it's a good place to start - there's virtually no risk of coming across any other traffic - and he did discover that trying to do a hard turn on gravel may not be the best of ideas. Good thing, too, that the little beasts run on the smell of an oily rag - although they do have the pedals, so if worse comes to worst ...

We left yesterday, in a number of flocks (as it were): I had some stuff to do in Chambéry and Jeremy wanted to go get his bloody Xbox 360 so we left at the crack of dawn (not literally true, we left at 6am which is about 1:30 before dawn - which was, incidentally, quite spectacular), then Margo and Malyon around 11 and everyone else headed back to Paris that afternoon.

We made quite good time: got into a park at Chambéry at 10:15 with only one incident en route - got a bras d'honneur from some Parisian twat who was evidently in a hurry to get to the ski fields and couldn't see why I wasn't overtaking at 160. Didn't like it when I touched the brakes as he was about a metre behind me with lights on full, but personally I felt much better for it: haven't pissed off a prat for a while now, and I was wondering if I wasn't out of practice. Margo and Malyon, on the other hand, didn't turn up here until after 19:00. Ski bunny traffic jams, as usual at this time of year.

Got back to find the house still standing, central heating still running, and the dog comfortably (and totally illicitly) installed on the sofa. She didn't even have the grace to look guilty: just rolled on her side and stuck one leg up in the air to have her tummy scratched.

Whatever. Hope you had a happy Christmas, hope you have a good New Year - we'll spend ours quietly (noisily) eating and boozing here with a few friends. Spare a thought for us as you're recovering from your hangovers.


Monday, November 24, 2008

24/11/08 Concerning significant others ... or whatever else escapes your spam filters

It has come to my attention (there has been some moaning from the cheap seats) that I've not mentioned Margo enough recently. To some degree this is her own fault: she's been gallivanting off to Alsace and England, so that when I finally got up the courage to turn fifty she was in London and when Jerry got his thumb smashed she was in Glasgow (I think. Or it may have Milton Keynes.). So there. But I'm ready to admit I've been remiss, so here we go for a bit of Margo-related news.

Basically, she's been trying to get her website up and running, which involves learning how to use Joomla! and other such pretty content management tools. It also involves me trying to learn Joomla! so that I know what the hell is going on and can try to be of some use in the process. All this learning stuff takes some time, and both our brains are full.

She also has her blog - textile related, and which she doesn't keep as up to date as she should - and teaching (still!) and sewing, all of which fills time. On top of that she got a call from the Banking Fraud department of the bank the other day to say that they'd spotted suspicious transactions on her credit card, and the upshot of that is that her card has been cancelled and she's had to go back through all the transactions for the past few months to find those which aren't hers in order to contest them. A right bummer.


Into November now and today is a public holiday - Armistice 1918. We don't do dawn parades over here: it's more around 11am so that the municipal band can wake up sufficiently to tootle on time, and it's all followed by a hot meal and copious quantities of rouge for the local dignitaries. Good day to go up to the office: no phone calls, no interruptions, and I can finally get a bit of paperwork out of the way. It's also persisting down, has been since last evening, so somehow stacking the wood that Stéphane delivered on Sunday seems an unattractive idea.

As it happens, on Sunday I went off to see Jacques and we came back down from the mountains with about 2kg apiece of chanterelles. These do not go well with a salmon/sour cream pizza, so I decided to dry them and I now have two big glass jars full of smokily aromatic dried mushrooms, ready and waiting to go in the pan juices with a bit of roast beef or a chicken in cream sauce - or why not, a boeuf bourgignon? Whatever, I managed to miss the wood delivery and so Jeremy had to hump it all down the path and on to the decking, where it sits under a tarpaulin even as I write, just waiting to get stacked away.

Friday we had a little party oop't t'office. The very first edition of the now-traditional mid-autumn fête. A lot of wine, rillettes de lapin, cheese, good bread, more wine ... and a blind tasting courtesy of one of our neighbours in the building that was absolutely exceptional. Just three whites: one I'd have put as a rather good Pouilly, the second as perhaps a sweet southern job, the third a Trockenbeeren Auslese or some such. But no. They were all Marestel, from Yenne - about 30 km from here: a dry 1996, a vin de paille and a 199something vendange tardive. I didn't know anyone did vendange tardive around here! Amazing. Then three of Jean-Charles' paysan mates from Yenne turned up: one whipped out an enormous home-made saucisson from his overalls (you do not want to know which pocket), another one did a conjouring trick with a peppery cheese, and the third apparently was afraid that there'd be insufficient wine and plonked four more bottles of white down on the table. I piked out around 9:30, what with not having a mattress ready in the office and all, but apparently things went on for quite some time, although interrupted momentarily by having to move the tables into the entrance hall of the building to stop the alarm going off. At last count there were 16 empty bottles which, for twelve people, is hardly excessive.


Toddled off to Jerry's parent-teacher meeting, where everyone was extremely positive - which is nice. The difference between the public and private schools was fairly apparent: his history/geography teacher congratulated him fulsomely on his participation and oral work but said that the written side needed more work - so she gave him her email and suggested that he write up his work, mail it off to her and she'd correct it and send it back in the evening. Maths and German along the same lines, and his French teacher has decided she likes him (now that she knows he lives in an exclusively English-speaking household) and on top of it he's working hard. Even giving up TV-watching to do his homework.

The only one to rip into him was his English teacher (whom he does not appreciate) for being rather arrogant at the start of the year ("I am a native English-speaker, what can you teach me?") and for having no ambition to higher education. She made the excellent point that you're always learning something new about your language (unless you're clinically dead, or a member of the Academie Française, which is more or less the same thing) and that with his talents there was absolutely no reason for him to cut himself off from going further. I think he'd rather have eaten dead rat than admit it to her, but he has decided to carry on.

Shortly after that he had his "stage en entreprrise" at the resto routier (truckie's restaurant) 10 km up the road, at Coise - went very well. He came out of it knowing how to prepare iles flottantes in the microwave (I must admit I'd never have thought of that one), get salads ready, operate the big machines (yes Virginia, restaurants have some big, scary machines) and with 30€ in his pocket and maybe a summer job. The owner is a friend of Stéphane (the neighbour), good to know that we won't have to go around and apologise.

I also had a bit of computer repair and recovery work to do (non-paying, unfortunately - Rémi & Lucas, and Pierre). AVG unleashed a buggy antivirus signature file which marked our old friend USER32.DLL as a Trojan, and kindly offered to stick it into quarantine, which resulted in an endless cycle of boot, BSOD, reset, boot ... had to set up a bootable Linux distro on a USB key to fix that one. A right pain. And on top of it the weather's grot. Not proper winter yet, just cold and damp ... not nice.

The 13th, you'll recall (those of you with PDAs and an organised lifestyle anyway) is Margo's birthday, so I managed a little filet de boeuf Rossini for dinner. Always goes down well. Shame about Jeremy slouching about at the table - sort of spoils the candlelit effect. Whatever.

On the more miserable side, some of you may remember our old client Data Environnement (the one I went to Cameroon for). They've spent the last 8 months or so setting up a degassing column in lake Kivu, on the border between Rwanda and Congo, and the other day, on a calm night, about a week before starting the thing up and (hopefully) getting methane out, the whole kit and kaboodle went to the bottom. 350m down, which is not exactly a Sunday stroll. Not as though you can stick a fishing line down and drag the lot back up.

Update on that one: it seems that the Rwandan government has decided to find another 1.5m euros to restart the project. It may - or may not - have been sabotage, it appears that there were internal politics involved, but Pres. Kagamé has apparently decided to fire a minister or two and carry on. Which is good news for all concerned, not least for the Rwandans employed on the project who risked losing the first jobs they'd had in their lives.


Bloody typical, cows in't frikkin' paddock again! Margo finally managed to find the farmer's phone number to let him know, and he complained how late it was - he finally sneaked in at some ungodly hour this morning and extracted the cows, but naturally enough didn't actually bother to get rid of the cow-shit, fill in any of the holes in the lawn, or stick the garden chairs back upright. Next time I think we call the butcher straight away, cut out the middleman. Must remember to make some room in the freezer.

When I have time I go through the approximately 10 Gb of photos on the machine (not too much, considering I went digital in 2003) and stick them up on Picasa. Anyone who's interested just needs to point their browser at to see what's up. (Not much at the moment, but I'll get more, I promise. Once I sort them out.)

This is getting ever more fragmentary - now the 24th. Had a big party up at Karen's at Frangy on Saturday night, fell into bed (luckily we were sleeping over) and fled into the morning mist at 10am before anyone else woke up and asked us to help with the cleaning-up. Of which, let it be said, there was in all evidence quite a lot to be done. I don't feel guilty at all, which is probably a symptom of a diseased mind, but there you are. It was a good party - I even danced! Dragged out the old Billy Idol and Gary Numan and Sisters of Mercy CDs from the car, and cranked up the volume. Luckily they have no close neighbours.

And then last night, faithful to the rendezvous, it snowed. Small fine flakes and then big fat lazy ones: woke up to about 5cm of the stuff this morning. Bugger. And once more, with feeling.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

02/11/08 The mice are winning - we're all DOOMED!

Back again with more of the usual trivia, I'm afraid.

First up, those of you who follow this thing may be aware that Jeremy had a quick (loooong) trip to A&E for an exploded thumb. They put a couple of stitches in, which he decided to remove the other night rather thean head off to get the quack to do it. A quick snip with the scissors, a tug ... and then a yell for the butterfly bandages to hold the edges together. DIY, that's what it's all about here.

Then, of course - unrelated to the stitch-pulling thing - I get a call from him saying he'd fallen asleep on the train back from Chambery and was now at Frontenex. Silly thing that I am, I confused Frontenex (about 25 km from St Pierre) with Freterive (about 3 km, and has no railway station) so I said I'd pick him up. So off I went to Freterive (on the teeny route départmentale, yet) where I fairly rapidly realised my mistake and compounded it by carrying on. On the teeny, admittedly touristic route départmentale, which goes through places I'd always managed to avoid on slick roads covered with wet leaves (for it had been raining). Something I think I'll avoid in the future. Next time he sleeps through to Frontenex, he can catch the train back here.

After which I turned up - as is my wont - at Sophie's on Saturday for our usual after-market apéro to discover her obsessed by mice. Well, that's perhaps too harsh a word - let's just say that she'd discovered mousie-dung (do not confuse with Mao-Tse-Dung, a respected elder statesman aka the Great Helmsman) in the clothes dryer, a hoard of cornflakes in an old boot and a stash of walnuts in a hole in the wall. She was, understandably, concerned. (Especially as the cat had, as a special treat, left the eviscerated bottom half of a mouse on the bonnet of her car.) So we spent an agreeable half hour sticking rat poison into every available crevice in the house. Have to see if the little suckers go for it. It's supposed to be quite painless for them ... and even if it weren't, I feel no guilt. (I'm still puzzled by the walnuts. If I didn't know better, I'd say she had an invasion of squirrels. Which are, I suppose, just mice with hairy tails. So that's alright then.)


A bit chillier than I could wish, but still fine around here. But not, unfortunately, at Grenoble, where I rushed last Thursday on a mission of mercy - more precisely, delivering Malyon's resuscitated laptop to her friend Sarah, who was going to join her in Glasgow for a week. Mission accomplished, the swap was made, and as I stumped off back to the car wearing my scowly face so as to frighten wee children and elderly ladies, and generally make people give me a wide berth, I was accosted by a young lady (unusual enough in itself) and made to smile. You must admit, having someone offer to be a ray of sunshine in your apparently gloomy life does have that effect. (And before your filthy minds go off into overdrive, let me point out that it was not what you're thinking. She was a charming young person out trying to sign people up for Medecins Sans Frontières, and had evidently learnt that the thing to do with a scowly-faced person was to break the ice with a tactful but humorous offer of cheer. Well, it worked, didn't it?)

We got Jerry's first school report the other day, and his notes are going up. And the "appreciation" from his head teacher was definitely more upbeat - "Jeremy seems to have undrstood the stakes at play in this last year of college. With disciplined working methods he should certainly succeed". Which is all rather good, and was the main objective of sticking him there, rather than carrying on at St Pierre. It almost makes getting up at 6:55 to get him to the train on time seem an acceptable price to pay.

Then we got a call from Malyon to say that Sarah had arrived but had forgotten the laptop at Roissy. Where it had been neither blown up (as tends to happen to unattended bags) nor stolen (which can happen to any sort of bag), but had been taken into the care of the lost and found department. So when Sarah comes back next week, she will (if she remembers) pick it up, bring it back here and I will send it over to Malyon through the good offices of UPS or FedEx.

And it was indeed a lovely day. Bright blue sky, marred only by the discovery, when I went down to the car to head off to the office and get a bit of work done in peace and quiet, that some helpful sod had tried to steal my wing mirrors, and had succeeded only in breaking both of them. It could, I suppose, have been worse. He could, exasperated by his evident incompetence, have decided to break the windscreen and ruin the paintwork for good measure. Which he didn't, so I really ought to be thankful for small mercies.


One of those small mercies was, I suppose, the fact that I had to go off to the Alfa garage to order new mirrors, then back again to get them fitted. Something for which they did not, in fact, charge me any money. Which made me very happy. As did the fact that I took advantage of my presence to hop into Alfa's latest, the little MiTo (which is, despite the rather ridiculous name, a nice little car - if you happen to be childless or, failing that, have a family of amputees), and then the Brera. Which looks - and feels - beautiful. I know that, according to Clarkson, its acceleration is measured in geological eras - it apparently gets from 0 to 100km in 7.2 seconds, which is slower than about anything other than a John Deere tractor - but I don't care. Just sitting in it and fondling the gearshift almost had me drooling. Or something.

On the other hand, I woke up on Wednesday to find that it had snowed down to 600m, which is rather too close for comfort as far as I'm concerned. Then it turned to what is technically called "pissing down", and I was extremely glad to have my rearview mirrors back as I drove off to Annecy to see a client. It's not the overtaking I mind, it's pulling back in afterwards that has me nervy. Godnose how I managed in the old Alfetta, which came standard with 1 (one) inside mirror. Maybe I'm spoilt now - or maybe I just drove faster then, and didn't need to worry about people being alongside when I pulled in. Your choice.

In other news, we had a little party last night - not really for Halloween, just because. We locked the boys in one of the cellars to sleep around 3am, and going by the number of bottles it must have been a success. I had decided to do the Frank'n'Furter thing - dress shirt, waistcoat, stockings and high heels, and may I just say that even if I can still remember how to put makeup on I've gotten a bit out of practice concerning walking around on heels. But I only got them caught in the decking once, which isn't too bad. And it certainly surprised the neighbours. Even at fifty, my calves aren't too bad. (Pass on the rest, no comments please.)

All of which may explain why I'm feeling a bit dissipated today - happily Jerry's gone off to Frangy for a few days with Karen and Phillippe, so tonight I can perhaps settle into bed early with a mug of cocoa. Or not.

Oh, and Sophie's mice/squirrels have apparently been TWEPped, so you can all sleep more safely tonight.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

12/10/08 Cow-pat cake and other delights

We got back at some ungodly hour this morning from Sophie's birthday - I'm a gentleman, and consequently don't know which one it was, nor would I dream of asking. I actually turned up around midday with three huge pizzas, wound up being roped into assembling her surprise present (it was the only way to be allowed to open a bottle of wine) and finally left for home to mow the paddock (maybe for the last time this year, he said hopefully?) and make a couple of foret noir for dessert.

To follow the plot you should know that Sophie has two close friends - Séverine, another teacher in a rather messy relationship, and Kris, a small angry androgynous lesbian with the energy of a tiger and a very extended family in Marseilles. She's also an amateur alcoholic, as opposed to Sophie and I who are professionals. Whatever. They organised the affair, we just turned up and did what was required of us. Which was, for the most part, eating and drinking.

When the French decide to do a party they at least do it properly. At midday we emptied the lounge and set up the sound system and the video projector so that dancing could be done in the proper surroundings, which generally means really loud music. I don't get invited to many parties (don't know why, I think I wash often enough, even scrub my pen protectors when necessary) so I did wonder whether the two 300W speakers were really required but it turns out that they were only just up to the job in a 30m² lounge.

Which brings me to the business of dancing. Either the French learn ballroom dancing when they're 5 and it never leaves them or, like negroes, they got natural rhythm. From a waltz to headbanging through Kris' blonde and rather rapacious aunt's pornographic exercise with her black-clad toy-boy, it all seems to come easily. Must be genetic. Whatever, boobs are flying and - let's be fair, we're all in our fifties or approaching it - bellies as well, but it's so well done. Part of it, no doubt, is due to the fact that the French consider it a truism that anything they do must be well done - it's part of being French - so it's simply not possible that it could be bad. Personally, I feel ridiculous, but then I'm not French.

There was also karaoke. I'm not necessarily against this, provided it's done in private between consenting adults, but I still find it personally distasteful. Especially when it involves Johnny Hallyday singing "The House of the Rising Sun" in French. I mean, can you imagine "Il y'a une maison en Nouvelle Orléans - qui s'appelle le Soleil Levant - " I've not the courage to go on. Frightful.

We turned up with our dessert and a bottle of wine: a 1998 Maltoff burgundy, as it happens. Sophie and I took a first sip and it was absolutely ghastly - sour and alcoholic - so we poured it into a spare vase (that being all that was available) and half an hour later it was magnificent. Note to self - decant wine into a flower-pot before drinking. Let it be a lesson to you all. As for the foret noir, the classic cherry one turned out fine but the second one, with rasperries and blackberries, turned out rather like a dark brown cowpat - my own fault really for trying to slice a fallen chocolate soufflé into three layers before reassembling them with whipped cream and fruit. Oddly enough, it was the cowpat that won the popular vote.


I am now officially fifty, gifts of cash will be gratefully accepted. Margo being in England it was a quiet affair: I took Jeremy, some home-made confit de canard
à l'orange et au badiane and a kuchen mitt streussel (and wine, of course) round to Sophie's and we caroused until 10 pm ('cos all the lads have school in the morning). The confit de canard caused a bit of a ruckus because I took it out to defrost the night before and unbeknownst to me the cat had managed to sneak in that evening - Wednesday morning, on discovering a few drumsticks missing, the cat and I had a full, frank and open exchange of views which left me retreating to the bathroom looking for the antiseptic spray. Quel bummer.

Whatever, it was a really nice evening and I definitely enjoyed it, compliments all round for the duck (no leftovers, for once) and the dessert disappeared with alarming speed. (What more can you expect from three boys, 13, 14 and 16?) Kind of made up for hitting 50. At least this time we decanted the wine an hour or so before actually attacking the meal (had to drink rosé while we waited) so it was excellent.


Well, today we've had what the French would describe as a "journée de merde" - a shitty day. Started out well, mind you: lovely weather, off to the market and then as Jeremy had ballroom dancing rehearsal at 16:00 and I'd promised Sophie to transfer all her old e-mail and suchlike onto her new laptop I dropped him off at Chambéry-le-Haut then went back to start copying files. Unfortunately her wifi network is hideously slow (must look into that at some point) and it had almost finished when Jeremy rang to get picked up. So I arrive and there he is, white-faced and bleeding profusely - managed to split his thumb open whilst dancing! (Actually, that's not true. After dancing, he was leaning elegantly against a wall with his thumb in the jamb of a door when someone tried to close the door. That's what really split his thumb open.)

So we headed directly off to A&E. Do you know of anything more boring than A&E? I certainly haven't found anything. I mean, picking your nose gets boring after a while 'cos it's always the same sort of crud that comes out, and airport lounges are mind-numbingly soul-destroying but A&E is definitely more boring than that. And three and a half hours of it on a Saturday evening just has to be a winner. And all he needed was a couple of stitches. On the bright side, I was definitely the best-dressed male around - I'd put on a decent shirt and tie (to frighten small children and little old ladies at the market), and at least I wasn't covered in blood.

On the down-side, we got back here after 10pm - still without having finished what I'd promised to do for Sophie, and not having checked Rémi's English homework as I'd also swore I'd do - went down to feed the slightly frantic dog and stepped deep into a nice fresh turd. Poohs! (Once more, with feeling!)

Whatever, Jeremy's installed at his new collège - Notre Dame du Rocher (yes, it is nominally Catholic) and is enjoying it. It is a private school and they do expect the students to work, and oddly enought they do. Whereas at St Pierre they don't have time to look after all the pupils and so the only ones that get ahead are the self-motivated ones, and Jeremy doesn't really fall into that category. It seems to be working - we're pleased. He even managed 12.5 in French "expression écrit", which is a good three points up from what he was getting and is starting to approach his capacities. On the other hand, he managed to lose his phone. Again. Luckily for him, it was someone from the neighbourhood who found it lying in the grass, and they rang the last number he'd dialled which just happened to be mine. So he got it back. We shall either have to staple it to his forehead or stick Velcro on all his pockets.

And it's getting colder. Autumn is upon us, the leaves are getting gold (or red, or slimy, depends on the tree really) and soon it'll be time to turn the central heating on. But today it was so nice I'd planned on a BBQ - too bad I had a wounded son to look after.

Love to you all

Sunday, September 14, 2008

14/09/08 Faggots and fried eggs ...

Which are, apparently, vital constituents of that culinary masterpiece which is the full cooked Scottish breakfast, the others being, in no particular order, toast, baked beans, greasy bacon and a potato scone. But I digress ...


This is, in fact, another in my series of trips from Hell which actually started off innocuously enough on the TER. Went a bit titsup though once Malyon and I installed ourselves on the TGV and a couple of beautiful people settled in across the aisle. He was French, in his 40's, bilingual, and she was English, in her 30's, and they were so much in love it was sickening. Between laughing inanely at their private jokes and sucking one another's faces off and swapping bodily fluids, it was a relief to all when they finally fell asleep, with her head in his lap. Depressing.

It didn't get much better when we got to Paris 'cos when we arrived at Gare du Nord we discovered that there'd been some sort of accident and we couldn't actually get to Eaubonne from there, so we had to schlep our 60 kg of obstreperous suitcases to Gare St Lazare, go up hill and down dale before catching another train that did - finally, about 90 minutes later than planned - get us here. To top it off it was stinking hot so by the time we arrived I'd lost about 5 kg and could have supplied half Paris with hot running water.

(Later learnt that there hadn't been just one accident but three - sort of a perfect storm. A suicide - inconsiderate sod, an "object" on the lines - not the body, and finally the overhead lines came down on another section of track. Bloody marvellous.)

I just hope like hell we don't have too many problems getting to the airport tomorrow.


So as usual, we were prepared for the worst and left Eaubonne at 9:15. As a result everything went smoothly and we turned up at Roissy one hour later, with more than an hour to kill before check-in opened.

And on top of that, by strategic loitering we managed to be first in line for check-in and had a charming and cheerful person at the counter who asked to speak English, said not a word about our "hand" baggage, and cheerily ignored our excess kilos. (I'm talking baggage here, not fat. Thank you.)

On the other hand, we're still sitting on the tarmac as I write, 25 minutes overdue for take-off and we've not even taxied out to a runway yet.

Well, despite that we still managed to get in only 10 minutes late, which isn't too bad. We also cleared customs quite quickly, being amongst the few with non-EU passports. Although for a while I wondered if we were going to be allowed in at all, as they wanted proof that Mal had been confirmed at University, and of course all that was in her checked baggage ...

Then when the guy found out that she had French nationality as well he asked why the hell she hadn't just breezed through on her Frog ID card, in which case he'd have asked no questions. And he nicely put her through like that, asked no more questions, told her not to forget the trick, and wished us a nice day. (At least we didn't get the official I'd feared we were headed for - she looked very much as though she'd been fired by US Immigration for being too surly, and liked to start her day by biting the heads off chickens. Although I may be mistaken, appearances can be deceptive.)

After all that we finally managed to find our fleapit and settle in, despite dragging the anthropophagic killer suitcase from hell what felt like miles east along Renfrew Street, and then more miles back the other way. You'd think they'd put street numbers up, wouldn't you - and before you get all sarcastic, I did ask where the place was. But no-one seemed to know - or perhaps they didn't understand me.

For it is undeniable that the accent around here is pretty impenetrable. I don't think I've heard so many "fock"s in my life.

Whatever, we wandered off and found the University, which is a truly monumental pile, and then along Sauchiehall Street (I think it's pronounced like a sneeze, but I'm not sure) being touristy and looking for somewhere to eat. Although I gather that the weather (or climate, call it what you will) around these parts is quite mild - and in fact we found that to be true - this is achieved despite an apparently perpetual light rain or heavy mist, take your pick.

Tomorrow is a big day: have to open a bank account, try to organise a student loan, get her a pre-paid SIM card to start off with, get her the basics for her apartment and move her into it - and of course she's got a meeting with her course adviser to fit in somewhere. And I have photos to take, 'cos Glasgow is a lovely city, at least in the Victorian centre and around the University. Lovely old terraced apartment buildings and huge redbrick civic buildings.

Good thing I thought to take the spare memory card for the camera. Although I'm not sure how much time I'll have for that, as I have to fly out on Saturday and leave poor Mal to fend for herself. It's a bit worrying, I must admit, but I know she'll be alright. Still, it feels funny.


Well, that was a busy day indeed. Went off to a couple of banks and discovered that the only one that would even consider letting her open an account was Natwest, and even there a student loan was out of the question. So that's something I'll have to look into in France when I get back. Bummer.

Then we went off to get her SIM card, and she was pretty taken with the idea of a 15£/month deal, but we found that you have to have been a resident for at least 3 years before anyone will accept you for one of those so she's got a prepaid card instead. At least that's allowed.

After that we stocked up on kitchen gear for her (the flats in the residence are self-catering, with a common kitchen for 8 or 10 flats), and by the time we'd collected pots and a decent frying pan and a good knife and Teflon implements and stuff, then eaten it was time for her to head off to her meetings.

So I headed off to take some more photos, and of course I forgot to actually take the spare memory card with me so I had to stop off and buy another one. In self-defence I'd like to point out that the City Corporation Building (in what they call the Merchant City, Glasgow being apparently founded on trade) is bloody impressive and fully merited every photo I took. As, indeed, did Central Station, and lots of other places. It also turned out beautifully fine, so I should really retract my previous comments on that subject.

Mal is planning on doing quite a bit of crowing to all those of her friends who are stuck at university in Grenoble: it's true there's no real comparison. The university looks like what an institution of higher learning should do, only damper than Oxbridge, and the city is definitely bustling. And big - biggest metropolis in Scotland, I gather. With about 20 000 students, apparently.

Whatever, when she'd finished with meetings and finalised her courses we lugged the suitcases one last time off to the residence and got her settled in, made sure she had internet access and all that. All done, all sweet. And she's really pleased with it all - the city, the uni, her courses, the flat and life in general. Which is good.

Then we went off to have a pub meal and a pint apiece, mainly so I could say I'd done it. It's an odd thing - maybe because it was a Friday night - but everyone around us seemed intent on getting as drunk as possible before 9pm, and then the pubs emptied. No idea where they all went - off to throw up in a doorway somewhere perhaps (reminds me of the Billy Connolly sketch and the diced carrots) or maybe the beer had run out - but it seemed odd.

Tomorrow it's back to the bank with her definitive address to finish opening her account, do a last bit of shopping and then I'm back off to Paris on my way home. At least I shan't see those suitcases again.

But right now I'm going to bed: I've been walking for about 5 hours solid today and my poor old legs aren't used to it. Glasgow has more hills than Wellington, if you can believe it. Malyon's at her flat: don't know exactly how much sleep she'll get as of course today counts as the unofficial start of fresher's week as all the new students move in.


Last day today, and just a few loose ends to tidy up. Back to the bank (where they asked for yet another paper!) and a bit more shopping. We finally ran out of time (given that I was rather planning on catching my plane) so I finished by pressing £30 into her hands, uttering a few fatherly admonishments which she'll of course ignore, and got her on to the bus back to the student halls to finish her shopping at Lidyl.

Now that the deed is done it does indeed feel a bit sad. I know perfectly well that she's closer to us now than she was in NZ, but it still feels further away. I also know that she's a competent, capable young woman, but abandoning her to spend her birthday alone amongst the heathen Scots doesn't feel right either.

(Not that I need have worried on that last point. I rang when I got back to Paris, and she told me that she'd met all the others on her floor and they'd decided to go out together to celebrate. One of them, oddly enough, had just come back from a gap year in New Zealand. How's that for a coincidence?)

As an aside, you have to worry about the mental state of furnishings in the UK. Everywhere I went I saw signs saying "Warning! Alarmed door!". Which makes you wonder. Well, it makes me wonder anyway.

Whatever, getting back to Paris proved uneventful, if slightly more boring than usual. An hour's boredom on the bus out to the airport, just to get into the spirit of the thing, then another 90 minutes of mind-numbing tedium in the departure lounge before being allowed to board in a frantic 5-minute scrum (the plane was late arriving, but they were damned if they were going to let a mere detail make them miss the take-off slot). Unfortunately, having only hand baggage, I missed the opportunity of having my neurons stunned in the check-in queue.

Anyway, I got safely back to Paris, spent the night with Ian & Marie, woke up this morning with a monumental hangover and arrived back at Chambery under a rather sullen, rainy sky. And that's it for my trip to Glasgow. Beautiful city, and I'm sure Malyon will get used to the accent soon enough. But should you be planning on heading over there, just a couple of tips - the buses accept correct fare only and give no change, there are no bus route maps at the bus stations, and McLay's Guest House in Renfrew Street has cheerful, helpful staff and fleas.

In other news, Jeremy's started at his new college - Notre Dame du Rocher at Chambéry. Yes, it's a private Catholic school, but it's not that expensive and has an excellent reputation. We're rather hoping that the scholastic support that they give, and the universal high expectations they have of the students, will help him shake off his self-adopted persona of "incapable slacker" and do the work he's capable of. So far he seems to enjoy it, likes the teachers and appreciates the fact that the European English classes are taught exclusively in English (how could it be otherwise, you ask? You've obviously never visited the French educational system) which is good - we'll let you know how it gets on.


Saturday, August 23, 2008

23/08/08 Yet another newsletter, including Paris Hilton, fully clothed!

Given the anguished cries of existential angst emanating from certain quarters I thought that perhaps I'd better confirm that Malyon did indeed make it back here more or less as planned (flight only two hours late - apparently they had to wait for some Aussies to turn up at Seedney and never managed to make the time up) and boldly made her way from Roissy CDG down here. Since when she's already disappeared for a weekend, disappearing again this weekend, then disappearing to Avignon the weekend after ...

You know you're hitting 50 when all your friends start divorcing ... what's it all about? Chalk up another couple down the tubes as after Renaud and Sophie in May (yes, that's my business partner and his wife) I now learn that our friends Steve and Isabelle are divorcing. The only thing they have in common is that they know us, which should perhaps alarm me. Perhaps I should start to keep a scoreboard, lay odds, place bets and that sort of thing - on the other hand perhaps not, life's tricky enough as it is trying to stay friends with everyone, no point in looking for problems.

Whatever, in mid-August we're off to Pesselière with Sophie and the boys in tow for 10 days of calm and tranquility watching wheat grow. Don't know what to do with Malyon as she'll go stir-crazy about three hours after Elise and Caroline leave. We'll have to work that one out, I suppose. I'm still looking forward to a week or so of doing absolutely sod-all except consume unreasonable quantities of rosé, mind you. If I get too bored, I could always take one of the bikes out for a bit of exercise. (Update: Malyon's off to Grenoble to get a bit of city living in. Good idea too.)

Astoundingly enough, as England appears headed for a month of cold, rainy weather, over the water it's actually fine enough to fire up the BBQ and - more exceptionally - sufficiently settled to be able to actually plan a BBQ more than three hours in advance and still stand a reasonable chance of it's not being rained out on the day. Which is pretty good, and stands in stark contrast to last summer when the only thing certain was that it's start snowing about half an hour after the coals started glowing nicely.

On a completely random note, Oostvogels Transport (of Belgium) have a really nice motto on their trucks - in English yet! It goes - and I swear that this is true - "Only God can stop us". Which sounds rather alarming to me, in a sort of Damianesque excorcistential way. Trucks from Hell loose on the autoroutes - is no-one safe? (The Belgian bit reminds me of one of the headlines in El Reg, which was - and I quote - "Windscreen-licking Belgians barely escape GPS of Doom
". El Reg is not known for quality investigative journalism. But their Playmobil reenactments of various current events are definitely worth looking at.)

Have finally organised getting Mal off to Glasgow - now I have to organise getting myself back, as I don't think my liver would stand a prolonged stay. Need to get a cheap hotel for a night or two as well. Oddly enough you can't in fact get there from here - not directly anyway: I had the choice between Lyon/Stansted/Glasgow, Genava/Edinborough then train to Glasgow, and Roissy-Glasgow and oddly enough, as Malyon has a student card for the SNCF it turned out cheaper to take the TGV to Paris and fly out from there. (Easyjet give you the breakdown of your ticket price - very transparent: the Stansted/Glasgow flight costs more in airport taxes than the actual flight.)

Also took delivery of a laptop for her - cheapest I could find, a Dell Vostro 1000 for under 400€ all-up. Of course, these days they all come with Vista pre-loaded, and whilst it's true that you can get an "upgrade" to XP that adds another 80€ to the price. This being France, the thing came equipped with a Frog version of Vista, the very idea of which caused Malyon to froth at the mouth, so I was very pleased to find that the installation DVD so kindly supplied had an English version on it. Which was when things started to go pear-shaped.

I installed Windows Vista Family Premium (not Family Basic) and then started work on the Dell-specific device drivers. First off was the video driver, which installed, but which Vista wouldn't use. It insisted that it wasn't right. And just to make the point, occasionally on booting the screen would come up all hashed and completely unusable, and you'd have to turn the thing off and on again - which often fixed the problem. And for some strange reason, despite the power settings being as I wanted them, closing the lid put the system into sleep mode - not what I wanted, as I'd hooked up an external monitor - and worse still put the screen into 640x480 resolution.

I have a little KVM (keyboard/video/mouse) switch at home: it's a handy arrangement that lets me plug two machines (home machine plus laptop) through a little box into my monitor and keyboard and mousie, and swap between the two machines. Works perfectly, and means I don't have to use a ratshit laptop keyboard or look at its ghastly 1280x800 lo-res screen. Unfortunately, with Vista every time I swapped to or from the laptop it beeped sullenly at me and insisted on installing a new device. And, every other time, resetting the screen resolution to basic VGA.

All of which annoyed me greatly, but not sufficiently to make me nuke the thing - and let's face it, Vista is nice eye candy. What tipped me over the edge was when I hooked the beast up to the home network and tried to access the shared network hard-drive. It's not that it didn't work - it's just that from the moment when I clicked on the network hard drive icon to having the directory contents displayed I went and had a coffee, then a shower, then scratched myself all over and got another coffee. So after a happy evening googling for various solutions (none of which worked - for me, your mileage may vary) I decided to bite the bullet and get rid of Vista.

Having nothing to lose I downloaded all the XP drivers for the beast, reformatted the drive, installed Win2K and then the XP drivers: much to my surprise it just worked. Video, sound, Wifi, Ethernet ... only thing I haven't checked is the SD card reader, and I'm not losing any sleep over that. Spent another four hours or so installing diverse software packages, and it is now - as far as I can tell - fit for purpose. Anyone want a 5-language DVD of Windows Vista?

(Yes, I could have installed Linux - it was in fact the first thing I thought of doing. But that would have involved Mal having to learn new things, and the risk of its deciding spontaneously to no longer recognise the video card and requiring a kernel rebuild to correct the problem. Not good. Or I could have bought an EeeeeeeePC or equivalent, but quite frankly these days you'd have to pay me to take on a computer with a 10", 800x600 screen.)

Whatever, having disposed of Malyon (with a CARE package of ground arabica, a packet of filters and some home-made bacon) we headed off to Pesselière. Margo went up with Sophie and the dog, and I got the three boys - I'm pretty sure who got the better end of the deal, even if the dog did spend half the trip farting. Let it be said that there was not too much wailing and gnashing of teeth (OK, I was armed) and we arrived, more or less intact, mid-afternoon: just finished unpacking when Margo & Sophie swanned up.

Poor Sophie, incidentally, had been sufficiently naive - I mean, she's known me for 20 years! - to take rather literally my description of the place as an isolated farmhouse in the middle of a blasted moor with nowt but turnips as far as the eye can see. In my defence, this is - in winter - perfectly true. Admittedly it's something else again under a bright blue sky with mile-high white clouds and wheatfields rippling golden to the horizon - perhaps I should go and lie down until the poetry passes.

Of course, it's being summer means that the blackberries are coming out, and we eventually returned with a couple of kilos of the things. Hunting the little sods involves wandering off down twisty little lanes, all the same, with signs which - if you happen to come across them from the right direction (ie that from which they're actually visible) - point you towards places like "Les Billards" (not actually a pool table) or worse, "Chauminet" (which, with a "D" in the right place, translates as "Hot Kitty" or something rather more vulgar if you prefer).

It's being summer also means that the weather was pretty variable - ratshit is too harsh a word. We'd either wake up to rain and then have a bright sunny afternoon, or take breakfast outside and dream idly of tanning before the storms rolled over. Still: by some strange alchemy the sun always came out around 18:00, which meant BBQs and eating outside. And of course, quantities of rosé. Because you shouldn't drink the stuff without sun - something to do with the photosynthesis in your skin transforming the alcohol into vitamins. I had it all explained to me very clearly once - on a sunny day, oddly enough - by an extremely amiable chap whom I suspect of having being slightly drunk, but he made a great deal of sense. Or at least, it seemed so at the time.

The boys did a lot of biking, and about the only touristy things we forced upon them were visits to St Fargeau and Guedelon. St Fargeau is a Renaissance chateau absolutely dripping with history (owned by the first cousin of Louis XIV who got exiled for backing the wrong side ...) and still actually lived in. Which I think is very brave of them - personally I wouldn't want their heating bills. Those enormous french doors look lovely, but insulation-wise ... not good. Sophie, whose degree is in history, was going all weak at the knees, and when she discovered that Lully - the guy who wrote "Au clair de la lune" was discovered in the kitchen there before being packed off to the Court - we had to drag her senseless from the room

Guedelon is getting along nicely - another 20 years or so and it'll be done. None of the lads got lost or strangled, although it was a close call for Jeremy, whose loving parents came this close to doing the deed themselves. You know, sulky young adolescents, already been round once about 13 years ago, don't need to see it again and certainly wouldn't be seen dead doing it with the parents ... good thing I'm not a Dalek. Daleks are not good parents. They have a tendency to exterminate the fluffy toys.

Sadly enough, it took us until Monday to discover the existence of a young American in the village - all of two houses down the road. His mother is a Choux (yes, I know, it means cabbage ... over half the population of Pesselière are either cabbages or related to them, so just get used to it) who married an Indian and the lad has spent all his life in Boston. Spending a month in Pesselière was not, perhaps, his idea of a great summer holiday, but there you go.

Whatever, we came back (when I say "we" that means "the boys and I" 'cos Sophie took the train to Marseille and Margo and the dog headed straight home as quickly as possible) we stopped at Vezelay for a bit of medaieval kulcha (yes, the basilica is definitely worth a look) and then I plunged into the teeny routes départementales around Avallon to get to the Chateau de Montjallin. It's been years that I've meant to go there, finally got around to it.

It's a fairly classic C19 chateau, situated on an eminence (not a cardinal or other clergyman, a small hill) so a nice view over the valley, a private forest off to one side and the big lawn, stables and other apanages out the back. I personally found that the bike propped up against the parvis around the back was a nice touch, as was the swing on the front lawn. Whatever, didn't go there for that, went there 'cos the owner has a private car museum. Like Southward's, but a bit more focused: his thing is cars that belonged to heads of state. There's various Citroens used by de Gaulle, Mitterand's Peugeot, a beautiful four-door Citroen-Maserati SM, JFK's Cadillac, Eisenhower's Chrysler Imperial ... definitely worth a visit, should you ever find yourself in the vicinity.

Time to catch up on missed TV shows now - byeee!


Sunday, July 6, 2008

06/07/08 The future of relational databases may involve quantities of red wine ...

Or, of course, not. Sorry about that - reading through my old copies of BYTE magazine (up to 1992 now) for a bit of a laugh.

No sooner had I hit the send button for the last one but Jeremy presents us with more proof - should it be needed - of his anti-electric nature. Saturday night and we headed off to the neighbours for dinner (yes, we had actually been invited, it does happen) with anticipation, as Stéphane does a pretty mean barbecue. Once we'd got on to the digestifs it would've been cruel to keep Jeremy around just to make him listen to obscure and unfunny jokes and the usual convoluted adult conversation so we told him to head back home: five minutes later he was back having tripped the main circuit-breaker, blown a fuse and exploded two light bulbs simply by trying to turn on the kitchen light. And my UPS was screaming blue murder, as it does when there's no power ... I don't know what it is, but career paths involving electricity are perhaps not for him. It may be a bit fetishist, but perhaps a full rubber suit would be a good idea ... (Later update - he's also managed to throw/drop his cellphone into a lake. It doesn't work anymore. Why am I not surprised?)

I also forgot to mention the weather - forgetting my Anglo-Saxon roots, sorry. Bloody foul, is the polite way of describing it. Grey, wet, dismal and cold - kind of like Gordon Brown, really. There aren't any cherries, and those that are taste of water. The strawberries are soggy. The apricots rot if you look at them sideways (and we don't have any anyway 'cos it snowed on the flowers). I think I shall be inspired to write a Russian novel - perhaps not "War and Peace" because it's a bit long and anyway it's been done before, I think - by the BBC - but definitely a few hundred pages in which everyone (have to think about the casting) talks about interesting things that used to happen but don't anymore and what they will do but somehow never get around to (unless that's in the sequel) and nothing ever happens. Ever. Except for rain. And problems with the household staff. And bloody Uncle Vanya - the odd one.

Did manage to gather a handful of girolles up in the mountains with Jacques (after a mountain-goat descent from a ridge through a thicket of head-high nettles and then back up to another ridge, where apparently the mushrooms lay their eggs or spawn or do whatever it is they do) but only just enough to go into a cream sauce with our chicken on Sunday night. Jeremy, poor benighted lad that he is, does not like girolles - nor morilles nor trompettes nor, in fact, any mushroom of whatever variety (he has also expressed the opinion that sweet peppers are the spawn of the devil, but what would he know) - which means more for us and just as well too. Absolutely delicious.

Wednesday night it was off for a raging testosterone-filled evening at Albertville, for a "Tribute to AC/DC" concert. Which was not, in fact, bad. They'd got a swag of French session musicians together with a maniac on guitar (wearing schoolboy uniform - no satchel though) and it came off rather well. The audience was mainly grandparents out for the night with the littlies - with a few notable exceptions, like me - which I suppose shouldn't have surprised me too much. Whatever - it was fun. I really should have taken some earplugs though.

After a bit of a hiatus, we've made it into July. The weather is still foul - we get up in the morning to a rather chilly 26° and during the day it gets up to 38° in the shade on the balcony. Do you have any idea what it's like mowing the lawn in that sort of heat? Thought not. And lest you ask - yes, I do still have to mow the lawn, it's still green and growing healthily. On the other hand, last Sunday morning I went down with the sprayer full of North Korean nuclear goo and paid some attention to the brambles that were working on garden domination. Naturally enough it rained on Sunday afternoon, but I think they're dying regardless. I hope so - my stock of napalm has passed the use-by date and I certainly wouldn't want to get botulism from outdated total herbicide.

We have actually managed a couple of barbecues - it's been sufficiently predictable to organise something that doesn't turn out like the Searle "Non-arrival of the English Grape Harvest" festival. Coincidentally, rosé consumption has soared and I can see I'll have to order in another tanker. Luckily it's cheaper than petrol.

It being July we've now got into the official silly season, and France is closed until the end of August. We'll still be around, panting in the sparse shade - about all we've planned on is heading up to Pesselière for a week in August. And Margo heads off to Rome for a few days around the 14th for a sort of school reunion - I think it'll be the first time that she, Vic and Raewyn have been together since they joined up in Mali about 20 years ago.

Malyon turns up in Paris in a couple of weeks: she is a grown-up, independent and empowered young woman which is just as well as she'll have to hump her luggage from Roissy to Gare de Lyon and then buy a TGV ticket to get down here. Which is not to say that I wouldn't buy her one if I could (in fact I can), it's just that I can't get the actual bloody ticket to her and so it's not much use, is it? I could order the ticket, but she'd need the credit card used for payment to pick it up (that is not going to happen), and the SNCF has for some reason abandoned the system whereby they'd e-mail you your (nominative) ticket as a PDF file which you could happily print out. Quel bummer. Whatever. After making it down to NZ and back, I think she'll manage to get from Paris to Chambéry.

On the other hand, we do have to worry about Chambéry-Glasgow, which is not quite as simple. There is a Geneva-Glasgow flight with Easyjet, but not during the summer - too many moths or something. So it might involve Lyon-Stansted and then change for Glasgow - or alternatively TGV to Roissy and thence direct to the dump ... why can't I just go to some website and get the answer rather than have to work it out myself? My brain is full!

Currently July 6 and it's been persisting down all day, having started at some ungodly hour in the morning and kept up from then on. It's warm enough, but the rain's a bummer. It'll only encourage the grass to grow, which we really do not need. Fortunately it was fine yesterday - I say "fortunately" because otherwise I would have been highly pissed off as the neighbour's BBQ would have been rained out and the fireworks down at the lake would've been damp squibs.

Otherwise there's not much to report: Janet & Kevin came over from Milton Keynes for a few days, which was very pleasant - even if they did bring over photos from seven years ago when I actually had hair (forgotten what the stuff looks like these days, makes visits to the hairdresser a lot cheaper mind you), we had the Fête de la Musique at Chambéry (which was pretty crap this year if you ask me, but still another occasion to sink a few bottles of rosé between friends), and the dog contracted Lyme disease, which luckily got caught before irreversible renal failure and she's once again her usual clumsy retarded loveable self.

Been working a bit from time to time - had to head off down to Grenoble on Friday to Alstom (for whom I've been trying - and apparently succeeding - to fix a few problems with a satellite antenna) to be present at a meeting with them, Thalès Aerospace and the DGA (which is the Direction Generale de l'Armement, or the military pork trough). I made an effort, put on a decent shirt and a tie for once and went "wibble" from time to time. Just so that no-one thought I was asleep. Then we all went off for lunch and I had morue, or salt cod, which may have been a mistake. Because it tastes, basically, of fishy salt, and it requires washing down with heroic quantities of wine. Which is not, in itself, a bad thing unless you're planning on driving anywhere in the next three months.



Friday, June 13, 2008

13/06/08 DARPA death-bot droid denies relationship with R2D2, slags Paris Hilton ...

Well, lets see if that one gets past the spam filters.

We headed off to Pesselière for the weekend on the 30th to meet up with the cousins - not just the Parisians but also Heather & Mike (who've kindly let Malyon squat their place whilst they're away) from Wellington. As it was just for two nights we left the dog, cat and guinea pigs to the tender ministrations of the neighbours (think 3year-old James stuffing straw up guinea pigs' orifices - to encourage them to eat) and took the Alfa up, then spent Saturday and half of Sunday lazing around /cooking for the masses (pizzas, quiches, BBQ pork). We ate and drank far too much, which is more or less par for the course. Against all reason we had good weather, which was rather nice. I even managed to straddle a bike again.

Of course a problem with all this is that no-one's going to mow the bloody lawn, are they? And as it is warm and humid, the damn thing is growing as though it were trying to make up for Amazonian deforestation. Which it might well do, given the diverse life-forms I find down there sometimes. Whatever, it meant that last weekend I spent quite some time turning soggy grass into green soup, and I really did appreciate my shower afterwards. It is a good thing that most of our neighbours do not understand English.

Got back from Pesselière and Jeremy went to turn on a computer: as usual, he blew the power supply. Damned if I know how he does it, but it's the third in a row. Whatever, I was in the market for a computer case. Headed off to the little place not too far from the office to pick one up ("cheap" and "quiet" are, apparently, incompatible which is a bit of a bugger but never mind) and brought it back home.

Now things are never simple around here, and when I opened up the dead machine (which we use as a media server for watching pirated videos and all) I discovered that it was in fact an old Intel server motherboard in some weird ATX "plus" format, ie it would almost, but not quite, fit into the new box. Quel bummer, Bruce, as we say around here. But never say die - I had another new box: the one that is my machine. Into which the old board should fit. As indeed it did. But ...

... first of all, my motherboard has to go into the new box. Physically, no problems. Press power button - no power. Oh. Dear. Bad box? Back to the suppliers, who discover that the power supply - cunningly mounted at the front of the box - has been installed with the (inaccessible) power switch in the "OFF" position. Stands to reason. Right, back home. Remember, we are not at home to Mr. Cock-up.

Put the motherboard back in the new box. Connect all connectors. Push power button. There is power, the fan spins - for 1 second - then nowt. Bummer again. Back to the supplier. Again. Where I discover that

  • 6-month old motherboards have a standard ATX power connector and a 4-pin 12V connector (which I knew about)
  • more modern motherboards have a standard ATX power connector (thank god) and an 8-pin 12V connector
  • new boxes have standard ATX connectors, a 4-pin 5V connector and an 8-pin 12V connector which you can split in two should you wish to do so
I had plugged the 4-pin 5V power supply into the 4-pin 12V on the motherboard, which didn't work that well. Had to laugh, really.

Anyway, I must admit that once I'd got past that the brain transplants went swimmingly, although I may have to consider banning Jeremy from actually touching computers until he's gone through some sort of static discharge routine.

On an unrelated topic, at some point in the (hopefully) not-too-distant future Malyon should let us know about when she's coming back here and when she needs to get to Glasgow. At that point we will have to see if we can fit her travel requirements into our busy holiday schedule (which, as usual, involves doing vast quantities of nothing).

Next Wednesday night I'm off to Albertville (named after a Belgian king, not Victoria's Prince Regent, should anyone be worried) with Jeremy for his first live concert. (Should I get him to ground himself before we go in? Wouldn't want speakers to explode ...) It's a "Tribute to AC/DC", which should be fun. And don't look at me like that, he was the one that wanted to go. Kept finding the fliers on the table - and on my chair - and on my desk - finally got the hint.

And just in case it interests anyone, I did get to the bottom of the problem for Alstom. The solution wasn't particularly pretty, I still don't know exactly why it wasn't working before, but what the hell, it works now. I'll settle for empirical. So will they.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

08/05/08 The usual tripe, but cooked for rather longer ...

Another way of saying "sorry chaps, late again". But it's alright, I have perfectly good excuses, and a note from the doctor just in case.

I actually started putting down some notes in January (yes, this is not just spontaneous creative writing, takes effort tossing off careless nothings - probably why Noel Coward felt so hard done-by, his own fault for making it look easy) but things got a bit out of hand.

Wind up the way-back machine to take us to the start of the year, notable for Jeremy's ill-fated snowboarding career. It started off fine - following Sophie's advice I took him up to Margeriaz for a days lessons, which went very well. On the first school outing he unfortunately fell (or fell unfortunately, either would be correct) and broke his wrist. On the upside, he missed out on cross-country skiing, which he cordially detests. On the downside, having shelled out 180€ in ski hire for the season I took the gear back two weeks later and got a "pro-rata" refund in the form of a 30€ gift token, which succeeded in pissing me off enormously. Shall not be going back to Montaz ski hire next year.

Not long after that debâcle my sister Ali and niece Rosie turned up in Old Yurrup. We had plenty of warning, which was just as well because I needed it to deal with the demented SNCF website, trying to reserve tickets for Eurail-pass holders. It seems that it is possible to do this provided that you know the secret codes, if not you're stiff out of luck and as it turns out these secret codes are distributed on a need-to-know basis and not even Sarkozy has them. Certainly the average SNCF booking agent doesn't ... and on top of it they broke the website.

That is something that really annoys me, because it used to work well enough - a bit stodgy, I agree, but at least you could fairly easily go on, check out the timetables and book a ticket without having a doctorate. At some point they apparently decided that "just working" wasn't good enough and hired some Web 0.3 consulting firm who persuaded them that the thing to do was set up a portal through which you must pass to do anything, to lard said portal with cunningly animated Flash menus in stunning black text on darker black background, make it compatible only with IE7 and then make sure it doesn't actually work. As in, if you want to see the trains that leave, say, Chambéry for Paris between 14:00 and 19:00, you'll get a page with maybe five trains and a little button to see the next page. When you push the little button, it shows you the same page again. You have to note the time of the last train on the first page - say, 15:47 - and change the departure time in your request - this is, very conveniently, shown in a little sort of panel thingy off to the left. Now when you push the button, it takes you back to the search page, with all fields blanked out. After the third time, you get used to it: much like a lobotomy I suppose.

Another odd thing is that it doesn't (didn't) handle accents, which is odd for a language was uses them liberally. I won't go into the details, suffice it to say that it was all rather depressing. And totally avoidable. I mean, why did they screw around with it? What came over them? Were they all sitting around smoking dope one day and decide it'd be a real giggle, or does someone there actually believe in what's been done? Sadly enough, probably the latter.

Whatever, by dint of actually getting off my arse and into the station at Chambéry I actually found someone who could service my requirements, as it were, and Ali & Rosie turned up as promised and on time, having negociated their way from Strasbourg to Chambéry via Lyon. We had a lovely time - well, Margo and I did, and no-one else complained. Finished by heading off to Paris with them for a few days - they needed to get to Madrid and you can't get there from here (well, you can, but you wouldn't want to), and it would be a bit of a shame to spend time in France and studiously avoid seeing the Eiffel tower. I'd managed to book a really cheap (by Parisian standards) hotel in the fifth arondissement, on Boulevard St Michel opposite the Ecole des Mines and the Jardins de Luxembourg (Hotel des Mines, if that interests anyone - personally I'd recommend it) and we spent two days being tourists. Rather nice actually, been a while since I was one of them (tourist, that is) at Paris.

We did almost get lost in the Louvre, I must admit. I may have been holding the map upside down and instead of going from "Greek Antiquities" to "Chinese Curiosities" we wound up in Italian statuary after a detour through an Egyptian sarcophagus, or something along those lines. Whatever, we did manage - godnose how - to find our way into the Salle Apollon, which is amazing. Think gilt, and roccoco - then double it. Double it again, then go and lie down for a bit, because you're not there yet. Like the ballroom in what used to be the Hotel de la Gare d'Orsay (now part of the museum of the same name) it really does have to be seen to be believed.

I really do like Paris, it's just that I don't want to live there - not until I have the money to buy a 200 m² apartment in a C16 tower on Ile de la Cité, anyway.

Around this time I got interested in charcuterie, or the fine art of curing meat. Having eaten enough of the stuff, it seemed a reasonable idea to attack it from the other end ,as it were ... Let me just say that if you happen to have (as we do) a dry, airy cellar, making your own bacon or pancetta is both easy (as in effortless) and rewarding (as in having bacon that isn't 90% water when you fry it. It is 50% fat, but that's the nature of the beast ...). Unfortunate side-effect: everyone around here is now spoilt rotten and I can't buy bacon at the supermarket anymore.

Confit de canard is even easier and keeps really well in the freezer: I have to get around to trying duck prosciutto. And making a smoker out of flower-pots so that I can try smoking the last lot of maple-syrup cured bacon ... that should be good. I shall slowly work my way up to doing a whole ham, cured and smoked. Miam.

In the not-so-amusing department, Margo went back to NZ in April to be with her father before he died. Can't really say much more than that, can you? Apparently it was viral, very quick, and she and Ian made it back in time to see him - which is what matters.

Anyway, tomorrow is May 8 (over here, anyway) which is of course a public holiday (like every other day in May), Friday no-one will go to work anyway 'cos there's no point and Monday is also a holiday (Pentecost, if any of you are Catholic). A five-day week-end. Bliss. Nowt to do but mow the lawn and plan the barbecues. Oh, and try to work out just what the hell is going on inside one of Alstom's radio-telescope positioning systems that causes it to hang every once in a while until rebooted, behaviour which is starting to annoy Thalès Aerospace. I love industrial archaeology.


Tuesday, January 1, 2008

01/01/08 That was the year that was ...

Well, since last I wrote we've been to a Bat Mitzvah and a couple of expositions (not at the same time), bought heaps of glittery stuff that we don't really need from Ikea, and seen the year out through an alcoholic haze. Not bad going. A Bat Mitzvah, should you be wondering, is the feminine version of a Bar Mitzvah, rather than a spelling mistake. This particular one belonged to Caroline, the daughter of friends of ours, and it was quite a big deal: the family came over from New York and we had a very long lunch at the Chateau des Comtes de Challes, which was definitely gastronomic.

As for the expositions, there was the Foire Internationale de Grenoble (which we forced Jeremy to attend), of which the best part is the food hall (we made it away quite frugally, with only saucisson and chorizo and paprika fumé and curry to weigh us down), then there was the silk exposition in Lyon (of which the highlight - for me, anyway - was definitely the building: the Palais de Commerce in the 2ème arrondissement is a huge late C19 gilt and baroque pile which is definitely worth a look) and then it was back to Grenoble for the Salon de l'Artisanat. What took my fancy there were some rather nice Laguiole table knives with rather odd-looking but surprisingly comfortable handles made from semi-precious woods and/or polished stone. Shame there's no way I could justify €300 for a set of six, and I don't think they did matching forks. Probably just as well, 'cos if they did I would have had to buy a set, wouldn't I?

On the other hand I did manage to justify getting a couple of nice stainless-steel saucepans and some other cooking utensils from the new Ikea store on the way back. Margo made hummus a while back and left the pois chiches to boil just a tad too long, so that particular grey enamelled pot will never play the violin again ... and on top of it I've been looking for a decent whisk with a Teflon coating on the wires for a while now, and the stainless-steel roasting pan with grill was an absolute steal, even if not, technically speaking, indispensable ...

And of course last night was New Year's Eve and so we left Jeremy at home with some chili con carne, tortilla chips and a friend (with strict instructions not to eat the friend, nor to burn the house down) and we went off for champagne with Arlette and Pierre to whet the appetite before all going to Karen's in the middle of Chambéry for buffet and booze. Foie gras, samossas, a rather yummy roast turkey and then cherry tart and sticky buns - along with quantities of wine. For me, anyway - Margo was designated driver this time around.

Like every year, Christmas was overfed and foggy. We headed up to Pesselière on Sunday, thinking that like that we'd avoid the worst of the traffic - which may well have been the case, but it's not saying very much as the traffic was still pretty appalling. At least once we got past Beaune the fog cleared (be reassured, it rolled back in again for Christmas day). Monday night was the traditional "stuff yer face" feast with oysters and salmon and foie gras and capon and chestnuts and bûches swilled down with copious quantities of wine. Every year I have more difficulty forcing at all down - it'll get to the point in a few years where I sit in a corner nibbling on a rusk and sipping tepid mineral water. Not there yet, though.

It was a bit odd not having Malyon with us, mind you. Normally she and Elise would be merrily bossing Caroline and Jeremy around and making them do all the dishes (having themselves ostentatiously "set the table" by flinging the odd fork down as their contribution to the household tasks), but this year Elise had to do all the bossing by herself and her heart didn't seem to be in it. We all left on Thursday, and we had a reasonably quiet trip back (in the fog, yet again), finally catching up with the sun as we emerged from the tunnel de l'Epine, just west of Chambéry. The cat and guinea-pigs seemed happy enough to see us - insofar as you can tell with creatures whose main activities are lying down, eating, and going "wibble". No more signs of the mice in the cellar - maybe the cat's done her job, although I have my doubts. (I know there were mice because the little sods got into the Sarde cheese I had maturing down there, having eaten through the tea-towel I'd wrapped it in, leaving masses of mousie dung as their visiting card.) I hope they have gone, because I've taken the sugar-cured bacon I'd made up before Christmas out of the fridge and hung it up to air-dry, and I'd like it to be whole when ready to eat.

I'm now the proud owner of a certifiably brand-new PC (emphatically not an office hand-me-down) bought in bits and pieces over the last few days and put together over an evening. All because we unplugged - as is our wont - the various computers around the place before heading off for Christmas, and in the general flurry of reconnecting to check e-mail and such on our return Jeremy's power supply went poof (and left a smell of ozone that lingered for some while, but that's another matter). Second time that's happened - I can't help but wonder whether he doesn't have issues with 220V. (The first machine was a slimline Compaq from the days when the company designed everything to be non-standard - the power supply was an interesting dodecahedral box with 16 pins on the connector instead of the more usual 20 - and is now used as a doorstop. I've removed everything that could conceivably be of use, and will get around to taking it to the tip Real Soon Now.)

Whatever, having - as one does - a spare power supply lying around I stuck that in, but no joy. So as I passed by a computer store the next day I popped in, picked up a new case to replace the hideous purple Compubox one, a ten-euro DVD/CD burner and - for all of 15 euros - possibly the last motherboard in existence which would accept an Intel Socket-1 P3 (yes, his machine was that old) and rushed home with them. Still no joy, so I bit the bullet and on Saturday got an up-to-date motherboard, a Core Duo processor and 1Gb of RAM to go with it. Before putting all that together I thought I'd give the old gear one last try - I hate chucking out obsolete kit - and then I noticed that the fan on the processor wasn't working (must have fried with the power supply) and when I replaced that it all started to work. Unfortunately the BIOS on the new old motherboard was so out-of-date it wouldn't recognise any drive bigger that 16 Gb, and those are getting to be rare beasts - even around here - so I put everything back as it was, original motherboard and all (in the purple case, even) and it carried on working. So Jeremy has his machine back (saves transferring all his bookmarks and MSN contact list and whatever), we have a really cheap surplus-to-requirements motherboard which we could use as a wall hanging, and there's a new machine onto which I suppose I'll have to shift all my stuff once I've bought a huge SATA hard drive for it (only one IDE interface, unfortunately).

Which is a pain, because some of the software I have predates Noah and I'm not sure I even have the disks for it (not too much of a problem really, 'cos software that old usually doesn't have an installation procedure - just copy the directory) and for other stuff - mainly Microsoft DDKs - I'm not sure which of the fifteen versions is installed and what I had to patch to make it work. Mind you, there's not much demand for Windows 95 device drivers these days, so I suppose that's not really a great hassle either.

I'm still not entirely sure why I insist on hanging on to old gear, though - apart from sheer stupidity stubbornness and the feeling that even if it is a bit old it's still Good Enough. Which in most cases it is. Even so - the case and power supply were €35, €10 for the CD/DVD, €30 for the DDRAM, €50 for the motherboard and €70 for the CPU (could have got an Athlon at €40, but they didn't have one in stock ...) makes a brand-new machine with all mod-cons for a grand total of €200 (not counting a few flesh wounds from slicing fingers open on sharp eges of the case). Of course it too will be obsolete in three months, but that's another problem.

We also found time to get a little more work done on the house in the past few days: light fittings and spots and stuff for the top floor so that it actually looks sort of finished (four years with naked bulbs dangling from wires sticking out of the wall is enough) and then finishing off the entrance hall downstairs with curtains and a bit of wood panelling to hide the water pipes and circa 1920's electricity cables snaking around the ceiling. Next job - the first floor!

Slouching around on Sunday morning (technically it was morning - just - I was having breakfast at about 11:30) and had an unexpected knock at the door - Jill & John Julian with kids in tow, on their way back to Barcelona after a week's skiing at Val Thorens. Had a good long chat about this and that, and decided that we really need to go back down there before they head back to NZ (probably in October, unless Jill can manage to postpone it again) to pick up a spare Vespa for Jeremy. And maybe get a bit more sightseeing done than we managed three years ago. Whatever they do, their eldest son Michael will be staying: he's been accepted at Sussex University and hopes to be able to get into Bath after resitting the exams in a week's time.

Anyway, I'm going to watch Voyage of the Damned - the latest Dr Who Christmas special, so I'll just wish all of you a happy New Year. Hear from you soon - I hope.