Sunday, May 28, 2000

28/05/00 And of course, the peasants are SO picturesque ...

Hello again, everyone.

Well, we made it down to the Gers - eventually - with trailer in tow for a nice relaxing four days doing sod-all. We'd planned on leaving Friday 5th to take advantage of the long weekend (Monday being Armistice day) but when I took the Clio down on Thursday to get the towbar fitted it turned out that the towbar in stock wouldn't fit, they could get one in for Friday but there's be no-one to fit it until Tuesday, so we grinned and bore it and left the following Wednesday instead. Probably worked out for the best, given the traffic on the roads on a long weekend: at least we had a calm trip. Slow, too, after Avignon - we ran into the thunderstorms that the met. service had been promising all week.

Reminds me that I now have to buy another car (more to the point, the company has to do that) as Renaud rang up just as we were leaving on Wednesday to say that he'd just blown up the motor in the 205. Not too surprising really, the poor old thing had about 250,000 km on the clock, but it could have come at a better moment. I'll have to get onto various garages to see what their offers are - I must admit that an Alfa 155 is very tempting - but that'll have to wait for a week or so until I have some spare time.

Anyway, we made it down to the backblocks of the Gers and on to the wiggly track that leads up to Jacquy's place, and then had to stop for a peacock to move off. He looked rather insulted at our being there, but eventually scrambled up the bank on the side of the road and then stood there making rather gross noises at us as we headed off.

The Gers, for those of you who care, is in the heart of Gascony, which is Dartagnan country. They eat and drink a lot (and rather well), tend to swash their buckles, and as they're 99% peasant, hate tax inspectors. We went off one afternoon to buy some foie gras - probably illegal in NZ but we love the stuff anyway - and first of all we stopped off to see the farmer that took over Jacquy's beehives. You pull up into a muddy driveway mostly occupied by a tractor and three rusting hulks that may once have been cars, and stop at the open end of a U formed by the farmhouse on the left, a two-storeyed barn in the middle, and a glorified cowshed on the right. On the barbed-wire fence in front of the actual house a couple of overalls are hanging out to dry, the courtyard is full of mud, hay, and dubious byproducts of bovine digestive processes, and the 97-year-old granny is twitching aside the fly-blown curtain and peering suspiciously at us through the kitchen window. It's almost 3rd-world - the place looks like a dump. I wouldn't be surprised if, when not staring suspiciously at strangers, granny didn't go off and haul a bucket of water (with a few frogs in it) from the rather septic looking pond by the cowshed and wash the dishes in it. But Jacquy reckons that, with subsidies and all, they probably manage to bring in 15,000 F/month, plus granny's pension. Not too bad. Maybe it's a lifestyle choice.

Then we got to the foie gras man. Neat house, clean driveway - fair enough, don't want dirty ducks when their livers are worth 300F/kilo - and the usual couple of mongrels looking longingly at the tyres. Jacquy got out, went up to the door and spoke for about 5 minutes (either presenting us or negociating a commission) before we were allowed out. But once you've been accepted as a client - a little "prune" (plums preserved in Armagnac - they plop one or two in your glass and cover them with the Armagnac, and you have to finish it) followed by a coffee and a bit of a chat before the serious part, where a couple of preserving jars apparently full of unappetising yellow scum get pushed across the table in one direction, and a number of banknotes go in the opposite direction. Then it's time to go, as the man has ducks to force-feed, and the little sods don't like it that much.

Apart from that, we did as little as possible, which is pretty much my idea of a holiday. Oh, we went off and bought a couple of feijoa trees just to see if they work in Savoie, and we wandered about a bit in Jacquy's two hectares of forest and frightened a deer, which took off and went crashing back along the path (Jeremy was thrilled) and then found some wild boar tracks (or so Jeremy thought, and he was even more thrilled - if only Margo had thought to bring some plaster of paris along we could have taken casts), but it was too hot really to do much and let's face it, after a little whisky at 11:30 as an apéro before lunch (with its couple of bottles of wine), you don't actually want to do too much before the little whisky at 7pm before dinner (with more wine) in case the appetite gets spoilt.

They've an odd local custom down there too - as you drive around on the back roads you'll come across little metal shields with the tricolor painted on them and a bit of squiggly writing, planted on poles in front of houses or by the roadside. I'd never bothered to read the squiggly writing and had gone through life with the impression that they marked places where someone had heroically died for France, but this time round I became convinced that there can't have been that many Resistance heroes in the whole of France, let alone the Gers. On closer examination, what is actually written is "All honour to our Mayor, Lucien Machin", or "All honour to Councillor Pierre Chose". What it seems happens is that when a new mayor and council get elected (which is not as often as you might think, especially in rural France where, once you get the job, you tend to stay there for life and even at the end of that there's a good chance of handing it on to the kids) they all get together at one of their houses and go on, from councillor to councillor and winding up at the mayor's house, for a monumental day-long meal (copiously washed down with Gascon wine, of course), and at each house they plant one of these poles. Just to remember them by. It seems that it's all a very festive occasion, and I assume that the village gendarme gets told to stay at home on the day, because at the last house on the Nth glass of wine and about to tuck into a half jam-jar of Armagnac I know that I'd be feeling a bit wobbly.


Sunday evening and just recuperating a bit from last night - Sophie organised a little party which apparently finished up at around 6am this morning, but we piked out around midnight. Then this afternoon we went off to see Jacques and give him a hand unburdening his cherry tree and came back with 4 or 5 kg of cherries which are destined for the freezer.

The weather's been grotty today - been raining steadily (can't complain too much, we need it) and a bit chilly, but otherwise it's been marvellous. The fledglings are learning to fly in the hedge and garden, and Tess spends time down there lying on her back with her mouth wide open, hoping that there a few slow learners in the flock. She's also discovered catnip. She doesn't eat it, but if you give her a leaf she'll sniff it and then pin it down under her chin and rub it across the floor, drooling gallons as she does so. It's a pretty gross sight, and the pool of tepid catspit that's left isn't any better.

Renaud seems concerned that Margo isn't working any longer, and keeps finding her Things To Do. Last week it was the translation of a user's manual for one of our clients, and soon the same client wants some stuff scanned in, tweaked and then posted on the Nestlé breast-feeding site we did. So she should get about 20KF in over the summer, which is nice.

And I am trying to finish off a Windows driver for Sony videocams for a Swiss crown called Gespac. For which I had to buy a shiny new machine so that I could test it under Windows 98, and when I've done it'll become the new home machine and all the other machines shift along a rung. When that gets done I'll find out if they hand me the application development as well, which is quite on the cards, but can't wait for that as I have another website to develop for the Auchan supermarket chain. It's a busy little world.

I'll send this now and free up the machine so that Margo can get onto the serious business of reading her accumulated e-mails, but first here's a letter to the editor from The Economist:

"SIR-I must protest against your portrait of France as an illiberal, self-centred nation. French culture is exceptional and unique.

This has given rise to an efficient education system whose graduates are among the most competent administrators imaginable, endowed with an extraordinary capacity to manage one of the world's best performing economics while remaining close to the nation they rule.

This has led to an exemplary social consensus which spares the country such scourges as industrial action while serving as a shining example to other countries for its free-market, decentralised approach. This is coupled with a traditionally outstanding foreign policy, universally appreciated for its team spirit, openness and flexibility. This is why the world loves France."
I rather think it's tongue in cheek.

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