Saturday, January 16, 2010

16/01/10 Humbug, and other seasonal grunts ...

In theory, the last newsletter was going to be the last one of the year, and in fact it'll turn out to be so because I doubt that this one here will get sent off much before the end of January, but even so I still feel as though I'm cheating somewhat by starting in 2009. Be that as it may, you may recall that we've been having hassles with the RSI (the Régime Social des Independants, or the health and retirement insurance body that handles the self-employed). Mind you, everyone is having hassles with them: since the government merged the three bodies that used to handle the different aspects (health, retirement, and widows & orphans) and put the resulting mess (with the same number of staff, evidently) under the direction of the least competent of the three, the situation has been absolutely dire. You can't get in touch with them, and they won't actually send anything out until a payment (which you weren't informed you had to make) is about 6 months overdue, at which point they'll add a 10% penalty fee.

In fact, their website actually says "In order to provide a better service, we no longer answer the phone, and our offices are closed to the public on Tuesdays and Wednesdays." Well, I made up the bit about answering the phone - they don't actually say that. But it's what happens. If you do ring you go through three layers of voice menus and then get invited to type in your social security number, after which you will either get a terse message saying "no-one's available right now, please try again later", or be put on hold for ten minutes, after which you'll get cut off with the same terse message. Should you, by some miracle, get through to a human being, you will have to supply your social security number anyway despite having typed it in, as it doesn't actually come up on the screen of the person who answered. (The developers probably reckoned that there was so little chance of a call actually getting answered that there was no point to complicating the system unnecessarily.)

Anyway, as we were starting to get recommended letters I thought I'd better do something about it, and so boldly went down on the 23rd to the RSI offices at Grenoble to find out WTF was going on. The guy I spoke to was charming and helpful and did his best to explain what is basically inexplicable (ie how the hell do they calculate how much you owe them?) and arranged for my payments to be spread out over ten months and Renaud's over a year ... great. But although he had the authority to do that, he couldn't change the mailing addresses in the files so that all mail got sent to the office: he had to send off an internal e-mail to someone else asking them to do it. What is going on here? Come to that, I still haven't received a copy of the repayment schedule that we agreed on, which certainly doesn't help matters. Bloody marvellous.

Christmas day we had lunch with Karen & Philippe at Mumblefuck: foie gras, caviar and sour cream dip, roast boar, mushroom strudel and scorzonera, followed by Christmas cake and washed down with copious quantities of wine. A fairly light affair compared to the Roman feasts at Pesselière, much appreciated. Doubtless did my liver no end of good. (Scorzonera, in case you didn't know, is one of those forgotten vegetables - black salsify, or vegetable oyster. Looks like a long black rustic carrot and, oddly enough, does have a sweetish taste which is very reminiscent of scallops. An interesting discovery, shall have to see if I can't spot some at the market some time. They're simple enough to cook.) I actually started the day making the strudel, and so it was about 11:30 before I headed off to have a shower - only to discover that the boiler had had a hissy-fit and decided not to produce any more hot water that day (probably thought, it being a Friday, that no-one would be having a shower after 8:30, so when Margo and Jeremy between them used all the hot water it just couldn't be bothered). Showering under water at all of 6° is not much to my taste (for some strange reason it's called "une douche écossaise" here, doubtless a reference to the celebrated thriftiness of the race) so I played with knobs until I found the override. Half an hour later it was still a bit tepid, but at least on the right side of 20. Merry Christmas.

Completely off-topic, I spend a little while each day reading The Register, an English on-line rag which focusses (albeit hardly with laser-like precision, more in a rather bleary, hungover fashion) on IT and technology subjects. It's a bit of light reading, and they're also the home to the BOfH and the PFY. (Those of you who've ever worked in computer operations will recognise the Bastard Operator from Hell and his - or her - side-kick, the Pimply-Faced Youth.)

That's by way of introduction to the bit where the pair of them are in the computer room trying to remember what the hell happened at last night's Chistmas party (which, incidentally, found them with a couple of dead hardware vendors on their hands - or in the dumpster), and the PFY dredges up the memory of a piano-accordion solo which ended well. And just how, asks the BOfH, does a piano-accordion solo end well? With a gunshot, replies the sidekick.

Which is, let it be admitted, my opinion as well.

Whatever, we spent a quiet new year's eve: Jerry was off at a friend's in Chambery and I think we ended up in bed with a warm cocoa each before midnight had even struck. Rather sad, I know, but true nonetheless.

At least like that I didn't have to spend all the next day recovering, which in turn meant that when I had to head off to Geneva to pick up Malyon at some ungodly hour on Saturday moaning I didn't feel too bad about it. In fact, 8:30 am turned out to be rather a good time to be taking the autoroute, as it was almost deserted. Four hours later that was emphatically not the case: the north-bound traffic jam started at the Chignin péage and continued 12km through to the autoroute junction north of Chambéry. Glad I was headed south, really. Oh, we returned four hours later because the baggage handlers were on strike at Geneva airport. So Mal's plane arrived ahead of time, around 9:10 at Geneva, and I still had to wait til after 11 for her to get out. A right pain.

Then on Sunday night it started to snow. We woke up to about 25cm of the stuff all over the place, and it finally took me three hours to get to the office - a trip that normally takes no more than 25 minutes. I detest winter. Not only is it cold, and often damp, gray and miserable, the fruit and vegetable stands at the marker are pretty bare. OK, there are clementines, apples and pears, and of course bananas (not local, I admit) are present all year round, but unless you're willing to include cardons, flaccid courgettes and palpably limp, soft aubergines on your list of desirable greenery, you're pretty much limited to broccoli and brussels sprouts. And whilst these are splendid vegetables, they get a little boring every other day, even when interspersed with salad. (I seem to have forgotten cabbage, and cauliflower. Good. You can also find carrots occasionally, but they're invariably horticultural society monsters that would make better tent pegs than food. And it's best not to speak of the turnip.)

Mal headed off to Grenoble during the week and as I had, whilst googling Mr Simpson to find out what play Upstage would be putting on this year, come across a rather interesting anglophone website on life in Grenoble with some addresses that interested me, we went down on Saturday (through snow and sleet, I'd like to point out) to pick her up. As late, she specified, as possible.

At least, that was the reason we gave. The main reason was to find Rajah Bazar, World Market, Saigon Store and, of course, The Cake Shop. A bit of a b'stard, 'cos it had snowed quite heavily at Grenoble and so it was extremely slushy underfoot - and do you know just how slippery smooth white marble paving stones are under snow? And being Grenoble, there was the omnipresent glacial wind, come direct from Siberia (or at least that's how it felt). Anyway, the first three are, as you may have guessed from thier names, "épiceries exotiques": asian groceries, in other words. As I personally start to tremble a bit at the knees when I get a good whiff of a decent satay and will in fact snort Madras curry like coke, you can perhaps imagine how I felt going through the doors of these places. Carrefour d'Asie, at St Bruno on Cours Berriat, is still my favorite, but Rajah Bazar, which is more Indian-oriented - and has a good selection of at least 5000 Bollywood DVDs if that's your thing - would have to come a close second. World Market (which I find difficult not to call World Company, but that's just because I used to watch the Guignols a bit too much) is also excellent and has a great selection of hair extensions. Saigon Store was less my thing - they don't actually stock much in the way of spices, which is what really turns me on, but if you're looking for frozen or chilled Thai food (prepared ingredients or finished meals, your choice) it would have to be the place to go.

The Cake Shop, on the other hand, makes and sells proper iced cakes, themed as you like. (I'm talking up to multi-tier wedding-style cakes here, if that's what you want.) Plus they seem to do a roaring trade in muffins, scones, bath buns and all those other delights of English cuisine, and they've a nice line in utensils (but do I really need a silicone pastry brush?). They also - and this is in fact the true reason we made a special visit - have a seemingly endless stock of Philadelphia cream cheese, without which you cannot make a true cheesecake. Nor may you make cream-cheese frosting for a carrot cake.

It was there, incidentally, that I managed to find a little (admittedly belated) Christmas present for Sophie: a slim volume entitled "Les Recettes Erotiques des Paresseuses" ("The Lazy Woman's Erotic Cookbook", if you really want to know), and some orange and clove chocolate. With any luck the offering of chocolate will save me from getting my head bashed in by my outraged friend, although let it be said in my defence that some of the recipes did actually look rather attractive. (Although not all of them struck me as being particularly erotic, but that may be symptomatic of a lack of imagination on my part.)

You might recall that I wrote earlier about some of the Scottish culinary delights to be experienced by the casual visitor to Glasgow, and Mal told us about a few others. Like, the time she asked for a hamburger and got a hamburger steak battered and deep-fried, then stuck inna bun. Not, perhaps, too surprising as this is the country that gave us the battered deep-fried Mars bar. Basically, if it doesn't involve deep-frying, or at least swimming in fat, they'd rather not know about it. No wonder Glasgow is heart attack capital of the world.

A final word - having a bit more time to myself than is usual the other night, I went ahead and posted all the newsletters I still have on the computer - you can, should that interest you, find them here:

They go back to the beginning of '99, mostly due to Al Gore not having invented the internet before then. I must have another ten years or so on paper, but I'm damned if I'm going to retype them. Maybe I should see if I can't get a grant or something to get them scanned and formatted ...