Friday, December 30, 2011

The Golden Age of Leather - And Latex ...

People have been busy on Google over the festive season, if the search terms are any guide - but why, oh why, do I get ones like the following:

    erotic waitress wine
    strawberries lingerie
    poupee gonflable little suzy
    burned paper boat and a clock
    men in straitjackets
    i'm scared i have threadworms

Mind you, as stream-of-consciousness song lyrics go, they'd not be too bad.

So anyway, Beckham arrived back from Paris the other day and to do justice to the occasion I left the office early (the week between Christmas and New Year is bloody quiet anyway, not as though anyone would either notice or care) and we all met up at the Café de Paris for some celebratory vitamins.

One thing led to another, as it will, and we decided that her idea of a second-hand bookshop/café, whilst excellent in itself, was perhaps not sufficient, and thoughts quickly turned to complementary activities, like a sex shop as an annexe. You would, I admit, have to pick your books fairly carefully, and make it clear somehow that this particular area was not necessarily family-friendly.

Whatever, we got quite enthused with the idea after the second glass, and started brainstorming, for a good name is very important in commerce. All about brand recognition, apparently. "Becks & Bryan: Purveyor's of Quality Refurbished and Second-Hand Sex Toy's Since 2011" says it all but is a bit of a mouthful, and does rather encourage grocer's apostrophe: "Vibrators R'Us" is snappier. Or, quite simply, and kind of sums it up in a nutshell, "Dildo & Co.". The feedback so far has been positive, always an encouraging thing. (We'll try to forget about my Bryan's suggestion of "The Cock Shop", shall we?)

The other thing she needs is an angel investor, for although Bryan and I would be more than willing to help out as our talents allow, we're neither of us exactly the sort of thing one would want to see behind the counter in such an establishment, and in any case we have no free - or even indentured - cash, and a business does need a staff, and premises. So as Whisky Boy is out of the picture (and a diplomat's salary, although generous, is unlikely to stretch so far anyway) she's trying to hook back up with Ken The Rich Australian, to see if he'd be willing to sink a bit of his pocket-money into such an affair.

Against what in exchange I neither know, nor particularly care to discover.

Some sort of business plan would also seem a prerequisite, although exactly how one would go about establishing such a thing for an enterprise of this nature escapes me at this time. Perhaps, with a bit of luck, we'll have forgotten about it tomorrow. As a general rule, Thursdays are not usually quite this dissolute.

Also, for your edification, it appears that sex-toy evenings have overtaken Tupperware parties in popularity, at least amongst a certain segment of the population. I have nothing to do with that, I merely report.

Friday should not be dissolute at all. Up to the office, a bit of that sad trivia known as "paperwork", then back home. To make a galette des Rois, which is in some demand around these here parts.

Yeah, forget about that. Woke up in pitch darkness, because snow is not transparent and 10cm of the stuff on the velux makes a pretty effective screen. Margo bravely took the kids off to Montmelian to catch a train for Grenoble to go skiing with one of Mal's friends from her lycée days, and about an hour later, as I was enjoying the second coffee of the day and wondering whether or not the snowplough would have blocked the van, she rang to ask sweetly if I could walk down the hill with the chains for the Suzy. She'd managed to get halfway up, but no further ...

Walking past I saw that there was indeed a 50cm wall of snow across the entrance to where I park so getting out was not going to be an easy job (note to self: stop faffing around and just go get snow tyres for the thing) - made it a simple decision really, do not bother going up to the office. This does mean walking up to the village later on to get some oranges and eggs for the crème frangipane in the galette, but I think I can probably handle that.

Chains that have been tucked away unused in their little case for a year or so seem to take on a spiteful life of their own, and it doesn't help that the instructions always seem to have been written in a heavily Polish-accented English, and the helpful illustrative diagrams might as well be someone's holiday snaps of tourist attractions around Warsaw, for they bear absolutely no resemblance to the writhing mass of entangled steel links sitting in a sullen heap before you.

I ask you, does "clip green links A and B together firmly, ensuring that connector F is lying flat against the tyre as shown in diagram (missing), before carelessly fitting yellow tensioner C and enrouling it around D (red)" make any sense when you're kneeling in the snow, with more of the damn stuff falling on you, and your fingers stiff and numb?

We eventually got them on, more or less, after much cursing and a few threats of violence, and slowly made our way back home to the warmth: cue five minutes exercise shovelling the wall of snow away from the garage doors so that Margo could actually get the car in, and then repeat the earlier performance, in reverse, to get the chains off again.

If these are indeed, as they say, "quick-fit" chains, I would hate to contemplate the time taken and the acres of gouged flesh and skinned knuckles (absolutely amazing all the sharp pointy bits there are behind wheels) resulting from trying to fit the older variety.

Work continues apace on the new apartment buildings above us in the road, and in keeping with the seasonal spirit the solid peasantry of St Pierre are preparing to welcome newcomers to the village.

As you can see it's a time of great festivity and the sour local wine flows in abundance: the municipal trebuchet has been wheeled out, as is the custom on such occasions, and M. le maire, wearing his official beard, is about to order the firing of a salute. (Blanks, one hopes: still can't forget the unfortunate incident two years ago, when it turned out that the 1950s vintage napalm had not, in fact, gone off over the years. Never mind, it was all in good fun, and anyway that's why we pay for emergency services.)

For some strange reason the local life-saving club have been called upon to do the catering: sadly, Mme Pétasse is of the opinion that alcohol is, of itself, a food group and that solid nourishment is therefore unnecessary.

Poor M. Ducrotte (that's the Mauriennais Ducrottes, sadly inbred: not for nothing are they commonly known as les cretins des Alpes) seems to be labouring under the impression that carnaval has come early, and for reasons known only to the dim workings of his feeble brain has come dressed in the full regalia of a Navajo chief, perhaps under the impression that it looks more welcoming.

The visitors and inhabitants-to-be, arriving fresh from Grenoble (and, in one case, Aiton prison) after a crack-down on the Sicilian-run cuddly-animal prostitution rings, seem unsure as to their welcome and their new lives in a small village, but they'll soon get the hang of petty theft and tyre-slashing, and become upstanding and valued members of our little community.

Sadly, our friendly local gendarme appears to be in no fit state to offer them a few words of advice: having jumped into an icy torrent to rescue the legless (and extremely dimwitted) Batârd baby, he is resting, overcome by exertion and, I'm ashamed to say, rather excessive consumption of hot spiced goudron. (A local specialty, which does not really travel well. Fortunately.)

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Waiting For The Doctor ...

Woke up this morning to find yet more snow drifting down and the paddock all covered in white stuff: humbug. This means a complete and utter bordel at Chambery, as for one thing the buses take the first opportunity they can to stop running, and for another there are cars in all sorts of unlikely places as they've slid more or less gently across the road to wind up in a ditch or on the pavement.

This is not alleviated by the municipality's being seemingly reluctant to risk their shiny snow-ploughs in such dangerous conditions ...

Funny how Malyon and Jeremy seem to regress when they're back together. First off, for some strange reason they speak in French together, god knows why. It all starts out fine, nattering away in English, and then when there are finer points to be discussed, such as how she really wants to remove both his eyeballs with a blunt spoon, it morphs into Frog.

I suppose there are some things better said in that language. Mind you, she does the same with her Parisian cousins, so I suppose we shouldn't take it personally.

Whatever, I made clafouti for dessert. Two clafoutis in fact, one with cherries as God and the Auvergnats intended, and one with apricots, as the Bimler family prefers. You really would think that two of the suckers, for four, would be enough to ensure some left-overs, wouldn't you? Wrong, I'm afraid. Jerry needed a midnight feast, Malyon didn't want to miss out ...

So anyway, Friday was a lovely day, bright and sunny, and I had really high hopes, honestly ... so of course on Saturday it started pissing down, and as Mal and I went round the market the best thing I can say was that it wasn't actually sleeting on us. But it was cold, and wet, and dismal: which made a quick trip to the warmth of Le Refuge kind of attractive.

Unfortunately the execrable Pierre seems to have read Beckham's rough drafts because he appeared to have no desire to either sleep with, nor offer free wine, to anyone younger than his rather shoddy boots: a population which appears to include both Mal and I. Damn.

And Beckham was up in Paris, which meant that she couldn't even bat her eyelashes at him (yeah, I know, there's probably an app for that if you have the right sort of phone, but apparently I don't) and melt a little spot in his flinty bartender heart. Assuming him to have one, of course. (Of course he has a heart. Pickled, in a jar on a shelf behind the bar.)

But things got better eventually - as they tend to, after a glass or two - and as we headed off to Geneva to pick up Tony the sky started to clear ... of course there was a mad jam at the airport, but being Swiss everyone was respecting the five-minute pickup rule so we blithely swiped a parking space and waited until les douanes decided that a sporran was probably not an offensive weapon.

So what with the whisky Saturday evening just seemed to drift away and to hell with the rain - and I have to say that this Christmas day was one of the most beautiful I can remember. Marred only by a hard frost, but that had vanished by the time I got around to dragging the barbecue out from its lurking-place in the cellar and chopping a bit of wood.

Yeah, I butterflied the leg of lamb and that went on the barbecue (I really do think that'll be the last of the year, mind you) whilst the potatoes crisped in the duck fat in the oven and the ratatouille simmered and the pita bread warmed up before getting chopped tomato and mint and goat cheese ladled all over: luckily, for we were kind of hungry by this time, our mad friend Karen had brought nibbles.

This being France, this often - and in our specific case, definitely - means a pain surprise, which is an enormous loaf of bread cut open, the mie removed and turned into sandwiches, which are then stuffed back inside and the lid put back on. Quality is variable, and to my mind it still doesn't beat a decent mess of club sandwiches, but we're slowly educating the poor things.

Now Karen also does a pretty mean caviar dip, which is just philly cream cheese beaten up with sour cream and chopped hard-boiled eggs and lump-fish roe and had also, in a fit of doubtless misguided enthusiasm, made some gougères (which are, to be honest, nowt more than cheese puffs). Do you know how good those suckers are when stuffed with caviar dip? Thought not.

By the time we got to that point Bryan turned up bearing bottles, just as well as we would otherwise have had to go on to the reserve tanks of wine in the cellar, the white having more or less run out. Not as though we were in grave danger of dying of thirst, but still ... can never be too careful.

Should probably point out that this was, despite us all being anglophones, a French Christmas lunch: we start getting serious around 14:00. Anything earlier and you're just toying with your food. Mind you, there's plenty to be toyed with, if you're that way inclined.

I'd just like to mention that we were remarkably restrained. No snails, no smoked salmon, no oysters, no foie gras, and no pestilential poulet de Bresse swimming in its own fat.

Come to that, we even passed on the bloody buche de Noel, that splendidly multi-coloured ice-cream log. Although Jeremy insisted on having marrons glacés, which are basically large lumps of vaguely chestnut-flavoured sugar. And there was pavlova.

Made a pleasant change, truth to tell, from the usual Christmas masses of food, with tables groaning and the sideboard buckling under the weight. I really cannot handle that any more. I know I say that every year, but it's true. I'd much rather something lightweight these days.

Still, although we ate with - for us - great moderation, I have to admit that come the evening we were still more or less grazing, and there was no great enthusiasm for dinner. Hardly a surprise, really.

I know it's wrong of me, and I'm sure to be disappointed, soon enough, but I really do find it difficult to believe that Spring is not just around the corner. The shortest day of the year has been and gone, the sky is blue and brilliant and not only is it warm enough for the barbecue, it's warm enough to be out there tending to it in a t-shirt. (Well, provided you stay in the sun, anyway.)

It's great for us - keeps the heating bills down, a good thing given the price of fuel oil these days - but it must be pretty bad up in the ski stations. The Dutch and the Parisians have descended upon us bu they're going to have to find something else to do with their time, because I'm not sure that the skiing will be all that good.

Oh yeah, there was a good fall last weekend - heavy enough that you could not, in fact, go skiing - but there can't be that much left. Or if there is, it'll be stuff from the snow cannons, and that's not really the same.

So we're slowly winding down, munching on left-over canapés and about all I can face this evening is perhaps a little blackberry and apple strudel. Still have to get in training for New Year, mind you - but I think that too will be a quiet affair, especially as I have to drop Mal and Tony off at Geneva at some unearthly hour.

And right now, I am still waiting for all those pestilential freetards to get off the intartoobz so that I can download the latest Doctor Who Christmas special.

Anyway, a late Merry Christmas and an early Happy New Year to the lot of you.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Grinch(eux) ...

Well, winter arrived all of a sudden. Got that wood stacked (thanks, Jerry) and, incidentally, regretted it bitterly for the next couple of days: the base of the spine and my legs felt as if some large uncouth animal had been walking all over them. Unaccustomed effort, I admit. Still, just as well it's done and over with, for it started to rain early Monday morning, and I'm not sure it's actually stopped since.

Of course we were arriving at the end of our carefully constructed Pile when Jeremy placed two more logs on top and the whole thing collapsed into an unorganised heap before our eyes. Shit, apparently, happens.

Still bugger all snow, and what there was has mostly disappeared under the rain, but they're promising a severe drop in temperature and heavy snow for Sunday. Just my luck, I have to head off and pick Malyon up at Geneva that day.

And of course, just to make it all peachy, we're going through - or rather under - the arse-end of the storm that traversed Britain, crossed the Channel (with no respect at all for border formalities) into Britanny (where at least they're used to rain ) and then headed for Paris, at which point it was supposed to peter out. Typical optimism, it was still doing just fine when it got here on Friday and dumped god knows how many cm of water on us.

(Incidentally, I have since learnt that the Scots, who are noted for their elegant turn of phrase, called it - thanks to its appearance on the satellite images - "Hurricane Bawbag". Better, no doubt, than "Scrotum Storm", but not by much.)

Now we know more or less how many people we'll be having over for Christmas lunch, we really need to start planning that. Can't get pintade for love nor money (well not quite true, can get it for money, lots of it) so we're tending towards a simple roast or barbecued leg of lamb with all the trimmings (and a huge ratatouille so that poor Tony won't actually starve in the midst of plenty) followed by apfelstrudel and whatever other rich sticky things take my fancy. I suppose you lot are all planning a picnic on the beach?

There's also the vexed question of Christmas decorations: personally I could quite happily consign them to the bottom-most pits of hell, but Malyon is not of the same opinion. But I'm afraid that if she wants The Tree, she can bloody well get it out of its box and decorate it herself. Come to that, both she and Jeremy will probably want their Christmas stockings.

Anyway, as usual I went off to do the shopping, and let me just say that you might feel that it's kind of romantic to go around the open market with great soft flakes of snow falling from the leaden sky, but you're totally wrong. The reality is that it's cold, and wet, and it's always just as you're trying to fish your wallet out to pay that the canvas awning over the market stand chooses that moment to empty its load of cold sleet down the back of your neck.

(Although even I have to admit that the warm lights from the shop windows, glinting off the slick gleaming cobblestones, are kind of pretty.)

And don't get me onto the topic of those old hags with the scythe-hubbed shopping trolleys and the umbrellas, which they hold at just the right height to take your eyes out if you walk uncautiously past.

Luckily, although obviously enough they're not serving out on the terrasse at this time of year, le Refuge is still open, so the gang of three met up to down a bit of anti-freeze. Beckham, as usual, was late - which meant we had to pay full price for our drinks - but being made of stern stuff we resolutely attacked the bowls of nibbles that arrived with the glasses. (Bryan's philosophy is that one should always get on the good side of at least one waitress. And if, for some reason, you cannot actually sleep with them, at least make it clear that you'd like to do so. This seems to work wonders, although I cannot personally vouch for it.)

The conversation turned, as it will sometimes, to various stupidities we've committed and thence to books like "A Year in the Merde", which celebrate them - which led, in turn, to my confessing to my continuing confusion with the French language. (Not to mention a sad tendency to alliteration.) And as Bryan said, anyone can write a book about the problems of communicating with a plumber in Paris: the bewilderment that ensues when both parties to a conversation are certain that they've understood when in fact it's the complete opposite is something else again.

So I am going to sue the arse off Bryan, should ever he go through with his threats to use my solecisms and travail with the French language as the basis for a book. I have evidence of prior publication, for gods sake! Perhaps I should wait until it becomes a major motion picture, perhaps with Meryl Streep, and there's the prospect of some money in it.

But then he excused himself to go off and have lunch with his clients that pay him to do this and speak English at them - a good job if you can get it, I think - and as our glasses were not yet empty Beckham confided what she wanted to do. Two things, actually: the first, not actually a bad idea, is to open a second-hand English-language bookshop and café, sort of place where one can wander in, get a book and curl up in a comfy chair with coffee and crumpet for a good read. I can see that working, given the right location.

The second idea, which she will go ahead with anyway out of spite, is to write a book provisionally titled "Why I Hate the French And Other Philosophical Essays: Never Sleep with Anyone Younger Than Your Boots". There'd be a market for that, although given the sheer quantity of material she might have to turn it into a trilogy.

And then, just as we were getting ready to go, the execrable Pierre hovered over to our table and served us a round on the house, which I suppose just goes to show that there's some good buried at the bottom of even the vilest amongst us. Or possibly just that Beckham has really nice blue eyes and no hesitation about batting them.

Whatever, that slowed us down a bit, and the sleet had turned to real snow by the time I got back to the car and headed off to have quiche and salad with Stacey. Who at least has a rolling-pin, which avoids getting flour all over a wine bottle. On the other hand her stove-top is high-tech and glows red, and the knobs are kind of counter-intuitive and apparently coded in Braille, and in any case it doesn't actually do what I want to, and is ratshit for gently stewing shallots.

And much to my disgust it was actually snowing when I left the house this morning to head bravely off to Geneva to pick up Malyon. And yes, I was indeed the only one stirring, although to judge from the wreckage in the sink Jeremy had already been up, scarfed a packet of chocolate-coated sugar bomb cereal and whatever bread was left in the house, and then headed back to bed.

Only a few anxious moments between Annecy and Geneva, happily - I really do hate that feeling when the tires start to slide at 130 kph - and when I did get there it was bright and sunny: unusual for a city which has always, in my experience, been gray and overcast. Dour old Calvin.

Still, it's possibly better down here than up in the stations: poor Sophie took Sév off to les Menuires as her birthday present, and so far, apparently, it's been wind, rain, snow-storms and bitter cold. Not the best weather for skiing.

So all things considered, I'm quite happy to be here, warm and comfortable, watching the big fat flakes drift down.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Les Deux Langues Qui Nous Separent ...

More idle musings on the pleasant confusions of language - the fruit, as usual, of my efforts to understand my good friend Sophie. (And, of course, vice versa. Miscommunication is a two-way street.) You'd think, after 25 years or so, that wouldn't be too difficult, but sadly, no.

Just for background, we swap a text each evening: just to say how was your day, and goodnight. Something that we got into when she was really depressed at the start of the separation, and it just kept on going. I forgot once - just once! - a couple of months back, and I won't tell you about the grief I got for that.

Were we married, it'd have been cause for divorce, apparently. Whatever, we're both quite capable of writing English, but according to that immutable law, it's always in French ...

As native English-speakers, I'd guess that should someone tell you of their "pensées bleues" (lit. "blue thoughts") you'd assume, as I did, that they were feeling down or depressed. Luckily - for this has happened before - I checked: just as well for it turns out that it means more or less the exact opposite. (Note: just tested that idea on an Australian. Supposedly English-speakers. Word association? Blue movie. Erotic. OK, I could live with that.)

It's a play on words: a pensée bleue just happens to be a blue pansy as well, which in the language of flowers (according to the French gardening catalogue I found on the interthingies, anyway) symbolises remembrance, friendship and love. So in fact it means a fond thought of a friend or loved one. Not, I think, immediately apparent.

But I was half expecting something like that, for being of a literary bent this is not the first time she's done it. I had to apologise endlessly for the flippant reply I gave not so long ago when she wrote of our "amitié linéare" (and no, I'm not going to say exactly what it was, suffice it to say that it involved a corkscrew): of course, she was using "linear" in the more mathematical sense of "constant", and was quite hurt by my levity.

Is it any wonder I get confused sometimes?

And along the same lines, I'm toying with the idea of changing the name of the blog - I rather fancy "The Skinny and the Hurted Ass Man". Which would also be an awesome name for a band. Check it out here. (Warning: may be unsuitable for children, the easily offended and the simple-minded. Just saying.)

So true to form, it's started pissing down, which'll please people up in the ski stations no end because they'll finally be able to turn off the snow cannons and hope for something a bit more than a 5cm cover on the slopes. But I've kind of forgotten what rain's like, and I'm pretty sure I don't actually like it. Still, I suppose it'll clean out the stream bed a bit - which is in fact a bit of a shame; it was quite pretty down there with all the dead leaves.

Still, when you think that we're coming rapidly up to the shortest day of the year, we've still had no snow down here and sod-all to speak of higher up, and the temperatures continue to hover around 10-12°, we can't really complain. With any luck we'll go directly from autumn to spring.

Trying to organise French nationality for Jeremy: like Malyon he has the right to it on becoming major, but it does make things easier if he gets his ID card now. Travelling around becomes simpler, and it also means he'll be able to sit his final exams without unnecessary hassle. He will also have to do his "journée de service nationale" and learn about the interesting careers available in the army, but I think he'll be able to cope with that.

So anyway I went off to the Palais de Justice to find out what they required: copy of birth certificate, certificats de scolarité to prove that he has been in school (and thus in France) for the last five years, livret de famille (we're bloody foreigners for godssake, don't have one of them, get over it), a couple of ID photos and a power bill (which apparently proves that we are who we say we are).

Fine, cue a trip to the mairie at Chambéry for the birth certificate, a few phone calls to various schools, and a quick visit to the photo shop, assemble everything in a neat little plastic folder and back to the Palais de Justice: to discover that you cannot become French on a Wednesday, because the appropriate office is closed. Why? Because this is provincial France, I suppose. Or because the bureaucrats take Wednesdays off so that they don't have to call in aunt Odile to babysit. Or because they think it stands a fair chance of annoying me (right on that one). Or whatever.

Products whose names you can't believe: OK, if you read the fine print the "Sexy Cherry" has ginseng extract in it, which I suppose is some sort of excuse (further down, in even finer print, you will learn that the coloring agent is carrot juice, which is rather less sexy, at least for me), but why anyone would think that "Bint" was a good name for a greenish bottle of apple and cherry juice is quite beyond me. I bring it to your notice, that's all.

Mal got in touch a few days back: she and Tony had planned on spending Christmas in the wilds of Scotland or something with Tony's family but apparently that's gone titsup (I vaguely heard something about a caravan on a blasted heath, which I admit did not sound promising) so it seems they'll be turning up over here instead. Hope she remembers to bring some decent whisky.

Anyway, Christmas will be a quiet affair in these parts: us, of course (for we are privileged to have Jeremy's company, before he slopes off to Geneva or somewhere for New Year with friends), doubtless Bryan, probably Stacey, and maybe our mad friend Karen. I am not allowed to be too creative in the food department, for Margo wants something traditional with no flights of fancy: given today's weather it's quite possible that we'll be having lamb on the barbecue.

And with the festive season coming up on us things are, as usual, getting hellish in town. Goodwill to all men is all very well in the abstract, but it's extremely difficult to avoid Grinch syndrome when you can't find a bloody car park for love nor money. I got into the market a bit later than usual yesterday (beds can be so attractive and clingy on a weekend morning) and spent 15 minutes driving around in the underground car park beneath the chateau; just as I was getting ready to call it a day and head out in search of somewhere less congested I finally came across a slot and pounced on it.

Well and good, so I headed off and did my business without serious injury to any third parties, loaded everything into the van and set out to park over behind Curial, as a prelude to the Saturday libations. Not, as it turned out, one of my better ideas. After another half hour going round in ever-decreasing circles I finally gave up on the idea, and headed back to the chateau. Which was pretty much a waste of half an hour's drinking time, not good.

Especially as Beckham made the executive decision that we had better things to do with our time than drink (can you even believe that?) and insisted on wandering through the little marché de Noël to look for presents to send back to the States, a vin chaud (mulled wine is not my thing), and a crippled tree for her apartment. One out of three is, I suppose, acceptable, although not great.

This week's top search terms:
  • greek sunday table
  • disturbed hell
  • vegetable rape our women
  • what would happen if you put mashed potatoes in a gas tank

Never ceases to amaze me, the questions people will put to Google. And why is anyone even contemplating potato purée in a gas tank? Maybe some would-be terrorist, trying to find ecologically-friendly ways of immobilizing an armoured car? Or an eight year-old, with a six year-old's sense of humour?

Whatever, Stéphane the neighbour has just turned up and, quite literally, dumped four stères of wood off at the top of the path: Jeremy and I now have to move and stack four cubic metres of wood down in the courtyard. Probably a good thing too, as - difficult though it is to believe on such a glorious day - the bloody party-poopers at Méteo France are promising us snow down here on Thursday, and a high of 2°. So we really ought to go and do that right now.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

To Market, To Market ...

Jambon sec du pays
So, how are things with you lot? Over here in our little corner of Ole Yurrup we is sufferingly mightily from an excess of sun and high temperatures, and no snow. Or at least, we're supposed to be suffering, apparently: personally I'd be more than happy if the current weather continued for another couple of months, until Spring arrives. Certainly keep the heating bills down. So far we've had all of two frosty mornings, which must be a record for a month of November.

The cheese platter
And amongst the many positive things to be said for an absence of snow is, quite simply, that it will mean an absence of Parisians. The English can no longer afford to come over and swan around on the slopes any more (and in any case they were never really a problem, as in the vast majority of cases they fly over and then take the bus or the train up to the stations) and if, to boot there's no white stuff on the ground there's really no point to even the most die-hard Parisian ski-bunny coming down this way to clog our roads, steal our jobs and, for all I know, rape our women.

The only downside, really, is that Chambéry is situated, like Grenoble, in a sort of bowel bowl inbetween various mountain ranges and massifs: normally there's a constant flow of air from north or south which shifts things around but for the last two weeks all has been still and so the dump is smothered under a yellowish haze of pollution, trapped under some sort of thermocline or whatever it's called.

So for those same past two weeks there's been a mandatory lowering of the speed limits all over the place by 20kph, which means toddling along on the VRU at all of 70k. Which, were I foolish enough to respect them, would add another 20 minutes or so onto my travel time every day, definitely not a pleasing prospect.

Of course, there's this Greek meteorological phenomenon called hubris, or something like that, which I suppose goes some way towards explaining why it was that, having written all about this marvellous weather, today dawned gray and drizzly. But not cold, and no sign of snow (except for a fine dusting up on the Belledonnes), and at least it wasn't actually raining as such as I trudged around the market, trying to avoid the joculators, mime artists and the old hags with shopping trolleys weaving precariously behind them.

Probably, paella royale
In fact it was even clear enough for Bryan and I to sip a few vitamins out on the place behind the hotel de ville as we watched the lacher des ballons for Telethon, hoping all the while that some small child would get entangled in the strings and be carried heavenwards, screaming helplessly under a flight of yellow and purple balloons. Alas, it was not to be. One of those days.

Of course I had to go past le Modesto and I'm afraid that the flesh is indeed weak for the smell of their ever-simmering dish of diots au vin blanc tempted me: so much so that I went off and bought a couple of diots at the market, en route for le Refuge. Which was kind of silly really, because the only person that will eat them around here is me, and even with the best will in the world I cannot stick away four of the things in a sitting.

Great Cthullu: bad hair day
Not really the sort of thing that appeals to Sophie either, and anyway she's up in Paris for the weekend, but luckily Stacey was at home, had no plans, and loves 100% pork sausages, especially when browned and then simmered in white wine with onions, rosemary and thyme, and potatoes. Problem solved.

(On the other hand, octopus really does not turn me on. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but with the notable exceptions of scallops and lobster I really do prefer my meat to have bones in it.)

And as luck would have it, I just happened to have a wee baby rougette and a beautiful crunchy baguette in the car (you can tell the boulangerie is good, the queue to get in goes around the corner and the carparks just in front are a clear and present danger) which, along with the wine (for not even I use a whole bottle for the diots) makes for a pretty good lunch.

In another couple of weeks the market, at least, should return to a semblance of normality once people have stopped coming just to gawk. It's a bit of a shame in a way because even though the old building was admittedly grot, at least the entire ground floor was there for the aisles of stands and wotnot, with even - if you were determined and had muscular elbows - room to move around.

In the new old building - for they've kept the grot façade, pointless exercise 'cos that was probably the ugliest bit - there's only about a quarter of the space available, the rest having been dished out to places like H&M and the FNAC. Now why they couldn't have stuck those on the upper floors, with escalators all over the place, and left the rest of the place to the market - which is, as they love to point out, open 5 days a week so it's not even as though the space is wasted - I will probably never know. Because I'm not an architect, nor a town planner. Happily.

Mean-looking dead fish. Possibly daurade.
Whatever, although I admit I am not blessed with great patience I do in fact have spiteful bony elbows and no shame (yes, I can in fact turn around, having poked someone sharply in the organs, and say "oh sorry" in an accusing tone so that they apologize) which means that navigating around the place, once I've worked out where I want to go, is not overly difficult.

So that in a little while, once I've discovered where everyone is these days (still haven't found the cheesemonger who does the batusson, hope he didn't get lost in the move), things will be good. Until, of course, the snow finally arrives, because now half the stands are outside, exposed to the elements. And believe me, trying to get small change out of your pockets when you've got gloves on is a breeze compared to trying the same act and at the same time trying to balance an umbrella over your head in a Siberian wind blowing sleet horizontally.

Zombie lobsters, wanting dead fish BRANES!
Anyway, we're not there yet, and I came upon the mushroom man again, and as the shitake looked so tempting I wound up staggering off with half a kilo. They could go into a Chinese-style mushroom stew, with oyster sauce and all, but I rather think they're destined for a mushroom and bacon strudel, seeing as there's a packet of filo in the fridge.

At which point, as I'll have the oven on anyway, and the filo already out, a pear pastis would seem to be called for. Which is tonight's dinner taken care of, at least.

Or so I thought, until Beckham - who'd been conspicuously absent from our midday libations - texted to invite us over for her 30th birthday party: the idea being, I suppose, to get the old folk tanked up and then pack them off home for their bedtime cocoa whilst she and the yoof celebrated in style.

Bloody Corsican clementines
So we left poor Jeremy to his own devices, and the mushrooms sitting sadly in the fridge for another day, grabbed a bottle and a few leftovers to nibble on, and headed back to Chambéry for the evening's entertainment.

It's a funny thing, but for some strange reason if you get a group of, let's say, thirty people, all of whom speak English and with maybe two or three native French-speakers in there, pretty soon everyone will be speaking French. Out of consideration? Don't know, and I rather doubt it, for the converse is definitely not true.

I think it's maybe some sort of stealthy cultural imperialism, with the poor oppressed French sneakily getting the anglo-saxon invaders to speak an obviously superior tongue.

Pooey, so good!
Whatever, it was a good old-fashioned student-style party, with the whole crowd of us crammed into Beckham's ridiculously small bedroom, drinking out of plastic cups and jamjars and leaving cracker crumbs in the sheets. And luckily she has a little balcony, so that the smoking contingent was not obliged to take the creaking old lift seven floors down to the street to stand in the drizzle for a quick nicotine fix.

(Actually, I cannot for the life of me think why that lift is so damn small. You could possibly squeeze three people - close friends - in there at a time, but there's no way you could use it to shift any furniture bigger than a hat-stand. This fact alone may go some way to explaining why the French apartment-dwellers tend not to shift out once they've finally got their stuff in there. Also, perhaps, why when they are forced to move, they go about it seriously, with a sort of fire-engine style truck coming along with an enormous bloody telescopic ladder. Still a bitch getting the furniture out the windows, I guess.)

Tomme des Bauges
But I digress. Sadly we're not really in training for that sort of thing anymore, so we only spent four hours or so remaking the world and making sure all the bottles really were empty before persuading the car to take us back home.

And now, I'm afraid, it's a dismal gray Sunday, with a ghostly silver light coming through the clouds down south behind Grenoble, and quite literally overnight all the leaves seem to have fallen off the trees. Which probably means that I should go down to the garden with a rake, but quite frankly I can't be arsed.

Come to that, there's all sorts of things I really should be doing, but somehow it's not really the right day to be doing them. I do dislike Sundays.

You know this is honey, right?
Maybe I'll just go find a good book and curl up in the comfy chair with it and a coffee, before going off and contemplating those mushrooms ... or perhaps I should go and do some baking. Or both.

(Just in case you wondered, all the photos are from Saturday's market, taken with the faithful 35mm lens 'cos neither of the zooms will let me get in close enough when I want to. Also the lighting is kinda random - being a mix of neons, halogen spots, incandescents and, should the stall-holder feel like it, tallow candles or oil lamps - which makes getting the white balance right a bit of a hit-or-miss affair. So up to four or five shots to get one that's not tinted red, or blue, or too flat ... thank god for digital cameras, I say.)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

I Am Curious (Not Yellow) ...

I have never really understood just why it should be that some people seem perpetually surprised that I can actually cook. That they should be stunned that I can get out of bed without falling over, or tie my own shoelaces without adult supervision: now that I can comprehend, given that I show few signs of competence in either area, but cooking? I suppose, looked at one way, it's sort of flattering ... mind you, looking at it that way does require you to believe that men are completely useless in the kitchen too, thereby permitting surprise at the discovery that one can cook at all, let alone do it well.

You'd think Sophie would know better - we've known each other for years, and I've made her godnose how many lunches - but still on Saturday she had a look on her face like a stunned mullet (which does not come naturally to her, but is actually a pretty neat trick if you can pull it off; must be handy for childrens' parties) as I made up some bastard puff pastry in her totally impractical (but admittedly well-lit) kitchen. OK, it is a bit of a feat in itself I admit, given that her total unencumbered bench space must be about 10cm² and I had to use a wine bottle instead of a rolling pin (yes, I bring my own gear when I cook, but I refuse to take an entire suitcase full just in case something's missing), but she's seen me do that sort of thing before.

And yet, each time, there's this look of dawning amazement and pride, as though some well-loved but particularly stupid pet has managed to do something clever and not involving bowel motions. I taxed her with this, and she said that she actually likes to watch me work; "j'aime te regarder travailler; tu fais des beaux gestes". I'm not entirely sure that I believe that, but I suppose that I should: it's better than the alternatives.

Whatever, it's not all pleasure at these lunches, you know. Yes, we get to eat, but there's the critique raisonnnée during and afterwards as well, and you are expected to be able to work out what exactly went into the plate - all part of the game. So the next time I try those scallops - and there will be a next time - I rather think I'll be sticking some badiane and cinnamon sticks into the spice blender, and adding a subtle dose to the orange juice. (Lord knows what I'll do with the rest. Make up some more confit de canard, I suppose.) And the sesame oil, instead of soy sauce, definitely stays.

But no bright red blobs of hot pepper jelly, I promise. (I do have this tendency to man-with-hammer syndrome, I admit. Everything looks like a nail. The culinary equivalent is to think that a dish is going to be improved by adding some of whatever you have available to it, which turns out to be not necessarily the case.)

This weekend - or at least Saturday night - will be busy: Stacey's trying to organise a Thanksgiving dinner and we also have the combined 90th birthday party for Sophie & Séverine. And on top of that our mad friend Karen is turning up for the day to do things with Margo, maybe involving learning how to use a sewing machine.

So the current plan is that we get ourselves tarted up (insofar as possible, in my case anyway: the theme is "chic et sexy"), then I get dropped off at Stacey's to help with the cooking because as a non-carnivore she's unsure as to exactly when meat is actually cooked and is all too-likely to leave it roasting for three hours, whilst Margo drops Karen back at the train station before returning, whereupon we eat, then run to Sophie's to catch the arse-end of the party.

Preferably bearing finger-food, which means that I will be spending tomorrow afternoon making up club sandwiches, which for some reason the French adore. Salmon and cucumber, ham with goat cheese and mustard and sour cream, chicken with smashed curried eggs - and I may, just out of a spirit of bloody-mindedness, stick in some with mashed banana and honey with dates; I'm sure someone will eat them.

Completely unrelated to anything: random Google search terms that lead to this blog apparently include "battery operated cucumbers". OK, it's my fault I suppose because I did in fact use the phrase at one point, but - umm - people search for this? Vegetable vibrator technology? The mind boggles.

Much, much later ... so the market was a right arse; they've finally finished refurbishing les halles, the old Stalinist-style market building (and don't ask me why they bothered, they could have just torn the dump down and put up something decent, not as though it had any redeeming architectural merit but there you go) and so I had to go and find out where everyone is all over again and on top of that, it being the first day, world + dog were there just to have a look and getting in the way of serious people trying to get their shopping done.

And for some reason, there was no rougette, which is a serious offence, and we're once again reduced to broccoli and brussels sprouts in the vegetable department. Good healthy stuff, certainly, but a solid diet of brassica can get boring after a while.

I don't think that you can really claim to have seen a proper party until you've seen a French one. Or heard one, come to that. Often karaoke will be committed, and they do love dancing. And not just flinging yerself around in some sort of Brownian motion, proper stuff with moves and everything. And of course there's enough food to support an African village for a year, and sufficient wine to drown a horse.

So we turned up at Stacey's, as planned, and while she was organising almond-chocolate caramel I got put in charge of roasting some pears and red onions in sherry vinegar with rosemary before moving on to the filet mignon de porc, flambé with whisky and finished off with sour cream and whole-grain mustard sauce. With beans and bacon, and an enormous (and delicious) mess of mashed potatoes drowning in butter and paprika, cooked for an hour in the oven.

Not really traditional Thanksgiving fare (if you don't think to order ahead, turkeys are difficult to find around here at this time of year - they come on tap for Christmas), but definitely good. And thank heavens we avoided the bloody pumpkin pie, something I've always dreaded because it seems to be about 90% sugar. Stacey had very thoughtfully made an apple crisp instead, and someone (hats off to that person) had brought along a proper carrot cake with real icing.

But we missed out on coffee, as time was getting on and we still had to head off to Séverine's place, somewhere out in the wops behind les Marches, for this party. Which we duly did, turning up - a wee bit late, I admit - to find that Renaud had organised a band (he's one of nature's drummers) with all the trimmings, which meant that the affair was even louder than usual.

To do this sort of thing properly, you have to cram about 40 people into a 30m² room, a good percentage of which is already occupied by the sound system, drum kit and guitar stands: then you put food onto every available flat surface, distribute bottles and Chateau Carton at strategic locations around the place, turn the lights down and put the volume knob at 11. The people take it from there.

As Margo remarked, it's quite alien. It's been a long time, I admit, since I last went to a birthday party in New Zealand, but still I doubt that there is actually organised, choreographed singing at the guest of honour. Over here, yes. It still feels odd - maybe I just don't get out enough.

Anyway, we weren't allowed to leave until the cakes had been cut and distributed which means it was something like 2:30 when we made it back home, and I for one am feeling just a little bit jaded. Goodnight, all.