Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tis the Season, So It Seems ...

... for udder implants (don't ask), laser beams, Barbies in compromising positions, and shapeless stuffed animals.

Yeah, it's the season for brocante and braderie de printemps and godnose what else, when sad-faced little children are whipped down to the market-place and sit there with folding tables covered with half-eaten Barbies, Transformers with half the bits missing so that Optimus Prime can't even give a Decepticon a Chinese burn,  plastic bags of chewed Lego blocks, a few spare tyres and a 1960's Garrard stereo until they learn one of the basic principles of economics, which is that if no-one wants it, they're not going to pay very much for it. It usually ends in tears, in my admittedly limited experience. And very few of them go on to learn about the miracles of arbitrage ...

Sad too for the parents, especially those who've had the misfortune to have had three kids in, let's say, the space of eight years, and consequently get what must feel like a life sentence of going off to the things, once the first brat has reached the age of ten. Mind you, at least they always have the solace of alcohol.

We went around this morning, before the rush and the rain forecast for the afternoon: of course the professional brocanteurs had scoured the place for anything worthwhile and under-priced hours before, but that's not really the point. There was a decent meat cleaver that took my fancy, but the handle was a bit loose and the wood was a bit split around the blade: not the most hygienic and you certainly don't want half a kilo of steel flying around without warning. Shame, it was a nice blade. (Not, I admit, pretty - basically a big slab of steel, obviously forged by someone with only limited equipment and a tenuous concept of plane surfaces. But heavy, and a good edge.)

Margo was more successful, scoring - drum-roll, please! - a spinning wheel. For €25 instead of €30, by the simple expedient of lying and saying that that was all she had on her, rather than owning up to the presence of two €20 notes. Didn't even have to haggle.

Now our neighbour, young Stéphane, has a Cunning Plan to own all of St. Pierre before he reaches fifty, and then retire to a life of luxury on the rental income. Not a bad idea, really. But for it to work he needs to buy even more properties, so when Jerry mentioned in passing whilst emptying the concrete mixer or whatever that we were planning on leaving, Stéphane's ears pricked up.

And as it happens he has a child-hood friend who is an estate valuer, and he was keen enough to ask if it would be alright if he spoke to her about getting a valuation done ... I must admit that if we could arrange things like that it would be extremely convenient for all concerned. Might even accelerate things a bit, although I suspect we'll still stay in our initial time-frame.

Given that we have to find somewhere, take legal advice on the best way to set things up, crawl to a bank about a loan, stuff like that. In between trying to set up a business plan (one that does not involve fluffy rabbits or the Underwear Gnomes as part two of the three-part plan, parts one and three being, respectively, "Start a gite" and "Roll in the cash"), put out feelers in the States and elsewhere to take the temperature for tours, all those boring things.

As I said before, we've been studiously going through various property sites looking for something that takes our fancy: the good news is that there are quite a few at very reasonable prices. If we go a bit further west than we'd originally planned, could even buy an established place (yes, with a swimming pool: that's more or less obligatoire these days) and have it going for not even half a million. (It's just a number, remember? Nothing scary about it.)

Whatever, as I was wandering amongst the strawberries and the salades and all the rest of the lovely spring fruit and vegetables at the market I came across these tiny asperges sauvages.

Too pretty to let pass, you must admit, even if they were going at something like €40 the kilo - luckily you don't need too many. In fact, I was sufficiently overcome to pick up some epinards as well: not something I usually do, but that's another meal ...

So anyway I was feeling a bit weak after all that but nothing a brief stop at l'Arbre à Bières couldn't put right, after which it seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea to stop off at Stacey's on the way home, given that Beckham was in Tignes, Brian apparently working in Aix, Sophie otherwise occupied and covered in paint (don't ask, I'm sure it'll come off in the wash), and make lunch.

Luckily she had eggs, and a half-used pot of cream that had not yet actually turned greenish, and butter: unfortunately her only non-stick frying pan is crap and the base is warped outrageously, which makes cooking with the damn thing on her frikkin' radiant stove-top a right pain.

Still, I eventually convinced the water to come to the boil with sugar and butter, and stuck the asparagus in until tender and everything else had reduced to a buttery glaze.

Fish that lot out and grate some cheese: add more butter to the pan, swirl it around and sprinkle the cheese on top, then pour the eggs and cream over and let that cook gently.

(The omelette is a bit of a bone of contention around here. Margo likes hers fried until crisp: I, like all right-minded people, cook them just until soft and creamy. You see what I have to live with?)

Be that as it may, put the asparagus on one half, flip the other half over to cover and slide the whole thing onto a warm plate: can't be beat, with good bread and a salade Sophie on the side.

As for that spinach, it just got chopped finely that night and cooked briefly with a slosh of cream and a bit of gros sel: a perfect bed for a couple of pavés de saumon, with more asparagus. I do so like spring. Especially as the apricots and nectarines are just starting.

One thing, luckily, I did not get a photo of: Stacey's tabby cat having sex with my jacket. Godnose why she does it, but she seems to have this urge to leap on it, subdue it, bite the armpits and then, when it's quietened down, she goes to sleep on it. Kind of odd. And yes, I do shower regularly, so it's not that.

For those of you who wonder about such things, Malyon's finished her final exams and is, I assume, passing her time in drunken dissipation. In common with just about everyone else in Glasgow.  All the time, they don't really seem to need an excuse. On the other hand she did make noises about how it'd be good if one of us could turn up for her graduation; as Margo is going to be very busy organising for the next salon in the Aveyron (to which I'm supposed to be going, mainly to look at interesting possibilities) that person might turn out to be me.

Fly over on Monday, be there Tuesday (not sure I'll be at the actual ceremony, she gets one ticket for Tony and spares are allocated by lottery), fly back Wednesday. Still, not every day your daughter gets an honours degree.

Winding back to the weekend, as it started to clear up I took the time to wander around a bit and just happened to head down avenue de Boigne. Where, somewhat to my surprise, a new shop had opened up, selling beer. Not, in itself, unusual, I admit, but they were special beers (think bent old Belgian monks lovingly spooning hops into bottles, or however it is it's done) and on top of it, they had beer kits.

These can only recently have become legal in France, for I can still, rather blearily, recall that at one point Ian had to get them smuggled into the country in a diplomatic pouch, courtesy of Simon Upton.

WANTED: One White Persian Cat
I also found the time to wander into one of the little hole-in-the-wall electronics shops that seem to sprout everywhere around here (for some strange reason, there is not and never has been the Frog equivalent of Frys, or Circuit Valley) and picked up the cheapest case with power supply I could find.

Mounting motherboards is no problem - managed that with nary a screw left over (apart from the ones from the RS232 port, with which I decided not to bother) - but the right pain is trying to work out where the front-panel connectors need to go.

Still, trial and error is a time-honoured technique, and after swapping around the power and reset connectors so that the front-panel buttons worked as advertised, Jerry had a computer again. Next time, he can do it himself. Although as soon as he has enough cash, he wants to get himself an Alienware gaming laptop: that would be quite a lot of cash.

There's an old tradition around these parts (truth to tell, I'd thought it was more Swiss, but never let it be said that Savoyard peasantry would not stoop to stealing folkways - they'd steal anything else that wasn't actually nailed down, and even then your mileage may vary) of la bataille des reines. This is not chess, but the occasion for two cows to kick shit out of one another. Or so I assume, for I've never seen one, and am unlikely to head off to Chamousset across the valley to see the one that's promised for next weekend.

I've no idea what the rules are - if there are any - nor of the actual proceedings and any associated ceremonies, nor do I know what happens to the loser (although Margo did tell me that she'd eaten one of the winners from a Swiss contest - some years after the fight): I can imagine, however, that the radio commentary must be absolutely stunning.

Another long weekend - Pentecost or something - but as there is, proverbially, no rest for the wicked (for we have so much more to do than the virtuous, as they is lazy sods) and as Sophie is somewhere in Provence, Brian off gardening in Aix, and Beckham godnose where, I thought it might be a Good Idea to head down to the garden with 150m of extension cord and Sue's electric weedeater.

It wasn't. Of course I'd spent half an hour trying ot work out exactly how you're supposed to thread new nylon cord onto the thing (and got it right too, except that I wound it in the wrong direction 'cos there was no handy arrow anywhere), so it seems only natural that on getting down there it should work for five minutes before the motor overheated and decided to sulk, apparently permanently. Bugger!, with feeling.

On the bright side, that means it's still only 4pm, it's bright and sunny, and I have asparagus, strawberries and a whole salmon in the fridge with which to amuse myself. But before getting into that - and before the thunderheads roll over the valley from the Bauges behind us - I rather think I shall just check on the state of the white wine supplies. Temperature, things like that: you know.

And there's some bottles of 2004 chardonnay in there, better check it's still actually drinkable. Would not want to be disappointed.

Mind how you go, now. Have a nice winter.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Day's-Worth of Stuff (No Threadworms)

I did try the bread puddings again - with the pears: the general consensus around here was that they were a success. File that one away for the future.

And Jeremy has once again done his electropathic thing: his computer died, and wouldn't turn on again. I got him to bring it down, and I opened it up: I would swear that there were mushrooms growing out of the power supply. And the fan on the CPU cooler looked as though someone had crapped on it from a great height - all in all not a pretty sight.

So that was when the incident with the vacuum cleaner happened: I suggested to him that perhaps a quick cleaning would be in order before anything else (hell, I was not going to touch anything in there until I knew I was unlikely to come down with leprosy) and he thought that he'd just quickly do his bedroom before coming down ...

So then he came back downstairs to say that the vacuum cleaner didn't work anymore. Quite normal really, as on unplugging it from the wall he'd managed to break off one of the pins, which was still sitting happily in the socket. Whatever, once we'd got that sorted out we did the cleaning thing, and lo! the computer started up - for all of five seconds.

I've always found that being methodical in these cases does rather help, so unplug everything but the motherboard and try again: everything's good (apart from the fact the the machine beeps pitifully, for it has no hard drive from which to boot) so plug that in and try again. No luck, and at that point I suspected that his hard drive was fried, but just on the off-chance I plugged it into my computer, which is also old enough to have an IDE interface.

Rather to my amazement it worked, so I shall have to head off to an electronics shop somewhere and see if I can't pick up another power supply that'll fit into the (twelve year-old) case: might be cheaper just to grit my teeth and pick up a new case. Although that would mean trying to find the motherboard diagram so I can figure out which jumpers go where ... oh blast.

On the other hand, he's been nowhere near the central heating recently, so he's obviously not responsible for that having a hissy-fit. Actually turned off the heating on Sunday (which goes some way, I suppose, to explaining why, after three glorious days, the weather's turned sullen and chilly again) and on Monday morning Margo thoughtfully let me know that there probably wasn't much point in my taking a shower, given that I'm known not to be too keen on showering under ice-cubes.

It must have got temporarily confused somehow, for thankfully it decided to start producing hot water again that same evening: very welcome, I can assure you.

So anyway, Australian Sue (funny how all my female friends have names starting with "S". Sophie, Stacey the Valley Girl, Sue ... I rather doubt there's any deeper meaning in there though, just coincidence. Sorry. Although it does mean that they're conveniently grouped together in my phonebook.) has a small electric weedeater, and after a bit of faffing about in a vague but ultimately vain attempt to procrastinate I unrolled the 150m extension cord and took it down to the garden. Because, unusually, it turned out fine today: exceptional really for a public holiday.

I managed to clear from the gate to the apple tree in a sort of irregular blobby shape - yes, my arms do feel as though they want to fall off - but it became clear that I'd neglected one elementary precaution before starting: namely, checking how much cord there was on the bobbin. At the time of writing, none. And it being a public holiday, there's not that many places open where I could go and get some more.

Well, we'll put that off till Saturday - as long as it's not pissing down, which sadly seems not unlikely. Look, it's a start, alright?

A belated one, admittedly, because my plans for today did not really involve getting up at the crack of dawn and doing a bit of horticulture: they actually ran more along the lines of "08:00: wake up. Roll over, go back to sleep. 10:00: see above. Midday: breakfast? 14:00: mow lawn, or have a glass of white under the sun? 15:00: another glass?' and so on.

Best-layed plans of mice'n'men, stuff like that, of course it didn't happen. Jeremy woke up with all the subtlety of an elephant trumpeting its love, as is his wont, and headed off to places unknown, and then Margo's phone made its usual angry-hornet-with-vibrator noise to remind her that she needed to get up and go give some sewing classes, and not long after they'd both disappeared I thought, sleep being apparently no longer on the menu, that perhaps I'd better wander up to the village and see if I couldn't find a pain au chocolat aux amandes to eat with my morning coffee.

And then, having got the blood sugar up and the body more or less operational, one thing led to another, as it will, and I found myself wandering vaguely, camera in hand, along the little communales between Montmelian and Francin, upon which I'd never actually set foot before.

Judging by the number of little chateaux around the place there must have been some seriously rich families living (or spending summer there - that would be back in  the 1800s, before they drained Chambéry) out there at one time: I suppose there still are, because they look very well-maintained.

A number of them are now domaines - although godnose where they keep their vines, doubtless miles away up on the south-facing slopes of la Savoyarde like everyone else - but some seem to still be just family homes. If, that is, your idea of "family" consists of an elderly lady with impeccable, if somewhat antique, clothes, an improbable number of cats, ditto those wierd dogs shaped by evolution to look like slippers or toilet-brushes, and pots of money hidden under the mattress - or in Bermudan bank havens, more likely.

Perhaps not quite as moneyed as before, mind you, because the old tree-lined gravelled drives seem to have fallen into disuse. Or maybe there just aren't as many visitors with carriages as there used to be, and anyway one wouldn't like to draw attention to oneself.

Good, old-moneyed Catholics tend, I find, to be rather discreet.

So anyway, there being little point in trying just to bludgeon the paddock in to submission, I'm onto line three, option two of my careful and cunning Plan ie a glass of white. While there's still some sun; there are clouds up there of which I don't particularly like the look. Think "looming", probably portentously.

And I'm trying to think of something for dinner: unfortunately there's only mince, which is not one of the most inspiring things around. I do have - somewhere - a rather nice recipe for extremely spicy curried croquettes cooked on the barbecue but quite frankly I can't be arsed and anyway with my luck it'll start raining just as the embers get to operating temperature, but then again there's also pita bread in the pantry, salade and tomatoes and corn and sour cream and cheese and barbecue sauce and cucumber and mint and onion, so maybe it'll just be what Malyon used to insist on calling "dwarf bread", ie pita bread stuffed with everything else on the list.

And there's mango chutney too, which has to be good.

At long last the cat has done something useful and learnt how to kiss mice. I came up from the garden to find her sitting wistfully in the pantry, splashes of blood on the lino in the kitchen and a neat pile of intestines on the floor in the living room.

Circumstantial evidence only I agree, but as Emerson remarked "when you find a trout in the milk" ... that'll teach the little buggers to try and nest in amongst Jeremy's stash of biscuits.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Just Numbers, Doesn't Mean Anything ...

Funny how, when you start to get an idea into your head, you just have to keep picking at it. Thus it was that Margo and I passed the day looking over French real-estate sites, leching over the pretty pictures, not even sniggering when the accompanying text discreetly says "in need of some renovation, but the roof is basically sound", and getting to the point where you think that maybe €800,000 is just a number, really. I mean, it has the same number of digits as the cash we'll have in hand, so there's not really a fundamental difference, is there?* Just a question of magnitude, which is an obsession of small minds.

And let's face it, a C XIII priory at €450,000 is pretty much a snip, even if it does require some work ("heating, insulation and plumbing"): it has 16 bedrooms and 6 reception rooms, for heaven's sake! It also has zero bathrooms (or alternatively, it has none at all, which somehow seems like more), which I admit could be a drawback in some peoples' minds. Although the French seem to have coped for years with such circumstances. Think of Versailles.

(Interesting facts about that masterpiece of elegance: as far as table etiquette went it was considered quite normal to have one's chamber-pot brought to the table in order to provide colonic relief without missing a course, the grand stairways down to the gardens were used as open-plan privies - the closer you were to the top of the hierarchy, the higher up you got to crap: possibly the first recorded instance of trickle-down economics - and the entire court decamped elsewhere over summer when the stink became too overpowering, to let the peasants empty the cesspits and clean the crap off the floors. And the walls. It's better now, believe me. Thank god for sanitation.)

At least we don't have too many romantic notions about owning property in France: we know how French workmen don't, and we're up with most of the excuses they can come up with, and we're also habituated to the soul-numbing bureaucracy. So rest assured, you're not going to get another rehash of "A Year In Provence", partly because the Lubéron is hors de prix but mostly because we're old and cynical enough to have very few fantasies left. Sad, but true.

And of course Peter Mayle has kind of saturated the market for affectionately rose-tinted /Pernod-laced glasses looks at the quaint foibles of the French in bucolic backwaters, so I suppose that if ever I do get around to writing the definitive novel about innocents abroad (working title "Sod The Frogs", full of amusing anecdotes and interesting incidents, complete with Moral Instruction for the youth and some recipes) I shall have to go rather for the Rottweiler approach. Which suits me down to the ground, truth to tell. Shall have to try to integrate bits of The Beckham Diaries, changing nationalities as required to fit my prejudices.

So at this point in time we're focussing our research on the Tarn, l'Aude, and l'Aveyron, where prices are still reasonable and the climate's not too bad. There are some lovely places out there. We also have to get this place up to scratch so we can sell it: happily, that should not take too long. A bit of destruction work, some bagar rouge and a few tiles and the first floor's done ...

Of course, we also have to work out exactly how we want to do this. You have gîtes, which are kind of like a motel only quainter, and you have chambres d'hote, which is more like staying with a family. I definitely want to keep up with the cooking: hell, I'll even cook breakfast if necessary (somehow, knowing that you don't actually have to get up makes it so much easier to do so, never worked out why that should be the case) ... we'll see how we go.

Either way, we ourselves don't require much. A couple of bedrooms (in case we still have friends who want to stay, never can tell), an office apiece, a large workroom for Margo, a decent kitchen and large dining-room, and two bathrooms: that hardly seems too much to ask. With a bit of land which, with our combined gardening skills, we could rapidly let revert to a natural state. Praise be to the nettle and the dandelion, for they too are god's children. Or something. Note to self, do not let Margo buy a pair of donkeys. And I'll have no truck with chickens.

Anyway, I was bustling around in the kitchen organising some chicken in white wine, lemon juice and rosemary when I came across the remains of a loaf of industrial pre-sliced pain d'épices with which Jeremy had toyed and then apparently lost interest, and there was the arse-end of a packet of ladyfinger biscuits in the pantry: and of course, I have those little rectangular silicone moulds ...

Didn't take much to line the moulds with slices of pain d'épices, fill the middles with coarsely crumbled biscuit and then top them off with the rest of the bread slices before beating up an egg with milk and sugar and a few drops of pure orange essence and pouring that over them. After twenty minutes or so in the oven, something that quite definitely lifts the humble bread pudding out of the realms of the ordinary.

Jeremy gave it his full attention (which meant it didn't last very long at all) before giving me his reasoned critique: he was quite right, I could have sprinkled sugar in the moulds before lining them for a nice caramelised finish after turning them out, and a couple of slices of apple or some such nestling in the middle along with the biscuit, thus turning it into a sort of charlotte, could have been good too. I shall bear this in mind for the next time: first of all, shall have to go buy more bread and biscuits.

I suppose I really should get the camera out and go down to the garden so as to have actual documentary evidence that our apricot tree does, in fact, have apricots on it. At least five as I write, each gamely hanging onto their twig, but I'm pretty sure that they'll come down with the Black Death or something and rot off soon enough. And even if I did take photos, I'd just be accused of photoshopping them. Because it is a known fact of life that our apricot tree is sterile.

May the 8th over here is Victory Day, celebrating the armistice rather than the day when Leclerc's tanks rolled into Paris (he'd actually borrowed them from the Yanks, but let not dull facts interfere with a good patriotic story): consequently gray and overcast, and a public holiday. So having little (lots, really, but never mind that) else to do, I thought I'd look at the search queries. Quite a lot from France, from people looking for photographs of quilts (I don't know what percentage immediately run screaming from the room), but still some good ones:

    babbling fool tries to change clouds with mind control
    breast implants and threadworms
    mind proctology
    sex quilting

although I'm not sure what Margo would feel about the last one. The mind kind of boggles at the thought of quilting whilst having sex (all those sharp needles) and I really have difficulty imagining all those Amish women gathered around quilting illustrations from the Kama Sutra onto a betrothal quilt. Although I can see that could be useful.

It's also the day when the acacias down in the garden have chosen to come out in flower, so as usual there's a slightly overpowering whiff of really cheap perfume down there: on top of it the grass is waist-high in places so I can see I shall have to befriend someone with a debroussailleuse fairly quickly, before small children and animals start getting reported missing.

And I would like to go on record as saying that even if Samsung have (surprisingly) managed to improve some aspects of the user interface - like now there is a separate period key on the virtual keyboard, and if I press on that for a few seconds it comes up with the most recently used punctuation symbols, which is actually rather handy 'cos it avoids shifting in and out of numeric mode - they've managed to fsck other things up sufficiently to piss me off some more.

It used to be I'd get a text, the phone would delicately fart, and if I slid the green jigsaw piece into its hole on-screen it would go directly into the message thread and show me the message. Which I would look at, and then back to business - or more usually, back to sleep ... this has been Improved. There is now a rather ugly slider arrow (on the left for missed calls, on the right for SMS) and if you swipe that all the way across it will indeed show you the new message, which I will look at.

So far so good, but then the phone goes back to sleep and the next time I wake it, or if a new message comes in, the slider will be there and when I swipe it I am told in no uncertain terms that the texting application is still open, and I need to close it. Because, when I looked at the earlier message, I Did Not Close the app to say I'd seen it. That's kind of stupid, in my opinion. But then, I don't have a Korean Usability Testing lab. Neither, I suspect, do they.

Oh, and the c+cidella (ç) comes up as uppercase, which is both ugly and incorrect. Whatever. Sophie will just have to get used to my referring to her boys as "les garkons" rather than "les garsons" (for a "c" without its cidella is always hard in French - with a goodly number of exceptions of course although I wouldn't say that to Sophie because she'd kill me, they are not exceptions but totally non-arbitrary rules).

Still, I should be grateful for small mercies: the thing lets me make phone calls, admittedly on its own terms.

So anyway, after two days of beautiful blue skies and blessedly hot temperatures, woke up this moaning to find it raining. Heavily. Which kind of dampened, if you'll excuse me, my enthusiasm as I trolled around the market, but at least the spring vegetables are out in force and I escaped with asparagus tips at a price which did not require taking out a second mortgage, mangetout peas, baby carrots, runner beans and even - in an excess of enthusiasm - some bog-standard fresh peas to be shelled.

Which means that dinner is likely to be a ragout des légumes printanièrs accompanied with a couple of pavés de saumon au beurre blanc, with the only questions weighing on my mind being a) should I serve them in little filo coupelles and b) would some crispy bacon chunks in with the petis pois à la française be a good idea or not? So far I think that a) why not? and b) probably yes would be the correct answers: this may change.

Having also picked up some little pears and some more pain d'épices I might have another bash at that bread pudding: the marriage of pears and ginger is often a happy one, and by a strange quirk of fate we stocked up on ice-cream the other day, which solves the problem of what to serve with them.

* For this to work properly you do have to use a PIC $ZZ9,9(3),9(3) clause in your COBOL formatting, I admit.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Arizona Quail Egg Identification ...

So there we were, Bryan, Beckham and I, lazing in the after-market sun inhaling a few vitamins as she tried to work out which bar she really wanted to be at. The choice is not really that simple, sad to say: Bryan refuses to set foot in le Modesto ever since he was served what he considered a sub-standard and above all not full-enough glass of white, besides that he considers the waitress to be snooty, and out of some misplaced sense of solidarity she too will not go there.

Personally I've no problems with the place; they're always cheerful and I've certainly never been served anything I wouldn't want to drink. Which is not, I admit, setting the bar very high, because I'll drink most things so long as they're not actually diesel, but just saying ...

Chez Liddy is fine as far as I'm concerned, but she doesn't like that either - truth to tell, she has - uh, issues with bar-owners. The older male ones are all staring at her breasts (OK, I can understand that), the matronly female ones are doing the same, but disapprovingly, and she has problems with the serveuses who are young and almost as pretty as she is (dunno, maybe they're competition - are blondes territorial? If so, just hope they don't mark it in the traditional manner).

Whatever, there you have matronly bar-owner and pretty young waitresses, so the chemistry is not good. The last straw was when she got served her tomato juice (hard night out, I suspect) in an impeccably clean glass just out of the dishwasher and the waitress stuffed ice in it with her bare hands! That could only shock an American.

So ironically enough we wound up 50m away at le Refuge, where the execrable Pierre presides over a service that is just as glacially slow, and Bryan got the drink of water that accompanies a coffee around here in a dirty glass that had a marvellous lipstick kiss on the edge. So much for improved hygiene, not that Beckham batted an eyelid at that. "There's no point complaining", she said, "they'll only spit in it next time." Sometimes I wonder: she goes apeshit over hands touching ice-cubes, but sharing lipstick onna glass is OK ...

But anyway, she was laying out her plans for next weekend and I must admit I got a bit lost. Between Scottish Adam, Irish Tim, Scott the American, Welsh Roger and S&M Whisky Boy - not to mention bi-sexual Cédric - things get rather confusing. Not helped by the fact that I missed half the conversation, due to a phone call ...

Then it was his turn, so Bryan recounted how, after a year or more, he finally got around to unpacking the container-load of stuff that he'd sent over to Noo Zild when he moved "definitively" back there, and then had sent back here when he decided that it was no longer chez lui. For some strange reason he thought he'd start with his obsolete (ie seven year old) computer, and breathlessly opened the box purporting to contain the LCD monitor to find it full of socks. They were, at least, his socks.

The box marked "Computer" also had socks in it, and some underwear (also his), and a chunk of metal (which wasn't) just to make up the weight ... the old laser printer, on the other hand, was still where it was supposed to be. Which was probably a shame, as it's a discontinued model and a toner cartridge for it costs about three times the price of a new printer.

Makes one weep at the iniquity of warehouse personnel, does it not? S'not the money, more the data he had on the old hard drive. In which case, as I pointed out, it was a bit silly of him to send that off around the world rather than taking it out and keeping it on him, or at least making a backup - and in any case, computers with IDE interfaces are becoming kind of rara avis these days, so it might not have been much good to him in any case.

Actually, May is a rather good month this year. There are three or four public holidays, starting with Labour Day on May 1st, something on May 8th, then Ascension and Pentecote; and by a strange quirk of fate they all fall on a Tuesday or a Thursday, which means that the intervening day between the weekend will often be taken as an informal holiday as well. All those three-day weeks: no wonder the French tend not to have heart attacks, despite all that alcohol and the artery-clogging consumption of fat in its purest form, as foie gras.

Anyway, after a few sessions with the shrink which ended when he said that I seemed to be a) eminently sane and b) aware of what I needed to do, Margo and I have made a few decisions. Seemed like a good idea at the time, still does. Basically, Plan A (there is no Plan B, don't bother looking) is to sell up here, head a bit south or east and set up or buy a gite and/or a little restaurant, and then go slowly wrinkly in the sun, with nothing to worry about but stress, ulcers, mortgages, the sky-rocketing price of rosé and prostate cancer.

Well, it's not quite that simple ... Margo is making a name for herself in the incestuous but moneyed world of textile art and has people wanting courses in fabric dyeing and suchlike things: there is a definite niche market there for somewhere with ten to fifteen beds and an atelier capable of hosting two- to five-day workshops in such matters. Combine that with gourmet food - why not, cooking classes too, and promising English immersion - and this could work if correctly situated.

There is also a market for small company meetings and so on: three days away from the stress of Paris for the in-house training sessions of the Nose-Pickers and Allied Trades Union, for instance.

The first thing is to travel a bit - something we've not really done together a great deal - as Margo goes off to shows around the place so that we can look at places we'd like to be. Sadly, some of the most savagely beautiful are a bit off the beaten tourist track, but we should be able to find somewhere not so far away that they're unreachable. We'll not miss the mountains anymore, and certainly not the snow.

And now's as good a time as any and better than most: Mal's left, Jeremy's leaving as soon as he can, and we're not yet so decrepit that a drastic change in lifestyle is a frightening and insurmountable obstacle.

Well, told Renaud: now I just have to 'fess up to Sophie. Not looking forward to that: I will doubtless be in deep shit. Shall do it Real Soon, some time when there are no knives to hand. But should ever you hear that I've been taken out by a Hellfire missile from a rogue CIA Predator on a black-ops mission, you'll know who to blame.

I honestly did not know, by the way, that there were in fact quail in Arizona, and why someone would be so anal-compulsive as to wish to definitely identify their eggs escapes me. Nor would it make a particularly good name for a band, I feel. Still, it makes a better title than some of the queries that wind up here (yes, Virginia, threadworms are still a favourite. Australians seem keen on them this week, godnose why that should be.).

Just because the headline is so good: Biennial boner blights Beemer biker. It is, of course, El Reg, whose dedicated journalists selflessly spend their time boldly going where no-one else particularly wants to go, honing their alliterative skills and fetching back gibbering tidbits such as that. You have to admire what they do, especially as, as I understand, they get paid sod-all.

You may have heard - even over there in the quieter backwaters of the Pacific - that there's a presidential election going on over here: Sarko vs Flanby. (You wouldn't get that. Flanby is the name of a sweet but bland wobbly industrial custard dessert, and has cruelly been applied - with some justice - to François Hollande, the Socialist candidate.) So after the first round talk in the office turned, as it will, to this sort of thing, and the secretary was explaining why she was afraid that Hollande would get in.

It's because he would, it's feared, legalise current illegal immigrants and open the door to still more. Not that I was looking to start an argument or anything, but I did mildly point out that NZ is a country of immigrants, and that I myself was an immigrant: of course that's not the point. She doesn't mind immigrants: probably loves us cuddly étrangers. Turks, Poles, Portuguese, whites in general, no problem! It's the muslims, with their crazy religion, locking up their women! I suspect this is code for "anyone but Arabs", but I could be wrong there.

On the other hand, seeing what the second- and third-generation beurs around Marseilles have done to the kebab, maybe she has a point. A decent kebab is a thing of beauty and especially if done with decent amounts of extremely garlicky sauce blanche and maybe a bit of harissa it'll stay in your memory for some time, but the Marseillais version is, I'm ashamed to say, made with half a baguette and invariably has frites stuffed in it. It's enough to make one cry.

So, you see what comes of not keeping your mouth shut? I was happily sitting behind my desk the other day when in walks one of the superfluous functionnaires "employed" (that's in quotes 'cos usually employment means doing something useful) by Chambéry Metropole around the place to ask if anyone would be around next Thursday. I had to admit that I would indeed be there, and before I knew what was happening he'd whipped out his clipboard and was taking my name down.

I got to be an evacuation guide for the next fire drill! Not, apparently, too onerous a job: I hang around until a few people have collected and am supposed to lead them - calmly - off to the point rencontre. Wherever that may be. Unfortunately, I am not allowed to shout "Panic! Follow me! Women and children later!", but must remain calm and orderly. Bummer. Where's the fun in that?

Anyway, some of you might remember years back when I went over to Cameroon with Michel Halbwachs, sort of the epitome of the scientist-adventurer, with an amazing talent for rubbing almost anyone up the wrong way. Well, he's managed to do it again, big time: he was awarded the légion d'honneur for his services to science and, very publicly, in an open letter to Alain Juppé, turned it down. On the grounds that having a little sash tri-colore was all very nice, but it would be better, and less hypocritical, if la France actually put its money where its mouth was and helped out with a bit of cash. I can see that going down like a cup of warm snot in certain quarters.

And as it turned out, I escaped more or less unscathed with Sophie. Abject coward that I am, I sent her a text the other day and got a remarkably calm reply: so we met up for lunch and a long talk under the parasols at l'Atelier on Friday. Upshot is that so long as I promise not to disappear completely from the radar screens, I'm allowed to go off and follow Plan A if I insist.

Deceptive packaging
That did come, I admit, at the price of promising her a Spring lunch next Saturday (when hopefully it'll be fine): little asperges vertes, pois gourmands, salade and some mendiants au chèvre. I can happily live with that.

Actually, Friday turned out to be quite a social day: Margo and I wound up by having Irish stew (French pronunciation: "Eerishstou") and beer for dinner at l'Arbre à Bières, with a band of Irish musicians who'd come over specially for Irish Tim's birthday. Even Foul Ole Ron turned up, apparently after his biennial bath, doubtlessly scenting the opportunities for bludging a few handrolled fags.

Oh, I know I mentioned that it was going to be obligatoire to have an alcotest in the car come June: well, Margo thoughtfully went off and bought some the other day. The brand name could, I feel, have been better chosen: would you care to blow into the business end of a Turdus? Me, not so much.