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.


  1. do not let Margo buy a pair of donkeys

    Definitely not, that would be the start of the slippery slope or the thin end of the white elephant or whatever. You start with donkeys, next you're acquiring Siamese cats, and before you know it you're writing Doreen Tovey books.

    a "c" without its cidella is always hard in French

    So 'cidella' is pronounced 'kidella'?

  2. Also you are still receiving 'Riddled's searches. Please forward them to us.

  3. Please forward them to us Which ones would you like? I'm keeping the breasts and the sex, but you can have proctology.

    So 'cidella' is pronounced 'kidella'? I said there were rules.

  4. I don't so much think of a Year in Provence, as of those reality TV programs we get of excited Brits lauching themselves a new career running a B&B in Spain/France/Caribean/etc because it will be so much less stressful than their current life. Ha! 12 months later they're still working 7 days a week, 20 hours a day, with no profit to show for it! Mind you, it's no doubt a set up to make "good" TV....

  5. Saw a few of those yonks back: I think the funniest one I can remember was this couple who decided to buy a bar/hotel somewhere in Portugal. So they duly paid up and then went over (mistake doing it in that order) to find it needed more or less rebuilding from the ground up, with the hassle of building permits etc ... did I mention they didn't speak a word of Portuguese?