Sunday, June 24, 2012

It's A Beautiful (Green) World ...

The amateur Sherlocks amongst you will be pleased: we have managed to resolve the Mystery of The Pot Plant, and without resorting to tortured deduction Or, indeed, torture. "Oh", said Jeremy blithely over dinner one evening, "you mean that pot plant." It is, in undeniable  and unmistakeable fact (now that its leaves have formed), a pot plant: "it's for my 18th birthday", he said. Fair enough, I suppose, so long as he doesn't go all industrial-scale on us.

Like, for instance, Stacey's brother Chris, who years back apparently managed to convince their innocent mother that the crop out in the back garden was in fact Tibetan mung beans, or something along those lines. Seems she never thought to wonder about the plastic sheeting and all that, until one day the police turned up.

Still, it was fascinating to find out that if you bring water up to precisely 67°C and fling fresh pot leaves in it, then add some butter, this will extract the THC which will not evaporate off at such a temperature but will then bind to the fat, so after cooling down you have cannabis & chlorophyll butter. I did not know that, I must go and get a decent thermometer. For research purposes, you understand.

So anyway it's the summer solstice tonight, which means la fête de la musique, and as Margo was heading off for dinner with a friend and Jeremy's plans, after his final exam yesterday, most emphatically did not involve staying home, I kind of thought that perhaps I'd grab a quick meal and head off into Chambéry to see just how crap the music was.

Dinner being nothing more complicated than searing strips of duck breast, fishing them out of the pan and then reheating them in a sauce of spring onions, ginger, white wine, lime juice and redcurrant jelly, was over rapidly, which gave me plenty of time to sit out on the terrace and have a cigar as I watched the thunderheads roll in up the valley. As they seem to do, every year at this time. And once the downpour started, I thought that perhaps I just wouldn't bother, after all.

Let's face it, seeing someone spewing water out of their tuba is fun once, but the second time it's not quite as droll.

It's true enough that that initial downpour only lasted 20 minutes or so but still, it was probably a good thing really that I decided to vegetate: not only would I have had to park the car somewhere about 5km from the centre of town, but the second downpour, around 10pm, was definitely a serious affair.

Not that it seemed to put too much of a dampener on the whole affair. I saw Renaud briefly the next day - he'd been playing, and could only manage a 30 minute appearance at the office - and he told me how, at about 3am, he'd met up with a group of acquaintances, each with a fresh bottle of rosé and a glass ...

All a bit much for me, these days, I'm afraid.

Whatever, Jeremy's had his final exam and is now a free man, pending being called up by the compagnons to go off to where-ever he might be placed. Which leaves us the pleasure of his company for anywhere between one or two months, and a perpetually-empty fridge for the same period.

Unless, of course, he takes up the possibility he got offered of a two-month job up in the Chartreuse, as cook and responsable de cuisine for a holiday chalet. (The French have this wonderful idea of what they call colonie de vacances, where kids get sent off to some centre out in nature to have organised Fun with activities and everything, whilst the parents thankfully hit the pastis and lounge around, enjoying the sadly temporary peace and quiet and trying to work up the courage for an extra-marital fling while the nosy little sods are away. I suppose it's the Yurrupian equivalent of summer camp.)

Sad to say he's not too sure about that: he fears that as responsable it may entail  - gasp - paperwork, which is not one of hs favourite insects, plus he would, not unreasonably, like to have at least a semblance of holiday for his 18th birthday and before going off for seven years hard slog.

We're trying to persuade him that he should perhaps see if he could organise to do it just for a month: not only would it get him out of our hair for a bit, in any case he could do with the money to pay off his fine. (Silly bugger decided to be a smart-arse and hop a free ride on a bus: unfortunately he chose the same bus at the same time as the heavy squad of enforcers, and got a €45 fine. An expensive free ride. Teach him not to mess with the STAC.)

In other local news, you are perhaps vaguely aware that for more or less the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (can't be arsed googling it, sorry), the Socialist party control all the levers of power: presidency, senate, assembly and the regions.

I do hope this means that taxes will go down (except for the rich and businesses), pay will be doubled (idem), the retirement age will be set at 45 across the board, the national debt and unemployment will be miraculously wiped out by the simple expedient of employing 500,000 more uncivil servants, and there shall be a unicorn in every garden, but I have nagging doubts.

Come to that, as Hollande's not particularly beholden to any of the far-left fringe (who really, seriously, meant it about the unicorn thing), there may be a few grand gestures for the headlines but then, after closer examination of the books and the ritual cries of shock at the absolutely parlous state of the national finances - due entirely, of course, to the complacent profligacy of the previous administration - it'll be announced that everyone must accept that rigour is required, for the sake of la patrie (and there's an odd thing, you really would think that "fatherland" would be a masculine noun but apparently not).

So plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose and all that, and at least they can always blame Sarko for the situation in which they find themselves and the choices they're constrained to take. Everyone else does. And who knows, might even lead to a slightly more normal relationship with Germany. That would be interesting.

But more cheerfully, all that rain on Thursday definitely cleared the air and Saturday turned out a beautiful day: I love the light in the early morning when the sun's just coming up over the Belledonnes, just a shame it is, in fact, early. Come to that, the light at the end of the day as the sun goes down behind the Granier is bloody marvellous too, and at least I'm awake enough to appreciate it.

Anyway, on with the daisy dukes (as Beckham will insist on calling them: I admit that they are only notionally shorts now, being more hole than actual fabric: kind of a rather shabby Platonic ideal) so as to frighten little old ladies and off to the market for more nectarines and peaches and apricots and the eternal rougette for salad.

Sadly, cherries are still out of my price range, but I still manage to snaffle a few, under the pretext of checking to see whether they're acceptable. Try a couple, frown disapprovingly, and then move on to the next stand ... a time-honoured custom around these parts.

A shame that you can't really do that with strawberries, as these are not often sold en vrac, but that's too bad.

Still, summer makes for a quick trip around: there's not that much choice and if you get there early enough - as I did - there's not that much of a crowd. The only problem, really, is getting all that sun-gorged fruit back to the car without it turning into jam: the only way I've found to ensure that is to carry a heavy cane in one hand and slash viciously at people who look as though they're going to jostle you or lurch into the panier. And then, for appearances, apologise profusely.

Upshot was, I wound up at l'Arbre à Bières just after mid-day, I can see I'll have to train up the new chef because he has not yet learnt what a proper measure of rosé is as far as valued clients are concerned.

Drinking alone, unfortunately: Bryan's school is working sufficiently well that his Saturdays are rather circumscribed, Beckham was trapped in bed (don't ask) and at that exact moment Sophie was busy wielding an electric cattle-prod 350km away, herding fifty children onto a bus for the return trip from the classe de mer down south.

Which left me with little choice other than to return home and try attacking the paddock again. Either that, or feign heatstroke, and sadly enough that little trick no longer works very well with Margo. I think she might have caught on to it.

Anyway, we spent a lovely afternoon in the sun: young Stéphane next door decided that it was a perfect day to fire up the bread oven, and as there were six adults plus Jeremy, thought that two calzones and fifteen pizzas would just about be enough.

I think he erred on the side of pessimism, myself. Still, once Jeremy had buggered off to the lake to dunk with his mates we heard a bit about him: "il a", said Seb, "une tête sur ses épaules", which came as a bit of a surprise to me, I'd always thought it was a paperweight but there you are.

But right now, I suppose I'd better go and pack the one bag that is allowed me on the flight: seems I'm not obliged to wear a suit which is a relief as they're a bitch to stick in a backpack but I shall at least take the Victorian ponce coat, in order to make a good impression. Or at least, show willing. And, under pain of pain, I shall take the camera. Which I had hoped to leave behind, after all I've already got photos of Glasgow, but it seems it's needed.

As Malyon said, they'll just think I'm eccentric, which is acceptable, and if it comes to the worst I can always try to get away with a thick cod-Frog accent. And in any case, Tony's family are apparently even worse than us, so it's not as though I'll be worrying anyone. Call it a case of lowered expectations.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Les Filles de Joie Sont Arrivées ...

Klingon bird of prey uncloaking over the Alps
... with apologies to Rouget de Lisle, who was not, incidentally, a fish (not a red mullet, in his case). Did you know that the rouget is also called the woodcock (or snipe, or bécasse or whatever) of the sea, due to the fact that discriminating gourmets prefer to eat it, in common with the bird, with the contents of its intestinal tract and rectum intact, rather than gutting and/or drawing it as would seem correct? If you did not in fact wish to know that, please feel free to forget about it.

Also, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we rather euphemistically call "working girls", who are admittedly quite busy down on the nationale these days. You'd be surprised at the number of Audis pulled up there. Or maybe not.

So blonde moments seem to be coming closer and closer together: this should probably worry me. Having had the White Van™ repaired it started to develop an alarming clunking noise, which eventually even I could not call normal, so I went back to the people who had supposedly repaired it.

"Oh," said the mechanic on hearing the various noises, "that's not right. Something is deboulonné. Leave it with me, squire ..." And so he gave me a little Peugeot 205, along with a grim warning not to try to lock the doors ("if you do, you'll never get back in and there's nothing worth nicking in there anyway") and I happily drove back home.

Enjoying the sensation of what might loosely be called a car, in which acceleration is not measured in m/sec² but rather feet/fortnight² and top speed in furlongs/week, where the clutch was apparently implanted from a combine harvester, and the brakes work if you agree never to ask them to do so. Still, the windows actually went up and down when I wound the handles, so that has to be good (and, quite frankly, better than the old Alfetta called Sarah, where if you tried that trick on with her you'd lose an arm to a piece of stray steel cord. A lovely girl, but with a vicious streak).

And the piece of steel plate, bolted on under the steering wheel as an afterthought to hold the ignition which would otherwise have fallen on the floor, was a nice touch.

Somewhat to my surprise I actually made it home, which was a bit of a shame really because I'd just pulled up when the garagiste called to say that I'd only gone and forgotten to leave him the keys for the Fiat, hadn't I? And sure enough, there in the front right pocket ... a quick trip back to Frontenex; still, it let me make friends with the gearbox. Good thing, actually, that I could still remember the pattern from 15 years ago, the pommel having fallen off the gearstick.

And you try telling the yoof of today about the Plasticine Era, before they invented power steering.

Of course, when I went back to Frontenex to reclaim it on Friday night, I got stuck behind a frikkin' Aixam. You will not have come across these, for they are peculiarly French, and you are doubtless better people for it. I say this because if there is one thing guaranteed to send you directly to Hell, no passing Go, no $200, it is being behind one of those things.

They are little boxes on wheels (well, casters really, and with the particularity of having been designed by someone who believed firmly that the value of pi was exactly 3, so a circle is not quite ... round), powered - if that's the word - by a 150cc diesel and capable of a top speed of about 60kph: they are much in favour amongst the elderly, the infirm and the Alzheimer's-ridden as you do not need a driving licence to umm - drive - the things. As a result, feeling themselves competent, capable and secure, and no doubt empowered or whatever, you get old senile people driving the little piles of shit along the nationale at the amazing speed of 50kph, and doubtless feeling very pleased with themselves for bogging up traffic for miles behind.

I mean, what are they actually doing there? Where are they going at this huge speed? Have they run out of senior-citizen nappies and have to head off to the only supermarket in a 50km radius that stocks the things, or are they just blissfully oblivious of the pain they are causing to actual human beings? For all I know, they think they're just walking downstairs in their slippers to pick up the morning paper.

If I had a steamroller I would happily flatten them into the ground, with prejudice: and yes, a steamroller would go faster than they do. Had I thought to order the missile-launching attachment for the car I'd have wasted a couple of Hellfire missiles, just to teach them a lesson (but I would feel so good about it). A CIA black-ops team would've had a Predator in there in short order. Were I Dis, they'd be having their livers perpetually eaten by hungry vultures, with extra mustard, and ketchup just to add insult to injury. And rabid feral pigeons, crapping down their backs and in their mouths.

I can see that my attempts to be a Happy Zen Person are not entirely successful. I will work on this, and try to be a better person. Some time, real soon. Right now, I have some adorable fluffy kittens I need to stuff in a sack.

Whatever, it seems we're going to have at least three days of summer. Starting today, and counting down. I really had hoped for something a little better, but quite frankly after what seems like a solid month's worth of rain (I know, I know, I'm exaggerating a bit) I'll take whatever I can get. And with luck there'll be at least one fine weekend in July for the traditional barbecue - provided, of course, that I can get down to the garden some time soon with a weedeater.

So anyway, Margo decided it was time for a bit of spring-cleaning, and she roused the lares and the penates from wherever it is that they lurk to do a bit of work around the place. For once, idle little buggers that they are. Now she said that they were supposed to be getting the rust off the shutters on the balcony, but personally I'm not convinced that they've really got the hang of the concept. Mind you, they seem happy enough.

And now it's Sunday, must be at least 32° and the sun is beating down: probably not, despite the old adage, the best time for going and making hay but I thought I'd better get onto it anyway. So I have just spent three hours down there and am taking an extremely well-earned break to get some feeling back into my arms before heading back. I am so looking forward to a shower.

NOT a crown of thorns, pigeon defence
But do take the time to spare a thought for our little furry friends and all the happy woodland folk, whose plans for today probably did not involve having it terminated by a yellow nylon cord whizzing through the brain-pan. They were in arrears on the rent anyway, maybe this'll teach them what the words "Final Notice" mean.

On the other hand, I note, upon closer inspection, that I have apparently been attacked by Genghiz Ant and all his angry buzzy followers, and judging from the fruit content a swallow has crapped on my head. That shower is going to be so appreciated. At least the paddock's starting to look a little less like something out of a van Gogh and a bit more like somewhere you might want to sit and eat a nice bit of grilled meat. Especially now that there's not a dog wandering around to scarf it if it looks neglected.

And Mimosa the donkey, to whom we have apparently promised the cut grass, should be bloody happy. I've not yet worked out how I am going to persuade Jerry to rake it all up. Would brute force work, do you think, or will I have to offer payment? 'Cos I kind of doubt that the pleasure of a simple job well done would be considered adequate recompense.

So now we also know where Jeremy's not going: Lyon. The compagnons apparently don't like them being too close to family, suppose it makes escape look like an attractive option. So it'll be Nîmes or Perpignan, both of which - no matter where we end up - will be suitably far away. One down, no more to go. Definitely the right time to sell the house.

In other news, someone is gardening at us: surreptitiously and, I suspect, with intent. It started a couple of weeks ago, when I wandered out onto the balcony to find a small pot with a weedy-looking plant in it sitting on one corner.

Then a week later it had been watered - not something anyone around here is likely to do - and someone had stuck a toothpick into the soil and carefully tied the stem up.

And then this morning, once I'd headed off and got a baguette and a pain au chocolat aux amandes (you really owe it to yourselves to have one of those before you die, you know: they are just so good especially if you're looking for a sugar fix in the morning) and wandered out to have a coffee and wake up a bit before doing manly gardening things (did Hemingway ever write about that, I wonder?) I found the damn thing had been repotted.

So someone is trying to surprise us: we've interrogated Jeremy but even the jumper leads from the car battery produced no results (well, apart from a few screams) so we're tempted to believe that he is not, in fact, guilty: I am starting to suspect Emily and Elise from next door. Maybe I should set up a webcam out there, try to catch them in the act. Because I don't think Margo would accept the jumper leads, under the circumstances.

OK, I've moaned and bitched and now my prayers have been answered: our trans-atlantic cousins seem to have got over their fixation with silly ball games (incidentally, the technical documentation for the Telit GE-863 modem has a section enticingly entitled "Balls Array", don't get your hopes up though as it's a BGA package and has nothing to do with what you were doubtless thinking) and have started pushing out good summer television again. So "True Blood" has started up again, and now "Burn Notice".

So I am going to be able to slum it in style as the temperatures creep up into the high thirties, slumping in front of the TV and letting Monkey-Face (as Mad Karen so cruelly calls the poor bugger) amuse us.

Just need a bit more trivia-with-violence, and I will be a Happy Person. Who knows, maybe I'll even smile at an Aixam.

And of course, it's being June, there are now certain things available at the market, many of which are affordable and, in most cases, legal. Things like nectarines (which, for some reason, the French insist on calling brugnons) and pêches blanches which are absolutely delicious and also go well in a tart, cherries (OK, those are still hideously expensive) and strawberries and, still, asparagus. And great bunches of mint, and parsley, and basil, and coriander if your tastes happen to run that way.

On the other hand, the coquilles de noix de St-Jacques are going at about 49€/kg, which is a teeny bit excessive. I think I shall rely on the frozen ones from Carrefour - OK, it's out of season but I don't care, I love the damn things. As does Margo: good thing they make Jeremy vomit, otherwise I'd be bankrupt.

Even the tomatoes are staring to have a bit of taste, which is always pleasant (especially with a bit of basil and goat's cheese, or just lotsa mint), there are lots of baby carrots and the courgettes are no longer agricultural-society monstrosities. And thanks to the miracles of modern agriculture, there are still rougette available.

But the aubergines are not yet quite what they should be, which is sad because I'm rather looking forward to a decent ratatouille.

And meals tend to become quite light. I got some pork chops the other day but as Jeremy is heading off to "do some revision" with a friend and then sleeping over at her place before his exam tomorrow there seems little point to a barbecue: we also have some shrimp in the fridge so a stir-fry with asparagus and salad seems like a good idea.

Can't be arsed with dessert, mind you. Ice cream is always good.

In any case, s'been a good day. My arms are still limp appendages, I am pink and bumpy all over and the paddock is still only half-done, but what the hell. I don't seem to have broken the debrousailleuse (a first, for me), summer's here, and I for one rather plan on taking advantage of it.

And if that happens to involve eating out on the terrace a bit more often, with a little flan aux tomates et au chèvre and a bit of decent bread, not to mention some nicely chilled rosé, I can live with that.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sifting Through The Wreckage of the Week ...

So just why is it that the bicycle-fascinated and cerebrally-challenged don't seem to want to learn about evolution? OK, they're working on supersizing their Lycra-clad calves and buttocks by wobbling erratically over the little back roads: I can live with that, but riding three abreast on the frikkin' nationale?

That's suicide in my book, or at the very least tempting fate, with chocolates. Mind you, I suppose most of them have had their children and the retard race is perpetuated, so from evolution's point of view their rôle has more or less ended and they can be subtracted from existence without prejudice. There's no justice.

Anyway, I roasted a chicken, stuffed under the skin with garlic and parsley, the other day and as luck would have it Jeremy did not have his usual garguantan appetite that evening (and in any case won't eat breast meat, for reasons which escape me) so there was plenty left over for curried chicken empanadas.

(Handy hint, from Jacques Pepin via Julia Childs: finely mince the garlic on a board, chop in the parsley, and then crush the lot into a pulp with the flat of a decent heavy knife. Gives a good paste, and cleaning-up entails no more than wiping down the chopping board - no more faffing about trying to get the stringy bits out of the teeny holes of the garlic press.)

End of the aside: I just tossed all the chicken meat I could find on the carcass into the faithful Kenwood (25 years we've had that thing, would you believe, and it's still going strong) along with the few roast potatoes that were left and a couple of teaspoons of curry powder and whizzed that up, then chucked in a chopped onion just for good measure. After which it gets mixed with a very thick bechamel and loads of chopped mint, for fun, and then goes into the fridge to wait.

So while it's doing that, make up some feuilletage batard, roll it out and cut into 4" circles, which you should then stuff with the chicken mixture to turn them into little cornish pasties: when they're all ready, just fry them. A couple of minutes a side is all it takes, assuming you don't want them blackened and inedible. Good with chutney or a sweet chili sauce, and if you've got too many they can go, unfried, into the freezer for a quick snack at some later time. Not really Jeremy's thing, though.

Whatever, finally found the time on Friday to go off and have lunch with Sophie. (Problem with seeing a teacher: their hours are kind of unreasonable, especially now as the end of the school year approaches. The last time we made a date she had to cancel about 15 minutes before I left, due to some sort of meeting being called. A right bummer.) A little place behind les halles called la Bohème attracted her, with its private courtyard and all, so that's where we met up. A shame, really, that it was pissing down, because that rather ruled out our eating outside under a parasol, but never mind.

The place is sort of eco-bio but not obsessively so: meat does not seem to be on the menu but I can handle that too. And the food's actually rather good, and attractively presented which also helps: sad to say we were neither of us feeling adventurous (and in any case the choice was limited, which makes sense) and chose the same thing ie gaspacho with tapenade and rillettes de thon on the side, salad and a tomato and asparagus croustade. Although I must admit I was tempted by the poivron and ricotta tart, but I know that if I'd taken that we'd have wound up messily exchanging mouthfuls over the table. (On forks, people. Calm down.) Not half bad anyway, washed down with a glass of rosé.

The only reservation I would have about the place is that there are only the two women who run and own the place behind the counter, cooking, taking orders and serving, so the service is a bit random and depends on who's chatting to whom. But still, I'd go back. The furnishings, not to mention the plates, cutlery, and glasses, are a rather eclectic collection - as though they'd gone to a brocante and got one item of every set - but it somehow hangs together and makes a cosy setting for a light meal and a long chat.

As I've said before, one of the drawbacks to Bryan having opened this bloody language school is that his availability on a Saturday morning is quite restricted, and I really hate having to drink alone. But luckily he managed to free himself, so the pair of us + Beckham wound up at l'Arbre à Bières (perhaps I should just give in and call it the Beer Tree like everyone else) to soak up the sun and say goodbye to Romain the chef, whose last day it was.

And also to catch up on Beckham's sex life, which is always fascinating. I'll spare you the sordid details, some of them are a little unbelievable: maybe she just makes them up to humour us, in an attempt to brighten the sad lives of two middle-aged gentlemen. Wouldn't put it past her.

And I suppose that after twenty-five years as a dedicated Mormon, with all that special underwear and stuff that she won't talk about, it's understandable that the road to normality is kind of twisty-turny.

So that was Saturday morning taken care of, in a long and lazy manner: this did mean rushing home to unload the car and get a dessert ready before even starting to think about lunch, for we were invited to Mumblefuck for dinner and that meant getting there before 18:00 if possible so as not to miss out on the apéro.

Luckily the weather stayed relatively fine, because the rising damp in Karen's house has finally become sufficiently bad that the landlord's insurance have decided to shell out to have something done about it and this involves all the wallpaper being ripped off, three huge dehumidifiers being installed around the house and sundry other inconveniences, and on top of that Philippe's mother has been moved into an old people's home and so room has to be found for all her furniture and there's the aunt with Parkinson's to be taken care of ...

Being able to have a barbecue outside was thus a Good Thing.

The occasion, apart from swapping bags of books and stuff, was that Reiner and Hildegaard were heading back to Germany after holidays in Aix-en-Provence. You could be forgiven for thinking that they'd stepped out of a Wagner opera and they do in fact look the part: Reiner's about six foot and built to match, and Hildegaard kind of looms and would make a very good, if rather cheery, valkyrie.

In real life he spends his time on the road, driving lorry-loads of used tires from Stuttgart to Manchester (who'd've thought there was an occasion for arbitrage in old rubber? Seems German used tires are still good for another eight months life in the UK) and she runs a translation business. And they both have a double life and turn up at quilt shows, which is how Margo and Karen met them.

Also, Reiner - oddly enough for someone who looks a bit like a tall beer keg - is an amateur of good cigars, which makes him an excellent chap in my book. And they have a small friendly dog, whose passion and main objective in life is to run after a tennis ball, and as far as she's concerned anyone officiating at a barbecue obviously has nothing better to do with their time than throw or kick the damn thing as far as possible so that she can run happily panting after it and then proudly bring it back, loaded with another layer of saliva, for another go.

Luckily, I find that if the pork chops are covered in enough chili sauce, no-one's going to notice the odd bit of drool and blades of grass in the marinade.

Not all French-women are slim sex-objects
It was a good evening, even if somewhat liberalement arrosée, as our frog friends say - sufficiently so, in fact, to lead me into error and say to Margo that when we get this gite, provided there's enough land, she can have a donkey. And unfortunately, there were witnesses: too late now to back out.

Anyway, I have to go and sharpen Jeremy's knives before his exams: they're in an appalling state. What do they teach the yoof these days? See you.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Another White-Hot Day ...

La belle faucheuse
So, Margo was off at the AGM of the coopérative of which she is part, Sophie was off at a rock concert or something in which young Rémi was playing (rather well, it seems) the guitar, so it seemed to me that the only reasonable thing to do was turn up at Stacey's with the makings of a quiche and some salad.

As you can probably tell, up until recently, when her friend Gilles turned up with a faux (that's a scythe, not a false) her lawn was in even worse shape than ours. And while I admit that there are no good health & safety reasons to cover up when bringing in the hay, it really does take a Californian to do it in gumboots, heavy gloves and a bikini.

And then for some reason she decided that I needed a shower, which is totally unjust even if I had spent the morning walking around a bit over-dressed in the 35° heat, which gets me on to one of my gripes about the French. Now in my opinion towels are supposed to be big, like about two square metres, and fluffy so that you can actually dry yourself on them.

For some reason, over here it is considered more hygienic (or something) that they be threadbare swatches of fabric that I personally wouldn't use to scratch floors with, and almost, but not quite, big enough to cover up one's privates. There's certainly no way you could dry your back with one (even if one were long enough, it'd be more like scraping barnacles off a hull).

It's kind of odd because apart from the dour Scots, the stern Swiss and those Lutheran Nordic types there's not really any great tradition of self-mortification: maybe it's to remind people of Lent. Or, more probably, maybe no-one actually uses the things, preferring to air-dry or perhaps just skip the  whole shower business.

Cook, and bottle-washer
Getting back to the point, I'm willing to admit it was hot, and I'd doubtless sweated a bit, but I had taken the precaution of stopping off at l'Arbre à Bières for a cooling glass of rosé and a chat with the cook and bottle-washer. Being a habitué has its advantages: they've a very generous hand when it comes to filling the pichet of wine when Margo and I turn up for lunch as we do most weeks, and I don't think I've paid for her dessert for some months.

Sad to say the cook is leaving in a couple of weeks, I do hope they find someone as génial to step into his shoes. I did ask if they were hiring, and from the answer I think Jeremy would probably have had a good shot if he cared to apply (I did have to explain that it wasn't for me), but that is not going to happen.

For one thing, I'm not going to eat anything somewhere that I know my son is in the kitchen looking disapprovingly at our choice and possibly making sure that our salad contains the biggest, juiciest slugs he can find, and for another, he'll soon be leaving.

Because he has been accepted by the compagnons, some time this month he should find out where he's going to be spending the next year as an apprentice, and then any time from July on he will become Someone Else's Problem. Which more or less clears the decks for us to get on with our lives, after all these years.

Oddly enough, the first time we went off to see the compagnons he was very dubious about postulating and doing the whole tour de France thing so as to actually become one of them and get the sash and the ring and all the rest of the mediaeval accoutrements: just the year's apprenticeship, he said, and then he'd be off around the world ... he seems to have realised that he can do the world trip as part of it, and he sounds a lot keener.

If he does go ahead with that, he'll probably wind up making more money that enyone else in the family. Little bugger.

And I've managed to find suitable flights between Geneva and Edinborough, which means I'm doomed to head over to Glasgow for Mal's capping. (She only got 2,1 instead of the 1, whatever she'd been hoping for, but given that she paid her own way through university with no help at all from us, and has emerged debt-free, and with an honours degree, I think that's actually a rather creditable result.)

Love. So sweet. Wanna fwow up.
Whatever, in the course of the ceremony, she will (and this bit, whilst of questionable hygiene and utility, is apparently true) be struck on the head with a hat made from one of John Knox's trousers. (The Arch-Chancellor's hat, anyone?). Sadly, history does not report exactly which bits of the pants in question went into the making of the hat, but I'm prepared to asume the worst.

So I've reserved a place on their sofa, which she claims to be comfy, if small: just so long as there are no bed-bugs I'll be happy enough. I doubt I'll get away with wearing my painting shorts for the posh bits, so I will doubtless have to take some hand luggage: a shirt and tie, a few cleanish socks and a toilet bag ought to suffice.

I will still look out of place next to Tony, who will doubtless be kitted out in full kilt and sporran, with a dagger in the sock, but even if I am entitled to the tartan (thanks to an honorary Scottish grandfather, or something along those lines - I get a bit confused sometimes) I am so not going to do that. All those men wearing dresses and hairy codpieces, with brightly-polished, reflective shoes - I don't think so.

In other news, Stéphane and Sébastien turned up on the doorstep on Monday with a friend of theirs: an estate valuer. We gave them all the full guided tour, and some time in the near future we will find out what she thinks. (Coincidence department: she spent a year in New Zealand, which may explain how she spotted us straight away for what we are: the jade, and the bare feet, were apparently dead giveaways.)

Otherwise, it's got to that dreadful time of year when our colonial friends across the water decide to numb their brains for a month or two with baseball or football or whatever, and there is sod-all TV worth watching. We still have a few episodes of "The Almighty Johnsons" put away for a rainy day (note to self, must try to hook Karen onto that, also loved the concept of the whiney tall dwarf and the midget giant) but otherwise it's pretty dire. What did people do in the evenings, before Al Gore invented the interwotsit? Play Scrabble? How madly exciting.

Reminds me that Mad Karen from Mumblefuck is going to have to change her sobriquet soon: not because she's getting any saner, just that her mother (yeah, that's the one that thinks I'm god's gift to just about anyone female and of Italian origin) wants to stump up some cash so that she (Karen) can put an offer on some enormous place in Seyssel.

Which is still a god-forsaken hole, but it's close to Geneva, which is good for Philippe, and as the house they're looking at is huge they can probably reserve an entire wing for Sylvia when she decides to come over from New York, thus reducing the chances of them actually meeting for any great length of time.

(I am not, incidentally, going to go into exactly why it is that Sylvia is now in NY rather than Los Angeles, which is further away from Yurrup, and consequently safer. Suffice it to say that it involves sister Liz, new baby, and a healthy dose of neuroticism which would keep Woody Allen in scripts for the foreseeable future.)

Heroic cloud sculpture of Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il
Getting back on track here, Sane Karen from Seyssel does not work and is also, strictly speaking, untrue, so I can see I'll have to put some serious work in on this one.

And then with Bryan having opened up this language school at Aix, it's getting pretty hard to find someone with whom to have a drink post-market on a Saturday. I mean it's all very well working and actually having clients who want lessons in the weekend, but it's kind of selfish when you consider all the times I've forced myself to loiter around under the sun with a glass.

Not that Beckham's much better, she's switched into summer mode which apparently means crawling from bed around 14:00 after a difficult Friday night's drinking in whichever bar will still accept her, and then going shopping for a few grocery essentials (like Chateau Carton white) with the rest of the flatmates.

Gratuitous cat cheescake photo
Whatever, now that I think of it it really does feel like summer, time perhaps to drag the barbecue out again for some Chinese-style marinated pork fillets with salad and potatoes, sweetcorn and goat's cheese cooked en papilotte over the embers. Something to cheer me up before, in three weeks time, the longest day of the year comes around and it's all downhill again.

And having come across the recipe earlier in the week here I was inspired or credulous enough to actually buy rhubarb at the market - not something I've ever done before - with a view to trying it out. (Also - finally - managed to find some decent mint, which you'd think would be easy enough but let me tell you it's not. Yes, parsley and tarragon and basil and dill and chives are all over the place, but a lot of the mint is of the decorative sort that looks pretty and smells OKish but tastes like crap, so if your favourite Arab stall-holder is out of North African mint you are pretty much out of luck.)

Anyway, there's still time before I have to go off and do the cooking thing, so I'll just leave you with this little reminder of just why it is we're still over here. Mind how you go, now.