Sunday, July 29, 2012

In Which Pooh Is Serious ...

This is unusual, but une fois n'est pas coutume as they say, and with a bit of luck I won't have to do this again, so I am going to start on a serious note. This blog started out as a diary of sorts - like it says on the tin - and little by little over the years it got a life of its own and friends and acquaintances started popping up in it - some of them have become regulars - and, as will happen with me - constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone - they came in for a bit of tender mockery. Tender because I love them all, but to those friends I do owe an apology: I can be cruelly thoughtless, I will exaggerate (not actually lying, maybe some details get omitted or even changed I admit) for the sake of a good story, and it's not as though you even asked to make an appearance here. So I'm sorry, and I will think a bit more before opening my mouth in future.

This public service announcement and mea culpa being over, normal service is now resumed.

So having, once again, occasion to find myself in a pharmacy with nothing better to do, I amused myself looking over the shelves of condoms and KY jelly. (Please, do not ask. It's not really germane.) Things certainly have changed, not sure if it's for the better, it was so much easier before all this choice became available.

I mean, they had "Senseo Ultralite" with "Intimi-Fit technology" for "un max de plaisir", packets of "Prolong'" for "un effet retardateur" (yes, that means what you probably think it does), a "Magic Box" of 18 different styles, colours and, no doubt, flavours, and then the ones that I imagine must just fly off the shelves, "Extrem XXL". So who in the name of hell is going to ask for small-size condoms? I mean, really? Back in the day it was a choice between a packet of 6 or a packet of 12, and if you didn't want flesh-coloured (actually, livid pink) you were stiff out of luck. Tell that to the young folk today ... spoiled rotten, they are.

There was also a packet with a picture of a feather on it, but I didn't open it to check if each was indeed equipped with a feather on the end: I suspect I'd have been bitterly disappointed. Also, they did not have small Meccano-like shoulder-fitted winch systems, for those awkward moments when a bit of mechanical assistance is required. I guess Viagra has rendered those obsolete. I know you have to go with the times, but it's still rather sad to see these old crafts disappear.

Mind you, some of them were pretty pointless, not to say cruel. I mean, badger-baiting? I really cannot see a trout going after a badger on a line, no matter how attractively dressed. (A shark, on the other hand ...) And as for the old Shriven Wednesday tradition of tormenting an adolescent weasel (these days, by making harsh comments about his acne), I don't know why they bothered. The little bastards are depressed enough as it is, no point to adding to it.

Saturday turned up again, as it tends to once a week, and S. kindly offered to take me in to the market. She had ulterior motives, of course: wanted to head off first to a farm across the valley that sells home-butchered meat, mainly pig, and beef once a month. I can see I shall have to go back there - the diots looked really good, and the chorizo was excellent. And apparently they save the hampe for them as likes it, which means me, maybe I shall order some.

And as her idea of 9:30 errs more on the side of 10:15 (in all fairness, mine's not much better) we weren't exactly early at the market, so it's her own fault that someone snagged the last bundle of purple basil at the stall I often go to for vegetable exotica. Shame, for I would've liked to have tasted it: supposed to be a bit lemony. Still, they had sweetcorn, and my pepperoncini should be ripe in a couple of weeks, and their tomatoes are excellent, even the really incredibly fleshy ones that look like some wierd pointy pepper. (They're actually rather good for cooking, as you don't have to bother squeezing juice and seeds out.)

There were also round courgettes, about 3" diameter, which meant that I had to go pay a visit to the charcutier just inside the actual market hall and get some lard fumé paysan. I really need to make some more of that, especially as they charge €18/kg for the stuff, and I can put it together for about €5. (Note to self: must get on to trying out my idea of using a flowerpot and a hotplate as a simple smoker.)

And then she fell to talking, as she does, to all and sundry and in particular to a little old Algerian lady kitted out in headscarf and a literally golden smile, who told her all about how to conserve celery (although personally I can't imagine why anyone would wish to do so but what the hell, I'm broad-minded) and they discussed important matters like whether or not it's possible to have too much basil. (The answer, incidentally, seems to be "no". I swear they both left with what looked like an acre's worth of production each.)

Anyway, about the time my basket was full to overflowing people started packing up, so we decided it was time to stick everything back in the car, adjourn to the Beer Tree and see if we couldn't tempt Bryan to abandon his vows of abstinence in favour of a glass of Gourmandise. (This latter being, in fact, an excellent rosé from the Languedoc. They have very nicely offered to get me a carton next time they stock up, as the stuff's only available at Metro - which is a supermarket reserved for professionals. I love these people.)

(Which reminds me that Bruno from Sorhea turned up the other day to discuss a job, and very thoughtfully brought along a case of Uby. If ever you see some do go buy it: it's a blanc de Gascogne, slightly sweet and exceedingly fruity, and absolutely delicious, well chilled, as an apéritif. But don't try drinking it with the meal, unless all you're having is foie gras. Try it, and tell me I'm wrong.)

Whatever, we were sitting hogging a table as Bryan related Beckham's latest adventures in Lille and this intermittent line of uncomfortably well-dressed people - I'm talking women tottering in  high heels that looked rather new and were obviously  unfamiliar - starting snaking out from one of the traboules that connects rue de Croix d'Or with rue Dessaix, and even Foul Ole Ron had a clean shirt on: the aftermath of a wedding at the cathedral in place Métropole, heading off to a reception at l'Atelier. At least, that was my bet.

Luckily we didn't have to move to check - not that we really had any intention of doing so - for about ten minutes later this harassed-looking guy came along carrying an enormous croquembuche with dangerously pointy-looking bits of nougat and put it down on a table at the Indian restaurant across the alley from us. Then, for some reason, he disappeared.

Only to reappear, looking even more harassed, to pick the thing up again and head along rue Roche with it, back the way he'd came. A clear case of mistaken identity, wrong wedding or wrong restaurant.

It turned out to be the latter, as an evidently uncomfortable guy in a suit (and it was very hot, and humid) came sprinting along, mumble-fucking as he ran, to get the cake delivery back on track. I'm sad to say that we were all laughing our heads off, mean-spirited of us I know but quite frankly, what would you have done?

I would like to take the occasion to say that Bryan, despite - or perhaps because of - his advanced years, has a shocking tendency to vulgarity. Not content with pointing out a passing resemblance between the pointy nougat bits and the male anatomy, and going on from there to a few ribald comments about the groom's equipment, he had to come out with this "And that reminds me ..." line about a party game for weddings, involving the groom (the target), the bridesmaids (the players), and a set of quoits. I could, actually, have done without that.

The meeting broke up in disorder about that time, mainly because Bryan wanted to head off for a run and on top of that it started to rain: not a good time to be sitting out in the sun.

So we left, and I started to think seriously about lunch, which turned out to involve those courgettes stuffed with a mixture of sautéed onions and lardons and their own chopped guts and chopped tomato and breadcrumbs and as much basil as I could reasonably get in there being baked in the oven with a huge glob of goat cheese atop each one (hint: pour a bit of water into the cocotte before it goes into the oven, what might otherwise burn turns into a really nice sauce that just cries out to be wiped up with bread.).

And whilst that's cooking (about 30 minutes at 210°C, do check from time to time though) you could do a lot worse than to cut the kernels off a couple of fresh ears of sweetcorn (don't forget to scrape down the cobs with the back of the blade to get all the last bits and the juice out), bring a frying pan up to heat and then sauté them in butter with some chopped onion, some sweet chili pepper, a sliced tomato, parsley (last-minute, please) and a bit of decent curry powder. When it's just about ready, could break a couple of eggs on top and cover the pan for five minutes. Sheer bliss.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bugger! With Feeling ...

I sometimes wonder. I mean that people come here looking for "bottle stuffed anal" I can, at a stretch, understand, but that someone would be looking for "self needle amater torture" rather boggles my imagination. Does no-one learn how to spell properly these days? I blame it all on SMS and Twitter.

Anyway, I checked out the price of an Olympus 40-150 zoom, to replace the one that died in Glasgow, on rueducommerce the other day, found it acceptable and that they had it in stock, and then let the matter slide because I couldn't for the life of me remember the password for the site, such things all being stocked in the faithful old Palm which sits permanently on its charger at home. (After 12 years of good and faithful service - I remember writing my diary on it when I was in Cameroon - it's slowly dying. I'll be saddened to have to abandon it at the recycling.)

So on Tuesday I suddenly remembered, had the password to hand, and logged in to order: none in stock! I don't know why, but this left me feeling incredibly frustrated, and I just had to have one. Or at least, know that one was going to turn up in the mail really soon.

Which is where I made a foolish mistake. I headed off to the FNAC in the centre of town and up to the first floor where all the cameras and electronic gear live, and looked at the lenses. It was hot, I was sticky and sweating, and the nerdy salesperson (who at least seemed to be semi-competent) was servicing some twit who knew only that he wanted a bunch of megapixels ... and there was only one Olympus lens on the shelves, and it wasn't the one I wanted.

Finally the twit hove off, still perplexed about exactly what an aperture was and what to do with it, and it was my turn. So I stood there dripping sweat and popped the question: I felt somewhat like the customer in the cheese-shop sketch. And I got the answer I'd rather been dreading: "Sorry squire, fresh out. Can do you one for Friday ..."

That, I'm sad to say, was when I snapped. It had become vital, I absolutely needed to have a replacement zoom that very minute or else I would burn up with frustrated desire ... five minutes later - no self-control, talk about instant gratification - I was walking out with a 70-300 zoom that was kind of more than I'd bargained for. "Don't bother wrapping it", I said, "I'll just fondle it as I go."

Which I did. It is, let's face it, more than I need, but I can always justify it to myself on the grounds that it'll be really great for picking up the finer detail on shots of buildings and such. At least, that's what I tell myself.

Completely off-topic (does this little diary of mine actually have a topic? Or even a plot-line?) I'm happy to say that I seem not to be too allergic to hornet stings. I moved my foot the other day - something that sometimes happens - and managed, through inadvertence, to put it right next to one of the little buggers. (Not true - the "little", that is. The sods are huge.) For a very short while - until I squashed it - it was most unhappy with me.

Which it showed, in the traditional bloody-minded manner typical of the species, by leaving an entry wound a couple of mm in diameter and pumping my foot full of whatever particular toxin it is they use, but at least it didn't swell up like a balloon: as in, I've been able to wear shoes. A bit of a tight fit, mind you, and feels rather odd.

So anyway, Saturday started off well enough: I had my new lens and was happy, picked up Stacey and went off to the market. Can you imagine, she's lived around here for as long as we have, and she's never been there? I can't think how that could happen, although it is evidently possible.

And to her credit she did very little moaning as I whipped through from stall to stall trying to satisfy my needs for fresh fruit and vegetables and, above all, fresh piment d'espelette or even better, Italian pepperoncini. (Stiff out of luck there, sad to say. We've had such a gross summer, please feel sorry for me.)

Still, there was rougette and tomatoes and cucumber and baby carrots and fresh herbs and butter beans and aubergine and flat Italian peaches (which have to be amongst the best in the world) and I managed to get the apricots back to the car without squashing them, which has to be good.

Then, having little better to do, I said I'd make lunch, and discovered that if you find yourself with enough spare bastard puff pastry on your hands, you could do a lot worse than to roll it out and sprinkle heavily with sugar and raisins (or cranberries are good too) and fold the two long edges in to the middle, then repeat the performance and cut the log thus obtained into two-inch slices which you will then put into the oven for about 15 minutes, until they're crispy and puffed and the sugar's caramelised. (Note to self: do this on parchment paper next time, avoids critical remarks on the state of the baking tray afterwards.)

We got onto those - they turn out rather like a Danish pastry if you do it right - and around 14:20 Stacey remembered that she had a wedding to go to: coincidentally, at 14:30. Cue a mad rush as she clambered into her glad rags, thrust a set of keys into my hands and asked me to clean up and then lock the place as I left.

I dutifully did so, and rather to my surprise as I went out the back door, found the keys still in it, on the inside. Just goes to show what happens when you're in a hurry, I guess.

Anyway, as she's a bit paranoid about her arsehole ex I took her keys with me rather than stuffing them in the mailbox or shoving them under the mat, and headed home to unload the car.

So far so good: a pleasantly lazy afternoon under the sun and so of course, in accordance with tradition or something, it was at about this point that things went titsup.

Wedding and drinkies apparently over (of course she got lost going to the reception afterwards, sometimes I wonder how she manages to do that), she found herself at home with no way to get in, so I said I'd go past and drop both pairs off.

I turned out to be mistaken in that. About 500m down the road, a moment of inattention and a brief altercation with a tree and there I am, the car lying on its side across the road, a popped airbag in front of me (I never realised before just how much they look like a sad condom) and a kind of bloody Rorschach blobby thing on my left forearm: carpet burn from the seat belt, I guess.

Car's a total write-off, I suspect, but what the hell. I do have to admit that I really did not plan on having that happen, and it did kind of mess up my evening. And I do hope that the garage finds the battery for my cellphone somewhere in the wreckage.

Whatever, worry about that one on Monday. I suspect it'll be a busy day.

So today, in between checking up on various places for sale down in the south and south-west of France, and a visit to the gendarmerie to fill in some papers, I think I'll grab the camera and go for a bit of a walk up in the hills.

Maybe up to that Sardinian avalanche dike, haven't been up that way for years. Come to that, haven't been for a walk anywhere for years ...

Well, that was fun. L'adjutant Saleh was friendly and competent, I do think it's a shame though that her colleague was gendarme Blot. Not a name I would have picked myself, mind you I suppose he had no choice in the matter.

As for the car, I never cease to be amazed by the French. Usually so bloody-minded and, generally incompetent, it is a shock to find an insurance company that actually works. I rang to see about making a declaration du sinistre, thinking I'd have to go off and wait for hours in their offices before retelling everything at least three times to some bored old hack noting it all down on a grubby scrap of paper, but no. It took about three minutes on the phone, and within a minute of hanging up I had a text on my cellphone with the file number and contact details, and to let me know that the expert would be going past tomorrow. Kind of a shock.

Whatever - mind how you go, now.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Gaillac, and Other Points South ...

So I promised you tales of food and glory, and thee shall have them, but first a bit of news: not only has Jerry been accepted for les compagnons, but we now know where and when he'll be - respectively, Nîmes, and to be there at the end of August. Not only that, but he got his bac, despite his dire forebodings.

He made a big deal of not being worried, but on Friday morning, when the results are published on the intartoobz, I came downstairs to find a note stuck on the coffee machine (the one place, I admit, where we're sure to see such things, smart lad) asking us to check up and text him the results.

Which Margo duly did: he'd been working at Stéphane's mum's place that morning, and from what I gather work was rather cut short around 11am, as the apéro rather degenerated. Getting into the spirit of things I went down to the cellar and found a bottle of 2003 Pouilly Fuissé lurking under a cover of dust (most of the bottles down there haven't moved since I stuck them away, we'll have a lot of drinking to do when we shift) but sadly he decided to go off to a concert that evening ...

And then on Saturday, when I'd kind of hoped to be able to open it at last, he decided to go off to a party at Sophie's place: she being away in the Drôme for a couple of days, Lucas decided that it would be the perfect occasion for an end-of-year party. Whatever, we is pleased. Very. If you feel like congratulating him, I'm sure gifts of money would be appreciated: nothing bigger than €100 notes 'cos that does rather draw attention.

So anyway, I told you about Najac: the photo's just there in case you forgot. The place used to belong, it seems, to the counts of Toulouse, and I think it'd be a right bastard if you happened to be the postman, what with getting the mailbag chucked at you from a horse at the top of the village and then having to run 400m downhill and 400m uphill just to deliver a few flyers, a reminder about an unpaid bill from the Vatican for an annulment and the latest catalogue from the Knights Templar.

And the plain brown wrapper thing that her Ladyship ordered, apparently something to do with all the men-folk being off on heretic-hunting or the Crusades, and one must occupy ones-self and let's face it, after a while needle-work becomes desperately boring.

And there's never a troubador, or a locksmith, around when you need them. A shame really then that the "Love Honey" fell through the unexpectedly open temporal warp in its neat package with the prominent warning "Batteries NOT included", as LiOn batteries were not going to be invented for another 700 years or so, which is rather a long time to hang around waiting for a buzzy thrill.

Definitely time to drag out the equivalent of the Yellow Pages, and check up the entries under "Casanova".

I seem to have digressed, the meds must be wearing off. Now one of the reasons for heading down to the Averyon was to check out on the housing market, and to this end we had a couple places to look at. The first was not far from where we were - la Capelle-Bleys, if you remember (don't worry, there will not be an exam afterwards) - and Alain vaguely remembered the place, so we headed off one evening.

Four hectares of land, big house with possibilities ... true, but sadly it was located on a blind corner of a busy road, and you could see why the asking price was only €110 000. A shame because it was indeed lovely, an old posting relay with two wings and stables, think "The Prancing Pony". Not for us.

Then on the way back to the house Alain, being a mayor and everything, mentioned that there was one place for sale only a few km away, and the municipal employee lived just next door and had the keys anyway and we could probably take a look if we wanted ... so we did. Brain-dead person that I am I did not have the camera with me, but the place has possibilities. And at €240 000 almost affordable.

Then on Sunday, just on the off-chance, we all headed off to somewhere near Gaillac to look at their daughter's house, this too being up for sale due to various circumstances, including an acrimonious divorce. Let's not go there. Anyway, it gave us a chance to look at the countryside and all those touristy things, always appreciated.

We arrived to find a stand of massive cedars or whatever, and bulking behind them what they call a "maison de maitre": a bloody big house, in anyone's book. A bit of lawn and a swimming pool out the front, and a big lawn out the back, sloping down to the river. About 2000 m², apparently.

Whilst I think of it, Gaillac is in the Tarn (I think, or maybe it's the Hérault, can't remember off the top of my head and can't be arsed looking it up) and the countryside is very different from the Aveyron.

Aveyron is deceptively flat-looking: you sort of stand somewhere and look out over gentle, rolling terrain. Then you go out for a walk or a drive and realise that what you where looking it was just the tops of valleys, and that to get from point A to point B you actually do an awful lot of going up and down. Often on little windy roads that have hairpin bends everywhere, good thing I'm used to that, having (mis-)spent some time driving in the mountains around here.

Completely different from the Causses (home of Rocquefort, should you be wondering), through which we came heading north after Montpellier. That's sort of high rugged moorland, with great outcrops of rock everywhere and the odd sheep grazing somewhat morosely: very beatiful but I would not want to live there: too stark, too desolate, too isolated. Good place to be if you want to become a hermit, though.

And around Gaillac things definitely change: real, rolling countryside covered with - what else, this is France - vines. Cultivated, nice, but less interesting. I still like having mountains around - they do add a bit of relief. In a topological sense.

That was, should you not have noticed, a digression. Now over, our apologies and normal service has been resumed. But you may have to reboot your iPhone.

So anyway we went off to this place, and I must admit that I fell in love. I seem to keep doing that, often with the most unsuitable people. Or, in this particular case, houses. Out of our price range; at €450K, and as Margo very reasonably said, "do you really want to be mowing 2000m² of lawn every weekend?".

Which, when you think about it, is in fact a pretty compelling argument, given that the answer is an emphatic "Non!"

But it was definitely a beautiful place. Don't worry, I'll probably fall in love with the next one we see, especially if it's cheaper. (I don't actually love them as such, I just say that to get them into bed.)

And after that, we went off and had a surprisingly good - and affordable - lunch at a little restaurant about half an hour away. (Something about the French: they think nothing of driving for an hour to get to the restaurant. They may bitch and moan about how there's nowhere to eat closer, but they'll do it. Us too, these days.)

Anyway, it looked rather unpromising: a sort of concrete blockhouse attached to the little private airport outside Gaillac, and the decor did little to reassure me, but the food was great. They styled themselves as a tapas restaurant, and did it well. And for possibly the first time in my life, the waiter was not only helpful but knowledgeable, suggesting that perhaps the combination I'd picked would not be the best as one would overpower the other - that is just so bloody rare. And, on reflection, he was quite right.

So we wound up with caviar d'aubergines and a dish of fresh marinated anchovies in olive oil to start with (absolutely exquisite, with great hunks of fresh bread), and I personally went on to some tender lamb chunks that had been seared with lemon, coriander, cumin and a few other bits and pieces, whilst Alain & Mijo split an enormous hunk of steak that looked really appealing and Margo settled for lamb chops. With a pichet of the local red and dessert the whole meal came to €95 for the four of us, which is pretty bloody good.

I really do wish I'd thought to note the name of the place, never mind, it's not as though you're likely to go there so you won't know what you're missing.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Scotland, The Brave ...

So I made it to Glasgow, anyway. Arrived in plenty of time at the airport, and thus - only myself to blame, I know - spent two hours faffing about in the bloody Geneva terminal before deciding that perhaps I really should look at going through security.

Where, even though I did remove watch, small change, keys, titanium implants and the delivered-confidentially-under-plain-brown-wrapper "Enhancer" (never know when you might strike it lucky, in foreign parts) and wotnot, I still beeped going through the gate, and was thus singled out for special, not to say intimate, attention by a friendly black giant who complained loudly (and, I hope, jokingly) that everyone that day seemed to want to show him their bums.

Not that he was bad, if a tad old for my tastes, but still a shame I didn't get to be frisked down by his hot blonde co-worker: I suppose she was reserved for the ladies. What is it with these immigration people? I thought same-sex stuff was bad?

Then it was passport control, where the guy was rather suspicious and I had to drag out drivers licence, French ID card and you name it before he was satisfied. In his defence, it is indeed true that the last stamp in my passport has me leaving France and never coming back, and so from his point of view I could hardly be leaving it again five years later.

And on arrival at Edinburgh I was immensely pleased to get a comfortable jolly guy at the desk rather than the enormous grumpy lady next to him. She had the air of someone who bit chickens' heads off for pleasure, maybe she was just having a bad day.

I must say that public transport in Scotland is a pleasure to use: the shuttle bus whisked me to Waverley Station where the ticket people were very helpful and only fifty minutes or so later I was hanging out in front of Queen Street Station, Glasgow, waiting for Malyon to come and find me. And good girl that she is, she'd picked up a couple of bottles of chilled Californian white and a baguette for her poor old father.

(Note: now know why they drink beer over there. A bottle I'd pay maybe €1.90 for, and maybe clean floors with the contents, they have to shell out £5 and pretend to enjoy it - but at that price you would, wouldn't you? And don't get me started on the price of cigars, it's enough to make you give up smoking.)

The baguette was a pretty poor approximation of the real thing, but what the hell: with enough cheese and butter stuffed inside it made a reasonable excuse for dinner. (Another note to self: decent cheddar is in fact bloody good. Unfortunately frikkin expensive in England, and virtually impossible to find in France, unless of course you make a habit of frequenting Laiterie Bayard in Grenoble, or one of the exclusive cheese shops in Paris.)

So the next day, up at the crack of dawn - sort of - to escort my daughter off to her seat of higher learning. God, I hate early rising. Still, oddly enough for Glasgow, it was actually fine and sunny (don't worry, it didn't last). And looking at her, all atypically tarted up, I have to say that it's not every day that you get to realise that your daughter - that small smelly lump that used to spill soggy rice bubbles down your front - is now a beautiful young woman. I suppose I shall have to get used to that.

They certainly do these things in style at Glasgow (est. 1541, if you can trust the sign on the tin): we got herded into the chapel with the high table set up for the great and good, and after half an hour of milling around the organist came out to try to put us all at ease, and teach us how to sing "Semper fidelis". Not, let it be admitted, a great success. Luckily it was in fact a mighty organ, squelched and bellowed enough to drown out our pitiful attempts at singing: too bad the organist was not a monkey. It would have seemed appropriate.

On the other hand, the reception afterwards was somewhat ratshit. Bonus points for the atmosphere - in the cloisters, rather than in the room where they dissect rats, or the stuffed animal chamber - but definite minus points for the fact that the only thing flowing into the glasses was orange juice. And NO NIBBLES! So sad.

Still, I got to meet some of Mal's mates, and Tony's family: Da, partner, and grand-dad. They didn't seem overtly hostile, and Mal even got a text later to say that I seemed to be quite a nice person, so I must have done something right for once.

Not that it takes much. Sometimes it's just the little things, like not sneezing in your beer. (Mind you, the rosé they sell in bars is pretty disgusting. Same colour as raspberry squash, and more or less the same taste. Blech!)

Mal decided to have a quiet night in (fair enough, it had started to persist down, as it so often does over there) which was probably just as well 'cos I was up early again to catch the train back to Edinburgh and the shuttle out to the airport - all under persistent drizzle. So I was kind of over-dressed for the 28°C that was waiting for me in Geneva.

Still, you know how, just before the plane lands, they always do the little bit about remaining seated until the seat-belt sign comes off, and you shouldn't even think about smoking because if you do you'll be digested by the thought police?

Well they did all that, and the plane was happily taxiing up to the terminal, and some-one - French, of course, what other species could it be - stood up and started trying to get his luggage out. From the end of the cabin: "Hello! Hello! What does the nice sign say? Do feel free to close the luggage locker." I swear to god I've rarely seen someone sit down with such alacrity.

So having arrived back around 14:00 Wednesday and spent until 22:00 or so trying to clean up some FTP problems for Fabrice of Cla-Val, Thursday we headed off to the Aveyron for four days. The quickest way - which Margo finally persuaded the GPS to show us - involves going down to Orange, heading west along la Languedocienne autoroute to Montpellier and then north through Millau, where there's that lovely new viaduct.

It's also where, as I was trying to take photos of said viaduct, I discovered that the zoom had died, as the focussing motors went clunk clunk clunk and you can't even focus manually because the focus ring just sends commands to the motors ... of course I hadn't thought to bring the other zoom, just the macro. Still, at least it's just the lens, and not the actual camera.

Whatever, from Millau you just keep on heading in what I can only call directions (various) and if you're lucky or your GPS is smart you will - eventually - arrive at la Capelle-Bleys, where Margo's friends Mijo & Alain live in a comfortable big old house with a lovely garden and a sheltered terrace with an awning, under which it is, as it turns out, very pleasant to take breakfast in the morning. Or, come to that, any other meal of the day.

Be that as it may, and having time to kill before bed, Margo and I wandered a bit and, as one inevitably will, wound up at the cemetery. Some of the names seem a bit odd these days: "Euphrasie Deleris (1876)", "Seraphine", "Euphrosine", then "Zephyrin" and "Firmin" (both male, incidentally). And I must have been a bit tired, because at first glance I thought that the big cross in the middle had been erected by the "lesbien faiteurs" of the parish, until I realised that I'd misplaced a space.

Incidentally, the Deleris (Tremens) family is still going strong, although I doubt that there are many Euphrasies these days.

The next day, as Margo tried herding cats for her dyeing course (what I'm trying to say here is that a group of womencan only be organised with some difficulty), I thought I might as well do at least a bit of tourism, that being mainly what I'd come for, and headed off to Albi, the city of the arch-bishops. It's a lovely place, all in red brick and half-timbered houses above the Tarn. But it was a true ciel de plomb, as the French say: gray sky, stifling hot and humid: I'm sure a lot of people must have been sniggering at the crazy foreigner  who walked deliberately and repeatedly through the fountains outside the Préfecture, trying to cool off.

And while I was there, it seemed a shame not to take in the musée Toulouse-Lautrec. For some uneducated country bumpkin such as myself, who'd only ever seen the cabaret posters and such that he did to make a living, it was quite a revelation. Never realised he was such a skilled portraitist. Chalk one up to experience.

Whatever; the palace and the cathedral are marvellous. Overpowering symbols of temporal power, like the  bishops weren"t too happy with just the spiritual bit. They certainly seem to breathe something along the lines of "make my day, punk". So if ever you get a chance, go to Albi. Worth a detour, you won't regret it.

At this point  I should probably point out that Alain is also M. le maire of this tiny communr in the backblocks, and it's a full-time job. He invited me out for a walk Saturday morning - just to get my appetite up for lunch - around the various sentiers just to make sure that there weren"t too many brambles or nettles to snag unwary tourists.

So even three or four km away he knows everyone, have to stop with news of this or that building permit that's been turned down (well, that'll put an end to one festering feud) or a goat that's got better, or old Mrs Thingie whose arthritis has cleared up, say hello to the daughter that's turned up from Paris ... small-town mayor is not a job I'd want. He likes it, I can see why, but I don't think it's for me. Fortunately; I'm not eligible.

Whatver, after two hours under the beating sun we were both ready for some rosé: followed, as it turned out, by lentilles, steaks de jambon and salad. And bottles of cool red wine, which were definitely welcome.

As if that wasn't enough, the next day I thought I'd head off to Najac, which is punted as some sort of old village, very touristy. As it turned out to be.

Now for some strange reason, the village itself is on the top of a valley (OK, ravine): the actual chateau is at the same level, but on a spur of rock that is only accesible by going down about 400m, then up again. Which, foolishly, I did, in the baking 35° heat, arriving at 13:50 to find out that the chateau opened its doors at 14:30. The choices were pretty stark: I could hang around there with no shade, or I could just say "It"s another bloody chateau" and head back down to find a bar that would sell me a glass of rosé. Guess which option I went for, no prizes to the winner.

And when I finally got back to the car I stripped off, ignoring the bleats of dismay from the Dutch tourists, spritzed myself all over and drove off, swearing that I"d never again go some place that didn't have showers. Mediaeval is all very well ...

I should probably tell you about the surprisingly excellent lunch at the airport at Gaillac, and the houses we looked at, but that can wait for next time. Knackered, going to bed.