Sunday, December 29, 2013

A Pleasant Surprise ...

Well, as Christmasses go that could've been a damn sight worse. Our good friend Tom turned up a few days back, prepared for the howling frigid gales of which we'd dutifully - as thoughtful hosts - warned him, so it stayed obstinately fine and windless. And Christmas day itself dawned bright and sunny, and as time wore on the sun got hotter, and my carefully prepared plans went out the window and we dragged a table and chairs out onto the terrace and sat out eating foie gras and barbecued chicken and jacket potatoes and salad. And getting rid of a couple of the bottles that have been sitting around here for long enough: a 2002 Bordeaux cru bourgeois and a 2005 Macon blanc.

There are any number of variously elaborate recipes for preparing foie gras, including soaking in milk, but I went for the simplest I could come across: pepper the thing, roll up in muslin and shoehorn it into a terrine just big enough to hold it, cover with a good dessert wine (I went for a mixture of Banyuls and medium sherry, somehow there was less Banyuls in the bottle than I recalled) and put the lid on before putting it in the oven for 45 minutes or so, on low.

Hint - given the price of foie gras, it may be cheaper to buy a terrine of the right size to fit the liver you have, rather than the other way around. Just saying. Happily, I have a selection.

Next time, I shall have to remember to pepper the liver a bit more heavily before putting it in the terrine, also to cook it on a lower heat, but it was far from being a disaster. So there shall, indeed, be a next time.

Then, to get into shape for dinner, we went off to the beach. Bit south of Narbonne, shade north of Port Leucate. It was gray and overcast and desolate there, but lovely - like most beaches in winter - and Shaun ran and gamboled like a mad thing on the sand, looking for the most disgusting dead thing he could find. Dogs can be so gross.

And once we'd got properly sandy and got the tang of salt up our nostrils and generally worked up a bit of an appetite, it was back home for those pan-fried venison steaks (beautifully tender after 48 hours in their marinade) and gratin dauphinois and goldenrod broccoli, finished off with blackberry charlotte just because I could. A wonderful day, hope yours was as good.

Of course it had to go titsup, and as we ate and the fire blazed (just for the fun of it) the rain started to pound on the roof as we wolfed down the food, and it kept going all through Boxing Day. Seems to be traditional or perhaps, in the words of my esteemed but junior colleague, "an ancient charter, or something". Still, we managed to avoid the gale-force winds that buffeted northern France, and so far still no snow.

Friday was another perfect day, so having better things to do and being anyway in dire need of cigars I took Tom off to the cité at Carcassonne. It is a massive pile, not too much the worse for the wear over the centuries, and I must admit that I rather appreciated the visit myself - must be something like 17 years since last I took a look. Doesn't seem to have changed much in that time, with the (welcome) exception that poop-scoop bag dispensers have been installed around the place so you're no longer at such risk of slipping on dog turds on the picturesque cobbled streets.

Then Saturday was market day again, and we had to sort out Tom's phone card and his train through to Turin on Sunday, and I wanted more suet (because there really is nothing like decent suet pastry once you've tasted it), which meant Narbonne.

Got the market done under a beautiful windless clear blue sky and about 15°, I guess - not too bad for winter - and dumped the loot in little Suzy before heading back into the centre of town. Found an Orange boutique without too much difficulty, and after only five minutes a black-skirted blonde with knee-high white patent-leather boots deigned to look up from her iThing and notice us.

She was actually very polite and gave no hint that she thought she was dealing with pond-scum, and very kindly warned us that if he used his phone for data whilst roaming in Italy he would be paying through the nose (actually, "hideusement chèr" were her words), that he would be unable to top up his account outside France, and that he had nothing particular to do to activate the data part of the deal. So we thanked her obsequiously and bowed our way out of the shop, freeing her to go back to propping up a display case and for all I know watching cute cat videos.

Being as how the shop was on the place de l'hôtel de Ville we thought it would be a decently touristy thing to step into the palace of the old arch-bishops, and thence into the cathedrale St-Just itself: another huge building and personally I cannot get over how the stone is so massive and so delicate at the same time. Also, as Jon Lord once remarked, they have a massive organ.

They shooed us out as the clocks started striking twelve - never, of course, at the same time, that would be too much to ask for - but we must have left by the wrong door for when we got out onto the street the sky was gray and a playfully chilly breeze was pushing a few drops about, and by the time we made it to the gare there was a light drizzle falling and the clouds were the colour of lead. Sad to say Tom will have a long trip: the plan was to shove him on the Narbonne-Valence TGV at about midday, thence to Chambéry and from there another TGV through to Turin.

But it had not clicked in our tiny minds that it is the Christmas holidays after all, no room at the inn and all that is part of the tradition, and the TGV was booked solid. But the young woman at the desk with a Provençal accent you could chew on for hours thoughtfully proposed another itinerary - one not requiring reservations, one of the few inconvenients with the TGV - and lacking other options, we took it. It does involve getting him to Narbonne by 8am to catch the TER to Marseilles, and from there on he'll have to fend for himself getting to Nice, from there to Ventimiglia, and then on to Milan and, eventually, Turin. A fifteen-hour trip, all up. Always assuming, of course, that no inconsiderate bastard has the sheer bad manners to foul things up for everybody else by throwing themselves under a train, as they did that morning between Montpellier and Nîmes. That really screws up the timetables.

Never mind, not much to be done about it, and at least the English Shop was open as we headed back towards the canal and it started drizzling in earnest. So as the husband-and-wife team carried on munching on crusty baguette and pâté and cornichons I gathered up my suet and some Colmans mustard powder and some black treacle (because I'm sure it'll come in handy, maybe for the next ham I do) and a bottle of sherry ("Stay clear", said he, "of the QC stuff, it's crap. It'll do for cooking, or French housewives ...") so I made sure I picked up some Croft's and paid for that and then we headed back out into the rain, which was starting to get all petty and spiteful at that point, and back to the car, for I had an appointment with a cassoulet.

Because a few weeks ago I picked up a 2kg bag of haricots tarbais (the best kind, apparently), and there was bacon, and cuisses de canard confites in the freezer, and as I was going peacefully about my business at the market I somehow acquired, along with everything else, a large chunk of an excellent garlic sausage and some lamb breast, so it seemed only reasonable to put them all together to create what tinned baked beans can only dream from afar of becoming. In another life, perhaps.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Cat, Flanked By Rat ...

Sometimes, you really have to wonder. I was looking for a midnight snack (hey, I don't worry that much about my waistline, it's not as though I actually have one anyway), delved into the cupboards and pulled out a packet of Chocolate Cookies! With Delicious Chocolate Chunks!! I mean honestly, who do they think they're fooling? Everyone knows that sales would plummet if they adhered to the truth in advertising standards and proudly announced the presence of Chocolate Chunks That Look & Taste Like Rat Droppings!! (May contain nuts!!!)

(Seriously, they're not that bad. I can tell you they don't look a bit like rats' droppings, and I've eaten seen a few in my time.)

Anyway, right now we is a-decking of the halls with boughs of holly, a-wassailing (a justifiably obscure sport involving a smallish bishop and a sharp pointy stick, and much merriment and a lot of screeching when the balls go into play), and any minute now I'm expecting a Hey-nonny-nonny. Or yet another "humorous" version of "The Partridge Family In A Pear Tree".

For over here in Ole Yurrup Christmas is icumen and the municipal handyman, aided and abetted by the mayor's idiot nephew, has been going around tying bunches of ill-assorted 40W bulbs to trees, buildings, and anything else that neither moves, nor protests too much. Which means that some of our neighbours, elderly folk who are none too nimble, are now nicely illuminated. Although they do tend to spark a bit when they accidentally earth themselves.

It's actually a bit of a bugger because place Carnot at Carcassonne has been invaded by a skating rink for the duration, and the market stalls have been pushed out into the surrounding streets and out in front of les halles. I just start to get used to it, work out where the decent places are, and then they go and shift it all around on me. Bah!, and humbug.

Still, we are trying to get into the proper spirit and to this end will head off on Monday to Richard and Mary's (these are neighbours, not a 70's pop group with long hair and, unfortunately, acoustic guitars) place for a party that will, apparently, go on until the unheard-of hour of 10pm! What are things coming too? (Not, I fear, wild debauchery. Although I may be pleasantly surprised.)

Also, I have been looking for Christmassy menus which involve neither too much excess (I would guess that's an oxymoron) nor oysters. I do not think that this one, from a restaurant during the Paris siege of 1870, would be appreciated around here ...

Hors d'oeuvre
Tête d'âne farcie
Stuffed asses head

Consommé d'éléphant
Elephant consommé

Chameau rôti à l'Anglaise 
Roast camel, English-style
Civet de kangourou
Kangaroo stew
Côtes d'ours rôties sauce poivrade
Roast bear chops in pepper sauce

Cuissot de loup, sauce chevreuil
Haunch of wolf in game sauce
Chat, flanqué de rats
Cat, with rats
Terrine d'antilope aux truffes
Antelope terrine with truffles

... those of you with long memories will recall that 1870 was the year that they ate the contents of the Paris zoo. Due to waking up one fine morning and finding the fridge completely empty.

Actually, for once we shall be relatively restrained. I bought a fresh foie gras and stuck that in the smallest of my terrines with some Banyuls and a dose of medium sherry, left it to soak and then stuck it in the oven to cook for 45 minutes: hope it turns out alright. It's my first time.

Then there's a chicken to be roasted, with as much garlic as I have about the house, for lunch - and some venison steaks, currently marinating in red wine, olive oil, vinegar, juniper berries and crushed peppercorns, destined for dinner. Possibly with baked potatoes, sour cream and chives. But I think that we shall take a good brisk walk between the two meals, just to make sure that we eliminate any surplus.

Sad to say, our woodland friends and extended Playmobil family did not make it down here with us, preferring to stay in Saint-Pierre. So this Christmas, exceptionally, you will not be entertained by their amusing antics.

Just one geeky bit, I promise, and normal service will be resumed until at least the New Year: but this "Smash the toxic Patriarchy inherent in all computer programming languages" was too good to keep to myself. (I assume that I am doing your work for you, by unflinchingly braving the torrents of filth and porn on the interbits and snatching a few golden nuggets for your delectation, selflessly oblivious to the harm it may be doing to my moral fibre. Those of you who do it for yourselves are to be congratulated.)

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays - whatever - to all and sundry. Take care, now.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

May Contain Nerds ...

So despite mùy moaning (sorry about that, Margo's learning Spanish) today turned out like it is supposed to in the tourist brochures - clear blue sky, sun swinging lazily golden through it, and no wind. These little details are important.

Whatever, made it a pleasure to take Shaun out for a trot at an ungodly hour of a Sunday morning, with the sun low in the sky and my boots crunching on the frost where the shadows still lay, the only noise the odd "Boom!" as a hunter, heavily fuelled by red wine, took a potshot at another hunter, doubtless mistaking him for a goat. Despite the camouflage jacket, which goats normally eschew, on the grounds that it would be unsporting. Also, inedible, which is very important to goats.

Anyway, I had occasion to head back up to Chambéry, and hopped on the Narbonne-Lyon TGV mid-afternoon. Left with plenty of time on hand, and as usual wound up hopping on board with only a few minutes to spare: don't know what it is with Narbonne, but once you get towards the centre of town it's always jammed. Note to self: next time, try taking the ring road up north and then coming back down to the gare by the back passage. Would have to be quicker.

The trip was enlivened by the presence of a group of burly Poles on their way somewhere from Barcelona, conversing jovially in their curiously vowel-less language. When we got off at Lyon I saw that the conversation had been animated, at least in part, by a now empty pack of 36 bottles of 8° beer ...

The next day was a "journée nationale de solidarité et d'action sociale", better known perhaps to you as a day of rolling strikes and go-slows, but in Ole Yurrup we do not care to use such language as it could offend. I'd feared the worst because these things usually start off with limbering-up exercises the previous day, but luckily I was spared any dérangement and the TER decanted me at Chambéry just in time to miss the last regular bus out to La Ravoire (par for the course), so I grabbed a kebab and a glass of red and tried to stay warm until the first night bus turned up, an hour or so later.

I don't know why it was, but when I dropped the hire car off on Saturday I ambled off to the gare and picked up the return tickets I'd ordered that very morning. Normally I just pick them up as I leave, it only takes a minute or so ... but whether it was prescience or just plain good luck, it turned out to have been a Good Thing.

Another one for the collection
For from La Ravoire to Elephants on a Sunday morning there is but one bus, which leaves at 11:06 and arrives at 11:24 - which leaves plenty of margin to catch the train that heads out at 11:39. Under normal circumstances anyway, for as I waited at the bus stop in the bright chilly air it became apparent that the buggers had changed the timetables for Christmas and had totally neglected to inform their bloody web site, and that the bus had absolutely no intention of turning up just at that moment.

I really hate cutting things fine, but Stacey got me to the station with all of a minute to spare, and most of that was eaten up by dashing up and down stairs ... made it onto my train, anyway. Flustered, and sweating profusely (I really should train more for just this sort of thing).

As usual, having booked the tickets I'd not bothered to actually look at them, apart from the headline articles like departure time - problems with correspondances happen to someone else, in my experience - and so I had it firmly in mind that I was going to get off at Grenoble and have an hour to grab a decent café-croissant and check up on spices and stuff at Carrefour d'Asie: somewhat to my surprise they've actually finished work on the lines between Grenoble and Valence (not before time) and the train chugged on and deposited me at Valence-TGV at the appointed time. On the bright side, I have to admit that the sandwiches there are a cut above the usual railway fare. Not difficult, I admit, but they are freshly made with a good crusty demi-baguette and not smothered in mayo.

Always think that at some time I can get away from niggling technical problems, such as why Margo's laptop won't send mail anymore (bloody Avast with bloody automatic update bloody breaking things) for a while, and every time I do I am inevitably disappointed. Somehow. Usually my own fault, let it be admitted ...

Patron saint of facial eczema, with a client
Now I have three laptops, two of which are reasonably svelte and the third is an enormous brick with the firepower of a battle-cruiser (and about the same weight), and it is the main Linux development system about these parts. I also have various little Linux boxen at different stages of development (and all more or less in bits, held together with string), and all these things are hooked up to the home network. Those of you with long memories and a high boredom thresh-hold may recall that I set up RDP servers on the Linux machines, so that I could just log onto them from my Windows machine and let them do the heavy lifting, without any of the hassle of having to press a button to swap keyboard, screen and rodent between any of them.

And so it came to me, as I was heading out the door to go up to Chambéry, that instead of lugging around in my long-suffering backpack some 6kg of armour-plated Intel Core i-7 and a few boxen in various states of undress and disrepair - just on the off-chance certainty that at some point, if I didn't have them with me, I would seriously need them - that it would be so much easier, and much lighter on my back, if I could just log into the home network from wherever I happened to be, and do what needed to be done.

Your standard half-competent geek would probably have organised that with a few obscure incantations and a thousand-line shell script while the car was warming up, but I am not quite in that league and so I waited until getting back before plunging into the soul-destroying misery that is French "help" screens loosely translated into something approximating English that Orange choose to deploy on their Livebox ADSL routers. Because, dearly beloved, I was going to set up a VPN! (Wasn't that clever of me? Just say "yes", I will be insufferable but you never know, it might get me to shut up earlier.)

First step, fairly obviously, is to go through a dyndns service to get me a URL, so I don't have to go and check what the router's IP address is each day: I don't know why, but the front-end software on the Livebox offers me the choice of exactly two such services, one of which is no longer free. Suppose I should be grateful that I had the choice.

Alternatively, I suppose I could have hacked the Livebox, but such an act would probably have voided the warranty. As they say. (Not that that would have presented any major problems. Going on past experience, if you turn up at an Orange boutique with a Livebox that no longer, for some reason or another, actually works, they just look at it gloomily, try once to log on and fail dismally because I've changed the password - Doh! - and then say "Eh ben, c'est foutu", hand you a brand new one and toss the old one into the landfill.)

Having got through that I then had to go set up the actual VPN itself, which is an arcane process. There are doubtless people out there who actually enjoy arguing the merits of Diffie-Hellman elliptic wossname level 3 vs level 5 over breakfast, or working out exactly how long it would take, down to the nearest microsecond, for the NSA to break a 17-character message encrypted with AES-512, but I am not one of them. Quite frankly, it kind of goes over my head. So I gritted my teeth, and went through all that.

Anatomy lessons, C13
This being done, I now have to test it, as I'm sure something will foul up. Shall doubtless have to open holes in firewall, or something. Which means that I shall have to have access to a network other then the home one, preferably from the comfort of home so that I can make changes as required without a 10k trip from McDonalds (where the Wifi is apparently free, if you don't include the price of having to eat a Miserable Meal) back here just to change a single encryption setting to see if it works. Bummer. Ah well, put that one on hold for a bit.

In unrelated news, I was idly flicking through The Register and if you ask me, the Crown prosecutor should be hauled up immediately before the beak for grievous verbal harm, violence with intent, outrage to the public dignity and wanton cruelty to the private parts of speech -

I mean honestly, "will now be commenced"? What's wrong with plain old "begin", which has the added advantage of being short, simple, and Anglo-Saxon? Maybe it's true that lawyers don't speak the same language as the rest of us. (Or maybe I'm just being overly-sensitive. It could've been worse, like "will now commence to start" f'r'instance.)

Think I mentioned that Jacques got kicked out released from hospital after his operation, headed straight back home and sat down to a serious surfeit of morilles. They found a few left-over bits of cancerous tissue and so he's on six months of chemotherapy, which he reckons is a right bitch. I reckon the old bugger is virtually indestructible, so I'm not going to worry too much for the time being. See how it goes.

Anyway, I have things to do and although that doesn't usually stop me it does involve paying work so I'd better at least make an effort to look as though I'm on the case.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Letter "F", Of Course ... *

Having some pears to hand, and vague memories of having seen a tub of mascarpone in the fridge, I'd rather set my heart on a pear and mascarpone tart to follow the roast saddle of lamb: sadly, it was not to be. There was indeed a tub of the stuff, lurking at the back behind a jar of pickled beetroot, and even though I am normally of an optimistic disposition I have to admit that seeing that the use-by date was late August did make me a bit dubious.

But wait, there's worse to come!

So I got it out, and put it on the bench, and finally, being terminally fool-hardy and somewhat retarded on occasion, I opened it. You ever have one of those "It's Alive!" moments? Where something gross and greasy, with a mouth out of Alien that looks like it's borged the waste disposal unit, leaps out of the toilet bowl thirty seconds after you've vomited in there, frantically waving foul tentacles at your face? Well, this was kind of like that, only it was orange, and seemed friendly enough. It heaved itself into the sink and gave a cheery wave as it disappeared down the plug-hole, leaving only the tub and a lingering smell of rotting milk as souvenirs.

And a vague farting noise, which persisted for some time, but personally I put that down to the drains.

Looking back on it, I guess it got opened in Savoie back in June, then made it down here in the half-thawed chilly bin on our epic voyage and promptly got put into the fridge, where it had evidently been lurking with intent (and botulism) ever since. That kind of put dessert on hold: I suppose I shall just have to go and buy some more, but I shall try not to let it get quite so ripe this time. Being accepting of different cultures is one thing, but having lactose-based life-forms squatting the fridge is another.

Out here in the wops we is so far from civilisation that gravity has only recently been installed in some houses in the village (some of the older residents don't actually want it, arguing that being able to float in their wheelchairs up and down the stairwell is in fact rather convenient - think Dalek - but we must move with the times and in any case the mairie has finally coughed up for a bulk delivery which must be got rid of somehow, before the mayor's idiot nephew's wine cellar turns into a proto-black hole, one of the things they don't warn you about in the T&C on Amazon by the way), and we are far enough from any major conurbation that the street lights don't in fact light up the sky, which thanks to the eternal wind is clear and dark blue - which means that we get a wonderful view of the stars, shining so hard.

I am far from being an expert but I can pick out the Pleiades (that's the little fuzzy blob where you can never count how many stars there are if you focus and actually try, but if you look away and pretend not to be paying attention it's obvious that there are in fact seven but I always get paranoid because I'm pretty sure there's one more trying to sneak up on me from behind while I'm looking at the others) and Charlemagne's Wain (which would be the Big Dipper, for those across the pond) and Orion, currently low in the east, is a snip. But I will never see it in quite the same way again, having looked at this.

Anyway, for your general edification and just because I feel like it, back to Perpignan ...which is, in fact, a lovely city. Apart from the bloody wind, which I am told is not - despite appearances - perpetual. In summer, for instance, when you could really appreciate it under the baking sun, it's not there.

So Perpignan was one of those bits of France that used to be Spanish - or vice versa, depending on which side of the frontier you happened to be on, and where the frontier actually was at that point - but that's rather moot because back then neither Spain nor France existed as such so I suppose it just belonged to whoever happened to be living there at the time, which is not so bad if you're talking about a house but could be unsettling for a country. Whatever, Jaime the Nth of Aragon waltzed into the Balearic Isles one day and took over: being a tolerant chap, as things went back in the day, he hardly slaughtered any Jews (he needed their cash to keep coming to fund his wars), and even went so far as to leave the DJs and the ravers undisturbed in Ibiza.

An act which has come in for much criticism from modern historians, who tend to be a moralistic lot and who dislike having to pick their way between recumbent mostly-nude bodies on their way from the cheap hotel to the beach in the mornings. Which just goes to show that they should have taken up something more profitable than ancient history, upon which they would have been able to afford decent holidays in a hotel where the interior walls don't actually fall down if you sneeze in the wrong direction, and the crap that washes up on the beaches is mostly driftwood and not drunken pasty-faced London twenty-somethings after a hard night on booze and ecstasy.

But I digress. This James left Aragon and Catalonia to his eldest son, as is only right and proper, but he happened to have a second son, also name of James (are royalty always that boring when it comes to choosing names?) to whom he left the kingdom (as it now was) of Majorca and associated territories, which just happened to be a few strategic cities on the Mediterranean littoral, Perpignan being one of them. (This went down like a cup of warm snot with the older brother, as you can imagine. They were not, apparently, a happy family.)

Whatever, young James comes into his inheritance when his father shuffles off this mortal coil, has a bride lined up and everything: small problem, no palace. This is important because a) queens like palaces and b) a court with no palace is basically a bunch of people in fancy dress crapping in a paddock which c) may give the peasantry Ideas, never a good thing. Bigger problem, no cash. (See "Jews, extracting money from, wars, for the fighting of" above.)

So they went ahead and built the thing anyway. I'm not saying it was done on the cheap, just that dressed stone costs the earth and takes bloody forever, so they built it with courses of brickwork and flat river stones, laid herring-bone fashion to distribute the weight correctly. And stone facing when and where they had the money, and everywhere else - well, stucco did a pretty good job of covering it up.

It's an impressive heap, all things considered. Vauban, military engineer par excellence, got sent in later on of course, when the Languedoc and Roussillon were assimilated asked to join the kingdom of France (Louis XIV sent an invitation, and "non!" was, apparently, never the correct answer), probably giggled a bit but decided there wasn't much more he could do and settled for fortifying the rest of the city. According to the plans that must have been something: it's all gone now, torn down and used for other things.

(Another thing I did not know: Louie had 3-D relief models built of all the major French cities, with special attention paid to the fortifications. Fairly obviously, they were not 1:1 scale. They were stored in the Louvre, and available for consultation by his generals any time the neighbours or the peasantry started to get uppity. Perpignan has on display a replica of the one Vauban had built.)

But the city got rich: being a port city there was trading, of course, but in the 19th century it got even richer on, of all things, cigarette paper. (Well, to be honest, a couple of families got obscenely rich.) In those days, if you wanted a fag you'd take your paper, cut a square out (for it came in big sheets) and roll the baccy up: now this guy had two brilliant ideas - first was to pre-cut the paper into just the right size, second one was to package it in a cunning cardboard box so that when you pulled one sheet out, a bit of the next sheet was pulled out and sat there shyly, ready to be taken in its turn.

He patented the idea, and came up with a trade-mark: his own initials, with the losange of the city of Perpignan between the two: sadly, everyone thought that the losange was just a capital O and so to this day it's JOB cigarette papers.

In any case there were vast quantities of cash floating about and before developing a social conscience and going off to improve the lot of the poor and indigent (who doubtless deserved to be that way anyway, as witness the fact that they were indeed poor and indigent) it was deemed reasonable and proper to spend it on monumental piles to house the family, the cigarette paper factory and, down in the cellars, the poor and indigent workers. And for some reason, one Viggo Porph-Petersen, from Denmark (or Sweden, whatever, Scandinavian, lots of blondes running about with no tops on in summer), turned up one day and got taken on as architect.

His style was - eclectic. An incestuous coupling between Gothic, Flamboyant and neo-Classical, but the odd thing is that it works. You want turrets? Got turrets! Dormer windows? The cuter the better! Iron ghost-chasers on the mansard roof? Hell, let's have three! Sadly, a lot of his buildings seem to have seen better days, but even dilapidated as some of them are they are wonderful.

Later on art nouveau became the in thing, and one of the major boulevards is still lined with the swanky apartment buildings and private houses from around 1910, and the cinéma Castillet is still standing - and still used as a cinema. Although it did get upgraded to include a sound system, something which would have been redundant back in 1911 when it was built.

The history lesson is over: I am going back to soaking up the sun under the clear blue sky in what's left of this wonderful golden Sunday afternoon, and you lot can get back to your barbecues.

* I know, I know, "What is the capital of France" is definitely a trick question. Just checking you were still awake.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

And Great Cthullu Gnaws My Bum ...

Trying to escape from the computing-themed whines that have plagued me for the past couple of weeks, met up with Piratical Philippe the other day. Now when he's not off demolishing and refitting chateaux, he has his gang of Poles refurbishing a small house in the village for he and Caroline. At least, the rubbish skip outside is always full of plaster and concrete and bits of wood, so I have to assume that they're gainfully employed somehow ...

And while he's responsible for the house, Caroline looks after the garden. Now she has a company in Toulon, I think, that consults on landscape gardening - tell you what trees to put where, stuff like that - and she seems to know quite a lot about trees: even knew, without prompting, of the feijoa, which is not doing too badly if you ask me. So their garden will have trees, all sorts of trees.

Which means that every time she goes shopping, Philippe knows that he has to get the back-hoe digger into the garden behind the house and prepare at least ten three-cubic-metre holes, to plant the things. Could explain why, when we met, he rolled his eyes heavenward in an admittedly theatrical manner whilst she waxed lyrical over the virtues of this, that or the other giant celery plant.

I rather think, much and all as I cordially detest the idea of naming one's house (like, I mean "Dunfartin"? Or "Sans Soucis"? So bloody 60s, the places are bound to be monuments to Formica, and plastic ballerinas clothed in cockle-shells, and "humoristic" bogroll cosies. Unless of course it is hysterically humorous in intent, such as "Mastitis Manor".) I shall have a plaque made for theirs. With, quite simply, "Dunsinane" upon it.

Whatever, after a week of chilly, cloudy, wet weather the rain has finally stopped and the sky is clear brilliant blue again. Not that this means it's any warmer, there's the eternal wind from the west which is, like I said, very lazy - goes right through you, rather than around you. Which means donning scarf, gloves and coat for the morning Evacuation Exercise, and also reminds me that I have not yet found, amongst all the boxes that haven't yet been unpacked, my big heavy overcoat.

Still, warming myself up in front of the screen with the first coffee of the day and a bit of serious investigative journalism, I came across what has to get the prize for best introductory sentence of the week: Flabbergasted investigators say that a previously unknown, very exciting Brazilian pussy was right under their noses but they have only just realised it.

Sometimes, the fruit of our loins is a puzzlement. Jeremy is a wonderful young man, but sometimes he seems to be as blonde as cousin Elise. Nothing to do with intelligence, I think Elise has an IQ the size of the GNP of Peru, but things happen ... and so it is with J, what with his magic explosive touch with computers he has also acquired - if genetically, it must be a recessive gene - the knack of being a target for theft.

First time round it was his laptop, in Nimes, which disappeared mysteriously from a motel room (always brings to mind the sad story of Percy's uncle and the Great Fire of London, that does) - then he left his backpack, with wallet in it, unattended for five minutes and lo! suddenly, there was no more wallet (which is a bitch, because getting a new credit card is relatively simple but getting a new ID card is a right pain and you have to jump through hoops to prove that you're actually French) - and then three days ago his scooter was stolen.

It's not as though he did anything wrong there, the scooter was in a locked garage and the lock was forced and surprisingly enough, shortly afterwards the scooter was gone - but you have to wonder, how exactly does he manage to attract this attention?

On the bright side, the cops apparently worked out whodunnit and found the scooter: on the darker side, as his official address is down here, the dossier was sent to the gendarmerie in Lézignan. So when he rang to tell us of a) the theft and b) the recovery, he hinted that we should perhaps go let them know, so as to avoid being rousted from bed at some ungodly hour by an over-enthusiastic gendarme hell-bent on interrogating us.

Back in the day, the gendarmerie would have been right in the centre of town, somewhere between la Poste and the mairie, but in these enlightened times they like to stick them out in the wops, I suppose on the grounds that if the yoof feel they have to go out to burn and pillage and otherwise annoy the officers of the law, at least they won't be disturbing decent law-abiding citizens while they're at it. For in Lézignan, the caserne is located about 5km from the centre, in the middle of the tundra and surrounded by empty fields as far as the eye can see, its closest neighbour being an empty building site which proudly proclaims itself to be the location of the new lycée. Once the state and the conseil régional cough up the necessary cash to put up anything more than the sign, anyway.

As Margo remarked, it's really rather good planning - with the plods next to the college they won't have far to go to look for the criminals. In one building, or the other, take your pick.

Whatever, we eventually found the place, buzzed at the gate and got admitted and cooled our heels for a bit in the waiting room whilst the cop in charge (very nicely kitted out, by the way - expensively shiny-looking synthetic trousers bloused into glossy black boots, a couple of handguns and more radios than you could shake a stick at) looked after a bad case of colic, and then got asked to explain our business.

Which we did, as best we could (not always easy, trying to re-explain Jeremy second-hand) and he sniggered politely and although he doubtless had better things to do kindly explained: "Ne vous inquiètez pas, le temps que ça arrive de la Savoie ce sera en deux mois, ça sera classé et on va pas vous emmerder ...". I guess that's reassuring.

Also, Saturday being rainy and thus propitious for such things, I headed back to the market at Carcassonne, for we were in dire need of vegetables and great bloody hunks of meat. (Also wine, but we picked up another 5000l at CDD that evening, just to fill the emergency tank, so that's alright then.) And I must be growing feeble in my dotage, for I stopped at a stall manned by a tall shaggy pony-tailed man, and bought some certified biological organic bread.

In my defense I would just like to point out that even though he claimed to grind his own flour for the pain aux quatre ceréales it was not, as is so often the case, lumpen and sufficiently dense to sink unwary ducks, and the raisin bread, sweetened with molasses, was excellent, and contained no nuts. (For some strange reason, raisin bread in France almost always has walnuts in it. I've never quite worked out why this should be so, but take it from me. So this was a pleasant surprise.)

His accent was sufficiently execrable that I spotted him immediately as an American: we didn't really have time to chat, because the meat was calling out to me, but I kind of picture him as an aging hippy who fled California fifteen years back to live in a yurt down south, communing with nature and his goats, and knitting his own yoghurt before the bottom dropped out of the fermented dairy products trade and he was obliged to take up bread-making in order to make ends meet. That's my theory, anyway.

Anyway, we bravely signed up for another sortie with the retired folk and the OAPs, and headed off to Perpignan on Sunday. A beautiful day, with the kind of bright blue sky that you generally only ever see on the more expensive postcards, but there is one thing that you should know about Perpignan - the wind is vicious. Those of you who live in Wellington will be nodding your heads sagely and getting ready to go off on a kindly put-down starting off "Now, when I was a lad we'd not have called that wind ...": well, you can take your patronising remarks and stick them somewhere dark. It's the sort of wind that starts off playful, and it's not so bad in the sun so you don't mind so much that you forgot to bring your gloves, and then you go round a corner and it leaps out at you and skirls up inside your jacket.

After a few minutes of that you're wondering why you didn't bring a bloody overcoat, and your old Turoa ski bonnet while you're at it, and your ears have gone numb. And you have a camera in hand, so you have to swap hands occasionally to put the one you can't feel anymore under an armpit, until a bit of blood starts to trickle back, and it turns a slightly ruddier shade of blue.

I swear it followed us all through the palais des rois de Majorque (a particularly short-lived dynasty, by the way, only made it up to king n° 4 before dying out) and it must have thought we were friends because it followed us into the centre of town and waited patiently outside the restaurant to play some more when we came out, to go look around the Belle Epoque bits of town.

I'll go into that at a later date: right now I have some confit de canard to fish out of its own fat and stick in the freezer for a rainy day. Enjoy your spring, won't you?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Yog-Sothoth Eats My Brain ...

I had better things to do, which is probably why instead of doing them I decided it would be a good time to go reinstall Fedora on the second little Samsung that's been sitting around here for the past three months. This time I got the options right and it came up looking as I wanted, with all the development tools installed etc: last thing to do was download and install the cross-development environment for ARM, and do a first build.

Of course every five minutes that would come up telling me that the FTP server was down, I'd restart and it would go a bit further before doing it again ... very, very boring. So at that point, as the actual environment itself was set up, I though I might as well just copy the directories and such over from the big Asus - and of course, I was working on Windows Samsung at the same time, which meant three machines running at once.

And because I am not the sort of person who is going to leap from keyboard to keyboard just for a couple of arcane commands, and the little KVM I have here only swaps between two machines, I guess you can imagine exactly how I wasted my time.

That's right, trying to recall the steps that need to be done to get Samba up and working on SE Linux, then installing a VNC server on both Linux machines, mumblefucking because I couldn't access one from Windows using its name (that was the nmb service that wasn't started, for some reason - fooled you) but had to use its IP address, and finally logging on to both at the same time, from the Windows machine, using Remote Desktop.

Bloody marvelous, works a treat. I can sit at my main machine and have my Linux desktops but a click away. Sadly, I can no longer recall exactly why I wanted to do that.

Anyway, the weather still hasn't cleared up sufficiently to make further work on the terrace possible, so Cédric's been bashing about up on the top floor, which is now gutted.

Which is, coincidentally, kind of how I feel, just having had my soul destroyed thanks to the URSSAF web site. You may recall that I found out that I am now what is called profession liberale, and the organisme compétente is the URSSAF: they maintain a web site, the Centre des Formalités des Entreprises, on which you may - if you prefer not to deal with their staff, I'd hesitate to call them human beings - declare all those interesting things like the establishment of your company and so on.

Having procrastinated researched the matter for long enough I girded my loins and pointed Firefox at the damn thing. I always use NoScript for personal web hygiene, so I rather expected to have to allow (temporarily, for I am paranoid) the domain - and indeed I did - and finally the online form popped up. Now this is divided into blocks, each of which has some required and some optional fields, and I foolishly thought I'd hop about and fill in the easy stuff first - you know, name, address and phone numbers, stuff like that ...

Alas, each block seems to have its own validation routine, so when I'd filled in my name and tried to put in my phone number the damn thing screamed blue bloody murder at me, saying I had not filled in my nationality. Right, nationality ... pick "other" from the list, and this cool moiré effect gets applied so I assume it's trying to call up a pop-up but suddenly nothing happens, and it continues to happen so I guess that maybe there's cross-scripting from another site and maybe I'd better go authorise that one too.

The only other site listed is globalsign, and I can't see why I'd have to authorise that given that they're just a CA, but what the hell ... go do that and yes, the pop-up shudders into life and I get to tell the site that I am in fact a New Zealander, born in Napier. Fine, carry on - and at this point I wish to check a radio button, to select how I'm going to declare TVA (or GST, to you). Apparently, radio buttons - and drop-down lists too - are totally inactive. They must have dreamt up some really fancy Javascript to get that effect.

I came to the conclusion that this wasn't going to work, so fired up Chrome and headed back to the site. The radio buttons worked, but the pop-ups would not. Well, one did, but only once, and then had a hissy-fit at me and died.

So finally I started IE (I suppose I really should have used version 6.1 - and yes, I still have a copy around, if I fire up the way-back machine - if I wanted to experience the site in its true glory, but quite frankly had it come to that I would actually have gone into the local office at Carcassonne, sat down in front of the desk and insisted on doing it together with the "person" opposite me) and had a bash with that.

I managed to select "nationality: other" from the list and no pop-up popped (sigh of relief): I made it all the way down to the bottom of the form, carefully using the TAB key to skip from field to field to get there (in case it got upset), typed in their stupid captcha and hit the "Save" button.

At which point it screamed at me, saying that I had not filled in the number of my carte de séjour - quite true, because it hadn't asked for that. Which is kind of odd, because when I selected "other" as nationality under Firefox that pop-up came up and asked me for that, but under IE it did not. So I had to scroll back up and click on the button that said "Modify my nationality" (would that it were so simple) and then lo! it asks me for all this information.

Still hadn't finished, because it then - quite spitefully - decided that I'd got the captcha wrong, and proceeded to redisplay the whole form, with a new captcha. I suppose I should be grateful that it didn't wipe all the data I'd so painstakingly entered, I was certainly surprised.

I still had a few neurons functioning, in what passes around here for their normal state, but apparently not enough because I then went on to give Stacey a hand with her music. Her mother bought her a fruity fondleslab when she was in the US, and as she was headed off for the weekend thought it would be a Good Idea to take some music with her ... fair enough, and I thought it would be a simple matter. Silly old me.

This being an iThing™ I was aware that you can't just copy stuff across to it as one would do with any normal gear, although I'm still not sure as to the reason: I guess that maybe Apple just don't want anything detracting from the totally brilliant, life-changing simplicity of the user experience, or something. And anyway, Stacey had tried that, with complete lack of success.

I very carefully did not say "I could have told you that" because at that point it would've gone down like a cup of warm sick, no, I put on my best bedside manner and said "I'm afraid we're going to have to install iTunes ..." and set about doing it.

This did not, of itself, take a long time: what pissed me off was what came after. For starters, the damn thing came up saying it had a couple of hundred tracks in its library but they weren't where they used to be and what did I propose to do about it? No mean feat, given that it was a first-time install. Then, having zapped all that, how do I import the actual music that there is? There is indeed a menu option to do that - one bloody track at a time, about as useful as the proverbial tits on a bull.

So I look it up on the intartoobz, and discover that, counter-intuitively, I have to drag and drop folders ... go figure. Now iTunes has the music in its maw - how to get it onto the damn iPad? "Easy", says the innergnats, "click on the iPad button on the menu bar ..." - except there isn't one. Until, five minutes later, one magically appears. Click on it, the menu bar morphs into another one, and there is a "Synchronise" button. Hit that and it chunders away happily for a while, and then tells me that iOS 7.03 is available and would I like to update?

Why not, it's not as though I have anything to lose, at which point up pops a warning that there are apps on the slab that aren't backed up onto the PC and I must save them before continuing unless I wish to have my first-born sacrificed. Now tell me again, for I respectfully submit that it is not self-evident, exactly how I go about doing that? I had, rather naively I admit, thought that the whole bloody point of synchronising was that the two devices were in fact synchronised ie had the same data, but it seems that there is another, arcane meaning, or I do not speak Apple.

In any case I passed on that - at least the music was where it needed to be so the thing was more or less fit for purpose as a glorified MP3 player. Put like that I suppose it doesn't sound too ghastly, but it still wasted the better part of ninety minutes.

Whatever, it's comfort food time over in these parts, and as the butcher had a special on I walked out of there with a leg of lamb and a few chicken parts and a ginormous slice of beef jarret which is destined for a stew, so fairly obviously I decided on gigot à la bretonne.

A term which, incidentally, no-one has yet explained to my satisfaction: the Oxford insists that it refers to a dish prepared with a garnish of cauliflower (me, I'd always thought that was du Barry, but I could be wrong), whilst coquilles St-Jacques à la bretonne are briefly poelé in butter and then put to rest on a bed of stewed onions with parsley and white wine before being strewn with buttered breadcrumbs and then baked.

Whereas the lamb of the same name is quintessentially from around these parts: dried white beans are soaked, then simmered in white wine with chopped tomatoes and onions and some parsley is added: the whole lot goes into the bottom of a baking dish, the leg of lamb, studded with garlic and rosemary is set on top, and it all goes into the oven to roast, soused basted with more white wine periodically as either the dish or the cook dries out. So why in hell try to pretend this is Breton is completely beyond me. Not that I care too much, whatever its ancestry it is rather delicious.