Sunday, March 31, 2013

My Brain Is Full ...

So like I said, it was gray and dismal today, and as the afternoon wore on I started to think seriously about warm comfortable food, and then I looked in the pantry where the serious spices lurk, which is probably why there's a vegetable curry simmering away on the stove-top, and a large apricot clafouti sitting on the kitchen table, ready to go into the oven.

And then, between all that and going down to the garden under the grey drizzling rain to look at a few sparkles of sunlight glistening on the first daffodils down there, and the primeveres in great clumps, I started looking up facts and figures on gîtes and chambres d'hote: late, you may well say, and doubtless correctly given that in principle we're out of here in something around three months, but better than never.

So now I know that the average occupation rate is, according to an INSEE survey in 2010, about 28%, that only 20% do tables d'hote (for which there is a formation, but no qualifications required), and that average turnover for a three-bedroom place is about 20K. There are many other fascinating statistics out there, but I do not wish to bore you to the point where you start gnawing your own legs off to escape, so I will not recite them all.

On the other hand, Mad Karen (who spent time as a financial wizard before moving to vegetate in Mumblefuck) reckons that we really should see a notaire down in the district, who knows what's going on, before we settle on exactly how we set it up: one possibility is having an SCI that owns the place and an SARL, of which we are the sole shareholders and employees to run it, paying rent to the SCI for the privilege ... yes, that does sound complicated I agree.

And as happens from time to time, I found myself at the Beer Tree looking for some vitamins: apart from Camille and Simon, who were propping up the bar (an unequal struggle, as Foul Ole Ron wasn't on the other side pushing back) I was alone. So I made my way past them and what I took to be a couple of child restrainer seats and took my usual place and then Camille came and sat in one of those seats and leant back, evidently in total bliss.

Which is not necessarily something that I like to see, so I sternly asked what the hell was going on. So for starters, a négociant had come round that morning, to sell them wine, and they'd started the day at 10am with glasses of marc de Savoie, which is basically 50% alcohol and not bad if you have a full stomach but otherwise could be considered the start of a slippery slope towards - if not alcoholism, than at least laughing uncontrollably at inappropriate moments - and it had gone downhill from there.

Blood orange frangipane flan
And those restrainer seats turned out to be massage seats, which fitted nicely over the back of the chairs, and apparently it's open season so I may have to reserve my place from now on, because those suckers are good. Camille was a bit spaced out but still had the presence of mind to invite me to give it a try, so I did and turned it on to shiatsu, lower back: oh, sheer bliss. I probably looked about as sheepishly limp as he did.

Sadly I had to leave shortly afterwards: possibly not a bad thing for I rather suspected that the afternoon was going to go downhill as Camille answered the phone, nodded a couple of times just to check that his head was still attached, however loosely, to the rest of his body, and then gloomily confided through the serving hatch to Simon "une réservation pour dîner. Deux anglais. A six heures trente." I understand his pain.

Still, as I trudged back to the bus stop I couldn't but help notice the big sign in the window of the place that sells rather brief but exceptionally expensive lingerie on Boulevard de la Colonne to the effect that they were moving to Aix, but that they could be found at Brightened my day, anyway, sad old pervert that I am.

Then the weedy gourmet delivery guy turned up and we had another of those far-ranging discussions, which started out with the lamentable quality of the leather jackets you buy these days (to which I had to retort that I bought my last leather jacket almost 30 years ago in Hamilton and it's still going strong, have to admit that the lining has more or less evaporated though) and went through the usual twists and turns (for every French-person is, by some gift of bountiful nature, an expert on more or less everything) before getting on to food.

So we talked about his adventures with Thai cuisine, and then we got onto the subject of that night's meal which was, for him and I suppose a number of guests, going to be a 1.8 kg côte de boeuf on the barbecue. "Marinated?" I hazarded. "Oh no!" quoth he. "I never marinate beef, not if it's a good cut and well marbled. No need, and I find it changes the taste, and not to it's advantage. Now lamb or chicken, OK ..." And I would have to admit that he's perhaps not wrong. If you happen to have a good butcher.

And on the side, some little potatoes: ratte de Touquet, cooked in gros sel in the oven and then - his special little extra - once cooked, crushed lightly with a fork in some of the salt and drizzled with olive oil.

I could do no more than mumble, for that left me a bit ashamed of what I had planned. Which was, as I had some leeks floating about in the fridge, to slice and fry them with an onion and some lardons (yes, mine own home-made ones) before spreading them out on a disk of very thinly rolled pizza dough (with a teaspoon or so of herbes de provence in there), topping them with rounds of chèvre and sloshing some cream on top before sticking the whole thing in the oven.

And having made twice as much dough as required, it seemed only reasonable to make a pissaladière with the rest: in its purest form this is but tomatoes, anchovies and cheese spread on a round of pastry but these are degenerate times we live in and anyway I had half a tin of tomato pulp in the fridge that needed using up before if went seriously furry, so it wound up with the few anchovies I could find lurking in there being mashed up in their olive oil and spread over the pizza dough, the tomatoes going on top, tinned tuna on top of that and then some grated cheese.

Because around here, there always seems to be R+3 bits of various cheeses, where R is a reasonable number, and Jeremy seems to have this Thing about actually finishing off a hunk of cheese. The cheese appears in the fridge by the operation of the Holy Spirit, or some such: he eats it, and then at some point it diminishes to a point where it is too small to eat and too big to throw away. Or so it seems. So I must regularly make meals involving grated cheese, because otherwise we would be overwhelmed by small chunks of various cheeses, leaping gaily from the fridge every time we open it.

And as some of them are kind of runny this is not something I really want happening on a regular basis.

Whatever, it pissed down Saturday which does not, contrary to what a reasonable man could expect, reduce the fréquentation at the market, far from it: all those OAPs are out under their huge umbrellas and stop in gaggles to chatter in the middle of the alleys about the lousy weather and, quite incidentally, blocking traffic and dripping cold water everywhere. They're all deaf as well, and either won't take or don't hear subtle hints to the effect that perhaps getting out of the way would be a good idea ...

The point is that I really didn't feel like going past the pork butcher nor stopping in chez Jojo to pick up some diots, and of course I had completely failed, on leaving the house that morning, to get some meat out of the freezer to defrost and on top of it we have pickled beetroot in the fridge which can mean only one thing, hamburgers.

Of course I have hamburger buns in the freezer but for some reason that did not really appeal so I dug out that battered old copy of "Use Your Loaf" and turned to the page on "The All-American Burger Bun". This is definitely fool-proof but there is an important caveat, the things will rise and rather more so than you might think: I really should have made six buns rather than three. Still, there is a great advantage which is that, unlike the commercial crap (yes, France has great bread but they do not put the same effort into burger buns as they do into baguette and in any case commercial baguettes are pretty crap too and our local boulanger does not do buns), they do not fall apart when you're eating. Also, nice and crusty and warm from the oven.

Anyway, the pork shoulder has finally defrosted and the chicken thighs are sitting marinating in milk and peppercorns and cajun spices before being floured and going in to bake, so I have done my duty there and can no go back to digging through more statistics. Lord give me strength, I just hope my brain doesn't implode.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Killing Machines ...

Easter is i-cumen, and here in Ole Yurrup we is eagerly a-getting ready, burying small rabbits and the occasional chicken around at strategic spots in the paddock. So that when the day dawns, sullen and rainy as is traditional in these parts, and the air is full of the happy laughter of children at play, we can smile knowingly as the screams start, when they unearth the first zombie Easter rabbit from its final resting-place and its yellowing fangs sink into their necks. Then the flowers tremble as the earth splits ...

Olympic farting, for the athletically inclined
Damn sight better for them than chocolate anyway, if you ask me. Also, teaches them a healthy - albeit usually brief - respect for our furred and feathered woodland friends, which may come in handy for the survivors, later in life.

So, first day of Spring and what happens? It bloody goes and slushes, that's what happens. No wonder the daffodils are still lurking under the leaf-mould, too damned frightened to show their faces if you ask me.

Also, I would like to take this opportunity to point out, if I may, that Chambéry is slightly less lively of an evening than a shuffleboard game at the funeral parlour. Margo had the car that day as she had to head off at some point in the afternoon to go and do stocktaking so I was on public transport, and through no fault of my own I wound up working late and of course missed the train.

Never mind, I thought, just quickly check the horaires and see what's up ... no problem, a bus to Modane at 22:16 which pulls into St Pierre half an hour later ... so I turn up at the gare routière somewhat before the appointed time and commenced to linger.

The time drew closer, and still no sign of a bus, so throwing caution to the winds I penetrated the dismal halls and rather to my surprise found a bright-eyed and cheery young woman behind a guichet, so popped her the question - is there, or is there not, a bus to Modane tonight? So she tapped busily at her keyboard, rising to a crescendo of tippity-taps at the end, before telling me - very cheerfully, which made it seem so much better - that I had neglected to read the fine print in which it is clearly stated that yes, there is indeed such a bus but it is apparently related to the Flying Dutchman or something because it runs only on even-numbered Fridays in months with a "B" in them, when it seems there's more demand.

I suppose that will serve as a lesson to me. Sadly, probably not for long, for I am one of those in whom hope always triumphs over experience, and somewhere in the innermost dank recesses of my being I really want to believe in public transport.

Then, just to piss me off, Margo had a salon south of Grenoble this weekend so on Saturday - not of itself a bad thing - so as I fled the house at some ghastly hour I grabbed the coat of many colours from its hanger and quickly shuffled the contents of various coat pockets, hung the camera around my neck and headed down to the gare.

Mobster's last bike ride
So far so good, and the SNCF did its usual job (it not being a Thursday night) and got me to Chambéry, and I trolled around the market carelessly tossing more and more produce into the bag which got heavier and heavier ...

Now the battery life on the Olympus is really not too bad - a full charge does more than 500 photos, which for me is about six months of snapping - and ever since I realised that I'd done something stupid when I failed to order, when I bought it, the little optional battery pack into which you can slide a couple of AA cells should ever you discover, out in the wilderness, that the battery is dead, I'm quite paranoid about taking the charger with me whenever we go away. Which totally did not help when I unslung the thing yesterday, turned it on, and saw the dreaded Red Flashy Icon of Battery Death. Bummer.

Then, as those 20 kg of assorted greenery and fruit weighed on my arms, I discovered that I'd left the weekly bus pass in my other jacket pocket ... OK, it's not really that far to the station, but it certainly feels like a good ten kilometer hike when a healthy pineapple is jumping up and down humping the mandarins, cheered on by assorted leeks and an aubergine or two.

Whatever, just to cap things off nicely, I thought I'd better fire up the laptop and get a few things done - now on Wednesday as I was chatting with a client I could not help but notice that the Dell suddenly did a BSOD and gracefully rebooted all off its own bat, until it told me that there were no available boot devices and what did I wish to do about this. Basically, you panic, but turning it off and then on again fixed the immediate problem and I thought no more of it, putting it down to one of those little Windows idiosyncrasies that seem so often to crop up after Patch Tuesday.

Maybe I should have paid more attention, because it now refused completely to boot. No message, no nothing, just a blank screen with a cursor blinking sullenly up in the top left. It's the sort of moment when you wonder if you've included absolutely everything in your backups, and start feeling a bit sick ... luckily, I still have a couple of bootable USB sticks with Fedora on them, so I stuck one of them in and rebooted.

I must have been a Good Person at some point in my life because up came the boot menu and for some strange reason I thought I'd try the "Boot from local disk" option, and up came the familiar flying window with the reassuring message that Windows was restoring my session and lo! there I was.

All this probably goes some way to explaining why, even as I write, there are sparks coming from the Ethernet connectors down here in the catacombs as I try to push 50 GB of photos down the wires and onto the trusty old W2K desktop machine (for I have discovered, the hard way, that the shelf life of a DVD can be as little as five years - give me spinning rust any day) and various external hard drives are whirring happily.

And why Windows has its reassuring file copy dialog up, telling me that the further it gets, the longer it's going to take, and at this time I can reasonably expect another seven hours or so to go by before its managed to get the projects workspace onto the drive. Mind you, that's down from the 23 hours it announced at the start, so I guess I'm coming out ahead if you care to look at it that way.

Truth to tell, I've never been able to fathom just how the system estimates how long it'll take. I do remember, back in the days of Windows 3.1, looking into the matter and discovering that there was actually no smart algorithm involved: the progress bar just shifted right at a speed inversely proportional to the time actually taken so far. Which was, I suppose, a not-unreasonable heuristic given the hardware of the time and had the happy side-effect, should ever the copy actually finish (not, back in the day, a given), of impressing the user with the speed at which things finished.

Of course, that was wayback-then, and I'm sure things have improved. A bit, anyway.

And once that's done I can start copying over a decade's worth of email (maybe I should clean that up a bit, I'm sure I don't need all of it although I must admit that it does make a handy, if accidental, archival system for old files that I've exchanged) and then there are a couple of Linux virtual machine images and the manual backups of the workspace folder from the actual real Linux machine (for I have not yet taken the time to get rsync working with the Synology backup server, mea culpa) ...

With any luck all that will have finished some time before midnight, and then I can try turning the Dell off and back on, just to see if I can get by without carting the USB key around until I find the time to order a new machine and go through the delights of reinstalling all the ancient software that, for some reason, I still use. Mainly because it actually does something useful, without being cheerful about it.

Just saying, but wishing me luck would be a Nice Thing to do. Whatever.

And just whilst I think of it, have to love this. And, slightly scary, the people who are planning on buying this place are willing to pay 200K for it (considering we bought Russell St back in the day for about 50000 NZD, I suppose we've moved up in the world), of which they're sticking in 15K equity. I mean, 7%? I find this rather frightening.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

My Body Was A Temple ...

... but these days, it's more of a wine cellar. Or so Stacey remarked to me the other day. I suppose that's recycling at its best.

Anyway, I wandered around the market this morning and confided my (extremely) heavy caba to the care of Camille and Simon at the Beer Tree (for I did not really want to feel my arms perceptibly lengthening as I wandered about with the camera) and then on my way back from Dalya (motto: "Oriental specialties our specialty", or should be - they seem to have everything I need, and many things I never knew I needed, with the possible exception of jaggery powder which pisses me off no end for I have none left), feeling happy and warm with the afterglow that comes from finding something hitherto unknown and therefore ever so slightly sexy viz. some sugar-cane vinegar, I was hit with a sudden craving.

And seeing as it was more or less on my way anyway, I headed back to the market, braved the tectonic flow of elderly ladies out enjoying the sun and trying to make sure that no-one else was in any fit state to do so, and fought my way right to the back of les Halles couvertes to join the queue at what is now my favourite pork butcher of all time.

There is, incidentally, an art to this. For there in fact two queues, one for the charcuterie and another for the fresh piggy meat, and you must join the right queue or they may frown at you. Not for long mind you, for they are naturally cheerful and friendly people; so it's more like being gowled. As Jeremy used to say, back in the day, when he invented the word. Be that as it may, next time I need to make up some lard paysan, I think I shall go back there and get a slab of poitrine fraiche with which to do it. The supermarket stuff is all very well, but I'm sure that a bit of rustic porker would be that much better.

Of course, being unaware of the protocol, I orbited to eye up the meat and then joined the wrong queue. And then I realised my error at the last minute, just as I got to the head, made an excuse as I gave up my place and joined the tail of the other one. But despite being friendly they are also efficient, so it was only five minutes later that I made it out, with that bottle of vinegar in a paper bag in one paw (suppose, dressed as I was in good wool overcoat and all, I looked like a high-class wino with gutter tastes), and two lovely thick cotes de porc fermière lovingly arranged and wrapped in butcher's paper held firmly in the other.

At this moment, they are both of them bathing in white wine, vinegar and olive oil, with a bit of chopped shallot, some crushed juniper berries, garlic and peppercorns to keep them company: tonight, I think, they are going to find themselves searing in the big sauteuse until nicely browned, then going into the oven, wrapped in tinfoil, with some cornichons and capers and the strained marinade.

With some red cabbage coleslaw (yes, I found a small choux rouge at the market), garlicky green beans and baked stuffed potatoes (which our country cousins across the pond will insist on calling "twice-baked" potatoes, don't know why even if it is, in point of fact, technically true), I feel that should go down rather well tonight. Or if not the green beans, then maybe some blettes, fried with bacon, heaped atop half a pita bread and topped with tomato and chèvre before being baked for a bit.

Whatever, these thoughts made me feel a Better Person as I ambled back in the general direction of my shopping, and I have to admit that the bright blue sky helped a lot too, so I parked myself outside in the sun, ordered a glass of cabernet, and did my little bit for global warming by lighting up a cigar as I basked.

Sadly all good things must come to an end, and Bryan turned up and talk turned to more serious matters, such as The Business Partner from Hell, and whether or not it would be permissible to use a bazooka to get rid of the top floor of the building that was starting to shade our table as the sun swung round.

He had a vague feeling that it was probably against some obscure city bylaw or something, and on top of that he actually has a friend with a new-born baby living up there and was a bit reticent on her account, but as I pointed out you never know until you try, can't make an omelette without breaking eggs etc, and anyway it might well turn out to be a blessèd relief to the poor woman, and it would be presumptuous of us to assume otherwise. I'm not sure that I convinced him, but anyway the matter turned out to be moot because Camille came out and suggested that we just shift leftways a bit to another table in the full sun.

A pragmatic solution, I must admit, but I still feel that it lacked elegance.

Still, suppose it avoided possibly tiresome recriminations from petty-minded municipal employees who are oh! so willing to dish out parking tickets but go all mediaeval on you at the slightest hint of visionary inner-city remodelling, especially if it involves state-of-the-art ordnance.

And in any case we had to shelve the topic at that point, as Margo turned up with young Angie in tow, tugging on his leash. Like I said, lovely dog, but the brain of a lungfish. So he sat there panting amiably and sniffing the fire hydrant occasionally to see if something interesting, other than him, had happened to it in the last half-minute while he wasn't watching (it hadn't), and we slowly emptied our glasses before heading home. (Or, in Bryan's case, off for a little run: in training for another half-marathon, I guess. I didn't ask, I find it's so depressing when he says "yes". Always gives me a twinge of guilt that maybe I myself should be out there too, doing something Improving and restoring my body to the sanctified shrine to health and simple living that it once was. For all of ten seconds, and then the feeling passes.)

Then I thought I'd better occupy myself with Jeremy's latest. His body just seems to be a Luddite, it's somewhere in the genes. Don't get me wrong, it's not that he dislikes technology or anything, it's just that Bad Things happen to it when he's around.

I mean, he has blown at least three PC power supplies by the simple expedient of their finding themselves in the same room as he, there are a few motherboards that just breathed their last when they saw him, and any number of light bulbs that have spontaneously combusted in his presence.

So I suppose it should have come as no surprise that, when he put his scooter away the other night, the ignition key bent and twisted of its own accord so that it was no longer usable. The thing wasn't even in the ignition at the time, how could that happen? And of course, he didn't have a spare key.

Which meant it was back to shuttle-bus service of the evenings, doing the round trip to Montmelian around 22:00 to pick him up from the restaurant, which is seriously annoying when you're just half-way through an episode of "Justified". So lacking an anvil I put that key down on the flat of a large mason's mallet and then, with another mallet, proceeded to bash hell out of it, with malice aforethought, until it looked not so wobbly as before.

It even consented to go back into the ignition slot, which is one problem fixed, but I still wonder exactly what is going to break under his influence next time around. Hopefully, nothing too valuable.

Hebe, goddess of laundry and shopping lists.
Anyway, as if to redeem itself in some way for Saturday having been such a wonderful chocolate-box day, right now the sky is a louring dull grey and the hills across the valley are wreathed in cloud. Sort of weather that makes me, personally, want to settle down with a cookbook and leaf through the pages looking for something familiar and warm. And that I can do with what's in the house, which at this moment happens to be about 400gm of mince, and Things In Tins. I'm sure I'll come up with something that is neither meatloaf nor lasagna.

Oh yes, like I said we accepted the offer on this place and now we sign the compromis de vente on Wednesday, which makes it all Official: with any luck we'll hear back soon from Peter and find out if our offer for the place in Moux is acceptable. Also, have to find out if the purchase is à l'anglaise, ie furnished, which would, if it turns out to be the case, leave us with an awful lot of stuff on our hands. Mind you, we are no strangers to accumulated possessions, or "junk" as I prefer to call it. I'll let you know.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Every Stricture Pelts A Tory ...

Marianne. Nipples not optional.
... which is, technically, an herniated Spoonerism which'd doubtless feel a lot better if there was a story to go with it, but I do not care, it is my friend.

So anyway, it was raining sullenly today as I headed down to the Beer Tree for a quick top-up in the vitamin department, and they were glad to see me because there was but one other client (so glad, in fact, that they treated me to another glass of Cabernet, which quite possibly represented the day's profits but that is hardly my problem) and they virtually forced the plat du jour upon me, despite my initial reticence.

For it was a pavé de saumon en croute de moutarde, and I did rather fear that the mustard was going to overwhelm that poor delicate salmon, which just goes to show because I was totally, completely, utterly wrong.

They'd taken some whole-grain mustard, mixed it with breadcrumbs and maybe some grated parmesan and then spread the lot over a slice of salmon and baked it just right, and it was in fact delicious. And, being in a good mood, I said as much to Simon the cook, and it was about then that I got that glass of wine ... see where honeyed words can get you?

And as I sat and nursed the glass at the bar, who should stride in but Dirk Gently, who didn't bother to remove his trilby but parked his arse toute de suite next to me at the bar, cried out for a plat du jour and a glass of ale, and started eating - and talking. All at once. A nice chap really, if you can disregard that rather disturbing habit of masticating round his words. A bit larger than life, though.

So Margo came in with Jeremy in tow last night, having picked him up from the restaurant where he was working late (his scooter now has its plates and he is legal, yay!) and announced that it was flashing orange again. Briefly I toyed with the idea of a witty rejoinder, along the lines of whether it was the spatio-temporal distortion detector or the pedestrian velocity anomaly indicator that was playing up again, but rapidly discarded that in favour of a quiet night, and resigned myself to just feeding the car next morning without any superfluous comments. Sometimes it's just so much simpler if you decide not to be a smartarse.

An existential question from the dawn of time, or perhaps a cri de coeur from an unreconstructed (and unapologetic) music-lover: What is it about the otherwise harmless, uncontroversial and inoffensive Justin Bieber that makes me want to kick that shit-eating wanker in his non-existent, hairless nuts? Quite honestly, I don't know the answer to that one, but I can certainly understand his plight.

 Anyway, we're back in the Aude: as I write I'm perched rather uncomfortably on the edge of the bed in a B&B hotel on the outskirts of Narbonne, given that my PC is tethered to its dead rat and the only power point in the room is under the TV. We headed down just before midday: much to my astonishment the autoroute was pretty much empty apart from a slightly gross bit as we were working up to escape velocity around Grenoble, and to general surprise and applause we met up again with Peter a good 45 minutes early.

Beautiful on the way down: the sky was full of great sculpted masses of white cloud floating in blankly luminous blue: kind of reminded me of those Brent Wong paintings we all used to go wobbly-kneed over back in the day. (Full disclosure, that was me too. Those days I was still young enough to think that I knew what I liked.)

First of all he took us off to see a place in Puichéric which definitely had possibilities: an old three-story house just off the banks of a rigole and not too far from the canal du Midi. High ceilings, old tiled floor on the ground floor and the original wood floors elsewhere, and wonderfully light and airy. Unfortunately, also rising damp on the ground floor, which is - I admit - a perennial problem in these parts. And pigeons.

So we thought carefully about that one before he took us back to Moux, where he showed us what is probably the closest we've seen to what we want: another three-story house, in the heart of the village, with a terrace and sun-trap verandah. Also, fit to be lived in straight away, with a minimum of redecoration, and even better, well within our budget. Maybe even if we do buy the huge old stone barn just down the road, and turn that into an atelier and gîte.

Tomorrow we've another few properties to look over, but to be quite honest this one in Moux is looking extremely attractive. Only problem, I suppose, would be all the English-persons living there, for they are pretty thick on the ground, but I guess we would learn to live with that.

And tomorrow duly turned up ... we roused ourselves at dawn, or a reasonable approximation thereof, and then went off to try to find Paraza, which is west and a shade north of Narbonne. Unfortunately that day the GPS decided it wanted to kill us, and despite there being a perfectly good nationale headed that way it tricked me into taking a goat track. And then another. And once we got into a town, it insisted that I had to turn left - this gets you on to a small narrow wrong-way street that is parallel to the main street and which then rejoins it after 20 meters or so. What the hell is the point? It is neither shorter, nor quicker. What goes on in its tiny cybernetic mind?

Also, it's not so good when it has just woken up. (You could say that neither am I, but that's beside the point. I don't have to be.) When we finally emerged from the hotel we programmed in Paraza as our destination, and this reassuring female voice told us that "your route is being calculated", and I guess that if you were but half-awake you might not notice that your route was some 460 km with an estimated trip time of four hours or so. Hit "cancel" on that one, not at all what we want, and try again: this time it tries to get us to the centre of Monaco, godnose why. Finally, after ten minutes, it's down to a much more reasonable 19 minutes to do some 28 km, which I suppose must have lulled me into a false sense of security, hence the mean tricks with the goat tracks.

Margo reckons that we're just temperamentally incompatible: I think the damn thing's psychotic.

Seriously, I am starting to wonder whether it's not more trouble than it's worth. Still, I suppose it ensures that you keep your wits about you - assuming you want to actually arrive at your destination.

Despite the GPS we finally made it to Paraza, and then off to Peyriac en Minervois to see a house - well three houses actually, that had sort of grown into one another, nooks cuddling into crannies on all three floors until the place was like a rabbit warren of stairs and rooms. It appeared to be inhabited by two sweet little old ladies, one of whom followed us about like an anxious hamster and talked incessantly - or maybe it kept them as pets, I don't know.

It was quite odd really, we started off in a sort of kitchen with something like a 4m stud, through a much lower living room and into what seemed to be a bedroom, then into a small room full to overflowing with old VHS cassettes and up an approximate staircase, past a basic toilet and then into a ballroom tastefully decorated in plush velvet. Kind of like going to visit the Steptoe family, if you see what I mean. Only with less spitting and swearing.

At that point Peter abandoned us to go find some penetrating oil to see if he couldn't open the barn, and Lesley led us back to Siran to see the old chai that we'd looked at the previous weekend. Where this elderly bon vivant Belgian shooed away the previous pair of visitors, who roared off in an enormous black V12 Mercedes, and took us round.

I guess you've never seen a turn of the century French chai. Enormous buildings in stone or brick, for all the world like a Victorian warehouse, with huge windows on two floors: as a general rule there's a wide corridor down the middle on the ground floor and to each side, the actual cuves, each of which is nowt more than a 4m cube of reinforced concrete. The first floor is just empty space, with manholes opening into the cuves, down which they would pump the grape slurry. (Forget those romantic notions of great wooden barriques and elderly vignerons lovingly burnishing each grape as it goes in, at least down south.)

So in our case, we'd have been buying 400m² of usable space, sitting on top of 400m² of virtually indestructible concrete cubes. (I exaggerate a little. They will saw through the stuff, for 100€ per linear metre and even, if you pay extra, remove the rubble - you still have to be careful as that's what's actually keeping the first floor from crashing down.)

An interesting prospect, but more, I feel, for people with rather deeper pockets than ours: people who drive V12 Mercedes saloons, for instance.

And finally, we headed back to Moux. (Which is, oddly enough for the French, pronounced more or less as she is spelled. Moox. Go figure.) Peter had finally found a key that matched a keyhole for the grange, and which even worked, so we went took another gander at the house, being in no great rush, and then went down the road to the barn.

It too had been a chai in its time, albeit a smallish one, so down one side was the now-familiar wall of concrete, broken only by the little doors at the bottom every few metres. And piled up everywhere, the detritus of an abandoned winery: a mobilette missing the front wheel, a horizontal screw press, a great oak barrel that must have been 3m in diameter, a stack of wire-wove bed bases (don't ask me) and, of course, bottles.

Whatever, we had coffee with Peter, his wife and two geriatric spaniels and then hit the road back home: since then we've accepted the offer on this place and put in an offer on the house on Moux, which looks like it'll be accepted, despite our being cheeky and starting off rather low. So in a few months, you may have to update your address books, if any of you keep such antiquated things these days.

But right now, I'm going off to check up on the marmelade.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Great Prizes To Be Won! ...

The town of Lagrasse, in the Aude, is both beautiful and charming, two properties which do not always go together. Coming upon it from the west at mid-day, the road leads across an old stone bridge that traverses the river, blue under the azure sky, and those who pause to look could think that the town was an organic thing, grown from the earth, its stones being the same colour as the dry soil about.

On the banks of the river, a few mangy dogs toy with something rotting dragged from the water, worrying at the decaying clothes with their yellowed teeth.

In summer, the old stone walls lining the cobbled streets of the vieille ville bring welcome shade, and from the cool shadowed courtyards hidden behind comes the innocent laughter of children as they play at "pelting the tourist with dead rats". Be grateful that they're not playing the version that involves roof tiles; fatalities have been known to occur, although they're usually hushed up.

It also has a monstrous civic carbuncle, the memorial to the "Great" War (1914-1918, as if we haven't managed to do better since then, the old farts are always on about how it was so much better back then well I've got news for them) and quite frankly it needs a caption at the very least.

The poor guy seems to be in some pain, I would say a bad case of heart-burn only he's clutching the wrong side of his chest, and the lady behind him seems rather totally unconcerned: maybe she's the one wot done it, I don't know. Could be she stuck him with the flag-pole while he wasn't looking.

Whatever, I am inviting submissions for captions, the lucky winner to get a year's free subscription to this blog. Runner-up gets two years, third-place gets to look at Riddled for the rest of their natural lives.

To your word-processors, now!

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Fear and Loathing in Lézignac ...

So it really is quite amazing just how desolate it is as you head south, until you get down to Béziers and on to the Languedocienne and west towards Toulouse, and the countryside becomes more rolling and suddenly greener and there's more than blasted pines and low vicious scrub to break the view. So, at least, Margo and I reflected, once I'd woken up and was in a condition to appreciate the sights as we drove down.

For we left around 5:30, which in my opinion is no fit hour to be doing anything, but on the bright side we missed the traffic jams planned foreseen for the day. It's also astounding to see the little ornamental pruniers sauvages already in blossom, breaking out into pink and white clumps of flowers against the bright blue sky.

We didn't stop to admire them, but carried on to Lézignac-Corbières where we got off the autoroute and huddled in the car for 45 minutes, being as what
  1. the ultra-montane was blowing, and whilst it's not especially cold in and of itself it is very searching, Wellingtonians take note, and
  2. our rendez-vous was for 10:30, so we were kind of early. So huddling seemed like our best option.
Eventually a bright-yellow two-seater Kangoo pulled up and out hopped Peter, a burly white-haired Mancunian somewhere in his sixties I guess, wrapped warmly in a huge black woolen duffel coat and black leather gloves: after an exchange of civilities he squoze into the Suzy and we went off to find the first place on the list.

Which turned out to be in some teeny little village near the town of Durban (well, I'm calling it a "town" out of politeness, its main claim to fame would be that it is, in fact, larger than this place was), on the main street: a fairly nondescript house on three floors with a few steps up to an imposing front door.

In the car Peter had given us a brief potted history of the place, closing with the ominous - to me, anyway - warning that it had been tastefully decorated in "French Modern" and it would be true to say that I guess they'd spent a long time looking through back issues of House & Garden: very much flat areas of colour, stripped wood, glass-topped tables and curiousity cabinets full of knick-knacks and gew-gaws. Actually, very nicely done, and inside the place was huge. A point in its favour. Also, had to love the old tiled floors.

So we poked around, had our coffees, made friends with the retarded Labrador that proudly dragged its filthy blanket from the pile of dirty washing and showed it to us, and then headed off vaguely to the next place on the list ... and as we went we mentioned that we'd seen some lovely places around St Laurent de Cabressrine when we came through last time, and Peter thoughtfully sucked his teeth and then said that he'd an American friend who'd just come back from her place in LA and that he was pretty sure she knew of somewhere in Lagrasse, and we'd an hour or so before we needed to be in Capestang, so why not take a detour ...

We poked around Lagrasse (which has a famous abbey that we'd somehow missed last time) and saw this old hotel that was next to (and somehow, in a sort of semi-organic way, part of) his friend's house, and then another place that he knew was up for sale, and we wound up buying a baguette and having lunch seated on an old stone wall (forgetting all those dire warnings about getting piles) overlooking the river. Don't you hate it when hard-boiled eggs won't peel properly?

And Peter told us of how he'd been in computers before - electronic document management, to be precise - and how he came to be in France, and of his Damascene conversion to the delights of goat's cheese, as we kicked our heels in the sun above the water.

Anyway, the easiest way - it seems - to get from where we were to where we were supposed to be was to orbit Narbonne and then take the good old D9 to points west, which we duly did. This is not, I admit, a particularly interesting fact in itself, and I merely point it out because it gave us the opportunity to remark on the high density of working girls along its length.

Around here we think we have a problem with the ladies of negociable affection, but I swear that along that stretch of road it's a question of the number of ladies per kilometre: suppose it's cheaper than erecting milestones.

Also, they have no vans (and don't ask me how they get out there in the first place, maybe there's a special bus route), apparently not even a blanket, so where in hell to they go to do the act? Under a gorse bush, or on the back seat of the Audi? Just asking. In any case, we did not stop to pick any of them up, and left them dancing forlornly in what I guess they thought might have been an alluring manner as we carried on.

Now Capestang is a lovely village on the canal du Midi, and we parked on the banks of the canal and threw rocks at ducks until Lesley, another agent, turned up and we all trooped off down twisty stone streets before winding up in front of a huge green gate in an otherwise blank wall. Which hid a warm courtyard, and old walls with Virginia creeper all over, and a crooked house ...

Had rather assumed that the English couple lounging in the sun waiting for us were in fact a couple, but when we came out again Peter was worming their life story out and now world + dog knows that his wife died, and then her husband died, and they became what they rather touchingly called "an item" and that two houses was one too many for a couple in their sixties and that hers was smaller so they'd keep that and sell his: amazing what you find out.

The idea of getting out a bottle of rosé and spending a bit of quality time in the sun, under the parasol in the courtyard to the sound of tinkling water from the fountain was incredibly appealing, but duty called and anyway we is made of sterner stuff, so we tore ourselves reluctantly away and metaphorically saddled up, destination Azillanet for the next visit.

Interesting place, with very definite possibilities: of course the place would have to be gutted, rewired and replumbed but if the price is right that can be done.

I certainly had not expected to find that the only apparent means of cooking was the open fireplace in the ridiculously tiny kitchen, which showed signs of fairly recent use. I suppose the old biddy who once lived there was used to it, and I must admit it would be ideal for smoking hams ... still, it would definitely have to go.

And then for a bit of wilderness adventure, for Lesley wanted to show us the garden which went with the place, and was only a five-minute drive away in the hills behind. Sadly, she either did not know or had, more likely, forgotten, that access was via a rutted goat-track worthy of the back-blocks of some wretched African state, and I can now tell you that a low-slung 3-series BMW sedan does not really appreciate such roads. Still, the GPS showed us where we were at all times, even if someone had, inexplicably, neglected to program in the position of the more notable potholes.

So after inspecting the half-hectare of terraced gardens with the stream babbling down alongside and the view out over the valley we made helpful suggestions as she backed down, seconded by one of the local agriculteurs who'd come out to see the fun.

(Actually, he'd been out with his family cutting bamboo and disposing of it, in the time-honoured peasant tradition, by pushing it off a small cliff so that it became Someone Else's Problem, but that's neither here nor there. A charming chap in other respects, although you could have cut his accent with a knife.)

It's an odd thing, but real-estate agents seem to make a habit of knowing every imaginable little commerçant in even the tiniest of villages. I suppose that's their stock in trade, having a network of people who can inform them that old Mme Machin is about to pop her clogs, or that the cat-fight between the frères Morveux is getting to the point where they'll have to sell up, if only to get the cash to pay the lawyers. (Contingency fees seem unknown in France, just saying.)

My point is that Lesley knew of some good bread in the village, and so we stopped at this tiny hole in the wall boulangerie - hell, I wouldn't even have known there was actually a shop in there - and went down three steps into a tiny warm room with a huge old stone oven in the back wall and admired the rustic loaves made of interesting seeds, like a mix of linseed, sunflower and a few others that escape me, or the one we finally walked off with, made with flour ground from the Roussillon hairy-eared gratte-cul or something like that. And very nice it turned out to be, the next day for breakfast.

Last stop Siran, for an impromptu stop at the old brick cave co-operative which has been bought, gutted, divided into units and put up for sale by a local entrepreneur (who has, sadly, had to divide his prices by at least two) and then a stone townhouse in the centre.

At which point, as the sun went down behind the cedars, we bade farewell to Lesley (Peter having abandoned us earlier to get off to his birthday party) and, as there was not really anything to look at on the Sunday, decided we might as well head back home.

But first we needed food, so we went back to Lézignan and, by the simple expedient of wandering the streets, came across a pizzeria which seemed acceptable and went inside. Turned out to be an excellent choice, even if we were, at the start, the only clients. Once we'd installed ourselves in came old Georges, an elderly man whose greyish skin colour would've done a zombie proud, and he sat down and accepted the news that there would be no pizza nordique that night because the salmon was off stoically enough before going on to discuss, at length, the boeuf bourguignon that the restaurant was going to cook for him, for a family meal chez lui later that week.

So she warned him that she'd need a few days notice because she'd have to thaw the meat out - and all "dans les règles de l'art, pas de micro-ondes mais decongelation à temperature ambiente, tu sais" and then marinate it for at least a day, and then his mate Robert came in and sat down, the sad news about the salmon was imparted to him, and as we started to eat our superb pizzas the pair of them started in on the soup.

It's always nice to discover somewhere that actually does their own home-grown profiteroles with chocolate sauce that is not squeezed from a bottle but is just dark chocolate melted in cream generously poured over light crispy choux pastry balls stuffed with ice cream (should you find yourself in the district, Pizzeria Stromboli gets three silver spoons and a plate-lick from me) and we took advantage to linger and listen to the rest of Georges and Roberts's edifying conversation.

Which started out with them wondering exactly who it was who had the right screws for repairing the other's armchair, carried on into a discussion of the early adoption by the Gauls of modern (for the times) agricultural implements, such as the sickle ("long before", Robert proudly stated, "those Romans"), which segued in turn into a dissertation on the language abilities of our cousins the great apes, before going on to the vexed question of whether or not a chicken could be considered to be self-aware.

Sadly I cannot give you the answer, for about then we decided that, fascinating as it all was, we really should hit the road. Maybe next time we go down we'll have the good luck to find them again, and I can ask.

In any case, we paid, made our excuses and left - made it back home at some ungodly hour of the morning with nary a soupçon of a ralentissement, and promptly hit the sack, for it was a long day.

And that, possums, is the end of the story. We have an offer on the house, we now have to pull finger. Night, all.