Saturday, April 27, 2013

Buildings And Food ...

And on the way back, leaving Lézignan, couldn't help but notice this roadside stall advertising vegetables and stuff: I'm a sucker for that, especially when it involves freshly killed strawberries and young green asparagus shoots at 4€/kg.

So we stopped (having first of all filled up on wine and other essentials, like more wine, at the big place just up the road) and bought some, so that we could drive back happy. Even if there was a buffeting wind which, at some points on the way home, threatened to push little Suzy off the road.

Anyway, that green bundle lead me, the night afterwards (for at 23:00, when we arrived back home, I was not that interested in cooking anything at all, what I was really looking for was my bed), to butter and stack some sheets of filo and bake them until crisp, to make a bed for that very same asparagus, boiled very rapidly with sugar and salt, drained and laid out on the pastry, topped with squares of crispy bacon, and drizzled with bastard béarnaise. First sign of spring, I guess.

Completely unrelated, a little note from the Office of Health & Safety. Some people - us, for instance - keep their kitty litter box in the largely disused bathroom on the first floor, the reason being that the cat can't be arsed going all the way downstairs if she feels an urge in the middle of the night and after a serious discussion, which entailed only minor flesh wounds which will soon heal, we decided that that suited everyone. Or at least, that we'd not make too much of a fuss.

But the important thing to keep in mind is that, when cleaning out the kitty litter, you should resist the urge to fling the dehydrated turds into the invitingly-close toilet bowl. Speaking as one who has tried the experiment, let me assure you that the little buggers resist drowning and tend to float, doubtless laughing the while. Lounging around in their little inflatable rubber - umm, thingies - must talk to Jeremy about that.

Whatever, after a hot, sunny week it naturally went titsup on Friday - I mean, we went overnight from 27° to 7°, that is what I call brutal - and so it was, once again, to market in the rain.

Which lead me to reflect, for some reason, on yet another of those little things that differentiate our great language from the degenerate tongue that is French. Like, when I left the house and trotted down to the gare, umbrella at the ready and heavy coat on, knowing full well that I'd probably regret that when the time came to climb back up the hill to the house, it was spitting.

We all know what that means, the odd drop from time to time and infuriating because it's just enough to get you wet but not sufficient to bother sticking up the encumbering brolly, but tell that to a French-person - que la pluie crache - and toute de suite he will commiserate with you on the bad weather, for in French that means it's pissing down.

Which I suppose may have something to do with the expectorant capacities of the average frog-thing, for they are indeed formidable. I swear that I have seen six year-olds idly take down a passing newt with a well-aimed wad of spit and chewing-gum. A talent that doubtless comes in handy in summer, when the flies can otherwise be a nuisance.

Be that as it may, what I was trying to lead up to was that, after a quick trip round the stalls I left, unencumbered by anything apart from some asparagus, pois gourmands, blood oranges, two year-old Comté and a few other such trifles (which still, in total, do rather weigh on one's conscience, or at least one's arms) and headed, visions of sugar-plums or whatever dancing in my head, for I had had an idea for dinner, off to the estimable Mr B's establishment (Purveyors Of Cheap Meat For The Discerning Carnivore).

So we exchanged pleasantries, as will happen, and as if the shopping basket wasn't already heavy enough I stuffed a couple of chicken breasts, a largeish chunk of baron d'agneau, and an oxtail, cut into two-inch lengths, in there. (I admit that the oxtail was an after-thought, but it seemed so lonely there, with all its friends long gone, that it would have been a crime to have left it to its own devices. Also, I have plans for it, involving flouring, browning rapidly in duck fat, then simmering slowly in beer. But that will be for another time. Once I've dealt with that troublesome Mr. Bond.)

Actually, the lamb was an afterthought too. But I simply cannot resist a tasty morceau like that, just crying out to have the fell removed and then plastered with a mix of breadcrumbs, butter, garlic and parmesan before being roasted quickly and served in thin slices off the bone, with bits of that golden crust and asparagus and roast potatoes ...

But what I really have in mind for tonight involves those chicken breasts and some of those leeks I got this morning, which will mean flouring and frying the chicken breasts in the smaller of the two sauteuses I happen to have (happily, the one with a lid) before fishing them out and replacing them with the sliced leeks and a few strips of lard.

Once that's started to soften and smell delicious I rather think that I shall slice the chicken thickly and arrange it on top of the leeks, sprinkle the whole damn lot with parsley, cover and leave to simmer and steam gently for half an hour or so, before I slosh some cream in there and let it thicken for a few minutes.

With some carottes à l'étuvée, baked potatoes, fresh bread rolls just out of the oven  and - why not - some asparagus, should be a tuerie. As they say.

Another thing - as I was idly ambling about, avoiding the odd raindrop and adding yet more weight to the shopping basket with the addition of a couple of boxes of cigars, I had the misfortune to come across a Porsche Panamera, smugly parked on a double yellow line, which rather looked as though it were trying to slink away.

Now it's not often that I agree with that overblown windbag Jeremy Clarkson and this time is no exception, for he merely remarked, way-back-when, that this is a pointless, wishy-washy great whale of a car that has no compelling reason to exist.

For once, he doesn't go far enough, for he failed to point out that it is also one of the ugliest offenses against good taste that you could ever hope to find on the street.

Yes, the British Leyland P76 was a slab-sided monster that car-lovers still talk about in whispers, and let us never forget the Austin Princess: Zil seemed to have "tasteless, so long as it's in black with heaps of chromed chome" as their mission statement, godnose Mercedes have produced some hideous piles of crap, and the Range Rover Vogue looks as though a very very fat lady has sat on a standard Range Rover (which is ugly enough anyway, without that) and squashed it into a thick pancake - but let's face it, the Panamera is kind of in a class of its own. Because you can actually buy a car that's almost as ugly for a lot less money, if that happens to float yer boat.

You can tell it's a Porsche because there's a helpful label on the back, just as well because otherwise you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a mound of porridge. Also, the inside seems to be made entirely out of walnut veneer, polished aluminium, and the outside bits of a couple of cows, which is not good. (Especially not for the cows, who probably quite liked having their skins still attached.) Luckily for him, the driver was not immediately apparent, otherwise I'd probably have eaten his liver on the spot, just to teach him a lesson.

Whatever, dinner is not going to cook itself and I don't even have the dubious pleasure of having Jeremy offer to help as he has a birthday party to occupy him so I won't be seeing him until sometime tomorrow, and if I want to have an orange tart for dessert I rather guess that now would be a good time to go off and start on the pastry. Not to mention frying that chicken.

Mind how you go, now.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Quoitus with Pan ...

... given his perverse sense of humour, playing silly games with the old goat-legged god is bound to end up in tears. Or worse. Being flayed alive is not unheard of, the guy is so not a good loser. And other possible spellings of that word would have consequences you might not like either. Still, gives you an idea of the sort of search terms that the great Google sends this way. It's not as though I ask for them, you know.

Anyway, I decided, having nowt better to do last Sunday, and it being - exceptionally - fine, not to say bloody hot and pardon my French, to head off to Chanaz, up at the north of the lac du Bourget and on the canal de Savières, from the Rhône to the aforesaid lake. That turned out to be a mistake, at least in the short term.

For it is a tradition, or an ancient charter or something, that on a Sunday the French will dress up to the nines in all sort of improbable, uncomfortable, and sometimes unbelievable costumes, leave their homes en masse to go find some unpolluted spot of great natural beauty, and then spoil it, by being there.

And so it was that, having cunningly left home around midday, confidently expecting most families to be tucking into the second pastis before immolating the sacrificial lamb chops (the barbecue, when feasible, is also sacred around these parts), I discovered that half Chambéry had had the same idea as I.

As the voie rapide was never intended to hold 10 000 cars on it at any given time, not all  - or any of them, in fact - doing 90 kph anyway, this did mean that the trip was just a little less rapid than I could have wished.

And when I did finally get out of the steaming cloaca, things were not helped by my having taken a quick look at the map before leaving home, and then promptly forgetting the road numbers, and important directions like "turn left onto the D914" (which would have been unmarked anyway) "at the second roundabout in Bollène". (This is apparently called "preparedness", or "not being at home to Mr. Cockup", and we will have no part of it around here.)

Also, did I mention that it was hot? I had dressed for winter, completely neglecting the fact that it was slowly climbing up to 28° out there. Bugger.

Random neurons firing, bringing to mind the plastic bag I saw at the supermarket the other day, proudly marked as being "oxo-biodegradeable". Does this, I wonder, mean that it only breaks down if boiled in Oxo? Not a nice thought.

And then, driving down to the nationale following what I at first took to be a builder's van, until I woke up enough to see that it was marked "Bardiglio Déconstruction". I can only assume that these are the people you call in when you're having trouble with some obscure passage in a text - probably Beckett or Pinter or something, I always have trouble with those - and need help. Never be ashamed to call in professionals when it's needed, I say.

Splenetic thought - ate at les Barjots again the other day. Still can't think why. I took the foie gras, which is - in my admittedly limited experience - usually edible, but it still looked very lonely down at one end of its foorball-field sized plate, with a thin dribble of unnameable jus connecting it to a small sad pile of salad leaves at the other end. And there wasn't enough bread. Still, on the bright side, the drinks arrived on time and in the correct order - with the exception of the coffees, which turned up before dessert. People have been shot for less.

Knowing full well that we were heading off south the next day, we could think of nothing better to do Friday night than go down to Grenoble to see - probably for the last time - the annual Upstage production, and to say goodbye to the long-suffering Mr. Simpson, who organises them. And as it happened to be their 20th anniversary they'd chosen to put on the first play they ever did, Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy.

An unfortunate family name if you ask me
We've been going for years, ever since Malyon first got involved when she was at the Cité Internationale, in fact, and we've never seen a dud. Always impresses me, the dedication and the professionalism and, let's face it, the talent of the kids involved - mind you, I suppose I shouldn't be calling them kids. Especially as many of them seem to tower over me. Whatever, a real pleasure - as always: sad that we won't be around to see what comes next.

Anyway, not totally satisfied with getting to bed around midnight I set the alarm for 4:30, it duly made cheery noises at me until it was satisfied that I was sort of awake, and I stumbled downstairs to catch a short nap whilst the coffee machine gurgled happily in the kitchen. And so it was that we left about 5:30, under driving rain and a particularly violent, gusty, spiteful gale, for points south.

The future Shamblings
First stop Siran, to meet with Peter's tame notaire, Me Vasseur. Who turned out to be a friendly woman with an extremely competent air to her, and also excellent english. Which I suppose is normal enough, given the number of them in the area. She asked us a few questions about our plans, we explained, and she gave us some advice as to the best way to set things up ("keep it simple" was basically what it boiled down to), and we left, after promising faithfully to e-mail her copies of the odd document she'd need to establish the compromis de vente. (From our point of view that would be the compromis d'achat, I guess, but you know what I mean.)

And from thence, after a quick pit-stop in Lézignan (hint: supermarket club sandwiches are every bit as dreadful as those to be found on the autoroute, and for much the same reasons), we met up with Peter and Lesley and James the Builder outside the house at Moux, and finally got to take a proper look around inside the barn.

For some reason I had expected James to be a large solid man of about my age, rather given to sucking the end of a pencil and nodding dubiously: he turned out to be a young wiry English guy who'd spent about five years in the South Island and who had, through no fault of his own, picked up a Noo Zilder girl-friend.

So our whole little procession, tailed by a tall ascetic-looking ginger-headed Frenchman dressed all in black (whom I initially took for a decadent poet, such as one finds in these places, but later discovered to be Lesley's dancing partner) trooped into the barn for an inspection.

The place was bloody huge: about 360m² on the ground, two floors and you'd probably want to build a third one in on top just to avoid wasting the space: we had thought of two gîtes but you could easily have stuck four or five in there, along with a large sunny terrace and a courtyard garden, plus an office for me and a couple of workshops for Margo ... after an hour or so wading through batshit and just admiring the sheer volumes of the place we left, and decided against buying the place.

Let's face it, the seller was asking 69K for it, we could probably have got someone to beat him down (which is kind of like beating up, but more painful), but the actual purchase price rather faded into insignificance when we looked at the work required. Could have done something really wonderful with it, if we had the money to sink into it, but there is no way we are going to even think about investing half a million, even if we could persuade the bank to lend it to us.

Given that the chiffre d'affaires for a single gîte is estimated at about 4K a year on average, an ROI of 3.2% is kind of frightening, so we've reluctantly abandoned that idea. On the bright side, it does mean that we can pay cash for the house and take out a teensy loan to pay for getting it up to scratch for some top-notch chambres d'hôte, so that's alright then. Or maybe we should not pay cash and borrow what we can, and put the money somewhere to earn interest. Will have to look at that.

Whatever, Lesley and the moody black-clad guy went off to Narbonne to tango, and we went back to the house to take a better look around with James and, incidentally, to meet the owners. Who turned out to be Celine and Jim, an English couple in their late sixties I guess, and so of course we got offered tea ... they seemed quite pleased to see us, surprising really considering the insultingly low offer we made for the place, and as we left she said that it'd be nice to see a dynamic young couple moving into the village. I looked around to see who she was talking about, then realised that it was us. I suppose everyone's young, from a sufficiently distant viewpoint.

And finally, before driving back, we managed to find the time to wander about the village. It's one of those provençal places which you tend not to notice very much because the houses are built of stones and those terracotta roof tiles that are all more or less the same colour as the surrounding earth, and after a couple of centuries of baking under the sun they've just sort of faded into the landscape so that from a distance it looks like just another jumble of rock in the countryside, with only the odd quirky roofline and the church tower sticking out from the hilltop to indicate that people have actually been there and built things. That, and the great black pines that mark out the cemetery.

I suppose there must have been some quite wealthy families there at some time too, because the cemetery is full of imposing mausoleums testifying to the obscene wealth, poor taste and odd names of past generations. Still, it's rather pleasant in the shade of the trees, with the resinous smell of pines in the air. Be rather a good spot for a picnic, really. If you're careful not to step on anyone's toes.

And then, as we walked back to the car in the place de l'Eglise we passed the open door of the little chapel dedicated to Saint Régis, horny-handed son of the soil and, it seems, patron saint of bobbin lace-makers (only 1€ the taper to burn away your sins, a bargain if your soul could do with washing and you can't afford to have it dry-cleaned), and a wall-eyed kitten that had been comfortably curled up on the infant Jesus looked at us curiously, stopped paying such immense attention to its privates, and decided that we were its new friends. I guess we'll be seeing one another again.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sprung - Finally ...

It seems to me - and the statistics bear me out on this one, or doubtless would if I bothered to check them out - that there's a strong correlation between the increased use of GPS systems and the alarming rise in divorce rates (which, as a card-carrying member of the Immoral Minority, I can but deplore).

Case in point, I had to drop Margo off at Pascale's place in or about Belleville sur Saône, north of Lyon, on Monday so that the pair of them could head off the next day to a salon in Colmar or something.

Municipal Monstrosities: N° 4
So we set off, with the trusty GPS softly insisting that we really ought to stay right, and all went well as we circumcised Lyon and passed Villefranche - for who could possibly get lost on the autoroute? - and then we got off at Belleville itself.

Margo insisted that she knew the road from this point on, in which case you may well ask yourself "just what, then, is the point of the GPS?" but never mind that, and to prove the point she stuck her left arm out across the car and said "turn left here!".

Which turned out to be an unwise move, as it meant we were going around a roundabout the wrong way: luckily the dump seems to be deserted at that hour, and we surprised no-one.

We carried on, and found ourselves on some sort of ring road that Margo insisted shouldn't be there, although the GPS was quite happy with it and wanted to be its friend, so in a fit of pique we turned it off, did a U-turn and went along a road that Margo vaguely remembered.

Sadly, this lead us to a level crossing which was decidedly closed for the next month or so, so we went back, and around, and along the original route and on to that rocade, and then for some reason off to the right only to find ourselves on the other side of that same blocked level crossing - maybe it was following us.

At which point I, sad to say, gave up and sulked, and Margo took the wheel and apparently navigated by smell along the road that the GPS had wanted us to take all along until finally we turned up, not too much the worse for wear, at Pascale's.

She unloaded the car, we had a quick glass of white, and I hopped back into the car to drive back, silently resolving as I did so to turn the GPS back on as soon as I was out of sight and let it get me back to the autoroute - it seemed the prudent course. A wise decision, as it turned out.

What with all that excitement it was getting on for 22:00 when I left, and I was starting to feel a bit peckish, so I thought I'd barrel through to the southern side of Lyon where there is, exceptionally, a place that does almost decent sandwiches on one of the aires d'autoroute - actually use proper fresh bread and everything, and don't insist on slathering the things with bloody mayo - and I was in fact feeling quite optimistic when I pulled in.

Of course that didn't last very long, because it fairly rapidly became apparent that all the food shops on my side of the autoroute were in fact closed, due to some coyly unspecified "incident technique" - which could have been anything from a gas explosion to the discovery of a dead rat in one of the freezers.

All, that is, with the exception of the actual service station, where I could doubtless have found a month-old damp vienna roll enclosing some limp rabbit food that had seen better days, some time in the previous century, and mayo-drowned "chicken" bits enclosed in a  cellophane wrapper under nitrogen, but it's not often that I feel quite that hungry. So I pulled back on, hope springing eternal, as it will, that perhaps something would turn up ...

Sadly that too was dashed as I discovered, just before the last possibly decent place to get a bite, that all the roadworks I'd gone through up till then were but harbingers, or maybe precursors, and that the autoroute was closed, next exit obligatoire - which meant taking the bloody départementale at La Tour du Pin.

I always wonder about the people who organise the déviations - makes me think of that excellent Torchwood episode Countrycide. When you actually leave the autoroute there'll be a little yellow sign, hopefully marked something like "Déviation, Chambéry", and pointing off down what probably looks like quite a reasonable road to take, under the circumstances.

As you continue you will find more of these signs still pointing you along the road and this is very reassuring, for do not forget that it is dark out there, possibly even raining, and it is pretty much a given that you do not actually know the road. (Nor, in most circumstances, do you want to, but that's neither here nor there.)

Just consider then what it feels like as it dawns on you that the last signpost was now some five km back, and the road is getting a few potholes and looks kind of unused, except maybe by very large agricultural-style vehicles or perhaps hearses, and the few houses that there are all seem to be cold and forbidding, showing only blank walls to the road.

Also, having read about this sort of thing, the rush of hope when you see, off in the distance but still apparently reachable, what look like the lights of the next péage, is tempered by the certitude that it's all a trick, and that inbred paysans like their meat with a bit of adrenaline still pumping through it ...

Luckily for me the scriptwriters downed tools at that point, so the tractors got driven off the road and back into the barns, the peasants grumbled, put down their pitchforks and went back to mucking out the silage heaps or whatever it is that they do to fill those long lonely evenings, and I made it back home intact rather than winding up as a rather lean, dry (if insufficiently well barded) Sunday roast.

Which meant that I made it to the market, where I discovered more asparagus, and the first of the mangetout peas, and fine green beans (from Morocco, but I'm not complaining, whatever some people might say about buying local because if that means bio-dynamic, organic vegetables full of worms I'm not ready to pay that much for the extra protein and in any case they often look rather sadly flaccid) and some extremely runny Saint Marcellin - runny enough that it had achieved apotheosis and was more of a thick cream soup that an actual cheese.

Anyway, about then the sun came out and I started to reflect that perhaps the black woolen jacket was kind of surplus to requirements and that the basket was starting to feel just a bit heavy and that I really should have brought the camera along anyway, and at that point I decided to repair to the Beer Tree.

Where, as I sat in the sun inhaling a few vitamins with Beckham, waiting for the miracle of photosynthesis to kick in and idly putting the world to rights, it occurred to me that, despite my reticence on the matter, the combination of cheese and potatoes is a time-honoured one, and that perhaps that Saint Marcellin would enjoy it.

I put the question off for just then Bryan turned up to raise the tone of the conversation and talk turned, as it will, to lit. crit. and exactly why in hell Harry Potter was such a spectacular success. (Confession: I read the first one and couldn't really say why. Then I read the second, and could see no reason to go on with the rest. This may make me a Bad Person, but I really do not care.)

And we discussed Beckham's magnum opus, a work which is still in gestation but which will, it seems, shock the world with its brilliance when it sees the light of day, and then we got on to that recent study of bra-wearing and whether or not it's good for you, and Bryan lamented that he was not the curator of the French Custom's archive of photos of breasts. And as the sun was still shining, and honest citizens were hoping to be able to eat out and some of them started making meaningful looks at our table, we sloped off: Bryan to run a marathon or something, and me to cook lunch for Beckham.

So the idea that had been snoring fitfully at the back of my mind came back to me, so I baked some potatoes and split them in half lengthways and slit them and pushed at each end so that they opened out a bit, and then put them in a baking dish and poured that runny cheese all over, added some slices of fried lard, sprinkled the lot with paprika and stuck it into her ridiculously small and inefficient oven under the grill until hot and bubbling and delicious. (Actually, I lie. Her oven is so amazingly primitive that it doesn't have a grill, as such: so I just baked them some more. But under the grill would have been better.)

Not half bad, with a green salad and a bit of bread (to compensate for the lack of carbohydrates) on the side.

And right now the sun is shining brightly and all of a sudden it's almost too hot, so I shall go down to the paddock and emasculate the last of the daffodils so that they may brighten up the house. (Which always brings to my mind at least that old joke about the blonde and the brunette - stop me if you've heard it before - walking down the street when they see a guy come out of the florist's with a huge bunch of flowers. "Oh shit!" says the brunette, "that's my boyfriend!". "Why do you say that?" asks the blonde. "Because", comes the reply, " that means I have to spread my legs tonight." And the blonde asks "Why? Do you not have a vase?")

Oh yeah, next weekend we're back down in Moux - gotta see the notaire and Bob the Builder. (First name James in point of fact, but never let reality get in the way of a good line is my motto.) We'll let you know how that goes.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sex, Money, and Statistics ...

So Margo went off to see the bank this morning (I am allergic to bankers because of my skin condition, and I had a note to excuse me), partly to find out just how much it was going to cost us to pay back the loans that are still outstanding and partly to expose our business plan, such as it is. As far as the loans go we were agreeably surprised to find that the main one - the big scary one, that we finish paying back in two months anyway - was the only secured loan, so once that's out of the way the place is mortgage-free. At least, until the new owners get their hands on it.

Mad Karen recently remarked that bank "counselors" seem to be getting younger and stupider with every passing year - personally I think that maybe she's just getting older and possibly a bit wiser, if not actually smarter - and I have to admit that he apparently reckoned that our plan looked pretty solid and stood a good chance of passing. It was awfully nice of him to say so, especially considering that the figures came from a few hectic days of googling, a bit of screen-scraping and some work with a calculator. And the traditional back of an envelope.

To be quite honest, most of the work with the calculator involved either starting off with the same figures and using a different methodology to get at the numbers that interested me, or using a different data set to see whether or not roughly the same figures came out. And the envelope gets covered in doodles, some of them not technically obscene.

Benoit de Boigne, putting his best foot forward
I remember it being drummed into me to do that back in the distant past when I thought that doing statistics at varsity would be fun - I soon found out the truth - and I must admit that it's something that has served me well over the years. "It doesn't matter", Norm would say, "if the figures are right or not. They just have to be plausible, and coherent."

Sad to say, the underlying data sets are not particularly easy to get at, nor is it at all evident to work out what the sample population is. The INSEE looked quite promising, until I looked at the results and discovered that their bottom line was glaringly incompatible with those on sites like "Gites de France". I mean, when one source announces an average stay duration of nine days and the other one, one of three the disparity is kind of glaring, even to my eyes. So then I went spelunking, and discovered that the INSEE's "meublés labellisés" does not restrict itself to chambres d'hote, which is - for my purposes at least - a bit of a bugger.

Because while the average occupation rate is one very important thing, the length of stay is yet another because that definitely comes into play when you're trying to work out what the demand might be for table d'hote, this being something that interests me. One may reasonably assume that people would, if they could, eat twice during their stay (unless just that once turns out to be definitively enough, in which case you're doing something wrong, repeat business would seem unlikely, and you may very well find yourselves being shut down by the health department anyway): once on arriving, and again before leaving.

You see my point: if the average stay is nine days that means you may expect to do two dinners per person in that period, whereas if it's three you're looking at six in the same time. There's a big quantitative difference here, people.

A casualty of Easter
Whatever, if you've been keeping up to speed you'll be aware that there is the house in Moux, some 270m² with four double bedrooms and an apartment for us, and the plan is to get a more or less adjacent barn of about 380m² to turn into a workshop, office, and two or maybe three gîtes: exactly how many will depend on cash and what an architect thinks is possible.

The point is that gîtes are traditionally named: terminally cutely in my admittedly limited experience. Names like "Bleuet", or "Glycine". Anything to do with flowers seems to go down well, although there appears to be a flourishing market for famous, non-contentious, and preferably dead people. But Margo rejected my suggestions of "Toxic Waste" and "Oil Spill" with almost insulting rapidity and I guess I can see her point, these might frighten the punters, but can anyone explain to me what could be wrong with "Windscale", "Three Mile Island", and "Chernobyl"? Just asking, is all.

N° 3 in the series: Hideously Ugly Municipal Statuary
Then Bryan texted, and we arranged to meet at the Beer Tree that evening ... I had hoped to hear news of Beckham's complicated love life at some point, but to my dismay all he wanted to talk about, when finally we managed to get together, was his life plans (which, given his age, seem mostly to center around avoiding death for as long as possible). With my usual perspicacity it took me no more than ten minutes to work out that this could only mean The Business Partner From Hell again, so in a fit of unusual generosity I ordered another round to encourage him to continue his tale of woe.

Do you remember, struggling with fifth-form French, having to learn such incredibly useful phrases as "la plume de ma tante est dans le jardin de mon oncle", which were supposed to make us feel at ease in a foreign language? Can just imagine throwing that one into a conversation, everyone would be amazed.

The French had - still have, I suspect - the same thing: back in the day it was la méthode Assimil, where you learnt to say "My tailor is rich" (even if true, and it only goes to confirm my prejudices as to how they get their money, I fail to see the relevance to everyday life), and more recently, in some misguided attempt to make it more interesting, one may follow the adventures of Brian, who seems to spend most of his time in the kitchen. Often, with your sister. Or so it seems.

Getting to the point: although this joint-venture language school in Aix does seem to be working, it is not actually making money to the point where he can pay himself (not helped by the discovery that they must pay TVA on the income, which was an unexpected blow and I admit that waking up to find that you've just taken a 20% hit on your net revenue is indeed an unpleasant surprise). Also, his partner's breezy tendency to consider a bank account as being some sort of bottomless pit does not help.

So in a stroke of what I can but qualify, awestruck, as brilliance, Bryan (our one, not the creepy one getting too close to your sister over the dirty dishes) came up with the idea of opening his own language workshop and calling it "Bryan's Kitchen". I think that could definitely fly.

And then Jeremy is living up to his title as Lord of the Dead (machines): I do not know how he managed it, but he has managed to kill the ethernet adapter on the machine I loaned him. Packets go out, but none come in ... maybe he was not made to live with the Internet. It was my office machine, suppose I should go up there with a hard drive and salvage what I can before the rest of the hardware goes titsup.

I finally cracked, rejigged the mortgage, and bought some asparagus this morning. In my defence, let it be said that the broccoli, in normal circumstances an excellent and estimable vegetable, was looking particularly jaundiced, nor do I really enjoy shelling five kg of petits pois to find myself with a small bowl full of green ball-bearings. So it's definitely a ragout d'asperges that will accompany the lamb leg steaks tonight, maybe with some chips de panais (that'd be parsnip chips, to you) on the side. And I picked up some tomatoes too: doubtless to my regret, but hope springs eternal ...

And speaking of spring, the sky may well be still dull and gray but the forsythia is in flower, the daffodils are out in the paddock, and the wee birdies are definitely getting all excited. Unfortunately they are doing this in the eaves around our bedroom, and I have never personally been a great fan of the dawn chorus. Especially as practiced by a small persistent starling with a raging hard-on.

Whatever, have a nice drought, people. Be thinking of you, as the rain sullenly persists down.