Sunday, June 30, 2013

Après le Deluge ...

Oddly enough, Saturday seemed calmer than usual in old Chambéry. A few shopkeepers redistributing stuff I didn't care to inspect too closely about the pavement in front of their shops, bar-owners blearily - and rather optimistically, I thought, mistakenly as it turned out - setting out seats and tables, and rather fewer people than usual at the market.

But it was a beautiful day, and little by little people started crawling out from under rocks or wherever it was they'd gone off to hide and sleep off the hangovers and forget all the highly embarrassing things that had gone on the previous night (it was, after all, Midsummer's Eve so a little bucolic excess is only natural, just avoid coupling with some guy with an ass's head is all I'm saying and that means you, Beckham) and the tables started to fill as bums got parked on chairs and the sky stayed obstinately bright and blue and furtive smiles scurried hastily across the faces of the bartenders as the cash registers went "Ka-ching!".

And the municipal employees were out in force, dismantling the stages and carting away the piles of rubbish (much of it hardly struggling at all) and generally cleaning up and hosing the last few drunks down the gutters, so that for once the place was sparkly clean for the sun.

I guess that everyone thought it was summer, after all, so even the small kids were out, dressed to the nines and being relatively well-behaved - as tends to happen here, on pain of pain - and playing at doctors and nurses up on the steps of the mairie whilst their parents relaxed under the parasols at le Refuge and the execrable Pierre proceeded majestically about, like a miniaturised galleon under sail, ensuring that the service was down to his usual low standards.

Incidentally, I think that one of his more impecunious clients must have made a deal at some point in the recent past to pay off his bar tab with straw hats which had, through a chain of circumstances too convoluted to go into in detail here, just happened to have come into his possession. It is the only reason I can think of - general French bad taste notwithstanding, not even Pierre is sufficiently stony-hearted to think that they are not sartorially challenged, and in any case I suspect he wouldn't actually dream of paying for them - why they have become part of the uniform of the serveurs.

I only say "serveur" from habit, and because I rather think it's part of the job description. In this universe, they are highly trained in the skills of not, in fact, serving anyone if that is at all possible. Oh, they wander around and if by some miracle you manage to catch their eye (I personally find proficiency at casting with a dry-fly rod to be an advantage here, doubtless hurts like hell but does rather draw attention) they will grudgingly take your order, but half an hour later as you stumble off, dehydrated, in search of a muddy puddle, you can see them standing about the bar, drinking and laughing merrily as they tell tall tales about the family at table 13, who've been there waiting for their kirs and a little grenadine for the kid since 1978.

But Saturday was Dumpster Day for us though, so when I got back we loaded up little Suzy and headed off to the dechetterie. Recycling and sorting your rubbish is a big thing in Ole Yurrup in general, and in our little corner of it in particular, and I was kind of apprehensive as the tip at St Pierre used to be presided over by a family of unreformed Nazis that always reminded me of particularly nasty Steptoes, only with exoskeletons, who would come all ironic on you if you so much as put red paper in the white paper bin. And if irony proved to be of no effect, brass knuckles always seemed to be an unspoken option.

But it seems they were pushed out for skimming off the top, selling some of the junk off and pocketing the proceeds. Where there's muck there's brass, as they say, and it seems that some people will happily pay for what others will pay to get rid of. I suppose that's called arbitrage, but small-minded nitpickers pointed out that technically speaking it's called theft, the rubbish in question not in fact being theirs to sell, and anyway naked capitalism offends (especially when its breasts are clearly visible) and so the municipality was obliged to Take Certain Steps.

So anyway, now there's a charming young woman who, when we explained our needs and the great variety of stuff we were getting rid of, inspected our bags and boxes and pointed us in the right directions. I still think you really need an advanced degree in sorting, with an option in the recognition of the various types of plastic so as to be able to put Barbies in one benne and Coke bottles in another, in order to do the job properly.

And of course there's always one, isn't there, the sort of chap who sits down every other night with a warm feeling of smug self-righteous ignorance to write Stern Letters to the editor of the local rag commenting on the depravity of the yoof, the disappearance of public morals and the general laxity of standards and lack of respect for elders today, who felt that, given as the afore-mentioned tribe of foul-tempered crustaceans was no longer there there to do it, he really needed to criticize us for putting, as per instructions received, paper into the container clearly marked "carton".

Not feeling up to a bit of impromptu liver excision without the benefit of anaesthesia, especially given the heat, I let it go. And as I don't actually read the Dauphiné, I guess I shall be spared his latest missive, pointing out how the fabric of civilisation is being undermined by the short-sighted policy of this government in letting foreigners - even if they are non-black not that he's got anything against Arabs or Africans apart from their skin colour, unsanitary food and general appearance mind you, not racist at all - come into decent society and blithely get rid of their smelly alien rubbish without first removing the paper-clips.

Bit of a shame really, it could be rather fun to learn exactly how I am contributing to the moral decline of this great country by not filing garbage correctly, but quite frankly I really cannot be arsed. Which I suppose is just another sign of my inner turpitude. Too bad.

Next Sunday, should it by some unlucky chance turn out fine, it's open house/paddock here at The Shamblings so that people can come around to see us off with barely-restrained bleats of joy (that is not the title of a soft-core porn movie, by the way: I checked that out, just in case there were copyright issues), and to eye up the loose silverware. Which is not enough for some, so we've had some lunch invitations, one of which we took up on Sunday.

I'd rather forgotten the traditional French Sunday lunch. Five hours from whoa to go, and enough food for a small army. I can no longer really do that, around here it's every humanoid for themselves and the first one to get a sandwich ready leaves room for the others: I find I end up rather bloated. And that's after politely refusing second helpings of everything.

Anyway, things are hotting up around here. As our departure plans were rather put on hold by this préemption business we were unable to confirm a booking for our friendly local démenageurs, who were to have come in and emptied the place whilst we stood by in awe and watched, and shifted its contents down south to general applause: of course now, it being the busy season, they have reluctantly turned down our offer to honour them with our custom, so we're on our own.

This is what we call in the trade a right bugger, as it's going to mean renting two 20 cubic metre vans, boxing and loading the house, driving down and repeating the process in reverse, and then getting the damned things back here. All in the space of three or four days. The prospect is leading to palpitations and fainting spells: I'm sure we'll manage, more or less, but it will be one hell of a hectic weekend.

Also, the home phone and my personal emails got cut off today. As I started to find out when I came to send a mail off using the Orange SMTP server, and kept getting notifications that it had refused my login credentials. And then Margo rang, to say that the home phone wasn't working ...

Bugger it, I thought, this is going to mean a while on the phone with customer service ... I realised that things were perhaps a little more complicated than that when I dialled 1016, punched in our phone number, and got a recorded message telling me that the phone had been cut off for non-payment. Kind of odd, given that the bills arrive at the office.

I eventually got put through to a human being, who told me that yes, we hadn't paid our last bill, for some 660€ and which should have been paid two weeks ago: knowing full well that the monthly rental for the Livebox etc is only 60€ or thereabouts, this kind of surprised me. What surprised me even more was the fact that I couldn't find the bill - any Orange bill, in fact - in the accounts. So I got put through, after five minutes of the usual ghastly music and incitements to spend more on their services, to someone in billing.

Who kindly explained that "yes, the bill might seem a bit high, but you must realise, Monsieur, that we haven't actually sent you a bill since last August".

And may I ask just why that would be? Sheer laziness on your part, or something more sinister?

Ah, un glitch informatique de notre part ...

Then it seems to me, I said, very carefully picking my words and trying hard not to kill anyone or yell, rather unreasonable to cut off service for non-payment of bills which have not, by your own admission, been sent out. For God's sake!

Oui, mais vous comprenez, monsieur, vous les n'avez pas payées, ces factures, alors nous sommes obligés de vous couper. Vous pouvez la regler en ligne, vous savez ...

But you have killed my Internet, and I DO NOT HAVE YOUR FRIKKING FACTURE!

Eh bien je ne peux rien faire monsieur, je vous mettrai en rélation avec les services de recouvrement ...

And after five minutes of more dire music, the line goes dead as they guy at the other end "accidentally" hangs up.

So I call back and, very wearily, explain the situation yet again - had I mentioned that I had already been obliged to explain three times? thought not - and because I was feeling feeble and really do not need to have a heart attack at this time, agreed to pay by carte bleue on the spot in the hope that normal service would be resumed as soon as possible. Three hours later this has still not happened, good thing I wasn't holding my breath.

And it does, I admit, seem a wee bit pointless given that in ten days I will be having the phone cut off here anyway, but we cannot live without internet and mail access so what choice do I have? Whatever.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

In The Quiet Light ...

So it's the middle of a baking hot Friday afternoon, and you can tell that summer is coming because, like dogs panting in what little shade there is, even the telemarketers don't seem to have their hearts in it.

I mean, they ring, I am put on hold because, I am told, there is "un message important à votre attention" and then some poor Indian flunky takes the line and asks to speak to the directeur de telecommunications: I say it's me, for my sins, and that we have both a telephone - which, I admit, works only when it feels like it - and a backup in the form of a tin can with some string attached, they just sigh briefly and say je comprends and don't even protest feebly when I hang up and - for safety's sake - cut the string. Note to self: buy another ball of ficelle de cuisine.

It is also June 21 which is, by decree of Jack Lang all those years ago, la fête de la musique which means that all sort of unsavoury noises will be committed tonight and, exceptionally, it looks as though it may not rain. Which I suppose means that there will be rather fewer deaths by drowning of tuba players noted in the local rag of record (Le Dauphiné Libéré, if you really want to know: a definitive guide to what's going on in St-Jean le Trou-du-Cul and other microscopic holes of no importance whatsoever - usually nothing at all, truth to tell, apart from a stabbing at the local crochet club - and their write-ups of the breath-taking suspense at the shuffleboard tournaments at Aix are fascinating for those interested in the sport), which is kind of a shame because that was always good for a laugh.

Still, if you are going to be remembered for something, I guess I'd rather be remembered for having impeccably cut suits, Bohemian good looks, having it off on the side with Mitterand's wife and, as a sort of afterthought, inventing a summer's night holiday with free music for all. Especially if the alternative is being ridiculed unto the end of time like Jack Allgood (sorry, Jacques Toubon) who, as minister of Culture and evidently under the influence of too much Chirac and not enough brain cells, famously tried to excise the English bits from French.

Leading to such hilarious results as "coussin gonflable de sécurité" (airbag), "courrier éléctronique", later shortened to "courriel" (e-mail) and also "baladeur portatif" (Walkman) which kind of sounds to me as though you're walking around with a very small troubadour hanging off your belt.

When you think about it, the whole idea of free music is not bad. Some of it you wouldn't actually pay to listen to anyway, but it does keep the yoof on the streets where the gendarmerie can see them, and if they feel it necessary go ask a few questions about unsolved petty crimes which, I rather feel, will be classed as "Closed" Real Soon Now. Yes, there are Arab musicians too, and in any case many of them are young, and thus automatically guilty of something, for godssake. It's a win-win situation.

But who knows, maybe I'll head into Chambéry and stroll about a bit, see - or hear, more to the point - what young Rémi can get up to on the guitar on the heavy metal stage at Curial, then head off to the Vestiaire at Challes for some 70's music, with Renaud on drums.

Whatever, we got word yesterday that the droit de péremption of which I spoke will not, it seems, be exercised and so we are authorised to sell our green and pleasant land along with the house, which means that the buyers cannot pull out of it. Which is just as well, as we have received word that the CIC will lend us the miserable 70 000€ that we asked for, so that we can in fact pay very comfortably for the place in Moux. With heaps left over, even after Bob (sorry, James, just slipped out) has done those things that need doing.

Which means that things are shifting up a couple of gears, we are getting ready to chuck Jeremy out, get power and water cut off, insurance and phone transferred, godnose what else, I have a list but I'm sure I'll have missed something, and tomorrow is going to be a journée déchetterie taking old computers, useless hardware, cardboard boxes of stuff and whatever else we can find down to the tip. That will be fun.

Also means that last night we girded our loins and took the long-arm sewing machine back to la baronne, at Belleville. This involves a van with a cargo capacity of at least 4.30 m length (the one Margo managed to get was shy of that by a bit, so the trip there was with the rear doors held as tightly closed as possible with bungees and straps), a lot of sweat, and some lost skin.

The things are not particularly complicated, they're just enormous great X-Y plotting tables, but they seem to have been made by a farrier back in the late 1800s and their individual components each weigh somewhere up of half a ton. And of course, it resided on the first floor and we didn't really want to break any more walls, so there was quite a bit of back and forth shuffling in a humourous manner with occasional swearing until we could actually get these 4.3m hunks of metal out the window and onto the street. Good thing Jeremy was there to give us a hand with the heavy lifting.

Now Belleville is north of Lyon, and although we left somewhat later than planned we were doing pretty well until we got onto the rocade est to whip around the pestilential place only to discover that the autoroute was closed and that we were being directed onto a déviation towards Villefranche.

Which was more or less where we wanted to go, or at least in the general direction, so we followed it ... and after an hour or so, more or less, we got gently shuffled back on to the autoroute, about 15 minutes up the road from where we got off, and went on our merry way - still, we got to see the river. Which is actually quite pretty, especially with the sun setting low over it, and the streaks of clouds limned in gold and apricot hanging in the sky. Bitch when it's in your eyes as you drive, mind you.

Whatever, about an hour later than planned - if you can use that word for what could better be described as a pious hope - we made it to Belleville and, not having the Deathwish GPS with us we found Pascale's place without too many problems and started unloading.

Had I had the forethought to do so I suppose I could have nicked borrowed the Riddled time machine, set it for four hours earlier and then played it back in reverse: that would have effectively reduced the effort involved to zero as the inverted time fluxes cancelled one another out, leaving only a huge sewing machine that was suddenly somewhere else, a few inexplicable skinned knuckles and a two-hour gap in the fabric of space-time to be explained away should any short-arsed officious bugger from the auditing office turn up with his clip-board asking questions.

And I think I could probably just have bogged up the hole with a bit of quick-drying cement and covered it with some grubby sacking, then stuck a "Wet Paint" sign on it and no-one would have been the wiser.

Unfortunately, seems the thing was in use that day (that was their excuse anyway, when you think about it, given the nature of the beast nothing would have stopped me borrowing it at some indeterminate point in the future - or the past - and doing the job then), also they go on and on patronisingly about temporal paradoxes bring too complicated for the uninitiated and are incredibly stingy and tight-fisted about lending stuff out, even to the extent of expecting people to ask first. So we did it the hard way.

As it turns out, in some sort of offence against the natural order of things we did not have the expected torrential downpour Friday night. So it was almost with pleasure that I picked Jerry up from the hotel as he fulminated about the couple of English people who'd decided to have a meal at the very last minute and then dallied over it asking silly questions about what to do with the little black balls in garlic butter, and what this that or the other sauce was called and why so he had to stand about after getting it ready and answer, and took him in to Chambéry where he gravitated immediately to the death metal and occupied himself with some serious head-banging.

Not really my thing, so I ambled off and found a group that was doing some pretty good covers of Nirvana, pelted a few percussionists and fled the folk dances before somehow winding up at the Beer Tree where I found myself with a glass of Laphroaig in one paw, and a bit of relative peace and quiet in which to occupy myself with it.

I can think of worse ways to finish a week.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

More About Buildings And Food ...

One thing I did forget to mention as I went on about the health & safety regulations to which we shall be required to adhere, and which left me with a totally ghasted flabber: unusually - I will resist the urge to say uniquely - for France, they are not prescriptive. Under other circumstances they would be highly detailed, setting out the required methodology - concerning traçabilité, say, they would specify a minimum size for your receipts, which would have to be stapled (9mm staples only) to pale yellow bristol, one receipt per sheet and then kept, in date order, in a vertical filing cabinet.

And provided you followed the rules it wouldn't matter if you were unable to demonstrate that on such and such a day you had fed (or not, as the case may be) two kilos of scrapies-ridden beef brain to your clients, because you'd done what was set out.

Where are my eyes?
No, these rules just define the result that is required, and how you go about it is totally up to you. If you feel like taking photos of the receipts with your phone and then attaching them to a spreadsheet cell which you've organised by supplier's hair colour you are free to do so. I must admit that kind of shocked me, it is so very un-French.

And even the knowledge that the regulations are not in fact French, but EU directives, does not diminish my wonder one whit, because that means that they were established by a committee, each member of which is jealously fighting his or her own corner and defending the right of their peasantry to scour out the butter churns with pig's urine, as is traditional and right.

This is NOT an argument
I personally find that selling your house is a learning experience in and of itself. Case in point: the incompetence of banks, the magnitude of which never ceases to leave me feeling like a stunned mullet, haplessly gasping for air. I would have greatly preferred to slit my own throat with a rusty hair-pin rather than go back to the Credit Agricole for a house loan, so I trotted around a couple of banks.

This may seem odd, but even national banks - like BNP and Société Genérale - still want you to take out your loan with a branch in the place where you're buying. I mean, what the hell is going on here? I'm pretty sure it isn't done for my convenience.

So anyway, I went off to see the CIC, aka Lyonnaise de Banque, who have the privilege of handling Upstart's banking needs, and explained the situation to them. As I had rather hoped, as the business itself is not shifting they agreed to handle the loan from here, which kind of avoids some otherwise unnecessary trips down south. So far so good, but I suspect that the very idea that this was possible raised false hopes.

Fear not, French banks are as incompetent as ever. I asked for a loan, 70 000€ over ten years, and for some strange reason they sent a first proposition for a seven-year term: interesting, no doubt, as it involves no mortgage and can be repaid early without penalty, but neither of us want to be shelling out 900€/month if we can possibly avoid it.

Then we got scary health questionnaires ("have you, or any family members, ever been insane?"), which we filled in with the usual lies, and there also arrived a copy of the actual loan offer - a proper official document, with places to sign and everything. Sad to say, it was not for us - I thought that was a tad too quick - but at least I now know in some detail the financial state of M et Mme Goudejan. Fascinating stuff.

And while all this is going on, we - or more to the point, Margo - are/is trying to organise movers, for at our age there is no way we is going to even contemplate the idea of loading all our junk into and on top of and trailing behind little Suzy, and getting it down there. No, we are actually going to pay professionals to do all that. But we do need dates for that, and as we can't really sign for Moux until we've signed the sale for here, I was kind of perturbed to learn that we are, in fact, subject to péremption.

This is not quite as filthy as it sounds, all it fact means is that as we are landed gentry with our rolling acres of agricultural terrain, first the mairie and them some other organisation of which I've never heard get dibs on it. Of course, if they decide that they do in fact want it this is considered sufficient reason for the buyers to back out, so the sale cannot go through until both have said "non!".

Now the mairie, who gets first choice, said that fairly early on in the piece, at which point the notaire was allowed to send the dossier off to the second lot. They received that on May 27 and, by virtue of article 37 of the code d'urbanisme or something, have two months in which to reply. So given that they have the sale habitude of not in fact replying if they don't want to grab the land, this could push the signing date back to July 28: the point is that we don't actually know.

Which is a right bitch, not to mention a pain in the arse. There is - this is France, as I keep reminding you - a way to - perhaps - speed up the process: if you send them a cheque for 150€ they guarantee to think really seriously about really replying in three weeks, retroactively, from the date of reception of the dossier. Which sounds kind of time-fuddling to me, but what would I know?

Our buyers are also in a hurry, so they apparently stumped up a cheque which got sent off to the notaire who must then transmit this through to the organisme in question (for you cannot send it off directly, this would be cutting out the middle-man and also against nature) and then ring someone there, hoping to extract a promise that we will get our answer Real Soon Now. Whilst we wait, we're rather in limbo, and it's highly annoying because we cannot set a firm date for signing in Moux or shifting or anything.

Suppose I'd better send a mail off to Peter telling him to let Jim and Celine know that their plans to pop over from England on or about the 12th need to be put on hold. Bugger.

Still, on the bright side, I feel that I have done something useful and Good with my otherwise dissolute life, which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. Thanks to my entertaining her with Uplifting and Informative Nature Tales, adapted slightly from the truth in order to fit the requirements of a younger audience, little Elise next door can now regale me with stories about the "horrible snails, that crawl in your ears and EAT YOUR BRAIN from the inside".

Anyway, one thing I don't do often enough is read James Beard. Come to that, I don't read Julia Child as often as I should, but there you go. I am reminded of this because Margo was off at a salon at La Roche sur Foron, and the SNCF was on strike (or, as they prefer to put it, une journée nationale de solidarité et d'action sociale, take your pick), so I wound up spending the night, carless and careless, on the spare bed at Stacey's, and she just happens to have a copy of "The Theory and Practice Of Good Cooking", by the aforementioned Mr. Beard.

So, having nowt better to do, I picked it up and read it, cover to cover. I knew the name, of course: doyen of American cooking back in the 60s and 70s, a cook for whom I have great respect, and also a wonderful writer, about food and maybe other subjects, I do not know. But honestly, who else could talk - with a straight face - about a "blessing of salt and pepper"?

Or, come to that, the "quick hot kiss of butter"? Also, in the section of that book devoted to sautés in their myriad and delicious forms, he bemoans the falling of boeuf Stroganoff: "bastardised", as he so elegantly puts it, "into a stew".

And if you're looking for some good paternal advice, he has this to say: "with braised veal, buttered noodles are good, and you may have green beans. Drink a Beaujolais". Sounds good to me. A man who loved food, and who let it show. Even to the point of criticising the "current French tendency" to cook everything in vinegar: mea culpa, for I do love chicken cooked that way, but I can see his point. Can easily be overdone, and not necessarily something you want every night.

Which may explain why, tonight, after a white-hot day, I decided on a simple warm potato salad: rougette leaves dried and set out on a plate, mustard, honey and olive oil whipped until senseless with a spoon in a bowl before adding lashings of chives and mint and cornichons, then pouring in the cubed steamed potatoes and sliced spring onions and some sweetcorn, stirring well with cider vinegar, and ladling the lot over the lettuce.

At which point some chopped hard-boiled eggs could usefully be added, and if you happen to have some decent bacon you could fry that up and crumble it in too, deglazing the pan with vinegar which could be used on the potatoes. Just saying.

Whatever, I should probably go to bed now as the week is calling: shall just leave you with another of Chairman Beard's great thoughts, on kohlrabi: "sometimes called cabbage turnip, but with the virtues of neither". I really like that man. As for you lot, mind how you go, now.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Broadening My Mind ...

So the pair of us headed off this moaning to Albertville, for a half-day course to learn about food hygiene and stuff. First of all, a word to the wise: should ever, through some odd turn of fate or twist of circumstance, you find yourself at the Chambre des Metiers et des Artisans at Albertville and dying for a coffee, resist the urge to go get one from the vending machine. The word "unpalatable" does not begin to do it justice: "toxic" does it for me but is quite likely actionable, given that I don't think anyone has actually died from inhaling the stuff, although I can't imagine how not. Maybe they hushed it up.

Go out the front door, across the road, turn left and pop into a bar. It'll cost more, but it will probably be drinkable.

Anyway, back to this course ... mainly to let you know what you're up for. Somewhat to my surprise, the legislation concerning tables d'hote is nearly as draconian as that covering restaurants. Fair enough, up to a point: giving people food poisoning is a serious matter and not one to be undertaken lightly, nor to be left to amateurs, but still the whole concept of table d'hote is that you invite people into your house and feed them a typical, preferable regional, meal, as though they were friends or family that had just popped in and managed to invite themselves for lunch by the simple expedient of parking themselves at the table and refusing to budge.

So although you can invite all the family around for Christmas day or Aunt Gladys' birthday and cunningly slip salmonella into the tuna salad without so much as a harsh word being said, let alone inspectors from the service veterinaire coming round to make rude and sometimes pointedly harsh remarks, if you're feeding three strangers for cash things get more complicated. What did you expect? This is France.

I will pass on the aspect traçabilité, where you are expected to be able to show origin, date of purchase and date of use of all animal products consumed over the past six months, and just quickly fulminate on the requirements for the kitchen. Floors, walls and work surfaces must be of such materials as are "easily cleaned". The use of wood (chopping blocks etc) is totally verboten. There must be a separate hand-basin, with foot controls, for the washing of hands, something to be done every time you pick your nose. The different matières premières (meat, vegetables, dairy products ...) must be stored on separate shelves in the fridge ...

I swear, if the same rules were to be applied, as reasonably they should, to any home kitchen that occasionally caters to more than two adults, a kid or two, and the odd cat, no-one in France would bother cooking. Just have a microwave, and live on frozen pizza. Mind you, that is happening. Sadly.

Still, at least I now know that salmonella is completely exterminated once the internal temperature gets up over 63°C, also - and rather more disturbing - that listeria actually prefers to have it off at 4°, and is a frequent unwanted visitor in fridges.

Also, that we shall have to get a Licence II in order to be able to serve fermented, non-distilled alcoholic beverages: this is free on demand at the local mairie, but you do have to undergo a 700€ course on road safety or something beforehand. There had to be some way they were going to get money out of it.

It's a slow day right now, so get yourselves ready for the Peculiar Case of the Cheese-grater in the Evening. As Watson would have said. No baying hell-hounds, no blood smeared on the walls, nor a peg-legged sailor with a cleft palette, just a cheese-grater that should have been there, but wasn't.

Anyway, it was not upon a dreary winter's day under a dismal London pea-souper that I turned up to call upon my friend Mr. Holmes of Baker Street, but rather last Tuesday evening, when it was in fact quite fine and sunny, and to be totally honest I had just arrived home, had no intention of calling on the great detective, and in fact never did so. His services turned out to be unnecessary, just as well really for I don't actually know the guy, and given the situation he might well have insisted on payment in advance.

To be clear on the circumstances of the case: finding myself with nowt but mince in the fridge, it seemed obvious that Italian-style meatballs, with a hint of lemon, in a rich tomato sauce would make a suitable light dinner, accompanied by buttered pasta, as is our wont.

Now pasta has, of course, one drawback: our Mediterranean friends have not yet devised a way of getting cheese into it. So grated cheese on top - parmigiano reggiano or, if you prefer, a dried Sardinian cheese - is more or less mandatory. And as the meatballs simmered away in their lascivious sauce, and the spaghetti went al dente, it came time to prepare the garnish.

Cry havoc! and let loose the Spanish Inquisition, for no cheese-grater was to be found. Baffled we were not, for we knew that Jeremy had prepared pasta for his party on Sunday night: the answer was obviously that the article in question is not actually missing as such, just poorly filed. So we inspected all the kitchen cupboards - yes, all of them, even those that are not, technically speaking, actually in the kitchen, not in this time zone anyway - and when that turned out to be fruitless, we ransacked the pantry.

Jeremy had his party in the cellar? Let us process down, holding torches (for it was getting dark) and clutching the life-preservers in our ulster pockets (what the hell are those, anyway? Life-preservers, I mean. You are seriously trying to tell me that Sherlock Holmes wandered about at all times with an inflatable dinghy in his pocket?), to check the contents of the cellar. Many interesting things are there, but apparently innocent of any trace of a cheese-grater.

It is not, of course, impossible, that he should have taken it up to his room: there are coffee mugs - and coffee dregs - in there that first saw the light of day in the last century: with some trepidation we opened the door and inspected the sordid den of iniquity. As dennish, and as iniquitous, as one could wish, but Still No Frikking Cheese-Grater.

At which point, dinner being about ready, we resorted to shaving slivers off the cheese with a sturdy knife and - none the worse for it, let it be admitted - sat down to our humble meal. But not without a certain inquietude: it is not an easy thing to eat with a tranquil spirit knowing that your cheese-grater has suddenly and inexplicably vanished. What sort of madman enters one's house and makes off with a cheese-grater, leaving behind the cheese?

Be reassured, there is a happy ending. Jeremy himself arrived, around 23:00, and I subtly questioned him on the matter ...

"Jeremy! Where the hell's the cheese-grater?"
"What, that? Oh yes, here it is in my backpack. Got a call, took it to work in the morning."

Could someone please tell me what type of restaurant it is that does not have a cheese-grater to call its own? Apparently, one where the chef does not believe in the utility of such instruments, and will not have one in the drawer. Or perhaps he had an unfortunate experience as a child, I do not really wish to know.

Now our eldest son would, he claims, normally have left a note explaining that the cheese-grater had neither absconded nor been kidnapped: but as he planned on being home at midday, long after it would no longer have been needed, he thought that superfluous. Which just goes to show, because at midday he got sent off to Metro, the big professional discount shop, with the company card, a blank cheque and instructions to buy, amongst other things, a cheese-grater.

A little something for the weekend: I was driving up the hill from the centre of town back up to the office the other day, having taken advantage of the sun to perform my mid-week libations at the Beer Tree, and found myself behind a big ute that, judging from the rakes, brooms and assorted lawn-mowers, belonged to one of those helpful people that do gardening for money.

This turned out indeed to be the case: when I got close enough to read the sign it mentioned "entreprise de jardinage", so spot on there, what I had not expected was the rather unfortunate - to my way of thinking, anyway - name of the owner, M. Ratpatron.

Inexplicably, it dawned fine and sunny this morning, so despite my innate skepticism I tootled off to the market in a relatively good mood, ready for all that life might throw at me. On condition that that was buckets of cherries, say.

Anyway the fresh herbs are now out there in great handfuls so I stocked up on chives and parsley for the freezer, and a huge bunch of basil for which I shall  have to think of some use, and they all went in with the rougette atop the apricots and flat Italian white peaches (some of which are destined for a peach crisp, I think) and stuff, and then wandered vaguely back to head office to meet up with the infamous Bs and check up on the rosé.

Somewhat to my surprise Beckham was actually there more or less at the appointed hour, not having managed to pull anyone the previous night, and then Bryan shuffled up on his zimmer frame a bit later, so we ordered something healthy and restorative and sat in the sun watching things happen and talking, and the conversation turned, as it will, to pederast necrophile ducks and then, logically enough, to the cruelty of killing off - or at least seriously reducing the numbers of - the pigeons that infest Chambéry.

At least, Beckham seemed to think it was cruel: Bryan quite reasonably pointed out that they'd tried contraception and that hadn't worked, and I'm sad to say that my contribution to the train of thought was simply that the problem with that was not only finding enough people to put the tiny rubbers on their little columban willies, but also having them be in the right place at the right time.

And at that point the meeting broke up in some disorder as we all thought of things we really ought to be doing, and headed off to enjoy the fleeting sunshine before the thunderheads rolled in.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Need My Eyes Checked ...

A quick feel-up on the battlefield
When we left New Zealand all those years ago we were laden down with many gifts from friends and well-wishers anxious to see our backs, such as plastic tikis, "humourous" pukekos, and souvenir tea-towels depicting typical scenes in NZ life. Immediately upon arrival in Ole Yurrup we distributed the tikis as second-hand presents to our effusively grateful and seemingly feeble-minded hosts and abandoned the pukekos to their own sordid devices in a mosquito-ridden swamp south of Vitré, where for all I know they continue to thrive, but we kept the tea-towels: a good thing too for we were impecunious in those days, also too lazy to go down to the supermarket when a late-night need came upon us, and later on they made good impromptu nappies.

Have you seen my dagger?
They've been washed since, of course, and most of the stains have faded, and many of them still adorn the kitchen here, spread out over various benches and things to stop dust getting on them, for we can be quite fanatical about having clean, dust-free Formica. One such, depicting "Rock-pool Residents Of Our Country", is draped casually over the dishwasher, rumpled in an interesting way, and as I sat down last night for my solitary quiche it caught my eye and I read "fuck poo sid".

And that is all. I have no idea how that came to be, I merely report it.

So I had lambasted (not the same thing as basting lamb) our favourite son for the crime of polluting his computer, if you recall, and just last night I had occasion to turn on the old W2K tower that sits in my office at home, which acts as a secondary backup for photos and such, and which hosts projects for which the tools are so certifiably ancient that they won't run on any other flavour of Windows ... it also has an obsolete but still perfectly functional scanner connected to it, over the parallel port (think I must have bought the very last motherboard that still had one of them things), and the occasion was in fact that I had some stuff to scan and then e-mail off.

And I scanned the stuff in, sent it off, and then as the thing was on thought I might as well look at porn go check out a few blogs do some research and so what happened? Damn thing couldn't even find Google. Hum, thought I. This being W2K had to do things the old-fashioned way, so remembered where the Device Manager lives, uninstalled the network adapter, reinstalled it, and lo! I have internet again. Now should I, I thought, look at that vintage Andrew Blake movie, or should I try my luck? Feeling lucky, punk?

Of course I made the wrong decision, and about three minutes later it became evident that once again, there was no internet. Having better things to do I delved into that, and discovered that I could in fact ping other machines on the home network, but not the router, or anything behind it.

Now I is confused, and probably befuddled, and definitely clueless. No way you will get me to believe that two network adapters can fail in the same sort of erratic way in such a short interval, so I can only think that some sort of stealth update to the bloody router has left it in a psychotic state where it's dropping connections for W2K machines. Bugger me if I know.

At least there are still a couple of tins of foie gras in the fridge, despite our best efforts to get rid of stuff before we move out, and there are some potatoes, which lead me to make Rossini-burgers.

I thought I would make at least a token gesture (a rude one, admittedly) in the general direction of healthy eating, so rather than using actual burger buns I grated those very potatoes, squeezed as much water as I could out, mixed them with some salt and grated cheese and then fried them in incredibly healthy duck fat into what we call paillassons (lit. straw doormats) but you might know them better as rösti or latke.

When these are lightly browned and nicely crisp the actual assembly is a breeze: place a mound of caramelised onions, preferably deglazed with some balsamic vinegar, on one doormat and top that with some crisp lettuce, tomato, a thick slice of foie gras and sauce béarnaise with chives. Stick another doormat on top and eat. Margo reckons that just with the liver it's too rich, and that I should really have stuck some steak in there as well: she could well be right but what the hell, I was hungry and managed to down mine. With asparagus on the side.

Once again, we are baby-sitting the retarded Irish setter for the weekend. Weekends seem to be getting longer, by the way: I used to think it was just those two days when you didn't spend all your life at the office, but things have changed - Angie turned up on Wednesday night and leaves on Monday.

Anyway, more to the point as Margo is off working tonight until some ungodly time in the wee hours, I am baby-sitting the beast. At this moment, at any rate. The day started off as well as could be expected: I opened the front door, stepped out, turned around to get the umbrella and before you know it the damn thing (dog, that is) is standing excitedly in the middle of the road, barking at clouds and hoping to go walkies. I had to go catch a train so went up, woke Margo, let her know that the dog was out and headed back out: as soon as I opened the front door he came straight back in, obviously a bit let down that no-one wanted to play.

So anyway I got home that night, sidled carefully in to find that Margo had put up the old baby barrier so that he was shut in the living room. Took that down - not really any point now, I thought - and negotiated the barricade of old armchairs to get into the kitchen. Get out the makings for a hamburger (with the left-over foie gras from the other night, decadent I know but I don't care), start making the buns and then suddenly notice a total Absence Of Dog.

Living room, empty - apart from the usual junk. Hall: empty. Suddenly suspicious I headed off upstairs, and sure enough, there he was, lounging on the mat in the TV room. Sad to say the poor thing has not yet worked out that stairs are bidirectional and so does not believe that he can actually get back down, which is probably why, until I get up the strength to carry him bodily down, I am stuck with him sitting with his nose snuffling my privates as I try to type.

I stand corrected: Angie does in fact know how to get down stairs. It's a variation on the old problem with which so many of us are familiar, "how to get the donkey down from the top of a minaret?" The answer, of course, is that you just have to persuade the donkey that it really, really, very urgently wants to get down from the top of the minaret, and nine times out of ten it will do so completely of its own accord and without leaving a donkey-shaped rustic carpet splattered on the street thirty metres below.

Of course, in a few rare cases there may be some collateral damage, but there is that old saying about omelettes and eggs, and in any case there are plenty of donkeys. Look on it as improving the species.

But what I was trying to say that Angie can easily be persuaded to come down the stairs: it suffices to go up there and put his leash on, at which point, convinced that he is about to go walkies, he will happily find his own way down and sit whining at the front door until you actually do the deed.

Which I eventually did, and decided at one point that I might as well go whole hog and broke out into a run. The dog, of course, thought this was a wonderful idea and loped along at my side, still only in third gear but happy to have got out of a trot until, getting to the uphill bit, I thought "bugger this for a game of soldiers" and let him drag me up.

And eventually, through the mysteries of topology, we arrived at the top of our street and headed back down, the damn dog not even breathing heavily, so I broke into a sprint. All well and good, until about half-way down my phone leaped from my pocket and fell heavily into the gutter just ahead of the storm-water grating, then split into three - phone, back case, and battery.

Had I mentioned it was dark at this time? And I was sure I saw something shiny jump down the grating and disappear with a sad gurgle. Happily it apparently did not belong to me, because I managed to collect all the bits and dry them nicely in the microwave (just joking children, you really do not want to try doing that with your shiny new iPhone) and slot them back together. Gave me an excuse to clean the screen too, which was in some need of it. They can talk all they like about their fantastic oleophobic glass but it's crap if you ask me, the damn things are always covered in greasy smears. One reason I have to really restrain myself from biting when people reach out with their fingers to try and point something out on my computer screen.

Must have been the Zombie Big Day Out today, if the ashen-faced shambling hordes at the market were anything to go by. Either that, or they'd decided to have a spring-clean at the Parkinson's ward in the hospital, and had pushed everyone out for a quick shuffle whilst they vacuumed under the beds.

Whatever the reason - and I admit I arrived later than is my habit, what with Morpheus clutching me to his bosom and all - they were there in multitudes, elderly, grey or blue-rinsed, muttering quietly or shrieking "bonjour" in harpyish hoarse whispers to old acquaintances glimpsed between the legs of those taller than themselves, and all towing their goddamned shopping baskets behind them as they shuffled slowly on. Ice ages are mere mayflies in their lives, come or go, they'll still be there.

I take revenge as I can, politely open doors for them just because at least I still can, but I fear it's a lost cause. They out-number us now, humanity is doomed. We all know about that inverted age pyramid, what I'm not looking forward to telling Jeremy is that the ones at the top all have Partial Death Syndrome, and there's a hell of a lot of them.