Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Joy Of Boilers ...

One of the things I really like about the marché, place Carnot at Carcassonne, is that there's any number of people selling stuff out of their gardens. For some reason parsnip is popular this year: it, along with a number of other root vegetables, fell out of favour after WW II due to its being ineradicably linked in the collective psyche with war-time privation or whatever, but there's some sort of trend these days for les legumes oubliés and the bloody things are making a come-back.

(Funnily enough, this vegetable amnesia never extended to beetroot, turnips, or celeriac. Why this should be I shall maybe never know: personally I cannot understand the attraction of celery root, and the flaccid over-cooked beetroot that one usually finds is always disappointing, not to mention unfit for pickling. As for the turnip ... less said the better.)

But as I was saying before being so rudely interrupted, these people turn up with a folding table and plonk whatever they have down on it - the very last of the season's tomatoes, bundles of herbs, beautiful yellow courgettes, whatever - and I came across this guy selling kaki (that would be persimmon, to you) and also, to my great delight, feijoa. Which, for some reason, the guy also called "Peruvian guava", which I'm not so sure about.

Whatever, I made it away with a kilo or so - at €4.20/kg it wasn't going to break the bank - to Margo's delight, and as the guy reckoned he'd be selling the stuff for the next month or so we shall be happy persons. Apart from being delicious just like that (you may not think so, but you also may not have spent 27 years deprived of feijoa) it makes an excellent filling for a bretonne (which is very much like a gateau Basque, only with more butter, and a classic French dessert) so maybe I need to preserve some as a compôte. For when it's out of season.

In case any of you have drunk the Mayle Kool-Aid and believe that Provence is a land of perpetually blue and sunny skies, let me help you into this nice padded waistcoat - yes, the one that does up down the back - and get your medication ready. And I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. If you could just be so good as to sign here, and maybe here, before your hands start to shake too much.

Right now, for instance, the street lights are flickering on and off uneasily as the rain pelts down and the lightning flares spectacularly up north on the montagne Noire. Luckily the worst of the storm is headed off towards Narbonne. Well, the worst of this storm anyway: more are forecast, with up to 70mm of rain on Saturday night.

Also and exceptionally, along with the torrential rain came a strong easterly, which of course meant that we had rain coming horizontally onto the eastern façade of the house. Which is where the verandah is. And that, possums, is how we learnt that where those typically Provençal terracotta tiles that roof the verandah join onto the house wall is not, by any stretch of the imagination, weatherproof. Oh, I suppose it must have been at one time, but that was a while back in the day and the cement has weathered ...

Happily, one of the first investments we made when we moved in was a Karcher (you know, one of those sort of reverse hoovers that spit out a jet of water at some unimaginable pressure) and they threw in a cheap industrial vacuum cleaner, which is quite happy vacuuming up water. To say that it has seen some use in recent days would be an understatement.

We probably got off lightly. I am willing to admit that at midnight water was rushing in great sheets down the streets, and by the looks of the little road that leads down to the départmentale this morning when I took the retards off for their trot ... let's just say that last night would not have been a good time to choose to go anywhere.

Our central heating has been an on-again off-again affair for some time now. It was working when Margo went off to NooZild in early October and then it stopped, for reasons best known to itself, a few weeks later. A new fuel pump got installed (because here at The Shamblings™ we do not like things to be too simple, so the cuve is in the cave and the pompe pimps the fuel up to the burner, about 8 metres higher up, in its own little room up in the attic) and that worked happily for a bit until I noticed that it was pissing diesel down in the garage.

So André eventually consented to turn up, and attacked the recalcitrant thing with spanners and such until it leaked no more: then two days later it stopped working, hardly surprising as it had decided to commit suicide by blowing its own guts out through the wall of the unit.

Once again I had to resort to cargo cultism to get André to appear again: pictures of wrenches and cisterns and U-bends torn from the pages of glossy magazines such as House & Garden, and left lying around the place. Maybe I should just have bought a copy of "Gay Polish Plumbers French-Polish London", but I'd have had some explaining to do in the tabac.

But it worked, for only a week later he came back again with a new pump, one that sucks rather than blows, which is apparently better. I do not really care about its technique, I just want the thing to do its job. And right now it has been hung on the wall next to the burner and both are purring contentedly, and all the radiators in the house are glowing white-hot as we rush about turning them down.

Also, now that that is done and we actually have hot water upstairs and flooring and skirting boards and all the other appurtenances of a civilised life, we have actually moved up into our apartment. It is the case that my office and adjoining bathroom remain to be finished, that Margo's office must be emptied of cardboard boxes and suitcases of clothes, that there are a few planks of parquet that I cannot put down until Cédric finishes with an upright and that the hall has yet to be floored, but I could care more.

It is also admittedly true - for a given value of "true", one involving the words "brutal honesty" - that although the walk-in wardrobe exists, is painted and floored, and has a good percentage of the skirting-boards actually in place and held up by more than faith (personally I put my faith in heavy-duty glue) I must admit that it is noticeably lacking in such amenities as shelves, and drawers, and rails such as one might use for casually slipping a few coat-hangars on.

But these are not nice thoughts, and to talk of these things is impolite and leads to bad feelings, and is most certainly not conducive to such happiness as we could hope for, so let us turn our minds to other things, and gaze steadfastly at the bright new future that awaits us (preferably to the stirring accompaniment of the Third Concerto For Tuba And N° 37 Tractor Factory Joyous Worker's Collective, composed and directed by Kim Jong-Il).

And now for something completely different: totally gratuitous photos of our bedroom. In its new, improved, and more or less livable state.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

And Not A Drop To Drink ...

Not too far north-east from here, on the banks of the canal du Midi, is the little hamlet of Somail (not inhabited by Somalis,that I noticed anyway) which has one major claim to fame, this being its second-hand bookshop. As you can see it's a huge barn of a place: quite literally, I think it was in fact a barn in its youth. A couple of walls are given over to old editions of the classic Frog authors - Balzac, Hugo, all that - and of course there's fine arts, philosophy, ésoterisme (we are in France, you know) ...

Sadly, the two subjects that really interest me - gastronomie and eroticisme - were kind of under-represented, to my mind. Not that I really needed a copy of Pellaprat, in French (they did actually have one, but I just happen to have the exact same edition, dating back to 1960-mumble, only in a proper language). Nor do I really wish to pay some 700€, which I understand to be the going rate, for a copy of Suzon en Vacances, so I guess it's just as well they didn't have a copy of that.

Had friends of ours - Alain and Mijo - turn up from the Ariège the other day, in their enormous camper van. In thir honour, I dragged out the big Weber barbecue, and promptly butterflied a leg of lamb. Doubtless the last barbecue of the year, unless it turns out fine on Christmas Day (the Christmas barbecue is a tradition over here you know, at least in this family). Sadly there were but six of us sitting down to table, and so we failed to make much of a dent in the thing: bloody leftovers again, I fear.

Otherwise, Cedric and his apprentice are making regular appearances and although I know I keep saying "it'll be next weekend that we move in" and it just doesn't happen, things are still getting done. The terrace is more or less completed - my turn now, have to put some planks down on the top of the little wall to finish it off - and if only André le plombier would honour us with his presence, we might be able to turn on the central heating and have hot water upstairs. Which would be rather nice.

There's also the toilet on the ground floor to be replaced, and the pellet burner to replace the hopelessly inefficient (but still quite cheerful and cosy) fire that we have, but I am not going to hold my breath whilst waiting.

Ohs noes, and waily waily woe is us: we live in the biggest win-producing area of France and we have no wine! How can this be? Well, to be absolutely honest, when I say "no wine" I'm not counting the 90 or so bottles tucked away against a rainy day ... but we do not, every single day, down a bottle of '95 Chambertin such as is lurking on the dustiest bottom shelf of the wine rack.

Although maybe we should start tucking into it before they become faded bottles of little taste and purely historical interest. I think there's some '97 Côtes des Nuits in there still, if anyone's interested. No, I is referring to what we drink on a daily basis, which is Chateau Carton.

And finding myself fresh out of white, I headed off to the cave cooperative to get another five litres, only to find the shelves bare and no prospect of more until December, when they'll be bottling plasticking the 2014 vintage. How did this happen? A victim of its own success, they have sold all their stock. Woe, again! They do have a few ten litre boxes of rosé, but I'm kind of embarrassed about buying those because it does make one come across as a bit of non-discerning wino, and in any case they're a bitch to fit into the fridge.

It would appear that M. le maire has no problems with his prostate. Or so I must assume from the fact that he ordained - and various municipal workers have strived mightily, if somewhat inefficiently, to make it so - that the various drinking fountains, points d'eau and, in particular, the lavoir/horse trough just outside our front door in place St-Régis be put back in service.

This was done, and now the nights (and, incidentally, the days) are filled with the cool tinkling of water from an unspecified source into the great basins. Personally, I quite like it: got used to the stream between the house and the garden in St-Pierre, and the silence was getting to me ... on the other hand, there's a practical joker somewhere about in the village.

For after a long day sticking down parquet flottant in what will very soon be our bedroom, I came down for a well-earned dose of nicotine and alcohol on the terrace, and could not but notice, swimming mono-maniacally up and down the horse trough, three juvenile trout and a small carp. (Okay, how would I know? I can only recognise the fillets.) They seemed rather confused, and who could blame them? It'll all end in tears, when the neighbourhood cats discover their presence.

The festive season approaches and all sorts of delicacies are starting to make their appearance on the etals du marché: great heaps of juicy clementines, chayotte - for some strange reason - and the omnipresent foie gras maison hand-knitted by little old ladies, and on the bio-dynamic organic stands there are piles of string sacks full of fat snails waiting to be taken home and turned into tasteless knobs of rubber in garlic butter. Sadly I did not have my camera, or I would have posted a photo for your gustatory appreciation.

Instead, you get a totally gratuitous photo depicting the consequences when Margo tries to make industrial quantities of strawberry marshmallow in our washing machine. There may have been some slight confusion with the recipe for hokey-pokey, for she admitted to having perhaps put a bit much baking soda in.

Anyways, some have asked, and to satisfy your curiousity you will find some pics of just where we are in the renovation stakes. Mind how you go, now.

Eventually, my bathroom
And my office-in-waiting ...
... and Margo's office
Our eventual bedroom
What will be a guest bedroom ...
... and what happens to bathrooms
Our bedroom now.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Fancy a Vibrator ...

So I was flicking idly - as one will - through Ars Technica the other night and came across this article on how the sex of ferns is determined. Oddly enough it's very democratic, the plants vote by emitting a chemical signal - a "hormone called gibberellin" - which will, depending on the concentration, cause male or female development. I am not a biologist: it's all gibberish to me, I'm afraid.

Winter is icumen in these here furrin parts, and so the chaudière - the central heating boiler, to those of you who are, being blessed with a climate where such things are unnecessary, unfamiliar with the term - decided to have a hissy-fit, and stopped working. Which is a bit of a bitch, for it is she which supplies the top floor in hot water, and I was actually rather enjoying having a shower up there. (It also, being a central heating system, is supposed to heat the place as and when necessary. That would be good.)

Especially as the shower on the first floor is kind of - idiosyncratic, shall we say - and can go from boiling-hot to tinkling ice cubes just by turning the handle by a millimetre in any of its two degrees of freedom. I will be glad when it's gone.

Whatever, we have had a series of people through to take a look at her. First André, then young M. Jullien the chauffagiste turned up the other night but had to confess himself baffled, and this moaning Robert and Réné appeared, to the great displeasure of M. le Maire, who was waxing apoplectic in the middle of the square because they double-parked - with the engine still running - alongside his car for a couple of minutes whilst they checked the address.

So Réné came striding up the steps fulminating "Mais bordel, c'est qui ce petit con?" "Je vous rappelle que je suis le maire et je mérite un peu de respect ..." - I fear that we may not hear the end of this for some time.

He went upstairs to beat the recalcitrant beast with a spanner whilst Robert and I smoked outside: the general consensus appears to be that the pump in the garage that pokes the fuel up eight metres to the boiler in the top floor has failed. Although replacing it will cost an arm and a leg I'd still rather that it does in fact turn out to be that, for the alternative is that there's a teeny leak in the pipe letting air in and if that should turn out to be the case then Cédric will just have to rip out some of the gib-board he's just put up so we have access, and that will not please anyone.

Margo's friend and our occasional dog-sitter Mimi had some shopping to do, so we headed off to Spain. Down to Perpignan, stay on the autoroute for Barcelona, and get off at the second exit for La Jonquera. Which is, like a lot of border towns I guess, an enormous strip mall.

Did you know, incidentally, that on returning to France from Spain you may, if you are in a car, have a total of 2kg of tobacco, 90 litres of wine - which would make a bloody enormous raffia-wrapped bottle - and no more than 30 litres of spirits? Pitiful, a mere week's-worth. The allowance is much more generous if you're on a bus, do take note.

I like a bargain as much as the next man, but I was not willing to buy a shrink-wrapped package of 20 Spanish cigars for the admittedly bargain price of 8€: OK, I smoke, it's not good for me but still I have my pride and smoking donkey dung that is actively trying to rip my lungs out is not for me. But I did pick up a couple of bottles of Tanqueray - the first true decadence in decades - and some proper Martini sec, which you can't find for love nor money in France. Noilly Prat just doesn't cut it, I'm afraid.

This is a good thing, as our lemon tree has five lemons on it, all of them rather bigger than walnuts which makes a nice change, which means I shall soon be able to have at least five dry martinis, each with a slice of lemon. And I may even have some left over to make some sort of dessert!

Who knows, maybe I shall be able to make goat's cheese and lemon soufflés this time without having half of them wind up on the floor, that would be rather nice. And certainly less messy.
Mimi has her comfort zone so we went a few km further south and wound up at le Mirador, just above the sex supermarket (which I suspect is there to cater for the French market), promising an all-you-can-stuff-in-your-face buffet for 16€.

(By the way, I cannot see how it is that Apple has not sued them for "look and feel", or something. Just saying.)

But we went into le Mirador instead, although I do now know where to get dubiously humouristic birthday presents. (If anyone wants a fetching number in black latex, drop me a line with the measurements and I'll see what I can do.)

Drinks are included, so along with the usual culprits of Coke, fruit juice and whatever, you have red, white and rosé on tap. Just grab a plastic jug, fill it up, add ice cubes to taste and bring it back to the table. Rinse, and repeat as many times as you feel necessary. Sadly, I was driving.

For canteen food it wasn't actually that bad, and my eyes being bigger than my stomach I couldn't actually finish everything that I'd heaped onto my plate. Apart from the desserts, all of which involved chocolate and are thus, as Frog-persons say, incontournable.

It's not a place I'd go to for touristy reasons: given that most of the cars around the place had French plates from 11 (that's us, the Aude) or 66 (Perpignan) I guess a lot of people feel the same way, and just head down once a month to do some cheap shopping, and stock up on duty-free pastis. And maybe batteries, for the marital aids.

On the way back, if you don't take the autoroute, you're more or less obliged to go through Perthus, which is so much on the frontier that the eastern side of the main street is Spanish and the western side French. God alone knows how they elect the city council, let alone a mayor, without some major diplomatic incident. Or maybe Paris and Madrid actually learnt a lesson from the Hundred Year's War and just let them get on with it without too much interference, so long as there's not too much naked dancing in the streets.

If you're looking for a bargain there are really cheap leather jackets on sale, which are probably worth just what you pay for them, but I think the best deal to be found is on Rolex watches. You can pick one up from any vendor every three metres or so, and they're guaranteed original and everything! What could go wrong?

Sadly, Margo convinced me that a Rolex would be vulgar so I rather churlishly declined their blandishments - also I had better things to do, such as replying to some of those nice Wells Fargo bank directors with aol email addresses who are offering me zillions.

For those that care, most of the photos come from Minerve. This is a small town, set above a spectacular canyon carved in the limestone by the river Brian (no, I am not joking, that's its name) and is classed amongst les plus beaux villages de France. I don't know about that, it appears to be a pretty indiscriminate accolade. Given some of the villages that get stuck with it. But it is pretty, and you can't walk more than ten metres, even out of the tourist season, without tripping over a shop selling impractical lumpenpottery or amusing cast-iron ornaments.
On the brighter side, the viaduct would be absolutely ideal in the dead of night for disposing of surplus-to-requirements corpses, should you happen to have any to hand, and there is a municipal mangonel, which could make the job rather more fun that is usually the case. A few ranging shots may be required, to avoid unnecessary distress to the riverains, so I would recommend having a few extras about.
Just saying.