Friday, April 24, 2015

The Devil In A Black Dress ...

It's an odd thing, but cat doors seem to be an effective metabolic enhancer for our feline friends. A few weeks ago I put one into the pantry door (because behind it is where the kitty kibbles lurk) and now that we can just leave the door closed all the time you'd be amazed at the dramatic fall in the consumption of cat food, and yet neither of them seem to be losing weight. Certainly not EBK, anyway.

I guess the effect is purely homeopathic, but the dogs also seem to be hungrier at meal-times. Pure coincidence, I suppose.

After a well-watered barbecue on Saturday night with Mary and Rick Sunday dawned gray, sullen and damp so having nothing better to do (apart from tiling, stripping wallpaper, chipping away at recalcitrant cement on floors, whatever, you name it) we headed off to north-west of Carcassonne to Bram (not named after a Stoker) to take a look at an exhibition of paper dresses, the work of one Catherine Cappeau.

Not Prada, nor Chanel, but very interesting. A bit too sculptural, I'd have thought, to be worn with any degree of comfort - but then what would I know, and in any case I personally cannot see how any normal human being can wear anything you see stitched onto a mannequin on the catwalk and hope to feel comfortable in it. For one thing, your left breast is constantly poking out to one side (and not necessarily the left), with a nipple malfunction imminent, and some of them must scratch something awful.

Also, being suspended in mid-air by what I suppose I shall have to call a hat or head-dress cannot feel natural, and it would be a right bitch trying to get to the canapés or even just getting a refill of champagne. Unless you had a sympathetic puppet-master.

Margo just tells me that I am an irredeemable philistine, and given the number of syllables I am willing to take that as a compliment.

Whatever, having poked around to our heart's desire it seemed only reasonable to head off to see where the paper was made: a place called Brousses, up in the foothills of the montagne Noire.

Up there the landscape's completely different from here in the Corbières: some bits remind me a bit of the Desert Road (complete with military base) and then you get a bit higher up, onto the little windy roads that apparently disappear into gorges.

More hills, and a lot greener: stark and savage in its own way, with great rocks jutting out of the greenery and villages huddled in the valleys, but not at all the same sun-burned timeless land where the lizards play. Kind of got used to the wide-open spaces under the bright blue sky.

In any case, there's a lot of water up there, rushing about in torrents, and although I suppose they could have set up a tannery (for which you need an awful lot of water, only partly to get rid of the effluent) the locals decided that watermills were a good concept, and hey! why not a manufacture de papier while we're about it?

And so it happened, and the paper factory is still there some three hundred years later - and still using some of the original equipment, by the looks of it. I get the feeling that the most recent acquisition was the Dutch beater, bought back in the 1840s. (Mind you, in my experience tanneries are about as innovative. Some of the gear in the one at Anonnay dates back to at least the early 1900s and is still working, thanks to duct tape.)

I have to admit that I tend to be fairly rapidly saturated by industrial museums because it's just obsolete technology and anyway paper's paper, innit? and also hanging around waiting for half an hour until enough people turn up to constitute a guided tour bores me witless, but it actually turned out to be quite interesting.

For me - and the other ten-year-olds on the tour - I still feel that the highlight was when the guy explained about the different varieties of paper made from crap. Elephant pooh was apparently particularly recherché, due to the long fibres. File that interesting fact away for Trivial Pursuit.

And thanks to the technological marvel that is the innatübz I am informed that NooZild has continued a fine and longstanding tradition of erecting Prime Munsters that, seemingly effortlessly, make themselves look like complete and utter prats. Rob Muldoon used to drone on and on in his ridiculous whiny buzzsaw voice about a "New Bretton Woods" until even Ronald Reagan could no longer stay asleep and had to go and hide behind the curtains in the Oval Office, disguising himself as an aspidistra.

At least David Lange did no actual damage, it's just that world leaders pretended to be busy with an excessively painful bowel motion when they saw him coming, for fear of being on the receiving end of a handshake sufficiently vigorous to leave their brains rattling around inside their skulls for days. Not to mention a booming "Hello" echoing from ear to ear long after he'd left.

But now it seems that John Key has managed to make even Tony Abbott appear not entirely ridiculous - which takes some doing, but no-one has accused him of being a hair fetishist. Yet.

I mean seriously, "PM Pulls Ponytail"? (Also, sends a couple of bottles of wine to make it all better?) A bit of light-hearted non-gender-specific banter is one thing but ... I bet Obama, at this very moment, is busy on the line with his social secretary and checking his Rolodex so that he can inconveniently come down with the plague before the next G20 meeting.

It used to be that we could always take some comfort in the fact that Joh Bjelke-Peterson would be impossible to beat and it's true that Abbot seems to have a pronounced taste for his own shoe-leather but anyways, congratulations and well-done, you lot.

As a general rule I am not one to go around making ecstatic moans and far-fetched comparisons over a wine's bouquet. For one thing, people who stop to talk of such things often don't get a chance at a second glass, and for another I usually just can't see it. I mean, "a subtle hint of blueberry with cinnamon overtones; an overarching vegetal finish" does absolutely nothing for me. Maybe I'm drinking the wrong wines.

But anyway, I had occasion to go past Robert's place the other evening, just to say something along the lines of "But of course I will be present at the opening of your wine shop in Carcassonne on Saturday evening: free booze and nibbles, wild horses couldn't drag me away" and one thing led, as it will, to another, and once we'd sampled a couple of the two hundred or so different bottles of beer he'd brought back from Germany we fell to discussing wine.

At which point he mentioned that he had, of course, made it a point of honour to try the Moux wines: La Baronne of course is excellent and Chateau Mansenoble, despite being owned by Belgians, produces an estimable vintage, but had I tried Sainte-Marie d'Albas?

Sadly, I had not, but he still had half a bottle sitting around somewhere and so whilst Lova somewhat grumpily shared her marrow bone with Indra we tucked into that.

It was indeed excellent, but the point I'm trying to make here is that it was the first time in my life that I've been able to smell a wine and say "Hey! That spicy note really reminds me of golden syrup!". Never mind your bloody whiff of strawberries and stone fruit. I can see that I shall have to totter up the street a ways and pick myself up a crate, to stick away in the cupboard under the stairs that is currently the closest thing we have to a cellar.

Anyways: this, I'm told, is what a troll version of Kermit the pissed-off frog looks like at the moment it penetrates the interstitial void between two adjacent and currently tightly coupled dimensions. Although I'm also told that "penetration" is not really the word to describe the act, it's more like osmosis.

Due to there being more trolls there than here, and so they sort of leak through, correcting some sort of cosmic imbalance. Apparently.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Le Salon des Fainéants ...

A while back now, our neighbour in the office up at Cote-Rousse was one Jean-Charles Bouillot: a specialist in printing images onto all sorts of material, a bon vivant in the traditional French mould, and also an excellent photographer.

When I say "was" he still is, or still would be were it not for the fact that I'm not there ... if you see what I mean. Anyway, the point is that at some point back in the day we decided that having a photo exhibition could be a not-too bad idea, and I even got around to sorting through the archives.

It never happened, partly because I am now in southern parts and partly because we really couldn't be arsed, but I was digging around in the dirtier recesses of my hard drive the other day and found them again. I think many have been posted here before, whatever: here they all are.

Damn Statistics ...

The estimable SC recently went all teary-eyed whiny over his visitors being about 95% Ukrainian. Here at The Shamblings™ we aspire to a better class of click-bait: only Russian oligarchs and mail-order brides for us - if you can trust the Great Google's statistics. And oddly enough, a number of those assiduous followers seem to arrived at these august premises by following a Bing search for "titsup holidays". I draw no conclusions from this, I merely present the evidence. As follows (for this day, 8/4/15):

Something's going on here. Why is no-one in NooZild interested in me? What the hell? I don't have to do this, you know. It takes time (which is money) and money (which is also, more or less by definition, money): perhaps I should just go back to my roots acting as a facilitator (is that a word?) for FOWAs (that's Fat Old White Americans) looking to hook up with attractive young Russians who give great head (but no guarantees as to gender, no money-back guarantee).

If I choose to look at this as a percentage, the Russian population is around 144 million so my readership there is about 0.00000064 percent. Which is - pretty small, not to say infinitesimal - but that's alright, even if I cry at nights, because ... in UpsideDownLand, all I can manage is a lousy 0.00000025%. Come on, people - look at my blog: not because you like it, it's for democracy and freedom! (Well, that and the ad revenue - haha.) Do you really want Vladimir Putin to win?

Strike a blow for Western civilization, leave all your small change in the tub to your left as you go out the door. Thanks.

I swear to god, they will drive me to drink. (Not that I actually need to be driven: that would be rather ostentatious given that the fridge is but a few short steps away, also there'd be a problem trying to get a car into the house. Maybe a golf cart.) Twice so far I have had to rewrite my original spec for Modbus access, and now I'm going to have to do it a third time. I hate writing specs, maybe even more than I hate grouting.

Once I can handle, twice is unfortunate, but the third time it's definitely because someone out there either hates me or has a really sick sense of humour.

I do not wish to brag, but right now - around 10am on a Sunday morning - it's sufficiently hot that I've retreated from the terrace, where I was recovering from last night's barbecue (a rouelle de jambon and a vast potato salad, if you really want to know) and contemplating one of those existential questions that confront us all at some time or other, namely what in hell pushed me to buy two kilos of strawberries and what am I going to do with them now, into the cool of the house.

Where I have another bathroom floor to tile, for Cédric and André turned up last week and set to work again with a will, and André is coming back on Tuesday to put the bath in there so I really do have to get off my arse and get it ready.

Still, assuming it's not a train coming the other way we can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel: apart from the demolition of the monstrosity that is the fireplace downstairs in the living room all the really major work has been done. Yeah, there's still a few places where the plastering needs finishing off and of course there's the ceilings to be painted and all the wallpapering and skirting boards and godnose what else but with any luck by the end of May - only a year overdue, but what the hell, this is the south of France after all - the place should be more or less finished and there will be bedrooms for guests with - a very important thing - functional bathrooms.

Of course, there may not be actual beds for them to sleep in but that is a minor detail which I am choosing to ignore just at the moment.

Also, it is that time of year when cuddly furry animals and all our feathered friends (to whom, at some point, I intend to dedicate a post - mainly with recipes) get it off and start to do something about housing the next batch or brood.

I have said it before and I will say it again: crows have all the architectural style and building prowess of English town planners from the 1960s. Not so much "build it, and they will come", more "drop a load of branches from 50m onto the church and see what sticks". The answer, as it turns out, is "not a lot", and walking around the south side of the église gets kind of hazardous: you trip on heaps of twigs and are quite likely to get another load delivered directly onto your head, courtesy of a short-sighted member of the corvidae.
At least the pigeons don't seem to have this problem: for all I know they wait until the crows have managed to put together (for "erect" is not quite the word here, implying as it does some sort of planning) a relatively robust pile and then go and squat it. I'd not be surprised.

And of course we also have the swallows, who seem to feel that bird poop and spit are an acceptable substitute for actual building materials. I really cannot recommend loitering for too long under one of their nests either: it might not fall off (despite appearances, the things are really quite solid, especially when they're ancestral homes) but there's a reason why there's piles of guano beneath and it's because the little rodents are copious crappers. Just saying.

And you might not want to end up like one of our friends who, many years ago now, came to visit us via London. I think it was in King's Cross station, as they were catching a train to get to the ferry, that a pigeon voided with gusto all over her head, so poor Leslie left Ken with their luggage and went in search of a toilet, to clean up a bit.

This being England, everyone was far too polite to point out that she had bird shit in her hair and running down her face and acted as though this was a perfectly normal state of affairs, and she could wait her turn in line for a handbasin, thank you very much. The poor woman was finally reduced to going up to the people at the head of the queue and saying "Excuse me, you may not have noticed, but I am hot and sweaty and, incidentally, covered in bird crap - would you mind awfully if I just rinsed some of it off?"

Whatever. After months bitterly complaining about the weather we are still doing that, but for different reasons. Out in the verandah it's up to about 26°, the cloudless sky is that particular Provençal shade of blue and to be quite honest, it's difficult to summon up the enthusiasm to get behind a keyboard and do some honest work.

I used to think that the habit of sticking ice cubes in your rosé was obscene and unsavoury, but I can see it has its advantages. I suppose I'd better go order in another tanker of the stuff, mind how you go now.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Joy Of Tiling ...

First of all, here's a nice NWSF picture for you.

So it seems that we're more or less sure that Mars at some point in the past had surface water and could have hosted life more or less as we know it - possibly only lawyers and politicians, but who can say? And even after the Old Ones died off as the atmosphere slowly escaped, it seems only reasonable to posit that perhaps their hyper-intelligent felines survived, learning by trial and error (and along the way, providing a totally reasonable explanation for a few otherwise problematic craters) how to use a nuclear-powered tin-opener.

Although their civilisation might have flowered for a few millennia, the race would of course dwindle inexorably, and at some point the ancient palaces would topple and only a few - perhaps only one - would remain to mourn past glories: I am really waiting for the televised press conference from NASA with jerky pixelised footage beamed back to us, showing Curiosity killing the cat.

Whatever, may I say that I really, really hate having to go to the market at Lézignan? But as last Saturday, as I said, we headed off to Montpellier for this foodie thing which kind of prevented me from whipping around Carcassonne, things were getting dire: Tuesday night we were down to the last packet of frozen peas.

So girdèd me I did my loins (also, I put some jeans on, just to be on the safe side) and headed off to brave the old hags. Also, to find a parking space. How hard can that be? I mean, Lézignan is not a big place: about 11,000 souls all up as of the last census, but I swear that on market day that must double. At least. And they're all over eighty. Towing those scythe-wheeled shopping baskets behind them.

Eventually I did find a place to leave Sarah - by dint of waiting ten minutes for some old bag to work out what reverse gear was, and then to perform a complicated manoeuvre to actually back out of the parking space: and when finally she achieved that a pair of retarded OAPs in an Aixam gleefully whipped in ahead of me to take the place.

It is probably a good thing that carrying arms about your person is not legal over here in Ole Yurrup for had I been doing so I would probably have gone all Dalek on them, but I contented myself with a sad and wistful gaze as I pulled up right behind them and gently nudged them down the slope towards the rubbish skips. At which point the least disabled of the pair (I hope, for it was he behind the steering wheel) made apologetic gestures, I unwillingly backed up enough to let them out, and they disappeared - as my old boss Jim Higgins would have said - in a cloud of shit and small stones. There was a rubbish truck going past, picking up and digesting the contents of all the wheelie bins: hopefully they ended up in it.

So having found a place to park, I went off to get my ankles flayed.

We're still in that sad period when "fruit" consists of apples, pears and bananas; broccoli and monstrous specimens of cauliflower are proudly exhibited as vegetables, and the only ray of sunshine is the abundance of asparagus. Suppose I shall jolly well have to wait until the first baby yellow courgettes turn up, along with the courgette flowers - which I admit are a bitch to stuff, but worth it. Then the garden tomatoes, and the fresh sweetcorn, and great bunches of chives and pungent North African mint.

Whatever, Hope, springing eternal as it does, triumphed over Experience and I wound up with a kilo of strawberries. Which, as it turned out, actually tasted of something, so I guess Spring may really be on the way.

(Actually, I know it is. Up in the pinède the wild thyme is in flower, and the dwarf irises have popped up, blue and yellow, in the most unlikely places. I mean, you'd really think they'd like to put roots down into actual soil but no, there they are apparently clinging to bare rock.)

Moux is sufficiently small that basically everyone that lives here may be considered a neighbour. And I guess that 200m and a couple of twisty corners is not really a disqualification so - what I'm trying to say is that we have discovered a new neighbour. To the delight of our hairy retards he has a three-month old Jack Russell puppy, and to our more grown-up pleasure he's very congenial company and a professional chef.

More classical French cuisine than anything else (what Jeremy bitterly tells us is referred to as "cordon bleu" in your parts, a term which he has never come across - and it's true that the only time you're likely to find the phrase in the wild is applied to a chicken breast, stuffed with ham and cheese, breadcrumbed and fried) with a nod to Michel Guérard and the best parts of the nouvelle cuisine movement in the 80s: so we can agree to disagree about Paul Bocuse, and happily slag off the abuse of balsamic vinegar and espuma.

It's sad, but when you get to a certain age and have a house that needs renovating and redecorating, you know what really makes your day? It's the "clack" of the letterbox, signalling the arrival of another catalogue from the local DIY emporium. Gives us hours of mindless pleasure, checking out flooring, tiles, and the merits of this or that concrete mixer. We live for this. (Also, the only other things that arrive in the letterbox are bills, which we tend to burn, sight unseen. Like that, they never came.)

They also all have internet sites (mostly, I'm sad to say, pretty unusable) but which, despite their designers' best efforts we are currently spelunking, trying to find a balustrade that will replace the little wall in cellular concrete on the top landing with something a little less hand-made ugly and also let in more light from the window in the stairwell. Preferably, for a less-than eye-watering price.

A couple of stainless steel posts anchored firmly to the floor, with steel cables stretched between them, would do the job nicely: Lapeyre offer just such a kit, at only 650€ per metre. Which would kind of blow my budget in one fell swoop.

And then there's wallpaper, for sadly the walls of the first-floor bedrooms are not really in a state where you can just paint over them and hope for the best. Nice wallpaper starts at about 50€ the roll and goes up from there: at about twenty rolls per room, given the dimensions, that too starts to get somewhat expensive. I rather think we'll go for something a little closer to the bottom of the line, thanks very much.

I'm guessing that there's any number of you that have finally bought that little Tuscan villa of your dreams and have at some point headed over to spend a few idyllic months of summer basking in the sun whilst the crickets chirp and try to rip your throats out, only to discover that the swimming pool is not quite as advertised but is in fact a branch of the local river that happens to pass through what would be your property were it not for the fact that at least three neighbours have lawsuits pending since 1732 (and another since August 2013, a month before you bought the place) to determine just whose property it in fact is.

Also, for reasons best known to themselves, the previous owners took some care to cover up the original clay tile floors with a dalle de ragréage and then some nice brightly coloured pure synthetic carpet: the advantage of course is that you don't need lights on to go to bed, the sparks around your feet from the static electricity will light the way quite nicely.

Fear not, although I cannot help you with the swimming pool nor the property disputes, you can at least get back to the tiles. A dalle de ragréage is no more than a thin layer of liquid cement poured over the original flooring, in the (usually vain) hope that this will thus be levelled out: if you're lucky and it was a DIY job they will have neither cleaned nor wetted the surface before pouring the cement so it will be thin, relatively fragile, and have - at best - a tenuous hold on reality.

I am not saying that you should put your hammer and masonry chisel out to pasture just yet, because you will need them for some obstinate bits, but with the accumulated wisdom of a few day's experience I can tell you that whacking the surface with a rubber mallet (the actual terracotta tiles seem impervious to anything short of a minor explosion) to loosen the dalle, followed by the judicious application of a 12cm plasterer's spatula, works bloody wonders.

Of course, your mileage may vary. And I would recommend that you have a pair of heavy gloves about your person: you will mash your thumb with the hammer at some point, and having a glove in your mouth at that moment will render your obscenities inaudible, or at least incomprehensible.

In a break with centuries of tradition and some old charter or something, and with total disregard for the law (which is formal on the matter), our Easter weekend was gloriously fine and sunny. Which made it a bit of a pain being inside bashing away at cement. And on top of that, the bloody Easter Bunny completely neglected us. Whatever, it is still bright and hotter than we have any reason to hope or expect, so I am going to go enjoy it whilst I can.