Thursday, May 28, 2015

Eat Another Day ...

We're none of us, I guess, as young as we used to be: exceptionally, I am not an exception to this rule, and sometimes reality sneaks up, bites me on the bum, and this is brought home to me. Like the other night, for instance, when I invited Caroline and Philippe over for dinner but they had friends coming ... so I wound up eating with them. And very nice it was too, but there were five of us, and I had to make my excuses and leave about 1:30, after the seventh bottle was well underway.

Still an'all, we're younger than a lot of people around here, and they sometimes have an inflated expectation of our capacities. Old Helène turned up the other day to see if I happened to have a hacksaw - "Ah have", she said, "une ou deux metal bars to cut". "No problem", I replied, and this moaning I armed myself with the trusty Stanley and she took me off to her remise.

A remise, by the way, is just a barn, or a garage, or some other capacious, dim dusty space where you stick all those old things that you don't want to chuck out just yet because hey! who knows, maybe they'll come in handy sometime, five hundred years on.

So they tend to be full of old plumbing, dangerously wired valve radios and the 1930's vacuum cleaner that only worked on 110 volts, old dolls and metal beds, a few worn tyres and bits of furniture hewn from solid Formica: I guess a lot of antiquaires get their stock by going round villages and snapping up their contents.

Whatever, I turned up and she took me right to the back where there's no light and there amongst the cobwebs were the metal bars in question. Luckily there is actually electricity in there - probably installed about the same time as gravity - so when I saw them I went straight back home and got the big angle grinder.

I mean honestly, three four-metre bars of 7mm thick solid forged steel? Even with the disqueuse it took me ten minutes to do each one.

Around these parts, they used to carve the owner's initials and the date into the lintel over the front door, ours being a solid block of stone over a metre long, and thanks to this we know that the current incarnation of The Shamblings™ was erected by monsieur Politically Correct back in 1811.

I suspect that the plumbing goes back a bit earlier than that.

The municipal gardener, gravedigger and general handyman turned up to change the mains cutoff tap for the water. In principle this is a relatively simple operation: there is a pipe leading from the mains to the house; on this pipe there is a big valve hidden beneath a metal cover in the street; you close this and Robert is your mother's brother.

Of course it's not that simple: over the years the metal covers have themselves been covered over by tarmac because let's face it, it's easier that way and anyway, how many times do you actually need to cut off the water? So the guy brought his metal detector and dug wherever it went ping!

He found a horseshoe, and a bunch of massive old nails and finally, more or less where it should be, something that turned out to be a water valve. Stuck the enormous cast-iron key into it, turned ... and the water was still happily running in the house.

OK, so maybe our house is connected directly to the mains, and there is no shutoff valve. Once again this is simple enough: you shut off the water to rue de l'Eglise, which runs behind our place and is where we are connected.

Except that this turns out not to be the case. Our water comes from rue de la Liberté, second street over on the other side of the house, from whence a solitary pipe does a big dog-leg along the front of the house, left and under the archway to the chateau, and then left again to go up rue de l'Eglise and provide us directly with water.

I guess that in places where the infrastructure is not quite as old this would all be clearly marked on a plan somewhere: this may be the case here but even if so I suspect that the parchment in question is mouldering in an old tin box somewhere in the basement of the mairie.

Still, now I know. I shall make a note of it, just in case.

Whatever, over here in Ole Yurrup a new commercial excuse for spending has arrived: it is, tomorrow, the "fête des voisins". Neighbourhood day, if you like. I guess the idea is that you go out and get neighbourly, eat and drink too much, and possibly sleep with the neighbour's wife/husband - not that you need a special occasion for that.

And of course you have to buy all that extra food and drink, and maybe a romantic present for the intended partner. Which of course makes the supermarkets happy. Hell, even the DIY chains are announcing a "fête des voisins" special on chainsaws. I can see where they're going with that.

Around here we have simpler tastes (and also freezers full of food) and a sort of vague urge apparently came upon everyone in the district to have a small, calm, street party. Nothing over the top, just a few tables out in rue de la Liberté (which is, I admit, sufficiently narrow that a decent sized rubbish bin outside the front door will block vehicular traffic) and everyone outside in the sun for l'apéro and maybe a carefully-planned impromptu barbecue. You know, people having a good time. What can I say, shit happens.

So old Helène got onto us and Nev and a few others, young Helène spread the word, and everyone was fired up to go: only one blot on the horizon because as, technically, we could be impeding traffic on the street (in the unlikely event of an original Mini or Fiat 500 coming down, these being the only cars small enough to get through) an arreté municipale was required to legalise the situation.

In other villages, other places, as you were chatting to M. le maire in the moaning you would just mention that you were planning on a party - would he mind, of course you're invited - and with a minimum of fuss and zero paperwork you're good to go.

Sadly, our esteemed mayor M. Mazet seems to have gone back into anal-retentive mode, or maybe someone's been fiddling with his medications.

Young Helène got the job of broaching the subject with him, and feeling in need of moral support she took old Angela (who gets on with absolutely everyone) with her, but despite that it did not go well. I was not there, I cannot vouch for it, but there seems to have been no meeting of minds.

The answer was a categorical "non!", with rhetorical flourishes, threats to call the gendarmerie, and in a final parting shot - "si vous voulez la guerre, vouz l'aurez!"

Maybe someone stuck a stick back up his arse. It is a shame, because a) I was kind of looking forward to a decent party and meeting people we don't see every day and b) I am now unable to get rid of that kilo of merguez I'd rather planned on frying up.

On the brighter side, old Helène will go absolutely ballistic when she hears about it, and I expect her diatribe to be very educational. Also, we can doubtless piss the old twat off  by hosting, in a decent interval, a decorous and quiet barbecue on the terrace. Honestly, Clochemerle has nothing on Moux.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hot and Sweaty Science ...

I read these things so that you don't have to, and I'm pleased to announce that the august pages of Ars Technica have informed me that there exists a "phenomenon called superlubricity". The mind - mine, anyways - fair boggles. Yer bog-standard lubriciousness I wot of, but this seems to be carrying things to a higher order. As usual, it seems that it involves diamonds.

Tom: should you happen to be reading this by mistake, know that we finally got around to opening that bottle of dessert wine from the Clearview winery that you brought over a few years back. It went down very well with a pear and caramel cheesecake, just saying.

Exceptionally we both headed off to Carcassonne this moaning - the object of the exercise being to take Margo off to Robert's boutique (for he also enjoyed the wine and the cheesecake). So as Margo is bored witless by the market, she stopped off to poke around a museum whilst I went off to get my fill of fruit and tender young vegetables, from mother's womb untimely rip't. As it were.

Looking for her on the way back, I stuck my nose into the permanent collection (17th - 19th century) at the musée des Beaux Arts. They knew how to paint back in those days, and they certainly knew what they liked: acres of breasts as far as the eye can see. Also, bored, malformed (due to misunderstandings about perspective) kinglets, and the odd 30 m² canvas depicting amusing dogs cheating at cards. Or a naval battle, with the obligatory tits and cannon.

We headed off for rue de la Republique, going via place Carnot, and happened upon Rick and Mary seated on the terrace at their favourite bar. Personally I have never been able to see the attraction of the place because the waiters were obviously schooled by the execrable Pierre from le Refuge at Chambéry, and a man could die of thirst waiting for a drink to turn up. In fact, the last time I went I just parked my arse at a convenient table and waited for ten minutes before lighting up a cigar, which generally brings someone up in rather short order. Twenty minutes later I'd finished my nicotine dose and trotted off, looking for somewhere that didn't seem morally opposed to actually serving people.

Be that as it may, we chatted, as one will, and once we'd got over the usual mutual "hell, been meaning to invite you round for apéro/snacks/dinner sometime but ..." Mary confided that they're off to County Cork to see a fourteen year old grandson, of the existence of whom they were completely unaware before a week back.

How does that happen, I wonder? I can understand that in the heat of the moment, with all the stress attendant on childbirth and whatever, one could neglect to call one's agèd parents to let them know that there was a new addition to the family. And sending an invitation to the christening is something that could so easily slip from mind. But you'd think that after a few years of no Christmas or birthday presents turning up, one would start to ask a few questions. Apparently not: whatever, I can only wish them luck with their first meeting with a surly adolescent who was completely unaware of their existence.

Anyway, on the way back home Margo suggested we try the back roads through Comigne which apparently winds through a pretty little valley: I say "apparently" because I still cannot say from personal experience. I firmly believe that road signs are for poor people (note to self: get one of those bumper stickers that read "Actually yes, I rather think I do own the road") and so rather than heading off to Comigne (in my defence, let it be said that the signpost was not actually visible until we'd gone past it) we found ourselves going along a narrow twisty goat track into the Alaric.

We went up, and over, and came down into the plain between the two ranges that head east from Carcassonne, and eventually came across Montlaur, where another road sign (this one lying on the ground) pointed us towards Fabrezan, so we went that way. The sign also said something about the gorges de Congoust, which turned out to be an added bonus.

As gorges go it's no match for the Grand Canyon but it is extremely beautiful, if rather savage, and the little river that winds its way through makes swimming holes behind the natural dams formed by the rock outcrops that look rather attractive, and I guess would be even more so in the height of summer. Especially as the countryside is kind of deserted, so you wouldn't have to fight through a crowd to get to the water.

Of course I didn't have my camera with me so I shall just have to go back there one weekend in the not too distant future. Recommended as a side trip, should ever you find yourselves here with a couple of hours to spare. (And for fitness fanatics, you can do it all on a VTT if you really insist.)

When things go titsup here at The Shamblings™, which they do with alarming regularity, we at least try to ensure that they do so in style. I had occasion to go into Carcassonne yesterday (ran out of nicotine, if you must know) and bumped into Robert, who very thoughtfully invited himself round for dinner: and a while later, he turned up with an enormous tajine full of potatoes and carrots and poivron and tomatoes and chicken breasts stuffed with spicy Basque sausage.

Having had a bit of warning I had actually thought to open and decant the very last bottle of the '98 Maltoff, which was surprisingly drinkable, so we ate and drank, discussed the weather and the lamentable state of French politics ...

Never discuss politics with family, by the way. Not if you're French, anyway. There is a peculiarly French mind-set which holds that the best possible job you can get is that of fonctionnaire: failing that, you should be salaried.

The self-employed are held by all right-thinking people to be no better than scavenging parasites on the rotting corpse of the body politic, to be treated with opprobrium and disdain and, where possible, pelted with vegetables. This does not, if you happen to be self-employed, make for pleasant family dinners and explains why certain topics of conversation are banned at Pesselière.

Luckily he's kind of atypical in that respect - maybe spending twenty years in Quebec had something to do with it - so we had a very pleasant evening and I eventually rolled into bed in the wee hours of the moaning and slept the sleep of the just.

From which I awakened with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart, and tottered downstairs to the kitchen in search of coffee, where it took me some time to notice that the floor was awash.

As with many places down here there is - was - a water softener built in to the plumbing, and this had decided to spring a leak. There were taps fitted to cut it off, and another tap to open a bypass in case of emergency: I decided that this was, in fact, just such a thing but sad to say the bypass tap, doubtless installed sixty years ago, was rusted solid and had no intention of turning.

"No matter", quothed I, "I shall just call a plumber who shall come and perform his little miracles and all shall be well.". Finding plumbers that are actually available is not an easy job, but eventually a guy turned up from Fabrézan and I knew that I was not going to be happy when he starting doing the sucking of the teeth and the gloomy scratching of the lip. Then he started mumble-fucking, and headed back out to his van a few times to get plumbering stuff.

Of course I had been too distracted to think to attach the dogs, so the first time he went out Indra seized the opportunity and buggered off, and the second time I just had time to spot Shaun's great hairy bum waddling up a side street ... I followed him, and suggested in my nicest voice that I had doggy treats in my pocket if he'd like one, but the bugger just finished eating a choice bit of fresh catshit, looked at me and smirked, and lumbered off up the road with a surprising turn of speed.

Whatever, something to look after later ... when I got back to the house the plumber was swearing mildly, which I took to be a good sign, for he had successfully removed the leaky adoucisseur and stuck a bypass in its place (because you just can't get the parts, you know).

So he made relieved noises, and went to open up the mains tap to restore water to the house: imagine the looks on our faces when the tap handle came off in his hands. The thing is blocked, closed tight, and as it is between the mains and the water counter it is legally the property and the responsibility of the mairie and he is not allowed to touch it. Also, as the plumbing on the mains side of the tap is old lead piping, I suspect that he would rather prefer not to do so.

Luckily we have a separate water supply for the verandah and the garage, so I can at least go fill up the toilet cisterns with a bucket, and I guess I could always have a bath in the horse trough. But this is not entirely satisfactory, nor viable in the long term, so tomorrow morning's little job is going to involve going to the mairie and getting them to send someone around - hoping like hell that they pull finger for tomorrow is Friday and Monday is a public holiday. Five days without a shower is pushing it a bit.

Never mind, the dogs turned up a bit later: at least, Indra came back of her own accord, looking a bit embarrassed, and I went off and found Shaun just where I thought he'd be, up at the terrain de foot mumbling disconsolately at a bit of fallen branch. Had I left it another fifteen minutes he'd probably have got bored and come back by himself. Bastard.

In late-breaking news, it would appear that Viagra has other uses than what you're thinking of - which has to be good news. Also, this means that Bill Gates is helping fund your erections, which must be good for a late-night snigger.

Goodnight: I am going to go fill a few buckets. Then I shall go get some water.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Nights On The Tiles ...

There are two cookbooks I crave: Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, and just about anything by James Beard. I was reminded of this the other night, looking down at the chopping board on which sat my solitary veal chop.

I stared at it, it stared stonily back. I had a vague recollection of his recipe for Swiss steak: perhaps it was lucky that I didn't actually follow it, because I'm not sure that veal actually requires at least 45 minutes braising ... although perhaps it would indeed have gone from "raw" through "tough" and metamorphosed into "meltingly tender", who knows?

Truth to tell, the only similarity between his recipe and what I did was the beating into the meat (the back of a meat cleaver or a heavy knife works well, I find) of unreasonable quantities of flour and seasonings before browning it in a very hot pan: at this point we diverge because
  • I was hungry
  • it smelled too good
so I contented myself with a quick whisky flambé, sloshing in some Marsala and sour cream and tinned (oh! the shame!) mushrooms to heat through and thicken, before sticking the chop back in the pan with a bit of parsley to reheat.

This is, incidentally, one of those reasons why iron or stainless steel pans are so much better than bloody light-gauge aluminium Teflon-coated crap. They heat nicely and evenly, never warp, and you actually get the caramelised brown bits stuck to the surface that you may then slowly incorporate into the sauce to thicken it and add flavour. (I recall that one of Sophie's wedding presents - from her father-in-law, a chef - was a hideously expensive professional stainless steel frying pan which actually had a slightly milled surface, just to make sure that things stuck better. It was always a real pleasure to use.)

Despite the wails of our hairy retards I headed off to Carcassonne on Saturday evening, found somewhere to park (and cheated myself out of 50 cents by feeding it to a parking meter which didn't really need it, as parking there is free after 18h - I really should read the manual) and wandered vaguely up rue de la Republique until I found le Canard Bleu.

Where Robert was already occupied with other guests, pouring wine and encouraging nibbles ... for he has finally opened his wine shop. There were seven or eight bottles I really wanted to try so not only did I pace myself but also limited myself to a mouthful or two of each: still probably over the limit, even spread out over four hours, but what the hell.

Way back in the last century when The Shamblings™ was last done up, they did not believe in this new-fangled concept of stripping wallpaper before putting the next layer on. You just kept slapping the stuff up, year after year, and imperceptibly the rooms got smaller ... to add insult to injury, not content with slapping up some particularly ugly textured paper they went on to paint over it with acrylic paint at some later date.

All this makes stripping back an archaeological adventure in bad taste, not to mention hard work. We borrowed a wallpaper stripper from Peter - it's kind of like an oversized stream iron - and a handy little device that I think is called a scarificator which just puts zillions of pinpricks in the paper so that the steam can actually penetrate, but even so with all the layers and the paint it all needs going over at least twice.

Also, I know I've mentioned it before but those people were absolutely paranoid about gravity, and things falling down. Shelving was put up with huge bolts and screws every ten centimeters, so I guess that in case of a nuclear blast in the vicinity the house might be vaporised but the shelving would still be standing. They were also apparently afraid that the skirting boards might fall to the floor, so rather than do as normal people do and just glue the things in place they attached them, more or less definitively, with 8x80mm screws at frequent intervals.

I did not know this initially, and tried to remove them with a crowbar. Not one of my finer moments.

May is, as you might have noticed, upon us: it's not officially summer but it feels that way, especially as we get loads of public holidays. The 1st (Labour Day), then the 8th (some war or another); jeudi d'Ascension and then lundi de Pentecôte, both of which are celebrated religiously in this secular country. True to form, it was bright and sunny, and I found myself inside doing more tiling (last bathroom floor done, yay!) and grouting.

There is evidently a correlation between these things - "fine weather" and "inside working on the house rather then enjoying the weather" - but I am having a few problems trying to work out the causality. It seems unlikely that the mere fact that I am inside doing something I detest could cause the sun to shine so munificently, and the sky to be so blue, but it also beggars belief to hold that I feel obliged to go lay tiles just because it's sunny.

In NooZild you have the katipo, whose bite is apparently capable of causing a painful state of priapism (although not, obviously enough, in female-gendered persons): in the West Island there are redbacks, coral snakes, crocodiles, rabid wombats and Tony Abbott. Around these parts we are blessed with scorpions.

No, I am not joking. Only little buggers - the one I saw crawling down the (outside) wall was only about 3cm long and looked kind of fragile - but quite definitely a scorpion. Another reason to wear boots when out walking up in the pinède. (Only joking. Euscorpius flavicaudis is a shy creature, and rather less venomous then a bee. Or so it seems. Yes, I did look it up.)

Would be better with MS Comic Sans
I think this is the first time I have ever taken a photo with my phone. I had occasion to head up to Chambery the other day and found myself with time to kill until Beckham became available, so I duly slaughtered it by wandering around in the FNAC and sneering at the music that the young folk are listening to these days, then down in the basement at Monoprix, where they have a very small selection of foreign wines. Is it just me, or does this look like shit wine?

Anyway, another weekend is drawing to its close but I do not care, I am smug and happy because there's another bathroom with the walls all tiled and ready to be finished - always assuming we can get André around to do this, preferably before next year. Only two to go now, and then I can ceremoniously dispose - hopefully forever - of various trowels, glue combs, and other tiling-related paraphernalia. And if I never see another 25kg sack of colle à carreler it will still be too soon.

Be that as it may, and always looking on the bright side and assuming that it is not in fact a train wreck coming in the opposite direction, we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Oh, there's still plenty to be done but it's mostly up to us now: apart from having the poele (which has been sitting in our garage for over a year now) installed in the living room - which will involve a lot of mess and dust - there's nowt major left.

The walls are up, plastered and sanded: cables poke enticingly out of holes (and the electricians are supposed to be turning up in a day or two to do something about that, and maybe even hook it all up so that we are no longer reliant on a single power point for the first floor, which is not exactly convenient), and the hot-water pipes for the central heating are all ready, just waiting for us to paint or wallpaper behind before the radiators go back up.

So although we know damn well that the chances of our actual receiving paying guests this summer are precisely zero, we are getting there. Maybe next year - assuming our progress is not asymptotic.

In any case, it's difficult to be gloomy: there's still plenty of asparagus about (never thought that there would come a time when I could seriously ask myself whether or not to buy some, on the grounds that we've had so damn much recently), and the first stone fruit of the year were out at the market yesterday.

Okay, I'm willing to admit that the pêches blanches didn't actually taste that exciting (and were much better off halved, stoned, stuffed with mashed-up butter and sugar and speculoos biscuits before being baked in the oven with orange juice) but hey! it's a start. And anyway, the apricots were fine.

Whatever, mind how you go now.