dimanche 27 septembre 2009

What the papers say . . . not a lot actually

We had la grande famine des journaux at the Café de Fa today: No bloomin' newspapers. Of course, it was no great surprise that Le Weekend Grauniad had failed to appear; it usually does fail every few weeks or so.

I do love the dear old Gradniau at the weekend, especially the seriously good (and seriously serious) Arts Review, so close to my heart and vicariously hedonistic soul.

However I do occasionally wonder whether it's obligatory to have a degree in amnesia to be Gnauriad circulation manager. It was always the one paper that you could rely on not to appear in Aberystwyth 30 years ago when I first started reading it as a student très prétentieux. Evidently nothing changes much.

However, let us not be too hard on the Guadrian, because all the other English papers failed to appear today as well, causing our never exactly charmant newsagent to receive a dose of his own curmudgeonliness from customers whose gruntles were never so dissed. (I'm always intrigued by negative words, whose positives don't exist, though I'll admit that to be gruntled would sound too much like being a happy pig).

I suppose that I could read it for free online, but it's not quite the same thing as the touch of hot sticky flesh on grubby old newsprint and with the newspaper industry fighting for its life, I do think it would help actually to be allowed to fork out my weekly €3.80. I can't take the computer to bed either . . .

Anyway Dave the barman and I were still reeling from the loss of our regular Sunday dose of corrupt and illicit pleasure when Marie, l'adorable chef du café, discovered that her Indépendent had also been knocked off by geriatric guerilla warfare.

This is not the Indie, of course, but our rather more parochial rag locale with indispensable coverage of such international events as underwater sanglier* strangling in Espéraza (dist. from Fa: 1km).

In the frame for snaffling l'Indépendent, including the Sunday-only colour supplement (to make matters worse), is champion village eccentric Josette, age approx 89, and fairly off the planet even by Fa's highly competitive standards of dotty-old-dearness.

Considering that Josette's normal rate of progress can be measured in hours per kilometre, it must have been a pretty smart move to nab the paper without anyone noticing, and indeed she denied all knowledge when Marie nipped round to her place to nab it back again.

However the profound animal cunning of the extremely old and extremely rural should not be underestimated. This is, of course, not actually theft, but in fact part of a very subtle and mysterious game.

And many things about Josette are mysterious; such as how does someone who is only about four feet tall manage to consume four croissants and a loaf of bread every day without fail. I mean no-one has noticed Fa's enormous swift population crashlanding due to rampant obesity.

Then there's the bread ritual itself: Every single day, Josette examines her bread (sold at the café) and declares it "trop cuit!"(overdone). Marie solemnly takes it back, hides it under the counter, waits 30 seconds, and hands out exactly the same loaf again. This time it is declared much better and Josette shuffles off happily. Confused? We are.

Dave and I have a theory that chez Josette, the whole place is stacked to the rafters with boxes of four croissants plus one loaf of bread and snaffled copies of l'Indépendent. It's all a bit like that surreal Spanish film where a guy gets kidnapped by a crane lorry while accidently locked in a phone box and eventually finds himself in a warehouse with umpteen other guys all locked in phone boxes . . .

Entirely deprived of happening newsprint, Dave, myself and girlfriend Claire fell back on the noble art of conversation. It has to be said that Dave does excel as intentional Mr Malaprop: Hoist on his own leotard is the best one I've heard for a while.

*sanglier = large black wild pig, frequently delicious for the un-veggied.

samedi 26 septembre 2009

In pursuit of the perfect fig moment

There are moments of simple luxury living here, such as right now when you can eat ripe figs straight off the tree. Life-affirming moments which remind you that you weren't completely barking to jack in the day job and come to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous paperwork in France.

So here we have them: Purple figs, locally known as Les Couilles du Pape or The Pope's Balls, though whether affectionately, satirically or downright offensively, I don't know.

Mind you, His Holiness did launch a seriously vicious and bloodthirsty crusade against the heretic Cathars in the Languedoc region round about 12 or 13 something, so it's a fair bet that the fig gag isn't entirely complimentary. In any case, I couldn't let such a deliciously earthy morsel of local folklore go to waste.

I should stress that to have a perfect fig moment, they have to be eaten straight off the tree. There is always something deeply disappointing about the brown and manky things that someone picked the day before and was unfortunately moved to offer you. They will sit, ignored on the kitchen table, while you continue to invent good reasons to avoid them.

Every fig has its day: The day before, it's not ripe; the day after, the birds have spoilt it. So, select carefully, pick, eat, enjoy. It doesn't get much better than this.

samedi 19 septembre 2009

How many philosophers to change a lightbulb?

I've been limbering up for an eco-rant for quite a while now. You have to watch ranting; when most people rant, it becomes exponentially boring.

The best ranter I ever knew was my mate Big Dave; Big so as to distinguish him from Dave the barman, formerly with a pet swift (see previous blog entry). Daves tend to come in infinite permutations of lots of them. Which is confusing.

Anyway Big Dave, all 6ft 7" of him, could rant on about the state of the world in a magnificent state of profound melancholia and eloquent bewilderment, though it has to be said that the previous night's 19 pints of Banks's Mild * probably had something to do with the bewilderment.

You only had to feed him a line about Women of Today, Pop Music of Today, in fact Anything of Today, Computers, My Top 101 Utterly Crap Football Teams or Absolutely Anything They Don't Do Like They Used To . . . wind him up and let him play. Somehow he was also awesomely funny. I'm not in Big Dave's class so I shall try to rant with due care and attention.

I'm not exactly a Luddite, I'm just innately suspicious of re-inventing the wheel. After all the basic concept of a round thing with a hole in the middle has served us well for many thousands of years and to tamper with it would only invite disaster. I also love lo-tech solutions. Lightbulbs wasting energy? Turn them off when you're not using them. Well, it works for me.

In fact it all started with these new lightbulbs, which I have been avoiding as I would a rabid dog ever since they appeared. I don't like the use of eco-blackmail to make anything five times as expensive as it used to be. Nor do I like their clammy, putrescent light like a vampire's boudoir. However I was finally forced into buying some.

At first, all went well: I could replace three 40-watt spots with 11-watt equivalent 60-watts for a mere €16.50 (formerly two quid . . .) and upgrade the living room lighting. Super! In less than 12 hours one of them failed, jammed in the socket, broke and remained jammed. When I have a mo I shall have to dismantle the entire fitting. I remain unconvinced.

Have you noticed that eco-Anything costs a fortune? I tried to buy some more of the perishing things at a notably budget store and found that they were just the same price. Cartels unite to save the world? Heartwarming, innit? . . .
almost worth being ripped off.

It's just the same with insulation and solar panels. Being as we're all trying to rescue the planet, you would expect insulation to be free, subsidised or just plain cheap, especially to little old ladies in cold winters. In fact whenever I bill a customer for insulation (without any extra margin for me), I'm always staggered that they don't complain about the bill. It worries me just buying it for them. As for solar panels, just how much do you have pay for an inside-out radiator painted black?

In fact just about every previous civilisation was less wasteful than us. OK, the pyramids were a touch ostentatious as a death statement but they're built to last, entirely non-polluting and probably didn't cost much more than a house-full of eco-lightbulbs . . . End of rant.

*French equivalent: three bottles of Ricard, the number one choice for discerning headbangers.

samedi 12 septembre 2009

White line, white heat

On the face of it, the village of Fa doesn't have a lot to do with The Velvet Underground, whose song title I have borrowed and modified for a cheap-thrill headline in the finest traditions of what was once Fleet Street.

Indeed this is a clean-living blog which doesn't make routine hip references to dangerous drugs. The only speed around here is the ubiquitous blonde belle of Fa making another lightning sortie through the village in her souped-up green Kangoo. If we fitted the bridge over the Faby with an angled flight-deck, the results could be spectacular. wwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww
We have got the white lines though; they're bloomin' everywhere. Fa seems to be having a prolonged outbreak of neat-and-tidy-respectable-villageness. I mustn't knock it; the place was, it has to be said, endearingly shambolic when I came here seven years ago. "They don't spend a lot on paint, do they," an early visitor remarked tersely.

Well, they've been making up for lost time; signboards, plant pots, lots of flowers and enough road markings to confuse a Parisien commuter with amnesia. My own modest contribution is a couple of basil pots outside the front door, for the entirely selfish reason that it tastes so good cut straight off the plant.

Masterminding the white (and yellow) lines operation, with a gigantic set-square thriftily constructed from old planks, is Councillor Maniak. I kid you not, though I should reassure those of a nervous disposition that our Stanislas is a very nice man who can safely be allowed to roam the streets, armed with a gigantic set-square.

As I understand it, frequently being vague and lazy on these matters, Councillor Maniak is a retired maths teacher or mathematician, definitely something figurative anyway. This accounts for the surreal precision of our brand new parking bays, stop lines and the piéce de resistance zebra crossing outside the café.

I say surreal because in rural French architecture the equerre or right-angle is very, very rare indeed. Over many centuries, otherwise highly-skilled craftsman have developed an aversion to the 90° angle which is now a dominant gene, inevitably inherited. There is no obvious reason why this should be so. Perhaps the number 90 has a Satanic significance, which eludes me? Most things to do with numerology strike me as being utterly barking.

All other Mediterranean cultures have been able to lay out right-angles for thousands of years by doing strange things with knotted ropes, though perhaps that's more an area for a more specialised form of blog . . . And it's not as if France is short of classy mathematicians. Fermat, of Last Theorem fame, lived as near as Toulouse so he's practically the local boy dun good.

I must admit to being a bit worried about the sinister onslaught of traffic calming measures round here. It's depressingly like England for a start and it's not as if we need them. Now that the camper van invasion has slackened off, we have the vendange with all its little, squashed Postman Pat tractors and the strange praying mantis-like grape-harvesting machines. And of course you're not allowed to start swearing when you get stuck behind them unless you're teetotal. The vine-growers, just like you, live and work here and are entitled to make a living.

Actually it's about now that we often find the real praying mantis, a very weird and wonderful sight; a bit like grape-harvesting machines.

Female PM: "You never want sex." Male PM: "OK, don't bite my head off."

samedi 5 septembre 2009

IKEA? It's because U-KEA et oui-KEA

So what do very British Brits do when they are terminally homesick? Answer: They go to IKEA in Toulouse. Momentarily forsaking France where the sun is free, the wine is cheap and the girls are cute, they seek solace in blue and yellow Sven Bhuddism. Ah! Those comforting and familiar names; Ektorp and Gründtal, Fjord, Abba and Slartibartfast: Names that are forever England, or at least a dead ringer for IKEA off the M6 at Wednesbury (Brum for the uninitiated).

This is, of course, quite normal for the English. They routinely gorge themselves on tea (Indian or Chinese), curry (Indian again) and Heinz baked beans (American) to make themselves feel completely at home. So no change there.

I should make it clear that I'm no slouch when it comes to IKEA. I know for a fact that the Gründtal range includes a very elegant stainless steel hinged towel-rail, which is a real winner so long as your sprogs don't lean on it too hard and knacker the spot-welds.

I also have a Poäng armchair, which is as near as dammit a design classic in moulded and folded plywood. My mate Phil and I once got close to starting a Poäng Owners' Club because they really are brill, though the Mark One carburettors are getting difficult to source these days.

Do you suppose this could be a product-placement blog entry? Then I could have 17 free kitchens and blow them up at the end of the article like all those police cars that get supplied gratis and for nothing by Ford and GM for wrecking in Hollywood blockbusters.

The French, of course, have a tendency to look down their long, Gallic noses at IKEA stuff. This is because they spent their childhoods contaminated by real wood furniture dating back to Louis XIV's auntie. The way of chipboard is not of their world, it is alien to them; they were not programmed from birth to live and seek profound truths in an infinite universe of stabilised sawdust.

Certainly IKEA at Toulouse doesn't have quite the capacity to cause gridlock on the main drag to Foix et Tarbes that its all-powerful sister-store manages at Junction 9 of the M6. Mind you, have you ever been to Wednesbury on a manky, wet afternoon in late October? If I had to live there, I'd go to IKEA, chain myself to a Poäng and demand extradition to Stockholm. As it happens, the first girl I ever fell in love with used to live in Stockholm so it could be quite nostalgic. There again, she was 18 and will now be 52, so could I live with the reality check?

I'm always intrigued as to how IKEA came about. I'm convinced that two very serious blond guys, wearing Moomintroll-sized specs and both called Sven, realised that Sweden was about to be obliterated by pine trees and enough sawdust to mop up a giant hamster invasion from Mars:

"It's no good Sven, we will have to invent IKEA."

"You are so right Sven. What else can we make out of pine trees?"

Apparently they dreamed up flat-pack because Sweden is long and thin and a logistical nightmare if you want to transport anything anywhere on a regular basis. Then their customers dreamed up putting the stuff together themselves because they could get the boxes into the car, through the door, up the stairs and didn't have to wait to see if the Svengalis at IKEA could understand their own instructions. I have to say that the idea of making your customers pay to do half the work themselves is just a bit smart.

I've always thought you could write a great soap or a cartoon strip with all the characters named out of the IKEA catalogue. Imagine it:

"Ooh, Rïytta!"

"Shüjt up, Mävvis!"

Roll credits as kätt goes back to sleep on rjoof . . . though actually I imagined something more like South Park; it's all a bit more hard-edged and closer to classic cool Nordic design. And even if the plot would require permanent darkness six months of the year it couldn't possibly be more boring and miserable than Albjërt Squäre.