dimanche 26 décembre 2010

Crusty old cynic hoist on his own Bah! Humbug!

It has to be admitted that I was recently heard to speak slightingly of sprouts, to denigrate the fragrancy of parsnips, even to disregard them in a cavalier, nay contemptuous manner, as they lay comatose within the hallowed crib which is Canet market. The fact is that I have just passed a Crimbo more traditional than for many a year chez la famille de girlfriend Claire.

There were serial tournaments of pool, invasions by giant jigsaws and a hotly-fought contest of Monopoly. Much to my surprise, I almost won, despite having last played in about 1969, when I was aged eight and totally crap at it.

For readers suffering mental ossification, it should be noted that Monopoly has gained all sorts of new rules to make it hip, up to date, à la mode etc. They were all explained to me very quickly and in French. I can never get my head round the written rules of games in any language so I didn't understand a single word . . . You have been warned. Passing Go and copping the 200 spons is not the simple matter it used to be.

The French don't go in for turkeys but our table of 14 dined handsomely on a couple of capons. As I understand it, to make a capon, you take a male hen and do strange things to its bits, which cause it to be become very large, much as when you perform similar perverse rituals on a tom cat.

Be that as it may, it's a effective enough strategy producing plenty of meat, a lot tastier than yer average supermarket turkey. By dint of adding masterful touches of foie gras, champagne and in particular a truly awesome boudin noir (AKA black pudding), various fine repasts were composed. Monsieur Pickwick, le réformé Monsieur Scrooge et tout les autres charactères de Monsieur Sharl Deeckeen would have been proud of us.

Thanks to my dear sis, for whom the eternal thrill of trad Christmas has never dimmed, the Liquorice Allsorts, the choccy money and the inevitable poodeeng plus Bird's Custard were all in place.

I've never quite worked out why but le Christmas poodeeng anglais seems to enjoy a quite extraordinary mystique among les français. They're never quite sure what it is, but seem convinced that the poodeeng sacré must be a solitary astounding example of English culinary genius. This is all the more difficult to understand, given that they still tend to think of us anglytypes as complete barbarians in matters even remotely culinary.

Evidently while there is still poodeeng de Nöel, there may be some faint hope for us.

dimanche 19 décembre 2010

The great paper mystery explodes: Chronic bag failure

Paperwork? Vraiment, ce n'est pas mon truc. I am the first to admit that filing isn't my forte.

Here you see the ultimate in desk-top filing systems: The Mark One Intermarche Two-Bag. Well, it actually is on a desk-top or at least my dining table pretending to be a desk-top. It does however have one overriding virtue. Everything is in one or other of the bags. I know it must be in there because it can't be anywhere else . . .

Naturally I, like everyone else who lives in France, never dare throw any paper away. This is in case officials dealing with such matters as money/tax/rates/cars/the mairie/national insurance/planning/insurance/family allowance/travel tickets/BMDs/your late great grandmother's inside leg measurement lose your dossier and insist that you send it them all again . . . so that they can lose it all again.

Without wishing to be unkind to l'adorable belle France, why is a country that so truly adores paperwork so bad at doing it? We've had a small blitz of such occult but perfectly normal and par for the course happenings in Fa lately:

Victim A was sent two completely different bills for the tax foncière (rates) for a house she no longer lives in, and thus didn't owe any tax on in the first place.

Victim B wondered why a decision was so slow over her home loan application. The bank eventually admitted that nothing had been done on her dossier because . . . they had lost it.

Victim C (me, actually) received a demand for a series of documents that I had omitted to send (translation: that we have lost but we want to cover our arses by pretending you forgot to send them). Actually they're talking about those bits at the bottom of the form that you're supposed to send back. Well you must have 'em because I sent 'em . Curiously the same office didn't manage to fail to cash the cheques that accompanied the documents. Odd isn't it?

It was whilst telling myself firmly that I must graduate to something more efficient than The Mark One Intermarche Two-Bag, that the truth came to me, in a blinding moment of revelation: All over France, all these offices keep everybody's paperwork in supermarket bags.

Imagine those wonderful national insurance people and their Mark Five Carrefour Sixty Million Bags and Counting, with chronic Intermarche floppy bag drive failure. It has to be the answer.

NB: I reflected further on this matter and decided that in fact each office has only one gigantic supermarket bag, the size of a black hole and with similar characteristics. And all the pieces of paper have to be in there. Somewhere . . .

French left gueule-frappé by wave of Sprout Attacks

What the French is for gob-smacked, I have no idea, so it might as well be gueule-frappé.

Only a day after bona fide parsnip sightings (alias les panais) on Canet market, I personally witnessed this conspiracy of sprouts blatantly lurking with intent to baffle passing personnes françaises.

I'm not sure quite what it is about either of these vegetables that sends a certain type of anglais into a weeping frenzy of nostalgia, especially during the festulent season.

I suppose there may be a valid reason why dear old Crimbo should be irretrievably ruined by the absence of pointy white things and little green balls. Must admit, I can't see it myself.

To be honest, the English take on the biggest fest of the year has always puzzled me: Shut all the pubs, exclude your friends, lock yourself up with your relatives and do strange things to sprouts.

Obviously it's legal within the privacy of your own home . . . but it's not surprising that les français often think we're peculiar. They might just have a point.

Of course, you do get genuine moments of cross-cultural misunderstanding, such as when a local Monsieur related to me his first experience of English heavy-duty Christmas cake. "How is it possible to eat such a cake all during one day?" he demanded incredulously.

I gently explained, that said cake would already have been festering to itself for at least one month, and could easily be eaten gradually over the next two or three . . .

jeudi 9 décembre 2010

'Tis the season for amnesia, dah-di dah-di dah, etc

Over the nearly nine years that I have lived in Fa, mes comrades français have become distinctly more enthusiastic about Christmas.

When I first came here, things didn't seem to get going until well into injury time on Déc 23, just about in time for le Réveillon on the night of Déc 24, which is, of course, the official French big one.

Being of the antique persuasion that believes the whole Yule thang should start not before Advent, I was really quite happy with rediscovering traditional and non-commercial attitudes toward the great feast.

Personally, I think the right moment is when the first little door of the calendar has been opened, and the cassocks at your friendly neighbourhood cathedral have turned the appropriate shade of purple. This is possibly austere by modern standards.

However, being also irretrievably anglais, and therefore used to Christmas starting in July, French total pre-Crimbo secrecy used to throw me a bit.

Seeing not a trace of fevered preparation, I'd totally forget the whole business until: Oh buggeur! Panique! C'est la semaine prochaine! and I'd already missed all the last posting dates to Ongleterry.

Over the years however, mes amis have caught up with Crimbo while I just can't seem to shake off Seasonal Amnesia. This year it came as a shock to see a String up a Santa (see The Blog of Christmas past), hanged in customary gibbet-like manner as early as Novembre 29. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse on the noxious D118 to Perpignan . . .

Only two days ago when I'd still done bugger all, I suddenly had to swerve to avoid the aerial deco wagon sur le main drag into Espéraza (top pic), and was forcibly reminded of the festivities inexorably bearing down on me.

In this heightened state of consciousness, I quickly noticed that the good ladies of Fa had put aside their plant pots and were busily adorning le pont de Fa (AKA: A bridge too Fa) with tinsel and sundry other baubles.

Not to be outdone, nor to fail in doing their bit, Dave the Underdog has strapped a gigantic pine tree to the wall of the legendary CafédeFa. He collected this magnificent free-range specimen from his ancestral estate, hidden deep in the hills above deepest, darkest curmudgeonly Rouvenac (neighbouring village, see blogs and sériales insultes, previous).

The tree is nearly three metres tall and Dave's only method of transport is his long-suffering 2CV, affectionately known as Mimi. He brought le sapin de Nöel back to Fa, projecting an unfeasibly long way out of the sunshine roof. I deeply regret not having been there to see him do it . . .

Here's one I prepared earlier - The DIY Pollack

Regular readers of this well-belovèd chron will have twigged that gawping at seriously good pictures is one of my favourite spectator sports.

I find it deeply satisfying that I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to be an artist myself and am content merely to appreciate. After all, if people can be bothered to do the paintings etc then someone else has to do the looking at them; it's only fair.

I have a lot of time for dear old Jackson, much as he may have been completely off his trolley. This gives me certain logistical problems in that all the real Pollacks live some hundreds of miles away and I am about €20 million short of the funds to buy one.

However I couldn't help remarking on the fact that, when you get up close, nature doesn't do a bad job of imitating an action painting. Knowledgeable botanists will have noticed that the Pyrenean silver birch involved decided to lie down for a rest during picture-editing.

mercredi 1 décembre 2010

I suppose it's one way to solve the parking problem

After all, if you can't find anywhere to stick the old jalopy, why not just lob it on the deck of your boat?

The vehicle in question is fun too, the kind of clockwork car you'd find in a fleek comique par Jacques Tati. Must admit that I haven't a clue what make it is, though obviously a classic in its own eccentric way.

I think it's obligatory to be mildly odd or at the very least a tad bohemian to qualify as a houseboat owner on the Seine. Perhaps you have to fill in a form claiming to come from a long line of loons, tracing your lineage back to Louis XIV? Then you send in the form, they lose it and you send in again two or three times. All water under the bridge, I suppose . . .

There is an enduring tradition of strangeness relating to water-borne transport and Paris. Take the Canal de Nivernais. They built it as an emergency measure after the capital ran out of firewood during an exceptionally bad winter in 17 something. Responding brilliantly to the crisis, the canal opened bang on time . . . 60 years later.

It makes a wonderful walk of a sunny autumn Sunday to stroll up the river, maybe starting opposite the Eiffel Tower and wandering until your feet give out; in our case just past Notre Dame.

Shock as Président Pompidou admits Pöang fetish

Keeping the old hawk-like optic mercilessly trained on the world around me, I've previously observed that homesick anglaises just love to seek refuge and solace in IKEA at Toulouse. OK, so IKEA's Swedish which makes it a bit of a non-sequitur logically speaking, but it's nonetheless true that a good wallow among the Ektorps and Grundtals does seem to blow away the blues.

Me, I've always had a bit of a thing about Pöang armchairs. They're a seriously elegant and effective design. IKEA always claim it's a modern classic and, lo and behold, I've discovered that it's true.

Wandering happily through the permanent collection of modern art at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, I practically tripped over the daddy of all Pöangs: An original by the Scandinavian designer Bruno Mathsson from 1943. A true moment of anorakismo.

Celebrating la belle vie des huîtres : A cautionary tale

I like to dwell from time to time on those little details which colour our life here in la belle France and make it what it is. As the calendar goes round each year, I'm trying to catch up with them all.

This time it's la saison des huîtres so naturally the pic shows a dozen of Leucate's finest plus accompanying chilled white wine and segments of lemon. Actually there are eleven of the finest and one rogue . . . but more of that later.

There are extensive oyster beds on the coastal lagoons along the coast east of Perpignan right over to Montpellier. You can get a dozen from about €4.50 compared to about £12 on the net in England. And that's the way it should be. Oysters have been a cheap and valuable food source since Roman times. It's only in the last 70 years or so that pollution and over-fishing have made them a luxury item.

I can never suppress the admittedly smug bastard sense of unholy glee that anyone can afford them here. It must be the old égalité et fraternité coming out in me. Unfortunately this time I got my comeuppance, or to be precise, throwuppance.

There are certain rules for the avoidance of a duff oyster; notably you should always throw away any with a loose or open shell. Now all of these seemed even tighter than usual while digging them apart with the special oyster knife or spike.

Incidentally, the spike itself is well worth buying. There are few better ways to run a sharp kitchen knife straight through your hand than to slip whilst trying to prise open a particularly recalcitrant marine bivalve.

Actually there was one duff one in the dozen. Of course, you only need one . . . and guess who got it. Being unwell à cause des huîtres is rightly notable as an experience of extreme violence; a 10.5 on the Hughie and Ralph scale.

Much as I enjoy them, I think I shall be taking a modest sabbatical. But don't let me put you off. Les huîtres are a great tradition here and you have to be unlucky to get a bad one. Bon appetît!