Friday, April 30, 2010

Travel: France 3-7/7/09 part 2: Peopleville

Children crossing SignDespite being surrounded by the massed forces of Nature, we were able to relax quite a bit. The weather for the most part was great. Perhaps a bit too sunny for the paler man, but paler people learn early not to complain about these things when less pale people are around.

Evenings were spent playing scrabble and drinking Pineau, a local brandy / grape juice concoction that's very tasty. Daytimes were spent walking, helping my parents turn their partly dilapidated farm into somewhere even more habitable, feeding the sheep, and visiting several of the local supermarkets.

Church SheepLidls are everywhere now, like a misspelt rash, but I'm still very fond of L'Eclerc. Mainly because it has great stationery. I only go crazy about three things: obscure music, terrible movies and stationery. We're not so different, you and I.

You have to be careful shopping in France. French has so many words that we (English speakers) have stolen and misappropriated that danger lurks on every sign. Supposing you are after "lady things" for "that time of the month" (aka "judgement week"). Then, you need a "tampon hygiénique." Don't get a "tampon encreur" (ink pad), it will only make things worse. And certainly don't get a "tampon à récurer" (scouring pad).

Auto faireMost of the work we were doing for my parents involved shifting rocks and tiles from a mound of earth into a trench. It was actually enjoyable because we don't do manual labour like this at all, normally. If we were doing the same thing for money; or under the supervision of an armed guard, we'd absolutely hate it. But doing it voluntarily to help out family is actually fun and rewarding in a way far superior to receiving a pile of money or not being shot in the head. The novelty value helps a great deal, as well.

Car MontageIt wasn't all shopping, hard graft and keeping out of the way of civilisation. We were also managing to get out and experience some local culture (assuming you don't count the supermarkets as local culture). We ate out in several local villages and we even got to witness a wedding entourage, French style. The custom these days seems to be for the wedding convoy to drive through as many villages as possible, making lots and lots of noise (shouting, honking horns, etc). It looks quite fun, and if you don't annoy the world on your wedding day, then the next chance is usually your funeral. So I say, go for it.

Truck MontageWe also visited a classic car rally in a place called Champagne Mouton (or "Fizzy Wine Sheep Meat"). Here a large spread of old cars, tractors and caravans were parked up for the delight of the general public. It was fascinating to see the development of the tractor. It's a real evolution, starting from a simple wheeled frame with each year seeing new and improved features. It's quite a shock for those people who believe that God delivered the tractor fully formed. Tractor Creationists were boycotting the day calling it heresy.

Tractor MontageCars being far less functional in design, vary drastically from age to age. The evolutionary process here throws up a lot of freaks: vehicles with a real odd way to do things or strange shape. Such as cars shaped like boats, cars with all-wooden steering wheels and triple horns. As I was still camera crazy, I think every car at the rally had at least 2 pictures taken of it.

MotortrikeNot that we needed to go out to keep me entertained. I rarely need anything more than a French map to amuse me. I can sit for hours and read place names. For example, some places around Bordeaux: Macau, Les Bons, Enfants, Salle Boeuf, Loupes. You could name most characters and places in a sci fi movie from a small portion of a French map: Creón, Villenave, Quinsac, Dardenac, Camiac, Bourg.

The first section of the trip ended on a low note when I drove Catherine back to Bordeaux and she flew back to Amsterdam. She had to get back to work and earn the family crust whilst I had to sit in the shade and commune with nature.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Travel: France 3-7/7/09 part 1: It's Nature Town

Animal MontageMy parents' French abode is a densely populated area. In terms of wildlife, at least. People, however, are pretty scarce. But non-people creatures teem. Frogs, bats, sunflowers, sheep, bees, birds, corn, lizards, flies, butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, nettles. All flourish along with many others that are much better hidden.

And at night, things don't calm down. In fact, it gets relatively noisier. The frogs all get together and practice their close-harmony croaking; crickets chirp en masse; bats dart around like drugged-up crazy things; and occasionally an odd light emanates from a pile of rocks where a glow worm is glowing to the beat. Yep, nature likes to party.

Bees in flight

sheep gangThe bees were especially interesting, for a couple of days a friendly throng of interesting-looking specimens came by to gather nectar from poor unsuspecting flowers. They were not the sorts of bees I was used to and indeed were relatively new to the area, I heard. I spent ages trying to photograph them. I think I took 250 pictures of bees alone, most of which ended up being blurry, some semi-clear and one or two really good. I felt like a real wildlife photographer. Had I lived in a ditch for three days and covered myself in the local mud to blend in, rather than just grabbing the camera and walking over to the flower patch, I might have felt even more like one.

watching sheepBecause we had a new camera and are not so used to being surrounded by such an abundance of nature, I did go a little camera crazy. As well as 250 pictures of bees, there were about 300 pictures of sunflowers. It was the time of year where they stop being shy little heads and open up to be glorious flowers. I also took about a million pictures of everything else. I have 10 pictures of piles of logs, but I justify this as being very much part of French rural life. (Honestly, the local council allocates you a supply of logs.)


alien insectEven the house was not devoid of creatures. A loir (aka a Fat, Edible, Bug-Eyed, Squirrel-Tailed, Laid-Back Dormouse) was living in the roof judging by the nocturnal scurrying. And on the ceiling, the scariest centipede ever would hang out from time to time, occasionally taking time to drop into the sink and scare people. It was somehow alien in its design and would have made a perfect adversary in something from 1954. "It! The Thing from There!" I thought it was cute and as there seemed to be more than one, there was probably a happy little family up there. However, I also suspect that given a chance they would suck our brains out and take over the world. But you can't blame a creature for having ambition.

Sunflower and bee
Sunflower field
Sunflower field

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Travel: France 2/7/09: An Indifferent Pastis

There are two languages on board the newly combined KLM - Air France flights from the Netherlands to France. Dutch and English. Dutch and English. No French. You'd think planes going to and from a country would include the language of that country; especially when that country is notorious for its people often not wanting to speak other languages. It seemed very strange. Especially as the Dutch generally have such a great grasp of English and are happy to show off their linguistic skills. It would have made more sense for the languages used to have been French and English.

However, in my experience, English is not as poorly spoken in France as we are lead to believe. And we are lead to believe this by the French themselves. Whist working on an international helpdesk, on several occasions I have explained, in a mixture of my poor French and English, to someone who was demanding a French speaker that they can either wait a while to be called back by one or try to explain their problem in English. They would quite often proceed to explain how they would try to make themselves understood in what was actually very good English. It seems to reinforce the maxim that if at first a foreigner does not understand you, talk louder until they give in and admit they do speak English.

We flew to Bordeaux which turns out to be a mini hub in terms of French air traffic and we had slightly convoluted travel plans. We had a long wait for a hire car due to demand being high and people on hand to help being low. Our car turned out to have an oil-light that had a preference for glowing brightly despite the car having more oil than a Saudi desert.

It was invigorating to be back on French roads. The French drive like all existence is merde and it is better to go out with a sudden collision on a hairpin bend than to fade away in some forgotten bar over an indifferent pastis. However, they sit in bars like all existence is merde and it is better to fade away agonising over an anguished pastis than to take to the road in search of instant release.

To be doubly sure of getting to where we were going, I not only had my parents' directions but some that Google had given us. Like its other sought-after equations, Google's direction algorithm is a complete mystery. Even when presented with the results, it's almost impossible to work out how it got there. It gets you from A to B, but it seems that C, D, and E have optimised their towns or paid to somehow appear on the route. Given my parents have driven this way a few times and for part of the year live in this area, we decided to trust them over some Californian computer cluster. The day will come when we trust Californian computer clusters more than our parents. But most of us are not there yet.

We arrived at my parents' holiday farm in time to feed garbage to the recently shorn sheep. They love left-over vegetable peelings, banana skins and yesterday's bread. When every other thing you eat is grass, you'd be the same way too.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I was very much intrigued by Nigel Farage, a member of the isolationist UKIP party, on Have I Got News for You this week. Judging by the jokes that were being made about BBC having to appear fair and unbiased, that seemed to be the reason he was there. Although he does belong to a party that was designed to have jokes made about it. For the most part he played along with the digs at him, grinning clownishly, looking very much like Joe E Brown, the comedian who played Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot.

In fact he seemed quite affable except for one random outburst against illegal immigrants and a clip of his bizarre rant against Belgian MEP Herman Van Rompuy. In the latter he decries Van Rompuy because nobody knows who he is (presumable Mr Farage would have preferred Britney Spears to have spoken). He also regurgitates the xenophobic, school-yard stereotype that Belgium is boring and ignorable. An odd view for someone who stood at the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election.

The other interesting thing about him is he gets a little irritated that people pronounce his name incorrectly. Apparently it's not "Bucket" it's "Farage." Pronounced like the French, rhyming with the posh way of saying garage. It's not clear if he has French ancestry, although the name may have originated in the Middle East. I can however imagine Farage's ancestors at the French revolution shouting out "c'est pas la faute de l'aristocratie! C'est la faute des immegrants illégale!"

How will it all end? I can see Mr Farage escaping Europe back to Britain in a small boat with a mysterious woman who reveals she cannot become his (third) wife because she doesn't have the relevant papers to be in the UK. He shrugs, carries on piloting the boat, and utters the famous words, "Nobody's perfect."

Saturday, April 03, 2010

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