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Diary 2008

The Intervention

27/01/2008 22:34


The "intervention" was typical French Health Service; slick and professional.
It started the day after the doctor's recommendation; I went "a jeun" - with empty stomach - and early in the morning, before breakfast, to the local laboratory for the "prise de sang" - blood test. On the way home I called in at the surgery of the gastrologue for a rendez-vous - come back at 10:30 he said!
At 10:30 I had some fundamental examinations and was given a dossier of paperwork and a rendez-vous at the local hospital clinic for a colonoscopy and fibroscopy on the 10th January - it would have been earlier but for the saison des fetes. Since Xine would be in the UK from the 7th, I would have to stay overnight, as there would be no one to drive me home.
So I had plenty of time to find little-used items like pyjamas and to buy a peignoir.
Before Christmas I went to the hospital for an interview with the anaesthesiologist - very thorough half-hour grilling, in order to choose the method of anaesthesia.
At the appointed date I clocked in to the hospital, was led to my room and given the robe thingy to wear. Last time this happened was at my vasectomy where I figured the opening should be at the front, but was rapidly put in my place. This time I knew, and in any case the opening at the rear was more appropriate to a rear hemisphere attack profile (fighter control joke).
Why are you always wheeled into theatre when you could walk? Any way I had enough time to chat to the anaesthetist and the pretty nurse who callously cut my new robe down the front to apply the sensor pads. Then the anaesthetist said "good night" (I think it was his only English) and I had two pleasant dreams - I can't remember what they were, but I know they were pleasant - I presume one was for each end. I found out later that the anaesthetic was Diprovan (propofol) - so much better than the intravenous valium I've had before which left me awake, embarrassed and hurting. This time I awoke in the recovery room with no recollection of the procedure, with that pretty nurse looking into my eyes and a gut painfully distended by the air they use to inflate the colon. "Il faut peter!" she said with a giggle - at last a dream girl who approves of horrid male habits! Thank goodness she wasn't blown away in the resultant detonation. The recovery room had 12 other beds, so there were echoes coming back from the others.
So after my vital signs stabilised, I was wheeled to my room, by now fully compos mentis. Later on the gastrologue came in, told me that he'd zapped a couple of polyps in the colon and that the hiatus hernia was much the same, but he'd taken a couple of samples for biopsy, just in case.
I was then joined by another patient in the other bed in the twin room - he was awaiting an op next day. I tried to chat to him but he was a foundry worker from the Usine de Fumel, was very uncommunicative and spoke fluent patois de Gascogne.
At last some food arrived - after a day and a half of starvation and three days of low residue diet I was starving!
I tried to read my book - "Atonement" - a bad choice - too many characters and I couldn't get into it. Anyway, at 21:30 him from Fumel got his head down and proceeded to treat me to a symphony of snores, grunts, coughs, throat clearing and farts which lasted all of a short night with much sleep for him, but very long night and no sleep for me.
I was very glad to have my bread roll and coffee next morning and get in my little car to come home to the pussycats. They were glad to see me and not at all cross that they'd been left out all night!


The Good News and the Bad News

30/01/2008 21:58


The good news, for Xine and me, is that we've booked a quick eight-day tour to Egypt with Expedia at the end of February. We chose a tour leaving Toulouse that encompassed Cairo, Pyramids and the Sphinx, then a flight to Abu Simbel to join a Nile cruise, Edfu, Temple of Horus, Luxor, then a return to Toulouse. A busy, interesting and fast-paced tour with hardly enough time to get even a dose of Tutankhamen's revenge.
The bad news was that a visa for Egypt was required - included in the cost for French citizens. But what about British passport holders resident in France?

I had two choices:
1) Do nothing - take the risk of getting to Toulouse and being denied boarding, or getting to Cairo and being sent back.
2) Explore ways of getting a visa beforehand.

After a sleepless night I got on the 'phone and the Internet this morning. The first call was to Expedia - they are just an agent: the hands-on organisation is done by Marmara, who organised our Moroccan trip quite well.
I found on the Marmara website that French nationals can enter Egypt with a national identity card and a visa issued at the airport. So I phoned Expedia.fr to confirm this; they wouldn't. I asked them if I would be denied boarding at Toulouse if I didn't have a visa - they wouldn't commit themselves. I asked them about a visa service that would get visas from the Egyptian Embassy, which was a link from their website - the girl didn't know about it.
I looked at the website of the Egyptian Embassy in the UK - complicated and no help whatsoever.
So I rang Marmara, pretending to be a potential British purchaser resident in France - could I get a visa at the airport? They wouldn't commit themselves - gave me a number of the Egyptian Consulate in Paris (shudder!).
At this point I realised that a substantial payment which had gone from my credit card was only partially recoverable in the event of cancellation, in view of the tight time-scale. Sweaty palm time!
So I rang the visa service; got a nice helpful man who said that in return for 52€ they will take your passport round to the Egyptian Embassy in Paris, get it stamped with a visa and post it back to you. So although I resent the 104€ and the 10€ postage, at least it means I can sleep tonight. So I printed off the forms on the website and filled them in, ready to post off RAR tomorrow. If time is short they'll even pick up your passports from your home (for a substantial fee of course!).
I suspect that I won't need any of these rotten forms; but it will be nice to sleep ce soir!


The Fioul Man Cometh

01/02/2008 12:51


L'homme trapu who brings our domestic heating oil called this morning, blocking the road for over 20 minutes as he offloaded 2,500 litres at 0.729 € per litre - he was very pleasant and friendly - as he should be for a cheque of over 1,800 €.
Still, the last time he called was May 2006 and I've only filled the tank twice in 5 years - I seem to be using an average of about 1500 litres per annum.
The last price I paid was 0.665 so a fill is costing some 200€ more now than in 2006.
The chaudière is switched off for today while the grot in the tank settles, so the wood burner is chucking out eco-friendly heat.

I tried today to plot consumption rate by time for the fioul - yes, it's an engineer thing to measure everything!
The objective was to see the effect of the change of chaudière in late 2004 and the addition of a 200mm extra laine de verre in the grenier about a year ago.
It's quite difficult - one can reasonably easily calculate the consumption between tank fills and by extrapolation to consumption per year. In between I have occasionally plotted the tank level by dipping it and chalking on the side of the cuve; it's a regular rectangle so it's easy to calibrate in litres.
I used the =DATEIF(X1,X2,"D") function to work out the days between dated measurements X1, X2 and hence the consumption per day, compensating for the periodic refilling.
The results showed a general downward trend; winter consumption rates that were as high as 16 litres/day are now about half that. The summer rates for hot water only remain constant at about 1.5 - 2 litres/day.
It's encouraging that the extra insulation is producing tangible benefits.


Getting a Visa

08/02/2008 12:48


Our passports arrived with Egyptian Visas today - phew!

So, if anyone needs to get a visa from a consulate in Paris without having to go there themselves, I would recommend the service. All you need is money - 52€ per passport plus postage costs. I sent both passports up by Chronopost and they were returned RAR; this took 8 days. In extremis they will pick the passports up from your home by courier.
The link is http://www.action-visas.com/


French Beef - Xine cracks it!

10/02/2008 21:57


Well, we went to our neighbours at 16:00 hrs a week ago and were warmly welcomed with champagne, good conversation and cold crêpes. There were masses of the latter and we did our best, but there were lots left for their breakfast next morning!
Anyway, Xine arranged a walking English lesson with Marie-José for the following Wednesday. During this lesson, the subject of the dreadful, tough, French supermarket beef came up. M-J recommended a small butcher in Villeneuve, who sells beef from cattle from our neighbouring fields.
Xine girded her loins for battle on Friday and set off alone to procure tender beef.
She came home, triumphant, bearing not only a very delicious-looking joint of filet de boeuf, but also BOUDIN NOIR!
The latter was consumed ASAP comme petit déjeuner, it proved to be very similar to le black pudding anglais, maybe needing un soupçon de plus de poivre noir, mais autrement parfait!
The beef was sold with Instructions For Cooking from A Very Helpful and Nice French Boucher - paraphrased they said "an incredibly short time in an incredibly hot oven"!
Heating the oven was traumatic - 280°C burns off every last residual splash from a generally pristine oven. All the kitchen windows were opened and Xine came into the salon for occasional resuscitation.
But when the time came for proving the pudding with the eating, it was superb - fat-free and tender, pink apart from a couple of mm which kept the yummy caramelised outer from the inner. With roast parsnips and potatoes and Les Yorkshire Puddings and lashings of gravy it was a tour de force!


Assainissement Police Raid Tessel Bas

21/02/2008 10:56


A nice young man from SPANC (Service Publique d’Assainissement Non-Collectif) called this morning and politely condemned our whole sanitary system, recommending "urgent intervention". I was glad that I adopted my "blatantly honest" mode as he appeared knowledgeable and was friendly and helpful. He was prepared to use English - they've been trained in English and Dutch - but we managed with my français balbutiant.
He recommends a small fosse septique and a microfilter, each of a couple of cubic metres. The latter still needs a drain field, though, and he suggests a pump to lift it into an open space in my "park" - it needs about 5 metres square. The drain field depends on a soil survey - it could be a naturally drained, in-ground sand filter, or may need to be in-ground or aboveground and drained after filtration into the road surface-water drain.
Fortunately the French concept of "urgent intervention" is one to one and a half years, by which time pencils will have been chewed, the reports for all the commune will have all been written, teeth will have been sucked and budgets prepared. Apparently we stand a good chance of a 50% contribution.
So I can carry on nourishing my oak trees with night soil and have a renewed topic of conversation for dinner parties!


Egypte pour les Deux Nuls

06/03/2008 11:33


For photographs, see http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/ianjgillis/Egypt

So what has this got to do with France you may ask?
Well, it's a holiday booked in France on a French website for francophone people and using francophone guides. It meant that Christine and I had nice friendly, polite French people on the tour group and that even if the half-term holiday meant that there were children, they were French children and were thus generally responsible and well-behaved. Being fully immersed in French is something we've done before in Morocco and we found it very satisfying. Our guide was an Arab girl called Arania who spoke good Arab-accented Parisian French and was generally easy to understand, except when she got into deep Egyptological detail that had differing words. But where we stumbled there were understanding people to help, and at least we made all the rendezvous on time!

We thoroughly enjoyed our holiday, but it left me with two disturbing questions. The Ancient Egyptians had a socially and technically sophisticated culture some five thousand years ago. They also had leaders with the power to order the implementation of vast projects at enormous expenditure of manpower with little purpose other to show others that they could and for their own self-glorification and at a time when others in the world were fighting for survival. What happened? History seems to show that change is inevitable and invariably the current incumbents are overthrown and a period of dark ages follows.

My questions are:
a) Is our western society in the decline; will it be replaced by another culture such as that of the Muslims and will there also be a "dark age"?
b) Do projects such as getting a man to the moon (Kennedy) and invading Iraq (Dubya) mirror those of building the pyramids?

After a pleasant four-hour flight from Toulouse our first visit was to the Cairo Museum of Antiquities - a marvellous, dusty and academic place full of dusty old relics described on fading old labels using ancient typewriters. Sadly the fact that we'd spent the night on an aeroplane affected the concentration somewhat, but such wonderful pieces as the golden chariots from Tutankhamun's tomb woke even the drowsiest visitor. We'd managed to fill an Airbus A320 with our tour, which was divided into four coach loads, each with their own tour guide, so that sometimes we made our own crowds!
Driving through Cairo illustrated the difference between Tessel Bas and its 400 inhabitants, and Cairo and its 17 million, the latter contributing to the poor air quality. It was quite cold too, we'd left Toulouse on a warm sunny day, much warmer than Cairo.
That afternoon we visited the souk and soaked up the colour and vitality of the area; then the heavens opened in a thunderstorm and we soaked up some of the acid rain before diving into a bar for a jovial mint tea with the locals.
Dinner at the hotel was an excellent buffet; the sweet treats for dessert could definitely turn my tooth sweet!

Next day the pyramids were bathed in the morning sun on a very cool morning; I was disconcerted to find that they weren't in the middle of trackless desert but on the edge of the urban sprawl of Le Caire. Here was our first experience of the touts, tricksters and con men that were a feature of the whole week; people selling Arab head-dresses, camel rides, others trying to get 10€ notes in return for ten real or counterfeit euro coins or Egyptian coins that look similar but are worth much less; the £E is worth about 10p. I fell for Achmed’s ploy, he had a friendly smile, didn't want any money, just to be my friend and talk about England. Ha! He chatted for some time, let Xine take a picture of me and him, then wanted 5€ for modelling fees. He got 1€ and a distinctly unfriendly Englishman! Thereafter we found the best technique was to ignore them and pretend not to understand any language in which you were addressed.
The pyramids themselves were not a disappointment. Their sheer scale is impressive; Khufu (Cheops) is 230m square, 146m high, volume 2.6 million cu.m., each rock weighing 2 to 6 tonnes. Enough stone to build a wall 2m high around metropolitan France. Construction used an inclined plane as the only engine, which would be 1500m long to reach the summit. It was built in 20 years, which would necessitate one block being laid every four minutes, day and night. Much of the granite was brought up from Aswan, hundreds of kilometres along the Nile.
Close to the pyramid their block construction is apparent - there was a finishing coat of limestone but only Khafre (Chepren) has a vestige of it at the summit.
We went into the burial chamber of Khafre, a cramped, sweaty and claustrophobic experience with descents and ascents via very low tunnels - it was very hot and my knees took days to recover!
The Sphinx was smaller than I expected; because it's always photographed in front of the pyramids, the perspective makes it look bigger. The guide took great delight in telling the French that it was Napoleon’s soldiers who knocked the Sphinx's nose off with a stray cannon ball - though this seems to be an "urban" legend.
After lunch we did the "Vieux Caire" trip: a walking tour around the old centre and visits to a synagogue, a Coptic church and a mosque. As with most Middle Eastern countries it's often difficult to tell what is old and falling down and what is new and not quite finished!

A bracing 3 a.m. reveillé next morning was needed so we could fly down from Cairo to Abu Simbel. This famous site was the first of the temples we visited and was very impressive. You had to look really hard to see the joins and I didn't realise until I saw it that they moved the whole front of the cliff and the internal temple rooms, not just the façade of the temples. The Aswan High Dam ultimately raised the water that was lapping at the foot of the old position of the temples by over 60m so the temples were shifted to a nearby site 70m higher. Interestingly the Aswan High Dam also caused the Suez war as Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in order to pay for it, and the Gulf war seriously delayed the rescue project.
We had a three hour journey across featureless desert to get to Aswan which allowed us to get some much-needed shut-eye, we also had a look at the High Dam itself, which was much like any other dam but damn big. We booked into the Isis Island hotel for a (disappointing) late lunch, then a late afternoon's shut-eye before dinner.

After a night in the Isis Island we transferred to our cruise boat - incongruously called "La Dolce Vita", externally decorated in rather garish colours with corny Nubian slaves with oars depicted on the side - but internally very comfortable. Then we were bussed to Philae. This was another monster moves project; the temple and its island had actually been partially submerged by the construction of the lower Aswan barrage. So they put it on another, higher island. By now we were getting used to the ancient Egyptian designs and could recognise recurrent themes; Ptolemy depicted with one hand holding a bunch of enemies by the hair as his other hand is raised bearing a club for the coup de grace, the "ankh" – the key of life, the "was" – for power and domination.
That night the boat had a cabaret of a “whirling dervish” and a belly dancer.

Next day, in a relatively relaxed cruise we visited the temple of Kom Ombo, then, via a horse-drawn calèche, the biggest and most impressive temple so far, Edfu. This is the home of Horus, depicted as rather a mean-looking falcon. It is a big temple, full of masses of fascinating detail; the Ancient Egyptian calendar, a depiction of all the surgical tools used by contemporary surgeons - apparently remains indicate that trepanning was practised at that time. An evening of fancy dress presumed that you had bought a djellaba in the souk; we couldn't see too many opportunities for the wearing of djellabas in Ste Colombe de Villeneuve so we went in mufti.

Our last full day was a full day indeed. The morning was dedicated to Karnak, a fitting end to the temple visits and a veritable “ne plus ultra” for piles of ancient Egyptian stone. Maybe we'd become a little blasé, perhaps even "surtemplé", but Karnak is a really stupendous construction, with its 134 massive columns in the hypostyle hall, the multiple rams-head sphinxes, the sacred lake, the obelisks and all this together with a high level of detailed graphics carved into the rock.
After lunch we went to the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, pausing at the Colossi of Memnon, which guard the Valleys of the Kings and Queens. In an eerie, arid and “deserted” piece of desert, the two valleys thrust their way into the hills overlooking Luxor, their sides pock-marked with opened tombs. We visited one tomb in the Vallée des Reines; in the Vallée des Rois we had three tickets for three tombs, Tutankhamun was extra so I chose Rameses III, Siptah and Tausert/Setnacht - all had wonderful colours and graphics - the latter had a temple chamber with a falcon spreading its blue-feathered wings across the tomb wall.

The flight home was scheduled for the evening, so we snatched a morning to go and see our friend Marie in Chicago House, a Rockefeller-founded cultural organization dedicated to the recording and conservation of the priceless artefacts of Ancient Egypt. She gave us an interesting tour of the campus, both domestic and technical, with special emphasis on the epigraphy of the temple inscriptions and the conservation of stone damaged by rising water tables and pollution. Our taxi driver on the way back to the boat gave us a good farewell impression – asked how much he wanted he said that’s up to you. So I gave him 50£E which was what the taxi out cost – he gave me 20£E back as it was too much!

We lunched in a Luxor restaurant and were bussed to the sparkling, modern international airport for a five-hour flight to Toulouse, arriving the same day. A week’s parking for 20€ seemed good value for the convenience of driving straight home.

Would we recommend the trip? Wholeheartedly yes, the rooms and cabin were all of a high standard and apart from the Isis Island hotel the food was copious and good. The main alteration I would make would be to stretch the programme out, so one could do the same things in the same order but at a less frenetic pace and without the need for lack of sleep.

How about the gyppy tummies and King Tut’s revenge, you ask? Well there was the odd sudden sprint during the week, but nothing to interfere with the programme. But we’ve both been intestinally-challenged since our return – maybe a warmed-up airline meal?


Ski La Mongie

16/03/2008 16:00


Pictures for the dedicated at http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/ianjgillis/SkiLaMongie

A pleasant 3-and-a-bit hour journey took us to La Mongie from home. It's separated from Barèges by the Col de Tourmalet which is at 2200m and is thus closed in Winter, but often used as a stage for the Tour de France. La Mongie is at 1800m which gets reasonably-reliable snow and there are lifts going to 2400m. If you use a Sat-Nav to get there, check it doesn't assume the pass is open!

We'd skied at Barèges and looked down on La Mongie, we'd also visited the latter in Summer. It's a purpose-built resort with no intrinsic raison d'être and was built during the "concrete brutalist" period of architecture, although not as bad as Flaine but probably more tatty. They've had a partially successful attempt at disguising the awful and creating more acceptable buildings. Our hotel had comfortable and spacious rooms but was built in the 80s when brown was the fashionable colour - it desperately needed a makeover.

We hadn't skied for two years, so our first morning, Sunday, was spent on the easy slopes. We were happy to give up when it started snowing heavily in the afternoon. Monday (my Birthday) had good soft powder snow and we ventured further afield, but again did a little in the afternoon but gave up with tiredness and the effect of high winds whipping up shot blasting gusts of snow.

Tuesday morning was dreadful - the 0°C isotherm shot up to 2400m and it rained heavily. This revealed one of the disadvantages of La Mongie - if you can't ski, there's nothing else to do. We walked around, had a coffee, then a vin chaud, another coffee, went in a few tatty souvenir shops, then lunch....
However it cleared rapidly in the afternoon, so I went out and found the snow surprisingly good, if a little wet, but Xine, still suffering from Egyptian tummy retired to the hotel. On the way back I found some end-of-season bargain carving skis on sale - I've long suffered from being the only one on the piste with old-fashioned 1.9m narrow skis; they're fast but they are hard to turn. So it was near enough to my birthday to be a justifiable expense, so I bought them.

Wednesday was much better - I tentatively tried the new skis and was delighted to find that they turned much better, they held an edge much better, they handled deep snow much better, they were faster and they were more tolerant of my mistakes.

Thursday was lovely - sun and blue sky and groomed damé snow softening during the day. I went off up the Col de Tourmalet to find an easy route down and found it quite an experience to make a long run, losing some 400m in the process. In the afternoon Xine came with me - the snow was softer and more difficult on the blue runs but she managed it well. Now she had to have something new of course - so I bought her a new ski jacket that she'd needed for some time.

Friday was equally lovely but hotter, but the pistes with snow cannons had held up and we had a relaxing day skiing with more confidence until tiredness set in.

So I'm not sure whether I'd recommend La Mongie or not. The skiing is varied and quite good but the village has no charm, unlike Barèges, Samoëns, etc. There was no night life in evidence and I was really glad I took Marie's "Rescuing the Abu Simbel Temple" book to keep me happy.

We were both plagued with health issues which prejudiced our stay; we had residual gyppy tummies from our Egypt trip which needed extra antiseptic pills to kill the infection - I got quite quick at removing several layers of ski gear very rapidly! I also had an upper respiratory tract infection, which hung on during the week but was eventually made much better by the clear mountain air.

Our hotel was "Le Porteilh" - it was attached to a cheaper hotel called "Le Taoulet" and shared management. There was another hotel that we inspected called "La Crète Blanche" which looked a little more modern and more intimate, so we may use that for a short stay. There's no doubt that La Mongie is easy to get to and the skiing is good, but stays of more than two or three days can be wearing.

Plaques à Vent

23/03/2008 10:44


One of the most difficult things I stumble across in French comprehension is the phrase that includes words, all of which I know, but which form a phrase I don't understand. If you come across, say, "crépuscule" or "cacahouète" it's easy; just a question of looking up the word and carrying on, hoping the new word will lodge in your brain for more than a day or so!
Today I was reading the report on the four unfortunate pyrénéistes who were killed on the Pic du Midi by an avalanche, of interest since this was near where we were skiing and they parked their car next to our hotel.
I came upon the phrase "Une plaque à vent, c'est un piège invisible, comme une mine posée sous votre pas et qui ne vous laisse aucune chance". At this point the comprehension screeched to a halt. "A wind sheet/badge/plate" - an invisible trap???
The dictionary was no help so I Googled it and found that there are three basic types of avalanche;

* Les avalanches de neige récente,
* Les avalanches de plaque (dont la plaque à vent est un cas particulier),
* Les avalanches de fonte.

and the explanation of type 2 was:

Les plaques à vent :
le vent, en transportant la neige, brise les cristaux, fait diminuer leur taille, ce qui permet à cette neige redéposée de prendre rapidement une forte cohésion. Un vent à 25 km/h forme en quelques heures une plaque de 20 à 30 cm.
D'une manière générale, les plaques se forment sur les versants abrités du vent, derrière chaque rupture de pente abritée du vent et au voisinage des crêtes. Certains indices permettent de confirmer la présence de plaques à vent :

* Présence de corniches (indiquant le sens général du vent),
* Présence de vaguelettes sur les versants exposés au vent,
* Présence d'un dépôt plus ou moins important sur les arbres et les poteaux.

OK, understood, so now I need to know the English for it, so I Googled "types of avalanche" and found:

"Slab avalanches originate in snow with sufficient internal cohesion to enable a snow layer, or layers, to react mechanically as a single entity. The degree of this required cohesion may range from very slight in fresh, new snow (soft slab) to very high in hard, wind-drifted snow (hard slab)"

Voila! Plaque à Vent = Slab or Hard Slab!

Clearly proper comprehension required at least a basic idea of avalanche formation, which I didn't have!


What does the "Unie" in EU really mean?

02/04/2008 23:13


So I can view BBC programmes on my satellite dish, but I'm not allowed to download iPlayer - they look at my IP and see I'm from the filthy Continong, so I can't be served with BBC programmes I've missed. For the same reason I can't use Pandora to serve me streaming audio matched to my tastes, because I've got the wrong IP (OK I know Pandora is stateside, but the principle's the same). Anyone know a good IP anonymising service?
AND I've just tried to order an Asus EEE Notebook with a QWERTY keyboard and an English language Linux OS from Pixmania UK, delivery to be to stepson in the UK. Not possible; the website doesn't permit the purchase of a device with the billing address and the delivery address in different countries. I spent a fortune calling an 0870 number from France while the person the other end repeated my attempts with the same degree of failure - Pixmania has a multi-national website but once you get too French you get switched to France - you can't buy in France and deliver to the UK - nor vice versa. It's the Ts & Cs ennit, guv! I tried the same thing with PC World On-line, with the same result (the thing isn't available in their shops).
So I've got my stepson to buy it and I've sent him the money via Internet banking!


Sat Nav

04/04/2008 22:41


I had the A6 serviced and got the Sat Nav updated.
I could have bought two bloody Tom-Toms for the cost of the Navteq DVD covering Europe!
So, although built-in Sat-Nav has the advantage of being fully integrated into the car sound system and takes advantage of the large screen video display system, you can't just download an update - nor can you download speed camera positions.
However, when I got the thing home, I thought I'd try and back-up the DVD - no problem, I could copy the thing; it had no copy protection. So if I had a friend with an Audi Sat Nav I could have copied his.
I then thought, if there's no copy protection, you're sure to be able to download a disk image from the Internet. Two minutes of surfing found loads of sites offering downloads. Admittedly 4GB would take some time but think of all that money I could have saved!
And I think the nice lady is the same but she sounds older and she doesn't make my toes curl when she says "meeetres" in her best Sloane Ranger received-English pronunciation. I'm not sure I love her any more! I might move to the French lady who is now less of a dominatrix than before.
I suppose if everyone got free copies there would be no one to update the maps, so perhaps I can suck my thumb and cuddle my halo?
At least that disconnect near Casseneuil has been fixed, the A89 goes to Brive and the A28 goes from Alençon to Rouen!


Vesoul Visit – Report

17/04/2008 17:31


Vesoul in Haut-Saône, Franche-Comté is some 800km from Tessel Bas, just about as far east as you can go without getting into Alsace. We went there to join an Institute of Civil Engineers visit to the construction sites of the LGV (Ligne de Grande Vitesse) which will carry high-speed train services between the Rhone and the Rhine, linking Dijon and Mulhouse.
Our journey followed the new A89 from Périgueux; a lovely road sweeping through the Corrèze with its gorges and wooded ridges and up and over the Massif Central at altitudes approaching 1000m. Our Audi thoroughly enjoyed the work-out with its cruise control set to 130kph and plenty of hills to exercise its 225bhp.
We made an overnight stop at Thiers; arriving mid afternoon we had time to visit the Cutlery Museum, set in the quaint streets of mediaeval half-timbered houses. The hotel (Parc du Geoffroi) was surprisingly good; a spacious room for 67€ and an excellent restaurant - so we booked for the return trip, too.
The second leg of the journey was uneventful but long; the A89 doesn't yet reach the A6 north of Lyon, instead the autoroute loops south and rises northwards through the agglomeration of Lyon. The sat-nav was getting traffic reports of jams and roadworks and continually re-routed us around Lyon. In fairness we encountered no jams, but we must have done over 50km more than necessary.
Eventually the sat-nav led us to the Chateau de la Presle in Breurey-les-Faverney, lovingly restored and operated by Geoff and Marie-France. Our room turned out to be a very comfortable suite and dinner that night with the assembled company was lovely, set in the elegant dining room. They are open to guests; see
The site visit next day started with an exposition of the project and a film of a helicopter flight along the eastern branch of the line which hammered home the scale of the project: 140km of line, 160 bridges, 12 viaducts, 300 million cubic metres of earth removed and a cost of over 2 billion Euros. A typical journey time between, say Dijon and Frankfurt will be reduced by 2hrs and 20 minutes to just over 4 hours.
After a buffet lunch we went to the site of the partially-completed Viaduc de la Quenoche and travelled along the line of construction.
In the late afternoon we attended a civic reception at the Mairie of Vesoul, hosted by A Chrétien, adjoint au Maire and minister for Francophonie.
That evening we dined at Jean-Michel Turin's restaurant at the Chateau de Vauchoux, Michelin-starred and set in an elegant Louis XVI dining room. There were fine wines and exquisite courses numbered in the high teens - all depending whether you counted the three dessert courses as one or not!
Next morning featured a visit to the Le Corbusier-designed chapel at Ronchamp - a dramatic and controversial design featuring an impressive concrete inverted-hull roof that sadly was showing that grimy appearance which reinforced concrete acquires with age.
Yet another excellent lunch was enjoyed at the Auberge de Mille Etangs, set in beautiful countryside with a dominant position that still showed traces of snow.
The afternoon was occupied with a visit to one of the distilleries in Fougerolles; all sorts of Eau de Vie were on sale, but I couldn't resist a bottle of absinthe, now legally produced in France.
By now many members were complaining of contracting belts and shifting trouser buttons, but we found room for a pleasant apéritif and snacks at the Chateau, followed by dinner in "La Creusotte" restaurant at Breurey.
For Sunday morning we boarded a pair of canal cruisers at Port sur Saône and made a leisurely trip to the impressive 680m tunnel at St Albin which we traversed in both directions before returning to a riverside restaurant for yet more food.
The last visit was to the imposing Chateau de Ray, set above Ray sur Saône.
Next morning we delayed our return journey for a visit to the National Automobile Collection at Mulhouse, featuring the Schlumpf collection of Bugattis and many other highly desirable motorcars set in the spacious surroundings of a converted wool mill - see http://www.collection-schlumpf.com/en/schlumpf/ - I felt like a chocoholic in a Lindt & Sprungli factory!
We had an extra 115km to make up with our diversion to the Bugatti museum, so we drove back to the Parc du Geoffroi hotel in Thiers, this time forcing the sat-nav to go via Roanne and thus avoiding Lyon. Next day at Brive we ignored the sat-nav which wanted to send us down the A20 and along the A62 to Agen, taking instead the A89 to Périgueux and the N21 through Bergerac - there was actually little difference in predicted time and distance between the two routes.

Most of my record of the trip was on video – see http://youtube.com/watch?v=lDw_ZntOeJ0, but I've posted a few pictures at


The Bridge at Millau

24/04/2008 22:20


We set off in lovely, bright, warm sunshine early this morning to see the Millau Bridge. The brouillard started in the Garonne valley and continued until past Toulouse and well on the way to Albi. Thankfully it disappeared for the lovely drive through the Parc des Grands Causses between Albi and Millau - what wonderful scenery!
After lunch in Millau we went to the visitor centre under the bridge, then drove over the bridge and stopped at the aire at the North end of the bridge that has an observation point.
I thought the bridge was stupendous - a really beautiful design that combined aesthetics with functionality - a triumph of British design with French engineering that made me proud to be an engineer.
Our round trip was some 640 km, but both Christine and Peter agreed that it was worth it.
Photographs at http://picasaweb.google.co.uk/ianjgillis/NormanFosterSBridgeAtMillau


My New Toy

09/05/2008 22:19


The built-in Sat-Nav in the Audi gets me there, but the nice lady doesn't warn me of speed cameras and even if she did the positions can't be frequently updated.
So I've bought myself a cheap GPS warning device made by Inforad of Shannon, County Clare, Ireland.
http://www.gpsinforad.co.uk but ignore the prices - they're on sale for lower numbers in Euros in France.
The thing is a flying-saucer-shaped blob about 7cms in diameter - about the size of an ice-cream scoop of sorbet splodged on your pudding plate.
It comes with a power lead to plug in your cigar lighter socket which doubles as a USB lead to connect it to your PC, and an antenna on a flying lead in case your windscreen is metallised and thus opaque to GPS signals - I found I didn't need it.
Installation comprises plugging the lead in and sticking the blob on your dashboard with a roundel of removable sticky gel. It took a couple of minutes to find at least three satellites and chirped happily, so I set off into Villeneuve to find Villeneuve's Speed Camera. This is on a road I use infrequently, so I was glad when it gave a slightly alarmed chirp and flashed its red LEDs some 20 secs before the camera - had I been travelling at over 50kph it would have chirped and flashed more anxiously but still have given me the 20 sec warning.
Since it knows the car's position and speed there are other features - you can enter your own warnings for dodgy bends, schools, etc., by pressing a single button on top of the device. It can be a speed-warning device - you press another button at the speed you want to stick to, and you're warned if you exceed it.
Downloadable management software enables you to regularly update the camera database for new cameras, and also enables such functions as trip logs, where previous journeys can be reproduced on a map, derived from regular readings of time and position.
I had a small problem with the management software, but an email to Support in Ireland was answered straight away and fixed the problem.
It's completely legal in France and comes with a pan-European database of camera positions. I'm amazed that so much functionality can be shoe-horned into such a tiny device. Clearly it won't protect you against Les Flics with the jumelles, but every little helps!


England in May

27/05/2008 23:05


So we had a pleasant, bright and sunny few days in the yUK, with only a heavy rainstorm on the M20 towards Dover as a valedictory admonishment. Crossing the channel brought pleasant veiled sun, but bashing down to SW France brought increasing rain. We arrived to find the rain gauge full and overflowing and rampant greenery crazed with a superfluity of water!

Our journey to the Speedferries terminal at Boulogne was uneventful, but also punctuated by heavy rainstorms. We overnighted at the Kyriad north of Rouen - 76130 Mont Saint Aignan - which was cheap (€51), clean, friendly and served us an excellent dinner - recommended for those looking for a stop within a couple of hours of the short crossings.

We stayed for three nights at son Simon's at Stilton near Peterborough; I took time out to have a pleasant lunch with my elder daughter Marianne at a pub in Walberswick, near Southwold on the Suffolk coast.

Then we moved down to Uncle Nick and Linda (fairly near Beth Chatto Gardens), which knocked any French hotel into a cocked hat for luxury and cuisine. On Friday I went to the Marconi Old Farts' gathering in Chelmsford and that evening we dined in a posh ristorante on the banks of the river Colne.

Saturday was devoted to a journey down to Bromley/Orpington, calling in the Bluewater shopping mall en route, even visiting a branch of L*k*l*nd! We had a sneaky pre-party dinner with the lovely Judith and my mate Dick whose 70th birthday was the raison d'être for the trip. The party proper was on Sunday, when several old, old friends turned up looking disgustingly healthy despite their advancing years.

On Monday the Speedferries catamaran was bounced around a little outside Dover but was OK when sheltered by the Pas de Calais. We stopped over at an Ibis at Tours - adequate room but disgusting food and packed with an Irish coach party en-route from Lourdes to County Cork.

So we got back for lunch at a soggy Tessel Bas; but it was so nice to pick up the pussycats, turn on the central heating and snuggle into our patch of heaven!


EEE PC Update

02/06/2008 22:29


I've had a few days to get used to the little Asus eee PC that I bought in the UK. There's been a lot of hype in the computer press about these little notebooks, and I have to say that my experience shows that it's all justified.

Coming back from the UK I found it very easy to switch on and connect via the wi-fi link to the hotel network. Once back home, it was only a matter of minutes to connect to the Tessel Bas wi-fi network, enabling surfing, email and printing on the printer attached to the desktop computer.

It uses Xandros, a Linux operating system, rather than Windows, so Windows devotees have to get used to switching off by clicking the shutdown button, instead of the "Start" button. There isn't a Start button, it assumes that if you've switched the damn thing on, you might just possibly want to use it. It boots up in a few seconds. It has almost everything you might need preloaded - Firefox browser, Thunderbird email client, Open Office word processor, spreadsheet, presentation aid, pdf reader, photo manager, video and audio media player, anti-virus, personal information manager, webcam, mike, Skype, clock, Messenger, internet radio, etc, etc. It's even got voice command, although you have to use an American accent for it to understand you - "caampuder - meal" calls up the email program!

The storage is all solid state, there's a solid-state "hard disk" of 4GB of which about half is operating system. There are three USB ports that can take USB flash memory, and an SD card slot; I've just ordered an 8GB card to extend the available space for data.

All this in a small notebook the size of a paperback, with a 7"" screen and weighing less than 1Kg.
Currently they are available in English versions with QWERTY keyboards from French suppliers such as Pixmania.

There is a new version out, the eee PC 900 with a slightly larger screen and more storage, so they are selling the older model cheaply.

Xine is having great fun getting to use it - I bought a cheap mini-mouse as neither of us like track-pads.

I'd thoroughly recommend it to anyone who needs a portable PC as a standby to a desktop and as a way of keeping in touch while travelling in areas where there are wi-fi hotspots, such as hotels, and when the bulk of a conventional laptop is an inconvenience.


The storage issue is, in my view, no big deal. it's amazing how the normal storage of PCs has expanded. My first computer - a Mac - had 80MB, the next one, a PC, had 8GB, and my current one has 160GB with a 300GB external drive for video and back-up. However I never ran out of storage on any of them because I worked in different ways. A GB is a hell of a lot of storage for stuff like emails or documents - I could store 150,000 emails like the one I'm replying to in 1GB. However photographs and particularly video take a lot of space - even so my "My Pictures" folder has about 5000 pictures in 6GB.
What I did with my last computer (8GB is only twice the Asus) was periodically to archive the photograph originals to CD, and keep a back-up copy too, so I had some protection against drive failure or damage to the CD.
The Asus has an SD card slot, so I can fit, say, 8GB and triple the storage for €30. I can use USB flash drives as storage and as means of transferring photos, etc., to the desktop. I don't intend to use the Asus as a long-term repository, and for surfing and emails or temporary storage for camera pics, it's ideal.
The screen is as good as any other flat screen, but smallish at 7" - obviously big compared to a mobile phone or PDA but small compared to a normal laptop. The only limitation I found was when the set-up window for Thunderbird proved to be too big for the screen and I couldn't see all the tick boxes - but then I found they'd thought of that and pressing Alt+left click enabled the window to float so you could get at the boxes!
Clearly you don't need to get an Asus to replace a laptop if you have one. However my laptop no longer works on batteries as the battery died a long time ago and I can't get a replacement, and it's big and heavy and comes in a big attaché case full of connectors various - the next time I stay in a hotel I know which one I'll take to keep in touch! And if anyone doesn't have a laptop as a standby computer and would like to keep in touch or would like their kids to have a laptop - I'd recommend an Asus. And you can drop it without the hard drive heads crashing!



Wicked Self-Indulgence at Tessel Bas

16/06/2008 18:18


At long last I've treated myself to a bigger computer monitor; I've always felt cramped with the 15" LCD panel which should have been a 19" to match the resolution of my old Iiyama CRT monitor.
So I've bought a 22" Samsung 1680 x 1050 TFT/LCD monitor; the cheapest outlet was Amazon.fr which did it for €223. It's well built, no dead pixels, easy to set up and so nice to be able to put two A4 pages of data side by side and have space left over.
I found I couldn't find a quality display with built-in speakers so I added an Altec Lansing 2.1 sound system (with woofer) to my catalogue of sin, so now the porcherie rocks!


Paris pour les Nuls

29/06/2008 16:31


Our journey up to Paris could have been better. Old worryguts was sufficiently bothered about getting a parking place to have made a prior recce, at the same time on a previous day, to endure that the long-term car park at Agen Station would have spaces. It still did, but in his euphoria said worryguts put insufficient money into the horodateur and had to supplement it with another ticket bearing the same start date and scribbled with "Je me suis trompé - en plus de l'autre billet" and stuck on the windscreen - just knowing that he'd worry during the stay, expecting a penalty notice to be on the car when we return.
Then the TGV was most unusually 30 minutes late, due to an "incident technique" between Toulouse and Agen. So we sat on the platform and had our butties, saving the bottle of wine for the journey.

When it did arrive the train once more impressed with its comfort, speed and space, even in 2nd Class. I tried to play with the much-vaunted wi-fi connection but the laptop told me that there was definitely no hot-spot, at least in our carriage. So we consoled ourselves with our bottle of Morgon, hiding the label lest it offended any Bordelais passengers.

Four hours or so later we pulled into Paris, hung a right at the end of the platforms and walked the short distance to Gaîté Metro. From there it's a half-hour or so to Brochant on the Asnières-Gennevilliers branch. A short walk towards the Porte de Clichy, turn right at the "L'Insolent" bar (we wondered if the waitresses were "Cheeky Girls"!) and we were in our temporary home from home, the small flat belonging to friends. It's set in an ordinary, friendly bit of the 17e, with quite a bit of ethnic diversity - there was always a tasty curry smell wafting through a neighbour's window.

Inside it was delightful, decorated and tiled with good taste, all mod cons, even a little courtyard with our own patch of blue sky

Large, it's not, but it's perfect for two, it's spacious compared to the Ibis up the road and the cleaning up takes only a few seconds.

Spurred by the eastern fragrances our dinner that night was at the Shah Jahan Indian restaurant round the corner, off the avenue de Clichy in the rue Gauthey. It was pleasant but very mild; I avoided the beef vindaloo as I hadn't eaten hot food for ages and plumped for the Madras, which would have made a Vesta packet curry seem hot.

So the next day was devoted to the Louvre (no, not the loo!). I'd been many years ago, before Mitterrand's glass pyramid, but it was a first time for Xine and we had to do the Mona Lisa, etc., so the self-guided tour to the masterpieces at
http://tinyurl.com/ytcz74 was a big help, enabling us to take in the "must sees" before lunch, which we took on one of the little cafés on the balcony overlooking the glass pyramid. The afternoon was dedicated to the Egyptian, Iranian, Mesopotamian and African and Asian galleries, some of which were new and all of which I hadn't seen before. With aching feet we collapsed into a neighbouring café for a highly-expensive recuperatory beer before the short Metro ride back to "our" little flat.
Still hungering for spicy food we made a beeline for the Thai restaurant just off the ave de Clichy in the rue Ganneron. We ordered Tom Yum Goong x 2, a red beef curry and a chicken satay, with a veggy curry; all were mild but very aromatic and tasty. A couple of Thai sticky desserts and we were very content, despite the sore feet.

The last time we were in Paris we tried to visit the Museum of Modern Art in the Centre Pompidou, but it was closed on a Tuesday. This time the architecture seemed somehow less of a shock; we spent the morning on the "recent modern" floor - post 1960 and the afternoon on the "early modern" - post 1905. We had a self-indulgent lunch on the roof of the building - expensive but wonderful service and a marvellous panorama of Paris with the Sacré Coeur, Notre Dame and the tours Eiffel and Montparnasse all bathed in the luminous sunlight.

I'd expected to be unmoved by the Centre Pompidou, but was agreeably surprised. There was some "silly art" of the pickled cow genre but a great deal of thought-provoking semi-industrial design; the Philippe Starck exhibits illustrated the confluence of design and engineering and made me rethink some of my prejudices.

Continuing the oriental experience we moved to the "Cascade de Chine", just a little way along the ave de Clichy, away from the city. This was more expensive than the other two but had excellent service and a wide range of oriental food; I had Vietnamese and Christine had some more Thai soup (properly hot this time) and a Chinese main course.

Our return to the sticks was uneventful; the Gaîté station trick worked in reverse, just emerge and make for the tour de Montparnasse, which is difficult to miss. This time the TGV was on time, its wi-fi was working and, on arrival at Agen, there was no penalty ticket on the car and it hadn't been stolen or vandalised.

All in all a very successful trip which was really made by the charming accommodation, the cultural scene and the sense of participation in the busy and stimulating city of Paris - and also the ability to once more appreciate the peace and tranquillity of rural France. And the pussycats were glad to see me when I picked them up from the cattery and performed really well on their evening walk!


Bloggered, then (word)press-ganged.

04/07/2008 22:40


I had another go at my community blog today; I found that Blogger edits your input on a routine basis to remove any little tricks you might have added that it doesn't like, then deletes them.
So I tried Wordpress http://wordpress.com/
This allows me to have distinct pages in addition to the "river" of blog posts, for static information.
So I went out in the lovely sunshine today to take a few village pictures; setting up the blog, adjusting the pictures and uploading them only took an hour or two. I found only a limited number of templates allow custom headers and have format headings in French, so I picked one that gives a clear space for the header picture.

You can find it at http://stecolombedevilleneuve.wordpress.com/

Park Homes Surveyed

29/07/2008 22:00


Today Xine and I went to the Siblu site near Biscarosse - "La Reserve".
We managed to get a "chalet girl" sales person to give us The Tour in an electric golf buggy.
The site has everything - indoor and outdoor swimming pools, putting courses, theatres, bars, discos, boat moorings, archery butts, restaurants, supermarkets, kids clubs - you name it. In fact the absolute antithesis of a site we'd like to stay on. I think you will know what I mean.
The "mobil-homes" were bigger than a caravan but with fittings of poorer quality. We quite liked one at €51,000, whereas a second-hand one at €15,000 was curled up at the edges like a British Rail sandwich and smelled of Other People.
We had a nice lunch at Mimizan Plage and discussed the issue.
We decided that we'd like to weekend on our yacht moored in the Var, with a helicopter to shuttle us to and fro. But, since we can't afford that, a mobil-home or caravan parked on a very tranquil site with access to an Enterprise sailing dinghy for use during the day, might just possibly appeal. But not a glorified Butlins!

The one we liked was a two-bedroom version of the one in this Quicktime
video tour http://bit.ly/2tx0Do - ordinary website is http://www.sibluexclusif.com/

The price includes delivery to site, installation and connection to main services (allegedly worth €1410), gas test and certificate, two gas bottles, smoke alarm, fire extinguisher, steps and cleaning.

The site fees which cover the provision of water and electricity are between €4335 and €5835 per annum depending on the site size. Clearly an element of this high charge is concerned with providing and maintaining the hi-de-hi hoo-ha so a more tranquil site should be cheaper. You also need insurance (€190).

Note that you can't reside permanently; in order to avoid property taxes the site is closed November, December and January to owners, November to April to renters.


Naan Bread vs. Weber

03/08/2008 17:35


Yesterday I re-tried the preparation of naan bread using a Weber kettle barbeque. Last time the bread came out too "cakey".
This time I used a recipe without beaten egg, and with less yeast and baking powder; see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vow-kxTPatc .

I was making that Indian dish found only in the South West of France; magret de canard with naan bread. So I was using direct cooking.
The naan I put on a perforated pizza baking tray in a very hot Weber - it came out much more like real naan bread, if a little burnt on the bottom.
So I think I've got the recipe right now, but both naan and magret would have best been grilled indirectly - the magret fat makes lots of smoke and would better off in the drip tray.
So I'm getting there - now watch out for duck tikka masala and foie gras vindaloo!



Gardening Disasters in SW France

13/08/2008 22:01


After 5.5 years of some successes and lots of conspicuous failures, I've decided that the latter are due to the drought, not the chalk. Clearly you shouldn't plant anything needing acid ericaceous soil, but the main effect of the geology of the area is that you get a thin layer of soil sitting on fractured limestone. When it rains it goes "gloop" and it's bone dry next day.
I think the most pragmatic approach is to look at things that are doing well and plant more of the same. For instance, the next hameau to us is called "Le Laurier". Laurel and Bay grow everywhere. My garden is full of Prunus laurocerasus, the cherry laurel and it grows like wildfire. To quote Wikipedia "In some regions such as the Pacific Northwest of the United States, this species is an invasive plant. Its rapid growth, coupled with its evergreen habit and its tolerance of drought and shade, often allow it to out-compete and kill off native plant species."
Note the "tolerance of drout and shade" bit.
Another thing I can't get rid of is the ash trees. They too are very tolerant of drought - they have a very efficient root system, they send down an invasive taproot and have stabilising surface roots. The seeds start to germinate as soon as the average ambient temperature exceeds 20°C. I now mow the lawns regularly, not for the grass but for the ash trees. They can grow 5m in a year.


Media Players

16/08/2008 22:48


I have to report that VLC Media Player http://www.videolan.org/vlc/ is an excellent and unassuming piece of open-source software.
VideoLAN produces free software for video, released under the GNU General Public License. The project started as a student project at the French École Centrale Paris but is now a worldwide project with developers from 20 countries.
I've found that it will open and play all the audio and video sources that I am likely to need, simply and without fuss, but it nevertheless has the capability of complex tweaks, should I need them.

I've found that iTunes is a good companion to use when I need a more commercial product. It has a swish interface, the ability to add Gracenote titles to albums and tracks, a big library should I desperately need to buy a tune on line, and the ability to convert from m4a to the more ubiquitous mp3.

I've uninstalled Winamp which I found to be attractive but flawed; I'll leave Windows Media Player sulking in the corner.



18/09/2008 21:39


I think Xine's getting the run-around in our local health system. A few weeks back she had some pain in her face and went to the dentist. The dentist thought it was sinus pain and sent her to the oto-rhino-laryngologist who sent her to the local hospital for a scan (not sure what sort of scan but wasn't MRI but may have been a CAT scan). The interpreter at the scanner said she had a full and infected sinus on the right side, possibly caused by a lesion in an upper tooth and sent her back to the dentist.
Today the dentist found that the tooth at blame was a healthy tooth and doesn't want to treat or extract a healthy tooth, so has referred her to the local stomatologist, who, I understand, is an expert in conditions of the face. I find that stomatology is included in dentistry in the US but considered a separate discipline in Europe.

(But see later in this saga!).

Borne to be a Twit

24/09/2008 15:26


I did a very, very stupid thing the other day.
I ordered some rail tickets on line, so that Xine & Big Daughter could go to Agen. I paid for them on line and opted for pick-up at Agen station, as I had to take them there.
To pick up at the station you have to put in the card you used for purchase into the ticket machine. It then asked me to input the code; I looked at the purchase confirmation and it had a letter order code, which I couldn't input on a numeric pad. So I input the numeric order number - false code it said. Now the lettering was very small on the printout and I'd confused a 5 with a 6, so I re-entered it. It still said code faux; I tried again and it refused to do anything, so I went and got the tickets from the guichet - fortunately we were there in good time and could afford to queue.
I didn't think any more about it until I tried to buy some stuff in Auchan and the pin machine said "carte refusée". Fortunately Xine's card and my UK cards still worked. Next day it did the same at a station service, so I went in to the bank and moaned.
It turns out that I was supposed to enter my PIN number, not a ticket order code, and as I'd entered it incorrectly three times the card was blocked. Apparently the only way of unblocking it is to order a new one - which is charged for! As I'd already paid for the tickets it just didn't occur to me that the machine wanted the PIN number.
So I had to wait a week for a new card. Next time I'll do it correctly!


A La Recherche du Boudin Noir Perdu

25/09/2008 11:26


Pre-war babies like me, brought up on a shoestring, were raised on offal in its various forms, chitterlings, tripe, faggots, liver, kidney - and black pudding. Meat was only on high days and holidays and a chicken was a luxury item.

France has its own varieties of boudin noir, but much of it has the wrong texture - a mushy paste that oozes out of the cooking sausage.

I did, for a while, manage to get international entrepreneur Andrew Tilley Esq. to import my very favourite Clonakilty Black Pudding, but his penetration of the French market in this area was regrettably short-lived.

Now I've found a new source; the Leclerc deli counter has artisanal black pudding en vrac, there's viande, oignon and pomme parfums; the viande has too much couenne in it, the oignon is a bit pasty but the pomme has a good texture and taste with a natural skin and fries or barbeques well.

For more heart-attack fuel, I've found some bacon as well - I no longer hanker after pink watery Brit bacon and quite like the thin poitrine fumé, but I've found bacon in Auchan which is thicker and which has a very tasty cure reminiscent of the best British home-cured bacon - it comes as a platter of poitrine fumé described as "Un Vrai Régal" by Salaisons Dupoux from 64800 Coarraze.

I could cycle to the boulangerie for fresh croissants, but the 600m climb back up the hill would kill me - so it's a good excuse for a full English breakfast!


GMail Experiences

30/09/2008 21:55


I think I'm now a GMail convert - I've used up a whole 2MB of my free 7GB.

I've stopped my other email clients downloading mail.

I've got some 13 filters set up that label incoming mail with suitable, custom coloured labels.

I've learned the difference between deleting a whole thread and deleting individual messages, and resolved to change subject lines when the subject changes and to exhort others to do likewise. As a result I've stopped having to fish around in the trash looking for

mail that I've inadvertently deleted.

I've now got an address book with some 600 entries that has few duplicates and quite a few with multiple emails. I was so pleased with this that I deleted the Thunderbird address book and replaced it with the new sanitised one.

Xine has been set up with her cbagillis@gmail.com account and has been

given a short tutorial but hasn't dared to try it yet.(Memo to self – I must go on a course that tells me how to instil confidence in and inspire people!).

25e Anniversaire de Mariage

Tue Nov 4, 2008 12:34 pm

Well, we made it!

Not bad for a second marriage - it just shows that hope can triumph over experience!

Xine likes her bijoux; I've done the red rose bit (since France is metric they come in fifteens, not dozens!) and a posh nosh at La Toque Blanche to come tonight.

Xine's son Simon, aided and abetted by Tim and Peter sent a 1983 bottle of Médoc - from the UK!

On the road to Damascus.....

Sat Nov 8, 2008 1:46 pm


................ I bought myself an iPod!
For three reasons; to give me something to listen to while I'm holding down a deckchair on our cruise, to provide a more varied source of music for the car stereo than the car's 6-CD auto-changer, and to replace the many boxes of CDs that feed the house stereo (one CD at a time). And a demonstration of the ability to subscribe to free podcasts of The Archers was sufficient to obtain senior management's budget approval. In any case, it was a silver iPod, so appropriate for our anniversary!
I did look at cheaper MP3 players, but the hardware and software of the Apple product impressed me. Everything has quality, even the nice white box it came in. A small "get started" leaflet is all you really need to get up to speed, and iTunes is a user-friendly piece of management software, which inevitably pushes the purchase of songs from its store, but with some 500 CDs to load I don't need to buy anything.
The support is good - I managed to crash the software by prematurely disconnecting the iPod from Xine's eeePC; it politely told me to reload the software from the Apple site, which it did with no problems.
So far I've got about 20 CDs loaded - taking about 1.5 GB. With 118.5GB to go I should have plenty of space.....


25th Anniversary Cruise to Rio de Janeiro

Nov 15, 2008 to Dec 5, 2008


If you've nothing better to do, go to My Cruise Text for instant boredom. That file includes a link to My Cruise Pics, which are the photographs, and even more boring.
And don't think that's all - I've still got the video to edit!


Xine’s Op

Sun Dec 14, 2008 11:09 pm


Today I handed Xine over to the French health service; tomorrow at 11:30 she's having a sinus job - you might recognise "rhinoplasty" and "middle meatotomy". Inevitably she's scared and apprehensive about having the inside of her head operated on, but the service is so caring and professional and reassuring. Tonight she's had interviews and tests with anaesthesiologists, cardiologists, oto-rhino-laryngologists, had her ECG taken, her blood pressure taken several times, and all by people who go about their jobs in a very professional but caring and sympathetic manner. I couldn't fault anyone and have implicit trust in those who will be caring for the love of my life.
Earlier on today we went to the Repas des Aînés of the local commune - a free Christmas lunch for the old folk. Financed by the community, it's a nice touch and gave Xine a couple of glasses of rouge as apprehension medicine. Sadly her driver was denied such luxury!


My Christine is back!

Tue, Dec 16, 2008 at 23:10

They let her out this morning; with a very silly dressing on her nose, which is all bunged up with blood and stuff.
After her operation yesterday she was a little dopey and connected to loads of plastic tubes feeding her with saline, sedative and painkiller.
She was very brave before the op - it can't be nice having your head reamed out and worrying that she can't communicate, and she's only little!
As it transpired, she communicated very well, and the hospital staff was very kind and very professional.
I think she faces a few miserable post-op days - we go for a post-op appointment on Friday.
In the meantime I'm getting very fed up with all the post-cruise ironing and the cooking as well. How our women manage, I really don't know!


Xine update

Fri Dec 19, 2008 12:44 pm


Xine was very low and frightened after the op - apart from feeling post-operatively weak she was suffering from giddiness and nausea and some vomiting and a feeling of "detachment".
After our long flight from Sao Paulo, three days later she had a tooth extracted and four days after that she had her operation. The
giddiness started after the tooth extraction; we told the anaesthetist about it but the operation went ahead. Since it was clearly an inner
ear problem, we hoped that the operation would improve things.
Today we saw the ORL man who removed the nostril packing - he listened patiently to our fears - expressed in somewhat clumsy French (is "canaux semi-circulaires" the right word?) - and opined that it will get better and gave her some anti-giddy pills to help.
Xine is already feeling better with the reassurance and the ability to breath at least partially through her nose.


Christmas Lunch

Thu, Dec 25, 2008 at 20:57

This was our menu at the Restaurant de la Terrace, Grezels:

1 Velouté au cresson
2 Huitres du banc d'Arguin
3 Foie gras de canard au Jurançon
4 Saumon fumé d'Ecosse
5 Chapon aux marrons, petit chou farçi
6 Salade
7 Plateau de fromage
8 Bûche patissière, crème à l'orange

Vin du pays compris, vin blanc avec le poisson

Our eight stomach-distending, delicious courses cost only €35 a head, but I'm not sure when we'll be able to eat next!

"J'ai bien mangé, j'ai bien bu, j'ai la peau du ventre bien tendue, merci petit Jésus..."

But it was nice to be taken out and not have to cook!


Boxing Day Menu

Fri, Dec 26, 2008 at 21:51

OK, after la grande bouffe of yesterday the pangs of hunger surfaced eventually.
This time there was just Xine and me in the kitchen, just feeding ourselves. You guys with kids, this is a pleasure to look forward to.
We work well together, Xine and I. (Is that I or me? - who cares?).
Xine did the starter - Parma ham, prunes, slices of avocado and tomato in a balsamic dressing.
I did venison (daim), with caramelised onions, pied de mouton mushrooms sautéed with garlic and parsley and choux de bruxelles.
Venison must be the original convenience meal - 15 mins in a very, very hot oven; just enough time to do the veggies.
The accompanying wine was the 1995 Fleurie that I bought in France from the vigneron, which has been bumped around in a caravan on the way to England, stored in a spare bedroom, then bumped around in a removal truck back to France.
Such wine doesn't easily last 13 years - I had a bum bottle last year.
This year I got a stand-by bottle out to get chambré in the kitchen, just in case.
It was superb - a nutmeg taste with hints of fruit.
I've got one bottle left. I wonder if I should drink it or see what happens next year?


St Sylvestre

Wed, Dec 31, 2008 at 22:41

Here in Tessel Bas we had a quiet New Year’s Eve; the traiteur who did last
year's catering for the village somehow slipped through the net with a change of village hall committee and there has been no village hall knees up. So we had to stay in and eat: tonight we had Oysters Kilpatrick and Salade Landaise and Xine had to wake me up to wish me a Happy New Year!

Here's raising a glass to you all, wherever you may be!




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