22 May 2009

It's that time of year again

Ascension Day here in France and businesses are shut for the day, along with most supermarkets and schools. Because it's a Thursday, many businesses and most of the schools have taken the eminently sensible decision to faire le pont, which for our youngest two means that it's a five day break as they don't have school on Wednesdays anyway. Chances are the roads, the big ones at least, are full (relatively speaking, for France) of travellers on short breaks. I wouldn't know; I worked the Wednesday and we're not going away, too many things to do on the home front, and with UPL hors de combat for a while, a lot falls to me.

One of those things was cutting the grass, and this year I'm doing it the lazy way. This does not mean we've got ourselves a wallaby, however. Cutting the grass is a tedious chore that is not improved by the mower having lost its squeeze-the-bar-and-go-forward ability, so now it's just push-and-swear, and that, along with the thought of emptying the grass collector every two minutes (there's a lot of grass and it's long) made me choose to just cut-and-leave. The result looks a little like the garden's got some weird disease, but it's good for the grass to have its cuttings left in situ, apparently. I also chose not to clear up whereever the dogs had done those things they need to do, though I did try to remove sticks, stones and various toys as and before I got to them. Mind you, there were still plenty of one-legged Action Men and their 3 wheel drives out there to save from further carnage and destruction.

Time was saved; one and a half hours this time, compared with the three it has taken in previous years. Still, the way the damn stuff grows in spring and summer, it will need doing again soon, but we'll give it a chance to grow a bit before then. Next on the agenda is the pool and the pesky leak in the bottom...

22 September 2008

Drive to distraction

It was 13 September (and the date should have given me a clue) that I tried to reboot the computer after a split-second power cut, which always manages to shut mine down if no one else's. There was a humming sound of the starting up process, then a strange grinding noise from inside the tower and a message on the screen, the gist of which was: “Oops, sorry, can't get myself to work, there seems to be some malfunction, try again”. Well, you try again, don't you? And again and again and again, until you realise that there is something seriously wrong.

Phoned our normal computer repair guy, who had most unfairly taken himself back to the UK for a short contract. He said confusing things about getting a new hard drive and making the original a slave drive, as it was probably system folders that were at fault As that procedure involved fundamental skills that I didn't think I had (I said confusing before because, although I know how to build websites, I know very little about what goes on under the bonnet of a computer. Or a car, for that matter.), I took the machine to the (French) computer shop and left it with them, explaining the symptoms and asking them to do what had been suggested.

Yesterday I went to pick it up. They hadn't phoned to say it was ready, possibly because they weren't sure how to tell me the problem, but I was in town and went in to check. The good news is that it's now a lot faster than it was. The bad news is that it's a lot faster than it was because there's nothing on it. Because, lo and behold, they told me the original hard drive was dead. Defunct and inaccessible. Along with all the contents: the email addresses, the passwords for various sites, the raw code for all the websites I've done, the photos for same, the family photos, the documents and letters and stories and poetry I'd written over the past four or five years. Gone. Had I backed things up? No. Backing up is only something you do with a trailer when you go to the tip, isn't it?

So I came away with a new hard drive in an old tower and a seemingly useless piece of circuitry and metal, being the old drive, and since yesterday evening I have been starting all over again as if I'd just got a computer for the first time, bit by bit by bit filling up the 250GB of empty space I've got with certain types of software I thought I had on the old drive. Some of the website stuff I've managed to download again using an FTP program (ie the software one uses to send what's on one's computer into the www – the process can work in reverse as well, which is useful), the email addresses will come back slowly – I probably had too many of them in the first place.

All is possibly not lost, however (in both senses of the word); I spoke to our regular chap and as a result of his talking me through it I now know what the insides of a computer look like. I've peered under the bonnet and got my hands dirty, figuratively speaking, wiring in the old drive as a slave, or secondary, drive (and boy, is there not a lot of space to manoeuvre inside a tower). The fact that a check on that drive's properties shows me that there is nothing on there is not daunting, no, not at all. I've searched Google for the relevant error message I got when I tried to open it and even as I type the new drive is in the process of trying to reconfigure the old. Whether that will work is another thing, but it's got to be worth trying.

Lesson learnt, though: Back up, back up, back up. How you do it is a matter for you, but for the moment I've gone for an online service: http://www.sosonlinebackup.com/ - at least that will keep me less than overstressed as it's automated and I don't have to remember.

ISP'd off

There is a saying in French: “On ne change pas une équipe qui gagne.” Literally, it means you don't change a winning team, figuratively that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, or try to make it better. I heard this saying for the first time yesterday, at the hairdresser's, where an old woman decided to have again the highlights she'd had before, following which came the saying; I sussed out what it meant and thought it a useful dicton to know.

My recent encounter of the saying could explain why I didn't have it in mind when a sultry-sounding woman phoned in early August representing an ISP latterly on the scene in France. Following her seductive blandishments (it's the French accent – alright, she was French and speaking French, but you know what I mean) and the guarantee of saving at least 24€ per month, I allowed myself to be persuaded to change providers, both phone AND Internet, also being reassured that we would have seven days grace to change our minds. (I can hear you all already, saying “Fool, don't do it!”)

Following the phone call, and me beaming with the satisfaction of a job well done, it took a feminine and wiser mind (yes, UPL) to remind me that all our email addresses were currently with the previous company, which had not let us down, we would have to therefore change and broadcast new addresses in due course if we switched and that there were many about who said that this new company were perhaps not as experienced; she had the good grace not to slap me hard around the head, but there was a certain head-slapping look in her eyes, I have to admit.

I blustered, ummed, aahed and prevaricated, coming up with what seemed at the time reasonable counter-arguments, but on the day the new box arrived from upstart company, coincidentally the 7th day after I'd signed up over the phone, common sense prevailed and convinced me that UPL was right and I sent it straight back again with a recorded delivery letter saying thanks but no thanks, we'll stick with who we were with.

All well and good, in theory, but we got stuck in the interregnum; the day after I sent that letter we lost the phone, and the internet connection, as new company had hotfooted it to the exchange to gleefully put their grubby mitts all over our communication facilities to the outside world. So there we were, hotels for our long trip to Greece unbooked, and no means to find them; money to be transferred online from bank to bank to help fund our long trip to Greece, and no means to do it; a route map for our long trip to Greece to be found, and no means to find it – I was seriously in the merde. It was of some little comfort that, by dint of excessive use of mobile phone and pleading with original company to return to the fold, the phone came back two days before we left, but the internet? I got a text the day before we were coming back from holiday to say that we had it again.

And that was the end of THAT problem. Alright, we had to pay 50€ for the privilege of rejoining the biggie, but they're not the biggie for nought. As they saying goes, with a winning team, it's not worth changing.

7 August 2008

Chairman of the bored

There was an email in my inbox this morning: "7 things your site needs to rank #1". Oh,yes, but I bet it doesn't list the first thing I need: ambition. I've just read the email, and, no, it doesn't. It presumes, as it would, that I've already got that in spades. And dedication, and motivation, and all the other positive 'tion' words that can be found in any good Thesaurus. Bah, humbug.

So I thought I'd start writing a round robin type email to friends and family saying what we're up to and things that are happening. Began by saying that UPL has got her ceramics business up and running, she paints almost daily, and she has a couple of blogs she keeps up with and half a dozen friends with whom she emails back and forth on a regular basis, busy, busy, busy. As for me.....well, I go out to work occasionally, though not as often as I used to or would like to, I do a bit of web site design/building from time to time, nothing too time consuming except at the time I'm doing it, and apart from that? Not a lot. No, really, very little at all. Occasionally I get asked "Can you possibly go and do ....?", so that keeps me active for a while, or "We need to ....", often meaning that I need to, as I'm the main adult French speaker in the house, so fair enough. Apart from that, though, I spend my time either feeling guilty that I'm not doing anything constructive towards our/my future, towards keeping the house maintained/improved or towards keeping the children amused/occupied (and this is the holidays, after all, so it's harder with all three at home), or feeling bored.

And then I wondered this morning, lying in bed late and not getting up to embrace the sunshine (admittedly it was regularly being hidden by drifting clouds), that perhaps I am boring. Perhaps it's only boring people who are bored. Exciting people are exciting because they get on and do things, because they have things to DO, and are consequently not bored.

So, what to do, to change the way I am to the way I want to be? What are the 7 things my life needs to rank #1? That can be my latest project, to think about my life and what it is and decide where to go and what to do. Mind you, having clicked on the link in the email I had in my inbox this morning, I discovered that I had to pay $2.95 for a free 21-day insight into the right techniques to improve my site's ratings (followed by $27 per month if I forget to write in and say thanks but no thanks), so no doubt I will have to pay something, somehow, somewhere, for improving life's ranking, but, as they say, you have to spend to make.

Come back next week and see how I'm getting on. Or next month, perhaps - I may be so busy doing things that I don't have the time any more.

13 January 2008

Wise words from beyond the grave

Below is a letter my father wrote almost 23 years ago to my cousin, at the time 13 years old. My cousin sent it to me the other day, with the following comments: "I reckon the content in the circumstances speaks volumes for the bloke that was Uncle Peter.
For what it is worth, and especially now that I am a father and because I believe I have a bit of a better understanding of family dynamics when partners/in-laws etc get involved, it is really amazing and special that your old man put his head out like this to offer me the hand he did."

I have edited some of the content to remove names and strong language.

6 March 1985

What have I done, I hear you ask, to deserve a letter from Peter.

Well, it appears to me that at the moment you are in a bit of a problem over there, which problem you didn’t make, don’t deserve, but unfortunately are stuck with. So I thought I’d write and offer you a bit of help and support.

The problem I talk about concerns the break-up between [your mum and dad] and how this affects you. There is also the fact of [your uncle] being around and stirring [up trouble], and [your brother] being away in Japan which means that you are not able to discuss things with him.

As far as I can see, [your mum and dad] cannot be put back together again. This is sad but there is not much that you, or me, can do about it. These things happen. First point: it is nothing to do with you, and is in no way your fault, so don’t get hung up on the idea that “if only I’d done this, or that, or the other………..then it may not have happened.” There is nothing you could have done to stop it.

The next thing that usually happens is that you think to yourself, well, why did it happen? – nothing just happens, there must be a reason somewhere. Well, this is partly true, but the way it goes is like this:

Mum left Dad because he did this.

Ah yes, but Dad only did this because Mum did that.

Ah yes, but Mum only did that because Dad did that before that.

Ah yes, but Dad only did that before that because Mum did that before that before that, before that….

And so on, and so on, and so on, and so on, ……I mean it goes for ever. And the difficulty is to try and decide just who made the first mistake. People only remember what they want to, how they want to. Which is why I say that you cannot fairly put the blame on anyone and just have to accept that ‘These things happen.’

You follow me so far? Right.

However, adults are just as bad as kids in some ways – worse, because they should know better. They are not prepared to accept that things ‘just happen’ and try and put the blame on the other side. Now, I don’t know, for sure, that [your mum and dad] are doing this, but [your mum] tells me some of the [nasty] things she thinks [your dad] has done, and I am sure that if I spoke with [your dad] he would tell me of some of the [nasty] things he thinks [your mum] has done. Now, really, the things may not be [nasty] at all, but each thinks that they are.

Now, because you are there, they probably both talk to you this way. Which leaves you with the problem of trying to decide who is right. The answer is that they are both partly right, and partly wrong.

When you are with [your mum] you probably take sides with her, and when you are with [your dad] you probably take sides with him, and I am sure that sometimes you end up thinking to yourself just whose side am I on??? This can be somewhat difficult and the answer is not to take either side.

Sure, you can let them talk, it makes them feel better, but you don’t have to agree – “Yes, mum.” “Yes, dad.” Is the way to go. I know this is expecting a lot, you being the sort of person who likes to be one thing or the other, but if you do be one thing or the other, and keep changing, it will muck you up inside your head. I can’t prove this, just believe me.

And always remember that neither [your mum] or [your dad] are bad, it’s just that they are having a problem which makes them act a bit strange at times.

The word is – be cool. Don’t let other people make you take sides in a quarrel which you didn’t make.

That is about all I have to say in general about how I suggest you handle things. There are some other things.

[Your mum] tells me that every time she and [your dad] try and discuss things concerning you, or things that you have told [your mum], he blasts you for letting her know. I think he is being very unreasonable – a big [idiot] if you like. You have to talk to someone. You can tell him I said so if you like BUT I warn you that if you do he will probably go right off and take it out on you, because he can’t take it out on me because I’m not there.

It’s a pity [your brother’s] away in Japan at the moment because you and he would have been able to talk things over. However, he is, and there’s not much you can do about that either. So the only thing to do is to keep on talking to [your mum], and put up with whatever grief [your dad] throws in your general direction. You could try talking to [your dad] but I don’t think he’s got much time for anybody else’s problems at the moment, being too tied up in his own.

There is the matter of you, [your uncle] and the Nissan. I think you did exactly right (pity about running up the bank) – I don’t know what [on earth] he was up to. All I can say is that he is also pretty [messed] up at the moment, with him and [his wife], but that is still no excuse. As for [your dad] telling you to grow up and not take things so seriously, he’s completely wrong and [very] stupid. I know I’d’ve taken it seriously, if it’d happened to me – I’d probably have hit him over the head with a bit of four by two.

I wish I was closer by to give you a hand, but I’m not, so this letter will have to do.

As they say, hang in there, bad times never last forever.

27 November 2007

The school ski trip

Just at the end of the coming Christmas holidays, Middle is going with 28 other children in his class (a joint class the equivalent of UK years 4 and 5) on a one week skiing trip to La Toussuire. He is at the equivalent of a state primary school, and it is who are going. Equipment, lessons, accommodation and transport are all included in the price; we, the parents, just have to provide clothes and a sandwich for the journey there, 16 hours by coach (it's not the only food they're eating on the journey, though).

The total cost of the trip, for the whole of the 2 classes, is 13 900€ (about £10 000), which works out at 480€ per child (just under £345). Where do families of kids in state schools find that sort of money, to send their kids of 10 and 11 on a school trip, I hear you ask? Well, it's a fair question, but here, in this particular case, and it may be similar in lots of other schools across France, we don't have to find it. Not all of it, that is. We have to make some contribution, but after the local mairie have contributed 85€ (£61-ish) per child, and the equivalent of the PTA have put in their share of 235€ (£168-ish), the rest, which falls to us, is, as you'll have worked out already, only 160€ (less than £115) - not a bad price to pay for a week's skiing trip for your child. And we don't have to pay it all in one go. The final payment of 40€ is not due until February, after they've been back almost a month.

As impressive as this is of a supportive and supporting community spirit, at another time in the year years 2 & 3 go for a week's trip studying the countryside and year 1 goes to the coast for a week; although these other trips, too, require a parental contribution, they are also largely financed by the PTA and the mairie.

Over here, at least in our village (and perhaps the word 'village' underlies the main reason behind the support; we are not a town), the PTA organises 3 or 4 fund-raising evenings a year ( a soirée crêpes and a soirée cous-cous/karaoke, for example), charging entrance fees, as well as the annual play (3 performances), again for which an entrance fee is charged. These are all supported by parents and other villagers, which I guess is how the money mounts up. And we, parents and children, benefit.

It's yet another positive side to re-locating to France; it balances out the difficulty of finding well-paid and enjoyable work when you know that your children are going to at least have the chances to do those things that they might not have done had we stayed put, and for a not overly onerous amount of money.

4 November 2007

The Great Grey-Green, Greasy grease trap

"It’s been overflowing since before you went away," she said, accusingly, "and I can’t lift the top off."

So, as a change from website building, I spent much of the daylight hours today grease trap emptying, and what a pleasant task that was, I can tell you.

Step 1. Put on old clothes, or a pair of overalls, preferably both – it splatters – and a nice clean pair of wellies.
Step 2. Retrieve garden spade from where middle and youngest have been building treehouse city (don’t ask). Return there to retrieve pickaxe and stone rake as well.
Step 3. Having located grease trap lid several months ago before fosse inspection and cleared it of grass, mud and other encumbrances, nature has taken its course and grass again needs clearing from around circumference. This is where spade is initially useful, to isolate the 2 foot diameter concrete lid from surrounding vegetation, not forgetting the fact that the trap has been leaking for about two months, so lovely grey water comes into play as well. That done, it’s time for the fun part.
Step 4. Locate lip of lid, realising after minutes of frustration that lid is only 2 inches thick, not 6, so I’d been groping around too deep. Try to lift lid barehanded. Stop trying to lift lid after several efforts, use pickaxe to lever it up. Almost retch at smell and retire to safe distance to drink coffee brought out some time before.
On the left is not the sight that met my eyes, this is the state of it ten minutes later, after I'd removed several greasebergs (think icebergs, but smellier, and much more crumbly) which were in the process of oozing over the top. Having first found and emptied wheelbarrow of last year's blow up pool and other detritus.

The smell of a grease trap has to be experienced to be known, but think of the seriously gummed-up filter of a washing machine or dishwasher, last emptied who knows when, and the detergenty stink of the contents. Got it? Now multiply that smell by, oh, lots and lots, and throw in some rotten fruit smell. That's close to it, but not quite close enough, and too close is not where you want to be to a grease trap that hasn't been emptied for five or six years. Still, that's where I'd got myself.

Step 5. Use your spade, and/or a garden fork, to lift out large lumps of coagulated grease and fat, splatting them into wheelbarrow carefully, to avoid splashback. This compound is known in America as FOG - fat, oil & grease. I know this because after half an hour of seemingly fruitless hoiking of said lumps (the level hadn't decreased by much) I wondered just how deep to clean and just how to do it, so I went and asked Mr Google - the answer? Get a professional company in to do it. Well, at the prices professional companies charge, even if it is in US$, we weren't going to get in anyone. So, back to the trap, stick the spade in, touch the bottom at its handle depth, and decide to plug on and bucket it out, first digging a large hole in which to put it in and cover it up afterwards.

Several large holes and hours later, I'd done enough, to my mind, to ensure that it wouldn't have to be done again for, well, let's just say until the next time. And here is the after shot.
It needed lots of spraying with water, and a paint scraper for the seriously embedded bits, but I'm pretty satisfied.

The smell still lingers, despite copious washing of hands and scrubbing of nails, but I'm sure that will go in time. Just don't eat any of my biscuits that have a lot number of 309 and a use by date of 08 June 2008, cos that's what we're making tomorrow. You have been warned.

19 May 2007

Grassed off

I cut the grass today, having only cut it two weeks ago. The trouble with grass in Spring and Summer is that once you cut it, it grows again, in a furious game of catch up - 'I must be the length I was before, I must be the length I was before,' is its repeated mantra, and, more often than not, it succeeds, and often exceeds.

Cutting the grass chez nous is a truer phrase then 'mowing the lawn'; the latter implies there is a lawn to start with, a nice, measured and refined variety of grass that knows when to slow down, that enough is enough, that it is time to await the trim reaper before allowing itself an extra growth spurt. Here, in the damp conditions that exist beneath our soil, it grows and grows like nobody's business. Indeed, if we had a business like our grass, we'd be very successful.

Nor for us the neatly defined patch, to be mowed within inches of its life into serried stripes, though I sometimes envy those with such a geometrically configured space of herbage. Ours is a raggle-taggle garden, randomly treed, with humps and bumps and holes, curves and swerves and branches of trees in the way, 'neath which one has to duck to achieve the maximum reach of the arm holding the mower. In such a garden, it's always a delight to hear the screams of delight of the discovery of the hidden grove, soon followed by the screams of pain as the hidden nettle patch is discovered immediately thereafter. Good job we know where the hidden growths of dock are to be found, dock leaves being a much quicker, efficacious and less pungent solution to nettle stings than vinegar, despite the green stains left in their wake.

I don't like cutting the grass. More to the point, I don't like the preparation. We have two large dogs (on the whole, lovely, two Labrador brothers, two years old), penned in by a ground level electric wire and battery-powered collars, so they cannot escape the grounds in order to chase cars, tractors and other agricultural machinery that passes by (you know what's coming, don't you?). Of course, they do what they have to do within the confines of the wire, which means in the mowable area, so I have to go round with a bin bag and a rubber glove before I mow, collecting the various deposits. I have, however, learnt a useless bit of information; that dogs can't digest sweetcorn any more than we can. Nor cotton, having discovered that Youngest was not to blame for the disappearance of my freshly lauindered hankie for a blindfold for the kittens (don't ask).

In the play I have just done there is a line: le nez dans une crotte de chien, elle refuserait de reconnaître l'odeur* I, cutting the grass, frequently had no option but to recognise it. As I walked along pushing, or sometimes being dragged behind, the standard petrol mower (no swish ride-on here with our mangled patch) I inevitably came across some of the aforementioned deposits that I had missed in the preparation phase, usually just as the mower passed over them and as the grass-catcher needed emptying. And it doesn’t matter what age they are, the pong is still the same once the dried crust is broken (sorry for this scatological interlude).

Abandoned toys are also a hazard in the long grass, as they spin off into the borders. Many are the one-legged Action Men about the garden now, staggering from perilous mission to perilous mission: “Quick, men, hop this way, it’s that nightmare helicopter again!” Unarmed, unlegged and dangerous, or at least very annoyed. Their jeeps and Land Rovers, too, painted with camouflage paint; you only know you've hit one when you hear the blades complain as they hit it and you see it spinning off to the side, often one wheel the less. And while sticks and stones may not often break my bones, mild injury to uncovered parts of the anatomy is always a risk as they are encountered and shot out at great speed. Always cut the grass in wellies is my motto.

It has to be done, though. Eldest is coming back from her Polish trip tonight and we would hate her to think that we had done nothing in the way of garden maintenance since she left, albeit less than a week ago. It is also true that the longer it is left, the longer it takes to wrestle back into some sort of semblance of tidiness. And, despite not liking the cutting of it, there is great satisfaction in seeing the end result, the taming of the wilderness.

I have discovered that the French expression for a well-kept lawn is un gazon anglais, gazon being French for lawn. Here, the grass is far from being anglais, so we see it as another effort at integration into French life. And, having said that, I’ll cut it there.