Friday, July 30, 2010

Assurancetourix

After less than a week in the H-G, I’m losing track of what day it is.  Even with today’s balmy weather - le ciel est très bleu! - I’ve only been outdoors briefly, and that was just to do the laundry.

Today’s big chore is chasing down my motor vehicle insurance history. In the last twelve years, I’ve moved from Australia – USA – Australia – UK – Australia and have some years of motoring insurance history in each. As I moved from one to the next, all I had to show was evidence of insurance in the last country and I pretty much picked up where I left off. Now that I’m in France, out of the Anglosphere, things are done a little differently, and I have to show documentary evidence of every year of claim-free driving history or my premiums are going to be crippling. Just showing copies of my insurance certificates will not suffice: I will need certified statements from every insurer about my claim and bonus/discount status.

Last week I called my Australian insurer to get records for 2003-2005 and 2008-2010. In today’s mail I got records for the latter period only. Even if I call them tonight, it will be another 10 days before I get the full set of records – sadly they haven’t figured out how to send the one sheet of information in email (it’s just not possible! they cried).


Finland, 2007
Today I had to track back through my records to locate my vehicle registration number for my UK period 2005-2007. Then I search the web for an appropriate number in England to call to pitch my enquiry. Of course I get a highly automated telephone directory: select (1) for motor, (2) for home, (3) for pet, and (4) for travel insurance…

… several million digits of pi later …

… my gut churns as I hear an automated voice again request that I select (1) for motor, …

After a few human operators, I get what I want except the information can only be sent to my last UK address, from which I am blissfully fortunate to be able to request forwarding.
Cascade Mountains, 1998Following this I’ve squinted at some decade-old photos of my car parked in Seattle snows to retrieve the US rego number, and called through to my insurer there. Ten minutes later they’ve located my policy number and undertaken to email a letter of experience within the week.
I must say that even with the various delivery limitations of each company, all the people I’ve spoken to have been unfailingly helpful and polite. Now let’s hope that the work pays off locally!


With the car and its insurance done, the two remaining items I want to get done quickly are  bank and mobile phone accounts. If you’ve followed the blog since my last European adventures, you’ll know of the problems I encountered trying to use credit cards that haven’t been issued by a bank in the European Union. The more general issue is having a credit card issued by one country and a billing address in another. I just noticed that the iTunes store is one of those troglodyte services that can’t accept this. That is small concern compared to being out of petrol at a station after hours and finding that it won’t accept a non-EU card. That’s happened to me in France and, even less conveniently, on a rather cold island off the coast of Norway.


With a local bank account I’ll also be able to get a decent mobile phone plan, or at least do top-ups of a PAYG number over the phone/internet. If any of you have tried to call me on my most recent UK number, then we’re both out of luck as I can’t top up that account up without walking into a shop in the UK.

Cacofonix I guess some of you are wondering about the title of this post. In the English-language Asterix books, the untalented bard of the village is known as Cacofonix, which always seemed to me much more appropriate than the original French name Assurancetourix. Until today, I never quite understood the pun or meaning of that name, but Wikipedia explains it as “Assurance tous risques" meaning "comprehensive insurance”, literally “insurance – all risks”. So, still not exactly appropriate to the bard, but at least I know a bit more about the name of this poor representative of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Introducing Munson’s gang

Smeggs Tosca

Munson is now part of a three-dog extended household, or canine commune if you will. Smeggs is Munson’s constant playmate, taking him on from dawn till dusk. She’ll either come at him from underneath (as below) so seeing an eight-legged two headed beast spinning around the yard is quite common, or she’ll pounce on him when prone.

Tosca is not having a good week. Munson’s arrival has demoted her from top dog – he outweighs Tosca and Smeggs combined – so she’s moping around the house, usually in the company of the stuffed fox toy. I hope everyone will quickly settle into their new groove.

Munson & Smeggs

On Wednesday everyone (with the exception of Smeggs and Tosca) drove north to have a look at the Gers farm we’ll be occupying sometime in the next four months. Driving through this highly agrarian part of France is much like being off the motorways in the UK: successions of villages interpolated with winding ridge-crossing roads means that we’re averaging 50km/h on most journeys. We don’t have to contend with English hedgerows, but every so often we pass through a narrow boulevard with the signposted warning Arbres! My heart always leaps a bit when I pass through these, such a contrast to the wide open spaces of Australian roads. So aside from the time travelling up and down these roads, the warm middle hours of the day were spent inspecting the farm buildings. Then we had Munson and les trois enfants scurrying around the house sniffing out future bedrooms, trails of past animals and look! a butt-wash!

Yesterday I visited Nick, one of our landlords, who is a bit of a car nut with a garage resembling Caractacus Potts’ from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  He volunteered to check out my brake pads after I realised that my dashboard’s display of Garniture du freins was not some welcoming message from the car manufacturer, and indicated that my brake/clutch linings were to be checked. He quickly determined that it was a false error, and also got to the bottom of my problem with not being able to get into reverse gear sometimes – there’s an invisible slider below the head of the gearstick that has to be pulled up to engage reverse gear. The car manual’s instructions (after translation) and diagrams were not very revealing at that point. So I was very happy after that discovery as it means I can park the car without cruising around looking for spots that allow me to drive forward to exit.

gorge stitch

I took Munson down to the gorge again. He wasn’t as inclined to swim so much as wade around, nibble grass on the banks and run around like a coltish loon.

Hairypotamus tame wolf leaping, pace Rodriguez' famed photo

Munson: hairypotamus or tame wolf?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I had to go to France and wander around heavily wooded areas

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There are a few steps in Munson’s transition from city slicker to farm beast.

1. Have a barn to eat your bones in

2. Forest walks. Unbelievably, today was Munson’s first walk in a heavily wooded area. I used to take for granted all the off-leash woodland that Bondi had available to him in Seattle, but there’s nothing like that in Sydney outside of the small thickets in Sydney and Centennial Parks. And here we don’t have to contend with snakes, paralysis ticks and other potential threats.

2010-07-27 Cardiac forest

This particular forest has a good 2km path with fifteen exercise stations dotted along it. Each station is named with something terrifying like “Traction Bras” and the exercise posture is related to a woodland creature such as the belette (weasel), blaireau (badger, shaving brush, or nerd(!)) or roitelet huppé (crested wren).

The cumulative effect is to see the hard-working menagerie shown at bottom left.

My real desire was to see un singe sur une branche ou une souris dessous une table.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Gorging

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A busy day but still time for fun. Brent took me to the mayor’s office to get my document d’attestation which states my official address in France. New regulations mean that my visa now takes the place of a carte de sejour residency card, but I still need to prove my address in the absence of utility bills or lease documents. My second official “document” was a loyalty shopping card for E. Leclerc garnered in Saint-Gaudens (pron. Sant Ga-dan) on a grocery and domicile stocking trip.
beside himself
I drove Munson down to the gorge after lunch. He loved it, absolutely revelling in the cool waters, swimming around, bouncing up and down the banks, crawling backwards and forwards under a low bridge, and generally entertaining all the folk visiting the gorge for wading, picnicking, hiking or abseiling.
 white hart how to make a henge
The roadsign above made me wonder if this was a suggestion as to how Stonehenge and other standing circles were made:
  1. Find a mountain with large granite blocks on it
  2. push them off top
  3. admire blocks standing below
  4. remove mountain
Munson, wet and wild
21 photo-stitch of the gorge
 happy sunflower happy gourmand
Jean had brought home some foie gras from the weekly f-g market, which Brent cooked up for us all (including two guests from New Zealand). I’m a convert. The extra pork schnitzel and slice of apricot tart didn’t hurt.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Haute-Garonne

Hello worldFile:Haute-Garonne-Position.svg

So now we’re in the Haute-Garonne, a French department around Toulouse, formerly part of the province of Languedoc. We’ll be here for somewhere between 1 and 4 months before returning to the department of Gers, not far from Condom. Gers is the region to the upper left of the Haute-Garonne on the map.

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There wasn’t much to do today but sit around or visit some of B&J’s friends in surrounding villages. Later in the day I got on a bicycle for the first time in 13 years for a half-hour ride to a local gorge of some beauty.

Munson’s still a bit confused by all this change, this being about the sixth place he’s overnighted at since landing in London. This is very much ameliorated by having a large backyard to run around in, and playmates on tap. Finding Tosca and Smeggs outside the door at 7am was a bit of a surprise for him: you mean I don’t have to wait for afternoon playtime? It’s also new for him to have other people around all the time, and more especially to have three young kids around. He has some adjusting to do in terms of his position in the trio of dogs, and in the overall mess of six humans and three dogs in this space. While I want him to feel confident in this new environment, he has to know that he ranks below all the humans, and he can’t be bossy with the little ones.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Two men went to Pau, two men and their dog, Munson

Château de Pau

Today was our leaving of Condom and Peter’s generous hosting to forge south to our temporary home in the Haut-Garonne. We made a small westerly diversion to Pau to drop Peter off for a weekend excursion, and to have a quick snoop around the city.

One of Pau’s most famous exports was Jean Bernadotte, born in 1763. He rose from the rank of private through Napoleon’s army to posts of Minister of War, and a Marshall of the Empire. In 1810 he was offered the Swedish throne, and by 1818 was king of both Sweden and Norway, styled Charles XIV John.

dejected Munson surveys the Pyrenees

Following a walk up the Boulevard des Pyrénées, linking the Château de Pau with the parc du Beaumont, we settled into lunch in a large tree-edged square. A waiter quickly brought out a portable drinking fountain for Munson, “first the dog, then the master”. An accordioniste arrived to hound the diners with his version of the Anniversary Waltz (of which I have unfond memories from my visit to Ljubljana). Munson wasn’t quite sure what to make of this racket, and after staring at the roving busker, began to “have words”with him and his infernal machine. I think most of the diners found this much more interesting than the musical offering, with smirks and snickers all around.

drinking fountain Tour de diorama

Near our table was a large outdoor diorama of the Tour de France which had passed through here only days earlier. The pile of rocks in the lower left is the Pyrénées, with the Arc de Triomph signifying Paris. I think that the statue looking over it is Jean Bernadotte.

Leaving Peter at the Place Verdun, we drove eastward via Tarbes, until our highway turnoff. The first village we entered appeared to have a traffic snarl. I attempted to drive around it but was plunged into a queue of wildly-honking vehicles. At that point I realised that we’d gate-crashed a wedding procession as it left the church. This procession escorted us up into the hills for a while before we finally parted ways and we could enjoy the scenery quietly and find our village.

I’d made the mistake of not getting full instructions from Brent and Jean as to where they were located in the village, as the street address wasn’t really of much use. After asking at both ends of the village for the location of les Américains et ses trois enfants, I finally found them as promised après les vaches (after the field of cows).

I finally unbundled all my luggage into our new lodgings, immediately adjacent to Américains and we were introduced to Munson’s new playmates: Tosca, a seven-year old retriever, and eight-month old Smeggs (as in “I’ll have smeggs for breakfast”). Smeggs, a local bergère or sheepmutt, followed Munson around for a while making noisy claims, but Munson ignored her, a strategy which has proved to make him irresistible to her.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lectoure market day

2010-07-23 Lectoure market

Lectoure is a hill-top town about 20km east of Condom. Peter accompanied us for some market-day shopping and pousse-rapières at the Hotel Bastard, a charming hotel sitting in a street immediately parallel to the main market thoroughfare.

The pousse-rapière  is a cocktail made from an orange flavoured Armagnac liqueur and sparkling white wine. Lectoure is known for its melons, although we passed over those in favour of some prunes from Agen (to the north of Condom). Munson was more enamoured of the hams lying provocatively on the low-slung market tables.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Condom : river walk

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A nice slow day. mostly inside  after a night of constant rain. I took Munson down to the park by the river, where he had another swim and run around. We crossed over after the weir (foreground below) and followed the tow-path back into town.

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Meals with a magician

Munson and the mummers

I was intending to drive on down to Brent & Jean’s place, which is a couple of hours’ south of here, but there was no particular rush this week, and Peter had started lining up some social events for me. And you know he does have that cooking thing going. Lunch was melon and ham, and left over guinea fowl in raspberry sauce which is just as good cold as fresh from the oven. Munson hung around the table with little malactites of drool until he got his plate of leftover ham, fowl and cheese rinds. He is so polite and intent sitting next to the table, I think he’s a kind of canine Pinocchio, waiting to be turned into a real boy so he can sit at the table and not dribble on his paws (even if they are in the third position).

It was market day in Condom, and we trailed Peter through various produce stalls, helping him pick out a turbot for tonight’s dinner. Now I must confess that I have wanted to try turbot since I was a child, for one reason and that is I first read of this fish in JBS Haldane’s book My Friend Mr Leakey*.  If you follow the link, you can read how Mr Leakey’s octopus servant Oliver cooks a turbot with the assistance of a small pet dragon Pompey.

'Of course,' said Mr Leakey, 'how stupid of me. I have so few guests here except professional colleagues that 1 forgot you were a layman. By the way,' he went on, as he poured sauce out of his hat over the fish, 'I don't know if you've noticed anything queer about this dinner. Of course some people are more observant than others.'

So that explains dinner.

 La boîte a jouer #1 La boîte a jouer #2

After our market excursion, we stopped at the Café des Sports for coffee, with Munson hanging precariously out from under the table while cars came too fast up the narrow alley beside us. A group of costumed singers planted themselves in front of the cafe to advertise a production based on the work of Molière the following night. The photo at top shows Munson’s reaction. I’m not sure whether this means we shouldn’t book a seat for him.

 Laressingle 

During the afternoon we drove out to the fortified medieval village – or bastide -  of Larressingle where the production would be staged. It was really busy with visitors so we didn’t stay long. Munson had more firsts today in visiting a castle and crossing a moat.  

13 photo stitch medieval tetris P1020107-115_stitch

Peter, Munson and creme fraiche

Did I mention the strawberries (in raspberry vinegar and sugar) with creme fraiche for dessert?

my winning set

Through the evening Peter and I played a couple of rounds of what he terms the word game which he taught me a few years ago in London. It requires a bag with two sets of Scrabble tiles from which players draw tiles and attempt to create sets of words, either directly from a pool of unused tiles or by stealing words from your opponent(s) and reusing the letters to make larger words. The first game was a lot of fun as one word was taken and retaken, growing from lend to nestled to enlisted to glistened. The second game was even more fun because I won.

This fine day was crowned with two bits of good news. The major one being that the farm that Brent and Jean bid for several months ago was finally approved by the local land agency ( move in date still TBD ). The minor news was I got through to my auto insurer in Australia for a document to present my (zero) claims history to the local insurer. Since I’ve moved car insurance from Australia – USA – Australia – UK – Australia in the last 12 years, pulling together a full history would be no mean feat. Both sets of news will make me sleep even more soundly than today’s fine meals might have guaranteed.

*I originally encountered Mr Leakey’s turbot in an excerpt called A Meal with a Magician in a children’s treasury, but I quickly located the full Puffin paperback edition illustrated by Quentin Blake. The book was originally written in 1937 (yes Peter M, I do have a copy of this first version now), the only children’s fiction produced by this great scientist. If you can lay your hands on a bio of Haldane it will amaze and inspire you.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Un petit tour de France et un grand scene

 Munson, Peter, Janice and Jill    

Peter took us on a short walking tour of the centre de ville, introducing us to some of his neighbours both French and expat while picking up some odds and ends from the grocer, butcher and charcouterie. The butcher has been asked for some bones for Munson, but this will take a while. I see from the attention he takes with each customer, filleting their exact requirement directly from a side of beast on his cutting table, that he is quite the artesan. I suspect that from his devotion to anatomical detail and the waiting times involved, that if Peter ever needs to have a hip replacement he could do worse than find himself on Mr. Rousseau’s operating slab.

As we leave with a carefully wrapped selection of bones, Peter greets Drew, an English lady of his acquaintance. She says of Munson “look at his paws! he’s standing in the third position!”

After hearing that we were moving to this region, she pronounces “France is so good for dogs, you can take them everywhere.”

- Yes, I spent two months in Paris with another dog. Bondi walked through the Galleries Lafayette and caused quite a stir.

- I’m sure it was the fur. Quite a few hats in one of those.

Before the day got too warm, Peter guided us on a little circuit of the neighbouring villages: Gondrin, Courrensan, Roques, Beaucaire, Ayguetinte, Castéra-Verduzan, and then Saint-Puy where he’d had a house for many years. Rolling hills hinted at the Pyrenees to the south, all were laced with sunflowers. In Saint-Puy, we met Janice and Jill outside Star Galerie where we were pressed with cool glasses of rosé or bowls of water.

Peter prepared another royal repast for lunch –  a cold ratatouille soup that I found unable to resist extra helpings of, accompanied by smoked fish, warm potatoes and a nutty cheese. Quite filled up, I took Munson for a run in the big park by the river. It was lovely to find such a large expanse of green open space without signs warning people not to enjoy themselves in. Munson found the green water quite irresistible and traced lazy circles near the lower end of a weir and then pulled himself out for a loping run on the grass shaking water behind him like a runaway lawn sprinkler.

A fleuve runs though itMunson chases himselfcast away

In the centre de ville I stopped at the Cafe des Sports for refreshments. The lady serving at the ice-cream seemed a bit dubious when I asked for “un peu de vanille dans une tasse pour mon chien”. She found a little plastic bowl for it, and brought that with my refreshments to a table in the square. As she placed the bowl at Munson’s feet, I said “non, non un cuille s’il vous plait”. Not blinking, she brought back a spoon for me, and I began to serve Munson small morsels of ice-cream, which he delicately licked off the spoon. Finally our server roared with laughter, and our table fell into shadow as people gathered to watch Munson slowly making his way through his treat. A young mother carried her 2-3 year old son over to show him “le chien traineau” and asked if he was safe to pat. I smiled and nodded, and the boy reached over to stroke Munson’s head, extending further and further away from his mother’s grasp till he was  half-inverted, grappling with Munson’s neck as if he were a mountaineer attempting a particularly hirsute ascent.

Back at the condominium, I roused Peter from his nap. “You’ve been gone a long time!”

- Yes Peter, we’ve been making a scene.

- Oh good.

avuncular with raspberries learning to beg for guinea fowl

Peter has (and I quote, typing as fast as I can, although I don’t think he realises I am taking dictation) “cooked you vichyssoise, followed by guinea fowl with raspberries and an absolutely perfect white peach, and chilled white wine, and you know you don’t have to lift a finger and you’ll be treated like a king, or at least a prince and all you have to do is show your tattoos around.”  (Harkening back to an exposition I gave to Janice this morning after she noticed the Ithaka fragment on my right forearm.)

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Munson was given a demoiselle de canard (duck’s carcass) for dinner but gave up about two thirds of the way into it. It’s likely that he’s been influenced by his new round of culinary instruction. After his kitchen help in Cornwall, he’s apprenticed himself to Peter’s kitchen, and sits patiently, following quite closely as Peter describes each step in his recipes.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Brilliant fields

Pet on board

Munson after a night on the car deck

As we drove onto the ferry at Plymouth, some of the hospitality staff stood on the entrance deck waving and nodding to their oncoming charges. One spotted Munson in the rear of the car – which isn’t hard, my friend Michele likened it to seeing a car grafted onto the back of the head of a malamute – and exclaimed “brilliant!”. I gathered a small bag of gear, and lowered a few windows for Munson, and then left him in a sea of cars to find my own overnight seat. That seat was in a “family area” distinguished by a wailing child, who would occasionally drift off to sleep and then its mother would ask if it was all right, at which point it would wake again and resume screaming. Any other hope of my sleeping was interrupted by announcements of midnight cognac tastings, and late boarding passengers who thought that shouting their inability to read the seat numbers would somehow encourage the bowed heads around them to get up and assist. I abandoned that area and found a piece of floor between two rows of seats and managed a night of piecemeal sleep.

I rose finally at about 6am to see the sun low over a pink and flat English Channel. Back at the car, Munson seemed cheery after what had undoubtedly been a much better sleep than I had managed. We drove off the ferry at Roscoff around 7.20am and almost immediately found ourselves behind a slow-moving tractor that slowed the procession of vehicles for about twenty minutes. Finally released from this purgatory, we shot off into another form of purgatory: eleven hours of poorly air-conditioned freeway driving past Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux and then Agen where we switched to country lanes for Condom. We stopped every 2-3 hours along the highways, firstly at Bedée outside of Rennes to get some euros from an ATM in case my Visa credit card wasn’t accepted at a toll-way. The rest of the stops were at highway services, Munson snaring the hearts of one holidaying English family from Chester en route to La Rochelle.

Cathedral by day Cathedral by night

Condom Cathedral, a few steps away from the apartment, afternoon and evening views

By the time I had reached Agen, my knees had moved from purgatory to hell, but the sight of sunflowers, fields of oversaturated yellows against the sky cheered me on for the final half hour into Condom.  Peter gave us a fine welcome to his apartment ( henceforth referred to as “the condominium” ) and had dinner waiting for us, and graciously allowed us an early night’s sleep.

Flickr slideshow