Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tomato moon

Tomato moonTomatoes continue to pour forth from every plant on my terrace, the volunteer growths from floor cracks and my potted lemon tree being nearly as productive as those I actually planted in the big old armagnac barrel by my gate. They’re all small cherry tomato varieties, which I can either eat straight off the vine for a sun-warmed burst of flavour, or halved and peppered with a slice of brie.

oven-grilled fetta with olives and cherry tomatoes Making Gustav's day
There are too many to snack on at this rate, so we each found a recipe to take advantage of the continuing harvest. From Smitten Kitchen, the very easy to assemble baked feta with olives and cherry tomatoes was my contribution to a more sophisticated version of cheese o’clock.

Making Munson's dayAfter fifteen minutes in the oven, the kitchen is completely drenched in the smell of cheese and olives, the dish ready for dipping into with bread or forks.

Did I mention that my dog loves me very much when he has this sort of kitchen operation making even his nose drool.

Gustav followed up with his mother’s recipe for taco pie ( a la Gascogne ). This one’s even better cold the next day.

taco pie
Mike dizzy with taco pie

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Last of the summer floc

Are we there yet
As you can see, I’m starting to feel surplus to requirements… Munson only needs one person to haul around, whether he’s (theoretically) dragging a sled, or behind the wheel.

A number of local villages have been staging night markets through the summer: outdoor eating, some live music and a few dozens stalls of handmade pastries, arts’n’crafts plus the inevitable selection of cheap sunglasses and electronic toys. Vic-Fezensac has been running them every two weeks, but I’ve waited till Gustav returned to visit this, the last for the season.

Village square
The evening crowd was quite buzzy, lots of family groups navigating the stalls of armagnac and floc vendors, picking out bon-bons for the children and working out which menu du jour suited their collective tastes. There wasn’t much seating space so we bought a few panniers of mussels (cooked in butter, garlic and parsley) and frites and sat with Munson on the steps near the rotunda in the centre of the square.

what happens at band camp, stays at band camp artisanal patisserie

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hello kitty

Kitty gallery  Hello kitty!
Munson has been brought before a tribunal of farm cats because he neglected them in favour of the interloping Hello Kitty. Likely verdict: he will be ordered to let them steal his food from under his nose.

Tintin au lac du demi-requin

Munson post swim  Gustav and Munson

In the spirit of yesterday’s discussion of Tintinesque outings with animal companions – I know, I know, the story of my life – I took Gustav and Munson down to the lake at Lupiac for a late afternoon swim. While the summer temperatures in Sweden this year haven’t been remarkable, Gustav has only had the chillier waters of the Baltic to swim in. As you can see he followed my advice to have a good haircut before entering the Gascon heat and humidity – he’ll have plenty of time to resume beardiness-as-usual before winter sets in.

Gustav and Munson reacquaintedpaddle boat tourists
The lake was as busy as I’ve ever seen it, not just sun-worshippers and swimmers, but folk out in paddle-boats and kayaks. Munson wasn’t too sure what to make of the paddle-boat – they seemed very interesting at a distance, but he wasn’t going to engage with their passengers while he swam. One of them came in closer to shore to make his acquaintance at wading depth.

Lupiac lakeSome people were energetic enough to be doing laps of the lake, which is about 720m long. Munson was very alert to these swimmers as they went past – you can see him below right tracking one of them as they disappear into the lake’s woods-enshrouded western end. When I was checking the lake’s size on a map I noticed for the first time that its outline is quite like that of a decapitated shark.

Doctor Woooo  supervising the lap swimmers

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Feeling the heat in Toulouse


I had a long day in Toulouse today ahead of collecting Gustav from the airport after his late flight from Sweden. The city is undergoing a massive regeneration of its central streetscape so it’s not an ideal time to visit. Trying to follow road diversion signs that simply didn’t do what they said, either sent me in congested loops or up dead-end streets that required me (and several cars behind) to back up 300m without hitting pedestrian zombies who were only looking at their portable devices.

 IKEA cafeteria  This isn't Facebook

I went out to IKEA first to run through a short shopping list and found myself in the local store’s redesigned cafeteria, carefully designed to maximise clinical inefficiency. We had servers asking up the line for our orders, despite neither food choice nor a menu being in sight. While IKEA’s designers are smart enough to design their products around what will best fit onto a shipping pallet, they’re completely lost at getting cafeteria patrons from entrance to table with minimum hassle. Perhaps they’re the same people who put up the signs showing the temporary traffic route for the three streets between the inner city ring road and the main Capitole car park.

Still it was a day when no mistake could be made that you were in France: the cafeteria had a wine selection, and the decorations on the carousels had more exposed nipples than Facebook would allow on its entire site.
Sandy and Hoppy  399x549 - Sandy & Hoppy The Manor Lake
Munson stayed at home today as it was so hot, the ambient temperature in the city even worse, being magnified by brick and concrete. Within moments of returning to my car through the day, I had to wrap my head in a towel to staunch the perspiration.

I filled in some time before a session of The Dark Knight Rises browsing a few well air-conditioned comic book stores. It was in one of these that I found the first volume of twelve collecting the adventures of Sandy and Hoppy, a young boy and his pet kangaroo. The series ran from 1959 to 1974, and even allowed our young hero to not only hop all over Australia but to visit New Zealand in Au Pays du Kiwi. My superficial reading of these stories is that they’re pitched somewhere between Enid Blyton and Tintin, their wide-ranging presentation of Australian landscapes somewhat confused by how its lacustrine architecture may appear.

It was somewhat cooler when I finally climbed out of the cinema. I had hoped to fit in a couple of movies but the timing of the VO sessions didn’t allow that before I had to be at the airport. The remaining hours allowed a last fling at the supermarket and then a long wait reading in a booth at McDo’s near the airport.

At last Gustav surfaced, a few minutes before midnight, a very welcome sight after leaving him to his summer job back in June. The trip home was much longer than we liked – it turned out that there was roadwork on the city périphérique that forced us all the way back into the city again and then back out. Later on the journey we found the main road west was closed to allow a convoi exceptionnel of Airbus parts to travel through the night, so we had a diversion north through various back roads before we got home about 2am. Munson was waiting by the gate, his long day alone mitigated by Gustav’s return to le pays du malamute.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hot dogs and ripe tomatoes

A Saharan wind is blowing across our part of the globe, with heatwave alerts for 40C temperatures in the south-west of France. As the heat goes up, the window shutters are closed or left with a small crack for light. Munson and I retreat to the coolest interior space of the house or I head for the pond to do some dredging and bank-rebuilding for a few hours.
Lavender, garlic and tomatoesAside from a burst of rain one evening this week, it’s already been a very warm August where I’ve watched my tomatoes ripen from just a tinge of orange to a full-bodied red in the course of a day.  I missed out on the harvest last year as the drought blasted away most of my small vegetable patch while in the UK for my Offa’s Dyke walking holiday. This week I’m taking more precautions with watering, and draping exposed plants with towels during the least forgiving days.

Anticipating an afternoon furnace, I took Munson to the lake for a morning swim. A few days ago I’d received a replacement for my drowned waterproof camera, but put it aside so we could just laze around in the water. My toes located some large sticks on the lake floor which I threw out further for Munson to pursue. Since they sank rather quickly I threw out more in succession so that he’d trace out a long arc back to shore. Bondi & Munson, September 2008Munson is just as much of a water-lover as Bondi ever was, but we interact very differently once we’re in the water. Gigantic Bondi liked to stay close to me and would paddle over to wherever I was swimming to have me hold him, even if I had to tread water to do so.

Munson on the other hand is more independent but will come looking for me if I swim underwater for more than ten seconds. He also likes to play in the water at wading depth as we would on land: if I do a standing dive from within the water, he treats that as a play invitation and dances side to side, giving big “woo-woos”. With the lake nestled between the well grazed slopes of several hills, his voice travels quickly across the water and echoes back to us.

Splashing also invites a vocal response from Munson (his “you’re shitting me” woo) and an attempt to get involved whereas Bondi would have avoided that and headed off for calmer waters.

Both dogs will pay attention to activity under the water and fully submerge their head to grab at a passing fish or to extract something from the sand or clay. At Lupiac, there are quite a few little fish and the occasional turtle that Munson will track when he’s in water not clouded with clay.

Quite a few people bring their dogs to the lake but as far as I can tell, I’m the only person who swims with one. I’m sure that some of the dogs who are “afraid of water” would quickly overcome this if their bipeds would show them the way. Those bipeds are also missing out on the beatific expression on the dog’s face all the way home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Munson: general dogsbody

IMG_1326As I was loading the back of my car with a bag of produce from the farmers market, a young boy sitting by the road asked me “Monsieur, votre chien est celui qui conduit?” – Is your dog the one who drives?

Stepping around the front, I discovered that Munson had assumed the position of chauffeur. He’s not bad with the more challenging pots and pans either.

I'm walking dogs in the air

I'm walking dogs in the air

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the short animated film The Snowman, adapted from Raymond Briggs’ book. Briggs also wrote Fungus the Bogeyman which I mentioned in a recent post. The film was especially marked by Howard Blake’s music, especially the gorgeous Walking in the Air.

Some of the original team are now bringing a sequel to the box at Xmas time: The Snowman and the Snowdog. I don’t know who is providing the music this time, it hasn’t an IMDB listing to consult.

While this is a film about a dog made of snow rather than one who runs around it, I hope it will illustrate to Munson how easily I could make a mini-Munson out of the drifts of shed hair I’ve accumulated. Hmmm, maybe we could rename the blog The Hairman and the Hairdog  -  although on second thoughts it might attract the wrong audience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

You’ll have had your T

P1100615My time as sleeper agent is over. I’ve just been activated by a single scrabble tile arriving in the mail today.

OK that’s a fib, but the thought of having a single letter mailed to me immediately evoked memories of my childhood Friday-night TV favourite The New Avengers. While they don’t use Scrabble tiles in this episode, it’s exactly the sort of story device that they used throughout their rather camp tales of international intrigue. Reminding myself of them by watching a 1977 episode featuring “A small town in France” , I can vouch for the streetscapes being unaltered twenty-five years later albeit with fewer Russian soldiers running around the hillsides and no Joanna Lumley running around in brown dungarees.

In my case the single tile, letter T, arrived to correct an eBay purchase of two complete sets of matching English scrabble tiles. I counted out the tiles from the order to ensure they matched the correct letter distribution, which differs from language to language. I informed the vendor who sent on the missing piece, although judging from the envelope it had a rather torrid journey from the UK to France.

The resulting 204 tiles have been placed in a bag to play a boardless Scrabble variant referred to by my friend Peter as simply “The Game”. When Peter introduced this to me in London some years ago, he said that it had been invented by Leonard Bernstein or some other member of the Kennedy clique. I’ve done some more digging around and have identified it as Anagrams, which goes back to Victorian times, and as such predates Scrabble (1938) by a half century or so.
There are many Scrabble variants, played with and without a board. One of the closest to Anagrams is called GrabScrab or Attack Scrabble, which shares many of the same principles. Anagrams has been marketed commercially many times since 1890, including as Snatch in 2001 and as an online version called Anagram Thief!
P1100617Given its lengthy history and the commercial variations produced, especially with respect to letter distribution, there is no canonical version of the game. The US National Scrabble Association does have a set of rules for its own tournaments, the Wikipedia article describes another set, and some more.

I was fascinated by the discovery of the image of the Australian board game MillerAnagrams with its picture of physicist Julius Sumner Miller on the cover. I’ve mentioned him some time ago on the blog as I bumped into him now again during my undergraduate science degree. I can just imagine his distinctive voice, well-known to a generation of Australian children, explaining the rules of this game.

Peter’s house rules for the game are as follows:
  1. Each player takes a tile out of the bag and places it face up on the table in the POOL
  2. When a player reaches his turn and can make a word of four letters or more he may do so and lays that word in front of him.
  3. When a player forms a new word they get an extra turn. If they can make further words by drawing tiles they may continue to do so until they can not make another word. Unused letters go into the pool for subsequent play.
  4. A blank tile can stand in for any letter.
  5. Rather than building a new word, a player may elect to STEAL another player’s word by adding one or more letters to it. One may not create a word with the same root or stem, e.g. by adding –S, –ED, or –ING. Thus you could steal BEAR with a D to make BREAD. BEARD would also be acceptable (but would not under NSA rules which have the stricter requirement that the original letters cannot stay in the same order).
  6. You may “steal” one of your own words in the same way so as to make the word less stealable, or to keep a particular letter out of the pool.
  7. If you already have a word that incorporates a blank tile, you may later replace the blank with the actual letter it designated. The blank is then available for general use within the same game turn or else returned to the pool.
  8. If a newly created word is challenged (e.g. not a valid word) then the winner of the challenge gets an extra turn. If a word is unchallenged then it stands for the rest of the game.
  9. The first person to have 8 words is the winner.
P1100618Players generally line up the words they’ve formed so that they face the other players. I’ve played games with between two and four players, with a great deal of thieving words back and forth.

I think I’ve recorded all the rules as I’ve played them but will consult with Peter if he thinks I’ve overlooked or misconstrued something. I’ll make any edits obvious if I update what I’ve written above.

Monday, August 13, 2012

d’Artagnan & the town of wolves

musketeer duelThe commune of Lupiac is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the birth of its most famous son, Charles de Batz, Comte d’Artagnan. The exact year of his birth seems to be in some doubt, but by 1632, the young d’Artagnan had joined the ten year old company of Musketeers. A thirty year career as a spy, and agent in various government intrigues followed through to becoming commander of the Musketeers in 1667 and governor of the city of Lille.

A novelisation of his life was in turn adapted by Alexander Dumas for a set of three d’Artagnan romances, of which the first The Three Musketeers is the best known. These books were written about eighty years after d’Artagnan’s death at the siege of Maastricht in 1673. The other featured musketeers Athos, Aramis and Porthos were loosely based on other historical figures from Gascony. Although the movie versions tend to show d’Artagnan as the green young man from the provinces being teased by seasoned Musketeers of the Guard, the historical Charles de Batz was actually slightly older than the others.

costumed localsToday’s fête is a huge achievement for such a tiny community, well aided by fans from other countries who swelled the numbers of costumed figures and staged duels in the square throughout the day. At first I wondered if local men all kept a musketeer outfit in their wardrobe for special occasions like a Gascon tuxedo.

Your mother is an 'amsterAs the duels progressed, a red-garbed figure screamed curses and encouragements from an overlooking window. I guess this was supposed to be either Cardinal Mazarin or his predecessor Richelieu. I’m still trying to work out what he was uttering again and again that sounded so much like “you suck!” other than the obvious “vous sucez”. It may have been some form of secours/secourir which has English cousins in rescue and succour.

teinturiers and forgeronsWhile the men were dying in one corner of the square, women were dyeing in another. The village square, lined by half-timbered houses was busy with artisans and food vendors showing the crafts and produce of the era. I can’t say that there was absolute period fidelity given the blacksmith’s assistant seemed to be referring to instructions on his iPhone quite frequently.

Musketeer admires a maiden's melonsbowlingLupiac FêteThe street market was interspersed with stocking-clad men showing children how to play the games of the era, musical players and the closest thing to the town’s emblem, a certain malamute. Lupiac, as the name suggests is the ville du loups, a town of wolves (as opposed to the popular French-Indian vindaloo, which is the wine of the wolves). It is of course a long time since this area was covered in forests running down to the Pyrenees so now you’ll not find anything more threatening than Munson and his band of Munsoneers.

wenches on the loose

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Munson in Marciac

My BudOf all the Gascon music festivals, Jazz in Marciac has probably the greatest name internationally. For a fortnight in August, this small town of 1200 hosts names great and great-to-be from the jazz world. This year we can name-check Harry Connick Jr, Melody Gardot, Bobby McFerrin, Kurt Elling, Esperanza Spalding, John Zorn and dozens more.  Wynton Marsalis and Brad Mehldau are only a couple of the artists who have released live albums of their sessions in Marciac.

There are a few on the list I’d happily see in concert, but my budget doesn’t extend to these prices and I don’t really want to go by myself. The last time I visited Marciac was for its Xmas market in December when it was even more of a ghost town than usual.

Today was wildly different – the village square was covered in tents for stalls, restaurants and seating for free midday concerts and the side-streets were overflowing with galleries and little jazz clubs. The arcades around the square were bustling with full cafe tables, music vendors and specialist book sellers. It’s like visiting the desert after a rain-storm to find plants blooming and long dormant creatures crawling out to enjoy a short-lived oasis.Village square
After taking in the sights and sounds of the main square we tried each of the streets radiating away from it. If there wasn’t a courtyard tucked away behind a chapel that was heaving with more stalls and solo artists, then it was art exhibitions, brocantes or even a specialist in antique juke-boxes and pinball machines. I guess that a number of these vendors simply rent space in festival towns and truck their collections around the country. It also occurred to me that with the almost mandatory long vacations that the French take in July/August that these might be summer avocations for some.

master of his domain
It was another warm day, but in the high twenties rather than high thirties as it had been during the week. I keep some bottles of water for Munson in the car to carry around on such days. When I opened one for bottle in the shade of a gallery, I realised that I’d brought an unopened bottle of fizzy Badoit that didn’t meet malamute standards of non-fizziness in drinking water. At first onlookers were slightly aghast that I was spoiling a dog with bottled mineral water until I explained my error, and then they started making jazz jokes about ‘Smoke on the water’.

The guitar-playing manager of the brocante above also had a lot of fun when Munson came to visit. Since the shop floor was cool cement I left Munson to lie around and be spoiled by friendly hands while I went browsing. There were quite a lot of dogs around, either escorted by festival-goers, or slumbering under cafe tables or in stalls.
Wynton Marsalis statue, wrapped in newspaper
Only last night I’d been asked what meal I would have if I could wish for anything. I asked for a Persian banquet with slow-cooked meals laced with dried fruits and subtly perfumed with all sorts of spices. Today I found a Toulousain restaurant au festival operating under multiple tents which offered me a couscous seffa dish with lamb, raisins and honey that I simply couldn’t pass up. One of my favourite breakfast hangouts in Sydney used to offer a meat-less variant of this which I may try to work up at home soon while the vegetables are in season.
Venues large and small
The Gers departmentOur next stop for the day was to be Lupiac (30 minutes away) with a pick-me-up swim for Munson en route. I took a different road out of Marciac which took us past the large lake on the edge of town. Like Vic-Fezensac last week with its Tempo Latino festival there were hundreds of tents and caravans pitched around the town. While the centre of town seemed to cater for a slightly older crowd, there was definitely a large contingent of college-age sun-lovers making the most of their August break.