Sunday, September 16, 2012

How To Grow Old Before Your Time

Friday we drove to Bordeaux and the purpose was twofold. One, buy a new carpet for a missionary apartment in Brive La Gaillard and two; buy two chairs for an apartment near downtown Bordeaux. The idea was to go to IKEA, have lunch in their restaurant, buy the goods and be back home by 6pm. The famous gps had us go along the river in downtown Bordeaux to get to IKEA. Traffic was awful. Along the way, we passed many small restaurants full of happy people eating lunch. My thought was…I’m going to IKEA for lunch? What’s with that? Anyway, we got to IKEA which has been under renovation since 2009 and I asked how to get to the restaurant and was told it was…CLOSED. At this point I am not happy. Add to that the fact that the carpet section was also closed. I then received a call for the young women at their apartment in Bordeaux asking if we could find them a small rug. Aaarg! Frustration level up.

I was starving so we walked over to the Auchan cafeteria where I promptly walked into a support for an umbrella in the outdoor eating area. Frustration level way up. Once inside I found redemption. The special of the day was steamed mussels and french fries, all you can eat. I made a pig of myself and my frustration level went to zero.

We decided to return to IKEA for the chairs but on the way stopped at the French version of the Home Despot (Home Depot) and found a rug that would be perfect for the apartment in Bordeaux. I put it in the car and returned to IKEA. Going to IKEA is like going to any mall and having to go into each and every store, past every item for sale before being let out the exit. We did find the chair we wanted but were told that it would have to be paid for there, but picked up at a warehouse down the street. Aaarg! Frustration level went back up. By accident we did find a small carpet for the apartment in Brive. Yes! Frustration level went down. We paid for the items and headed to the warehouse and picked up the two chairs and headed to the apartment in Bordeaux. The gps said it would take 15 min and it took 45min. Traffic was bad. Aarg! Frustration level back up. We got to their apartment only to find that they had left and would not be back for an hour. So, I decided to assemble the chairs on the sidewalk in front of the apartment.(see photo) I got one chair put together and tried to put the other together only to find out it was missing an important part. Aarg! Frustration level up. We left their rug and one chair in the entry and returned to the IKEA warehouse only to be told I would have to go back to the main store. There is no way in to the customer service except by going all the way through the store. I sneaked in the back way. I was told to take a number. They were on #210 and my number was #235. Oh my! I sent my wife to get a couple of ice cream cones. When I got to the counter my wife returned saying she had to buy the cones at the cashier’s desk but when she got to the machine it was not working. She was just standing there with two empty cones. Aarg! The nice lady at the desk informed me that she did not have the piece I needed but it would be mailed to me sometime in the next 10 to 15 days. At that point I gave up and started looking for a box cutter to slit my wrists. We returned to the ice cream machine and it was finally working. I was going to head home a different way but there was a bad accident on the bridge which held up traffic for two hours, so we had to go through town. It took 1.5hrs to get to the freeway and 1.5 hrs to get home.

For some reason, I feel much older today. But, I am waiting patiently for the part from IKEA. Thanks for listening, I feel much better

Saturday, June 2, 2012

How Did I End Up Here?

A couple of years ago, I purchased a small GPS as a gift for my wife at Christmas. It allows her to arrive at the places she set out to find and conversely, find her way home afterwards. She describes herself as directionally challenged which is nice speak for “where the %*^&@! am I and how do I get home?” I, on the other hand could take you to a small creek in Wyoming where I fished on afternoon at the age of 15 and show you exactly where I caught 26 brown trout.

When we moved to France last year, I purchased a chip from Garmin that was supposed to have every street, alley, and roundabout in the entire country in its data base. There have been some problems. Let me explain. Because it allowed me to choose a language I naturally chose English since I have been speaking it since childhood. When I asked for directions a man’s voice with an English accent would come on and pronounce the French street names as though there were English words. I never could match up the streets with the bloke’s pronunciation. I speak French with a reasonable accent and none of the names he spoke had the faintest resemblance to the actual streets I was looking for. So… I changed the language to French and got a most pleasant French woman pronouncing each street exactly and precisely in a manner that was understandable and accurate. I have found that in life however, for every plus there is usually a minus. I call it Frank’s Law of Revenge.

The current voice on the GPS, Betty, as my wife refers to her, always wants me to go the shortest way. It’s her way of annoying me. Thus the Law of Revenge comes into play. Satellites don’t seem to know about detours for street repairs or understand the French propensity for changing one way streets to flow in the opposite direction over night. Mind you, the shortest way is often not the fastest way. We were coming back from Angouleme on the national highway which was well marked and directing us to our town of Mont de Marsan. Twelve minutes outside of Angouleme and Betty blurts out “in one mile turn right.” Having been raised to do what I was told, I turned right and found myself driving down a one lane road and onto a large farm. Betty directed me around the barn and onto a much smaller road that eventually passed through fifty six small villages with population of less than seven but each having a church built in the twelfth century. Usually such roads are blocked with stray sheep, goats, dogs or very old French farmers wearing rubber boots and driving brand new John Deere tractors at less than 10km/hr. This one had one of each. By the time I found my way back to the original highway, it added an extra hour to our trip.

Sometimes, when I really know where I am going I will intentionally not turn where Betty tells me to turn. She then does some quick recalculation and tries to get me back to her original route. After a while, I hear some words in French that my mother would be proud I have not learned and she gives up.

If I have driven somewhere once I can usually get there again. So when people say “do you know how to find XYZ?” my answer is always “Yes, I went fishing there once.”

Thanks for listening I feel much better.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Cross Here

A few years back, I used to ride the trains in France with some frequency. They were slow and most of them stopped at every small town. Every time the train came to a road crossing someone appeared to lower the crossing gate to prevent people for being hit by the train. I once saw a taxi driver go around the barrier only to be hit by a train coming from the opposite direction. I watched as his car was pushed down the tracks and he climbed into the back window to save himself.
Today, automatic railroad crossing gates assure the safe crossing of railroad tracks in France. They are fully automatic and for the most part are not guarded. Most of the dangerous crossings have been replaced by bridges or overpasses. Auto routes do not cross railroad tracks and the TGV does not cross any roads.

In the past, the crossings were not automatic, but manned by employees of the SNCF. Usually it was the wife of a railroad officer whose job it was to manually lower the gate or in some cases crank a large wood and metal fence along a metal track when a train was to pass. These were particularly difficult to manage when it froze or if it snowed. Records had to be kept and the gate keeper allowed no one to pass until the train/trains had cleared the crossing.
At each crossing was a small house, known as the railroad crossing house. It was provided rent free to the family of the crossing guard. One can still find many of them all across France, but the manual crossing gates have all been replaced by automatic ones. The crossing houses are identical. There is usually a number posted on the house along with a metal sign indicating the number of the crossing. The house consisted of two floors with the main floor being just one room with an integral kitchen, living area, wood stove or fireplace.
There was no running water but there was a pump just outside and usually not too far from the outdoor toilet. The second floor consisted of two bedrooms plus an attic. There was a dirt/rock cave (basement) where wine and veggies could be stored. In many rural areas, the trains only passed once or twice a day, but in the cities it was full time work.
Since the advent of automatic crossing gates many of these homes have been sold to private parties and remodeled, but recently the practice has stopped and many of these old houses now sit vacant and in poor condition. If you travel in France, look for them where the roads cross the tracks and you will be amazed at how many you see.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Slow Down Or Eat It

On an average, we travel about 250 km each day. We live in a town in France that is on the edge of a national forest. The trees are not really big. It’s mostly pine and oak with a lot of underbrush. Organized hunts are a big deal here and from time to time we have seen large groups of hunters waiting at the edge of the trees as dogs flushed the deer or wild pigs from the forest. As you might expect there are signs along the road warning of deer and other animal crossing hazards.
So far, in the five months we have been here, the only things I have seen on the road were a flock of sheep and a couple of dead red fox. I contrast that to my home in Olympia Wa where the common flat fauna of the road consists of squirrel, possum and occasional raccoon. Dead cats, otherwise known as sail cats are also common. A sail cat is sort of like an organic Frisbee, although it does not always go where you expect it to go.
In most states it’s against the law to retrieve road kill for human consumption. Even if you hit the elk yourself, you cannot haul it home and stick it in the freezer.
Republican Rep. Dick Harwood of St. Maries wants to make road kill in Idaho a sport. In West Virginia a similar law was passed in 1998. As a result, the annual West Virginia Roadkill Cookoff has become a national event, featured on the Food Channel. Its dishes include Thumper Meets Bumper, Asleep at the Wheel Squeal, One Ton Wonton, Rigormortis Bear Stew, Tire Tread Tortillas and Deer on a Stick, according to Jan Friedman, author of Eccentric America.
Most road kill are accidental but making it legal to dispatch a critter with your pickup seems a bit much. I have, however, had second thoughts recently.
We had dinner with a really nice family that lives about an hour from our home out in the national forest. They don’t really live on a farm but they have the usual dog and cat and a billy goat named Kaiser. The goat is best described as a “watch goat”. Usually it is tied up, sometimes when we go there it runs up to the car and as soon as I exit it begins to butt me with its horns. I have often wondered what it would taste like with a little barbeque sauce.
After the first course of dried country sausage and bread, the hostess brought out a large pot filled with potatoes, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and some kind of brown meat. My wife said she does not understand all that people say because of her limited French vocabulary but she did understand the words “voiture”, “diner” and the word “animal”. I turned and asked her if she wanted to know what she was eating and she said “no, tell me later”. The food was spectacular and we finished with cheese, yogurt and fruit.
The meat had been tenderized by a small white Renault that was driven by a friend and he had given the carcass to this family as a gift.I was just glad it wasn’t their goat.

Thanks for listening, I feel much better.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

It's All About The Butter

I have a good friend that says I fry the best pan fried oysters in the entire world. My response is always: “Give me enough butter and I can make your shoes taste good” It’s true. Who would have thought that the fat from bovine lactate, churned and solidified with a little salt could taste so good. Someone once asked Paula Dean’s son what he thought his mother’s favorite desert was and he said “butter”. My grandfather ,CR Snelgrove ate cooked cereal most mornings. I never saw him put sugar or milk or even cream on it. He always put a half a stick of butter on his hot cereal. In case you are wondering how that affected his health, he lived into his 90’s.
My preference currently is old butter. You know, the kind that sits in a cave covered with mold and is finally brought to the light of day under the name of cheese. I am currently making my way down the cheese isle at the local grocery chain. It may take me six more months to sample all the cheeses that are on the shelf. Next to all the ready packaged varieties is a counter with three fulltime employees who have at their disposal about 200 different cheeses. They wield long two handled knifes, ready at an instant to carve off any portion of those giant rounds. I have to stop for a moment. I am beginning to drool.
My assertion that you can eat anything given enough butter was proven once again when I recently brought home a dozen snails. They were previously purged, cleaned and cooked and stuffed back in their shells in a mixture of BUTTER, garlic, and chopped parsley. If you actually think about it, the thought of eating the slimy gastropods that chew up the veggies in my garden is pretty disgusting. I cooked them in the oven until the butter melted and we picked them out of the shells with tooth picks. The French actually have a utensil that holds the shell while you pick out the snail with a small fork. My wife’s response to the first snail was, “they are not too bad.” She only ate one which means that on a scale of 1 to 100 they ranked about a 2 for her. Since I translate for her all the time, I will translate for you as well. “They are not too bad” accurately translated means: “who in their right mind would ever eat more than one of these things.” I ate my half dozen and came away with the conclusion that I could have stuffed the shells with parts of an inner tube from my bicycle and it would have tasted about the same. So much for the old escargot myth of snails being a delicacy. It’s all about the butter.
For right now I think I will stick to the cheese, the yogurt, the ice cream while we spend the next year here.
Thanks for listening, I feel much better.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Don't Forget To Turn Off The Power

I inspected an apartment in Tarbes and found that the light switch was not working and the young Mormon missionaries who were living there were just leaving the hall light on to see when they used the bathroom. So much for privacy. It would be like putting a microphone in your john and broadcasting it throughout the house. So…. I decided to take the switch apart and see if I could fix it. Voltage here runs about 250V which if you touched the wire, would make you look like this chicken. Being much smarter than I used to be (having once drilled through a 220v line putting up a curtain rod) I turned off all the power to the apartment, removed the old switch and deciding it could not be repaired headed off to the brico.
I have spent a good deal of my life in lumber yards, tool stores, Home Despot, Sears and various other money pits, I was not too surprised to find the French have followed suit and come up with the “Brico”. There are various companies but all the stores are basically the same. Picture Home Despot with all the prices in euros and all the help wearing yellow vests and speaking a language that you don’t understand very well. The rows of home improvement/repair items seem to be endless and the number of people available to answer questions is in an inverse relationship to the number of things on the self. You have probably heard of surly French waiters, but let me assure you, they get their training from the guys at the brico. I finally found a guy in a yellow vest, showed him my broken switch and asked him if he could find me one just like it. He said no, and proceeded to recite the entire Gettysburg Address backwards at a phenomenal speed. I was quite impressed. Then he asked me if it was a two or three pole switch. I told him I did not want to discuss politics. After playing charades for a couple of minutes he handed me three items to replace the one I had in my hand and walked off. He didn’t give me a chance to ask him how the three parts went together, so, just to annoy him I tracked him down and asked where I could find a smoke alarm and a fire extinguisher. He was not amused.
Back at the apartment I stared at the three parts for twenty minutes until I had a general idea how they went together and installed the new switch. I turned the power back on and flipped the switch. No light. Slightly frustrated and not wanting to appear incompetent in front of the two young missionaries, I meditated for a few more minutes, dreading the thought of having to return to the brio and talk with Jean Pierre one more time and it came to me. There was an additional switch on the fixture. Voila, let there be light. There are few things in life more satisfying than a successful repair.
Thanks for listening, I feel much better.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


Worldwide custom dictates taking something to the host when you are invited to dinner. A flower arrangement, a beverage, a desert or anything else that shows the host you are grateful for the invitation and even more so, grateful that you don’t have to cook that meal at home yourself. Over time, we have been the recipients of some wonderful deserts, lots of bottles of Martinelli’s Sparking Cider, and one time a cheese plate with an opened and half consumed box of Triscuts. We can only assume that our guests got hungry on the way to our house. In our attempt to understand the culture of France and fit in, we have picked up on at least one interesting custom. Chrysanthemums are never to be taken to someone’s home as a gift, ever.
Why? I knew this would come up so here is the answer. On November 1 of each year there is a holiday called Toussaint. It’s All Saints Day. It is a day for remembering all your dead relatives and I guess the almost dead ones also. It was yesterday and all the government buildings, post offices, and most businesses in town were closed including the Huit a 8 (8 to 8) which is the French equivalent of the 7-11 only with different hours. Graves and monuments to those who have died were decorated with…you guessed it, Chrysanthemums. These beautiful flowers are considered the flowers of the dead.

Hence it’s considered bad taste to show up for dinner carrying a big pot of mums. Now you know.
thanks for listening, I feel much better.