Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Weaving machines

When my ex-wife and I were residing for a while in Brussels in 1966, where our daughter was born, we were able to admire splendid specimens of modern silk cloths produced on a hand-loom by a local craftswoman as a gift for the Belgian royal family. In the hand-weaving domain, it is commonly thought that this archaic activity (which cannot, of course, compete with the industrial production of textiles) merits the exclusive use of noble materials such as silk or hand-spun wool and flax. What I mean to say is that it's silly going to all the trouble of using a hand-loom if you're simply going to weave factory wool or cotton.

The genius who introduced punched-card digital technology into the textile industry was the inventor Joseph Marie Jacquard [1752-1834] from Lyon. Later, his automatic card-reader inspired the Englishman Charles Babbage [1791-1871] who is generally looked upon as the inventor of the computer.

Prior to Jacquard, another brilliant Frenchman had been deeply involved in the early days of the textile industry: Jacques Vaucanson, one of Grenoble's most famous sons (along with Stendhal). It might be said that, without the basic mechanism invented by Vaucanson, Jacquard would not have been able to devise his punched-card apparatus.

Well, much of Vaucanson's experimentation was carried on in La Sône, in that same nearby village from which I recently looked out over ancient woods towards the Vercors... as I explained in my recent article entitled An old map talked to me of trees [display].

Before getting involved in the design of weaving machines, Vaucanson had become famous as a creator of automats, the most spectacular of which was a mechanical duck that bent over to eat food, and then went on to drop a nice little turd. Unfortunately, no traces of Vaucanson's automats (including, beside the duck, a flute-player and a drummer) have survived, but there are ample historical accounts of his achievements.

In my humble personal life, I cannot insist sufficiently upon the profound inspiration provided by these two great French inventors: Vaucanson and Jacquard.

Many years ago, when I was working with French Television and became involved in artificial intelligence (theme of a series of five documentaries that I shot mainly in the USA), a kind colleague gave me this book. At that time, knowing next to nothing about the illustrious creator of automats, I could never have imagined that I would soon be working in a hi-tech computing laboratory, Delphia, in Vaucanson's native city, and that I would end up living not far away from the beautiful castle at La Sône in which he resided, as a guest of the Jubié family, while carrying out the fine tuning of his machine. Today, the privately-owned castle is a patrimonial jewel in the Dauphiné.

These days, all that I've found of the premises of Vaucanson's silk-weaving factory at La Sône is a grim fresco of unknown vintage:

You might say that Vaucanson ushered in the industrial age when he invented his machine for weaving silk. And the inevitable next step consisted of generations of workers who entered that doorway, every morning, under the terrible effigy of a lion with its paws enchained in metal loops. Not exactly an ideal symbol to encourage pride and productivity.

A lot has changed since then. It's highly likely that factory managers no longer think of their workers as enchained lions. Be that as it may, I'm happy to see that the economic worker-lions of our modern society are henceforth hunting as an intelligent pack. They've smelt blood, and their political appetite is huge, as you might imagine.

Forgotten US prisoner

Concerning the 150-year jail sentence for Bernard Madoff, I can understand perfectly well that the entire American system intends to send out a stark message to all would-be designers of Ponzi schemes: "Here's a real-life demonstration of what you'll get." That's the well-documented interpretation of harsh punishment viewed as a dissuasive factor. It's a concept that doesn't apply at all in the case of crimes of passion, blood and sex, and probably little in the arena of bank robberies, but it surely carries weight in the case of criminal projects demanding calm calculation... such as white-collar affairs of the Madoff kind.

When I heard of Madoff's sentence, I thought immediately of a gentle US prisoner, 54-year-old Jonathan Pollard, indicted on a charge of passing classified information to an ally, Israel, without intent to harm the USA. He was motivated, not at all by Madoff-like financial greed, but solely by his ideological admiration for the modern nation that symbolizes the land of Pollard's Jewish ancestors. Contrary to what is often stated, Pollard was never condemned for treason, nor for any other crime, for the simple reason that he was never, at any moment, tried before a US court! As the consequence of a plea agreement—honored by Pollard but not by the American Government—he has been rotting in a US jail now for nearly a quarter of a century. [Click the photo to access Pollard's official website, or Google with his name.]

I first heard of Pollard's sad case long ago, during my initial encounters with the legendary Holy Land: a wonderful experience that I shall always treasure. There's a whole chapter about him in this fine book on Israeli espionage. His case inspired a fascinating French movie, Les Patriotes, by director Éric Rochant.

A silly idea has sprung into my mind. It's totally unrealistic, but I would like to insert it here into my blog. One of the high-profile victims of Madoff, from both an institutional and a personal viewpoint, was the 80-year-old intellectual Elie Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 as a "messenger to mankind" through "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps" as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace". Elie Wiesel has no doubt heard of Madoff's sentence, and thought of what it means for a man to receive such a punishment. My silly idea is simple. Maybe Elie Wiesel might use the Madoff event as a pretext for thinking also about the Pollard predicament, which is a blatant case of a forgotten prisoner. Maybe Elie Wiesel could use his weight to talk to both Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu about the case of Jonathan Pollard.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

National styles of behavior

For years, one of my favorite innocent pastimes (serving no useful purpose) has consisted of comparing characteristic behavior from three nations that happen to concern me in different ways: Australia (my native land), France (my adoptive home place) and the USA (which hits me in the face every day or so on my TV and computer screens). Hardly a week goes by without my being tempted to write an article entitled It could only happen in X... where X designates one of the three above-mentioned nations. In my title, I've used the term "styles" for such idiosyncrasies. If nations had brains, I wouldn't hesitate in referring to the cases that intrigue me as national neuroses.

In Australia, a couple of weeks ago, the press published an alleged email suggesting that an automobile dealer was receiving favors from Kevin Rudd, maybe because this fellow had once made a gift of a utility vehicle to the prime minister. It was soon revealed that, like countless emails that all of us receive regularly (requesting our personal banking details, for example), this one was an amateurish fake designed to smear Rudd. But this affair is still making front-page news in the Oz media... along with the death of Michael Jackson.

In France, a case of behavior characteristic of a brain-damaged nation was provided by the president Nicolas Sarkozy himself when he used a big bag of taxpayers' money to stage an in-house show for parliamentarians and senators in the ancient royal palace of Versailles, with the aim of spreading the message that the French people will have to accept the fact that times are hard.

And the background to this sermon was a recent audit revealing that never before in the history of the 5th République, from a budget viewpoint, has the president's Elysées Palace lived so extravagantly. As a young queen with her head in the clouds (prior to falling into a basket) might have said: "The people are crying out for a better deal, more jobs, increased purchasing power and overall prosperity? Let them admire us, eat cake and listen to my sweet songs!"

In America (only in America, to use CNN-talk), another story of sinful sex has come to light with the brief disappearance of Mark Sanford, the Republican governor of South Carolina.

Believe it or not, he was down in Argentina with a lady friend, following up on an encounter established during a state-funded economic-development trip. "She's no lady; she's an economical female contact."

I liked a joke from the senator John Kerry, whom we don't normally imagine as the funniest celebrity in the US: "Too bad, if a governor had to go missing, it couldn’t have been the governor of Alaska. You know, Sarah Palin." Meanwhile, we are told that Sanford's dear old mother is praying for him, whereas Sanford's wife didn't give a screw about where he might have been. "Don't pray for me, Argentina." As for Sanford himself, he has promised his electors to reimburse the cost of his fact-finding mission to the land of Evita Peron.

As I said, the common feature of these three trivial happenings is that each one could only ever have occurred in the land where it did in fact take place. Can you imagine Kevin Rudd disappearing for a week in Bali, say, with a mysterious local lass? Or Sarkozy getting into trouble because a friend gave him an old 2-horsepower Citroën? Or Obama renting a palace in Las Vegas to make a down-to-earth policy statement? Who are the idiots who claim that the world has become a more uniform place, where everything's the same?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Work of art signed Tineke

I often mention my friends and Choranche neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier, creators of the magnificent Rochemuse floral park. Here's a photo of the couple that I took ten days ago, when they invited me to a delightful restaurant, Chez Brun, on the banks of the Isère:

I'm so backward from a social viewpoint that I wasn't even aware that this fine restaurant existed on the river bank, just alongside the road to Romans. The outdoor terrace, shaded by a pair of huge trees—a lime and a plane—is so close to the bottle green waters of the Isère that you could almost go fishing between dishes. And there's a lovely old-fashioned suspension bridge just a few meters upstream, with the Vercors mountains in the background.

Let me get around to a visual presentation of Tineke's latest work of art: a plate of home-made French macaroons.

You might ask: How come this celebrated Dutch sculptress is baking cookies, and offering them to you as a gift?

Well, it all started a fortnight ago when I showed Tineke an irresistible book I had just bought, with "easy" recipes for making macaroons. When I say "irresistible", what I mean is that everybody in France loves macaroons, and everybody knows that they're terribly expensive to buy in top-quality cake shops. So, it's naturally very tempting to discover a nice little book that claims to provide you with the secret of making macaroons in a few easy lessons.

The truth of the matter is that, even with the magic book and all the right ingredients and kitchen devices (including an electronic thermometer), making macaroons remains a highly difficult challenge. My initial results, a month ago, were edible, but not exactly glorious: not sufficiently spectacular, in any case, to merit a blog article. But Tineke's macaroons are a different kettle of fish. She seems to have cracked the secret. As far as I'm concerned, the basic secret is clear: Authors who write books claiming to tell you how "easy" it is to bake macaroons are basically fabulists who should try their hand at writing fairy-tales for kids. Well, no, they shouldn't... because they're no doubt already earning a fortune (enough to purchase gastronomical macaroons in an expensive cake shop) through their recipe books.

Tineke claims that she detected a malicious gleam in my eye, a fortnight ago, when I said to her: "Tineke, you're an artist. Why don't you read this little book and try your hand at making macaroons?" The difference between the artist and me, needless to say, is that Tineke succeeded... and the outcome is truly delicious.

Amusing link to Antipodes

I've just been told of an amusing link that can take you to the Antipodes blog by way of Richard Branson, the French photographer Stéphane Gautronneau and Stéphane's girlfriend. Click Stéphane's portrait to go there.

Incidentally, there's a woman who's not at all happy to find her photo on the web in this Wondertrash context. I'll let you guess who it is, but here's a hint: It's not the naked wench on Sir Richard's back.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rocks in the garden

When people tell you they have rocks in their garden, you normally imagine an idyllic landscape with flowers, shrubs and trees growing on rocky lawns and slopes. The magnificent Rochemuse park of Tineke and Serge at Choranche is a splendid example of this kind of garden.

If, on the other hand, Tineke and Serge had told me that a few rocks had actually fallen into their garden, I would have immediately imagined that the culprit was the gigantic cliff up above Rochemuse, which is perfectly capable of discarding spontaneously a few crumbling fragments of limestone at any hour of the night or day.

That's what they thought, too, when they were woken up in the middle of the night by a huge thud like the bang of a jet fighter aircraft. Planes often fly over Choranche during the day, but not usually at midnight. They soon realized that the origin of the fallen rocks was closer to home.

They had fallen from a rocky outcrop, covered in delicate vegetation, just a few meters from Tineke's kitchen window. Exceptionally and fortunately, during the few seconds it took for the tons of rocks to drop and slide onto the tiny backyard lawn, there were neither people, dogs nor automobiles at that spot. And, once they hit the ground, the porous rocks shattered to a certain extent, but didn't roll any further.

An old map talked to me of trees

I took the following fuzzy photo of an old map with my hand-held camera in poor lighting conditions at the Isère Archives in Grenoble:

Let me point out a few relevant elements in this map. Midway between Grenoble (Isère) and Romans (Drôme), I've drawn a blue rectangle around the town of Saint-Marcellin, and I've marked the location of my homeplace, Gamone (Choranche), with a yellow dot. Now, according to this map, when I drive to the supermarket at Saint-Marcellin, I should normally pass through a vast forest—shown as a green blob—just before crossing the Isère River at La Sône. The truth of the matter is that, if you were to question most drivers concerning this itinerary, they would swear that they didn't drive through any great forest whatsoever. In fact, I've always known that the roads go either along the top of the green blob, or along the bottom of it (corresponding to the location of bridges over the Isère), but not through the middle of it. Consequently, as I said, most people simply don't imagine for a moment that there's a forest here. But there is indeed...

To get a feeling for the presence of this forest—known as the Bois de Claix—you have to find a local hill with a good view, not blocked by buildings or trees... and this is not as easy as it might seem. Finally, last week, my friends Tineke and Serge took me to an ideal observation point: a splendid domain named Combelongue on the edge of a hill above the river at La Sône. In fact, Combelongue is a country estate that is operated as a luxurious guest-house and function center. Here's the main building, set in a wonderful park with ancient cedar trees:

[Click the photo to visit their website. The exquisite Combelongue domain is surely a marvelously romantic place to spend a night or two, and no more expensive than an urban hotel.]

And here, seen from a typical bedroom at Combelongue, is the view out over the valley of the Isère and the hills of the Royans, with the cliffs of the Vercors in the background:

What you see here corresponds to the green blob in the old map. I've labeled the two familiar mountains that I admire daily from my house at Gamone.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Future rose pergola

This morning, when my ex-neighbor Bob dropped in to pick up his mail, he was a little surprised to discover that a curious wooden structure had popped up almost overnight in the garden zone in front of my house.

I explained to Bob that it's an old Australian custom dating back to the days when our ancestors arrived in the Antipodes as convicts: "It was considered politically correct that every respectable homestead should have its own personal gallows." I then went on to explain, a little more seriously, that I was quite proud to have erected, single-handed, this first perfectly-adjusted section of my future rose pergola. Incidentally, apart from the two vertical posts and the horizontal bar at the top, all the other pieces of timber in this photo are temporary struts and props, to keep the structure rigid and in perfect shape. This temporary timber—including the four shorter posts against which the structure is leaning—will be removed once the entire pergola is in place, with its six posts set in concrete.

When I see how some of my old rose bushes are thriving in the limestone soil of Gamone, I'm impatient to finish my pergola and plant the roses I recently purchased.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Work in progress

Yesterday, I finished the initial version, in English, of my movie adaptation of The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Today, I started the translation of my movie script into French... since there are many reasons why a film on this subject must be an essentially French affair.

The tentative title of my movie is Adieu, Abelone. In aristocratic late 19th-century Denmark, Malte, the hero of Rilke's novel, has always been totally infatuated by his aunt, the Countess Abel Brahe, some fifteen years older than her romantic nephew. Although Rilke's novel provides no proofs enabling us to make such an assertion explicitly, it would appear that Malte and Abelone became incestuous lovers for a brief moment. Then Malte abandoned forever his native land. Learning of the death of his aunt, Malte suffered a trauma that evolved rapidly into a grave psychosis characterized by hallucinations and paranoia. Finally, after electric shock therapy at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, Malte emerged slowly from his mental afflictions and became a writer, inspired above all by Baudelaire. One might say that his salvation was poetry.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

New keyboard

Over the last couple of months, I've noticed various tiny frailties, almost imperceptible, in my faithful Macintosh keyboard. For example, the tail of the comma is wearing away, meaning that I can confuse it with a full stop. And I have the impression that the movement of certain keys might be affected by an accumulation of inaccessible muck. So, when I saw the latest superb Macintosh keyboard at a store in Grenoble a few days ago, I didn't hesitate in purchasing one.

The difference is a matter of day and night! The old keyboard was nice, in an old-fashioned way, but the sleek new one runs rings around it.

I would imagine that inspired authors have already drawn attention to the obvious fact that, for a keen computer user, the keyboard is an extremely sensitive organ of the beast. The user communicates with the machine by running his fingers over the sensitive keys on this device. (Please excuse me for using male language.) On the surface of the keyboard, the rows of keys are ripples (nipples) that the user excites by touch, in the course of his obligatory foreplay with the machine. And a new keyboard is a little like a new woman.

Please excuse me for this blatant sexually-oriented effusion. As I said, I was disturbed to imagine (maybe no more than an anguished illusion) that the tail of the comma seemed to be fading away.

Retired presidents prefer blondes

I don't usually include French-language videos in my blog, but this one is a must, and you don't need to understand French to appreciate what's happening. Jacques Chirac is attending a dull meeting at which his wife Bernadette is to make a speech. Just as Madame Chirac is about to start speaking, Jacques suddenly notices that a young blonde lady has nowhere to sit, so he immediately insists that she be seated next to him.

In turning around at a certain moment, Bernadette was able to pick up the goings-on of her galant husband as if he were the proverbial raw prawn on an Aussie fruit tree. (Apologies to Kevin for borrowing this convenient Antipodean style.] We see the amused reactions of two spectators of the Chirac video: the politician Jean-Louis Borloo and the yachtsman Olivier de Kersauson. The commentator draws attention to the exact moment at which Jacques, whispering in the ear of his young neighbor, is caught out by a stern-faced Bernadette, turning around to see what's going on behind her back. The commentator cries out the slang term gaulé, which is the French verb for fruit picking.

French people love this kind of stuff, which is like a scene from the popular théâtre des boulevards. In the regular popularity polls, I predict that Jacques is going to jump at least five points as a consequence of this delightful video.

Friday, June 12, 2009


A week ago, nothing was planned. But this Friday, in my personal circle, turned out to be a day of celebration. In the Antipodes, it was a matter of bidding farewell to my brother Don. Here in the corner of France where I live, my Choranche neighbors Tineke Bot and Serge Bellier invited me to celebrate the spring opening of their floral park, Rochemuse, which had taken place last weekend.

I had written them a small text in French, which I have translated here:


In the setting of the Rochemuse park, on the slopes of the Royans at Choranche, the terra concept can be declined in several ways. A gardener working the limestone soil of the Vercors might consider that a small error has slipped into Genesis. Surely, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the rocks. Long afterwards, petra gave rise to terra under the effects of time and nature. Then the first farmers arrived on the scene—quite recently here, merely six millennia ago—to plant crops and graze animals upon the earth of Eden.

In the name of the park, Rochemuse, the rock (roche) is the gigantic cliff that overhangs the circus of Choranche. As for the muse, she presides over the poetry of this place, inspiring Tineke Bot in the creation of works of sculpture that visitors encounter in every corner of the park.

The archaic alluvial deposits of the Bourne on the slopes of Choranche and Châtelus, referred to as terraces, were formed in the Quaternary era, when the river burrowed violently into the gorges surrounded by beige-colored limestone cliffs described by geologists, in French, as Urgonien. The soil on the slopes, full of fragments of stones called marne (which gardeners have to remove constantly), is not particularly rich. However the vegetation on this exceptional terrain has been taking advantage, for countless millennia, of the heat energy accumulated and then radiated by the cliffs, which endows the site with a Mediterranean micro-climate that encourages the blooming of wildflowers and shrubs.

Ever since the Middle Ages, the Choranche territory (to use another declension of terra) was dedicated primarily to grapevines, producing a highly-reputed wine.

At the castle in Sassenage, a territorial survey written in medieval Latin in the middle of the 14th century, referred to in modern French as a terrier, describes in detail the ancient vineyards of Choranche. That wine industry declined when the monks were chased away after the French Revolution, then the phylloxera disease ravaged the vineyards in the latter half of the 19th century.

To create Rochemuse, terra had to be accompanied by aqua. Thanks to an archaic spring, the park was able to come into existence. The forms of its creation were inspired, naturally, by the environment, which is magnificent and magic at Choranche.

To thank me for writing this simple evocation of their glorious park, incorporated into their brochure for last weekend's opening, Tineke and Serge insisted upon taking me out for lunch today. I wondered, for a moment, whether they intended to cheer me up after my brother's death... but I believe that the timing was purely serendipitous.

Monday, June 8, 2009


The coloring of this portrait of Don and me is simplistic:

That's because the tints were applied manually by me, when I was about eleven, during a period when I liked to fiddle around with photos.

During our childhood at Waterview, South Grafton, Don and I used to listen to country music performed by a fellow named Buddy Williams, who had got around to incorporating a variant of Swiss yodeling into his songs. Today, these songs strike us as rather corny, but we loved to listen to them constantly on our archaic gramophone with a wind-up spring. I've found a few YouTube samples of Buddy Williams songs that Don himself used to imitate, accompanied by his steel-stringed guitar.

Where the White-Faced Cattle Roam

Music in My Pony's Feet

Riding Home at Sundown

Here's an old photo of the cattle saleyards at South Grafton where Don once worked as an auctioneer:

On a nearby corner, in Ryan Street, there was a well-known pub: the Royal Hotel. Bruce Hudson reminded me that, one day, as a prank, a stockman had ridden a horse up the staircase, onto the first floor, and the publican found it impossible to persuade the animal to go back down again. (I can imagine my donkey in such a situation.) Finally, the only way of getting the horse back to ground level consisted of blindfolding it and dragging the poor animal down the stairs. As for the rumor that the stockman in question might have been my brother, I have no idea whatsoever...

I remember Don talking to me about the harsh cattle track along the Diamantina River, north of Birdsville, as if it were an awesome roadway to Paradise. This magnificent ballad by John Williamson is a subtle musical tribute to my brother's memory:

In the following photo showing Don at Wave Hill, the fellow in the white shirt is his friend Sabu Singh, born of Chinese and Aboriginal parents, who went on to become the manager of a large cattle station:

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

In the next photo, in black-and-white, Don is standing alongside a desolate Outback homestead:

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

In the following photo, Don is standing alongside his horse:

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

Finally, here's a photo of Don and our mother at South Grafton:

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Donald Charles Skyvington [1941-2009]

Click the above image to obtain the original scanned photo.

After several decades of cerebral problems, difficult to elucidate and apparently impossible to treat, my brother Don died peacefully this evening in Brisbane, Queensland. During our childhood in South Grafton, New South Wales, Don was outstanding in many rural domains. From an early age, he was an exceptional bush horseman. Above all, he had an understanding of beef cattle that enabled him to be employed, when he was still a youth, as a professional auctioneer in the beef-cattle saleyards of South Grafton. It was there, unfortunately, when Don was still a child, that a thoughtless individual had slapped my brother's pony on the rump, causing it slip over and fall on Don's head, no doubt provoking internal lesions that were responsible for problems that reappeared constantly throughout his life. Much later, Don worked as a stockman with Aboriginal drovers on an Outback cattle station, in particularly rough conditions. In a profound Australian sense, Don was an eternal man of the bush, of a rare pioneering kind, like our father. In happier times, when I could communicate with him easily, we got along extremely well together. Among other things, shortly before I left Australia, we shared a flat in Sydney for a short time, and Don taught me how to play the cowboy guitar. A nurse who has been caring for my brother over the years told me recently that Don was very happy to tell people that his brother Billy had a family in France. Meanwhile, Don received regular visits from our three sisters: Anne (living in Coogee, whose evocation of our brother can be found here), Susan (Mullumbimby) and Jill (Woolgoolga).

For the rain never falls on the dusty Diamantina
And a drover finds it hard to change his mind
For the years have surely gone
Like the drays from Old Cork Station
And I won't be back till the drovin's done
John Williamson

Several old photos of our brother can be found on this brief web page.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Not as stupid (maybe) as I seem to be

Although I've always been bored by the memorization of specific numbers (such as my height and weight, for example, or the distance from Gamone to Grenoble), I can handle arithmetic expertly. And mathematical concepts, too, I believe. I learned long ago, for example, that a sound arithmetic method for making sure that your future garden pergola is not crooked consists of calling upon the wisdom of an ancient Greek philosopher who demonstrated that you can't go wrong by using a triangle whose sides measure 3, 4 and 5 units. Incidentally, I feel sorry for people such as Bob's young companion Christine who needed to look up this kind of information in Wikipedia. For me, Euclid and Pythagoras—more than Aristotle and his dog logic [display]—have always been a basis of scientific culture.

Inundated by comical but alarming emails concerning the avalanche of age and imminent senility from my adolescent friend Bruce Hudson (who, to my way of thinking, is maybe a little too obsessed by this predicament, for reasons I ignore), I've started to worry at times about the state of my neurones. Above all, I would appear to be troubled by the manipulation of these nasty little brown Euro coins:

In a supermarket context, my ancient brain reacts instantaneously to a sum that ends with an odd figure such as, say, seventeen euros. I happen to be a crack at mental arithmetic, and I deduce rapidly that I would rather give the cashier exactly seventeen euros instead of receiving messy change from a larger sum. But that's where the state of my brain makes its ugly appearance. [My friend Bruce Hudson will appreciate this Alzheimer coming-out.] I start to drag a few brass coins out of my purse, and suddenly it's total confusion. Indeed, several things happen simultaneously. First, I'm incapable of supplying the exact coins that are required. Second (almost instantaneously), the cashier, realizing that he/she cannot count upon my exactness, starts to examine my purse, as if I were an aged moron, incapable of sticking a digit into any kind of hole... black, pecuniary, sexual or otherwise. Inevitably, I play the cashier's game, in accordance with the profile of the inarticulate dying specimen that he/she supposes me to be. That's to say, I emit a ridiculous but realistic statement of the kind: "I'm incapable of distinguishing between all these tiny euros." OK, that statement classifies me inexorably as an aged idiot. And I'm ready to be carted off in an ambulance to the nearest home for old-timers.

Reality is simpler, less dramatic. For years, I've used two pairs of glasses: one pair for driving, and the other for reading (as at present, in front of my computer screen). When I drive to a supermarket, I'm equipped with the first pair... which doesn't enable me to distinguish between small coins. If I were a serious customer (which I'm not), I would say to the cashier: "Please excuse me while I change glasses." But, all too often, these employees (particularly chez Leclerc) are delightfully sexy girls who are better observed, in the immediate, through wide-angle spectacles than through closeup lenses.

This morning, at the local Intermarché, I had the chance of being received by a dull male employee in a grey shirt, whose profile disappeared like camouflage into the background. When this male cashier started burrowing into my purse, I wished politely that he would fuck off... but he insisted upon helping me kindly as if I were an aged idiot. Exceptionally, I put on my reading glasses, and gave him exactly the coins that he needed.

Thanks to this guy, I now realize that I need to reexamine globally the domain of diminished eyesight, small coins and visually-delightful supermarket nymphs.

Sinister name

In the following NASA image, the dense white horizontal bars that look like gigantic clouds indicate the shifting location of the Intertropical Convergence Zone [ITCZ], which is the equatorial region where winds of the northern hemisphere clash with those of the southern hemisphere.

Colossal storms rage constantly in these skies, and it's possible that lightning from one such violent eruption resulted in the loss of Air France Flight 447 a few days ago.

Seafarers have always dreaded this zone, where the friendly trade winds often cancel one another, meaning that vessels get stuck there, often in a blanket of dense fog. To designate the unfriendly ITCZ in the Atlantic, between West Africa and the New World, French mariners use the everyday term pot (recipient, as in chamber pot). The zone is referred to as the pot au noir, which might be translated as the black hole. [Click here to see my recent blog article entitled Loose language.] In fact, the origin of the adjective "black" is particularly sinister. During the terrible era of the slave trade, vessels leaving Africa with their human cargoes were often held up in this zone, because of a lack of winds. In such cases, the captain often gave the order to throw overboard any slaves who happened to be sick, because it was considered that the vessel would not have sufficient supplies to keep such individuals alive up until their arrival in America. So, the ITCZ "pot" was black in the sense that the murky depths received the bodies of black-skinned slaves.

Our planet has indeed been an ugly place at times. It's still ugly, today, when a plane full of people disappears without an adieu.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Food time at Gamone

As usual, the following scene is a prelude to my regular bread-making:

That's to say, I never bake bread without a massive proportion of walnuts. Besides, it's a peaceful activity to sit down in the sun and crack open walnuts with a hammer.

Leaves of mint, parsley and coriander (from my small vegetable garden) are a prelude to the preparation of my favorite Thai dish of prawn rissoles. Sophia appreciates this operation, once every week or so, because she gets the prawn heads and shells.

The prawns and herbs look like this when they come out of the mixer:

Then I shape it up into a rectangle and cover it in bread crumbs:

I then leave it overnight in the refrigerator, and cook the rissoles the following day.

The cherry season is in full swing at Gamone. Sophia has developed a taste for this fruit, which she picks up beneath the trees. Usually, she doesn't even bother to spit the seeds out.

My strawberry patch is full of fruit. Curiously, Sophia is not at all attracted to them. I like to eat them straight after they're picked, at garden temperature, with sugar, a little lemon juice and sour cream.

You might have guessed that I eat well here at Gamone. And so does Sophia.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Digging up the past

In Australian military history, the battle at Fromelles, in northern France, on 19 July 1916 was particularly murderous. Before the end of that deadly day, 5,500 Australians were either killed, missing or wounded. In 2008, mass graves of several hundred Australian and British soldiers were discovered here. A few weeks ago, a project was initiated, aimed at excavating the remains and reburying them at an official site.

The following photos are by Michel Spingler (AP Photo). The first one shows French veterans of a later war waiting for the mechanical shovel to get into action, with green tarpaulins separating the scene from a Christian church in the background:

The second photo shows two Australian officers standing on the sidelines as the excavation gets under way:

To my mind, the operation that consists of digging up an amorphous mass of unidentifiable remains of victims of an absurd battle that took place 93 years ago, in order to rebury them elsewhere, is totally senseless, indeed surrealistic. The aims of this curious project do not happen to correspond to any of my personal convictions concerning the sacred nature of human life, the horrors of warfare, or the respect that our societies owe to the descendants of the victims. Are there still naive people who would like to imagine that the war of 1914-18 was, in some macabre sense, "great"? In any case, it is not by dislodging the unrecognizable remains of victims of an ancient war, whom none of us knew personally, that we shall reduce the risk of new conflicts. This energy should be devoted to more urgent challenges.

Garden under construction

Work is continuing on my future garden at Gamone, as seen here:

One of the eight symmetrical 2m x 2m plots is more or less finished. The planks are rough and cheap Douglas Fir, protected by a creosote product. They're partly sunk into the ground. I've placed a lavender plant in the middle of each plot, and sown assorted flowers around it. In the finished plot, I've planted thyme and sage, surrounded by fragments of maritime pine bark to stop weeds. In the photo, you can also see several elements of the future rose pergola, ready to be placed in an upright position in holes that will be filled with concrete. And here are some of my future rose trees, ready to be planted as soon as the pergola is erected:

They are ancient varieties: Albertine, Blush Rambler, Madame Alfred Carrière, Chevy Chase, Lykkefund and Paul Transom. To purchase them last week, my friends Tineke and Serge drove me down to a fabulous rose garden called Berty in Ardèche:

I've always had a few simple roses at Gamone:

A few days ago, I noticed that some of the rose trees I planted behind the house are now in bloom:

In the future garden in front of the house, I should be able to take care of my roses. I'm looking forward to being able to sit and read in my pergola, one of these days, in a haze of exotic fragrance. But there's still a lot of ground work to do before then.