Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Pig training (France)

For the first time since I began visiting the French farm in 1996, I didn’t have to rush back to London for the start of the school year, so I overlapped with the pigs.  I’d always known aboutand benefited from, when I arrived in the summerthe homemade sausages, ham and pâté.  This time, the two pigs arrived a couple of weeks before my departure, so I had occasion to feed them the kitchen scraps and the vegetable garden rejects.  
On the first few feeding trips, I’d just walk up to the pen (a room-like enclosure with only the bottom half of the door in place, rather like a stable door) in silence.  My raising the bucket to throw the contents over the half door would catch the pigs by surprise, and their violent shuddering and loud snorting would, in turn, catch me by surprise and make me jump.
I decided to train the pigs to get used to me before one of us had a heart attack.  About five metres from the pen, I’d start calling out, in a lilting musical voice (which I assumed would be soothing and friendly): “Hey, p-i-g-s.  It’s m-e-e-e!”  Sure enough, no startled violent shuddering and loud snorting.  It worked every single time after that.  I was starting to feel very pleased with myself for having come up with the idea of training the pigs.
Soon after, however, I discovered that I could’ve saved myself and the pigs all this fright by dropping off the food the right way.  In the back wall are two ground-level concrete troughs, half of which sticks into the pig enclosure with the other half sticking out of the pen into the adjoining barn.  One just goes into the barn, stands on this side of the wall and drops the food into the troughs.  The pigs will approach and stick their snouts as far as they can reach into their respective troughs for the food.  All very civilised, if a bit noisy—pigs like to express their gratitude and pleasure by grunting as they feed.  No chucking the food all over the floor for the pigs to find.  No raising the bucket above shoulder level, which was probably what frightened the living daylights out of them in the first place.

The other thing about feeding the pigs my original, ignoramus way is that in its eagerness, one of the pigs would greet me by rearing up and putting its front trotters on the half stable door, with its huge head at a level that’s easily above mine, and grunt at me, which is all quite scary if you’re a five-foot-tall townie.  Feeding them through the troughs eliminated this over-enthusiastic welcome.

And finally, I also often ended up tipping some of the contents over the pigs, so they'd be left with bits of vegetable and kitchen scraps trailing all over their backs and heads.  

Poor pigs, having to put up with this pretend peasant!  (See my other entry The pretend peasant.)

So who needed training after all?  The pigs or the pig-feeder??
(France September/October 2011)

An eggsperiment—update (France)

The details are being hatched.

(France, September/October 2011)

Update 280112:  It’s been a long incubation, getting this blog hatched.

I’d been cutting greens for the rabbitswhose hutches are within the same enclosure as the hens’ and would immediately, while still in the field, conscientiously pick off the minute escargots that clung to the stems and leaves.  On one occasion, just as I was about to feed the greens to the rabbits, I noticed that I’d missed out on a couple of escargots, so I picked them off and threw them onto the ground, which were instantly pounced upon by the hens.

It set me thinking that the hens might welcome the change in their diet (of grain and vegetable scraps from the kitchen) and the escargot shell would provide the calcium for egg-shell-making.  Besides, even if I couldn’t make much of a dent in the escargot population, it might help save some of the wooden boundary posts—the chap in the village was complaining only the other day that they chomp through his fence posts at an alarming rate.

The next foray into the field saw me equipped with not just the bucket and knife for the greens but also a big plastic yoghurt tub and teaspoon for the escargots.  (The teaspoon is for scooping up any escargot dropped, as it’s difficult to pick up the tiny pests with one’s fingers.)  

I soon discovered that another field was so densely populated with the creatures that, instead of picking them singly off each rabbit green or blade of grass, I could just pick up a dried thistle branch and shake off all the clingers-on into the plastic tub, or scrape huge clusters off the boundary posts, thus filling up the yoghurt tub within five minutes max and saving myself a lot of work.

I’d then approach the hen enclosure, rattling the tub to build up their eagerness in anticipation as part of the training (see also blog entry Pig training).  Sure enough, the hens would pounce on the little tit-bits tossed over the fence, especially the turkeys who absolutely relished them.

My eggsperiment produced results within a day, much sooner than I’d expected.  Jeanette reported egg production up by 50%: the 20 hens and turkeys would normally produce about eight eggs a day in the summer, but after my twice-daily supply of escargots, we’d get 12 per day.  In the end, we were giving the eggs away to people in return for things like their helping to plough the fields, say.  

I will be repeating the eggsperiment this coming summer, just to make sure it wasn’t a coincidence, and report back.  Watch this space!
(France September/October 2011)

Aptly-named dog (France)

Being the slow thinker that I am, it's only just dawned on me during this visit just how aptly named Dino is, even though his deceased previous owner very likely didn't know any English.  The ball of scruff has "din" in his name!  

Dino takes up position just outside the kitchen door (at the side of the house) for that’s a most handy spot for being the first to get all the scraps.  As soon as he hears one of the other dogs (stationed at the front of the house) bark, before he even gets a glimpse of what it might be barking at, he leaps straight into barking action, charging out to the front of the farm house, woofing with all his might but, as Jeanette mimes it to me, he has absolutely no clue what he’s barking about, glancing around him with a baffled look even while he’s barking furiously, wondering what he is supposed to be barking at or about.  Often, he rushes up to Patou, the old grandee of the dogs and his arch growling enemy, just barking at him instead.  He seems to be joining in purely for the sake of not wanting to be left out.
On this winter visit, I’ve had a few more opportunities to test out my theory (developed in September last year) about his having been beaten a lot before he came to the farmhouse.  My other entry Dino the dirty dog mentions his getting up immediately and moving away when you approach him, which smacks (ha! pun!) of his trying to avoid a beating or kicking.  This time, he was a lot more trusting of me, actually allowing me to go all the way up to him, and to pat and stroke his head.  Quite an improvement, indeed, from when I first met him in the summer of 2010.

Once or twice during this winter stay, I’d had to restrain him by the scruff of his neck when I put out a dish of food scraps for the cats and he tried to muscle in.  The high-pitched yelping and whining that he let out sounded like I’d trodden on his feet or whacked him really hard.  To his credit, though, at least he did not try to disobey or bite me.  There’s hope yet, then, of training this wretched cur to understand that not every hand that reaches out towards him is for inflicting pain.  Maybe at some point, we can get the “o” (zero noise) out of him rather than just the constant “din”.

Chivalry brotherly fashion (Singapore)

I am not afraid of snakes or spiders, in spite of the fact that they can be poisonous and might bite.  Yet, even just the mention of the word “cockroach” can make me all queasy and turn to jelly, never mind the sight of one.

One day, when I was about 15, I’d gone into the bathroom to find a cockroach sitting in there.  My brother David was eating his fried rice in the kitchen, so I went to enlist his help.  
In my family, all the nasty jobs were given to the men, if not to the servants:  burying the family pet dog or cat, clearing up after the new puppy or kitten.  So it was only natural that my brother should be approached for getting rid of the cockroach.
I rushed up to him, in a right state, “Please, Dave, there’s a cockroach in the bathroom!  Can you go and get rid of it?”  He just sat there, silently staring at me and munching his fried rice.  I pleaded with him again and again, but each time he just looked at me with his big eyes.  I finally said, “Don’t be so cruel, Dave, PLEASE.  You know I’m terrified of cockroaches.  PLEASE, PLEASE.”  He eventually said, “You’re terrified of them.  You think I’m not?!?”

(Singapore 1960s)

Single-minded eating (Taiwan/London)

It was something first pointed out by Pete the Conoco geologist (see blog entry Ten dollar) when we were eating a (Taiwanese adapted) Western meal in Taipei.  (I say “adapted” because the menu said “fried chicken in a basket with chips” but the “chips” were American chips, i.e., potato crisps, which one eats as a snack, not with fried chicken as a main course.  And certainly not with a knife and fork, as they just shatter like crispy bacon and fly all over the place.)

Anyway, there I was, tackling the meal which comprised the fried chicken, the so-called chips, and 2 other vegetables (usually boiled peas and carrots).  Pete then made the observation that I was only plugging away at the peas: “Why are you not eating the chicken?”  I’d say, “Oh yes, I’d forgotten about the chicken,” and start tucking into the chicken.  Then Pete would say, “But, now you’re ignoring the carrots,” and I’d go, “Oh, right,” and start on the carrots.

Just the other day, some 37 years later, eating a shepherd’s pie (with 3 vegs and potatoes), I noticed I was still doing the same thing:  I’d start eating the peas and the peas and the peas and the peas, forgetting about the carrots, the potatoes, the cabbage and the shepherd’s pie.  When I noticed this, I’d then switch to, say, the carrots, and forget the peas, the cabbage, the potatoes and the shepherd’s pie.

(Taiwan 1976, London 2012)

Monday, 30 January 2012

No, it's schist (Taiwan)

I’d been away on a walking weekend in the mountains of central Taiwan (along the Cross Island Highway from the east coast to the west, starting from Taroko Gorge), and picked up a flat piece of stone—very dark grey, almost black, slate-like.  

When my Chief Geologist boss, Dr. Page, asked me about my weekend, I showed him my newly-acquired friend, and said to him, “It’s nice, isn’t it?”  

Ever so quick-witted, his immediate response was, “No, it’s schist!”  He was punning on the sound “nice” (“gneiss” is similar to schist and slate) as well as correcting me (the piece I'd picked up was indeed schist, not gneiss), thus killing two birds with one stone.  (Ha, pun!)  

From that day on, we (the Chief Geologist, the three geologists and I) would use the word “schist” instead of “nice”, which always raised eyebrows because people would think we were about to use the swear word "sh..".

(Taiwan 1976)

Missing floor

Further to my blog entry Bungee jumping from tall buildings, the Chinese  don’t like the number “four” as it sounds like “to die/death”.  So places like hospitals, in particular, might have the fourth floor missing altogether.  I recently saw a Taiwanese film made in the 70s, and there is a scene where some people were visiting someone at a hospital.  There is a shot of the floor numbers inside the lift which clearly shows: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6.

PS:  In Japanese, one does not say “shi nin” for “four people” as it sounds like “dead people”.  One says “yo nin” instead.

Dragon babies (Taiwan)

The (Chinese lunar) year of the dragon started on 24 January this year (2012).  Dragon babies, especially male ones, are considered particularly auspicious* (because it is believed by some that the dragon rules the heavens), so people will try for one in a dragon year, because the next opportunity of a dragon baby won’t be for another 12 years. (*in terms of future prospects in life)
When I was working in Taiwan in 1975-6 for Conoco (now ConocoPhillips), our draughtsman was in a relationship but not particularly desperate to get married.  (In those days, one didn’t openly confess to sleeping with one’s romantic other half, although people around often knew but kept quiet about it.)  He said that he and his girlfriend would wait to see if she got pregnant (the following year was a dragon year), and only get married formally if she did.  Well, she did get pregnant, and they did get married as soon as they found out.  Interesting how some people allow their lives to be ruled by customs and conventions to that extent...

(Event happened 1975)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

The pretend peasant (France)

An old (both in terms of age and length of acquaintance) retired-academic friend, Russell, told me I’m “becoming an accomplished peasant”, referring to my French farm adventures.  Knowing him, the “peasant” bit is a play on the other meaning of the word (an uncouth, crude, or ill-bred person; a boor).

I am certainly acquiring the physical attributes of a peasant: chapped hands, dirty-looking fingernails (I say “dirty-looking” because they’re stained from processing quince for jam-making, not from being unwashed), chipped nails (from getting caught in something or other, e.g., the vegetable peeler or the kitchen knife).  

But I’m far from being a peasant, never mind an accomplished one.  Colette, who was brought up on the farm, cannot stand the feel of raw meat, yet she just gets on with it when she has to cook a non-vegetarian meal, which is all the time on the farmsolid (manual-)working people need solid protein-packed meals.  

Yet I, who claim to love the countryside, blanch at the sight of blood, so that when it came to getting the turkeys ready for Xmas (for their own consumption and as gifts for friends and neighbours who had helped out throughout the year), I only entered the fray for the feather-plucking.  Even then, I consciously avoided my eyes roving over the part of the neck where they’d dispatched the bird.

I’m not only squeamish about blood, I’m delicate, too, about the presents (both solid and liquid) the cats leave around the house, for which I get Jeanette to deal with.  I also have to get her when I find a frog or toad in the shower room, although I’m not afraid of them per se.

At least, I don’t incur long-term damage being a pretend peasant, unlike pretend academics who teach the wrong grammar and usage of language to students, leaving the students open to being marked down for their course assessments and exams.  No, not “meow”.  Just an observation and comment on irresponsible and unprofessional behaviour.

(France 2011/2012)

Friday, 27 January 2012

Rice addict (UK)

Jackie must’ve been an Oriental in her previous life, as she loves rice so much that she can eat for the whole of Britain.  I’d once suggested she might want to cook one huge pot of rice so that she could freeze meal-size portions, thus saving herself a lot of work.  She said it wouldn’t complete the journey to the freezer as she’d just scoff the lot in one go.  To curb her passion for rice, she now buys controlled portions only.

We’d gone for a Chinese meal in October, and a few months later she told me, “The rice was so delicious I thought about it for days afterwards!”  Sorry, gentlemen, you’re redundant!

On one of her trips to China, her two travelling companions had ordered a portion of fried rice (to go with the meat and veg dishes), whilst Jackie ordered plain boiled rice (which is the Chinese way of doing it, as one’s doing an injustice to the fried rice and the meat/veg dishes by having both at the same sitting).  Jackie finished her plain boiled rice, and saw that her friends couldn’t finish their mountain of fried rice, so, instead of letting it go to waste, she started tucking in.  “It took me a few hours, but I finished the lot.”

Just can't win (London, UK)

My sad experience in (romantic) relationships is that once the utter fascinated besottedness is over, the fault-finding steps in.

One such experience involved the use of language.  After the honeymoon period (of my being the bee’s knees in Nick’s eyes), nothing I said was right.  If I were to say something like, “You can’t treat people in this appalling way”, e.g., when talking about human behaviour, he’d take it personally and bristle: “I don’t treat people like that!”  I then had to explain that the “you” was a generic universal reference, not to him.

After this had gone on a number of times, I decided to try something different, and switched to the universal “one”, and say, “One can’t treat people in this appalling way.”  As I was, by then, in the post-honeymoon, redundant-bee’s-knees phase, even this apparently neutral reference was deemed objectionable: “Oh!  One, eh??  So we’re now so posh that we’re speaking like the queen, are we?!?  How pretentious!”

(London, UK, 1986)

The true rôle of pain in French dining (France)

Since the writing of my blog entry Pain with everything, the penny’s dropped on the true rôle of pain in French dining.  Or, at least, dining on the farm which I’ve been visiting since 1996.  In that blog entry, I’d made the observation that Serge and Jeanette even have pain with my Chinese fried rice, which is stodge on stodge.  Fair enough, people who engage in manual work need a carb-rich diet.  

On this latest (winter) trip, however, I’ve come up with a new theory.  (My brain’s very slow at working things out, as you’ll have gathered by now…)  

Unless there are special guests, dining within the family only requires one piece of crockery: a concave plate which works well as a soup bowl too.  One generally starts with soup, at the end of which one wipes the plate clean with the pain.  Next comes the main course (meat or fish or whatever, which would generally leave some kind of residue, be it fat, gravy or juice).  Again, the pain wipes the plate clean.  Then the salad, and yet again the pain is there to clean up—in this case, the dressing.  

A flatmate (the stammerer in my blog entry Wrong footed) once told me he’d stayed in a French monastery where the diners ate out of hollows in the dining table instead of plates.  At the end of the meal, they’d tilt the table upright against the wall, and only needed to chuck buckets of water at the table to wash up because each course would be literally wiped out with the ubiquitous pain, so there wasn’t any scrubbing to do.

So the rôle of pain in the French farm’s, and also that particular monastery’s, style of dining is not only as a “filler” (of the stomach) but also an “emptier” (of the plate).  How ecological!  No wonder Colette’s always reassuring me that nothing’s ever wasted on the farm.

(France, 2011/2012)

Bungee jumping from tall buildings (Britain & [most of] The Rest of The World)

Rather like the system of which side of the road one drives on, the floor numbering system almost, if not entirely, comes down to Britain (and its ex-colonies—maybe not all) versus [most of] the rest of the world.  (I’m not going to wander into mezzanine and other half-floor naming territory, as it just gets too complicated.)

The British system is: Ground Floor, First Floor, Second Floor, and so on.
[Most of] The rest of the world is: First Floor, Second Floor, Third Floor, and so on.

You can see at a quick glance that there’s a discrepancy between the two systems, which will make a bit of a splat if you are a bungee jumper and failed to check out which system is in operation in which country…

Update 300112:  Grazie, Valerio, for pointing out that the Italian system is the same as the British.  I've made the relevant amendments now.

Jean-Louis and the black cat (France)

Jean-Louis is the neighbour who lives one kilometre from the French farm, down by the main road running south to the Pyrénées.  He comes up quite regularly to deliver pain when it’s his turn, as he and Jeanette alternate their pain-buying trips, which is very ecological and economical.  (If this was in Britain, I could do another alliteration trick by calling it “saving pounds, petrol and pollution”!)  

Colette told me before this winter trip of mine that the frisky black cat (mentioned in blog entry Purrfect pals) has taken a particular fancy to him, jumping into his arms the moment he arrives and rubbing herself feverishly against the big man’s big beard.  Without meaning to undermine Jean-Louis’s attraction for the furry inhabitants on the farm, I suggested to Colette that the black cat might’ve been nuzzling up to his generously hirsute face for its usefulness as a de-fleaing device.

(France 2011/2012)

Update 270112:  One day, I came back in to the farm house from working outside to find Jean-Louis had arrived but the black cat was not in his arms as usual.  A closer look at his face disclosed the fact that he’d had a shave, which would prove my theory about her using his face for de-fleaing.

Let me show you my... (Taiwan)

Seb was in Taiwan on a year-long scholarship for learning Chinese and sent back many stories about his experiences there.  One of them was about him joining a local package tour to Quemoy (金門 / Jīnmén / ”gold gate”), one of Taiwan’s “front-line” islands only about a mile off the coast of Fujian province in S.E. China.  This missive was mainly about the Chinese style of sightseeing:  visit a tourist attraction, a shopping break, visit a tourist attraction, a shopping break, and so on.  

After one of these breaks, during which he had bought a wallet (called píbāo / 皮包 / ”skin wrap” in Chinese), Seb re-joined the group.  In his characteristically gregarious fashion, Seb wanted to show off his newly-purchased wallet.  As he bounded up to them, he meant to say, in Chinese, “Come, come, let me show you my wallet,” thrusting his hand into his front trouser pocket at the same time to fish out the said item.  

Unfortunately, as has happened with endless generations of learners of the language, he got the word order of the two sounds in “wallet” wrong, and instead of 皮包 (píbāo / ”skin wrap”), it came out as 包皮 (bāopí / “wrap skin”—btw, only men have this feature).  Seb’s fellow package tour mates, all Taiwanese and probably not that young (who below the age of 50 goes on these package tours??), reeled back in horror, thinking that the hand he’d plunged into his front trouser pocket was actually going to  produce the item (包皮 / bāopí / “wrap skin”) for public inspection.

(Taiwan, 2002)