Tuesday, September 30

Sleeping Arrangements Part II

30th September
It’s an age thing isn’t it, wanting your own room to fart and snore away in to your heart’s content. But as a child I loved sharing a room, especially with other kids. Between the ages of five and eight years I slept in a lot of other households and had some very ‘formative’ experiences, mostly in a good way. There was the Grandmother who let me share her big feather bed - I imagined it as our ship, sailing through the torrid waves of smelly, peach-coloured full-body corsets, vests and big knickers that surrounded our vessel. My grandmother would fetch us coffee with a big slug of rum in the morning and then we’d sit in bed getting sozzled while she read me the latest episode of her blood-and-guts novel.

The only sleeping place I wasn't keen on was at the Sunday-School Aunties who had picturess of morbid subjects like The Slain Wives of Bluebeard on their walls. When I stayed here, a door was laid over the bath for me to sleep on - which was a bit like having an en-suite now I think of it, except that other people could come in and have a pee in the night.

Monday, September 29

Sleeping Arrangements

29th September
Last week some camera kit needed to go to Paris – urgently, to be fixed and for various reasons it needed delivering in person.

I went for the late sleeper train on Thursday evening. The kit was packed in a large orange rucksack which was so heavy and full that I couldn’t take any personal stuff apart from the toothbrush and spare knickers that I stuffed in my jacket pocket. I was at the station early and staggered with my load to the nearest table in the cavernous station restaurant. A waitress ran out, shouting at me and sent me to a table of her choice. At this point the drunk in the corner lit a cigarette and the waitress transferred her wrath to him. The drunk tried to leave but was too unsteady, he heaved his rucksack on and fell backwards, lying like an upturned tortoise until the furious waitress gave him a hand to help him up and fell on top of him. So - a comedic start to the evening!

I was a bit nervous about the train journey, I wasn’t sure what to expect from these mixed sleepers. In my wagon, nearly all the six berths were already filled, I climbed to a top bunk and there, across the bunk space, a mere arm’s length away was a virtually naked, gorgeous young man. Below us in the middle bunks were a father and his daughter and in one of the bottom bunks an elderly man. I’d just settled myself, when a lot of huffing and puffing, shuffling and grunting sounds came from the corridor, our carriage door opened and a little woman with big crinkly hair wheezed into our carriage struggling with two cages full of birds, she was anxious and distressed and talking incessantly to them/herself. The semi-naked god leaned over from his bunk and calmed her down, she got her birds settled and there was no further incident.

In the few French homes I’ve visited I often see rooms filled with beds where everyone bunks down together when they come to stay, it made me consider the cultural issues of personal space and what we (me/my friends) think of as acceptable. Earlier this year, two writers came for a week to our UK production offices to work with us, I suggested that they might prefer to share a two-bedroom apartment rather than have hotel rooms. The idea was unacceptable because it meant they’d have to share a bathroom.

By contrast, when I got involved in a student exchange to Romania. The Romanian students gathered to claim us and take us back to their homes. Irena took me and another girl to her family’s tiny apartment in a vast Stalinesque neighbourhod on the outskirts of the city. Her parents and grandparents would sleep in the one bedroom she said, then led us into the living room, the sofa was given a push and lo! A bed was produced for the three of us girls to sleep in for the week.

Thursday, September 25

Looking for the Chicken Nugget Tree

25th September
Most of the British population here are attending French classes as a way of trying to get to grips with the language. Fat Dad however, has taken the osmotic approach to language learning, that well known process where simply being in France makes the language absorb through the skin. He doesn’t believe in school so his children don’t go. And because it’s really hard communicating with French people when you don’t speak the language, the osmotic method is slow.

Sometimes I stop by his gate and let Fat Dad lecture me, he always has a lot to say about the evils of processed food, he doesn’t allow his children any sugar or salt and wants them to grow up eating food that they have grown or foraged themselves, living off the land 'like the French do'. Their vegetable garden isn't going yet, so it’s down to foraging for the moment. He asks if I have any idea what is around that they could gather. There are figs everywhere, I get him a plateful. He looks mystified - I show him how to eat the fruit. He tries a little and decides that figs are not going to be on their menu, they’ve also rejected tomatoes and apples - I’m curious to know what they do eat.

It was the eldest child’s birthday today, Fat Dad took his son to visit neighbours so they can announce the event. I passed by with a card and was invited into their house for the first time. The kitchen is dominated by a huge table mostly covered with power tools, screws and nails, children and mother are sitting at the table happily munching away from a big tray of cold white oven chips, a dish of hard boiled eggs and a tray of chicken nuggets. This is the food they like, Fat Dad says,
on special occasions we have this for a treat.

Digging Stops

Finally yesterday, after two and a half days of digging, the main chamber of the wasp’s nest is located. The Camera Boys wield a teaspoon taped to the end of a bamboo stick, gently scraping away at the wall of the chamber to make a hole big enough to insert an endoscopic lens. The camera is set up by the nest on a mechanism that controls it remotely. People are getting stung now and one of the Camera Boys has a hand swollen up like one of those foam things people wave at football matches.

By the end of the day we'd started getting some pictures - and it is fantastic, the wasps construct thick paper shelves of cells where they lay their eggs, there are layers and layers of this densely populated shelving. The wasps arriving all the time with food for wriggling larvae.

Tuesday, September 23

More Bloody Wasps

23rd September
A few months ago I allowed myself to be nominated the Health and Safety Officer for this insect filming project. The Big Controller wanted risk assessment forms completed and for someone to be responsible, I’m the one with the most recent First Aid certificate so I got the job. I’ve never felt responsible for anyone before and I’m not really sure how to do it. I’m still the laughing stock of the village for turning up at the Maire’s office in June wanting to know what usually killed people round here.

Now that we’re back to the full household complement of The Director, two Camera Boys and me, work has to start on items on the filming agenda that I’ve been trying to steer away from;

We need to film inside wasp’s and hornet’s nests, will you find us some Lulu ?
Let's have a party
Hey look there’s a wasp’s nest right here by the house.

The digging started yesterday and is being done very quietly so the wasps don’t guess what we’re up to, a bit like The Great Escape, but in reverse. It’s important not to actually break into any tunnel or the chamber, so work is proceeding very slowly. The aim is to find the main nest chamber and put in a tiny lens to film waspy activity. The nest entrance is a hole in the ground where (if you put your head really close to it and peer in) you can glimpse a tunnel veering to the left, The Director made a guess as to the likely location of the chamber (a bit further on in that direction), but the clever wasps have found a hole with a circular tunnel (the nest is made in an old animal burrow) and there is now a sort of moat virtually encircling the site.

There can’t be many wasps actually in the nest because they are all in the house with me and what's left of a big box of oozingly ripe figs that somebody generously contributed to Sunday’s party. Obviously I can’t join in the digging as I need to turn this potentially lethal health hazard into tarts.

Monday, September 22

Two Crowds

22nd September
More people than I’d expected turned up to the Grand Sunday Barbeque. I’d asked everyone to bring along something to share: a salad or tart perhaps? an elderly neighbour handed me a huge washing up bowl full of cooked green beans and told me to get them dressed immediately while they were warm and that I’d better find a larger bowl to do it in.

I have a suspicion that Mme Bic Biro is a school teacher, she has short, shiny, stripey hair and a voice for reaching the far end of any school playground. When I realised how many people were turning up, she conjured up extra cutlery and made enough rice salad to feed a small country.

It was really hot yesterday. The French and non-French contingents kept pretty much separate during the afternoon, the two groups were clearly differentiated by the fact that the French guests sat in the shade and they did not bring their dogs.

We’re all trying not to scratch our itchy red aoûtat bites. I'd never come across them before coming here, my body looks like it has measles.

Saturday, September 20

Party Invites

20th September
It looks as though weather will be good for the weekend so we've decided to have a barbeque party at the Lovely House tomorrow. Since the local elections earlier this year the village has been divided, into at least three factions, everyone seems to be mortal enemies with each other. When I went round inviting people, I noticed a look of panic frozen on the faces of my invitees and then some muttering about having to ask the husband. They don't want to be rude but neither do they want to risk a 'difficult' situation. Either that or word has spread about my previous soirées.

I went into town to load up on food and beer and, fired up by my game of pétanque on Wednesday, I decided to go and buy some boules from a proper sports equipment shop. In these places a serious-looking man measures your hand and asks if you’re a tireur (throw the balls hard) or a pointeur (genty roll them). After my first game I haven’t quite found my style yet, so I said ‘both’ – I've been sold the most expensive set of boules in the world. I've also bought a carrying case for them but have stopped short of buying the little duster and piece of measuring string.

Friday, September 19

Tempting... or maybe not

19th September
Bruno arrived at the front door yesterday morning, bag of beans in hand, he said that he hadn’t meant to be rude the previous day.
Then he got closer.
You know what women are like he whispered conspiratorially. But If you want to thank me, a nice kiss would do the job

What with the alcohol that had clearly been consumed and the fact that Bruno is not a friend of soap and water, he was quite ripe. I suppressed the next ten things that came to my lips, and finally came up with;
That's a lovely offer Bruno, but my husband would never allow it.

Wednesday, September 17

Tart Rejection

17th September
It’s gone all quiet here, The Director and the Happy Camera Boy are back in the undergrowth with the insects and suddenly I’ve got time to catch up on village life.

I had a big cook up and ended up with a surplus tart on my hands, I decided to take it over to Bruno the Knob Destroyer who is still leaving bags of vegetables on our gate. He intercepted me as I was heading up his drive;
What are you doing?
Bringing you one of my tarts – it’s a thank you for all the tomatoes
Well don’t, my wife will get suspicious – go away

I offloaded my tart on nice M Bert across the road and pedaled on to the bar to join in with the pétanque, the club is now a busy, international affair (by village standards). The Strange parents are running the bar double-handedly now that they have been abandoned by their children, their eldest son married his Danish bride and they've gone off to join a thrash metal band in Copenhagen. The other son has also disappeared, possibly to stock up on military outfits and stiff leather boots.

Tuesday, September 16

Radio Gaga

16th September
Last week we had ever more brilliant ideas about fast things we should film with the Speedy Camera.
We could pile up those old tv’s and explode them
Too dangerous
OK lets fill that rain barrel with milk and drop things in it
like what?
A person - someone could jump in the barrel naked - from up there
and so on…

Our brilliance was edited and I charged around finding props for the filming. A side effect of all this creativity is that the camerawork is eating up computer disk space so I’ve also been buying terabytes by the carload.

Then a fire in the Channel Tunnel last week mucked up all the pretty travel arrangements I’d made for people and kit coming and going over the weekend. (we had to give the camera back – big sighs all round) and I had to go to the UK, retrieve a car and drive it back to France.

In the Lovely House I can get a local radio station that consists of someone reading out small ads, Mimi in Marciac would like to swap a dog for a brown sofa, sort of thing, it involves streams of phone numbers and is mesmerising, so probably not ideal for driving along to. However, I did fancy a bit of company for the epic drive back here. I set the radio to ‘search’ but it discovered only a series of ‘pop’ stations. French pop comes from a bin labelled Merde and makes me want to shoot myself. The CD player was broken, so I finally I settled on a 'phone-out’ programme where, between records, a DJ makes a series of calls to recalcitrant fonctionnaires on behalf of listeners who are having problems with insurance claims and legal issues. I would never have listened to an English equivalent of this (is there an English equivalent?) but I find this kind of thing compelling in other countries.

Sunday, September 14

What Are We Like?

14th September
Now that I've decsribed our work colleagues and neighbours, it seems only fair that, at this point that I should try to describe what The Director and I are like:

The Director is mostly quite clever but he can sometimes be a tiny bit like Mr Bean. There are as many as three pairs of glasses on his head at any time. Invariably a pair falls off and he treads on them, or the pair in his pocket gets crushed - his path is littered with spectacle body parts. He likes shiny camera-related objects and dead animal remains - our house is full of fossils and skulls.

Impossible to describe oneself, you can see from the banner that I wear reinforced underwear and have a penchant for pointy hats and big skirts, I am also very keen on food. I asked The Director to describe my inner beauty but had to discard his first attempt, mainly because I took exception to phrases which included grumpy, abrasive and cow. I also think stingy is a little uncalled for. I am trying to control a budget here, so yes, the arrival of another lorry-load of camera lenses, tapes and computer hard drives will raise my volume a notch.

I asked him if I resembled a fictional character or screen icon, I made some suggestions: Audrey Hepburn, Gina Lollabrigida, Isabella Rosselini…? He thought a bit and said 'That girl from the Peanuts cartoons - Lucy'.

Thursday, September 11

Living with Boys

11th September
The newly arrived, very young, Camera Boy is here for the week to help with the Speedy Camera work. He expresses geeky joy at the sight of a new computery thing and lollopy enthusiasm when faced with a big sandwich, he is something like a combination of Scooby Doo and his mate Shaggy – Shaggy Doo? His specialist subject is playing Jimi Hendrix guitar tunes.

Shaggy retains an adolescent naiveté about domestic issues. When The Director asked him for a glass of tonic water with some slices of lemon in it Shaggy cut a whole lemon into 4 quarters, rammed the lot into a small tumbler and tried to fit some tonic in around the pieces.

Happy Camera Boy used to be a bit like Shaggy, we’ve lived through several episodes like the one when he used his t-shirt as an oven glove and the plastic motif on it melted, fusing him to the metal pan. He’s all grown up and mature now, although having had a lifetime’s diet of bad films and trashy telly, his specialist subject is still funny sound effects and singing old theme tunes.

Wednesday, September 10

Big Bangs

10th September
It’s Big Bang day over at CERN in the Jura, I haven't quite got to grips with it yet although this cool video I came across on Jacob Russell’s site helped.

Our Speedy Camera see post below is just like having our very own particle accelerator - OK it’s nothing like - but it does show things you can’t normally see. There was a lot of insect filming with it the last couple of days and that was all great but...

Obviously it would've been madness not to have a go at filming other fast things; explosions, smashing stuff, spillages – and someone had the idea of throwing a dart into a water-filled balloon. At 9,000 frames per second you see the dart piercing the balloon, ripping it into 3 sections, leaving a ball of shining jelly water hanging in the air. The dart’s silhouette cuts through the water, slicing up the wobbly blob which explodes into a millions of sparkly drops – bloody brilliant.

Tuesday, September 9

Big Head Ornaments = Small Penis

9th September
As a postscript to the fluffing thing below, I tend not to get asked to fluff if it can be helped, I am considered stupendously impatient, particularly if I have to work with The Director, it is a bit true - somewhere around the two thousand and fiftieth take, when I’ve snipped and brushed and poked with tweezers and I’ve used up all the beetles I’d collected (they fly away when they've had enough), I can get a little scratchy.

I’m not good with figures actually, when I hear statistics I go a bit blurry and when I try and pass on the information I tend to shift the decimal point around. If it’s important, I need someone to tell me the information slowly while I write it on my hand and then try and embed the information as an image in my head. I’ve written the next bit while the Director is hovering nearby.

The Speedy Camera has arrived – with a Youthful Camera Boy, it films in high defintion at up to NINE THOUSAND FRAMES PER SECOND. Filming at normal speed goes at twenty five frames per second (fps) so this camera is something else. The fuzzy wing beats of bees (150 times per second) for example are transformed into graceful balletic gestures. We’ve got it for the week and so far we’ve just been trying it out. I expect I’ll go on about it a bit more another day.

Interesting article in the New Scientist this week. A scientific study on four populations of the same species of horned beetle showed that the ones with the biggest horns had smaller penises, the scientist observes that:
'Strong male beetles use their horns to fight for females, but weaker males prefer to sneak off to mate while competitors are fighting.'

Saturday, September 6

Wasp Fluffing

6th September
Below the Lovely House there is a sunny, overgrown path sloping down to the lake, densely inhabited with Wasp Spiders (Argiope).
The Camera Boys have been hunkered down on this alley (not today, it’s pouring comme vache qui pisse) trying to film Mrs Wasp Spider catching and wrapping up some prey. This has been going on for days. There is a wasp’s nest close to the house and rubber-gloved boys swoop around with large butterfly nets trying to catch wasps which are then loaded into catapults and propelled into the spider’s web. Surprisingly difficult to film this one, many wasps end up getting overshot or fly away before they hit the web.
Crickets and grasshoppers are good though. These animals are completely random with their jumping, they just take off and hope for the best, often landing in a bad place like a spider’s web. Sometimes one of them will just catch the web with the coarse bit of a leg, he'll dangle there, trying to keep as still as possible, looking a bit worried, while he works out how to jump clear before the spider notices him - and sometimes he succeeds - and leaps straight into another web.

Note 1:
In the spider's world the girls are usually much bigger than the boys, sometimes to same sort of ratio as a London bus and it's conductor. We film the bigger thing because it's easier - plus the girls are usually much better at hunting.

Note 2: The correct term for a person who handles and tries to control animals on set is a 'wrangler’ but we prefer fluffer. The fluffing job can involve brushing the insects off if they're looking a bit dusty and clearing the set of extraneous debris such as unnecessary foliage or other beasts who might have wandered on set.

Friday, September 5

What Are We Doing Here?

5th September
Thank the Lord, Sarah has given back the camera and it should be with us on Sunday – how apt.

Just in case this blog is giving the impression that I’m just here to poke fun at the local population, I had better make it clear that I am here on a very serious undertaking – I am helping to make a series of television programmes about small invertebrates (insects, bugs, worms and whatnot). Obviously they will be unique, never-seen-before sort of programmes but if I had to make a comparison Look away now Director! they will be more Microcosmos than Miniscule.

I’ve not really yawned on much about the filmmaking side of things. The novelty of this picturesque landscape, with it’s curious population and their funny habits has taken all my attention, like a child given new toys. Also, the main news from Camera Control often seems to be that something is malfunctioning, or broken, or missing and that’s just not fun to report. A two-hour drive on a hot day in a strange town trying to track down a semi-chafed pivot grommet - or Mr Potato Head’s nudie girls - which would you rather write about?

The main thing to know about making wildlife documentaries, and particularly those about very small things,is that it’s very very time consuming. Think of the longest time you can think of and double it by infinity – it takes that long.

Filming insects is not a spectator sport either, the creatures are mostly so tiny they can only be seen by the person peering down the viewfinder (OK there’s usually a monitor but that’s just in monochrome). Often the animals are so fast that you can’t see what's been filmed until it's played back, or they’re so slow that you leave the camera to taking an image every few minutes and come back the next day.

So today, The Director stood by by a fruit tree all day, waiting for the wind to drop and the moment to happen, catching one in-focus, correctly framed, minute of ants milking honeydew from aphids.

Thursday, September 4

Lost in Alaska

4th September
There seems to be a bit of an Alaska theme going on at the moment. We have a camera stuck there – Sarah Palin, send it back to us, you all round Bad Woman you!

We have booked to hire a very Special Camera - high definition and ultra high speed. It should’ve arrived in the UK today, we have people poised to collect it and drive with it to France, but it is stuck in Alaska apparently because of bad weather. The plane did take off last night but had to turn around and go back.

Weather is the big big issue in our lives. Trying to guess how the seasons will be is The Director’s obsession, not only does it affect whether we can actually film or not but it affects what creatures do and when they do it. And the seasons are always unseasonable, this summer was unseasonably wet but the winter was unseasonably dry. And before you know it things are hatching before they’re supposed to, or not hatching at all and havoc is played with our filming schedules. We need good light for this Special Camera plus insects and flowers, and that’s summer isn't it? and summer is running out fast... so come on Sarah give us back the camera.

Wednesday, September 3

Mr Potato Head's Nudie Girls

3rd September
I'm going to our local woodyard a lot these days to get timber for the film sets. The yard rambles across several properties, involving about four houses, one of which is a burnt-out shell and used as storage. The whole estate is strewn with wood in every state, huge tree trunks some sliced into planks, pile upon pile of structural timbers and everywhere the flotsam of rotten pallets and bits of packaging. The establishment is run by a sweet-faced man who looks like a potato, and his father, an old man in shorts and a bandaged knee. The mother is short and fierce. If I turn up and neither of the men are to be seen she calls their attention by shrieking like a film heroine suddenly coming cross a horrid murder.

When I’ve selected my timber I have to wade through yapping dogs to get to a tiny office where I wait while the son laboriously writes out a bill in copperplate handwriting. The office is stuffed and the walls are completely stuck with bits of paper. The most prominent items are the girly calendars. There are about four of them, all a bit out of date. Only two pages are visible because they are hung in two sets and doubled up, one calendar over another. The girls have been changed each time I go in. Father and son seem to be continuously locked in combat and I wonder at what point, after years of arguing over which Honey is to be on view, they decided to have a girl each.

Monday, September 1

Sports Day

1st September
We’ve just had a Fete des Sports. Given that on any summer weekend there will be at least two villages nearby having a Fete Locale identical to the one we celebrated in July the low population level here means that attracting participants can be tricky. Villages have tacit agreements to support one neighbour over another and supplementary fetes are a bit of a risk, especially with all the boycotting going on in our village lately. Undaunted, the Entertainments Committee organised two days of activities which included several meals, a cycle race, ping pong, card games and pétanque.

In my role as Chief Community Liaison Officer for our household I’d offered my services for the event. Last week I sat in on a meeting where schedules were made and tasks delegated. I was assigned the role of assistant tomato chopper for Saturday lunch.

The schedule posted on the door of the Salle des Fetes bore no relation to actual events, preparations for Saturday's midday barbeque (with tomatoes) started at 3pm. Unfortunately I'd failed to stay au courant and in a convoluted misunderstanding I missed the opportunity to show off my tomato-chopping prowess.

What was really needed was bodies. On Sunday afternoon, the last game was won at 6pm, the winner zoomed off on his motorbike and the few spectators ebbed away. Half a dozen of us remained resolutely spinning out our drinks, waiting for the 8pm closing ceremony. When the time finally arrived, two visiting dignitaries solemnly waited to present the prizes. Bic Biro and the President of the Entertainments Committee made speeches and we applauded as the dignitaries held aloft the trophies that would have been handed to the victors had they been there.
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