Thursday, March 31, 2011

Need Visa for Germany

Back in February I ordered a horrendously-expensive new bike.
Made in Germany.
Their only outlet in France is in Paris, so I chose to order it from a dealer in a village near Baden-Baden.

The ordering process seemed to go OK, in a mixture of German, French, English & gestures.
Though I was a little surprised & dubitative when they didn't ask for any deposit or ID at that stage.

So I was relieved when they eventually rang to say it was available & I was again surprised when they suggested I take it for a ride, still with no deposit.
Unfortunately, the German/French/English/gestures had failed to get over the message about the non-standard chainwheel I wanted, resulting in a couple of weeks delay while they found & fitted the right parts.

I went to collect it, finally, this week.
Naturally enough, I pulled out my Mastercard.
And was more than surprised to be told they only accepted Visa!
"In fact, Germans usually pay cash" said the assistant, adding that Visa-only was common in small towns, though I don't know how true that is.

Of course I am aware that, in Germany, low-margin supermarkets often don't accept credit cards, instead usually having convenient cash-dispensers available.
But not high-margin sports goods dealers.
That must be the first time in 30 years I have heard of anybody accepting only one of Mastercard/Visa.

The happy outcome was that I left with the bike, merely promising to transfer the money to their account!

All I need now is their IBAN number & I am still waiting for them to e-mail me that.
I can't imagine such trust in France.

The bike is fine, if depressingly black.
The brightest bits are the tyres & chain.

Parting thot: "If you owe the bank $100 that's your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that's the bank's problem." - Jean Paul Getty

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Saucer (soh-say not sor-ser)

I don't know how things are in Anglo-Saxon circles these days, but when I pulled out at age 33 I had never mopped up my gravy with a piece of bread.

At least not in polite company.

Here, happily, such behaviour is, to coin a phrase, de rigeur.
As much part of the great French cultural heritage as, say, peeing at the side of the road.
Anybody seen leaving good gravy on his plate when there is good bread in the basket, must be assumed to be ill.
Or foreign, which comes to the...

There is even a special verb for it - saucer.

I have not read the details of the recent Unesco World Cultural Heritage award to French Gastronomy.
But I am sure mopping up the last of the gravy with fresh French bread must figure prominently.

Parting thot: "You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread." - Henry Miller

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

French Burglary 101

I hesitated before posting this, as I don't approve of disseminating potentially harmful information.
But then - anybody can find it in 5 minutes Googling & burglars already know it.
Innocent householders like me though, maybe don't.
And maybe should.

We recently returned from a week's absence to find we couldn't unlock the usual door to get into the house.
Fortunately, AA had stayed home & had found the problem when inside trying to get out, rather than outside trying to get in, and had been able to use a second entrance, which is normally double-locked & chained.
So we had a problem, but not an emergency.

Had we been stuck outside, we would probably have called out a locksmith, which is notoriously expensive & (as I now know) pointless.

I knew nothing about French (or any other) door-locks, but a bit of Googling soon made things obvious.
See top picture.
The lock is in 2 parts:
1. The big rectangular latch mechanism, which can only be removed from the door when the door is open & after the barrel is removed.
2. The lock barrel, which is inserted in the keyhole of the latch mechanism & held in place by a screw which can only be removed when the door is open...
So nice guys can't remove the lock without unlocking it.

I had not previously realized that there are actually 2 separate lock barrels; one for the key from inside & one for the key from outside.
They are joined together by a very small section of metal, the rest of the keyhole section being cut away between the 2 barrels to allow rotation of the lug which operates the latch.
That very small section of metal is then drastically weakened by being drilled & tapped for the screw which holds the barrel into the latch mechanism.

So you don't need to be much of an engineer (or much of a burglar) to see where to attack this lock.
I used an adjustable spanner, clamped it snuggly on the rectangular section of the protruding barrel, and pushed sideways.
The barrel instantly broke at the ridiculously fragile center portion & the 2 halves fell out of the door.

A screwdriver was enough to slide the latch open & we were home.

Sobering to realize that any burglar with 5 minutes theory/practice could break in silently in less than 30 seconds!

I don't think our lock was unusually fragile either.
They all seem to have much the same weak link.
Even the ones with extremely fancy unreproducible keys & astronomic price tags...
Examples borrowed from

These locks will only keep out people who don't really want to get in, or have only bare hands available.
I have to think seriously about getting something quite different.

Maybe you do too?

Parting thot: "Locks keep out only the honest." - Jewish proverb

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tea-for-Two Bags?

I regularly drink Redbush or Rooibos tea.
At least I do when I can find it, as it is not common here.
It is cheaper to order it from UK by internet & pay 50% extra for postage, than to get it locally.
Best is when kind UK visitors bring a few boxes, free of p&p.

It is supposed to have great soothing capacity.
But as soon as I open the box, I am un-soothed by the inexplicable fact that the bags are in twos...
So, in transfering the 80 bags from the original cardboard box to an air-tight caddy, as recommended, I have to patiently tear apart 40 pairs.
They are not even decently perforated, so care is required to avoid ripping them open, especially if you try to do several at once.

OK - this is not one of life's great tragedies, but why on earth would anybody do it like that?
Don't try to tell me it is a significant cost saving.
Do they think it somehow increases customer satisfaction?
Did nobody ever tell them?

Parting thot: "Age does not diminish the extreme disappointment of having a scoop of ice cream fall from the cone." - Jim Fiebig

Thursday, March 10, 2011

My 3 MWh

Actually 3138kWh.

That's what our solar panels have produced in exactly a year.
Very satisfactory, compared with the 2560kWh suggested (as a conservative estimate) by the salesman.
Or the 2793kWh estimated by the very sophisticated PVSYST simulation program.

But I have to expect about 1% efficiency loss per year.
Already included in the budgeting.

All I have to do now, is to enter 3138kWh on the form kindly sent by Electricité de Strasbourg, send it back & wait for the Euros to appear in the bank...
As we signed up early, when the government was still enthusiastic, we qualify for 0.58€/kWh, so should get 1820€.

For future PhotoVoltaicists, the conditions will be much less attractive.
The tax credit has been slashed from 8000€ to 4000€ & the price per kWh (for new producers) has dropped a lot & will continue to drop.

For once, it looks as though we did something right!
Famous last words?

Parting thot: "Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you." - Maori Proverb

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Watch Out for Hens' Nests!

Not really a very common road sign, but I did notice one today, which triggered this short post.

The normal, and graphic, French expression for a pothole in the road is "Nid de Poule" (Hen's Nest).

Much more frequent are the warnings "Trous en formation" which always conjure images of holes (trous) in the road in some artistic regular array, like the Red Arrows or La Patrouille de France.

The reality is less glamorous - just random potholes.
The "en formation" bit doesn't mean "in formation" - just "in process of development".

Parting thot: "You and I come by road or rail, but economists travel on infrastructure." - Margaret Thatcher

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Outlook: Fine, Fine, Fine...

I already admitted that we often watch the 1-o'clock news on TF1.
That counts as an admission since TF1 is - well, let's say a 'popular' channel.
And Jean-Pierre Pernaud's 13:00 news show is universally mocked as being the opposite of 'biting' journalism.
Anyway, we watch just that bit of TF1, if only for the heritage/beauty-spot cameos.

With amazing frequency - it seems like several times per week - J-PP has an article about yet another poor unfortunate who has sold a car but keeps getting parking & speeding tickets.

This can last for years - tickets can run to dozens or hundreds & the accumulated fines to thousands of Euros!
People tend to contest at first, but find they are beating their heads against an administrative brick wall.
Points are lost from driving licenses & fines are stopped out of wages...
There seem to be serious consequences for a lot of ordinary, helpless people.

The problem appears to be (but I can't really vouch for this) that both the seller & the buyer are supposed to inform the authorities about a car sale, but only the buyer's input causes the computers to change names & addresses for fines!
An increasing number of buyers find it is worth taking the risk of not declaring their purchase, to get immunity from speeding & parking fines.

Presumably some of these crooks get caught & punished, but they never get into the 13:00 news, or anywhere else I know of.
Presumably some of the sellers do manage to finally convince the authorities to stop pestering them & maybe even get their points & Euros back, but you never hear of that either.

There was a government reshuffle on Monday & the new Minister has just announced he wants to get the law changed & the computer systems updated by the end of March.

Parting thot: "The nation should have a tax system that looks like someone designed it on purpose." - William Simon