Friday, March 31, 2006


Day 1 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 4:00 am till midday
Tiles made: Demi Ronde 33 BV - 3700
Dry Tiles unstacked: Ventilation Xahara

3700 isn't a lot of tiles. A normal shift on the Mulder should push out 4700-5000.
We lost about an hour in set-up, because the filiere hadn't been set up, or the BV. And whoever mounted the mould left a big piece of plaster under one of them. So 1 tile out of the 5 would stick, wouldn't cut well, until we figured it out and cleared it.
Then at the end of the shift the chain of stacked tiles was full so we had to stop about 1/2 an hour early.
An easy, humdrum day

Thursday, March 30, 2006

every bit as sad as train spotting


France is administered via 95 Departments. They are ordered roughly numerically from 01: Ain to 95: Val-d'Oise. We live in department 16: Charente.

Vehicle registration is administered on a department basis, and the last 2 numbers of every number plate refers to the department the car is registered in. So in the Charente, all number plates end in 16.

As I was driving around, I'd notice number plates from the neighbouring departments, like 24: Dordogne or 33: Gironde.

And then a terrible obsessive/compulsive idea hit me. I have to take note of a care from every department in France. IN ORDER. That was nearly a year ago, and I am now keeping my eyes open for a car from 09: Ariège. Obviously I'll spot more cars in Summer as folk travel around on holiday, and neighbouring departments will get notched up quickly, but I'm dreading getting to the 2 Corsican registrations. Shit, how many Corsicans come on a driving holiday to the Charente?

Depts to date:
01 Ain
02 Aisne
03 Allier
04 Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
05 Hautes-Alpes
06 Alpes-Maritimes
07 Ardèche
08 Ardennes

Now, how sad is that?

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

That is so goddam French

The cafe over the road from our house is run by Michel & Monique Berengeuer.
Michel has a big Gallic mustache and I've been hunting with him a few times.
His Renault 4 (left) usually stinks of dogs and fish.
Today I see he has removed the bench seat from the front (c'etait mort) and replaced it with - a plastic garden chair.

Et le ceinture de sécurité ?
Et quand tu friene - tu arrette mais le siège continue?
Non, je l'ai bloque devant
OK d'ac.

I try hard not to generalise about people or resort to cliché, but bugger me, it's difficult.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Don't put it on your face!

a silly lady
A silly lady, yesterday, in Pugsley, Arizona.

My brother has a friend who is in import/export mainly Spain to UK. She has been involved in importing a clay mudpack thing, and wanted to try some of the clay we use at the factory.
Not a good idea. We add Barium Carbonate to it (to suppress the mineral salts that work their way to the surface during drying and discolour the tiles during firing) as well as Ammonia to prevent a kind of white streaking that can occur on firing.

I found this recommendation of a mudpack on the web -
You really feel this face pack working, drawing out the impurities, leaving your skin feeling nice and smooth and, above all, oil free!
Now how does he know it was impurities being drawn out? Maybe it's the good stuff. How the hell does the mud know what's good and what's bad for your skin?
It's like all those magnet therapies - magnet bracelets etc. How come the magnets only work in a positive way?

But the worst part of the above quote was that it came from a web site of beauty products for MEN! Mankind Ultimate Grooming
Now in the name of all that is holy, what kind of man puts a mud pack on his face and then writes a glowing testimonial about it?
Everytime I use it i get comments about how good my skin looks. I only use a little, once a week around the oily parts of my skin (chin & T zone).

What in blue-rinced Hades is a T zone?

Monday, March 27, 2006

Ça va, ça va

Day 6 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 8:00 pm till 4:00 am
Tiles made: Rives GR13 Gauche Rouge - 4700
Dry Tiles unstacked: Rives Corner RV, Rives GR13 Gauche Rouge

Another warm and humid night. The press turned like a dream. Unfortunately the bastard tipping conveyor belt was still not returning to position after tipping up. It did it about 30 times. Each time required a stop of the press, manual descend the conveyor and restart.
The sparkies finally sorted it by changing a relay.

So now 4 day's rest before the cycle starts again on Friday 4:00 am

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spring has sprung

Day 5 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 8:00 pm till 4:00 am
Tiles made: Rives GR13 Gauche Rouge - 4500
Dry Tiles unstacked: Ventilation BV, Faitieres 1/2 Rond RV, Rives Corner RV

Ah, I love the DTP press, after the Mulder it's like a day off.
I had to jump around tho, because there was a conveyor belt misbehaving and the Rives Corners jamming in the conveyors, as well as having to monitor the press.
The night was very humid and heavy too. T shirt weather. Nounours brought in Champagne and apple tarts to celebrate the birth of his son, which we shared at the break.
They're a funny lot the French, he brings champers and distributes it, and everyone drinks, but no one says "congrats" or "cheers". So I said in a loud voice "Allez, santé, Nounours on te souhaite les meilleurs veux et bon santé à toi, ta femme, et le petit garcon Winnie Ourson" which translates as "So, cheers, Teddy-bear we wish you all the best, good health to you, your wife, and the little boy Winnie the Pooh".
(The pooh thing being a joke about his nickname teddybear see?) I swear if I hadn't made a toast no-one else would have. I probably made some sort of cultural gaffe but fuck it.

The clocks went forward an hour, and since our shift finished at 4:00 am the next shift arrived after we had only done 7 hours. Everyone could go home, but volunteers could stay the extra hour for cleaning and maintenance. We need the money so I stayed on.

Today the weather has been nice and warm, 19 degrees Celcius. The primulas are going mad in ald the roadside ditches, the flies are waking up and the flowering cherries are in bloom.

Love it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

French as she is spoken


There are days when I think my French is quite good, and then there are others when I think I am making no progress at all.

The English people around here all say my French is excellent and say that I'm fluent, but what do they know? Most of them find asking for bread at the boulangerie a daunting task.

I have a theory on why learning a language has these hard and easy phases and this mighty theory involves:
1. An ever-changing concept of the meaning of "fluent"
2. The locals keep raising the game.
3. Many personal skills develop in a series of plateaus (plateaux?)

1. An ever-changing concept of the meaning of "fluent"
Thinking about it honestly, I would be very pleased with the level of my French if I could compare it to what it was like when I first came to France 2 and half years ago. But like many things in life, the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don't know.
And when people say you are "fluent" what does that mean? Fluent in small talk at the cafe? Yes. Fluent enough to understand what's required at work and interact with the others? Sure. Fluent enough to fill in a tax form and discuss fiscal policy with a mortgage broker? I don't think so. Fluent enough to discuss the causes of the rise of right-wing politics in France? Not in any fine detail, no.
So there's fluent and fluent. I had hoped that after nearly 3 years I would be fluent in French. The fact is I am and I amn't.

2. The locals keep raising the game.
When you first start speaking French, it's immediately obvious you can't speak well and so people talk to you slowly and simply.
As you improve, in grammar, vocab and accent, so they start to speak faster and more naturally.
Throw in a few colloquialisms and slang, and man, they start chattering like billy-o. And they no longer stop to check that you're keeping up. As a result, conversational French just never seems to get any easier.

3. Many personal skills develop in a series of plateaus (plateaux?)
I think most things that are learned go through phases of development and consolidation. If you try and take in too much at one go you get swamped. During development phases you're amazed at how much you're learning, but even during consolidation phases little things are being subconsciously heard and filed away.

I also always thought that a major breakthrough in speaking French would be when I stopped thinking in English and translating into French before speaking, and started thing in French. I now think its not as simple as that.
Firstly the translating before speaking gets faster and faster.
Secondly, it depends on the level of conversation. Simple things, easy answers just come straight out in French. Its not that I'm thinking in French as much as not thinking at all. When someone asks you how you are, or if you think its a nice day, you don't actually consider the question, even in Engish - you just blurt it out "I'm fine" or "Yes, its lovely".
More complicated issues though, you pause to consider your response. Often, even in English, you have to choose your words so as not to offend, or to put the right emphsasis.

Friday, March 24, 2006

What a crap day

Day 4 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift midday till 8:00 pm
Tiles made: Ventilation Rouge - 4700
Dry Tiles unstacked: Rives Corner Rouge Veilli

The spanner, apparantly, was "completement morte"

A crap, crap day. The little Rives Corners we were unstacking are a nightmare. They are quite small and often get caught vetween the belts of the conveyors if they are not perfectly lined up. And the Rouge Veiili colouring they were getting involves passing them under a turbine sprayer to get a coat of red (where they would get stuck) and then the conveyor goes round a bend (where they get stuck) before going under a black and then grey powderer. And the two poweders need constant nannying.

Then, just before the halfway break there was a team meeting. The boss said he was pleased with the team and was putting Anthony and David on training courses with the aim of giving them fulll-time contracts later. These two have been temps at the factory for about a year, while I've been there for 15 months. I was so angry and dissapointed at apparantly being passed over. Anthony's not even particularly useful, he's tall and goofy and a bit switched off.

At the end of the shift I collared the boss alone and told him I was disappointed. He asked how I knew I was not being offered a full-time contract if no-one had spoken to me about it. He said he was very pleased with my work and nothing has been finalised.

Maybe I missunderstood something either in the meeting or in what he was saying to me at the end.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A spanner in the works

Day 3 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift midday till 8:00 pm
Tiles made: Rive corner - no idea how many 2500?
Dry Tiles unstacked: vent terron, BV, faitieres 1/2 ronde RV

A metaphore come to life. We were using the Baby meuleuse to make these little rives. These tiles hadn't been made for over a year and the machine was giving all sorts of trouble. It was bust for about 2 hours while the engineers fussed over it.

We finally got going again at 4:00 pm. Three and a half hours later, just at the end of the shift something blocks the filiere (Play-do/toothpaste tube clay former thing). Normally its a lump of dry clay or somesuch, and Nounours tells me to clear the thing and then call it a day.
So I'm poking about with a screwdriver trying to prise something out of the filiere, when I realise that what's blocking it is hard and metallic. So I fetch the torch and call Nounours. He has a look and laughs.

It seems that when the mechanics were clearing up, one of them couldn't find his 10mm pipe spanner(cle a pipe dix). Looks like we've just found it blocking the filiere. He must have put it down near a port hole to the meuleuse and it fell in.

Lucky it didn't cause some serious damage to the machine.

And a nice present for Barcelona and the arriving shift - they et to disassemble and clear the filiere before they can start work!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Les chiottes Turc

Day 2 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 4:00 am till midday
Tiles made: Ventilation BV - 4200
Dry Tiles unstacked: Ventilation BV, Marseilles 50 Rouge

Easy day tiling. However, at the halfway break I had to go to the loo.

Which brings me to:
Top tips for using French squat toilets or turkish toilets as they are known in France.
First, let me decribe what you're looking at. The whole white thing is the china toilet pan, which is at ground level. In this picture all the tile surround is angled toward the pan to make cleaning easier and is a sensible shade of brown. You have just opened the door, and are standing in the doorway looking in and down on the toilet. When you use the toilet you will turn around and face the door. The two raised bits of china with the criss-cross pattern are for your feet. You stand on them and then squat down. Normally, in a full squat, with your feet on the platforms, your arse will be above the hole in the middle. The little black thing on the back is where the flush will come from. Where is the button/chain/lever to make it flush?
Could be bloody anywhere - its part of the fun.

If you have a choice of cubicles, like us at the factory, take time to choose the cleanest. If there is inly the one, like at a cafe, tough.
At a terra cotta tile factory there is lots of clay mud on workers boots. Mud and shit look similar. Luckily they smell different. A muddy stall is not a disaster, whereas a shitty stall definitely is.
Next, make sure there is loo paper (pc in France, short for papier cul or "arse paper") If necessary take the loo paper from the dirty stall to the clean one that is without.
Find a clean piece of floor to put the loo paper on, or tuck it in a pocket.

Now, men - have a piss first, standing up. You're likely to be pissing anyway and doing it first, standing up, minimises the risk of pissing over your trousers later. and don't piss all over the foot ramps, you'll be standing there shortly.
Ladies - sorry, you'll just have to be more careful than us (as usual).

Empty your trouser pockets of anything that can fall out, and put it in a shirt/jacket pocket. You do NOT wan't to be fishing keys/money/wallet out of this mess.

Now, you are facing the door, feet on the pads/steps/platforms. Lower your trousers and pants in a cunning manner so that the doo not touch any mess that is already on the floor. Grab the crotch of your trousers and bunch it up in your fist so you can hold your trousers and pants up away from the floor and out away from your tackle.

Squatting is easier for men. Unless you are a sumo wrestler you won't have the thighs to hold a half squat for a long time. Squat right down and use your hand to hold your tackle behind your bunched-up trousers. Don't be delicate, you don't want to crap or piss in your own pants!
Don't be too far back in the stall or you'll crapp all over the thing that flushes. Or leave a big skid mark. It's no big deal, but hey, we can rise above the level of these people!

Wipe up, but before flushing, step away from the pan. The flush goes everywhere, part of the reason those foot things are raised. To be real safe, open the door and be on the way out as your flush.

Ultimate tip: clench your butt cheeks and hang on till you get home!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The X Files

The tile press I'm spending most time on is the Mulder. I've referenced it in many posts and will continue to do so.

I hope anyone who finds my blog by search on Fox Mulder and Dana Scully are thoroughly, thoroughly dissapointed. Sad bastards. Its not real you know! Its only telly!

Le Zone de Dilbert

Day 1 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 4:00 am till midday
Tiles made: Ventilation BV - 3500
Dry Tiles unstacked: Marseilles 40 Rouge, Marseilles 50 Rouge

A nice easy day because at about 10:45 the transbordeur had a break-down. This meant that the newly pressed tiles could not be taken away, nor fresh chassis delivered. So we swept up for the last hour and a half.
Sometime I must try and describe the way dawn creeps up while your stuck on the press, slowly lighting up the factory skylights. The spring equinox has passed and the sky starts to get light now at 6:30 am. It's getting warm too, T-shirt temperatures today.

As to the title of the post, it seems some jobsworth in the office has decided to normalise the names of all the products. Fair enough. Turns out the same tile might have different name in the factory, the stock yard and the customer catalog. Could be confusing.
So our A3 planning sheets that are posted up showing what each team is making (during the 3 shifts per day on a 10 day period) now shows the standardised product names. And today we made Faitiere/Aretiere a Emboitement de 33.
Which used to be called Ventilation 33.

The type size to fit that lot in on the planning is tiny and illegible.
No-one in the factory knew what the hell a "Faitiere/Aretiere a Emboitement de 33" was.
All the accessories for the press and accompanying documention refer to "Ventilation 33"
If it is made on our press, the Mulder, it is by definition a faitiere (ridge) tile. Our press only makes faitieres, so to repeat the word all over the planning is tautological.
In a noisy factory, when you're shouting at each other, it doesn't help to have to ask "is the next charge going the be the Faitiere/Aretiere a Emboitement de 33?" when you could ask if it's going to be the Ventilations.

Quelle bande de cons.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Shitty Jobs #2 Le Cave

Clay is stored in big bins called tremies or doseurs. These bins are outside the factory and are refilled by big tipper trucks.
The tremies shake their contents at a controlable rate onto conveyor belts beneath them in the cave or cellar.
From there, conveyor beltrs take the clay to the various presses.

The clay at this stage is granular, clumpy, and bits of it bounce off the conveyors onto the floor. Slowly, over the hours and days, little pyramids of dry clay start to accumulate and grow.
If these piles of clay are not cleared up the grow until the cave is knee deep in dry sandy clay. So each team is responsible, at the end of a shift for sweeping out the cave and, if it is done regularly things are kept under control.

Also kept in the cave is the oil pump and resevoir that drives the hydrolic tile presses. This thing makes a hell of a noise, gets very hot and stinks of hot oil.

And the roof level of the cave is just about my head hight, so cleaning the cave involves sweeping up in a hot, noisy dusty little cement hole, semi stooped over to avoud bumping your head.

The noises of the whirring wheels under the conveyor belts, the clay tumbling down onto the conveyors and the rhythmical whirr . . . THUMP of the hydrolic pump makes the experience dante-esque. In summer when you have to get shirtless to cope with the heat it really does resemble hell.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Thieving French Bastards

Day 6 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 8:00 pm till 4:00 am
Tiles made: Marseilles 40 Rouge - 4600
Dry Tiles unstacked: 1/2 Rives Plat Rouge Veilli, Douilles Valmagne Cuivre, Faitiers 1/2 Ronde Brun Veilli

Some low-life son of a bitch went into my locker and stole 90 Euros from my wallet. OK, so I'm an arse for having that much money on me and for not locking the locker, but for the 14 months I've worked there I never have and always thought that a combinantion of working class fraternity and rural French honesty would have made it not necessary.
Crime in rural France is rare. We never lock our house or barn or garage or cars. Very few people do. Everybody knows everyone else and knows each others business.
My co-workers were sympathetic but all warned me of the need to keep things locked up. Apparantly anything not nailed down in the factory will be stolen. I guess I was lucky not to have lost something sooner.

The tiles we made last night on the dreaded Mulder were OK, they are not very heavy but they can be tricky to get out of the press without deforming them. It means having your arms up for an extra 1/2 second wiggling the tile about and it does get tiring. More tiring than a light tile should merit.

The unstacking on the other hand was a right pain in the arse because the demi-rond BV always have a patch that has no paint because the clay has stretched in the mould under pressure. So every tile has to have a "coup d'eponge", a wipe with a sponge soaked in a dilute mixture of the BV. This wipe of every tile takes time so it means the stacking gets really frantic.

The tiles arrive on a conveyor to be restacked on the balancelles. They arrive in batches of 4. Demi-Ronds go into the kiln stacked in 3s. So the procedure is:
Wipe the 4 tiles with the sponge.
Stack 3 of them onto a balancelle.
Carry the spare to the head of the next 4 that have arrived.
Wipe the 4 tiles with the sponge.
Stack 3 of them onto a balancelle.
Carry the 2 sparees and stack them on a balancelle near the next 4 that have arrived.
Wipe one of the 4 and put it on the 2 already on the balancelle.
Wipe the 3 remaining tiles with the sponge.
Stack them onto a balancelle.
Refresh the sponge with BV

This bullshit, together with the tiring press, plus it was the last night shift meant I was dead on my feet. And the heartburn was bad. I was pleased to see the end of the shift.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Double Tuiles - the earth didn't move

Day 5 of the 6 day shift cycle. Shift 8:00 pm till 4:00 am
Tiles made: Double Tuiles GR13 Brun Masse - 4200
Dry Tiles unstacked: Double Tuiles GR13 Rouge

Making roof tiles we use 2 different types of clay:
Red - the clay is light brown and takes on the classic terra cotta red colour on firing. These red tiles are often coloured to get a range of tints from Straw thru Ocre to Rustic Brown
Black - the clay is nearly black and becomes a dark brown/grey on firing. These dark tiles are sometimes coloured to make them slate black

Last night we were making Double Tuiles on the DTP press in the dark clay (brun masse or BM)
The first problem we had was that the clay coming out of the mill was too hard. So hard that the press couldn't squash the tiles enough so they were too thick for the trimmer to cut through.
BM clay is naturally harder than the red and needs more water adding at the mill. So we turned the clay round and round the mill, bypassing the press, effictively passing the sameclay thru the mill so that more and more water can get added to it.
But because the clay was so hard, the trimmed pieces weren't folding and flopping as normal and the converor belt got blocked with all these off-cuts. Had to stop and clear it.
After we get running nicely it turns out that there is no more BM clay at the "preparation de terre" and we will be running out shortly. Great.
They scrape together some of the last stuff but it is really dry and powdery. So dry that even with the water in the mills on full, the clay starts to get too hard again. So we have to stop occasionally and cycle the clay until it softens.

Physically tho, an easy night. Gerard did all the stacking and I watched the press whil Julien set up the Bongio for the next shift. Julien was with us because "Nounours" is off at home with his wife and new baby boy. Julien is very relaxed, nice friendly guy.
Most of the crappy old balancelles have been replaced with 2-tray new green ones. fewer shelves but there are more balancelles closer together so it means more space on the chain

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Change of Team

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The boss asked me to change team, because another team was short-handed.

Said it was to be for "several weeks"

Turns out its permanent.

So now I'm with "Equipe A". The bad news is that so far on average the team spends more time on the Mulder press than the DTP.

The good news is I hardly ever clean the Tremies

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Presses #2 Mulder

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The Mulder is a Dutch press made by the company Tegelem.

Its the oldest press in the factory and the bitch never breaks down. Its the last press that still requires someone to physically catch the tiles in their hands as the come out.

Dangerous, very tiring, dirty.

The clay gets squeezed out of the toothpaste tube mill in half-round or pyramid shape, depending on the tiles to be made and cut into appropriate length slugs.
They travel along a conveyor and then a 4our-fingered plaqueur slaps them into the press.
The press carries 5 lower mould and 1 upper mould. The mould with the fresh clay slug rotates to the top and the upper mould descends and the tile is pressed. Another 72 degree rotation and the tile is trimmed by the ebarbeur. 1 more 72 degree rotation and the tile is now in fronto of the press operator, who has to reach in and get the tile.
Depending on the type of tile and whether or not it has a glaze the tile will either fall out of the press and have to be caught before it does so, or it will be stuck to the mould and has to be prised off before the press turns again.

Sounds like fun doesn't it?

Once the tile is safely in the operator's hands he twists around an places the tile on the wooden chassis that is on the chain behind him. A sensor detects the tile and advances the chain so a fresh chassis is waiting.

5000 times.

Jesus. Its no wonder we take it in 1 hour turns, because after 600 tiles my left shoulder is always burning and my feet hurt from doing the same little 2 step over and over.
The big 50cm demi-ronde tiles weigh over 6 kilos, and they're bloody hard work. If the tiles have a glaze, they are wet and the compressed air blowers built into the mould to help disloge the tile blow wet glaze over me each time, about the time I'm turning to place the tile, so the left side of my head and neck get a speckle of glaze, as doo my glasses.
Often the air blowers get clay in them, and this clay gets shot out by the blowers as a high-speed pellet which hits you in the neck or chest.
At the ebarbeur there is also an electric current to help shock the clay out of the mould. If for some reason the mould is empty that makes big electric sparks that land in your hair and burn.

Sounds like fun doesn't it?

If the tiles have no glaze themn the moulds are covered in blankets of rubber. This stops the tiles sticking to the moulds. No electroshock used thank God, but bits of clay get inbetween the mould and the rubber sheet making uglu dimples in the tile. Some operators don't care but it drives me mad, I can't bear making crap tiles, so after removing and posing the tile, I quickly put my hand behind the rubber and try and scrape off the bits of clay stuck to the mould. Potentially dangerous as the press is about to turn again.

The Mulder was the first press I started on In January 2005. I spent 7 months on the press with Pascal and Cyril in Team E before moving to train on the DTP. I was so pleased to have left the Mulder behind. Then in February 2006 they change my team again and I end up in Team A with Fred "Nounours" and Gerard back on the fucking Mulder again. Shit.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Presses #1 DTP

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The DTP is a circular flat bed, that rotates like a cd or record. It has 3 moulds on the rotating bed and an upper mould that descends to press the tile.
While the tile is being pressed, at the other 2 moulds the pressed tile is being trimmed and lifted off and a fresh clay slug placed on top of the empty mould.

more . . .