Friday, September 30, 2005

France pt3: Miscellany

There are two regional drinks of the Charente. One is Cognac, named after the town there where from the 13th century this brandy has been brewed. The other is Pineau, a kind of poor-man’s cognac, originally made from the dregs from the cognac. It is more likely what you’ll find the local’s drink. It is not as strong and has a very nutty taste. In fact it tastes very much like a mix between cognac and amaretto. Two thumbs up.

Farm life is a manly world of hard work and self-sufficiency. As such I felt right at home. Is someone laughing? Whilst there, as well as ridding a wall of a vast, dangerous, and, some would say, carnivorous, Ivy infestation, I sifted rocks, hacked down nettles as tall as a short human, encountered all manner of wild beasties, and, people, I repaired my own hat. There are people – many people – who faced with the non-fastenability of their hat would throw said hat to the ground and declare it lost. I used to be such a guy. Now, I reach for the pliers, then the hammer and a piece of wood and I repair that hat and then I place it upon my head and declare, people, I fixed this!!!
Meanwhile my father has almost-single-handedly extended the house, repaired several barns and dug metres and metres of trenches. But, people, forget perspective: look at the hat.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

For Pete's Sake...

Service announcement:

If you are a Pete*, needs you.
If you are not a Pete*, but know a Pete*, tell them about it.

(* - or relatedly named)

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

France pt2: Creatures

Here is a list of wildlife seen during the trip because all modern British travel writing is influenced by Gerald Durrell:

1. sheep
2. cows
3. goats
4. dogs
5. snails (intact, moving)
6. snails (steaming in garlic sauce)
7. grasshoppers (many)
8. praying mantis (several)
9. spiders (sitting in web - many)
10. spiders (wrapping fly - one)
11. spiders (scurrying away - many)
12. spiders (being huge and lounging above the fireplace - one)
13. worms, flies, beetles, woodlice, aphids, bees, wasps, caterpillars, pond-skaters (many, many)
14. ticks (one)

Animals hoping to see, but didn’t:

1. deer
2. wild boar
3. snakes
4. crosses

The praying mantis were the real find. I had never seen one live outside a zoo before. As a child, my first encounter with one was not as a living specimen, but as a model kit. A model kit which made a giant paying mantis attacking a city. They had always had a sinister connotation for me, and live they live up to that. Their heads that look like hose of the ‘hobbs’ from Quatermass’s pit, their twitching, miserly stance, the fact that the female will often bite the head off the male during sex. The latter I did not see, but I did see one fly, and that was scary enough.

One huge paying mantis we saw was beautifully camouflaged as a bright green leaf. Unfortunately it was sitting amongst a collection of dark leaves making it stand out like a sore thumb at a healthy toe convention.

"You looking at me?"
(picture of typical praying mantis of type seen)

The one creature not mentioned on the list was le loir (or glis glis as the Latins would call it). The local word sounded like ‘Lurie’ but this was an English repetition of a local-dialect French word as told to them by another native-English speaker. But then French being ALL about pronunciation, is always murdered when anyone non-French speaks it. If you don’t say “Coeur de Lion” in a French accent it sounds like “Curdle Ian.” The English word for le loir is the Fat Dormouse, Edible Dormouse or the Squirrel-Tailed Dormouse. I guess it could also be called the Big-Black-Bug-Eyed Squirrel-Tailed Laid-Back Dormouse, but I suspect it isn’t ever called that.

Loirs, with their black beady eyes and busy tails are one of the cutest creatures going. There used to be two that lived somewhere up in my parents’ house and ventured frequently to the storage room to forage. Now there is just one, presumably due to death or estrangement. Cute as they look, they are however considered pests by the locals due to the fact they will chew through everything from plastic bags to electrical wire. My parents’ don’t seem to be chewing much yet, and so have been tolerated. We surprised one in his daily storage rounds, and it sat there trying to make us out in the bright light (they are nocturnal) for a few minutes before it scaled the wall and went beneath the upstairs floor.

"Are yoo ooking at ickle me?"
(picture of typical edible dormouse of type seen but not eaten)

Monday, September 26, 2005

France pt1: On the rails to Nowhere

The importance of getting away from it cannot be over stressed. No matter what ‘it’ is, there is some argument for getting away from ‘it’ for a short period of time. This week’s ‘it’ was civilization. Or more accurately, city living.
The perfect location for this is central France which boasts less towns per square kilometre than most other places in Europe. And at the tail-end of the summer still has pleasant weather, unlike the Netherlands which barely had pleasant weather in the height of summer.
In the middle of the ‘Nowhere’ region of France my parents are (in short bursts) transforming a disused farm into something very habitable. They’ve come a long way in the years they’ve had it, but still there is much to do. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and, as they say, renovation takes twice as long as novation.
The house at least is mostly habitable and one day the associated barns may also be. But for now they range from intact to tumbledown.
One other set of farm houses are visible from the house, but apart from that, and two others not too far away, the place is isolated as far as us city dwellers are concerned.

If you feed in the local airports into the Air France site, it comes back trying to sell you train tickets. Approaching by the air is possible, but not easy, unless you are coming from England, in which case you can fly into some of these smaller airports. This is because the people in that area with any money are not French, they are English.
In fact it was interesting to see how the area has changed in the last few years since I was there. The Charente is getting more like the Dordogne, where, if you meet someone who isn’t English, it is because the are German or Dutch. Okay, this is a slight exaggeration. But when you go into a small town and you hear more people speaking English than in Amsterdam, something is up.
The fact is of my parent’s three neighbours, one of them is an English family.

In the end we flew to Paris and took the train down. French trains are fast and comfortable where English trains are... delayed, so the journey was very pleasant. And the flight was just about up in the air long enough (45 minutes) for the stewardesses to throw sandwiches and coffee at you.

We were met at the train station by my parents. My parents have three modes of transport currently in this country. A jeep, that doesn’t start, a campervan that is plugged in to the electricity and a large, noisy, white van. It is the latter they used to collect us. The seats in the back being especially re-added after much time spent carting building supplies.

In recent years, my parents have had some company when they are there. Not only the dog, suitably chipped for easy movement around Europe, but also two chickens. The chickens spend their day nervously clucking around the grounds pecking at the ground and their evenings bathing in the dirt. They eat well. As well as things they find themselves, such as worms, snails, and even frogs, they have a meal specially cooked for them (I kid you not). In return they lay (usually) one egg each per day. The chickens are definitely free-range – but rarely wander too far away from their barn, even wandering back there at night fall and waiting for it to be shut up.

Chickens have the same walking motion of pigeons and certain other birds, whereby their leg muscles are connected to their neck muscles so that their heads move back and forth as they walk in a ridiculous and not un-John Cleesiastical way. They are endearing and stupid creatures, fussing around like old ladies and eyeing humans with the highest of suspicion.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Smell of Mussels

Once I had a job that sent me all round the world. Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai were all places I knew quite well. Now after two and a half years, my latest job finally sent me on a business trip. To Belgium.

Actually, I was excited. I'd never stayed in Belgium before. I've driven through it a few times, but apart from one football match, once to ask for directions and twice to urinate on my way to and from France, I have never stopped. So it was about time I checked out Brussels and viewed Belgium as more than a convenient loo stop.

Belgium: More than just the road to France.

Belgium is a bilingual country and depending on where you are signs are in Flemish, French, Flemish followed by French or French followed by Flemish. Flemish is Dutch in the same way Geordie is English.

I had experienced this before, in fact. Our directions said we had to go through Liège, then to keep it on one side. But having been through it, all signs for Liège disappeared. But suddenly signs appeared for a place called Luik. We had to stop at a petrol station and ask to realize these are the same place but in the two different languages of the country. It just happens that outside of Luik (Lauk) is Dutch speaking and inside Liège (Lee-eje) is French speaking.

Streets in Brussels have two names, one in French and one in Flemish. Often the names are very different and you have to know them both in order to get around. But it is good to see them together as it helps you decide which is the more pleasant language to read and pronounce, French or Flemish/Dutch.

There are many great, old, ornate buildings in Brussels, avoiding, as it did, much of the demolition work that took place in most European cities between 1939-1945. It has some nice narrow streets which tourists love and commuters hate, and it feels quite French at times.

One feature of the Brussels landscape that does not have two names is Manneken Pis. This is only written in Flemish, even in French sentences. Manneken Pis translates roughly as Piss boy and is basically a small water-feature on the corner of two streets depicting a small boy urinating. It refers to the Belgian equivalent of the Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dyke. Except this boy did not use his finger, and instead of sticking it in a dyke, he used it to wee over the fuse to a gunpowder keg which would have meant the Spanish could have poured into the city and drowned everybody. [See for more information and shameless animation.]

The smells that permeate the streets at certain points of town are of waffles and mussels. Both are smells the country is famous for. The mussels must be fresh water as Brussels is a long way from the sea. The latter smell reaches a peak on the famous narrow street full of restaurants. It’s also full of waiters trying to get you into their restaurant. We picked one because the waiter tried really hard. The chef didn’t do too badly, but didn’t try nearly as hard.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Book Review: Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

Answers to SoH FAQ for Evelyn Waugh was a man; Waugh is pronounced War; Yes his work has been filmed.

These three books follow the military career of Guy Crouchback. A career that lasted the length of the second world war. It is suggested that it is semi-autobiographical.

AtSoHFAQ: semi-autobiographical is not the longest word in the English language; The Second World War happened 60 years ago and was a war bet... yes there are films about it.

This is not one concise story, rather a series of badly-organised events separated by long periods of waiting and convalescence. Life in the army is not all battles and heroism, it is mostly spent being transported to one place and then back again. The men are not perfect heroes, but ordinary, somewhat damaged men. In Guy's case, men hoping for the war to redeem his neglect of self, family and country. They do not spend their days chopping off the heads of foreign guards as souvenirs or single-handedly attacking enemy outposts. That is if you ignore Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, who represents the spirit of gung-ho and is down an arm and and eye as a consequence.

FAQ: gung-ho: US-adopted meaning: "(almost recklessly) eager", from Chinese meaning "work together".

The waiting and recovering are not fun for those involved, but with such shatp writing you don't share the boredom, but do get the expectation. And there are some wonderful set pieces, such as the battle of wills over the 'thunderbox' and the 'show' outpost assault. It has been said this was the finest novel to come out of the war. For portraying the madness, disorganisation and frustration with wit, warmth and pathos, they could be right.

FAQ: War, noun, related to werra, ultimately from Frankish/Germanic, related to Werra, Old High German for confusion. Thus "War on Terror" translates as "Confusion about Terror."