Monday, November 17, 2008

Travel 21/7/08 – Nice Return

Today was the first day I managed a swim before breakfast. I think a definition of the active luxury lifestyle I aspire to is that of swimming before breakfast. Every time I do it, I think, I want to do this everyday. Then I forget about it for about 2 years before having the chance to think it again.

After a quiet day by the pool and a quick barbecue during which the next tenants arrived, several of us had to rush to the airport to wait for the Transavia (Latin for "late arrival") flight. Others were leaving in a few days, and Jochem and Claire were going off into the wilds of France to live in a tent.

The rich life in the Riviera hills is definitely a life I could get used to. It can be pleasant even when being clamoured all over by scores of children, which is saying quite a lot.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Travel 20/7/08 – Nice Painting

It was another peaceful day high on the hills above the French Riviera. Even the noises that broke the silence, actually seemed to add to the peace. The constant cricket, the bird with a chirp that sounded like it was sneezing, the occasional jet and the odd child.

First and only port of call was St. Paul de Vence, a village on and almost behind the next hill, famed for being a haunt of artists. Nowadays it's a place for tourists and all the artists who live there, and plenty of others, have little shops. There are certainly some great places there for perusing art. And the town itself is a beautiful, old, walled affair and is particularly enchanting in the streets off the main tourist arteries. The latter are quite choked with international cholesterol.

After wandering around, we all met up for bieres et Oranginas at a large café next to a boules-playing area (pétanquerie?). Here we watched local characters demonstrate their skill at France's national sport. Chuck Norris and Deadly Pipe-Smoking Woman seemed to be thrashing the local mafia.

The trip inspired even more of us to do paintings. Our unimaginably generous host had bought a huge order of canvases of various sizes and invited us to perform art on them. It was one of those exercises that really shows you that putting paint on something and getting a pleasing result is not so difficult. Getting something great, is another matter, of course, but some of us succeeded. Us, not meaning me. Although I was pleased with my red background, that became a Rothko hommage.

Final game of the day was the name game, where names of famous people have to be described to members of your team.

For pictures see: Flickr

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Travel 19/7/08 – Nice Sailing

We all got off to an early start, although nobody as early as Ben who had slept in the treehouse and was awoken by the cracking of dawn which seems to crack in the treehouse long before it cracks anywhere else. Coffee was nabbed and then a taxi arrived to ferry us to the harbour town of Antibes.

French taxi drivers are consistent in that every single one will try to rip you off. It's part of their code. Like the code of black cabs in London which is to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city and political views somewhere to the right of Goebbels; and the code of mini cabs everywhere which is to only rob and murder you when absolutely necessary.

At Antibes, we hired two boats, as one wasn't enough for all of us. We even hired a captain. The larger boat left first and made its way to the bay of billionaires. Here, and elsewhere along the coast, were the houses of the very rich and the very famous. Many of these houses are surprisingly ugly, but all had a great view of the sea. These were the houses of the Heinekens and the BMW's of this world. Further along there were the houses of the Abramovich's and the Madonna.

The bay was a calm, clear area and a few of us jumped in to swim, watching out for the jellyfish that were then plaguing certain areas. In fact there was a lot of talk of these jellyfish, and their status had grown to that of some kind of alien invasion force. In the end a couple of loose ones were spotted, but not the floating mass many were expecting and certainly not the giant, laser-squirting mother-jellyfish I had been expecting.

We had quite a wait for the other, smaller boat as the first one didn't work and they had to get a second. When they eventually arrived, beer and champagne were ferried across by swimmer. After we'd had enough of being surrounded by the houses of the filthy rich, we moved along the coast past the mock Roman pile of Roman Abramovich. The house was the first one we saw with obvious security guards around. According to our captain, who has a story for every boat and building, Abramovich has a policy of only employing security guards who do not speak Russian. Which says a lot about who his enemies are. Our captain also had a Naomi Campbell story, and apparently she really is a bitchy diva, which was a little disappointing.

We passed other harbour towns and then sailed to a small bay between two islands where there is no current and the water awesomely clear. It's basically a parking lot for yachts. Million-, billion- and squillionaires park their boats in a small crowded area of water and show off their engineeringly-enhanced craft and cosmetically-enhanced wives. It's the ultra-rich equivalent of the car park on Skegness seafront. If your boat is not quite up to scratch, the water police come by and tell you it's too crowded and you have to move on. However, even if you have a huge yacht the size of Malta, if it looks okay, there will always be space.

After a little bit of sun bathing amongst the big boats, swimming in the Elysian waters and ogling the bellies of the rich, we moved on. The smaller boat went off for a bit of water skiing and we went to go round a couple of old sailing boats and the dock in another bay for more swimming.

The waters were pretty calm that day, which is good as I am not a great sailor, despite what some people might say. I was only a little queasy a couple of times. The kids faired a little worse.

After returning the boats, we grabbed ice creams and then a couple of taxis to rip us off back home. That night we played Werewolf until fatigue took us all to our various beds.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Travel 18/7/08 – Nice Rest

The "dungeon" area where I was sleeping was devoid of windows and had nothing that could tell you what time it was. At the height of the day it gets no light or heat from outside and it is just as dark as it is in the middle of the night. It would be easy to spend half the day there thinking it was the wee small hours and emerge for breakfast only to find that dinner was being served. Fortunately, my body clock doesn't really like too much sleep and if I get more than I need I tend to feel worse than if I had got much less than I need. So I didn't emerge too late at all.

Mornings for me are pretty much as they were for my prehistoric cousins – who I am convinced lived in either Kenya or Columbia – foraging for coffee. Fortunately for me, things are easier now and I don't have to fight off caffeine-addicted monkeys to be able to pick, crush the beans and then spend four hours fetching water and building a fire. There are machines. Machines that not only, at the press of a button, crush the beans and find and boil the water, but also, I suspect, would fight off caffeine-addicted monkeys, if needed. And what's more I didn't even have to go and find and milk a cow – there was milk in the fridge.

It was a day for taking things easy. In fact, it wouldn't have mattered if I had had to do the monkey fighting, bean crushing and cow milking myself, there was time. And it was remarkable how in the warm bits of France breakfast almost merges into lunch into mid afternoon snack and into dinner. Between food and wine, people swam, painted, read and consumed sun. There was much getting to know our host's kids who are very hands-on and enjoy nothing better than climbing all over you or becoming a fast-flying "bommetje" heading for the water near you.

Soon it was time for a barbeque – one of the best ways to feed lots of people. In fact barbeques can always feed lots more people than you have. Once again the last event of the day was a game. Tonight, Apples to Apples in the palatial treehouse.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Travel 17/7/08 – Nice Trip

For the last few years, there has been an abundance of cheap flights to the south and middle of France from the UK. Recently the Netherlands has been starting down that route with its own cut-rate airline, Transavia. Transavia is very much in the easyjet vein, where the stewards and stewardesses are less and less waiters and waitresses but check-out assistants using the flight not to throw you a cubist meal, but to sell you train-station snacks.

There were five of us travelling together and we met up with two more at the airport. Two cars arrived to pick us up, driven by our hostess and an early-arriver. We were whisked out of Nice and into the nearby hills. Well, some people were whisked there. The sportscar went ahead with Jochem's hair blowing in the wind like a millionaire's moll, but the people carrier the rest of us were in decided to over take the sports car just as it turned off the motorway. Consequence was we missed the turning. We went on and on and on until the next turning. We paid the toll and came off; decided it was too complex to try to get there from this exit and got back on in the other direction. After driving all the way back to where the previous exit was, we discovered that due to one of those quirks that the French love to throw into their road systems, there was no exit on the other side of the payage (tolled motorway), so we had to go on to the next exit - pretty much just before the airport. We paid the toll drove round and came back on the other side. This time we drove somewhat less impatiently and took the right turning, paid the toll, and headed off towards the hills.

Obviously, we arrived much later than the occupants of the sports car, and they were already on the champagne, laid on for our arrival by our insanely generous host. Said host is the owner of said villa in said hill, which is a prime piece of real estate overlooking the coast and St. Paul de Vence. Even in the dark, the clear sky allowed us to look down and see the twinkles of lights that hinted of the playground of the rich and famous that is Nice.

As a side note, our flabbergastingly generous host had just been in Paris a day after Cath and I had (see previous entries). He had been there for the Bastille Day celebrations. The ones that we hadn't known about until we'd arrived and consequently missed.

Once the diffusion off to bed had started, a select few climbed up through the vineyard to the treehouse, which was larger than several flats I've lived in, to play perudo. The night was pleasant and there was talk of sleeping up there. But in the end everyone slept in their allotted places – including Ben and I in the "dungeon" in the bowels of the house - mainly because it involved only one trip.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Travel: 13/7/08 – from Paris

Between checking out and catching our metro, we had time for a brief wander about and to grab a perfect pain au chocolat and a santé which is a tasty almond cookie. The metro took us back to the Gard du Nord where we connected with the Thalys. On the metro, two tramps were discussing the state of they world and giving their view on national politics. The main thrust of their debate was summed up by one of them by saying, "Sarkozy merde."

The trip back was uneventful, except for the fact the whole train seemed to be filled with kids. As you may know I am a strong proponent of there being separate compartments in planes for families with children (or for just the children) and I am now going to add international trains to the remit. I have nothing against children, I just think they should have their own compartment, like smokers and plague victims used to have.

Despite being one of the shortest trips ever, it was great to get away and see one of the world's great cities again. Plus to speak some of my appalling French. Or Revwah, mez anfants.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Travel: 12/7/08 – in Paris

Saturday late morning, we arrived in Paris having had a very pleasant journey. We were fed and able to read, write and perform complex arithmetic. The reason we had decided last minute to wobble off to Paris was that Cath had relatives holidaying there. I'd met them the first time I went to Texas. They live in a huge house and their two kids have the whole basement as their play area. I'm seldom jealous of kids these days, but in this case I made an exception. We checked into our hotel and then soon arranged to meet them.

They were staying reasonably close by, but when you have kids, you don't just pop places, every trip is an exercise in logistics. Cath and I being unencumbered with offspring had just jumped on a train to have a mere 24 hours in Paris. Had we had kids, we would have had to tied them down so that they couldn't fall off things; and make sure there was enough food in their bowls.

We met them at the Bastille and immediately went to eat. Kids need a constant supply of food because as soon as they stop eating they start running around and burning it all up. We found a nicely placed but somewhat touristy café on the side of the square (which is actually more of a roundabout). A constant supply of ham sandwiches came in and various kids and adults had bits of them.

On the island at the centre of the traffic, a stage was being erected. This is because Monday was Bastille Day, when France celebrates the storming of the prison once held in the roundabout in front of us and the freeing of prisoners because they weren't rich. It's a great day to be in France, except we were leaving on Sunday.

Upon leaving the café, the traffic was stopped. Not for us, but because a large precession of people was coming down the street. Not anything to do with the Bastille, but as a protest against nuclear weapons and nuclear things in general, pretty much as all those years ago, gangs of people had marched by the very spot holding up placards stating "Ban The Guillotine," and "No Weapons of Mass Decapitation."

We had been given one recommendation by Claire the super-helpful, French girl from work, and that was the Promenade Planté. It's a raised walkway lined with flowers, bushes and the occasional pond. It's amazingly peaceful for aomewhere in such a big city. It was also a place the kids could run around and be relatively safe, apart from the risk of annoying a few Parisians.

After the walk to and along the Promenade Planté, it was time to refuel the kids. Nearby was a chain of Child-friendly cafes called Hippopotamus. In the end we only had a few Oranginas as time was pressing on. We had a date that evening with Alicia Keyes. Yes, Alicia Keyes. It hadn't been a plan to come all the way to Paris to see this wholesome, young arranbeer, but that's what happened. Or rather, what happened was that our kind hosts were already going to see her and bought us tickets.

The venue is a huge arena-style venue, and was packed to the rafters with enthusiastic French youth. The crowd was got into the mood by one of the Marleys. Old Bob stirred it up with quite a few little darlings and there are Marleys for every day of a fortnight. This one was Stephen and he certainly had his daddy's moves and voice. He had quite a lot of his songs, as well. And why shouldn't he? They'd otherwise only go to waste. Also running around the stage was a little kid waving the Jamaican flag for all he was worth. He seemed a natural on stage and was quite possibly a mini-Marley. It's comforting to know the world will never run out of Marleys.

Before the main act, there was a short film somewhere between the Blues Brothers and wholesome Disney comedy. It's purpose was to show that Alicia wasn't just another off-the-shelf R'n'B singer; She was on a mission, possibly from God. The video also plugged her charity, which does put her above most singers.

After the film came the girl herself with a show that had a lot of pizzaz in the modern R'n'B style. In fact the show often resembled a music video it was so slick and well-choreographed. From time-to-time one of Alicia's pianos popped up or in and she played along. Half way through, she declared that all she wanted to do was play her piano. This she did for three songs then it was back to the pizzaz.

We slipped out early to avoid the rush; waited for a taxi; and then went to a nearby hotel to have them call for one. As we were 6 people they had to call a people carrier, and for that they said they needed to collect 5 euros. It was clearly some rip-off she had just made up, but we were in no position to know that for sure and so handed over the cash. It must be quite sad to spend your day finding petty ways to con people out of piddling bits of money. We headed back to the area of the hotels. It was time for a late-night steak with onion soup. And to introduce the kids to snails.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Travel: 12/7/08 – to Paris

SNCF is the French national train service. It is run, as far as I can see, for the benefit of its employees and as a cover for various fraudulent operations. One of its scams is the international ticket swindle and it works thus:
1. The website only allows you to order tickets for Thalys international trains, in this instance from Amsterdam to Paris.
2. The website gives you no option but to pick the ticket up before travel.
3. The only place to pick up a ticket bought via the SNCF is from the SNCF kiosk.
4. Whilst happily selling you a ticket from Amsterdam, the nearest SNCF kiosk is... in Brussels.
5. The con really kicks in here: Any form of cancellation only gives you a 50% refund.

So having ordered my ticket online via my slow work computer, and having tried to pick it up at Amsterdam station the day before, I found that I couldn't pick it up. I had to cancel it and order a new ticket from a reputable source. Believe me I had help to try and sort this out properly. The mother of a super-helpful French girl at work even went into a station in France on my behalf to argue it. It was a like a scene from "La Petite France," the French "Little Britain."

MOTHER He wants to cancel this ticket.
MOTHER Because he can't pick it up, because he is in Amsterdam and there is no Kiosk there.
VGBD I can give you the ticket.
MOTHER But he needs to have it in Amsterdam tomorrow.
VGBD He can go to the SNCF Kiosk.
MOTHER Do they have one in Amsterdam.
VGBD Oh, no. So what does he want to do?
MOTHER He wants to cancel this ticket.

In other words:
VGBD Ordinateur dit "Non!"

Anyway, despite the wonderful help from the most helpful French mother in the world, all she was able to do in the face of such faceless, circular bureaucracy was cancel the ticket (redeeming half the price) and give me the details to complain. I sent a complaint off, and have heard Sweet SNCFA. Next step is to use cyber-complaint techniques. More on this soon.

Anyway, with our new ticket we obtained entrance to one of the sleek Thalys trains. We were going first class because "first class" on Thalys trains is not much more expensive than "second class." This is because "first class" isn't really that much better than "second class" except they throw food at you and there are (sometimes) electrical sockets.

The staff are possibly the best in the world, except for perhaps Middle-Eastern market traders, at instantly determining someone's nationality and switching to it. They all speak French, Dutch, English and often German.

The train goes from Amsterdam to France via Belgium, which is the country in between in every way possible. To cater for tastes on both sides, breakfast included both hagelslag (chocolate sugar strands beloved by the Dutch on bread) and Laughing Cow (creamy processed cheese associated with the French, but actually seeming somehow more American).

Saturday, November 01, 2008


I have just cycled home in the rain and overtook a man on a unicycle. It's moments like these that make me happy to live in Amsterdam.