Sunday, December 05, 2010

'Tis the Season to be Golly

Fluffy tufts of snow linger in the air deciding where they will look the best. Many decide the most advantageous place is the edge of my gloves where they transform from being crystalline cotton to cold dampness. But I don’t care; I'm cycling through a postcard. The old houses and timelessness of any body of water makes the postcard resemble a reproduction of an Avercamp or Koekkoek. (If only my bike wasn't so modern and stylish.) There's no denying it's winter. Christmas is around the corner and tomorrow is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is the grandfather of Christmas; the Dutch day of present-giving which was transformed into the one we what we know in the UK (and US). The transformation occurred by turning a shoe into a stocking, a bearded, red-wearing bishop into a bearded, red-wearing kindly old man and an army of "Moors" into elves and reindeer.

The "Moors" are the hardest thing to get used to. Everything else is cute and understandable, but I escaped 1970s Britain to avoid ever having to see a white guy blacked up and the sight of "golly wogs" in shop stores, only to find all of that turns up once a year in a supposedly liberal country.

I'm at the point where I'm no longer disturbed by the representations of Zwarte Piet (either in doll form or in the form of a guy with boot polish on his face), but still fail to comprehend it. According to Wikipedia (the Wikileaks of semi-truth), the Zwarte Piet character was originally the Devil (enslaved by Saint Nicholas to help him deliver presents), but evolved to become a black slave, which is no less disturbing.

More recently the slavery elements of the tradition have been attemptedly excised. It is hoped that it is less controversial if the Zwarte Piets are merely "travelling companions" of Sinterklaas. However, is it really less controversial for a bishop to spend most of his life holidaying in Spain accompanied by dozens of much younger, dark-skinned men? Especially a bishop who once a year sails up to the Netherlands with his young holiday chums, showers the good local children with sweets and gifts and kidnaps the bad ones and takes them back to Spain.

It's no wonder a few details got changed in the evolution to Santa and Christmas. Although it's not clear where the tradition that Santa is an alcoholic came from. But I assume that must be what replaced the holidaying in Spain with young, black men.

Monday, October 11, 2010


So I was in a rehearsal room the other day and I saw a little box. "A present?" I thought. I went over and looked at it. It was already opened at one end. On it was some Dutch. The first word was "giftig." You can't get a more present-like word. The second word was "lokaas" which must be related to lokaal, which means room or place. So this little box was a "gifty room." Before I opened up the box and handled (and possibly even devoured) my present, I bothered to read the English that was also on the box. It said, "poisoned bait." It wasn't a nice gift for me, it was a deadly surprise for mice. It's like Dutch is out there just to trap and poison foreigners.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Amsterdam: Ant Misbehaving

Something I like about the newer Amsterdam trams is they have sand in them. They have little windows here and there (usually near the joints, i.e. the bendy bits) where you can look through and see sand. I haven't seen any signs yet, but my theory is that they are ant farms. You know, the thin layer of sand between two sheets of glass that as a kid you introduced ants to so you could see their tunnelling? It was a huge crazy in 1957.

1950s ant farmer
So in my theory, eventually we'll start seeing ant trails in these little slots and occasional glimpses of ants. And this is a billion times more fascinating than the terrible adverts and annoying twirling news items they have on the TV screens. Eventually, I hope they fill the TV screens with sand and introduce the ants into there as well.

A terminal case of the termites
I have an extension to my theory in that these new trams are run on some form of ant power. This is all well and good, and ecological, if somewhat exploitative, but it raises one huge issue. What happens when an ant-power tram collides with one of the future nuclear-powered superbusses? Huh? Has nobody seen Them!? The movie where giant ants terrorise the middle of nowhere and bog down the US army in a protracted desert conflict. Do you really want to see huge, radioactive ants attacking government buildings and eating tourists? Actually, that would be pretty cool. I'm off to design an atomic superbus and engineer an accident. See you in 30 years.

Them! (1954): IMDB

Friday, October 01, 2010

Did Somebody Order A Plumber?

I'm always impressed when I use my Dutch and get what I wanted. Today I ordered a plumber (loodgieter, or "lead pourer") and within an hour one was at my door. Plumbers normally only arrive this fast in porn films. In fact there they usually turn up uninvited (but definitely welcome).

Ours was too gumpy to be in a porn movie, but he came bearing gadgets. Modern plumbing has changed a lot since the Victorian days when plumbers would send small foetuses down the pipes to clean them. Nowadays, the chief tool of the trade is an ultra-powerful vacuum cleaner that will suck pretty much anything out of the drain. I expected to hear the squeak of sewer rats and the clatter of downstairs' washing up. But instead we got the occasional wet thump of hair, rice, pasta, various unclogging agents, uncategorizable grey slime and some more hair. I blame my girlfriend and our cats for this hair, despite the fact I'm the hairiest thing in the house.

The grumpy chap grew less grumpy the more he got to use his vacuum cleaner and the less clogged our pipes became. Until he was quite chirpy as he dragged his stuff back down the stairs.

We had a great old conversation circled solely on our drains, and our previous efforts and his current efforts to clear them. His strong accent and use of the vernacular meant I didn't always understand him and my inability to find the words I needed meant I spoke without committing too much content. Sometimes I had a blank expression that said, "I didn't understand that," and sometimes he had a blank expression that said, "That made no sense." But in my mind we were two Oscar Wilde characters exchanging witticisms. But actually our dialogue was much more stilted and banal. A lot more like the dialogue in a porn film. But without the undercurrent of sex and the over-suggestiveness. At least I hope so. I never intended there to be any of that, of course, but with my control over the Dutch language, who knows how it came out. It would explain why he got so chirpy. Oh, God! Now, I can't be sure I didn't say something like "That's quite a powerful suction device you've got there; I can't wait for you to wrap it round my piping and start clearing it out." Oh, God!!! And I thought it had gone so well.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Travel: France Aug 2010: Festival International d'animaux

At this state of my life, things have transpired to give me two French holidays a year. One in the millionaires' playground of St. Tropez, the other in the French region of Nullepart Centre (i.e. the middle of nowhere). My parents, some years back, just before it became trendy and a several years before it became passé, bought a set of tumbledown French farm buildings with a view to making them habitable enough for an occasional summer residence.

Over the years, much time and effort has gone into making these buildings habitable, and now, many years later, a couple of them are. Although most of the structures retain their tumbledown charm.

Scary Spider (c) 2010 Peter More
Living there, you must first get over any qualms you have of cohabiting with nature. You must embrace "l'existence rural" (which I just made up). Not only does the surrounding countryside teem with wildlife, but so does the house. The house is occupied by flies, wasps and moths; a hundred varieties of spider (from large to superlarge, which live off the above); and several sizes of alien centipede things (which apparently eat the spiders). Not to mention edible dormice which will you will hear more of soon.

Spider-eating centipede (c) 2010 Peter More
And I haven't even begun to mention the wildlife outside, including ants, grasshoppers, crickets, bees, hornets, butterflies, frogs, slugs, bats, beetles, lizards, snakes, deer, glow worms, owls, pigeons, pheasants, and all manner of other wild things.

Cool Chickens (c) 2010 Peter More
As well as this wildlife, there is some tamelife. My parents have a couple of chickens which spend their time scratching around the ground and once a day yodeling to announce the arrival of a new egg. Forget your dogs, cats and newborn babies, chickens make the best pets. They have personality, curiosity and form a close companionship which breaks down the moment food appears.

Sheep (c) 2010 Peter More
There are also sheep in one of their fields (courtesy of a local farmer). Sheep are awesome. Forget your prejudices, sheep all look very distinct from each other and have very different personalities.

And, of course, there was my parents' faithful, aging dog, Marley.

Marley (c) 2010 Peter More
And to add to all of this, we brought our own cats, just in case there weren't enough creatures lying around. The cat's story, I'll tell soon. In fact, pretty much every one of the creatures listed above will get its own story. Oh, and there will even be monkeys.

Monkey (c) 2010 Peter More

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Five stages of being drink on the internet

  1. Twipsy
  2. Google-Eyed
  3. Best Friends Reunited
  4. Off Your Facebook
  5. Vomeo

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Light Entertainment; or the Haynes Guide to French

French is one of those languages where if you know a little, it's not enough. A little bit of French will usually be enough to lead you in totally the wrong direction. A good example is something that appeared on a recent garage invoice:

"allumeur d'allumage"

Now a little bit of French will tell you this must have something to do with the lights.
  • Maybe the light that indicates that the lights are lit? FAUX!
  • Is it something that turns the lights on? FAUX!
  • Is it the ring in the cigarette lighter? FAUX!

Answer: It's the distributor.

Because we went through this process, I will now not forget this for a long, long time. Probably not until just before I next need it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Paradis Du Porc

France is something of a Pork Paradise. I know that sounds like the worst 1970s porn movie ever, but it is a very good way to describe the things on a French lunch table. Especially if I have set said table. Most forms of Saucissons contain at least 3 types of pork, as do pâtés of any flavour, including no doubt the "surprise végétalien." And then there's Rillettes du Mans, which is basically spreadable pork in a pot. The ingredients list of Rillettes du Mans claims that in every 100g of the product, there is 108g of porc. Yes, the product is 108% Pork, which is actually one of the best porn movies of the 1970s.

9 More Pork-related porn movies
1. The Pâté Hearst Story
2. Pig Male-ion
3. The Porkman Always Ribs Twice
4. Babyback Mountain
5. Silver Streaky
6. The Fabulous Bacon Boys
7. The Shoulder-Shank Connection
8. I Am Ham
9. The Loin King

If anything demonstrates the porkular paradise that is much of France, it is this illustration from a packet of pork chops. It shows a pig all excited with a knife and fork in his trotters. Unfortunately, I think he didn't quite understand what was said.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sleep Deprivation

It's 3 am. Having been soundly asleep a short while before, I answered the screams of distress of a loved one. Armed with only my trusty sandal, I crushed her assailant and a couple of innocent bystanders. I say assailant, but really I mean centipede that happened to be hanging about nearby when she put her light on.

To go from deep sleep to savage killer in a few seconds leaves a man wired. So as my loved one thanked me and quickly dropped back into that same solid sleep I had recently enjoyed, I sat up, buzzing, unable to retain that state for a good while.

As ever, no rest for the heroic.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

My Old Dutch

One of the problems with my Dutch is that it sounds better than it is.  I have a good accent, however I don't have the vocabulary to back it up. Consequently people speed on a dime a dozen assuming I'm fluent and leave me trailing behind trying to work out what a watjenoemhet is and whether not knowing it is important to everything else being said. I'm a long way from fluent. I do understand quite a bit, but people frequently throw words in that I can't fathom. Words like "doorgronden."

Example of mass Dutch communication (c) 2009 Peter More
What happens even more is that I'm speaking and I can't remember, or simply never knew, the Dutch word for something. I have, however, developed some tools to deal with this.
  1. Say the English word but pronounce it in a Dutch way.
    The rule of thumb with Dutch is that if a word looks the same as the English word, then it is pronounced completely differently. But knowing a few simple pronunciation guidelines will allow you to remanglify the word into Dutch.
    (There is a corollary rule that states that if an English word and Dutch word sound the same, then, when written, they bare almost no resemblance to each other, for example: "fluent" and "vloeiend.")

    1. Say the English word in an English way.
    Most Dutch people speak English at a level I will never attain in Dutch. Plus when Dutch borrows words from English, it pronounces them almost the same for a few years before it remanglifies them. So the second method is to simply say the word the English way, and I usually revert to my native accent. It's remarkable how well this also works.

    1. Wordfabricationism
    The preferred method the Dutch use for getting a new word into their language is to make one up out of existing words. Thus ziekenhouse is hospital (literally, sick house), and wapenstilstandsonderhandelingen (supposedly the longest word in the standard dictionary) is cease-fire negotiations (literally, weapon standstill under-handling). So the third, and most fun, method to guess the Dutch word is to consolidate shorter words that describe the thing in the hope that it is correct or conveys enough of the meaning to work as a substitue word. Thus if you don't know the word for envy, you could try translating "stuff-want-ness" or "ox-covet-ism." You'll probably be wrong, but you'll amuse the listener and, if you're lucky, they might even think you're Belgian.

    Thursday, August 05, 2010

    Oh, Voiture (French Driving)

    I have discussed before the French attitude to driving. The French drive like tomorrow is for wimps and today is the last day of the rest of their lives. As the very French Philosopher Descartes put it, "I think, therefore I am; I drive, therefore I probably won't be much longer."

    Scene From French Road (c) 2010 Peter More
    In driving down the small roads of rural France, one meets two classes of "other road users." Those who drive three times slower than you and those drive three times faster than you. The former is usually a nonchalant, sun-weathered rustic driving some enormous piece of farm equipment; or it's a little, old couple on holiday from somewhere outside of France. Little, old, French couples are so surprised they are still living, they speed along the narrow, country backstreets like aging bats out of Old Peoples' Hell.

    So while us tourists grip the simulated leather of our vehicles as we scoot along, not wanting driving on a French road be the last thing we ever do, the French are content in the knowledge that, at some point, driving on a French road will be the last thing they ever do. So once again the French win on philosophy, even if that philosophy is "Drive fast; die young."

    Thursday, June 17, 2010

    Travel 6/8/2009, Czech Republic: Pre-Czech Flight

    Sky Europe is an Eastern European budget airline which somehow makes it sound like it should be dodgier and less safe than Ryanair, but it isn't.

    It's the way the world's going. In the old days, if you had a plumbing job, you'd get in the very friendly Mr O'Leary, the Irish plumber to do it. But after a while you got sick of the cut corners, mysterious surcharges and endless delays; and nowadays everyone has an Eastern European plumber. Budget airlines are going the same way.

    Being a budget airline, Sky Europe flights leave from the distant, isolated cheap zone at Schiphol rather than the main terminal. Here there is one duty-free shop and one "grab-and-fly" (snack kiosk), that's it. And of course, the flight was delayed for some reason. I'm not sure if we ever really found out why, but it must have been drastic as the plane we eventually got wasn't even a Sky Europe plane.

    The flight to Prague was quick and painless. We landed late at the airport, but had counted on this: We had one night booked at a hotel 2 minutes walk from the main terminal. We only had to dodge one police armoured car to get there. It's possibly just there to give tourists a taste of the iron-curtain days.

    But anyway, we strode past the mobile monument to state oppression and checked in to our modern slab of business luxury. The hotel was anything but iron curtain being a brand, spanking new Marriott.

    Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Travel: 7/5/10: Stanstead 4:25pm

    Faces on BuildingsI'm sitting eating a "Moor-ish" (their name) sandwich in an airport departure lounge whilst my three travelling companions easyjet their way back to the Netherlands. It's been a little while since I've been stuck at an airport for a so long on my own. I wish I had my laptop, but of course I have nature's laptop – a pen and paper.

    I was supposed to be on the same flight as the others but I missed it by a gnat's cock. In fact, I sat and watched the plane sit at the gate for five minutes, door open, but not being allowed to board. There was ample time to squeeze me onto that flight, but international regulations dictate that easyjet need their £43 ticket change fee.

    Back of Cambridge University buildingsThe friendly staff at the gate explained that my friends had tried to help, but planes aren't buses, no matter how much the cheap ones feel like it. You can't run after them attracting the attention of the driver or hang off the back.

    One way that easyjet is trying to make itself more like a bus service is by not allocating seats. This means you adopt the same tactics you do on busses to keep the seat next to you – you lay stuff there, you puff yourself up so that you spill over the arm rests and you try to look like the sort of person who doesn't bathe very often. Another great trick is to look really, really keen for the next person to sit there, smiling and nodding at anyone who so much as glances in your direction. However, this can backfire terribly as it does attract the sort of people for whom this is normal behaviour.

    Bridge over the CanalHow I came to miss my flight was a simple tale of a lost phone, a rental car, a kindly guy called Phil and his two helpful companions who brought the phone back from the rental car lot, a pimply twat who was too limp in the life department to help me get through security quicker, and whoever it was who came up with the concept that airports should be so sprawling that they need metro systems to connect the parts.

    It was a disappointing turn in a day that had seen us wake up in a top hotel, feast for breakfast, wander the hallowed streets of Cambridge and go punting. It was a great chance to see how the other half is educated. (The other half being the smarter and/or better off portion of society.) It had all gone very well until the "phone left in the rental car" incident. It meant I had to travel alone and miss a show I was supposed to be in. In fact I only got to the venue just as I was supposed to go on stage and co-host my student class' show. Real last minute stuff.

    Swan and DucksAs I said, I had to wait at the gate until my plane had pushed off. It was an inordinately long time to sit and stare at a vehicle you were supposed to be on. Once it had gone, the girl at the gate was able to take me back to the check-in desks. Getting back there for staff isn't quite the ordeal it is for passengers because they know secret back routes only available to those with passes and a magic code. The corridors are narrow and even less glamorous than the rest of the airport, but they feel like intrigue. You feel like you've been taken into a kind of drab yet secret world.

    The girl at the easyjet abnormal events desk was affable, pretty yet somehow ruthless. In fact she had no ruths whatsoever. She came right out and demanded her £43 to get on the next flight. And she had no trouble repeating it when I happened to change the subject. "The subject," incidentally, is probably what she calls her boyfriend.

    Despite being sat at a check-in desk, all this girl could do was change my ticket, demand money, demand money again and print receipts. I had to go a few desks down, to an inordinately chirpy girl, to get issued with a boarding pass.

    me PuntingIt's rare that you get the chance to go through the same security control area twice in one day, so it was interesting to have confirmed what was always reasonably obvious: Implementation of the security rules and calibration of security equipment are very inconsistent.

    First time I went through I did not have to remove my shoes; however the second time, the Spaniard who puts things in trays told everyone to remove their shoes. With my shoes on, I hadn't set the scanner off. With them, however, it did go off. It could, perhaps be sensitive to smell as I'd done a lot of rushing since the last time I'd been through security.

    The security guy patted me down exactly the way he was supposed to, but something told me I was not the first person the machine had erroneously fingered. This guy probably had to pat down nearly everyone who went through, whereas, the guy at the scanner three doors down, where I'd gone through earlier, merely waved everyone past except the odd terrorist who'd left his keys in his pocket.

    Even easyjet ground crew lament the way the company does certain things, especially the speedy boarding con (my words, not theirs) and the fact the company is becoming more and more like Aer Fungus (Ryan Air) in terms of shovelling customers into a bucket of a plane and charging for any form of abnormality.

    I'm also amused that easyjet offer "memorabilia" in their in flight catalogue, and even go as far as announcing it during the flight. How many people want a souvenir of an easyjet flight? Something to help you forget it, yes. But a reminder?
    "What's this plane on your mantelpiece?"
    "Oh, that was the time we flew from London to Birmingham for £25. Such happy times; just the four of us... and two hundred others, squashed into tiny seats; and such beautiful delays."
    "Why doesn't it have any wings?"
    "Ah, wings cost extra."

    Friday, May 14, 2010

    Travel: France 11-15/7/09: To See You... Nice

    Boule by MariaHaving lived the French rural life for a good week or so, it was now time to sample the French millionaire lifestyle. This was several days of swimming in the pool, playing jou de boule, and being driven around in sports cars by rarely less than two women.

    At night we played Werewolf as a pleaser of both children and adults. For those who don’t know Werewolf, it's a game where one or two people (unknown to the others) are werewolves and slowly pick off villagers one by one whilst villagers desperately burn each other at the stake trying to flush out the werewolves. It's a metaphor for politics, I believe. After this, I slept in a room that Sophie Marceau once lay naked in. Apparently.

    We ate at restaurants right on the Mediterranean seafront. I mean literally right on the Mediterranean seafront. We jumped into the sea straight from the deck our table was on. It's a part of the world all girls wear bikinis and things like being in a wheelchair or merely shopping doesn't exempt you in any way.

    The fourth day was Bastille Day; when the French celebrate the storming of the Bastille, an event which was a vital element in getting the French Revolution going. The Bastille, a notorious prison in Paris, very much represented state tyranny and so its storming has come to encapsulate and symbolise the liberation of the French people from oppression. Unfortunately the liberatees who represent the French people, in this case, were four forgers, two lunatics and an aristocratic pervert. The French are perfectly happy that these people are used to represent them; and not having seen any statistics, I couldn't say if this is or is not representational of French Society.

    watching pizzas by MariaTo celebrate this historic event, we went to the beach at Cannes. We went early to get a spot and swim. It was supercrazybusy. The whole of the south of France drove into Cannes that afternoon and were all picking out spots on the beach. Cannes is quite a long beach but soon you were lucky if you saw a patch of sand. There were thousands and thousands of people there. Possibly hundreds of thousands. And I was the whitest person there. I kid you not. I trudged up and down that beach trying to find people as or more ashen than I, but to no avail. This was a place for tanned bodies. There may well be pale people such as myself in Cannes, but they probably live in the sewer.

    Bastille Day is traditionally celebrated with fireworks. Very much like the American 4th of July, a date that celebrates a similar event: when American citizens stormed Boston and rescued four barrels of Darjeeling, two of Oolong and a vat of Earl Grey. It seems freedom from oppression is frequently celebrated by a show of shock and awe.

    At Cannes, where they have a few bob (i.e. they're rich), the magnificent firework display is accompanied by a lot of music broadcast from off shore. There were some real moments of awe with huge, well-choreographed explosions of gunpowder and glitter over the sea. The shock came mostly from fireworks that individuals and small groups were letting off on the beach. The French let off fireworks the way they drive. Like they want to die and take as many of les bâtards with them as possible.

    Leaving Cannes was even slower than getting in because half of France was leaving it at exactly the same time. It took an hour and a half instead of about 20 minutes.

    Synchronised SwimmingThere are those who say U2 are a force for good. (Members of the band mainly.) But if proof was needed to the contrary, which is isn't, when it came time to leave, Bonio, The Side, Larry and Moe caused nothing but havoc. Two people missed flights thanks to their concert antics. I was dropped off super early to avoid the traffic from people leaving the scene of the crime. I believe this was actually called the Carbon Footprint Tour by the press. It certainly caused unnecessary trips and noise pollution. Many called it an egological disaster.

    Again my flight was full of kids, but this time it affected me much less. Am I becoming immune? Maybe more tolerant? Or maybe a long holiday had relaxed me so much that even the combined horror of children and U2, could do nothing to destroy it. Peace out!

    Wednesday, May 12, 2010

    Travel: France 10/7/09: Nice To See You

    "Revenge is sweet, chocolaty and frequently unnoticed by the recipient."

    The morning of the last day of this leg of the trip was bright and early. After an encounter with the space centipede and 2 strong coffees, it was time to drive to Bordeaux again. This time to drop the car off with the rental company and for me to catch a flight to the next stage of the adventure.

    Space Insect in JarThe French don't seam to deal with money the same way the rest of Europe does. Apart from everyone still thinking in Francs and converting to Euros, it seems, they handle bank and credit cards very differently to how I'm used to. Several times I tried to pay with my credit card only to find I not only needed to sign, but also enter my PIN number. In fact sometimes I didn't even have to sign, but I always had to PIN. I do have a PIN number for my credit card, but I never use it and so don't remember it. So I had to see whether they would allow me to use my debit card, which I do know the PIN for because I absolutely need to use the PIN for it to work. Firstly I was surprised that I could use my debit card, because only a few years ago, only credit cards seemed to work outside of where you lived, and supraflabbergasted that I had to (a) sign the chit and (b) not use my PIN number. Several time this happened, and I was sure when I came home my bank was going to call me up and demand why I signed for the card I need to PIN for and PINned for the card I need to sign for, but no. The bank accepted it.

    Because the French roads, particularly those around cities, are unpredictable trafficly, I had allowed plenty of time. I had two hours to kill before my plane left, which I did, in part, with the sandwiches my mum had made and a coffee some unknown barista made me. I had the coffee at the more reasonable looking of the coffee places at the smallish airport. The guy seemed so amenable despite being surrounded by screaming kids, I ended up being relatively generous with the tip.

    Because I was there early and had time to relax and observe airport life. It was Jack Dee, I think who speculated that parents only take their kids to supermarkets so that they could spank them. I've noticed that parents bring their kids to airports so that they can shout at them over the longest possible distance.

    The airport was lousy with Brits who were all heading back to the UK. I, however, was on my way to Nice, adventure playground of the rich.

    Once it became time for my plane to start doing things, with no indication of such on the board, I became concerned. If it didn't start doing things soon, it would be late. Then, after a time, the signs changed to say that the flight was "Terminé" which the board translated as "Finished." I had a few score minutes to wonder what that really meant, before they found the actual word they meant: "Retardé." Indeed. (It means delayed.)

    To stop rioting, they gave out free drink coupons. So, as I waited for l'avion retardé, I went back to the coffee place and gave the waiter my coupon. He took it and plonked a paper cup of coffee down gruffly in front of me. I felt dreadful that I'd over tipped him the earlier time. And to get my own back I decided to buy a pain-au-chocolate from elsewhere. (Revenge is sweet, chocolaty and frequently unnoticed by the recipient.)

    It was during this drink I realised that my passport was missing. I panicked about all the places I could have left it, all the people who could have taken it, and what they were now doing with my identity. I was probably executing exiled Palestinians as we spoke. Then realised I must have left it when I got the voucher from the pretty, grumpy lady at the far end of the terminal. I was correct.

    I got my pain-au-chocolate from Paul Pain-Au-Chocolate who make all the regular French pâtisserie things but with whole wheat flour so they can charge you 50% more. (This is on top of the 75% more for merely being situated at an airport.) I'm not sure why leaving the wheat "whole" costs more than removing part of it, but apparently it does.

    Eventually, the boards started saying positive things. In fact, they said in the far left column...


    ...which cheered me up. Breasts are to men what shoes are to many women: Any mention of them, reference to them, or humorous suggestion as to their importance in life is very cheering indeed.

    Apparently the delay was due to part or all of the plane being missing. The plane we got to replace it was a tatty, old thing with an engine that made a clunky sound as we boarded. What's more, it was full of kids. (The plane that is, not the engine.) Although, that wasn't a fault of the plane itself. To keep me from crying and shouting, I was given an International Herald Tribute. Nothing was given to the kid behind me who was not only a screamer but a kicker.

    baby trailerThe good thing about the new plane was that it was bigger than the one we were originally supposed to have. It had six seats across instead of four. It meant lots of room (sideways, at least). In fact on my row, there was me by one window and on the other side by the other window was a lone child. Lone children are the best children on planes because they are always quiet and well behaved. Something about the presence of parents makes children jump up and down and scream the whole flight. Or it could be that children travelling alone are terrified into silence, in which case perhaps the solution is to send kids on different flights to their parents. Maybe a separate glider is towed behind the real plane with the kids on board like those baby boxes that get towed behind bikes.

    As with the whole trip so far, I was photographing like I was a paparazzo and nature some knickerless starlet. Once in the air, I told myself to stop drooling and put the camera away. Just as I did a great set of mountains came thrusting over the horizon. Oh, yeah, nature, give me tectonic movement.

    Riviera from planeNice airport is, like many airports in affluent seaside areas, created on reclaimed land so that it doesn't take up valuable real estate but can still be close to the town. As I believe is the norm in Nice, I was picked up and driven to where I was staying by two girls in a sports car. As they say, "Qui est le père?"

    Monday, May 03, 2010

    Travel: France 8-9/7/09: When Cows Fly

    four wine glassesI'm always on the look out for ways to improve my schoolboy French. On a trip to L'Eclerc, I found a translation of a book I had recently finished; namely, "Le Chien Des Baskervilles." It was however aimed at persons "a partir de 10 ans" so was a little advanced, but at least the story was fresh in my head. I never finished it, so it puts it in the same category as all those other books I bought to help me with my French that proved too old for me: Cyrano de Bergerac, En attendant Godot, Les Men in Black.

    flowersChildren are such adorable, inquisitive, little darlings, as I believe I have said before. A couple of specimens are kept down at the nearby farm and frequently escape and come over our way to be their adorable, inquisitive, little selves. The boy likes to be useful and is happy to help out with any manual labour you need doing especially if it involves throwing bricks about and getting muddy. The girl is a constant stream of questions:
    "What are you doing here?"
    "Why do you have that hat?"
    "Why do you have girl's hair?"
    These were three she asked me in rapid succession. They are innocuous now, if a little cutting on occasion, but how long before they become,
    "What time do you call this?"
    "Is that lipstick on your shirt?"
    "What do you mean you invited your boss to tea on the same Sunday my parents are coming?"
    ...and suddenly your daughter is a 1970s sitcom wife.

    ruins detailFor dinner one night we had mouclade, which is a huge pile of mussels cooked in a tasty sauce. It helped me to invent the latest food sensation – mussels individually wrapped in a little red seaweed ribbon. It's called "Moules en Rouge." I think it's a great idea, and if I were ever to open a restaurant, which is a bad idea, it would, so far, be the only thing on the menu.

    The whole time we had been at my parents' place, we had been hearing about a missing cow. Country folk are often seem blasé about their animals. Especially when they go missing. I believe they figure that they're wondering around nearby. It's not like they're hitching their way to the big city. They usually get found by other passing country folk (who can look at a cow and know exactly whose it is) or return of their own volition because they are hungry or they miss the herd or their udders need emptying.

    ruins detailWhat surprised me most about it all was the revelation that cows can jump. I had heard tell of this before, but I'm starting to believe it. Apparently, those big docile things in that there field, ruminating and waiting for clouds so they have a good excuse to lie down, can, if they get the mood, take a big long run-up and jump over that hedge. And you don't want to be on the other side of that hedge when 800 kilos of flying bovine starts descending.

    moon over sunflowers

    Friday, April 30, 2010

    Travel: France 3-7/7/09 part 2: Peopleville

    Children crossing SignDespite being surrounded by the massed forces of Nature, we were able to relax quite a bit. The weather for the most part was great. Perhaps a bit too sunny for the paler man, but paler people learn early not to complain about these things when less pale people are around.

    Evenings were spent playing scrabble and drinking Pineau, a local brandy / grape juice concoction that's very tasty. Daytimes were spent walking, helping my parents turn their partly dilapidated farm into somewhere even more habitable, feeding the sheep, and visiting several of the local supermarkets.

    Church SheepLidls are everywhere now, like a misspelt rash, but I'm still very fond of L'Eclerc. Mainly because it has great stationery. I only go crazy about three things: obscure music, terrible movies and stationery. We're not so different, you and I.

    You have to be careful shopping in France. French has so many words that we (English speakers) have stolen and misappropriated that danger lurks on every sign. Supposing you are after "lady things" for "that time of the month" (aka "judgement week"). Then, you need a "tampon hygiénique." Don't get a "tampon encreur" (ink pad), it will only make things worse. And certainly don't get a "tampon à récurer" (scouring pad).

    Auto faireMost of the work we were doing for my parents involved shifting rocks and tiles from a mound of earth into a trench. It was actually enjoyable because we don't do manual labour like this at all, normally. If we were doing the same thing for money; or under the supervision of an armed guard, we'd absolutely hate it. But doing it voluntarily to help out family is actually fun and rewarding in a way far superior to receiving a pile of money or not being shot in the head. The novelty value helps a great deal, as well.

    Car MontageIt wasn't all shopping, hard graft and keeping out of the way of civilisation. We were also managing to get out and experience some local culture (assuming you don't count the supermarkets as local culture). We ate out in several local villages and we even got to witness a wedding entourage, French style. The custom these days seems to be for the wedding convoy to drive through as many villages as possible, making lots and lots of noise (shouting, honking horns, etc). It looks quite fun, and if you don't annoy the world on your wedding day, then the next chance is usually your funeral. So I say, go for it.

    Truck MontageWe also visited a classic car rally in a place called Champagne Mouton (or "Fizzy Wine Sheep Meat"). Here a large spread of old cars, tractors and caravans were parked up for the delight of the general public. It was fascinating to see the development of the tractor. It's a real evolution, starting from a simple wheeled frame with each year seeing new and improved features. It's quite a shock for those people who believe that God delivered the tractor fully formed. Tractor Creationists were boycotting the day calling it heresy.

    Tractor MontageCars being far less functional in design, vary drastically from age to age. The evolutionary process here throws up a lot of freaks: vehicles with a real odd way to do things or strange shape. Such as cars shaped like boats, cars with all-wooden steering wheels and triple horns. As I was still camera crazy, I think every car at the rally had at least 2 pictures taken of it.

    MotortrikeNot that we needed to go out to keep me entertained. I rarely need anything more than a French map to amuse me. I can sit for hours and read place names. For example, some places around Bordeaux: Macau, Les Bons, Enfants, Salle Boeuf, Loupes. You could name most characters and places in a sci fi movie from a small portion of a French map: Creón, Villenave, Quinsac, Dardenac, Camiac, Bourg.

    The first section of the trip ended on a low note when I drove Catherine back to Bordeaux and she flew back to Amsterdam. She had to get back to work and earn the family crust whilst I had to sit in the shade and commune with nature.


    Sunday, April 25, 2010

    Travel: France 3-7/7/09 part 1: It's Nature Town

    Animal MontageMy parents' French abode is a densely populated area. In terms of wildlife, at least. People, however, are pretty scarce. But non-people creatures teem. Frogs, bats, sunflowers, sheep, bees, birds, corn, lizards, flies, butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, nettles. All flourish along with many others that are much better hidden.

    And at night, things don't calm down. In fact, it gets relatively noisier. The frogs all get together and practice their close-harmony croaking; crickets chirp en masse; bats dart around like drugged-up crazy things; and occasionally an odd light emanates from a pile of rocks where a glow worm is glowing to the beat. Yep, nature likes to party.

    Bees in flight

    sheep gangThe bees were especially interesting, for a couple of days a friendly throng of interesting-looking specimens came by to gather nectar from poor unsuspecting flowers. They were not the sorts of bees I was used to and indeed were relatively new to the area, I heard. I spent ages trying to photograph them. I think I took 250 pictures of bees alone, most of which ended up being blurry, some semi-clear and one or two really good. I felt like a real wildlife photographer. Had I lived in a ditch for three days and covered myself in the local mud to blend in, rather than just grabbing the camera and walking over to the flower patch, I might have felt even more like one.

    watching sheepBecause we had a new camera and are not so used to being surrounded by such an abundance of nature, I did go a little camera crazy. As well as 250 pictures of bees, there were about 300 pictures of sunflowers. It was the time of year where they stop being shy little heads and open up to be glorious flowers. I also took about a million pictures of everything else. I have 10 pictures of piles of logs, but I justify this as being very much part of French rural life. (Honestly, the local council allocates you a supply of logs.)


    alien insectEven the house was not devoid of creatures. A loir (aka a Fat, Edible, Bug-Eyed, Squirrel-Tailed, Laid-Back Dormouse) was living in the roof judging by the nocturnal scurrying. And on the ceiling, the scariest centipede ever would hang out from time to time, occasionally taking time to drop into the sink and scare people. It was somehow alien in its design and would have made a perfect adversary in something from 1954. "It! The Thing from There!" I thought it was cute and as there seemed to be more than one, there was probably a happy little family up there. However, I also suspect that given a chance they would suck our brains out and take over the world. But you can't blame a creature for having ambition.

    Sunflower and bee
    Sunflower field
    Sunflower field