Saturday, July 30, 2011

Little and Large

Mournfully collywobblish and feeble, I really haven't had the energy to blog, instead have been downloading freebies on to my iPhone, most of which I suspect I shall never read all the way through, unless I develop a fascination for Spinoza. I began with Moby Dick - the thought of  Ishmael sharing sleeping space with a gigantic Maori harpooner, Queequeg, would be like me aged eight trying to make room for Jonah Lomu. I recall a similar dread on first reading almost half a century ago. All this being the result of fevered imagination which will inevitably be made worse as nocturnal whirlings and shriekings must surely follow dinner tonight. Being 'not particularly hungry', sufficient for Gipsy to start thinking wistfully of tumbrils and the attendant mercy of the guillotine so beloved of her peasant ancestors, we had a 'small snack'. This consisted of a tearing pizza the size of a bathmat with Roquefort - the good stuff, since "it's a bit old now"- shallots, ham, capers, small get the idea. Together with two nine-inch crabs. Shells that is. Minus claws. Fifteen inches when extended. I know. One of them was attempting to extend his in the direction of my own digits moments before he took a very hot bath.
It is, I think, one of the few times at the dinner table when a  ball-pein hammer was part of the cutlery; Gipsy scattering bone and claw with enthusiasm. The tarragon mayo dip was exceptionally good, I thought. The pictured dish is large enough to wash one's feet in.
Twenty-four hours later, you'll no doubt be overjoyed to learn that my alimentary health is much improved, so as an afterthought, still with the food motif, Sunday lunch was taken al fresco. Gipsy seems entirely unaware that packaged food exists, thus everything is manufactured from scratch. Should she decide to comment on this, I shall tell the world about the pig last autumn. Olivier, the photographer, brought some bluefin tuna with him for the last day of shooting which kept sufficiently to provide a tartare of breathtaking simplicity and a flavour that cherubim would have fought over. The accompaniment, eggplant à la japonaise is not shownThe spoiled prince of a cat, who occasionally graces our table with his presence; the next door neighbours having gone to Tuscany, had the left-overs which were sliced from the original (vast) fillet and which I myself would have been quite happy with but since they were slightly too dry, they failed to meet the exacting standards of la maîtresse

My modest contribution was cutting the potato chip and onion garni which I managed without losing a finger. Gaze, then, and be envious, heathens.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Pea Soup

How many famous Belgians can you think of? Two, perhaps, and one of those is fictional. Belgium sits rather smugly in between France and Holland, saying little, quietly notching up world records, such as the heaviest cheese sculpture in the world or a barman in Oostende who served beer for 102 straight hours to his customers. Things like that. Belgians haven’t had a functional government for over a year but the education system works, garbage is collected and the buses and trams run on time. This is mostly due to the fact that six out of ten of them speak one language, the remainder another and everybody has learned compromise without agreement. It's entirely possible that the country might simply break gently in two like a blueberry muffin since nobody seems to care much either way. The Flemish language and culture is highly prized by its adherents. If Dutch sounds like a goose honking in mild protest, Flemish sounds as if it’s being garrotted as well.

Eighty percent of the world's diamonds pass through Anvers. Showing spectacular ignorance I confessed to not actually knowing that Antwerpen, the second largest port in Europe, is its Flemish name, provoking gales of French laughter. The world’s largest diamond-cutting industry operates behind discreet façades in the Jewish neighbourhood.  If the appalling pun can be excused, it’s quite a little gem of a city - imagine Zurich and the Virgin Mary meeting Greenwich Village. Antwerp is also a celebrated fashion hub – style victims have taken over the fashion district, and the well-heeled hang out around Koning Albertpark. The Old Town however seems much as it was in the seventeenth century, built around the impossibly delicate spired Gothic Cathedral of our Lady – Rubens lived here and an exhibition was on show inside.
Long ago, people seemed to like writing their names in large letters on their business premises – above a bar on Groenplatz, a Mr Van Der Wee had advertised himself in letters eight feet high which caught my attention.
Just off the Hoogstraat  and converted from a 16th-century building, my travelling companion and I stayed at De Matelote, (do look, it's worth it) a  stylish boutique  hotel with contemporary interiors and nine minimalist rooms decorated in shades of grey and a Michelin-starred restaurant. I rather wished we had eaten there, but after a truffle hunt around town, time eventually defeated us and we ended up much to Gipsy’s disgust at the Hilton with OK food and appalling service. I had pea soup.  Antwerpers pride themselves on being the descendants of the gluttonous Duke of Burgundy, thus I was able to engage and satisfy many sensual tastes – excluding those provided for by the bored women framed behind red lights, much tackier than their entirely legal, often spectacularly good-looking and taxpaying counterparts in Amsterdam. But, more of this anon...
It's illegal to pimp, take photographs or buy hard drugs. So, there you go. I bought street waffles, a pair of shoes and, of course, pea soup.
Why the title? 'Pea' rhymes with 'wee' of course. Do try to keep up...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hillsong Revisited

It was almost exactly one year ago that I last went to Hillsong Paris. Last time it was two thirds full. This time, standing room only. I was there early, along with pretty much everybody else. Except the two worship leaders who showed up at 10:55 for an 11am start - ha!  I wonder where I've come across that before. As a result, we didn't get going till 11:30 - everybody waits in the foyer of the Bobino Theatre and only gets in when the multimedia is rolling and all the soundchecks are done. I think the delay might have been because one of the guitarists was a 'special' - one of the new breed, a rather scruffy-looking Ben Fielding, fresh from the Europe Conference in London, armed with a Gibson that sang like a dove and a songwriter whose songs appear on the new live album "God is Able". And, yes, I bought a copy. I had wondered for some time how they got the particular Hillsong sound - all done with open tunings. I tuned the Guild down to an open D when I got home and played around a little bit - the results were remarkable. But, more of this later. Fresh from the London Conference and en route back home, the main speaker was a Hillsong heavy, Phil Dooley the pastor of Hillsong Capetown and a dead ringer for Owen Wilson out of Starsky and Hutch. I'm not, obviously, the first to notice.

The theme was basically, "I can" and the power of positive testimony. From Numbers 13, the Twelve Spies and the two - Caleb and Joshua - having a positive confession. A bit early for Tisha B'Av - falling as it does on August 8th this year, but the point was well made. There's an overwhelming sense of joyful optimism about the place which is good for an old grump like me, despite my presence raising the average age by a couple of months. As a church experience, a weekly dose of sanctity, it's incomplete; time together being used for praise, thanksgiving, testimony and evangelism. No corporate confession or prayer for the world, no Communion - which I didn't miss because it was contextually unnecessary. I assume the meat and potatoes work is done in small groups and the committed spend a whole lot more time together than a couple of hours on a Sunday morning. As last time, the worship was slick and even with a stranger leading, beautifully executed. Perhaps a touch delirious and over-spiced for my personal taste, but the average punter on the front rows was lapping it all up with much bopping in unison on the spot. I maintained a more restrained presence on the front row of the balcony, trying to imagine a full-on, high-wattage multimedia experience in the Purple Palace... 
The 'date for the diary' has to be September 4th, when the Top Banana his own self, plus wife, namely Brian and Bobbie Houston, are visiting. Should be quite a gig...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sour Grapes

Someone commented quite recently to me that “I’d been hanging out with psychologists” I wonder if the unspoken ‘too much’ at the end was parenthesised or not. The truth is, I haven’t – or hadn’t, but events in the Church have engaged my attention, searching for meaning from reading about the philosopher Antony Flew’s  conversion to more well-known, classical psychologies.
Cognitive dissonance might be described as the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. Winston Smith for all. The proposal is that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. H’m. I wonder where I’ve heard that before. Experience can clash with expectations, as, for example, with buyer's remorse following the purchase of an expensive item. In a state of dissonance, people may feel surprise, dread, guilt, anger, or embarrassment. With me, usually embarrassment because the shirt looked better on the peg than it does on me. It’ll be interesting to see if the PCC react similarly to the choices they have made. People are biased to think of their choices as correct, despite any contrary evidence. This bias gives dissonance theory its predictive power, shedding light on otherwise puzzlingly irrational and destructive behaviour.
Wikipedia tells me that: “A classical example of this idea (and the origin of the expression "sour grapes") is expressed in Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes.  In the story, a fox sees some high-hanging grapes and wishes to eat them. When the fox is unable to think of a way to reach them, he surmises that the grapes are probably not worth eating, as they must not be ripe or that they are sour. This example follows a pattern: one desires something, finds it unattainable, and reduces one's dissonance by criticising it.”
I am in a state of cognitive dissonance over St Paul’s at the moment. I would like to believe and indeed sometimes do that it is a vibrant, self-sufficient, active and indispensable part of the Body of Christ. On the other hand, in practice it looks more like a small beauty spot – let’s be charitable - whose removal or not will do nothing for the furtherance of the Kingdom of Heaven. When the primary part of the engine has had enough and demands replacement while still new and probably under guarantee, one asks a number of questions – all contributing to a cognitively dissonant mindset. Were the grapes sour in the first place? Probably not. Were they out of reach? Perhaps they were, after all. It will make everyone’s lives so much easier if we choose to believe so.
I’m not convinced.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Behind the Louvre

The oldest guitar shop in Paris is François CHARLE, located in the Galerie Véro-Dodat, one of the most elegant covered streets remaining in the centre of the city. Dating from 1823, it is one of the only galleries surviving in 'period' condition. Located between rue Croix des Petits Champs and rue Jean Jacques Rousseau, just off rue St Honoré at the back of the Louvre, the gallery is home to numerous other arts-related enterprises. It’s a tiny place and one for serious aficionados. An English speaking salesman who could play like Django Reinhardt took me up a narrow wooden staircase. About forty or so instruments were displayed cheek-by-jowl in a space the size of my bathroom. I looked at the four-figure plus price tags. The guy gave me a 1932 Gibson L Series Custom, sunburst, great original condition down to the tortoiseshell firestripe pickguard  - astonishing for something twenty years older than me – a steal at 4,800The thing sang like an organ – I counted eleven seconds of sustain on the bass E string. They are an authorised Martin repair shop – about twenty or so Martins were on show, from forty year old 00-18’s to a spectacular double necked open G minor tuned (12+6) D45 made on Martin's Goliath frame. I knew they existed but have never seen one. The pictured highlight was a Martin 3.17, dated 1860. Oh, yeah.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Walking About In Your Socks and Calling Teachers By Their First Names

I received my last payment from the IB yesterday for marking the Higher Level Physics paper. It was an instructive exercise, particularly in the light of comparing the questions set with the responses. Compared to A levels, IB is more challenging, more thoughtful and more attuned to a critical, thinking-based educational model. I also had occasion to look in a French bookshop at some of the Bac' papers, the results of which have just been released. It struck me that having been an educator for over thirty years, my thinking was almost set in concrete as far as learning was concerned. In Kuwait, 'teaching to the test' is the way things are done and people are supposed to learn from grindingly repetitive, unimaginative tasks which seek to present an intellectually trivial problem in as many different ways as possible. It's hardly surprising that students- and indeed, some of their teachers -  lose interest so fast. For some, science is an irrelevance, best left to others and the thinking patterns required to 'do well', in other words, pass the test seem strange and bizarre to them. 

In many of  Kuwait's best schools there's stunningly mediocre teaching with a vast extracurricular tutoring market. Testing is often primarily factual recall and memorisation which students can pass with determination and effort, but this approach will teach them none of the skills that are necessary in the global knowledge economy. Because the profit motive drives most private systems here, it's risky economically to expend the considerable sums required to properly resource a school with personnel and infrastructure.
This train of thought arose because an article crossed my path about education in Finland, which for the last decade has been recognised as one of the finest systems in the world and people are beginning to wake up to some of the reasons why.
Firstly, teachers are highly qualified, with a Masters degree in their subject - not a silly, education-theorist qualification, but something valuable which drives their intellectual preparation. Secondly, society and hence, one supposes, its children, esteems them highly. Thirdly, curricula have not been devised without the input of educators at the highest level and finally, the professional milieu is such that teachers can and do work together as professionals without feeling under scrutiny all the time.
In addition, students  rarely get more than a half-hour of homework a night - I actually approve of this, since doing homework does no more than teach students about retribution. They have short classes and days, no school uniforms, no 'honor societies', no 'valedictorians', no late bells and no classes for the gifted. There is little standardised testing, few parents agonise over college because it's free and and kids don't start school until they are seven. But, Finnish kids are encouraged from early years to read and develop an independent approach to what they think and do. Work is OK, but doesn't necessarily have to have maximal entertainment value. Teaching methods used for the gifted and able are routinely used for all in Finnish schools.
The Finns have defined what is excellent teaching, not just reasonable teaching, and they have a standard for it. Furthermore, they've defined what is most important to learn, and it's not a memorisation-based curriculum, but a thinking-based curriculum. There is no domestic testing except a very quiet auditing program to test demographic samples of kids; not for accountability, not for public consumption, and not for comparison across schools. The fascinating thing is that because they have created such a high level of professionalism; they can trust their teachers. Their motto is "Trust Through Professionalism."  What a breath of fresh air. In the US, where an increasing number of peole believe education has lost its way, came the memorable line from a student video “You can’t create my future with the tools of your past.” They’re right. We’re using a 20th-century measuring stick to measure a 21st-century learner. No wonder businesses are yelling that education is getting worse: We’re using the wrong stick. Students should graduate with portfolios of work ready for a world that will value them on their ability to create.
The title of this post came from the CBBC's report on Finnish schools. Kids often ski to school - hence walk around school in their socks - and are expected to get there often in the dark by themselves. No maid to help to do up the bindings…

Monday, July 18, 2011

State of the Nation

The storm clouds are gathering as the Palestinians - or at least those represented by Mahmoud Abbas - are threatening to go to the UNSC in September and ask for recognition as a state and full membership. If they do and receive UN backing without US veto, future negotiations are likely to become more difficult, protracted and possibly violent. 

It might be interesting to speculate what the Jews of the Diaspora are likely to make of this. A walk around Le Marais brings one up against all forms and species. Orthodox Jews, non-orthodox, gays, gay Jews, Jewish gays, black Jewish gays…you get the picture. Love them or hate them, they’re here. Wherever the Jews have gone, they have both insulated themselves theologically and often geographically yet societally they have assimilated and learned from their new cultural homes. I’m no fan of Christopher Hitchens, despite his formidable logical grasp and razor-sharp intellect, but he did write something quite profound which illustrated the nature of anti-Semitism perfectly.

“It’s logically fallacious to suggest this but anti-Semitism has flourished without banking or capitalism (for which Jews were at one time blamed) and without Communism (for which they were also blamed). It has existed without Zionism (of which leading Jews were at one time the only critics) and without the state of Israel. There has even been anti-Semitism without Jews, in states like Malaysia whose political leaders are paranoid demagogues looking for a scapegoat. This is enough to demonstrate that anti-Semitism is not a mere prejudice like any other. The chief impetus of anti-Semitism remains theocratic, and in our epoch anti-Semitism has shifted from Christian to Muslim: a more searching inquiry into its origins and nature might begin by asking if faith is not the problem to begin with.”

The Jews’ chief crime against those who hate them is the book of Genesis, in which they discovered the indelible sense of shame attendant on man’s recognition of the moral universe.   That universe takes its inescapable authority from the goodness of its creator.  And whether people  are calling Jews Christ-killers (as in, “They did it, not us!”), or culture polluters (as in “Without them, we’d be free of religion.”) or the secret rulers of the world (“It’s not God at all - it’s them!”), it’s possible that the people who feel they hate Jews actually hate God.  And they hate God because, in the light of his goodness, they hate themselves.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Aux Armes, Citoyens!

I think intellect, wit and satirical spike must be flickering a bit. Last Juillet Quatorze I wrote something much more erudite about revolutions and my short potted history even mentioned the Marquis de Sade. This year..well. Same old, same old.  People don't really want to hear any more about the deep significance of the storming of the grim prison of the Bastille on the morning of  July 14th 1789. They don't want to be reminded again that it was more a symbolic than an effective military victory; it had only seven inmates at the time. Instead, every year, however, the French take to themselves a national slapfest and have a day off which is a much more congenial to blog about rather than grim revolutionaries manning the barricades. The day before the 14th - that would be the 13th, I was wandering aimlessly, as one does, over the Pont de la Concorde on my way to have a sniff around the antique shops on the Left Bank. Apart from the obligatory Japanese tourists framing photographs of themselves against the giant Egyptian obelisk, the vast acreage - over twenty, actually, of the Place de la Concorde (where all vehicle insurance is invalidated, by the way. Tap someone there - no road markings on the cobblestones - and you're on your own) was almost deserted. Various large TV vans and seating arrangements were being set up in anticipation for France's Big Day when the great and the good watch the military parade and flypast from the Arc de Triomphe along the arrow straight Champs Elysées. There's a man I know - he's some species of relative belonging to Gipsy, who kindly informed me that the Super Etendards and Hawkeyes pictured below have some relevance to the French Navy. Not a lot of people know that...

Tickets are like gold dust for this event, but since the Island is almost exactly due west, we sat in the garden and watched the entire flypast two minutes before the spectators lining the Avenue saw it.

President Sarkozy didn't have a long trip to work that day. The Elysée Palace is a short stroll -straight down the rue du Faubourg St Honoré, hang a right at the end - but he did look as if his breakfast hadn't agreed with him. Sarkozy doesn't really do being statesmanlike - he always tends to look as if he wishes he were somewhere else. Carla wasn't with him; perhaps that was why, or they'd had a spat about which cartoon to watch in bed last night. He has a number of unfortunate public mannerisms which don't inspire confidence - OK, this is a bit exaggerated - but the downturned mouth, as if something unpleasant passed under his nose, is captured perfectly I think, with a little help from Photoshop. He might have been more than a little intimidated by the Polynesian soldiers' 'Haka' display, but seemed relieved when it was over.

Even the president perked up a bit when the Foreign Legion march past signified the end of the parade - perhaps he was looking forward to the firemen of Paris demonstrating their acrobatic skills - but the Légion Étrangère has to go at the end since they march at only 88 paces per minute instead of the 120 of everyone else and they have to have their own marching musicians with them. Gigantic, bearded men with leather aprons carrying battle axes - enough to make even a president turn his mouth down a bit.

The Glorious Leader then has to give what looks like an impromptu press conference conducted by two carefully chosen Press lackeys who ask him all kinds of questions about the role of the French Armed Forces to which he already knows the answers. 
At eleven at night, there's usually a firework display. Getting anywhere near the Champ de Mars is a nightmare since half of Paris wants to go and it's easier to find a vantage point elsewhere. This year, we decided to go to St Germain, which had had its display the night before and the Henri IV ramparts were high enough to see not only the displays in the next village, but another six or seven within a thirty-kilometer western arc, including the gigantic display in Paris itself, created by the world champion Lucien Ruggieri.
Close up, it must have been spectacular.Then it's everybody off to the nearest "Bal des Pompiers" where you get to kiss a fireman. Er. If you like that sort of thing.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Serfs and Poulet en Croûte

It's all William The Conqueror's fault. Actually, he wasn't called that during his lifetime - he was known as William The Bastard, because, er, well, he was one both metaphorically and literally, since his father had had a brief but exciting fling with a beautiful tanner's daughter out of wedlock. Why this railing against the French? It's because the entire British class system developed as a result of him and his fancy French ways, making us all drink appalling vin rouge instead of decent warm beer at mealtimes. We became serfs, tilling his fields and raising his cattle for him. The Anglo-Saxon words for farm animals as used by those who raised them are 'pig, cow, calf'' but when dressed up in fancy sauces and served for dinner to our betters they become the French 'pork, beef ' and 'veal'. or their tarty French equivalents. You get the idea.
All of this arose because Gipsy is working. By this, I mean that she flies around like a dervish on speed, mixing, braising, adding a soupçon of this and tasting a morsel of that. I on the other hand stand, flat-footed and watch, occasionally moving the straw from one side of my mouth to the other. This evening was a prime example. In the midst of prepping for tomorrow's adventures in the rarefied atmosphere of haute cuisine, there was the small matter of dinner. Having had Moroccan (not Jewish - the Sicilian lemons variant, for those who know) Chicken Tajini for lunch, there were leftovers which transformed themselves into a little number en croûte  (I never actually saw any pastry being made, but I did blink once or twice) with wild mushrooms and olives, together with a warm goat cheese salad. I interrupted. Once. "No mayonnaise?" I enquired, politely. "Give me an egg" came the response. She broke the egg into the bowl of an electric beater with large, slow-moving blades. She then slowly poured oil - sunflower - since we didn't want too powerful a flavour and watched as it curdled perfectly, adding a little extra virgin olive oil, some wholegrain mustard and a few other unspecified items that just happened to be to hand. She stopped the machine, poured the perfectly formed mixture into a bowl with a deft sweep of a spoon. "Voilà". The entire operation took less time than it takes my computer to boot up. I meekly put the bowl on the table, and ate my dinner which, I do have to say, was a quite significant improvement on the chicken and mushroom pies I used to buy as a child from the local fish and chip shop. Afterwards, I remembered my place and cleared up, obediently putting things back where I had been told and not muddling the Laguiole knives up with the cheap ones. I was rewarded with ristretto ansd a smile. I suppose I ought to think myself lucky. William the Conqueror chopped his serfs' hands and feet off.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Small Things

I think it must be Paris. My usual iron-clad, sardonic posts mellow sometimes in the warmth of the sun and strange, delightful small events which are an inevitable consequence of living in one of the most painfully rich and beautiful cities on the planet.
The other day, in Le Marché des Enfants Rouges just off the rue de Bretagne in the Haut Marais, we had lunch with a  a pastry chef from Guadeloupe – talented beyond belief, on her way to becoming famous and a warm, affectionate friend. 

She fits perfectly into this eclectic milieu. Italian coffee, Breton crèpes, a sulky, bewhiskered flower-seller, Moroccan street food - it's all here. The market is the oldest in Paris, on the site of an orphanage established in 1534 by the Diana of her time, Marguerite of Navarre, wife of Henry II, the red dresses signifying the children were in the care of the local charity. It closed at the beginning of the seventeenth century and has been a market ever since.

Her website is here. My apologies for reproducing some of the images.
She gave us delicately flavoured pastries, the whole being more than the sum of their parts. Chocolate from Madagascar and wild raspberries which tugged momentarily at a piercingly vivid childhood memory.

Art and Beauty

I ran across a powerful truth the other morning. In Native American thought there is no distinction between what is beautiful or functional, and what is sacred or secular.
Design goes far beyond concerns of function, and beauty is much more than simple appearances. For many native peoples, beauty arises from living in harmony with the order of the universe. Oh, yes. Of course, we all said. We knew that. In Jewish myth, an angel whispers the whole of Torah into the ear of the newborn at the instant of its birth and it spends the rest of its life remembering that which it once knew.
Paris is full of art – some good and some, let’s say, not.  Art is the striving of mankind to find synthesis with the author and creator, the finisher of the craft work, the perfector of the design process.  
An artist visited with his work the other day – two great photographic montages - to spend time on the terrace here and move his work onward. I am not sure he quite knew why he came, except that he found resonance here. 

These images are of scenes and objects I walk around and see every day. The one immediately above contains a secret - all art has secrets - the limestone Madonna up against the wall.  She is not in as good shape as she once was, having been carved anonymously in the thirteenth century. Inexplicably, she found her way here, to rest quietly against a white wall.

Beauty before me, I walk with.
Beauty behind me, I walk with.
Beauty above me, I walk with.
Beauty below me, I walk with.
Beauty all around me, I walk with.

Navajo Night Chant 

Sunday, July 10, 2011


Living on The Island, where a pizza isn't a phone call away simply because it's too far and too inconveniently distant for the pizza guy to get to, one has to develop levels of organisational skill which one might not necessarily need to acquire in the sun-baked deserts. Food has to be hauled, pushed in a cart or balanced on handlebars. Over the bridge then five hundred metres beyond. Which isn't a lot, as it happens, unless it's pouring with rain or covered in sheet ice, in which case, it can become something of an ordeal. A bicycle or scooter is the best idea, some have one or the other, many have both. Since my means are modest, self-propulsion is a healthful and practical means of locomotion. 
I hadn't ridden a bike seriously since I was sixteen. It does happen to be true, however - 'it's like riding a bike' means the old skills just come flooding back after a few hair-raising moments of unstable equilibrium when the ground , grey and unsympathetic, sometimes rushes up to meet you. Twenty-one gears - however did one manage with three - I think I managed to change up and down across about four of them, with a little squeezy thingy close to my hands. All massively high-tech. It's only a couple of kilometres into town so a ride into civilisation didn't seem like a bad idea. Except for the roads. The French are fortunately quite obsessional about le vélo and generally skirt a cyclist with  gentlemanly discretion - just as well, really since I tended to grimly occupy the crown of the road and to hell with the klaxons of disapproval. Being a motorist, I followed the rules of the road, obediently pausing for red traffic lights and following the one way systems, until it occurred to me that I was the only cyclist so doing. Everybody else rode where they chose, over pavements, dodging perambulators and old ladies with walking frames, and parking up against trees. It's surprisingly liberating once you figure it out. The one thing which I hadn't remembered was the - let's say - 'discomfort' of a hard saddle giving what the French delicately call 'les parties nobles' something of a bumpy ride. I think a saddle with proper suspension might be the answer...

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Republic of Insects and Grass

By 2025, one-third of us will live in cities. By 2050. mega-cities will be commonplace, as compared to 1975 when there were three. What images this conjures depends on the films one sees. Great, howling tower blocks with crawling, seething gutters where the poor and dispossessed scrabble for a living springs to mind. When I arrived in St Julien last week, I supposed myself to be 'in the country'. Put another way, 'in the middle of nowhere'. This is, of course. substantially true; there's twenty seven acres of land and the sound of human habitation is pretty much confined to a train passing in the distance - surprising how loud, intrusive and mechanical it is - and whatever sounds are being made indoors.
And yet, I found myself in the middle of a city, or better, a republic. Not populated by human beings, but by a menagerie of teeming, seething life. I counted at least ten different butterfly species flitting amidst the wild lavender, visiting, revisiting, moving on. Cleverly camouflaged moths waited on lichen-clad tree trunks, bees hummed industriously, their landings like airport arrivals, almost systematic on the pollination factory floor. Worker ants marched like infantry, collecting leaves and discarded peach pits - as if they intended building a pyramid. A cacophony of cicadas would have drowned out the traffic, were there any, ceasing promptly at sunset, as if regulated by an unseen shop steward. Later in the evening, the birdsong communication systems came online and the long wild grasses whispered and shimmered as small mammals went about their business.
I was left with an overwhelming sense of order - as communities are ordered, with rules, traffic regulations, penalties for jaywalking. I had hoped to find an image is of a hornets' nest found abandoned in a high crevice of the house, or pictures of long walkways with bamboo on either side. Instead, to maintain a theme of peace and tranquillity, this - a five minute drive away - was too good not to include.

Sunday, July 03, 2011


For some, Provence is just too much. Brighter and more primary than Tuscany, the rolling lavender fields, olfactorily and visually delightful, the breadth and variety of the food and impossibly beautiful landscapes dotted with medieval abbeys are sometimes just too rich for thin Northern blood.  
Peter Mayle’s classic  ‘A Year in Provence’ was captivating, made him a millionaire and attracted squadrons of curious Brits to the hitherto comparatively sleepy, but grand and sweeping, Lubéron.The eyes glaze into the far distance as the sun sets over purple hills and Mt Ventoux. I'd go down well here. Beetling, expressive eyebrows and the frequently heard phrase ..'normalement'...with a characterisic hand-waggle means your plumbing gets fixed a week Tuesday. Normalement. Unless, can fill in the blanks yourself. 
Provence is big, bigger than one imagines. Gipsy and I elected to spend a weekend beginning in brash, glitzy Marseille and meandering wherever the fancy took us.
Le Mistral is a wind so severe and persistent that it is said to ‘blow the horns off a cuckold’. It howls down the Rhone valley and drives through the narrow, picturesque alleyways of the old port and objects take flight. The sun is fierce and a hat is out of the question, so people stay in the shade, but the sea was whipped cold by the wind and will take a month to heat up enough to swim in.  Boats leave for Corsica and North Africa, as well as ferrying trippers around the islands which poke their heads up like rebellious dinosaurs in the Golfe du Lion. 
The brooding silhouette of the sixteenth century Chateau d’If hovers menacingly over the city. This Mediterranean Alcatraz was the most feared and notorious prison in France, housing thousands of Huguenot  dissidents during the nineteenth century - it really wasn't cool to be a Protestant - as well as being immortalized by Alexandre Dumas’ tale of betrayal and revenge in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. Nobody ever escaped from it, unlike the fictional Edmond Dantès. There's a yearly swim from the mainland which although the distance is comparatively short, treacherous currents and undertows make it an enterprise not for the faint of heart.
Smaller towns like Cassis were more manageable, decked out like a tablecloth in bright Provençal colours.
Tiny, cobbled streets and a harbour – tourists already descending like locusts on this well-behaved little place.
A boat trip to les Calanques exposed us to scenery of breathtaking beauty in this UNESCO heritage site.
Small inlets, virtually inaccessible by road are set amidst towering cliffs...
There is such a thing as being overwhelmed by beauty. But, more of this later...