Thursday, 19 December 2013

Back in the UUUK

Travelling back from the south of France today was an interesting experience.

Marseille airport was uninspiring.  I was looking forward to a hot drink and a quiet sit down, but found myself in what felt like a concrete bunker, with some vending machines.  Oh well, life is like that sometimes.

I queued up, and my suitcase, which I had decided was under 20kg based on the fact I could lift it (and I know I have trouble over 20kg from sacks of coal).  Well, I don't know if I've got stronger while I've been away, but my bag was a traumatic 27kg when it landed on the scales.  The lady with lots of pancake make up and an over-orange outfit said it was going to cost me 12 euros per kg over 20.  I nearly fainted.  I didn't want to have to queue again or sort through my belongings in the concrete bunker in front of everyone, so decided to pay.  She offered to let me off 3kg, so I went to another desk to queue up to sort it out.  The overly made up person in blue spent ages with my card, then asked me if I knew what 'code 4' was.  'No' I replied, a bit grumpy.  It turned out that code 4 meant that Easyjet owed me 4 euros.  This happy state of affairs meant THEY COULDN'T TAKE ANY FURTHER PAYMENT FROM ME.  So I had a 'get out of jail free' pass for my suitcase.  Hooray.

As it was a short flight, I hadn't bothered to book a seat, so was a bit dismayed to find I was in the centre seat in the centre of the plane.  There was a woman with a bad cough on my left, and a strange, panic stricken looking man on my right, who was reading a book about the Columbine school massacre.  He looked anxious, fidgeted a lot and tried to keep his very large rucksack on his lap.  His complexion went a bit waxy and grey, and I was worried he might have been getting some ideas from his book.

The seats on Easyjet seem even smaller than I remember them (unless that is the French bread and pastries talking), and I battled a bit with keeping any claustrophobia at bay.  After a while, me and the man got chatty, and it turned out he was wearing a bright yellow, plastic watch.  I decided mass murderers probably don't wear that sort of wrist furniture.  They would have a camouflage patterned Swatch (if they do those).  

I perused the 'Bistro' menu (although the ambience was rather far removed from the bistros I had been in recently), and chose a sandwich.  The stewards spent an age getting the trolley into the middle of the plane, and as the woman in front of me asked for a sandwich, I was dismayed to hear the steward say they had run out.


There was also a bit of chaos as the trolley approaching from the rear of the train met the trolley approaching from the front just at our row.  

Apart from that it was a rather nice flight.  There were some amazing cloudscapes, which I had to peer past the coughing woman to see.  She didn't look out of the window, she was busy reading celebrity cellulite magazines, which I thought was a shame.  One cloud formation looked just like a breaking roller, and I half expected to see some surfing dudes come crashing past at any minute.

I wondered what Cezanne or Turner would have made of the view, it's a shame they couldn't get the Easyjet experience to give them some inspiration, although it would be sad if their paintings ended up with too much bright orange.

'What's the pointilism of orange?'

Sunday, 15 December 2013

It's Sunny! It's Warm!

It's not 'The Bleak Midwinter' here!  Hooray!

Friday, 13 December 2013

Tea Crisis

It is a bit of a shock being in France.  People don't seem to own kettles here.  Hot drinks don't seem to be the involved after the 'Bonjour'.

I have been coping well, in spite of this situation.  I can order coffee or chocolate chaud when I'm out.

Yesterday though, tea in France dipped to a new low.

I was in a cafe, and ordered my chocolate chaud (hot for those of you without knowledge of French), and the person behind the counter said that as the machine had broken, she could only offer me tea.  I understood the bit about the machine, mainly because she was pointing to a deconstructed technical item lying on the draining board that looked like it once might have made hot drinks.

I assumed she must have had a kettle behind the counter, so said yes, tea would be fine (or 'oui merci').

You can only imagine my absolute horror as she turned to the hot tap, ran it for a few moments AND FILLED A MUG WITH IT.  She then put it on a tray, with the teabag next to it.

I was charged 2.8 euros for this.

My jaw was still hanging somewhere near the floor, and when I managed to bring it back in unity with the rest of my face, I questioned whether it would be hot enough.  If it wasn't, she said, I could bring it back and she would run the tap for longer (I think this is what she was saying).

It was with deep melancholy that I sat down to my miserable beverage, which wasn't hot enough, and tasted pretty grim.  It didn't seem worthwhile to try again, so I did the British thing and kept quiet.

I think I need to add 'tea therapist' to the 'dessert therapist' as new career options for those with a keen sense of right and wrong in the tea and dessert worlds.
A confusing bit of trompe l'oeil in Marseille

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Deconstruction and Construction

On Masterchef I always giggle when someone presents a 'deconstructed crumble' or similar.  The fruity bit is on one side of the plate, and the crumble on the other.  There will usually be some decorative garnish at a jaunty angle, or at least some spun sugar of nebulous character to 'bring the plate together'.

Today, I realised that living out of a suitcase for seven months has left me feeling somewhat 'deconstructed'.  My clothes are tatty now, and I have just thrown away a pair of shoes as the soles had split.  I must have walked hundreds of miles in them.  I do have some smart work clothes, but in Bristol, I have better shoes, but in London, I have wonderful family and friends, in the UK (and around the world).

So here I am, deconstructed me.

On the good side, my French is improving from virtually nothing to being able to sort of converse with a real French person for FORTY MINUTES.  I went for a charity ride in a 4x4 up a mountain with one of the mountain rescue volunteers.  It was just me and him in the vehicle, and he spoke no English.  I managed to make small talk in appalling French the whole time.  I think at one point I accidentally told him I loved him (rather than a cathedral I had seen the day before), but fortunately realised my mistake and was able to apologise.  He was very polite and we were good chums by the time we got out.  I even knew how many grandchildren he had and that his son was a fireman.  Hooray!

Get multilingual me!

I am thinking of deconstruction and construction lately, having seen an art exhibition called contraction and expansion (or similar).  It was very good, with a Renault squashed into a cube, and other things squished together very tightly, along with expanded polysomething that looked like large beetles crawling along the floor.  There was also a giant thumb, which I rather liked, as it was about the same height as me.  It is very funny looking into a thumb nail that big.  It was golden too.

Some of the art I have seen has been brilliant, some of the funky, weird stuff has made me laugh, some has made me happy because of the jolly colours.  Some of it is awful though.  I have decided I really hate modern art where the colours have run on the canvas and they are left there.  It reminds me of when I was in infant school, painting with one of those long wooden handled brushes at an easel, and the colours cried tears down the paper.  I was always cross about this.  I think that's why I'm cross when I see 'proper' art doing the same thing.  Grown up painters should know to either have less runny paint, or paint on a horizontal canvas.  It can't be that hard to do.

Another strange thing I saw was a wedding dress with an embroidered and sequinned uterus and foetus on it.  I think it was for a man to wear, as it was next to a matador outfit for a woman who also cooks casseroles (presumably beef).  It's a bit much to expect the women to a) kill the bulls and b) cook them afterwards.  Let the woman be the matador, but have a man holding the saucepan please.  One job each is better equality surely?

Matadors are confusing in France, makes me start to wonder where I am.

The 4x4

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Aix en Provence

I braved another bus route today.  I went to Aix en Provence -8.9 Euro, bit pricey for a bus, but it was a comfy one, and I sat at the front so had good views.

Aix en Provence was buzzing with a Christmas market.  I thought, 'Oooh, a Christmas market, I must buy things', but although the stalls were very pretty, and the wares attractively displayed, at the end of the day it was all stuff you didn't really need.  Anyone you gave it to, wouldn't need it either.  Such is the way with Christmas.  It's like that in the shops in the UK too.  As soon as November starts to age, the shops fill up with decorative tat and it is harder than during the rest of the year to buy something anyone wants.  The stalls I saw today were all about pot pourri, lavender, decorative glassware, ceramics and lots and lots of short figurines.  The figurines look great en masse, but take one out of context, and stick it on a shelf and it would just look a bit lost.

In the end I went round an art gallery.  I wasn't expecting much as it was fairly unprepossessing from the outside.  As I went round, my jaw was dropping with the exceptionally wonderful pieces on display.  The gallery was called Museum Granet, and the paintings by Granet were stunning.  There were also several Cezannes, looking as if they were illuminated from behind the canvas, so wonderful were the colours, some Matisse and a gallery of full body sculptures that you could walk among.  One was pointing a finger at me and staring very hard.  It was quite spooky.

Something quite annoying about the gallery was that they had interspersed the 'old masters' with works from a modern photographer.  The photos were rather self conscious, mainly featuring the photographer with no clothes on in strange poses, or dangling fairy lights, or wearing a shaggy wig over his face.  They might have worked well together in a separate gallery (or maybe not, I'm being polite here), but putting them up against such well honed talent seemed to detract from both the old masters and the modern work.  Rather like listening to a Bach track, quickly followed by Kylie Minogue.  They do not sit well together.

Sitting in a smoky cafe made me realise how good the no smoking legislation is in Britain.  I had forgotten what it was like to be in a haze of exhaled nicotine.  It puts you off your food for sure.  I wondered how I managed growing up in a house with a chain smoking father for all those years.

Apart from all that, there were the lovely, traditional buildings to admire, with shuttered windows and little balconies.  It felt very French.

France smells nice too, lots of ground coffee and baking bread.

 Figurines in the Christmas market
Photos that remind me of illustrations in French text books at school all those years ago

Tuesday, 26 November 2013


Today I went on a bus to Martigues.   I fancied a swim, and had been told there was a pool there.  After negotiating another bus, (using a map to point out where I wanted to get off to the driver) I made it to the right town.  I was just struggling to remember what the French for swimming pool was (last French lesson circa 1977) when I saw a sign saying 'Piscine'.  Hooray!

I was very pleasantly surprised that a swim costs only 1.5 Euros - REALLY cheap.  My local pool in Surrey costs £4.45.  Not only was it cheap, it was spotlessly clean, and had good quality facilities.  The staff were very helpful, the woman on the cash desk actually walked me round the changing rooms to show me where everything was.  The only draw back was that I had to wear a 'bonnet du bain' (I think that's what it was).  I haven't worn a swimming cap since before my last French lesson, in the days when they had chin straps and the height of fashion was to have big, floppy daisies on them.  The cash desk person helped me out again by lending me one.  I didn't have the knack of putting it on, so I would be half way down the pool, and feel a strange pulling and sliding sensation over my skull as the 'bonnet' worked its way into a peak and threatened to pop off.  I tried to master breast-stroke with one hand on my head, but that is quite tricky.  It's also quite tricky pulling a rubber cap back on while treading water.  Apart from all that I had a very nice swim.  On the way back, I got too close to the bus driver while trying to work out which coins he needed, and my ski jacket, which is adorned with a huge number of velcro patches, stuck to the driver.  We exchanged Gallic rolling eye expressions as he tried to pick me off his jumper.

To warm up while waiting for the bus back, I wandered round the local library.  Again, it was a facility that put any of ours to shame.  It was a magnificent, modern building, with a piano to play, room after room of books, machines dispensing coffee (nice coffee too) and lots of people waiting to help.

So I am impressed with France, especially as the buses run on time too, and are warm!

The rather nicely named 'Birds' Mirror'.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The South of France

I haven't been on Eurostar before, so I was quite excited on Friday, embarking at Ashford International.  I was due to travel all the way down to Marseille, changing only at Lille.  It all went well, we were underneath the sea sooner than I expected, and I fought off the slight feeling of claustrophobia thinking of all that water above me.

It was slightly complicated at Lille, as all the announcements were in French.  I sort of expected that there would be English translations, but once off Eurostar, I was truly on foreign ground.  I soon learnt that 'retard' meant delayed.  There was a helpful man in the information booth who translated all the announcements for me, and assured me I was indeed at the right station.  The ticket had confused me, as it said I needed to change stations.

Once on the train I settled in to enjoy the landscape flashing past the windows.  After a while, I started to become alarmed at quite significant snow on pine trees, in the foothills of what I thought might be the Alps.  For a short time, I was seriously worried I had managed to get on the wrong train and was heading north.  What was weird was that within the space of about half an hour, gleaming sunshine returned.

There is a special quality to the light in the south of France, I can see why artists gravitate towards this part of the world.  Everything looks sparklier.

Thirty minutes after arriving at the French Club, I was assisting with two classes.  It was a bit of a whirlwind, as I hardly had time to unpack my bag.  Sunday was a day off, so I took the opportunity to go back to Marseille on the bus and explore.

I fell in love with the place.  The old port is wonderful to explore, with Fort St Jean being an example of modern architecture fused with ancient architecture.  The place was designed so you could walk for miles, up staircases, along terraces, high up with contrasting views at every turn, or low down along the water's edge, where you could listen to the waves lapping up against the stone.  There were newly planted gardens and benches scattered around, and exhibits in some of the rooms off the walkways.  One amazing exhibition was of puppets from many years ago, all displayed imaginatively to their best advantage.

After taking in some coffee outside a cafe further along the port, I decided I really needed to climb the huge hill to see Notre Dame de la Garde.  An imposing cathedral overlooking the city.  I spurned the mini tourist train (8 Euros), the open topped bus (18 Euros) and had just missed the regular bus (50c), so walked.  It was quite exhausting, but worth it for the views.  The cathedral was also beautifully decorated with lots of gold leaf.  There were strings hanging from the ceiling with model boats dangling down, and many sea scape paintings around the walls.  After such a long hike, the best bit was actually the tea room, where I managed enough French to order hot chocolate and an eclair.  The waitresses were very friendly, and later on, burst into song.

Marseille station was fun too, they had a piano rigged up for anyone to play, so people were chatting and taking turns.  I'm not one to miss the opportunity for a bash of the old ivories (or plastics in this case), and it made waiting for the bus back quite jolly.

All in all a great day out.
View from Fort St Jean

Cathedral ceiling with dangling boats

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Sofa Surfin' UK

Since I left Iona at the end of October, I have been sofa surfing across the UK towards my next destination, France.  I am no longer friends with my beast of a suitcase, and on the train yesterday decided of the many things I have learnt, one that shouts louder than the others is to TRAVEL LIGHT.  However, my faith in humanity has been strengthened by the extreme kindness of strangers.  Men see me hauling The Beast up station stairs one by one, grab the handle and race to the top (even in one case where they weren't going in that direction).  They do sometimes give a little grimace when they feel how heavy the bag is.

Coming down stairs isn't as bad, as I have developed a surfing technique - tilt the bag to the angle of the decline and almost let go.  Sometimes I nearly dive after it, but generally it works well.  The bag is looking rather worse for wear, and I am not sure Marks and Spencer will take it back, when I eventually go to point out the broken zip to them.

The train ride yesterday was interesting.  I was reading a bit of PG Wodehouse (Jeeves), and pleasantly immersed in 'merry japes' and the wonderful, elegant English of that era.  Behind me sat two men in high visibility jackets, speaking loudly to each other, with every other word being f**k or c**t.  I was wrestling with the contrast between what I was reading, and what I was hearing, when a very brave woman approached the men and berated them for swearing in front of her four year old son.  'He'll be swearing himself when he's twenty' the man helpfully said, then added 'we weren't swearing anyway'.  She replied, 'you was swearing, you used the c word a lot'.  Feeling Jeeves-ish, I wanted to interject and correct her with 'you were swearing'.  Fortunately I thought better of it and bit my tongue.

Back to sofa surfin' (sorry, couldn't resist the Beach Boys influence there).  I feel amazingly lucky to have such a wonderful family and wonderful friends.  Everyone has made me feel very welcome and they have gone out of their way to help.  I am feeling warm and fuzzy inside with all the love (there is evidently a strong hippy vibe happening here), and I am now looking forward to the next part of my adventure.

I do enjoy a good train ride, so the prospect of crossing most of France by train is something quite exciting.  Last week I realised that although all my thoughts are currently on Europe, I need to start planning for Malawi in January.  I had a good chat with the practice nurse about injections, and she was keen to start puncturing my arm then and there.  Being a bit of a coward with these things I said I would go back in the new year.

So, I'm off to get my Euros, think about Christmas presents and also have a minor worry about mosquito nets and so on.  It's all a bit confusing!

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Tudor Times

This week has been one of immersion in all things Tudor.  It started with a visit to the Mary Rose Museum, which was brilliant, one of the best museums I have ever visited.  The crew's personal artefacts were astonishing, especially considering they were over 500 years old.  It was a bit odd though, that the curators had put the skull of, say, the master carpenter, in a display cabinet along with his tools and clothes.  They repeated this idea with some of the other tradespeople and it made a slightly spooky scene.  You get all involved in looking at the jacket and tool bag and contents thereof, and then have the skull to consider.  It didn't really work as a concept.  I think the human remains deserve a different treatment (or should even have been left on the seabed to continue their eternal rest in peace).  One chilling item was the trepanning instrument, for those sailors brave enough to complain of a migraine, or of fits.  I am not convinced drilling a hole in someone's skull would cure a migraine.

The Victory was good to visit too, but with all these things, you wonder whether repeated conservation and replacement of bits and pieces mean that the ship isn't actually the original any more.  I felt a bit confused and spent some time pondering the broom question (whether changing first the brush, then the handle of a broom counts as having the same broom).

The Weald and Downland Museum was full of Tudor delights, including staff in full authentic dress (much of which was similar to the Mary Rose crew).  The houses were being warmed with fires and one kitchen was handing out samples of Tudor cuisine.  It was so inspiring, that as I write this, there is potage on the stove, bubbling away.

Tudor toilets are drafty:

  but the toilet in the car park in Portsmouth was rather good in comparison:
Some of the views in the houses looked like Dutch interiors:
Also this week I have sat in a Harrier Jump Jet (I think that's what it was) and driven on an F1 simulator.  I am not sure what a Tudor person would make of those.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Kindness of Friends and Strangers and Walking in my Dreams

I have now left the busy rush of Glasgow where thanks to someone I had never met before, a small dream came true.

About fifteen years ago I watched a documentary on 'The Arlington Club', a private members' club in Glasgow.  It showed elderly gentlemen swinging on trapezes over a swimming pool, and the most beautiful, Victorian steam room.  I knew I had to go there, and have had it in mind ever since.

Feeling a bit cheeky, and coming from a family where 'the wild e-mail' is a bit of a 'thing', I sent a note to the manager of  'The Arlington Club', explaining I had seen the documentary and this was a bit of a dream of mine.  I was delighted to get a response saying I was welcome to go and have a look round.  'Can I bring my swimming costume?' I asked.  He was fine with that and said I could have two hours to enjoy the facilities.

So, off I went, with a friend, to walk around in another dream (this year out seems to be full of opportunities to walk in dream sequences).  It didn't disappoint.  The manager was really welcoming and friendly and we put our cossies on and went for a dip and a sauna.  Sadly we couldn't steam as it was mens' day, but we were able to have a look at the steam room and appreciate the ambiance.

Over the swimming pool, the trapezes looked really tempting.  I was feeling bold as I had heard that the elderly gentleman who had featured in the film still frequented the club.  I climbed the ladder and held the end of the stick you use to reach the trapeze, but my nerve drained out of me.  Made me realise how brave those circus people are, and the gentleman in the documentary.

It was a good day, as we also had a full Scottish breakfast in the Willow Tea Room, which is a Charles Rennie Mackintosh building which would have been in my dreams if I had known about it in advance.  Come to that, so would the breakfast have been - very yummy.

After Glasgow, I headed south to Carlisle where I am staying with a good friend and about to go and meet some good friends of good friend, who have been resident members of staff on Iona in the past so are keen to hear about my trip.

I am being constantly bowled over by how kind friends and strangers are.

I have also realised, by writing this, that dreams can be catagorised in various ways - small ones, big ones, possible and impossible ones, silly ones and sensible ones, although I am not sure it is worth having a sensible dream.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Woman on the Stairs

How wonderful it has been to spend nearly three months on my favourite, very small, island.

Coming back to the mainland has been an interesting transition.  City life is sirens and traffic and bar code bleeps.

It's noisy and crowded and jarring.

My hotel, although comfortable, is without soul.  There are quietly carpeted corridors going on for miles.

I passed a woman on the stairs.  She was wearing jewellery - I noticed her sparkling.

I hoped she didn't notice the dried cowpat on my walking boots.

I tipped some white sand out of my rucksack into the bin in my en suite bathroom.  It looked better on the beach.

Little grains of pure Iona sand, out of place in this anonymous place.

I listen to cars and buses in the street below my window, and remember hearing the waves of the ocean on stormy nights from my little shared bedroom.

The television is bright and busy and peculiar.  I turn it off, it doesn't seem to make sense any more.

I smell the pollution in the air, and remember the delicious, salty breeze of the sea.

As I walk around the city, I find I'm humming the chorus to Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'.  I imagine the friends I made singing the harmonies.  It doesn't sound so good as a solo.

I have experienced something enchanting.

I have been sparkling on the inside.

I don't need the jewels.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Puddingy Problems

It has come to my notice that in this world of complimentary therapies of every sort and shade you can think of, there is a gap.

A big gap.

A yawning gap.

What has happened to dessert therapy?

'Dessert therapy?' I hear you ask,

'Who needs therapy for something so wonderful?'.

My only answer to that is, 'everyone'!

Take, for example, the torturous decision between being offered both banoffee pie and cheesecake to follow the main course of a meal.

Incredibly, this is a real life situation that happened to me only a couple of days ago.  My eyes cast around for a clue as to which dessert I should settle for.  Could I find fault in the banoffee pie?  A meanness in the cream topping, a lack of banana submerged in the toffee filling?

Perhaps the cheesecake would be too thick around the base?

But no, both desserts looked perfect.  My torture was to continue.

'Therapy' I shouted, 'I need therapy'.  Luckily a kind hearted soul at the table offered to have a go at dessert therapy.  As she quickly and expertly uncovered a lifelong yearning for banoffee pie, I was relieved to realise I could select this with ease.

However, more trauma was to follow.

The base was TOO CRUNCHY.

'Help' I shouted, 'the base is too crunchy!'

I was struggling to get my spoon to crack through the compacted crumb.

My amateur therapist again came to my aid, uttering soothing phrases and suggesting that next meal time I start on soft puddings, and build up my confidence before attempting a biscuit base again.

It was good advice.  I have just successfully eaten some chocolate ice cream, alone and without the need for counselling.  

Saturday, 19 October 2013

More photos

Bored of Dolphins, Bored of Life

Life here is so amazing, that it has actually got to the point where, when someone points out some dolphins frolicking in the Sound, you feel a bit bored and annoyed you have to turn your head to look!

The weather (up to today) has been so wonderful we have all been swimming most days.  Last week, the sunlight made the sand shimmer with a mauve tint, which I could admire all the better as my feet sank into it, up to my ankles.

The sun now rises at around the time I go to work, so a standard day starts with watching the sun rise from outside the abbey, and might include a walk, a party, home made scones and bread, games, chat and oh, a bit of work here and there.

Last week a few of us were treated to a trip up the abbey tower, and were able to walk around the top, taking photos.  It was fun to see the bell I ring for services, where the doves are kept, and all the ancient stones from the original abbey which are stored in the lofts.

Also last week I saw a poster advertising a 'Grand Piano Recital' in the abbey.  I was just thinking that I must go, as that is the sort of thing I like, when I realised, with some horror, that I was playing in it.  I had foolishly agreed when asked by the abbey musician.  Luckily the piece I played is one I am very familiar with, so when the time came, even though my fingers were shaking badly, I was still able to hit the right notes.  My main worry had been that I would embarrass everyone by dithering over mistakes, but all went well and I even had a few compliments.  It has given me a new lease of life with my playing, and I happily spent an hour going through my 'back catalogue' of music recently.

Time is passing faster than I ever remember it doing before in my life, which is rather worrying.  There is so much going on.  I am looking forward to taking some time soon to think it all through and what I can take from the experience.

 Sunrise through the Sacristy window
 My favourite place on the planet
View from the tower

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Isle of Recurring Rainbows

One of the things about this part of the Hebrides is that the weather can change, dramatically, within the space of five minutes.  This weekend there was a storm.  The sea was white and spitting foam, the wind was being ferocious.  The rain would come horizontally in sheets and sting your face.  Just at the point where you decide to give up on your walk and turn back, the sun would break out and laugh at all your wet weather gear.  The upside of this is that rainbows would appear.  Sometimes part of a rainbow, sometimes a complete and dramatic arch, sometimes fragments of a double rainbow.  The ends would disappear into the mist, but once or twice you would see them hit the water in the Sound of Iona.

Coming out of the abbey late the other evening, my breath was taken away by the beauty of a moon and cloud-scape.  The moon was full, and there was an amber tinge to its corona, catching the edges of the surrounding clouds.  The moonlight spread across the Sound, which was rippled, giving a flatness to the colour.  Every shade of grey and silver were visible in a way I had never seen before.

Another evening, I had come out of the west door to a sky so clear the Milky Way looked like it had just been smeared across the night by someone with a huge duster.

The birdlife is on the move.  Most of the swallows have left for Africa now, but one family have nested in a chapel where the door is left open most of the time.  They sit quietly until a parent flies in, when they all squawk competitively for their food.  Sometimes they sit on a beam under the cloister roof and practice flying, hopping along from one beam to the next, and then missing out a few at a time.  They have a particularly interesting cry, like a radio tuning in, but in a nice way.

It is quite a leap to get from beam hopping to flying to Africa.  Like the rainbows, one of those every day miracles we are in danger of taking for granted.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Hebridean Isles

After my duties in the abbey finished the other day, I decided I needed a treat, so bought a rather promising looking packet of upmarket 'Aberdeen Angus Steak' flavoured crisps.  I knew they must be upmarket by the price.  Not much change from a pound, thank you.

I happily started walking back to my accommodation in the village, which involved walking through a field.  The field has always been empty of creatures, other than frogs, for many years.  Yesterday however, this was not the case.  The field was full of cows.  I strolled along, admiring a large cow munching grass exactly in front of me on the path.  As I walked closer, I was able to observe that this was no cow, but a bull.  I regretted two things at this point a) my choice of crisps (I would not want to offend this animal by appearing to eat his mates) and b) the fact I was wearing a bright red jacket.  Somewhere at the back of my mind I could recall someone telling me that bulls charge at red things, and I realised, forlornly that I was the looking uncannily like a matador's cape.

I wondered whether I should turn around and walk back, but rejected this option as having a bull behind me seemed worse than a bull where I could keep an eye on it.  I sized up the wall on the right, and decided, if push came to shove (quite literally), I should be able to get over it without too much bother.  Then, remembering the advice I had given to many guests in California about mountain lions, I engaged the bull in friendly, but firm conversation.  My conversation didn't seem to interest him, and he carried on pulling the grass up, so I was able to walk past.  He is quite a handsome bull, with a lovely shaggy, ginger coat and NO HORNS - phew.

The Hebridean islands are so beautiful.  Yesterday, I was lucky enough to visit the Isle of Ulva with some friends.  We took the scenic route, winding round the base of magnificent mountains, and along the side of sea lochs.  Each time the car turned another corner on the single track road, it was hard not to gasp at the landscape opening up before us.

After an hour or so we arrived at the Ulva Ferry.  The view from the boat was also amazing.

We were en route to a harvest festival, held at a church that stands disused at all other times of year.  Many local people make the journey to this remote place for the service and there was amiable conversation as we walked up the track to the kirk.

There was standing room only by the time the service began.  We sang hymns accompanied, unusually, by a piano accordion.  This made for a very jolly atmosphere, which was carried on by some school children singing songs and waving puppets.  A young woman sang two traditional Gaelic songs, which were quite poignant.

Afterwards, we walked back down to the boathouse, to sit with tea and cake admiring the mountains which were casting jagged shadows in the late afternoon sun.  As we drove back we saw an otter playing in one of the lochs.

It's good here - really good.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Oh, I Do Like to be Beside the Sea-Side......

At last I have arrived on my favourite Hebridean island, a small dot at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. It has all been a bit of a whirl, because in the space of just a couple of weeks, I have gone from being beside the Pacific, to being beside the Atlantic.

It has taken a while for my head to catch up with where my body is.

The weather is certainly rather different from the perpetual, glowing sunshine of California, which in all honesty, can become rather DULL.  (If I say this often enough, maybe I will start to believe it).  In fact, I feel nothing but pity and sympathy for those poor folk living in GORGEOUSLY WARM WEATHER.  They must get VERY BORED of wearing sun screen and shorts all the time.

However, I have to confess that this morning, walking to work along the fields overlooking the Sound, I was grateful it wasn't raining and I didn't need to put on my coat.

I have been here often enough to KNOW BETTER. 

Within five minutes, the weather had gone from overcast and dry, to driving rain. It was coming at me so hard, I didn't even want to stop and put on a plastic poncho I had in my bag (I will explain what this was doing there later). I knew in the time I would have to rummage in my rucksack, open the packet and work out where my head went, that I would be drenched anyway.

I started running for the abbey door and skidded in, looking like I had just stepped out of the shower, wearing all my clothes. Today was also my day for collecting supplies for our communal house. I dripped up to the kitchen and the cook was so surprised by my watery appearance, she immediately grabbed a towel and started trying to dry my hair and wipe the rain off my face and nose. I felt about five years old again - which was strangely comforting.

It is fascinating to see how being in new places makes you yearn for, and value different things. I particularly remember being in a group on a long train journey in India, where we all were suffering from 'Delhi Belly'. For the hours of that trip, the most coveted item, worth more than all the diamonds and gold in the universe, was a meagre wet wipe. Now, on my Hebridean island, I found my self jealous of someone wearing AN ARMY PONCHO. The proud owner was standing in a downpour, looking smug and DRY underneath his camouflage. I wasn't sure the camouflage was strictly necessary, as no one has attempted a raid on this island since some Vikings got ideas above their station.

You can imagine my delight, when I went into the gift shop and saw row upon row of plastic ponchos for sale. It was also fortuitous that they were black, because later this week I have to appear on stage as a singing nun. The poncho will make a very good habit, when turned inside out and worn over a white, cardboard 'crown'. Posing as a singing nun is not part of my duties here, but I seem to have been roped into appearing in a concert, singing a couple of songs from, 'The Sound of Music'. I have yet to confess that due to my hearing problems, I really cannot sing in tune. The poncho may well double up as protection against rotten tomatoes being flung at the stage. Well worth £4, I think you will agree.

My workplace for the next couple of months

Monday, 5 August 2013

Dragonfly Day

Today has been another wonderful day in California.  The dragonflies have been very busy, and I notice that some very smart, stripey dragonflies have arrived.  They have the same colour scheme as a wasp, but there's more surface area available for the pattern, so they wear it better - sorry wasps.

I have to agree that tigers have even more surface area, but they also have big claws and sharp teeth.  Dragonflies don't sting, don't have claws or teeth , so are my most favourite black and yellow stripey things.  I like their wings too.  They are very busy wings, making complicated figures of eight (reminding me of my dancing hippy).

While sitting in the sun this afternoon, listening to strumming guitars and mandolin, feeling that 'being brave' is a very OK thing to be, I wondered why it is that we humans get bothered all the time by mosquitoes, flies, wasps and so on.  Why can't the good insects be the ones we have landing on us?  Why can't we be 'bothered' instead by butterflies?

Listening to the music, and having my thoughts on things entomological, I noticed that there was a hammock swinging gently between two trees.  It looked lava like, and I started to imagine the human in it was pupating. A little later he swang too hard and fell out, which is the way of hammocks.  They look like fun, and the most relaxing thing ever, but getting in is tricky and when they are bored with you, you are unceremoniously ejected.  

The musicians were kindly doing requests.  I get a thrill from hearing 'Hotel California' while IN CALIFORNIA, so it was played for me.  Then they played, 'Streets of London', which also felt rather thrilling.

Earlier in the day, we had been for a walk and I had a second opinion on the mountain lion poo, which was now spewing its secrets across the path.  Feathers.  Bit of a give-away.  It was generally agreed that a mountain lion probably was the culprit.

Can't you play 'Eye of the Tiger'?

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Veranda

This week I have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time in my favourite place.  The veranda.

Today is no exception.  It has been a particularly good veranda day, because a Steller's Jay dropped a feather, so I am wearing it in my lapel (it is a fabulous blue, and obviously therefore goes with my eyes - who needs a Rolls Royce?).  Someone else dropped by and gave me not one, but two, of the best muffins in the universe (excuse to get up and make yet another cup of tea) and I have been watching the wildlife drift by, which is very relaxing.  It's like the effect a fish tank has before you have teeth pulled at the dentist, only many times nicer, and no blood is involved.

So maybe not like the dentist's waiting room after all? - Ed
There was a pause while someone else came to tell me that there were three young raccoons in a trash shed.  I tried to get a photo, but they stayed huddled at the back.  My friend had taken a lovely photo of a stripey face staring straight to camera.  I am jealous!

The only minor upset today is that I have taken time to position my chair, the table and the chair I put my feet on, in exactly the right combo to achieve maximum comfort.  My cup of tea is placed where the least movement is required to lift it to my lips.  I do not want want to have to move.  Unfortunately, the extremely tall Douglas Fir I am sitting under has decided to release lots of leaf litter, and it is snowing dead stuff.  My tea is in danger of being polluted.  Help!  I think I will have to move.  Hmph.

Apart from deer, raccoons, Steller's Jays, American Robins and little sparrowy things scuffling away on the ground, bringing up puffs of dirt, I can see my favourites, the dragon flies.

The dragon flies are chunky, confident, and the most wonderful iridescent blue.  If I could 'mind meld' (ancient Star Trek fans are with me here), I am sure I would find them thinking, 'Hey, wow man, hey, I'm a Californian dragon fly.  Hey, wow, I'm the best ....' as if high on waccy baccy.  Perhaps they are all controlled by mind melding, tripping hippies.  That's why they zig zag around, without really going anywhere.....

The butterflies are more innocent, fluttering around, stalling their flight occasionally, dropping down to look at something, then fluttering back up.  They are rather skittish and silly, and probably think skittish and silly thoughts, with a lot of giggling.

Right, I'm off to try to photograph those raccoons for you!

Friday, 2 August 2013


Yesterday, I saw what looked like fresh 'evidence' of a mountain lion having had a bit of a wander not too far from here.  This morning, I thought I would go back and see if I could take a photo, in the interest of scientific research.

As I walked along the trail, I started thinking that maybe it wasn't such a great idea, and knowing mountain lions don't like noise, decided to sing as I walked.  Then I wondered whether a mountain lion of musical persuasion might be attracted to the sound, so decided a) I could keep quiet, or b) sing hymns in case he pounced.  I then had a strange flight of fancy, imagining my response to a key question as follows:

'What do you mean you're not letting me in?  I was singing a hymn when I died!'

Anyway, it was all in vain, the 'evidence' had been disseminated around the path, presumably by rodents in the night, which only made me more sure what I had seen had been a recent 'deposit'.

On the way back from my walk I saw sunlight streaming through the trees, so took photos of that instead.


Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Just a Normal Day in the Forest

Worryingly, just as I am thinking about returning to London, driving on the 'wrong' side of the road is feeling 'right'.  I am getting used to baking without using kitchen scales.  I know not to bother with the brown paper carrier bags with hopeless handles at the supermarket.  I say 'call' instead of 'ring'.  I say 'cell' instead of 'mobile' and 'soda' rather than 'fizzy drink'.

My family and friends are going to think I have been taken over by an alien (those that hadn't come to that conclusion already of course).

I was mulling this over on the way back from the supermarket.  As I heaved my shopping out of the boot (trunk), I saw something rather lovely.  Tiger the cat was walking down the path to meet me, closely followed by his new best friend, a wild fawn.  Poor Tiger only has one eye, and the fawn had those gawky 'Bambi' legs, sticking out at all angles.

I felt my heart melt.

Earlier in the day, I had been sitting on the veranda for 'Golden Hour' with a peach I had picked off a tree.  'Golden Hour' is at around 5pm, when the sunlight comes down at a particular angle making everything glow.  The broad leaves seem to turn a translucent emerald.  The dragon flies come out and dart hither and thither.  Deer slowly emerge from the forest to graze, and birds start twittering about.

I might have got used to some things here, but I still have to pinch myself to check I'm awake sometimes.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The Post Office Box

I have always wondered what a 'post office box' looks like.  They have a mysterious cache, suggestive of spies dropping off 'dead letters'.  I also remember them from school girl comics, when fan clubs gave their addresses.  I expect the 'Bay City Rollers' needed sacks, rather than boxes.

It was rather a good opportunity to see one for real here in California, when I went to collect the post.  I had the code word mnemonic in my head and a set of hastily written instructions on how to enter the letters (alphabet ones, not ones in envelopes - this could get confusing).

The post office here is very smart, with a tall flagpole with the Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze.  The boxes covered a wall.  They were quaint, in decorated brass with little windows so you could get excited about the contents.  This had an inherent danger of causing jealousy, if you sneakily looked into other people's windows and saw more exciting mail, possibly even spy related messages!

I started twizzling the knob in different directions, getting the pointer lined up with the appropriate arm of the embossed star.  It felt like I was breaking into a safe, I remembered all the old cowboy films with the hero pressing his ear to the dial.

Rather like breaking into a safe, it was proving very difficult to open the door.  I twizzled and twizzled, this way and that.  I tried different combinations of the code in case I had made a mistake writing it down, but there was no way the little brass door was going to relinquish its booty.  A man came in and retrieved his post, and offered some advice, but as I couldn't give him the code, and still couldn't get the door to open, it didn't help.

Eventually I gave up and went back to base, where I was asked whether I had twisted the other 'door' knob after entering the code.  I felt a bit stupid.  The next time I went, I was able to 'break in' quite easily, although the knob needed spinning counter intuitively, so it still took a couple of goes.

I think I have uncovered the fact that I have a 'thing' about post offices (probably from the toy kit I was given as a child) as well as fire engines.  Maybe I'm regressing, and turning into a 'kidult' here in California!

Postscript:  I have always wanted to type the word 'mnemonic' but have to confess to a bit of a struggle on the spelling front for this!

Sunday, 28 July 2013

When you look for something... always find something else.

This happened to me today.  I had been sitting on a log on a sandy beach, watching the pelicans breaking off from their squadrons and diving dramatically for fish.  The sealion king was atop his rock, master of all he surveyed.  As I walked back, I scanned the water for otters, but couldn't see any.  I was just about to give up when a school of dolphins broke the surface and cruised along.

'That'll do' I thought, 'That'll do nicely'.

Downtown Santa Cruz was hosting a Mexican fair, which was buzzing with people and infused pleasant cooking smells.  I drifted in, and decided to try some Mexican food.  I'm not familiar with the cuisine, so when asked what I wanted, just said I'd have what the woman in front of me had gone for.  A pile of mystery items, and sauces was presented to me, so I took it over to the stage area where there was an exhibition of traditional Mexican dancing going on.  Lots of swirling ladies in brightly coloured skirts and men doing what looked like a cross between Scottish country and tap dancing in over-sized straw hats.  I chomped into my lunch and started to feel like a volcano was erupting in my mouth.  I didn't want to laugh when the man dressed as a cactus ran across the stage, in case blood seeped out.

The show became a rather laden down with multiple translations, a bit like the Eurovision Song Competition so I moved on, past the bucking bronco and the face painting stalls, which seem obligatory at these events.  There is always a miserable child propped up in a high chair, being turned into a lion.

While all this was going on, I couldn't help notice THE HUGE FIRE ENGINE driving round the streets again.  I know why now, it is to hose down people's mouths when they have been too adventurous at the food stalls.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Is there an artist in the house?

Today I went to see some art exhibitions, dotted around the area.  It was really interesting, not just for the art, but to see what houses round here are like.  The first house had a display of pretty amazing, 'fused glass'.  There were brightly coloured trays and plates and candle holders in all shapes and sizes.  Some were in a fabulous turquoise, reminding me of the sea, perhaps the mermaid in the sequinned dress could use them in her underwater lair.  The artist's garden was dotted with large, ceramic figures.  One looked like the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, but the cat nearby wasn't smiling insanely enough to be from Cheshire.  A coiled serpent with raised head brought back a couple of memories from India.  The artist had cleverly manicured her piece of forest real estate so the trees looked deliberately spaced out (not the Santa Cruz type of spaced out, silly).  Her house looked magnificent, made from redwood and with panoramic windows with jaunty angles build in.  I felt a tinge wistful that I didn't 'live in a house like that'.

The next house was full of nudes (the framed type, honestly, what are you like?).  They had been computerised in ingenious ways.  I am not totally in favour of computerised art, I think it loses some of the soul, but what we saw was good in its way.  I think the models for this sort of thing must be very brave.  Not only do they have to disrobe to be drawn, but risk hanging forever on someone's wall in their birthday suit.  If you don't like the image, it's hard luck, forever.  I wonder whether Venus de Milo went 'ugh, it makes my bum look big' when she saw herself, immortalised in stone for millennia.

I digress.  The next house we went to had textiles and wicker work.  The textiles were very good, but some of them were beautifully made pot holders.  The art seemed too good to be used for such mundane purposes.  The wicker work was intricate, conch shell shapes woven around curving twigs, and a large torus ring.  The ring was fully enclosed and must have been very hard and complicated to weave, but it would be tricky knowing where to put your shopping.

The last house we went to was complicated.  An extensive art display had been combined with the artist trying to sell his house, so as you went round there was live music, lots of paintings, and a realtor wanting to show you around.  Now this house was something very special.  I had felt wistful in the first house, but this one was like standing in paradise.  It was perched on the side of a deep, tree covered ravine.  There were several deck areas overlooking the gorge, and as we stood there, humming birds hovered taking nectar from the buddleia and hefty dragonflies darted to and fro.  The humming birds managed to make the butterflies look dull.

There was a swing that dangled you daringly over the precipice garden, an outdoor kitchen, a waterfall, a pond with the most bloated carp you ever saw, a hammock strung between two trees and terraces of beautiful shrubbery falling away beneath you.  I sighed.  Then the realtor took us indoors.  The carpets were so thick it was like wading through sand (luckily I am well practiced in this) - it became quite tiring dragging one's feet through high density shag pile into each amazingly well appointed room. Each, of course, filled with inspirational artefacts and images.

In a weak voice I asked the realtor how much this little piece of heaven would cost.


I asked the current owner where he was moving to, and he said he was thinking of buying a camper van and going on an adventure.  He also said there was a mountain lion lair nearby...........

With this news I almost felt relieved I couldn't afford the house, but I like the idea of motoring into the sunset in an RV.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Essential Tools for the Would-be Dictator

I love the Californian fire trucks.  The ones in Santa Cruz can't be beaten for pure shiny, showoffiness, but you can imagine my excitement when I went swimming and this lot were parked outside!
It was a relief to see that the pool was neither on fire, nor drained of water.  I was so impressed by the engines, that I was tempted to don a yellow hat, high visibility jacket, pick up a clipboard and join them.  I also had to resist the urge to climb on board and ring the bells.  I think I am in danger of releasing my inner child.  Presumably this can be put down to currently reading 'I'm OK, you're OK'.

Talking about clipboards, I think they are under-estimated.  There is a lot of latent power in a clipboard. If you want to be the authoritative person in any exchange (or 'transaction' - oooh, get me), holding a clipboard can do the job more efficiently, and less expensively than a pair of designer super-high heels and 'statement' jewelry.  I carried one recently, while checking there was enough bleach for a cleaning team, and they almost visibly cowered at the sight of me, pen in hand, looking like I was jotting notes. This was in spite of me still working the 'hippy' look in my clothing selection that day*.  It made me realise the combination of a 'Paddington Hard Stare' over the top of one's glasses, with a clipboard is strongly recommended for the power hungry, but insecure.
Essential Toolkit for the Power Crazed

I think world peace could be achieved, just by giving all dictators everywhere a clipboard, pen and pair of glasses (faux-horn rimmed for preference) in exchange for their arms (no silly, not their real arms, they wouldn't be able to hold the pen).

Oh, and a fleet of shiny, red fire engines of course.

* Any cheeky suggestion they might have been cowering over my choice of outfit is sooo not appreciated!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Big Basin State Park

Today I went to Big Basin State Park.  It is a very wonderful place, with redwood trees taller than I have yet seen.  They go up forever, and you can't see the tops.
The walk went through different landscapes, forest and open heath, with lots of gorse.
The views at the top were wonderful.  The Pacific Ocean was in the distance, covered with a swirling mist.  It looked like we were standing miles above the clouds.

I was wearing my Loch Lomond baseball cap, which I intend wearing when I get to the 'real' Loch Lomond next month.  It has the embroidered image of a mountain lion, which I think will delightfully confuse the locals.  Having been reassuring myself with how unlikely it is I will ever see one of these scary beasts, my walking companion today told of the time when they were walking alone in a forest. They heard the give away crunching of leaves alongside their path.  When they stopped to listen, the crunching stopped.  When they started again, the crunching started again.  A bit further down the path they were confronted by a mountain lion, staring them in the face.  Fortunately, it responded well to a bit of a chat, in a firm tone, and turned and walked off along the path.  My companion sensibly decided to turn round and walk back.  

Today I realised there had been another threat that I had filed away deeper in my mind.  It came to light when trying to throw away my icecream stick.  The bins were 'bear proof'.  

Yes, 'bear proof'.  

There was a cheery cartoon of a bear paw print to press the point home.  I was rather glad we were on our way back, and felt quite relieved to get back in the car in one piece.  

I shouldn't be surprised by the thought of bears, after all, I did grow up with Yogi Bear, and I think he lived somewhere round here.

Friday, 19 July 2013

A Million Tears Ago

The Egyptian Museum in San Jose has some fascinating and thought provoking displays.  In one part of the museum, there are ancient, tiny phials for collecting tears of the bereaved.  The explanation read that when the container was full, it was put in the tomb with the body.

In another area is the mummified body of a four year old girl.  Her coffin has elaborate decorations, including some gilding.  The striking image of her face is marred by what look like smears of dirt or earth across the forehead and one cheek. This is in sharp contrast to the gold leaf underneath.  The text explains that this 'dirt' is the remnants of perfumed oils the parents would have poured over the coffin at the child's funeral.

This physical link to the last act of love from distraught parents made the grief almost palpable.  Quite incredible given she died some two thousand years ago.

Not only had the mummified remains found a form of immortality, so had their love.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

San Jose

Everything here is tinder dry at the moment.  The conversation on the bus today was about how the conditions are the most worrying for some years, from a forest fire point of view.  I spent the rest of the journey trying to remember where all the fire hoses and extinguishers were on site and realised I need to take a walk around to refresh my memory.  Living in a wooden apartment in the middle of a forest is not the most reassuring place to be under such circumstances.  Being a bit bored on the bus, I started fantasising about having to crawl into a drainage channel and sit in the stream while flames played at each end.  I would end up being rescued by the fire brigade, and would wipe away a stripe of soot from my face as everyone applauded my bravery. 

In reality, I would more likely have to be scraped off the floor a blubbering wreck, as I am hopeless in an emergency.

The bus was taking me to San Jose.  I was going to cram in some more culture.  There were palm tree lined boulevards and some impressive buildings.  The Tech Museum was fun, I know a lot about the Monarch butterfly, migration habits thereof, which were played out on an absolutely massive, domed screen.  It has to be said there was something disconcerting about having a caterpillar the size of a tube train hovering over your head.

I also created a heart out of pretend pixels:

Someone had sculpted DNA from books:

The art gallery was also brilliant, with a fantastic exhibition of photography by Annie Leibovitz.  It was especially good for someone from another country, as it explored some American history, with things like Abraham Lincoln's gloves and Elvis' Harley motorbike.  Strangely, there were some photographs of the Isle of Wight - a counterpoint, I suppose, for the Niagara Falls.

A good day, and no smoke to be seen - phew!

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

I'm a Lumbarjack and I'm OK....

I have been getting very interested in the local history of this area lately.  As a result, I have found myself watching some strange choices of video on YouTube, and sitting in the library in the town perusing old newspaper cuttings.  Unexpectedly, I have found the logging industry to be a fascinating topic.  The short film 'Redwood Saga' from the 1940s was full of useful information.  I had been wondering why some of the tree stumps round here had letterbox sized notches taken out of them.  Now I know (because I have been so busy improving my mind) that the lumberjacks needed to insert planks into the sides of the tree, about six foot up, to stand on to start chopping - they didn't want the knobbly bit of trunk at the bottom.  'Grease monkeys' were the men who had to grease the log slides, and 'Bull thwachers' the men who goaded the animals along. There was a photo in the museum of about 12 oxen, yolked together in pairs, pulling a long chain of redwood trunks down an incline.  The redwood trunks went back as far as the eye could see.  The oxen had a type of stairway made with thinner logs as treads to stop their hooves slipping, but these had to be greased regularly to keep the logs moving across them.

Log flume was also something I thought only existed in theme parks (you can tell I really am a townie at heart).  In the library I saw photographs of a real flume from the turn of the century, several miles long that the logs were shifted on.  One enterprising millionaire had ridden this flume, which must have been extremely terrifying, given the height and the fact it looked only just wide enough to take a log (don't look doooooooooooooown).

Another YouTube film showed men in boats nudging logs in the river to keep them moving downstream.  Like a lightbulb going on, I realised this is where 'log jam' comes from. If the men in their boats didn't do their stuff, the whole river backed up with what looked like tens of thousands of logs.

The sad side of all this is that the terrain looked awful after the trees had been felled.  It reminded me of photographs of bombed landscapes just after the First World War.  It is quite amazing that in the space of just over 100 years the new growth is as magnificent as it is.


Sunday, 14 July 2013

Come on Baby, Light My Fire....

California has the most amazing fire engines.  They are incredibly shiny, huge, with lots of possibly unnecessary chrome and loads of bright red paintwork.  While sitting outside a cafe in Santa Cruz, a red shininess would cruise (Cruz) past, several times.  There was no emergency to be seen, no smoke rising from anywhere.  A local man said they needed to drive around to get used to the streets.  It did occur to me that they might just be showing off.  One of the trucks was so large, it took ages to go by.  (Sorry it's not a better photo, but the fire department photos are all under copyright).
After my coffee I watched a bizarre Balloon Man entertaining the kiddies.  I think 'Crusty the Clown', typifies everything I feel about children's entertainers, or maybe Stephen King got it right.  Whichever, they worry me.  Maybe it's the painted on perma-smile, which would still be there even on hearing the news that nuclear warheads had been launched.   However, later in the day I was to be rather thankful to the Balloon Man.

In a side street, waiters from local restaurants were racing each other round tables, slalom fashion, carrying glasses filled with water on trays.  They had to complete different tasks at each table, such as wrapping cutlery up in napkins.  It was a very jolly atmosphere, and everyone loved it, especially when the glasses went flying.

An antique fair was on in another side street, and it was fun to see all the American paraphernalia on display - a 'Sweeney Todd' style barber's chair, and Native American style goods.  The old lunchboxes had scenes from baseball matches or cowboys on them.  Further round  I was jolted back to thoughts of the UK by a poster
because I used to live very close to the Elephant and Castle (area of London near a pub of that name). Odd to note that Des O'Connor is still going strong.............

After this, I found myself in the Museum of Art and History.  I only meant to cast a cursory glance round, but was so absorbed in the displays, I stayed a couple of hours.  I think this was because my first recollection of being taught about America was from primary (elementary) school, where we learned about the Gold Rush and logging.  I remember being fascinated by the lumberjacks riding on rafts of logs down swirling rivers.  The other interesting and sad thing to learn about was how many disasters have hit California.  There were the earthquakes of course, but also several very severe episodes of flooding.  The earthquakes mean that bricks and mortar structured buildings went out of favour.  It's the opposite of the situation in the UK, where timber buildings are the ones hard to get mortgaged.

After this overload of culture, I was ready to head back, but was distracted by a modern art gallery near the bus station.  I drifted in (it was that sort of a day), and started laughing almost immediately with the witty sculptures.  One was made from the metal burner covers from ovens, which were hung in an arc along a wall.  There was an American payphone booth which had been turned into a water feature, and a fountain in memory of Steve Jobs.  This had a half melted Mac at the top with Apple logos and Steve Job's photograph arranged around a doric pillar.  A beautiful (real), red speckled bird was sitting on top of the Mac having a drink.  Inside were guitars made from toilet seats and all sorts of clever combinations of every-day items.

Maybe you had to be there.....................

Eventually I made it to the bus (with clever bike rack on the front):

I could tell people thought I was strange photographing our bus, but hopefully not as strange as Balloon Man who embarked just after me.  He was carrying balloon kit on a frame and was wearing a stripy rainbow hat, knee high stripy rainbow socks, harem pants with diamante detail and lots of draped scarves, along with the lurid, rictus grin.

The bus was driving along, and I was watching the world go past, but after a bit started to worry I was on the wrong bus, as the shops looked unfamiliar.  We had gone past the Pied Piper sign alright, but now we were somewhere strange.  Meanwhile, Balloon Man had walked to the front of the bus (it wasn't possible to tell whether he was worried) and was having a chat with the driver, who burst out laughing.  The bus then swung round fast in a 180 turn and we started heading back to the Pied Piper.

Walking back up the hill was helped by listening to my 'Ground Rush Party' play list on my iPod (quiet thank you to Steve Jobs).  I was singing along to Donna Summer (Love to Love Ya Baby - long version, who says I'm not up to the minute with my music?).  As I walked, I thought about how my childhood impressions of America had been formed by those lessons on the Gold Rush, but also by watching the 'Top Cat' cartoon on TV.  This must be why I am enamoured by street furniture, including fire hydrants (people thought I was strange photographing this too - thank goodness the Balloon Man had lowered the bar for strangeness):

The most shocking news of the day though, was this:

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Anarchic Cafe

Today I visited an 'Anarchic Cafe'.  I was drawn in by a rather shady garden, with crooked tables and chairs scattered about.  As I waited for my clover infusion to brew I was able to peruse leaflets on subjects such as 'Why We Hate the Police'.  The cafe felt like a strange mix of hippy friendliness and barely restrained anger.

I took a seat under the tree and sipped the tea.  A young man came up to me, with a black eye and several teeth missing. He also had 'Property of Jessica' scrawled on his arm in thick, angry letters.  He asked, quite politely, if I would ring his girlfriend's number which he held up, scrawled on some tatty cardboard.

I passed my mobile across the table to him, and was relieved to see he sat down with it.  My mobile costs by the minute, so I said I would appreciate it if he was brief.  He noted that I wasn't from round here, and when I said I was from London, he talked about his upbringing in Galloway, Ireland.  No-one answered his call, so I said, 'Jessica not in then?'.  His jaw dropped open and his eyes were as wide a saucers.  'How do you know?' he asked, in amazement. I toyed with the idea of saying I was psychic, but just said, 'it's on your arm'.  He gave me a rueful smile and returned my phone. After a friendly-ish conversation relating to England's repression of Ireland he ran off.  As he disappeared round the corner, my phone rang.  I guessed it would be Jessica and decided to 'reject'.

More interesting people came and went.  A couple of men who were suitably bearded to wear a red suit, black boots and carry a sack in December, a nervous couple who didn't understand where to get the coffee and a young woman with a puppet theatre made out of two bicycle wheels attached to each other horizontally and covered in material like a circus tent.  As she went past, I noticed a toy rat, swinging from a noose inside.  A short while after, a shabby camper van drew up.  It had black bin liners where the doors should be and a standard sitting room sofa in the main part.  It disgorged its occupants onto the pavement, and the driver started to assemble a tricycle with a large sign on it saying 'people power'.  Then a druid walked into the garden and lay down next to a dog on the concrete.

On the way back the bus went past a large, illuminated sign outside a pest control business.  It was of a life sized Pied Piper, dancing along followed not by mesmerized children, but one representative of each of the creatures of our nightmares.  Maybe he was going to start a new Noah's Ark, or maybe he was going to the cafe, to join the circus.


Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Parking Attendant

Today I was being a parking attendant, California style.  I was a very happy parking attendant being at the top of a hill in the middle of a temperate rainforest, in the sunshine.  A few people were sitting cross-legged on the grass behind me strumming mandolins and guitars, and it sounded sweet.

There was a low density of cars appearing over the brow of the hill, so I took the opportunity to practice some of my latest dance moves.  These had been learned while in the audience at a Beatles tribute band concert, downtown.  Everyone had started dancing straight away, and the floor was packed, mainly with Santa lookalikes (proving my theory that they live in Santa Cruz).

However, one person stood out from the crowd, wearing a tie dye shirt (I instantly knew we would have Karma), and a hat (I feel your concern, there were other clothes as well).  He was throwing some amazing shapes with his hands, while stretching up and then crouching down.  I knew I had to do this, the dance style would certainly go with my tie-dye shirt and friendship bracelet, so I asked for a lesson.

It was hard to keep up, but I got the hang of figure of eight movements with one hand curved over the other.  The move that went behind the head and round past my ears, at speed, was harder.  I wasn't too sure about the flicking moves, which might make people worry I was suffering from a fit of some sort, or that I had a swarm of bees around me.  My new friend encouraged me to 'be like water' with my hands.  So I tried.  He told me he had some lights in his bag, but needed the right tune to get them out, like 'Lucy in the Sky'.  Just as the words left his mouth, the band started up with, yes, you've guessed, 'Lucy in the Sky'.  He rushed to his bag and came out with his hand torches and flung himself energetically into his routine.  At the end he needed a break because the music was so overwhelming.  It was very good, but I suspected he had taken some additional help before the concert to be overwhelmed.

My new friend said it takes three weeks to perfect this dancing style, which is why I am now practising at every opportunity, including while being a parking attendant.  I did have to be careful to stop when I heard a car engine as I didn't want to alarm the drivers (this was tricky as there was a high ratio of Toyota Priuses which would sneak up on their electric option just when I reached the cascading water move).  

Not only am I learning to talk the California talk, but I am nearly able to walk the California walk too.