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.