Thursday, 28 March 2013

Inside your own skin - and what if that is made of glass?

I find it very odd walking into my own house after being away for a while - even just a few days.  However irrational, I think I feel relief - for various reasons - that it's all still there, it hasn't burned down or been ransacked. Then there's a wave of familiarity, recognition, and a silly sense of discovery - remembering what things looks like.  If we've been staying in a small space - camping, perhaps, then the house seems very spacious.  If we've been in an open kind of place then it can seem dark and constricted.  I don't know what this set of sensations amounts to, but I guess it's been written about somewhere, by someone.   

That's because while we were away I snatched bits of reading - a book called 'The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking' - very funny and interesting too, but one thing I've discovered is that psychologists have created truly mind-boggling names for reactions to things, or behaviours, detailed down to the last dot. Nominal realism, substance dualism, the false consensus effect, the mere ownership effect, existence bias, the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, and so on.... Of this little list, the last is the most interesting. Someone shot up the side of a barn and then painted bull's eyes round the bullet holes to make it look as if they were very accurate in their shooting.  Anyway, the book is full of catches - gathering together accounts of superstition and wishful thinking of many kinds, from 'touching wood' to religions.  So coming home I was tuned into the psychology of my own house, or my reactions to coming home - though these are feelings I have each time, I have to say.

Journeys like this one just completed leave little time for reading. We were on the road, or at the conference, or detouring to see something interesting, and if you're half of a couple and the other one isn't reading too, it's a bit lopsided.  So we have the back to reality sensations now - new resolutions, new ideas. I realise that travelling - or even just looking at maps in detail - is tremendously inspiring. Place names are so evocative - we passed Socx and Bra which set me to searching the place-name index. I could not find Knyckers, sadly, or Veste, or Pants, but we did find a Choux.  I find I can't stop myself dreaming up wild romances about the places in the landscape - the bullied child, the too-young wife, the harried farmer, the vicious old lady, etc etc.

Driving along all these new roads, seeing the faded and dusty impasses and tracks of the old roads shows we really are in an age of massive change. The old slow ways of doing things are being ripped away. But we still have our inner worlds.

Our main wonder of yesterday was to get into the new Louvre-Lens Museum - opened last December, free entry for the first year - and I urge you to go there as soon as you can. Lens is the city of slagheaps, and not until now a place for tourists. But they levelled a massive area of slag (behind the football stadium), and after an international competition gave the design contract to SANAA, a Japanese architectural/philosophy team. They have created an astonishing glass single-story space, where the inside and outside merge into wondrous  dissolutions. The huge foyer contains inner glass spaces with designated and flexible purposes - picnic area, salle de receptions, bookshop, cafe, media, etc.  Then the main display rooms are utterly alluring - with very-slightly curving walls, fantastic light, and a treasury of items on display. Breath-taking.  Such beauties, and so brilliantly displayed and explained. A hand-held iPad style guide allows you to see and hear and explore the objects, via an interactive map.  It's all astonishing.  There is a thread of 'time' to the present display - taking you through the ages, showing representations of humans - being, doing, holding - and some of what we were thinking about - the universe, material, power.

We bought a couple of books there. One is about the Art Déco buildings of Lens, full of beautiful photos, and the other is a tacky-looking rather expensive thing published by Princeton University about the SANAA group, showing how they helped some of their students work through the real needs of communities to produce building designs which take us forward. Japan has a rapidly declining and aging population, and 'new' suburbs are already subject to decay and abandonment. At the same time, the young are the new poor, and the old are the new lonely. So communities are creating weekend residential/allotment projects to lure city-dwellers out to nearby towns, or they are deconstructing buildings to create free recycling walls where people can come and take the materials for re-use (and incorporating memory niches inside the walls), or clearing areas and creating secret gardens which contain 'nothing', or making big cubic glass-ended buildings which are for multiple art uses which will remain when the communities around them have shrunk back to nothing. So energising. It makes the architecture in the other book we bought look rather ponderous and out of date, because however beautifully ornamented, the buildings themselves are the same as 'the old days' and not capable of being used in any new ways.

The old ways of doing things were basically local, and are now organised on a really huge scale and liable to strip away the sense of community or even individuality. The conference we went to in Munich was a highly organised grouping of a sense of individual worth and purpose - partly for business, and partly emanating from the ethical origins of its founder. We were there to learn how to help other people get healthy and make money - despite the economy, as it happens.  The Louvre-Lens lesson is that things change but that people are intensely creative. The horrible news I had while I was away - that a friend is very ill in hospital - has been modified to some extent in that she is awake, can sit up, her pneumonia is receding, and writes what she wants though she cannot speak at the moment; modern medicine can work miracles.  My own house is filled, overfilled, with things I have loved or needed - but I do not need them all now. I can let them go.  Outside in the little greenhouse, our seedling were tended by our neighbour and are doing ok.  Even the sun is shining this morning - after so many dark and bitterly cold days in Germany and France, it's wonderful to see it.

In my own skin - I am me. I loved the glass walls of the Louvre. Their curves. The mad garden outside.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The enchantment and disillusion of hotels

Whether it's my 1950s childhood (privations at home, glamour at the cinema, where hotels had white marble stairs, fountains in the foyer, and happy outcomes for the pretty ladies), or entrenched adult neediness, I find my hopes often rise when booking into an hotel. It's totally unreasonable....

This time, I seem to reckon with my inner childish self, this time the room will be superb. The waiters will - without being asked - bring me what I need or want. The shower will not have a slippery exit and the breakfast will be crumbless. Or, things like that.

Each time, though, I find I am overwhelmed with petty thoughts of dislike - the décor, the arrangement of tables, the plastic flowers, the slight hint of old smoke in the corridors, the long haul from the car park to the bedroom, the lack of space to open suitcases, the horrendous sounds which emanate from the cheap wall-mounted tellies.   If, by some strange chance, we book into a more expensive hotel than usual, or one with more stars, my disgruntlement actually increases. I don't like the expensive curtains, the pile carpet, the unctuousness of the staff. 

No, the way forward is the budget hotel. It may be that things are highly economised, but it's BY DESIGN - and consequently things work rather well. I am not asked to pay for things I don't use or would never have chosen.  The bathing arrangements are stripped down to bare necessities and are a pleasure to use.  My inner protestant is appeased.

There are some basics which I find I need - not to share a bathroom, for instance. And it's great to have black or wholemeal bread in some form at breakfast, and some sort of muesli without sugar.... More hair-shirt stuff, maybe.  Perhaps I am finally overcoming the fantasy-nightmare of my childhood. I do not need that glamour.  It wasn't real, after all.  In a world where I know so many people have so little, I can find my anxieties in guilt about being able to travel like this, rather than disgruntlement at the poor provision of the hotel. 

One weird experience last night was half-watching that film about three little Aboriginal girls who walked across the Australian desert to escape their kidnapping and enslavement by the British who were 'looking after' them.  It was totally overdubbed into perfect precise French, the very sound of which was so totally inappropriate and unconnected.... so that when the children found friendly native female help, that assistance came via a voice with a Parisian certitude - female but precise, and positive.   A dreadful misfit.  As modern DIY tourists wandering round Europe, we are just as badly misfitted - but a whole industry exists to comfort us, reassure us that we are doing ok, that we are safe. We pay for it, but it's not a fair bargain. I still know the reality is different.  So, perhaps I am still trapped in that childhood fantasy. Somewhere, somewhere the white marble and the foyer fountains are waiting for me. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


France is the country of mistletoe. We have seen millions of orbs, I think, in the last 24 hours. Some of them are so densely packed with branches they are almost black.  They favour poplar trees, but also venture out into other species. Parasitic, reputedly spread by birds, but with a magic quality, staying green when their host tree branches are empty and bare (ruined quires, where late the sweet birds sang).

We spent most of today driving back up north, planning to stop for lunch at Reims, but turning off before that into Verdun. What an extraordinary place. It was so central to the horrors of the first World War that in 1920, London decided to 'adopt' the city to help rebuild it. I had not appreciated, until today, how widespread the battlefields were - not just up in Flanders but right through the areas we have passed through today, down into Alsace and Lorraine.  Some of the older buildings still have pockmarks from armaments.  It's clearly still a place of pilgrimage for many different peoples, with lots of tempting cafés and restos, with cheap tarrifs, and worth visiting.

We have seen so many wonderful birds on this drive - especially the red kites between Bitche and Sarreguemines - but also buzzards in great numbers, and lapwings, and kestrels.  We also saw a herd of small deer - munkjack? - who had ventured out into the fields.  The landscape is unbelievably huge here, seemingly endless miles of farmland without hedge or tree... a profitable desert. But just now and then, something catches the eye... a pair of crows, a colony of rooks, and of course those storks or cranes we saw flying along the course of the Rhine.

Now we are at Lens, to see the Lens-Louvre museum tomorrow before we head home. Lens is a place you might just drive past, with its slag heaps and grubby suburbs, and its traffic jams, but here we are in a little 3* place, where the wifi is annoyingly dodgy but seems to be ok for now.

The deaths, the deaths.... we have driven smoothly and calmly over the killing fields.  At Verdun there was a sign which said it had been destroyed in 450, 485, 984, 1047, 1246, 1338, 1562, 1792 and 1870. Almost incredible. It happened again of course in 1916, in ten months.  But being in the middle of the great European continent, that is what happened to small towns...... I think of little Faversham. It's had its troubles, but nothing like that. 

I wonder how we have the nerve to describe the marvellous life of birds and animals as 'wild life'. Who is really wild? Us, or them?

Monday, 25 March 2013

The sources of war

We drove due west out of Germany, heading into France to avoid the German snow-tyre laws. All good, roads dry, everything calm, lots of solar farms along the way - on motorway embankments and the steep slopes of hills. It makes such sense to soak up the sun's free energy wherever possible. Why don't we do it properly like this in England?

Lunch - in the town of Pforzheim at a cool place (part of a chain?) called Dean and David - sandwiches and salads of extra-special quality and hi-tech self-service, and very delicious too.  'We' bombed Pforzheim in 1945 as we thought they were making precision instruments (historically they made watches and jewellery, and they have a good railway line. If it was me, I'd have bombed it too, under the circumstances). This is all part of the Black Forest area, and very pretty.

We weren't sure where to cross the Rhine, and where to head for in France - the borders are not simple, and we were trying to avoid the German side and snow laws, but not taking too big a detour and also avoiding heavy industrial areas.  All our maps and atlases are effing useless for this kind of decision, as the coverage for German maps ends ruthlessly at their border, and the French ones have a similar jingoism - and this crucial crossroads of borders (Germany, France, Belgium, Luxemburg) is covered with a box showing distances between cities - so you cannot easily see what cities are where, what roads lead where, which bits of border could trip you up, or anything useful.  With Andrew driving and me navigating, I ended up wanting to throw the maps and books out of the window and scream.

In the end we crossed at Rastatt on a massive rusty iron bridge, dating back to 19th century, and with railway/tram lines in the middle of the carriageways.  The border lies along the west bank, so even across the river you are still in Germany.  Once you do get into France, the change is immediate - house styles, cafes, signposts....    It was lovely to get into the Vosges - marvellous hills and valleys - so pretty, and restful. Worth coming back for. And here we are at Bitche.  Never heard of it before, sniggered at the silly name when we were heading east last week, but since the map showed a citadel we thought we'd take a look.

OMG! Not only Vauban (a fave) but MASSIVE!!!!!!!  The town itself is sad and down at heel, with a little Aldi replacing a bigger shut-down LeClerc - and lots of closed-down shops. However, we are installed in le Relais des Chateux-Forts and have taken a tour of the bloody great defence works which dominate the whole town.  The thing is colossal.  Utterly amazing looking.  I am ashamed to say I had never heard of it, nor its pivotal role in world history....

Now - Vauban built it for Louis XIV in 1680 - finished in 1697, but because of the Treaty of Rijswijk Louis was forced to leave Lorraine just one year later, so in order to prevent enemies getting such a strong fortress, the place was demolished along with all the other fortresses.  Then in 1738 the French began to rebuild it according to the original plans - and that is what is there today.  In 1870, when Louis Napoleon declared war on the Prussians (at the whim of his Spanish wife Eugenie?) to protect the Spanish succession, this massive fortress became an isolated place of resistance to the Prussian onslaught. The French armies were routed, Paris fell, but Bitche decided to hold out.   Losses were horrific and of course in the end the French commander negotiated an honourable withdrawal - leaving the citadel and the local people to the mercy (!) of the Bavarians....  Lorraine/Alsace passed to the Germans. The overall death-toll in this region was so dreadful that everything festered, and helped to fuel the Great War of 1914-18, and then also the Second World War.

The fortress is so massive, so deep, so powerfully constructed, you can't help wondering whether if in some way it generated war all by itself. Any warlord, or Kaiser, or general, would want to set up in it and resist his enemies.  Any passing King or Prince would want to take it. It encourages lordly feelings - yes, I think we'll have that - and sod the peasants......

The modern experience, on a bitter cold day, and with barely another tourist in sight, is entirely based on extracts from a rather good and very graphic film made in France about the 1870 war, and filmed within the citadel. You wander through the deep corridors wearing earmuff headphones which are supposed to give you the commentary and extracts from the film on transparent screens as you reach each new area - but of course the infra-red triggers don't all work.   Most of the visitors are Germans, not surprisingly, as it was a place of victory for them, and it's not far from home.

We have visited quite a few Vauban castles - all amazing, geometric and powerful, rather beautiful in some ways, and this is the scariest.  It reminded me of the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch in Essex, which we visited by chance for a birthday party just 10 days ago - another utterly paranoid, expensive, deadly, masculine fantasy building, a monument to rage and power, a final refuge and to hell with everyone else - even if that is the whole of the rest of the world.

All I can say is, I am PROFOUNDLY grateful not to have lived through a war myself, personally. 'Our' wars are now fought somewhere else, far away. The people who make the arms and the control systems also make a lot of money, and probably think they make the world go round.   Yet, they are not more powerful than the weather - flinging these blizzards across northern Europe and chasing us into France. Nor are they more powerful than the sun - and the solar farms springing up all over the place here.  Maybe there is some hope.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Grand piano in the main drag

The conference is over! Terrific atmosphere - we loved the talk from Jolly Kanjappu who had us all rockin' and a rollin' and laughing too - such a nice man! A kind of saddhu, I guess, who feels the whole planet is his home.
He was particularly amusing talking about how he got to play drums with the Stones on 'Its' only rock'n'roll but I like it'...  He's a terrific drummer, by the way.
If you ever have the chance to hear him talk, grab it!
It's a bit sad when everyone disperses but of course there are planes to catch and so on... I cannot think of another company where there is such a strong family feel. You could leave any valuables on your chair in the hall, and come back later and they'd all still be there.  Just a strong, ethical, group atmosphere. It's not really about the money. The people behind the company have this powerful motivation to reach as many people as they can, to bring them better health and the chance to be truly independent. The whole thing is going to go like a rocket, starting now.
If YOU want to be part of it, see what you can do, please just ask me.
Our little group decided to go into Munich for a wander round - three of us caught the train and then spent a couple of hours in the city centre. It's quite a dedicatedly religious area with Virgin Mary statues built onto the street corners, and all the main shops closed because it's Sunday, but the main streets were filled with people - families, couples, elegant for the most part.  I saw a spectacularly lonely-looking lady-boy, tall, blonde wig, immaculate clothes, nails, boots, make-up... but with a kind of unsuppressable stubble and huge chin. S/he walked solemnly and steadily along the road, looking at no-one, going where?
There was a gypsy band - cello, mouth-organ, violin, two accordions - wild music and a big crowd gathered round their 'stage' in a shop doorway.  The wind was bitterly cold but the music was hot!
And there was a trio who nurtured a glossy black grand piano - wheeling it out of the wind - but we missed their music.. they had just stopped.
We had a coffee in a crowded place, and wicked wicked cakes - delicious. There you needed a token to get into the loos upstairs - and had to go through a turnstile - but, oops, for the second time in Munich I found that despite the grandeur of the establishment, they don't supply loo paper. Not good.
We heard and watched a very slow glockenspiel of bells at the Rathaus - that gathered a really big crowd in the cold square beneath. It was easy to fantasise how people amused themselves before television.....
Then 'home' on the swift smooth train back to this suburb of Riem and our little hotel. It's a franchise.  The man in charge was born in Delhi, specialised in banquet management, worked in 5-star hotels across America and Germany, realised that the future lies in budget hotels and switched to this sector.  He was telling us about how he has to recruit, train and keep his staff (average stay 2 years).... and how the whole business works.
Actually, looking at the beautiful shops in Munich - antiques, clothes, garden stuff, modern furnishings, kitchen stuff, etc etc ... I suddenly saw a marvellous wig shop. What a great business to be in! Helping people feel and look good, lots of designs, long shelf-life, mail-order possibilities, men and women could all be set up with lustrous locks and a new image. I will think about it. The only wig shop I've ever been in is a department in Selfridges, sustained by lots of orthodox Jewish ladies from NW London who can pop down on the bus.
It's been a good visit. We'll just hope the garage across the road can jumpstart the car in the morning... then we'll be off towards the west.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Conference and then bad news...

Very little equates to the experience of being in a room with 5000 other people all cheering and applauding and being happy. The new CEO of our company is pouring thousands - millions - of euros into new incentive schemes and analysis - it's a new vigorous attitude and very welcome.  People are loving it.

This picture taken from the back of the hall barely describes the set-up... the tall object on the people horizon is a tall camera, about halfway down the central corridor.  The stage is almost out of sight. It's really extraordinary.  We have been having an intense but very positive time. Last night, the hotel wifi didn't work, so I couldn't post anything... time is whizzing past.  We have have some nice meals, cold walks to and from the bus stop, jolly meetings with friends, new encounters with other distributors from the other countries, cheers when they hand out free cars (20 Smart cars to be given away this weekend), and lots of note-taking.  We've decided to stay one more night here as the meetings are running on later than we thought tomorrow.


We have just had a truly dreadful piece of news - a friend is desperately ill in hospital back at home, 'very little hope', we are told. She is - what? - in her 50s, and has had a history of lung problems and breathing difficulties - all underpinned by medicine and the best the doctors can do.  Quite apart from the shock of hearing she is so ill, and the unbelievableness of it, the contrast with what we have been focussing on these last 2 days is all the more stark.  In the hall here, with all these thousands of people, there are NO coughs. People have commented on it.  People are - well.

I tried at various times to interest my lovely friend in this philosophy - fruits and vegetables taken in supplement to the normal diet - but she always said no.  Now I hear of this dreadful turn - she may be dying as I write.  I want to cry. I am crying.  I want to wind back time. I want to somehow, somehow, persuade her to try this, see what it can do.  Here we are in Munich, with all these people who are convinced that it is possible for us all to live a healthy life, not forever, obviously, but with profound benefits for each cell in the body. We are uplifted to see how much scientific understanding has come from the research our company has undertaken over 20 years or more.  We believe it.  My friend did not, and now she is in the utmost peril. I wish I could just hug her, be with her.  It is dreadful.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Weather forecasts

I'm sure that 'in the old days' when BBC weather forecasts were done on the telly with magnets showing sun or clouds, we used to get divinations covering many days ahead. Nowadays the forecasters with their expensive computers and satellite date can't really say what will happen more than a few days ahead.

Still, we are grateful. I see from Sky News that the UK is battling with snow and floods, whereas we have a clear, mild-looking and sunny day ahead.

However - you will enjoy this! The TV forecast we saw yesterday in France was a WORK OF ART! It showed the wind, I think, and was a pretty good painting by Vincent van Gogh. I am only sorry I couldn't show you what happened when the image started to move --- totally nauseating!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

What really matters......

Crossing the Rhine from France was fun - huge dam works going on.   Actually the whole of this part of Germany has huge works going on - everywhere - motorways, engineering, quarries - masses of investment in new infrastructure.  What it is to have such resources! Germany is RICH!

The Germans love their trees, too. Driving across the land I had the impression that all the trees are basically regarded as holy. Even when they have to enlarge a cut through a forest to make a bigger motorway, the landscaping is done with fantastic care, and new tree-planting goes on as part of the scheme. We have seen marvellous stands of beautiful and unusual varieties of trees - birches, beeches, all sorts. 

Lunch was hard to find - but eventually we got into the Grunen Baum or some such name, a smokey cafe in a little town near Karlsbad. There was a market going on and the place was packed. Sadly, flamme kuche was not on till the evening so I had a spicy goulash, and Andrew had a truly magnificent salad with eggs and salmon. 

We are in a real budget hotel but it's got everything we need including a sunny landscape outside and free wifi - things are coming on - though I must say, it's weird having the internet - as if we weren't really away at all.   (I will have to enquire about a hairdryer though).  We'll go into town shortly to find some entertainment and dinner. 

Another impression is that - in France in particular - the old ways are really dying out. No longer can you find traditional restaurants or even les Routiers places along the roads. Instead, the MacDonalds and Burger Kings have set up at all the new malls, and the family-run restos cannot compete.  After all, there's not much profit in a 12€ menu.  So we have seen dozens of the old places shut up, wherever we went.  It's a calamity because that was where you could find local and regional dishes, kindly cooked, taken seriously and normally, at a reasonable price.  That meant growers were also employed, and all kinds of suppliers. Now it will either vanish away or go so up-market that only globe-trotting millionaires will be able to afford to eat like that. 

From France to Germany

Strolled round Saverne last night, v pleasant.  Quite prosperous looking, too.  Remarkable wooden houses in the Germanic style with carved ornamentation and coloured plaster.

Had a glass of wine in a brasserie, then supper in a resto offering local specialities such as fried dandelions. Very tasty.

Off into Germany now. No snow here so I hope none on the roads farther east.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Into Alsace

Very tired tonight so this will probably be brief.

We thoroughly recommend the B&B at Villers Ste Gertrude - only open 5 months and run with all the passion and professionalism you could desire. It would make an excellent base for touring in the region - very beautiful wooded hills and valleys, Roman sites, nice local food, etc.  So - not at all pretentious or over-glamorised, but classy, calm and restorative.

We drove up over the high ridge at the south of the Ardennes - through divinely beautiful snow decorating the trees on either side of the motorway - the trees transformed into startling black and white sculptures, and the snowflakes doing that mysterious thing where they are almost stationary if you stand still but they whizz past at blizzard speed as you drive past them (an optical illusion).

The day's driving was quite demanding as we sped along - the skies above us filled with raging black and white cloud systems, and rather threatening. We ditched our plan to go to Trier because it was so squally, dark and cold. We also decided to stay out of Germany as far as possible, because the law there now requires that you have proper snow tyres if there is any snow at all - and of course, we do not.  The fashion/law there now is that you have two full sets of wheels for your car, which you change at the beginning and end of winter - a specialist company stores your other wheels for you, and of course that is a whole level of expense that we Brits do not - at present - even consider.

So, we headed down towards Luxembourg, taking in a very nice coffee at Arlon - a hilltop town of unexpected richesse and grandeur - have never heard of it before - but it has a huge church built in about 1908 with a 100m spire and fantastic quality and space. Lovely.  It also had a banner up saying they will have an Intronisation of the Prince of Carnival in the spring....   Intronisation?

We didn't make Luxembourg in the end, but had our lunch at Mamer - failed to get into a local cafe serving a menu at €10 (full of old people eating sort of choucroute), but secured a great little table in a nearby pizzeria (la Croquante) which was banging - all the local cops eating there, and nice old ladies, and courting couples, and groups of young people - very good indeed.

We stopped for a pee and and glass of water at a quiet little place utterly dominated by another huge chemical plant - Saar something - these factories are terrifying to look at - and with so many people living right next door, you wonder how it's allowed to happen. They have all these chimney belching out fumes and gases, dozens of them.  Folly.

Our plan was to get to Strasbourg but actually we peeled off early here at Saverne - what a pretty place - river, canal, railway, 12thC church, wonderful wooden buildings, brasseries with local wine, lots of boutiques, language schools, hotels, all looking very thriving, just a nice place. We are in the Hotel Europe which is (sort of) 4 star - the lift is SO small you can barely get one person in, let alone 2 or any baggage. It must be built into an old chimney stack.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Belgium has a chaotic, slightly sleazy quality to it, rather as England does. The road surfaces are frequently dreadful, or induce aquaplaning during rainstorms. There is litter too, along the verges, at least in some districts. In some ways, driving through Belgium is like it used to be driving through France before they spinked all the town centres up over there. The urban streets and villages have a dark, dour, chocolatey-brown look, as if a 19th century dust still powdered everything.

There are some unexpected benefits to this grubbiness. For instance, arriving at Dunkerque port, my eyes are filled with one of the most extraordinary sights I know - the terrifying, fascinating, filthy-looking, astonishing collection of industrial chimneys, retorts and complexes which is known as la Grande Synthe. It is a massive industrial area, maybe making plastics (or pure poison as far as anyone call tell), and with clusters of stacks pushing smoke and steam out into the sky. One of these, taller than the rest, burns a huge flare, which bursts into life about once a second and then puffs out again, with a terrifying throb of brilliant orangey-red flame. It's very difficult to photograph because even though one can anticipate the 'beat' of the flame, it's difficult to co-ordinate that with the time it takes for the little camera to pump itself into action.  Anyway, I found myself taking lots of photos of this distant hellish place as the ferry swung in towards its berth. I have seen it many times and have no idea why I find it so fascinating.

We lunched in a brasserie on the outskirts of Lille, at Haubourtin, a chromy, cheery little place packed with locals, and very nice too. The loo is one where you have to go through an antechamber of urinals to get to the little room for ladies, and the light only turns on once you are firmly inside and with the door locked, so getting there induces a kind of anxiety that you're locked into a male, very slightly smelly, dark cell as a price for being able to pee.

Coming out from the brasserie and heading back to the car, we see another cluster of chemical factory chimneys sparkling up over the rooftops. Steam and smoky stuff belching out. It has a sign up: Cargill. The pavements are liberally strewn with dog-poo.  To an astonishing degree.

We head east, and eventually off the motorways. A savage sleet-storm crashes down around us. The road turns white in front of us as the hailstones thunder down onto the car. Engineers wearing bright orange coats seem not to notice as they stand and discuss the inner workings of a roadside lamp-post. We wind along beside the river Sambre, very pleasant. With the help of the trusty satnav we arrive at Durbuy. This is described as the smallest city in the world, and is down in a wooded hole... the river is now firmly held back by stone walls, but must once have twirled its way into the middle of the village, as there is a very pretty stone bridge over what is now an extension of the central car park. Every building in sight is a restaurant or hotel, and not cheap. We have a cup of tea, wander round, admire the castle and the church, and a cliff face with a terrific bend of rock in it - 100 feet high or more, like a colossal swiss roll gone wrong.

Twenty minutes more - past the remains of a road smash with fire-engines and police in attendance at a cross-roads - we get to our present place - a hilltop village of mottled stone and dark brick, with a municipalised chateau and spiky church, and a large labrynth laid out with paving and grass (leading to a drain cover in the middle). Our b&b is converted from a little farmhouse. The owner, Rik, was a restaurateur in Maastricht which is about an hour away from here.  He spent years looking for a place like this, bought it from the farmer's family five years ago, and opened for business last September. It is very nice - partly new and spacious, partly higgledy-piggledy in the old bit which we chose to sleep in. Everything has been done with great taste, and it's furnished with modern comfortable things or antiques which he picked up from eBay.

Today we are heading for Trier, the great Roman camp in Germany - the edges of an empire once upon a time. Border country.

Channel crossing

Off for a few days on the continent. Fog in Faversham at 6.20am when we left. And big blobs of unmelted snow on the sides of the A2 heading down to Dover - these all rounded, brown and bolshie-looking, refusing to disappear, hinting that there's more wintry weather to come.  But the view of the Channel - from Jubilee Way - is stunning. I have never seen France like this before - in detail, looking so close, large, almost magnified by the clear air.
We have booked into a b&b at a place called Villers Sainte Gertrude for tonight. As usual, the maps we have of Belgium are almost unreadable - either due to old-fashioned print, or unwieldy scale. It's really hard to work out which is the best way to go - we want to avoid the ring-road round Brussels, so it will probably be via Lille, Mons and then Namur...
I felt slightly less stressed packing this time, partly because I went into Canterbury yesterday and bought one or two small items to take with me: a pink pocketed bag to hold purse and passports, a pair of spectacle on a plastic chain - like lorgnettes - with old-fashioned-looking dark round frames, and a couple of sweaters from M&S.
For some reason, getting these semi-necessary things calmed me down, so my anxieties about taking or not taking the 'right' things with me ebbed a bit.
The reason for this journey is another JuicePlus+ conference - in Munich. It is projected to be a meeting of five or six thousand distributors - we shall see! The new CEO of our company is a Swiss millionaire who likes to put on a good show. He has already allocated 20 new Smart cars to be given away this time. I don't think I shall be one of the 'lucky winners' as I have not really stirred myself much over the winter.
But since Andrew and I both want to explore Germany a little more, we have taken a few days either side of the business meeting, and plan to go to  Trier (Roman site), and perhaps to Nuremberg, and then to Lens on the way home to see the new Louvre museum.
Assuming I can get wifi as I go along, I will report on our findings as we go.
At this moment, at the front of the quiet DFDS ferry, the sea is ruffled but calm. The light is complex, making the water a slatey grey, with streaks of vivid green on the horizon. We see tankers looking like toys in the distance, and patches of almost unbearably brilliant light where the sun has banged through the scattered clouds at the edge of the visible world.