Thursday, 17 August 2017

Anxiety - part 2

So - I know it's foolish but there it is.
I did manage - FOUR TIMES - to walk that plank.
The police scrutiny was balanced by the hilarity of watching our crew rig up a way of connecting y the electrics - cannibalising an old toothbrush charging seat - until we found a more reputable plug in a hardware shop. 
We found Sarande to be a lovely place -peaceful and joyos in holiday mood, with cafes, hotels, fruit market, archaeology, kindly people, wonderful food at half the price we'd paid in Corfu, nice wine, beautiful views and beaches, and a carnival atmosphere along the promenade with hundreds if not thousands of happy families enjoying the night air. So, I overcame my fears, enjoyed myself, and we went to sleep back on board (that gangplank again, in the dark!), to the sound of explosions - fireworks to round off the evening. 
Today on the long haul motoring up to Orikum I have had a long time to consider what happened and why. It's annoying I had to end the main blog before it really finished and I had to write it twice as I managed to lose it the first time.
Now at a lovel beach bar. Wifi helps. Have seen the scan of our new grandchild sent from Kilkenny today. Fantastic.

Anxiety

Having just written a lengthy blog about Albania and my anxieties - I managed to lose it all. So this is an attempt at a rewrite.

As we came into port yesterday in the pretty port of Sarande I was overtaken by a huge wave of anxiety, paralysing. This is so unusual for me I found myself quite unprepared for it and unable to respond apart from going below deck to try to think what had happened.   It was a much more forceful episode than my 'normal' pre-holiday packing nerves, where I find myself wandering round the house aimlessly and repetitively, worrying about things I know are irrational but still agitated. This time, my route was interrupted by Andrew losing his 'foreign' wallet and we spent our fins hour at home searching fruitlessly everywhere. It turned up in the end in his bumbag inside his suitcase, safe but rather inaccessible.
I thought I had escaped my worries but they were just lying in wait.
So - we finally managed to leave Gouvia Marina later than planned because mysteriously the water taps wouldn't work so we couldn't fill the yacht's tanks. The reception girls refused to believe it, treated our captain as if he knew nothing..... In the end, from a different pontoon, we found the water, completed the paper work and set off north.
Past the extraordinary Jeff Koons boat, past the beautiful bays and headlands, past the high peak of Mount Pantokrator where we had been two days before, and away from beautiful Corfu.
Into Albanian waters.
Why should Albania make me so uneasy?
It is a small poor country right in the middle of the European continent, hoping to join the EU one day, but still held back by its dreadful decades under communist rule and then the despot and ductatir Enver Hodja who died only about 20 years ago. It is very left-behind, racing to catch up, but with a long way to go. Today by a main road we saw a goat chomping on a hedge with an elderly goatherd in attendance. The Albans have flooded into Greece where they have a terrible reputation as thieves and robbers. All the copper communication wires were stolen from alongside a railway. And the theft blamed on the Albans. We have seen them clustered at Athens bus station - dishevelled, dirty, clutching cardboard boxes tied up with string, and rough bundles of belongings. None of this is bad but it is all in 'the past' for us, we are accustomed to smoother things. The Greeks will allow that one percent of Albans are 'good' but the rest are all terrible.
It was (is?) a police state.
It is like Tintin country, and looks risky......
Even our own Foreign Office advises caution if you are planning to visit.
I have never before knowingly met an Albanian.
So - it's to be approached carefully.
You can add in to this my anxiety about being in a very small boat in a treacherous sea - and of course the boat is safe and the captain and crew skilful and experienced - but it turns out I am what they call 'an anxious passenger' - there it is.
We headed into the lovely bay of Sarande with its tall apaertment blocks parading up the hot hillside, and pretty palm-fringed beaches. The skipper radioed in for a berth - but we had to wait. It's not a large place and the quay is really designed for ferries and small cruise-ships. It's not ideal to berth a yacht among such large vessels as any slight mistake by one if them could be disastrous for smaller boats. We were told to wait - and eventually, rather chaotically, and watched by the police out if the corner of their eye, so to speak. We backed in, and we were to be held steady by our own anchor from the bows, dropped in line with our allocated space. In we went. But our skipper dropped anchor too early and we were just a bit too far from the high concrete quay. The height of this landing made me quake - another peril to be faced. But it was clearly best to go out and start again.....
At that point, and for no reason that I could have explained at that moment, I had to go below and sur quietly alone, so I missed all the fun of doing it right.
Then I had to face that gangplank..... It rose from the stern of the Lady Olivia at a steep angle up to the quay, sliding backward and forwards and side to side with the swell. Moreover, it could not be fixed because it might all to easily grate against the yacht's rails and lever them out. So although I 'know' I could walk it, would have someone to hold my hand, could take my time - still I was reduced to blubber inside.
It makes my cringe to think about this. I feel small, stupid, useless, unworthy. A long list of critical and humiliating feelings.n

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Remoteness

We called to see the Durrells - or at least to see their house, which as they say does look like a sugar cube on the beach - brilliantly located and now a villa-to-hire, restaurant, cafe, film-location and general point of pilgrimage down in its pretty bay.  There is a huge carpark nearby, and a sign saying which film stars have been to visit. This is the power of books and films to keep places alive, or at least to give them a new lease of life when other economic fountains have dried up.    We had drinks and looked out at the water with small boats bobbing about and children playing with floating bananas, a scene replicated in the many other beautiful bays which now play host to the tourist hordes each summer. Every bay has to find something unique to promote.... Some bays have only low-rise buildings, some have big hotels, some have old fishing villages converted to selling tat, some present restaurants lined up end to end. It's the modern way. The kitchens of the restaurants are hot and dark, whereas the terraces filled with carefree diners are light and airy.  Each greeter invites you to come and inspect how fresh the fish is in the kitchen - bream, mullet, bass - all from the fish farms further along the coast.  If I spoke Greek I would ask the girls in the kitchens how fresh they feel.
The roads are pretty good, and the driving is surprisingly smooth (compared with my previous terrifying drives around Athens a few years ago). We duck down to see Ag. Stephanos, and Ag. Nicholas - thriving tourist villages now with pleasure boats all around the water's edge, and (I notice) always one or two beautiful old boats made of wood and to an exquisite shape, professional antique fishing boats... Who knows if they're still working? They look right.
In a taverna, we see a party of priests having lunch after the special celebrations of Assumption Day. A man sits at another table playing an accordion and bellowing out some some traditional music. Posters advertise an event later in the day - the meeting of nine choirs, or something like that.
We eat, we stroll around. K swims, I attempt some drawing and painting - never enough time.
The day's excursions end with a trip back up into the glorious mountains, covered in olive groves. Someone said it was the Venetians who paid the farmers a euro for every tree they planted - well, it can't have been euros, and it must have been a long time ago, but it is striking how green this island is compared to (say) Cyprus or the hills of Croatia. A few of the olive orchards have been recently pruned, with tall trees halved and new growth sprouting out - more accessible for harvest, and also they could get all that lovely old wood to carve into spoons, bowls and chopping boards. One grim stretch had recently been burned - trees reduced to black sticks, everything destroyed, with black ash and rocks the only thing to see for hundreds of acres.  Such a fire must be devastating - the wind to push it forward and no escape if you're in the wrong place.
Higher than the fire is an abandoned village - Old Perithia - which had 130 houses, 8 churches, 15 wells, 3 threshing floors and spectacular views - until the 60s. Then for whatever reasons, it was left to rot. Not enough work, no beaches, too far away, life too hard.  The buildings are said to be 'Venetian' and indeed are very very pretty. In 2009 a pair called Mark and Saskia (and I am sorry I do not know anything else about them) set themselves to save the village. They did up one of the houses, and started encouraging others to do the same. They have signposts up asking people not to drop litter - hoorah! - and also not to fly drones which invade the privacy of others. Archaeologists have been to explore and record, the church has been spending money on the icons in at least one of the churches. There are several taverna now, and holiday cottages, and horses to hire. The twists and turns of the streets are delightful, and trees grow everywhere - it's green! Mark has written a book about it, capturing the village's history before it's too late - presumably interviewing the families of people who lived there and still remember it.  In a strange way, the death and rebirth of the village has preserved more of its genuine character than you'd find in the villages which have enjoyed continuity of purpose.
The glories of the island are spoiled by an ongoing saga or row with the company providing my mobile phone service aka access to the Internet and the ability to post these bulletins. Incompetence, stupidity, bad systems, all these combine to induce rage and/or despair.
The old life - before mobiles and computers - is still visible and tangible, with electric wires, telegraph wires, air conditioning units, aerials, dishes, all manner of 20th century gadgetry draped over and nailed to the older buildings. Up in Perithia you get none of that. You can see the monastery and radio masts of Pantokrator up on the horizon.  We were up there the day before of course, looking down on the village without knowing we'd be calling in there the next day. Pantokrator is an extreme example of the new being smashed onto the face of the old.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Rubbish

We are really no better in the UK than in Greece as regards our rubbish management, just better at hiding it. We pretend we can go on forever creating mountains of plastic, waste food, barely used glass and metal.... But it's hidden in bins, lorries, closed yards. In Greece, in these tourist districts, if you're lucky it's bundled up into plastic bags and then put into dumps beside the road.  I am amazed the piles of rubbish aren't bigger, the wasteful way we live. There has to be a better way than this. The blatant disrespect for the earth, wildlife, health, the landscape, for ourselves is - frankly - staggering.  I suppose everyone feels helpless to do anything different. We buy our food instead of growing it. We choose it from gleaming shelves which are clean and orderly. We lug everything home in neat non-spill packages. We are totally disconnected from the real means of production, the costs and the downsides.  We could have street composting systems.  In the old days there was the pigswill man. I think (cannot prove) that we ate proportionately more vegetables and meat, fish or eggs were for high-days and holidays. I sometimes get into a rage walking into so-called 'supermarkets' which are nothing of the sort. A market implies choice and variety, options. The industrialisation of our food supplies - while it has fed billions of us - has in fact diminished our choices. It would be wonderful if a supermarket chain started to take real responsibility, made its buildings into real markets, encouraged local growers and suppliers, paid a living wage, ran plausible recycling systems for the packaging and waste, encouraged communities to take responsibility instead of persuading us to wear blinkers and pretend that everything is alright.  I guess living in a marina for a few days - a hothouse of leisure, 'escape', irresponsibility - focuses the mind somewhat.
Our trip by hire-car up into some of Corfu's northern villages provided a welcome change into a real and seemingly more natural landscape. Olive groves, stone walls, hamlets clinging to the mountainsides, spectacular views, winding roads, cypress trees like pencils punctuating the wobbles and undulations of the tree canopies.... So beautiful and it was not difficult to imagine that the Romans or ancient Greeks had seen identical vistas in their day.  We passed long distances without really seeing a single bit of evidence of modern life, nothing more recent than, say, 1500.
The summit of the day was a trip to the mountain, church and communications centre of Pantokrator ('the Almighty'), which is Corfu's highest peak. The holy church was founded in the late 14th C, rebuilt in the last years of the 17th. I suppose the original was reached by pious monks on mules and donkeys, lugging the timber and stone up that precipitous pathway - now a road capable of taking coaches and HGVs, and thus not feeling so very remote.   What the 20th C added was a gargantuan array of masts, towers, aerials, wires, girders, pylons, spikes, receivers, transponders, god-knows what, stuffed into the cloister and garden, and onto the slightly lesser hilltop immediately facing the gate.  The little church is a glory of painted icons depicting the transfiguration of Christ, and is adorned with countless lamps, silver panels, carved and coffered woodwork, a little loft filled with mattresses, and a chance to buy  and light some tiny tapering candles. Outside you might be in the back yard of GCHQ or an ancient BBC transmitter station such as Daventry. Weird, man.
It's another clash between an old, staid, and rather beautiful way of life and a crashing ugly purposed industrial modern way of doing things.  I wonder which will last the longer (she says).

Stronger winds

To fit this many boats into the marina, they have to be tightly fitted together, which works ok if you don't mind hearing your neighbours' conversations and smelling their breakfast, and so on.  And it's all perfectly alright if the weather stays calm. But if the wind gets up, things can get a bit more worrying.
We spent the day doing quiet local things - coffee by the pool (wifi access), a bit of shopping (for us, fresh mint for tea and some figs for Andrew), and lunch on the boat using up the abundant and delicious left-overs from the night before.  Then we walked in the mid afternoon to the tiny village on the headland beside the marina bay.... Just getting the lie of the land, unwinding.
By the time we got back to the boat, the song of the wind in the thousand or so yacht masts in the marina was positively orchestral. With fluctuating power its harmonies rose and fell, sometimes just whispering and clanking, sometimes a full bellowing roar. Looking at the masts, their collective personality seemed to be thrilled and excited. 'This is what we're for', they seemed to be saying as they breasted into the gale. 'Show us the wind! Give it to us! We love it! We are all for wind!' And they stretched up taller and straighter, and if masts can smile, these hundreds and hundreds of masts were grinning. Their stays and yards and fixtures were with them, and they loved it.
The hulls, meanwhile, were stirring and bumping about. Where we are, about three piers back from the bay, in the middle of the marina, things were pretty up-and-down, but we and our immediate boatly neighbours are well-berthed with tightish lines. Across the pontoon, two Italian boats were less well secured, one of them swaying and bashing about in the wind, only a couple of fenders protecting its companion. The owners of this victim boat came back, looked, tried moving some fenders, drank coffee, looked some more. Their friends arrived. The badly-moored boat continued to bash into them. K&A said, if this was Split, the marinero would come and re-secure the problem boat, but here in Greece it's less well managed.
The wind roared and gulped. The masts were proud. The sky was blue but darkening into night-time (no shooting stars last night).
K&A (but stupidly not me) went for a walk further out into the marina - where the wind was taking some of the yachts broadside, and the waves were piling up over the jetties. 'No sleep, no staying aboard there.....'
For this to happen in a marina, a safe haven, is quite something.
Our berth, on pier N, berth 20, is about quarter of a mile or so from the actual quay. You get some idea of the scale of the place.
I woke smelling smoke about 1am. The people on the boat next to us, also Italian, were smoking and that had drifted into my cabin and woken me up. The wind had died down, to an almost eery quietness.  Today, the sky is blue and the airs calm. We're off by car to tour a bit of the island.

There is a great storm - a depression - swirling its way to the east somewhere far to he north of us, and so the winds which flood out from its southern skirts are channelling down the Adriatic Sea, powerful northerlies bringing rain and thunder with them. This makes our planned voyage up towards Croatia pretty well unbearable to contemplate so we will stay where we are for a while and wait for it to pass. The danger zone is called the Straits of Otranto where weather such as this concentrates itself, and the shores on either side offer little or no shelter. Last night, as we rocked very gently in our berth here at Gouvia Marina, we could see occasional distant flashes of lightning far over the horizon mountains, and an app told us this was 70miles away. We heard no thunder but the plain malevolence of those flashes was clear and made me feel glad to be this far away.
This is the largest marina in Greece, we are told - though other ports may claim a similar status. It is pretty well astonishing - like a plantation of regularly spaced but irregularly tall stiff white masts and attendant wires. The wind soughing through this hedgehog's back of bristles makes a constant cooing or humming noise, punctuated by the very occasional clanking of unsecured lines bashing against some other percussive material. 
The layout is practical - hard piers lead out into the bay - as far as the eye can see, with floating pontoons at right-angles and these packed on either side, barely an inch between them, with white plastic leisure boats of varying sizes and splendour. Some are weekly hire boats, and yesterday was change-over day. As the parting holidaymakers left, crews of young people swarmed onto the boats, chucking out mountains of laundry onto the pontoons, scouring and swabbing and cleaning the decks and saloons.   As we came back after our day out, the new parties of sailors were arriving, with their trundle suitcases and plastic bags of groceries. There are a lot of Italians and Brits, some French, some Greeks of course. Few Germans or Dutch. I think the Russians are all on the huge pointy scary-looking mega-yachts further out on the bay.  Prince Charles and Camilla are said to be up the coast on the Rothschild estate, staring at Albania. Our friend and neighbour at home, the painter Tony Bream (brother of guitarist Julian) told us how he had stayed on that estate some time ago....  
We didn't get as far as that part of the coast yesterday, but nearly. We went for lunch to a beach taverna called Nikolas' at Agni Bay, and tiny and charming little bite out of the cliffs now filled with cabins, pergolas, sun-loungers, pleasure boats, tables and chairs, signboards in various scripts, and the smell of cooking.  We motored up there because there was no wind..... We passed a particularly interesting and uber-expensive big boat painted as op-art camouflage (later learning it was Jeff Koons who designed it). It's a paradox - screaming 'Look at me!' while also saying 'You can't see me because I'm camouflaged...'   
We moored up at one of the little wooden jetties. We jumped into the warm sea, and swam about for a bit. Then we sauntered into the restaurant for lunch - a feast of dishes and tastes, all delicious. Our party was K&A, K's cousin Jules and her Greek husband Stephanos, and their 9-year old daughter Isabella, and Andrew and me. We over-ordered but loved it.  I particularly liked the little rolls of fried aubergine stuffed with cheese (called Boureki), and fingers of fried cheese and ham, and an illegal dish of fried baby calamari. Divine. Then, back aboard and with the wind coming up, we made our way out into the bay and sailed back to Gouvia.  To the east, we saw the painful islands where lepers were segregated (by 19th century officials mistakenly following medieval advice about how to treat such people), and where young people were imprisoned (by the British) and later locals were shot (by the Germans). 
Back into the marina, literally backing into our berth with nary and knock. Jules, Stephano and Isabella went for a swim in the marina pool, and I made a painting of the scene. These travelling sketches displease me because I see all my bad habits writ large, but it's all practice.  
Eventually, with all attempts to connect with the Internet failing, we went back to the Lady OIivia and eventually out again for supper to a taverna by the marina gates. Once again the food was marvellous - cheap and made on the premises and absolutely delicious. We took some back - too much to eat all in one sitting.   Back on the yacht, we saw that evil looking lightning in the distance, and some shooting stars overhead. The wind was gradually increasing, hustling and sighing through the forest of masts.  



Sent from my iPad

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Winds

There is a great storm - a depression - swirling its way to the east somewhere far to he north of us, and so the winds which flood out from its southern skirts are channelling down the Adriatic Sea, powerful northerlies bringing rain and thunder with them. This makes our planned voyage up towards Croatia pretty well unbearable to contemplate so we will stay where we are for a while and wait for it to pass. The danger zone is called the Straits of Otranto where weather such as this concentrates itself, and the shores on either side offer little or no shelter. Last night, as we rocked very gently in our berth here at Gouvia Marina, we could see occasional distant flashes of lightning far over the horizon mountains, and an app told us this was 70miles away. We heard no thunder but the plain malevolence of those flashes was clear and made me feel glad to be this far away.
This is the largest marina in Greece, we are told - though other ports may claim a similar status. It is pretty well astonishing - like a plantation of regularly spaced but irregularly tall stiff white masts and attendant wires. The wind soughing through this hedgehog's back of bristles makes a constant cooing or humming noise, punctuated by the very occasional clanking of unsecured lines bashing against some other percussive material. 
The layout is practical - hard piers lead out into the bay - as far as the eye can see, with floating pontoons at right-angles and these packed on either side, barely an inch between them, with white plastic leisure boats of varying sizes and splendour. Some are weekly hire boats, and yesterday was change-over day. As the parting holidaymakers left, crews of young people swarmed onto the boats, chucking out mountains of laundry onto the pontoons, scouring and swabbing and cleaning the decks and saloons.   As we came back after our day out, the new parties of sailors were arriving, with their trundle suitcases and plastic bags of groceries. There are a lot of Italians and Brits, some French, some Greeks of course. Few Germans or Dutch. I think the Russians are all on the huge pointy scary-looking mega-yachts further out on the bay.  Prince Charles and Camilla are said to be up the coast on the Rothschild estate, staring at Albania. Our friend and neighbour at home, the painter Tony Bream (brother of guitarist Julian) told us how he had stayed on that estate some time ago....  
We didn't get as far as that part of the coast yesterday, but nearly. We went for lunch to a beach taverna called Nikolas' at Agni Bay, and tiny and charming little bite out of the cliffs now filled with cabins, pergolas, sun-loungers, pleasure boats, tables and chairs, signboards in various scripts, and the smell of cooking.  We motored up there because there was no wind..... We passed a particularly interesting and uber-expensive big boat painted as op-art camouflage (later learning it was Jeff Koons who designed it). It's a paradox - screaming 'Look at me!' while also saying 'You can't see me because I'm camouflaged...'   
We moored up at one of the little wooden jetties. We jumped into the warm sea, and swam about for a bit. Then we sauntered into the restaurant for lunch - a feast of dishes and tastes, all delicious. Our party was K&A, K's cousin Jules and her Greek husband Stephanos, and their 9-year old daughter Isabella, and Andrew and me. We over-ordered but loved it.  I particularly liked the little rolls of fried aubergine stuffed with cheese (called Boureki), and fingers of fried cheese and ham, and an illegal dish of fried baby calamari. Divine. Then, back aboard and with the wind coming up, we made our way out into the bay and sailed back to Gouvia.  To the east, we saw the painful islands where lepers were segregated (by 19th century officials mistakenly following medieval advice about how to treat such people), and where young people were imprisoned (by the British) and later locals were shot (by the Germans). 
Back into the marina, literally backing into our berth with nary and knock. Jules, Stephano and Isabella went for a swim in the marina pool, and I made a painting of the scene. These travelling sketches displease me because I see all my bad habits writ large, but it's all practice.  
Eventually, with all attempts to connect with the Internet failing, we went back to the Lady OIivia and eventually out again for supper to a taverna by the marina gates. Once again the food was marvellous - cheap and made on the premises and absolutely delicious. We took some back - too much to eat all in one sitting.   Back on the yacht, we saw that evil looking lightning in the distance, and some shooting stars overhead. The wind was gradually increasing, hustling and sighing through the forest of masts.  



Sent from my iPad

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Corfu, war, a miracle and bank notes

On 11th Augut 1716 a Turkish fleet was besieging the city and fortress of Corfu. The population - despite its impressive zigzag fortifications - was hopelessly outnumbered and could expect only death or slavery. But a huge storm swept the invaders away and saved the city. The residents ascribed this miraculous salvation to their patron saint Spyridon, and have thanked him on that date ever since with a litany or procession through the town. It is not all that different from saint-parades found in other Mediterranean and ancient towns and villages - such as that of San Felice de Circeo on the island of Ponza - said to be where Circe enticed Odysseus, and where the tiny streets are filled with joyous families and an effigy of their saint is shouldered through the crowds.   However, Spyridon's joyful and respectful annual parade is marked by a splendid and frightfully British accompaniment of dozens of marching bands. This relic of British rule is both bonkers and marvellous. 'We' gave up our ownership of the island way back in the mid-nineteenth century and thus our military bands were withdrawn. But they had rooted themselves in the hearts and minds of the locals who promptly decided to create a local substitute. But one band was not enough. Nor was two or three sufficient. They ended up with nineteen, twenty, more...  Each was equipped with startlingly splendid arrays of instruments - the bigger the better. Each had its own uniform with splendiferous hats and helmets, so that each band is arrayed in scarlet, or white and blue, or black, or green.  Children were set to learn instruments. Retired bandsmen from the Yorkshire pits came to settle here to keep standards up. And on St Spyridon's day, these bands all gather and march, interspersed with police, Boy Scouts, various public functionaries, and watched by large and happy crowds along the way.  The crickets in the trees on either side are - as ever - fantastically noisy, but they cannot drown out the sound of several bands all playing their own tunes at the same time.   There is a kind of order, and a lot of stopping and waiting, and impatient drummers practice their bashing and rolling noises to keep their fellows on their toes.  The march lasts for about two hours and is one of the finest and funniest things you can see. 
Now that we live in the space age, possession of such minor fortresses and islands is of no real consequence. Wars and strategies are conducted by satellite, drone, stealth bombers and computers at vast distances. Places like Corfu don't really matter any more except to refugees and tourists, and their old status has shrunk to a kind of 2-D account.
This can be readily understood if you go - as we did - into the the Museum of Ionian Bank Notes, a free and fascinating series of rooms owned by Alpha Bank. Mr Constantine showed us round - a charming and academic historian who loved his subject and was prepared to explain everything in detail.  The museum is the history of money, empire, war, pride, inflation, technology, art, Greece, peace and futility....   It starts at the time of Croesus, the first tiny blobs of silver stamped with some sort of mark, moves on through flimsy but gold coins, imprints of heads and horses, and then the great leap of faith into paper money. Design, ownership and instruction are spelled out ('it is forbidden to cut this note in half'). Kings come and go. Printing plates are laid out - sometimes with as many as forty engraved duplicates on a sheet, all done individually and identically by eye.  They moved from copper to steel. The printing was done by Americans, Brits, French. In times of crisis when there was not enough metal for coins, tiny teeny notes were printed instead of cash. Patriotic designs invoking Alexander the Great, Socrates, Sophocles and the rest sprang to the fore, and architecture of course.  While the Germans ran Greece during the last world war, hyperinflation ransacked the value of any kind of money - within weeks or days, prices leapt from a few hundred drachma to three trillion. When the Germans slunk away, a British Military currency came into use - locals would then gladly accept a low value note rather than a high one, because they believed it would stay true to its worth.
The Greeks have always been traders. They invented money and always needed it.  A fascinating theme was the recurrent dream of nations - for one universal currency, held together by agreements which crossed boundaries and languages. So, long before the EU and the Common Market, there was in the 19th century a Latin Monetary Union based on silver - the French, Belgians, Swiss and Italians ran it. But it didn't last long because the Germans and the British were using the gold standard, and so it all fell to bits. 


The past is the future. Storms and wars bash through and grand ambitions are swept aside. The Bank Note Museum tells the whole story. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Travel

I do wonder sometimes how long peasants like me will be allowed to travel. One way or another they'll find a way to stop us. One the one hand it's 'easy', affordable, accessible, etc. You book online, 'check in' yourself, go to any of hundreds of glamorous destinations, get your few days in the baking heat.....   A massive, colossal infrastructure is there to support all this - motorways, airports, lounges, retail cities at the aiports including those astonishing wandering lanes through an unbelievable perfume quarter, with a wiggling black marble pathway marked out in gleaming stone flecked with millions of diamonds..... This chicane is a kind of hellish condensation of the whole thing - the corralling of the mob, entirely artificial, like a cattle run leading to the abbatoire entrance but with a horrible stench of expensive artificial smells.  Then there are the planes themselves, tin tubes hurling themselves up into the thinner air to save fuel, bashing through invisible waves of thick and thin air, up over the blissful blankets of cloud into baking hot light.... shooting us in a great arc through the atmosphere towards our distant holiday destinations.  The planes are a marvel, those huge fleets of them, carting millions of us, squashed into our tiny perches, every day, zigzagging across the planet.
It's all astonishing, and rather ghastly. This is what we call our 'holidays'.
Yestertday's trip to Stansted was by train - change at Stratford East (including walking through the shopping mall to the other station, which is huge and sprawls out like a great fat Victorian great-aunt, so many platforms and destinations...... Then up to Tottenham Hale, into the unsuspected greenery and almost rural old fields and marshes around the R Lea where they used to make gunpowder.  The platform there is made of hundreds of small bricks, and a huge number of passengers are heading as we were to the airport, and so are dragging their pull-along suitcases - hence the noise of all those hard little wheels thumping over the bricks is like a vast choir of huge crickets........   Then the Stansted Express with electric sockets to recharge your computer or phone....  So, a slightly tortuous but useful old route to the plane.
We had a delicious lunch at Leon - vegan salad and a fish curry - all made and served with pride, and then met our friends K and A, whose boat we will be sailing on.  The flight was 4 hours, the children aboard remained resolutely cheerful (kicking the back of my seat), the air was terrifically bumpy at first, the light over the clouds was dazzling.    The air in Corfu was like a steam bath.  Hotel Dalia is ten minutes walk from the airport and surprisingly quiet. Very elegant and nice.  We walked through the muggy air to find supper near the sea under the trees. Another marvellous salad, some garlic purée, hummus, fried shrimps.  The moon was a disgusting yellow hanging over the water. Bed was utterly blissful.. Today is the feastday of Corfu's patron saint, Ag. Spyridon. We are going see his litany - a procession round the old town.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Tours v Blois No contest

It's been pretty amazing travelling through France in May. We had a fair distance to travel, in less than a week, from Calais down to the Dordogne, then on to the Tarn-et-Garonne, and back again. We chose to use the péages quite a lot, stacking up about £100 of tolls, but enjoying these magnificent smooth roads almost empty for the most part, and able to cover great distances without worry.

On the way south, I was struggling to make sense of the various satnav information available to us on one ancient dedicated machine and one modern phone, trying to avoid data costs – by June, the use of data will be normalised (at least until Brexit bites, I suppose), but the Navmii app is a pre-loaded map which is supposed to give you up to date routing information. But it just creates anxiety. In fact, using a good old road map, and the brilliant French road signs, you can make faster decisions and get across country more efficiently. The satnav tripped us up more than once, leading to interesting but time-wasting diversions in forests, suburbs, and new industrial estates. Sigh.

Some highlights. I have already described our visit to Tours which remains a shining light in my mind - a wonderful city with all-round great qualities. It loves itself and it loves its visitors. 

Setting off to the Dordogne was ok, though bugged by the silly belief that satnav would help. But we reached our campsite – the Municipal Camping at Tocane St Apre, by the R Dronne, in good enough time to set up the tent in daylight. We almost had the place to ourselves. Our pitch was right beside the river, with the roaring of a weir nearby. Songbirds were carolling everywhere, and something croaking – maybe bullfrogs. We walked a short mile or so to the nearby supermarket to get supplies – a stroll through glorious meadows with all the local horses and ponies enjoying the pasture and friendly enough to accept a tuft of grass if offered over the electric fences. As we sat with our simple evening meal, we noticed that there was a family of otters playing under the bank across the river... they swam, scrambled up onto the grass, hopped about, for about an hour. Behind them, the golden cattle wandered in the huge meadow with its beautiful trees, and a kingfisher darted about. It was magic.

That night, our airbed gave up the ghost so first thing in the morning we drove round to the supermarket to get a new one. Phew. Then off to explore the Dronne valley – Perigueux, St Jean de Cole where there was an amazing Floriale – a flower festival arranged in such a way that you had to pay to get into the village. There were 10,000,000 geranium and tomato plants, fantastic flower stalls, cactus displays, temporary gardens laid out, automatic lawnmower displays, dreadful art and flower arrangements in the church and the chateau, two lady gendarmes on horseback to keep the peace, and a great time being had by all. The gendarmes - with their hats and pistols made it seem like a mad version of the Wild West. 

The skies were constantly seething and rearranging themselves, with various distinct layers of white or eventually black masses of cloud.  As the heat generated new cumulonimbus towers, the base of these became fantastically threatening and dark and then we had torrential rain - sometimes over just a small area - one village, say - or over a wider mistier district.  The effect was mesmerising, and caused a certain amount of anxiety because the tent was new and we didn't know how waterproof it would be.  In the end, it proved to be more or less ok. 

The whole point of our trip was a 70th birthday party – Mike knew there was going to be a gathering but had no idea who was coming. He actually cried at one point as he realised that a couple of dozen people had travelled in secret from the UK to be there.... It was a lovely party, and we met up with various long-lost old friends. The party was in a marquee in his courtyard, lavishly lit with sparkly lights and the entertainment provided by a truly excellent singing trio called Candy Stripe – three English women who sing close harmony and who have a really impressive repertoire. Bravo!

Back to the tent to crash out on the new airbed. It lasted 3 hours. We discovered that it is possible to sleep on the cold hard ground..... (Sob).

On Sunday, we had to strike camp – luckily it wasn't too wet, and we took the split airbed back to Intermarche, and got our money back. One seam had just failed to seal. Then we headed for the Tarn-et-Garonne.... and my sister's house. Once again the satnav led us a merry dance but overall our journey was through blissfully beautiful landscapes, forests, rolling roads, tiny hamlets, with rivers all names and roadworks being briskly managed. How organised! It makes you wonder, at what point in time did someone decide which bits of forest to clear.... One thousand, two thousand, ten thousand years ago?   Modern French forestry techniques look pretty brutal, and we didn't see any bluebells at all, although there's some coppicing among the pine groves and the older oak forests with their larger trees. 

It's odd staying with relations – so much is just normal, but so much is at a distance – the ways in which we differ, the old rivalries put aside in the interests of adult enjoyments and new insights. My sister and her husband are working on their old farmhouse and making it absolutely beautiful – the plasterwork, the wiring, the décor. We'd visit more often but it's such a long way away from home.

Chris made us a lovely meal - a deconstructed prawn cocktail, he called it, and then a roasted chicken and ratatouille thing. Nom nom.  We didn't stay up very late due to two nights of not much sleep.... I hope we were forgiven. 

 In the morning we set off again to the north and bashed up the main road to Limoges and eventually Blois where we stayed last night. Oh, how our thoughts stray back to our evening in Tours – not that far away in kilometres, but a world away in experience. This city – with its 'most royal' of chateaux – is more beaten-up than Tours, rougher, duller. The tourists have less choice. The push to spend spend spend is not concealed. Whereas in Tours our car was safely stowed in a carpark, and we found music shops and saw students from the conservatoire carrying their instruments, and heard them practicing, and the cathedral gave us shelter from the storm, here in Blois it's less accommodating. The carpark is behind a barred and circuitous route, and the entry to too low for the height of our car. The menus are all plasticised. The bank machine had run out of money. The pavements around the chateau dwindle to nothing so you have to walk in the road. Somehow, it's less friendly (though the pretty young lady verger at St Vincent's did let us in to have a quick look inside). The meal last night was pimped up as artisanal, but was (I think) mostly a theatrical sleight of hand....

The most interesting thing is that the sitting right on the R Loire, the city has two completely different characters, which make me think of how London must have been from Roman times right up to the age of concrete. One bank has its huge chateau-fort, churches, money, squares, buildings, history, height, royalty, tourism, complexity, and money. The other bank, on the south, has a single row of low houses – maybe two storeys high at the most, strung out like the fishermen's cottages at Deal beach. Presumably no rock for foundations, just mud, and so no tall buildings, nothing to defend, just a muddy swampy village, sitting facing the glamour and power of the other bank. In London the city was on the north bank, and a small huddle of brothels and dives existed on the southern end of London Bridge - until they learned how to create artificial foundations in the 17th and of course later the 19th century.  Christopher Wren lived in some of the old brothel buildings when he was building St Pauls - he could look across the water and see his creation rise over the skyline. Apart from the fact that the water here flows to the west, and in London of course it's to the east, you could see this same scenario at Blois. 


Just as we sat and watched the otters on the Dronne, the peasants on the south bank at Blois must have watched the gambolling of kings and gentry on the north bank. Somehow I don't suppose the aristos paid the slightest attention to the farmers and lackeys on the other side. Of all the riparian watchers mentioned in this blog, I think we were the most fortunate. The otters were wondrous.  

Friday, 12 May 2017

Pleasures and a huge storm

Shocking how easy it is to forget how wonderful France can be. 


Leaving Faversham early in the morning with the mists draping the roads, then a calm ferry crossing to Calais (meeting up with friends on the boat). The design qualities on these vessels is calming in itself.


Then onto the roads - so smooth and (because we're paying tolls) empty and easy. There are the signature tokens of being French - the repeats of trees, the art along the motorways, the well-designed aires, the businesslike activity of road gangs who seem to make light of their sometimes massive challenges, the naming of all the rivers, tunnels and viaducts. It's organised.



We stopped for lunch at one of our old haunts, the Aire de la baie de Somme, where we bought packets of our favourite sweeties - the macarons d'Amiens - a fantastic medieval meld of almonds and honey.  The view from the cafe window is of the brutally designed little lake and grass planting, looking particularly unlovely at the moment. But the seven drakes and one duck were happy enough bobbing into and out of the water.

We had booked into a hotel in Tours for the night - getting round Rouen was much easier than before with all the traffic jams on the other side of the road - how satisfying.  When the sun was out, everything was far too hot. The windows in the new car are too big - eh!  When the sun disappeared into the huge wintry cloud sequences it was all too cold - we had to have the heater on. Maybe the jet stream is too far south. It's very odd weather this year.

Tours of course is lovely - our hotel has a parking at the back. We walked out in sunshine and with only light clothing - and then the rain started. Tumultuous.  Luckily for us, this being a Catholic country and a tourist city, the huge doors of St Martin's cathedral were open. We ducked inside with two purposes. To avoid the monsoon and to see the church.  



Oh height! oh stained glass! Oh chanting!  Such beauty! The thunder storm raged outside - even high up in the nave we could hear the weather bashing against the roof. The rain hitting the pavement and steps outside made a loud hissing splashing splatting noise.  People were sheltering in the porch like us.... Some monks started their plainsong up at the altar..... The sound itself - this combination - was magic.

As the rain gradually came to a stop, the skies cleared, and then more rain came.  We had a drink - everyone was waiting to see if the rain had really stopped. 


The atmosphere is uplifting - the book shops and antiques shops, bric-a-brac, ethnic cafes and restaurants - Ethiopian, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, and of course a lot of French ones including the regional specialists and a cheese resto (le Souris Gourmande). The bar-tabacs are stashed with fags. There are so many tiny shops, not chain stores.  Music everywhere - people carrying cellos, practice sounds coming from the conservatoire, posters for gigs, and unusual brass instruments for sale. 



We found a restaurant, family-owned, where the cooking is like the old days - absolutely superb, everything about it done with pride, not very expensive, but full of respect, flavour, pleasure, grace and love.  


Do not hesitate to eat there if you visit the city. The waiter - a young man - is the son of the owner and a sommelier in his own right. Does anyone in England aspire to be a waiter?  


When we came out, to wander back to the hotel, the sky looked beaten up by the storm, with a strange orange light, and there was a huge rainbow in the sky - double, triple. 



Saturday, 6 May 2017

Junk and Disorderly

In Devon, near the River Dart, the lanes are deep and completely convoluted.  The banks on either side are filled with flowers - bluebells, buttercups, ragged robin, cow parsley, wild garlic, toadflax, and more, and also a mass of ferns and wild clematis, and lords and ladies.  What life was like before the age of the motor car I can scarcely imagine. The work and care involved to get a horse-drawn wagon, or oxen along - up and down, and how to drive sheep or cattle along, must have been highly demanding. Even driving a car require the utmost attention, because the roads are so very narrow and enclosed for the most part with stone work. Meeting anyone coming from the other direction requires fast reflexes, skill, respect and patience. The passing places are just about adequate but only if you manoeuvre through them very slowly.

We came a higgledy-piggledy way to Dittisham in order to take one of the minute ferry services - the Dart Higher Ferry - across this beautiful tidal river.  The crossing cost us about £5 and took roughly10 minutes. Charming.

As I sit in the conservatory of our friend's friends' house, I can see an expansive bay of calm silvery water, with woodlands coming down to the water's edge for the most part and a couple of dozen yachts moored and almost motionless in their safe anchorages. Across on the other side, Agatha Christie once lived. The area is now protected but only because locals fought to prevent industrial estates being banged in onto what must have been seen as 'cheap' farmland. The house we are in is one of a set of what were originally council houses built with these superb views, and covenants prevent them from being flogged on for stupid amounts of money.  The rectory up the lane, not so protected, was done up by one family who made it look beautiful and offered it for sale for £1.2m, and had a fight on their hands with more than one bidder - so it went for about £8m.  Its swimming pool which used to be the playground for local children is now private. The house is now mostly unoccupied and has electric gates. It was probably just one banker's bonus.

Last night we went in convoy down these winding mysterious lanes to F*****s, a hotel-cum-restaurant, where about 20 people gathered as the preliminary event for the weekend's party. These were all friends and family of our friend Wattie who has had varied and interesting career in the BBC and in the restaurant and hotel trades, and so there were some very amusing stories about friends who'd got too involved in the cocaine trade and ended up in jail, or who'd set up a new resto and made a success of it, and ended up with a chain of them in London. The hotel itself is an old, long low stone building with a lot of original panelling plus extra decor brought in, and furnished with family pictures and the rest, all very beaten-up looking and comfortable, an amazing eclectic blend of beautiful and useful, and in no style at all. Completely inimitable I would have thought.  Our hostess is the sister of the owner. Their grandfather had an antique business in Edinburgh (I suppose about 100 years ago) and amassed a large collection of very fine things from various estates, and so some of this is now in use in the hotel and in the house where we are staying.

This morning we went into Dartmouth to buy socks, and there we saw a shop called Junk and Disorderly.  (This was funny enough to prompt me to create a new Facebook page called Funny Shop Names).

Then we followed our host Patrick who kindly led us by more of these amazing lanes into Totnes.... a steep and arty town which has banned chain stores so it is consequently filled with proper shops - butchers, bread shops, lots of hippy things, art galleries, grocers, delis, bookshops, shoeshops, all that.  The great disciplines of the mass market are not imposed in Totnes. There are some fairly professional-looking homeless guys sitting about. The market is thriving with every kind of garden plant, clothing, antiques, bric-a-brac, hot food, furniture, books etc on briskly run stalls.  The church of St Mary has an astonishing medieval stone screen across two chapels and the chancel with corbels and tracery. The Puritans took the Rood from the top of it but the main work is outstanding. We climbed the wrong hill to find the castle but then went back up to where it's been since 1068 - a Norman motte and bailey, grim place, frequently rebuilt but still with nothing much more than bare stone and grass and a memory of masculine aggression and possession. Power. That period of English history when the Norman Vikings took us over is one of savage oppression which is barely mentioned in heritage sites like this. Castles and kings are exalted. But they were brutal, kept to their own language, treated the English natives as scum and feudal slaves. It wasn't till the Black Death in the 14th century that market forces gave the English people some sort of leverage to regain control of their lives and land. The view of the town from the walkway at the top of the walls is pretty amazing, and you can see the way the town land had been portioned out in Saxon times - long strips giving each property a frontage and then space at the back, like smallholdings. The slate roofscape is very beautiful and sculptural. The town is jolly and bustling and friendly.





Altogether we bought socks of two types, a T-shirt, 4 marble coasters, a basket, a wrap-skirt, a pink purse or wallet and lunch. Very fine day.  Tonight we go back to the hotel for the real party.  I fear I should have reported on the glories of yesterday's drive through the New Forest, into Dorchester, and then out past Maiden Castle and the brilliant red-earth fields of Devonian Devon, but it's already slipped into a past which is barely retrievable. Time passing.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Happy birthday

For us, this is the season of 70th birthday parties. Friends have been kind enough to invite us to rather special gatherings, and the first is this coming weekend in Devon. We have escaped our responsibilities and chores and are making a long weekend of it.  So, although the party starts tomorrow, we left home a day early to maraud around part of the New Forest, en route.

Satnavs are marvellous, of course, giving their directions in whichever voice or accent we've selected and can be pretty reliable. But they have all the disadvantages of a tiny screen and a mind of their own. If you want to divert, or go through a particular waypoint, it's not always easy to set that up. We wanted to go via Maidstone to cut a corner. We could see the road numbers ahead of us and were led through a wonderfully downbeat part of town, a kind of townscape almost wiped out nowadays with small shops, lots of converted buildings some dating from the 18th century but all covered in diesel grime, narrow pavements, everything looking as if it's waiting to be demolished but struggling on meanwhile. Very Dickensian.  The route petered out. The signage and the speed of the satnav's instructions do not really tally and we were on the wrong road in no time, heading for Hastings instead of Tunbridge.  An exciting BANG happened when a passing lorry knocked the wing mirror off another lorry waiting in a traffic queue behind us. The culprit rushed off. The injured party set off in pursuit, two large vehicles heading for some kind of dustup.   We tried to get back to where we should have been. The traffic lights took ages.  Our new road turned out to be a building site, with Road Closed signs everywhere.  This diversion cost us about 40 minutes overall.

The landscape is stunning - not quite in full summer leaf, and ash trees still denuded of any kinds of greenery, but the hedges and woods filling with brilliant pale greens and yellows, the distant views still almost intact, and birdsong flooding the air if you stop to listen. The lambs and sheep look happy and calm. The white blossoms of hawthorn and cow parsley are frothing along the roadsides. The bluebells are spread like hallucinogenic clouds through the woodlands. England in early May is just breathtakingly beautiful.

We sauntered on through the paradise land, the lanes and roads twisting and winding, the trees meeting overhead, the greenery fresh and scintillating.

Eventually the idea of coffee (and a wee) came to dominate our thoughts and we did that thing of spending a long time trying to choose where exactly to stop.  Not one but two pubs with large signs outside saying 'OPEN' and 'Food served all day' turned out to be CLOSED and with nothing doing.  It's irritating because you have to stop, safely, and lock up, and gather your bags and bits, and all that and really the pubs either ought to sign their true opening times more clearly or show some decent human and commercial sense and say (as the man did last week at the exemplary Fox Inn at Bucks Green near Horsham) 'We're not really open yet but if you hang on a moment yes of course we can serve you a coffee.....'.

So BOO to the pub in Langton Green, and BOO to the Gallipot at Hartfield for their inhospitality.  We got to Forest Row in the end, and there was Taffel's Deli-Cafe with free parking opposite and a most excellent arty atmosphere, with free wifi and nice service and good coffee - so that we stayed on for lunch and they had £30's worth of business from us and a mention on Facebook.

The A272 is quite a characterful road, running parallel to the south coast but a way inland , and not so plagued with traffic as the coast road, leading through a succession of plump Anglo-Saxon townships now glittering with antique shops and the like, and with very pleasing acute turns and corners forcing the traffic into exquisite manoeuvres which force your mind into contemplation of times past, rather like the grimy relicts of Maidstone, only better brushed up. By the time we got to Midhurst we'd had enough of sauntering and bashed southwards towards the motorways and a speedier arrival.   We were heading to Hampshire's Hythe.

This ancient place name means 'a safe harbour' and there are many of them around the coast.  As far as Andrew was concerned, this one has been on his list of places to go for many years because a) it has a pier, and b) it has a railway on the pier, and c) it has a ferry service from the end which goes across the Water to Southampton.  Hythe itself has been done up a bit, pavement level raised (with a Georgian doorway looking ridiculously squat), and it has a useful modern shopping centre and lots of modern housing at reasonable prices, in comparison (say) to Emsworth which we visited last September and where house prices are at millionaire level.    

We got to the pier. It's brilliantly ramshackle looking, a bit chaotic and spindly to be honest, and with a wealth of posters and leaflets on hand and a slightly disgruntled man selling tickets and trying to explain the intricacies of the train timetable and the ferry timetable to idiot visitors like us.   £10 bought us a return ticket all the way to Southampton by train and ferry.... and so we clambered into the tiny wooden coach with varnished slat benches, and not too long to wait before the whole caboodle set off along the pier.  700 feet to the end, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It rocks and sways. The doors need not be shut. The sea swishes about underneath. It's ridiculous and marvellous.  At the far end, there are piles of lumber and old oil tanks and sheets of rusty iron and coils of rope. People have paid to have their names inscribed into the stout teak planks, part of the fundraising which keeps the whole thing going.  

Down a ramp, a small open modern boat is bobbing about - the ferry, called Jenny Ann.  We go aboard, wait a bit and eventually with a great roar of the diesel engine we set off the couple of miles across the water. We saw tug boats and fast ferries for the Isle of Wight. The landscape on either side is low and flat.  The sky was dull and the sea calm.  At Southampton we swung round onto the berth and everyone got off.... We walked up the ramp, strolled along the quay with completely anonymous modern buildings and carparks and over to the remnants of the city's medieval walls, apparently the largest of their kind in the country.  These scraps of lovely stonework incorporate an almshouse and college, a huge dovecot, a Franscican friary and various towers and a chapel.  Labelling is intermittent - some boards having faded to nothing.   We had 20 minutes or so to take it all in and then back to the ferry and back across the water.   All calm and good fun. The trip back was much more crowded with at least 4 bicycles stacked against the simple seating and three times as many passengers. No-one was talking, either way.

We had twenty minutes to go through the New Forest then, to get to Sway and our bed for the night. The Forest looked utterly lovely with horses and foals, some cattle, deer in the woods, and blossom and fresh greenery, and not much traffic.  

Sway has one truly remarkable thing. A Tower.  It is 14 storeys tall, and almost pointless. Of course it has marvellous views from the top, but no lift. It is the largest structure in the world made of non-reinforced concrete, built by Lord Peterson who was a barrister in India in the 19th century and came home to spend his fortune on his estate, employing 40 people for 6 years and building cottages and houses for them too.   This extraordinary thing is not in any way beautiful, looking rough and scratchy though it has tall windows up its sides and a cupola on top. It also has a whole section bearing a mass of telecommunications equipment which apparently brings in a tidy income.  The first four floors are arranged as bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms. There is a swimming pool and two fine reception rooms and other spaces. The whole thing is for sale for £2 million pounds. Quite cheap really (if you don't mind stairs).  There is a much smaller puppy tower about 150 yards from the big one, maybe a practice structure. It looks like a campanile.

Our B&B is ok, with a patch of plastic grass outside the terrace (looks ok and presumably stops mud being walked into the house), and two happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs in a field being fattened up, and a distant view of the Tower.  Now we are in bed, tired and happy after a pub supper along the road. I think Andrew has had a good birthday. He looked so happy on that train.








Thursday, 23 February 2017

Little cities

In the last two days, I have heard three people quite separately advising that a good way to live is to stay humble, work with your hands, and be kind (or not steal things). Working with your hands implies some kind of mercantile society - because no-one can make enough things personally to fully live. If you were good at making fishing nets, you would quite likely not have had time to learn how to make usable pots, or strong shoes. A small tribe of people might have all the necessary skills among its members for them to have access to all the things they'd need, but after a time, that tribe would itself need things beyond its immediate scope of making - maybe iron, or timber, or new animals.  So, since we gave up being nomads after the last Ice Age, we've had to live in or near to groups big enough to make all the basic necessities, or to trade in them. Agriculture means markets. It is very interesting to me to see how farmsteads and villages are scattered in particular kinds of landscape. Richer lands allow more people to live closer together, but poorer lands (such as mountainsides) mean each group needs more space to create tradable wealth, so dwellings are less numerous overall.
Market towns have various things in common - accessibility, some sort of security, water, civic provision such as law courts and justice, a tax system, a weights-and-measures authority, religious buildings, and so on. There also have open space or sometimes a covered building in which to conduct the trade, and if the trade is in beasts then there will have been an abbatoire or shambles. Fish and poultry often have separate and maybe smaller markets.
Our own town of Faversham had or had these, in different districts, over the centuries, and so does Thame and Settle and Bishops Castle and so on. Kilkenny has the same thing.
All these town share another feature which is that they work completely perfectly for people on foot. You can easily walk from place to place - the river, the castle, the old law court, the market, the several ancient churches, and so on.  Modern traffic has to thread its way through, but the traffic is out of place, too big, too close, too smelly. We have been slowly familiarising ourselves with Kilkenny over the last few years as this is where our son lives with his wife and baby son. The similarities and differences between this town and others we know in England keep presenting themselves.  We feel at home here, but keep seeing how it's not the same.
It clearly has medieval origins, and may have been almost indistinguishable in the 14th century from its counterparts in England, but as time passed, the impacts of history have led to divergence. Ireland is understandably very very Irish, so there are masses of green things on sale - wigs, Viking helmets, clothing of all kinds, beards, garden gnomes, scarves..... This is in the run-up to St Patricks's Day in a few days time.
It also remained mostly Catholic, and we see far far more visible signs of religion as we walk around - bible study shops, shops and posters inviting you to buy your children's confirmation clothes. They have the Angelus on television twice a day.   There are far far more small businesses in old retail shops, run since forever by families... So the names adorn all the shops - Egan, O'Reilly, Kelly, Lewis, Byrne, and so on.   It's a noticeably friendly place, so the Vietnamese nail bar which opened just before Christmas came here because the owners, on a day trip from Dublin were so struck by the pleasant attitude of the residents asked all their staff it they'd like to relocate, so they did, the whole lot of them.  There are masses and masses and masses of pubs, though some are empty, but a new brewery has opened up to visitors.
And there is a thriving pride in local produce, so we find a highly confident and vigorous restaurant and arts culture, with delicatessens, cafes, health food shops, craft shops, galleries, award-winning cuisines, and probably hundreds of local producers supplying the basic fare - eggs, meat, fish, bakery, soaps, oils, biscuits, art, specialist items of all kinds, honey, cosmetics, weaving, music, interior items, it's all absolutely alive and well. As the old employment-based, industrial and banking economies have faded away, the place has reverted to its ancient origins.... trading in local goods.
It may be that the churches do not have such a hold on the people now, as we see yoga, reiki, shiatsu, hippy stuff, Buddhism, etc all advertised, and there are lots of Indian and other foreign population groups who may not be Catholic. One of a pair of stone gates bears a carved tablet explaining how the English managed their scorching rage of the locals under Cromwell by dragging local lords and commoners into some sort of parliamentary government - as it says 'wars which were waged to maintain the religious and political liberties of the Irish people......'   Oh no. Atrocties.
But todays' Irish people are mostly completely polite about what the English did to them, for so long. Given the current political upheaval, its' not beyond the realm of possibility that the English might apply to become a province of Ireland, allowing St Patrick to hold hands with St George....  Ireland has its citiies, of course, but as in England, its' the old market towns which preserve a more authentic sense of the culture and nations, in my opinion. Kilkenny, like Faversham, holds a lot of experience and wisdom in its higgledey-piggledy streets and merchant houses. People on foot have to see each other's faces, can sample each others' cooking, watch each other's children.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Flying

We often drive to the airport but just taking small handluggage this time we went by train, a smooth experience apart from seeing my on-ward ticket disappear completely into the ticket barrier's maws at Victoria. The man on duty didn't immediately grasp that I needed it for the next leg of the journey but did eventually take the side of the automatic machine off, and working like a croupier at a poker game, started to dislodge a mass of used tickets from a stash. Eventually he found mine and handed it back, but made me walk through a different channel as if I or the rascally ticket might cause further disruption if I tried using it again.
It was a pleasure to get onto the Gatwick Express which not only has electric sockets for charging phones etc, but free wifi as well. The blessings of the 21st century. 
The airport chicanes are - frankly - exhausting and questionable. The security lines which are intrusive and oversensitive - bleeping at my reading glasses, requiring me to take my comfortable but awkward boots off.  Why? Why?  I am a fat middle-aged housewife. I am not a terrorist. They have tracked me through their barriers for twenty years now.... It's just annoying.  Then you have to go through that vile Shoppong World thing, a winding corridor with sparkling paving, the air drenched with disgusting artificial scents, people standing around hoping I'll stop and buy their liquor, chocolate or face creams. No!!!!!! Can we not have an alternative route without all this? I think my toxin levels go up 1000% each time I go through, just from the polluted air.
We get lunch in Wagamamas  -  with lovely service from the staff - none of whom is English, by the way, so if they're all sent 'home' under Brexit, who will come forward to work there?  The food is ok-ish. The mango smoothie with chilli is disappointing - really barely a hint of either mango or chilli - but really it just tasty test of pear juice.  I The waiter replaces it for me, but it's the same. I tweet about it, and get a swift response from Gatwick Airport.  Hmmn. A bit of overkill, methinks. Maybe the airport authority needs to check the quality and customer satisfaction of all their retail outlets.
As we take off, a huge fire is burning on the ground beside an old airplane not far from the runway. It's some sort of training exercise, but the bright orange flames and black smoke are alarming. Sobering.
We hit Dublin in the rush hour and it takes two hours longer than expected to get to Kilkenny. As we crawl along the M50, it feels like we're being easily overtaken by litter, tumbleweed, donkey-carts. Jovial relationships are formed between drivers... cups of tea passed through windows, card games set up......
We get to the flat. Alex has come to meet us in the car park... So much more confident, walking, smiling, murmuring, speaking! Our first grandson. Beautiful. He's grown so much since Christmas. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Kilkenny dreaming

We're off again, tomorrow morning, to Kilkenny to see the O'Kiddoes, especially baby Alex who is heading towards one-and-a-half and we don't see enough of him.

This time, having had half an hour to spare this afternoon before we pack and so on, I did some research into 'things to do in Kilkenny'. There are abbeys, monasteries, caves, the castle, glass-makers, wool-weavers, waterfalls, parks, art galleries, ancient dwellings and jails, riding centres, and a farm with a small town inside it.  It may be possible for us to get to see some of the ones we haven't visited so far. It would be great to take Alex out to somewhere with animals to look at and pet. Mares and foals are a possibility.

I have my usual pre-departure panic: what to pack (hand luggage only), getting all my admin tasks done in advance, trying to reduce my stuff to the bare minimum. I usually end up taking too many clothes - and then find I never wear them. The thinking is, we MIGHT go out to dinner. It may be EXTRA hot, cold, wet, windy, etc etc which would mean I need a change of clothes.... But, really how many shoes do I need? This time we're also taking some things for Alex: a spinning top, some clothes which cannot be bought in the Republic (giving the mother a bit of cachet, I hope, at the mother-and-baby meetings).  

My thinking is also distorted by today's remarkable event, namely the memorial service in Canterbury Cathedral for Sir John Swire, whose charitable foundation has been extraordinarily generous to the Faversham Creek Trust. The cathedral was pretty well packed. We had the full theatrical show, with a long procession of various clergy including the Dean, the choristers, the organist and deputy organist looking after the music, and a marvellous eulogy from Sir John's cousin Michael Todhunter. He explained, as part of a very moving and inspiring address, how Sir John met Moira, now Lady Swire.   She was a passenger on one the Swire family cargo ships in the orient, but had a really unfortunate experience which propelled her - later - to complain at the highest possible level about what happened to her. That was, that a water-buffalo entered her cabin and the only way to get rid of it was to cut its head off ('decapitate').  It scarcely bears thinking about. No wonder she wanted to talk to the man at the top.

Anyway, blessed sunlight streamed into the nave. The congregation was thoughtful and responsive. The music was wonderful. The prayers were simple and eloquent. The eulogy was fascinating. The whole thing was - pretty well perfect. As Mr Todhunter said, 'He was a good man'.

So these thoughts are in my mind while I consider emptying out the fridge and getting keys to the right people.  I shall go and have a glass of white wine and make some supper.  The packing will be more stripped down than I have managed in the past. We're only away for a few days.  I am really looking forward to stony dark historic Kilkenny, with its river and castle, and our little grandson with his watchful eyes and determinations. I wonder how he'll get on with the spinning top.