Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Something of a last word on Europe -- maybe

Like King John I survey my realm from the Tower of London.

I seem to be gaining a modicum of functionality once again as I accommodate the time-change and its concurrent jet-leg manifestation. Last evening I kept nodding out through Law&Order CI, which wasn’t as calamitous as it might have been if it had been an episode with my TV fantasy girl, Kathryn Erbe. Anyway, I turned in and then actually slept through to 6 a.m.

Anyway, I thought I would turn my attention to a very loose, not to mention singularly biased post-mortem of my European sojourn. An extended jaunt that was, in retrospect, a highly satisfactory endeavor. In that context, here are some of the impressions that stick in my mind from an excellent adventure of the globetrotting sort.

La France et Les Francais:

- French cities and towns have more graffiti per block than anywhere else I’ve ever seen, and certainly more than other European centres. Some of it is artistic (I guess) and some of it is crap. Some is political. And some is, no doubt, smutty, but I’m not up enough on French profanity to be able to say for certain.

- It’s appropriate that laissez-faire is a French term because they practice it more than any group I’ve encountered heretofore. A shop may or may not be open, depending on the whim of the proprietors. A restaurant may start serving dinner at 6 p.m. one night, but may not open until 7 the next night. France works the shortest week in Europe with a state-decreed 35-hours. At the same time the economy is reeling. Think there’s a connection.

- Highly state subsidized French trains are the cheapest in Europe, and they are splendid; fast and smooth.

- French women do ‘not’, for the most part, look or act like Bardot at her enticing best. Actually, they seem both prim and quite serious.

- French coffee is superb, and Wendy and I had cafes au lait at an outdoor bistro in Annecy that we concurred were two of the best coffees we’d ever had. On the other hand, they cost as much as a full pound of ground coffee at home.

- I wish I was still a drinker only in the sense that wine in France is practically free, and it is the sort of plonk you’d pay 20-bucks a bottle for here. There it would probably be €3 or 4. About five-bucks. Wine is much cheaper than coffee.

- The French are admirable in the sense that they absolutely do not give a shit what anybody thinks about them. The Gallic shrug prevails, and that is why they, as a nation, are so difficult to deal with diplomatically. They do everything ‘their’ way, regardless of whom they offend. I’ve concluded you cannot shame the French. We had food stolen from our hotel room, obviously by the chambermaid, since she was the only person with access. It wasn’t a big deal, but we thought we’d mention at the desk. We received that aforementioned shrug as a response.

The Belgians:

What can I say? Some are French-speaking, some are Dutch-speaking but, blessedly, a huge number seem to speak English. Otherwise we found Brussels to be a much more enchanting city than we had anticipated and the restaurant district in the little side streets down from the ‘Grand Place’ will actually solicit customers on the street and try to entice passers-by into their eateries. We once succumbed, and didn’t regret it for a second. It was a splendid lunch. I love mussels, which are virtually a Belgian national dish, and I never get enough of them as a rule. This day I actually got enough of them. I would go back to Brussels and Belgium in general without hesitation.

England and the English:

England has, in the years I’ve been away, become much more progressive and in-tune with the modern world. One can also avail oneself of a truly nice meal at a reasonable price, and it is possible to not only get a decent cup of coffee, but it is now normal to get one. How civilized.
London remains for me just a fine place to spend time and is far too big to make a genuine dent in what it has to offer if one were to have months at one’s disposal.

On the other hand, the English have still not mastered plumbing. Every toilet is different and the use of such facilities must be approached with tolerance and understanding. Some, once business has been attended to, must be approached with firm resolve, and others with gentle cajoling. Even then, the facility might not function on the first, or even second attempt.

Whilst mentioning plumbing, it must be mentioned that women are treated unjustly in reference to public facilities. In other words, if a woman must attend to a call of nature, it is going to cost her 20-pence to get into a stall, even if it’s just to pee, rather than to attend to a ‘serious’ matter. Yet, urinals for males are free, and payment would only be necessary if the male had that sort of need. So, as my wife indignantly pointed out, if a woman didn’t have 20-pence she would either be forced to wet herself, or grit her teeth and carry on until she got home. That’s hardly right.

A final point might be made about the huge accessibility of public transit, trains, buses, the underground and more. The underground in London has become somewhat inordinately expensive, in my esteem, but commuter trains are somewhat of a bargain still. On the other hand, the roads and motorways remain hugely congested in a society that seems to love the car as much as North American society does.

And, in Bath, I actually saw a guy drive by in a Hummer. If somebody in the UK feels compelled to drive a Hummer, I am left to wonder what hope there is for any of us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Having nothing better to do, I came back

I am now in that mode that strikes me every time I've been on an extended journey and that is one of relief for having made it home safely, and one of huge anti-climax for having made it home, and for it all being over. Combine that with jet-lag, and I mainly want to escape in sleep. All quite understandable.

Equally understandable is that all the things that irritated me in my home community before I went away still irritate me. Funny how you forget that stuff when you get some ever-so-slight yearnings for the familiar. And what you forget is that familiarity does breed a certain contempt, and that was why I, or anybody else for that matter, goes somewhere far afield.

Anyway, yesterday at about 5:45 p.m. UK time we got on the big BA jumbo at Heathrow and took off for Vancouver for the 9-hour flight. The Heathrow onslaught earlier in the day went amazingly efficiently to the degree I was actually impressed.

Anyway, dear friends, I will soon be coming to visit you at your blogs, and I will also do a more elaborate post-mortem, but right now I just want someone to soothe my fevered brow and to put me to bed -- in a literal sense, not in a more enchanting metaphorical manner -- I think even 'that' will have to wait at this point.

Anyhow, I have formulated some thoughts that I will, as I said, share with you later when I get over a full 24 hour day of having to function 'in transit'. A day that began with arising at 7 a.m. in our Greenwich hotel room, catching the commuter train into central London; hiking our bags through city streets as we went from Charing Cross Station to Leicester Square Station to get the underground to Heathrow. It all went well, blessedly -- and here I am!

Back to you soon, folks, and I will come to call. Now that I have unlimited time here -- unlike in Europe, I will be able to browse at leisure and with pleasure.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Tower -- Age 1,000 and still doing OK

So, it’s come down to this now. Tomorrow we are to get the plane after having made it through the Heathrow melee (without incident, I hope). First we have to get from Greenwich out to the airport – a very big crosstown trip. I hate the thought in some respects that it has come to an end and mundane reality consequently will be approaching.

Today we did the 1,000-year-old (roughly) Tower of London after a brief river trip up from Greenwich and, in order to get us primed for home, we had lunch at KFC. It was almost good, although I won’t go to any extremes about it. The Tower itself was as riveting as it was when first I saw it many years ago. The Crown Jewels alone are worth the price of admission. The Cunanore Diamond is fully the size of a hen's egg. Astonishing. Needless to say, security there is just a teeny bit tight. But, I thought, if you did steal it, where the hell would you fence it? Meanwhile, we also trudged through the Bloody Tower, but didn't see the ghost of Anne Boleyn with her head tucked underneath her arm.

Now an abrupt and awkward seque.

Last week we had a couple of interesting incidents. Lying blissfully sleeping in our room in Bath at about 4 a.m. we were horribly rudely awakened by the unmistakable sound of a fire alarm. It was 4 a.m., for Christ’s sake, and it was arguable I was having the best sleep of my entire life. But, we followed protocol; grabbed whatever clothes were available to throw on, and within about 5 minutes the entire population of the hotel was huddled across the street watching the fire engines arrive. Fire engines arrived, firefighters poked around. Firefighters emerged and then drove away. Five minutes after that we were ushered back to our rooms.

Now, on the one hand the idea of evacuating a hotel in the early hours is a bit dramatic and elevates a trip above the commonplace to a degree. On the other hand it was, for us, getting a bit old. You see, that was the second fire evacuation we’d made in as many days. The day before, in Great Yarmouth, this time in the late afternoon, the alarm went off, and again we were evacuated to the street. In this case, as in the case of the first one, there was no apparent cause other than a malfunction in the alarm system.

Anyway, my friends, good Lord willing, next time I write, it will be from back in Canada, jetlagged and cranky, no doubt.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

London is all that it ever was

They say that if you stand in Piccadilly long enough that eventually you'll run into everybody you've ever known. Well, I tried today, and I only ran into seven people I'd ever known. Most disappointing. Mind you, there's Eros over there, and I have known him on occasion, and have never regretted an enounter. Well -- maybe a couple of times with a couple of people.

I came back, and I’m glad I did. After about five days in blogger doldrums, I am once again connected so I can offer, for those who might be interested, a bit of an update on my travels. We are currently in London and London remains a place that, despite whatever troubles it might have, remains one of the truly great cities of the world. We’re just back from a terrific day of exploring, in the case of Wendy, and re-exploring in my case, such favorite features of the place as Covent Garden, Soho, Piccadilly, the excruciatingly posh shops of Bond Street and much more. We are staying out in Greenwich where they make the ‘mean time’, as opposed to the ‘cruel time.’ Although I personally tend to find the passage of time more cruel than mean at moments. Consequently, we made the trip to the West End by water on a Thames catamaran, and came back the same way. It was great travelling the river like Henry VIII did.

Anyway, I’ve missed you all and am glad to be here for a time. We only have two days left, and fly back on Monday when we will undergo the rigors of Heathrow Airport. Fly back with some regret, and also some delight in being with home and hearth for a while.

Anyway, a brief update. Left Great Yarmouth early in the week and travelled to Bath, as I said I was planning. I was still undergoing the rigors of a nasty sinus infection, which was taking much pleasure from life. So, I broke down and coughed up 30 pounds to pay for a doctor, and it was the best expenditure I’ve made in a long while. Within a day the thing was on the way out, and within two days I was actually feeling ‘well’ for the first time in quite a while.

Bath was as beautiful and Jane Austenish as it was when last I visited the place more years ago than I would care to remember. A truly exquisite city. I was also able to link up with my adored cousin, Angie, whom I only get to see about once a decade, but it always seems like just yesterday when we parted when we throw our arms around each other. All was good and we were also invited to their home for a home-cooked meal, our first such in over a month.

If I get a chance tomorrow, I’ll blog again. Otherwise, I’ll be back here when I return to Canada.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Fawlty Towers sans Basil

There is a certain type of English hotel that was best exemplified by Fawlty Towers. We are staying in a Fawlty Towers hotel in Great Yarmouth, minus Basil and Sybil, thank God. It is a wonderful hodgepodge of two tacked-together venerable houses, boasts no lift, and has nothing resembling glitz. It is quaint, old and homey, and also spotlessly clean and quite charming once you get past the challenge of hauling a goodly lot of luggage up three flights of stairs. And, it also offers a full English breakfast in the cost of your room. Full EB, by the way, consists of bacon, eggs, sausages, hashbrowns, fried bread, baked beans (not sure why), grilled tomato and toast. There is also cereal available, grapefruit, juices, and possibly more that I’m forgetting Have the brekkie and you don’t need to think about lunch, and even mustering an appetite for dinner can be a challenge. Considering the carb, cholesterol and fat load, it’s surprising that anybody in this country makes it past age 40.

By the way, I said to Wendy this morning that after we get home I don’t want to eat at a restaurant for at least six months. Some of the charm of dining out seems to have left me.

Yesterday as a special treat we took the half hour train trip to Norwich. Beautiful smaller city that boasts one of the finest cathedrals in England. We spent a good couple of hours there. For me it was a trip back, not only to when I lived in England, but also to the three days I spent in Norwich in 1997. It was a somewhat bleak time in my life. I had just come out of a bad marriage and was feeling very, very alone in the world. I took a trip to England to try and get my head together. A big mistake at one level, and not at another. While in Norwich I was feeling excruciatingly isolated and abandoned by all whom I had thought loved me. While not despondent, I was far from happy and by the time I got to Norwich I was longing to go home, even if it was just to my bachelor apartment.

One afternoon I decided to wander over to the incredibly striking 12th Century cathedral to look around. I had been there before, and it seemed like it might be a good way to spend a couple of hours. Once inside its vastness I strolled around for a time. I then took a seat. And I thought, and I meditated quietly. I am not a particularly religious person in a churchgoing sense, but it seemed to feel right to be there at that moment in time. Interestingly (and I am ascribing nothing mystical to it, but I am ascribing a change in attitude away from ‘poor me’) my life began to change for so much the better. And here I was yesterday, with my current wife, nearlng the end of a European sojourn, and it only seemed right that I should pay a call to ‘my’ cathedral.

Tomorrow we are off to the Jane Austen realm of the town of Bath, so more later if I have access.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Deja-vu all over again

There I am standing across the street from the little bungalow I lived in 25 years ago. I am not actually grimacing, but the wind was brisk and cold, which is normal in these parts.

A man is shuffling through some old papers in an upstairs bedroom, with no particular objective in mind. He picks up a sheaf, and a couple of items fall to the floor. They are cartoons. Cartoons drawn by a guy who had been a tenant of the adjoining house that the man also owned. He looked at them. He chuckled. They were cartoon birthday cards given to his late wife, who died back in 1994. The tenant had left, after having lived next door for a year, back in 1981. He thought no more about them.

Two hours later his front doorbell rang. He opened it. There was the man who had drawn those cartoons a quarter of a century earlier. I was the artist and I was face-to-face with my old landlord and neighbor. That he was thunderstruck, especially having just seen the cartoons is to state the case lightly. If you are cynical about synchronicity, this should still give you a point-to-ponder. It did for me.

The incident happened yesterday when I decided (after some prevarication of thought, and wondering if I really wanted to take that backward step in time) to plunge into the old ‘hood’ in Bradwell, a suburb of Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England. We stopped for lunch in my old ‘local’, the Sun Inn, and then walked up that old street that had once been so familiar, and remained virtually unchanged from when I lived there. It was a weird feeling, and I still don’t quite have my head around it. Probably won’t for weeks.

I was there with all that water having passed under a bridge, and a different wife in tow from the one he once knew, and yet it was a good reunion. We had a delightful afternoon with Richard (who would now be about 75, but was, like Bradwell, still virtually unchanged, except his hair was now snow-white. We had coffee with him, talked about his kids (who were teens then, but are now middle-aged), and his grandkids, and his lady-friend and the fact that even though he misses his wife, is having a good life.

I have never been to a school reunion, nor have I ever wanted to go to one, so I was apprehensive about this endeavour, believing that sleeping-dogs should be able to lie peacefully and, like Thomas Wolfe, knowing you can’t really go home again.

But, I did go ‘home’ again, even if it was just to a year-long home, and I am very happy that I did.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Lad with a bladder problem

So, we have moved on yet again, and it was no less than an ordeal to get here. Not an ordeal in terms of anything going wrong – in fact it all went as smooth-as-silk and is a testament to people knowing what they’re doing in terms of public transit. But, yesterday was gruelling, nevertheless, and today we are taking it very easy, just wandering around and appreciating a little leisure before moving on. Oh, and I thought I could not leave this blog posting without sharing with you my encounter with Brussels’ possibly most famous former citizen, the little boy now known as Manneken Pis. Many stories surround this tiny bit of statuary, and on this particular day he is adorned in surgical scrubs, I know not why, but the Brussels Museum has literally hundreds of costumes that are put on the statue of what can only be described as a little boy taking a leak.

Otherwise, in some ways we didn’t want to leave Brussels so soon, but other commitments were calling on us. And, we had linked up with our friends Shelley and Dean, and had a wonderful day with them and ate royally in a very classy restaurant.

But, yesterday morning we arose early and headed out to catch the ‘Eurostar’ for London. The entire trip takes a bit more than two hours, thanks to the ‘Chunnel’. Chunnel, I must confess, was a bit of a disappointment. I mean, I don’t really know what I was expecting but somehow something more dramatic. Anyway, we are there riding in the sunshine through a bit of northern France, and then we could see Calais in the distance, and then it was dark. That was it. Just dark. Dark for about 20 minutes. And then, after that time had elapsed, we were in Kent, England. Quite amazing all things considered, but I somehow thought it should be more dramatic.

By the way, the security checks before you get on the Eurostar to take the Chunnel route are as stringent as at any airport, such is the threat of terrorism.

Anyway, we arrived in London on the day the Queen was opening Parliament, so traffic in London was even more congested than normal in the capital. But, thanks to a brilliant cabbie (and all London cabbies are brilliant) we made our way from Waterloo Station to Liverpool St. Station, whence we caught the train to Norwich, with literally five minutes to spare. Arriving at Norwich, we had less than five minutes to get the little train to Great Yarmouth. But, we got it, and now we are here.

So, as I said, Great Yarmouth was my hometown for a year 25 years ago, and more about that later. It feels weird to be back, and there have been lots of changes, but none of my feelings are negative.

Back whenever I can.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

And the chocolate is to die for

I said I would be back if and when I got the chance, and here I am. Sitting in the lobby of our quaint little hotel here in Brussels, Belgium. It is a nasty, rainy day but that didn't stop us from going out, wandering around, paying another visit to 'Grand Place' (part of which is pictured here, those are the 16th Century guildhouses), which Victor Hugo described as the most beautiful public square in the world. Certainly the most beautiful I've ever seen, and Vic obviously felt the same way.

So, anyway, knowing we had friends we wanted to meet in Belgium, this is what we decided. It was a fabulous decision. Took us just five hours by train from Grenoble to get here, and such a contrast. I don't know what I expected in Brussels. I had few preconceptions other than Brussels Sprouts and waffles. It is a vibrant and exciting city with enough eateries on any given block to last a couple of weeks; enough haute couture shops to rival Milan and Paris, with prices to match, and chocolate that is truly to die for. Very cosmopolitan, a lot of Congolese people, a lot of Asians, and a lot of people who speak English moderately well, so it is very user friendly.

Anyway, friends, to keep you abreast of the travels, tomorrow morning it is the Chunnel from Brussels to London, and then to the Norfolk coastal town of Great Yarmouth, where I lived and worked 25 years ago. My first time back there since then. Should be interesting.

Did I tell you that Belgian chocolate was to die for? Yes, I did. But it's worth telling you again. Wish I could bring you all back some.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I'm a movin' on from here

So, this offering is to be my last from Grenoble and, depending on WiFi or internet connections elsewhere, it may be my last until I get home to Canada. You’ll just have to wait and see. Otherwise, I’ll just have to undergo withdrawal from all my blogging friends whom I’ve come to love and cherish. Some of you I have actually even met face-to-face, but I am sure my fond regard would also translate that way if I were to ever meet others of you at some distant point in time. I think you can tell a lot about a person by what they want to discuss in these pages.

So, yesterday Wendy finished her final exams and is a free agent and therefore, so am I. So, we are now going to vacation for a couple of weeks unfettered by anything other than our budget. We have weighed in the balance the costs of various excursions we had considered and I have already (with regret) negated a trip to Tuscany at this time. So, tomorrow we are going to get the crack TCF train and head to Paris, then Lille, and final destination, Brussels. We have friends living near Brussels and are looking forward to seeing them briefly.

After a couple of days in the Belgian capital our plan is to take the ‘Chunnel’ to England and spend nine or ten days there. Since I lived in the UK for a year, many years ago, that won’t be too much of a transition. I want to take Wendy to Great Yarmouth, where I lived – at another time, with another person, long-ago and far away, as the old song goes.

And then I have an adored cousin who lives in Bath in the southwest. One of the most appealing and poshest towns in the country. She pointed out that Johnny Depp is living just a few doors down while he is making a film in the area. Maybe we’ll go and hang out with Johnny and find out the real goods on what a cokehead Kate Moss is, since they were once an ‘item’.

But, yesterday, I took my formal leave of Grenoble by venturing down to the oldest part of town, with its 13th Century church and 16th Century Parliament building. It was a wonderful reminder of what a sojourn in Europe must include for those of us who live in such a relatively ‘new’ part of North America. I include pictures of both these structures.

I'll miss Grenoble and probably won't fully appreciate the experience in all its nuances until I'm well away from here. I've found travels often work that way.

Anyway, I do hope to be back in this space soon. Cheers.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Louis XIV and Donald Rumsfeld. Nope, no connection

As a Canadian I probably have no right to be expressing opinions about the political happenings in another country. But, since what happens in the US impacts all the rest of us, what the hell, I’ll make comment. Actually the comment refers to a specific matter, the sacking of Rumsfeld. Oh, I know they say he resigned, but face it, folks, he was fired.

This, of course, leaves us with the question, which is, why did George W. wait so long? The writing was on the wall for ages, in big bold letters. Writing that basically stated: “Get rid of the sonofabitch if you value having any political future!” But, he didn’t. He defended the man and the operation of the war. How so? It boggles the mind. Rummy’s continued presence not only confounded the Democrats, it confounded many Republicans, not to mention a lot of military brass. So today George W. has to accept that fact that his continued loyalty to that guy cost him the election. He woke up this morning, turned to Laura and said: “That $#@%^ cost me the election! That &*%$# cost the Republican Party the election!”

I suspect the only people who don’t hate Rumsfeld today are the Democrats. He was the best political ally they could have had.

Now, away from politics for a while. Yesterday (cold definitely on its way out as far as I can tell) I took a trip to the Musee de Grenoble. Actually, it’s not really a museum, it’s an art gallery. A lovely, modern and spacious art gallery. I grew up in a big city, but have lived for years in a mid-sized town. I realized as I wandered through the various chambers how much I had missed such places. Not that we don’t have art and artists where I live. Indeed we have some excellent ones. But, you know, call me a snob if you will, but the idea of looking face-on at a Matisse, a Picasso, or even a Warhol was a bit thrilling.

Aside from the moderns, the works in their permanent collection from the 16th and 17th centuries were amazing. Huge oil paintings in which one could stare at Louis XIV face on in an artwork that looked like it was painted last week. I had to take myself back and think the actual Louis (the original Louie-Louie) posed for this thing.

It gives a body pause for thought, it does. It makes one think about how fleeting life is and how our personal problems that seem so monumental to us will be of no consequence to future generations. What troubled Louis XIV, aside from making sure Mme. de Pompadour wasn’t hopping into somebody else’s bed, I have no way of knowing. I mean, how bad could it have been to be an absolute monarch? Well, his successor a couple of generations down the road, Louis XVI found out, but for old Number one-four life must have been pretty cool.

Cooler than it is for Rummy, or George W. these days.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

La grippe ou la rhume?

In the first place, let me suggest there is absolutely nothing 'common' about the common cold. My cold is quite exceptional and it's markedly uninspiring.

My nose runs at Niagara volume, and I have a charming hacking cough and then at night, that is the most fun part. That is when my nasal passages stuff up with some sort of concrete rendering breathing with the apparatus with which one is supposed to breathe impossible.

Consequently, I awaken three or four times a night with a tongue of sandpaper and a devastatingly evil taste in my mouth. I'm only too glad I don't drink any longer because an 'overindulgence' tongue on top of that would be simply intolerable. Nasal sprays don't work worth a damn for me because I overused them once following an earlier cold so now I've built up a tolerance to them.

So, the other day I went to la pharmacie and asked in my inept francais what would be good for this affliction. They gave me something called Humex Rhume. I'm not sure if it's working, or maybe the cold is just running its course and I would be where I am in any case.

As I said, I am getting better, and I am getting out and about, such as the day trip to Annecy the other day, but there is still more I want to do and to have the sense of wellbeing to do it. I gaze out the hotel window at the lovely French city below me and all I can think is that I want to stretch out on my couch at home (my haven) and watch daytime TV. Daytime TV in English, if you please. God, I'd even watch self-aggrandizing Oprah and the insufferable Dr. Phil, which gives you some idea of how irritating this all is.

All I would like now in my recuperation is to just feel even, oh, 98%, and then I might have little more zest for this all.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A serene day in Annecy

Annecy is about an hour and a half away by train to the northeast of Grenoble, right near the Swiss border and I said to Wendy after we had made the day excursion up there yesterday that it was arguably the most beautiful spot townwise I had ever visited. I say that having traveled a lot, and having been to such places as Florence, Venice, Rome, Bath, Chester and other cities and towns that are contenders for tourist enticements.

Annecy is a kind of mini-Venice North, with crystaline and azure canals (take that, Venice) and sits on an equally azure mountain lake. Quite frankly, as curmudgeonly and even cynical as I might be at times, I found it heavenly and just the cure for the cold that has been dogging me during the last few days. The cold isn't entirely gone, but this esthetic pick-me-up sure helped me to feel better.

Annecy is a kind of cross between fairytale and Disney, but it's all authentic and it isn't even self-conscious and precious about its mini-splendors. Best of all, aside from the canals, sometimes flower festooned, even in November, are the narrow streets and passageways containing houses dating back to the 16th century.

The Old Town is a classic Renaissance entity and I found it surprisingly reminiscent of Florence. Within the Old Town are chi-chi shops cheek-by-jowl with tacky souvenir outlets, cheese shops, sausage shops, inns and pubs, and restaurants galore. Looming over this all, high on a hill is the Chateau Annecy, in fine repair and one time a prison.

We stopped for a cafe au lait at a sidwalk cafe and basked in the sun, watching the comings and goings of passers-by, and felt a bit like we were in a movie set. It was heavenly, despite the fact that the coffee (which was exquisitely good) cost us over three euros each (about $3.50). We then wandered through the streets and byways until it was time for lunch. For that we had the plat de jour, which happend to be lapin et polenta, or, cute little bunny rabbit stewed and some of the best polenta I've ever had.

Shortly after lunch it was time to get the train back, but we made a dogleg down to the lake which, festooned with swans and other waterfowl, and punctuated by a fine park, showed us why the canal water was so clear.

And then we caught the train back for Grenoble in the late afternoon sun, and this isn't a bad place to come back to, either. It seems unreal that we only have five days remaining in this town before moving on.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

C'est comme ci, comme ca

One advantage of staying in a place for longer than a couple of days is that one comes to see the place, warts and all. It's a bit like a relationship in the sense that once the first bloom of love comes off, there is a certain realization that this is a real person with all the quirks and foibles that you, I or anybody else possesses.

The observation emanates from a conversation my wife said she had with a fellow student the other day, in which the other woman asserted that much in North America is wrong, corrupt and wasteful, whereas all that transpires in the rest of the world, and certainly in Europe is fine, noble and altruistic.

Wendy was piqued by her observation, and avoiding the impulse to mutter "bullshit", she instead asserted the virtues that she, as a woman, gained from being in North American society and that while it wasn't perfect, it was so much better that the lives of her sex in societies in which women had very secondary roles, and in some cases were treated barbarically.

I tend to agree with her. I agree not because she is my wife, but because I respect her intellect and observations, and because I have lived in Europe before and came to the conclusion after a year living abroad that the life would be good if one were very rich and privileged but that I, home in Canada, had a much fuller life and wasn't restricted due to social status, my accent or accident of birth.

As I have said in this space, there is much to be cherished here in France, but there are also elements I would find frustrating and alien in terms of what I am used to. Today is All Saints Day, or Toussaint in France. That means that virtually everything is closed as tight as it might be at home on Christmas Day (and only on Christmas Day). Toussaint is only one such shut everything down event. Coming up is Remembrance Day, on Nov. 11. It will be the same thing. Therefore, one must be prepared to adjust everything from travel plans to ability to acquire groceries. This morning I needed a litre of milk. Fortunately for me I live just down the street from the Moroccan enclave in Grenoble. Moroccans are Muslim. Toussaint means diddly to them, so I was able to get milk from one of their shops. Otherwise I would have been SOL. But on any given day it is difficult to deduce when any business might or might not be open. There seems to be no fixed rule.

Other little irritants include the fact that becomes obvious very early on that nobody, absolutely nobody picks up after their dogs, so there is canine effluvia everywhere. Likewise, the French are very heavy smokers. In front of this hotel, as only one example, there are cigarette butts all over the walkway. There is also a butt receptacle on the wall. It is very lonely. It never seems to get any attention whatsoever.

But, such things considered, don't get me wrong. I am having a fabulous time here. I love most elements of the culture, and I like the people very much, even if, with my hopeless French, I can only understand about 20% of what they say. As I have said, too, the public transit system is superlative, and should be the envy of many North American cities and towns. Look at the sexy interior of the local streetcars I have pictured here. Swift, sleek, comfortable and cheap. I'm sure they're hugely subsidized for the fares to be so low, but there are huge advantages for both the public and the environment.

And, as I said, the pastries, mousses and other such confections are to die for. So, I continue to cherish all that is transpiring with me here, and will always value the experience and the personal growth I have gained.

On the other hand, I have a bitch of a cold and am feeling thoroughly sorry for myself. Oh, and I do wish I could get more on TV than just three English language news services. Some evening entertainment would be nice. But, that's a trivial point.