Friday, June 29, 2012

You can drink your wine and eat it too

I've had quite a busy week (for an unemployed bum. And I apologise to anyone seething with rage at posts filled with fun and frivolous purchases. I assure you I spend most of the time weeping and self-flagellating, but I save that sort of thing for my BDSM blog).

We had a picnic in the park on Sunday to celebrate someone getting her PhD approved, which was very nice. It wasn't sunny, but at least it didn't start raining until that evening (and then all day Monday). Then I went home and watched delayed coverage of the Grand Prix, which, contrary to all expectations, was actually very exciting (although I'm still a bit upset over what happened to Hamilton).

Since then, I've been running around going to the gym and working on my CV and other such scintillating stuff. I walked all the way to the Pôle Emploi the other day because I thought "right, I'm going to go there and work on writing cover letters in French without distractions and see if someone can help me with the French" only to find that there is only one computer there with a chair, all the rest you have to stand up at, and all you can do on them is look up job notices on the Pôle Emploi's own website. And when I asked if I could get help writing in French, they gave me a pamphlet designed for French people who can't read and write well (and I don't mean to sound snarky, but examples of people applying for factory jobs in very simple French are not much good to me) and enrolled me in a general workshop in like a fortnight. And told me that the job I wanted to apply for was only open to disabled applicants (which, of course, is a noble initiative, but it's just discouraging every time you come across something else that you don't understand about how the system works here). I know that sounds very whiny, and I know no-one forced me to move to a non-English-speaking country, but it helps everyone if you help us dirty immigants to speak better French and get jobs. And blogging about it helps to vent some of those frustrations.

Wednesday was hot hot hot, with actual sunshine. I went to a garden party, if you can call 20 or so people having drinks and nibbles in a garden a "garden party" (the Queen wasn't there, let's put it that way), which was nice. I spilled red wine on my new dress and had to wash it with detergent in the kitchen sink, but along with washing it properly when I got home, that did the trick, yay. (I'm a big believer in acting immediately, no matter what stain-busting equipment you have at hand, to get rid of stains.) In a brave move, since there will often be sudden thunderstorms in the evening after a hot day here, they set up a TV in the garden so I was able to happily ignore the football until it got to the penalty shootout after an undoubtedly exciting 2 hours of play without a goal.

On Thursday night it was my turn to have Liz and Charlie around for dinner. We have a sort of 'supper club' where we meet up at irregular intervals at each other's houses for dinner. It's a bit tricky because there's a ton of stuff Charlie won't eat, starting with onions and garlic!! This time, I made spinach, feta and chicken pasties and for dessert, the pièce de resistance:

That's no ordinary glass of wine, that's rosé jelly (jello to our American friends)! Basically, you simmer rosé with sugar, add gelatine and pour it into a glass with berries in it and voilà, hours later you have yourself a wobbly paen to the noble art of finding new ways to consume wine.


I didn't want to give the game away, because I think half the fun is bringing out a glass of "wine" and then the big reveal that it's jelly, but I ran the idea of a jelly-based dessert past Liz, who begged me not to do it, because as Canedolia mentioned recently, the French for some reason think the English can't get enough of eating jelly. And, indeed, Charlie found it hilarious to the point of making a video of it wobbling. But I thought a rosé dessert was too cool not to do! So, how did it taste? I did a little test pot of it and thought it was just okay when I ate some on Thursday morning, but maybe my palate just wasn't ready for wine first thing in the morning, because I actually thought it was very nice when we had it in the evening. Just the right amount of sugar and a nice flavour. The frozen berries were a bit seedy, but oh well.

After dinner, Liz went home and Charlie and I met up with Marion and went to a bar and then a club. Tomorrow is Marion's last day in Tours, boohooooo! Now I will (probably) be back to being the only Kiwi in the village. She doesn't yet know where she'll be living, her boyfriend is looking for an internship and in the meantime she'll be going between London and his family's place in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais. They're leaving some stuff in storage here, so I'll probably see her again, but it's still sad to have a friend leave.

We ended up partying with some cute French and Belgian pilots

I also bought these super-cute fold-up ballet pumps from Redfoot shoes in the UK, after Liz sent me a coupon code for their half-price summer sale (which may be still on, let me know if anyone wants the code, because they are really quite expensive). I haven't worn them yet, but it does seem you get what you pay for - the uppers are real, soft leather, and they have a gel sole, so they seem like they'd be much more comfortable for walking than the cheap pair I bought at H&M, which had basically no sole, so it was like walking on the pavement in your socks or something (plus they were too big and fell off all the time, so I gave them to Liz).

In case anyone doesn't know, the idea is you wear them out of an evening and then switch to your high heels when you get wherever you're going, and they fold up as shown and go in a little pouch in your handbag. I look forward to actually wearing heels some time, because with having to walk everywhere and the cobblestones and so on, I never do any more!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What am I reading? Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

I just finished reading Catch-22 for what must be the fifth or sixth time. I actually downloaded the e-book, a special 50th anniversary edition (with, funnily enough, a foreword by Howard Jacobson, author of the recently-reviewed Finkler Question), some time last year, and read about half of it before getting distracted by other books and setting it aside until this weekend, when I finished the book I was reading but didn't want to leave the park yet.

I don't think I have anything particularly intelligent to say about Catch-22, except that it is brilliant. A true masterpiece. I worry sometimes that I've lost the ability to appreciate great literature, along with the rest of my youthful promise, but re-reading Catch-22 has somewhat restored my faith in myself, and in literature. I want to go back at once and refresh my memory of the first half of the book.

I first read Catch-22 at some point during my teenage years, probably about 15 or 16, around Christmas or the summer holidays (same time in New Zealand, of course), I believe after my mum gave up on it. I do remember that it took me a while to get in to the book as well, but once you get past those first few confusing chapters, with their slippery treatment of time, the book is a treasure. I'm usually a bit skeptical at blurbs which tell you you'll "laugh out loud", because how often is that true? - but in the case of Catch-22, it really is; it is a comedy of the absurd of the highest order. Much - perhaps most - of the pleasure comes from the language. There is the occasional dated slang or joke that falls a bit flat, but on the whole it is a joy to read. Unfortunately e-books are less flickable than real books, so I went to the internet to nick some quotes (and then got depressed at the websites offering quotes by theme for those determined to crib their way through a school essay or test instead of actually coming to grips with the work themselves). Luckily I found an apropos Catch-22 quote for this sensation:

“He knew everything there was to know about literature, except how to enjoy it”

and then subsequently abandoned the idea of selecting some of my favourite quotes because they just look sad and denuded, shrunk to the status of mere bons mots when no longer cocooned within the sheer magnificence which is Catch-22. You should just go read it at once.

As well as absurdist comedy and the sheer exuberance that comes from playing with language, Catch-22 does have a serious side. In particular, the dark shift in mood around Chapter 39, when Yossarian wanders through the streets of a chaotic and licentious Rome, is all the more powerful by contrast with the prevailing vein of humour, and is still as exquisitely written.

If I had one criticism, it would probably be the casual sexism that crops up repeatedly. I wouldn't go so far as to call it misogyny, but it's the sort of off-hand stuff you might expect from a WWII novel written in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, it's very much a "man's" novel. Almost all the female characters are sex objects, and most of them are prostitutes. However, I don't think that seriously detracts from the whole, and while I imagine it would speak especially to those with first-hand experience of the army or war, with much of the humour coming from the observation of army life, it's really about the human condition (albeit very grounded in the context) rather than a work that goes into the minutiae of guns and tanks and planes.

It's a book I would whole-heartedly recommend to anyone. My day is certainly the richer for having spent time reading it, and I think it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that my life is as well. Thanks, Joseph Heller!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

P'tite visite à Paris: la suite!

I'm quite proud of that title, although that might be like the time I was proud of my "ça cartonne" pun in French and everyone made fun of me... Alternate title: Bon Cop, Bad Cop (see below).

Anyway, I packed quite a bit into my overnight stay in Paris a couple of weeks ago. The day before visiting the exhibition at the Louvre and just before the walk of death, I met up with Ann, an Aussie whom Mary Kay had met (where else) out and about in Paris. Apparently Ann, who has been in Paris for less than a year, had asked MK if she knew any young Australians. Unfortunately, she had to make do with me instead, dommage...  I told Ann I'd memorialise her on the blog by saying she was "alright for an Aussie" so there you go ha ha! ;) But all kidding aside, she was really lovely. Us Kiwis and Aussies like to give each other a bit of stick (I think mostly going from the Kiwi side to the Aussie side - inferiority complexes and all that), but when you come over to Europe I think those cousinly sentiments kick in, since after all, we're not that different (especially to anyone who's not from Down Under). Weirdest of all, her husband comes from Saint Omer in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, which is right near where I used to live five years ago! No-one's usually ever heard of Saint Omer (let alone Ebblinghem, the tiny dot on the map I called home for five months.) We've emailed back and forth a few times since, always good to have another friendly face in Paris!

Mary Kay has already covered this (much more succinctly too), but one of the strangest incidents of my stay in Paris was our run-in with a cop (or was he??). On our way to the Louvre, I didn't really see a couple of people get on the bus, but I sensed that they were standing behind me (we were sitting) a bit close, touching my shoulder in a way that could have been accounted for by holding on to the hand-rest but I felt was a bit suspect all the same. So I zipped up my bag, remarking to MK that I "wasn't in Tours anymore" (and, to be honest, I probably should take more care in Tours too... I don't subscribe to paranoid theories that all of Europe is wall-to-wall thieves, but it behooves us all to be a bit prudent), and we had a conversation about theft on buses and elsewhere in Paris.

Coming back from the Louvre, I think we had put all thoughts of bus theft out of our minds for the moment, but looking back, I think we did both have our bags under surveillance on our laps at all times. However, we probably weren't being über circumspect. I remember MK taking out her phone to add me on Twitter (PS sorry for the boring F1 tweets, but you were warned!) and I realised later that I had taken my camera out to take a picture because the bus had the same name as my mum (who I'm sure is all a-flutter to learn of this earth-shattering fact). So, tourists, much? Add to that the fact that we were chatting the whole way back in English (I don't think loudly, but I find for me at least English "carries", probably because it's my native language, but perhaps also partly because it's not the majority language, even in Paris), and we evidently stuck out to at least one person on the bus...

We got off in (I think) not a particularly touristy part of town, crossed the road, turned a corner, and suddenly were hailed from behind by someone saying "Excuse me" in English and then (in French) asking if we spoke French. My first thought was "great, a beggar". I tend to think everyone who addresses me in English out of the blue wants something, perhaps because it only tends to happen in touristy places like Paris, and then they probably are begging. But as soon as we confirmed we spoke French, he pulled out a badge and identified himself as a cop, and my thoughts instantly switched to "what did we do?" (guilty conscience?)

I was possibly even more shocked when he informed us that he thought we had been pickpocketed, and that we should check the contents of our handbags. According to him, two men had been "all over us" in the bus. Unlike my suspicions of the morning, when I had been congratulating myself on being all hyper-aware and street-wise, I had noticed nothing. He insisted - he was sure the men had been in our handbags. We should check thoroughly to make sure nothing was missing, even inside our wallets. Noticing some hesitation on our part, particularly at the stage of opening up our wallets, he again told us not to be afraid and showed us his badge. While we were triple-checking, Geoff the cop took a phone call from a... colleague? accomplice? still apparently on the bus : "Negative... Negative.. nothing's missing". He then told us his name and phone number and told us to check again and call him again within 60 seconds if anything was missing, otherwise they'd miss their window of opportunity to collar the suspects.

Once we got back in to MK's apartment, a few paces away, we were able to quadruple check (I was sure, for example, that I'd left my ipod in her apartment but was naturally seized with doubt on that front after this incident) and confirm that nothing was missing. Then we debriefed together - had we noticed anything suspicious on the bus? And, most importantly, was Geoff a real cop, or was it an elaborate scam?

I think we both came to the conclusion that Geoff was probably for real. I found it weird that he followed us all the way across an intersection AND around the corner before accosting us, but perhaps he had to be extra-careful not to give the game away in case the alleged thieves could somehow still see him and blow his cover. On the pro side for Geoff, he gave us room while we searched our possessions, and after all, if he was trying to rob us, he failed (although, so did the other team). I talked the incident over with my French friend Charlie as well, and she seemed to think that it was consistent with what you'd expect from an undercover cop on the metro/buses in Paris, and also that I should never, never speak English on public transport (so take note!) Also, he was quite handsome, but so was Ted Bundy, apparently, so not sure that should go into the public record in his favour. I did think about wheedling his number out of Mary Kay though heh heh ;)

Which leaves the conclusion that we were targeted by thieves on the bus - but how? The only possible way they could have gotten their hands in our bags was by sneaking them at waist-level in between the seats, as, as I've said, the bags were right there on our laps, and we were in and out of them ourselves several times on the trip. We might not have been paying as much attention as either of us probably would have if we'd been alone, but still, we're not fresh off the boat and we know to keep stuff in our eye-line and with our hands on it as well. For me, that's the hardest part to believe, that I would have my eye off the ball enough for someone to be in my bag without me knowing it, especially since I'm a bit of a skeptic when it comes to money belts and the like. But if that's what happened it just goes to show that, as I've heard many times, these people are pros and they have ways of weaseling into your things, even if, in this case, they didn't manage to make off with anything for whatever reason. That doesn't mean I'm going to flip out and start wearing a money belt everywhere I go, but perhaps it's a handy reminder that even those of us who have lived in Europe without incident for years could do with not letting our guard down too much!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Si tu vas pas à la Fête de la Musique... Fête de la Musique vient à toi! (If you don't go to the Fête de la Musique, the Fête de la Musique comes to you.) So someone said to me over drinks on Wednesday, the day before the Fête de la Musique, aka World Music Day, and it turned out to be true! He meant that you can't avoid hearing the music whether you go out or not, so you might as well make the most of it, but in my case, the Fête de la Musique came to me in the form of my friend Laura, who rang up to say she was coming past my house and did I want to come into town with her?

I had brownies in the oven, since Liz had given me a whole bunch of stickers which enabled me to get a fancy new mixer (for 25€, saving 38€!) to replace my crappy stick blender which is feeble and overheats all the time, along with some pretty broad hints about me using the new mixer to make brownies (if you can call saying "you know what you can make with the new mixer? Brownies!" about 20 times a 'hint'). So anyway, Laura and I had a glass of wine while we waited for the brownies to finish baking, then another glass of wine while we ate a brownie, and then headed into the centre-ville to see what the haps was.

As well as organised events and bars having their own bands or DJs, amateur musicians are encouraged to play on the streets during the Fête de la Musique, often only a few metres away from each other, so you can be listening to jazz one minute and dubstep the next (not that I actually know what dubstep is, but I'm assuming you can, seems to be what all the kids are listening to these days). The old town was really crowded, but most people didn't seem that drunk, and there was a great open, festive atmosphere, with people seeming more willing to smile and chat than is usually the case on a Saturday night or whatever. We just wandered through the town, from the Place du Monstre through the streets around Place Plum' (didn't go into the Place though, too crowded) and then over to Rue Colbert where we watched a group playing on the street for a while until it got to about 12.15 and the bands had to pack up, so we headed into the Pale for a nightcap. 

I'm glad I went out, it was fun! Of course, last year the Fête de la Musique was the last time I went out with my old flatmate, since the next day I came home to the agent in our house informing me that she hadn't been paying the rent for a year... Time flies, hard to believe it's been a year since the start of all that drama, I suppose especially since it just dragged on and on with tax issues and so forth. I'd like to say I'm in a happier place now, but since then the only big thing that's changed is I no longer have a job, so yeah. Anyway...

Of course, the reason the Fête de la Musique was yesterday was because it was the longest day and the official start of summer! And yesterday, apart from the bit where it bucketed down for 10 minutes or so while I was walking to Carrefour, was actually quite nice weather, luckily! The sky wasn't even completely dark (that dark blue colour rather than black) when we were heading in to town around 11 pm, and this morning I was (reluctantly) woken up by sunshine streaming in through my shutters. So far, we've had rain, rain and more rain, but fingers crossed now it's officially summer!

I make notoriously crappy videos and this is no exception really, but it gives a little snapshot of being on the street during the Fête

One of the street bands playing near the Pale

Me and Laura enjoying the music

Monday, June 18, 2012


On Friday, I finally made it to the Beaux Arts museum in order to see the Tours 1500: Capital of the Arts exhibition before it closed. It seemed a lot of people (mostly pensioners) had the same idea, since it was pretty full. It was quite interesting - Tours was the 'royal capital' of France at this time, but the exhibition stressed that the political and financial centre never really shifted from Paris. Instead, Tours became a capital of art and culture. The exhibition was made up mostly of sculpture and illuminated manuscripts from the period, with a few paintings. It was interesting to see the manuscripts right after the Belles Heures exhibition. The quality and complexity varied quite a lot, from some very fine works by Jean Poyer and Jean Bourdichon to others that were relatively much cruder.

It also helped to illuminate (if you'll excuse the pun) some of the history of Tours. I have spent many an idle moment scanning the horizon here and wondering where all the 'towers' of 'Tours' have gone. Turns out the old city was once surrounded by a wall, which did indeed feature quite a few towers. Even before the revolution and the world wars, Tours suffered quite a bit of destruction during the Wars of Religion, and the exhibition showed a few religious sculptures which had been partially destroyed during this period (e.g. faces effaced). Sigh, people suck.

On Saturday, it was fiesta time. Fiesta Latina, that is, a Brazilian restaurant where we headed to celebrate the birthday of Charlie, one of my (only, how sad!) French friends. Charlie's a total little firecracker, nothing like the stereotypical French girl, she is basically bouncing off the walls at any given moment, talking a mile a minute, very good for improving your French comprehension! The food wasn't amazing (although the fixed menu started out with a salad with duck hearts in it, which were actually quite nice!), basically just various bits of meat cooked on a rotisserie or whatever, but the atmosphere was really fun, lots of singing and dancing going on. I think French people must have to go to a Brazilian-themed restaurant in order to really kick back and go a bit crazy over dinner. It is a bit odd having someone's naked bum jiggling about next to you (the Brazilian dancer's, not the clients') while you're trying to eat though! At one point I was also trapped in a corner of the small dancefloor while shirtless men did capoeira a few inches away. Well, not the worst experience of my life, I must admit.

I left my camera with Charlie at one point while I was dancing, and came back to a memory card full of close-ups inside people's mouths and down people's pants/tops arrgh! Here are some non-disturbing snaps from the evening. Apparently, based on this evidence, I had the same look on my face all night long, only varying the angle and people I was standing next to...

Les gars (guys) (some random French guys on the dancefloor told me off for saying 'les gars', because apparently French people don't. Mmmkay, guess I made that up all by myself then). Benjamin (Charlie's boyfriend), Michel, Denis and David (Liz's boyfriend)

Benjamin and Charlie all excited with her birthday sparkler

David, Charlie and Liz

Me and Charlie

On the dancefloor. Ha ha it took me ages before I noticed that dude's head down there!!

Me, Charlie and Liz again

Charlie, Michel and me

And again. By the way, Charlie made her dress herself! She's so tiny even by French standards that she has to make or alter all her clothes herself

Monday, June 11, 2012

Cheesewatch - Morbier

Herein the exciting return of the much-fêted occasional series: Cheesewatch! Actually, Mary Kay did request more Cheesewatches, amazingly enough! So when I realised, halfway through a packet of one of my favourite cheeses, Morbier, that I had never Cheesewatched it, I leapt to my camera to document this monumental occasion.

Morbier is a semi-soft cow's milk cheese, similar in texture to a Port Salut or Saint-Paulin. Visually, it differs by having a lighter yellow rind and of course by the line you can see running through the centre. I first encountered it last year, cut into small tasting cubes in the cheese section at Auchan, and mistook it for a blue cheese. In fact, that line through the middle is not mould, but a fine layer of ash. Traditionally, it was made with left-over milk from Comté production, so the farmers would put a layer of ash on top to preserve it, before coming back the next day and topping it off with more left-over milk.

I've always wondered whether or not the ash layer is edible. I usually cut it out because eating ash can't be good for you, right? However, the French Wikipedia article describes the ash layer as having a soft, fruity taste, so presumably you are supposed to eat it. Nowadays the ash is usually only decorative, as it is no longer made with in two stages with left-over milk. Another potential health hazard is that it's made with raw, unpasteurised milk - so depending on where you live, you might not be able to get your hands on this baby. I never actually noticed this until I took the picture of the packet above, but I doubt I'm going to keel over from eating the occasional bit of Morbier...

As for the taste, I was going to describe it as I ate, but I finished the last bit just before getting a phone call and before starting blogging, so I'm going to have to call upon my powers of recollection all the way back to an hour ago. Well I fell in love with my first bite at Auchan. It has a firm but creamy texture which responds well to my Patented Cheek Storage System (to those not in the know with this little piece of insanity, I like to squirrel a bit of cheese into my cheek for a couple of minutes until it goes a bit melty in my mouth, and then eat it. I don't know if that's good cheese-eating etiquette...) It starts off rich and creamy-tasting, but has quite a sharp bite to it in the after-taste, almost peppery - I definitely wouldn't say 'soft and fruity', but maybe I'm missing out on that by not eating the ash. Slightly nutty, but not as much as you'd get from a proper (non-plastic) Emmental or similar. I likes!

From Cheesewatch to NailPolishwatch - Mary Kay astonished me when I visited her in Paris by producing a bottle of Essie nail polish for me ("Ole Caliente" colour). She had got it in a gift box and I asked her to let us know what it was like after trying it, since I'd seen it in Monoprix and wanted to know if it was any good. Since she doesn't wear nail polish, she told me she'd give it to me if I was ever in Paris. I thought nothing more of it, but she remembered, so thoughtful!

Staying up late last night watching the Canadian Grand Prix presented me with the perfect opportunity to paint my nails (good race, well-deserved victory for Hamilton, but a slow first few laps before the first pit-stop phase left plenty of time to concentrate on my nails).

The brush was a bit larger than I'm used to, but it provided good, even coverage - I was able to mostly do my left hand with one go, as usual my right hand ended up a bit more butchered but still not too bad. Nice, smooth finish, I didn't go over the edges too much, at least on the left hand, and a pretty, bright colour. I thought it was very orange going on, and it looks it in the photo, but it's actually a bit more towards the red than it looks here (by the way, the pink bottle in the background of that photo is a different colour, currently rocking that on the toes). We'll see how well it lasts, but so far it's done a Grand Prix, bed, and half a day with no chips, which is practically a personal best performance from me! Thanks MK!

Friday, June 08, 2012

Head out on the highway, looking for adventure

Yesterday I was heading out to dinner at a French friend's who lives in la cité - not the city, but a semi-dodgy housing estate. I'd been there twice before, but somehow still managed to get on the wrong bus, ending up in Chambray, a southern suburb of Tours which which I am wholly unfamiliar. Cursing my stupidity, and with no bus back into town for another half an hour, I texted my friend to say I probably wasn't going to make it for dinner. The story had a happy ending - my friends Charlie and Liz rolled up about 15 minutes later to collect me in Charlie's car - but I was left feeling rather foolish, and not for the first time this week.

I am, to put it mildly, directionally challenged. The only thing I can consistently find is a way to get lost, from the time I mysteriously managed to walk the whole way around the Cap d'Antibes back to where I started from, to the time it took me one and a half hours to find my way to my hotel in Kiev, a mere two blocks away from the metro station. So when I headed off by foot to meet up with Mary Kay in Paris, it was really tempting fate to say to myself "all I have to do is turn right and follow the Seine, even I can't screw that one up". Turns out yes, yes I could. This time what was at fault was not really my sense of direction, just my capacity to be foolish. I quickly reached a part of the road where it split into two, with one road going down along the Seine and the other rising up. I hesitated, but knowing that my plan was to stick right next to the Seine, I decided to take the lower road.

And thus I ended up here, on the Voie Georges Pompidou, where, as Wikipedia informs me (NOW you tell me), pedestrians are forbidden, because, ya know, it's a highway. (The below photo is from Wikipidia, by the way - there was way more traffic than this.)


So there I am, walking along that narrow strip on the left-hand side, all dolled up fancy-like and PULLING A SUITCASE ALONG, while cars and motorbikes whizz by me mere centimetres away at high speed, beeping and shouting things at me, terrified. There's no pedestrian crossings, obviously, and no way to get off this bloody highway. The road surface is uneven - I'm terrified that, at any moment, I'll turn my ankle and just fall into the road - there are posts that I have to step over at regular intervals, and at one particularly dismal part, there are a series of big scratchy bushes hanging over the "footpath" that I have to battle through. And then I reach a part where the "footpath" stops altogether. Just up ahead is a bridge which I think I want to get up on to. But how do I get across to it? My not-so-beady eyes dimly think that they can see stairs up on to the bridge from the other side of the highway, but there's a constant flow of traffic tearing towards me at breakneck speeds. I hesitate, wondering whether or not I should just give up and walk all the way back the way I've come, when finally I spot a tiny break in the traffic and manage to do a semi-suicidal run across the highway, still towing my suitcase, to the other side and thankfully up the stairs onto the bridge.

Now, I know what you're thinking - Gwan, you're an idiot! How could you wander on to a busy two-lane highway where pedestrians are forbidden without noticing? (I know that's what you're thinking, because that's pretty much what my friend Liz said when I told her. She also said she burst into laughter hours later thinking about me doing this.) Well, I would like to submit something for the defence. Here's where I entered the highway, taken from Streetview. Do you notice anything on the left-hand side of the picture?

Yeah, that would be a sign telling pedestrians to stick left and bikes to stick right on the footpath. It is true that a few metres further on, there is a tiny sign forbidding pedestrians, but even if I had seen it, it's totally unclear, being in the middle of two roads; I probably wouldn't have known without looking it up just now that a red circle means forbidden even if there's no line through the picture (yeah my fault, but still, they could make it clearer for dumb tourists), and it's still not obvious from here that the left-hand road is just about to turn into a hideous road of death.

So yeah, I'm blaming this one at least 50% on France! Still feel like a moron though.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Snapshots from the Louvre

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of visiting Mary Kay from Out and About in Paris and taking in one of the current exhibitions at the Louvre, on Les Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. This is one of the world's finest medieval manuscripts, which normally lives in the Cloisters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, bound up tightly as manuscripts tend to be, but which has been unbound for photography and restoration and travelled to the Louvre for this temporary exhibition. As soon as I (by chance) heard about this exhibition, I was raring to go to Paris to see it. Any exhibition is, in a sense, an unmissable event, as the paintings featured may never be brought together again, but this was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Once these pages get bound back up again, obviously they'll only be able to go on display one page at a time, so this is really it if you want to get to see these 47 leaves on show at once (you have until the 25th of June to see them if you can make it to Paris).

Truly, these are amazing works of art - (mostly) surprisingly realistic for their date (beginning of the 15th century); technically mind-boggling - I have no idea how they managed to paint some of the details, I suspect that, like Jan van Eyck, they must have done some of it with a single hair; adorned with gold, and bursting with incredibly vibrant colours. I couldn't help but think that, if they had done these works of art on canvases that everyone could easily see, instead of on tiny manuscript pages, the Limbourg brothers would be as famous as the likes of Raphael or Van Eyck himself. Even if you haven't heard their names, though, you may have seen some of the illuminations from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, probably the world's most celebrated medieval manuscript, which I would loooove to see but I think it's sadly no longer on public display due to its apparently delicate condition.

If you'd like to learn more about Les Belles Heures, here's a great video (featuring someone with a particularly wanky British accent) produced by the Met from when the exhibition was on there, which I stole off Mary Kay.

I'm planning to blog the rest of my (brief) trip soon (you can head over to Mary Kay's blog now for her version of events if you just can't wait!), but in the meantime, here's some happy snaps from the Louvre. You weren't allowed to take pictures of the manuscript itself (with good reason, I think - conservation issues aside, the pages are small and packed full of detail, so quite a traffic jam built up looking at the pages, so it would have been a real pain if everyone had been snapping photos as well), so here are some not-as-good photos of the exhibition catalogue.

This unfortunate saint simultaneously had his kid eaten by a lion and his wife carried off by a wolf. Also, he appears to be standing in quicksand. Tough day.

If I recall correctly, this is Saint Anthony coming to find the hermit Saint Paul in the woods. He ran into I think a 'hippocentaur' whom the locals worshipped as the god of the forest, who seems to be a friendly and helpful chap according to this illustration, but who I bet ended up getting smited for his trouble. What's going on with the river of blood, I don't know.

A bit later on, Saint Paul died and St Anthony enlisted some local lions, who also like to live in this wood for some reason, to help with the burial

It was so odd that the illustrations were so amazingly detailed and precise in some areas, particularly the wonderful architectural drawings (not pictured, sorry) and then whenever it came to water it was as though they'd literally never seen any before. Made me wonder if, in fact, they *had* never seen the sea.

A ceiling by Braque. I liked that, for once, the modern piece seemed to fit very well into the ornate gilded ceiling. I did not feel the same way about a Cy Twombly ceiling in the previous room.

The Grand Gallery. Probably

Saint Jerome taking a thorn out of a lion's paw. I love his expression, priceless!

Ever noticed my Blogger profile picture? No? Go look - it's just over there in the right-hand column. If you have, and you ever wondered, it's La Belle Ferronière by Leonardo da Vinci. I snapped a picture of it the first time I visited the Louvre back in January 2005, and she's been my bloggy alter ego ever since. Now finally, I have a picture of the two of us together - what do you think? I like her air of calm, cool detachment and intelligence, so I suppose I'm projecting what I'd like people to think about me... Now to figure out how to do the hairdo!

The Louvre in general was pretty crowded yesterday, but of course we're at Ground Zero here. You can just get a glimpse of the famous lady herself at the back of the room. This is about as close as I got, I'm happy to stick with my Belle Ferronière.

Monday, June 04, 2012

I ate an eel and I liked it

Not eating eels became one of my life's ambitions after reading, and then watching, the wonderful The Tin Drum. For those of you who aren't familiar and have strong stomachs, here's the key scene as written (you really should go read the book, it's good stuff, I promise!) or on film:


If that creeped you out, then the Eels song from The Mighty Boosh, while still a bit gross, lyrics-wise, might take the edge off a bit, or is at least less likely to make you lose your lunch. Plus any excuse to gaze upon the glory of Noel Fielding:

But back to the topic at hand after that musical break: your faithful correspondent was tricked into eating eel fresh (?) from the Loire at a cooking demonstration at this weekend's Vitiloire wine festival. And, you know what, I liked it! I don't know if I'm going to be signing up to knowingly eat more eels anytime soon, at least not after seeing that clip again, but hey, I can tick it off the list if nothing else! (PS 'eel' is 'anguille', if you don't want to unexpectedly feast on one yourself.) Hopefully no horse's heads were involved in the making of this dish...

As for the Vitiloire, it's my third time attending this wine festival. For the first time, I went wanting to buy wine and came away with only one bottle, quelle disastre! We went for the last 4 hours on Sunday, and it just didn't turn out to be long enough. I tasted plenty of pleasant wines, but despite taking notes, they all started to blur after a while, and in the end we just ran out of time to go back and buy the ones I'd pegged as 'nice'. Must be more decisive next time, or leave more time for tasting! Still, it was a nice 4 hours - it costs 5€ for a glass and you can taste as much as you want, plus there is food and more structured dégustations and the aforementioned cooking demonstrations.

I had been meaning to go down on Saturday as well, but it was just so damn hot! 29 degrees, 80% humidity - unbearable. I was vacuuming my little attic apartment in the middle of the day, wearing the ear defenders I bought for the F1 since my vacuum cleaner has started making the most unbearable high-pitched squeal, and literally dripping with sweat. Or, sorry, if you're a stickler for such things, then I was literally glowing with a sense of ladylike decorum. I don't like a lot of heat. People think that New Zealand's hot, but it's really not, at least not where I'm from (does get damnably humid though). In Auckland, I would say 25 is nice and hot, 28 getting probably too hot, and over 30 is pretty much unheard of. (This record may have been surpassed, but in 2009 a temperature of 32.4°C was enough to make it the hottest day 'ever' in Auckland. I think that was just before I came back to Auckland from Wellington, because I seem to recall missing it - and never having seen temperatures of over 30 reported in my personal experience.)

Thankfully, that evening we had a huge (but fairly brief) thunderstorm, with hail even, which brought the temperatures down. There were fireworks for the Vitiloire on Saturday just after the storm, but unfortunately I just missed them, since I'd been umming and ahhing too long about whether to go into town for a drink or whether it would rain again. Friday was another fun day - a free massage in the morning, followed by a workout (wrong way round, I know, but the massage was too early to get up for the gym beforehand), a bbq lunch in the sunshine at Liz's and then meeting a friend for a late afternoon drink down at the guinguette. And tomorrow I'm off to Paris overnight, staying with the lovely Mary Kay. Hard life!