Friday, 26 August 2011

Hate Paris, Love France

Frank Sinatra’s version of “I Love Paris” became the centre piece of my last lessons in China. According to the lyrics he had a very good reason for loving the place: his love was there. I have every reason for avoiding it.
The cheapest way to begin our long journey from England to Spain is usually via the Dover ferry. We land at Dunkirk or Calais and then face a major obstacle – Paris. I have been trapped in the city’s dense traffic three times before: once when lost and twice when trying to drive into, or out of, the centre. Now I give this city of myth, art and romance a wide berth; the only decision facing us is whether to circumnavigate the place to the west or the east.
This time we turned right, heading towards Rouen, the city whose name only the French can pronounce and where Joan of Arc was burned even though the English could have saved her. I write “headed for” advisedly since this characterises our journeys through France. We are really heading for La Fresneda, our village in Spain: all else is a daily surprise. We almost never take the toll roads even though they draw us at times like a magnet attracting a wandering steel ball. For us France is an unimaginable number of roundabouts, shunned cities, pretty villages, green woods and hills cut by wide attractive rivers, ancient churches and impossibly lovely chateaux, decorated by staring meadows of sunflowers.
Each day we find somewhere nice to eat our lunch: a lunch based on fresh, crispy French bread and cheese. And every night we find a suitable town or village in which to park, dine and sleep. It is mostly a pleasurable adventure with many a wrong road leading to delightful discoveries. As we roll along the secondary roads we discuss our perfect overnight stop. The place must not be too big (though I do like the occasional night on the town), yet not so small that there is no choice of restaurants and bars. It should be beautiful, have an interesting church, a river (hopefully with somewhere beside it to park our little van for the night) and have at least one person walking the streets clutching a French loaf. We are not always lucky, but do get to stay in some delightful places.
This time Bauge seemed a clear winner. We could be seen there looking into estate agent’s windows pointing at the intriguing bargain houses in this ancient and historical place which gave us the Plantagenets. Bauge even had a planned walk which guided us to a series of informative noticeboards througout its contorted, multilevel streets and, though the river was small and provided no parking spots, we found a place to lay up in a large tree-lined car park beneath an imposing chateau now used as the tourist information centre. But for all of that Bauge was not the perfect overnight stop. The place was in decay, its teenagers in revolt and the local council showed a weird tendency to build quite inappropriate modern monstrosities instead of utilising the many large buildings of character that were slowly deteriorating through neglect. The Hotel de Ville was a disappointing black and glass structure that could easily, and hopefully, be lost in Milton Keynes.
Then, lost again, we arrived at Brantome. It had everything, including a splendid river that we could park beside and enough Gallic buildings to satisfy everyone. The streets were generally narrow and bordered by interesting houses. It had parks and even (for those who must) a large park for camping cars. We loved it: the location in a narrow valley, the rushing river, the abbey, the stately trees, and the people walking home with their French loaves. It had a variety of bars and restaurants; in fact we spent the latter part of the evening listening to an Englishwoman with long blonde hair, a bluesy voice and an acoustic guitar: great.
There was a downside. There are rather too many English people in Brantome. In fact it seemed to be full of them. Clearly our love of the place is shared and the news of its beauty has spread. The horde had got there before us. Is this so bad? Should we expect to have a lovely town like Brantome to ourselves? Would the blues singer have been there for us alone? Ah, the problems of travel.
Now this liking for France, which has grown as we travel through it, is strange. Our adopted second country is Spain: we have grandsons there, we have a house there and we now have an orchard and olive grove there. We have lived there (on and off) for twelve years and we love it: we love the liveliness, friendliness, and anarchy of the Spanish. We live in a beautiful area and we have friends there. We have seen babies grow to teenagers and have been truly saddened by the deaths of people who have become part of our lives. The aridness of the area in which we live and its stark beauty is still a wonder to us and a complete and utter contrast to England.
Perhaps like many people we are subconsciously seeking England, but elsewhere: an England with all the good bits (summer, manners, privacy, pubs, honesty, etc), and none of the bad (football hooliganism, riots, churlishness, winter, etc) and France, coquettish, rural France, pretends, in places, to offer that mirage. The truth of course is quite different. The man ambling by with the loaf under his arm may well wish you “Bon soir” but he is really wondering if you are a football hooligan and whether his local restaurant with its perfect table clothes can stand another invasion.
So now we are in La Fresneda, the village we were always heading towards. It is fiesta time, and time itself has been suspended (dancing starts at one in the morning), health and safety has been banished (the fiery bull rampages around the village spilling its load of flying fireworks on the laggards who are unable to escape),, deafening music echoes through the narrow streets, and our fifteen year old grandson came home at 5 a.m. pissed last night. Welcome to Spain. Again.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

All Quiet on the Western Front

I’m part way through this famous book yet when I mention it to friends they all seem to have read it yonks ago. Nevertheless I find it very moving, partly because it’s reports of raw war are recounted without an ounce of romanticism, partly because the tight descriptions kick off a note of stark reality in my mind, and maybe because the sense of essential camaraderie enforced by simple necessity rings so true.

That said, I suppose all that can be written about war has been – and has been analysed so much that it has been stripped of any mystery.
Meanwhile the Western front is anything but quiet. I try to imagine what our Chinese friends must be thinking as they see buildings and cars burning in the streets of London (assuming any of that news penetrates the Great Fire Wall - China is keen on filtering out insurrection). The Chinese believe that we live such stable, secure, well ordered and wealthy lives – and that includes those that actually have visited England. Meanwhile the rats are leaving the sinking stock exchange in a wave of blind panic that devalues perfectly healthy corporations in a sea of increasing irrationality. No doubt some in China must look on with wry self-satisfaction holding their mental “the end is nigh” placards aloft yet wondering who will buy the exports on which their current unspent wealth is built and who will pay the interest on those piles of US government bonds. We do live in interesting times.
Meanwhile the mundane seeps into my life. I once, tongue in cheek, described, in writing, my ambition as the “vain pursuit of polymathy”. I did not mean that I wished to be a reconstructed Christopher Wren (a true polymath); more that I wanted to accrue the necessary skills to survive, intellectually and practically, in a changing world. But the toilet cistern has knocked me from this pedestal. Toilet cisterns were simple once, there was little to go wrong and everything that did was easily fixed. Now the operational parts are made of plastic and are irreparable. Inventiveness has overtaken maintainability and, worse, I have to confess that I do not know how my cistern works – nor did the two plumbers to whom I showed the plastic valve assembly. They recommended that I replaced the whole mechanism with an alternative valve which, though plastic, works as the old ones used to do.
What’s my point? If western civilisation is teetering on the edge of a precipice what are the chances of survival if the toilets cease to work and are irreparable? OK that seems extreme, but think about it. What can you repair now? Your car probably has a tiny computer controlling the engine functions etc, your mobile is packed full of impenetrable integrated circuits and so is your TV and radio, and your toilet is full of plastic bits that cannot be fixed. What’s more your fridge is probably a sealed unit and your washing machine is electronically control and so packed that even replacing a belt is a task that requires robotic arms. Don’t worry though, the power stations will quickly shut themselves down so no electrical device will work anyway and you will be quite unable to recharge the battery of your mobile which wouldn’t work anyway because the entire mobile system has failed. Ah, dystopia here we come.
Meanwhile I’m off to Spain. Is that a good idea? It may be. I will be working on my stone hut which has no electricity (until I install a solar panel at some time), and when it’s finished I will be able to sit inside whilst the Spanish economy crumbles around me- if it hasn’t collapsed before that. They call it “la crisis” over there. I just hope that “la crisis” hasn’t damped the Spanish appetite for partying. It’s fiesta time when we arrive: four of five days of fun, frolic and music (electricity supply allowing).