Saturday, December 31, 2011

Antibes, day three

The amazing thing about being here (well, just being here is amazing ...) is that we can get up in the morning and say things like: 'Let's go the Cannes today'. Which is what we did.
It is very Princess Diana of us I have to say: 'my life is so hard, I really need to go and unwind in the South of France.' Well, bring it on. The south of France is rock and roll.
So to Cannes we went. We drove - even though you can easily catch a train. It seemed like a good idea. Cannes is about 30 minutes down the road from us, but about a million miles away from Antibes in terms of attitude and atmosphere.
We instructed Samantha to take us to the centre of Cannes. For reference, the technical centre of Cannes is the top of a squat hill, with a fort. So then we asked her to take us to the nearest carpark. She obligingly did.
We knew that things were not quite right in Cannes when we were beamed into the carpark by a dayglo Bruce Willis, circa 1989. Hmmm, this could get ugly.
Cannes is windy. Somehow, in Antibes, we are somewhat sheltered from the Mistral. At least I think it is the Mistral. We walked past a square in Cannes called Square Mistral so I assume that the wind must be the Mistral. Anyway ...
We wandered away from Bruce and around the marina and down to the beach. Here, I believe we probably took a misstep, and perhaps should have walked to the other beach, but no matter. Kids are always happy on a beach regardless of a wind that threatens to tear the clothes off your body, and fills your eyes with sand. They were happy. So we walked for some way down the beach and dodged waves and bathed in the sunshine (it was another spectacular day, despite the wind).
It was the French lunch hour and the children are now sensitive to this - so sensitive we could sell them as some kind of divining rod. But there was no where that offered the plates we all wished for (Zelda wanted lasagne badly, Myles was hot on salmon, Niccolo was wedded to a hamburger, and Paris and I were neutral). We left the main drag that runs along the beach and found our way into the tiny alleyways that we have fallen in love with in these southern towns. And here we found a little place with a madame who was fierce and sorted us out in moments. Myles, feeling adventurous, ordered mussels. And half a litre of wine. Happy days.
It was a lovely lunch with everyone happy with their orders, the wine thinning my blood nicely and a very interesting conversation between the members of the party about which, if any, discipline could adequately explain the beginning of the universe. Interesting perspectives from all, including the smallest.
We rose late from the table, and made our way, with tiny diagonal detours every now and again, down a couple of alleyways. This was a lively part of the town and there were no cars, so it made it a pleasure to walk about. Happy holiday makers everywhere, more languages being spoken than actual French and a surprising number of Australian accents. We weren't game to actually strike up a conversation with any of them, but it was homely to hear them.
Then we came out of a side street and suddenly we were in LA, with traffic and gallons of rubbish blowing in the air and our faces, andwe were immediately disoriented. How does anyone (or any govenment) ruin a city so comprehensively with this kind of town planning? Why you would put practically a freeway through a sleepy little town is anyone's guess.
Suddenly we were all desperate to get the hell out of there. Surely the south of France wasn't this - surely if we wanted to experience all the dubious joys of LA, we should in fact go to LA. So we edged off the freeway and back down the alleyway that reminded us momentarily of somewhere serene, and then fled to Bruce's smiling face. On the way, we discovered a market full of junk (I guess, it might be termed Trash and Treasure, but only theoretically). This sure as hell was LA, and the French are mad if they think that this is a good thing.
We drove out of Cannes and discovered the other half of the beach, which actually looked nicer, though also windy, and the chichi part of town with Chanel and Louis Vuitton and whatnot, including a designer called FRED. We liked this FRED very much as we drove past him. More power to him.
We were not turned towards home however. I was determined to take a bit of a pilgrimage to a little beach at Cap d'Antibes (not far from us actually) called Plage de la Garoupe. This little beach, according to moderately reliable historical sources, is the beach at which the mania (which we can tap today) for summer bathing (rather than winter retreat from the cold of the north) began. Now this can be disputed, I'm certain. But what can't be disputed is that on this beach, some of the most interesting artists and people of the early twentieth century set up beach umbrellas and basked in the sun for most of the 1920s. Yes, the Fitzgeralds came here and had a villa up on the hill, and yes, it was here that Scott Fitzgerald wrote the lion share of The Great Gatsby. It was here that Ernest Hemingway was 'lured' (according to his account in A Moveable Feast), where his son Jack caught something like whooping cough (perhaps not, but something that was contagious and for which he needed to be quarantined) and Pauline Pffifer came down to help and stole Ernest away from his idyllic love with Hadley. Ernest was always being lured. The man apparently had no will of his own. Also on the beach was Picasso. But most importantly (well, not for me necessarily; it was enough that Zelda was once there) was the Murphys.
The Murphys - Sara and Gerald - 'invented' the craze for summer bathing and doing it in the French south. They were Americans - rich ones of course - who had left the States to explore something new. They were both quite forward thinkers for children of the bourgeois East Coast, and were immediately enchanted by the art they saw in Paris. Gerald was supposed to have said, after seeing Picasso's work: 'If that is painting, then I want to do it.' Well, you can say that stuff when you are the heir to the Mark Cross luggage empire.
The Murphys were legendary. They quickly made their way into the very heart of brilliant, artistic Paris and then coaxed them all south. They settled on Cap d'Antibes and the Plage de la Garoupe in particular. Gerald raked the beach each morning (to free it of the millions of pieces of wood that scatter the beaches here like a plague), set up all the things one might need to bathe with. And then, the group would retire to their villa - The Villa America - for cocktails. Gerald's cocktails were secret and apparently heaven (and possibly lethal). 'The juice of a few flowers' was the way he described them. The Murphys made living an art form. They were both painted by Picasso, and photographed by Man Ray. I was a bit taken by Sara when I was younger. Those of you who knew me then might remember that for several years I wore pearls down my back. That is what Sara was famous for. I stole shamelessly from her.
Their life didn't end well. The twenties were a smash for them, but as the decade turned the corner, and the world went black, so did their lives. They had three kids - two boys and a girl - who they doted on. The boys however, through the thirties, both died; one of TB and the other unexpectedly of something odd; meningitis I think. The Mark Cross empire went into decline and Gerald had to return to America to salvage it. He gave up painting (which he had taken up after seeing Picasso's work, and had had some success). There was great sadness all round. I often wondered if they lost their sense of life and fun because of this, but I was reading about them on the internet during the last few days and something he said in the 1960s made me think that through everything, they were probably still great fun. After Hemingway published A Moveable Feast in which he roundly attacks the Murphys, Gerald was recorded as saying; ''What a strange kind of bitterness -- or rather accusitoriness . . . . What shocking ethics! How well written, of course.'' You have to love that.
There are great websites dedicated to the Murphys and a biography called Everybody Was So Young (I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it). The photos of them are incredible.
So ... that was where we were going.
Samantha took us the coast road and nothing could prepare us for how incredibly beautiful the whole area is. The day was shining like it had been polished and the water winked blue and bright at us. We drove through a little township called Juan les Pins, the perfect antidote to the dirty silliness (or the silly dirtiness) of Cannes - this was all about the water and the light and everything was serene and little and perfect. We didn't stop - I was impatient - but perhaps another time. Then we went around a few bends and we were clearly in depths of weathly private villaness. There were houses that rose and fell like a giant breathing and Sam told us to turn into a driveway - we must obey her - but then had to back out licketty split. There weren't EXACTLY well trained dogs snapping at our wheels, but they were there spiritually.
Then suddenly (again) we were at Cap d'Antibes, and we were turning down the Blvd de la Garoupe and there was the sign to the Plage de la Garoupe. I was beside myself.
It is the tiniest beach you might ever imagine, about as big as the beach that was in front of the Pelican (when it was still there) at Sorrento front beach. It is ringed with horrible, tatty beach bistros (closed for the season) and choked with wood. Who cares? Geniuses once sat here together and got skin cancer. Chatted about their writing, drank copious amounts of whatever, painted, posed for pictures, laughed. Swam. Played with their kids. Were absolutely and unassailably  human.
Zelda and I walked up the beach together. The boys discovered the wood and began sword fights. We then walked around to the point and stared out to sea. The water was indigo and violet. And again I wondered about why we ascribe so much to the land (ancient, historical, important) and the water - restless but ever present - is somehow always new and fresh. I guess it is renewed, but I like to think that Zelda Fitzgerald (who loved swiming more than almost anything else she did) swan in this water, and looked across to Nice as we did now, and thought happy thoughts.
The place made me so happy. I want to walk back there - it is not so far from us here.
As the sun disappeared, we walked back to the car and made our way home. It was literally five minutes to our apartment by car. So close, so very close.
We spread ourselves out over the furniture. It was early to bed.


Friday, December 30, 2011

Antibes, day two

Before the 1920s, the French Riviera was a winter resort where those of means from the north would come for the mellow weather of the south. I guess it is a little like going to Queensland. And you can see why. At least you can this year. We have been reliably informed that this time last year, the weather was so bad, there was talk of cancelling jaunty caps and cafes with terraces. Happily, this year, we don't have to worry about such things. The sky tingles with sun, and there is action, and food, and wine flowing through every terrace you could imagine. And jaunty hats at every corner.
I thought I knew nothing about Antibes - I had booked the place in a vague panic sometime between Paris and Bacelona when we realised we had no where to stay for these dates. It had been surprisingly difficult to find somewhere to rent (well, perhaps not; we are running to a budget after all, and there is five of us, one of whom is eight. So ...), and this place, in Antibes, came up for the right price and with the right space. Originally we had wanted to stay in Cassis but it had fallen through not once, but twice. So, I thought I was flying blind. But as we walked around the town today, some things began to click for me. Firstly, there is a Picasso Museum, and along the mini cliff walk, there are reproductions of paintings and snappy little descriptions. Hmmm. Could this be the place that the Murphys enticed luminaries like the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways to come and stay and, in fact, where Fitzgerald wrote (actually WROTE) The Great Gatsby? Turns out, YES! Nice play for the Thomas Hardy coincidence of the year. More about this tomorrow when we make a pilgrimage to said sites.
For today, we were still getting our bearings. The town, last night when Myles and I had driven around looking for an open shop from which to purchase vital supplies for terrifyingly hungry children, did not look like much. In fact, we thought we had seen most of it as we streaked past the Christmas lights and the depressingly closed shops. 'Small town,' Myles had said. 'We'll have to get our jollies in Cannes or Nice or Monte Carlo.'
Regardless, we felt we should give the town its due on foot. So we took the kids down to the foreshore, or as close as we could get, which wasn't very, and then across to the town. It was a revelation. After you pass under the Christmas lights, red carpets begin to appear (not making this up) and then you are plunged into a township that is part crazy Barcelona, and part elegant French, and all soft colours and pretty shutters and little alley ways you duck under archways to go down. There are not one, but two markets; one is a clothing thing and the other a food market (which we were too late to see, but plan to visit as soon as possible; I bet the food is great.) On the side of this market however, which is a covered market and is called Marche Provincale, is an olive oil shop with about dozens of urns filled with oil and you can buy it by the quarter, half or whole litre. How great. A few pieces of coin and I have my supply for the time we are here. Very civilized.
We went down to the public beach; very small (I guess there is another one around, but we couldn't find it), full of sticks and wood (why? West coast American beaches are the same; full up to pussy's bow with wood. On one memorable outing with Paris down to Santa Cruz, we arrived to find that ruddy great tree trunks had washed up on the beach. And all-American teenagers continued their games of beach volley ball around them - mad). The children who were on the beach, and there was a decent amount as the weather is glorious, were not making sandcastles, but weird stick castles that involved plunging a series of sticks in a fence-like structure and then building on that. I thought that sandcastles were a universal concept; turns out - non.
Lots of loving couples, all nut brown from skiing no doubt, were cuddled up on the sand, or by the breakwater. Across the way, there were people fishing with huge lines, and all around us the Mediterranean danced and laughed and made us thirsty for a swim. In June.
Paris got into his head that he wanted a ice cream (it was that kind of weather - we were in tee shirts), but we wanted to walk around a bit more. So he decided on an experiment - he would behave like a princess and see how long it took us to cave. Turns out, no time at all. 'I wanna ice cream! I wanna ice cream! Strawberry ice cream! Why won't you get me one?! Why is Dad wearing an orange raincoat? It's crap, so ugly! Why do you have to be so mean to me?!' Wow. I'm grateful that he isn't really like that. He would be long dead. He did get his ice cream, and was smug about his experiment.
We met a dog. I patted it.
In the deepening afternoon sun, we found ourselves in an open space, right on the water, where older blokes and one woman, were playing bocce like demons. There was a kind of system here; one bloke was set up in front of the public toilets with a chair and table and he, apparently, was taking the money from those who wished to play. I'm not sure if there was a gambling component to this, but it was very watchable.
There is a whole knee, swivel and then UP and THROW the silver ball. And then the exclamations. 'Ah. Non. Bon soir.' Older people playing games and not in a twilight homes; now that is great. And all chatting and catching up. I'm sure there is less depression here than at home, just because of this - and generally people making proper time to see others, to spend time talking (take the lunch hour for example); in bars, at home, walking, or playing bocce.
When the sun was at our backs and ripping through the sea, the air was warm. But as the sun disappeared, the air chilled immediately. It was time to go home. Just as the sun was slipping away, we slipped into our front door, turned on the heaters and settled in. There is no TV here (well, there is, but it is in French and the only thing that the kids have found to watch is a French version of Funniest Home Videos which they love), so Zelda went off to read Dracula, Niccolo knitted and Paris watched some maths thing on Youtube. I read. Myles did something else (Youtube too?). Two hours of quiet and peace.
Then it was 'OMG, we're hungry!' So it was cooking like mad (made much easier by the ready to eat stuff in the shops, excellent salads ready to go, cooked beetroot all cut and dressed, grated carrot dressed - who knew that would be good, but it is - steak, and fabulous bread).
Chess for some after dinner. Bubble bath for me (my bones still ache from skiing and that damned ROD).
All in all, sign me up.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Carcassonne, day eight; Antibes, day one

Moving day; we have grown to hate these days with a passion. The packing up, the throwing out, the finding stuff you needed three days ago and wonder whether you will ever need it again - to pack or not to pack? Cleaning the place, remembering where to put the key for the owner. Leaving before the designated time (10am? Not possible.) It is clear to us, however, that moving day with a car is much better than moving day on the train. We have not had a car since our first day in Paris - about three weeks ago - and have moved around via trains since. This can be fun, of course; you can read on a train and sleep on a train, but it is also tiring and stressful and timetabled by sadists (11pm trains, anyone?). So we had our snug car for this journey.
Myles had picked up the car from Carcassonne airport and had fought with the car hire people who wanted to give him a small hatchback although he had booked a stationwagon - apparently they are in the same 'class'. So he had to pay extra for a seven seater thingy. Nice; annoying.
It is powder blue for those of us who like to 'see' things.
Amazingly, we managed to pack everything into our suitcases and get them all in the car. Myles cannot see out of the back window for love or money, but he is used to this now. At least the kids no longer have to sit on miscellaneous cases, and I don't have to crook over like a hinge with my knees under my chin so that the other cases can occupy the space under the dashboard. Small wins.
We said goodbye to Carcassonne, cranked Samantha up to take us to Avignon (our first stop before we stepped up the pace onwards to Antibes) and settled in for the drive.
This countryside - just here in the far west of France, close(ish) to the Spanish border, reminds me strangely of Australia (here I'm taking about the Languedoc-Roussillon region, rather than that of the Atlantic side). The soil is burnt solid by tough sun, and the trees are spindly and spiky; to survive here you really need to stick your elbows out fully. I'm describing here the native vegetation. That which is planted and cultivated is mostly vines. Lots of wine. In the north, when we were driving about, foggy with the stories of the world wars, the fields were all about root vegetables.
The landscape reminded me so much of Australia, I started to think about the writers who has speculated on what Australia's landscape (and particularly her food supply) might have been like had it not been the English who colonised Australia, but some one else, someone like the French. Marion Halligan particularly wrote about this in Eat My Words. She thinks that the French might have known how to husband the landscape more gently, would have use the local fauna for food rather than import the hard hooved roasting beasts. I can see this here, paddocks that look a little like rooms with thick hedges ringing them to protect the land. Michael Symons wrote about Australia and the problem of not having a peasant population in One Continuous Picnic - and how this affected what we used the land for, and how we thought about food. Perhaps the French would have imported the concept of the peasant and held on to it longer. Danielle Clode wrote about the French and Australia in Voyages to the South Seas and how Australia interested them in a scientific sense rather than a colony - but they were very intrigued by the flora and fauna; wanted to study it. Empress Josephine even had an Australian garden at Mal Maison. You can see how the peasants from the South West of France might have had an inkling into farming most of Australia. But not to be.
So we drove through hard light and tough land. The day was dazzling and we felt blessed.
As we drove on, we came through Arles and I began to think about Elizabeth David and her writing about the Camargue, a remarkable marsh land that houses birds up the wazoo and mysterious white horses. She was writing in the 1960s when the French government was busy draining these lands and planting rice fields every where. This has ceased from what I can work out, and the marsh lands are now protected. From what we could see from the motorway - much of the land is used agriculturally. But nice to know that the white horses can still pick their way through the salty, damp land at will.
We pulled into Avignon at about 1pm. We had tried to book a place to stay here, but had had no luck in finding an apartment. Now we had arrived, we were sad we only had a few hours. It looks like the French version of Bath (another place we were sad not to have stay longer in). The old city, where the Popes held court in the fourteenth century, is all stone and light yellow or dark yellowy browns. Little cobbled streets everywhere. The city square with a clock on which there are figures that perhaps dance on the hour or something; the obligatory Christmas market - we are less impressed by this now - pigeons everywhere. We had lunch - a sad affair at a sad pizza place. The less said really.
And then we walked the streets and up past the Pope's Palace, into the gardens that hang above this. The day was as clear as a bell - you could practically hear the air ringing, and the park was full of people wandering or hiring these little horse and carriages for children that they powered around the park using pedals. See the pictures at the end of this post.
But we had little time. We had to meet our host at the apartment in Antibes at 6pm, and there were still two and a half hours to go. We have promised to come back here - along with swimming in Barcelona and more time in Bath, we have quite a full itinerary for our next trip - and off we went.
As we went futher east, the air changed again. The flat dry air that we saw between Carcassonne and Avignon now mellowed and lilac and lavendar air filled the sky. You could catch this air with a fine butterfly net if you chose. I can see why Provence has such a reputation. This is no elbows akimbo, survival at all costs place; this is (and quite suddenly) all scented gardens and flighty romance.
The sun was settling and there were a million versions of purple and pink in the sky. We had hoped to see the sea before the dark settled, but didn't.
We careered into Antibes with seconds to spare and met our host who took us through the apartment. It is huge with enough bedrooms for some segregation, two toilets (oh joy!) and a separate shower room. There is a fully equiped kitchen. Bliss. From our bedroom window we can see the sea. Or at least we were told this by our host, but it was too dark to confirm.
I think this will suit us just fine. Perhaps the glamorous South of France is just our pace.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Carcassonne, day seven

The south(ish) of France is all about the beaches - in some ways - but there is skiing to be had too, up in the Pyrenees. It was not too far from us; about an hour and a half away. Much closer than any snow field I've ever been to in Australia. Distance is a concept that changes depending on the culture your are brought up in. I think most Australians feel little anxiety about taking long journeys, but I've been reading some Bill Bryson (Notes from a Small Island) and he tells stories about the English and their inability to come to terms with anything much further than their own set of shops. As he says, the distances that 'most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your [English] companions would puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, blow out air as if to say, "Well, now that's a tall order."' So my point is that perhaps a hour and a half would put some off, but we were equal to it.
Having said that, Myles was determined we leave early enough so we were roused at 7am (a time few of us have seen since England) and made to get in the car by 8am. The children were as sweet as you might imagine. We drove through some very pretty countryside, and then we were heading up into a long, jagged mountain range with snow on every side. We talked long and seriously about the Tour de France and how they ride through the Pyrenees and how that must be a bummer, and where each of us would be spitting blood had we had to take a bike upwards (I gave up earliest; I predicted blood spitting at the first sign of a gradient). And before long, we were in a ski resort with slopes and tows and shops that lent you all the stuff you might need.
Hmmm. So there were tow tickets, and then there were boots, and skis and poles and pants. The French don't hire pants. This was looking bad for Myles, Paris and I who had no pants (well, we had pants but they were track suit pants and one spill on the slopes and we would be Frosty the Snowman. Oh well, we hoped not to fall.) Zelda and Niccolo had pants Myles had bought in Australia at some sale. So they were fine.
What is it about ski boots? Perhaps they are designed only for movement, and if you stop, you suffer. This does not take into account those of us who ski in a very limited way and are also responsible for small children who also ski in a limited way. There is much standing around in boots in this scenario. My feet were shrieking very early on in the piece. Medieval torture really missed an opportunity by not inventing ski boots to get prisoners to talk. I would have sung like a canary about pretty much anything after about an hour of this horror. But I digress.
Myles and Paris went up the more difficult slope to scope out the options. Zelda, Niccolo and I hung around on the beginning slope to get our confidence up. If only.
The tow on the beginners slope was a Rope of Death. The Rope of Death was a thick, corded rope that would tow you up the short slope on a continuous loop. So you just grabbed it and theoretically, it would take you up. However, the Rope of Death was also very slippery which made it hard to hold, and at steeper points in the slope, you would hover in one place as the rope went on without you, sliding through your gloved hand, and all the people behind you would be sheared off as they hit the back of you. Niccolo hated it; I tried to put him in front of me and go up that way; it just meant that we became a blockage very early on in the piece (see the final photo in this post for an illustration of a parent trying to help a child, and how thankless it appears. It is.). Zelda hated it because she could get some traction, but idiots like Niccolo and I kept knocking her off. When we did finally make it to the top - sweating and having lost our poles on the way up - it was quite nice to ski the hundred metres back to the starting point. We only managed to do this a few times before it all went very wrong, and the three of us, bad mooded and in physical pain, refused to do it anymore.
Myles and Paris came back and took Zelda up the slopes with them. I remained with Niccolo. We tried the ROD again. This time there were some actual casualties. There had to be another way.
My legs, by this point, were shaking like volts of electricity were being shot through them and I worried that my feet may have developed gangrene. I suggested we take a load off. And have a wee. This was the most successful part of the day thus far.
We watched Zelda and Myles come down the steep slope together. It looked kinda of bad; Zelda cutting a gash into the side of the mountain as she snow ploughed determinedly down. She refused to go back up.
The good news was that Paris and Myles had found what they thought might be another beginners' slope. I had decided by this time to hand my skis in and to walk around in my expensive, American duck boots and help Niccolo and Zelda. There were too many clowns for this circus to work.
It turned out that the there was another beginners' slope up the hill a little. The only access was a poma. Anyone see the flaw in this plan? I tried to explain the concept to Zelda and Niccolo. Paris would ride the poma ahead of them, Myles behind. What could go wrong?
Paris got away and was steaming up the mountain. But Zelda was caught. There is little assistance on ski lifts here; you kinda have to do it yourself. She got on, and fell off immediately. Not knowing what to do next, she held on for grim death and was dragged up the mountain, hip grinding the snow away, the skis jangling and jolting behind her and a thousand French men yelling at her (we presume they were yelling 'let go!' but they could just have easily been yelling 'leave some snow for the rest of us!'). Finally, she fell half way up. Next up was Niccolo. He grabbed the poma and held it above his head. And went up thusly. Again with the thousands of voices screaming. His fight with the poma ended at about the same spot as Zelda's. Meanwhile, Paris had seen what had happened and he had dismounted and skiied down to help. And Myles came up in the other direction and dismounted to help. There were arms and legs and skis akimbo. No one could get passed for ages. Then, one by one, they returned to the bottom of the mountain.
Zelda refused to go back up. Niccolo couldn't wait to have another go. Paris was torn. In the end, Paris, Myles and Niccolo went back up the mountain (I heard later that it took another four attempts to get Niccolo to the top. The poma is a cruel mistress and should have no part in a beginner's experience in the snow.). Zelda and I sat it out for a while and then she went back to the original beginners' slope and the ROD. Paris went off by himself to ski the more difficult runs. And eventually, Myles and Niccolo returned triumphant.
I suggested that Niccolo, who was shaking with exhaustion and cold, and Zelda who was considering mass murder, return their skis and come and drink something hot. Myles and Paris continued to ski, but by this time the sun was way behind the mountains and everything was a bit shadowy.
Skiing; hmmm. Treat or torture?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Carcassonne, day six

It was time to lay seige to the castle. We had been in Carcassonne a decent, long time and had only really spent a short time at the restored castle - and eating at that.
It is difficult to convey how the castle/fort/wall citadel thing looks in this town. The castle is really huge and high up and the actual town, where most of the residents live, is below and beyond the castle. We are just under the castle, in the street that runs beside it so we are officially 'old town'. The new town is over the bridge from us, and we spend a good amount of time there as that is where the Christmas festivities have been held.
But today we would turn our heads from the commerce of the new town, and to the history of the castle above us. The kids were keen to bring weapons. I kinda put the brakes on this plan; it was to be a seige of the soul rather than the bricks.
The day was incredible, blue skies and misty golden sun. We have been unbelievably blessed with weather on this trip. I'm thinking that this is our family's very mild super power and we should exploit it. Perhaps charge for good weather when we arrive and so on.
We managed to leave the house at 11am (almost a record ...) and into the castle we went. When you walk over the bridge (I guess that once it was a draw bridge), you enter a township (a bit like Mont San Michel) where there are shops and presumably once had housing. There are hotels in here too. And then there is another wall that protects the castle. It is now guarded by a cashier and roped areas that organise tourists lines. But once ... once it was guarded by fierce knights with boiling oil and arrows.
We paid our pennies and in we went.
Apparently Carcassonne was close to a ruin in the nineteenth century and there were plans to pull it down. And then, a saviour. Viollet-le-Duc (famous for having restored Notre Dame) took it as a project and decided to bring it back to its former ... not glory so much, as fierceness. It was (is) a symbol of power and strength and is not like the chateaux we have seen elsewhere, which were often about architecture and exquisite finishing. This is more rough hewn (more Spanish I guess, and it did once sit on the border of France and Spain, so that makes sense). The tour of the castle (self guided) takes you through some of the towers that ring the castle and look out over the lands around. It is amazingly high up - kind of shockingly actually - and then you can walk the ramparts and imagine that you are on the watch, with a pot of boiling oil (this somehow appeals to me, who can say why) and what it might be like to see an army coming across the land toward you. This happened quite a few times at Carcassonne - seiges that starved those inside.
It was, in the middle ages, the outpost for the Cathar religion (about which, I know nothing). But in the thirteenth century, the pope decided it was a religion that was becoming too powerful and authorised a crusade against the followers. This involved going to Carcassonne and getting all hot under the collar. In this case, the inmates surrendered (unlike Dame Carcas, about whom I wrote in another blog) and the royal family of France took control of Carcassonne. It became an important outpost for them. But then Carcassonne lost its appeal when the border with Spain changed, and when commerce (the new town, people) became more influential than weaponry. And then the fall into disrepair, and the rescue for history and tourists of the nineteenth century. Everything, at some stage, will become a place for tourists to get a fix on the past.
I kept thinking about The Name of the Rose when walking around. I felt this too at Mont San Michel - these places created to set limits and to keep a selected group of people removed from any surrounding community (and the problems that might breed). There are narrow alleys that take you around the town, from the church to the castle and around the commerical quarter that must be dark (and possibly dangerous in the 12th and 13th centuries) after dark, and where secrets were whispered and deals were done. Small, isolated communities and intrigue - it is inevitable. Of course, no crazy library in this citadel (and not an abbey for that matter) but still, the feeling is there, the click of the cobbles under your feet and the stones that sit at weird angles were you might stow a note or a signal to an accomplice. There was some haunted house tour we could have done - charmingly advertised by a dummy in stocks. We did not partake. Nor did we eat this time. Perhaps Elizabeth David was right about the menu prix. That cassoulet has not yet passed properly through my system.
The church was rather beautiful too, quite gothic with great stain glass windows. On a day like this one, with sun pouring like new milk, the windows were all lit up with the limpid blues and the burning reds. Niccolo decided to have a pray. I had a look at the nativity scene.
At some point, we left the castle and cidadel and headed to the city. We left this walled place, and walked through our part of the old town and across to the new town. We wanted to go from history to commerce - it seemed like the logical progression that Carcassonne herself experienced, and there might be some sales too.
Turns out, while we knew Boxing Day was an English (and her colonies) tradition, so are the Christmas sales. Myles found out later that day while riding the bus out to the airport to pick up our hire car, that sales don't begin in France (and possibly mainland Europe, though this is yet to be confirmed) until January 8. Not that we need a single thing more. As it is, I'm thinking that we won't fit what we currently have in our suitcases. It might be time for another cull.
The other thing planned for the day was a family ice-skate. This was a bust. Zelda refused point blank to put anything on her feet that might have a compulsion for unscheduled darting about, and dashing her into the ice. You could see her point on some level, but you might also think that others might not take that compulsion personally (or seriously). But she did. Paris then wavered, and then Myles said I should go, but I could see that would create a problem between the siblings, so I said I wouldn't, but that Paris should. He threw a bit of a wobbly but didn't go. There was some sulking on the part of several members of the family. Myles and Niccolo hit the ice together (pretty damn good too) while we looked on, and made up stories about the other skaters (there was the nerd family who all had glasses and were trying desperately to learn how to skate; there was the battle to the death between two siblings for one of the chairs you can have to help you skate, there was the show offy types that tore around the ice backwards with very slick hair and often left a wake of split souls on the ice behind them). Then there was Niccolo who didn't so much skate as run across the ice on the tips of his blades.
Back at home, Myles, Paris and I continued the gin rummy tournament. I'm rubbish at this game. I got caught all four times by cannier players.
Off to the laudrette to do washing - another machine that doesn't work. Grind my teeth.
University challenge was on the telly. Say no more.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Day in Carcassonne

We begin at 4.30am. Well, I do. I get up so I can see and speak with my family in Melbourne at 3pm their time. Technoloy; it can blow your mind. I was astonishing to see everyone (after Franco fixed the video cam) and to hear what they were all doing.
Then I had trouble getting back to sleep. So I did a whole lot of things to get ready for the Christmas lunch and then curled up in a chair with 'Fergie and Andrew: Behind Palace Doors' on BBC 2 in the background. At some point, Zelda woke and then woke me - and it was all systems go.
Ah, presents. We had bought presents as we travelled around and we all knew what we were getting. Except for Paris for whom we bought a Che tee shirt for in Barcelona. He hasn't removed it yet ... Zelda and I had also bought flamenco dresses when in Barcelona which were our Christmas outfits. And because we had struggled to find Christmas headwear (not entirely true but we had not bought the headwear when we had had the option, and when we went searching for it, there it wasn't ...), Zelda made headbands out of boiled lollies (the ones left over from the Christmas tree biscuits).
With our presents, and our Christmas outfits, it was time to cook and eat.
The menu was as follows:
to begin - fried eggplant, mini hamburgers, tomato relish, fried mushrooms, and good bread and butter. There was champagne (Moet, we ARE in France) and spunky little coke bottles for the kids. After this first course, which was cooked by Paris, Zelda, Myles and I, we were feeling a little full. But there was more too come (Niccolo is a noticable omission from this blog. He received an ipod shuffle for Christmas and he was thus distracted). We thought about having a break but the chicken was ready and we had to go hell for leather.
main course - roast chicken (not Breese, sadly, but free range and good), roast potatoes, roasted brussel sprouts and chorizo, tomatoes, good bread and butter. There was pain, deep pain (and I don't mean bread), in our digestive tracts. But we would forge ahead ...
dessert - brownies made by Zelda, chocolate ice-cream made by me from a series of cream products, none of which were whipping cream, and raspberry and apple crumble devised and made by Zelda and Paris. Oh! it was good; even though the ice-cream was strangely sourish.
By now, we were reeling. Bug eyed with inflamed digestive tracts and swollen midriffs. I wove dreamily towards the sofa. It was time for a sleep. Myles, however, was twirling like a panicked dervish, desperate to get the hell out of the house and go for a walk. Actually, he would have been happier going for a run. But that might have ended in some kind of terrible death situation. The kids found Kung Fu Panda on the telly. There was only smiling faces.
Our tree was stripped of its Christmas biscuits at some point.
Now, I wish there were other stories to tell you about Christmas day in Carcassonne - things like snow fights and fireworks and happy, cold faces singing carols. But I can't. There was nothing else that happened. I was paralyzed by the food and indigestion. The kids were gripped by back to back films (I can't remember what they were now, but Juno was on at some point). Myles left again at some point, desperate to digest at least one course from the lunch.
At some point, Paris, Myles and I played cards - gin rummy learned quickly off the web - with our Kings and Queens of England card set. I was hoping at some point to get Edwy, but Paris appeared to have a monopoly on the Saxon Kings. I kept getting lumped with Queen Mary - that dour fanatic.
I tried red wine for digestion. It didn't help but it did numb the pain a little.
We crawled into bed, praying - in a kind of agnostic manner - for the food to find another stomach to lie in.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Carcassonne, day four

OK. We were going to get out the door at a reasonable hour. I was even awake and up at 7.30am. But somehow, somewhere, we were just leaving at 11.30am. There seems to be some kind of terrifying black hole between breakfast and opening the front door. Dunno how to cure it.
Niccolo and Myles were going to ice skate on the large rink in the middle of town. Zelda, Paris and I had wimped out on it. To make my own wimp out complete, I wore a skirt and stockings - no way that one could really get on the ice in such a costume.
Going relatively early in the morning is a good idea. When we have watched the rink after 5pm, it is seething with smart alecs in their own skates. Recipe for the loss of a finger if ever I saw one. But at 12noon, it was all British families getting up and falling down around the ice. Myles and Niccolo would be safe in such company. They got on the ice immediately (there is some weird system by which you buy for the hour and luckily they had turned up right on twelve so they would get the whole hour between 12 and 1pm. Then you get chivved off the ice by security.) Around the rink was a market going on. So Myles and Niccolo booted up and Paris, Zelda and I went around shopping. We bought very good bread from the bread man (and, of course, pain au chocolat for us). They weigh bread here which I find strangely satisfying. My huge loaf was worth a mere 4 euros. Bargain. Then we had to get churros and chocolat chaud to fortify us. And then I needed to get brussel sprouts. Myles is insistent upon this and the super market trip of yesterday failed to find them. The oldest woman in the working world  had a crate of them. She gave me a basket and I filled it. And then we waited while she made her way around to the other side of the counter. And waited and waited. She wasn't or couldn't move too fast. It was lucky we had supplies really. But then she made it to her scales and weighed our modest basket. A handful of change and we were away.
Then it was great fun and serious laughter watching Niccolo and Myles on the ice (and others). Myles was surprisingly graceful and upright. Niccolo ran from fence to fence in panicked postures, arms windmilling, legs twisting in all direction. And all the while, English Christmas carols serenading them. I took video; I'm hoping I can upload it, but if not, take my word for it; it was very funny.
We had to take Niccolo home immediately after they were banished from the ice. He was wet and while the skies were blue, the air was cold. I was thinking he would be an ice statue by the time we arrived home. But he wasn't.
After lunch, I had a sleep on the couch while the kids watched Horton Hears a Who on TV (in English) and laughed themselves sick. While I was notionally asleep, I was still tuned in to the laughter.
Then it was time for our afternoon walk and we did this by the canal that rings the town. Lots of fast flowing water and ducks paddling double time just to stay in the one place. Lots of people walking a host of pretty silly looking dogs. Paris and Niccolo doing ninja kicks at one another.
Then time for another ride on La Pomme for Niccolo and Zelda. At this point, Paris (most unlike him) began to complain that we had to go home. He was cold and hungry and wanted badly to be in front of the heater.
So we turned our backs on the Christmas eve pantomime (we would have had trouble understanding it anyway) and the fireworks and Christmas carols and Santa in a truck with lights that made it look like a sleigh (if you were blind) and, oddly, a Christmas turtle.
Zelda made brownies for dessert for the morrow. I made ice-cream from sour cream and thin pouring cream and a whisk I had bought for one euro from the market earlier. I'm not sure about it. It could go very wrong (or, it has gone very wrong and we just don't know about it yet ...).
Early to bed (that is 11pm, early for us now). We were all in bad moods. Headaches and grumpiness. Zelda and I had a fight and had to make it up.
Perhaps our sourness will have evaporated by Christmas day. Here's hoping.

Carcassonne, day three

Have we come to a grinding halt? Oh yes. It is partly because of Christmas and the planning the food and the shopping; but also we are strangely tired.
Myles and I left the kids at home (they were still asleep) and walked to the local hypermarche to get what we needed for Christmas day. It took us hours: why? I have no idea. But shopping for quite specific ingredients that you need to cook with is interesting. For example, how do I tell which flour is plain and which is self raising? How do I know what is icing sugar? And cream is a huge problem. I can't find cream that is for whipping. There is lots of sour cream and very thin cream, but nothing like whipping cream. So I'm experimenting for ice-cream this year. In addition, there are no measuring implements in the house, nor are there any electronic mixing things. Improvisation is a best friend. And a shockingly cruel enemy.
After spending hundreds of dollars, we had a trolley full of shopping and no way to get it home. Hmmm. So Myles walked into the local bar (yes, there are bars in supermarkets, and there are people in them drinking very early in the day) and somehow managed to ask the woman at the bar to call us a cab. Amazingly it all went well, and the cab arrived. Here is an interesting thing. Cab drivers here do all the work. The one loaded up our shopping into his boot, drove us home and then unloaded the boot and took the shopping to our front door. Shocking.
The kids were rather anxious when we came home. We had been gone for ages. And they couldn't leave the house. So we fed and watered them, and then took them back into the city for Treat Friday. Ah churros and hot chocolate from the Christmas market. Myles and Niccolo made a date to come back on the morrow for ice skating. The rest of us declined. Paris had had bad experiences on the ice in Melbourne. And I could only imagine what cold ice on a cold day might feel like. Zelda had skipped out on a birthday party because it involved roller skates. Ice skates, she saw, were infinitely worse. Then Niccolo and Zelda discovered a ride called La Pomme which was, perhaps confusingly, a catapillar and decided that they must ride it. So they did, and we watched and laughed. Kids on a ride; too cute for words. Home, dinner, reading, snuggling in front of the heater.
We have to get out more tomorrow. Really. See the castle or something. We must, we must.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Carcarssonne, day two

Could there be anything more amazing than opening your shutters (yes, we have shutters, it's a childhood dream) and seeing a medieval fort rise up like new bread before your eyes? Well, I guess that's me full up to pussy's bow. That is what we see. Our tiny house in Carcassonne faces the fort, and we can see it from our windows.
We woke. We needed food. Regardless of our next door neighbour and her late evening delivery, we still needed to shop. Myles and I went up (rather than down) for food. Interesting that up would seem more reasonable than down, but there it is. And, apparently, we were right. We found a grocery and a bakery and a butcher. We split. Myles did the grocery; I did the bakery. The butcher was something we would tackle together.
The bakery was fun. I ordered croissants and pain au chocolat, and a bagette. When I got back to the grocery, Myles was in a three way conversation with the cashier (who was Spanish) and the woman behind him who was French but spoke excellent English. 'Truly international,' as the  cashier noted.
Back at our place we watered and fed our insatiable children.
To the fort, we told them. We did have to deal with a whole drama concerning the washing machine and leaking water which delayed us. But to the fort we went.
'Somewhere between Mont Saint Michel and the Tower of London' was Zelda's appraisal. I was thinking of hiring the fort for Christmas considering our washing machine and our oven didn't work. And perhaps on my way to the fort, stealing a Christams tree. Nothing was looking good.
Turns out the fort was heavy with Christmas trees, but all were locked down. Too bad. There were shops a-plenty, and cobbled streets beside. And it was lunchtime. Inside the fort there are a thousand options to eat (more, I would wager, than medieval times, but whatever). Myles couldn't decide on what he would eat. The rest of us sat in the square and waited while he turned about and muttered to himself and wondered aloud if he might (at a pinch) eat the lamb chops. (Yes, we all silently murmured, you will.). So we ended up at at Auberge Dame Carcas. Now, for me, this was slightly ominous. It sounded too much like 'carcass'. But it turns out there is a much more charming story (really?) to this auberge and it goes like this:
In 760, "Pepin the Short", King of the Franks, took most of the south of France back from the Saracens, except for Carcassonne. True to its reputation, it remained an impregnable fortress. After a long siege, the Franks had good reason to think that the inhabitants of Carcassonne would soon starve and surrender. But Dame Carcas, the widow of the Sarrasin lord of the castle, devised a plan to save the city. She had a pig fed with the last sacks of grain the inhabitants could find. When the pig was fat enough, it was thrown over the city’s ramparts. At the sight of such a well-fed fat animal, the astonished assailants concluded that the inhabitants still had enough food in stock to stave off famine and weren’t about to surrender any time soon. And so they gave up and quickly lifted the siege. Dame Carcas rang all the bells of the city all day long to celebrate the victory. And then she collaborated with the enemy. Confusing.
Well, history aside, in we went. It was old school with faded salmon pink fixtures and bad pictures on the wall. We went for the menu prix (Elizabeth David spends many long paragraphs warning us of this, but what the hell; she can't know everything ... ).. The kids were happyish with nuggets and potatoes. Paris and I were find with the salad; Myles thought the soup good. The cassoulet (that I had secretly been gunning for the whole time) was greasy and ducky and weird (but I've tasted it ...). The lamb (according to Paris and Myles) was good.
There would be no sightseeing after this. We were shattered by the lunch. Siesta was the only possibility.
But we did drag ourselves into the city to see the Christmas ho haa. There is much ho haa here. There are markets and rides and ice rinks and hot chocolates. It was all going on.
We managed to buy a Christmas tree (the woman in the tourist office believed this to be impossible). We got liqueur and some wrapping paper. Then we walked back to our little house, across the old bridge. And on the old bridge; there the fort rose again before us in this unbelievable tableau; we could hardly cope.
Then it was some inspirational BBC cooking shows and University Challenge. How did I live before I knew about this show?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Barcelona, day eight; Carcassonne, day one

The worst day of the trip; one of the worst days any of us have ever had. I guess it is inevitable that things will go wrong; but this wrong was kind of beyond wild expectations.
Leaving Barcelona was hard. We had loved it very much and were really wishing to stay longer. Our happy ex-Yorkshire host turned up and charmed us with stories and gave us back our deposit and helped us with our luggage. The kids went off by themselves to the local cafe to eat and drink; Paris said that Niccolo's asking for the bill involved some kind of dance. The waitress apparently indulged him. She was one of the first people we had contact with in Barcelona and clearly (but indulgently) thinks that tourists are nuts. Sure.
With our stupid amount of luggage, we marched in single file and silently to the nearest metro station. When we got there, there was a hoo ha with the elevator (one woman wouldn't let us get in with her - at least that is what we thought she was saying) - and then another couple came along and made it impossible for all of us to go down together. So Zelda and I waited. When we got to the bottom, Paris was missing. His ipod was gone and he had gone back up to look for it. Vain attempt. Poor love, he was in a rage. On reconstruction, we decided that it was possible that the couple who had insisted they ride with Myles and Paris and Niccolo in the elevator might have taken it - but who could be sure? It had been in his pocket, so it was possible. It had been our present to him on his sixteenth birthday and was engraved. He didn't want to talk about it.
I had been emailing our host in Carcassonne for some days, but had received no reply. It had been the first thing we had booked and we were so excited about it. But this silence was beginning to worry me, and at every possible opportunity, I was checking my email to see if he had got back to me. There was a phone number on his website, so I had taken that too and planned to call him. But at this point we had no address, no way to get keys and, crucially, not much French. Still, we thought it might work out.
We caught the train to the border, and then the TGV to Narbonne. At Narbonne, we had to catch a local train to Carcassonne. Here we bought a phone card and called the so-called host. Number was disconnected. This was not looking good.
But still, optomistically, we persisted.
We arrived in Carcassonne at about 5pm. It was raining. With our crazy amount of luggage, we went to the nearest McDonalds. None of us had eaten since we had left Barcelona and there was serious hunger. Here I booted up the computer again; no message. Myles suggested that I go back to the original website. I did, and there was another phone number, and another name. Speaks English, said the website happily. I took this number, walked back through the rain to the station and dialled it. Yes, this was the right person. No, she spoke no English. 'Maison,' I wailed through the phone. 'Oui,' she replied. After some agonising moments of non-communication (with both her and I close to tears) I thanked her and hung up. What was going on?
Back to McDonalds. At this point, I was thinking that we book a hotel and sort it out in the morning. The only thing going for us at this point was I had paid for the house via Paypal and they had processes for complaint. I didn't know what that might look like, but it was something. Then we decided that one of us would catch a taxi to the house and see if there was anyone there. Myles drew the short straw because he has a little more French than I do (that is; none). The kids and I went back to the station. Zelda needed to use the loo. McDonalds' was shut for some reason. The loo at the station required exact change. I had a Fawlty Towers moment trying to change money at a series of counters.
Myles had said he wouldn't be long. It was now about 6.10pm. Cold and wet. We waited and waited. There was no way to contact him. Paris and I began to speculate that the taxi had left him, and he couldn't find another. We couldn't decide if he being gone for a long time was a better thing than him returning quickly. There was no wifi. And we couldn't leave.
Then suddenly at about 7pm, he turned up in a taxi and put us all in, with the luggage (a logistical nightmare). 'Do we have a house?' I asked. 'We do,' he said. 'It's a long story.' No kidding. Myles likes not to tell you things. I have no idea why. We often end up in a fight about it because then I say: 'what happened' after some silence and he gets cranky. This happened right now.
The story ended up being that Myles went to the street where the map on the website had said the house was. But no house number. He and the taxi driver drove up and down for some time, and then Myles asked the driver to call the number that I had found from the website. The same woman answered and now she began to put two and two together. Myles assumed that the cabbie told her that he had a crazy English speaking tourist in the cab looking for a house. She gave him a street number. The cab dropped him off. Myles, in the rain, was confronted not by a house, but by a large block of apartments. He started ringing bells. No answer. Then he looked around and found a house that looked very much like the house on the website. He rang the bell there. No answer. Just as he was walking away to look for a cab and return to the station, a window opened in the apartment block. A woman put her head out. Told him to wait.
She came down and he showed her all the documents that we had about the house. She gave him a key and let him in. From sign language and some words in common, Myles established that the person through whom I had booked the house was no longer. We are still not sure what this means. There is, however, a new owner/manager.
Once we were all inside, I went back to the original website and emailed into the ether hoping that the new manager/owner would get back to me. We had no idea if the booking would be honoured or if we would have to leave.
Upstairs I was sitting on the bed, very sad, when the doorbell rang. Niccolo opened it. It was the next-door neighbour. In she came with a whole load of food supplies for us. God she was kind. Bread and cheese, and ham and tea, orange juice and milk. Paris and I were in tears. She made us promise we would come and knock on her door and tell her that we were OK in the morning. She told me that she would drive me to the supermarket when I needed it.
As we were making tea, the phone rang. It was the new owner - who had got my email. He was not in France, but was all apologies. He knew about us, but the previous owner had not given him any details, including contact details. Because I had a contact, it didn't occur to me to go back through the original website.
Good people caught in an idiotic situation. He promised that he would honour the booking and wished us well.
I went to bed with a crushing headache but at least some sense of calm.

Barcelona, day seven

It is our last full day in Barcelona. We are truly sad and sorry that we did not book to stay at least two weeks here. But we are already talking and planning to come back, perhaps in the summer months (that is; their summer months). But what to do on the last day?
Myles was prepard to use force to get us all out of bed before ten so that we could really enjoy the day. So we found ourselves outside our front door and walking to Paral-lel to catch the funicular tram to the Joan Miro museum. I have never heard of the world funicular before this, and now it is every second kind of transport we catch. The things that you are blind to ...
Miro, perhaps after Chagall, is my favourite artist. But after the reception that the Picasson museum got from the kids, I was less than really thrilled to be spending long hours looking at painting and sculpture with them. Too bad.
This museum, like the Picasso one, is an amazing collection of work that track Miro's life from his first works to his last. And the museum (again like Picasso) has a really readable and interesting narrative that connects each room and tells you in detail about his life and the influences throughout the years (and, let's face it, the wars). I was so excited to see The Farm in the first room. Not that I had ever seen it, and I didn't really love it when I did, but it was the painting that Hemingway and Hadley had bought by borrowing money from everyone they knew and then, after they had bought it, found that it didn't fit into the taxi and they had to hold it out of the roof (?) from memory - like a sail. This was when Hemingway was optomistic about the world, before the evil pilot fish of John Dos Passos guided him away from his 'innocent' life with Hadley and into the corrupt world of 'others'. That's Hem's story anyway. Approach with caution.
The painting are so wonderful in the museum, angry and funny - some of them surprisingly like Leunig stuff. Some so sad; huge canvases with one black and drifting line through it. And, in my defence, the kids liked this one much more. Paris quite likes the narrative of the Spanish Civil War so that interested him, the others quite liked looking at the paintings and trying to guess what was in them - Niccolo was amazingly successful at this. We would look at a painting together and I would say: 'what do you see?' He would say: 'a bird' (which I didn't see at all) and then I'd look at the title of the painting and it would say something like 'Bird in Flight'. Kids get this stuff so much more than adults. We are too busy worrying about what me might miss. They just respond. There was this tiny kid in one of the rooms sitting in front of one of the paintings, and drawing in his own book. So sweet.
We then went into the historical gift shop and bought some stuff. Zelda finally decided on a Christmas present in the shop; hooray! Something for under the tree at last ...
Joan Miro, by the way, changed the spelling of his name (or embraced the spelling of his name) from Juan to Joan which is the Catalan spelling. The subversive nature of the Catalan language was one of his inspirations and it made me think very much about how language can be subversive, particularly one that is in direct competition with the 'official' language - Spanish. Everything in Barcelona is written in both Spanish and Catalan and all announcements are also done in both languages. And here is a fun fact. Christmas in Spanish is Navidad. But Christmas in Catalan is Nadal. So many cute jokes to be made now.
Anyway, to the subversive nature of language. So important for identity, language is - this is what I teach my students in English Language. How language both constructs us, but allows us to construct. Having a whole alternative language that runs counter to official language is a powerful weapon. I'd like to read more about the history of the Catalan language. It was banned at stages, and then revived. Miro, by making his name a marker within this identity war, kept a candle alive in the language even through the bad times. He, by the way, chose to return to Spain during the Second World War when, by all accounts, he probably should have fled to the US. I think he was very brave.
There is a series of paintings that he did late in his life that were burned and then exhibited. The effect is amazing because you look at these paintings (which are quite in tact) but then you see through them, into something else; a wall, someone walking behind them. And they throw shadows that are both creepy and compelling.
All in all, a great couple of hours.
After we left, we walked to the old Olympic stadium that was used in 1992. Apparently, it was initially built for the games of 1936 but the Civil War had put the brakes on that. So they revived it for 1992. Myles did some nice posing with a bow and arrow (imaginary) for the camera.
We wandered back to the city, around some incredible buildings and fountains. I was looking for another museum that was exhibiting costumes and props from the Ballet Russes. We think we found the place, but we couldn't find a door. (True story.) By this time, Myles and I were enjoying telling Paris all the stories about the Olympic games we could remember - particularly about East German athletes and the scary East German judges. Niccolo and Zelda played sword fighting around us.
I haven't written properly about the market in Barcelona that is just off La Ramblas. It is one of the best food markets I have ever seen, not just that the food is good, but everything looks so beautiful. We bought supplies for lunch and went home to cook them. What a feast for our last day. Paris made tomato relish, we had chorizo (hot) and hamburgers, and salads, and garlic mushrooms, and excellent bread and red wine, and to finish; raspberries and chocolate. It was time for a nap.
After our nap, we caught the metro to the beach (funny, we hadn't done the beach yet) and it was here that we made up our minds to come back some hot summer and lounge here for some time. Then we walked right around the waterfont and back to La Ramblas. Niccolo was in tears by this point (over tired) so we ice-creamed them up and took them home.
Myles and I went out for our last drinks. We went to a bar called Mirinda which has excellent chairs and is right next to a crazy series of drawings of cats. There I had beer and he had some kind of vodka drink with lots of lime juice and ice. In our desire to stay longer and enjoy it, we drank way too much.
We were on our way to suffering acutely on the worst possible day; moving day.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Barcelona, day six

We have fallen in love with this city.
Myles had been gazing at a lonely, lit up church on the hill that was visible from our place and La Ramblas (where we spend stupid amounts of after dark time). He had begun to pine for this church, become desperate to see it. Turns out, all he needed to do was go to the tourist office and have a chat with a charming man there. He did so. And we were committed to going up a hill. Today.
I have to confess that Spain has made us (and by us; I mean the kids and me) lazy. We love that we wake up late and know that nothing will be open until ten anyway. We love that we look out our windows and know that the sun will be up in the blue sky and smiling at us. We know that there is all the time in the world. Myles doesn't know that yet.
So we were chivvied and chuffed out of bed and made to put on warm clothes (note this: the warm clothes business, it will feature later) and told to turn right. We were going to our local metro station and then to Catalunya where we would catch the special train into the sky.
The special train (the brown line, I think, number seven) was surprisingly short. And then, we were very north of the city (much further north than Park Guell) and near the mountain on which the church Myles had pined for was planted. But there was more news than just a church. It turns out that there was some kind of theme park on the hill - rides and what not. Possibly popcorn and fudge. Curiouser and curiouser.
From the metro we walked up the hill. On weekends, and in summer, you can catch a tram, but it was Monday and winter. We walked.
The weather was different here; the wind was cold. Paris and Zelda (both who had ignored Myles' warm clothes directive) were beginning to shrink into their jumpers. Hmmm. Even here, out in the suburbs, the residents live in medium or high density housing. Better for the services. There were some castle like houses (perhaps the very rich like it here), but I like that the city is the city. You live in high density situations. You expect good services. There are some public spaces. This is how it is.
Up and up we walked. When we got to the (first) top, we paused. This was where the funicular tram took you to the top but it had not yet begun its run (it now being about 11am and the tram was to commence at 11.45am). Myles was all for walking to the top. I put my foot down. Hard. There would be no walking up a mountain for which we had no map and no path. We would, however, go happily into Mirableu (the local cafe) and have hot chocolate. We sat right in the window with a view over Barcelona and in the sun. I was close to having a lovely nap face first into the hot chocolate.
Then we went to the funicular tram. It was there. Waiting. But the driver was also the ticket seller was also the ticket collector and he had decided that he was no longer (as we wandered in), selling tickets. So we waited for the next one. It came quite quickly.
And up we went.
At the top, we discovered it was cold. And not just a little cold. Really cold.
Those who had not heeded Myles' warning, began to turn blue. Really blue.
The rides were not open. It was too cold. There was hardly a gift shop open. We walked up to the church. Now this was great. The church was up lots of stairs and was right in the way of the almost visibly cold wind. But inside, it was calm and (in comparison) almost warm. We walked around. I was loving the stained glass (so intricate, so delicate) when one window reared up at me and it was a man in a suit. No kidding. One of the windows of the church was a man in a suit. Then there was a place in which you could put money and it would light a candle - that is, you didn't have to light the thing - a light went on. Niccolo and I kept putting money in just so we could watch more lights come on. We are strange.
There was some talk of going for a walk around the top of the mountain. But I feared for the lives of Paris and Zelda who were actually shivering. Then we returned to the bottom where things were more temperate. Hungry, cold children; it was practically an emergency.
Tapas cures all. Paris discovered the joy of fried eggplant which (in the scheme of things) I see as a major shift in the world. He has put it on the Christmas Menu (which is growing; that is for another blog).
Siesta time.
Zelda, Myles and I went out later for a walk and shop. It was great. We really explored the gothic quarter - lots of alleyways with terrrfic little shops and lots of artwork. Then we found yet another Christmas market but this one smelled like pine cones and had all kinds of silly Christmassy things.
I'm caught, like a fish, in this net. Barcelona is something like my home town - an Other home town.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Barcelona, day five

Sunday. This means we read in bed until twelve. Enough said.

I was keen to see either Picasso or Miro today and it was decided it would be Picasso. Barcelona is cuddled by what appears to be four genuises of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - Gaudi, Picasso, Miro and Dali. They are all completely kooky in their own ways (lucky thing they are all dead; I'm not sure any of them would think kindly about being kooky). And I want to say that you can see this in the cityscape, but - with the exception of the Gaudi buildings - I don't think it is that straight forward. What there does appear to be here though is lots of the unexpected. It is not uniform (I've already said that) but neither is it completely unplanned or random. The buildings all look to be around the same height, and everything is quite high density. But then the buildings themselves are all different, with interesting features that make you want to inspect each and everyone individually to see what is going on. Down our alley, for example, there is a whole mural of great photographers (the only reason I know that this is what the mural is about is that I recognise some of the names - Margaret Cameron, Man Ray, Richard Avedon). This is a very narrow alleyway and to see all the way to the top and the mural in its entirety is almost impossible. But there it is. Some buildings look Persian (and I use that word with some hesitation; Persia no longer exists and the whole idea is kind of fairytale now, but I guess that is what I mean), and there are great, dark, hulking buildings like the university just up the road from us. And then there is a little garden just around the corner that seems to be dedicated to cats. The whole thing is fenced and there are about thirty little houses that have cats in them. People dress here quite differently to how they dress in other cities - many more individual shops that sell one offs and the people seem to embrace this.

Why this description? Well, when we went to see Sr Picasso, the exhibition had whole rooms in which he had explored a rethinking of something, and in particular a Velazquez painting called Les Meninas. In this, there were versions of the whole painting and then of individual figures. And Barcelona feels a bit like this. That each building, and laneway is an experiment in thinking about the structure and how it should look, and what it might respresent. And I don't really believe that has been done consciously. But it is kind of like a culture - that these artists have set a pattern of re-thinking what things should look like and how they might be explored and it can been seen in every laneway and alleyway and pair of pants and (importantly) tapas dish. The lack of uniformity (though a kind of plan is evident) is the charm here and I think why you are never bored by what you see (or eat). You can get lost here not necessarily because you can't find you way around, but because you are being lured down alleys to the next interesting thing. We have started to identify the city through detail ('Oh look, we have found that cafe with the good chairs', or 'Ah, I know where we are, it's the building with the umbrellas'). I have also begun to shop for some quirky stuff and bought a skirt that is great from a market in our local square (Raval). Myles was desperate to buy some quite nutty pants but they weren't quite his size. He is pursuing them quite vigorously however. Emailing the supplier and so on. You have to admire it.

It might also be a lack of fear of exploration. Spain is the great exploring country - off to the New World and all that. And the artists too seemed destined for new worlds without fear. So it would make some sense that the people themselves are happy to do this in their own world, on every possible scale. The tiniest, crappiest bar has its own way of cooking and presenting potatoes, or ham, or artichokes. And they don't brag about it, or make a fuss. This is the way things are done.

Picasso was great (the kids were not fans I have to say) but Myles and I loved it. It is down another tiny alleyway and in an amazing building. Seeing the scope of his work from early teens until just before he died was really eye opening.

I cooked lunch. This is because the kids are not enjoying the tapas and I'm a little worried about the extent of their food groups. It appears to be limited to sugar, chocolate and wheat. After lunch (at 4pm, how Spanish are we?) we walked up to the castle on the hill. There was much protest about this, but up we went regardless. Everyone slept well. Myles and I went out later for a drink at the local bar.

How do I make this lifestyle my own?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Barcelona, day four

All power to the long sleep in, and waking up to glorious sunshine. Another wonderful day in Barcelona with a long sleep, some reading in bed, getting up with much stretching of limbs and jaws, and taking off when we feel like it. It was sunny (is it always sunny here? so happy). We had to go the train station. My rather glib statement about not caring how we were going to get to Carcassone was premature. Myles was actually sweating bullets over it, found the internet useless and wanted to go in person to get the tickets as soon as he could. I insisted on the metro. This walking everywhere thing has whiskers - big ones.
The train station was a stereotype as all train stations tend to be - all full with people yelling and trying to buy tickets and lots of other people with suitcases on wheels going licketty split towards you with fire in their eyes. After some false starts, we found the right line, got the right ticket and sat in to wait. This, of course, involved us moving to a cafe to fuel up the kids with all kinds of rubbish (this has to end; everyone is just bad mooded because of the food). Then we waited. What was great about this system is that the weak left with their tickets so that as the numbers rolled around, there were less and less people there to claim them. In 50 minutes we were at the counter, buying tickets. With them in sweaty hands, Myles was happy to begin his day. Sigh.
We were off to Park Guell; another Gaudi site.
So we surfaced from the metro at the right stop and followed the signs and a dozen other tourists. And Barcelona has thought through the problem of having so many (potentially lazy and overweight - not pointing fingers ...) tourists trapising off to this park which hangs high above Barcelona and even the suburb in which it sits. So there are a series of escalators that run up the roads that lead to the park that you ride. It is more American than America and the kids were enchanted.
The park itself is kind of confusing, but perhaps we are idiots. You walk in and see no Gaudi. You walk to the top and still see no Gaudi but there is an amazing view of the city. Then you walk down a series of steps that lead into a large open space and suddenly there is Gaudi all over the shop. It feels a bit Dr Seuss; loopy shapes and everything very dream scape. I (happily, what a nerd) had bought a book all about Gaudi at the Sagrada Familia so I had a whole lot of information about it. The Park Guell was originally planned as an urban development (not a park at all) with houses and services and all kinds of innovations. One of which, just by the way, was having a water collection point through the public square that funnelled water through the columns that were beneath the square and into a tank below that would be used for watering. Can you believe this? This was begun in 1900 (so architects knew about these possiblities) but what are we doing in our urban design, even now? Sad.
There are some houses here, but it is mostly a park with some lovely mosaics and aquaducts and funny little houses - and all among them now are dozens of buskers with violins (mostly) playing quietly ethereal music.
Zelda and I went into the little pink house the Gaudi lived in from 1906. The furniture was completely charming, most looked like it could come to life and jump up for a pat. One room looked like a cave with dark, brooding wardrobes and green glass in the panels. There is something about Gaudi's work that is so like a fairytale that I wonder if you could ever be unhappy in one of his buildings. It is somewhere between the gingerbread cottage of Hansel and Gretel, a recreation of the natural world in bold colours and (seriously) Dr Seuss.
Have I found my Barcelona narrative? Perhaps.
After being completely charmed by the architecture, we left to go back to the city. The kids were tired and wanted to go back to the apartment for a rest. I wanted to read some of my novel (obssession is a bold thing).
Then back into the old city for dinner. We were looking specifically for a place with heating because, while the days are warm and sunny, the nights are cold. But we ended up in a little square, in the open with no heating. The owner took pity on us and brought us inside his place (which was really too tiny for us). The square had a playground that Niccolo took much interest in. It was 9pm at night, but there were still lots of parents and kids playing around. They do social stuff here very well.
We ordered blind from the tapas menu. And it was so fantastic. The vegetable tapas of the day was some kind of cauliflower thing that had quite firm cauilflower scattered somehow with stinky cheese and cumin seeds and pomegrante seeds and then shards of heat that came from an unseen source and I couldn't get it into my mouth fast enough. The kids could barely eat the bread and hummous, and the fried potatoes with enough vigour, while the ham and the coquettes disappeared with the help of oily fingers. I washed mine down with beer. Myles decided on red wine.
We had fun window shopping for stuff; so much to love in the shops here. I have (to some shame) done some damage. Others are holding off (for what?). But I'm not sure that I'm planning on taking my foot off the pedal in this city. It is too good for words.
I really love it here. Really, really love it.