Thursday, 13 November 2014

Pool-side lunging

I've witnessed many a social faux pas at the local sports centre of which I'm a member (see previous blog about excruciatingly slow swimmers). But pool-side warm-ups/cool-downs are a new experience for me. It's another socially unacceptable activity to add to the list, and this one rates very high on the cringe-o-meter due to the U.D.O.A (Unnecessary Display of Appendages).

I know of only one man who does this.
He can't be British. British men wouldn't have the balls (eh-hem, excuse the pun) or audaciousness to carry out this rather bold activity.

So, this guy comes through the changing room doors: tall, lanky, middle-aged. He is wearing tight briefs (not quite speedos, not quite trunks). He slowly walks around two sides of the pool and positions himself close to the life guard's tower, facing us swimmers in the water.

And it begins:

Hip rolls - slow and deliberate, protruding his groin deliberately and holding the pose there.

Lunges - All the way down, hands on hips, again tilting the groin forward.

Torso twists - exaggerated and repeated more than necessary.

Toe touches - thank god your butt isn't facing the pool for this one.

You repeat this routine after your swim too.

Is he showing off? Is he trying to pull? Is he so proud of his Speedo-clad appendages that he gives them two opportunities to be paraded every time he comes to the pool?

It's like car-crash TV - I can't help but glance over. Not to admire, no far from it!

I cringe deeply. Speedo lunges are not going to start trending any time soon.  

Monday, 3 November 2014

When you’ve been friends with someone for 28 years, you take it for granted that you’ll know them for at least another 40. Taking things for granted is dangerous.

You usually only learn this when it’s too late to change things.

In this instance, I’m talking about a beloved friend known since we were in nappies, who was stolen from us just as she was giving life to her first child.

This was not a natural misdemeanour – my friend forfeited her life due to the incompetence of the person responsible for her wellbeing. When she was at her most vulnerable, starved of breath, this person of supposed medical superiority made a catastrophic error.

I don’t believe it’s healthy to dwell on the crime – we can’t turn back the clock.

All I can hope for is that justice will prevail.

It happened a month ago, and yet, it’s still so hard to process.

There will be no more letters, no more calls, and no more get-togethers on birthdays and Christmases.

Last time I saw you, you were sat in the long grass at Kew Gardens, in a circle of adoring friends. A summer picnic, a baby-shower, the first I’d ever been to.

The weather was perfect – the food offerings bountiful, the banter whip-crackling. You were the picture of maternal bliss: make-up free and beaming with health, a spectacular bump, even at that early stage in your pregnancy. We talked of the house you were in the process of buying and all the exciting nesting rituals you were having fun with.

I have since visited that nest: it is just as you’d described it, but the tragic truth is I will never actually see you there, tending the roses or feeding Isaac on the terrace.  

When I start to think about not seeing you again – this is when I have to dig into the abundant treasure chest of memories I have of our lives together, very much entwined together from your year dot.

Although I was two years older than you, and can’t actually remember you first coming along – we grew close and spent many weekends and after-school nights coming up with enterprising business ideas and letting our imaginations run wild out in the countryside and gardens surrounding our childhood homes, separated by a measly half a mile.   

George’s Marvelous Medicine-style potions and perfumes were concocted from grape hyacinths and whatever flora and forna we could lay hands on. Dirt under the nails, a staple occurrence.
Pom-poms and friendship bracelets were made and sold from the wall outside your house – occasionally purchased by locals taking pity on us. The meager proceeds were swiftly traded in at the Spar where our penchant for E numbers was satisfied in penny sweets.

There was one time when a local mafia-type property tycoon stopped in his blacked-out Mercedes (rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror) to peruse our wares. He gave us our biggest sale, though I don’t know if he actually took his purchase away with him. I just remember a big shiny coin, maybe a 50p piece, the biggest one garnered from this particular enterprise.

Our parents were very salt-of-the-earth: we regularly swam amongst the tadpoles in a lake, ate strawberries till our stomachs hurt from fields owned by our parents’ friends, built dens on the farm, modeled for Homes and Gardens magazine. Sounds idyllic: it truly was.

Passengers in your mum’s Nissan Cherry, we’d often sing along to ‘You Drive me Crazy’ by the Fine Young Cannibals.  Long summers running amok, freedom never tasted and felt so good.

We also spent a lot of time in the pub. The Walnut. Oh course we were too young to drink, but drinking was the last thing on our minds – especially when there was a rabbit warren of hotel corridors to explore and cunningly acquire a stray bowl of chips when we knocked on the frosted glass window of the kitchen. Jolly chef Ali never failed to pander to our opportunist charms.

Summer pub expeditions usually involved us commandeering cardboard boxes in which we would either sit in for a different perspective, or try to race down hills in – though I’m not sure how successful this was. Boxes were also used to picnic in, out in the garden.

We went to different school, but after-school activities such as choir and brownies brought us together in the evenings, after which we’d watch East Enders together. We nicknamed you Sanjay. It was the era of hopeless Nigel and partner in crime Sanjay.  

As teenagers we had separate friendship groups, but then those groups came together for the awkward years of excess: alcohol, parties, mischief.

Then all of a sudden, you were grown-up, wise beyond your years and getting a serious career. Perhaps those years of friendship bracelet making were setting you up for the sales prowess you quickly developed as a young adult.

I selfishly hoped you’d take a job that you were interviewed for in Bristol, secretly looking forward to the potential of spending more time with you here. But you followed your heart back to Biarritz and the dream job. And the dream man.

You finally fell in love, the only thing that had been missing from your fruitful life. With all the pieces fitting neatly together, you beamed with confidence, self-assurance - reaching a higher level of happiness.

We were with you the weekend of the announcement. The youngest of our friendship group to become an expectant mum. We were overjoyed to hear the news and that most fulfilling of journeys started for you. Devastatingly, it was also the last of your journeys.

I have met you boy, held his warmth. He has your eyes. He is your being.

I will see him grow, develop his own unique personality. But I will be hoping he keeps your curiosity, your appreciation for nature, your verve, your calm and clarity of perspective.

Out of sadness there is light. He will be your light.





  

 





Monday, 29 September 2014

My summer in the "Ugly, lovely town"

The good, the bad and the Mumbles


I’ve landed in a foreign town, not far over a bridge that cost nearly £7 to cross. They speak another language. Welsh.

They speak a lot of Welsh too – I feel a bit like a teenage Exchange student trying to make sense of the pithy garble in perplexed excitement.

The Telesgop TV office is next to a giant Amazon warehouse, slap bang in the middle of a business park that is very much in the midst of major plastic surgery (the bit where the doctor draws dotted lines around the chubby bits, then prods and stretches the skin to work out what to do with the mess in between his fingers). On the other side of the park is a film studio unit where an American production company regularly practice explosions that rock the foundations.  

My colleagues at work chortle and cuss in their native tongue, and I thoroughly enjoy hearing the rollicking tones and try rather unsuccessfully to guess what they’re on about.

Swansea is an odd place.

I find it apt that Swansea’s most outstanding export (Dylan Thomas) brandished it the “ugly, lovely town”. 

A contradiction, but an accurate one.

Dylan was born but only a mile away from where I’m staying and yet the modern Swansea landscape is pitted and scarred by many a horrendous architectural malfunction and years of abject disrepair. 

It’s a bit of a wasteland with smidgens of joy to be found it you’re prepared to poke around a bit.

I like poking around. And I have a new bike.

It’s obvious that Swansea has been through some very tough times. Much of it looks cheap and poor – residential parts remind me of Channel 4s ‘Benefits Street’. Only there appears to be a Benefits Street lurking around most corners. Kids playing tennis across the middle of the road, not even stopping to let me pass safely on my bike.

I notice that the council don’t even provide residents with black wheelie bins. As I set off on my bike on collection days, the rubbish is piled high in plastic bags: thin cheap ones that are prone to sea gull attacks. 

It’s a coastal city – at least for protection against the razor-sharp beaks of sea gulls – give these people some bins!

You can’t fault Swansea in other respects, mind. The ‘friendly-smiley’ barometer points high up the scale, as if the city’s people (like many Eastern Europeans) have come through the oppression and can't help but put a brave face on things, an outward projection of strength – things are (slowly) on the up-and-up here.

Things are on the up-and-up. There’s SW1 and a new Uni being built near the marina.

You can buy two meals and two alcoholic drinks for under 20 quid (that's without stepping foot in a Wetherspoons I hasten to add!!)



You also have some spectacular coastline and hills at the periphery, the Mumbles and Gower beyond. I’ve peddling past volley-ball matches on the beach, a boarded up pier not quite ready for summer, yet bristling with gaudy promise.



And there’s been some sun. I wasn't expecting that. Especially after a local taxi driver proudly informed me that Swansea is one of the UK's wettest places. 



I suppose, like Dylan T, I have been inspired by the Swansea landscape, inspired to write this.


So Swansea, you still have the propensity to encourage creativity.  


Dylan T speaking beyond the grave??
   
P.S. I'd strongly recommend the Dylan T exhibition at the Swansea Museum. There is a replica of his favourite pub inside. And you can sit in the very spot where Thomas took many a boozy afternoon snooze (on the cold stone museum steps).

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Another one lost to the subliminal heights

It's no wonder adrenaline junkies are drawn to the mountains as thieves are drawn to diamonds.

Mountains are sublime and dangerous - a hedonistic and addictive allure. To those hungry for snow-topped peaks with hidden depths and untracked territories, the mountains are a candy store of endless curiosity.

During two unparalleled winters skiing and snowboarding in Chamonix in 2009/10 - I teetered on the perilous edge of danger more than a few times. After a knee injury mid-way through my first season (sustained during the first run of the day, skiing over-ambitiously, hungover, on piste) -  whatever 'no fear' attitude and bravado I had build-up over those first few months instantly diminished as my mortality became lucidly clear.

After a recovery which took about 7 weeks, I got back up the mountain (a gazillion times harder than getting back on a horse after a fall) and began to play safer - not veering off-piste too far, not going as fast as I knew I was capable of going. I decided to check into the 'safe' skier brigade. Definitely a minority group in Chamonix.

Last week a friend phoned to tell me someone we knew had died in an avalanche out in Chamonix. He was 27, a very skilled skier - well-seasoned seasonnaire making sausages (his nickname was Davey Sausage) to pay the bills and training a local youth football team in his spare time. Always smiling.

I only met him properly once last year, when he stayed at my house in Bristol for one night with a group of my Chamonix friends. He got up early to buy and cook breakfast for us. Simple but kind gestures like this stick in your memory.

I was shocked to hear the news and it brought back a familiar pang of pain. Familiar because I'd lost someone special to the mountains the same year I had my skiing accident. Ed Cakebread (aka Gateaux Pain) chose the same shabby barely-chic art nouveaux-style watering hole as me to earn a living at that winter. Like freshers, we were thick as thieves: the gang competing to go out and get smashed every night as fervently as we promised to get up the mountain (with or without hangovers).

Like me, Ed was a beginner skier, but unlike me, he was brimming with testosterone and determined to fly through the ranks and become a pro asap. He did progress quickly, perhaps too quickly.

A short time after my accident (Ed was my knight in shining armour that day - buying sweets to get my sugar levels up after the shock, and looking after me until I was ready to get back into town), his family came out to Chamonix for a short holiday.

Keen to show off his new skiing prowess, Ed took his family to Grand Montets (the most challenging area of the resort), and proceeded to go over some of the jumps in the park. These park jumps were mostly reds - and fatally, he pushed himself too far, got too much air after one jump and landed flat on his back. His heart stopped instantly.

The news dented the town like a giant meteor. Mourning and longing took hold. In a way, having his family there helped - we were able to build a more rounded picture of Ed - the Ed who lived in England. We swapped stories and everyone wrote pages and stuck photos in a memory book for Ed's family to take back home with them.

Like Davey Sausage, Gâteaux Pain was charming, perma-happy and on thrill-seeker overload. On the hunt for that perfect day of synergy on the slopes.

I'd class myself as a fair-weather skier now, like the day-tripping Italians in their duffle coats and Ray Bans - content to do a few runs interspersed with generous doses of sitting on a sun-drenched terrace, sipping vin chaud.

These brave and peerless guys pushed the boundaries - gave everything they had, sacrificing themselves for that perfect moment in the snow. I hope their final moments were sublime, perfect, exhilarating. I also hope that when their bodies touched the ground, they felt nothing.        

There's risk in everything we do, and yes, skiing is definitely at the top end of the risk barometer.

Live each day as if it's your last.

Davey Sausage and Gâteaux Pain thrived on this mantra and that's why we'll always remember them for the amazing things they actually did.

Procrastination was not in their dictionaries.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Life in the Slow Lane

Being told you're fast should be perceived as a compliment.
Being told you're too fast might still be taken with some sense of achievement.
But being told you're too fast- in the context of slow lane swimming is not so much of a boost.

The first time I encountered fat man slow - it was his rotund belly with sticky-outy belly button and faded Hawaiian shorts that caught my attention. That was certainly not the pinnacle of his presence in the water though.

His repertoire of strokes seems to consist solely of the breast-stroke under-water style: blowing giant bubbles every time he goes below and coming up, he pulls the best drowning carp-mouth I've seen on a human. He must have impressive lungs.

I know toddlers who could take on an entire TA assault course in the time it takes fat man slow to complete one length.

I'm not one for over-taking (I'd rather cut my lap short and turn back the other way), but all three of the others in the slow lane were over-taking him, so I'm afraid I jumped on the over-take band wagon.

Wish I hadn't.

I've just made my third or forth over-take in 10 minutes. I'm at the deep end, about to set off on another lap. Fat man slow suddenly unleashes his pent-up fury on me. In a winey, loud Truman Capote toned voice he vents at me:

"You're too fast! You shouldn't be in this lane. You should go in the other lane!"

Too shocked to reply, I darted off very quickly. I avoid confrontation like David Cameron avoids answers in 'Prime Minister's Questions' and my brain goes to mush when it does happen, so there's no chance of me finding a remotely satisfactory rebuttal.

Another time at the pool fat man slow gets in just as I'm finishing my session. Phew.

However, I had been swimming with several fairly competent swimmers in the slow lane for 30 mins previously, and I can't help but feel sorry for them - knowing what they're in for, especially if they haven't yet experienced fat man slow's uniquely tortoise-in-slow-mo swim style.

As I come out of the showers, back into the changing rooms - I hear a bit of a din coming from the pool. Someone else is falling victim to fat man slow's angry vendetta against normal speed low-lane swimmers.

"You're going too fast! I wish I was as fast as you, but I can't go any faster! Please use the other lane, it's not fair." I couldn't help but chortle a little bit. I didn't hear a reply in defense.

It makes me wonder if this happens every single time he swims? What makes me angry about the situation is that if you're that slow - you've got to be acceptant of some under-cutting and over-taking - same as on the roads. There's no rules against it. It should be fine as long as the over-taker leaves a wide enough berth.

I'm also extremely annoyed that he vented his anger on me in particular. Why me when there were four other fellow over-takers in the slow-lane at the time?

I don't think he's ever likely to graduate to the middle lane, so to avoid any future slow-lane angst, I've decided to move to the middle lane instead.

Sure, I'll have to deal with being the over-taken one from time to time, but I'd rather that than being publicly humiliated or having my progress consistently hindered like a minnow stuck behind a whale.  

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A Dip into the Unknown

My friend Annie recently blogged about trying out a new pool as an alternative to running for safer pregnancy exercise. I'm doing the same (minus the bump!)

I've just enrolled at a private school Sports Centre just round the corner from my new flat. It's got everything you could ever need to keep toned (inc. badminton courts!) but it's weird because there's a constant stream of students either walking past the windows with swaths of text books held to their chests as I'm cross-training in the gym or clogging up the entrance in excitable teenage huddles.

I feel a bit out of place but at least they're polite, well-spoken kids who (hopefully) aren't likely to put chewing gum in my hair as a dare.

In her blog, Annie remarked at the awkward 'lane etiquette' at her leisure centre of choice, surprise at the very public communal showers and subsequent topical debates going on between the soap-lathering swimmers.

I'm glad there's private showers at my new pool, though I have to say I'd love to overhear a good debate between two pensioners on the morality of the people in 'Benefits Street' or Prince Charles' visit to the flood victims on the Somerset Levels. Hopefully I'll come across some eccentric characters soon.

They were certainly in abundance at a private hotel pool I used to be a member of in Falmouth. I'd do a ridiculously early swim six times a week so, believe me: I got to know the pernickety habits of the bemusing regulars. There was one Mrs Trunchball-esque battle axe who looked fearsome in her plastic cap and thunder thighs. She didn't budge for anyone. Her lane was her lane, end of.

The absolute pinnacle of eccentricity came in the form of a 70-something-old man smothered head-to-toe in tattoos and piercing. The cherry on top of this near-naked assemblage, as if he didn't have enough adornment already- was a speedo thong. Yes, really. They ranged in style from paisley to psychedelic swirls. Always colouful. Always a bit too much cheek on show.

What a character indeed. None of the regulars batted an eyelid. Funny to think that I probably wouldn't have recognized him in the street, with all that body art covered up. I wasn't phased by the tats or piercings particularly, but the thong was rather amusing.

You've got to have balls to carry that look.

 

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

The Archlute

Having recently moved to Clifton (the poshest part of Bristol...where all the slave owners expressed their wealth by building the mansions that I can see out of my living room bay window) and having a curious nature, I decided to take a walk on the wild side last night. I went to a club. A club that plays music, but not of the kind that involves glow sticks and hot pants.

With boyfriend in tow, we entered the Bristol Music Club just at the end of our road. The programme was titled 'The Early Baroque', which I'm aware of in terms of the artistic movement, but I'm not at all familiar with the music of that era.

Taking our seats in the tired but comfortably warm auditorium, I was pleasantly surprised to see the isles filling up - bearing in mind it was a bleak and damp Tuesday evening in January.

I had a niggling apprehension that the night might be a bit old-school (fuddy-duddy) as the programme featured quite a lot of recorder, but the first trio up on stage was a man with an indistinguishable stringed instrument that nearly touched the ceiling even when he was seated, and two expression-full sopranos, one who was old enough to be my grandmother.

I scanned through the programme as the ladies belted out 17th Century songs in Italian - searching for a name to put to their accomplice's instrument - ah ha, it's an archlute!

There must have been about 20 strings to it. It looked a bit like something Errol Flynn would have played in Sherwood Forest to woo the ladies... but the neck - the neck of it looked like a traditional lute spliced with a giraffe.

To illustrate the ridiculousness of the length of the archlute, with impeccable comic timing - when the player stood up to take a bow, the top of the archlute hit one of the spotlights in the ceiling.

As well as making a crashing noise, a cloud of dust (or plaster) showered down on him. This caused a bit of a titter amongst the crowd, and the man on the stage although looking a bit embarrassed, took the accident in good humour.

He must be used to it. With such a cumbersome piece of kit.

After the interval, archlute man and his sopranos came back for a second set - we had to wait a while as he tuned up. Yet again, he had to apologize - but made it into a joke by saying that the archlute was a labour of love as he spends about 50% playing and 50% tuning.

The recorders weren't actually too bad. In fact a Sonata in F major was quite captivating, especially when it was explained that the composer had written the sonata in imitation of bird song.

Will we go back? Yes, I think so but not every week. There was a bar with a bowl of peanuts on it. An eclectic audience - all appreciative listeners, though I was definitely the youngest person there.

Maybe I'm mellowing, but I'd rather be the youngest person at an intelligent and enlightening music club than the oldest person in a flea-pit 'clubbing' club.  

Thursday, 31 October 2013

St Jude Dog

Conversation overheard in a Glastonbury charity shop yesterday between a woman working behind the desk and a lingering female customer:

(As predictably British as ever, the conversation is about the wake of storm St Jude, three days after its unassuming wave of disaster tickled our coastlines)

Lingering Customer: "I had a dog called Jude... you know, named after the song 'Hey Jude'
Woman behind counter: "Oh, lovely."
LC: "She died last year, actually on St Jude's day. The feast day.
WBC: Oh, right.
LC: "Yes, it was terrible actually. She'd been ill for a while and I thought it was her time to go. I nursed her on my own, knew she was giving up. I was on my own and I had to make that decision.
WBC: Oh, oh dear.
LC: "I took her into the vets, the vet agreed to put her down. But it wasn't until this year, with the storm, and it being named after St Jude...that I realised my Jude had been put down on St Jude's day last year.
WBC: Oh right.
LC: "And it makes me think. Perhaps, if someone else, if my husband had been with me. At home, when I thought it was Jude's time to go - maybe he'd have said, no, it's not her time. She'll pull through."
WBC is silent, looks on awkwardly
LC: But it's funny how the storm last week was called St Jude. Makes me think it's somehow making me remind myself about my dog Jude - seeing how the stormed happened on the same day that Jude died last year...


Made me chuckle a bit and think how funny it is when people try to sort of free-style associate stories with current affairs and weather patterns...

Scurge of the press

Being a Bristol resident I was obviously aware of the Jo Yates story as it unraveled a few winters ago, and reading the vilified articles in the press about Chris Jeffries, landlord and for a time, suspected murderer of his tenant Jo.

The images showed a wild-haired man, looking somewhat wild and disheveled. Small-minded people reading the tabloids would have no doubt made assumptions about Jeffries. But the derogatory and hurtful words and misleading images of Jeffries used in the press at the time have no doubt caused his friends and family much suffering and stress before the full press liable story was exposed.

Until recently, I wasn't aware that Chris Jeffries is a member of the same gym as me - has been probably for longer than the three years I've been going - yet it didn't strike me that this was the man from that press frenzy, even though we've been in the gym at the same time probably a hundred times.

It was the gym manager who first alerted me to him - only because we got on to the subject of documentaries and he mentioned that a certain major broadcaster was soon to be filming in the gym as part of a documentary about Chris Jeffries and his ordeal with the press and the police - clearing his name and appealing for compensation for his treatment while being under suspicion for the Jo Yates case.

That image of the wild haired-man did stuck in my mind, and sure enough I saw a man in the gym (a few days after my conversation with the manager) with similar facial features - but now with very short, dark hair around the temples. A very slight and quiet man, who moves much more gracefully through the apparatus than any of the other men members.

Ah ha, I thought, that's Chris Jeffries. I wonder if the stress he's been through, (wether inadvertently or directly through that derogatory image and words used in the press) caused him to change his image?

Either way, I was intrigued to see him - to think about everything he must have been through over the last few years - all that unnecessary pain and anguish caused by a few vindictive, shallow-minded and callous editors. I'm happy to hear that he's at least received damages from eight newspapers who reported on the case. I hope he's finding peace now - I'll look forward to seeing the programme.

This article summarizes Jeffries' ordeal very well:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/22eac290-eee2-11e0-959a-00144feab49a.html#axzz2j9Dg9rc9

      

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

If you go down to the woods today...


Exactly what fairy tales are made of. I could imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland reclining on one of these. There were many others but this one was the most impressive as it was (as yet) untouched/un-munched. 

Such stark whiteness
pencil sharpener furled
embezzled in delicate lamb-soft moss

A twisted woodland fit for a Tim Burton movie

A quiet and special moment caught as the sun came through and made the earth warm after a torrential two-hour downpour. Could double for dawn mist - deceptively mysterious. 

Otherworldly light on an autumnal afternoon

A line of whipped clouds on the horizon at Porlock Weir

An endless wave of pebbles

Ships all at land

The pomp and ceremony of a Regatta circa 1908, Porlock Weir - a tradition that I hope has stood the test of time

Thank you Huxley

Antic Hay

I'm enjoying a bit of a reading renaissance. 

Maybe it's the turning of the seasons that breaths an instinct within me to snuggle down, in a comfy corner and disappear into someone else's life. It's about a book a week - or more accurately one a weekend at the moment.

I learnt to be a very speedy reader back in the days when devouring three/four books a week was standard procedure for keeping-up in BA English(with Media) classes. Then there was a time when 'the career' took over and books would be dipped into/skimmed/read but not consumed or unintentionally deserted for months at a time, so passages would be re-read over and over accidentally with only the vaguest feeling of deja vu. 

The follow up to 'Easy Riders, Raging Bulls', which title evades me, is case in point - all I remember is that it concentrated heavily on the arrogant and fastidious early career of Quentin Tarantino, but was no way as engaging or memorable as 'Easy Riders' overview of the explosive arthouse scene in Hollywood during the 60s and 70s - before cinema got homogenized.

I really recommend devoting yourself to a book over a weekend. You're in absolutely no danger of forgetting characters, rereading chapters or loosing your page/makeshift bookmark. 

What I enjoyed more about consistently chugging through 'Antic Hay' by Aldous Huxley in less than 70 hours was the joy of finding new words and hunting down their definitions (somewhat lazily on my android). Maybe my vocab has diminished, or maybe it's just Huxley's superior possession of the English language but either way - there are some BIG FAT BUTTERY words in 'Antic Hay' and that's inspiring to me.

Here's some delicious, delectable Huxley-plucked words that I ear-marked because they're definitely worth trying to slip into conversation:

*Gormandizer = Someone who eats gluttonously; gorging

*Rabelaisian = Display of bawdy/earthy/course humor (Ref. to Francois Rabelais, a major French Renaissance writer of satire and bawdy jokes)

*Callipygous = Having beautifully proportioned buttocks

*Hobbledehoy = A clumsy or awkward youth


My favourite is hobbledehoy - mainly because of the way it makes your mouth feel quite awkward while saying it. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Last hint of summer...



I'm no stranger to mountain life (having spent two winter seasons in Chamonix), but I am unacquainted with the mountainous regions of Southern France, without that familiar dusting of snow.

Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I set off for Nice on a Sleazy Jet flight - destination: an apartment in La Brigue, a charmingly rustic village, close to the Italian boarder, north of the city.

As I've experienced many times in the past: reaching the mountains is no mean feat - that's why they're never densely populated. Life is hard beyond 1,000 ft.

Nothing gets the heart pumping more fervently when you're just clicking into holiday-mode and a seemingly minor faux pas quite significantly threatens your plans. In retrospect taking the laissez faire attitude on day one was a mistake: especially when you've only got one train service option that day, and the ticket office has a queue that would rival one at any UK Post Office during the week leading up to Xmas!

Jolted out of holiday-haziness by this distressing sight, I jumped on a much smaller queue for a ticket machine close by and nervously navigated the menus knowing that one wrong move could make the difference between shelling out for a hotel room in the city or claiming our pre-paid apartment in the mountains.

With a minute to spare we raced to the furthest away platform and claimed some seats literally as the departure whistle screeched out.

With two hours to regain our composure, we sank into comfortable train upholstery and bathed in the glorious scenery beyond the glass: interlocking mountain ranges, ravines and topsy-turvy dwellings clinging to rocks like sandy-coloured barnacles.



La Brigue proved to be a well-positioned base that presented us with the opportunity for many adventures, and a trainline that offered access to the varying terrains of an Italian ski resort (Lemone), the cote d'azure coast line and a menagerie of ancient French towns/cities. I say well-connected - but actually when the train is your only route out of the village (north and south) - you have to be astute to it's sensitive disposition and live by the timetable like a geeky university fresher.

Our apartment had two balconies - one of which opened onto the village square: the hub of the place, where dogs and drinkers and market stalls popped up at peak times during the week. There were four restaurant options (only one of which we were successful in sampling as the others either gave us 'no room at the inn' gestures or appeared to be open only on very special occasions), which was initially frustrating (for city dwellers far too used to having everything on tap within a half-mile radius), but encouraged us to become dependable on the local produce and cook our own takes on authentic cuisine. (Dauphinoise Potatoes, garlic chicken and lashings of cheese smeared veg).



A wood burner provided us with evening entertainment... to fall asleep watching the flames licking at the glass was a delightful alternative to a flatscreen TV. La Brigue was as quiet as quiet can be - though the day the fountain outside our apartment wasn't flowing really indicated a new level of noise-redundancy. It was a welcome retreat, but again, took a bit of time to adjust to after spells of manic work life in Bristol and London over the last six months.

We quickly got to grips with our surroundings - trekking around the hinterland, collecting wild-growing herbs, chestnuts and kindling on our rambles. On one of our walks up the valley, a group of old farmers were gathering apples from an orchard and one garçon kindly gave us a couple of handfuls - saying they were strictly only for cooking with. I baked them later that night, their waxy texture complimenting a locally-sourced honey, oozy, melty creme fraiche and a dusting of nutmeg. A simple delight tasting all the more sweet for the good-natured gesture behind their appearance on our table.

On another ramble back from Tende (ten minutes on the train, two hours or so by foot!), during the descent to La Brigue lingering tentatively around 1,500 ft, we very surprisingly met two people on ponies - the sound of their hooves scraping the rocky terrain reached us long before their physical form appeared. A salt-of-the-earth man (sans helmet), led confidently - (though the ponies' laboured breathing and foaming flanks signaled a turbulent mood), followed by a slightly nervous-looking young lady - also sans protection.



We joked somewhat tentatively about them being very brave for attempting this climb when we were tentatively planning our every step and we only had two feet to coordinate. Several minutes later we heard the clatter of hooves again, which I thought signaled more ponies coming up. I was quite wrong. What we saw was a rider-less pony wildly jolting and jerking down the mountain - nostrils flared and drenched in sweat. On approaching us, it whinnied loudly and tried to pass.

Flummoxed and worried, I tried to grab the mangled reins, but the pony kept prancing around. There was a ruin of a shack close to us, with the walls still intact, so I thought that maybe we should coax the pony in there until we could reunite it with the owner. Several tentative moments passed during which my boyfriend successfully grabbed the reins, and got flung around as the pony began to settle and we tried to calm it.

I waited around the corner to see if I could see the owner or hear any sign of distress. Shortly after, the man who'd been leading earlier came charging down on his pony, shouting in indistinguishable French. I admit that my basic knowledge of the French language has waned, and faltered even more in this stressful situation. He leveled with us, shouted more, gestured for us to give him the reins, jumped off the pony, grabbed both ponies and continued to run down the mountain with the ponies tumbling clumsily close to him.

We were rather shocked and felt perplexed as to how we could help the situation. I presumed that the man was going down to raise an alarm for the poor girl who presumably had fallen off the pony, and to tether the loose ponies somewhere in the village. We carried on our descent, and were surprised to see the man talking to someone on the road - the loose horse still roaming the grassy area close to the footpath. He was gesticulating - I guess to raise the alarm, then disappeared up the mountainside again on his pony.

It was a strange situation - we don't know what happened to the girl or the loose pony. I suppose the ponies are used to the mountain terrain, but they're also wild creatures, and why wouldn't you wear protection when embarking on such a precarious activity?



After a few days of challenging hiking and mountain biking - we treated ourselves to some city/beach leisure time - closer to civilization and simple luxuries such as supermarkets and bars that give you complimentary bread sticks and chips with your order. Villefranche-sur-Mer was my firm favourite beach town, reminding me of a scaled-down Barcelona with a much more idyllic and clean beachfront. The mid-october sunshine was warm enough to tempt us into the sea several times - definitely warranting an ice cream of the nutty variety as a reward.



Another sparky idea was hiring the marvelous 'Velo-bleu' bikes dotted around Nice, a scheme very similar to Boris's Bikes in London. The purchasing of a membership card was comically over-complicated, but once the account was set up in the transport centre, we couldn't help but maximize the service to whizz around the city - including the beach promenade (dodging bladers, runners and doddery tourists) all the way along to the airport and the seaport busting with bling yachts at the opposite end. We probably got a bit too carried away, as the bikes' rather ruddy three-gears certainly couldn't cope with the hills beyond the port, but we covered a lot of ground regardless and were pleased with the accessible and plentiful drop-off points for our weary steeds.



My other stand-out destination was a sleepy village called Saorge, perched, nay clutching onto the side of a south-facing mountainside that glistened gold when viewed in the early morning light the first time we were alerted to the existence of the village by an excited local on one of our numerous train journeys down the valley. I only wished we'd discovered Saorge a day earlier. Wednesdays seem to be a ghost-town day. Reading the tourist board on entry to the village we got excited by the prospect of a honey producer, butcher, plentiful dining options, a few bars and a cafe. Bingo!

However, after a diligent search through the narrow streets - the only establishments actually open were a small cafe and its adjoining gift shop. Having not eaten anything since breakfast (it was now 3.30pm, and we'd also failed at finding food in the village across the other side of the railway line), the cafe looked like mecca and there was a menu board outside that suggested that they sold sandwiches. Actual sandwiches, with about four fillings to choose from!



We confidently ordered a pan bagnet and a fromage et gambon in French, along with coffee and tea. The ethereally elegant lady who took our order said it simply was not possible to order sandwiches - why hadn't we phoned to make an order? There was nothing on the menu to signal the transaction she so fervently insisted was 'de rigueur'. We were flummoxed. Maybe the tea would come with a complimentary biscuit that would keep our appetites under control till dinner?

We waited with baited breath. The lady popped her head round the door frame and said something like, 'I've managed to order your sandwiches... they will arrive soon... though you should have phoned first.' Where were the sandwiches being made? Would they arrive before we needed to get the last train back up the valley?


In the meantime out beverages arrived. What a delicious sight: gorgeous china wear from a bygone era, tea in a massive pot complete with one of those contraptions that stops the leaves escaping into the water. Our cups were large, and perched on the side of my coffee cup was a petite homemade biscuit, and next to my boyfriend's teacup nestled a rather generous slice of honey cake (probably sourced from the honey shop just opposite - where we purchased a jar of chestnut-infused nectar and some hazelnut praline about half an hour previously).



The spread on our table looked so magnificent I had to take some photos. Saorge felt magical: verging on the edge of humanity - and this otherness was also reflected in the sublime-tasting produce. Our sandwiches were soon delivered by a local man, who then stopped in for some tea. Definitely the best sandwich I'd tasted all holiday: a fishy, crusty ensemble oozing with oil, herbs and juicy tomatoes. Such a shame we had to make a dash for the train and that the bar next door was closed - we both agreed that had it been open, we'd stay for some drinks and sample the enticing array of tarts listed on their specials board.    

On our last day we woke late to a rather cloudy skyline - the first during our holiday. Determined to make the most of it, we got on the train to Limone - a ski resort just two stops (through a very long tunnel) from La Brigue. A picturesque town only tainted by the fact that it was also a ghost town (inter season), and that the ski lifts were closed, but as the cloud wasn't lifting - we weren't too miffed.

We soon found a trendy cafe bar in the centre and I sank a few espressos laced with Amaretto to give me the energy to hike. The rather forlorn man in the tourist info centre (I suppose he had every right to be forlorn - being posted there to give info to people during the quietest time of the year) gave us a map and suggested a fairly short walk we could do that gives a good view of the resort at higher altitude. We set off and snaked through a wooded pathway that sadly illustrated a disturbing imbalance between abandoned chalet construction and natural beauty.



We reached the top following a rather quaint sequence of wooden signs with lemons depicting our chosen route, and settled with a bottle of cider - making sandwiches from our various scraps of cheeses, hams and pate. We hadn't passed a single soul. After our picnic we took the same route down and tried to find the ski lift station, to see if it might be worth making a return trip once the winter snow had made an appearance.



There were some good accommodation and ski pass combo offers in a brochure we picked up, but it's so hard to tell if the resort would be worth coming to if the place doesn't have that seasonal buzz about it when you're actually there.

Slaves to the train timetable, we waited for our final locomotive to arrive at La Brigue, 6:30am the following day. Uh oh, it's late. Not late enough to warrant panic, but enough to know we had to be on-guard during our change at Ventimiglia. That was fine, and we had enough time to grab a quick takeaway Italian style coffee, to go with our honey-covered croissants.



On arrival at Nice train station, I was desperate to find a toilet, so as my boyfriend went to join the queue for the airport transfer, I ran onto the platform to find the facilities. As I ran along, I saw some familiar faces. Not familiar faces from real life - but faces from the movies. And they were making a movie right at that exact moment. It was Jude Law and Richard E Grant, and the scene was one of the first for a movie coming out next year called Dom Hemingway. I didn't know that at the time - I only really realised it was a movie set as I clocked the director and started noticing people beyond with ear-pieces as well as a white Rolls Royce parked round the side, which I'm presuming was for the characters' getaway.

It was such a surreal encounter - I really hope I didn't interrupt the scene with my scruffy, end-of-holiday attire and manically contorting 'busting-for-the-loo' face. There was nothing holding the general public back, so I guess they didn't want to call attention to the production by cordoning off the platform.

I was so tempted to stick around, talk to one of the loitering techies/runners and find out more about the production - but we had a plane to catch. Emerging from the toilets I tried to walk past again - as nonchalantly as possible this time. I came out of the station grinning like a lunatic, bursting to tell my boyfriend about my first proper 'movie set' experience.

I know there's loads of waiting around and epic ego-clashing intrinsically linked with drama production, but that fateful day I walked into two A list actors' bubble for a fleeting moment, and I liked it very much.