Jill's Travelogue - London, Languedoc 2006

London- for theatre: France for food and travel writing course in the Languedoc. So on a course for travel writing, what better way to keep in touch with family and friends than through a travel blog. CONTACT ME AT: gillian@reviewfromthehouse.com

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Check Jill's Travelblogues at ReviewFromTheHouse.com

For theatre, travel and dining as I see it, check out ReviewFromTheHouse.com. I have chosen to consolidate my writing within an umbrella web-site. As of now, Traveblogues will only be posted to Jill's Travelblogues at ReviewFromThe House.com. Check it out and please send me comments or suggestions. I would love to hear from you.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The kindness of strangers

Although to quote an oldie (song that is) "I enjoy being a girl", there are certainly times when I wish that testosterone was a little more evenly distributed between the sexes. Muscles are really useful for hefting heavy suitcases. Although I arrived with my unexpanded suitcase and really minimal clothes, thanks to some irresistible market temptations (brightly coloured provencal plates and tablecloths, and an incredible passionfruit vinegar among other things) my bag is expanded and heavy.

But each time on my journey from Leran to Pamiers to Toulouse and then to Gatwick, Heathrow and my Heathrow hotel, just as I thought there is no way I can get this bag down stairs, up onto racks, on or off buses etc., someone would say "let me help you with that, luv" or just smile and hold out a hand, and bingo, the bag would be where it needed to be.

So the last leg of the trip today. and back to Vancouver.

This is Jill, signing off from the travelblogue

Join me next time on another fun journey - to where? don't know yet

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Why one should speak French… in France

Six years of high school French and a “Learn to Speak French in only One Hour a Day” course on compact disc have not prepared me for the verbal challenge of investigating the booths set up at the Hazelnut Festival in the village of Lavelanet in the Midi-Pyrenees Region of southern France.

While my friends are watching new postulants being inducted into the Confrerie du Noisette, by confrerie members dressed as hazelnuts, in long brown robes with green caps and capes, I wander off to find out what burning issues stir the people of this area to action.

The first booth I encounter is the Association de Défense de la Pomme de Terre du Pays de Sault. I can translate that sign accurately but why, I wonder is it necessary to have an Association to defend potatoes? It turns out that there is a 300 year history of cultivating these special potatoes by traditional methods at high altitude on the plateaus of the Pyrenees. However tradition comes at a high price and the modern industrial methods of potato farming produce cheaper potatoes. So as I understand it, this association is a sort of marketing board to convince consumers to pay the extra cost to preserve the traditional industry and the high quality potatoes they produce. Unfortunately there are no test samples to conduct a blinded potato taste testing - so I move on to the next booth.

There, a large banner advertises a booklet that is produced by this group, titled “Pourquoi nous disons non à la réintroduction de l'ours dans les Pyrénées". Ok, I can handle that translation too. There is something they do not want to reintroduce in the Pyrenees. The term “ours’ is vaguely familiar but I can not remember what it is. The three people manning the booth do not know the English word. They call over one person, then another to help. After much gesticulating and loud simultaneous conversation, someone thinks to point to a picture on the side of the booth. It looked like a particularly gory and bloody carcass and I had initially averted my gaze. But now as I focus on it I see that next to the bloody carcass is a picture of …. a bear.

Ours, ursa, oso, orso …bears. So I deduce, this group is opposing the re-introduction of bears into the Pyrenees. We exchange some fragmentary English, French and hybrid sentences and I understand that they are concerned that the bears eat the sheep and generally create problems for the farmers. I wonder what happened to the bears. Were they hunted to the verge of extinction?

Then I wonder whether there is another special interest group somewhere that wants to bring bears back to the Pyrenees; a “ preserve the ecology of the region” type of crowd. However a philosophical discussion about preservation of species is clearly beyond the present conversational ability of both me and the rest of the group, so I move on.

A large purple poster of a histogram is displayed at the next booth and my attention is caught by the word “césarienne”. Hazelnuts, bears, potatoes and now obstetrics. How interesting. The poster appears to show obstetrical statistics for the “Race Gasconne” – the local population I presume. Two percent of this race in 2003 had a “difficult delivery” but the rate of “césarienne”, the caesarian section rate, was 0%. That is unheard of in our modern society. Obstetricians in Canada who worry constantly about reducing the rate of c-sections would be so impressed. I think to myself what a sturdy race of individuals these Gasconnes must be.

Then I see that the booth is sponsored by the Confrèrie du Boeuf Gascon.
I read the poster more closely and notice the word vache. I guess the two adjacent stalls with placid hay munching grey and white cows (named Orchidee and Benetton, by the way) shold have been a clue! Of course the Race Gasconne are a sturdy breed – they are cows. Still even though I am not an obstetrician, or even a cow accoucheur, I guess a zero percent rate for caesarian sections must be good, even for cows.

It is time to join up with the others for the Festival Feast, a four hour lunch featuring hazelnuts – and 6 lambs that have been slowly roasting on a spit since early this morning. I vow silently that I will devote some time to really improving my spoken French before I come back here. It seems so rude to not be able to talk to people in their own language when you are a visitor to their country.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Write, write, write: Saturday September 23rd

I wake this morning to a sky that is grey with the promise of rain. Before breakfast I walk outside and round the block to check if the café/bar is open yet. It is not. Today is a “day off” from the travel part of the course and time for us to focus on our writing. Sydney and Stephanie decide to go for a long hike. I decide to write.

I come up to my room to begin work. I sit at the desk with the pastel blue wooden shutters back against the wall of the building and the windows wide open. The air is cool and fresh. I boot up my computer and begin to write. My journal contains the details of each day and from it I extract pieces for the travelogue. At least that was the theory but I really am only catching up on the journal today. And somehow this is one of those times when the words just flow. I write steadily until lunch time.

Later, at lunch time, I go into the dining room to find the table set for one. The aural beauty of Mozart, Schubert and Bach, playing softly in the background, counterpoints the vista of stone walls, pastel wooden shutters and iron grilles seen through the window. On a wooden board rests a small white bowl of tiny perfect cherry tomatoes and creamy feta cheese squares in olive oil, a coiled loaf of bread, saucisse de foie (typical sausage of the ariegepyrenee region) and a triangle of blue cheese ripened to perfection. My novel lies unopened on the table. I savour the moment through every sense; flavour, aroma, texture, sight and sound meld into a surreal sense of pleasure. The tart sweetness of a juice laden nectarine completes the meal. I fold my napkin, and just as I am about to rise from the table the CD changes and Verdi fills the room.

Va Pensiero, the chorus of the Hebrew Slaves or Israelites from Nabucco is one of my favorite opera choruses. I smile as I remember one particular night of a holiday with friends in Italy, in early October last year. Driving along a narrow country road after dinner in a small mini-bus, nine of us plus the Italian driver (the only one with a good singing voice) belting out a version of Va Pensiero that we had scribbled down on a few scraps of paper with the help of our guide.

Around 5 in the afternoon I set out for a walk along streets lined with canopies of plane trees. My mind feels charged up and refreshed. I jot down phrases and thoughts in my little notebook and record images with my digital camera. What a luxury this time is. I am so glad I decided to take this course.

Limoux, Alet d' Baines, dinner at Angela’s: Friday September 22nd

The sudden banging of a wooden shutter somewhere in the house wakes me at 4 am. The branches of the tall palm tree outside my window scratch at the surface of the glass as the wind drives them wildly up and down. The weather is changing. Wind and rain will punctuate our visit to le marche in Limoux today,in contrast to the sun that beat down on the dry soil of the vineyards at Brugairolles.

I sit propped up in my warm comfortable bed, laptop resting on my knees listening to the wind prowl around the walls of my corner room. Suddenly I am eight years old again, curled up under the blankets in my grandparent’s home in Camps Bay, Cape Town, hearing the south wester howl through the trees while I waited to hear about my new baby brother. Each room in the house is as vivid in my mind as it was then. Strange. I can’t remember when last I thought about that house. I wonder whether this concentrated writing time is attracting old buried memories to the surface; a metaphorical divining rod. I need to write down everything I can remember about that time before the images sink back below the surface.

We set off to Limoux, which is approximately 29 K from Leran in a N-E direction. The objective of today’s visit is to visit a different French market, and for Angela to buy foods for our dinner tonight, which is to be at the home which she and Peter have, about four streets away in the village.

We first visited the covered market stalls in a large airy hall with a beige tiled floor, the tiles about a foot square, with pale grey grout. Inside were several vegetable stall, a large display of cut flowers, and a man who was selling eggs and had a metal and yellow plastic cage, with straw lined floor and four large grey furry rabbits huddled together, noses twitching and sniffing around, long pointed ears either sticking straight up or drooping. I hoped they were being sold for breeding rather than to be lapin on someone’s menu.

John commented that while children would crowd around the rabbit cages saying” aren’t they cute” and wanting to pet them, the parents were saying “should we roast them or bake them?”. It is definitely easier to be a carnivore when your protein comes to you in small plastic wrapped packages rather than on the hoof, so to speak.

Some differences I noted. Mirabelle plums are small cherry-tomato-sized red, yellow and orange plums. Unusual tomatoes- Verona tomatoes 6.80 / kg. Angela bought one for us to try for supper.

Named potatoes: I saw at least 9 different potato varieties of different shapes, colour and prices. For example: PDT (pommes de terre) prices in euros per kg
Rouge 1.98, Amandine 2.30, Jose 0.95, Agatha 1.20, Ratte and Vitellote 4.80.

I wonder if it is harder to eat your potato when is has a name? like eating your rabbit? I remember de Gaulle’s famous comment about “how can one be expected to govern a country with 325 cheeses” and think to myself “how can one be expected to govern a country with endless varieties of named potatoes”.

After lunch we wander back to the car, stopping to pick up olives and charcuterie. I bought anchovies, marinated in vinegar and garlic, and another container with a mild chili flavour. I will take that to Angela tonight for dinner. Sydney buys olives.
Stephanie buys flowers for Lee-anne to say thank you for all her hard work.

After lunch we pile back into the car to drive to L’Abbey d’Alet les Baines, a mediaeval village with a ruined abbey under reconstruction, and mineral springs. We wander though the village up to the River Aude. We walk over a bridge crossing the river, to a picnic site. I sit at a wooden table and close my eyes so the sounds of the river rushing over the rocks permeate my senses. What is it about water sounds that convey such a sense of peace? People speculate that it takes us back to the sound of blood rushing through the placenta when we are in the womb. I guess that must be the ultimate sanctuary- at least until the uterus starts contracting!

The village has streets and buildings dating back to the XII and XIII centuries. Our digital cameras click away recording image after image. We wander down narrow streets. One tunnel-like street reminds me of walking with Bob through the narrow streets of the mediaeval Jewish Ghetto in Lisbon sometime around 1997 or 1998. We were on our way hem after attending a conference in Estoril, the beautiful west coast of Portugal about a half an hour or so outside Lisbon. In the ghetto the streets were so narrow that you could reach out your arms and touch the walls on either side. It is still inhabited and I wondered what would happen if there was a medical crisis. You would have to carry people out on stretchers through those narrow winding streets. No car or ambulance or fire engine could get in there.

After our visit to Alet d’Baines we headed off back to Leran, pausing at the mineral springs to fill up water bottles from the spring water taps. At 7:30 we are to be at Angela and Peter’s home for supper.

Vineyards of Brugairolles September 21st 2006

Today’s agenda was to visit two wineries at Brugairolles, 26 km from Carcassone, capital of the Languedoc-Rousillon region. We drove through Fanjeaux, a hilltop village, pausing briefly outside a Benedictine church to survey the surroundings. The Benedictines were the Catholic order that slaughtered the Cathars.

The first vineyard and winery was Domaine Gayda. The grape varieties here are Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Carignan, and Cinsault. They do a Chardonnay Viognier blend. This winery is either new or under relatively new management. They have built a modern stainless steel winery, following Australian standards. We were fortunate to arrive at the time of the harvest or . We watched grapes being poured into the de-stemmer, and then passed along a conveyor where they were checked and remnants of stems manually removed before going to be crushed. They have a new and rather attractive restaurant there, open for lunch.

From there we drove a short distance to an older vineyard and winery. Château Guilhem. Here we were shown around by the young owner, Bertrand Gourdou Guilhem. The property has belonged to the Guilhem family for 5 generations. For much of the time they grew grapes but were not really winemakers. Bernard who originally studied medicine for two years, took over the business in 2003. His father was a surgeon inToulouse and Bernard would have been the 7th generation of surgeons… but now he loves making wine and his passion showed in every word..

Castelnaudary, cassoulet and the Canal du Midi – September 20th

The Midi Canal
Although I love most foods there are a few that are on my hit list and I shudder at the thought of them. One is cilantro. Another is half of the entire group of legumes. Since accuracy is important to a nonfiction writer, I looked up legumes in the on line “Cook’s Thesaurus”, (http://www.foodsubs.com/FGLegumes.html). There a legume is defined as “plants that have pods with tidy rows of seeds inside. This category includes beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts”. For some bizarre reason, nature or nurture – don’t know, while I love peanuts and peas, beans and lentils are among my least favorite foods. Actually pea soup is also something I dislike. It’s something to do with texture, I suspect.

Or maybe it has something to do with another traumatic event in my early childhood when I was told to sit at the dinner table until I finished my plate of green pea soup. Being determined and very obstinate even at six years of age, I sat there sulking for at least an hour while my mother came in and out to see if I had given in. Finally I got bored so after my mother had come in, shaken her head and gone out I tiptoed to the window and emptied out the by then cold slimy liquid onto the ground. Pleased that the discipline technique had obviously worked, on her next appearance in the dining room, my mother smiled approvingly and released me to play for a while before bed. It was only the next day that my evil deed was discovered. Fortunately my parents had a sense of humour and realizing that their 6 year old had got the better of them, they only reprimanded me. However I was never forced to eat pea soup again.

Anyway since cassoulet is basically a “white bean stew” or a meat and bean casserole. According to the web site, (http://www.ffcook.com/pages/Wrecipearch47.htm),
The French Food and Cook, “the origin of cassoulet is not very clear some historian say it is an Arab dish, some other says it was created in Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years' war (14-15th Century).”

The plan for the day is to visit Castelnaudary, have cassoulet for lunch, then walk along the Canal du Midi and check out one of the companies that hires out house boats for cruises along the canal.

At lunch on the sidewalk table of La Maison du Cassoulet I order a salad Lauragause: salad with smoked duck breast, duck confit, foie gras and grilled duck bits including gizzards. I figure that’s regional enough. I found the duck bits chewy and tasteless but oh, the flavour of the smoked duck breast and the foie gras was heavenly. I gingerly put a single bean from John’s cassoulet onto my mouth. The texture has not changed!

At the Blue Line offices, we are allowed to go onboard to inspect one of the boats, Calypso. It looks really comfortable for 6 people. They have houseboats for hire that are both larger and smaller. We walk along the canal to the area where four locks operate to allow the boats into the Grande Bassin. We watch two boats traverse the last two locks.

Then a drive back to Leran and a light supper in honour of the cassoulet which we were supposed to have had for lunch.

Camon and Le Chateau Abbey de Camon: Tuesday September 19th

Today we visited the Chateau Abbey at Camon where Peter and Katie Lawton have created a welcoming environment and exquisitely decorated bedrooms in a restored 16th century Benedictine Abbey. Parts of the building date back to the 9th century. From a terrace there is a panoramic view of the green fields and trees of the surrounding valley.

We walked up winding stairs, wide enough to allow a donkey laden with panniers to climb up to the Abbott’s quarters, to bring him dinner. I wondered whether he had grown too large to make his own way down the stairs. No one knew if that was the reason.

After we toured the Chateau we all sat around a table on the verandah and listened as Angela interviewed Thomas Sleigh, the chef. He lives in Chalabre and cycles in to work. He moved here in May with his wife who sometimes assists him in the kitchen. He commented on the progression of ingredients by the seasons and the profusion of foods. Although trained in the classical style of cooking his style today is driven by ingredient and weather; as he puts it he cooks “what the day brings”.

I leave with an idea for a story. To add to the ideas I have already come up with. But which one to focus on.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

l'Impasse du Temple: Home away from home

As comfortable as my bed at home: I don't even hear the alarm ring.

Lee-anne, our gracious hostess and wonderful chef, in the old temple area

John, genial host,driver, local expert, in the entry to l'impasse du temple

My working area: note the open computer and word document

Mirepoix Market – Monday, September 18th: images

We are based in the tiny village of Leran which is located roughly midway between the larger towns of Mirepoix and Lavelanet, in the Ariège department of the Pyrénnées-Orientale region of France. It borders on the Languedoc Roussillon region and our food related adventures encompass travel in both these regions.

As an introductory exercise today we visiting a traditional French market to observe le cuisine du marché. And Monday is market day in Mirepoix. The cooking term, mirepoix, a mixture of diced carrots, onions, and herbs used to flavour sauces or for braising meats, was named after the 18th century Duke of this area, whose cook is apparently credited with this technique.

Our instructions are to take notes on everything in this preliminary foray into the market so I have my spiral notebook and click ballpoint pen, as well as my digital camera tucked into the large purse slung over my shoulder.

We had lunch at a sidewalk café on the square: the plat du jour was confit de canard avec fennel au gratin- the duck meat melted off the bone and the combination with the fennel and cheese was truly delicious.

I am going to try to upload some images.

Monday, September 18, 2006

A Brief stay in Toulouse - September 17

After my somewhat traumatic day of travel yesterday I slept like a Jill-in-her-great-bed in Vancouver. In other words I was in bed by just before midnight, read for about half an hour and then I finally realized why people say out like a light. It was a toss-up whether I or the bedside light were out first. I had carefully set my alarm for 7 am to give myself time for a leisurely breakfast and to repack my disordered luggage before meeting my new friends at 10 am.

I was jolted awake by some incredibly noisy people in the room next door and just when I was thinking how inconsiderate they were I opened my eyes and squinted at the clock beside my bed. It blinked at me in bright red letters: 9:15 am.

“Oh-my-gosh” I thought-“ never mind a leisurely breakfast, I am going to be LATE.” And anyone who knows me well knows that punctuality is one of my few… ok many…obsessions. I sprang out of bed, showered, washed my hair and dressed in 20 minutes and dashed down to the breakfast buffet for coffee and breakfast. What a pity that I did not have time to appreciate the luxurious shower with perfect temperature controls, and the extraordinary good and free buffet in contrast to the mediocre and very expensive breakfast in the previous hotel.

Just after 10, Sydney and Stephanie arrived and left their luggage with the hotel concierge so we could get some sight-seeing done. We headed off to the tourist bureau where I picked up a postcard to send to my Luddite friend who does not have a computer with internet access (you know who you are!) and then we split off, Sydney headed in one direction to look for bicycles while Stephanie and wandered round the old town.

We lucked out. It so happened that this was the day in the year when all the museums and palaces were open for free admission. We wandered into the Palais Nationale where they were celebrating the crafts and culture of mediaeval times.

The pictures are the huge town square at the Capitole, a dance demonstration – the costumes were gorgeous but must have been hot and uncomfortable to wear; aand a demonstration of the stone carving technique.

ok the pictures are not uploading so maybe next blog

The three of us met back at my hotel, took a cab to the train station and caught the 2:50 local train to Pamiers. There we were met by John, the genial ex-Aussie host of l’impasse du Temple, where we discovered some hours later that his wife, Lee-Anne is a wonderful chef.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Approaching France - September 16th

I absolutely should not have sat back complacently in the comfortable Gatwick Express seats and thought how smoothly my travel has gone so far. For sure the little travel demons read my mind and said “aha – definitely time to stir things up”.

So I had packed really carefully. No liquids, not even my tiny contact lens container were in my back pack. I had carefully measured the dimensions of the backpack in Vancouver – complied with what was published for BA and AC and had no problem getting on the plane to Britain. But at Gatwick what horrors awaited me. The pleasant young man behind the check-in counter took one look and said “they won’t let you on the plane with that, luv”. Then he pointed me in the direction of one of those metal devices that they have for you to put your carry on luggage in to see if it fits.

My backpack normally has no problem fitting in the slot but with these new regulations, they had placed cardboard inserts in the frames to make them about half the size. Mine clearly was not going to fit! I was already warm from the traveling but I could feel little anxiety beads of sweat break out on my forehead.

He said “why don’t just check it? I’ll mark it fragile.”

My laptop, PDA, digital camera; my books! No lock. I don’t think so.

“Can you fit some of it in your suitcase?” he suggested, seeing my increasing pallor. Well, fortunately I have an expandable suitcase, and thanks to my packing light concept, it was not expanded.

He smiled reassuringly at me. “Take your time, luv, don’t worry”. Nice of him, considering the line up a mile long of people waiting to check in. I carefully avoided turning round to look at them.

So there I was on my knees on the less than clean floor of Gatwick Airport trying to figure out the minute numbers on my combination lock, stuffing books and adaptors and various other things into my now expanded suitcase and getting paler and wetter by the minute. Eventually I got the suitcase closed and the lock on and then… the multicoloured band that I put around it to distinguish it from the zillions of other small (expanded) black suitcases, now wouldn’t fit.

He waited patiently while I adjusted the band and then heaved the now heavy suitcase onto the belt. I half expected to be told it was now overweight… but by now I think he was anxious to get rid of me before there was a riot. So boarding pass in hand I proceeded with my now considerably thinner back pack to the security line up where another equally pleasant young man said, “That’s not goin’ to fit through the slot” and there was another little cardboard insert, Sure enough it was still too wide. So back I go to the check in counter where they give me a giant plastic pack and I take out laptop, PDA, camera and a book and check the back pack. I looked sadly at it as the man slapped on a ticket and sent it on its way. That backpack has traveled the world with me for more than ten years. It’s been many times to Europe, Asia and South Africa and all over Canada and the US. Never has it had to be checked. I thought I would never see it again.

So with my giant Plastic bag I got through the security and after an excruciatingly boring 2 hour wait in Gatwick (during which time I ended up in the bookstore and acquired two more books and a book of logic puzzles) I got on the flight to Toulouse.

At the other end, my suitcase (with multicoloured band) and backpack were among the first off. Reunited with my backpack I held it close and thought “Oh ye of little faith. Thank you British Airways.”

Arrived at the hotel where I was to overnight before getting the train to Pamiers, only to find that the hotel had no record of my prepaid booking. Somehow between the agency through whom I booked and from whom I had an itinerary with confirmation number and details of the booking, and the hotel, there was some miscommunication. Luckily they had a nice non-smoking room available and we agreed I would settle in and then sort out the details later.

By this time it was almost 6:30 pm and I was to meet the other two people who were going to Leran for the course, at 7. But I had an ace up my sleeve.
Skype on m y computer and a resourceful daughter in Toronto. So while Amanda and I were talking through Skype, she was able to get hold of the booking agency and explain the problem. They agreed to fax the details through to the hotel. Thank you, Amanda and thank you Skype.

At seven I headed downstairs to meet Sydney and Stephanie, for a nice introductory dinner at the Brasserie at the Hotel de l’Opera, wondering what the third crisis was gong to be.

Leaving London - September 16th

Of course, just as I have begun to feel comfortable moving around in my “hood”, it is time to leave. Some thoughts on departing from London today.

Soho and the West End, the small part of London where I have spent the past 5 days, is a bustling area full of young people. On every street there are pubs and cafes with sidewalk seating and patios. And they are always full. I began to wonder if people ever work around here, or perhaps a lot of business is conducted over beers or lattes. Oh yes, Starbucks is here as well with the usual intimidating list of possibilities for coffee, tea and iced versions of the same. I still haven’t mastered the art of ordering when all I want is a freshly made cup of coffee. That’s why I have my Cuisinart grind and brew on my kitchen counter at home, and here in London I am drinking a lot of water. It is sooo hot.

As for the reputation of English folk as taciturn and reserved, I have found the opposite. Most people have been friendly and happy to chat. At first I thought perhaps some of the smiles I was getting was because I looked lost, sort of “deer in the spotlight” at the intersections and traffic lights, clutching my London map. But when I knew exactly where I was going and relegated the map to the side pocket of my purse I still got smiles and friendly greetings. Maybe it’s just because I just look happy to be here. Who knows?

The rain has held off despite the warnings of the Weather Network. Have not checked what to expect in France since it has been quite misleading so far. It is already mid-September so I expect things will start cooling down soon.

I am heading off shortly to Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express to the airport. Although the travel agent said to reconfirm the flight the BA phone lines said not to. Hmmm…..…

A quick taxi ride to Victoria station with another friendly cabbie and I am now comfortably ensconced on the Gatwick Express – 30 minutes from Victoria Station to Gatwick. As usual I allowed myself oodles of time and will probably arrive there far too early for the flight. Although restrictions are still quite tight apparently and there are warnings everywhere to allow plenty of time.

Another observation from the four taxi rides I have had this trip. Whereas in New York, Toronto or Vancouver it is rare to find a cab driver whose first language is English, here I have had 4 English taxi drivers. Wonder if it’s a trade union thing?

Approaching Gatwick, time to sign off and think of approaching France.

Friday, September 15, 2006

More Shelley, less Keats? -is this title too obscure?

Of the major English Romantic poets I generally prefer the work of John Keats to that of Percy Shelley- but not when it comes to hairdryers. Think about it. When you are impatiently trying to brush and comb your wet hair into some semblance of dryness and order, what would you prefer? “Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind”, all gentle warmth but little strength so your hair does not dry at all or to be “Vaulted with all thy congregated might of vapours from whose solid atmosphere black rain, and fire, and hail will burst” – a strong hot wind that will dry your hair in minutes.

This burst of bizarre inner dialogue was prompted by yet another frustrating experience with the wall mounted hairdryer system thoughtfully installed in the bathroom so you won’t electrocute yourself by immersing your own hairdryer in water while you attempt to dry your hair. It is rather like one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes all “sound and fury, signifying nothing”. It’s meant to be foolproof – or perhaps for fools. You do not even have to switch it or figure how to extract it from its plastic base. You just pull it out and it begins to hum furiously expelling warm air that has no force at all. My hair isn’t even “soft-lifted” like autumn. So after a vigorous rub with a towel, a quick combing with the fingers and another thank-you to Emma of the clever scissor-work, I am off to the British Museum.

Spent several hours at the Museum. It has more Egyptology than the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Hmmm….. Absolutely amazing collections. Far too much to take in one day even at a superficial level. I lingered in the ancient Greece section. Remembered a wonderful holiday about thirty years ago cruising among the Cyclades and then visiting Rhodes. If we did not have a baby son at home being looked after by our brother and sister in law, we might have stayed on Rhodes forever. It was so beautiful.

So tonight I am off to see the last of my theatre performances, Avenue Q, and then tomorrow I am off to France. Hopefully the internet acccess will be ok from the little village where I will be staying.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Hop-on, hop-off or stay on for the ride

With nothing special planned till this evening when I go to see “A Voyage round my Father at the Wyndham’s Theatre, some more sightseeing was in order. With a limited amount of time, I thought I would take a tour and see where I wanted to spend my last free day in London tomorrow.

The ever helpful concierge showed me a brochure for the “Hop-on, hop-off” sightseeing tour of London and I thought “this is perfect” so voucher in hand I set off to Leicester Square to “hop-on”.

Although during the course of the 2 and a half hour tour we passed several other tour buses that looked fairly packed for some reason there were only about ten people on the one I took. I sat on the open upper deck with a cool breeze blowing thorough my freshly washed hair. Fortunately, thanks to a quick visit the day before I left, to Emma who has been cutting my hair for about twenty years now, I can just run my hands through my short haircut and it looks kind of ok. As long as I remember to do the running hands bit!

Actually speaking about the weather, which today is mercifully a little cooler than the last few days, I think the Weather Network is playing with my mind. I go on line, make sure I am looking at London, UK not London, Ontario or the other three Londons that are shown, and check out the prediction for the day. For three days in a row it has shown the little icon with rain pouring down, and for there days in a row I have carefully packed my rain jacket in my purse – and not a drop has fallen. Interesting. I find they are much more accurate at home.

The bus went past all the usual sights and tourist attractions. The tour guide had quite a funny patter but he seemed a bit obsessed with “ex-mother-in-law” and “my ex-wife” jokes and comments which were funny the first time but got a bit much. He may be bitter about alimony (is that what they call it here too?) or whatever but that’s his problem – if he really had a wife. The other subject that came through loud and clear was a resentment of the wealthy and especially those who apparently own half of London. More of the class thing, as in the play the other night. I know that this is always a huge issue in Britain but again the snarky comments got a bit boring after a while. And I was actually relieved when we arrived back in Leicester Square.

Among the most interesting sights for me on the tour were the unusually shaped buildings designed by Sir Norman Foster. The first picture is London City Hall, completed in 2003, also known as The Egg. Affectionately, I wonder?. The second is, I believe, a commercial tower, nicknamed the Gherkin and completed last year. I found the design of the Egg particularly of interest because of my curiosity about the spiral design of the high rise building that is going up just opposite my apartment back home. I guess spiral is in vogue in buildings right now. I wish I would have the chance to see inside. The shape seems to be uneconomical on interior space, specially at the top.

Well, just going to pick up some more fresh fruit on the way back to the hotel and then get ready for the theatre.

Shakespeare and sixteenth century stages.

The first English class I took when I went back to do my BA at UBC five years ago was a six-credit evening course on Shakespeare. So naturally one of the to-dos on my list for London was to see the recreated Globe Theatre. I decided to catch a Wednesday matinee of Antony and Cleopatra, one of the twelve plays and numerous poems I actually studied for my class.

The Globe is situated south of the Thames in Southwark. “Too far to walk to”, said the concierge. “And it’s across the river. You’ll have to take a cab.” I looked dubiously at the map. It did not seem too far to walk but hey, I was asking his advice. Maybe I should take it. So I headed off to Oxford Street from where a shocking-pink London taxi driven by yet another friendly cabbie whisked me down to Southwark.

I am going to post this now to see how to upload images. Then I need to head out and will write more about the Globe and The Rose tonight.

Hot Beds, Cold Showers

Just to clarify. This column is not about rabble rousing, greenhouse gases or salacious sex but I will get to the hot beds later. The column is however about something that has perplexed me since I last stayed in an English hotel, in Hull more than eight years ago. The question goes something like this

We know that the history of inns and traveler hospitality is not even four hundred years old for travelers in America while the history of inns in Britain must date back a couple of thousand years. So how come American hoteliers have figured out all the little things that make a traveler comfortable while so many English hoteliers have not?

Take plumbing for instance. The last time I endured weeks of cold showers was as a twelve year old away at a six week youth club camp in the African bush. The showers were outdoors, only cold water available, but it was so hot that it did not matter too much to a bunch of kids. Not that we showered all that much anyway. The ground where the camp was located was basically red clay. My mother used to delight in telling my kids that when I returned from that camp it took three hot baths before she managed to get all the clay dust out of my hair and skin.

Any way I digress. This nice boutique hotel where I am staying, like the one in Hull, has a shower problem. The first 5 showers I had here ranged from icy to luke warm. The lever to adjust water temperature has probably been worn out over time – it has to be tilted in a non-intuitive direction then ever so gently nudged micron by micron till you get it in the sort of correct place for the water temp you desire. And just when you think you have it right, without warning the water suddenly reverts to freezing. So I felt twelve again, but this time I am too fussy to go without a shower however cold it is so I am hoping I don’t have pneumonia by the time I leave London for France.

Now for hot beds. The bed in my room is very comfortable. Nice firm mattress and two pillows of different thickness to accommodate different tastes in pillow size; very thoughtful. A lovely duvet, the whitest, most inviting duvet I have ever seen on a hotel bed, beckoned me to snuggle up underneath it. And so I did, only to wake up a couple of hours later feeling as though I was in a steam bath. Duvets do not come with temperature controls so I could not even blame English plumbing- it’s my own internal thermostat at fault this time.

Next morning I spoke to the smiling housekeeper and asked if I could get a sheet for my bed, so if I got to hot I could throw off the duvet. She smiled and nodded. When I got back to the hotel that night, the sheet was on the bed but the duvet was gone. Alright I thought; let’s see how I sleep tonight. So after a couple of hours I woke up shivering. Not good.

Next morning I spoke again to the housekeeper. This time we got her friend, another housekeeper on the phone to translate. Between the three of us, we agreed that the sheet would remain on the bed, the duvet would reappear, and we would see how things went.

This morning, having not bothered to set any alarm, I woke up at nine am. I slept ten hours straight. Hurriedly got into the shower so I would be in time to get breakfast before I headed out. Nearly scalded myself. Tried to jiggle controls to get slightly cooler water. No Luck. Hurriedly washed my hair and the rest of me, and hopped out red as a newly boiled lobster. What will happen tomorrow I wonder?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Soho and the West End - September 12 2006

I pass bookstore after bookstore and theatre after theatre as I roam around the West End. My kind of place. I restrain myself from getting carried away buying books. I have one small suitcase for checked luggage and my back pack for my lap top. This is not a trip for acquiring things - except new experiences. At the Crime and Mystery Bookstore on Charing Cross Road however, discipline breaks down and I leave the store with a signed copy of the latest Dick Francis novel. Not even in paperback – poor bulging suitcase.

Some random observations from today’s walk follow, I noticed an unusual number of young people with spiked black hair, chains and black leather clothing, rings through many visible body parts and I suspect many not visible toot, and the heavy black makeup ringing the eyes like pandas. I thought Gothic was so not in, anymore. I wonder if there is a sci-fi convention on in town or something.

So what is the deal with street signs in London? I walk along a street wondering what the heck it is called, so I can find out where I am on my handy-dandy Streetwise London card, But a map is only useful when you have two cross streets identified. So I keep my eyes peeled for those tiny street names high on the buildings at the corner of the road. Well, nothing. For block after block nothing, and then, almost as if by accident, there is a little sign with the name of the street. Just because a street has been around for several hundred years doesn’t mean a stranger in town will know what it is, right? .

Oh, I forgot to mention when listing odd genetic traits in an earlier posting, that I am almost completely directionally challenged. Now its the almost that presents a problem You see my family and friends know when traveling that when there is some doubt about which way to go they ask me, “left or right” and watch my intuitive reaction. “Right” I’ll say. “Great” they will chorus and everyone will turn left and move off in that direction. The problem is that this works most of the time, significantly more than 50% of the time, but it’s not infallible. So if I was truly 100% directionally challenged, that would be great but not knowing if this is one of times it doesn’t work leaves me, and them nowhere. So I really need street signs.

One good thing I noticed is that many of the streets have huge white letters painted nest to the pavements. LOOK RIGHT or LOOK LEFT. They drive on the left side of the road here of course, and I guess they got tired of sweeping up dead tourists from the gutters every day.

Well I have my theatre tickets sorted out and on the way back to the hotel I stopped at a supermarket and bought some fruit, cheese, charcuterie and bottled water. After £14.00 (that is more than $28.00) bought me a breakfast I would not have paid $ 10.00 for back home, I thought some self catered in-room dining was called for.

By the way the jet-lag thing. Got to sleep round 9 pm and slept beautifully until 4 am. Actually I guess that’s the usual seven hours I get at home. By this afternoon though I confess I needed a nap – something that I never do ordinarily but hey! I’m on holiday, so a couple of hours to ensure I am wide awake for the show tonight is fair. Let’s see if I have any problem sleeping tonight.

For my comments on "Blood Brothers" check out www.immediatetheatre.com
for Rants, Raves and Reviews: Blood Brothers- A Heartbreaker


Monday, September 11, 2006

Technical Difficulties

Experimented with some changes. Never mess with something that works - I should know better. Anyway I hope this will revert to normal.

Contact me for comments

you can reach me at this new email


Look forward to hearing from you


Vancouver - Heathrow-Paddington- Hotel in Soho – piece of cake

I am writing this from my compact, and mercifully cool, hotel room in Soho.

The high in London today is 28 C and I have done a lot of moving around dragging my “light” luggage. Since my natural habitat is probably somewhere close to Antarctica or maybe Siberia, I find the air conditioning most welcome.

There has been a lot of moaning in Vancouver about the new line from the Airport to downtown but if it works anything as efficiently as the Heathrow Express, it will be a great help to travelers.

Our flight touched down early. I whizzed through customs ( minimal lineup and friendly agent) waited barely any time for my little suitcase to appear on the carousel and then within less than fifteen minutes I, backpack, suitcase and raincoat, were comfortably ensconced in the Heathrow Express train to Paddington.

At Paddington Station another brief wait in a queue for a taxi, and off to my hotel. Actually the taxi ride was probably the most uncomfortable because the twists and turns though little side streets caused my stomach to moved vertically upward to the vicinity of my throat.

Checked in, quick shower and change of clothing and off to explore the neighbourhood. My usually successful way of avoiding jet lag is to switch my watch and my head on to the time at my destination as soon as the plane is in the air and the seat belt sign is off. So I will try to stay awake till about 9 pm and then go to sleep.

Found my way to Leicester Square and got a great deal on a play for tomorrow night. Picked up some bottles of water and fruit smoothies for a light supper, and here I am, nodding over the computer with 2 hours to go before I can sleep.

Tomorrow when I am a little more with it I will plan out my theatrical odyssey and then plan the rest of my exploring around that schedule.

On Sleeping on Planes

In that strange unpredictable mix of physiological traits that our genes produce for everyone there are positives and negatives. In my case my hair resolutely refuses to do the usual ageing thing and go grey or white. Instead it sends out tiny silver threads every now and again so in certain lighting it looks as though I have very subtle highlights. Saved me a fortune in hairdresser bills. That’s a positive. On the other hand, I need only to look at a croissant or a pizza and I can feel myself expanding like the Pillsbury doughboy (oops-dough girl). That’s a negative. I have a sense of smell that can recognise one molecule in a billion. That’s a mixed blessing - particularly in an elevator full of wet dog. Or an airplane cabin!

But one of the positive traits for which I am most grateful is my ability to fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow. Sometimes even before. When I replaced my twenty year old bed recently I did some solid research before buying my new mattress. Right now I bet I could jump off a ten story building onto my new 18 inch mattress and just bounce right up without a scratch. The man who came to fix a damaged fixture in my bathroom looked approvingly at my new furniture

. “Eetsa awfully beeg bed you got der, madame”, he said.

I said in all seriousness “When I go to bed at night I fall asleep so quickly I sometimes fall asleep standing next to the bed so I need a big bed to make sure I don’t miss it and land on the floor”.

We looked at each other for a moment before we both burst out laughing.

But while I might have been exaggerating about falling asleep on my feet, I really am lucky that I fall asleep within minutes and sleep like a baby till the alarm tells me it is time to go to the gym. In fact I don’t need a therapist to tell me when I am stressed because on the rare occasions when I wake up at night or have any problem falling asleep I know its time for a check on what is playing havoc with my mind.

So why am I sitting bolt upright in this darkened cabin, surrounded by a cacophony of snores, grunts, coughs and other sounds that I prefer not to mention but which make me wish I was not blessed with that wonderful sense of smell? Everyone else is sleeping or at least making a very convincing show of it. But I have never been able to sleep on a plane.

I have a friend who taught himself self-hypnosis. He settles in his seat, puts his head back, closes his eyes and that’s it. He is asleep before the plane leaves the ground. Which is lucky because he travels a lot.

But nothing I have tried works for me so here I sit, thinking about recycled air and hoping that none of those little vicious viruses that lurk in airplane air will land in my vicinity.

Oh “to sleep, perforce to dream”. Where is Puck when I need him?

Red Eyed Vancouver Zombie in London

Despite seemingly endless procrastination about getting organized for the trip and despite many welcome phone interruptions, here I am in the Air Canada Lounge more than two and a half hours before the flight. And in answer to those who habitually have to grab the tail of the plane as it is lifting off and who tease me about getting to the airport days before the flight crew, I say “well guess who has time to make a real head start on her travelogue (or travelblog, if you will).”

Now for those of who don’t know me as well as my family this is probably as good a time as any to add some new words to my profile. Literal and honest …"to the point of stupidity" as my friend pointed out some years ago on a trip to Australia, after I declared my candy to the nice man at customs. Well they did ask if I had any food and at that time of my life, I included those hard candies, lemon and grapefruit flavour as one of the essential food groups. Great for preventing car sickness on long drives, by the way.

And, despite my reputation as being “assertive”, “opinionated” and “anti-authoritarian” I actually am a very law-abiding citizen. I wait for the little red sign to turn white and the beep beep beep to start rather than jaywalk - in Vancouver that is. New York is of course, different. Nobody there waits for permission to walk. I’m a law abiding driver too - I drive very close to the speed limit and respond with intense verbal commentary rather than aggressive driving to the nut cases on the road.

So as a result of my obedient nature I very carefully read the instructions about what ABSOLUTELY MAY NOT be brought on board flights leaving Canada.

And that included any liquids such as contact lens solution, eye drops, etc. Into my checked baggage went my tiny bottle of eye drops and I suspect I will arrive in London looking as though I was the star of that greatly intellectual forthcoming movie “Red-eyed Zombies of Vancouver”. Oh, you have not heard of that one? Hmmmm……

Anyway suffice it to say that I think I could probably have brought a bottle of champagne with me. It did not appear as if the security scrutiny was any more intense or sensibly directed than previously. They are still waving that wand around the metal hooks on women’s bra straps, and men’s belts and making little old ladies anxious and upset.

Time to get some more water and start on the Sunday New York Times crossword. Wonder if I can finish it before I get to London?

Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Night Before

Does anyone actually get packed and organized days before they are due to leave on a trip? Somehow each time I vow I will plan more efficiently and then I find myself scrambling at the last minute to get everyhting finished.

I think in the days when travel agents did all the bookings and presented you with a neat itinerary, bundles of tickets, and all you had to do was be where they told you to be at the right time, life was simpler.

This time I booked most of this trip for myself through a number of different internet sites, itinerary chaos....