Sunday, January 29, 2017

Reflecting on The Art of Travel

Alain de Botton is one of my favourite authors. I love his writings on philosophy and his belief that the point of philosophy is to help people live their lives.

I was given 'The Art of Travel' for Christmas which was perfect reading while convalescing after a bout of 'état grippal' (flu-like state) which has had me gripped for two weeks.

I have a very ambivalent attitude to travelling on the whole. I'm not one of those with itchy feet. If I can't travel, I'm not that bothered, but if I can, I tend to enjoy it. Of course, it depends how I'm travelling, and with whom, and why. My DB asked me recently to list my favourite ways to travel. I thought about it and came up with:

  1. motorbike
  2. car
  3. train
  4. plane

Since air travel became a cattle market, with dodgy air conditioning systems that share a plane-full of bugs amongst the passengers, I've avoided it, preferring the train for long-distance travel from A to B (France-UK). You can take more baggage on a train too, important for those essential supplies like boxes of wine for Christmas and summer holiday consumption with one's mother.

On a bike, the journey is as enjoyable as the destination if you choose the right roads, and with a car, it's similar but with more space and less contact with the weather.

Much of what Alain de Botton wrote resonated with me. He has a capacity to identify situations, problems, issues, and put words to them. Since reading about his holiday to Barbados which he expected to be fantastic, but found that he had 'inadvertently brought myself to the island' with accompanying psychological baggage, I read a similar sentiment in a novel later in the week: 'Not Quite Nice' by Celia Imrie, and of course, have often been distressed at how many unresolved issues encroach on the enjoyment of a holiday. The reality of travel is different to how we fantasise about it. We anticipate it to be somewhere we can be happy and carefree, but the reality is different.

How many of us have argued with a partner on holiday? My DB and I have had a number of humdingers. The aftermath of an argument leaves you unable to appreciate the many splendours of the place you've come to visit. I remember stomping along a superb cliff path on the Costa Brava, with the Mediterranean Sea glinting blue, and a lighthouse perched attractively on a rocky promontory. I barely noticed the views while there. So, "in order to draw the anticipated happiness from aesthetic objects or material goods, we first have to satisfy other emotional or psychological needs, like the need for understanding, for love, expression and respect".

Looking back on that walk, the memory of my bad temper has faded, but I remember the beauty of the walk. de Botton identifies this too: "We are best able to inhabit a place (in memory, anticipation) when we are not faced with the additional challenge of having to be there". One of the advantages of art galleries full of pictures of other places is that you can see the "essence of a country" without having to deal with the problems. Travelling dilutes the experience.

I always take photos of the places I visit, but I also try to absorb the atmosphere and actually see a place, by not taking photos. Ruskin, the artist, believed that people should learn to draw because drawing could teach them to see. "By recreating what we see, we move from a position of observing beauty, to one of understanding its constituent parts, and hence more secure memories of it." He was scathing of photographers who used it to pay "less attention to the world than they had previously from a faith that photographs automatically assured them possession of it".

Ruskin taught people to draw, not caring if they were any good at it. What was important was learning how to see. He also believed in describing a place in words, to "word paint", because it involves asking questions, being precise in analysing what we see and feel.

de Botton also writes about "spots of time" which are certain scenes we've witnessed that stay with us throughout our life "and when they enter consciousness, can offer a contrast to, and a relief from, present difficulties". One of my spots of time goes back a couple of decades. My ex-h and I joined some friends to walk up the gorges de la Carança and stay at the refuge du Ras de la Carança. We followed the narrow gorge from the car park and at some point came to a clearing with a waterfall. The light was shining in such a way that it looked like a fairy grotto. Hanging branches, long grasses and damp moss were all bathed in visible rays of ethereal sunshine and mist. We were the only people there, so it was like coming across a silent, beautiful other world.

Travel enables us to escape from the everyday, passing through transient places such as stations, airports and hotel rooms. I always feel a thrill of possibilities when I'm in a station or airport, and I love staying in nice hotel rooms.  Baudelaire loved being away from home and especially visiting transient places of travel, and he invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia, "the poésie des départs, the poésie des salles d'attente". Hopper sympathised with Baudelaire's attitude to travel, and painted the places of travel because there he found poetry, the poésie des motels, etc.

There is much to enjoy in 'The Art of Travel'. I have but touched on a tiny fraction, but I strongly recommend it for all armchair and actual lovers of travel.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Happy New Year (bof)

Back to work after a Christmas break is a tough one. You go from the festive spirit, lots of food, wine, making merry with friends and family to the serious business of earning a crust.

This morning I woke up and still felt festive, if a bit tired after a full week of merry-making and the return to France. By the end of the day I felt it was all over. The deccies are still up, and will stay up until Twelfth Night so as not to incur the wrath of the Christmas Spirits and scupper the year, but my heart's no longer in it.

I can no longer put off tidying my lovely pressies away. I'll have to empty my suitcase and generally tidy up the rolls of wrapping paper and boxes of Christmas cards. Après-ski is fun; après-Christmas is not.

Christmas is like a bubble of unreality. You suspend real life while you see friends and family, eat too much at every meal, quaff too much alcohol, indulge in cakes and snacks in a concentrated few days. I think it's the coming back down to earth that makes the hardest bump.

I was in the UK last week. On one evening, I met up with a couple of guys from school who I hadn't seen since they left at 16. We had a fantastic time reminiscing, catching up on who had done what, who had died (not so fun), who was where, etc. A real plunge back into the past, it was. A mega dose of nostalgia.

Back in the present, it's the New Year and I don't even want to think about what's coming up. Instead of plunging into gloom and doom, today I cheered myself up by noting the huge progress in human civilisation since 1820 as seen in the graphs of The World as 100 People.

From here - Our World in Data
Let's just hope the good things carry on getting better and the bad things continue going down.

Happy New Year.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Megalomania of Hotel Booking Sites

I will not be using or or any of these hotel booking websites any more. They have fallen victim to rapacious megalomania and enough is enough.

Over the long weekend of the first of November, my DB and I decided to go on a motorbiking road trip around Auvergne. The weather was set to be fabulous, a change from the last time we were there when low clouds obscured views of everything, and especially the volcanoes we had hoped to see.

We went onto Trip Advisor to look at hotels in Clermont-Ferrand where we wanted to have a base. It was a busy weekend and lots of hotels were full. However, we found two that had rooms available, and looked at the prices. We decided to book one and take pot luck with the other. 

After looking at the plethora of prices through Trip Advisor's partners, we went onto the Hotel Oceania's own website and found a good deal that included breakfast. 

For the first night, Friday, we went to the Best Western Hotel Gergovie near the Parc des Exposition. There we had a chat with the receptionist. We had seen on the price of €63 for the room. When we asked the price of the room, we were quoted €75. I said that I had seen the lower price on the internet and asked if we could have the same rate. The receptionist told us that, no, that was impossible because Booking had access to their reservations software, and they were not allowed to offer the same price! Not only do they monitor reservations, but they also observe who is looking at a hotel on their website and then goes onto the hotel's website (definite shades of Big Brother). 

If that wasn't shocking enough, she went on to say that booking websites take 20% of the amount paid. Twenty percent! That leaves a measly 3% margin for the hotel. How can they survive with such a small cushion of security? 

She said that while she couldn't offer us a lower price, she could throw in breakfast. I was pleased to hear the way the negotiations were going because I love hotel breakfast buffets. My DB agreed and we checked in.

It was very nice and they did a very tasty truffade in the restaurant at dinner.

When we arrived at the Oceania the next morning, we were given two tokens for a free drink each as we had booked through their website. A nice touch and much appreciated.

The good thing about all this is that competition makes businesses work harder. Breakfast is included in a price, and/or the client is offered a free drink. 

I wondered if it was just Booking/Hotels that behaved so greedily, and found that it was not. A quick search on Google (more megalomania) brought up a blog by someone who had investigated His experience was that the website took 25% of the fee! You can read about it, and see the photo he took of the reservation received by the hotel (and not for the client's eyes) here. In the comments section, a hotelier writes about his experience with Expedia and the pros and expensive cons of having a contract with them.

While it is useful to see what people have thought of a hotel, and it's definitely convenient to be able to book a room in the same place, we will not be making reservations that way any more and encourage these sites to take even more control of booking systems with their mucky fingers. I can just imagine them ultimately wanting to make it obligatory to go through their central system, and then, of course, put the prices up, and the hotels would not be able to do anything about it.

Keep hotels free from plunder! Use their own websites to make your bookings. Before it's too late...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

News and booze

Thought I might do a round-up of the month. Not the toxic, glyphosate type which kills every living thing in sight, but an environment-friendly John Craven-type Newsround.

I've given up zumba. Not a biggie, but when I went to the first session of the 'rentrée', it was a bit tough on the old knees. Nothing to do with having done zero sport during the summer because it was so hot (except for walking in Wales), but everything to do with age-related decrepitude. My DB suggested that perhaps zumba was for osteoarthritis-free youth and that I could do something else. The truth hurts, but less than a dodgy knee.

It just so happened that I had to get some sporty clothes for my youngest in Intersport behind Carrouf, and what did I see opposite? A gym. And not just any old outrageously expensive 1OO€+ per month temple of the vain and oily, but a 245€ per year basic gym with a nice age range of the young and fit, to the more mature trying desperately to ward off osteoporosis and muscle shrivel.

When I popped over to look inside, I was pleased to find nice kind lads in charge, one of whom told me all about the gym, didn't make me feel like an old crock who had no place in a centre of fitness, and generally made me very welcome. So I went back the next day and signed myself up, and my eldest.

I go two to three times a week, take my Kindle, and am happy I can go whenever I want (6am to 11pm) whatever the weather. I even have a personal fitness plan that is training me to be hail and hearty, strong of bone, and firm of bum.

I'm older than I was at the beginning of the month. It was my birthday (50+) which had to be a low-key event because it was mid-week. Otherwise of course I would have had a party for the masses... As it was, a friend took me out for a ladies-who-lunch lunch in a ladylike boutique restaurant called 'Déjeuner sur l'herbe' where you can buy the chairs you sit on if you so wish. I didn't, I just wanted to eat and chat, as you do in a restaurant. We had a very jolly time, even quaffing on a naughty work day glass of wine.

In the evening, I went to an InterNations bash. My co-Ambassador and I organised it for my birthday so I could celebrate it with a bunch of jolly people even on a Tuesday.

Happy Birthday me! I'm rocking the charity shop top!
When I arrived, I ordered a G&T to celebrate, and one was forthcoming. My co-Amb said she would get my drink and another G&T appeared. Turns out there was a little mix-up and this one had no home. When I told the patronne it was my birthday, she instantly gave me the second drinkie poo, so there I was, Two-Gins Sarah (see photo above). I got very merry (see below).

One G&T down
One of my buddies got everyone to sing ''Happy Birthday' and I must say I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

It was my eldest's birthday this month too. He is no longer a snotty teenager, but a go-getting young man of 20! Well, hopefully the go-getting will kick in at some point... and he has yet to dip his toe in the gym...

My son on his way to a gala event, suit bought 30mins prior...
Happy Birthday son, just kidding, etc.

It's a long, hard slog learning C sharp. I did very little over August with the result that I had to revise everything I'd done at the beginning of September, reviewing nearly all the videos and my notes so I could pass a little test. In order to boost my shit memory, I'm taking a complex of vitamins B and C, the sort of thing they give to Alzheimer sufferers...

The coding challenges often involve solving puzzles, and as I rarely use my brain in that way, it's like pulling teeth. My DB assures me it'll get easier, but I can just feel the rusty cogs cranking up in my brain trying to make head or tail of the problem.

I joined a Facebook cultural Ponzi scheme which involved books. Getting up to 35 books back, was the pull that convinced me. All I had to do was send a book that I loved to one person, put my name on a list, and wait for the best-loved books of others to come flooding in.

Well, I didn't get quite 35 books back. But I did get two. That's two more than zero, so it's a win! I sent off one of my old favourites - Mrs Frampton by Pam Gems - not Great Literature, but a merry read by a fabulous author (of plays for theatre and tele). I got back 'The Deptford Trilogy' by Robertson Davies, and 'Stiff' by Mary Roach both of which look fab.

I can't remember anything else for the moment (not sure those pills are working yet...), so that's it for this post.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Discovering Swansea's Industrial Heritage #2

The boat trip up the River Tawe was very interesting but to get more intimate with a ruin, you have to go to the Aberdulais Tin Works and Waterfall. It's a National Trust site located in the Vale of Neath. My mother went there years ago when all that was apparent was the waterfall.

Aberdulais waterfall
But there has been a lot of restoration and conservation work since, and it has revealed the ruins of the most recent industry to occupy the gorge - the tin-plating works. The site has housed a succession of mills since 1584 : copper smelting, iron-working, textiles and grain mills and, in the nineteenth century, tinplate.

Behind me is the old school, now the café
In its heyday, tinplate from the works was exported all over the world, and only stopped when the Americans slapped huge tariffs on tinplate imports to protect its own infant industry. Some of the Welsh workers went to the US to use their skills in the factories there.

The museum really tries to convey the conditions of the workers. There are videos, a small cinema, displays and objects dug up from the site. Local children tell the stories of their forbears on film, how they were put to work at the age of eight, and the terrible conditions they endured. It was so hot, for example, that sweat ran out of their shoes.

Replica wheel in original wheel bed
The wheel, that uses 400 year old technology, was built by students and apprentices of British Steel at Port Talbot. It's the largest electricity-generating wheel in Europe. It wasn't working when we were there, but it normally produces 100-120kw of electricity per day.

The turbine has a generating capacity of 200kw and provides electricity to most of the neighbourhood!

Small site, global impact!
Apparently the river is quite something when it's in spate. It was already quite dramatic during our visit after raining overnight.
Aberdulais falls
It was an exceptionally interesting visit; well done the National Trust for all the work they've done to make the museum as fascinating as possible. 

They even provide picnic tables for those who bring their own food, which we did, and the rain held off while we ate it!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Discovering Swansea's Industrial Heritage #1

The fun part of holidaying with three generations is that you get to do lots of different types of activity. It's easier if the youngest is a teenager and not subject to the tyranny of naps, and that he is amenable to tagging along to things he might not be initially interested in.

Gower is full of history, and the Swansea area in particular, has an amazing industrial past. The Waterfront Museum at the Marina will have your eyes on stalks at the sheer quantity and variety of industry that has existed in Wales. Did you know, for example, that Swansea was known as 'Copperopolis'? It was the heart of the world copper industry in the nineteenth century.

Copper ore was mined in Cornwall and shipped to Swansea, a prime location because of its harbour and easy access to local sources of cheap, suitable coal. You need three to four tons of coal to smelt one ton of copper ore so it made sense to transport the ore by ship up the River Tawe to the copper smelting works in the Swansea valley. The copper was then transported to the factories in the Midlands.

If you take a boat ride from the Marina on the 'Copper Jack', you can see some of the remnants and ruins of this industrial powerhouse.

Take a boat ride on the 'Copper Jack', Swansea Marina
We floated slowly up the River Tawe along with a full boat-load of passengers ranging from pushchair young to wheelchair-bound old. Once out of the Marina, a DVD started on a screen at the front of the boat and described in real time what we were seeing and why.

Notch at far end enabled ships to berth right up to the quay
We learned a lot about the industrial history of Swansea, and the damage done to the environment because of the success of the factories.

Chimneys and remnants of Hafod-Morfa copperworks
Separating copper from copper ore produced mountains of furnace ash and slag, and clouds of smoke laced with arsenic and sulphur. Workers were consumptive and the countryside all around was a desert. My mother was among the people on the boat who were locals and remembered what it was like, where absolutely nothing would grow.

Red brick former ice house
They marveled at the transformation of the banks which are now a verdant green and abundantly covered with bushes and trees. The pollution ended only with the decline and extinction of the copper industry. Good for Nature, bad for business.

However, the Hafod-Morfa copperworks is being regenerated. It's on a twelve-and-a-half acre site that contains twelve significant industrial heritage buildings and structures. Wales has woken up to the importance of its history, and there is funding to make the most of what remains.

The Swansea project was started back in 2010 by the council in conjunction with Swansea University, lead by Professor Huw Bowen, and plans include the creation of a centre for tourism, business, education and work. They are creating interpretation trails and a living history laboratory where visitors can learn about Swansea's leading role in the Industrial Revolution and development of the global economy.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Swansea is the place to go with teenagers!

The end of the summer is approaching; my son is looking at school bags online as he left his on the TGV coming back from the UK (with ID card, carte jeune, crisps and a few clothes inside); I've been back at work for a week.

We went for two weeks to England and Wales, as usual, but did not do just usual things. For our trip to London, we visted the Bethal Green Museum of Childhood where I saw, to my joy, an owl just like my own "Sage".

Toy from Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood
Mine is a bit bigger than this one, and has a blue and green body in a material printed with feathers. He came from Heal's sale and the story goes that I was about 4 or 5 and could be seen staggering along with the owl almost as big as me, saying "Can I have this?". He had one wing a bit loose but that was quickly remedied with a sharp needle and cotton, and he's been in my room (chez parents) ever since. The museum is lovely, but the noise of screaming kids was phenomenal. Take ear plugs.

In Wales, we stayed in a lovely little bungalow in Bishopston near Mumbles. It also has a story. The owner, who lives next door, built it for his father-in-law about 7 years ago. He incorporated all the specifications required by the old man. Then, when it was all finished, and ready to roll, the father-in-law, an inveterate hoarder, couldn't face leaving his own home.

It had an amazing bathroom, with, most unusually for rented accommodation, a thousand pound's worth of free-standing bath on feet.

My youngest was the only one to get to try it because my mother decided she'd never be able to get out of it, and I preferred the shower. He found it was lovely to soak in after a good hour at Limitless, Swansea's trampoline park.
Limitless Trampoline Park, Swansea
This is a fabulous place for kids and adolescents, or indeed students who want to play a game of dodgeball or organise a bouncy party. The noise levels were pretty high, so my mother and I retired to Starbucks about 100m away for a cup of tea while my youngest got on with bouncing off his energy.

While we were at that end of Swansea, we visited the new engineering faculty and management school of Swansea University. It's been built on reclaimed land from the docks, and is enviably close to the beach, called the ("pied dans l'eau") Bay Campus.
View from Great Hall restaurant balcony

Swansea University Bay Campus view towards Mumbles
The town has two universities that are both expanding, and bringing much-needed investment into the area.

Another activity that we did, that was eminently suitable for teenagers, was FootGolf, along the Mumbles Road. By that time, my brother and family (two ado girls) had arrived, and this was one of the activities that we could all enjoy. My mother kept score, and I distinguished myself not one bit as an ace footie player. 

I remember the greens, sandwiched between the promenade and main road, as a 'pitch 'n' putt' where my brother loved to thrash me and got very annoyed when I didn't take it seriously, which of course made me all the keener to be silly. The new owners have enlarged the holes and bought a bunch of footballs, and created a very entertaining activity that even I enjoyed without being too much of an idiot. I had to cheat on the odd occasion of course, but I enjoyed trying to kick the ball more than hitting it with a stick. No one will be wanting to sign me up for their team any time soon though...

My youngest wanted another go at shooting innocent targets, so we went back to Perriswood where he shot the hell out of a range of metallic creatures and printed baddies.
Rifle range with life-size targets
Airsoft range
Mother and I, on the other hand, were enjoying meeting Alice the lazy Eagle Owl, and Dave the dim Peregrine falcon as Perriswood is, primarily, a falconry centre where they do displays and rear rapaces. It also has lovely views over Oxwich Bay.
Oxwich Bay from Perriswood

So a good time was had by all, and we even had good weather! Next up, hopefully, our visit to the Tin Works Museum at Aberdulais, and cruise on Copper Jack up the River Tawe.