ACROSS THE WORLD 2009 – Week 4

Monday 31 August.

Parliament House, that stunning, ornate building on the Thames, has been open for tours recently but on arrival there, we find it closed for the Bank Holiday. We were keen to see it as we had recently been through our Parliament House at home where the basic layout of the House of Representatives and the Senate is based on the English House of Commons and House of Lords.

Across the road and beside Westminster Abbey, the Jewel Tower, built in 1365 by Edward III provides a café and tables which I’m sure Edward would have found eminently suitable for sitting and writing his journal. One of the disappointments of this trip and the last is that I have missed hearing any of Westminster Abbey’s choirs.

After a church upbringing and being a Sunday School teacher in my high school years, I drifted away from the church. What these years left me with however, were a love of church music and a special feeling for churches and cathedrals. I was also left with a respect for other people’s faith, not through deep and meaningful discussions with Mum and Dad, but by simply being around them.

It is principally the music however and I am delighted to find that Denise has bought a CD of the St Pauls Cathedral Choir.

Back to Usain Bolt for a moment. Caught you off guard there eh. Mohammad Ali has been in London this week. During a more than illustrious boxing career where he became world champion, he became a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and many Americans turned against him, but he has remained popular with the British. During his career he crossed that line which put him among the braggarts but managed to get away with it because just enough of his carryings-on were sufficiently tongue-in-cheek.

Hopefully Usain Bolt’s minders will be able to keep him on the right side of this line, ensuring his humility glands aren’t entirely suppressed.

I can admire sprinting but I’ve always had problems with boxing. Ali was a stunning athlete but it’s hard to accept that people can earn millions of dollars for hitting fellow human beings in the head. Before you start asking how I can enjoy football, keep in mind that the goal in all codes of football is to move a ball from your end of a paddock to the other end of the paddock and there are penalties for hitting an opponent in the head.

Here endeth the lesson.

Don’t, however, ask me to explain why I stick with Rugby League, with all the player off-field misbehaviour. Just because I’m an expert in what everyone else should do, doesn’t mean I’m an expert in everything I should do.

Tuesday 1 September.

Bus tour day today to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Oxford provides another day of information overload from the tour guide. Any snippets of information I provide here should be treated with caution as I will relay what I thought I heard as opposed to what I actually heard.

Windsor Castle is where the Queen usually spends her week-ends after a week in Buckingham Palace but she is currently away on her two month annual holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. When she is in residence at Windsor, 167 extra staff are employed there. (Go on Laurie, say something smart.) The castle has been extended and extended and extended over the past 900 years and is the size of a small village. The tour covers opulent state-rooms, bedrooms, drawing rooms etc. and a small percentage of the priceless royal art collection. (Say something smart yourself.) The St George Chapel contains the tomb of Henry VIII. Poor Henry only ever scored a low slab, and not an elaborate tomb as most of the royals received and much has been written over the years wondering why.

We are lucky enough to see again the changing of the guard (don’t know what was wrong with the last guard) and I wonder if the French have noticed that if ever they want to invade again, do it during the changing of the guard as the English will be too busy to notice.

THE TOURIST.

Don’t look at me like that Stonehenge
I only had 20 minutes.
Okay it was 45 but
five minutes for the bus driver’s instructions
five for the Gift Shop
five for the toilet stop
five to walk over here and back and
five for the mobile call from

Auntie Jean.

 

It’s easy for you
standing around out here for 4000 years
making no contribution to mankind
aligning yourself with the sun
or whatever it is you do.
What would you know about time management?
Today I have to see Windsor Castle and Oxford.
I’ve got deadlines you know.

And if we’re going to be pointing fingers
you haven’t really looked after yourself very well
have you.

If it was so difficult to get your big stones here
how come it’s so easy for so many of them
to get stolen.

Well sorry, I have to go now.
We don’t all have 4000 years
to stand around looking important.

The University of Oxford is essentially an administration department which links together 39 colleges. These colleges all have their origin as religious institutions, not related to university activity, but which evolved into higher education uses. On the tour we saw only old, old, old buildings. I assume there are new buildings, not of sandstone, hidden away somewhere from sight.

Oxford the town is of considerable size and the centre is traffic free cobblestones with very old and very new shops. The toilet is on the top floor of a new department store, if you’re interested.

Oxford has finally achieved the fame it deserves following the release of certain movies involving certain J K Rowling books.

Wednesday 2 September.

Today we drive to Paris and by the end of the day I am not very fond of France or anywhere else.

Collecting the rent-a-car from London’s Marble Arch, we are advised that we have to pay the London Congestion Tax since we’ll be driving in Central London for the first hour or so.

Arriving at the Chunnel, a very stern boom gate asks to see our ticket. “We’ve come to buy a ticket – as you call it,” we reply. The information phone then suggests we drive across to the Information Centre. We are informed that we can buy a ticket and the next train leaves at 12.50pm. TRAIN! It appears we have won the prize for being the only human beings on planet earth who didn’t know that you don’t drive through the Chunnel, you drive your car onto a train which takes you across.

We had mentioned several times in London to several people that we were going via the Chunnel and no one mentioned anything about trains. Everyone would have assumed we knew. The price of course was way beyond anything we expected.

Well, we do come from a long way away.

The drive through France via the E15, A26, E15, A1, E15, E19, A1, E19, E15 (every Highway has several names all at the same time) to the outskirts of Paris is smooth and uneventful except for a petrol stop where I have the sanger du jour which has been marinated in its own contents for the last two days while Denise has a sandwich which must have been dried out on the A1 for at least the last two days, the sanger du yester jour.

We also stop at St Omer a small village off the highway and after a €5 cappuccino we realise there will be no cappuccino led recovery for the French economy this year.

Once into Paris, however (it’s been a long day) we compete in the Paris peak hour free for all and by the time we reach the hotel I feel like an accomplished but frazzled go-kart driver.

On many sections of the road there are no line markings as none would make any sense anyway. I actually found driving on the right (wrong) side of the road a lot easier than in Finland as here I was at least driving a right hand drive car as I have for the last 48 years.

After dinner I go for a walk and just down the road is the Moulin Rouge. With eyes as wide as a Baz Lurhman lens I continue further along the Boulevarde de Clichy and I’m stopped by a man asking if I would like to come in. “It’s free,” he advises and I tell him no thanks but he continues “Come on in, its free”. I notice his shop is called “Live Shows”. A little further on an attractive blonde lady, much younger than me asks “Would you like to come in? Are you English?” I reply “No and Yes”, English is close enough. It seemed that she really wanted to be friends and was quite fond of me but I told her I was quite busy and had an important appointment to get to. She couldn’t hide her disappointment.

By now I had decided that I liked Paris and its friendly locals after all.

Thursday 3 September.

Looking out our hotel window, we have a view of a corner of the Montmartre Cemetery that is so close we can almost read the inscriptions. The graves are very old and beyond elaborate, consisting of structures that you could walk into. These structures are called sepultures and we find the graves of artist Edgar Degas and writer Emile Zola.

On our morning walk we choose a coffee shop situated at a six way intersection for entertainment. The intersection has two roundabouts which aren’t actually used as roundabouts. I don’t actually manage to figure out what they are used for but with the magic of numerous traffic lights, the traffic weaves itself successfully to wherever it is going.

Almost all the cars are small and there are none of the four-wheel drive all terrain vehicles that Canberrans need to get to work in the City Centre. The motor scooters, by the thousands, can fit through gaps which are smaller than the scooters themselves.

We don’t order the cappuccinos at €6 but seek out the cheapest (relatively) coffees. I can advise that, contrary to common belief, you can’t stand a spoon up in a French Espresso, as the spoon dissolves before you can balance it. The lined, hooded jacket I bought at Vinnies at Dickson back in Canberra cost the same as a cappuccino here.

We spend the day walking and resting and try not to fall into that old tourist trap of “Look. Another stunning streetscape.” “Look. Another stunning streetscape.” Yawn. “Look. Another etc etc.

Dinner is at Corcoran’s Irish Pub where the staff have Irish accents.

We have only three full days here and our plan is, having walked the local areas today, to do the tourist spots over the next two days. We won’t be doing the “Dinner and Show” at the Moulin Rouge starting at €150 per ticket.

By the way. On our travels so far we have occasionally tuned in to CNN and BBC World News. The good part is that after a couple of hours of TV watching you have learnt the news off by heart.

Friday 4 September.

Day one of a two day bus ticket gets unfortunately interrupted as Denise comes down with a heavy cold. She manages to survive the first half-day but has to go back to the hotel after lunch while I continue the tour.

Paris is fortunate in that some of the main avenues have been designed by planners/monarchs with PhDs in Grandeur. The broad Champs Elysees commences at a 1300BC obelisk, which was given to France by the Egyptian Government, and rises to the Arc de Triomphe which is also the focal point of eleven other radial roads.

The obelisk is the centre of the Plaice de la Concorde, a vast intersection big enough to run several hundred sheep at home. The vehicles display many of the same movement patterns as would the grazing sheep.

In Finland, pedestrians obey the “don’t walk” signs fairly closely. In England and Australia, many people will look left and right and go for it if it seems clear. In France, vehicles and pedestrians will often mingle happily in the middle of large intersections while the traffic lights do their red-amber-green thing.

I again prove what a sucker I am for grand design by falling for the Eiffel Tower with its museums back drop and grand approaches. The Paris streetscapes win me over in the “best streetscapes I have seen” competition. Somehow they are more appealing that those in Rome, Helsinki, London and San Francisco, the others I have seen.

Back in the hotel we have a fold out sofa instead of a bed, which always seems like a great idea right up to the point where you try to sleep on it. This one has more moving parts than the Paris Metro and each time we roll over I hear a voice from outside calling “Keep it down. We’re trying to sleep here”. It sounds very much like Emile Zola’s voice to me.

Saturday 5 September.

Day two of the bus tour and we decide Denise should stay home with the flu and I should continue with the tour.

I decide to walk the first thirty minutes to one of the bus points and just as I arrive at the back of the Opera House, I am stopped by a woman who has just picked up a ring from the footpath and is asking, “M’sieur, did you just lose your ring?” “No”, I reply. The ring is double the width of my wedding ring. “Is it gold?” she asks in wonderment and I reply, “I don’t know. It could be.” She suggests I take it and I suggest she gives it to the man in the news stand as the owner might come back looking for it. She keeps suggesting I take it as it may be a good luck charm. I keep resisting the offers as she tries to put it in my hand and suggest that she keep it. “Me no jewellery” she says touching her ears, neck and fingers.

Eventually, I walk on, and around the side of the Opera building, I stop to photograph the gold embossed “Academie Nationale de Musique” sign near the top of the building and turning to resume my walk, I am stopped by a woman who has just picked up a ring from the footpath and is asking “M’sieur. Did you just lose your ring?” “No” I reply. The ring is double the width of my wedding ring. Well! What are the odds on this I ask myself silently. A quick look reveals that ‘she’ is a different woman and that ‘she no jewellery’ either.

I move on and marvel at this remarkable coincidence!!

A little further down the road, I kick myself for not going on with the second encounter, or staying around to watch and I’ve been wondering ever since what the next move would have been. I can only imagine that once I had the ring in my hand, she (they) would have suggested I share my good luck by offering a small donation. Anyone who knows the answer to this please let me know. There could be a prize of a fully authenticated 18 carat ring for the best answer.

I am sensing also a connection, an accent maybe, between The Ring Lady of Paris and The Rose Lady of Tampere.

During the day I photograph Paris from the roof of the new very modern Arab Museum and spend time around the markets and Paris’ other Opera Hall at the Plaice de la Bastille. This is another of those 40 acre intersections and the monument at the centre is not to the Bastille part of French history even though “The Bastille” was situated here.

Back at the hotel I find Denise has recovered enough to have done a tour by tourist train, a rubber tyred version, which can weave through the narrow lanes of the Montmartre area. Montmartre is the highest point in Paris and has been associated with the arts for centuries.

We round off the day by photographing the graves of Degas and Zola and the many other occupants of the sepultures, the graveyard cats.

Sunday 6 September.

The trip out of Paris and up to Hastings via the more westerly motorway again provides great scenery and we are surprised on getting close to the Chunnel that you can see England’s White Cliffs across the channel. No wonder it was so tempting for the William the Conqueror types to duck over and plant their own flags.

Coming through customs it was also too tempting for the English Customs Officers on seeing our Australian Passports to mention the Ashes with satisfied grins on their faces.

After dinner at Hastings Old Town we go to bed early. The colds/flu are taking their toll. It usually takes about 20 minutes a day to write this journal but when you’re not well, that 20 minutes is hard to lay your hands on.