Category Archives: Travel

Inspirational ripples

 I was wandering around my old files today when I came across this little piece that I wrote yet didn’t publish back in Autumn 2009.

I was thinking about how the little fountain I rested against offered a metaphor for change…

Market day in Tonneins – busy busy, hot hot, dusty dusty; lots of French (and a few English) locals, the usual North Africans, tourists, migrant workers for the plum/corn/sunflower harvests. The ‘ethnics’ all at one end with their brightly patterned and coloured clothing, their spices; the locals sifting through market stalls filling with fleeces and other autumn and winter clothing, picking the sweetest and juiciest tomatoes, melons, the first of the season’s prunes and the last of the haricots verts, jaunes et noirs.

It was an unprepossessing little fountain near the riverside ; no more than a piece of local rock about 6ft wide with a hole drilled through it and six 12” jets of water spurting from the top, splashing on the rock and into the pool around the rock. Still it offered a coolish resting place and the gentle tinkle of water on water. I sat on the surround for a brief rest, the fountain to my back. Drifting into some heat induced trance, I noticed the occasional wet spot appearing and disappearing in front of me, several metres away from the fountain. It’s not raining, no local child with a water pistol, they can’t be travelling so far from the little fountain – what’s going on?

Sherlock Holmes kicked into action – yes they were coming from the fountain after all, very occasional little splashes hitting the rock at just the right angle to reflect them out across the pool so far away as to seem improbable. The pool, and the ripples of the water splashes, had my attention…

As I watched, entranced by the ripples, I noticed that sometimes the surface was relatively calm, at others turbulent with the interactions of several ripples; sometimes small splashes, at others large blobs of water would disturb a great part of the pool – ever changing and always something happening, my attention gripped by the circles of light and dark as the ripples shed their shadows on the pool bottom. Always light after dark, the shadows fading as the ripple spread out across the pool, intersecting ripples throwing up sun-bright spots and night-dark shades.

I am sat focussing on the ripples and their shadows before my eyes, only just now noticing the contents of the pool – what was in the pool, on the bottom, floating on the surface, coming into eyeshot. Bunches of grapes, last night’s coke can, single leaves and leaves formed into mats solid enough to resist the charms of the water splashes, tiny tiny fish, gnarled rocks and smooth pebbles.

Suddenly a tsunami! Now the local boys had started playing in my pool, all the time they had been creeping up and now they struck coming from outside my viewpoint to change the whole pattern of my little ripples.

 

 

Well, I could sit here and philosophise or I could actually go get my pen and paper and record these thoughts – so I do so.

 

Coming back to the fountain I can see nothing, the glare of the sun on the ripples totally bleaches out everything. But as I walk around the pool to my starting place, the glare reduces as the angle of the sun changes until I can finally see all the original detail. It was worth coming back. I sit, I think, I write, I remember that 30 metres away from this mesmeric little pool, perhaps 3 metres across, flows the mighty Garonne River as wide as a bus and as deep as a house; strong enough to sweep away this little piece of rock without even blinking an eye. I notice again the hundreds of people going about their daily business all around whilst I muse on ripples and their metaphorical relationship to organisational change. I move on – if I stay I get damp or sunburned and neither of those is in your writer’s plan…

 

 

 

Inspiration from the most everyday objects – just let your attention flow…

 

 

 

Pay attention to the tiniest detail of your environment…

…to the unexpected…

“…there is something interesting going on here…”

…stick with it, investigate.

 

 

 

 

Never the same yet patterns of similarity

Some actions have little effects, some are more traumatic

 

 

Calm after the storm…just wait…

 

Sometimes you get the occasional really  difficult challenge

 

Don’t get mesmerised by surface noise – look below/through to see the deeper structure and/or what is not changing. Keep your eyes open for what is just out of and coming into view – it may be more important than your current focus; or it may temporarily make your current efforts pointless. Is what you are observing part of the underlying issue or is it an artefact – perhaps of someone else’s fiddling?

 

Take action – thinking never changed a thing, only actions change the world

Observation — Insight

Action — Change

 

Review the challenge from different angles – what may seem impossible with one set of eyes may not be through another.

 

Be aware of the wider world – you might be deeply embedded in your problem, others might not care less!

 

…and when it’s time to go. It’s time to go.

 

 

 

Shattering memories – updated

Lefkada deserted village 2One day, while wandering around Lekfada Island (In the Ionian, in case you didn’t know), we came across this deserted village. Houses broken down and looking as if they might have been left in a hurry. We mused about earthquakes, displaced ethnicities, economic disaster etc and it was only  later that we found that the village had been hastily abandoned after a traumatic earthquake some years previously.

Now earthquakes are nothing new in this region and they are caused by three Lefkada deserted village 3tectonic plates which meet in the area of Kefalonia, Ithika and Zakynthos (Zanti). Apparently the plates, which are in constant motion are causing Greece to sink slowly into the Aegean. A major quake centred on nearby Kefalonia in 1953 was felt in Lefkada, but the real damage was likely done by one in Lefkada on August 14, 2003 – 50 years to the week after the 1953 quake.

I find it hard, if not impossible, to imagine such trauma. We regularly hear of earthquakes and other equivalent tragedies on the TV and radio, yet we are inevitably somewhat dissociated and insulated from them. Here I am so many years after the poor people watched and heard and felt as their word tumbled around them, not realising in the instant that they were witnessing the end of their village. The sadness was almost overwhelming, even so may years later.

As we wandered, we found NO evidence of the people who had probably lived here for centuries. Nothing, zip, zilch. Perhaps the odd bit of plastic suggesting that someone was trying, or had been trying, to keep the walls dry (essential if they are not to deteriorate beyond repair). A herd of goats could be heard tingling awaDeserted village in Lefkada following Earthquakes 1y at the far end of the village when we noticed the odd sign of regeneration starting. Was this one old owner returning? Was it the beginning of a complete rebuilding? Who knows? Whatever was happening, it was a sign of hope, a sign that perhaps this centuries-old village was not dead for all time.
Plagia starts to regenerate

UPDATE

Thanks to the wonder of Tripadvisor Forums I have found out more about this village. Firstly, that it is not on Lefkada but actually on the mainland just across the water and is called Palia Plagia. It is sometimes known as Old Plagia because the village has apparently been moved nearer to the coast after the earthquake that caused the devastation in the photos above. Here is a Google map of the location. 

Reflections on Hay

Hay on WyeIt was warming up for The Festival here, the annual pilgrimage for a quarter of a million (or so my landlady tells me) literary, arty, philosophical types to the Kingdom of Hay. For so it was declared by Richard Booth, the instigator of the global fame of this book-centric town and its ‘largest arts festival in the world’. Over the next week or so the population of around 5000 will be swamped by incomers and I hope they have fat wallets, for this pretty town deserves it. With its river, derelict but hopefully being rebuilt castle, a cheese hall, more pubs than you can shake a stick at, even more restaurants, cobbled streets, high-class delis and knickknack shops it has a lot going for it. People on early morning walks even say hello to you.

I think the closest I can get to a one word description is ‘genteel’, although in a positive life affirming way. It feel safe, happy and comfortable in its skin.

I’m in Wales but the local accents don’t give it away – or perhaps I have yet to meet a true local, for this is certainly the sort of place likely to fill with a well-off middle-class eco-warriors. Throw a stone across the river with a strong arm and it would land in England. I know this because I read it in a guidebook.

Did I mention books? Since Richard Booth’s first bookshop – and by the way his original is beautiful, airy and well-organised and with a cafe that encourages encourages you to stay even longer – over 30 more followed. It takes very little research to recognise that way over 1 million second-hand books are offer in this small town. You name it and you can buy it here. From publishers’ overstocks to antiquarians (aren’t they just old books?) and even a whole shop devoted to books about railways. This is book porn without the porn books, although it would not surprise me to find a little corner somewhere selling early- or high-class porn as well. As for me, I headed to the cookery sections and found everything from the ubiquitous Jamie through Anton Edelman to vintage professional kitchen guidance tomes. A mere £12.50 released three into my possession and not only will they occupy a few hours happy reading but two of them (Picnics by Claudia Roden and Creative Cuisine by the aforementioned Edelman) will even prove useful in my own culinary adventures.

The Thursday market was due the morning after I arrived. Advertisers as from 0800 onwards I guess I should have expected that it might not have been up and running as early as a French equivalent would be but nonetheless it, and a smaller flea market the following day, added colour to the already interesting streets. Some of the flea market vendors even had sufficient bravado to have a few second-hand books on offer. I resisted the temptation to buy one of Nigella’s early oeuvres.

So, lasting impressions. Pretty place in a gorgeous setting, amazingly friendly and helpful locals (one, when I asked directions, even came down from his ladder and went inside his house to get me a free town guide before giving precise and detailed directions to my dinner venue), shops and activities that will surely keep everyone occupied. What’s not to like? I will be back.

A trip back in time

DSC_0279I don’t know who Walter Elliot was, nor how old he was (maybe nobody did) when he died in a foreign field. This was the first name I noticed, perhaps because he came from West Yorkshire; others had no names, yet others no graves.

At the rising of the sun and in its going down, we shall remember them

I hope that someone here in West Yorkshire remembers him.

“How about we spend one of our sessions in Belgium exploring the World War 1 sites” was an innocent enough suggestion a couple of years ago. And it gained traction, and the plans slowly formed, and a decision was made that he Spring 2016 meeting of The Brookfield Group would be based in Ypres, Belgium.

Rail tickets were booked, minibus hired, accommodation sourced, schedule suggested and eventually on 13th April I set off for Winchester. By the time we got to Dover for an early afternoon ferry on Thursday 14th there were 11 of us; by the time we got back to Calais on 18th there were still 11 of us, but we were changed men.

I have posted before about my responses to visiting Auschwitz and reading that post in conjunction with this one could make sense.

I am not aware of any family connections to WW1 and much less interested in history generally than some of my colleagues in Brookfield, and I agreed to go on the basis that the trip would at least enable me to explore my ‘attitude’ in the light of hard experience of visiting the sites of some of the most prolonged and bloody battles. I am so pleased that I went and was abe to share the experience with a bunch of men who have come to know each other well and are able to support each other through thick and thin. Many of us needed that support.

This is not a travelogue, but perhaps listing some of the places we visited would help, so here goes (in no particular order) – The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres, the Commonwealth cemeteries at Tyne Cot, Poperinge, Croonaert, Dantzig Alley and others, The Menin Gate, two memorials to the Welsh contingent, Talbot House, Langermark German Cemetery, the Paschendale Museum, reconstructed trenches at Bayernwald. We saw and revered the resting places of hundreds of thousands of poor young men of so many nationalities; we wept; we laughed; we wondered about the existence of a ‘just war’; we debated (somewhat pointlessly, for who really knows how they will respond in extremis) how we might individually respond if the call came to fight for our country; we took photographs; we bought souvenirs; we left only footprints.

But I left more than footprints, part of MY heart now lies in those foreign fields. The part of my heart that cannot help but pour out in sympathy for those poor young men, those sons of mothers and prides of fathers, who had their lives so rudely torn from them in a conflict that so few of them probably understood. I find myself unable to agree with the mantra so often seen “They gave their lives…” NO THEY DID NOT! The lucky ones had their lives extinguished by a well-placed bullet or massive explosion – over in a flash; the unlucky ones were wounded with inadequate medical support whose job anyway was to get them fit enough to go back and be shot at once more, the even more unlucky spent hours/days in the cold wet trenches with their feet rotting perhaps wondering how much longer this war that would be over before Xmas was going to last before going home with what we now label PTSD but in those days was not recognised and go getting no support as they were unable or unwilling to talk about their horrific experiences; worst of all were those 306 men who were summarily court-martialled and shot at dawn for desertion or cowardice.

I can hardly call them ‘highlights’, perhaps a few more memorable moments:

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 finished.

Flags list major conflicts since WW1 finished.

The exit from The Flanders Field Museum in Ypres – there hangs a series of banners listing the major conflicts that have happened since the end of the war to end all wars. Tragic.

 

DSC_0296

The gardens at Talbot House in Poperinge. A haven for those able to spend time away from the lines – humanity in amongst inhuman carnage. Talbot House was behind the lines and Poperinge was never taken by the Germans. It was the origin of the humanitarian movement TocH, who still work supporting and bringing together disparate parts of society.

 

 

Tyne CotTyne Cot – the largest Commonwealth War Grave containing nearly 12,000 marked graves, over 8000 of which contain unidentified remains as well as names of over 34,000 British and New Zealand soldiers whose remains are still missing in the Ypres Salient.

Eternally watching over them

Eternally watching over them

Finally, Langermark, one of the few German cemeteries. The Germans repatriated most of their fallen. This moving sculpture watches over both named and  unidentified remains of tens of thousands of German fallen.

 

At times it seemed that the only way I could deal with the assault on my senses was to dissociate from what I was witnessing, yet to dissociate would weaken the impact. We now have a generation of politicians who like me have never faced the reality of war, dissociation enables them to send more young men to die in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and all of the many conflicts around the world. Is the ‘war’ against ISIS any more just than WW1? What view would a utilitarian take of war? Is the participative democracy that we believe in and send people to defend and impose really much better than a benevolent dictatorship? Would fewer people die and/or live at least acceptable lives has Saddam, Assad, ISIS etc been allowed to do what they were doing for longer? Conflict is generally ended by enemies sitting down talking to each other, should we be more prepared to spend longer talking before getting the guns out?  Unanswerable questions, but questions we should surely explore openly and often, let’s not allow a ‘war is the answer’ mindset to proliferate.

How do I feel now? A host of words come to mind, but I have yet to find a label for a complex set of emotions that includes anger (unwanted because anger only fuels disputes), sadness and disappointment that the lessons have yet to be learned and so many around the world still think that the way to resolve their differences with others is to send more young men to their graves, grief for those who suffered (some briefly and some for many years after the conflict was over), helplessness to prevent it happening again, pleased that I went on the trip, disconcerted that the prickliness that I often manage to control leaked out during those times when my internal editor was tired out.

If you get the chance to go on such a trip please take it – you are likely to learn about yourself as well as history.

ADDENDUM

I finally managed to capture these thoughts a couple of weeks after our trip:

I saw graves and names beyond count
Graves with no name and names with no grave
I heard the gentle hum of the traffic, the whispering of the wind in the trees, the gentle twittering of the birds
I tried to hear the grim sounds of battle, the cries of agony, the last whispers of millions of lives being extinguished
I felt it all and I felt nothing
The despair, the passion, the pain
The hundred years of separation and the lifetime of privilege
I cried and I cry now that lessons have to be learned anew by each generation
Young lives are too important to waste in pursuit of some ego or ideology
No more, no more
If only, if only…

poppies at Tower2In May this year I will be accompanying a group of friends visiting the scenes of some of World War 1’s battles in Belgium and Northern France. I have to admit to ambivalence about this trip because the history has never especially interested me and I do not feel as compelled as I was when having the chance to visit Auschwitz. In fact, that lack of imperative is why I agreed to go – to explore my own responses, or lack of, to one of the world’s most traumatic eras.

As part of the preparations, one of my friends has just revealed some personal history that is leading him to be ‘holding the German side’ when we visit France in April. I’m not going to share his words, but am happy to post my response.

Thanks for that my friend, some details of which I was not aware and which bring your situation to life. For me you raise an interesting point about what might be ‘nationality’.

If I have a ‘position’ on this, and I guess we all have even if it is implicit, then it is probably that of being human.

I don’t particularly feel as if I belong to any nation (or community of nations – EU), although when asked where I am from when I am abroad I usually say something like “Leeds, from the North of England”; that’s accurate as a description of where I currently live (I was actually born in Hull, so some would say that is where I ‘come from’ and I actually feel more like an ‘Ullite than a Bradfordian) and helpful if the questioner really wants to know the answer. Ultimately the labels we use to describe our places are transient and I’m happy to be a Yorkshireman, English, British, European, a citizen of the World…all of which are accurate.

As for the visit, I’m really pleased that we are recognising both sides of this conflict. It’s too easy to accept the victor’s account, believe it to be true and forget that there are other narratives. After all, the Milgram stuff demonstrated that in certain circumstances we might all do wicked things and I honestly do not know how I would have reacted as a 20 year old German given a ‘do or die’ imperative when faced with an instruction to do something horrendous. It’s easy to be ‘correct’ and propound humanitarian positions from the comfort of our relatively well-heeled safe armchairs but I suspect that in the het of battle things are different. Remember one of my beliefs – “we are all doing our best all the time” – and how it applies in the moment, in my particular circumstances. I get really upset when I hear about those young men who “gave their lives”; NOT THEY DIDN’T, THEY HAD THEIR LIVES RUDELY TORN FROM THEM, sent to often hopeless causes by politicians who sat comfortable in their bunkers calculating whether a particular loss of life/attrition rate/collateral damage was worth it. And it still happens. What’s worrying is that we now have a cohort of politicians, of all flavours, who (like me) have no direct experience of the horror of war and must surely have less of the inner abhorrence that their fathers and mothers had.

Recall that I have also raised the topic of ‘women in war’, without having been able to find anything much to commemorate their experiences – it’s a strangely male occupation!

Finally Calais. Another sad example of the consequences of abused power, ethnic cleansing, religious zealotry, whatever. I have written elsewhere recently that ‘we’ might feel and act very differently if it were our own homes and lives under attack, if there were millions of Brits living in the squalid conditions that so many migrants have to suffer, being so desperate that they choose to cross the North Sea in creaky boats, our children washing up dead on foreign shores… We all make our own choices about how to respond and although nobody has yet suggested it, I would love to find a way to make a contribution as we pass by those poor souls near Calais.

 

A barbecue on a boat?

Dinner arrives!“How will we barbecue fish on a boat?” was the obvious question. But we can deal with that later.

The prospect of a week sailing a yacht through the waters off the Turkish coast had brought six men, of varying sailing ability, together. The experienced skipper had assured us of all the usual – day long yellow sun, cooling breezes, warm deepest blue waters – and then tempted us with the further prospect of catching our own fish as we sailed. Well, could I resist? There is little better than eating fish so fresh that it was swimming around only minutes before being cooked. I recalled the fishing expeditions with my dad. Evening sessions on the beach in Hornsea or some other East Yorkshire resort. My job to find the wood and light the fire on which the first fish we caught would be cooked. One eye on the rod waiting for another unwilling victim, one on the frying pan where our supper lay cooking to perfection. Could we regenerate that passion, that atmosphere, that unforgettable smell on board our 40foot yacht?

Let’s take a look at those six willing victims volunteers.

The most experienced, our skipper – let’s call him Jon – had enough certificates of competence to be able to sail our 40 footer across the Atlantic let alone around the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean.

Next – calling him Geoff will protect the innocent – was an older version of that callow youth who accompanied his father around the coast when he was young. His childhood had been spent in and around boats of one sort or another, in on or near water. He had later learned to sail dinghies when his not inconsiderable bulk helped hold them in the water when less well-upholstered persons might have got blown over.

Wynn and Adrian, old greying friends, professed to being happier half way (or more) up a Himalayan peak and turned up with their Nepalese or Burmese T-shirts, Factor 50 (they knew all about the effects of the sun reflected off the snow, or sea), layers of technical clothing and ice-axes (OK, I lied about the ice-axes). They were up for anything and keen to learn.

Chris, the psycho (sorry, psychologist/counsellor/therapist) would undoubtedly have a key role in holding us all together when the going got tough.

And last but by no means least was Henry. Henry needed a change. He had recently retired from his long-held post at a prestigious university and was free, easy and available – although what prospect there was of romantic entanglement when we spent all day cooped up with five other red-blooded married blokes was hard to imagine.

So there we all were, enthusiastic yet largely unskilled. Willing to be led and educated by our brave skipper who proceeded to show us not only how to tie a bowline with one hand (try it yourself) but also the other delights he had brought with him. Carbon fibre rod, multiplier reel, lines, spinners and hooks galore. Yet apparently not quite the right lure for the huge great tuna, grouper, gilthead bream and other delights promised on turkishculture.org . A visit to the tackle shop beckoned.

Aladdin’s’ Cave would have looked tawdry compared to this place. Tempting the unwary fisherman in with garish offerings of soft rubbery lures, trapping him once inside with the prospect that any one of this cornucopia of delights could be just the one for that big fish and holding out the prospect of rewards unimaginable once it had been tied on to a bit of string and flung out the back of the boat. The walls covered with photographs of great fish and the even greater fishermen into whose firmament we could enter if only we bought the right tackle. “This one, Sir, will guarantee to seduce any local tuna onto your hook”, “How about this green and yellow imitation squid, or perhaps this with five different yet similar lures all on the same piece of wire?” (The wire being necessary for when the sharp teeth of the tuna bit into the lure and raised the angler’s heartbeat.) Fishermen find it hard to refuse these emblandishments and we walked out with the latter five-temptation setup, eager to get out on the water and catch our supper.

Fast forward – well, as fast as a Force 3 wind will allow – to mid-afternoon on Day1. All sails out, sailing as close to the wind as we can get, relaxing into an easy cruise to our dinner destination and out comes the fishing rod. “Time to catch dinner”. The little rubbery pseudo-squid dangle wobbly on the end of the metal trace as yards of line pay out behind the yacht. And then we wait, and wait, and wait… For today was not going to be our lucky day and dinner tonight was pasta and tinned tuna.

The next day followed the same pattern – we are going too slow, too fast, bouncing around too much. Not a nibble. Not even a change of tactic – replacing the by now infamous rubber squid with a garish spinner – tempted even a tiddler to bite. We knew that there were fish to be caught, every time we moored we found either a thriving fish market or some local restaurant’s fish tank packed with a range of treats that we could only dream about; the posters on the tackle shop window seemed to be advertising someone’s reality, just not ours.

By Day 5 we were beginning to wonder if we would ever catch our own supper. We had heard that the scent of women on the lure was more likely to attract the objects of our desire (fish, not women) but with six men on a boat that was out of the question. Perhaps Chris would come into his role, holding our psyches together amid an ocean of disbelief and hunger?

We moored that evening in a secluded bay with a rickety jetty and just one little restaurant. Drifting up to the landing we shouted out to ask if they could feed six of us and if they had any fresh fish. Encouraging nods and waves beckoned us over, by which time the one son who spoke broken English had been summoned. “We have fresh swordfish” sounded encouraging, so we settled down for a beer or two noting that the service was slow even by Turkish standards and wondering how come our Turkish guardian had time to phone his friends when he could be preparing our dinner. As we finished the starter of inevitable Hummus, Aubergines, Dolmades our friendly son – we never could understand his name – remarked “Fish here soon”. Good, that is what we were there for. A further beer arrived and then we heard the gentle and unmistakeable sound of a small outboard phut phutting in the bay; louder yet louder until it turned the headland and was clearly heading in our direction. It seemed like all of a sudden there was activity on a scale totally unanticipated; one son sent off to the shed to get something, another off to help the little fishing boat moor, yet another encouraging us to come and see.

Well, having a look at the boat mooring would pass the time, so off we went beers in hand. Big smiles all around and we were informed “Fish here”. The phone call had been to a local fisherman, who had promised to deliver fresh fish to fulfil our order. Not just Fresh fish, but fresh swordfish. Not just fresh swordfish, but three of the glistening silver and blue beauties. The smallest about 2 feet long, the biggest perhaps 5 feet from the crook of the splayed tail to the pointy tip of that fearsome sword. Eyes disproportionately large to help them see in the depths in which they hunted their own prey; bodies of pure muscle shaped to enable speed; a sword not used for spearing other less fortunate fish but to slash at supersonic speed through a shoal of prey stunning one or two who were to become the latest snack.

A large plastic sheet was hastily laid across one of the restaurant tables while help was sent to find the ancient weighing balance – you know the ones you see on the old photos, with a sliding weight on the top. But how to get these huge soon-to-be-dinners onto the vicious looking hook to weigh them? Another excursion to the shed revealed a length of rope with which the tails and heads of these slippery beasts were tied together. Two of the medium-sized sons held the pole on their shoulders and the weighing apparatus was hooked on. Slowly the fish were eased into balance and the fish eased into the air. We could not establish the total weight, but the more experienced amongst our crew reckoned on about 50kg in total. The fisherman had had a good day. An unknown amount of Turkish Lire exchanged hands and dinner was on!

And what a dinner. Can anything beat the taste of freshly caught fish barbecued on the wood from local vines and olives, basted in rough olive oil and herbs from the hillside only 50metres away? Potatoes sliced half a centimetre thick were cooked in oil with garlic, olives, onions and yet more herbs – soft and unctuous. A simple local salad of lettuce, tomatoes that had been on the plant less than half an hour ago, raw onions still warm from the earth they had rested in until very recently and yet more local olive oil.

THIS was gourmet eating and after all our disappointments we still ate barbecued fish, and never had to meet the challenge of how to do it on the boat.

A blind man’s beach

2014-06-01 16.33.03Stevie wanted to know what the beach looked like.

She could feel the gravel and grainy sand between her toes, she heard the crash of the waves, and the smell of the sea salt and ozone brought back long-sleeping memories.

Hidden to her was the vast expanse of 2-tone sand, old and new gold, stretching ribbon-like to the long distant horizon. She heard, but could not see the deep blue ocean bounded by white breakers crashing endlessly onto the beach. That beach, previously ruffled by the hooves of hundreds of horses on their afternoon gallop, was now being swept clean and smooth.

The azure sky as if reflecting the seascape, a soft silent roll of white cotton wool cloud rolling gently off the tops of the hills that rose gently from the beach.

“Take me to the waves” said Stevie, I can feel those.

The blue striped sunshade

striped blue umbrellaThe blue striped sunshade rests against the tree, with what we hope are the last drips of today’s rain falling gently from its edges. It was sunny this morning and the sunshade was about to fulfil its purpose when the neighbour pointed out the dark brooding skies heading in our direction. You could see the rain falling from miles away, I could feel the wind in my face and knew that before long the sun which had long since been replaced by a white cloud was about to be obscured by yet darker cloud and one of those downpours that can occur at any time in the summer of south-west France. Last night had been one of storms, we ate our moules frites in the local marketplace constantly aware of the occasional spots of rain and even the odd flurry that maybe lasted a minute and went away before finally coming to stay late in the evening and soaking everything within minutes. The marketplace abandoned, the stallholders rushing frantically to cover their wares and stop the rain doing irretrievable damage to their stock. We drove home surrounded by thunder and lightning with rain falling so heavily it slowed us down. But when we got home we opened the doors and sat watching the storm as it played its way across the sky; bright sheets illuminating the whole of the sky, even brighter streaks of lightning flashing from cloud to cloud or crashing from cloud to earth. Each new illumination followed by thunderous rumbles and yet another downpour. The storms are spectacular, especially so if one is dry under cover watching the forces of nature play out across the skies until they finally drift away to excite someone else’s evening, leaving ours adrip from the trees and wet underfoot. A wet that will disappear in hours leaving you wondering if it really had been raining that hard.

So today’s rain has been presaged by something much more primal and would no doubt followed sometime by yet another of those storms that roll around the hillsides leaving our blue striped sunshade wondering whether it is in sunshade are an umbrella. Nothing is what it seems, everything is what we claim it to be.

 

Straw Hats

stork nestWe both saw them at about the same time, great rafts of straw and twigs topped the pylons. Each with its own furry hat. Then the storks, massive bird seemingly precariously balanced atop their organic thrones. I have seen them, and more amazingly heard them, flying over south-west France. The spring and autumn skies awash with flying Vs disrupted by the upper currents, the voices merging into a cacophonous roar as they flew hundreds of metres overhead. And here they are in their summer residences soaking up the baking sun of the deepest south of Spain.

We are on a brief road trip – a couple of hours from our borrowed apartment at the less touristy end of the Costa Del Sol. A well-named area if ever there was, day after day the yellow sun sits in a sky blue arc overhead. It brings a profusion, even a confusion, of life. Garden flowers grown to giants, occasional bloomers in the UK covered here with a profusion of blossom, green everywhere. That was a surprise. The green. The trees, the shrubbery and the maquis (I wonder what the Spanish equivalent of that word is?) green despite the relentless drying sun. Vegetation on the edge of the continent but far from the edge of survival. We rode through the tree line to a wide expanse of high veldt, or was it the Peruvian uplands, where the storks chose to nest each bringing their own mystery as their arrival presaged summer.

The blue and green chair

Blue and gree chairIt wasn’t an ordinary chair, and yet it was. Blue and green, cobbled together from seemingly random lengths of wood – jetsam or flotsam, who knows? Bishop’s seat or a Macintosh masterpiece, or perhaps the creation of the beach bar owner – Chirinquitos they call them round here. I had read that the owner was South African, journeyed from the southern tip of the mysterious continent and landed only just into Europe. I met him only as we left to pay-great manly paw reaching out to wish me well and hope to be back again, the smile on his face enough for the whole of the beach. It was an instant and personal connection. People leave their homeland the many reasons. Had he escaped, years ago, from the oppressed oppressive apartheid regime; was he a romantic voyager moving from place to place in search of adventure, excitement and maybe something deeper? The twinkle in his eye and the warmth with which he greeted this passing customer suggested peace, they carried the energy of the man who knows himself and is comfortably his skin. I choose to imagine that somewhere on his travels he met an Andalucian beauty and chose to settle with her on this sunkissed Mediterranean bench. The edge of Europe, his home continent within sight, almost within touch.

And the chair, well it was just a chair one among many an eclectic mix of old and new, hand and factory made, barely two matching yet all of them so appropriate for this beach bar. A place so full of life that I can feel it now. The most battered, the least swish, of the few that I’ve seen somehow had the most attraction. And after sitting drinking for an hour I could feel the life blood seeping back into me. I could spend hours, days even, just sitting in this world of battered reed umbrellas just being.

The blue and green chair my new companion, nothing fancy just honest.