Saturday, December 13, 2008

Elena is a racehorse

13 December 2008. The day finally came.

Two years and ten months after I raised Doug’s hand in the Yearling Sales auction ring, paid my money, and brought the beautiful Elena home to Gerolstein ... two years and ten months of loving care, education, training and wondering down the road … today my ‘princess’ stepped on to a racetrack.
It wasn’t raceday, of course. We still have a way to go to get there. But it was her first experience of racing conditions: a four-horse ‘learners’ workout’ (with speed limits) at Rangiora racetrack.
The love, the education, the training have all been done: now it was time for the wondering to have some sort of answer. Wondering what? Why, is the lady fast enough, well-gaited enough, enthusiastic enough, just plain racy enough to be one of the limited percentage of standardbred horses who actually make it to the track as racehorses.
I’d like to be able to say that the answer was an unqualified ‘yes’. Dammit, I am going to say that the answer is an unqualified ‘yes’. Although driver Blair Rennie (‘she would have beat them easily’) must have a small reservation. Elena, you see, has a quirk. She is an adorable, loving, well-behaved girl 99 percent of the time. She seems to suffer a bit extravagantly when she gets in season, and whinnyingly clucky at the sight of other people’s babies, but that’s nothing. The problem is that when she gets a fright … she flings her heels in the air. She boots. When you have a sulky on your rear end, and a driver in that sulky, this is not a nice experience for them. I know, I’ve had it happen to me (not with Elena). She doesn’t do this often, but …

So. Today. Wendy geared our princess up in her brand new yellow quick-hitch harness, Blair donned the soft-boiled-egg colours that have yet to make it to a New Zealand raceday, and out Lélé went, looking a treat, pacing nicely .. until she came upon a large blue tractor tugging harrows along the track. Unfortunately, large blue tractors in your path are part of harness racing, but Elena doesn’t yet know that. So she booted. But Blair got her down quickly, and all was well. For now.
The four learners all began cleanly -- Elena designedly carefully for her first view of a zinging tape -- and she slotted in, as intended, to the rear of the Indian file. Sigh of relief. But then we got to big blue-tractorland – the first bend – and BOOT! By the time she got down, the other three horses were 100 metres or more down the track. Bugger. The day looked like turning to catastrophe. But, having done her act, Elena now put on her best stride and she set out after the others. You don’t make up 100 metres in a mile, but she was trying, pacing along like a veteran and looking glorious. With 800 metres to go the gap was down to 10 lengths, but, as blue-tractorland loomed, the leader galloped and Elena had to take evasive action while it re-found its feet and started going forwards again. Down the straight, she was still behind … with 100 metres to go, still several lengths last …

But blow me down, as the others raced for the line, Elena comfortably closed that gap and she finished along with them. The record shows she was 4th, beaten 2 ½ lengths. Our photo makes it a bit nearer than that. The record shows they ran their 2000m in 2mins 54, our stopwatch says 2mins 49.6. The official last half was 62.1, the last quarter 30.1. But whatever the first three ran, Lena effectively did 100 metres more … thus, probably, going faster than the ‘speed limit’ time for the heat. And her last half and quarter were done in many lengths quicker than the figures given. The film Wendy took (which I am trying so far unsuccessfully to attach here) times her final quarter in 28 seconds and bits. And that is racehorse time.
So, here is one owner who has come home a happy man after seeing his horse finish last, with an horrendous gallop to boot, in a learners’ workout heat.
Because there’s no doubt that the lady IS a racehorse. That she will be a racehorse.
After a small cure for blue-tractor-phobia and related reactions.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Let the horses do the energetic stuff..


But they're not the only picturesque beasts at Gerolstein

I'm Minnie. I destroy mice, chase birds, climb trees, devour biscuits .. and I sleep on Kurt's bed on the nights that it's not warm enough to go out prowling...
I also snooze on Wendy's bed some daytimes when I don't feel up to trying to keep up with the horses

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Will the lady be a racehorse?


Today Elena (driver: Blair Rennie) strutted her stuff around Rangiora racecourse, in the company of Wendy and her Ned. A brisk mile and a half (two laps and a bit), finishing together in 3 mins 19 ...
Another stage in my Princess's progress towards becoming a racehorse successfully accomplished...

Friday, December 5, 2008

Mother of the week

This week, it isn’t any of our usual horsey starlets who have hit the headlines..
Elena fittens up steadily on the beach, with a debut at the workouts becoming envisageable

Barney and Dobby work out, prior to qualifying (big him) and racing (little him)
The babies grow on apace… D’Arcy with a wee visit to hospital and Lucie .. still posing

The Duchess prepares to start on her next baby, with a little manual and veterinary assistance

Wanda prepares to head north for a new life
Boris is entered for his first ever race on Tuesday
but this is Sally’s week. Dear old Sally, down the back paddock, where she has given birth to Ned, Rose and Mikie.
But, before those three, Sally mothered George. ‘General George’ to racegoers. Well, George (sold too expensively for us at the yearling sales) had a nice youthful career here in New Zealand, and then was sold to Australia where he has recently raced with credit. This week, he ran no less than three times. He won easily at Goulburn, narrowly against much hotter opposition at Bankstown, and tonight he went out once more, at Harold Park. After getting in a ghastly shut-in position, he rocketed home late to go down by only a neck. Two wins and a second in very polite New South Welsh company! Great work, George. Sally is definitely ‘Mother of the Week’ at Gerolstein!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Baby photos

Who can resist them?

Lucie is now two months old and D'Arcy more than three weeks...

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Beach Cure


What a day.
Up at the crack of dawn, and into Christchurch for a session of what’s politely called dentistry – slashing, scraping, stitching – a miserable and painful morning .,,
The day could only get better. And it did.
Elena has been scheduled to go to work on the beach since her successful performances on our home track, and today was the day. Since Dion, her usual companion, has an iffy hoof, and since Dion’s usual driver was busy being miserable and pained, Lena was loaded all alone (and without even resisting) onto the new float, and hauled off to Woodend beach to do her stuff solo.

I watched from the sidelines as Wendy readied her for her year’s debut on the sands, and from the dunes as the pair of them headed off down a mile and a half of empty beach…
It seemed forever before the little spot in the distance became a horse, pounding back towards me along the water’s edge…

But she’d done it. She’d done everything right, at last. And, dammit, I reckon she knew. She gave me a big grin – I’ll swear she did – as she came back over the dunes.

Well done, Lena. That’s one more step towards the racecourse…
My teeth? Oh, I’d forgotten about them…

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Fathers' Day


Saturday was quite a day in the Gerolsteiner horse world. For, today, our two little newcomers met their ‘fathers’. I don’t mean their biological father, who lives in France, and only travels across the world in frozen ‘sticks’ to the mares of his destiny, but their real fathers: the men thanks to whom they came into the world.
Messrs Jack Dowie and Frank Marrion.
Jack, of course, you’ve met many times on the pages of this blog, horseing around the colourful parts of France with me. It was he who first had the idea of crossing my two New Zealand mares with the French blood of ‘Love You’, and he who is my partner in this whole exciting intercontinental affair.
Jack flew in from Europe Friday night, on business, and on Saturday he was on his way to Gerolstein to meet our ‘children’. We met up at the Rangiora trials, where baby Barney had gone for his second practice at being a racehorse (well done Barney! No gallop and a nice comfy 4th) and …
There, also, we met up with the other godfather in this story: Frank Marrion. You’ve met Frank in these pages too, but only under his pseudonym. He’s ‘the man who knows more about breeding than..’ who appears in a couple of my stories. And it is he who has been the moving force in getting this entente extremely cordiale between French stallion and New Zealand mares up and running. He is the 'Love You' man on this side of the world.
Jack and Frank and I convoyed back to the farm, and there everyone was introduced to our impressive little pair of foals. I think the two of them were bursting with pride almost as much as I.
Getting two hungry mares, two slightly shy babies and two doting (god)fathers all to pose for the camera at one time was impossible, so the foals got photographic precedence…

Over our post-papaing coffee, Jack and I also came to some serious decisions:
(1) Lucy will be LUCIE DE GEROLSTEIN, as she is a French mademoiselle (and her mother is, after all, ‘La Grande-Duchesse’)
(2) In spite of what Becky the vet says, we decided it could be damaging for hunky Dazie to go through life like ‘the boy named Sue’, a macho male with a girly name, so at the age of 7 days he has been tactfully elided into D’ARCY DE GEROLSTEIN

So, take your first bow, D'Arcy:


Friday, October 31, 2008

Stop the presses!!!!



is a boy!

Is that my UNCLE? Doing elevation at less than one day old?


Lena, Barney and Dazie


Four weeks already. Four weeks of New Zealand spring. An irrational mixture of cold, very cold, wet and occasionally fine and just very occasionally hot enough for me.
So a certain portion of those weeks has been spent indoor, wrapped in a shawl (yes!), playing with my Victorian Vocalists. But when it hasn’t been too freezing, I‘ve ventured out for a little gardening, a little horse-jogging, and the occasional bit of farm work. Nothing very exceptional, so all the events at Gerolstein, notably in the last 48 hours, have been on the horsey front.

First of all, my beloved Elena. Elena’s attitude to the pacing gait has been rather cavalier. Not a good thing when you are supposed to be going to be a racehorse. This week, she was put to the test. Pace, or else. So, yesterday afternoon Wendy took her out on to the track, and my once scatty Princess, cool as an ice-lolly, simply did everything that she should have. Phew! Next week, back to the beach for trial number two…

This morning, it was Barney’s turn. Three year-old Barney (aka McRubble) is another big, big young horse. Adorable if sometimes a bit goofy. He has already more or less coped with the beach, so he’s a step ahead of the year older Elena, and today was his first visit to the racetrack. His first sight of other horses, of running with them, of learning what racing’s all about. A baby’ first workout day can be a trauma: there are a hundred things that can go wrong.
Well, Barney – who wasn’t really ready for this -- got nearly all of them right. He got away safely if slowly, sat in third place (of five) on the rails, moved up to challenge the leader before the last turn, and was running on solidly if little fatly when he had a wee gallop with 200 metres to go. For a first try, not bad at all. Next week, Barney, we are a little less fat and we don’t gallop, OK?

When we got home from the workouts, Duchess and Lucy were doing a war-dance down in the nursery paddock. Why? Because Gwen was standing guard over a sticky, leggy brown bundle. Duchess’s baby sister. Lucy’s infant aunt.
She has been instantly christened Dazie. Why? Because she has the biggest knees I have ever seen on a foal. Hands, knees, and ….
Lucy looked on fascinated (THAT’s my aunt?) as Dazie struggled to her feet and went for the milkman..

and it wasn’t long before our hours-old baby was up to putting on airs for the camera.

Of course, she hasn’t had as much practice as Lucy, who could and would not be left out of the photo shoot…

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Me and my Mum

(But mostly me)
by Lucy de Gerolstein (aged nearly one month already)

This is me when I was really young. Just two weeks old. Before I became a magazine cover girl. Well, page three anyway.

And this is me with my mum now I am almost grown up. In two days time I will have my first monthly birthday. I didn't bother getting up for this photo because I'm an old hand at photos now, and anyway my nice silky baby hair is starting to shed and I've got a blotch on my bottom.
Grandma was in this photo too, but Kurt cut her out and I'm not surprised. She is GROSS! Not to mention grumpy. Apparently that means she's going to have a baby pretty soon too.
So I shall have an uncle or an aunt who is younger than me. Should be fun.

Until soon,
Love from Lucy

Friday, October 17, 2008

Lucy de Gerolstein


I know its been some time since Tahiti.

Suffice it that the Boularibank made it safely to port at the time forseen, that the taxi fare from port to airport (delightful Indian driver) has now risen from $25 to $52 to $65, and that Air NZ staff were wonderfully helpful and got me quickly on a plane to Christchurch, where Robin was waiting for me…
And now I’ve been a fortnight at Gerolstein.
Wendy had the place looking glorious – even though there are a few horrible jobs to do, mostly relating to water or to horses’ teeth – so I was able to cruise through week one, before she zoomed off on her first holiday in a hundred years and for week two I’ve been involved in the care of 17 horses and the training of five.

The seventeenth one is something special.
Last year, in a flush of multi-patriotism and money, Jack and I sent both dear old Gwen and her feisty daughter Duchess to be served (at a distance) by the French stallion Love You. And on 22 September 2008, Duchess (officially La Grande-Duchesse) gave birth to a glorious big filly who may have traits of her mother in her colouring and her Madagascar-shaped blaze, but otherwise must be all Love You.
We have called her Lucy de Gerolstein, and she is the first ever daughter of Love You to be born in New Zealand, and – as far as I know – anywhere at all in the southern hemisphere.
We think she’s absolutely beautiful …
And obviously we’re not the only ones!
For Lucy, at two weeks old, is featured in the J-P Dubois stud’s advertisement (below) which came out this week…

In a week or three, she should have a little brother or sister when Gwen gives birth as well. This time, I would like a boy … and imagine if it took after its mother and was black rather than bay.
But for the moment, its first-born Lucy who is the star …
Which probably makes me the equivalent of an equine ‘stage-father’!

You can see Lucy's blueblood pedigree on Jack's blog at


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Safari in Tahiti

My old memories of Tahiti may not disappear, but after today I have a new one or two to go alongside them. For our ‘Safari’ – a tour utterly free from souvenir shops and plastic hotels – turned out to be thoroughly worthy of its name and a splendid day out.

We were picked up at 9am by a 4x4 Defender canopied truck, under the command of our charming and stunning Tahitian driver-guide, Teiwa, and we headed off eastward, along the coast, through the dispiriting suburbs of Papeete and its satellites, to Mahina. Before turning inland, however, up into the deep valley of Papenoo, which ploughs its way through the heart of the island up to Tahiti’s highest peaks (7000ft), we made a slight detour to the beach at Point Venus.
It is called Point Venus, because it is the place from where, in 1867, from a lighthouse (the only one in the islands) designed by the father of R L Stevenson, somebody official watched the Transit of Venus. It is also the evidently baecahable place where, in the C18th, Captain Cook landed, where Captain Bligh bunkered to take on supplies for couple of months, and where the wretched London Missionary Society ‘invaded’ Tahiti with a boatload (‘Le Duff’) of the interfering Christian proselytisers who began what would be the erosion of the traditional way of life of the islands. The lighthouse is also rather attractive, so photo…

From Mahina we headed inland, up the Papenoo valley. Immediately the greenery got thicker and lusher, and immediately the roads got decidedly worse. There is a huge amount of road and river work (including more necessary hydro electric damming) under way, however, and we passed dozens of brand new yellow diggers and dozers, scooping out the black volcanic mud from the river bed as we scrambled upwards, through forested wilds and through rushing water.

From time to time, we took a pause while Teiwa (in both French and English) gave us nature study hints – the ‘telephone trees’, the plants disastrously introduced in the C20th by nosy foreign naturalists (including convolvulus!) and which now threaten to throttle the native species, a flower whose pistils provide ‘lipstick’, and a wondrous kind of fern which ‘tattoos’ a brown body in white. Teiwa being the brownest amongst us, I got him to model it for me. Well, that’s my excuse…

There were also scenic stops – mostly notably for the 69-metre Vaiaruru Falls ... the singing cascade. I, of course, sang back to it. I think I won. It must have had laryngitis.
The main sight, however, as you wend you way up the valley, is of those two heavily scarped peaks, Orohena and Pito Hiti, towering above you, glaring out commandingly from amongst the clouds like a Chinese cutout…

At lunchtime we stopped at the Relais de Maroto – yes, there is actually a hotel up there, beyond the mud and the potholes and the concrete switchbacks. My guide book (date 2000) says it is fashionable. It also says its expensive. The latter, at least, is right. It is built around the concrete barracks in which the original construction workers for the nearby dam (1981) were housed, and its origins show. It’s well designed, to take in the stunning surrounding views of mountains and forest, but, like all tropical buildings, it has been savagely shabbied by the endless combination of sun and rain. It is also pretty dead. The bar was empty, the terrace, with its green vistas, was table-laid for several groups like ours, and we had a very fair chicken and chips plonked in front of us by the only worker in sight. He didn’t manage to get back to us for the wine order, and when we did our calculations we were glad he hadn’t. The local rouge was the equivalent of 50 euros a bottle! A small bottle of water the equivalent of $10NZ. No wonder the place was dead!
But the terrace proved a fine place for photos, and I shall treasure the picture (top) that Tina from Sidmouth took of me there, with my red flower behind the right ear (ie ‘available’ as opposed to the left ear ‘committed’) …

After lunch we continued onwards and upwards, now driving on little more than a mud track, through the bush and the forest, past waterfalls and towering cliffs where the swallows hang their nests, past endless views of those overglowering mountains, to the archeological ruin of the Marae Anapua, a temple from the days of (?) prehistoric Tahiti, set among a grove of plantain banana trees, hibiscus and wild ginger. It was great to see an archeological site utterly unencumbered with the paraphernalia of tourism, and great to have a guide who we had quickly found is soaked in the history – natural and physical – of his homeland.

Teiwa, however, has more and other talents, as we would soon find out.

Normally, our tour would have continued on, out of the Papenoo valley (the caldera of the original Tahiti volcano), to Lake Vaihiria, the island’s main hydro dam and lake, and down to the other side of the island. However, a series of landslides had blocked and broken the road and, from the marae, we could no further go. So we made a demi-tour, and headed back the way we had come. A short way down, we stopped at a mountain torrent. Now, coming, as I do, from New Zealand, I know a few things about mountain rivers and swimming holes … but this one was a beauty. A small but deep blue hole with, above it, a waterfall pouring over a great rounded rock covered in salady green slime. Even I could not resist, and I plunged carefully in to play under the forceful waters and gambol behind the veil of the waterfall. Delicious!

Teiwa, however, who has doubtless visited this spot hundreds of times, had it under his control, and it was the venue for his party piece. Not only did he perform a perfectly piked dive from the high-up riverside into the very heart of the pool, he climbed the green and glissant rock and, with the power of the seeping river behind him, executed what looked like a barefoot skateboard exercise down the rock and out, way out, over the waterfall and into the pool! Only Eliane from our group was game enough to follow (but seated not standing!) … definitely not I! But, party piece or no, it was a joyous moment, a grand sight…

And then it was ‘homeward bound’. Down the glorious green and bumpy valley, and back into rush-hour Papeete. Oh what a falling away: the grubby, tattered buildings of the sprawling town after the magnificent countryside we had just seen.

By 5pm we were back at the Boularibank, tired but happy, for a shower, a Scotch, a splendid dinner of roast lamb (with a special, deep-pink-to-red cut for Kurt!) and a firm and early bed…

So, there you are. Papeete and the island’s coast are not Tahiti. Next time you come here, forget the town. Telephone TAHITIAN EXCURSION, and get them to take you inland. And if you want the best tour guide I’ve personally experienced, anywhere in the world, over the last thirty years, ask for Teiwa.

There are heaps of firms doing these tours, but I am not the only one to give Tahiti Excursion top marks. Visit their website at, or email them at Tell them Kurt of the Boularibank sent you.


So here I am, or rather ‘was’ (as I’m writing as the voyage nears its end), again.

The Boularibank is a sister ship to the Tikei and the Gazelle, my last two Bank Line ‘travelling homes’, and much to my delight I was allotted my same ‘Suva’ cabin as on the last two trips. It was a bit like ‘coming home’ when I walked in on Day One, because they are virtually clones.
I’d heard that the Boulari was rather less ummm salubrious than the previous two ships, but all I can say is, from a passenger point of view, that’s not so. We had a bevy of Polish lads (with a Yorkshire boss, see Darren and Taddeusz below) on board, working on an iffy boiler, so I guess that perhaps the bits we don’t see might work less well than the ones we do see, but I’ve had as comfortable and happy a trip third time round as on either of the other two. Much of which good feeling, of course, comes from the fact that I got lucky again (I’m beginning to think I’m star-blessed that way) and got to travel with Captain John Gunson and Purser Dave Ball (see below), with old Gazelle pal Artur as Chief Engineer.

We have been a full ship from the passenger angle: three French, three New Zealanders, one Australian, two British, two Dutch and one Franco-Kiwi-Something Undefined (me) and, by and large, we have been a jolly lot. With me in my favourite semi-almost bilingual job as interpreter. We have also been blessed by wonderful weather, so I have spent a large amount of time lolling in a deckchair up on Monkey Island reading (at the last count 39) books and watching for flying fish, rather than staying in my cabin working on my Victorian Vocalists.
The voyage from Dunkerkque to Tahiti (where we arrive tomorrow) is perforce not very eventful, give or take the Panama Canal, and even though we have, this time, a Filipino crew rather than a Russian one – which means karaoke nights – I’ve been modest in my public appearances. Only two karaoke renditions of ‘My Way’ plus a referee’s job for the ship’s ping pong tournament (winner: Artur, in a high-speed final against Darren the boiler chief).
A few days were spent literal-Anglicising poems by Emile Verhaeren – altogether more agreeable than last year’s Maeterlinck! – with the help of Annick from ***** for brother John’s newest volume of translations

there was a lively evening with the traditional mid-voyage barbecue

but I guess the ‘event’ from this trip which will stick in my mind was the demise of my much loved happy coat.
I remember buying it in Singapore in … goodness it must have been the 1980s, on a stopover during an airline trip Ian and I made from London to Sydney … and it has been one of my favourite and most oft-worn bits of clothing ever since. It was nothing special. Just a white synthetic ‘jacket’ with a brown embroidered Chinese character on the back. But I remember it made a surprising effect on my charming and wholly hetero neighbour, Robert, in St Paul de Vence, so maybe I thought I looked good in it. Mind you, ‘good’ at age forty-something, and ‘good’ now … Jean-Baptiste loathed it.
Anyway, I sported it on deck, one hot day in the Atlantic, and as I slipped it off preparatory to a sun-bathe, a great gust of oceanic wind stripped it from my hands and my shoulders and, next thing, there it was, floating off behind the ship, flapping its sleeves like a demented seagull, eventually to plunge into non-existence in the wake of the ship. I had nightmares that it would wrap itself round the ship’s propellor, but it didn’t. It just fluttered off to an Atlantic tomb, leaving me to grieve its loss.
First Wendy’s shorts, then my memory-filled coat.
Ah, well, I’m supposed to be looking forward, not backward. So, goodbye, old friend.

And tomorrow Tahiti. Heavens! more memories. I must be getting old. I see Alison and I, dancing wickedly together, in our minisicule young-peoples’ scraps of clothing, on a mirror-walled dance-floor, to the hand-clapping of a hundred delighted locals who had quit their own dancing to watch these two nubile foreigners cavorting … I see myself clinging to the stomach (oh, yes!) and loins of Warren Reading, our bass-guitarist, as we made a tour of island together, me riding unaccustomed pillion, on a battered hired motorbike with no foot-rests … when was that? Oh, Lord, about 35 years ago …
This time I shall take a minibus tour. No dirty dancing, no pillion riding … but the memories, precious memories, live on.
Is that silly?
I think not.


Of course, in the end, it wasn’t three days at all it was five.

But there was good news as well as bad. La Vague isn’t entirely gone: it has just changed name and décor and menu, but the same folk are still there and still serving fine food. So I was able, as hoped, to indulge myself in a last (for now) delicious orgy of French eating and drinking at what is now ‘L’Auberge de Jules’.

But you can’t eat all day, even though I did try by having both a full midday meal and an evening one on most days. And – encouraged by the Borel’s hotel clerk -- I actually (when forced by a sudden closure Chez Jules because of a fridge failure) ventured further afield in search of culinary goodies. I had a delicious andouilette in a bistro, where I found myself surprisingly hugged into a huge and free-flowing family birthday party (ah! les français!), I discovered the Restaurant au Petit Pierre – Pierre Neuville is no longer petit but the 51-year-old owner of this delicious place – where I gorged myself on more fine food, and I even splashed out on a visit to the town’s poshest restaurant, L’Estouffade, where I had a nice but necessarily small meal and, reprehensibly, an entire bottle of Taittinger to myself. Oh yes, one eats extraordinarily well at Dunkerque.

In between the meals, I traipsed the streets of the city, and got to know it a little more intimately. I visited my favourite shoe shop and stocked up on espadrilles for the next twelve months (their entire stock of 44s), I, with difficulty, found a supermarket and stocked up on necessaries for the voyage, and I found a splendid clothing shop where I was able to buy at knock down price (20 euros) some excellent short shorts to replace my longtime favourite wear-every-day pair (an Xmas gift from Wendy from the days when we still did such things) which had finally exploded across the buttocks during one of my walks. But mostly I lurked round restaurant doors and menus, planning where and on what to eat at the next possible opportunity.

And when I could eat and walk no more, I dropped on to my hotel bed and glared glazedly at the tag end of the bloated Olympic Games.

And then, finally, after two false alarms, the day of departure came. And, as the rain came down, we climbed into taxis at the hotel door and I bid farewell to Dunkerque … to Chez Jules and to Petit Pierre … until the next time.

If It's Sunday

My voyage to the north has been so full of events and discoveries that I could fill a blog twice daily with my tales. But I won’t. I’ll trust in a few words, and a good handful of pictures.

  Saturday, after an early shopping trip to the Carrefour supermarket (ah! memories of my days in the sun!), Jean-Baptiste and I ‘did’ the heart of Lille, with a special accent on the old town, on foot. Summer was decidedly in the air and spring in our heels, and after reasonably dignified photographs of the impressive Chamber of Commerce, the ‘Voix du Nord’ newspaper building, the Opera House, and the wonderfully variegated buildings of the Grande Place, the sight of the city’s operetta theatre, the Théâtre Sebastopol, provoked (with the encouragement of the photographer) a moment of mild madness in yours truly

  The evening, too, was an event. I had mentioned, a propos of something, my thwarted penchant for a taste of rabbit, and Didier – a masterful chef – was quick off the mark. That night we dined deliciously on the most wonderful rabbit I have ever eaten. Look at it! Can’t you just taste that?

  All in all, a tremendously happy evening.

  Sunday it was Belgium. I had never been to Belgium and it was the Flandrian city of Gand (better known to Anglophones as Ghent), not too far over the border from Lille/Torcouing/Roubaix, that was chosen for my debut.

  In the middle ages, Flanders was one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and Gand was its capital, so the artistic and architectural heritage of the city is something amazing. I don’t think I have ever seen a church as richly endowed and sculpted as the Cathedral of Gand. Nor one with so many lavishly entombed ex-archbishops. As an example of church building and decoration, it must be one of the wonders of the world. Gand has a less spectacular castle, too (8 euros to go in), and. less expensively – like so many northern towns and cities -- a magnificent Beffroi or Belfry. A fanciful antique tower with bells on top. We opted for the Beffroi.

  Mistake. Cities do not look better from a bird’s eye angle. And I suffer from vertigo. One step out on to that narrow balcony under the clock-face and my knees went, my stomach somersaulted, and Jean-Baptiste had to lead me slowly back inside, where I sombered miserably onto a seat, trying not to be physically sick. Why did I even attempt it? Because it’s hell to be a sissy. But I’m afraid the ‘coup de beffroi’ will remain one of my memories of Gand.

The best cure for what ailed me seemed to be a glass of one of the famous Flemish beers, so we betook ourselves from the beastly beffroi to a café by the picturesque canal. That’s the picturesque canal, above. Two minutes later, it was hit by a violent wind and pounding rain, and the canvas of our café terrace threatened for several moments to take off. But, by the time we had finished our drinks, the sky was dry, and it was time to head back across the border. Once again, we came home to a treat. This time Ali was in charge of the kitchen, and the meal was – oh, yes! – couscous. A real Tunisian (that’s where he comes from) couscous. I think the couscous will linger in my memory even longer than the beffroi. Certainly much more pleasantly.
Monday started badly, with the news that the Boularibank had been, for the umpteenth time, further delayed, and as a result our plans were somewhat flung in the air. However, in the end, we decided just to go ahead as planned. I would simply sit out the delay time in the quiet of the Hotel Borel and at my beloved La Vague Restaurant, Dunkerque. We made a ‘dress rehearsal’ run up the motorway from Lille to Dunkerque, during the afternoon, and chucked in a quick visit to the seaside resort of Bray Dune where I partook of an excellent ten-degree Maredsous beer, made by trappist monks, on a very pleasant promenade. In the evening, it being my turn for doing the food … we went out. Didier is largely knowledgeable about the local restaurants, so we visited Le Compostelle, a pretty, elegantly set-up establishment in a little ruelle not far from the Grande Place, which I assume is the best restaurant in town. Well, it’s hard to imagine one better. Cocquilles St Jacques, ris de veau, a bottle of Santerny and, to finish with, what has to be the house speciality: when you order a digestif (and we chose Oban whisky) they bring, and leave with you … the entire bottle. Help yourself. We lingered, on the way home, for a Kwak beer in one of the rare open bars (it was only 11pm), but finally the day had to end. And now the voyage is over, too. Not only our voyage to the north of France, but my time in Europe. This morning, early, I said a rather damp goodbye to Didier and Ali in the shadow of St Catherine’s Church and, an hour later, a determinedly chaste but disastrously churning one to Jean-Baptiste on the quayside at Dunkerque… Then the Golf turned back towards Paris, and I over the water to the Hotel Borel to sit out three days until – hopefully – the Boularibank finally comes to get me. It’s over. Except, of course, it isn’t. In not too many months I shall be back. Hopefully, to pick up right where I have left off… after all this is only year two of my ‘around the world in twenty years’! STOP PRESS: Anguish… the La Vague Restaurant has gone!

I'm in Lille

I’m in Lille. Yes, you heard right: Lille. Since Jean-Baptiste had a few days with no work – the whole of working France comes to a stop round 15 August and goes to the seaside – we decided to to follow the crowd and hit the roads out of Paris as well. We hired a brand new VW Golf at the Gare du Nord, and headed off north with a precise plan in mind: a visit to Jean-Baptiste’s old friend, Didier, in the city of Lille where, a couple of decades ago J-B attended university, a trip to Berck-sur-mer on the coast to see Rosy have her latest race and, eventually, on the Tuesday, off in ‘direction Dunkerque’ to meet the MV Boularibank, which is due (when it decides it’s ready) to float me across the seas to New Zealand. So, first of all, Lille. I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew it had a top football team, I knew that it was a large northern city, and I had visions of a French version of the industrial parts of Hull or Newcastle-on-Tyne. But it isn’t like that at all. The coal mines and steel factories of northern France have long disappeared in the face of more modern industries and businesses, and the old central city of Lille – freshly emblazoned as the Cultural Capital of Europe -- is nothing less than a thing of beauty: an area of large squares, fascinating little streets, beautiful old buildings (although the town is ancient, the great surviving constructions are from C16th-C19th) and buzzing with life. I liked it enormously. We spent our first evening – Jean-Baptiste, Didier, his friend Ali and I – eating the traditional northern moules and frites in the celebrated Chicorée Restaurant (‘open all night’!) on the Grande Place (the mussels mightn’t come up to NZ ones in size but they are very sweet) in the midst of a rainstorm, and wandering the streets of the old town. Once again, I was lucky in my guides, for Ali is a student of Art/History and was able to tell me exactly what I was looking at. Friday dawned fine and, after a leisurely start, we all bundled into the Golf and set off for Berck-sur-mer. Berck-sur-mer actually is ‘on the sea’ and what it is, in effect, is the Blackpool of France. The once-upon-a-time workingman’s holiday resort. I have a feeling it hasn’t changed too much over recent years. The racetrack opens just for this holiday weekend and it is a decidedly jolly country fête.

  Actually getting into Berck was a bit of a problem, with traffic jams being the order of the day, but we made it in plenty of time to meet up with Marion and Teresa and Rosy, and for me to introduce my team of novice racegoers to the basics of the game. Rosy was handicapped to 25 metres in her race. She began brilliantly and was soon hard up behind the leaders, but what we could not see from the stands was that the pretty green grass track was actually an absolute quagmire, that she was hating it, and before the last turn the poor girl was visibly struggling. So there was no happy ending to the raceday part of our story and, saying ‘a l’année prochaine’ to the Hue family, I swapped (figuratively) my racehorse owner’s hat for a Kiss-me-quick one and we headed off into the heart of Berck-sur-mer. The most notable thing about Berck is, without doubt, its beach. You could fit Blackpool into it several times. The tide was out, and the vast expanses of real sand were covered with merry holidaymakers who were not obliged, because of the available space, to lie shoulder-to-shoulder. Donkeys have, these days, been superseded by more modern entertainments such as the ‘char à voile’, a vehicle pulled at considerable speed by a kite-sail and in which Jean-Baptiste showed a worrying but thankfully temporary interest.

  We satisfied ourselves, instead, with a stroll along the sands in the sunshine, a few stops for food and beer, and, in sum, had nothing more nor less than a good old-fashioned visit to the extremely ‘populaire’ seaside, before pointing the Golf back -- rather sun-and-air-wearily -- back towards Lille.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Paris in summer ... (tra la la)


Paris in summer .. (tra la la) ..

Is hot. That’s my excuse, anyway, for no blog for ten days. And even now I’m going to be stickily short, because its 6pm and definitely time for something cooling. Like two cold showers and the whitest Bugundy in the house. For the temperature has been in the thirties, and the weather punctuated by several dazzlingly lit-up thunderstorms.
And I haven’t been lazy!
I’ve been three times to the Bibliotheque Nationale with Christophe; and Jean-Baptiste, intent, since day one of my now week-old visit to him on the topside of Paris (10ème), on filling in a few of the gaps in my education, has shepherded me to see the Nymphéas of Manet and the amazing (and sensibly undersized) exhibition of early 20th century art at the Orangerie, and then to the Musée Cluny, which specialises in mediaeval art and artefacts. Fortunately, on this second occasion, we had Pierre (who is an expert on the period and on every Saint in the panoply) with us, and what could have been an incomprehensible and rather boring succession of religious images was made totally fascinating. I don’t know how the rest of the public manages, for this museum (like the Orangerie) is decidedly lacking in readable explanations. They should take a few lessons from the Jersey curators.
Anyway, for someone who still (after 30 years of Ian’s tuition and wisdom) knows little about art and the appreciation of it, I truly enjoyed both visits.
However, what I liked best was the morning when Jean-Baptiste and I took a stroll through the nearby (to here) Park of Buttes-Chaumont. A lovely piece of green-land, unfussily laid out and strangely un-noisy. For Paris. We wandered along the various woody paths, and finally arrived on the top of a (real?) cliff, under a mock C19th folly, from where you could gaze out towards the spires of Montmartre. Don’t ask me why I thought of Julie Andrews and her Sound of Music folly, but I did. Jean-Baptiste wouldn’t let me photograph him (this has got to change), so I’m afraid it’s another photo of me.

After we came down, we sat and lengthily sipped cold beer at a street café, and I have to admit that I thought ‘bugger Manet, bugger the Louvre, this is Paris for me’. I know, I’m a Philistine. But I am trying. I even watched an entire movie (and those of you who know me know that that is little short of a miracle) about the Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo (if there’s one thing J-B is hotter on than art, it’s Mexico) and if the male star hadn’t been someone I once sort of knew (Alfred Molina) I could almost have believed it.


But don’t think that’s all! We’ve had Jean-Baptiste’s birthday, we’ve had a trip to the poshest parfumier in Paris where I spent a month’s income on 100cl of ‘artisanale’ perfume (hello, mum!), we’ve had a trip to Enghien – J-B’s first ever taste of racing -- to see Jack’s horse, Porto, run into the money, Rosy ran a second race (once again miles away), perhaps a tad too soon and off a 25 metres handicap, and still ran into a small cheque, and, well – if you take away all the time spent on café terrasses and in restaurants .. hey! this is Paris! .. what else has there been time for?

When in Paris (tra la la) … I think Cole Porter would have been proud of me.

One way and another.