Sunday, May 30, 2010

France revisited

When I touched down in Tours on Thursday, it was my first return to France since leaving Grenoble in the summer of 2007, almost three years ago. The two times I had been to Paris in between don't count, as Paris is as different from France as London is from England, and the short drive from Paris to Giverny doesn't count either. That was just a deserted village (and home of Monet in old age) and a lot of motorway miles. This time was really the first time I'd see the country again, and I was curious about how I would perceive it.

When I had left, I didn't exactly do so with a heavy heart. I hadn't exactly felt at home. For being a threefold university town and the site of a large European research facility, Grenoble felt depressingly provincial and un-happening. It is embedded at the confluence of two rivers by three mountain ranges rising thousands of feet, and the mountains and the activities they offer is what constitute the appeal of Grenoble. Its inhabitants are always out and about, mostly hiking, but also skiing and biking.

The mountains played a big part in attracting me to Grenoble and I benefited from them as much as I could, mostly by whipping my increasingly less inadequate legs up the various climbs that started within minutes from my apartment. But the mountains are not everything to me, and it was this something else I found wanting. Concerts and festivals passed me by for the most part. Add to this that I didn't make any (none, it is true) French friends, and it's easy to understand that I didn't cry hot tears when I drove off north.

Going back, I wondered whether I would fall in love with the country all over again. When I still went to school, my family went on a road trip to the Alsace, which I liked a lot but mostly in a family vacation way. But as an undergrad I went to the Calanques twice, a region of limestone cliffs and Mediterranean bays near Marseilles, and it was there that the fantasy of one day living in France took hold. This fantasy is now buried, but how is France?

In one word only, beautiful. Most small towns and village look as if the judges for Charmingest village, prettiest town competition had only passed through yesterday, as if the places had donned their finest to impress them. The municipal beauty contest does indeed exist, and proud signs underneath the town signs applauds the successes (village fleuri). More impressive, though, is the look of the towns themselves, with their neatly trimmed shrubbery and manicured trees, with spotless little parks, with the shutters on most houses sparkling with fresh paint and all shops tastefully advertising their business. There is hardly a chain store, and the few that persist blend in.

The reason for the absence of chains is that the French love hopping into their little cars and going shopping in the mega-malls outside town. That's where the enormous grocery, home improvement, furniture, sports goods, and electronics stores are. In town are mostly fashion boutiques and upscale retailers that hang on for dear life. They're often empty of customers. So while the towns and villages are all intensely pleasing to the eye, I wouldn't want to live there. Unless they are tourist destinations they can feel deserted, almost dead. The inhabitants are either at home, doing the things happy families do, or in the mall, shopping. I'm neither kind of guy.

The French are often characterized as arrogant, not exactly for nothing. But they base their arrogance on being French, and that's enough to give them a kick. They don't need flashy cars or big houses or other status symbols because none would add much beyond Frenchness. This became very clear to me on the Atlantic coast. There isn't much of renown between Nantes and Bordeaux, and Nantes isn't exactly renowned itself. But there are endless sandy beaches, unspoiled nature and dreamlike outlying islands – and an economy that seems very much in tune with these three aspects of the land. Peace and calm (and more sunshine than almost anywhere in France) are the selling point to get the tourists that don't need the name recognition of the Côte d'Azure, and fishing, oyster farming, and sea salt extraction keep the accounts balanced outside the crowded summer months. I always saw many more fishing boats and modest barges than yachts. And even the yachts looked modest.

I was surprised to see how cheap France is; I didn't remember it as such. Granted, cheap might not be the right word, but France is certainly not excessively expensive as a holiday destination. I remember eating out in Grenoble mostly for its thirty-euro prix-fixe dinners. The food was great but the hole in the pocket substantial. On the Ile de Noirmoutier, an island of fishermen, oyster farmers and salt baggers, I had a three-course dinner with two different kinds of fish fresh from the sea for twenty euros, and this included a glass of wine and a coffee. Has the much talked-about deflation finally arrived?

Right now I'm in Figeac, an enchanting small town of spotlessly restored medieval buildings lining cobbled alleys. A few plazas break up the urban density and make room for restaurants and cafés. But there aren't many, and neither are there people. It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and mother's day on top. The locals must be at home, huddled around the coffee table. I get an espresso on a terrace that's barely kept dry by large square umbrellas. Leaning back, I let the previous four days pass before me again. I realize that when I fly back to London tomorrow, I will love France for its beauty and flavors but be free from any desire of living here again.

And by the way, after having the hardest time finding it, I did tour Jean Balluet's little shop and bought a few bottles of his Très Vieille Réserve. But that's for another story.

Friday, May 28, 2010

to Tours

A soft click comes from the far corner of the room. It is pitch-black; no light falls through the window. The click signals a connection, electrons flow, and the radio kicks into life. In a relentless crescendo, a murmur that's all but inaudible slowly develops into the clearly enunciated syllables of BBC English. Evan Davis is on the air.

A flick with the remote keeps the volume below shouting but loud enough to nag. The clock says 4:12, but it's not that late. The clock is inveterately fast, and the four-o'clock news is still inside its first five minutes. Body parts are still being fished from a West Yorkshire river. The killer was apprehended last night and has now fallen to the tail end of the bulletin.

I get up, get dressed, grab my backpack and am out of the house in twenty minutes. There was just enough time to water my orchid to keep it happy for the next five days. I'm going to France, though first I have to get to the airport, to Stansted, far out in the north-eastern plains, way beyond the reaches of the tube and municipal buses.

I've previously taken the train from Liverpool St., a comfortable ride of just over an hour, and always on time. But there is no way of getting to Liverpool St. efficiently this early in the morning. Night buses are no good for time-critical transport. Instead, a few days earlier I booked myself onto Easybus for the first time. It's a more convenient connection for a better price than the train. Now I just have to get to Baker St. from where the shuttle departs. There's a direct night bus and it turns up on time. Less than two hours after leaving my house I walk through the metal detector at Stansted. Things have gone so smoothly that I'm not even getting upset, as is my habit, at the nonsense that keeps masquerading for security.

Stansted is noticeably busier than Heathrow these days, but there's a mood of light-hearted expectation and forward-looking steadily hovering over the crowds like a faint mist. People are going on vacation, and they're not letting the airport get them down. I'm going to Tours today, the capital of the Loire region, but it's not the glorious châteaux or famous wines that I'm after.

Three years ago when I was leaving Grenoble a student handed me a dusty bottle with a black label and a bulky waist. "Do you like cognac?" he inquired. I didn't; I had never tried it. I told him I was eager to – and was stunned when I did. Jean Balluet Très Vieille Réserve was spectacular hooch, liquid bliss, a symphony of perfectly composed flavors. Upon finishing the bottle, I put it on my long-list of travel ideas to go visit Maître Balluet in Neuvicq-le-Château, the hamlet where he distills his cognac, and buy a few bottles off him.

I have rented a car in Tours and will drive to the Atlantic coast. From there, I'll then meander southeast over the course of four days, bisecting the wine-growing region dominated by the small town of Cognac. One day's drive farther to the southeast is Rodez, a town whose name I've never encountered. But it's got an airport (on average, a dozen hapless travelers a year apparently mistake it for Rhodes) and a connection to London. I'll fly back on Monday.

The flight to Tours has finished boarding. The plane is pretty full, but I got on early and scooped up a window seat. In the central aisle, three young women in identical dresses are flapping their arms in perfect synchrony, their beauty frozen in smile-less faces. Rookie flyers are introduced to the safety features of this aircraft. The women remind us not to inflate, in the case of an emergency, the life vest while still on board. There's a soft click in my head as my brain shuts off. The airplane rolls through the drizzle to the end of the runway and takes off.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Today is neither an anniversary nor a milestone. I haven't run this blog for five years yet, nor have I posted 500 entries to it (though both landmark numbers are drawing close). It's not the time for a retrospective but nevertheless...

For reasons that, when strung together in their non-linear confusion, constitute life, I found myself in a strangely contemplative mood the other day. Looking back over a few years of writing development, I was trying to see the progress and draw conclusions that might enlighten the way that lies ahead.

There can be no doubt that I'm a more accomplished writer than I was five years ago, that I have gained loads of experience and broadened my skill base. I can enliven a month with a good dozen posts if I apply myself. It doesn't take much effort, and it certainly isn't painful.

If quantity were the objective, I would have reached most goals last year. Hidden in the jungle of uncharacteristically dense prolixity are surely a few blunders that I'd rather not go back to, but that doesn't matter. They are few and I have already forgotten about them. And while there are no literary gems hidden among the countless lines, I'd like to think that my writing is solid throughout.

Last year's verbosity has not held up. I've cut down dramatically on the number of posts, going from ten a month to six or seven. This was mostly because writing, though it doesn't pay the bills or even contribute, had become routine. It took me while to realize this because a blog is a habit by its very nature. But my writing has got stuck and I'm frequently lost for inspiration.

Contemplating this development, I recalled a piece on my homepage that is older than this blog, that was written when there was neither a reason for writing nor any sort of self-imposed pressure. Writing was pure enjoyment back then and even now, it gives me pleasure to read it.

It was the eve of my 30th birthday, a day that many equate with the end of youth. From among my friends, there had been comments about how the decrepitude of old age would start in earnest the moment the door into the fourth decade is crossed. Some lived in fear and desperate denial of the day it would happen to them.

I thought all of this was bunk, but kept the sentiment in my mind because it would make a good lead into my story. The first sentence would emphasize that I was turning thirty and I getting old. I was supposed to be tired, phlegmatic and exhausted – never mind the light bounce in my step as I walked to the Grenoble train station. My bike in tow and a pack on my back, I was about to take the night train to the catholic mekka of Lourdes, in the far southwest of the country, to the feet of the Pyrenees.

The next day would be that year's final mountain stage of the Tour de France, and I had set out to ride up the last climb of the highest category, to cheer up the riders and celebrate myself. It was still cool when I got off the train in Lourdes, but the day turned out brilliant. Thousands were on their bikes, suffering up the relentless climb, and orders of magnitude more were later gathered on the meadows surrounding the pass.

It was as if a village fair had been beamed up from the dales. Barbecues had been fired up and beer was on tap. Dozens of booths sold assorted schlock, mostly Tour merchandise and paraphernalia. Several million pounds worth of bikes, mine only a tiny contribution, were piled desultorily in the ditches. High above, a pair of eagles surveyed the rattle with suspicion.

When the eagles were rudely displaced by invading helicopters, chartered by French television, the riders weren't far. Cadel Evans was the first to summit, the other heroes of the day not far behind. Those in the lead were supposed to enjoy climbing but they looked decidedly worse than the heavy-set sprinters who seemed to cruise up the mountain with little effort.

Half an hour later, the Tour caravan had passed through. The helicopters stayed with it and the eagles returned. I hopped on my bike and took the road to Pau in a rather suicidal fashion, hoping that no one would ascent at this point. About two hours later, the active part of the day was coming to an end with dinner on a terrace overlooking the Pyrenees.

Sunset was still hours away but I had a ride home to catch. The second train in as many nights took me back to Grenoble. The night was short and the amount of sleep certainly not sufficient in light of the exercise. I had predicted that. I had in fact hoped for it, and even if it hadn't happened, I wouldn't have changed the last sentence of my story, which had gotten into my head together with the first one. I was feeling tired, sluggish and exhausted – briefly, befitting my age.

Such moments of inspiration happen all too rarely. But the key point with inspiration is that one can't force it. All one can do is be ready when it strikes. And being ready is crucial: The mind needs to be open, receptive and welcoming. To regain that state with respect to writing, I've cut short the number of posts I publish on this blog.

Has it been of any use? I can't tell yet, but next week I'm going to France for a few days, and I'll quickly notice if the words flow more naturally. And maybe you'll get something decent to read as well.

Monday, May 17, 2010

meister bus

London is buses. The city might have the oldest underground train system, continuously running for nearly 150 years, and the longest history of electrification. It might have one of the world's biggest underground networks with nearly 300 stations and 400 kilometers of track, and every visitor's image of the city might be influenced by the iconic red-encircled blue Underground sign and the highly stylized tube map with its straight lines and 45-degree angles. But underneath the celebrity and the buzz of the tube, London is buses.

Buses are everywhere. If you want to go from A to B, hop on a bus. It doesn't matter where A is, it doesn't matter where B is, and it certainly doesn't matter what time it is. There's always a bus. It might not be a direct bus, but it will take you closer. The journey will not be quick, but it will eventually come to an end – inevitably at the intended destination. (If Wikipedia is to be believed, there are 19,000 bus stops in London.)

For a long time, buses remained essentially unchanged. The Routemaster dominated totally. Bright red and double-decked, it would rove the streets of London like a gigantic walk-in closet on wheels. There was a driver up front and a conductor in the back, but there were no doors. Passengers could hop on and off as they pleased. And though most people seemed pleased enough, over the last twenty years the uniformity of the bus system has been broken and many a tradition abolished.

As the open Routemaster was showing its age, replacements were introduced, mostly modern incarnations of the double-decker without a conductor but with doors. In addition, short single-decker buses appeared in the early 2000s, joined, a few years later, by their longer, articulated cousins. Their local moniker, bendy bus, could be considered affectionate, but the bendy is almost universally reviled. I cannot say why, but Londoners somehow believe it to be responsible for the death of the beloved Routemaster, the last of which disappeared from regular service in 2005. (These days, two heritage routes are still running these relics.)

In 2007, a circus clown took over City Hall. With bushy hair and bumbling manners, he didn't act the politician. Spontaneity shaped his agenda, and his antics got his name in the press. He had only one issue when running for office: He'd bring the Routemaster back. People elected him for this. (There was nothing else to elect him for.)

Boris Johnson's tenure as Mayor of London hasn't been as disastrous as most pundits gloomily predicted. He has indeed shown a keen interest in Transport for London, the city-controlled operator of London's public transport, for example by organizing the biggest binge ever staged in the tunnels of the Underground and more recently by bringing Tube Lines, a catastrophic private-public partnership, back into full public ownership.

And just today, he came true on his lonely campaign promise: The plans for a new Routemaster was proudly unveiled. I can't say that I like it much, what with half a dozen doors and a sloping back that looks dated already, but here we go. According to estimates, the bus will be much costlier than the current double-decker and less efficient at busing people around than a bendy, but if we're getting something new, we might as well get something special, something unique. After all, London is buses.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

electoral questions

From the depths of my May slumber I arose this afternoon to iron a gigantic heap of dress shirts, a task that I don't like but have to do on occasion because I'm too cheap to pay anyone to do it for me. To pass the time (and involuntarily extend it because my mind would wander and my hand slow down) I turned the radio to Any Questions, a political talk show with the potential for great hilarity and sometimes profound insight. The four panelists, veteran players in the ferocious arena of British politics recruited from across the spectrum, are deft at fending with words and masters of rhetoric warfare. The questions are posed by the audience (but preselected by the presenter) and the answers quick-witted but erudite. Personal attacks are notable for their complete absence. All but the bitterest debates end amicably. I turned up the volume and ironed away.

There was a bit of coincidence between what was said on the radio and why I haven't posted anything lately: My attention was held raptly by current affairs. From April 6, when the Prime Minister asked the Queen to dissolve parliament, to May 6, when the general election was held, the country was in a month-long spasm of frantic campaigning, televised debates (three of them), overanalyzed election manifestos, and hypothesized outcomes. Newspapers ran special issues, waxing loquaciously about the dawn of a new era. Commentaries were full of dreams and possibilities. After the financial crisis, the economic downturn, the expenses scandal and yet another five-year period when the English football team didn't win a thing, people were open for change, eager for new options and hungry to vote.

Britain has been a de-facto two-party democracy since the dark ages. For as long as people can remember, the choice has always been Labour or Conservatives. This time promised to be a bit different. The Liberal Party, which was strong before workers found their voice and gave it to Labour in the early 20th century, has been making a quiet comeback (as Liberal Democrats), winning seats in local elections and running a smooth though tiny parliamental operation, imbuing the opposition with spirit and substance and dominating many a public debate. The TV-broadcast leaders' debate gave them a huge boost in the eyes of the electorate, if you were to believe polls.

Then the election came, and most things went exactly as before. The two big parties dominated. A pandemonium of small parties, Scottish nationalists, Irish republicans and proud Welshist among them, gained a few seat here but didn't contribute to the national debate, nor was it their intent. The liberal hype deflated with a bang so loud it could be heard all the way to Cape Wrath. They got less than a quarter of the seats of either of the big two.

At this point, a bit of bitching about the British electoral system, which is messed up even by the standards of the day, is in order. It needs no emphasizing that the Lib Dems didn't meet the expectations that had burned brightly before the election. But they did all right; they increased their share of the popular vote from 22 to 23 percent. However, they're going to send six fewer delegates to Parliament (*).

How can you gain votes and lose seats? You can do so in Britain where overall share of votes does not matter. The only thing that matters is the number of constituencies a party wins. One could imagine the extreme case of a nationally very well placed party that comes second in every single constituency. It would very likely win the largest number of votes overall, but it would get exactly zero Members of Parliament. As politics was for the longest time dominated by two parties clearly separated regionally (Labour in the industrial heart of the country, Conservatives in the posh regions), this system became so entrenched that it wasn't even questioned. The parties in power had nothing to gain from change.

After this month's election, neither of the big parties commanded an outright majority. This sent the political establishment and the commentariat on the radio and in the papers into predicting any kind of doom imaginable. The soy-bean harvest will fail, the domestic real estate market collapse and the world come to a catastrophic end. All because either of the big parties needed a partner to govern effectively. The Lib Dems were the only possible partner, and after a few days of furious negotiations in both ways, a Conservative-Liberal coalition government was formed. It is the first coalition government since the second world war, and the British are not only very uncomfortable with the very idea but also profoundly ignorant of its ramifications.

I gathered that much from the answers at Any Questions. The Lib Dems were repeated scolded, much to the delight of a raucous audience, for collaborating in government with a party they don't completely agree with. How will you keep this point from your election manifesto, or that, was a recurring question. You sold out, said most panelists, failing to see that compromise is a coalition's strongest glue, and that it's better for a political party to be in government than to be outside it because it's easier to accomplish one's goals from a position of power and easier to get your points across. The Lib Dems, outside the narrow focus of the media and public for a long time, are acutely aware of this.

Three of the panelist were much taken by surprise and kept arguing against a wall of reason. More points were made, on this and other, related topics, and I made notes. But the post that had germinated in my head felt long enough already, and I stopped thinking about it. The show continued, and I kept ironing my shirts.

(*) After some careful massaging of the election data, I can report the following surprising numbers: The Lib Dems got 57 seats in Parliament from 6.8 million votes. This corresponds to one seat per 120,000 votes. Labour got 1.77 million votes more than the Lib Dems. This little bit extra gave them 201 additional seats, to the tune of 8800 votes per seat, a shocking discrepancy. Even if you don't look at differentials but at the total, how much a vote counts is still disturbingly large. Just a bit more than 33,000 votes get a Labour seat. A vote for Labour is thus nearly four times as valuable than one for the Lib Dems. I don't see the democratic value in this.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

getting screwed

In communism, the purpose of a company is the good of the people. In capitalism, a company serves its shareholders. Ryanair, the Irish budget airline that dominates the European short-haul market, fits neither worldview. It brings inner-European air-travel within reach of even the least well-off, but that's not its primary goal. It is thus not communist. It has made and continues to make its owners shedloads of money, but that's not its primary goal either. Transporting people is a means of assuring generous profits, but either is only corollary to the raison d'être of Ryanair, which is the aggravating, ridiculing and buggering of its customers.

Ryanair is the only company that I know that not only openly despises its customers but bluntly and tirelessly tells them so. Most of its business innovations are aimed at fleecing people, and it is very upfront about it. All novelties are proudly and loudly presented in front of the international press, as if to mock those about to suffer from them.

What do I mean? Ryanair pioneered the nefarious practice of advertising imaginary prices. Three years ago, I went from Barcelona to Rome on a one-cent ticket. The unavoidable fees amounted to nearly 2000%. The price I paid in the end was still ridiculously low and could have been used to advertise the competition out of business. It wasn't because Ryanair doesn't care about that. It cares passionately about future passengers experiencing painful abuse when they make a booking.

This is also the reason that Ryanair frequently sends planes to airports that have only a tenuous connection with the advertised destination. On said trip to Rome three years ago, take-off was in Girona, farther from Barcelona by bus than from Rome by plane. Had I not already known what I was getting, I wouldn't have easily found it out on Ryanair's website, and I would have been pissed.

This kind of information is now more prominently displayed, no doubt thanks to European legislation, but money-gauging schemes have multiplied. Two years ago I flew Ryanair to Belfast. All fees and charges included, the ticket cost me 13 pounds, slightly less than the train out to the airport (in the fields an hour outside of London). That would not be possible anymore. Electronic check-in is now charged at five pounds, and it is unavoidable. Don't try to save money by checking in at the airport. It costs eight times as much to print your boarding pass there, but no one might be present to do it for you. Payment by credit card costs an extra five pounds, and this is per person and per flight. Do you feel anger rising up inside you already?

Checked bags are fifteen pounds each, but only if you register them at the time of booking. Bags added later to your ticket cost disproportionately more. Be careful what you pack: Ryanair apparently has the lowest baggage allowance in Europe but charges the highest excess luggage fee. It also limit the dimensions of carry-on bags more than other airlines. For no other reasons than to flaunt its kiss-my-ass attitude, Ryanair requires passengers on flights within the UK to possess a valid passport and has instituted a number of arcane visa stamp procedures unique to this airline and devoid of any useful purpose.

Once aboard, the irritations continue. Instead of handing out food and drink (*), the flight attendants flog scratch cards for a highly profitable lottery and shove catalogs for in-flight merchandise in the faces of annoyed passengers. At the same time, the overhead speakers screech advertisements in an infinite loop. The latest fuck-you-customer scheme is the installation of, and I kid you not, coin-operated toilets. And why not charge for the seat that you are required to take, though you can't choose it in advance (**)?

I passionately hate Ryanair for their deceitfulness, their dishonesty and their aggressive arrogance, and I avoid them where I can. I'd rather pay a bit more and use another company. Unfortunately, being the market leader, Ryanair flies to a lot more airports than other carriers, and their prices are competitive, even considering the outrageous charges (which makes their perfidy all the more aggravating).

This afternoon, I booked two flights that will bracket a stay in the southwest of France in three weeks. It was an effort that took the better part of three hours and exhausted me thoroughly. I had quickly discovered that Ryanair was the cheapest option, but its violent website and crooked character made me abandon my bookings four times and search for an alternative. There wasn't one, and I had to suck it up. And for the next three weeks, I won't complain about the airline. I brought the misery upon myself, after all.

(*) One can buy food and drinks on board, but the prices are excessive. A price comparison site found markups of nearly 300%. Pestered about this by a newspaper's travel supplement, a Ryanair spokesperson said with proud deceit: 'I would like to know how much Tesco are charging for flights from Barcelona to London', declining to explain how this is relevant. After all, Ryanair flies neither to Barcelona nor to London.

(**) Here, Ryanair is actually missing out. They could advertise every flight for the same price. I can see the billboards already, screaming in nasty purple: "One pound, no matter where you go, no matter when you book." All regular charges are added to this as before, and just before you're about to book your ticket, the charge for your seat is added, the magnitude of which would of course depend on where you go and when you book. Oh, people would be so angry!