You see some strange things…

I always go into churches when I’m abroad. For both religious and cultural reasons. You always find something of interest, even if you’re not religious. In Paris a small South American choir were practising. In Stratford a young group of American gospel singers were giving a free concert. In Venice a trio of violinists were playing Vivaldi. And I’ve heard nuns and monks in monasteries singing the Divine Office.  A little bit of calm and culture amidst the hustle and bustle of what may be outside.

I usually start by reading all the notices and leaflets around to get a sense of the church, the parish, the people.  You can quickly tell their priorities.  It might just be to remain open, a sign of the times.  You see many churches turned into homes, offices, restaurants, art galleries. Better any of these than to remain closed. In a sense churches are usually art galleries, even when still consecrated. In L’Eglise de la Sainte Famille in Le Touquet there is vibrant modern stained glass. The thing about stained glass is that the hues change depending upon the time of day and the way the light falls. You are drawn to revere the art and the artist for making this happen.

I always light candles. Proper candles, not those electric ones that health and safety madmen favour.  And I pray for the people I know in the most need. This is sometimes a long list.  And it’s often a desperate plea, seemingly unanswered, or at least not in the way you expect.

In this church I came across a prayer to St Rita, ‘Sainte de Impossible’.  ‘That’s worth a try’, I thought, ‘for all those seemingly impossible requests’. The instructions tell me that I have to say a specific prayer to her.  And photocopy the prayer 25 times and leave for other people.  Then wait for the fourth day… I’ll let you know how I get on.

Le weekend en France

France is wonderful at any time of year.  But particularly when you haven’t been for a while and the weather is unexpectedly good.  Le Touquet has to be one of my favourite places.  Like St Malo and St Cast, it reminds me of those school trips abroad: one of the highlights of my existence – yes really! Except now I don’t have to go round looking for ‘straying children’ and picking off sixth formers in bars.

Why are the French cool in a way that we Brits are not? Saturday morning in France is so much fun.  Coffee and ‘tarte aux pommes’, followed by a stroll on the beach, a browse round the shops and a trip to the market for some foods to take home. Things you don’t see (at least in Loughborough), like ‘girolles’ mushrooms, tomatoes with unfamilar names, russet apples (what happened to those?) and those deliciously sweet ‘fraises des bois’.

How is it that a small French town can sustain such an abundance of food shops?  The butcher, the baker, the fishmonger and the greengrocer are all here and seem to thrive, alongside the market and the out-of-town supermarket. Well perhaps because you don’t see as many ‘bog-offs’ and the French don’t mind paying a bit more for quality food. Then, again, they don’t eat as much … French women (and men) really do seem to keep slim and so elegant. You can understand why they call this place ‘Le Touquet, Paris Plage’. Lots of Serge Gainsbourg lookalikes with blonde women and small dogs (always!). One restaurant actually had a photo and endorsement by the actor in its window.  Don’t they know he’s been dead 20 years?!

A final word of praise for the lovely woman in the jeweller’s – see pic – who relieved my distress after a wasp sting to my ring finger.  She acted quickly and cut off my wedding and engagement rings, causing minimum discomfort after the swelling caused constriction. A quick call to NHS Direct advised me to do this in order ‘to save the finger’. No panic then. But she was lovely, her small son was cute.  Most of all it didn’t spoil our weekend!

Old houses

When our Brazilian friend Richard came to Chatsworth House with us on one occasion he commented that he loved the house and gardens but wasn’t interested in ‘old furniture and tatty carpets’. I feel much the same myself although Hardwick Hall, also in Derbyshire, is a pretty impressive house. Owned by Bess of Hardwick – you may recall the woman if you saw the Keira Knightley film, The Duchess – this is one of the grandest Elizabethan houses in England. Climbing up the floors of the house is a spectacular experience. Each room is full of rich tapestries, plaster friezes and huge marble fireplaces. Bess married four times apparently and accumulated vast wealth. You can imagine the house alive with friends and family. The dining table is set out for dinner, the sherry looked inviting. There’s a ruined castle next door. She had a new one built to accommodate visitors. She was supposed to be beautiful but it’s hard to tell from the paintings. And perceptions of beauty change over the ages, of course.

The last duchess lived in the house until a few years ago. It’s owned by the National Trust now. An area of the house had been preserved as she left it. Interesting but not how you’d expect a duchess to live. On the whole I prefer Chatsworth. Larger, grander and still occupied by the Devonshire family. We stayed in Buxton once on a visit and my friend saw the current duchess out shopping. Don’t imagine Bess would have done anything so mundane.

As I commented I preferred the gardens and with our friends admired the dahlias, all in bloom. There were some well-manicured trees and interesting sculptures. There is also a stonemasonry nearby. I’ve never joined the National Trust but perhaps I will now that I’m 60. See my photos below.

Welcome to England (not!)

The American psychologist and writer, Daniel Pink, is claimed to collect ’emotionally intelligent signage’, according to Oliver Burkeman in today’s Guardian. This is signage that creates an empathy with people in order to encourage them to obey. So, for instance you would see ‘Please keep to the footpaths’ rather than ‘Don’t walk on the grass’. A more positive approach and one that more people tend to follow, apparently.

Coincidentally, I was discussing this very topic when out walking yesterday in the groundsof a nearby country house, open to visitors for just one month each year. Typical British weather in August, it was lashing down as we walked through the gardens. There were few other visitors, the rain saw to that – and perhaps the signs. Everywhere we looked there were threats and prohibitions. This is just a sample: We only open at 2pm. Don’t park here, your vehicle will be towed away; Stay off the grass; No picnicking allowed; Keep dogs on a leash; Keep away from the building work (scaffolding and builders around); No alcohol to be consumed; This area is monitored by CCTV. Don’t feed the ducks … and so on. Our party yesterday included two head teachers, a librarian and senior manager, all law-abiding folk accustomed to encouraging good behaviour in others. We laughed at the proliferation of all these ‘dont’s’ but there is a serious issue. What is the mentality behind this overly censorious approach to receiving visitors?

Evidently visitors are unwelcome. So, why do they open the family house and grounds in August? So that we, ‘local commoners’, get to see how the other half live? And pay for their restauration, most likely. Loughborough is due to receive the Japanese Olympians next year. There’s a lot of building work going on in the area. I hope that the powers-that-be also look at building good relationships and provide customer service training that includes the welcome people should receive. I suspect not. It’s rather a British thing to show disdain for customers, at the same time as wanting their money. Ah well, hope yet, as we did see this cosy cafe sign before we left.

La bella Italia

Here we are on holiday, in the mountains above the city of Bergamo, on a sweltering afternoon. Arrived here Saturday, after a week spent by Lake Como to celebrate our friend Ann’s 60th birthday.  Holidays anywhere are a treat, particularly if the weather is good, but to my mind Italy is unbeatable.  This is out fourth visit to the Hotel Miramonti in Rota d’Imagna, Ann’s first.  It’s always a gamble recommending somewhere to friends in case they don’t love it as much as you do. But Ann does.  For a start the hotel is family run and that means they care.  Mamma makes the pasta, Papa runs the bar, Uncle the pizzeria.  Son Giampiero runs the business and seems to do everybody else’s job, as well as his own.  They always have a smile on their face and nothing is too much trouble.  Rare service these days and seldom experienced in a hotel chain. All meals consist of seasonal, local food.  Pasta is home-made, tomatoes taste like they should and basil is fragrant. Even the simplest meal is a feast.  Local meats served with marinated artichokes, cheeses with fig jam, cep mushroom polenta – that was just the starter.  Rabbit, wild boar, beef, veal for the main course.  Washed down with local wine.

The hotel guests are mainly Italians – of a certain age.  Meal-times are noisy with chatter and busy but the service is attentive.  There are families of three generations sitting down for lunch at one table.  I observed them at Mass this morning.  Standing room only.  Unusual in Italy these days but perhaps they were there because it is a special feast of Our Lady.  There was a collection box for ‘a new head for St. Gottardo’ (patron of the similarly named Swiss Pass perhaps?). What happened to the original I wonder.  I day-dream in Mass, particularly during the priest’s homily which I don’t understand.  My Italian doesn’t stretch that far.  The usual dream – could I live here and write a book… There are flats to rent for 300 euros a month.  The hotel carries some property brochures.  You can buy a flat for 50,000 euros and even a dilapidated farmhouse for the same.    That would give Stewart something to do whilst I stay in the hotel and write (ha!).  Or he could improve his ‘synchronised swimming technique’ – see below with Ann! This isn’t a holiday for those who like to spend their time shopping, posing or clubbing.  But for relaxation, refreshment and care, you can’t beat it.

– Mass this morning

Holland is under-estimated…

Holland is vastly under-estimated to everyone except the Dutch.  I only visited once before (I think!) when I was doing my year abroad. (I should have been in France). We hitch-hiked through Holland and survived on chips – with mayonnaise of course! It’s flat but not boring.  You can cycle everywhere and the Dutch do.  There are cycle pathways and motorists are courteous.  You see whole families, babies in the front and toddlers at the back, older kids following.  They look cool.  Cyclists don’t seem to wear helmets, perhaps because it’s an accepted way of transport and not as risky as here in the UK.

Limburg is in the south of the Netherlands, sandwiched between Belgium and Germany.  At one point it is only 13 kilometres wide.  There are a few hills here so it’s great for old cyclists and there are lots of campsites.  We stayed in a small one and hired bikes to be able to see some of the area.  for the first couple of nights we stayed in a B&B called Greenwoods.  Yes, not very Dutch, he was British born.  Ruth and Eddie are a lovely couple who were the most gracious of hosts.  Nothing was too much trouble.  They made their own bread and cakes, lovely varieties we hadn’t tried before.  And they made pancakes with strawberries.  Not just your usual hotel standard fare.

Of course as regular readers will know we were there primarily for Andre’s concert.  In the centre of Maastricht.  The kids might be embarrassed about me mentioning this.  Although they admit they loved it too!

Remember Maastricht?  It’s where Europe decided to go for the euro. John Major was there, I understand, but we didn’t sign up.  It is the most European of cities.  Culture, cafe life, galleries, parks, restaurants.  And such elegant people, of all ages.  When we play our usual game of ‘marks out of 10 for style’, usually during a long wait at airports we struggle to give people more than a 5.  Not here! Everyone seemed to merit a 7 or more.  They looked like they might work for the Brussels Assembly.  I saw something in the media recently suggesting that young people might choose to go to university here rather than in the high-cost UK. There are 40 higher educational establishments apparently.  And the best bookshop I have ever seen.  In a Dominican church that was restored by the owners and then converted.  I always think there is something reverential about a good bookshop so it seemed a good idea.  And there’s a cafe inside that serves excellent cinnamon topped strudel.

When you’re in a new country you quickly learn about regional food.  Goulash was on all menus.  And tomato soup, onion too.  Delicious croquettes, don’t know what was inside. Mussels and chips.  Influences of surrounding countries too, I suppose.  And cake, lots of cake! My favourite cafe though served strawberry custard tart and had an adorable waiter. He managed to find us a table for dinner before the concert.  He was tall, slim, dark-skinned and black-haired.  He was so nice he even went out of his way to say goodbye at the end of his shift.  The cafe had paintings of fat ladies on the walls. No wonder with all that cake.