Tonight’s entry comes to you from the old house you see fragments of in the corresponding photos. The household has retired to bed for the evening – yes, all ten of us – and the Hawke family is chillin’ in the darkened lounge-converted-into-a-bedroom before the new year kicks in. It’s quiet and reflective at the moment, which is a pleasant change from the preceding two days. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Yesterday morning we arose at 4am (after my alarm went off at 3:50) and were picked up promptly by the taxi at 4:30. The trip to the airport was interesting – our driver was a Pakistani, and a fanatic cricket supporter at that, and had been watching the current match for about half an hour before picking us up. Fortunately the Aussies were doing us justice at the time, with Hussey having scored a century in the first innings.
However, the trip to the airport took a while and we were crammed into the car, which wasn’t large. Come to think of it, there aren’t many large cars here at all. Anyhow, we arrived punctually and without further hitch. Gatwick airport is airy and tall, but my memory of the entry area is a little hazy. After proceeding through check in, we were left in the boarding lounge (quite large) which is below a terrace of shopping spots. I went with Tim to grab some Maccas for breakfast, despite the warning against it we were given by our “native” relatives. It’s at this point that I realise, with great resignation, that a Sausage McMuffin with Bacon (no egg) is very different in London to Adelaide. So while my stomach attempts to digest the carbs I ingested with an ample helping of multinational grease, we considered buying coffee. That’s all we did, mind – considering the poor state of the McMuffin, our coffee consideration was short and definitive. Apple juice was the beverage of choice, along with a chocolate croissant from a bakery franchise called Upper Crust.
Then it was quickly downstairs, off on a ten minute walk to the departure gate, a couple of security scans (remove watch, extract iPod, camera, wallet and phone from pockets, dump bag and lappy, step through beeping frame, reset watch, relocate iPod, camera, wallet and phone into pockets, shoulder bag uncomfortably and grab lappy hastily) and a sweltering wait in the easyJet gate departure room. easyJet doesn’t believe in seat number reservations, so it’s a free-for-all based only on a preference grouping system determined by the order you check in. We managed to get a good spot just inside the door to the causeway.
A flight from London Gatwick to Toulouse takes only 1:20, so there was barely enough time for me to open my book (“Winning with People”, John Maxwell). Until that point I hadn’t opened any of the reading materials I had brought with me, so I decided the France bit was the opportunity. Takeoff, in flight banter, landing – all standard.
So here we are in France. I can’t understand the people, or the untranslated signs, or the billboards. It’s interesting how you grope for any level of understanding you can find. My groping led me back into the dark unused depths of the mind to my Year 8 French lessons, now seven years ago (I must be getting old(er)). Only snippets of the vocab and conjugation remain in my awareness. The first port of call is the Europcar desk, where we source our Renault Laguna rental car. It’s grey and it’s a reasonably new, 5 door 6-speed manual automatic-everything machine. It has a start/stop button and an activation card which goes into a slot. Back in my day…
Toulouse is rainy and French looking. It’s about one and a half hours’ drive from our final destination, and we had to stop a couple of times along the way to fetch groceries and some heating apparatus. Further, Dad’s been thrown a curve ball because all driving is the other way around in France – yep, forward travel in the right lane. Since the car’s a manual, Dad’s been hitting the door on his left at gear change time. It’s somewhat funny to watch, but he’s doing a great job of it. Now that we’re on the subject, the toll highways are fun. The fun factor is nothing to do with the speed limit, which is actually average and maxes out at 130km/h. No, what’s interesting is the eight to ten ticketing machines and toll booths which end-cap the highway. Essentially they make up a ten lane drift; once you’ve left your rank in the ticket booth, you’re out of the box like a horse in the Melbourne Cup. There are no lines at all for at least 50 metres while the road funnels into the usual three lanes. First in, best dressed. I’m looking forward to watching it all happen with more dense traffic on Wednesday in peak hour.
Lunch at McDonald’s was fun. I had to order for Tim and me, and so I put all my French knowledge into action. I end up asking for “Deux moyen Menu Best Of McChicken”. I get asked “Ou frites?” to which I reply “Oui.” I get asked something containing “boisson”, to which I reply “Cola.” I missed the next bit, but a bit of a hand signal from the understanding French girl serving me made me realise the meaning of “C’est tout?”, to which I reply “C’est tout, merci.” What a buzz!
Finally we arrive at our destination, about ten minutes’ drive outside a place called Caylus. This spot is truly idyllic, with rough stone walls, blue window shutters and wooden plank doors. Forgot to mention, it’s cold. -1 degree C outside the car as we drove, and not any warmer now that we’re preparing to go inside. The steps up to the front door were iced up and slippery as wet soap, and my Auntie had a fall from the top down all twelve or so. This place doesn’t get used much – our London relatives are branching out into France and renovating as they can. Thus, the foot-thick stone walls have had time enough to become as cold as the outside climate, chilling everything inside. It took some time to get everything uncovered and the wood fire crackling along, and all the while we’re exhaling mist, even inside.
The wood fire puts out plenty of heat, but the next little issue is the wood supply. There’s ample amounts around but not much of it is dry and readily accessible, and most of the good fuel we have on hand is pine which burns too quickly. It is at this point that I experience the first major frustration apart from the foregoing issues of ten people in a small space. We have wood. We have fire. Conservation of energy says that, no matter how fast we burn the wood, we’re going to get the same amount of total energy output. To my mind, maximising the heating rate without regard to the speed of fuel consumption is the primary concern. The place is literally freezing, and without pumping the heat into the building, the slabs of cold rock aren’t going to heat through. But I keep well out of the admin chatter, guessing that the older cooks won’t appreciate another broth-spoiler.
Well, suffice to say we had a very cold night. It was planned that Tim and I should sleep in an exterior room which had no heating. This plan was scrapped after it was discovered that the heater we purchased had no fan, and that the cold was almost unbearable even inside the wood fired lounge room. I hate sleeping cold, even more than I despise instant coffee. I awoke at about 4am (5am?) shivering in my sleeping bag, which turns out to be too far the other way in terms of thermal protection. Third time lucky, hopefully.
Today, then, we arose at about 8am and slammed down some chocolate croissants before heading out to the shops again, which shut at 2pm on a Saturday. This was another interesting experience. Without any decent language skills (and with my brain mistakenly suggesting German words where my poor French fails me) I was becoming more annoyed. It’s quite hard to function when you can’t even express the most simplest of concepts to a shop assistant or passer by. Even knowing numbers above 10 would help.
This afternoon I became quite dejected, with the next five days of cooped up family politics, saving face, polite smiles and shaky facades becoming less and less attractive. The inability to get out without driving and the inclement weather compound the language barrier to make France seem very unfriendly and my upcoming time in Berlin seem distant and short. Fortunately our residence is heating up by now and is not as icily repressive as before. Unfortunately Tim hasn’t been feeling well. The Hawke family decides to split for a while to debrief and ponder the next few days by taking a car drive down the road around our village, enabling me to capture some scenery on camera.
After returning I retreated to the dinner table (a few feet from the lounge area) and began to devour my book, highlighter in hand. This turns out to be a great use of my time and my mood improves as I read Maxwell’s advice on dealing with conflict and maximising relational skills. I don’t resent being here as I did this afternoon, and am now taking it as it comes. If nothing more, I’ve got some nice photos and a wider perspective on the world of travel, family and my own character.
I omitted to mention in my last entry that we visited a franchise called the Angus Steak House for lunch on the same day we went to Lords. It was late for lunch (around 2ish) and we were famished. Well, I can tell you that Angus knows a thing or two about steak, and how to host guests in an eatery. The steak was delicious and the service was fantastic. Only about Â£25 a head!
Last night I tried out my new sleeping bag… for about half an hour. After that point I decided that it was unsuitable to be perspiring profusely inside my ridiculously expensive bag, so I rearranged my sleeping environment back to my old bag with the goal of switching the new bag over at Nomads today. They were exceptionally helpful, allowing me to swap over my bag for one rated 15 degrees to 5 degrees C and talking me out of spending any extra money on a liner I mistakenly thought I needed. Nomads rocks.
Following that Tim and I headed off to Leceister Square again to see The Constant Gardener, which we had missed a couple of days earlier. We grabbed our tickets early and took a closer look at the Square. We found a restaurant coffee shop selling Illy coffee, which I will rate as the best double macchiato I have had so far in my time away, although it was tending to be a little sour. The ice cream you see in the corresponding photos cost Â£4.75, but it was totally worth it. The blurriness is courtesy of the first use of the timer photography on my camera, which took three photos after 10 seconds. The others were really cheesy, so the blurry one gets the gallery spot.
I tell you, The Constant Gardener is a brooding and melancholic film, which leaves you grasping for some semblance of meaning in the banal drudgery of Americanised Western life. The movie is a character piece portraying the way heavyweight pharmaceutical companies bend statistics and destroy lives in third world countries to test drugs which have no chance of passing stringent Western requirements. Upon leaving the cinema, I remained quiet and reflective for the whole train trip back to home, which is nigh on an hour, simply pondering the self-conceived complexity of our self-important lives. Watching people filter through the Square or cram through the Underground was like looking at my own steadycam epilogue being cut into the film, a stark and fitting contrast to the thousands of Africans the film contained or alluded to. Having seen a movie depicting such deep intellectual and social issues it made other feature films such as King Kong seem plasticky and childish. Exposing and putting to shame the petty bickering which is Western capitalism also made me struggle to understand how any one non-conformist could make a difference at all. My conclusion was that I may not be able to solve a problem completely, but I may still be able to be part of the solution in a small yet significant way.
And now, we’re off to France. Well, more precisely, we’re off to France at 7am tomorrow morning, which means getting up at 4am. Ouch. And I’ll be away from net connectivity for about a week. At some stage I’ll do my best to get in to a net cafe and write something, otherwise I’ll find some fixation to mention when I get to Berlin on the 4th of January.
Until then, Happy New Year!
So it’s been a few days and I’ve only got a few bits and pieces to share with you. As lovely as it is being with family on Christmas day, the day began ridiculously early with the clamour of present-hungry rugrats, wore on not a little tiredly and lacked a lot of the lustre, glimmer and shine that it has in Australia. In fact, the whole lead up to Christmas seemed very bah-humbugged and lacked a true feeling of festivity. I did get a Mag Lite torch from our hosts, my Auntie and Uncle, which will, no doubt, come in handy in future camping ventures.
Had a lazy day on Boxing Day despite another early rise. Since then Tim and I have blocked the door to our lounge room sleeping place with two large toy boxes, with our hosts’ approval. This allowed us to sleep in until about 7 or 8am without too much disturbance. There was a little snow Boxing Day afternoon, which was cool to see.
The day after Boxing Day was yet a Bank holiday in London, but we braved the close-to-freezing conditions and the falling snow to venture out to the hallowed ground which is Lords. Our tour guide was a passionate older man who had obviously attended and/or worked at Lords for a couple of decades at least. The 1 hour 50 minute tour was extremely informative and a great photo shooting session, hence the “Keep off the grass” IOTM.
Today Tim and I took a train ride through Victoria station to Leceister Square, with the preconceived notion of seeing Les Miserables at Queen’s Theatre mid afternoon. After discovering that a ticket worth AUD$85 would provide only a partly-obscured view of the stage, we canned that idea and went to Pizza Hut at lunch instead. Thereafter we rode the train to Wimbledon in the hope of catching a movie, only to discover it was not screening at all. A couple of coffees which were either mediocre or average were also consumed during the day.
I think I spent about as much money today in one hit as I’ve spent the whole time I’ve been here to this point. We’re off to France on Friday and I’ll be sleeping in an annexed outside room which may actually have no heating at all. This prompted me to take the step of investing in a 3-seasons sleeping bag for about Â£70, rated for comfort from 5 degrees C to -5 degrees C. Here’s hoping it’s not too warm for use in Australia during the summer time, otherwise it’s a lot of money to spend on a couple of isolated winter expeditions. Still, I do enjoy the odd backpacking or low-impact camping adventure, so maybe it’ll be a catalyst rather than a deadweight.
Today’s the first day I’ve actually felt normal, and actually been in my right mind, after the joys of shunting my body clock backwards 10.5 hours. Yesterday I awoke feeling downright groggy, with a hint of a headache and an inability to properly stomach my glass of milk after breakfast. The cheese on my sandwich at lunch time felt equally disturbing, but all remained where it should and I decided a nap was in order.
Fully two hours later I awoke, at last with a clear head and the ability to think straight. My left knee, which had been troubling me due to the combination of cold, additional walking and my long fast stride, had eased sufficiently for me to manage stairs without a limp too.
It’s interesting to note how badly I was actually doing while under such a cloud of haziness. Today I got back into the normal routine of things. With my sleeping patterns no longer dictating my brain’s inability to function, I was thinking at normal full speed and even anticipating stuff properly. Hoorah.
This, unfortunately, means no new photos. Tim and the parents went to the Tower of London and did the tourist thing inside. Given my distaste for the monarchy and its apparent uselessness in a Western capitalist socioeconomic structure, I was somewhat glad to have had the “misfortune” of being laid up at home. We’ve messed around with our further plans in England and France, with my Germany jaunt being pushed forward to Jan 3 and our trip to Bath relegated to Jan 11. Hopefully this means we’ll take a day trip to the university town of Oxford sometime after Christmas and before New Year, and possibly visit the English Salisbury too.
Today, then, was excellent. Amazing how improper sleep just makes everything else totally insufferable. It hit double figures today: yes, 10 degrees. This meant that Tim and I could walk around outside in our usual winterwear, with the stylish yet practical addition of a manscarf each.
It was the perfect opportunity to jump on a train to Wimbledon with the grandparents, with the express purpose of visiting the Odeon theatre to see Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. It was, succinctly, fabulous. The opening half hour is totally emotive, and I was on the edge of my seat with excitement as all my most vivid imaginations of Lucy’s “Lamp Post” meeting with Mr Tumnus were rendered in motion picture before my eyes. Disney is to be credited with remaining faithful to C.S. Lewis’ original text, matching the dialogue almost word for word (as I recall it, no less). As soon as we saw Aslan, I did whisper to Tim that he’d better have a good voice talent behind him. Fear not, he is brilliantly rendered, with an excellent voice performance by Liam Neeson. The beavers are great too, with some light comedy between Mr and Mrs to keep amused the parents of kids in tow. I did wish that the White Witch was a little more ferocious (a la Galadriel’s transformation in LOTR:2, which, incidentally, I found quite anomalous), and that the story didn’t proceed quite so quickly. At times Peter looked precocious with his sword, and unfortunately we flicked quickly from duty-to-parents-to-protect-siblings to must-save-Narnia-ahhhhhh. Still, this was no epic of the trilogic scale of LOTR’s proportions, so we will forgive these shortcomings and say bravo.
There was a glaring omission in my previous entry – we actually visited Westminster Abbey and went inside. The place is huge, both in prime real estate area and height. Strewn throughout are memorial stones and tombs dating back to the 1200s. So many of the early English royalty are actually buried there, including a couple of “firsts” (King Whatsisface I, etc). After spending an hour or so inside, you pop out again into bustling London. My first comment to Dad was that you kind of forget about the rest of the world while you’re inside. Remarkably peaceful, if a little bewildering.
Here’s something I found amusing. On the first night we were blowing up our air matresses in the lounge room and discovered the pump nozzle fitting was cracked. Rather than pumping the air into the bed, it was just escaping around the nozzle. My first reaction was “Got some gaff?”, which I asked aloud directly to my Auntie, fully expecting the typical “Erm, gaff?” response. But she just said “Yep! In the cupboard.” and I doubled over laughing. [For the uninitiated, gaffer tape is commonly used in construction and audio/production, where it’ll stick to anything and fix anything.]
Finally, something truly random. While we were at the cafe yesterday I happened to discover a small fragment of tooth loosely embedded in my gum where my bottom left wisdom tooth has surfaced. This small fragment irked me no end, and I fiddled with it indecorously until finally dislodging it and extracting it. It was no larger than a sesame seed, and oddly enough, had the look of a miniscule tooth, with a crown and a root. If this is a fluke, it was an ironically well shaped fluke!