Sunday, 30 March 2008

Okay, so this may be a bit gross

If you don't like stories about skin rashes or insects then I suggest you don't read any further, you have been warned.

So it turns out old College Franco-Britannique has given me scabies (those are the skin mites that generally nurses, homeless people, remote communities and now CFB residents suffer from). Thank you College Franco-Britannique! I can handle the lack of hot water and heating in the middle of winter, the patchy internet service, the almost weekly fire alarms, but getting skin mites (I don't like calling them scabies) is really on a whole other level. Thank god I have 2 beds in my room, it means I can quarantine one whilst I sleep on the scabies free one, before swapping over once they wash my sheets. It certainly makes me look forward to getting out of this place. At first I wasn't sure it was scabies, I had taken the treatment but there seemed to have been no improvement. I am only posting this as today, 2 weeks after the pills, that there is actually a noticeable improvement in my rash. Scabies are horrible, in fact they get heaps worse after you take the pills, I'm talking waking up in the middle of the night to have a scratch worse. But anyway the rash finally seems to be subsiding, but is in no way even close to being totally gone, I just hope I haven't jinxed it and that it comes back with a vengeance tomorrow. Never get scabies, you have been warned!!

Perhaps this was too much information for people, I bet you are all dying to visit me now. Come to Paris for the wonderful sights, leave for the insidious skin mites. Hey, at least there are no photos with this post :)

Louvre Part III

I finally got back to the Louvre to see some of the stuff I hadn't seen in my last two visits, in particular the large Italian, Spanish and French paintings (including the Mona Lisa). The statue to the left (not a painting I know) has to be my favourite piece at the Louvre, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I've probably already put a photo up before, but I really do love it, and how it is situated too on the landing of some stairs so you are walking up to this headless woman who looks like she is about to take-off.

One thing I noticed on this trip to the Louvre is the advent of the digital video camera. I mean digital cameras are so passe now, everyone has one hanging off their wrist, myself included, but there are certainly starting to be more of the video cameras. Honestly I couldn't think of a worse experience than being forced to sit through someone's holiday video which included footage of their aimless wanderings through an art gallery, complete with tops of heads, out of focus art and people walking across your shot. Maybe it is some new form of CIA torture that they are trialling, seeing as how that waterboarding thing is now out, and they need to get enough footage for a proper test.

I hadn't been a big fan of this 16th-18th century art, I don't know why, I just thought it was a bit boring, but going back this time I think I was able to appreciate it a bit more. I don't know maybe I was in the right mood, or I'm getting older, or this style of art is like olives or horseradish sauce and so it takes a while to acquire a taste for it. What really blew me away though were just the colours of the paintings. These things were 400-500 years old and yet the blues and reds were still so vibrant, obviously the artists were incredibly talented as well which certainly adds to the pleasure of the colours.

I liked this painting of the Virgin Mary appearing before some saint because it looks like once she died, or rather Assumpted, she got her own little band of child labourers who were then forced to carry her wherever she wanted to go. I guess this is a consequence of Mary entering heaven with her body and soul intact, so I suppose there is then some heavenly decree that she doesn't get a set of wings, at least they are consistent.

Saturday, 29 March 2008


Wow, I've done a lot of posting this month, this post will make it my most posted month yet, a new record for me! Today I headed north to a suburb of Paris called Saint-Denis. It is home to the famous Saint-Denis church, but really the only reason I knew about it was because I read a pretty crappy book called Pillars of Earth. It was set back in the middle ages and followed one family across 2 generations, the father was a builder and the son followed in his footsteps. Eventually the son somehow finds himself in France (I won't go into details) and then ends up building a fantastic new cathedral just north of Paris (Saint-Denis) which was full of architectural revelations. I wouldn't recommend buying or even reading this book, it really wasn't that good, but the bit describing this modern wonder of a cathedral got me inspired to come visit. A side note to this, I actually saw English and French copies of this book in the gift shop at Mont-Saint-Michel. I don't know what it was doing there as I don't remember Mont-Saint-Michel being mentioned at all in the book, if it was mentioned it must have been very brief, and yet I didn't see the book on sale anywhere at Saint-Denis.

So this church was first built in the 470's and over the years the ties between it and the French monarchy have grown. It was most powerful in the 12th century when it was improved to it's present state. I was a little surprised that the architectural revelations mentioned in the book were actually true, this church had the first rose window of it's time. Just in case you don't know the rose window is situated below left, though I doubt this is actually that first rose window. I think the biggest improvement of this church over it's predecessors is that apparently in building this one they finally mastered the art of diagonal ribbing for the ceilings, this is shown below the rose window, where the ceilings of the chapels behind the altar have this diagonal shape. What this meant is that smaller pillars could be used and so the walls could be hollowed out and more stained glass windows put in. I think the church really did benefit from these new techniques as when I think of Notre Dame in Paris I always remember how dark it is inside, I guess they didn't use the techniques mastered here.

What is really famous about Saint-Denis, I mean apart from the fascinating architecture, is the fact that nearly all the French monarchs were buried here. I'm talking back to Clovis I in 511 and almost every king since then. This church was also where the queens were crowned, the kings being crowned in Reims.

Unfortunately the bodies are no longer in their tombs, after the French revolution there was a fairly large hatred towards all thing royal and so the people broke into this church, smashed a few tombs and dumped all the remains in a mass grave. They remained there until 1817 when the grave was opened and all the remains moved behind a marble wall in the crypt with all the names of the monarchs inscribed on it.

It was a bit freaky to walk through this place, it was like an indoor graveyard with all the tombs around the place. There were a couple that were particularly impressive, looked like someone was trying to compensate for something. The tomb below is of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany, the tomb is decorated with statues of the Apostles whilst underneath the King and Queen are shown dead, whilst above the canopy they are shown praying, meant to represent their resurrection. Apparently on the base are inscribed the great deed's of Louis' life, though it was only after reading Wikipedia that I had any idea what they might be. The deeds are pretty boring, reforming the legal system, reducing taxes, blah blah. The most interesting "deeds" of his life, though probably not inscribed on his tomb, was the divorce to his first wife, Joan of France.

He wanted to annul his first marriage so he could marry Anne and get his hands on Brittany. Usually back then annulment was granted because the husband and wife were too closely related, though apparently that was no impediment to them getting married in the first place. But old Louis wanted to try something different and wanted an annulment on the grounds that Joan was "malformed", and so he couldn't consummate the marriage. He went into great detail as to her deformity, which Joan of course argued against this and produced witness to testify how many times a night the king had found her "desirable", I'm about to run out of euphemisms soon. Luckily the story ends there with the pope at the time being forced to be on Louis' side and annulling the marriage. Sounds like a medieval Paul McCartney and Heather Mills saga, though I wonder if Joan got $50 million?

The other cool thing there was the below statue of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, they are meant to be praying, but I'm not sure what Marie-Antoinette is doing. These guys obviously weren't initially buried at Saint-Denis but in a different churchyard and covered with quicklime. In 1815 though a search was made for their remains, a few bones were found and some scraps of a lady's garment and these were proclaimed to be Louis and Marie-Antoinette and interred here.

Some of the bodies were really tiny, like the ones below, the women especially were child-size, though back then they probably were kids when they married. It is hard to get the sense of scale with nothing to compare it to, but take my word for it, they were pretty small. You can see in this photo that the queen has a couple of dogs at her feet and a lot of the men had lions. I don't know the significance of this whether they guarded the soul or guided it or if the sculptor just had some extra marble and liked dogs or lions.


As well as visiting Munich I also spent almost 2 days in Heidelberg on my way south. It was really quite a nice city, particularly the pedestrianised centre bit, but then you would hope it was nice as it is meant to be the prettiest city in Germany, having been spared the bombing of the Second world war.

It is most famous for it's ruined castle, which sits about 80m above the city and which was very popular during the German romantic period. The castle was first built in the early 15th century and was later added to in the 16th and 17th centuries, before it was destroyed during the 30 years and the 9 years wars.

The people at work were quick to point out that it was the French that destroyed the castle thus laying claim to the cause of Heidelberg's fame. I have no idea if this is true, German history is such a mess that I found it impossible to tell who was fighting who and for what reason. Anyway someone destroyed the castle for some cause and it remained that way until the 1760's when the new Elector (someone who votes on who is going to be the king, I think) started rebuilding it. This rebuilding was again halted when lightning struck the castle damaging it further and the Elector took this as a sign from God that no renovation work was to be finished. And it has been a ruin ever since, with a brief period as a quarry when the townspeople were stealing bricks for their own homes.

As well as the castle Heidelberg is also famous for it's university, which is one of Europe's oldest having been founded in 1386. But I think a bigger claim to fame should be this freaky monkey statue. I don't know what it is for or why it is there, but it comes complete with life size mice statues next to it.

I really liked the city planning in both Munich and Heidelberg, with their pedestrianised city centres, but also the city centres didn't seem to be the business district but rather the shopping/restaurants/pubs district. I think it gives the cities a nice feel then as you don't have suits rushing around to what they think are their very important meetings, but rather it is just people wandering around, meeting friends and checking out the sights. The pedestrianisation also means that the old buildings and churches are in what was their original surroundings and so you don't suffer the bizarre sight of having a 15th century church surrounded by hordes of very 21st century traffic.

Heidelberg's famous university, German towns really have a different look to Paris, what with all the very red roofs. Unfortunately it was a miserable 2 days with rain and periods of sleet so all the photos are a bit misty.

Here is the ruined castle from up-close.

Thursday, 27 March 2008


I spent quite a few days in Munich over Easter, it is pretty popular with Aussies after all, particularly in October. It was an odd town, this was were I found the most old people and got yelled at the most, and yet it seems to be one of the more popular tourist destinations in Germany. I was constantly amazed by how well people spoke English throughout Germany, I was having lunch in a restaurant in Munich when this 90 year old woman came and sat down at my table (I found that a little strange, but I think that is just how it is done in Munich) and she could still speak a surprising amount of English, much more than most French people, and she learnt it in school which must have been a looooong time ago.

Munich sure is a big drinking city, that 90 year old woman who had lunch with me ordered herself a beer, and there were other really old women with the full on 0.5L mugs of beer in front of them. I was amazed, they could drink more than I could! Throughout Europe there is no law against drinking alcohol in the streets, which always startles me when I first see it. Having grown up in Darwin, the city of hard drinkers in a hard drinking nation, alcohol is most definitely banned from public places (too many fights), so whenever I see people drinking on the trains or in parks I always expect fights to break out. I've got used to it now, and I can certainly see the attraction, but perhaps in Munich they should ban it from public, or at least from the train stations. You already have quite strange people hanging around public transport and when you introduce alcohol things can get a little messy, there were people passing out in the stations at 10:30am and the others who could handle their alcohol a little better were staggering around hassling people.

Once I had dodged the drunks and made it into the train station I set off on my first tour of the weekend, out to Neuschwanstein castle. It is a 2 hour train ride from Munich, near the town of Fussen (which is the town in the photo to the left) and 3km from the Austrian border, set in the German Alps. As you can imagine the setting was suitably amazing, and since it was only just spring there was snow all over the place. Even though there was snow all around this was the warmest I was all weekend, the sun was shining, there was no wind and just generally it was a fantastic day.

Neuschwanstein castle was built by "mad" king Ludwig II in 1869and is the inspiration for the disney castles in Snow White and Cinderalla. Now whilst King Ludwig II of Bavaria was known as the "mad" king, I'm not really sure if he was, there is certainly intrigue surrounding this diagnosis and his death. King Ludwig was taken from Neuschwanstein to a different castle after a psychiatrist had decided he may be insane after speaking to his family (he had never actually met King Ludwig himsefl). He was taken to this castle so the psychiatrist could determine for himself whether he was sane or not, but very soon after he arrived the King and his psychiatrist were both found drowned in the lake after heading off for a walk. No-one knows how they died, both the King and the psychiatrist were strong swimmers and neither had been dressed for swimming when they headed out, so who knows what really happened.

Whilst King Ludwig may not have been clinically insane, he was certainly a bit strange. He built the entire Neuschwanstein as a homage to Richard Wagner and so throughout the whole castle there is only one very passing mention to King Ludwig, whilst every room is decorated with scenes from different Wagner operas. This King really did have a thing for Wagner, apparently he also had a cave renovated as an opera theatre, but with only two seats, one for him and one for Wagner, funnily enough Wagner never saw a performance in the cave. He also only visited Neuschwanstein for a total of one night, I'm guessing Ludwig creeped him out, sounds a bit like Johnny Howard and the Australian cricket team. Unfortunately we couldn't take any photos inside the castle, copyright reasons, but I sure got heaps of the outside. Can you see the people in the photo to the left?

I haven't decided if the tour was a good idea or not, I think if I went again, or if I was advising anyone else, I would say just go by yourself. All the tour guide really did was make sure we got on the right train and bus (it was all via public transport) so there was certainly nothing I couldn't have managed by myself. Because I was on this tour it also meant that there was a bit of time waiting around and then a big rush at the end when it would have been good to have spaced the time out a bit more.

What I did really enjoy about the tour was chatting to the tour guide on the train ride home, he was an American, and I've never really had a chance to chat to an American about politics and history and everything, mainly because I haven't met many Americans and those I have I didn't really want to speak to, college students on "Spring Break" are the ones I generally come across. I did feel a little bad at the end though as perhaps I was making him talk about things he didn't really want to, since I was the "customer" and maybe he felt like he had to answer all my questions. Still I found it enlightening.
Me in the snow, I think spring was the best time to see this castle, the crowds weren't too massive and it just felt like a winter wonderland, awesome!

This photo is of Maximillius' castle (Ludwig's father) this castle is literally 20 minutes walk from Neuschwanstein, but this was apparently not good enough for Ludwig, he wanted his Wagner castle.

The next day it was a tour out to Dachau concentration camp, which is in a suburb of Munich, with the same tour company. This one was an awesome tour, the guide took us throughout the entire camp, describing what happened here, the conditions for the prisoners and the history of the camp. It must be really hard to be the tour guide though, going out to the camp a couple of times a week, no guide does it every day, and being surrounded by all this death and degradation.

In the photo to the left are shown all the camps in Germany, the death camps are not in this photo they are more to the right, in Poland. Every grey square is another camp, so there were an awful lot during the second world war. Dachau was the first concentration camp and was the prototype for all other camps that followed. This one was actually a concentration camp, and not a death camp like Auschwitz and the others. Even though it wasn't a death camp it did still have a gas chamber (never used) and at least 32000 recorded deaths occured there in its 12 years of operation and there were probably at least another 20000 unrecorded deaths. There were also the Nazi medical experiments occuring on the prisoners as well as torture and hard labour. Overcrowding was a serious problem, it was built to house 5000 people and yet when the Americans arrived they found 32000 people living there.

It was really quite amazing to visit there and see what people are capable of and it is good that the Germans do remember what happened during the war as there are quite a lot of other government brutalities around the world which have just been forgotten.

Dachau concentration camp, it was a really bleak day with snow every now and again, fairly appropriate for visiting a concentration camp I feel. The sculpture is called Bodies on the Wire and depicts prisoners who have thrown themselves onto the electrified barbed wire rather than spend another day in the camp.

After that rather sobering day I had one last morning in Munich before flying back to Paris. I tried to do as much sightseeing as I could in the town centre, but it was difficult when I could only last about 40 minutes outside before I really had to find a warm coffee shop and wrap my hands around a cup of tea until the feeling returned. I did manage to see a lot of churches, Munich is apparently one of the most religious cities in Germany, very catholic, which meant that as it was Easter I couldn't actually see inside any of the massive churches. The bells were certainly going off though. I really liked the centre of Munich, it had the same feel as Heidelberg, all pedestrianised with alley ways and churches tucked in corners. I got to see the Munich Residence, which is where the Bavarian kings lived in Munich, as well as their crown jewels. Looks like the English monarchs are a hell of a lot richer than the Bavarian kings were. And to finish off I got to see the world's largest glockenspiel going off at midday (in the photo to the left), so all in all a nice way to spend the Easter, though sadly lacking in chocolate.

My First French Demonstration

Today I got to experience my first demonstration, it wasn't a full on strike, just a gathering of people expressing their displeasure at the government's proposals. It was a researchers demonstration outside the front of the CNRS headquarters in Paris. The CNRS is the organisation in charge of research and allocating funding, kind of like the ARC in Australia. Because it was just researchers it was a pretty tame demonstration, nothing like the agriculture students who demonstrated yesterday and so bought a whole stack of cows into Paris. I think we need to bring a few lasers and some liquid nitrogen along next time to liven things up. It was a little disappointing that there weren't more people there, particularly more PhD students, as the proposed changes will affect them the most.

At the moment science in France is awesome, it is well funded (extremely well-funded), well organised and run by scientists, which is the complete opposite from the Australian academic system. The proposed changes would make the French system more like the one in Australia, where people have to apply for grants every couple of years, and nobody has permanent positions. I just look at what they have in France and you want to shake the PhD students to make them see how good they have it and how they should protect it, because once the system is gone there is no returning.

One of the main reasons I'm leaving academia at the end of this year is the poor system in Australia, you are paid like a public servant, but you have absolutely no job security. Can you imagine public servants having to reapply for their jobs every 3 years, in fact it is worse than just reapply, it is like every 3 years the government downsizes and you have to try and convince them as to why they should keep employing you over the other public servants. In the French system though if you want to become an academic you will, eventually, be given a permanent position, it is fairly rare to miss out. What is changing a little now is the length of time spent doing post-docs before you get that permanency. About 40 years ago you could get a permanent position straight away, no post-doctoring required, but now you do have to spend at least 2-3 years doing a post-doc before you can even attempt to go for permanency. I think the only change they should make to the academic system is perhaps get people to do maybe 2 postdocs (ie 4-6 years) before applying for permanency. I think post-docs are a great idea for academics, they force you to move, you do different things in different labs and they just generally make you a much better scientist. At the moment the only problem with the French system is that it is perhaps a little too easy for the academics, but really I would much prefer too easy than impossible.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

German Impressions

I've just got back from my Easter weekend in Germany and I thought I would write a little about my impressions of the Germans and Germany.

I had a conference/workshop in Darmstadt for a few days and then I headed off first to Heidelberg and then to Munich. The conference was really awesome, small, only about 20-30 people, who were all doing the same thing in this highly specialised field. So that meant that everyone was interested in all the talks, which certainly makes a change from the usual conferences. Because it was so small it was also really easy to chat to people over coffee and ask them different questions about their work, this is one thing that I think I will miss when I change jobs. I really enjoyed chatting to, generally, intelligent, interesting people about work they were really motivated by. I hope my next job has this aspect of academia, because I really did enjoy it.

My first impression of Germany is that it was cold, this is a photo of me outside the conference building during one of the morning coffee breaks, and yes that is snow, and yes it is meant to now be officially spring. Everytime I have been to Germany (a whole 2 times this year) it has been about 5 degrees colder than Paris, now that could just be that Europe goes through a cold snap everytime I go over there, but it means that I now always imagine Germany as freezing cold.

My most overwhelming impression of the Germans I met in my travels was that they really like shouting, particularly at tourists. That was the thing I really disliked the most during the weekend, never knowing when some serving person would start shouting at me for something. If only I knew what I was doing wrong I could try and not do it again, but it seemed to be fairly random when the next outburst would occur. One of the strangest incidents was when I was walking around a museum and I start to go into a room I'd already been into and the attendant comes up, tells me I've already been there and that I should continue on the other way. I then make the mistake of taking a few steps the wrong way (I wanted to see for myself that I had really been in that room), the attendant then shouts at me that I have to go the other way until I hurry the way he was pointing. There was to be no short-cutting at that museum, you were going to see every last room, and you were damn well going to enjoy them!

When I was in Munich I was also a little startled by the sheer numbers of old people, and I'm talking over 80 old, not merely over 50. There were hardly any people under 40 and the ones that were seemed to be tourists. I was sitting in a restaurant eating lunch and I notice that easily 90% of the patrons were well over 80, I didn't realise Germany had such an old population, and since there were hardly any kids I don't know who is supporting these thousands of oldies. The last off-putting thing was the proportion of freaky old men in Munich, it is true I did spend a bit of time around the main train station, a real magnet for freaky people, but there was definitely a higher proportion there than elsewhere. It was as if when the men hit 50 they all take out a subscription to Dirty Old Men Monthly for the fashion advice, that was actually a bit scary at times especially on the trains and when combined with their shouting.

Germany was nice though, it was good to experience another, completely different, culture for the weekend, though I'm sorry to say Germany that I think I prefer France. I will be posting some of my adventures later, I did see some lovely scenery and castles, I just think it takes longer than 4 days to get used to the German ways and perhaps start to appreciate what I currently see as their freaky ways.

Monday, 17 March 2008

French Doctors Round II

It was back to the doctors today for another attempt to actually see someone. It seems that the trick is to go later in the day, I turned up at 5:50pm and an hour later I was into see the doctor, quick work! It turns out I was half right about the pharmacists doing the vaccinations, the doctor gave me a prescription for the ones I want and then I buy them and bring them back and he'll give them to me. A bit odd I know, especially as after I buy them I have about 2 hours at most before I have to take them, hopefully the waiting room is not too full on that day. I'm actually trying to think of some more vaccinations I could take, now that I have found out how cheap they are. According to the doctor, and the prices could be totally different when I actually go to buy them, but it seems I can get a combined tetanus, polio and diphtheria vaccine for 10 euro, hepatitis A for 20 euro and then the typhoid is the expensive one at 40 euro. I guess I could always get meningitis and maybe some of the other hepatitis letters done, but I'm not sure what else there is to do. I did have one worry though, in that I'm pretty sure my polio vaccination lasted for my lifetime (not 100% positive though) so does it matter if I take a 10 year one, will that reduce my lifetime coverage or will it give me autism or something (isn't that what the people against vaccines always say?)

Sunday, 16 March 2008


Looks like I've caught up with all my blogging, and just in time too, as I'm off to Darmstadt on Tuesday for a workshop and then afterwards it's 4 and a half days in Heidelberg and Munich. I still have to fix up my presentation though, which I really should be doing now, but then I have to make sure I've got all the necessary maps of Germany first.

D-Day Beaches

When I visited Bayeux, as well as seeing the famous tapestry, I also spent a day touring around the Normandy landing beaches of the Second World War. Before I go any further I have to give a massive shout-out to the company that I went with, battlebus tours are fantastic, if anyone is thinking of visiting the beaches these guys were great. I was a little bit worried that the tour leader would be some gung-ho war lover. Instead we got a British guy who really seemed to love France and the French culture and was just knowlegdable about the Second World War. He answered every single question we asked, never once not knowing, and we would ask how many people died in individual battles and stuff like that. The tour group was really great too, it is very important to have a good bunch of people with you when you have to spend the entire day with them. In the end there was a New Zealand couple, an American couple and a British girl who was about the same age as me, so I didn't feel too much of a loser doing a tour by myself.

I'm sure it is possible to hire a car (not really an option for me, there is no way I am driving in France) and visit the beaches by yourself. But they are just beaches now, with a few memorials around the place, so I think unless you actually fought there or know the history inside out, you miss out on everything. We got the back story to every site and how the different battles played out and the reasons why things happened like they did, and for someone who has never learnt this it was fantastic. I really do recommend a visit out to these beaches, I mean hundreds of thousands of British, Americans, Germans etc all died miles from their homes fighting against (or for) a charismatic crazy man. The people 60 years ago are not that different from us and so it is a little scary that something like this could happen. You kind of hope that our world leaders had a better history education than I did and so know what to avoid, but looking at things now I don't know if that is the case.

The first place we visited was St-Mere-Eglise and yes that is a manniquin of a parachuter caught on the church steeple. On the 6th of June as well as the landings on the beaches there were also parachuters landing behind enemy lines to battle the Germans. Fog had come up though and so the pilots couldn't tell how far above the ground they were, or even where they were, so in quite a few cases people were dropped off in very bad situations. Either they broke legs because they were too close, some drowned as the generals didn't realise how deep the boggy marshes were, and some landed in the middle of German soldiers fighting a fire, as was the case here. Lots of the Allies got caught in trees and were executed by the Germans. The guys who landed on the steeple were luckier in that they played dead and the Germans ignored them. Eventually the allies won the town and I think it was the first one freed in France.

From the tour it really seems that the war was characterised by mistakes. Humans make mistakes, but during a war they cost lives, I got the feeling that the generals back then didn't seem to care about limiting losses, they just wanted to win. I guess they didn't see the soldiers as people anymore, but just as numbers. That is such a scary thought, that your life is completely in someone else's hands and you're just a statistic to them.

The next place we visited was this little church in the middle of a tiny village of just 48 people. More parachuters were dropped off here, though in this case the pilots got it right and this area saw the highest concentration of drop-offs, rather the scattered bunches elsewhere. In the group fighting in this village were two concientious objectors who had joined up to become medics, I don't think they even carried guns. When they landed they turned this church into an official aide station. Whilst the experienced medic, he had had one weeks training, stayed inside, the other one, with a days training, ran around outside with a big wheelbarrow he had found bringing injured people back to the church. In all they saved 81 people that night (including Germans) and only 2 people died on them. I'm sure though that along with these stories of people behaving bravely there are a whole stack of horrible stories, like things we hear from Iraq. I guess people don't want to remember that bad stuff though.

This church was also the first time I'd seen paupers graves, 4 people in the last year couldn't afford headstones, so were just buried with nothing in the churchyard. At least they buried them I suppose.

After the church it was off to Utah beach, one of the landing sites of the Americans. This was another mistake in that they were meant to land further to the north, but the currents had pushed the boats off-course. The reason this beach was discounted as a landing site was the fact that you couldn't see your flanks, I don't know if they should still use that as a reason though as from the outcome here it doesn't look like that really matters. This was one of the most successful landings because this point was one of the least heavily defended along the French coast. Hitler had organised what he called "the Atlantic Wall" but really it was just a collection of outposts which were heavily defended on the beach side, but then with nothing on the land side. So if you could bust through at a few points you could attack the rest from the weaker land-side. At this position the Germans had let their inner engineer run wild and had built a whole stack of remote controlled, exploding tanks. These could be remotely driven into a crowd of enemies and then detonated safely (for you at least). The pounding by the allies navy had shaken the radio-communication between the tank and the controller though, so these state-of-the-art tanks ended up being pretty useless against the allies.

The battle of the hedgerows was another mistake by the generals, the French resistance had told them about the hedgerows, but they were thinking little hedges, not these massive 6 foot high walls. These were built in the 11 century by the Vikings to protect their crops from the fiece Norman wind, so they have certainly stood the test of time. The American soldiers were then dropped off here and told to fight their way through, of course this terrain really counted in the Germans favour as they could slowly fall-back killing the allies as they went. Again you got the feeling that the generals had no great interest in what was going on with the actual soldiers, it was up to the soldiers themselves to try and think of solutions so they would stop getting slaughtered. If felt like the generals had some casualty limit that until they reached that, they weren't too concerned, they were still on target, meeting expectations, that sort of thing.

I feel for the Germans too, we didn't get to hear too much about their side of the story. But there must have come a point when they knew they were going to lose, but they were still fighting. Hitler wasn't letting anyone surrender, though he then goes and kills himself at the end, sounds like a surrender to me.

We also went to Pointe du Hoc, which was at the top of cliffs, but it was very important that the allies capture these massive guns to stop the Germans from firing down onto the landing beaches. This place had seen some serious shelling, you look at photos of it and it looks like the surface of the moon, there are that many craters. It is also covered in bunkers and gun shelters, apparently the Germans used something like 150 million tonnes of concrete throughout the Second World War, that's a lot of bunkers. This place has been left fairly intact, so there are still bunkers and that sort of thing around. In this photo you can see the cliffs that the soldiers had to scale to reach the Germans.

Finally we visited Omaha Beach, this is the one in the landing scene in Saving Private Ryan, and it looked like what you would imagine a landing beach to look like. This saw the most serious carnage of the Americans, it is 4 miles long and with a bluff at the back. The allies had to run 200-300 m before reaching the sea wall and they then had to scale the bluff. All the time machine guns are firing down on them and the navy has completely missed the target and are firing way inland, so they don't even have that as cover fire.

You can see in the below pictures how long this beach was, no trouble seeing your flanks here, too bad it meant heaps of people died.

After doing this little pilgrimage and learning that 90% of the people visiting are Americans, it makes me wonder if the Germans ever come here. Do the young Germans ever want to come and learn about what happened in the hope that perhaps it won't happen again. I mean it must have been massive for Germany, I'm surprised they had enough people for the second war. They had already lost something like 1.7 million in the first war and then they lost almost 6 million in the second one, their total population lost (civilian and military) in the second war was 11%. I can't imagine what that would be like losing such a massive section of society, so surely they must be interested in where this happened, or do they prefer to forget about it? Anyway I really enjoyed this tour, I've never been a war person, and would certainly never join the military, all that shouting and brain-washing doesn't really do it for me, but this was interesting and I'm really glad I came. Now it's off to the Somme, where the serious carnage occured.


After visiting Mont-Saint-Michel I spent a few hours in Rennes before catching my train back to Paris. It seemed like a bit of a party town, what with two universities there and a whole stack of bars and cafes. The old town is really quite pretty, though very easy to get lost in. Unfortunately there is not much of it left as a fire in 1720, which lasted for 6 days, devastated the town. It was lit by a drunken carpenter who accidentally lit a pile of shavings, I wonder what happened to him after the citizens found out?

It was a nice little town, but it is certainly no Paris. I felt a bit strange wandering around taking photos of the buildings as I appeared to be the only tourist there. I think this is more of a city where groups of young folk come to have a weekend of debauchery (though I'm not sure if the French really go in for that binge-drinking style we have perfected in Australia).

I'll leave you with one gratuitous spring shot, of cherry blossoms in a random Rennes park.


This weekend I spent a day at Mont-Saint-Michel and Rennes, the capital of the region of Brittany. I was a bit worried about visiting Mont-Saint-Michel as I had heard that it was the second most visited place in all of France, and I have seen how busy some of the tourist sites in Paris can be during summer. I thought I might be okay, visiting whilst it is still officially winter, but the thing with Europe, I have discovered, is that it doesn't matter what you do, there will always be hundreds of other people with the same idea as you. In the end it turned out well, there were a few tourists there, but never enough to get in your way or give you a claustrophobic feeling, but enough so that you don't feel like a freak wandering around and taking photos of everything.

This place really is spectacular, it's this one island, now linked by a 2km causeway to the mainland, and all around it the countryside is completely flat. It was first built in the 8th century on the island of Mont-Tombe in honour of the archangel Michael (or Michel as the French call him). The Mont then became a major focus of pilgrimage and the Benedictine monks settled there during the 10th century. During the Hundred Years War with the English a serious amount of ramparts were built and it remained impenetrable, thus becoming a symbol of national identity. It was actually besieged 3 times and was the only place in western and northern France not to fall into English hands. After the French Revolution when religious organisations were dissolved the Mont became a prison, and remained that way until 1863. It is now a World Heritage Site.

Now whilst it was spectacular and all I was slightly disappointed, it reminded me of Chambord in the Loire Valley. Both Mont-Saint-Michel and Chambord are owned by the French government and it seems that the government is only interested in maintaining these monuments rather than displaying them to their full potential. Both the Mont and Chambord were just a building with empty rooms, like the refectory to the left, this was the most furnished room with a few wooden tables, and whilst if you are interested in architecture that is probably great, you don't want furniture and tapestry cluttering up your views of the walls, but I am more interested in the history of a place. I can understand them not adding old furniture and tapestries in as that would add a whole other level to the maintenance, having to add security and humidity/light control to the upkeep. A few signs and pictures up explaining the life and history of the monks and the mont would have added a lot to the visit though.

The Mont has been around since 708, it has been through wars, revolution, monkhood, it's been a prison, an abbey, a sanctuary and a fortress, I reckon there are probably some good stories amongst all that time. I mean the Benedictine monks are pretty freaky, I find monks slightly strange in general, so you want to know what makes someone become a monk, what was their position in society, what did they do during the day. Also how did this place become a prison, who did it house, and what was with the Hundred Years War, who fought at Mont-Saint-Michel, do the monks ride out swinging their maces or was it the French army? There are so many questions that you would like answered but there was no information given, the audio guide I hired was okay, but a bit too full of things like "and the pillars are mounted on hexagonal bases". I can see that the pillars have hexagonal bases, I want to know what this room was used for! Perhaps if you go with a tour they answer all these questions for you, but one draw-back to it still being winter, was that there were only tours in French.

That said about being interested in the history, the architecture of the place is pretty amazing too. The photo to the left is the cloisters and the building at the back is known as the Merveille (or marvel), and it really is a marvel. This was added to the church in the 13th century and it really says something about the builders back then. They managed to build two blocks of 3-storey buildings on the top of a very steeply sloped hill. The cloisters, to the left, and the refectory to to the back are at the top of the Merveille, directly below is the guests' hall and then below that is the almory, where the peasants entered. All this building was achieved in only 16 years, I don't know if modern day builders could have done as well. Well they probably could, it would just end up being massively over budget.

You can really see in the photo to the left of the Knights' Hall the starkness of the rooms. This was built to hold up the cloisters, maybe that gives you some idea of the scale of this building. This was the main room for the monks, where all their work and study was done, but now nothing remains, just a whole bunch of columns. It's very hard to get a sense of someone's life when you don't have anything to go on.

Here is Mont-Saint-Michel from the beach side, the Merveille is the big rectangular building to the right of the church spire. You can also see here the little town of Mont-Saint-Michel which currently houses a permanent population of 42 people. You can really see how small this island is and how dominating the abbey is, all up it is about 1km to walk around on the beach. You have to be careful where you walk though, there are signs up warning of quicksand. In the Bayeux tapestry there is a scene of Norman soldiers having to be rescued from the sands.

The tides of Mont-Saint-Michel are probably as famous as the abbey, at the biggest tides there is a difference of 15m. There are signs up in car park informing people when the high tide of the day is, but every year they lose about 10 cars, because people don't move them in time. This only occurs at the highest of tides, which certainly wasn't the day I visited. The local legend also goes that the tides can reach the speed of galloping horses (or about 10km/hr), not sure about that one though.

Looking through the ramparts which managed to hold off three attacks by the English in the 15th century. You can see the endless expanse of beach which surrounds the Mont to the north.

All the tour buses lined up in the car park, I hate to imagine what this place must look like in summer. The only way to the Abbey is up a narrow, steep road. You can only really fit, at most, 4 people across so it must just be an absolute crush in summer.

One last shot of the spectacular Mont-Saint-Michel, overall I would definitely recommend a visit, but go with a tour, I think that would add so much to the experience.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

English vs French Leaders

I saw these two statues, near each other, whilst I was out and about in Paris on weekend. I think it shows the difference between the French and the English quite well, as represented by their leaders. First we have Charles de Gaulle, jauntily striding along, looking like he is on a fashion runway. Then we have Churchill, who basically looks like a grumpy old man. I also like how the French have put de Gaulle on this massive pedestal whilst old Churchill was hidden amongst some trees.

Petit and Grand Palais

The other weekend I paid a visit to the Petit and Grand Palais in Paris, for those of you who have ever visited Paris, the Grand Palais is the very impressive looking, glass-roofed building on the other side of the Seine from the Louvre. I had seen this building everytime I visited the Louvre or many other tourist attractions and always thought that it looked like yet another palace built for one king or another. When I visited it though I discover it was actually built in 1900 for the "Exposition Universelle" and houses temporary exhibitions. Unfortunately it wasn't housing anything the day I visited and so I could only peer through the glass doors to see what was inside. That really ruined my dreams of opulence, inside it just looked like a big barn, and as they were preparing for the next exhibition there was even a truck parked in the middle of the hall, not what you imagine when you think of royalty.

Across the road is the Petit Palace, I suppose it was slightly smaller. This was also built in 1900 for the same exposition, I
guess they were feeling particularly creative with the names in 1900. This now houses the Musee des Beaux-Arts, I have discovered that Beaux-Arts in French basically means "random collection of stuff that we couldn't fit anywhere else". That said the building was amazing and as it was free and fairly empty it was a nice way to spend a few hours on a cold spring day.

Inside the Petit Palais was a courtyard which had some cherry blossoms starting to bloom. The building had been designed so you could see the courtyard as you walked past the paintings, which made you feel like you were outside whilst admiring the art.

Of course it being Paris the gallery had to have an impressionists room, though they went for a different look at this place, I guess they have to try and stand out from the crowd.

I loved this life-size statue of a woman, and yes that is a monkey she has on her leash.

I hope this last photo gives you some impression of the scale of the building, you really had a sense of space and air as the ceiling was far above you. Initially as I was walking around I was thinking this place must have been hell to heat back in the day when some rich folk owned it, and then I learn that (a) it is fairly recent and (b) no-one ever lived here, so the scale became a little more understandable. That 1900 exhibition must have been one hell of an exhibition though.

Monday, 10 March 2008


I went off to Bayeux on the weekend, it's a town in the Normandy region, almost directly west of Paris, really close to the D-Day landing beaches and famous for it's tapestry (though it is really an embroidery). It was in this town that I saw my first fat French people, I didn't know they existed until I saw them here. The weight distribution in Paris is not even a gaussian, it's more of a delta function centred on the lower side of the healthy weight range, it's enough to give anyone an eating disorder living here. So I was a little bit surprised to see larger French people in Bayeux, and then I tried the food there and it all became clear.

I absolutely gutsed myself on Saturday, the food really was delicious. My starter for lunch (yes I had a three course meal for lunch) was Salade Normande and it consisted of deep-fried camembert, bacon, potato and lettuce all drizzled with olive oil. This was then followed by a pork steak which was literally half the size of my plate covered in what was basically melted camembert. My dessert was a little more reasonable, being a stewed apple with ice cream. Camembert was invented (if that is the right word) in Normandy and so it seems as if it must be incorporated into every dish otherwise you will be banished from the region, or at least have to remove the slogan "cuisine traditionelle" from the restaurant window. Whilst we are on the subject of food I also got to finally eat frog's legs in Bayeux (that was part of Saturday's dinner), which is the picture to the left, a little eated frog. It's very hard to describe tastes, all I can say is that I would eat them again and they had a much better texture to snails. I guess the texture was closest to chicken but the actual meat was much whiter, almost translucent. Now the only really freaky French thing I have to eat is the steak tartare, but that could prove to be too much for me.

Enough about food, on to the town. It was a really pretty little town, at least the old part around the cathedrale was really nice, it got a little more suburban/industrial further out. I was a bit freaked out for a little while there because I thought I saw French people with bad haircuts, that would have really shaken me, fat French and bad haircuts in one day, it looked like the French were starting to lose their style grip. But then I got closer and realised the bad haircuts belonged to either English or eastern European. They were really bad haircuts, it's like a short-back-and sides gone wrong, it looked like these guys had either gone AWOL from the Russian army or thought a particular 1930's German political party was on to something, do they honestly think that looks good?

Anyway back to the town, so Bayeux was the first town to be freed after the allied landings in 1944 and was pretty much untouched by the war, unlike poor Caen up the road which was completely
destroyed after the landings and now looks really ugly. When I
think of Bayeux though I think of the Bayeux tapestry which tells the story of William the Conqueror in a 70m long embroidery. I really wanted to see this tapestry as the only English history I know was from an historical-fiction book I had read about England just before the Norman invasion and the author had got the idea from one particular panel in the Bayeux tapestry. It really blew me away to see this thing in the flesh, it is almost 1000 years old and yet the colours are still really bright, much brighter than any of the actual tapestries I have seen. It is like the world's first comic strip and listening to the audio tape as you walk along the 70m really brings the story alive. Some of the pictures are pretty funny though, at the entrance to the museum is a replica of some of the pictures in the tapestry. There really are little panels where there are people sitting in the boat and then sitting next to them are their horses, very comical.

There was a massive crowd of British school-kids in front of me at the tapestry museum and walking around the town you would ever now and again see more groups of British kids. This must be a right of passage for all the schoolkids in England (at least the southern part) to come over and see the tapestry and the D-Day beaches, lucky bastards.

So no photos could be taken of the tapestry, for obvious reasons, but I made up for that with my thousands of photos I took of the cathedrale in the centre of the town. It's mainly 13th century and walking inside you get the most amazing sense of space and light. Nearly all the big churches I have been in have been pretty gloomy, they never have large windows, I guess because of structural issues, but in this one you couldn't help craning your neck up. It's really hard to capture that sense of openness in a photo so you'll just have to take my word for it.

Once I had taken enough photos of the cathedrale, that took a while, it was off to the war museum and the cemetery. The war museum was alright, but a bit more of a collection of stuff than a coherent story of what was happening and why. They did explain who the main characters were on either side and how the allied landings played out. I really didn't learn any history at school, in fact looking back on it the only thing I can remember actually learning in my combined history/social studies class was that the national day in Canada is called Dominion Day. It's not as if we were spending that time learning Australian history either, we were just seen as a captive audience for my teacher's ravings about the glory of war. Talking about the glories of war, after the war museum it was across the road to the Bayeux war cemetery, these places must be scattered all over France, with the numbers of people who died here during both world wars.

Overall it was a really pretty town and it has the river Aure running through the centre of town, making for some pretty photos. So I'll leave you with a few of the town of Bayeux. The photo below shows one of the few really old houses remaining in Bayeux, check out the overhanging upper floor, with of course the cathedrale in the distance.

A house alongside the river, this cat didn't need a water bowl, it drank straight out of the river.

The Aure river, looking away from the town, there were quite a few waterwheels at different houses/restaurants. And finally, the necessary shot of the cathedrale at night.