Friday, 25 April 2008

The Somme

I guess it's pretty apt that I'm posting this today, seeing as how it is ANZAC day, at least on my time it still is. The other weekend I spent a day out on the Somme in line with the war theme I have going here lately. Though this was my first foray into the First World War. I went on another day tour, like the one I spent out in Normandy. Though of course this tour was completely different. The Normandy tour covered just a few days from the whole of the Second World War, whilst the Somme is a huge area over which the front line shifted back and forth throughout the whole first World War. I was kind of hoping for a little bit more history than what I got, not realising that the Battle of the Somme covered 4 years, a massive front line and countless little battles.

The photo to the left is a tulip growing in the cemetery at the Australian War Memorial.

I suppose the D-Day of the First World War was the 1st of July 1916, this is when the Battle of the Somme really started. The British and their allies first went "over the top" then and got completely slaughtered by the German soldiers, 20 000 dead British soldiers on that first day, another 40 000 Brits were injured. I didn't really know much about the First World War, in fact I still don't know all that much, but it always did seem like such a silly war to me. The French and the Germans seemed to just hate each other and that seemed to be the only reason the war started and then us poor colonies all got dragged into it as well, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa and no-one could see a way out of the troubles.

To the left is the cemetery at the Australian Memorial near the village of Villers-Bretonneux. They had their first dawn service their today. The memorial is actually on the top of a hill where the Aussies and British repelled the Germans, to prevent them capturing the city of Amien and thus cutting the French off from the British. During the First World War 313,000 Aussies (out of a total population of 4.5 million) volunteered, 60,000 men never returned and 45,000 of those died on the Western Front. It was one of the most peaceful memorials I have visited, though the fact that I was the only person there probably helped in that.

I guess you could say the Germans "started" the first world war by a rapid invasion of France and Belgium in 1914 and they almost reached Paris before they were beaten back by the English and French. The Germans then retreated and dug themselves in, they spent the next 2 years building a massive system of trenches, full on houses under the ground. The British waited until the 1st of July 1916 to attack and here they made their first mistake, they didn't realise how well the Germans had engineered their trenches, so even though the British had been shelling the Germans for half an hour before hand, the Germans hardly even felt it so when the British did go over the top they all just got cut to pieces.

To the left is the British memorial at Thiepval it's meant to be the largest memorial in the world, you can just see someone standing on the steps at the front for scale. This was built on the site of a heavily fortified German position which was stormed in 1916 with huge casualties. On the white stone is inscribed the names of the 73,000 British and South African soldiers who's remains were never identified/found.

I visited the Canadian trench site, where the Canadian government have bought a section of the battlefield and then just left it like it is, so you can still see the trenches and how the battle was played out. The reason the Canadian government bought this section is that a Newfoundland Division was completely decimated at that spot on the 1st of July. Out a population of about 200,000, 860 people had joined up and they were all in a division together and then they all got killed together at this one spot. Because the Germans had got there first they had picked out all the strategically best positions and then just settled into wait. Whilst the British always saw the war as temporary and so never bothered building massive trenches and instead slept in the mud with the rats. After the 1st of July offensive it then settled into a massive war of attrition, with the allies winning and pushing the Germans back one year, only to have the Germans launch a massive counter-offensive the next year and take back a lot of land before they were finally defeated in 1918. At the time these three main countries, Germany, France and Britain were at their absolute peak in terms of world domination and importance, and then they chucked it all away with a drawn-out 4 year long war. Sounds a bit like what a country today is doing.

To the left is me with the only tree that was left standing in Derville Wood after the War was finished. There are still craters in the woods were you aren't meant to go as they are still finding unexploded shells all over the place.

It was awesome to go see this area though, for one thing the countryside is so pretty up there, rolling hills covered in farmland and little rivers and woods all over the place. It is only when you have been standing in the middle of a real pretty area and then you go to a museum and you see that same place as it looked during the war that you really understand how horrible it must have been to fight back then. All you see in the photos is a field of mud, full of craters and smashed tree stumps, it really is a vision of hell.

Another reason I was pretty keen to go see the battlefields is that the First World War shaped so much of the rest of the 20th century. It was a war full of firsts: the first one where it wasn't just a professional army, but volunteers, the first use of tanks and an airforce, the first use of chemical warfare, the first truly global conflict, the first whole scale slaughter of a substantial proportion of the population and the first time women started to realise that they could actually perform jobs outside the kitchen. Even after the war had ended the allies then made sure that the repercussions would be felt for the rest of the 20th century, what with their arbitrary carve up of the old German/Austrian/Ottoman empires that began the continuing instability in Europe and the Middle East. Their system of reparations forced on the Germans also pretty much guaranteed there would be another war in a few years time.

Bluebells in Derville Wood in the photo to the left

The First World War was certainly the first time that such a large percentage of the population was killed at once, people have this impression that the First World War could never be beaten for whole scale slaughter and yet if you look at the numbers of dead it was maybe 3-4 million soldiers on the allies side and when you compare this to the 50 million soldiers killed during the Second World War, which doesn't seem to evoke the same feeling. I guess once you have lost that many people once, you get a bit blase about orders of magnitudes. The First World War also seemed to beat out the other wars on the sheer crapness of the living conditions, for the allies especially. They were basically living outdoors, in the mud, no shelter but what they could dig in the trench with the rats and lice and decomposing bodies. It seems the soldiers in the Second World War in comparison were quite well looked after.

The photo to the left shows the difference between the Allies cemeteries and the German ones. In this one cemetery were buried 20,000 Germans, most of them were piled into 4 mass graves behind this photo. The names of the soldiers were then just written in a big long list, no spaces, no ages, no ranks, no message. The crosses you can see are made of metal and they all have at least 2 names on each one, though lots have 4 people. Again there is just a name, no age or rank or personal message. The Commonwealth countries all have a big pool of money which they use to pay people to look after their cemeteries, but the Germans don't have that and rely on volunteers or very cheap gardeners to look after them. And you think that if the Germans had won it would be the complete opposite.

In fact the French soldiers actually went on strike at one point, they really did seem to get a raw deal and that's how the French deal with it. First of all their uniform was initially bright red pants and a lovely blue jacket, which certainly looks really pretty, but if you are fighting in the snow or forests or fields the red shows up quite nicely. There is a reason targets are usually painted red. So the soldiers were complaining about that, but initially the commanders wouldn't let them change the uniform, I guess they were budding fashionistas. You can see the French uniform in the photo to the left, very nice. The brown uniform is the British and I think the light blue uniform in the back is the compromise uniform that the French soldiers were allowed to wear in the later years of the war.

After the uniform debacle they then got a real crappy general in 1917. He was forcing them to attack the Germans uphill and even though 100,000 French were killed in one week he had vowed to keep on fighting, though I suppose his contribution to the effort was just yelling "charge" every time the last battalion had been wiped out. So the soldiers weren't too happy about that General's contribution to trying to lose the war and so they would turn up drunk and refuse to fight until eventually they got a new general. This new general was seen as a hero in France at the time but then he was the one who surrendered really quickly to Hitler and was head of the Vichy government before being sentenced to death for treason after the Second World War ended, this was commuted to life in prison. Though perhaps a reason for the quick surrender was that after fighting through World War I this general, Petain, didn't want to see the same pointless waste of life, which seemed to be a common thread for all the allied governments after the first war, except perhaps for Hitler who seemed to get a taste for the loss of human life in the first one.

So that was my trip out to the Somme, the countryside really is pretty and I recommend a visit, through try and go on a tour with more of a focus on explaining the history and why things happened they way they did. Though really I don't think many people understand what the hell was going on with that first war.

I had a few hours to spend in Amien before my train back to Paris so I checked out their cathedral, another Gothic one, though nice and white. It's meant to be the largest in France and it was begun in 1220 to house the alleged head of John the Baptist. Unfortunately they didn't have that on display, though they did have a photo up of what it looked like. Gruesome!

The Amien town centre with the cathedral in the background, pretty quiet on a Sunday evening, though surprisingly clean.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Champagne, yummo!

The other weekend I spent a day out in the Champagne region of France, in particular Epernay and Reims. Just a note about Reims, it's actually pronounced Rance, and you have to say it with a real British accent. I asked the Frenchies how such a strange pronunciation occurs, because I couldn't understand where the '-nce' sound comes from, but I couldn't get a satisfactory answer from them. It seemed perfectly obvious to them and how else would you pronounce it?

Epernay and Reims are about an hours train journey to the East of Paris and where pretty nice cities, I was particularly taken by Epernay. Reims was a little off-putting simply because as I was sitting in the railway cafe waiting for the train back to Paris a lady had what looked like a heart attack and collapsed on the floor. So a massive conversation commenced between the husband, the lady, the staff and random strangers before finally an ambulance was called. Then once the ambulance arrived the lady, husband and ambulance officers started arguing, with the ambulance officers getting on their mobiles for a long discussion before finally the lady was walked into the ambulance. Throughout all this commotion the lady is sitting there moaning, rubbing her left arm and her heart and just generally looking like she was about to cark it, in between arguing with people. But apart from that strange ending the whole day was really good.

If you are wanting to do any champagne tastings then Epernay is the place to go, there are so many champagne houses (or maisons in French) there that you could spend the whole day walking between different tastings. And whilst the companies advertise "tastings" at the end of the tours, they are like no tasting I've ever done before. When I turned up to my first one at 10:30am I was expecting a little bit of champagne at the bottom of a glass, a taste you know? But instead I have two whole glasses to down before the tour group could leave, so that was a bit of fun. The "tastings" are actually an entire glass of champagne no matter which house you visit, now that's what I call a taste!

First up on my morning of alcohol was Moet and Chandon, this really is the champagne in Australia, I don't really know any other champagne company that have marketed themselves so successfully in Australia. When I turned up to the Moet and Chandon house they even had an Australian flag out the front, along with a French and EU flag, pretty special on Australia's part. I forgot to ask why that was once I was on the tour, so I don't really know the reason. The maison is to the left and you can see the Aussie flag between the French and EU one.

The tour of the Moet and Chandon house was definitely a high-light of the day, if you visit Epernay this place is a must. These guys were the epitome of class and professionalism, all the guides had impeccable English and were all dressed in very stylish suits. This really is the look they are going for, unlike some other champagne houses which I'll mention later, and it really works for them. They were established in 1743 and are one of the biggest champagne houses with something like 29kms worth of cellars and the largest grape buyer in the area. This house has been the house of royalty since it's inception, having been drunk by Louis XV, Napoleon and is the official supplier of the royal courts of Europe. They really know which angle they are going for! But the tour was amazingly informative and the guide really loved his champagne.

The making of the champagne was quite interesting, it is made by a double fermentation process. After the first fermentation the bottles are opened, releasing the carbon dioxide and leaving a still, white wine. More sugar, yeast and a particular liqueur is then added for the second fermentation. After a few weeks the yeast is all dead but it remains in the bottle in the cellars for at least a year. Of course before the champagne is sold this dead yeast (called a deposit) must be removed. The bottles are placed in riddling racks (I'm not sure about the spelling) which you can see to the left. Every few days the riddler will go round and turn all the bottles a quarter turn and push them further in, a good riddler can turn 50,000 bottles in one day. Eventually the bottles will be vertical (upside down) in the racks and the deposit will be gathered in the neck of the bottle. This is then snap-frozen and so when the bottle top is removed the frozen deposit plug shoots out, the bottle is then corked, washed, labelled and sent off to the supermarkets. Most of this stuff is done with machines now, but their most expensive wine, selling for 200 euros a bottle, is all hand done.

The head cellarer sounds like a pretty cool guy, it is his job to make sure that every single Brut Imperial tastes exactly the same, kind of like the MacDonald's of champagne, so before the second fermentation the wines are blended with different vintages to make sure this particular type of champagne is always the same. Of course they also have vintage wines, which are only the grapes harvested in one year and are stored for 6-7 years in the cellars before selling them. These vintages go back decades, the bottle in the picture to the left was actually behind a massive locked gate and all the really old vintages are stored in these locked cellars. Really rich people can buy particular bottles, say of their birth year, like the Queen's mother, when she visited she took home a bottle from the year 1900.

We then had our "tasting" session which was two big glasses of champagne, I went for the vintage wines, as I'm fairly sure I'll probably never have another chance to drink vintage champagne (though only from the year 2000). Still it was good, nicer than other champagne's I've had. During the tasting session they also explained the difference between the different wines and how they were made and the different tastes, so all in all it was a fantastic, hour long tour, highly recommended! I mean I could just keep writing with all the stuff I learnt in just that one hour, but I think that is enough of the classy, now onto the brash.

My next champagne house was Mercier, which is the most famous in France, though I had never heard of it in Australia. This was founded in 1858 by Eugene Mercier and he never let a thing like classlessness stand in his way. Moet and Chandon must have hated it when this guy set up his business just down the road from them. He was a shameless self-promoter and was really the one who marketed champagne to the masses, before him it was very much an upper class drink. In his first few years he had a massive wooden cask built, large enough to hold 200,000 bottles worth. Once he had this monstrous cask built he then decided to move it to Paris for the 1889 World Exhibition (the same one the Eiffel Tower was built for). It took 24 oxen and 18 horse 8 days to travel the distance, with a number of buildings paying the price along the way. The photo to the left is a model of the barrel with the little oxen pulling it. It is positioned next to the massive barrel in the middle of the visitor's centre. Eugene's other ideas to promote the brand were balloon rides over Paris in the Mercier hot air balloon, along with a glass of champagne, as well as filming one of the first ads, which was watched by over 3 million visitors during the 1900 World Fair. I suppose you have to give it to him, he was new in the field, obviously knew nothing about making good champagne, but through determination and mass-marketing Mercier is still around today.

It was strange, this champagne house was much more popular than Moet and Chandon, I had to queue to get a place on a tour, but then like everything Mercier did the tour was very much flash and not much substance. You go down into the cellars in an elevator which has a glass window. As you slowly descend music starts playing as you look out on models of things like the hot air balloon, or vineyards or people drinking champagne. Once you are in the cellars you all board a laser guided train, a normal train is not good enough, and you are driven around the cellars whilst the guide mumbles unintelligibly at you from the front. After about 10 minutes of this you are back at the elevators, which thankfully go up a lot faster than they went down, and your tour is over. You are given your glass of champagne, which I have to say didn't taste anywhere near as nice as Moet and Chandon, and that's it, no discussion of what wine you are drinking or how it is created. I doubt the head cellarer bothers getting all the Brut's to taste the same at Mercier. I would recommend this tour only for the sheer freakiness though, definitely do Moet and Chandon first just so you know what the guide at Mercier is talking about.

Afer my champagne tasting in Epernay it was back on the train for a few hours in Reims. The main reason to go to Reims was really to see the cathedrale. I didn't find it particularly spectacular inside or out, but then what is amazing about this cathedrale is it's history. Nearly every king of France has been crowned in this cathedrale going back to the baptism of Clovius I in 496 AD, he is known as the founder of the French kingdom.

The cathedrale standing now was started in 1211 and finished 100 years later, but the site has been occupied by churches since the 5th century. One of the most famous coronations to take place here was that of Charles VII, with Joan of Arc at his side, in 1429. I think it is a bit of a shame that France had their revolution, their history is so complete going back to 496 AD. When I say complete I mean the country has pretty much been how it is now for that entire time, give or take a few little regions on the outskirts. Not like say Germany or Italy which have been fairly fragmented for much of their time. Things like William the Conqueror and Joan of Arc and all the Louis, I just think it would have been cool if they still had royalty living in some palace somewhere, a connection to the past. It's true that I wasn't one of the starving peasants and I wouldn't have to pay for their upkeep now, but I guess I like the idea of coronations still occurring in Reims cathedrale every now and then.

Back to the cathedrale though, it was very badly damaged in the First World War but then was restored by funds largely donated by John D Rockefeller and was reconsecrated in 1938 in time for the second war. That surprised me that Rockefeller gave the money to fix it, as I thought the French squeezed the Germans for every cent they could after the First World War, but perhaps that money would have taken too long to arrive. The cathedrale was very similar to quite a few others I have seen now, the same gothic architecture, a long narrow central part, with a big organ, fancy altar and various shrines around the place. The stained glass windows were particularly nice here, especially as the sun was starting to set and shining right through the big rose window above the door.

I tried to visit another champagne house here, there are one or two in Reims, but they are much further out of town than in Epernay and so the closest one I got too had finished their tastings for the day. Another highlight in Reims was the Porte de Mars, which is a Roman triumphal arch from the 3rd century AD, pretty impressive, though I think it has undergone some extensive, and fairly obvious, reconstruction work. Reims also had a really great town centre, just a big pedestrian mall from the train station out to the cathedrale. Unfortunately the French all eat much later than the Aussies so all the restuarants were still shut by the time I had to catch my train, and I was really looking forward to some typical Champenoise food.

Looking down the church, it was so cold inside this cathedrale, and the day was quite warm too, at least as warm as in can be in Europe in early Spring. I swear there was fog in this corridor, I suppose if hell is meant to be hot you want your place of worship to be as opposite as possible.

The light streaming in through the stained glass window as the sun began to set.

Porte de Mars

Chapelle Foujita, a little bit out of town and is apparently covered in neo-Romanesque frescoes, created in 1966 by the Japanese-born artist Leonard Foujita. I say apparently because it was unfortunately shut when I turned up so I wasn't able to see inside.

Monday, 14 April 2008

It's Not Just Me!!

I know I complain a bit about the College Franco-Britannique, where I live, but tonight I discover that it is not just me who thinks it is not as great as what it could be. There were people walking around the corridors handing out petitions for all the residents to sign. Quite a few of the complaints don't apply to me, things like moving notices, apparently people have been given 2 days notice to change rooms, or the kitchens not working and in a lot of rooms the lights don't work. Thankfully none of that applies to me. Their main complaint was about the inaccessibility of the foyer. For the last 4 months they have been renovating the lobby, which is a shame as I really liked how it used to look, with really dark wood panelling, black leather couches and a grand piano (very classy), but now the word is that none of the students are allowed to use it, only the researchers (I wonder if that means me?). Which is pretty bizarre as the foyer is really the only place you can congregate here and if you exclude that to the majority of the residents where are they meant to meet up? I really don't know what they are thinking, they spend all this money and then nobody is going to be allowed inside. It's like those people who buy lovely lounge furniture but then insist on using ugly plastic covering to protect it, what's the point?

They also complain about the frequency of the fire alarms which really annoys me, we had one go off at 4am the other week, luckily that was the morning I was flying out to Amsterdam, so I was getting up almost that early anyway. But not one of the dozens of alarms have been due to a fire, which means if we ever do have a fire here we are all going to burn to death as nobody leaves their rooms anymore. So I'm not a total whinge-pot, there are a few legitimate concerns in amongst my complaining.

Amsterdam Part II

The next day it was off on a canal ride, a real must in Amsterdam, but I think every company follows the same route so it doesn't matter who you choose. Amsterdam really is a city of canals, it's not called the Venice of the North for nothing, though I wonder what the Italians think of that name? Anyway I saw a lot of pretty Amsterdam style houses and the canal driver pointed out that each house has a massive hook sticking out at the very top of the house that is used to attach a pulley to, so goods and furniture could easily be moved on and off the barges. He also said that Amsterdam has only had street numbers for 200 years, and before that, they just had very elaborate gable stones, I think he meant big stones on the tops of the roof. So people could find you by your particular gable stone, I think the numbering is perhaps a little easier.

I love the houses in Amsterdam, they were all built in the same style, the ones in this photo to the left are very typical of the buildings. They were all skinny and all different heights too, very individual. I could have spent all day just taking photos of the canals and the houses, they were that pretty!

One thing I loved about Amsterdam is that bikes are king there, seriously they rule the roads and everyone else better watch out, including tourists who may accidentally wander into the cycle-lane whilst taking photos. The nice thing about having bikes as kings on the roads is that the cyclists know that if they hit someone they are liable to hurt themselves too, unlike car drivers who are perfectly safe in their metal box so aren't too concerned about running down cyclists or pedestrians or their own children if they own a big 4WD.

I think the pecking order on the roads was cyclists, scooters, pedestrians, trams, cars, how awesome is that! It must be so easy to ride there just because it is so flat, the only time there is any sort of hill was when you cross a canal. The strange thing was that whilst everyone rides a bike they are all incredibly dodgy with massive chains to lock them up, there must be a roaring stolen bike trade going on. I imagine there is just some massive, circular bike swapping thing happening. In that when you get a bike stolen you have to go out a buy another one which would also have been stolen. I suppose it is a bit like a registration fee for bike riders except it goes to bike thieves rather than road upkeep.

After the canal tour I went to the Rembrandthuis museum, which is what it sounds like. It is a house Rembrandt used to live in before he went bankrupt and had to sell all his stuff and leave. They have recreated the inside as to what it would have looked like when Rembrandt was there, they used old letters and paintings and things. It was kind of interesting, but really the reason you go is in the hope to see another Rembrandt painting, but sadly there were none there.

I also went off to the Oude Kerk (the old church, great name), which is right in the middle of the red-light district and is the oldest church in Amsterdam, hence the name. This was one of the least religious-feeling churches I've been in, I think partly because there was a photography exhibition on display inside and so that didn't really match the surroundings, what with all the nudity.

The last place I went to was the Stedelijk museum which is the modern art museum in Amsterdam. Normally it is in the same area as the Rijksmuseum and houses art by Matisse, Picasso and Warhol to name just a few. At the moment though the building is undergoing a long, drawn-out renovation and so there are only temporary exhibitions held near the main train station. A lot of the stuff I didn't really like, just bizarre modern art, but I really loved their photography exhibit and it was by far the most popular of all the sections. It was celebrating 60 years of Magnum Photos which was formed to allow members to cover things they were particularly interested in, rather than only ever working on assignments for magazines. So basically the exhibit showed photos from the best photographers of the last 60 years, so you could see all those images that are now part of your consciousness, they are that famous. I'm pretty keen to buy one of their books now that I know something like this actually exists.

This picture is Dam square, the main square in Amsterdam and that building is the town hall (I think, it could be the Palace instead, or perhaps something completely different)

This statue is in the middle of Rembrandtplein, the golden guy is Rembrandt and the statues in front of him are set out just like they are in his painting The Night Watch, pretty cool, now you don't need to see the painting.

Pretty Amsterdam houses lining a canal.

One of the many houseboats lining the canals. There are something like 2500, legal, houseboats in Amsterdam and they have running water, sewerage, electricity and gas. Some of them looked really comfortable, though the ones on the canal tour route would get tourists peering through their windows all day which I can imagine could get a little annoying. I suppose the advantage with living in a boat is that it is pretty easy to move.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Amsterdam Part I

I am such a slacker about updating this sometimes, I'm sorry guys and now you are going to have to read a long post all at once, well I suppose you don't have to read it. Last weekend I went off to Amsterdam to see the sights and interact with some non-French people and these are the tales of my journey. I really enjoyed Amsterdam, it was a city with a really great feel to it, it must be awesome to be a uni student there. It is so flat and really compact so pretty easy to get home after a night out. I was amazed at how well the Dutch spoke English as well, and I mean every single person I interacted with spoke amazing English.

It was a bit strange though, because they were so willing to speak English it kind of became their language, in that all tourists, whether from native English speaking countries or not, would speak in English to them, rather than trying to speak Dutch, which is unusual, especially for the non-native English-speakers. The other strange thing about the other (foreign tourists) is that because the Dutch could speak such good English the French and Italians seem to assume that they can speak their language too and start speaking that to them. But the fact that everyone spoke English made the weekend really easy for me, as a tourist anyway, as you never had to worry about not being able to communicate sufficiently or that someone would yell at you for speaking English to them, fantastic!

Another point about their amazing English skills was whilst I was there I saw a protest meeting. It looked like it had been organised by dis-affected youth (I suppose that is the euphemism for unwashed art-students) and was held right in the middle of the main pedestrian area in Amsterdam. They had almost totally blocked this mall so the trams couldn't get through and the tourists were having real trouble squeezing past. It was all to do with the fact this area of the city was the most expensive in all of the Netherlands and yet you had to pay to enjoy it, in that you had to buy a coffee or something to sit-down, that sort of idea, which I agreed with. And he then went on to say that you should be able to do anything you want in the streets, which I didn't really agree with. But the point of this story was the entire protest meeting was all in English, and you would think that really the ultimate audience would be the Dutch, they are the ones you have to convince, but it seemed like the meeting was aimed towards the tourists, strange, or maybe they knew they were hitting both audiences by speaking in English.

If anyone visits Amsterdam I have two pieces of advice for you, first get a proper map and I'm not talking Google map print outs, and second get as far away from the central station as fast as possible. Amsterdam is designed in a concentric circle layout (at least concentric semi-circles as there is a harbour on one side) with canals as the circles and streets radiating out from the centre. This actually makes it hard to navigate without a proper map, you would think I would be used to the circular city planning, after living in Canberra for 8 years (the city of non-straight streets) but I still managed to get lost for the first 3 hours. And unfortunately I wasn't lost in the prettiest section of Amsterdam, but rather the semi-industrial/residential area. The thing with a concentric layout means that a small angular error at the centre of the circle equates to a lot of walking around the circumference later on. But once I had my map and found my first museum I then wondered how I could have gone so wrong in the first place. So get a map first, no matter how long the line is at the tourist information bureau.

Amsterdam was a city of museums, though unfortunately you couldn't take photos in any of them. Or maybe it is fortunately as then your view of the art is not blocked by people taking hundreds of photos of everything on the walls and things certainly keep moving. Still you want a shot every now and again of things you particularly like, or at least to prove that you've been there.

My first museum was the Rijksmuseum in the south of the city, which I found after a great deal of wandering around. This area of Amsterdam, the museumplein was my favourite area, with parks and pedestrian malls and heaps of places to eat and far enough from the red-light district so it was decidedly non-dodgy.

The photo to the left shows the Rijksmuseum along with the city's slogan, I wonder how much money they paid some marketing genius to come up with that? This museum really is a must visit if you go to Amsterdam, the building was specially designed to house the museum and features work from the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. When I went they were renovating half the building so only a small section was open to the public and they had moved all the best art into there. Maybe that is why I enjoyed it so much as everything on display was really good, not like usual galleries where the masterpieces are interspersed with the non-masterpieces, sorry it was hard to find a word and I didn't want to say second-rate art.

It was here that I really learnt to appreciate Rembrandt, obviously they had quite a few Rembrandts. Previously I've always classed Rembrandt in with those boring religious style painters. But at this museum walking around with an audio-guide I could appreciate his amazing use of light and shadow, I don't know how I haven't noticed that before in his paintings.

After the Rijksmuseum I went off to the Van Gogh museum, about 200m away. In sharp contrast to my new-found appreciation for Rembrandt, I decided I didn't really like Van Gogh's stuff. Which is a bit of a shame really as I was standing in his museum. This isn't really fair to Van Gogh, or rather VG as I like to call him, simply to save on typing, in that I quite liked his work at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. It's just that this museum only really had his earlier work, before he had refined his technique and didn't really have any of his really famous stuff. VG was self-taught and so when they put his early work next to the works he was recreating, or those that had inspired him, the comparison really didn't work in his favour. In one of his first major paintings, the Potato Eaters, he actually got the perspective all wrong, which seemed like such a basic art mistake to make, not that I am arty in the slightest. I think this museum is really for the die-hard VG fans, but you can see how his style changed over the years and how he got better in the few years before he died, which is kind of cool.

After Van Gogh it was off to Anne Frank's house, or rather the house where her and 7 other people hid for 2 years during the Second World War. I hadn't read her diary before I went, which now having read it I kind of wish I had. It really was amazing to think that 8 people nearly survived the war in these few rooms, but then about 9 months before the end they were betrayed and sent off to separate concentration camps, sorry I've given away the ending. The only one to survive the camps was Anne's father who made it back to Amsterdam hoping that he would find his daughters there, he knew his wife had already died in the camps. But Anne and Margot had died just a few weeks before their camp was liberated.

It's amazing to read her diary, you can see her grow up during her 2 years in hiding and she does have quite deep thoughts, particularly as she was only 14 years old when she was writing and I guess as everyone says she puts a face to the Holocaust. Reading it though you have to keep reminding yourself that it is a true story, there is no happy ending, no plot devices or twists, you only get what a 14 year old girl thought was important on that day and so some things are left unanswered.

I'm going to have to break this trip into two posts, there is too much for one go. I will leave you with the dinner I had that night. It was in a pretty fancy restaurant and was delicious, but the freaky thing was the water they gave me, artesian water from Norway. Tasted pretty good, like water anyway and no chlorine or fluoride flavour, but for 6 euros/500mL bottle I thought it was a little steep. Hasn't this restaurant read the review that some people in London did of these bottle waters? Apparently good-old London tap-water came 3rd in a blind taste-test of something like 25 of these bottled waters. The best one was from Fiji too, not Norway. Oh, one last thing before I do go, one thing I disliked about Amsterdam was the smoking in the restaurants. They didn't seem to even really bother with a smoking and non-smoking section, which they at least give the appearance of in France, so that was pretty disgusting. I remember smoking and non-smoking sections from when I was a child in Australia, now no smoking is allowed in any pubs, clubs or restaurants, and I thought Europe were meant to be the progressive one?

Monday, 7 April 2008

Flames and Snow

I was going to write about my weekend trip to Amsterdam, but that will have to wait until next post. I just wanted to say, go the French protesters, showing the English how it's really done. They tried in London to put out the Olympic torch, but it wasn't until it got here, the true home of demonstrations, that they were successful, multiple times too.

The end of the relay was at Stade Charlety, which is a sports stadium literally 300m from where I live. So when I got home from work, even though this was at least 3 hours after the relay had finished, there were still hundreds of police lining the streets and the roads were all blocked off. And when I check the news I see that the French have really outdone themselves this time, unfurling huge banners on the Eiffel Tower and the Town Hall in protest and forcing the torch onto a bus for it's final leg to the stadium.

It looks like the torch relay is going to be an absolute joke along it's entire route, well done IOC you really made the right decision this time.

On to more important matters, the European spring, or rather lack of. It is now 2 and a half weeks after the official start of spring and I wake up this morning to see this (see photo above) outside my window. This is in Paris too, which is usually much warmer than the surrounding villages. The train stations had all got the sand out again, to stop the ice from forming. As my work is probably about 25kms from Paris the snow was much worse there. The photo to the left shows the forest just in front of my work.

The day then turned fine, before it was time to go home when it started to snow again. I just want to know when spring is actually going to start. It really looks like it is going to be another pathetic summer this year too.

Someone was saying that I will be having the unfortunate experience of a double winter this year I will leave Europe at the end of July (at the start of summer) to head back to Sydney in the middle of winter. But really, I think winter in Sydney is going to be so much warmer than any so-called summer could possibly be here that I probably won't even notice the difference.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Troubles at Work

I thought I should write something so you don't have to keep reading about my disgusting scabies, I'm sorry, I promise I won't mention them again. The first, and most important thing, I wanted to write about is that the coffee machine at work has been broken for the last 2 days. I know, an absolute tragedy, this is France after all, I'm surprised any work has been done lately or that a strike hasn't broken out. I was wondering today why I felt a bit off, slight headache, and way more tired than what I should be, and then of course, I realised that I haven't had my daily coffee. I am such an addict, all it takes is a week of a coffee every day and I'm hooked, then of course I have to go through the weekend come-down when I don't have a coffee for 2 days. Thank god I'm so clean living as I think my body is capable of getting hooked in an instant. This afternoon though I go into the cafeteria and see a lovely, much fancier, new coffee machine (only temporary), looking forward to using that next week. One good thing about the coffee in France is that nobody has it with milk. This means that my milk at work is NEVER touched, I have never been in that situation before, I would say milk is the number one stolen commodity at work and in shared houses and yet here it is never even an issue.

The other, less important point, is that I have updated my resume, for those who don't know I'm looking to get out of academia when I head back to Australia in July. This is for a variety of reasons, but I suppose the main one is that it is almost impossible to find permanent positions in Australia, so no thanks, I don't want to still be doing post-docs when I'm 40. I'm pretty happy with my resume though, I would give myself a job, I just had to get used to exaggerating the truth and putting absolutely everything down that could be relevant. Now the next step is to find some jobs I could send it to, any ideas?