Thursday 25 October 2012

My Life in France

Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meuniere.  It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top.  The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: ‘Bon appetit!’

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume.  Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly.  The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter.  I chewed slowly and swallowed.  It was a morsel of perfection. [From ‘My Life in France’ by Julia Child, with Alex Prud’homme]

Today’s Lady Traveller is Julia Child: immortalised (in the US at least) as co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and one of the earliest TV chefs – immortalised most recently by Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia.  Now, you might say that Julia Child is not a travel writer and you’d be mostly correct – she did however write a memoir of her time living in Europe called My Life in France. 

Julia Child arrived in France in 1948 with her husband Paul, the love of her life.  While in France, she discovered her vocation: learning to eat, cook and share the food of France.

My absolute favourite part of My Life in France is Mrs Child’s description of her first meal in France: it becomes a metaphor for her delight at the pleasures in store as she sets about discovering France.

The sole meuniere might have been the highlight, but I dare you to read this full account without feeling hungry:

We began our lunch [at the Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen] with a half-dozen oysters on the half shell.  I was used to bland oysters from Washington and Massachusetts, which I had never cared much for.  But this platter of portugaises had a sensational briny flavor and a smooth texture that was entirely new and surprising.  The oysters were served with rounds of pain de seigle, a pale rye bread, with a spread of unsalted butter.

[Then came the never-to-be-forgotten, life-changing, life-enhancing sole meuniere.  But there was even more...]

Along with our meal, we happily downed a whole bottle of Pouilly-Fume, a wonderfully crisp white wine from the Loire Valley.  Another revelation!

Then came salade verte laced with a lightly acidic vinaigrette.  And I tasted my first real baguette – a crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odor and taste.  Yum!
We followed our meal with a leisurely dessert of fromage blanc, and ended with a strong, dark café filtre. […]

‘Mairci, monsoor,’ I said, with a flash of courage and an accent that sounded bad even to my own ear.  The waiter nodded as if it were nothing, and moved off to greet some new customers.
Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air.  Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection.  It was the most exciting meal of my life.

Food is – even now when McDonalds circle the globe – one of the quickest ways of evoking place.  That’s why Mexican and Chinese and Korean restaurants exist in six continents; that’s why homesick travellers seek out familiar food; that’s why newly-returned travellers try to recreate meals they’ve eaten abroad; that’s why we seek out interesting markets and restaurants when we travel.  Food transports us elsewhere – and is so much more appealing as a vehicle than, say, an Airbus 380.  

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Some of These Are Not Real Books

Overseen on the quays, Dublin, October 2012:

On near the site of Dublin's first free public library, an invitation to add the title of your choice.

Monday 22 October 2012

A Perfect Walk

A few weeks ago I wrote about my small and roguish nephew and his newfound love of custard.  But before we shared the bowl of creme anglaise we went for one of the nicest walks imaginable.  Well, two of us walked, one small and curly-headed nephew rode in a rucksack, equipped with rear-view mirror.

We started in the car park of the Relais de Saint Ser (the place what made the custard and many other delicious things) where Ro had the foresight to book a table for lunch.  The restaurant is at the foot of Mont Sainte Victoire, the mountain overlooking Aix-en-Provence, painted by Cezanne and Picasso, among others.

The proprietor of the restaurant recommended a path that would take us up to the chapel of Saint Ser  where mass is still said on Sundays.  It's about 30 minutes up - adjust depending on the size of your party's legs.

We passed through proper Provencal maquis: the scrub growth that gave its name (first) to the French resistance and (second) to my favourite Diptyque candle which smells, gloriously, of herbs and flowers and sunshine.

The path is quite steep but has wonderful views.

The small and blond nephew found a stick somewhere, the better with which to 'encourage' his steed.  All in an adorable way, of course.

Arrived at the chapel, I rang the bell and we passed inside for a few meditative moments: the interior is distinctly medieval, not to say spartan.  Someday I'd like to come back for a service (and meet the priest who has to make the hike, week in and week out.)

 Outside, the small and determined nephew lifted up his voice (I think he just likes the sound of it) - and perhaps he has some primeval powers because just at that moment the thunderstorm began ...

We jogged down the mountain and reached the restaurant just as the rain started to come in earnest.  

A perfect walk.

Friday 19 October 2012

Stick a Bucket of Rosé in the Fountain

Or - when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

At the beginning of this week I was in the throes of a planning a big work trip when I got news that it has to be postponed.  Leaving me with some unexpected time on my hands and a mild case of the blues. But now that I've absorbed the news, I've started to think about what I can do to turn around what might otherwise be a grey and dull November in the Northern Hemisphere.

In no particular order:

*Wear my turban more often.  Because it is amazing and always cheers me up.  If you see me wearing my blue turban in the street, say hi!  (Because that would also cheer me up.)

*The same goes for bright red and pink lipstick.

*Send parcels.  As much as I love receiving things in the post, I also love the feeling of wrapping up a parcel and sending it on its way - knowing that it's going to brighten someone's day at the other end.

*Tackle my to-do list.  This might not sound like fun but crossing things off it never fails to give me a lift.  I've already scheduled overdue appointments to see the doctor and the dentist, bought sandpaper to sand the drink rings off Granny's side table (sorry Granny - though, let's be honest here, some of those rings were on the table when I got it.)

*Schedule a smaller - but useful and interesting - work trip that I thought I'd have to postpone until next year.

*Reflect on the fact that I have a sister who lives in the South of France.  Put my air miles to use and go visit.

*Catch up on the stack of books and articles I need to read for work.

*Join Meet Up to find fun things - and fun people - in Dublin.

Thursday 18 October 2012

The Ranee of Sarawak

Margaret Brooke

When I remember Sarawak, its remoteness, the dreamy loveliness of its landscape, the childlike confidence its people have in their rulers, I long to take the first ship back to it, never to leave it again. (Margaret Brooke, My Life in Sarawak)

Today’s featured Lady Traveller is Margaret Brooke, Ranee of Sarawak.  One of her books, My Life in Sarawak, is available through the Internet Archive; the other, Good Morning and Good Night, I found from a secondhand bookshop in Canada (oh Canada!)

A little background: Sarawak is part of the island of Borneo, now part of Malaysia.  Then (19th century) it was under the influence of various local rulers including the Sultan of Brunei until James Brooke, the first Rajah of Sarawak, came, saw and conquered (well, helped the Sultan restore order for which consideration he was appointed governor).  Brooke doesn’t sound very, well, rajah-like, you’ll be thinking.  And you’ll be right.  He was an Englishman (this is sounding more and more Gilbert and Sullivan by the second) but he ruled over the territory as a monarch and, on his death, the title and responsibilities were handed on to his nephew, Charles.  Having reached the age of forty, Rajah II found himself in dire need of an heir himself but first, as was the way of things in those days, he needed a wife.  He went to England on a wife-finding mission and ended up proposing to the daughter of his first cousin, Margaret Brooke.

One of the more enlightening aspects of Lady Brooke's writing is the matter of fact way she describes the proposal and the marriage.  This was not a passionate love affair.  He needed a wife; she longed for adventure.  So she accepted and went to Borneo to become Her Highness, the Ranee of Sarawak, or the Rajah’s Ranee as she was known by locals.

In Sarawak, if you like, she found her passion: the country and its people.  For her husband she felt fondness and admiration and, over time, love (even if not the passionate kind).   

Good Morning and Good Night was written towards the end of the Ranee’s life and it is very much presented as the memoir of a grande dame, looking back.  (She name drops to a ridiculous extent, by the way.)  Her attitude towards the people of Sarawak is benevolent and patronising (not surprising, I suppose) but it’s clear that she loved being there, remote as it was. 

The books both deal, chronologically, with her time in Sarawak, from arriving as a new bride, trips around the territory, getting to know the people, the devastating loss of three young children and - above all - growing into her grand (not to say grandiose) title.  There's humour too - not least in Lady Brooke's faith in champagne as a cure for seasickness ...  

Apart from being intrigued at the existence of this English quasi-royal dynasty in South-East Asia, the book fascinates me because of its insights into marriage.  This was marriage – not even of convenience – but as a means to a more interesting life.  I reflect on the fact that I, as single Lady Traveller, don’t require a husband to seek out adventure (in fact, arguably a husband - though delightful in other ways - might put an end to my peripatetic ways) but that Margaret Brooke’s adventure wouldn’t have happened without a husband.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

How to Write an Effective Warning

Overseen at the Powerscourt Centre, Dublin, October 2012:

I myself am fond of espressos AND kittens but, sadly, I'm not an unattended child.

Monday 15 October 2012

Museum of Life Stories

I've sometimes thought my tagline could be, 'seeking out the rarest, the most wonderful and, yes, the weirdest museums in the world.'

One reason for my being in Switzerland earlier this month was to visit the Museum fur Lebensgeschichten - the Museum of Life Stories (or life histories, depending on translation).  This is unquestionably off the beaten track, and they are not particularly set up to welcome non-German speaking visitors.  So why go?

Well, in my case because I'd read about the project a few years ago and thought it was a rare and wonderful (hopefully not weird) concept for a museum.  The museum, you see, is part of an old people's home and its exhibitions are devoted to telling the stories of local residents, past and present.

To get to the museum, I took a train to St Gallen and then a local train/tram to Speicher, a village with views of Lake Constance.  The museum is not particularly well signposted (I wandered around several times, seeing no one and nothing to guide my way) but finally I found it:

My first thought was: they had a really good interior designer.  My second thought was: I've never thought that about an assisted living facility before.  My third thought was: whatever they're having for lunch smells really good.  (Repeat thought #2) 

The complex includes housing, the museum, a very nice looking Italian restaurant which was where the residents seemed to be lunching (smart waiters!  wine!) and several exhibition spaces.

The main, ground floor space featured the work of Hans Krusi, a former inhabitant of the village (& possibly of the home but my Swiss-German is not of a standard for me to draw any firm conclusions).  He featured cows in lots of his work (of course!) and there were also works done by local schoolchildren, inspired by him.

 There were also iPods loaded with reminiscences,

and these elegant, stripy Tim Burton-esque chairs to lounge in while listening.

Beside the restaurant was the Erinnbar (roughly translates as remem-bar), where people could smoke, drink coffee and look at exhibits and books relating to the history of the area.  No idea what the spinning wheel is for, but I like it.

So.  In terms of design, collections, interpretation, this museum is not pushing any boundaries.  But in terms of creating a social space where older residents of the community can interact with visitors, where their lives are celebrated and valued, where there is a constant and natural flow between outside and inside (as opposed to the home feeling isolated and its residents irrelevant) this project is extraordinarily innovative.

This was one of the most life-affirming museums I've ever visited.  Every community should have a project like this.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Swiss Cliches

Overseen at Zurich Airport, October 2012:

And yes, I do feel warmly towards cliches that involve chocolate.

Monday 8 October 2012

Swiss Railways

By absolute coincidence, just before I went to Switzerland (last week, that was) I was reading about this famous observation in The Third Man:

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Of course, this isn't exactly true (apart from anything else, cuckoo clocks are traditionally from the Black Forest region of Germany) and also a much better symbol of Swiss achievement is the Swiss railway system.

Over a 36 hour period last week, I took eight trains, six of them Swiss.  They were all exactly on time.

The train stations were, at the very least, pleasant - and some of them were absolutely enchanting. Basle station (my first port of call en Suisse) had these amazing murals depicting famous Swiss destinations that one can visit by train - from the style, I'd guess they date from the 1920s or 30s.

The station where I got the Appenzellerbahn (I kind of glorified tram that goes up a mountain) was pretty grand:

 Even the stops on the side of the mountain had shelter and snack machines ...

The views from the windows were a delight (I love that in Switzerland, one minute you're in a city and the next you can see alps.  And cows with bells.)  

But the absolute cherry on the Swiss cake was the presence of dining cars with realio, trulio white damask tablecloths, waiter service and wine.

I am planning to return to Switzerland soon - I think I might just spend a few days getting off one train and on to another.  The BEST way to travel.

Friday 5 October 2012

L'Isle Sur la Sorgue - Market Day

This trip was in the works for a while.  I have a magpie mind and when I spot something shiny (=curious, pretty, unusual) I store it away for future use.  I can’t even tell you where I first heard that l’Isle Sur la Sorgue was the antiques capital of France, but when I looked it up and discovered that it is a paradise of friperies, ranging from the most expensive of carefully-provenanced antiques to the shabbiest of odds and ends, I knew that I had to go.

Sunday is market day when, along with the usual Provencal-style market, you can browse through stall after stall of bric a brac.  Word of caution: the town, being pretty, picturesque and close to Peter Mayle territory, gets very full on Sundays so I’d advise going early if you want to park (or else try going in low season).

I towed the eldest adorable nephew through the market – he has inherited the magpie gene and was very taken with this bell,

but particularly with these clocks:

(Then he got bored and his father took him to the playground.)

I was enchanted by this row of enamel coffee pots (each one upwards of €100), 

by the genuine vintage metal signs, by the posters, by the coffee grinders, by the antique table linens … in short, all of the things that are sold at VAST EXPENSE in shops all around the world trying to recreate the French shabby-chic look.  While the items on sale at l’Isle Sur la Sorgue were not cheap (don’t go expecting bargains) they were at least sans mark up.

Off the main street are various vintage / antique shops and undercover markets.  Again these cater to every purse. 

I was very taken with the elephant on sale here,

But even more by this sweet display:

Around the corner I found the motherlode for every rusty metal table and chair you’ve ever seen outside a French-style (or ‘French’) café in any remote corner of the world.

I resisted all temptation until I came face to face with this: 

1930s wooden tray, souvenir of Rio, inset with mother of pearl.  I mean!!!  It was mine for €20 which, all things considered, seemed pretty reasonable.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Avocado Glut

Today's featured Lady Traveller is none other than LTLS, my archaeologist sister.


An alternative title for this post could be ‘Advocating for Avocados’, but alliteration (Alliterative Advocacy for Avocados?) is so passé, and besides, do avocados really need advocacy? Perhaps they do here… the Lady Traveller’s Little Sister is in Johannesburg for a week, on her way to do exciting fieldwork with witchdoctors in Lesotho (watch this space). The LT asked her for a couple of guest blogs, but I’m fairly sure this isn’t exactly what she was expecting/hoping for. Tough luck, I’m afraid, because my passion can no longer be kept quiet. I must speak out. I LOVE AVOCADOS. Can you imagine living in a country where avocados can have a season? Where you don’t encounter them, rock hard, freezing and jet lagged in a supermarket aisle, where to buy one costs about the same price as rewiring a house? Can you imagine having enough avocados that you can cook with them, rather than watching them mournfully, waiting for them to become yielding enough to eat?

Readers, welcome to South Africa, where they are currently experiencing an avocado glut. They can be purchased in every shop in Johannesburg, cheap as chips. I can’t get enough of them. Pasta with avocado, avocado salad, guacamole, avocado cheesecake (no lie), and mostly (like just now – I’ve taken to having avocado breaks rather than coffee breaks) just cut in half and sprinkled with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Happiness. 

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Picture Dictionary: Crème Anglaise

Crème an·glaise

 [ Fr.krem ahn-glez]

Custard; vehicle for iles flottantes; manna from heaven.

This is my nephew, Alex.  Last Saturday, he discovered Crème Anglaise.  I gave him a spoonful of mine (I ordered the ile flottante and it came on a LAKE of custard).  He tried it,

gave me a beatific smile,

and came back for more.

Between blissed-out smiles he would look at me (or perhaps the custard?) adoringly as if to say, 'I don't care who you are, but if you're handing out this stuff, I think I love you.'