Sunday, June 29, 2008

0806281600 The French Town of Amboise.

0806281600 The French Town of Omboise.

We went to the French town of Amboise where the famous Italian artist, inventor, engineer and all round good guy - Leonardo da Vinci lived for the last few years of his interesting life.
It seems that for all his talent as an artist, sculptor and master of his craft, he was not quite able make a living from painting portraits. So in order to stave off hunger and pay the bills he turned to the lucrative trade of weapons. Leonardo sent a letter to the government of France asking for a job and in this letter he describes all his inventions and how they can be deployed to disrupt the enemy.

Leonardo certainly was way ahead of his time. I have not found any figures on what the Australian government spends on portraits, although I suspect that it is quite a few orders of magnitude lower than what is spent on kitting out our formidable navy with new radios. Leonardo certainly was not stupid and he must have seen that there was always money in the country’s, any countries for that matter, defence budget. Some of his last inventions were the sort of things that pre-school kids draw when they learn about attacking forts with canons and the delicate art of laying siege to medieval castles - the simple application of multitude of shields held in place by some sort of carriage with a lot of guns sticking out. I felt kind of sorry for him, a great master, an inspiration to hundreds of people long after his death, reduced in his later years to warmongering.

Leonardo’s house was interesting. There was a sketch hanging by the window of his bedroom showing the local castle - the sketch must have been made while he was standing at the same window - there is a realisation that Leonardo was here looking out the same window only a few hundred years before.

Hugo and I looked at two of Leonardo’s paintings while we were in his dinning room. I am sure that hundreds of well educated scholars (are there any other kind?) have studied these portraits and came to interesting conclusions that do not agree with mine. These two people look like they are related. They have a family resemblance. They have the same eyes, fingers and expression.

Later at one of the souvenir shops, I looked a copy of the Mona Lisa that cost two dollars. The copy was much cheaper than the one I saw at the Louvre Museum in Paris and the copy has a protective coating unlike the one in the Louvre where the paint came off when I touched it, also this one is slightly bigger.

In one of those family moments that could have happened anywhere, we all laid down on the lush green grass not far from Leonardo’s grave and looked up at the clouds. We pointed out what looked like horses, dragons and maps of Australia without Tasmania (are there any other kind?).

After a relaxing holiday in Amboise away from the excitement of relaxing holiday in Paris we went home on the TGV. The scenery was similar to what you might see on the way to Dalby from

Toowoomba. This was one of the things that I wanted to do in France - the other things were not in the budget. Here is a picture of me on the TGV travelling at 300km/h and realising a small and obtainable dream.

Friday, June 27, 2008

0806262330 Things that I think of when I look at the Eiffel Tower

I am a bit behind on the events - I have a writers block.

Here are a few things that I am reminded of when I see the Eiffel Tower.

The top of the Eiffel Tower

Things that I think of when I look at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

One night after an amazing French dinner of fresh crusty baguettes, creamy and tasty French cheese and exotic French delicacies from the local Parisian delicatessen, Rachel Ruby said that some exercise would be a nice way to end the day. Rachel Ruby asked Alex if he would like to go for a jog around Paris. The reply from Alex indicated that he was not entirely enthusiastic. I sat at the table listening to my children talk about exercise and I remembered how I used to exercise in the army and how, until recently, I used to get up at five in the morning to help some dear friends lose weight, get fit and build confidence. There was a short pause in the conversation between Alex and Rachel Ruby when I almost perceived a distant voice - “Dad, would like to go for a jog around Paris with me?” - was this my subconscious transmitting into my aural pathway? It was real. I was honoured. I had to think if I could really keep up with Rachel Ruby - among her many talents, Rachel Ruby is also a ballet dancer and a rugby player. If I agree to this, will my forty-three old frame be able to withstand the rigors of a gruelling training schedule demanded by a fit and healthy sixteen years old “young woman”? Ok says me to myself - just do it.

I answered with a casual, “Sure, I’ll be glad to, I thought you would never ask.”
A few minutes later we had planned to run around the only park that we knew well in our local area - the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower.
Since then we have been going to the park near the Eiffel tower every night. The Champs de Mars around the Eiffel Tower pays homage to the French invention of the metric system. The park is exactly 1,000m long and exactly 250m wide. These dimensions make it fairly easy to work out how far we have to run. Rachel Ruby has yet to be introduced to the 'calibration run'.
When we moved to Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to get to know Hugo a lot better when we both went to his school and scout activities. Now I have a chance to get to know Rachel Ruby a bit better when we talk while exercising around the Eiffel Tower.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

0806212300 The Palace Garnier - Where the Phantom of the Opera lives.

0806 The Phantom of the Opera.
The Opera House is gorgeous. The architect not only had style, but also a sense of humour. There were only a few little touches that made the Palace Garnier really special. He understood the opera and why people attended the opera - the social occasion. The opera house is roughly divided into three equal sections: The entrance, the auditorium and the stage. A decent sized third of the building space is dedicated to the customers. Every night at the opera was an occasion to socialise and been seen.
The entrance foyer is round and surrouned by mirrors. The guests would watch each other in the mirrors and talk and gossip. On the centre of the ceiling the architect, Mr Garnier, had his name inscribed hidden within the decoration - the patrons. that is the wealthy and the royalty of France would notice some writing and try to decifer what was hidden. They would call their friends over and soon a gaggle of princes or a brood of princesses would be all together searching for the hidden message. This made the name of Mr Garnier famous as the architect. The opera house was soon known as the Palace Garnier.
The Grand Staircase was designed so that the esteemed guests did not merely enter, but made an entrance. The stairs are surrounded by three levels of balconies from which they could be seen arriving as they made their way up the grand staircase to the auditorium.
Every square millimetre of wall, floor and ceiling is decoration. I can understand the use of gold as a protective coating. It is waterproof, it does not rust nor does it require painting or regular polishing. One of the other less practical advantages of using gold is that it makes a palace look expensive - and in the Palace Garnier, they spared no expense to give the impression that no expense was spared.
The Palace Garnier is the setting for the Phantom of the Opera. Here is the famous box number five from where the Phantom watches Christine.
The tour guide asked if anyone would like to see if the Phantom was in there - Hugo bravely stepped up and pressed his face to glass. I wondered if they had positioned a mannequin in there or something equally scary. The tension mounted as Hugo peered through the little round window. Silence. Hugo then announced there is no Phantom.
Here is a view of inside box number five.

The days of royalty and aristocrats arriving in flowing gowns amid the swirling spectacle of opening night are gone, however our French tour guide says that the closest that the Palace Garnier gets to its grand old days is when the French university engineering department have their annual dinner. The men are dressed in their finest suits and the intermission foyer comes alive with the formal pageantry of an age that has past. The young engineers attend an opera and are then escorted to a banquette. After the dinner and the presentation of their degrees they continue the graduation with ballroom dancing in the intermission foyer accompanied by an orchestra.

The theme of this has in the past been loosley tied to learning to speak Cantonese - but I digress momentarily while I learn to speak French.
It is a mystery to my tiny little mind why some sounds are easier to remember in French than the same sound in Cantonese. Why is "Nei Ho Ma" harder to remember than "Bon Jour"?
For example, I lived in Hong Kong for five months before I could speak enough Cantonese so that when I went to shops I would, at least appear to be polite - simple phrases - Hello how are you?, Good morning, Just these few things today, Do you accept electronic transfers? - that sort of conversation. I arrived in France on Monday afternoon and I have picked up enough of the language to buy groceries in French.
The first conversation with the local Boulongier went like this:
Me - Bon Jour Boulongier.
Boulongier - Bon Souir.
It seems that I had bid our local Boulongier a good day when it would have been more appropriate to bid him a good evening. One of the first rules in learning to speak another language is to have confidence. It can be embarrassing to say something stupid and even more so to say something stupid in another language. The worst thing is when I say something stupid and embarrassing and not even know it. Well it seems that I said something stupid and I stood there in front of our friendly French Boulongier looking like a stupid English speaking foreigner and I started to feel embarrassed. I suddenly remembered that Rachel Ruby said that my French sounded too Russian. Carolyn has also said that my French should flow like liquid, while Russian explodes with heavy emphasis on the second syllable. So I corrected myself in Russian.
Me - Dobre Veechere Tovarishch. ( Good evening friend )
Boulongier - Ahh - I don’t speak Russian, and you, it seems cannot speak French, can we both speak English?
Me - Da, I would like two baguettes please - Merci bo coo Boulongier.

Here are few photos of the “Hugo Fountains” of Paris.

Friday, June 20, 2008

080619 The Catacombs of Paris.

The catacombs of Paris.

There are two main parts to the catacombs - the first part is the quarry - kilometres of tunnels that were used to ferry the blocks of limestone up the surface. Some of the miners, while they were not busy extracting great huge lumps of limestone, also made sculptures and they are displayed along the way to the second and more morbid part which is affectionately known as “The Empire of Death“.

It seems that a few hundred years ago a fatal disease swept Paris of most of its citizens and the few remaining people had the gruesome task of cleaning up the mess. Like most mass extinction events the most efficient way to clean up was to make a mass grave. The grave was dug, the deceased were laid to rest, the families cried and soon afterwards everyone continued with their lives, albeit slightly sadder. It was not long after this terrible event that the survivors started to get sick and die. Most of them cried “Oh no not again.” but a few that had a robust constitution decided that they would find out what was the cause this time. They concluded that the mass grave was simply too massive and had become a secondary cause for disease.

In a decision that can only be described as “bureaucratic” the job of relocating the remains of around six million people suddenly became the problem for the Paris Quarrying Service. I can only imagine what the manager of the quarry would have said on the day that he was told of his additional duties. One day he would have arrived at work happy that his project was on track to fill the quota for several tons of limestone needed for the continued progress and development of France. His duties included the responsibility for “protecting and reinforcing the ground beneath Paris.” Full stop. By the end of the day, by decree of the King’s council, he is suddenly “responsible for protecting and reinforcing the ground beneath Paris and the exhumation, sanctity and preservation of the remains of around six million Parisians - now deceased.”

The catacombs are used to store human remains and are protected by laws regarding the sanctity of the dead, however there are no records of who is who and where their remains might be. The bones are simply stacked up in fairly neat piles. All the leg bones are used to make a kind of retaining wall which was then decorated with skulls. The other bones, regardless of who they may be are thrown in behind. There is no way that any Parisian can go to the catacombs and visit poor dead Great Aunt Elsie because no one knows for sure where her bones would be.
A skull feels a bit like a coconut.
There are signs along the path of the dead with sobering quotes about the fragility of mortality, the meaning of life and how futile it is to avoid death. It makes for a fun family outing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

080618 Bike Tour of Paris.

080617 Bike Tour of Paris.

We all loved the bike ride around Paris. The French have such a relaxed attitude about where the Parisians can freely ride a bicycle - they certainly have no rules regarding where they can park their bicycles. There are bikes everywhere.
The bicycle tour started at the Notre Dame Cathedral were we walked for a few minutes to collect our bikes. The office for the bike tours was a little oasis of modern luxury. Everything that I had seen in Paris up to this point had been either built, renovated or burned down in the 16th century. I tried to get a drink from a vending machine with my railway ticket - this may sound like strange behaviour for an Australian but it is perfectly acceptable for a resident of Hong Kong.
I was given a strange little folding bike that was made for someone about 50 kilograms lighter. All my children came to me in turns and asked me to help them adjust the seat and handlebars - including Alex who is eighteen in a few weeks. It must be a dad thing. The brake levers were in the opposite hands for me - that is, the left hand operated the front brake and the right hand almost operated the rear brake so that when I squeezed it as hard as I could, there was a perception that my speed was reducing and it made a scraping sound as if to warn pedestrians of the impending collision.
The tour group headed off into Paris like a herd of cats. There were bikes stopping and falling, bikes going ahead faster than the tour leader and others tootling along behind. The first stop was for a safety brief, which was brief - “Stop at red lights.”
There is an unwritten understanding that little cars make a little beep, big trucks make a big blast on an air-horn and, generally speaking, the sound of the horn is roughly proportional to the vehicle making the noise. As I was riding along I heard a bell ringing, like an ice-cream vendor - I was surprised to see that it was the sound of a city council bus.
Our tour guide was a handsome American who reminds me of, but does not necessarily look like, Bill Pullman and he certainly knew enough about Paris and its history to be interesting but more importantly and he also knew enough about people to know what to say and when to stop. He spoke clearly and projected his voice above the Parisian din without being overly loud and obnoxious. He knew where to stop so that a swarm of inexperienced cyclists could instinctively park safely. He selected some quiet side streets that made for a peaceful and relaxed
amble through Paris.
We rode our bikes around the pyramid at the Louvre.
I fell off my bike near the house were Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables.

Our tour guide pointed out an odd bit of graffiti - a tile mosaic of a space invader. Although interesting, he seemed to think that this tiny part of Paris was an essential part of the culture. He explained in great detail how the artist was a mystery and there are five hundred or so of these things around the city. No one has ever seen the artist, they appear overnight. The artist is akin to the Amazing Spider-Man in agility and cunning. I think that the tour guide is the artist. He knows too much and is too interested.

We stopped for lunch at an alfresco cafĂ© in the middle of a bustling street surrounded by typical four-story apartments. There were crowds of people and swarms of Vespa scooters. Parisians sat with their laptop computers while a stout elderly local stood in the middle of the road, in the middle of the crowd and played an accordion until someone paid him some money to go and play somewhere else. The space was filled with people, motor scooters, musicians, waiters, people walking dogs, people talking on their phones, people wearing suits and people of all countries. All this occurred in the space of a few metres. Carolyn ordered some local French food for us and she was instantly accepted as a local. We ate fresh crusty bread filled with exotic, aromatic salami, ham and fresh local salad complimented by a rich combination of mayonnaise and mustard. The French have different names for their bread rolls the same way the Eskimos have different names for snow. The French know that it is not only the recipe and the constitution of a bread but also the shape of a roll makes it different, it changes its attitude and its presence and therefore the very role it plays in making a meal an occasion. The type of roll that I had had a firm but submissive crust that was supportive of its precious and hefty cargo and yet delicate with its grasp. It had the colour and texture of summer wheat swaying gently in the fields and was punctuated with contrasting defining flecks of darkened sesame. It tasted like bread. The size and shape was expertly crafted to be confidently controlled with one hand and yet able to provide a generous and healthy “7/9th full” portion.

The kids loved the bike tour. I think that they really enjoyed riding a bike and being together as a family. We could have gone for a bike ride together anywhere in the known universe and they still would have enjoyed it. They are really looking forward to going to Versailles, not so much because of the art and the culture, but because they have heard that we will go for another family bike ride.

The French are seen by some as “snooty” - I see them as confident. French history has an amazing number of artists, scientists and general all round good guys. The French do not see the need to learn to speak English because they have a perfectly serviceable language of their own. The French have an interesting relationship with their government which is simple - they seem to say “We have burned down a palace and cut the head off our king for not giving us a fair go so we will think nothing of doing that to a mere mortal of a prime minister.”
The French have good reason to be happy with France as it is - they invented the metric system, radio and scuba diving. That is a pretty impressive list, and I say that coming from a country that proudly proclaims introducing the world to the Hills Hoist, the lawn mower and rubber thongs.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

080617 Going to Paris.

080617 Going to Paris.
Our flight departed at midnight so we have had a really long Sunday. There it was, the object of desire, a fully fuelled Boeing 747. The airplane that has represented the aviation industry for more than forty years. Even the new Airbus A380 is compared to the Boeing 747, albeit unfavourably.
I get a strange awareness when I am sealed inside an airtight aluminium tube hurtling along at 700 kilometres an hour at a height of 30,000 feet with 4 fairly well controlled fires on the wings that I am in what can be described as a dangerous situation. There is nothing natural about flying in an airplane. These machines are the pinnacle of our collective genius and yet they are little more than a bunch of bits of metal bent into the right shape and stuck together by other bits of metal in a slightly different shape.
We flew into a storm on departure and I sat bolt upright and wide eyed remembering selected episodes of Air Crash Investigation while the lightning flashes illuminated the cabin.
British Airways have an interesting in-flight entertainment system that, unlike the system on Brunei Airways‘ A320, actually worked. A quick look through the menu showed me that there were more movies than there was time to watch them - so rather than labour with the hefty decision on what to watch for the next thirteen hours, I selected the GPS channel. This informative channel showed me where were going, in three languages. The minimal amount of research that I had done before leaving suggested that we might be flying east over India, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq, and most of the places where people are shooting at each other. I was pleasantly surprised to see the plane heading north from Hong Kong and continue well into China. It was hours into the flight before we started to make our way east over Russia. This flight path makes a lot more sense if I imagine the plane travelling around the curve of the globe rather than travelling across a flat map - the plane followed a straight line, it was the earth that curved underneath it.

The flight left at mid-night so once the good people at British Airways had fed all the passengers they insisted on closing the window blinds and we started a few hours of enforced darkness. I was determined to stay awake and not miss out on the rare experience of flying in a Boeing 747 but the seats were so comfy that I fell asleep for five hours. When I woke up I sneaked a peek out the window, braving the wrath of the flight crew, and was rewarded with a stunning view of the sunrise over Siberia. I extricated my self from the seat by climbing over Hugo and Alex and went towards the light. The light was in the forward galley. The staff seemed friendly enough, in that I was not asked to leave but rather asked if there was anything that they could do for me. “Can I please look out your window?” I asked as if it was an outrageous request. They replied with an enthusiastic “Yes, of course you can, be careful of the door handle.” Opening the emergency escape door needed a five step process but I am sure that someone has blundered through the sequence by accident.
Outside there was as brilliant red horizon at sunrise. The snow-capped peaks of the Ural mountains slid past at 600 kilometres an hour. We were over Russia and heading into Europe. The peaks of the snowy mountains poked though the clouds as if they were solid clouds with shaper edges. The good people at British Airways made feel comfortable by giving me some noodles and free range of anything in the kitchen. I have heard it said that the best way to thank someone for a good time is to enjoy it. Showing great restraint, I took a few things for the boys.

We arrived in Paris during a strike by the fuel delivery drivers that has left the city bereft of taxis. We had to take the train. Trains in Paris - the city has developed over more time than the entire country of Australia. There were trains in Paris when Captain Cook sailed into Sydney and made the outrageous claim that he had “discovered” the place. Australians have a different railway gauge for each state and think that it is strange. To the Australian way of thinking, there is one country and so there should be one railway system. It is not so in Paris - not only are there multiple railway lines wending their way through, in and around each other, but there are also multiple gauges , some railway line have trains that use truck tyres instead of steel wheels. We travelled on five different trains from the airport to our flat in Le Marias.

Our flat in Paris is gorgeous. It was built in the 1700’s so the original occupants would have sat in this room and read the news about the discovery of Australia.

Suffering the effects of jet-lag we decided that we should stay awake until it was night time in Paris and get a good nights sleep and wake up on Paris time. Rather than just wait , we decided to go to the Eiffel Tower and see the icon of Paris sparkling with its lights on. Little did we know that seeing as it is summer in Paris the sun does not set until 10 o’clock. Jet-lag is truly an odd ailment. This strange condition where our internal reckoning of the time of day does not match with what we see. According to our internal clocks, it was 2am. I fell asleep in the park overlooking the Eiffel Tower.

Friday, June 13, 2008

0806131000 John and Renee are married!

John and Renee are married!
I wish that I could have been there. The classic moment of the entire day is summed up in this one picture of the young couple in love.
This is from an earlier e-mail. I tried to do something original but this is what I think of the wedding day. I hope that it was read at the reception.

Wedding bells peal out over sunny Stanthorpe - a wedding!
The lovely bride, the handsome groom, everyone scrubbed up, dressed up and on their best behaviour.
The car is polished and adorned with a ribbon for the auspicious occasion - the stately drive to the chapel.
The bride beaming at the crowd of onlookers.
Arriving at the chapel with all the fuss of a royal visit.
The bride has a bouquet of flowers in her hands and the groom has a flower pinned to his jacket like a pre-school kid wearing a note from the teacher as if to say "remember that you are getting married today".
Congratulations, what a lovely dress! And you look so handsome.
Here comes the bride!
A long slow dignified walk down the isle.
I do!
The whole family is there laughing and celebrating with an air of festivity.
Potato salad, coleslaw and ham.
10 aunties and uncles?
I can't tell if some are missing because each one causes a riot alone.
The bridal waltz.
Photos for posterity.
Mr and Mrs at last.

My job at the Marriott hotels will not start in July - I understand enough about the construction business to know that the only certain thing is uncertainty. I was given a standard issue corporation response of "we are consolidating our resources" and other corporate phrases that indicate that the job may start next year sometime, maybe. I am on their list.
I have signed on with the Chinese Catholic Girls School for another year. There are no coincidences, choices are put in front of us everyday. The nuns with whom I work believe that events are arranged by God and we should follow the one right, true, path. Sister Maria says that I have been sent by God. I believe that choices are placed before us and we can chose to follow one of several right paths. My choice of career for the next few years was not easy. My decision had at least three elements of a good story - good vs evil, stranger comes to town, and man vs self. Money was a big factor. It is easy to work for the nuns, they leave me to do the job and praise me for the simplest things. The work to payment ratio of the engineering job was not that good compared to pretending to be a teacher. As an engineer I would be expected to make decisions about important stuff like money and careers in contrast to the work as a teacher where I have been paid by the hour to sing the Hokey Pokey.

We are all packing and getting ready to go to Paris for the summer holidays. No more worries for a week or two. I have heard it said by wise men that there is nothing better than a summer holiday. The weather in Paris, for the summer, is currently 10°C.
We will have a normal Sunday routine up until the point where we would usually go to bed - at that time, instead of relaxing in our own personal bedtime routine, we will be relaxing at the airport check-in for a flight that leaves at 00:10. We need to be at the airport at about 22:00 - the time that people get tired and grumpy.
Children can learn what they like regarding parental advice - my mum, who died a slow horrible coughing death because of smoking, used to say that if anything went wrong in our lives, the main reason for our frustration and anger could be traced back to ignoring her parental guidance. I told that story to tell this one: I have asked all my able-bodied children to wash their clothes and pack their bags so that they will be ready for an usually hectic Sunday. One of my children will want to use the washing machine and will be genuinely surprised that it is already being used. Another one of my children is arranging an outing with friends all day today and will be at a party tonight - I am assured that there will be time to pack on Saturday night. The child that does not have to be at school all day, and will be his own legal guardian in a few weeks, was asked to be prepared earlier.
We will be doing Paris on a budget. We bought the cheapest tickets that could be found. The service from the airline was great, they allowed us extra baggage, we were offered special meals and upgraded to in-flight entertainment. They processed our tickets online within the hour and confirmed our bookings and then, with our payment safely secured, promptly went out of business. There is no hope of getting our money back - although there are forms to fill and complaints to file. The reality of the situation is that a bankrupt airline has bigger problems than refunding the lowly passengers. In the business model of an airline, passengers are a little more than a nuisance after they have paid. They insist on things like "service" and actually being taken to their intended destination even if it causes great inconvenience to the airline managers, staff and pilots by making them organise an aeroplane. The odd thing is, Carolyn then found cheaper tickets with British Airways.

Last night, at about ten o'clock, I popped over to the shop and on the way back I heard what sounded like an egg falling to the ground. I looked down near my feet about two metres away and saw a wet splat mark that was, oddly enough, the size of an egg. As I looked in wonder, another appeared and then another. They were huge drops of rain. There were no clouds, no wind and no thunder. I looked around and saw other huge raindrops appear accompanied by a popping-splatting sort of sound. Then it hit. In one second it was fine, the next it was torrential. The crowd ran to cover, some laughing with newspapers on their heads, others not. We, as a community, looked in wonder at the torrent that instantly appeared. (It no longer seems strange to me that I went to the shops at ten o'clock and there was a crowd.) We are hoping that the weather in Hong Kong will allow our flight on Sunday.
Speaking Cantonese.
I have been in Hong Kong for nearly a year. I speak Cantonese to the children at school because they don't know any English yet. I have learned to speak at them, but not to them. I can transmit, but I can not understand the answer unless it is the same as the example in the book. There was a strange satisfaction when I first completed an entire transaction at a restaurant in Cantonese. It wasn't a great feat, It was only ordering some take away food. The problem is not the language difficulties, it is stagefright. I am suddenly aware that the cashier is looking at me with those shiny dark brown Asian eyes and I forget to use the correct pronunciation. The word for eat and understand are the same sound - but in a different tone. I am sure that the cashier is surprised when suddenly confronted with a customer saying "I would like to understand the Big Mac."
Carolyn showed me a fascinating book called The Arrival. It is a graphic novel about a family that migrates to a strange land.