blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rue du Havre

On April 21st, in Paris, I made a pilgrimage to the rue du Havre in honour of Paul Guimard's novel, Rue du Havre, set at that location in the 1950s. I first read the book in 1981 or thereabouts, coming across it by chance in a second hand bookshop in the arcades of Bern. Not able to get the story out of my head, seven or eight years later I set about translating it into English, and it is still a favourite of mine. The week after next I am going to give a talk about this and about Guimard's other books. While I was in the neighbourhood of the rue du Havre I took photographs of the places mentioned in the book: Here, for example, is the first mention of the eponymous street:
En quittant la Cour de Rome, Julien Legris se laissa porter par la foule vers la rue du Havre...

[...] Devant Julien, comme devant une borne, défilait une humanité indifférente, hétéroclite, que jour après jour il avait appris à déchiffrer, à connaître et, faute de mieux, à aimer. En dix années de station immobile, il avait levé les masques de beaucoup de ces robots qui, à d'invariables heures, le frôlaient sans le voir.
It touched me to find beggars in the very spot where the pathetic, lonely old man in the book, Julien Legris, stands watching the people who pass by. The Lycée de Concordet, the school for boys, is still there as well.
Le dernier retardaire de Concordet, le front lourd de racines cubiques mal digérées, franchit la triste porte du lycée. La grande hâte du matin s'apaisa. Les courants de la rue du Havre, qui débordait sur la chaussé, rentrèrent sagement dans le lit des troittoirs. Les premiers flâneurs apparurent.
Here's a view looking down the rue du Havre from the front of the railway station, the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Nul ne gîte à Saint-Lazare. C'est un quartier de passe...
The station clock is an all-important element in the narrative...
Absorbé par son exploration de la foule, Julien avait oublié la grande horloge de Saint-Lazare.
And like the writer Paul Guimard, the artist who designed this tower of clocks outside the station also seems to have been obsessed with the tyrrany of time.
—Je vous en prie, dit Julien, donnez-moi encore six minutes...
I went into the station building to pay hommage to the platforms and the trains.
Les banlieusards mériterait qu'une fois dans leur vie le train biquotidien, oubliant qu'il n'est qu'un moyen de transport, leur offre le miracle d'um vrai voyage [...] A huit heures quarante et une, François descendit sur le quai de la gare Saint-Lazare [...] Le train de Catherine ralentit pour entrer en gare.
At the end of the story, a little girl, or deus ex machina, inadvertently changes the destiny of three people. She lives in one of the houses above the street.
Au cinquième étage ... une petite fille rousse de trois ans, nommée Constance, s'éveilla de mauvaise humeur ... Elle passa en revue les sottises assez insignes pour apaiser ses ressentiments.
(Incidentally the writer's own daughter is called Constance. I have just discovered her website!) After studying the station and the rue du Havre, I extended my pilgimage to the neighbouring territory, the famous department stores.
Les trottoirs du boulevard Haussmann, du côté des grands magasins, ploient sous le poids des passants... Dans cette foule qui n'est que regards, j'ai le sentiment épuisant de n'être pas d'ici.
I took a look inside the Galeries Lafayette where the young man in the novel, François, works as a window dresser, to take a look at his environment.
Moi, obscur desservant de ce temple où la civilisation de mon temps rassemble ses merveilles, j'en ornais paisiblement l'une des chapelles qu'on nomme ici vitrine. Mais aujourd'hui, je vois enfin les fidèles dans leur cathédrale et le tableau est fabuleux.
And I ate a sandwich in the little nearby square where Julien also sits to eat his meagre lunch, in Chapter 2.
Les oasis sont rares dans ce quartier sans loisirs et Julien appréciait les verdures du square Louis-XIV ... tel qu'il est, ce jardinet mélancholique permet une halte en marge de la frénésie du boulevard Haussmann. Julien s'assit sur un banc familier, face à la chapelle expiatoire consacrée à la mémoire du pauvre roi-serrurier, et commença son repas.
It is still exactly as the book describes. At the end of the novel two of the main characters symbolically move away from that part of the city which has kept them captive.
En arrivant au carrefour du boulevard Haussmann ils n'amorcèrent pas le mouvement qui les eût séparés, François à gauche, Catherine à droite. Ils continuèrent de marcher vers la Madeleine ...
Eventually, so did I.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Flying home

These next few blogposts are not going to be posted in the correct chronological order. Never mind. I wrote this one by hand, 38000ft above sea level somewhere over Labrador which was still white and frozen. I had forgotten about winter.

Today has been as confusingly multicultural as the rest of my recent days. I began the day skimming through the 104 pages of The Daily Mail (I had no choice of paper) over a very English breakfast in the Roebuck pub lounge and chatting to Terry, the landlord. Then round to Emma's place to say goodbye where, with Alexander on my lap, we watched an old episode of Bagpuss (1974) and where I overheard Sha talking excitedly to her mother on a Skype call to Beijing in Mandarin Chinese.

George and I didn't say goodbye in quite the way we'd imagined because when my bus arrived at the bus stop he was about to help a handicapped lady across the road.

I had a French-style breakfast Chez Gérard in the departure lounge at Heathrow, not quite of the same quality as my breakfasts in Paris, alas, while reading a few more chapters of Benoîte Groult's novel La Touche Etoile.

On the 'plane I heard some Mozart on the iPod as we took off, then watched The White Ribbon, the much talked-about black and white film in German, and Pedro Almodovar's Broken Embraces in Spanish, that latter film being particularly good.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Leaving Barcelona for Paris

Yesterday George and Sha travelled on to England in the Eurostar seats they'd booked earlier. Before they left me in Paris, I too managed to reserve a seat on the London train, but not that one. Mine leaves on Friday. It took me a nerve wracking hour to make this booking on the Eurostar website; it was so overloaded that the pages kept blanking out. I believe mine was one of the last available seats, because when I went to the Gare du Nord to pick up my printed reservation card, a notice board said: no more seats available this week. I have been very lucky. I also have an Air Canada seat on the flight from London to Ottawa next Sunday. That one took me two hours' research, trial and error, using George's laptop in my hotel room in the middle of the night.

When we realised that both our flights were cancellada we made the big decision to rent a car (little Ford Fiesta, again, practically the last vehicle available from Hertz, costing over 1000 Euros) and take the road to Paris instead. We couldn't find a road map at the airport so set off very vaguely towards the only other city I'd heard of on the signposts, Girona, which I assumed was in the right direction. It was, but the road took us right through the centre of Barcelona, a tough start indeed for George in a car he wasn't at all used to. I wasn't able to take over since I've never learned how to drive with manual geers, so did my best to help with the navigation. Sha couldn't drive either, as her Chinese driver's licence is treated with suspicion over here. Anyway, we passed the city's bull ring (Plaza de Toros) and a giant architectural "gherkin" like the one in London and finally found ourselves, as if by magic, beyond the city on the correct road, Autopista 7. The speed limit was 130 kph until at various points we had to stop to pay a toll (scrabbling for coins in our purses). We stopped at the first service station we came to and bought a map of Francia (France).

After the Guardia Civil had waved us through the border in the Pyrennees, 30 km south of Perpignan, we paid another toll to get off the motorway, drove down some little roads across the salt flats (flamingos advertised, but we didn't see any) and stopped for a short walk in the sand on a Mediterranean beach at Port-la-Nouvelle near Narbonne. Driving on, we stayed overnight at a little 2-star hotel in Béziers, the Hotel de France. There was an Hotel d'Angleterre there too with 3 stars, but we didn't come across that one until later when we were walking around the old town under a crescent moon, near the floodlit fountains in the main square. Next morning we headed north through the vineyards (just coming into leaf) in the direction of Clermont Ferrand, crossing the beautiful Massif Central, 1000m above sea level, and the highest viaduct in the world, the Viaduc de Millau over the River Tarn. There too we stopped for a walk, parking at the Aire du Viaduc and impressive visitors' centre to climb a steep hill dotted with Alpine flowers for a view of the whole bridge.

Lunch in the Auvergne was at a nice grill house just off the road, with pine trees around us, and after that point the surroundings gradually became more and more northern, lambs, calves and windfarms beside the road. As we approached Paris, we became increasingly nervous. With no adequate map of the Paris roads, would we be able to find our way around the city to the northern side where we knew the Charles de Gaulle was situated? Actually they call it Roissy here, confusing, to say the least. I was sitting in front as navigator for this last stretch and decided that at each spaghetti junction we should simply follow the signposts to Lille, as the airport seemed to be more or less adjacent to the A1 to Lille. We got stuck in a traffic jam for a long time, but the plan worked; only as we got much closer to our destination did we see a signpost that actually said Charles de Gaulle airport, mind. We stopped just short (on now deserted approach roads, the airport being closed!) to fill the tank before returning our vehicle and when I got out of the car I found I was shaking with tension. We found the place to deposit our car and walked into an empty terminal, extraordinary.
Fortunately, the trains to the city were still running. After a couple of failed attempts I managed to call the hotel to let them know we were late, but still intending to arrive. We shared a carriage with a group of young men trying in vain to reach various other parts of Europe, then feeling exhausted and shaky I sat on a wall at the Gare du Nord with Sha while George stood with the luggage in the queue for our taxi. Once I was in my room (at the IBIS Bastille-Opera) I began to recover and came downstairs for a very late buffet supper at the hotel, while the other two set out to find a meal in the neighbourhood.

There's an album of my photos of the journey on Facebook.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Plans interrupted

It's been a nerve wracking few days. My Air France flights back to Paris and Montreal were both cancelled because of the volcanic ash. George and Sha had no flight to Paris either. We therefore drove from Barcelona all the way to Paris, a marvellous ride over the Pyrennees and the Massif Centrale, seeing a Mediterrean beach on the way and the highest road bridge in the world, and stopping overnight in Beziers.

George and Sha leave for London tomorrow on the Eurostar train, and after a fraught night and early morning on the Internet, using George's computer, I am now booked onto another Eurostar train, leaving Friday afternoon. I also have an Air Canada flight booked for Sunday, Heathrow to Ottawa, if the 'planes are up back in operation by then. Meanwhile I'm staying in Paris, in lovely spring weather.

For the moment I can't really complain!

Friday, April 16, 2010


No more blog posts for a bit, while I find out how to reach Paris in spite of the cloud of volcanic ash. Yesterday we saw the Joan Miro sculptures and paintings but I'm too preoccupied to describe them yet. Watch this space.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Wednesday in Barcelona

Still exhausted, still getting lost, but not quite so badly as yesterday. Sha too; we need more sleep! Had to stand on the crowded train to the city, but got out before the terminus and took the blue line to Gaudi's absolutely enormous Temple de la Sagrada Famiglia with its weird spires and sculptures, a pile of stone unfortunately mixed with scaffolding. Endless crowds of sightseers surrounded it. Again, we decided not to queue for hours to see inside, walked round the outside instead taking photos, unable to avoid including the cranes.

Back on the yellow line to the Vila Olympica. It's hard to know in which direction to walk, but having studied the map and surroundings we found the entrance to the zoo. To penetrate the park behind it, though, we had to keep walking along between the high brick walls and a line of plane trees. Trams were passing by. We should have caught one. At the first corner half a mile or so further, on the corner of Carrer de Pere IV we spotted the Santa Restaurant and stopped there to sample the lunch menu. Thank heavens I learned some Spanish before coming here, for most people shake their heads when you address them in English. Sha says she couldn't have come to the city centre without me! However, food vocabulary on menus defeats me, both in Catalan and in Spanish. I guessed that lacon was some kind of meat—it turned out to be pork, tastily served on couscous and Mediterranean vegetables. I had a glass of white wine and bottle of mineral water, also choc. mousse topped with rum flavoured cream. For Sha we ordered grilled salmon on pureed potatoes with peas, followed by fruit and gelato. Not bad for 12.50 Eur. apiece. The other diners were office types, most of whom sat down to eat around 3 p.m. This is why suppers are not served till 8. Such habits mean an awfully long gap between breakfast and lunch.

Sha had already spotted the park gate round the corner. We went through and saw a monument, a grotesquely mannerist pond like the ones around Berlin adorned with gryhpens and lions' heads. The Catalan Parliament stands beyond the statue of a woolly "mamuth". Some school parties here too; a girl accosted us in a state of excitement, wanting us to stand in a group photo. The more people she persuaded, the better chance she had of winning a prize. We stood beside a small dog for the shoot, before moving toward the Arc de Triomf at the end of an imposing wide walkway, the Passeig Lluis Companys. The Palau de Justicia was here.

The steps to the metro being repaired we had to continue four blocks through a vaguely Chinese quarter to the next station, Tetuan, which necessitated another several hundred paces down the long tunnels. The Sabadell train being a relatively peaceful one, we got seats again, thank goodness.

I left Sha to brace herself for George's three hour Conference Dinner, due to take place later in the evening, while I came on home up the hill to my relatively peaceful business district, meeting hordes of uniformed school boys from the local Collegio, coming the other way. I used my Spanish again to get a pot of tea at the bar, which I was drinking as I wrote this at a table with a view of the hotel piscina, palms and potted shrubs. Had supper here as well: crema de patates and trancha de pez (swordfish) con verduras.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tuesday in Barcelona (continued)

We were lost in the Barri Gotic, somewhere to the east of the Via Laietana. At one point we did come across the Museu Picasso, which I'd wanted to visit, but the queue for entrance was so long, I said No. There were other tourist attractions, Palau this and Palau that, Santa this and Santa that (gigantic, gloomy churches) but despite its even larger size we never found where the cathedral was, the surrounding buildings being too tall, and the maze of streets too Gothic to lead us anywhere obvious. The alleyways were narrow, dark and positively medieval. It was like the Shambles of York, England, on a huge scale, miles of it. We sat down exhausted for the sake of some green tea and a flapjack in one of the little patisseries that Barcelona does so well.

From here we still had to get back to the Pca de Catalunya to catch our train for Sant Cugat. Stumbling upon the tourist info. office we joined the queue; it was too slow so I asked a nice policeman instead: "Donde estamos, por favor?" He showed me on the map were we were which meant I could hold it the right way up, and we tried again. Still no sign of the Cathedral, but we found Las Ramblas. Sha said the crowds were the same as in Beijing, 10s of 1000s of people all in high spirits. We passed flower stalls and fruit stalls, stalls selling live chickens and pigeons and a whole line of people dressed as statues or devils. In the middle of the avenue it is traffic free, so anything goes. I prayed for a seat on the train.

My prayer was answered and we returned exhausted to Sha's hotel where I fell asleep on the bed.

Supper with George who'd been chairing three hours of meetings without a break and was just as tired and hungry. After some welcome pasta in a sports bar opposite the station I left them to the rest of the evening and came back to my own hotel to write this by hand until my hand ached as much as my legs did. What a place!

Pictures to be added later!

Tuesday in Barcelona

A leisurely hotel buffet breakfast con mucho cafe among the flowering cacti because waking up had not been so easy. Took the S2 train one stop then lost my way in S. Cugat trying to find the Rambla del Celler on which the other hotel is situated, but, muttering to myself, caught sight of it eventually. Sha, waiting for me in the lobby, led me confidently back to the station by a more direct route and we bought T-Dia "tiquets" entitling us to every means of public transport within 2 zones. We took the FGC train to Pl. de Catalunya where a busker was giving a terrific performance of Bach's 1st 'cello suite from memory, surely a professional. Then we took the metro to Valcarca, nearest stop to the Parc Güell. A passerby pointed us down the correct street, from which we found signposts to the park up the narrow Baixada de la Gloria. There were 240 steps (counted them later) but for the way up a series of escalators have been installed.

The Park Guell, its excentric design by Gaudi, swarmed with tourists, a large proportion of whom were young school groups from France. It's fun for both children and adults, with passages through leaning tree trunks carved from stone and many a hairpin bend among the pines and cacti. The sandstone cliffs draped with flowering wisteria hid pigeons' nests and caves such as the one where we queued for the WC. Gaudi's house is here as are other colourful ones with murals, turrets & mosaics, and one has a luxuriant flower garden dotted with orange trees. The view of the city, mountains and the coast from the top of the hill was absolutely stunning. We saw an even taller, steeper hill in the distance, the Tibidabo, topped by a huge church: the Temple del Sagrat Cor.

Eventually, having done an adequate tour of the winding paths & the buskers on Chinese fiddle, steel pans, guitars ... we came back down the hill and hopped onto the metro, getting off on impulse at Fontana. Disappointing in that there were no fountains but we took the opportunity to sit down in a tapas bar for coffees and a pasta de manzana (no English spoken) where most other people were enjoying cigarettes and alcoholic drinks with a great variety of tapas. Back on the metro to Barceloneta for another long walk round the harbour, to one of the beaches: Platja Sant Sebastian. There beyond a row of palm trees we saw a building like a giant green glass sail and a metal sculpture Homenatje a la Natacio by Alfredo Lanz, 2004. Waves were breaking on the sand and a games club was playing a sort of volleyball game. We passed a cable car and the dock for cruise ships, one, the AIDA, being cleaned by its crew. Then we caught a 17 bus from the quayside back into town.

Where we got lost beyond redemption in the Barri Gotic. (To be continued.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

In Sant Cugat

I've arrived, and am writing this in the lobby of the Novotel at Sant Cugat on the outskirts of Barcelona. It's an attractive area, especially (despite this afternoon's rain) at this time of year with the trees in bloom.

On first impression, Barcelona was like California, bare rock under the scrubby steep hillsides, beaches (Mediterranean) lined with palm trees, enormous cacti growing on the railway cuttings. My second impression, once my bus from the airport arrived in the centre (Placa de Catalunya), was of a city like Paris, pollarded plane trees, wide boulevards, little balconies and shutters on the windows, fountains in the square. I found some lunch at a nearby restaurant, ordered lasagne, spelled correctly; it was very well presented and "hit the spot" as my Canadian friends would say. Supper was at a quiet Catallan cafe with Sha and George near their hotel. The waitress could only communicate with me in Spanish but I managed it. We enjoyed our cervezas and crispy sandwiches. I was too busy chatting to take notes on the vocabulary, a failing which I now regret.

George's hotel is posher than mine but the Novotel is good enough for me and only a three minute train ride (towards Sabadell) on the S2 line. I buy my ride from the automatic ticket dispensers, following the instructions in Catallan of course (!) We walked round the outside of the beautiful old monastery and danced on the tune-making paving stones in the playground, in the rain. The elegant street, recently paved and cobbled by this obviously prosperous municipality, glistened in the rain and were slippery underfoot. George and Sha took many photos which I'll attach here later.

I only have 2 minutes left so will pause till tomorrow. Very tired after the 20 hour journey, but very happy to be reunited with George. I need to sleep next.

Monday, April 5, 2010

La vie en rose

We spent Easter Sunday in old Montreal, a foretaste of Paris where we'll be together with George and Sha, the weekend after next. On a bright and breezy morning we flew PTN to St. Hubert on the southern edge of the city, parking at the Esso FBO, then took a taxi to the "Université de Sherbrooke" campus where the Longueuil Metro Station is to be found. From there it's a two station hop on the yellow line to Berri-UQAM, walking distance from the Vieux Port.

Although many places were shut, it was still not too late for lunch at a stylish place called the Crêpe Café which, for future reference, is at the corner of Notre Dame and Bonsecours. Inside it felt like being on the set of the film Amélie, even to the extent of the waiter and waitress, a charming, very French couple, being as interested in one another as in their customers, if not more so. The waiter also kept popping outside to check the condition of his bright red motor bike parked against the kerb. Accordion music (La Vie en Rose) was softly playing in the background as we took our table by the window to watch the passers by, and the crêpes, without question, lived up to our expectations.

It being a public holiday, most of the city streets were deserted, but once we came to the waterfront and the Place Jacques-Cartier we realised where all the people had got to.

Home again above the city and across Pierre-Eliot-Trudeau Airport whence I'll take off for Paris and Barcelona ... next Sunday! Chris—whose latest blogpost is less escapist than mine!—will fly over to join George, Sha and me in Paris five days after that.