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.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ancient worlds revisited, in Copenhagen and Stuttgart

It was beginning to feel so cold and damp in Copenhagen that Chris and I ducked into a museum to warm up. The extra attraction of the Glyptoteket was that they were advertising exhibits about ancient civilisations in the eastern Mediterranean lands, which is one of Chris' interests.

This museum has a huge collection of Antiquities, rivalling the British Museum. When you think about it, it's a wonder that any relics at all are left in their places of origin. We began our explorations in a gallery showing "archaic" sculpture from Greece, created in mimicry of the Ancient Egyptians, it seems. There were Greek Sphynxes, lions, bulls and a naked kouros, with "heroic, muscular" legs, beside his well dressed female equivalent, a kore. The God of healing, Asklepios, seemed to turn up everywhere in those days too, either disguised as a snake or carrying one on his staff.

In the ancient times, people wouldn't have seen the statuary as we do because it would have been painted in bright colours made from cinnabar, ochre, red lead, azurite, etc. This page describes how those ancient painting techniques have left traces that can be studied, and how the research is being done.

Further on was a beautiful headless Goddess of the wind, and Apollo with a "holy snake." Zeus was seen as a redhead, it seems. The Romans copied the Greeks' sculptural habits, of course, and filled their world with busts of their leading "celebrities" (as we'd call them nowadays)––a sort of Hello magazine in stone. We came to a series of rooms that were full of heads, quite modern and alive-looking, heads of Pompey, Livia, Claudius, Caligula, Nero and company. The "Beauty of Palmyra" modelled around 200 AD may have been an Indian woman.

There was also an area of the museum dedicated to relics of Ancient Egypt (around 15 centuries earlier) with a plethora of gods: Amun, Isis and Osiris and "the Sacred Baboon of Thoth."

Sitting in the Winter Garden for a rest after all this, we stared at The Water Mother, by Kai Nielsen, an early 20th century piece. It was a sculpture of a naked woman with 14 identical babies clambering over her, as she sat in the fish pond. We sent our daughter an instant message including a photo of this and she wrote straight back to say it probably didn't represent 14 babies, but only one, in multiple positions, preventing its mother from taking a rest.

Then in Stuttgart a few days later, I happened upon an exhibition about the Ancient Celts (Die Welt der Kelten), an Iron Age people of the 8th century BC and later, who originated around the source of the Danube. They were a surprisingly sophisticated lot, trading in wine from the Mediterranean, amber from the Baltic and salt from the Alps. They lived in hilltop settlements––shown in clever reconstructions in this exhibition––and smelted their iron ore in stone ovens. Archeological finds from their burial sites suggest that their society had many class divisions and include artefacts from Greece and Persia; it's believed that they travelled to Asia Minor and the Balkans. (The later Celts were not so particular with their burials, leaving their dead in the open air for birds to pick at.) Climate change around 400 BC induced them to migrate across Europe from Britanny to the Black Sea. In the Swabian Alps, near Stuttgart, they lived in caves, conducting sacrificial ceremonies with highly ornamental daggers. They also made impressive metal helmets, glass bowls, ceramics and leather goods. They had decorated wheels on their wagons, used coins for currency and they drank Greek wine or mead from hollow horns during their feasts, like Astérix and company.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Moving on: back to Germany

God rejse, said the signs in Kastrup airport (CPH, Copenhagen), when I dropped my case there well before daybreak on Tuesday, December 4th. I'd been up since the alarm rang at 5:30 and had had my feet cooled in the slush on Femøren station platform. I was glad that I'd had time to serve myself from the hotel breakfast bar because my last cooked meal had been the grillet laks mid afternoon in the city the previous day and I don't function well when I'm hungry. When I boarded my 'plane to Stuttgart (pictured here on the right) I had to wade through more slush and up the metal steps, getting my gloves wet on the handrail.

After all these years of it, I still love flying; I especially love piercing the pink cloud tops to get a serving of early morning sun with my on board cup of tea. It wasn't a long flight; the other passengers all seemed to be businessmen / businesswomen. On the descent through many layers of stratus I kept catching glimpses of the Black Forest that had turned white from the recent snow. Stuttgart lies in a basin surrounded by hills; the lower land was still green.

STR was an easy airport to cross and I was soon on the S-Bahn, S2, change at Rohr, where I had no more than three minutes wait for my connecting train on the S1 line, arriving on the other side of the platform, but when I reached Böblingen it was discouraging to realise that the S60 to Sindelfingen (the line under construction when we came here last year) was still under construction, at least on that day; my connecting train had been replaced by a bus. I'd noticed a taxi rank as we drew in so I went for a taxi instead. The driver wanted to tell me about Hallowe'en and its Irish origins at great length, in Schwäbisch, switching to a stilted Hochdeutsch when he realised I couldn't follow.
Our sitting room in Sindelfingen

The Sindelfingen Hotel am Klostersee, familiar from last year's visit, let me have the key to our room, but the cleaner was still working on it so I dumped the luggage and went out again. With breakfasts included, we got two rooms this time––a suite!––for a very reasonable price. That was novel, but the hotel is aging, the wi-fi link inaccessible from our end of the building, and our heating didn't work. I mentioned this to the receptionist and she came round with a plumber later in the day, standing over him while he repaired the radiator.

That morning I went straight to my old haunts around the Sindelfingen Radhausplatz, finding the coffee place I liked last time, the post office where I've now bought stamps for my postcards and Christmas cards two years in a row and the shopping mall with the Woolworth's, selling inexpensive objects. I bought a €2 woolly hat for Chris because he'd left one behind in Ottawa and would doubtless be suffering from cold ears after his night in Norway. Then it was time for lunch. I chose a gemütliches Wirtshaus in a 16th century corner of the town, Zum Erdinger, which had no free table left, so I had to share one with two elderly gentlemen who proceeded to chat me up over my soup and Schnitzel "...grosse Portionen und freundliche Bedienung...", one of them knocking back several glasses of red wine while waiting for his (much) younger wife: 44, she was, apparently. He told me he was 73. She did show up eventually, a good looking woman, and after I'd been introduced I averted my eyes for a while but overheard their kisses. She was being very solicitous towards him, making sure he'd taken his pills.

Goldberg water tower, in the distance,
 seen from our hotel room
That was the day when, after dark, I got lost trying to find the Goldberg S-Bahnstation. I made the mistake of not making for the summit of the Goldberg, where the water tower is, before turning downhill, and ended up in an industrial estate, on a grass verge leading to a motorway, in a state of alarm. If I'm ever there again, here's a note to remind me that I must keep walking along Lange Anwanden, continue up the footpath with the steps, then turn left onto the Dresdenerstraße beyond the water tower and right onto the Leipzigerstraße, if I want to get it right. I retraced my route, peered at the maps by the bus stops, tried again, and after an hour's walking finally made it to the station, getting quite warm and damp in the rain, only to find I still had to wait another 25 minutes for the next train. Still, it brought me back to the airport (changing at Rohr again) so that I was able to greet Chris, tired and late from his Oslo-Copenhagen-Stuttgart journey but in good spirits, because he'd enjoyed talking to some kindred spirits who create software for deep sea oil rigs.

We hailed a taxi back to the hotel and slept soundly.

Some Danish words

While in Copenhagen I noticed some Danish vocabulary, of course, and found it easy to read but not so easy to comprehend when listening. The pronunciation would need closer scrutiny.

Hej!–– Hello
nej–– no
Tüsen tak!––Many thanks! (i.e. a thousand thanks)
naeste station–– next station
naermeste station–– nearest station
[hoved]banegård––[central] railway station
rådhus––city hall

The menus were instructive. Among the Varme drikke, I didn't fancy the choice of varm kakao med flødeskum which sounds disgusting, even if it is hot chocolate with whipped cream.

Here are some more Danish words for food and drink:

øl––ale / beer (not oil, as I assumed)

and here are some general purpose words I picked up:

bager––baker, bakery
fra ... til–– from ... till
God Jul!––Happy Christmas!

And the Danish numbers 1-10, are:

en, to, tre, fire, fem, seks, syv, otte, ni, ti

I never needed to say Undskyld mij! for "Excuse me. Sorry!" but I learned it just in case.

Monday, December 17, 2012

In Copenhagen, left to my own devices

I really don't mind being on my own in a strange place, quite relish it in fact, though I'm sure it would be a different matter if the solitude lasted; it probably wouldn't be long before I was muttering to myself all the time and looking peculiar.

Anyway, I'd thoroughly enjoyed my boat ride (described in the previous blogpost) and now intended to wander around the city streets for a couple of hours.

By about 3 o'clock in the afternoon darkness was falling and I was beginning to feel hungry. I hadn't had any lunch to speak of, so I hunted around for a place that would serve me something warm. Roast almonds from a streetside grill wouldn't suffice. After a happy stroll down a quiet back street and back up the busy Strøget (Europe's longest pedestrianised shopping street, decorated with strands of illuminated red hearts and packed with Christmas shoppers and, later, people making their way home from work), I came across a basement restaurant on the corner of two streets, Café Stella, where I ate a beautifully presented grillet laks with roast potatoes. Through the window above me I could see a heap of bikes, none of them locked. A good 55% of the people who work in Copenhagen commute by bike. It's like the Netherlands!

Once fortified by that stella(r) meal, more strolling along; I spent a while browsing in the Lego shops and then among the fragrant Christmas trees (Jule traeer) for sale in the market square, where the little stalls were bright with illuminations. I bought some decorations, handcut from stiff white paper, then was tempted indoors again at the Kafe Kys, a cosy bistro bar where I ordered my dessert, a milky coffee and slice of cake, paying for it with those funny coins with the hole in the middle. I sat there surreptitiously sketching the other customers; it was full of local couples, the women tall and comfortably, but stylishly attired, the men very Scandinavian. Meanwhile Chris, in Asker near Oslo, was getting lost on his way to the hotel (Scandic Asker) where he was supposed to be staying and had to ask for help from three local youths who managed to speak perfect English. He too was struck by the northern European look of the people he encountered, especially at his meetings the following day, introducing themselves with names like Kjell, Trond, Harald, etc.

I did my last bit of shopping in a historic porcelain store, the Kongelige Danske Hof, Denmark's answer to the Chinese willow pattern. Apart from the dinnerware, they had some pretty Christmas tree ornaments (some of them were made in China, actually) ready to be gift wrapped in royal blue tissue by the cashier. Then I took the metro train back to Femøren for a night by myself at the Park Inn and spent most of the evening sorting out the chaotic contents of my luggage. It was just as well that I'd thought to pack two alarm clocks when we left home, even if mine ticked intrusively when I inserted its battery. I had to be awake at 5:30 the following day to get up, have a decent breakfast, check out, reach the airport and catch the early morning SAS flight to Stuttgart.

Copenhagen, on the water

A glimpse of the Oeresund Bridge to Sweden
On the morning of December 3rd we woke to a view from the hotel windows of more snow. Chris had to fly to Oslo that day (and when he got there it was -14ºC), but first we had time for a walk past Femøren station through a snowy park to the beach, called Amagerstrand. In the summer it must look very different; even so, it was lovely to find the Baltic shore, and gaze across the stretch of smooth, grey sea to Sweden. There on the horizon was the 8km bridge to Malmö that opened in 2000. You can cross it by train as well as by car; it has made the ferries obsolete. In the middle distance was a marina full of yachts (harbours obviously don't freeze solid in Denmark as they do in Canada) with the Kastrup airport buildings just behind it. Looking in the other direction we could see a line of wind turbines in the mist, their feet in the water. Container ships floated by.

Then I accompanied Chris to the airport on the Metro train. I'd be there myself the following morning so wanted to get my bearings. I was able to check in for my flight, too. We said goodbye and then I took the Metro back to the city (Kongens Nytorv). The plaza outside the station is under construction, behind a fence, but I realised that by walking round it I would come to Nyhavn, Copenhagen's colourful canal port, lined with winter stalls and attractive boats. This canal had been dug by Swedish prisoners-of-war in the 17th century and the houses had been built during the course of the next few decades. Hans Christian Andersen had lived in one of them, hoping to get work at the nearby theatre. When he failed in that endeavour he started to write his famous stories for a living.

Nyhavn, Copenhagen
I got onto one of the boats as it was about to pull away for a 70 minute tour of the canals and harbour. Gliding under very low bridges we entered the main waterway, past the Skuespilhuset (opened 2008, part of the Royal Danish Playhouse) on one bank and the Operahuset (2005) on the other. The first play performed at the new theatre had been Hamlet, so the young tour guide told us. It seems that Copenhagen has had a recent influx of money. 16 to 21 new bridges are to be constructed next year.

Christianshavn, across the main stretch of water from the city centre, is a series of artificial islands made in the 17th century and used for a variety of purposes since. It was originally settled by Dutch traders and part of it (since the 1970s) is famous as an established hippy settlement with "alternative" housing and about 1000 residents. The "torpedo" hangar on the waterfront has turned into a pricey block of flats (not for hippies). The blackened sheds used in the Napoleonic wars by the British navy have now become the place for little offices and studios. Further on, we passed the headquarters of the biggest shipping company in the world, Maersk, the 7-point star of its logo representing the Seven Seas.  The Amalienborg Statsplads (Danish equivalent of Buckingham Palace) was pointed out too, with its great dome, where the kongelige Familie lives. And yes, I did see "The Little Mermaid" (replica) statue, but only from the back, after we had stopped to take a flag down and store it in the boat.

We returned to our starting point via the canal where the Old Stock Exchange (Børsen) stands, an extraordinary piece of architecture with a spire of entwined dragons' tails.

Old Stock Exchange

A post for my mother and my sister

This is the video recording I made on Friday, December 7th, 2012, of the NPL Singers at their concert in the museum room in Bushy House, at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, London, performing the Christmas carol my father Walter Robert Tullett composed in 1961. My daughter Emma is singing the alto part. Thanks to the choir director Jonathan Williams for allowing this to happen. What especially pleased me was that Emma's friend Janine, singing the soprano part, said that for a long time afterwards the music kept going round her head.

Thanks also to Chuck Clark for the camera that I used!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Copenhagen in the snow

We woke up to a chilly draught through the window and snow falling all over Copenhagen. We shivered on the metro platform above ground at our hotel stop, Fermøren, struggling to make sense of the ticket machine, and when we came up from the underground station at Kongen Nytor there was ice on the steps and heaps of white on people's bikes, parked everywhere along the edges of the streets (nobody locks them). The canals looked cold and grey and one of the boats in them had sunk beyond redemption, but the inner city streets enticed us, decorated with many Christmas lights, and most of them pedestrian zones.

Our first and most important mission was to buy Chris something warmer to wear than the thin pullover he'd found inadequate for the past few days, so we spent a while in a department store, the Magasin du Nord, and found him a wine red padded jacket without sleeves to go under his outer jacket, a sort of padded quilt for the torso, which made all the difference. A girl speaking perfect English served us. He cheered up after that and went and stood beside the Father Christmas  made entirely out of Lego pieces in the Lego shop. They were about the same size.

We had lunch at the Café Katz, then followed the nearest canal down to the main waterway, passing a palace (Christiansborg, home of the Danish parliament), some colourful houses and a light ship. The next bridge led to the wide Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard down which we walked to reach the Glyptoteket by the Tivoli Gardens, site of a fun fair. We decided to visit the Glyptoteket; it was warm in there, with an indoor tropical garden and many sculptures from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The visit merits a blogpost to itself, which I'll publish later. To our surprise, entry to the museum was free on Sundays, a stroke of luck. From there we walked back to the other side of the city centre where we found another wonderful place, the Runde Tårn. We paid to enter this, but it was well worthwhile, a unique building with an inner ramp in place of the expected spiral stairs. This way to the top of the tower turns on itself seven times and offers a magnificent view of the city from the top as well as exhibition rooms on the way up or down. One of the rooms held a fascinating display of wickerwork art.

The night was falling and the streets looked magical, both from above, across the roofs, and at ground level.

Journey to Denmark

We're in Copenhagen and I've just woken up to a snowy view out of the hotel window. According to this computer the time is 02.32, but that's in Canada.

After breakfast yesterday we took the Number 6 tram ("unser Tram" said the man at the Bremen hotel) to Bremen's Hauptbahnhof carrying our luggage, and it took us several stops before we'd worked out how to buy 2.40 euro tickets for the ride, the machines at the back of the vehicle only accepting Bremen transport cards. Schwarzfahren, we thought, we'll be in trouble if we get caught, but then managed to reach the machine at the front to feed it a note.

At the Bremen Hauptbahnhof we had a long wait for our train, and a second breakfast, followed by a visit to a magazine shop, after which we noticed an announcement on the display for Platform 9 telling us that our train to Hamburg was going to be 40 minutes late. This was bad, because, even if it had been on time, we'd have only 12 minutes to catch the connecting train to Copenhagen. Frantic debate. We decided to take the risk of jumping onto the slow, double decker commuter train, that was due to arrive at 13:25, allowing us a 3 minute connection time at Hamburg. It was a peaceful ride, stopping at all the little country stations on the way! Towards the end of the journey we got to know a bi-lingual family who lived in one of the Hamburg suburbs, British, but bringing up their two children to speak German. The mother worked for Hapag-Lloyd.

We knew we had to be on Platform 5 for the Copenhagen train so when we arrived we rushed up the stairs with the suitcases, the escalator being too slow and crowded and along the bridge, pushing past the more leisurely travellers. Rushed down the stairs for Platform 5 but found the train to Copenhagen on platform 6. Leapt on by the first available door. The electronic display inside the carriage said that this train was going to Berlin. We asked the other passengers. No, Copenhagen, they assured us, but they were a bit anxious too. In the end the train set off 15 minutes late, luckily for us, and the driver announced over the loudspeakers that we really were going to Copenhagen, to cheers and applause from everyone in our carriage.

A Ferry Going the Other Way
The countryside was flat, with occasional deer, cows, sheep in the fields, beech woods, canals. Near Lübeck a few hills materialised and the fields had a covering of snow. I saw the twin spires of the Lübeck churches; I have been there before. Then, our first glimpse of the Baltic coast. If it hadn't been so grey, under such low cloud, I'd have seen more. Every few kilometres we passed a wind farm, the blades gently turning.

View from the front of the train
The "Sun" Deck
Eventually we pulled in to Puttgarden harbour and to my amazement (Chris seems to have expected it) the train rolled onto a ferry. It can't have been a very long train; we were sitting at the very front of the front carriage, so couldn't tell. We had just missed one boat so had a 20 minute wait for the next; they are very frequent. Nobody was allowed to stay aboard the train; it remained on its rails in the hold, with the doors locked, while the passengers mounted the five flights of steps to the upper decks. It was a nice ferry with a Sonnendeck outside, although the sun was nowhere to be seen and was setting in any case. The daylight is of short duration here. The sea was grey and smooth; we crossed it for 45 minutes. All the other passengers seemed to be Danish and used to this journey, northern, seafaring types. We passed other ships in the mist, with their lights on, and saw the lighthouses ahead.

We landed at Rødby, then rolled onwards to Nykøbing, Vordingborg, Naestved, etc. over more wide canals with industrial scenery in the dark and commuter trains going by.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Spending a day in Bremen

On the last day of November we made the acquaintance of Bremen, one of the Hanseatic League ports of the middle ages. Lübeck was another such place, as was Bremen's Partnerstadt of Riga (Latvia), so I learned in the cathedral where they were collecting donations for a new organ in their sister church there.

Chris set off straight after our hotel breakfast for a three hour meeting with a Bremen company I'm not allowed to name, accompanied by Karsten, QNX's sales manager for North Germany and Malte the FAE for the area. Karsten too was suffering from a cold, so Chris and he manfully croaked at their potential customers together, hoping they'd be able to make a quick getaway afterwards. Not before lunch in the staff canteen where on Fridays it's always Currywurst.

Meanwhile I had a leisurely stroll down to the River Weser in the morning sunshine to see the tethered boats, several restored old ones among them, such as the Admiral Nelson, Pannekoekschip (that's Dutch for pancake ship ... we're close to the Dutch border here). A harbour boat tour wasn't on offer, regrettably. On the upper promenade by the river (the Schlachte), stall owners were getting their stalls (Buden) ready for the Schlachte-Zauber: a famous annual winter market with a maritim flavour, that had just opened the previous evening. Hundreds of thousands of shoppers are expected here and the merchants will make the most of it, dressed up in olde worlde garb, pirate costumes a favourite, especially if you have long hair and a beard to start with, selling not only Christmas decorations and cookies, but also felt hats, woolly socks, candles, ropes, salted herrings, poffertjes (another Dutch concept), wooden swords and scimitars, nose flutes, tubular bells and bronze bells. I bought a little bell for bringing my Konversationsgruppe in Ottawa to order, next time we meet. There were improvised outdoor bars with wood chips underfoot to soak up the spills and small wooden fires in braziers, to encourage long term standing in one spot. There was a rope ladder to climb for a dare, bound to throw you off onto a padded mat at the third rung, though if you made it to the top you were promised a 20 Thaler reward. After sunset, I brought Chris back here; the fiery torches were lit then, crowds were gathering and we heard a choir of elderly gents in captain's caps and navy jackets singing old time songs in Plattdeutsch to the accompaniment of harmonicas, their listeners swaying to the music, some singing along. When we returned this way after a warm up in an indoor restaurant, four lively throat singers from Uzbekistan (I guess), accompanying themselves on erhus and drums, had taken the stage in place of the ancient mariners.

My lunch had been a beautifully grilled fish with lemon juice, sauce, rice and steamed vegetables in a cosy corner house on the market square, a Unesco heritage area also full of Christmas stalls at present. I'd got there up the narrow Böttcherstrasse, which I'd remembered from a BBC German lesson I used to make use of when teaching the language, and where I bought a children's book about the Musicians of Bremen, the Stadtmusikanten of Grimms' fairy tale fame. Their likenesses are absolutely everywhere in Bremen, the bronze sculpture of them the best. I ate early, because I wanted to visit the St. Petri Dom for the free lunchtime organ recital there, J.S. Bach's Fantasien in C-mol and C-dur and his Choral-Vorspiele (Preludes) played on the Hochchororgel.

By the time that was over, Chris was free to come and meet me by the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Brücke, and then we explored the Schnoorviertel together, i.e. the oldest part of town, the streets there very narrow, winding and picturesque. The Schoor-Konditorei, in an old vault apparently, served me a delicious slice of Stachelbeertorte.

We carried on by walking through the parks am Wall, by the curved city moat, and so back via a couple of bookshops to the coloured lights and noisy merriment by the river. The Schlachte-Zauber smelled of woodsmoke and Glühwein.

Friday, November 30, 2012


Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, yesterday afternoon
We're crossing northern Europe from one place to another, again.

On November 23rd we flew overnight to London, with hardly any queuing at the airports and an extraordinary view of flooded England on the descent to Heathrow. What are those wide rivers I don't recognise? I asked myself. They weren't rivers, they were watermeadows, doing their job, as Martin pointed out when we met him in Reading later.

It was still raining when we got off the X26 bus at Teddington with our luggage (lucky enough to be able to leave it in our Park Hotel room at 10 o'clock in the morning) and raining more heavily when we walked across Bushy Park to Emma's and Peter's house with the boys, via a fish 'n' chip shop. Why did they put that 'n' in the sign, Alexander's granddad asked? Because there wouldn't have been enough space between fish and and and and and chips. Alexander thought that was a very funny sentence.

On the Sunday (Nov. 25th) we all caught the Number 33 bus to the London Wetland Centre, although that was less of a wet day, quite fine, fortunately. It's a good place for families. We found all manner of ducks and geese there, and a black necked swan. When the birds dived underwater Thomas said "Duck gone ... 'peared ..." (short for disappeared. He is just beginning to talk.) There were bird watching hides with adult watchers who had taken a vow of silence within. Thomas threw pebbles into the puddles for the sake of the splash, and Alexander used his binoculars. We found a great playground with tunnels and a rope slide. Back at the house, Alexander demonstrated his reading skills to me, and Thomas admired the moon, as well as a street lamp that he also referred to as the moon. ("Bye-bye, moon!" he said, as we went in again.)

By Monday I was developing Thomas' cold. Chris went down with it the following day, and my mother, sad to say, the day after that, because we were visiting her in Cardiff. I have far less to report about Cardiff than I'd have liked, because we were so indisposed. It can't be helped. We enjoyed one another's company and an Indian supper in Whitchurch, and would have very, very much enjoyed a trip to the empty beach with Faith and Mel on the Wednesday morning, had we felt up to it. As it was, we had to muster our inner resources for the drive back to Reading, where we had to stay that evening, at the Ibis hotel on Friar street, stuck in heavy traffic in the Reading rush hour on the way. The Budget car rental staff are to be commended for waiting for us to arrive late at the end of a stressful day for them, and for treating us courteously when we finally brought their car back.

We slept on the 13th floor of the Ibis, which is the best floor according to a regular customer I met in the lift. It certainly offered a good view from the windows, looking down on the curly high street gables, without which that city would be far less attractive. Next morning we made a leisurely start on the RailAir bus to Heathrow's Terminal 5, whence we flew to Hamburg with British Airways, taking off in sunshine, landing in grey cloud. Neither of us felt poorly any more; it was easy enough to roll our luggage to the S-Bahn station: "This train [S1] proceeds in the direction of Hamburg Central Station," the loudspeakers helpfully announced in English. Hamburg Hauptbahnhof was rapidly filling up with rush hour commuters and long distance travellers as we waited for our connection to Bremen, and when the train came, it was so packed that we couldn't find a seat. Chris stood up all the way to Bremen and I sat on the floor between people's feet, reading the "Spiegel" and eating leftover Heathrow sandwiches. At Bremen Hbf. we had some difficulty hiring a taxi and when we did manage it, the driver was somewhat rude and curt, but no problem, we came directly to the Mercure Hanseatic Hotel in the Alte Neustadt and neue Neustadt along the Friedrich-Ebert-Strasse, across the river. Another Ibis-like hotel with perfectly adequate accommodations but no bath for Chris to soak in. Nonetheless we slept like logs, apart from the strange dreams we both had.

Today Chris worked hard until lunchtime, then spent the afternoon with me in old Bremen, but that will be the subject of a separate blogpost.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Under the ruins and over the dunes

Flashback to Wednesday, 29th August

Carreg Cennan Castle in Carmarthenshire, at the western end of the Brecon Beacons, is an extraordinary place. Faith and Mel took Mum and me to visit it while I was staying in Wales. It's just beyond a pretty little village called Trapp, where Mary, Mum's friend and neighbour (who died this year) was born.

Built in the 12th century and already a ruin by the mid 15th century, after the Yorkists had attacked it during the Wars of the Roses, the castle had been of interest both to Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr and had changed hands many times during that turbulent period.

It was a stiff climb up to the castle from the farmhouse at the foot of the hill. The farm breeds sheep and longhorn cattle and uses the meat from them in the meals you can buy in the "tea room," a former barn. We saw the animals on the hillside as we walked up, Mum clinging on to Faith's arm and managing well.

The castle ruins were impressive enough; it must have been a stately home in its day. But in the bedrock below the castle was something astonishing:
In the south-east corner of the inner ward steps lead to a vaulted passage and a natural cave beneath the castle, which leads deep into the hillside. A fresh water spring rises in the cave, which would have been a useful supplement during dry weather (Wikipedia)
While Mum stayed in the courtyard on the surface, Mel persuaded me to go down those steep steps. I slipped and sat down once, in spite of the railing; no harm done. We had to watch our heads too, wearing head torches because the passage led beyond the light of day. The spring, surrounded by stalagmites, was rather beautiful down there, and the water very clean and cold. I had a taste of it, of course.

Another thing I had a taste of was the pie served at the "tea room" where we were kept amused by a party of elderly gentleman-cyclists at the next table, dressed in brightly coloured modern biking gear and boasting about their knowledge of computer apps. All this time, the weather was clearing up.

Looking down from the castle hill to the farm and beyond
In the afternoon, Mel drove us to the Gower peninsula

Whiteford Burrows is a dune and pine plantation, just North of Llanmadoc. Owned by the National Trust, it is classified as [a] National Nature Reserve [...], a haven for ornithologists and botanists alike.

We went for a walk recommended by the National Trust, that led to a tidal saltmarsh on the shore of the Loughor Estuary where ...
the vegetation is grazed by graziers with commons rights. Some of the lamb reared here is sold as 'salt marsh lamb'. The unique taste of this highly flavoured meat is thanks to the area's marsh vegetation.
Wild horses were grazing there too. It was soggy underfoot on the path to the shore; before we struck across the dunes I enjoyed wading barefoot into the water with the seabirds. The wind was blowing the sea spray on the horizon and the views across the estuary were crystal clear. Then we found the track through the pine grove back to the village where we'd left the car.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What is wealth?

From an article on the BBC website:
"I'm called 'the poorest president', but I don't feel poor. Poor people are those who only work to try to keep an expensive lifestyle, and always want more and more," he says."This is a matter of freedom. If you don't have many possessions then you don't need to work all your life like a slave to sustain them, and therefore you have more time for yourself," he says."I may appear to be an eccentric old man... But this is a free choice."
That was the President of Uruguay, "who lives on a ramshackle farm and gives away most of his pay."

I took an international group of visitors to the Bank of Canada's Currency Museum this morning, and we had guided, hour-long tours. The tour guide for my group paused at the exhibition of early Canadian currency to explain that the native people of Canada didn't consider the accumulation of wealth (i.e. capitalism) a very good idea. What was better, in their view, was to give their possessions away to the representatives of neighbouring tribes, typically at potlatch ceremonies. In that way they may have lacked a few necessities for a while, but they became immensely rich in friends.

Interesting concept?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Two chairs on a stage

At the weekend Chris and I went to the Arts Court for a one-off show. Publicised by the German Embassy and the Goethe Institute, it was entitled Voltaire and Frederick, a life in letters and was a dramatised reading of an exchange of letters by Voltaire and Frederick II (aka "the Great") of Prussia. Frederick knew J.S. Bach as well, and C.P.E. Bach was a musician at his court, but they didn't come into the story. Many of the letters were sent from the palace at Potsdam (Sanssousi), which we visited once.

The two men corresponded for almost 50 years, in sickness and in health, sometimes quarrelling bitterly, till death did them part. We didn't get to hear every single word of their letters, just a selection. The letters were originally written in French and in modern English the translation was bound to include anachronisms, but it made their ideas and emotions immediately recognisable. They sounded equally intelligent. Voltaire in particular had a great sense of humour.

The only props consisted of two spotlit, modern office chairs centre stage which the actors came and sat on. They wore modern clothes and read the letters from ring binders. In fact I think it would have worked better as a radio play, although admittedly the actors' faces were interesting to watch as they read out the angry or the excited letters. Both men led troubled lives, but clung to their correspondence as a sort of consolation, it seems. The performance ended with "Frederick" reading out his eulogy to the philosopher who had died at the age of 83.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

At the Asian supermarket

In 1993, a rather homesick Taiwanese lady in Vancouver called Cindy Lee started a business in that city, opening a grocery store called T&T. There are 22 T&T supermarkets in Canada now, most of them in Vancouver and Toronto. Today, with some other people from the Canada-China Friendship Society, I joined a guided tour of the much talked about the new Ottawa T&T on Hunt Club Road. We had some very enthusiastic young people as guides, employees of the store, who allowed us to sample quite a few items of edible produce, baozi stuffed with tasty roast pork, for example, xiao mai, and tender slices of Nanjing salty duck, but fortunately we weren't encouraged to nibble at the barbecued cuttlefish or the chickens' feet.

Jimmy, the manager, met us at the front door and showed us a map of China, explaining that the Chinese visualise their country as being north and south or between the great rivers, the Yellow River and the Yangtze. North is the wheat country (noodles and baked baozi) and in the south it's rice (and steamed dumplings). Then we went straight to the "Kitchen" or dim sum corner for some sampling. Dim sum are southern snacks, typically eaten "with chicken tea" for breakfast by groups of old people after they've done their morning exercises. We witnessed these physical exertions in Hangzhou!

The groceries at the T&T supermarket are impressive in their variety. At the barbecue counter is a display of roast chicken and whole roast ducks, hanging from hooks in their necks, the heads still on, of course and coloured red by virtue of the sugar used in their coating. A pig's carcass hung there too, with the roast pig's head on a tray underneath, and the cuttlefish with its dangling tentacles. If you don't fancy slicing up these meats yourself you can choose from 23 ready meals neatly packaged ("BBQ Meal Combo"), or from a selection of ready-to-fry meals with labels to tell you what they are: "spicy pork stomach" or "salty mustard greens" (very popular).

To the bakery corner, next, where we met bakery manager Raymond who let us try a piece of pork filled bun and then announced, "I have some dessert for you ladies!" handing out pieces of egg custard tart with  miniature cups of a mauve coloured drink called "taro tapioca"––the taro had a sweet flavour, rather like sweet potato, but I'm afraid the tapioca reminds me of frog spawn. They had a purple-frosted taro cake there too and some cakes for children's birthday parties that looked like cats' or pandas' faces.

In the main part of the supermarket we were told that the sauce aisle is the "most busier aisle;" it had a large variety of soy sauces and marinating sauces, among which was an enormous jar of pat chum "for pork's feet"––good for new mothers, apparently. We paused at the noodle section too. I hadn't realised that some noodles are made from calcium rich, low calorie tofu. When buying the ready-shaped dumpling dough, don't forget that "round is for dumpling, square is for wonton."

I think that the fishmonger, wearing a yellow apron, was the most enthusiastic of the T&T department managers; he told us he had the biggest seafood sales in Ottawa. Lolan commented that fish is a must for the Chinese New Year because the character for fish, yú, (鱼) also means "abundance." Many live creatures were swimming, wriggling or otherwise still alive in the fish tanks. At the opening of the store, they had 10,000 lobsters available. Yesterday a few of us were struck by a large, live clam that according to one of our group "looked vaguely obscene": the geoduck. "Vaguely" may be an understatement.

Asian shoppers prefer their meat and fish as fresh as possible, and I suppose that is why the meat still looks like what it really is in their displays (such as the large tongue of beef and the tripe). We heard the word "nutritious" used a great deal. The free range, black chickens, for instance, were more nutritious than the conventional sort: the butcher waxed quite lyrical when describing them. He also told us about the communal meal that consists of dropping thin uncooked slices of beef into a consommé soup for a short moment before picking them out again to eat (i.e. the Chinese fondue or "hot pot" custom). "Every people like this one!" he exclaimed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An old-fashioned day at the seaside

Monday, September 1st

The forecast promising fine weather, it was time for a day on the beach. We chose Barry Island because of its short walking distance from the railway station to the sands, and met my sister on the train at Cardiff. It was a 25 minute ride, quite long enough for an excited toddler like Thomas, who wants to climb the chair backs and explore the aisles all the time. As soon as we were off the train though, he fell asleep in the sunshine.

Barry Island is a very traditional British seaside resort on the Welsh side of the Severn estuary, complete with merry-go-rounds, bucket and spade shops and a first class fish and chip shop; tea can be bought there, although Mel's Aunty Kathy used to bring her own teapot with cups and saucers for the brew, when his family used to come here on Bank Holidays, down from the Rhymney Valley in the 1960s. There's plenty of sand for crowds of families, especially when the tide is out, rocks to sit on at the end of the beach, rockpools with hermit crabs and a ramp up to the "showers"––cold water water taps in the wall––for the times when you're covered in sticky sand. The damp sand does stick to your skin, but is of a perfect consistency for sandcastle building and the digging of holes. Emma, thoroughly enjoying her little break from work, built an Olympic Stadium and the boys played with their spades, buckets and a ball. We went in the water too, no waves, but it moved about alarmingly, as far as Thomas was concerned. My mother tripped over a rock she hadn't spotted and gashed her leg. No permanent harm done, but she had to have 1st aid. I built a small inuksuk; my sister wandered around in the rockpools.

From the grassy headland:
Whitmore Bay, with Steepholme Island in the distance
(Chris was in Fremont, California at the time, at meetings with designers of robots that do knee surgery, advising them on the safety critical aspects of their software.)

For lunch wie had fish 'n' chips with the apostrophes in the right place. Barry Island is an alcohol free zone, a good idea! At the end of the day we took a short walk on the grassy headland––lovely to have one's bare feet on the turf––and Alexander, looking west, shouted, "Oh look, there's another beach!" without a human soul on its wide sands. Wonderful. We came back past the bouncy slide (5 minutes allowed) and he played on that though almost too tired from the hours of running about. Thomas, drifting off to sleep then waking up again, was overawed by the great quantity of rubber ducks in the hook-a-duck game.

And so back to Cardiff.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Extreme sailing in the Bay

Sunday, September 2nd

That was the day that ten members of our family met at the Millenium Centre in Cardiff Bay (not to be confused with the Millenium Stadium in the city centre, the place I described in my previous post). International catamaran races were taking place on the water, the event advertised as Extreme Sailing. Music and the "cat" race commentary was being broadcast through loud speakers and the surroundings were crowded with people enjoying their day out. A merry-go-round (out of doors) and a very noisy break-dancing demo (indoors) were to hand. In the pedestrian area outside the Millenium Centre a once-a-year gourmet European food market was in business, selling paella, crêpes, Bratwürste, etc. I queued to buy a cheesy baguette slice from a couple from Montpelier, talking to them in French.

Alexander, who had brought his rugby ball along in case of an opportunity to play with it, was dressed in the Welsh colours that day. He went missing temporarily but had simply wandered off with Justin, my niece Rhiannon and their baby, Phoenix.

We wandered back towards town through the wide spaces of the Atlantic Wharf, a nicely landscaped development including a playground that kept the boys satisfied for a long time. Alexander scaled a climbing wall and his little brother Thomas wanted to copy him, saying, "Up! Up!"

In Cardiff's Millenium Stadium

This post should have been posted closer to Saturday, September 1, 2012. 

While I was staying with my mother, my daughter and her family came to Cardiff to see us there. On the afternoon of their arrival, Emma, Peter, the children and I (minus Great-Grandma) took a guided tour of the Millenium Stadium on Westgate Street, stomping ground of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) and the venue for football matches, car races, pop concerts and the like. The surface of the ground inside the stadium is modified accordingly, pallets of turf being brought in, for example, for the ball games. It takes three weeks for the grass to settle in and grow over the cracks between the pallets. Amazing. I'd had no idea.

The stadium can hold a crowd of over 70,000, with boxes at exorbitant prices for VIPs or rich people. We stepped into one overlooking the stadium where a table was laid for a formal dinner. One of our tour group found himself sitting in the Queen's seat in the stands, that had wider armrests than the others.

The tour had begun behind the souvenir shop (filled with items coloured red, mostly dragons); we were then shepherded into a small theatre to watch a 10 minute BBC documentary about the history and merits of the stadium, which confirmed our suspicions that rugby is not so much a sport as a religion in these parts. A recorded pep talk was broadcast in the home team's changing rooms as well, so that we could get a sense of the awe and drama of big match days. The coach's speech had the ring of Shakespeare's Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more ... and if not proclaimed by an actor, by someone who should have been––Remember, boys, that although we come in here as individuals, we go out as a team!––and we were led along the corridors, via the press conference room, to do just that, to a recording of deafening cheers from the crowd, my grandson Alexander pretending all the way that he was wearing one of those numbered, red shirts. New team members inherit the shirts of their predecessors, apparently. After playing in an international match, they are awarded souvenir caps. We got to see the cup itself, too, the Holy Grail of Welsh rugby.