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.

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.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


His name was actually Constantin Brâncuși, but the Romanian lady whom I heard talking about this artist, spoke about him in French, and I took a few notes as she did so (this was about 5 weeks ago). We were in the lounge of an Ottawa seniors' residence, since several of the people listening with me were very elderly (but alert, articulate and very interested in what she had to say).


Brancuse, né 1876 au sud de la Romanie près d'un monastère (mort 1957 à Paris). Il quitte sa famille à 11 ans, un fils jamais reconnu de son père, et en 1902 il entre l'Ecole Nationale de Beaux Arts à Paris. Invité par Rodin comme son assistant, il était trop à son ombre. Brancuse évite le cubisme, le dadaisme, etc. Un de ses premiers oeuvres était scandaleux, considéré comme pornagraphique et retiré d'une exposition de 1919: Princesse X. Il crée une sculpture Le baiser qu'on trouve dans la cimetière à Montparnasse. Autres examples de son art: La colonne sans fin (d'acier) dans un parc de sculpture en Romanie, La table du silence et La porte du baiser (1938). Le nouveau-né a la forme d'un oeuf.

"Sleeping Muse" by Brancusi
1927 il est arrêté aux Etats-Unis à propos d'une pièce non-identifiée comme un objet d'art à la douane. Il doit payer $4000 pour importer ses sculptures, L'oiseau dans l'espace, par exemple. 

(Quels sont les critères pour juger si quelque chose est un objet d'art ou non? Qui doit juger? Quelles sont les limites de l'art?)

En 1928 une école dite d'art moderne s'est développée autour de lui. C'est l'abstraction sculpturale, minimaliste, un peu surréaliste. Son atelier est a Montparnasse, plein de bustes en bois, en marbre, en bronze ... 

Toujours il utilise des femmes pour atteindre ses idéaux. Quelques-unes "ont la curiosité fatale de vouloir faire sa connaissance"! Liste des muses de Brancuse:
  • la petite fille de François Napoléon, Marie Bonaparte, qui pose pour la scandaleuse Princesse X
  • Eileen Lane (américaine catholique)
  • Léonie Ricou, parisienne (sujet de Madame LR, vendue par Christie's pour €20 million)
  • Agnès Mayer, la femme du directeur du New York Times ...
  • ... et sa fille!

I noticed a piece by Brancusi myself, earlier this year, when I visited the SFMOMA (the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco). La négresse blonde, it was called. I thought it looked rather like a fish.