Blog 7

Sep 04

In September 2004 Blog Seven was a weblog about travel

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In September 2004 Blog Seven was a weblog about travel.

Final scene from my First Actual Real Proper Holiday Abroad for 20 Years:

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= days six/seven just as Travel Writing draws to a close

Drive out through the Saltash side of Marseille(s) towards Arles, stopping off for final swim in rocky basin. Back in N’mes we find the hotel Terminus, staffed by a tiny quavery little old lady frightened of everything involved in running a hotel. The blinds on my window are broken – which makes it somewhat tomb-like – but i am scared of scaring her even more. We finally find ourselves in the mysterious magical impossible-to-reach square (see previous entry), and order tapas. This takes an age to arrive, so we sit and chat and watch the subtle ripples of a passionate restaurant domestic off-stage. When we eventually ask why our food is taking so long, the waiter promises it is on its way : ‘but – and I don’t know how this happened – it all fell on the floor!” No! It was THROWN on the floor in a moment of chefly passion!

Next morning with a plane to catch we find Vick’s car is hemmed in. Luckily the quavery old woman is off duty, and there’s a very on-the-case young girl instead, who hunts about a bit for the owner before returning, with the immortal words: “I stole some keys, let’s steal a car!!” Which we do! (But we leave it where ours was parked = unlike her we are new to this). And then at last I discover what it really means to cut it fine when driving to the airport…

Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan

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Ladies of the Grand Tour by Brian Dolan

Or “Broadening Broads Abroad” as it should have been called, ha ha ha ha. This is of course about a time when travel actually still had the capacity to broaden the mind. I must admit I’ve only read the first 3 chapters properly, but I didn’t have the time to do a proper review before this Blog moves on, so what you gonna do? A nice read on holiday, when the only thing that’s broadening my mind is the possibility that engineers within the same economic zone as my own residence haven’t worked out sanitary plumbing that allows you to flush toilet paper down the toilet. YOU HAVE TO DO WHAT? Carefully dispose of it in a bin? So i’m to keep a bin-load of shitty paper in the apartment. Fine.

Sorry, got distracted there. It’s a simple, academic-ish read, and it certainly educated me about the earlier movers in the fight for female equality and emancipation. Mary Wollstonecraft and the like. Aw, bless! It is sobering to be reminded of the suffocation of women’s intellectual rights, of a time when it was seen as macho to travel, to be a connoisseur of world culture. Ironic considering that in my experience, it’s now the women who actually organise the holiday, worry about the packing, and the money exchange, and stamp their pretty little feet in frustration when the men (or is it just me) say “Don’t worry, I can pack in 30 minutes. And I’ll just add my toothbrush to your toilet bag – that’ll do me”

So yes, the past is a different country, but the point is you don’t need a bleeding time machine to broaden your mind about the past do you? I look forward to the time when the internet makes traveling-to-tour redundant. Then maybe we won’t use up so much fuel travelling everywhere by aeroplane, and the ice caps won’t melt and drown it all anyway.

Scenes from my First Actual Real Proper Holiday Abroad for 20 Years: day five

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Day spent swimming off (and reading on) a rock ledge under Les Calanques, then driving back to Marseille(s) where the Peron Hotel now has a room free! mark s wanders city alone looking for fruit and meets the most thuggish-looking cat in europe, which hides behind a thistle when he tries to photograph it. The Peron seems to be home to mysterious unidentified Graham Greene activities and types (inc.several little old ladies, a man in a panama hat and a giant photo of the late M.Peron on the dining room wall), plus also a dusty stuffed duck tied to the landing wall. When we try and phone home, we have the correct code for phoning UK from France, but not the correct code for phoning 2004 from the 1930s. Over breakfast next Day, the management first plays ‘World Football Chants Done Disco-Fashion’, then ? to our infinite glee – the Authentic Sioux-Celtic Red New Age Stylings of our war-painted buddies from Le Ciotat. But only one day to go :(

Sep 04

Scenes from my First Actual Real Proper Holiday Abroad for 20 Years: day four

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Everything on Friday begins with C!!!

Les Calanques: are the mini-mountain ribs on either side of Marseille(s), where no one is allowed walk in August for fear of becoming lovely unrescued barbecue flavoured w.wild rosemary when they catch fire.
Cigales (aka cicadas): They are everywhere, chirring. Dr Vick tried to record them for her Animal Accents Project (= compare and contrast w.the cigales in the Paris Metro eg) but everything else ( made too much noise mostly.
Cassis can fuck off kinda. It is one east of Marseille(s) and v.wealthy and posh, and we were shouted at by a horrible millionaire in a merc w.a face like a hateful grey prune after we convinced ourselves that the one-way sign on his private road refers to some other (invisible) road, and not his.
Le Ciotat pt.1 is two east from Marseille(s), and an ordainry French seaside town with buckets and spades on sale, and (in August) heaving beaches. The teenage beachbums keep their motorcycle helmets on for maximum cool. We found a hotel called ‘Rose The’ – bizarre semantix 4 English-speakers – where the lady has an English boyf so wz plzd to find out abt the Normans (tho i forget exactly why they came up as we booked our room).
Coffee: she cheerfully denounced English coffee as ‘sockjuice’, which wz a bit cheeky considering (as noted), I didn’t have one drinkable cup in all the time I wz that side of the channel.
Citric Acid: In which Dr Vick finishes her Plate O’Shrimp, and tips the lemon juice left over her head to keep her hair nice and bleached and spiky.
Carrefours: is a giant French hypermarket of no great interest except i had left my plug Converter at Les Tuileries.
Le Ciotat pt.2 It’s the 60th anniversary of the American Liberation of Mediterranean France, and there’s a PARADE – mainly of ageing frenchfoax dressed as GIs or resistance guerillas – and also a fair!!
Chinese meal: We look for a fish restaurant Vick remembered from long ago (in a Cave = French for Cellar), but it?s full, so we have Vietnamese-Chinese instead, on a quiet streetcorner: enormous bowls of noodle soup which taste like the sea.
Counter-MonoculturalismMeanwhile a Japanese death-metal band seems to be setting on the opposite corner. Dressed as Sioux Warriors. And they play Peruvian panpipes, to backing tapes. Doing Cinemato-Celtic covers of Abba and Simon & Garfunkel! And sell millions of CDs, as Authentic Red Indian New Age Karaoke Instrumentals are v.the thing in coastal Provence this summer, it turns out. Nearby stands an elderly blonde woman: either their over-anxious manager-agent or their scariest stalker-fan. In the fair they have a stall, where a Native American-looking woman also sells teatowels featuring Che, Elvis, Geronimo, Bob Marley, the Zapatistas, cowboys AND indians (sometimes all at once). They are wearing war-paint (= why we can’t tell what continent they-re from); the show has surely been a coded call for an Uprising against the (Global) Man – only we leave before this starts.

Sep 04


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We all have romantic notions of travel. Often it’s best to keep them this way. Reality can pinprick those dreams. Mine was a Greyhound tour of the States. For years I’d thought about it; the interesting characters I’d meet along the way, a smeary window on America.

Last year, I had to change planes in Atlanta, so I stopped for a week and joined the Greyhound squad. It was hugely lacking in romance. In a country ruled by the car, those who travel by Greyhound do it through necessity. It’s obvious, but my romantic notions didn’t factor in economic reality. The buses are often dirty and late and the terminals are in the scummy part of town, full of tired and irritable folk. I saw a fair amount of aimless aggression.

The redeeming feature of Greyhound travel is Pac-Man. Every terminal has one. I scored 50,000 in Athens, beat it in Augusta and by the time I got to Macon I had a crowd of impressed onlookers. I also had repetitive strain injury.
As for the characters, well it wasn’t what I expected. There’s a kind of social bubble on the journey which you wouldn’t get on our more prissy isle. Much Chatter across aisles and lots of head swiveling as the conversations gain impetus and expand in numbers.

Two people spring to mind. A 19 year old Army kid struck up a conversation. He was proud of his country and wanted to tell me about it. He asked me what currency we used in England. I showed him a five pound note and he recognized the Queen. “Cool.” He was like a blank canvas.

The other memory is Eric. Now, Eric seemed an intelligent man. Our taste in books was similar even if our taste in music was polls apart. What can you say when someone says they like Carcass? We swapped e-mail addresses. I wish I hadn’t. I read the first three thousand word e-mail he wrote about his whole life. But not the second one a day later. Nor the one that started I HATE THE WORLD.

I stopped in Athens, Georgia for a while. I was heading for Savannah, but you can’t get there from here. It was in Athens that I hit the magic ton on Pac-Man and realised I was enjoying the stopovers more than the journeys.

Sep 04

Scenes from my First Actual Real Proper Holiday Abroad for 20 Years: day three

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Marseille(s) is the most exciting city I’ve ever spent time in – to drive into, to walk around in, to gaze across. Why: “Bcz it’s full of pirates like a GIANT BIG OLD PLYMOUTH!” sez Dr Vick (who as u know grew up in the small one). ie old (has half a millennium on london); crammed into a natural bowl in the hills round two natural harbours, the ancient one now mainly a tourist centre, the newer one to the west a vast merchant and naval complex

And dotted all across this bowl are thrilling little crags, every single one with buildings new and old crammed onto the pinnacle, and every other available nook cranny crevice ledge and etc (also dug down invisibly under all this are CATACOMBS!! this = where the resistance lived during WW2) (of which more anon)

So our first stop wz a funny old hotel on the harbour sea-front where Vick had always wanted to stay – she has known Marseille(s) for years, since she came to live here to finish her dr8 – but it wz full (plus also while she wz checking it out i wz scolded by scary french little old ladies annoyed by the patented dr vick car-parking style). So on a hunch we drove across town to check if there wz room at LE CORBUSIER’S legendary ur-modernist RADIANT CITY viz l’Unit’ d’Habitation:

AND THERE WAS!!! (someone had cancelled at the last minute): ok but to keep things swift i will leave further discussion of this place to BROWN WEDGE next week maybe

bcz i need to say something abt the one place we visited that day: Notre Dame de la Garde, built 150 yrs ago on a sharp little hill so you can see the gold statue of mary far out to sea – neo-byzantine style outside all steps and terraces and marble and gold and parti-coloured mosaic, have seemingly and likably forgotten that the Roman Empire split in two after the death of Theodosius (being older than both Roman Empires, Marseille(s) is entitled to forget such trivia); inside full of models and pictures of ships which sank and cars which crashed and trains that crashed, desolately moving little drawings or constructions of personal grief and catastrophe hung all over the walls and on dusty chains from the ceiling, as if the congregation had arisen in its passion to transform the building into their own guileless shrine to their own bitter lives

(later we had vietnamese takeaway pancakes in our corb room and somewhat stained the concrete balcony table w.grease so oops for deathless architectural heritage there)

When is a tourist attraction not a tourist attraction?

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When it has Arbeit Macht Frei written above the entrance and harbours the apparatus for millions of executions. Auschwitz has been open to the public for a good number of years. Do you need to justify a visit? I guess some tourists have a conscience-wrestling match and decide to skip it for various reasons, but judging by the coach park and the organised tours from Krakow, curiosity gets the better of most.

I saw many older people crying and also busloads of schoolkids play-fighting, bored. What can it mean to a ten year old? How do you begin to explain it? Concentration camps are a part of history, albeit history in its most awful guise. This is no First World War battleground, where your imagination has to add noise and mud and gunfire. All the fixtures are still at the camp, the barbed wire, the ‘showers’, endless railtrack.

A short film forms an introduction to the horrors. Full of crackly edits and stomping boots. It looks so cold in black and white and the striped prisoners all drained and gaunt. Leaving through an unremarkable door, you walk into the camp with its lying sign suggesting work brings freedom.

It’s the scale that hits hardest. The order and symmetry of the construction is terrifyingly vast. Whole rooms contain the remains of the everyday; shaving brushes, shoes, hair, spectacles. All stacked to the ceiling and stripped of their context. The photographs are equally harrowing; bodies stacked like butchers meat, the shaved heads and twiggy limbs. One of an uncovered mass grave was grotesque and simultaneously compelling. One corpse was lying half submerged by the hardened mud and you couldn’t work out where the body ended and the ground began.

The showers were simply squat brick buildings. The sort of structure that graces any campsite. Except, in camp, you have options. These were one-way showers, a mass guillotine. You can view the holes where Zyklon B was piped in. I remember a tourist asking the guide a very detailed scientific question about the composition of the poison. The guide became impatient, “does it really matter what it was?”

On the way out, a young boy asked a received wisdom question, “is it true that birds don’t fly over Auschwitz?” The guide had a stock response, “birds fly over the camp, but they never sing.” The rain started hammering down as I came out. I rushed to find cover. By the exit is a café, but how can you eat in Auschwitz?

Sep 04

Scenes from my First Actual Real Proper Holiday Abroad for 20 Years: day two

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(apologies for slight hiatus)

The Ripped Backsides of Nougat City (or Where Not to Go When Yr Car Can?t Wink). Dr Vick’s Golf’s clignotants aren’t working so most of the day we scour the endless lookalike trading estates on the edge of Mont’limar for an honest electrician. Everyone glumly points us elsewhere (they never in fact get mended). There is a Museum of Nougat variously indicated on signposts (“Have fun learning everything there is to know about nougat making”), but we haven?t time for fun. Nor have we time to pay radical suburban hommage to Roland Barthes visiting the French equivalent of B&Q, brilliantly named “Mr Bricolage” (yes “Mr.” not “M.”). Interlude: lunch in Alba-la-Romaine – food nice but not fabulous – and a tough wander up and down its steep little winding alleys. It’s built on a hill, and towering above some of its streets is a great mervyn peakish crag w.a ruin perched on top. All around is lavender, bees and mulberry trees.

In N’mes again that evening so that Dr Vick’s mum can catch a place, we get lost in its strange shifting streets, trying to get to a mystical square w.a palm tree which we keep glimpsing, except then it vanishes before we get to it. High up in some streets are excellent gargoyles of dogs; scooting round the square with the big Roman Forum are several late-nite robot tamagotchi kids, all kitted?n?cuted up in multi-coloured helmets, leads, trainer bikes and secret remote control pads wielded by their showy-off parents in the shadows. (The hotel wz called THE TUILERIES: marie-antionette shd sue).

Sep 04

Likoma Island, Malawi

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Likoma Island, Malawi

“Hey Mazungu!” a voice called, “I am Gift, and this is my brother, Advice.” I glanced at the younger boy who smiled shyly. Mazungu is a Swahili word meaning white man, although its literal translation is man without smell. Gift offered to help me find accommodation and be my guide. I asked the younger brother what pearls of wisdom he could impart. He pointed to the lake and said, “crocodiles.”

Over the next week, I spent a lot of time with the brothers. Gift introduced me to his friends and took me to a witch doctors ceremony. I knew our relationship wasn’t a true one but the pretence was fun. The night before I moved on, we went home to his village. I met his mother and countless relatives. Overlooking the lake, we drank thin tea from tiny china cups. The sunset put on a postcard worthy performance and I felt happy and self-important at the same time.

One of the villagers walked down to the lake to wash. Wrapped to her back a baby squealed. They walked into the water. I watched the scene with detachment, chatting to family, framing it as background. But then the woman screamed and ducked beneath the water. She re-emerged in a whirlpool of blood amid the thrashing tail of a crocodile. The villagers ran to help. She was only six feet from the shore in waist deep water. A couple of the men waded in, but mother and baby were gone. The confusion and wailing were indescribable. The woman was Gift’s cousin. I drank my tea, said a million sorrys and slipped away. I was invisible anyway.

I saw the brothers the following morning and gave Gift some money. I hugged them both and smiled weakly. Gift said, “it happens, it happens” but it doesn’t happen where I’m from and I didn’t know what to say. I subsequently told the story many times. It was always well received, but as time went on it made me uneasy and I regretted turning it into an anecdote. I’ve never experienced anything like it.