Some thoughts on Travel
The olfactory compass of my intrepid partner, Janine King, directs me to take the road much less travelled from Chianciano across the blank part of the Umbrian map towards Spello to the north of Todi. This part of our map is blank and all it says is “There Be Dragons”. We decide to go anyway. Apparently it’s an old map! We find to our delight, empty little winding roads through all the usual vineyards and olive groves up into chestnut forest past small family sized saw mills and down again with tremendous views, into a small valley. We see that there is a tiny walled village ahead, so take that turn and park in the half empty parking area by the town’s stone perimeter wall, beside the arched entrance into this little gem of a place. It is 12.30 and seems like a good time and place to stop for lunch. The little main street/square is lovely and there are two cafes. They aren’t really ready yet as the girl is still placing the cutlery on the outside tables, all 5 of them! We are encouraged to sit at one of these 5 tables, in the shade of the awning and look at the one page hand written menu; Roast local rabbit, stuffed household pigeon, truffle omelette, baked egg plant, garden vegetables etc. We sit and consider. There is a small hill in the centre of the village and lots of little winding lanes full of very old buildings that show in their layered masonary facades, that they have been here for a very long time and have had their usefulness re-assigned many times. There are people wandering about, old ladies on their bicycles peddling home with their shopping. A tiny ape (motorbike truck) pulls up and a huge man unfolds himself from it. A hunter dressed in cams walks past carrying gun and a plastic carry bag with a pheasants tail sticking out. He hands it to the chef, the menu on the board is altered. We sit and observe. We are sitting by a stone arched covered stairway that leads up the hill, to where, we don’t know, but a lot of people are using it. I decide on the roasted pidgin and My Partner decides on the egg plant parmigiano with a bottle of water on the side. No wine for me, as I’m driving. The girl is surprised, everyone round here has wine and still drives! What’s wrong with you? Are you sick? As I’m from Australia, I’m not used to driving on the opposite side of the road, so am determined to be cautious. From the kitchen, there is a flurry, a squark and a little puff of feathers, the oven door slams shut. We sit and we sit, I can see straight into the small kitchen, just enough room for two in there, but there are three of them working in the narrow space. That waitress isn’t a waitress at all, she is juggling 3 saucepans on the front burners and two large stock pots on the back burners. She ladles out something from a huge ceramic jar near the door and comes out with a large bowl of what turns out to be olives, all local and preserved onsite of course, accompanied by crisply crunchy sourdough bread with a chewy centre, fresh from the oven an hour earlier. It is all delicious. At 1.00 She places the black board out in the square to announce that they are now officially open. The place soon fills and at 1.15 our dishes arrive. This is real food, not cooked until it is ordered. Beautiful, crisp, succulent, juicy, tender, and wonderfully fragrant with a few herbs and a garlic stuffing. On the menu the desert is listed as tart of ‘marmello fruit’. We discuss this. Is it a pie of Marmalade, ie citrus, as we would understand it. Or perhaps the marmello here is the spanish or Portugese interpretation of ‘marmalade’, being cooked quince. But No. Before our meals arrived I saw a beautiful big pie come out of the oven and left to sit and cool, just inside the kitchen door. It is dark red black fruit with a lattice of pastry over the top. Of course the ever inquisitive Mmslle must try it. It turns out to be red berries, a relation of black berry or perhaps currants? We are not sure, however, it is delicious. We finish with with a short black coffee and when the bill comes it lists only our main courses. I signal the waitress that there appears to be some mistake. We have had the full four courses, but only charged the 15 euros for the main course. She waves me away. It’s all in the one price. No-one would dare charge for an entre, desert or coffee in a small village like this! I’m in heaven. I announce that I’m not traveling any further on this trip, but will stop and live here instead, but my lovely partner, ‘The Voice of Reason’, convinces me otherwise. and rightly so! The wise one still has more in store for my art education, and that next thing is Spello. All those years preparing classes in Cultural Productions and Art History have finally paid off. The main course concludes with a warm water and lemon finger bowl, so that we will not be intimidated in picking up the pidgeon and sucking every last morsel off the bones. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. This is not where it all started. We need to start at the beginning.
So here are a few thoughts about travel, from a couple of Australians, who are ‘of a certain age’ and largely inexperienced in the world of travel.
Notes from the road
The colourful adventures of a greying green with the blues and his well-red Scarlett Hussey.
Because I considered myself Australian, (my parents emigrated to Australia when I was young). I never had any inkling to return to my place of birth, because I wasn’t interested in what was happening in England, I was only 4 years old when I left. I was far too involved in building my life here in Australia. Some years ago I wrote an article about the research that I had been doing here which was published in the British ‘Ceramic Review’ magazine, as a result of this article and the images that I sent to accompany it. I got an invitation to exhibit my work in the Royal College of Art. I thought, “what the hell, I might as well go over to this show. It might even fund the trip? We could then have a look around in England and Europe as well”. If we’re going to travel half way around the world, we had better have a very good look around, as we probably won’t go again.
Once we had committed to go, I found that I was just as interested in visiting France, Italy or even Japan on the way back than just England alone. And so we did. Over the years I’ve managed to get my articles published in quite a few overseas magazines and journals, with most of the sales of my books going to North America and Europe. As it’s turned out, a few potters have contacted me through the cloud and we have developed on-line conversations, which in some cases has led to a visit being arranged and eventually work, in the form of workshops or kiln building jobs. So this is my journal of the kiln builders holiday. It’s not a book or even a complete story. It’s really just a collection of emails that I sent back to my son Geordie and a few friends, all cobbled together in some sort of linear fashion.
I hope that there is something of interest for you in here.
We arrive in Heathrow feeling like death warmed up. It’s the first long haul flight that we’ve been on together and I just can’t believe how tired I am. I can’t think. I can’t make decisions. It’s lucky in some ways that we travelled in the cheapest cattle class seats section. There was nothing that we had to decide. We were all told when to watch the video, How to put on our seat belts and oxygen masks, when to drink our ‘free’ orange juice, when to eat our warmed-up TV dinner, when to watch the video movie and then lights-out and when to sit awake in the dark and sit in the dark and sit in the dark and sit in the dark. Eventually followed by lights on and when to drink our orange juice, when to eat our cooled down TV breakfast. Which was kind of weird, because it was actually midnight local time, then we have to watch another video and finally when to fill in our arrival cards, to arrive in a strange asian country that I didn’t know anything about, and wasn’t going to be able to find out anything about, because we were only ‘in-transit’ passengers and couldn’t leave the plane while the beautiful asian ladies cleaned the plane around us and under us. Only the disembarking locals were getting off at this half way point. 12 hours and I was already mentally numb. The only decision that I was allowed to make, was when to get up and disturb everyone around me by going to the loo. This of course is only reasonable, as if I was asked to do anything else I would have made a complete incompetent botch of it. I really, really wanted to fall asleep. I just didn’t, no matter how long I sat and waited for sleep to come, it went somewhere else – and stayed there! We set off again after an hours ‘cleaning’ entertainment. I really liked those cleaners. They were so bright and cheery, so enthusiastic, energetically chatting and cleaning away around us. Probably taking the piss in their own subtle way, but quietly. We must have looked pretty pathetic. We were only half way on the flight and already staring like zombies. It’s not that I can’t cope with the lack of a few hours sleep. I do it all the time when I’m up firing my wood stoked pottery kiln. It’s a 20+ hour job, non-stop. I usually start at 4 am in the morning and finish around mid-night or 1 o’clock in the morning, and I have done firings that last 36, 48, 60 and very rarely up to 100 hours. When I was studying in Japan, we fired for 14 days straight, but that was as part of a well organized team. Everyone had their shift and it became just regular shift-work hours. This was completely different and its not just the fact that you are locked into your tight, hard, narrow little seat and not able to stretch out. The real depravation of sleep comes from the fact that we didn’t sleep much the night before we set off. Stressed, anxious, nervous and excited all at the same time. What have I forgotten to pack? Do I have all the tickets in a safe place? Did we get enough foreign currency? Stupid, but nagging circular thoughts. I didn’t sleep well at all, so I was already tired before we set off. The first leg of the flight was a dress rehearsal for the second leg of the flight. The only difference was that we were already off our faces to begin with this time around and it could only get more uncomfortable as it went on. Our clothes already crumpled, sweaty and stuck to us. Not to mention our smalls, the less said the better. More Pavlov’s Dog rituals of juice, re-heated aluminum tray dinner, choice of drinks, tea or coffee and video movie of some shallow, mindless Hollywood rubbish, that I wouldn’t go to the movies to watch, or even bother catching on re-play late at night on free to air television. The main reason for this is that, for 25 years, we didn’t own a TV. And didn’t ever watch anything like that, it just isn’t of any interest to me. But even so, I just don’t have the mental acuity to follow it and take it all in. I just don’t care. I unplug the ear phones and put on the night shades. It makes no difference. I can’t get comfortable enough to fall asleep. I toss and turn a bit for entertainment. It shows how desperate I have become. Janine ‘The Voice of Reason’ suggests taking a sleeping pill. I decline. I never have in my life before, so I’m not about to start taking drugs now! I’d like to discuss the merits of prescription drugs verses controlled breathing, mindfulness and certain Eastern meditative practices, but she is snoring too loudly to get a word in edgewise. I’ve done all the ‘right’ things. I didn’t have any alcohol with my meal. I’ve drunk plenty of water. I have been doing my foot stretches and knee bends. I have my shoes off, to let my feet swell. When I get up to go to the loo, I do a couple of circuits of the cattle class cabin like a blue healer doing it’s rounds through the night. Down the isle to the back loos across to the other side and back up to the cattle class fodder barn and back round again, half a dozen times. I’m always amazed how many others are doing the same circuit. I always feel like I’m alone, but then I come to realise just how common my thoughts, feeling and emotions are to everyone else. I drink more water, but I don’t fall asleep. I just sit there going slowly numb, then turn over onto the other buttock and try again. 24 hours in the dark, crammed into that small space is a very, very long night. I may have just snatched an hour of exhausted delirium at the end, just as the lights come back on and we are greeted cheerily by the hostess. Where the hell do they get these individuals from? 12 hours straight on their feet, all through the night, dealing with grumpy arse-holes like us, off our faces. They clean filthy, smelly toilets and hand out snacks and drinks, (not at the same time thank goodness) and they can greet us with good will and a bright good morning. Every hair in place, perfectly groomed, not a crease in sight. We respond, by starring back blankly and misunderstanding their questions. I’m not too sure what I want, if anything at all. I really don’t know. I can’t think! She tries again, “waterteaorcoffeewithorwithoutmilksomesugarandwouldyoulikealittlesnackwiththat?” I’m brain dead. I nod. “Yes please”. She remains bright and optimistic and tries again. This time in Swahili, Dutch, or Urdu, or so it seems. “waterteaorcoffeewithorwithoutmilksomesugarandwouldyoulikealittlesnackwiththat?” I’m starting to wonder to my self if I have got on the wrong plane. She smiles sweetly, and holds up the two pots. First left hand then the right. “teaorcoffeewithorwithoutmilkorsugar?” “teaorcoffee?” I’m on to it now. I’m starting to realise that I feel like I need a very strong coffee. Maybe a second, and “Yes I do want some milk with it, thank you very much!” She moves on the the next row where the fiasco is repeated. She cruses effortlessly, pushing her heavy trolly, indefatigable. She persists tirelessly, on and on, row by row. It is her shear effort of will that is holding all this zombie rabble together and probably keeping the plane up in the air as well. I’d love to see the job description advertisement for an air hostess. We finally touch down at Heathrow at 6.00 am. and are shepherded into arrivals, which is strange, because we have travelled in cattle class not live sheep export class. There is an enormous queue in front of the EU passports isles. However there is hardly anyone queueing up in front of the ‘Alien’ window. I really am feeling like an alien, whatever that feels like, I was close to having an out of body delirium experience. Although the queue in front of the alien window isn’t very long, they are being very thorough and it’s a very slow lane. The multitudes stream into the processing hall and up to the EU scanning booths and pass straight through. Meanwhile we are still patiently waiting in our slowly diminishing line. Eventually the hall is almost empty, except for a few of us. I finally get my turn, as another plane load of europeans stream past us and out again. I am eventually questioned. “Why have we come here?”, “What will we be doing?”. Where will be be going?” “What will be my address while in transit?” That’s a weird question, is it a trick question, What am I supposed to say to that? I answer politely that I don’t know where I will be staying in transit, because I’m going to be traveling around and I don’t have any forward bookings after the first week. I’ll most likely be in staying in B&Bs. Happy with that answer. He scans my pass port, stares beady eyed at me, looks back to the passport and then me again. Types into his terminal, returns my passport, duly stamped and passes it back across the counter. “Enjoy your stay”. I am allowed to pass through and meet up with Miss Teflon, AKA, Janine on the other side, who was virtually allowed straight through. We follow the other sheep into the luggage collection area. We find our carousel easily enough and my bag is already circulating around like a lost sheep. Bag in hand, it trundles along behind me like a good kelpie or Mary’s little lamb, as we follow the arrows to the customs hall. But there isn’t one! We’re faced with a voluntary option, do we have anything that we’d like to declare and be searched for and pay duty on, or do we just want to walk straight through the other door, straight ahead and onto the train platform to go to London, all ‘processed’ and ‘rubber stamped’. We choose the straight and not-so narrow double doors along with everybody else and we stream out of the terminal. As Janine is queueing to buy a train ticket at the machine in the Station, a man comes up to her and asks if she wants his one week pass. He is leaving now for overseas and won’t be needing it any more. We say our thanks and have a good look at it, it appears to be a genuine ticket that she can use, so she does.
Welcome to london! That’s a very nice start!
When we arrive in London, we’re dead tired and completely spent. We find the tube to Earls Court on the green line and emerge from the station within meters of the Hostel. We booked the place online before we left. So that we could have somewhere to stay as soon as we arrived. It was the cheapest place that I could find on the net. Well that’s not strictly true. I found an even cheaper place, but when I emailed a contact in London to ask what he thought, he replied that it wasn’t really a hostel like a backpackers hostel, but a hostel more like a homeless mens doss house. Pity, as it was only a few pounds a night. I eventually found this place for 18 pounds a night and when I got there I could understand why it was so cheap. We finally made it to the door to the Hostel at about 8.00am and it takes me all my remaining energy to carry my bags up the stairs from the street to the first floor. It takes me 4 trips one bag at a time to get both our luggage up there, where there were a few people milling about at the window into the office. I slump down on my bag, lean back against the wall and begin to dissolve. I’m so dead tired and my eyes are hurting. I was smelly and crumpled. I felt disgusting and must have smelt worse. When my turn came, I got up and peered in through the little window space. I told the gently spoken man of Pakistani extraction, who I was and that we had a room booked for 10 days. He looked puzzled and peered at his computer screen. He looked up and asked me my name again, then rechecked his bookings, a rather quizzical look overcame over his face. “No! Not 10 days? For Two? From when till when?” “From today for 10 days”. This time a rather worried look replaced the quizzical one. “When did you say?” “I told you, from now, for the next 10 days” “Here?” “Yes here”. “For two? Where did you book?”, “Did you speak to me?” I’m beginning to get worried. “No, I booked it online in Australia, through a hotel booking site.” “Oh! that booking! What name?” “Harrison, I booked it some months ago” “Oh Yes, it’s right here. Yes, 10 days! A double for two. Your room isn’t ready yet! “ “We don’t usually allow guests in until after 4.00pm. Check out isn’t till 10.00, then we have to clean the rooms. But I can see that you need to lay down, just wait here. I’ll Kick those lazy girls out of your room right now and get it cleaned for you. They should be out enjoying London, not sitting in their room” I don’t think that I dozed off sitting there but he reappeared in a fairly short time and told me that there was someone cleaning my room right now and would I like to settle up our account. They had my online deposit. And could I pay the full balance now thank you. I offered my plastic. Did I know that there was a 20% surcharge on credit card or debit card payments. (As this was probably equal to the amount of income tax that they would have to pay on a traceable transaction). I didn’t know that and the amount owing was about half of all the money that I had on me. I didn’t want to use it all before I knew what was going on and how things worked, so I decided to go down into the street and find a teller machine to test out my new credit/debit card. Back in Australia, they told me at the bank that it was simple to use a hole in the wall ‘cash point’ machine and was guaranteed to work all over Britain and Europe. I didn’t believe them. It’s not that easy. I know. I’ve been in this situation before. They are nice people at the bank. I like them as individuals, but they are only employees in a complex system, doing what they are told. I remember years ago when I travelled to Japan to study ceramics. They told me at my bank that the best way to travel with money wasn’t with travelers cheques, but a new-fangled credit card. When I arrived and found myself running short of money. I couldn’t find a bank anywhere that would take a Mastercard. I eventually discovered that there were only 6 banks in the whole of Japan that had an arrangement to honor those cards. So I was forced to travel for hours on a train to Kobe, the nearest city that had such a bank, to get some more money and then back again. It took all day. It was such an effort that I had to get a lot of money out, so as to last me. Then I felt vulnerable carrying so much cash. Stuff all bankers! A pox on all their houses! I was greatly relieved, when the cash card machine in Earls Court Road honored my card straight away and delivered the cash into my hand, without fuss. It really is this easy! I go back to the lodge, paid my bill and go to our, now ready, room. I opened the door to find that the bed takes up 95% of the room. There was only enough space to swing the door partially open. I stepped in. There was no room for our bags. We were forced to put our bags on the bed to allow us both into the room. I stepped up onto the bed as well then Janine could close the door. Phew! With the door closed I could get down off the bed. We couldn’t move past each other. One or the other had to step onto the bed to allow the other past. I open our bags and got out some fresh clothes and a towel, as there wasn’t one in the room. It was a very cheap room. You don’t get much for 18 pounds in London. I asked Janine to get up onto the bed, so that I could open the door and go out to find the showers. I found them at the end of the hall, and they are not working. The shower fittings have been wrenched from the wall and the tap is missing. On the next floor up I find a shower that is working. Just one toilet and one shower work. The hot water was luke warm, but just warm enough to be tolerable. I didn’t care. I’m totally past it. It’s been 40 hours since I got up and showered before leaving Australia. I feel really sweaty, sticky and awful. I’m going to wash myself and my hair regardless – No I’m not, there is no soap. Still, I’m going to rinse myself all over regardless. Ablutions over and feeling somewhat better, I arrive back at our room, knock and ask Janine to climb onto the bed so that I can come in. She does and I tell her the layout and workings of the system. Where to find the only shower and how the mis-functioning toilet works using a piece of spare wire that is hooked behind the flush pipe. I put our bags on the floor and crash out on the bed and it’s not too bad, quite firm and comfortable, but the noise of the squeaky thick plastic mattress cover is very noisy when I try to turn over. Now that I have the chance to lay down, I still can’t sleep. It just isn’t going to happen. I get up and off the bed to put our bags onto the bed, then get on myself, so that Janine can come back in. We put the bags back on the floor behind the closed door and try laying on the bed together. It remains firm and noisily comfortable. We realise after 30 minutes that we aren’t going to fall asleep. We decide to get up and go out for a thoroughly English breakfast of chicken marsala and mushy peas. We decide to go into town to and look around. The easy part about traveling to a place like England from Australia is that almost everything is very similar or almost the same, so money, language, signs and public transport is really easy to figure out. We walk up to the high street and catch a bus into town. While waiting for the next bus to arrive I told the bus conductor girl of west indian extraction, that we had just arrived in London after a 24 hour flight from Australia, and were dead tired, she said. “Oarh Marn, you shud be ean beard aszleap Marn!” It broke me up, such a lovely voice, big wide engaging smile and brilliant teeth. She was so warm and friendly. Suggesting what I should do, if I wasn’t going to take her first advice to not do it and go back to bed! So this is what we should consider in the next few days. I felt really genuinely welcomed! Welcome to London.
With love from Dozy and Snoozy .
Things that go bump in the night.
and clank and burrrrr, and beep,beep,beep.
We didn’t know it at the time, when we booked this room online from Australia, but the main road through Earls Court is not the place to stay – for lots of reasons, but the principal one is that there is so much activity in the main street – all day and all night! Our room just happens to be facing the street and the windows not only are the windows not double glazed or laminated to minimize sound, but they are not even puttied into their frames soundly. Every time a truck pulls up at the traffic lights right outside our window and starts off again, the roar of the diesel engine strikes an harmonic chord with the window panes and they rattle in sympathy. Each pane has a different frequency, so as the truck revs up and drives away, working through the gears, different panes of glass in the window above our heads, rattle, shake and hum until the truck is far enough away, but there are hardly any single trucks or busses. They come in waves, so our window serenades us all night long. Apparently, since ‘red’ Ken introduced the city centre congestion tax, all the delivery trucks come into the city at night to do their deliveries, and we just happen to be sleeping with our heads up agains the window onto the busy main city thoroughfare. Not only are we jet lagged but sleep deprived, because there is also a pub opposite us as well and they make a lot of noise all night and into the early hours. Even after they close, the crowds hang around and mill in groups talking and yelling at each other. Often using the the pedestrian crossing to cross the busy road. The pedestrian lights are thoughtfully equipped with a special, piercingly loud, beeper for the hearing impaired. This beeping goes off with rapid regularity while the pub is open and the punters cross, only punctuated by the squeal of brakes at the lights and then the 4 part harmony of our window panes. It creates a regular city song cycle well into the early hours. I lay awake fitfully falling in and out of sleep on the regular timing set by the City of London traffic light control centre. I get insight into the inspiration for Charles Ives’s composition of ‘Central Park in the Dark’ and other atonal works inspired by city noise in the 12 tone mode. In the quiet period in-between the traffic lights changing, the trucks braking and the windows rattling, it becomes quiet enough to hear the the two girls being murdered in the ally or the other residents coming home late, later and very late. Things quiet down just before the early rising residents start getting up catch that early flight or go to their shift work jobs. On one occasion, there is a fist fight in our hall way, with two guys arguing and finally slugging it out. The web site for this place claimed that the price included breakfast. We go down to the dining room to find that the man from the office is in the kitchen/dining room doling out the individual slices of bread, one per person and he is also in charge of the toaster. Once your piece of toast has been cooked it is personally passed to you and you are allowed to sit in one of the five chairs around the small table. This would be fine for a small family but it isn’t working for the 40 to 50 people staying here. Most eat out. We decide to give it a try. We wait for 2 seats to become available and then are eventually allocated our place at the table and our piece of toast. We then wait for the knife to be passed around the table until it is our turn. There are two bowls on the table. One contains a thick, stiff, opaque yellowish substance that looks as if it ought to be margarine. I spread a little bit on the corner of my toast. It isn’t. At least it isn’t any kind of margarine that I have encountered before. I decide not to eat it. The other tub contains a transparent sticky red colored gel of unknown origin. I spread a little of this on another corner of my piece of toast. As I only get one piece, I don’t want to spoil it. I don’t recognize this stuff either, but it is meant to be some sort of jam. Some of the others seem to be eating it. I decide not to. Eventually one of the 5 mugs becomes available and we are issued with our tea bag. The minder who is guarding the bread and toaster, is also in charge of the kettle and milk. If this is breakfast, it’s a pretty sad affair. The two bowls piled high with the unknown substances aren’t popular, not too much is missing and we are the last to come down for breakfast this morning. When the breakfast rush is over. The bread, toaster, ersatz margerine and jam are all locked away by our minder until tomorrow. We learn over the next few days that each of these bowls is topped up each morning with more of what was in there, smeared on top. The Voice of Reason points out to me that this means the contents at the bottom of each bowl is definitely days, and could be weeks, months or even years old. We decide that we will buy our own muesli for breakfast and because this is Earls Court we find that we can buy Vegemite in the local Marks and Spencer’s. What we don’t realise until the next morning, is that there are mice or rats in the hostel and our muesli gets eaten in our room during the night. We throw out what’s left and buy some more, which we ask to be kept in the fridge in the kitchen. Everything is expensive here. We don’t even consider any sit down meals or even coffee. We make our own breakfasts. We learn to buy pre-packed salads in the local supermarket and take them back to our room, where we sit on the bed and eat them. We splurge out one night and buy a bottle of wine from the off-license next door. It’s from Spain and is really good, even though it is cheap. I’m pleasantly surprised. It is from Rioja, we haven’t come across this wine before, so it’s a wonderful discovery for us. Over the subsequent nights we try all the different labels of Rioja that we can find in the bottleshops in the main street. They are all good, but some are better then the others. We work our way through all the possible combinations of salads and vegetables that are available to us from the local shops. One morning, as we are walking out along the street, we pass a fruit barrow near the station. Janine sees some bananas. We stop and ask the price. We are shocked to find that they are ￡2 each. We pass. Thank you but no-thank you. I’m reminded of a joke told to me by Anders Outback. A man is looking at fruit in Fortnum and Mason’s, He asks the price of the strawberries. He is told that they are 10 pounds each! He exclaims, “Up your arse!” The rather mincing shop assistant replies. “If that is the case Sir, perhaps I could recommend the bananas, a much better choice for your purpose and more economical at only 2 pounds each.” London seemed like a very snobby place, where the class system is still very much alive. We spent a day in a street of private art galleries visiting shows that looked interesting. The Joseph Albers show was very good. We were outside one gallery when the sales person saw us coming and quickly ran to the glass door and bolted it shut, turned his back and walked away. We took the message that we weren’t dressed well enough to buy anything in that gallery, and they weren’t there to educate or entertain anyone other than buyers. In London, Art isn’t about beauty, Intellectual engagement or creativity. It’s about money. Farther on down that same street, a rather posh looking lady in a wheel chair was being pushed along by her friend/daughter/carer/servant. It was coming on to rain, spitting slightly. The carer was having difficulty maneuvering the wheel chair over the curb and across a side street. The old lady was paying out on the young girl, in her private school accent, roasting her for being too rough and not being fast enough. I saw and heard this, so walked over to give a hand, saying something like. “Let me help you there. I’ll help you get up the other curb. How about you lift at the back and I’ll lift at the front.” or words to that effect. Both people were absolutely blank. Neither of them responded to me at all. The old lady went on criticizing the girl for not getting her out of the rain and not being strong enough to get her up the curb. Very strange, but as they didn’t respond, I thought, that’s weird! I started to walk away, leave them to it. Let them get wet, if that’s what they want. Then they attempted to get up the three flights of stairs into a shop. There was no way that was going to happen in a hurry, so I turned back. It was starting to rain quite hard now. I offered to help again and again total silence, no response. No eye contact, No recognition that I had spoken or was even there. I stood there confused. Then a door man came out of the building and helped the lady in. She greeted this help with a mouthful of invective that stung his ear. “What are you doing keeping me waiting like this!, Can’t you see that I’m getting wet here?. Get me inside this moment..! Careful on the steps! Not like that!” CAREFUL! I must say that I was very puzzled. As I walked back, the ‘Voice of Reason’ said “what was all that about?” I didn’t know. I couldn’t make it out at all. We were discussing this when a very well dressed young man came up along side us and told us that he had seen what happened just now and saw that we were in need of some explanation. He informed to us that in the British class system an upper class person is not allowed to speak to any other person, until they have been introduced, and that introduction has to come from someone of their own class, someone that they have already been introduced to themselves. Nobody ie. lower life-form, is allow to speak up to a posh person unless they are asked a direct question. A posh person will never speak to an inferior, unless they are giving orders to a servant or employee or to give orders to someone else’s employee. He explained that I had broken all the rules just now and it was indescribably rude of me to insult those two people, in the way that I did. I was lucky that they just ignored me. He also explained that as soon as I opened my mouth, I had, by doing so, declared myself to be someone who could not be replied to or acknowledged in any way. Add to this, that I was from the colonies, he could tell from my accent! What would become of Britain if inferiors were allowed to speak at will and do as they pleased? Of course she couldn’t acknowledge my existence! I was a brute! OK. I get it. I can learn. A little further on some upper class twit had her high heel caught in a grating. I could tell from her received pronunciation, as she calls someone for help on her mobile phone, that she won’t want any help from me. Even though her eyes implored me for it, I know that she doesn’t really mean it. I can’t help but think of Harry Enfield and his characters in ‘I Saw You Coming’. This job-lot are nothing off the top shelf. I won’t embarrass her, or insult her by stopping, so walk by. We visit every major museum and art gallery in London and then set up my bowls in the group exhibition at the Royal College of Art. They sell reasonably well, enough to cover our air fares and sleep deprivation costs. At the exhibition we find that when we receive comment from someone with received pronunciation, they don’t look at the work directly, but firstly they need to know where I come from, where I was born, who my parents are, where I went to school, who my teachers were, then who my mentors are, finally who my agent or representative in London is and which gallery do I show with? Because I can’t answer any of these questions in a suitably acceptable manor, quite often they move on without looking. However, I have an American collector come straight up to me and say that he flew to London for the show and recognized my name on the exhibitors list, so came looking for me. He knew of me from some email posts I had made to the American Ceramics discussion list. He buys two small bowls. He will carry them in his hand luggage and is flying back the next day. A very polite young couple come in and look at my work. They talk quietly together, examine several bowls. All the darker celadon inspired style glazes. Then they turn to me and say we’ll take these two. I ask if they’ve notice the prices. They tell me that they haven’t. I explain that they are 300 pounds each. Without blinking he tells me that this is fine and do I want cash! One collector with an Northern accent spends an hour looking, chatting, reading my text and handling my work, but doesn’t buy. Clearly he is interested. He returns the next day and again the next. I explain how the work is made and the importance that it has for me to work in this manner. He listens attentively, but eventually wanders off. He returns in the evening of the last day and says that he wants to buy one of my bowls, but they are far too expensive. I tell him they are cheaper here than in Australia, I’m actually discounting them slightly because I’m an unknown quantity here as it is my first time exhibiting here, and that I think that the price is well justified, if only because I have brought them all the way from Australia in my hand luggage and I am unlikely to make any money out of the exercise and will be lucky to cover my costs. He buys the bowl, but isn’t particularly happy about it. It turns out that he is an important collector, and all the locals know of him. London has been an interesting learning exercise but we are well and truly ready to leave once our 10 days are up. We are off the see the village where I was born, visit relatives and to do some family history. I had hoped to make a contact with a London Gallery while here. I sent off 24 emails before leaving Australia, to galleries in London that dealt with hand made ceramics. I enquired about making an appointment to call in. Only 4 bothered to respond and 3 said don’t come. Only one responded in a sort of positive way. They said that they liked my work and it was like the kind of thing that they sold, BUT, and it’s a BIG but, they only sold the work of dead Europeans. I replied that I have a British passport, which makes me a European, and that they should get in early and snap up my work, before I die and corner the market. No response! I must say that I was quite surprised that 20 galleries couldn’t even be bothered to hit the reply key with a, thank you, but no thank you, email! I think that that is rude. Welcome to London! It’s Janine’s birthday and we decide to go out and have a nice, but not too expensive meal. We see a sign board pointing down a side street. “The Little French Restaurant”. We wander on down. And there it is. It is very little. Wedged into a small, sharp triangular building on an acute corner. It only has a few tables. The sandwich board outside on the pavement announces ‘3 Course Dinner, Set Menu, ￡9.95’. That sounds OK, we can afford that. We are trying to travel around England for the next 2 1/2 months on $6,000, so we are being careful with our money. We walk in and are offered a table, there is only one other couple in, but perhaps we are a little bit early. The set menu sounds great, but the wine is very expensive. Actually it’s outrageous, too expensive for us. We suppose that the food is cheap and they make their money on the wine? We ask for a bottle of water instead. We are shocked when the bill comes, it’s ￡30, we find that the water also cost ￡5 each and there is also a seating fee. Still the food was really good and we enjoyed it. It will be our only restaurant meal in London.
Farewell to London.
We hire a car – eventually.
Janine, The Voice of Reason decides to pick up the hire car from the airport depot, so that we can return it there at the end of our sojourn and then walk straight to departures lounge. Good thinking! We did a lot of research on the web before we left and found a car for 2 months at only￡7.50 per day. This is an amazingly cheap rate, so we are a little skeptical that it will all come good. We have never heard of ‘Alimo’ car rentals before. When we arrive at the Alimo car hire desk, we find that it is part of a much larger conglomerate of car hire businesses. We are asked to wait, as they are very busy. However, as other customers arrive and are being served, and then leave with their car, we begin to get suspicious. I go to the desk and ask if everything is OK? She tells me that it is, the car is coming and would I like to consider up grading to a larger car, as the one that I have chosen is very small. In fact the smallest.
I say no, I’m happy with my choice. We have this same size car back home and are used to it. We wait a while longer. Nothing happens. I go to the desk again, I’m told that all is well and would lIke to reconsider my choice. NO I would not. Would I like to add the claim fee waiver to our comprehensive insurance.? NO I would not, We’ve read all the conditions on the web site contract and thought all this through. “Would I like a GPS navigator?” “NO!” “A windshield replacement fee waiver?” “NO!” “A tyre replacement fee waiver?” “NO!” “Coffee cup holders?” “Water bottles?” “Street map?” “Child seat?” NO, NO, NO! I just want my car.
“It really is a very small car Sir, I don’t think that you will be able to fit both your suitcases in the boot. You mustn’t put luggage on the seats you know! If you scratch the paint work or tear the seats there will be a charge!” “You must pay the first 1,000 pounds of any claim.”
“Yes, I know” “Can we at least see the car. We’ve been waiting here almost an hour now. Please bring the car around to the front here and we’ll decide.” “Please wait!“ I don’t think that we should have to wait any longer, Others have been and gone and been served before us. We need to see the car now! Please show us. She reluctantly agrees, and makes a phone call. A man comes in to explain to us that they don’t have any small cars. We should pay for the up grade.
I say NO, We booked the car months in advance and you should have it here. It’s all on our contract. I have my copy right here. It’s all pre-paid. Please give us a car. He reluctantly agrees and brings a small to medium car to the front of the office. It looks OK. We accept it. Sign the paperwork and are off. bunch of Pricks!
It turns out to be a good car, comfortable and reliable. It is one size up on what we ordered, but still quite compact and fuel efficient and we can get our luggage in the back hatch boot. What a bunch of turds, they were to deal with! Miss Michael Schumacher decides to drive. Straight out of the air port and onto the main freeway. No hesitation. I’m the designated, relegated navigator. I have the Great Big Road Map of Great Britain – which is Great, and Big! We easily find our way up to Yorkshire and to the little village of Staxton where I was born. Actually, I was born in Scarborough, as my Mum had gone into town on the bus to do some shopping when her waters broke. Otherwise, I would have been born at home just like everyone else was at that time. It’s really interesting to see the village again and visit the cottage where we lived, as I don’t really have a clear image of it in my memory. My great grandfather was the shepherd in this village and his wife was the equivalent of the vet. Treating sick animals with local herbs and folk cures. He and his wife had something like 16 children, 12 of which survived, but there are no Harrisons left in the village today. All the men moved away to get work and the girls, although marrying locally, have changed their names. I get to visit the local playing field that was very near to our house. When I was 4 years old I can remember the playing fields being so vast that when I was left behind in the centre, when some older boys ran off and left me there. I recall wetting my self in fear, because the playing fields appeared to be the size of Siberia when I was so little. When we get there, I find that the Siberian sized playing field of my childhood, is only a hockey pitch and is very small indeed! Love from the frightened little boy and his lovely minder. We Easyjet our selves over to Holland on a five pound flight, but have to pay an extra 19 pounds in airport taxes and charges! We have been very careful to keep our travel luggage to 10 kilos, even though we are traveling for a few months. We can’t afford to pay excess baggage on these cheap fares. So we have the absolute minimum of everything. We are in essence wearing 50% of our clothing at any one time, one set on and another in the wash, except for smalls, of which we have a weeks supply.
One of the people that coresponded with me was a journalist from Holland, who invited us to stay with her if we were ever in Europe. So we did. We met up with this couple as a result of an article of mine that was published in Europe in a ceramics journal. This lady from Holland emailed me to say that she enjoyed the article. Her name is Nesrin During and she went on to say that she was a potter and a craft journalist. We exchanged a few emails politely and it slowly transpired that we developed an online friendship, as we began to realize that we shared common interests. Her husband Stefan is a furniture maker and luthier. They live on an island in the North Sea. It is a Mecca for environmentally aware and sensitive holiday makers from all over Europe, who go for the bird watching, in particular they come from Germany. They flock there to see the birds that congregate there each northern summer for the breeding season (of the birds – not the German tourists, that is!). This creative couple spend the long dark winter months working hard, making stock of pots, furniture, violins and cellos, then sell them all and take orders for the following year over the hectic summer season. When I was younger, I decided to learn to play the cello. I love the tone of the cello, it really strikes a chord with me. Stefan makes wonderful, richly toned cellos, I played one. It was a unique experience to play a cello in the workshop of the maker. Their house is full of unusual objects-de-art that they have collected during their life together. All these special items reflect a life-long interest in creative hand work. I was particularly interested in the ancient threshing board. A large one and a half meter long by half a meter wide, very thick slab of baltic pine which had several hundred small and very sharp pieces of flint embedded into its surface all facing the same direction. Grain would have been threshed against it, with the flints severing the grains from the stems. It was very old and well used, showing a rich patina of use and age. It had that difficult to describe quality that the Japanese have a specific words for, sabi, wabi and shibui. We need sentences to adequately describe this feeling. I felt it. The house was full of it. It was an honor and a privilege to be invited into their home and share their life-style for a few days. A home with no television, where every thing is home made, re-cycled or re-assigned.
Try googling <http://www.during.nl>
We got to the island by flying to Amsterdam, where we stayed a week to look around and visit all the museums, then trained up north to the port of Dan Helder and caught a ferry out to the island. We stayed with them for a few days and she interviewed me for a book that she is writing about the crafts and the people who make them. As well as living this amazing life on the island, they have another tiny house up in the hills, in a little village in Provence. We were lucky to be in France later, at the same time that they were holidaying, so we were invited to stay with them for a week in their Provincial house. This amazing little house is in essence, four small rooms stacked one on top of the other up the face of a cliff, all linked together by a steep zig-zag, winding staircase. The bottom room opens onto a narrow footpath or lane at the back of the village. This tiny and very narrow, winding lane or footpath was once the major road into and out of the village in times past. It winds its way over the hill, to the next village following the contours of the land. In parts it is a staircase up the steepest bits, always narrow and winding, finding its natural way across the topography by the most direct route. It was fine for walking or leading a donkey, but was replaced in the past, by a road that takes the longer, but level route and navigates it’s way around the hills, bridging the streams, to create the best route for carts and eventually cars. The old walking path is now more or less redundant and I didn’t see anyone using it during the entire week that we were there. The top room of this ‘stacked’ house opens onto a flat garden area, walled off on top of the cliff. From there the land slopes back for quite some distance in a series of dry stone terraces, that in the past were all cultivated. These days it is all that they can do to keep the bottom three tiers cleared of weeds and undergrowth. They bought this house in the seventies, when it was in disrepair as a deceased estate. They told me that they could have bought a new car, or this house, for the same price, so the new car had to wait. They bought the house and brought their kids here every spring and autumn for the past 30 years, slowly repairing the house and remodeling it from within, during each visit, fitting modern appliances and conveniences like a stove in the kitchen, a sink and hot running water, even a bathroom with a bath and shower. Now the kids bring their kids here. They are a wonderfully inspiring couple, and both their house in France and their house on the island are ingenious and wonderfully creative uses of tiny spaces. Full to the brim with all those quirky and intriguing objects that they have collected over a life time of creative work and interesting travel.
Try googling <http://www.during.nl/lunas.html>
We have breakfast out on the top level garden. There are two new, beautiful golden blond violins hanging in the apricot and fig trees. It appears that violin varnish dries superficially to touch dry but then needs ultraviolet light to cure fully through the various layers and harden to a tough and durable, hard working finish. Apparently, there isn’t sufficient light in the far north of Holland, out in the north sea for the varnish to cure properly. So Stefan brings his recently finished and varnished violins down to the south of France each time they visit, so that these instruments get their full quota of ultraviolet. They make a very pretty addition to the garden and add a quirky ambiance to the surrealist scene of our breaking fast. We chew and chat and drift off into our own thoughts, staring out over the mottled terracotta roofs of the village, across to the ruined castle on the opposite hill.
This village is built at the junction of two streams, where they join to become one little river. At night, when all is quiet, we can hear it cascading over the weir all the way down in the main part of the village. The village is mainly populated by older retired couples. They take their time meandering around the little lanes and are to be found sitting by the fountain in the eventing chewing over the days events and gossip. All their kids have grown and left for work in the bigger towns and cities, leaving many of the houses unoccupied for most of the year and only return to the village during the long summer break. Some of these old empty houses have been bought up by foreigners, just like this one has. There is an Englishman on the opposite side of the stream, on the other side of the village. He parks his big black rangerover right in the lane way blocking it off to all other passers by, instead of parking it in the parking area at the bottom of the village, as everyone else does. He has the doors wide open and the stereo blaring out The Doors very loudly. He’s sticking it to the French. He doesn’t like them and they don’t like him for it and I can’t blame them. He’s a Twat! I don’t know the history of this situation, but I find his relentless angry noise quite irritating. Obviously he wants it to be. He is here to torment everyone around him. They tell me that he does the same thing every year when he comes over for his holidays. They and I, can’t wait for him to leave. The village is so peaceful without him. We go off each day to explore the other little villages around the local area. Almost every day there is a concert performed in one of the various churches somewhere nearby. We hear gypsy jazz in the style of Stefan Grapelli and the next day it’s a piano concerto, then some chamber music. It’s a good time to be here. Everyone is relaxed and has time for the little extras that make life so much more interesting. It’s interesting enough for us as it is, because absolutely everything is exotic and different. All the smells and sounds are unusual and intriguing. Our senses are totally in shock with the overload of difference. We take it all in and sleep that deep solid sleep of exhaustion, even though we haven’t done anything very much. It’s just that every sight, sound and taste is so new. We are led to a swimming hole very high up on the escarpment. There is very high pasture up here and every spring the shepherds take their flocks up there for the new, rich, spring growth in the meadows. Over the centuries, with each transhumance, each shepherd has moved a few stones and rearranged them, so that now, a couple of thousand years later there is almost a complete stone ramp or staircase all the way up the steep rocky hills and cliffs, about two meters wide in most parts, so as to ease the way for the sheep and goats to make their annual passage up and back down again with the changing of the seasons. It’s a marvelous human achievement that is totally unacknowledged. Very small on the scale of world wonders, but very impressive when I stop to consider the work involved, not just in it’s making, but in the constant repairs and maintenance that must be needed. These days there is a road around the hills and nearly all the sheep are trucked up to their summer home, but I’m told that there are still a few old die-hard men with small flocks that take the time to do the walk. They have always done things this way and always will. They continue with the tradition because it’s what they know and understand. It’s comfortable for them in this way, they’ll continue until they retire or die. They are being slowly driven out of business by the new economics and it’s their sons that are driving the lorries! In another life, when I become a shepherd, I’ll walk the transhumance trail and camp out with my sheep on the high pasture in the springtime. But right now I have to concentrate on driving this hire car on the wrong side of the road, driving on the right and looking to the left! We enjoyed our time in the south of France, good company, wonderful live music, great wine, bright sunshine and altogether it was exotic and fabulous. August in the south of France is a good place to be. We return to Montpellier, where we spend some time looking around the city’s museums and art gallery. We drop our hire car off at the airport and then RyanAir ourselves off to Denmark.
We travelled safely to Denmark to a place called Guldagargaard. Try saying that after a couple of drinks! we couldn’t. The weather was quite hot there. Hot enough to get us seeking out the shade. We thought of you in cold wintery Sydney – but not for too long. We were 2 hours by train, a bus and a long walk out from Copenhagen. We are here for a mini wood firing conference for a few days of firing the wood kilns and chatting to other potters from all over the world who have come here to work and exchange ideas on art, life, death and the whole creative disaster. We stayed in a little cabin by a fjord and rode our bikes to the Arts Centre and back each day, a 15 minute commute along the shore of the fjord. A very lovely experience. It is a beautiful arts centre, very well appointed, with enthusiastic people running it. I gave my presentation and lecture there and got an offer to return. I liked it there and might go back for a longer period if the opportunity arrises, but I’m not sure. There are so many other places that I’d like to visit now that I have finally got myself out of the house. It’s taken me a very long time to get going and now that I’m on the road, I find that it’s not too bad. I quite like all these new sights and experiences. I should have done it earlier, but was far too involved in building a house and making my meager living from pottery. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t ever make enough money to do any traveling. Making a living in the arts is a full time job. There isn’t enough time or money for anything else. Not unless you take a full time teaching position, or salaried position in Arts Administration. something that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t have time to make any pots in Guldagargaard as our time was so brief, so I made a little installation of some pebbles that I collected by the shore of the fjord. The local stones are all black flint and white limestone, but there is some red and pink granite mixed in with them, which is a remnant of the glacial moraine that dumped it’s load here after the last ice age. The red granite was carried by the ice all the way down from Norway. So I titled the installation “Black and white and red all over – Guldagargaard, mining the cultural moraine”
We caught the ferry over from Denmark into Germany and spent a lovely day walking in Lubek, an old medieval town that has the most amazing number of ancient churches. The local dialect in Lubbock is a cross between Dutch, German and old English. I’m told that it is what English would have sounded like a few hundred years ago? We travelled further into Germany for a few days along the north coast so as to start work building and firing one of our kilns there. We got an email to tell us that the French hire car company in Montpellier, where we spent a week with Nesrin and Stefan, as a little holiday at the start of our trip) have taken 3 weeks to get around to getting a padded post bag to post Janine’s camera back to Australia. She left it under the seat of the car a couple of months ago in Montpellier, at the end of our visit there. With this level of speed and service, we may be back in Oz before the camera? Who knows?
Germany We met up with the German potter Markus Bohm at the conference in Guldagargaard and got a lift with him to Alt Garrzs In north-east Germany. He employed me to design and construct a kiln for him as a workshop, organized through the local ‘Kalkspatz’ ceramic organization, who funded the whole thing. Markus wanted our particular design modifications that utilise the downdraught firebox (Bourrybox) For his wood fired kiln. Markus had bought my wood firing book online and we had entered a long email dialogue about the kiln and it’s design before we left Australia. I have been building this kind of wood fired kiln for almost 40 years here in Australia. I borrowed this innovative design concept from the French, who originated it in the 1800‘s, I have developed it into my own version, one quite different from the original, and I believe, much improved. We are now being employed to hand it back to Europe to see what they do with it. The great beauty of this design is that it is very efficient, clean, easy to fire with minimal physical effort and it can deliver an excellent decorative ash deposit on the pots, if you let it. This firebox can be a very efficient and powerful heat source for firing pots and has been adapted to fire all sorts of kilns in it’s time. Since the 1970’s I have spent a lot of time developing the potential of this firebox concept in my own idiosyncratic way, The principal involved is one where the wood is burnt up in mid air, suspended on brick hobs and the flame travels down into the kiln chamber. With the burning wood suspended up in the air, the ash from combustion falls down and is delivered into the gas stream of flame and air, which allows the ash to be carried well into the kiln without any extra agitation being required. I’ve heard some potters say that the bourry box doesn’t deliver much ash to the pots. Well it will if you let it. My work with this design has concentrated on developing a smaller, compact and easily managed, elegant firebox. I have found that the firing experience can be very quiet, calm and civilized with most of the time spent sitting watching the firebox work. Stoking cycles can last up to one hour between stokes where larger pieces of hard wood are used. This makes for a very laid back firing experience. Of course, this kind of quiet, calm, ‘nothing–much-to-do-but-watch-it-work’ for long periods kind of firing isn’t for everyone. There are times when one hour goes past and I don’t ever get out of my chair, as there is nothing to do. The kiln just goes on firing and climbing in temp and the wood just keeps on burning. Any intervention would be a mistake when everything is going so well. I like this kind of firing. But there are those who feel that they must do something, to make their mark on the firing, they interfere with a perfect system, bring it undone and then start to work hard to rectify what they’ve ruined and end up spending a lot of time and energy to fix what wasn’t broken and claim that they are a genius for getting it to temp, when it would have happened quietly and calmly without them. I have developed a firebox and kiln chamber combination that encourages a lot of ash onto the pots without the need to rake and flick the ember pile to get the ash onto the pots, as is necessary with an anagama style kiln. In my kiln there is a place for heavily ashed and carbon and ember included pots and another for more delicate flashed and lightly ashed pieces. The ‘cut-n-come-again’ magic puddin’ kind of kiln. Another great advantage that this firebox offers is that it doesn’t need to make much smoke, especially during reduction, while producing these results. I like the cleanliness and efficiency of it. It suits my philosophy and life-style choices So this is why Markus employed me. We had been in email contact with Markus since he purchased my book ‘Laid back Wood Firing’ a few years ago. We met up with Markus when he visited Australia in 2008 for the Sturt Woodfire Conference. It was here that we started a dialogue which culminated with us going over to Germany and building his kiln amongst others. This kiln was specifically designed as a small, quick-turn-around salt kiln to augment his already existing larger, forced draught wood fired salt kiln of 3 cu. m. Markus’s brief was that the kiln should be approximately 1 cu. m. in total capacity, be easily fired in one day from morning to night, be capable of delivering good decorative ash deposit onto the pots, be constructed of materials that resist salt degradation and to be as fuel efficient as possible given the other requirements. Salt kilns are usually built of quite heavy and dense high alumina refractories so as to resist the corrosive effects of the salt vapor at high temperatures. Markus favored the use of castable refractory as a hot face lining for the chamber. Castable refractory is a kind of special cement that is mixed with water like ordinary cement, but after it is set, it can be fired to very high temperatures and becomes a special kind of refractory, unlike ordinary cement, which will just melt into s liquid. Fortunately, I pioneered the use of castable refractory lined salt kilns here in Australia back in the seventies and had built a considerable number of them here. (Pottery in Australia, Volume 14, Number 1, pages 26 to 30. 1975. “A calcium-aluminate cast kiln for salting”.) Way back in the dim dark ages of the seventies, I started augmenting my livelihood as a potter by building kilns for other potters. Salt glazing was quite popular at that time, more so than it is now. I realized that castable refractory had all the requirements for building very long lasting salt kilns. I first saw it used by a potter who I worked for after I left school. An amazing potter, called Mike Pridmore, who was entirely self taught. Mike had used this stuff to build his gas kiln and this is how I first became aware of it. Consequently I used it to build my first kiln. Kiln building went on to be a big part of my life. The basic chemistry of calcium and alumina does not have any eutectic with sodium at the temperatures that we use for firing pottery. So it is ideal for building salt glazing kilns where all three of these elements interface. I was able to travel widely building these small salt glaze kilns, meeting all sorts of potters in a variety of places all over Australia and now Europe. There has been little change to the concept in the past 35 years, however the castable refractories have improved over the time. There is now a light weight high alumina insulating refractory castable, which is quite fuel efficient while being just as salt resistant as the older dense mixtures. This improvement in fuel efficiency is achieved by the incorporation of small, hollow alumina spheres into the mix in place of dense high alumina grog as an aggregate. The resulting kiln we constructed was cast more or less in one piece. The result is a very light and fuel efficient, yet very refractory kiln that will resist salt attack for many firings.
The construction and firing of the kiln was organised by Markus as a workshop, with between 14 and 18 participants over the week. The timing was critical for everything to work out on time, with Markus and I casting the concrete slab the day before the workshop was to begin. I then laid out the first course of bricks before everyone arrived, so that we could get going very quickly with the first course in place. We had three days to construct the kiln, one for packing, one for firing, one for cooling and then unpacking on the last day. The whole exercise went along with Germanic precision in the very tight schedule that was set for us. The kiln being packed as the brickwork was being finished and lit up with no firebox lid yet complete, nor functional damper in place. We got the firebox lid finished at 1,000oC and the damper finished just half an hour before shut down. Because both the work and the kiln were still wet, we started off with a small gas burner over-night to help dry everything out a little. We started the firing early in the morning at about 7 am. and finished late at night around midnight. The whole thing still steaming on the out side. 17 hours to 1360oC! Yes, 1360oC! That is what Markus fires his salt firings to. The kiln cruised straight there with a load of raw pots in it! A wet kiln with raw pots, some made the day before and still damp when packed. We achieved temperature in the evening, leaving a few hours to do the salting and then to reoxydise well. All this done and completed in the same day! Beautiful! I was amazed that we did it. Still if you don’t try, you don’t know what can be done. Not that I’d want to do this on a regular basis, but it is the sort of thing that happens at workshop events like this. No venture, no gain. I’ve never fired to 1360oC before, in fact we got the 1380oC guard cone over in one (hot) spot, while we were eating dinner and our concentration lapsed a little. The results were very good. I was very pleased with the amount of ash on the pots and the surface qualities. Overall a great learning experience for every one including me and a nice little kiln remains for the future, that will make lovely work in a clean efficient way for years to come with a very low neighbor impact. Markus organized the whole workshop very well and the team of potters who worked so hard to get it done were fantastic.
After building and firing the kiln in Alt Garrzs, in Germany. Which went very well, with German-like precision. Built in 4 days, packed with raw pots while it was still finished being built and still wet, then fired to 1360oC right on schedule, cooled the next day and unpacked on the last day, all with Germanic precision so everyone could take their pots home on the last day. I’m proud to say that it was an act of skill, perseverance and dedication on the part of all involved, not just on my part but that of the entire team doing the work. I wasn’t certain that we could do it all on time – but we did. During this workshop we had a film maker from Berlin called Andreas Munz, who filmed the whole thing. His documentary of our workshop, called ‘Laid Back Wood Firing’ is available from ‘Kalkspatz’ ceramic society in Germany at; <www.kalkspatz.de>
Next we travelled by several train trips, down and across Germany from the northern Polish border down to the south west Alsace border to visit a potter there who may want a kiln built next year. Alsace is a very lovely part of Germany and France, all rolling hills of vineyards, old castles and little villages. We were staggered to find that we had to pay 450 Euros for that train trip across Germany, If we return, we will explore the possibility of hiring a car next time. All in all we have 3 more offers of work here in Europe for the next northern summer. A lot can happen in a year, but if all goes well we will be back.
Bye for now from Bob the Builder and Bobbie the Technical Assistant. xxx
We catch the train from Germany into Switzerland have a day off here in Zurich and an internet connection, so we have time to catch up, do our washing and do some further bookings to get on the road again. We are staying with Stefan Jacob a Swiss potter who has a home and studio here in Zurich. He has made a name for himself, initially here in Zurich, then Switzerland, then Germany etc. And most recently in Australia, where he has visited a few times. Stefan makes small wood fired raku kilns in Ikea garbage bins. They are a great little kiln, so small, efficient and economical. I really wish that I had thought of it! They are fantastic. Stefan has organized this workshop and drives us up into the alps in his van, loaded to the hilt with fire bricks, tools and wet weather tarps, guy ropes and poles. Everything has been thought of and provided for. Stefan is an amazing person with incredible organizational skills – and a lovely person to boot.
Try googling <http://www.raku.ch>
Stefan decides to drive up into the alps via the old road, avoiding the freeway. It’s slower and windy, but he has us organized early, so we won’t be late. He has chosen this out of the way route because he wants to show us some really remarkable scenery, deep eroded gorges and cliff faces, where the road has been carved out of the cliff face. This is really something. We stop and gawk. It’s on the line of the old Roman road, or more properly, old Roman path, some of which is still preserved and visible cut into the opposite cliff face. We are now Nestlè(d) in the Swiss alps. We are going to spend the next two weeks building another of my kilns for a group here high in the alps. We have a good site and a new shed, but all the bricks are 2nd hand and all need to be cleaned, so a great deal of the time is spent, sitting, chatting and chipping recycled fire bricks to remove the old fired-on mortar. There are lots of rules about building anything and everything in Switzerland, so the work progresses very slowly. With constant references to the village’s architect and representative of local officialdom. Everything is very complicated and the whole job takes much longer than any job that I’ve undertaken anywhere else in the world. But the team of potters, who are paying for the distinction of being able to attend this slave labour camp, are all really cheerful and hardworking. There is a lot of laughter and good feeling on the site. I find out one day in conversation with one of the group that she worked in a pottery in Australia 20 years earlier. I ask where, she says that it was in NSW. I ask where, she says in the central west. I ask where, she says in a little village called Lue, but I probably wouldn’t have heard of it. I say, “You mean with Des and Jan Howard at the Lue Pottery”? She nods, “do I know him”? I’m amazed, more, I’m flabbergasted. I’m momentarily speechless. “Of course!” I tell her that Des was one of my first pottery mentors, way back in the sixties, while I was still at school, He introduced me to Mike Pridmore and changed my life. Later he owned a pottery shop in Sydney, in the Argyle Arts Centre, where I sold my first pots. It’s corny to say that it’s a small world. But my goodness, it really is. However this is not the only amazing co-incidence that has happened in my life. Being in Switzerland, this workshop was supposed to go like clock work. But the insistence on every regulation being carried out to the letter of the law, has made our progress very slow and we find that we can’t finish the kiln, because we don’t have the OK from the sherif of chimneys and flues. It is apparently necessary to incorporate a special pressed metal tin-plate inspection door into every chimney. Apparently even if the chimney is going to get up to 1300oC. I can’t see the flimsy metal door surviving more than a couple of hundred degrees. It’s designed for kitchen ovens and low temperature fuel stoves. But it is apparently, non-negotiable and must be built in by law. I suggest that the Swiss Law is wrong and it isn’t going to work. Suddenly there is a hushed silence. Did someone just say that SWISS LAW was WRONG. The words ‘Swiss Law’ and ‘Wrong’ cannot apparently be included in the same sentence – EVER! The flimsy little metal door must be built into the kilns chimney, or NO kiln firing license from the flue sherif and the kiln won’t get to temperature if it is in there, because it will melt and deform, compromising the draught. A Mexican stand-off in Switzerland. I suggest that we don’t use the special and very expensive, legally required, but highly inappropriate door and just build our own refractory brick inspection door in the base of the chimney. WHAT! Not use the legally required, specially designed Swiss approved unit! Another heresy. A hushed silence, some very quiet murmuring. Who is this crazy radical? With ideas like these, it could be that the whole kiln is a crazy project doomed to fail? This is apparently NOT possible. Don’t even think about it. Undeterred, I suggest an even naughtier solution. I may as well go down in flames with another heresy. How about we build in the tin door as required, BUT, fill the hole behind it with fire bricks to stop it getting hot. Thus rendering it irrelevant. Great relief all round, everyone loves this idea. It’s all go. Apparently it doesn’t contravene any known Swiss law. So we can keep going. Just as long as the Swiss approved door is built in, as required by the regulations, everyone is happy. I’m left wondering how any other high temperature furnace gets built in Switzerland. With so many little niggling delays, we’ve run out of time and the flue isn’t finished by the time that the workshop in over. We have got the chimney up towards ceiling height in the shed, when we find out that it has to be built with three layers of insulation around it as well. It will all have to be done some other time. The workshop is over, we are booked to move on and everyone has to go back to their homes, families and jobs. Winter is approaching and the snow line is creeping down the mountain. Nice try, but beaten by the clock. The very proper Swiss coo-coo clock. We have been able to make two short forays into France when we were near the border and one into Italy, during this part of our trip and that was very nice. We suggest that we come back again next year to finish the job and we have nods of agreement. We are back in Zurich again with Stefan for a day before heading off into the Swiss hinterland. Hoping to see a few Swiss hinters in their natural environment. It’s been hard trying to log into other peoples wireless servers up in the alps. (ALP, isn’t it funny that they chose to name each of those mountains after the Australian Labor Party) So we have wifi contact again here in the little, big city of Zurich, but haven’t seen any gnomes yet. On the day we arrived up in the ALPs, the transhumance ended with a little traditional yodeling in the far distance, as the cows came back down from the high pasture, where they have spent the summer. This is a tradition that has almost died out, but only exists because a few of the older folk still persist with the old ways and skills. A bit like making wood-fired, hand-made pottery in Australia really. The first snow fell on the night that we arrived, up on the very high ridges. It was really chocolate box pretty. It’s just like being in a real life movie set with all this, too big to be true scenery, and the colour is so bright green. Everywhere is ultra green, lush green, too green to be true green. It’s as if someone got hold of the colour TV remote and turned the colour right up to 11, so that everything is so bright that it hurts. Well that’s how green it is. We had an afternoon off during the building of the kiln and drove a few kilometres up to a very high pass at 3600 m. where the Italian border is and then down the other side to the sister village to this one with the same name only in Italian. We drank a dry cinzano in the little bar to celebrate. Then back to Switzerland to do some more work. Fabulous views from the top. So high up that there is nothing but bare rock and champagne air. Mmlle Bubbles is thrilled. The road follows the old Roman road for most of the way, much of it still visible in the hill side. She takes many photos, many, many. This workshop has been terrific, everyone is hard working and funny. It is such a joy to work with nice committed people who are keen to get along and naturally form a team. We are off to Italy now via some remote Swiss valleys. We have arranged to hire a car this morning. Type to you again soon. The lake at the foot of the valley, below the village. The village Nestlè(d) below the mountain.
That could be our chimney in the centre of the village, but it’s actually the Church steeple clothed in scaffolding for renovations. with love from Heidi and Peter xxx We travel to Loraine and Alsace the home of the best wines (riesling) and some very good smelly cheeses. I see that Montmorillon is very close by, so my amazing navigator directs me there and we still manage to find it. I want to go there to check out the famous bentonite clay. I don’t see it but we see a really lovely 12th century tower instead and I feel good about that. Montmorillionite, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! I avoid a sticky situation and return to the highway. If that seemed like a strange paragraph, it’s because they’re all potters references. Don’t worry about it, ignore it, just read on. The tower of the hospice in Montmorillon We stop for a day in Nancy to check out the nancyboys and while there visit the art nouveau museums, some excellent, totally gay, flamboyant and curvy art. The next day in the little medieval hill town of Vezelay famous for its cathedral. We are not particularly interested in religion, but decide to walk up the steep hilly winding road because the hill town is ancient and all the buildings are very beautiful in there understated medieval pleasant, peasant way. We are surprised to stumble across the small private Zarvos Museum. Hidden away half way up the hill, without any advertising in this little hill town. We stopped in here to look at the ancient architecture and discovered this little gem of an art gallery as a bonus. The entrance so small that we almost walk past. A very small sign quietly announces that the museum has a collection of Picasso, Klee, Giacometti, Leger, Matisse etc.etc. We think that they must have a few prints in one room or something. The facade is only a few meters wide and one story high. We decide to go in, We pay our 3 euros, and it turns out to be the most amazing and extensive private collection, over 4 or 5 floors that go down one by one into the cliff face of the hill town. No-one that we know seems to have ever heard of this little gem of a museum. We certainly hadn’t. Henry Zarvos and Romain Rolland were collectors, art critics, writers. They appear to have been best friends with everyone who was important and amassed a huge modern art collection, which they donated the their little town. There are rooms full of Picassos, a room full of Giacometti, some really lovely things. The place is virtually empty and we have the curator all to ourselves to show us around, explaining all the subtle little references, of one work to another, and how so many of them are signed and dedicated by the respective artists to the two gentlemen. Apparently what we have just seen is only a fraction of the collection which is out on display at any one time!! That was a fantastic experience that we would have missed if it weren’t for the fact that we are such slow up-hill walkers, so decided to pause and look in the window. regrettably, we are not allowed to take any photos.
Love from the blue and white horizontally striped Pablo and his dark-haired passionate Jacqueline
The Portal in the Crypt
We have a room in a pension at the bottom of the hill, outside the town where it’s cheap. Janine wants to see the cathedral so we wander on up to have a look, It’s late in the afternoon now and there are dark clouds building. My hip is playing up, so I decide to sit in the apse and wait while Janine wanders around the old church and I see her disappear down a staircase into the crypt. I wait, and still I wait, she doesn’t come back up. I wait some more and rationalise that there must be another entrance or exit on the other side as well. I wait a while longer. After 15 mins or 20 mins. I feel that I have waited long enough, she hasn’t come back out, so I limp down to have a look. It’s at the opposite end of the church, and it is a very tiny crypt, as it turns out, just one small room and there is nothing much down here. Except maybe a portal to another dimension if you touch the right piece of ancient jutting stone, or say the correct incantations? I can’t understand where she could be for so long. I go back up into the church and wander around, I check out the cloisters and around the apse, into the car park, back into the church and walk all around. Back outside to the main entrance and steps where we came in. She’s nowhere to be found. I can’t make it out. It’s getting very dark now as the clouds close it and the storm is about to break. I have tried to ring her on her mobile, but strangely there is no reception up here in this part of the town. It’s spitting rain now and the clouds are rumbling. There is a flash of lightning. I do one last circumnavigation of the building and back down the isles, around the apse and out through the main entrance again. I can only think that she must have missed me somehow and decided to go back to the pension down in the town before it starts to rain too heavily. I look in the church once more and then limp, hobble and sort of run all the way back down the only street in the village, expecting to find her sheltering in a portico along the way. I finally get to the pension in the belting rain. I drip my way up to our room to find it empty. She isn’t here, nor is there any sign of her having been here. I close the open window that has allowed the pelting rain in. The carpet is soaked. I’ll deal with that later. I ask at the desk, No, she hans’t been in. I believe in science. There must be a rational explanation for all this. I run and hobble back up to the top again, my hip is killing me. Douglas Adams wrote in his Dirk Gently’s holistic detective agency books, that One must examine all the evidence, rationally and exclude all the obvious possibilities one by one. Then what is left is the only explanation. I decide that it must be the Portal in the Crypt! When I finally flow back into the church, soaking wet, breathless and steaming. There is Janine, pristine and pretty, but furious with me for not waiting where she left me. She’s only been an hour looking at the art works in that little side room off the cloister!
The vew from Vezelay town wall over the valley.
With love from Dirk Gently and his Holistic Mmlle
Real men don’t eat in Loraine
As we travel, we always ask about the local specialties in wine and food. The bright, clear, fragrant rieslings from Werzburg, growing on the unbelievably steep almost totally chalk gravel hill-sides are sublime. I will be looking out for them as we travel and when we return home. We drive on across central France, through some forests but mostly through kilometres of open farm land, rolling fields of maize, wheat and sun flowers. We get to Colmar, close to the German border and stay in a little family run hotel that is not very old by European standards, only 100 years or so, but this one has been upgraded to the point that it has lights in the passages and the floors are either level, or they have sawn a small amount off the table and bed legs on one side only so it seems straight and level. This time Janine doesn’t roll to the centre of the bed but to one side, so we are not too sure. Those cunning French men. There is a kitchen down stairs where we can get a meal, Everything is in-house and very local. They only serve traditional foods of the Loraine region, so we gird our loins and entre. As we can’t really read the French menu, we hypothesize to each other what it all might mean, by choosing and substituting english words that have similar sounds. This does not yield any useful result that makes sense as a description of food, but it is very funny thing to do. We try to muffle our laughter as this mob are a very serious lot. So close to the border here that they are half French and half German. What we can hear is a strange mix of the two languages. A local Alsace dialect. Eventually the waiter comes and we order what we think is going to be a glass each of bubbly white wine, ‘sekt’ but we need more time to learn both German and French, and then read the menu and then decide on what to order. The chances of this a very slim indeed. The wine arrives and we are quite surprised to find that it actually is the bubbly white wine that we expected and not too bad, in fact good! Janine decides on what might be schwine medalions or a local fillet of fish, or perhaps something else, or both? We’re not too sure. I choose what sounds like veal. I point at the menu to make sure. The waiter is so very surprised to hear me say this. He steps back a bit. Then looks at me quite seriously and says in his version of english, what sounds like “arrr zyou shzure?” I say yes, He is still concerned, and then he starts to describe in great detail , most of which I can’t follow, what is a very local dish. Vee ave for you a very spezial deesh. First ve take zee pics arse and zee face off zee little cow. They use it whole and he does mean ‘hole’! when referring to the pig. I hear the flechier calling “bring me the head of Buttercup the baptist vealer”. Zeez rrrr all meenzed togezer and marinated in a leequid spezially created from ze fungus scraped offofzee walls of ze cellar. Zen zA rrr zimmered and reduzed to perfeczion….. I’m beginning to have doubts. Apparently it was the favorite dish of Jacques Chirac, a local hero around here, or so he tells me. That really puts me off. He was the arsehole that re-commenced the nuclear testing in the Pacific and authorised the bombing of the rainbow warrior! The favourite dish of a murderer? That omelette is starting to look good. However the Gran Cru Reisling, 2009 by Steve Dresch from Wintzemburg is a stunner. Bring me the riesling of Buttercup the Baptist! With love from the Real Man and Loraine. We cross the Rhine. I hear the call of the river maidens, the lorelei have me in their spell! I feel compelled to dive into the chilly waters and recover the sword, hammer out the anvil chorus, steal the rhine gold and Gotterdammerrung! – Wait for the fat lady to sing! But instead, Brunnhilde commands that I drive on. So I do. Welcome to Germany. Love from Sigfried and Brunhilda. We cross into Germany and the landscape suddenly changes. Here there is a village ever few kilometres and there is industry and businesses everywhere, factories and people doing everything. Loads of activity, every single space used. It seems that the population density has quadrupled. It was bad enough before just trying to remember to stay on the right and go around the roundabouts the correct direction, but now we have to deal with lots of other cars with intensions of their own. Roundabouts and intersections make driving a bit more stressful. We only make it as far as Wurzburg, as we are constantly stopping to look at hill towns and small villages that have been beautifully protected from development. It is a joy to park outside such a small village and walk through the narrow and winding cobbled streets. This is also because, we stop and visit every museum and art gallery in every major town that we stop in. We creatively waste a lot of time in this way. Of course, it’s not time wasted. But with all this delicious German food, I’m becoming more waisted! We find a room on a wet and squally night in the little back packers hostel on the edge of Wurzburg. We ask for directions to find a restaurant. Fortunately for us there is a slightly more mature person at the desk than has been usual in some other hostels, where they seem to employ 12-year-olds. This man in his 30’s knows more than just the local Macdonalds and fries places. We ask for traditional food of the local area and he recommends a restaurant in the town centre built into the underground cellars and crypts of an ancient hospital called the Burgspital built in the 1300’s . Now when I think spital, I’m not thinking food, especially when merged with the concept of the sick and the dying in the middle ages. But this place is wonderful, so atmospheric and beautifully lit. In among the low masonary arches, it has been well worth the half hour walk through the town in the rain. Mercifully the rotund frau who is on tables speaks ‘waiting-on-tables’ english, which is 1000 times better than our ‘being-a-customer-in-a-restaurant’ German. So that’s great and makes it so much easier than having to guess what we are going to eat. Although it removes some of the element of surprise. We ask her for something special and local to the immediate locality, she recommends the veal. Lets face it, I’ve just had veal. I’m not so sure I can face up to another dish of Daisy’s vista. but she cleverly describes how the chef has slowly baked the eye fillet in a bread pastry casing. I’m in. The crispy pastry reveals a soft rare pink fillet which melts in my mouth, with lovely sauce and vegetables. So much for being vegetarian. Janine takes the veal fillet wrapped in bacon. this time it is her turn to try the vealler and schwine combination. but this time the various parts of the respective anatomies are reversed. Her meal is served in a very rich chatterelles and cream sauce. Yum! Not only is hard to be vegetarian, but also stay low in saturated fats. We decide on another local riesling, this time from the hillside above the town grown in almost totally chalk gravel by a Herr Hageman. It is lovely, full of flavor, yet still dry. Janine tries the Bailey’s cream, cream-broulle and I decide to clog my heart further with the Roguefort and pears. A meal to die for, or because of!
We drive on up through to Berlin where we spend a couple of days in the galleries and museums there. I’m starting to suffer Kunst-uberload. Later, we pass through the little town of Helenbach, only worth mentioning because I can now say that I’ve been to helenbach on this trip. As we drive through the little village of Gotzis, I gotzis urge to make a joke about such a funny name, but I can’t think of anything funny to say. So I don’t. We zig-zag our way across Germany heading up from the south west up towards the north east to Brollin for the First European Woodfire Conference. We make sure that we stop at every ancient hill town, and flat town, even swamp town. As long as it’s beautiful. This takes us a long way out of our way sometimes, but it is worth it. Some of these towns are so lovely and quaint. We are on a mission to get to the castle of Brollin, so we drive on regardless of all my bad jokes. I recall that I was the first person to book in and pay for this conference back in February, a full 6 months ago. After touring the facilities last year, I saw how bad some of the dormitories were, so made it my mission to be the first to book in and get one of the very few, possibly only 4 double rooms in the refurbished main building with a double bed and an on-suite. I get email confirmation straight away that I am the first to test out the online payment system and that I am booked in. Everything confirmed! Safe! On arrival at the conference. I am surprised to be told that they have screwed-up, we don’t have a room at all. I am quite miffed. We have been bounced by some late-coming prima-donna, who couldn’t be bothered to book-in early and then winged about his poor circumstances and demanded our good room. Our German and Swiss friends Karen, Barbara, Catherine and Stefan come to the rescue. Stefan will move out of his tent and into his van, our friends will share to make room for us in Stefans part of his tent and Karen donates spare blankets and pillows. In an act of consolation, the organisers buy us 2 sleeping bags!!! While our former Australian so-called friend sleeps well in our comfortable room. This conference isn’t well organised at all. So much for the myth of German efficiency. To top it all off, it is raining. Just what we need. This part is not their fault, but it doesn’t help. However, the conference goes relatively smoothly – If you can imagine kaos being smooth. I find that I am the only person at the conference that has thought to bring the correct adaptor for a Mac laptop to the digital projector. I am a very popular person briefly. I am however, constantly running around getting it back form whoever last borrowed it. I am determined to hang on to it. Perversely, I don’t feel like donating it to the conference. I get my presentation over without too much trouble, all that anxiety for nothing, and can now relax to enjoy the rest of the conference. Most of the French delegation all leave en mass. saying that what is being served up is not food and no-one should be forced to eat rubbish like that. We get to queue up for dinner with a Frenchman called Eric, who takes a shine to Janine and engages her in conversation. He was at my presentation and liked the idea of our clean, efficient wood firing techniques and kilns and over dinner, the seeds are planted and we start to germinate a strategy to return to Europe next year and do a workshop with Eric in France. Actually the French complaints about the food are somewhat justified. The food is lifeless canteen slop, but apart from being unimaginative and dull, it is at least hygienic and filling unimaginative, dull, lifeless, slop. The Germans don’t seem to notice. Any country that eats black bread, processed meats and processed-cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner could aim higher. Actually, the only way that I can tell any difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner, is that we don’t get offered any gherkins at breakfast and beer comes with dinner.
love from Lohengrin and Elsa
Heading south again, in to the sunshine?
We have finished at the conference in the North of Germany. I sold 60% of my bowls in my exhibition and both of my books that I brought with me. I have orders for another 10 or so, but I’ll wait and see if those orders are completed when I get home in a couple of months time. We are making our way to the south and into Bavaria, on our way back to Switzerland for the next workshop. We are staying in Bayreuth. This is of course the home of the very famous composer Wagner, who wrote the opera The Ring Cycle. Made famous to every child of the sixties from the Bugs Bunny cartoon of Bugs and Elmer doing opera. It is the famous opera where the big fat lady has a helmet with horns on her head. This is where the saying comes from, “it isn’t over till the fat lady sings”! I was looking closely at all the fat ladies in town last night, just in case:) but none of them sang for me, so I can only guess that it isn’t over for me yet. Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas is based on the ancient European and Nordic legends that the “Lord of the Rings” is also based on. The opera takes something like 15 hours over 4 nights to hear and it is booked out for years in advance! If you know someone with contacts however, you can get a single ticket in only 5 years notice! We decided not to go tonight, but we are stopped by a creepy guy in the street, who tries to befriend us, without success! I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but I can tell a fraud when I see one. He claims that he can get us tickets at short notice – by next August! One presumes that we would have had to pay in advance? This is a city based around an Opera House, nothing much else happens here. It is a city without a washerie or laundrette – far too posh for that. The rich people who come here to hear Wagner apparently don’t have dirty clothes. They must either throw them away each day or have their servants deal with it. love from Wagner and his Christine Wilhelmine “Minna” Planer King. Life is becoming an endless cycle of black bread (brot), sausage (worst) and cheese, followed by Kunst, zen black brot, other worst and cheese wit gherkin (lunch), more kunst, den roggen brot, worst mit cheese den beir. Das challenge ist to decide vich worst is best! We drive an hour at a time past 10 cities and a hundred towns, thousands of villages and in-numerable hamlets, stopping only where we know that the worst ist good along wit der kunst unt brot. I pass the time practicing the German language that I don’t yet know and am unlikely to learn (ganst ganou) by making up verds dat zound zimillar to my crass heathen ear. I pfind dat ifn I add an ‘en’, to almostn any worden and gstarten it vif a ‘p’ or unst ‘g’, rrroll my ‘r’s and gswapen mine ‘wubbleyous for ‘vee’s or my gveesens, as day say, den ist gstarrrten to zounden yermanic. The Lorelie repremands me most severely. “You’ll accidentally start to be talken like that in gpublicn and zen you’ll be sorry!” See how gcatchen it ist! We pass through another wubbulee wilige but gstoppen nine. Kunst calls. more liebe unst heiß luft from Gstefanen unst Yaneenen After Bayreuth we drive on down to The Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s fantasy castle at Neuschwanstein. We are heading for the Swiss Alps for our wood kiln workshop in Sufers in the south of Switzerland, very close to the Italian border. The castle can be seen from miles away. When we get there we find that there is an hour and a half wait for a 5 minute window of opportunity to enter the castle on one of the hundreds of guided tours that pass through the castle each day. Because it is a rainy Monday afternoon in autumn, we are able to get in, without a pre-booking on the second last tour of the day a 4.30 pm. It’s an amazing place and well worth the wait, but not for the usual reasons. It seems that he wasn’t at all mad, but extremely eccentric. His fantasy castle looks old but only just over 100 years old. It is built using cast concrete and steel and all the modern materials of the time. It even had it’s own electric generator and was fully wired, inc. telephones. He was mysteriously murdered, before the castle was finished by either the family or the state, because he was spending too much money and sending the principality broke. The partially finished castle was open to the public just 3 weeks after his death, and has been creating enormous cash flow income for the State ever since.
love from The ‘Mad’ (greatly misunderstood) King Ludwig of Bavaria, and his aide-de-camp, (and I do mean camp) Prince Paul Maximillian La-Amoral of Thurn and Thaxis. (Who apparently wished to remain an eternal enigma both to themselves and to others). Funny that they never married?
We make it to the Swiss border. We have been warned that we have to stop before the border and buy a yearly Swiss freeway toll pass for €40 and because the road crosses the Austrian border for a few kilometers, below ground in a long tunnel, before it enters Switzerland, we have to buy an Austrian toll pass sticker as well. This seems like a lot for a few kilometers over a few days, but we are stopped twice and checked by border police twice. As the fine is 300 Euros for each offense, then the pass in retrospect proves to be cheaper. We are heading to the far south alpine region, very close to the Italian border, where we will be doing the workshop. The kiln that we built last year is still not fully finished, but it now has all the special Swiss government certificates and approvals. I spend the first day doing brick work, finishing off fine details, then we are ready to pack and fire the kiln. The firing goes well and finishes just a little bit early, just showing that it is all too easy to create beautiful wood fired pots without smoke or drama, when you have the right design and support. The first snows have already fallen here last week. It seems that winter is coming early. We were here in this village last year 2 weeks later than this and the first snows fell the week after we left. They closed the Splugal pass a few days after we crossed the border. During the cooling we decide to drive to Italy for the day. We go to Stampa. This is the home town of Alberto Giacometti. There is a little museum there built in the family home. There is also a fantastic restaurant, high up in the hills in a little hill town (of the same name), over looking the Stampa Schloss valley below. We wouldn’t have any idea that it was here, except that we have been given a lift by two other potters for the day for the trip, and they know the area well. We visit the potters workshop of a friend of theirs first and then off up the steep winding road with narrow blind corners, making our way up to the higher village and church. Heidi is almost killed in Chiavenna on the pedestrian crossing. Fucking mad Italian driver! She is quite shaken and distressed. Back in Sufers, we unpack the firing. Everyone is happy with the results from the kiln, even though it is the first firing and there will be a lot for them to learn about the best types of local wood to use and all the different clay bodies that might be employed in the different zones of the kiln. Before we leave, we visit the ‘senerie’ or Dairy. The whole village and valley of Sufers is a designated organic farming zone. We tour the dairy and cheese making workshop, tasting all the cheese on offer. We decide to buy 3 cheeses, one soft fresh cheese, one 5 month old medium cheese and a 10 month old hard tasty cheese. They have cheeses up to 3 years old here, but we aren’t offered any. I think that we would have to buy the whole round and it is very expensive, but because I don’t speak any real German or Swiss, I’ll never know. We settle on 10 Euros worth of each of the rounds that are already cut. Love from Heidi and Hans-Peter the goat-herd Our next workshop is in the Bavarian alps, in an area called ‘the little switzerland’, in a very little hamlet, This consists of about 12 houses and farms. We are here to fire one of my extended throat bourry box kilns. It isn’t fully finished yet either, so our first day here is spent doing some brick work and welding on the final steel bracing ties. It takes all day to pack all three chambers and we don’t finish until 9.30 at night. I suddenly realise that I’m quite hungry. Of course there are raw pots that need to go in at the last minute too, so it will be a long slow start just like at Sufers. Drying out these raw pots is critical, so that we don’t blow anything up. We dine in shifts and arrange for a few people to stay up till midnight to continue the preheating. One of the participants is a physicist, so he has built some elaborate system of computer boxes that takes the signal from the thermocouple and records a running data base of time and temperature. This would be fine if anyone here could work it, and he isn’t here yet. It seems to read out unrelated garbage, so I don’t know what temperature it is inside the kiln. I have to go slow enough not to blow up pots, but I also have to get to temperature tonight with a long slow reduction to mature all the various glazes that everyone has put on there pots. I resort to pulling out the spy hole brick to check for direct temperature by touch. Eventually Martin the physicist arrives and starts to fiddle with the equipment. He can’t get it to read out anything intelligent either. He shrugs. They all discuss this in German with much laughter. The out come is that the numbers bear some relationship the the temperature, but no-one is sure what that is. I decide to use a multimeter that I have thoughtfully decided to bring with me, to get a sensible reading of millivolts and do an approximate mathematical conversion. This works, but is very time consuming, disconnecting and reconnecting all the wiring. Eventually, I start to see some sort of logic in the computer read-out and my millivolt readings. We start to call these numbers ‘Martin numbers’ and I eventually fire the kiln all the way up to 1.923 Martin numbers and the cones melt. Everyone is happy, but I’m a bit stressed. Still, it has fired the way it should after a bit of early trouble with the wood. I feel confident that the results will be OK. We are being housed in a very old farm building across a lane and then across a courtyard from the kiln meadow. and what a luxurious rich soft green meadow it is, so full of wild flowers and herbs. The days are cold and even very cold out of the sun, 5 to 14 oC. We wake to the first frost of the autumn. This farm house is quite ancient, and was the family home of the potters mothers family for many generations. The rooms are tiny, and apart from the recently introduced electric wiring nailed to the walls, so that we can have an electric heater, there has been no real change for a century. Fortunately for us the bed isn’t that old and is even very firmly comfortable. We are however, upstairs, directly above the stables and the horses make a lot of noise all night long, but it’s the smell of horses that pervades everything. As soon as you enter the courtyard from the fresh air in the meadow, the stench of horse hits you. Everything starts to smell of it. This farm has been converted into a riding school and there are about a dozen horses stabled here. The toilet and shower is located across the farm courtyard. So it’s an early morning dash for the convenience. Although ‘convenience‘ doesn’t seem like the correct word to use in these circumstances. I promise to buy the Lorelie a lovely bottle of Bavarian perfume to make up for it. A bottle of ‘equine stench’, ‘stable waft’ , ‘eau de covall’, ‘strypt syrup’ or ‘sweaty saddle’ to take home to remind us of our trip.
. Woodfiring the Soap Opera
During the cooling of the kiln, we have a ‘day off’ I decide to sleep for some of it to catch up, while the Lorelie catches up on some of the goss, she fills me in on some of the girls talk. Apparently Ulysees lives with Uta, but they aren’t an item or weren’t – not too sure there. while Elsa is keen on Ulysees but Uta has a move made on her by Ulysees good friend Paul, but Synthia only came to the firing because Paul would be there because they have just spent a 2 week holiday together. Paul’s move on Uta sends Synthia to her tent for half a day to cry. Uta is sleeping with Paul, but living with Ulysees! I thought that ceramic chemistry and Martin Numbers were difficult!
. Woodfiring – the Environmental Report.
I am oblivious to all this, but did wonder what had happened to Synthia for half a day. There are some really nice qualities on the pots from the unpacking, almost everyone is happy. Our work here is done, so we pack and prepare to move on. We will be heading south to follow the sun down into France. They tell us that it has been a cold wet summer here and this first early frost is a sign that it might be a cold hard winter to follow. It seems that it is getting cooler and wetter here. I tell them of our experiences in Australia, How it is getting hotter and dryer and that this might be attributable to global warming. They don’t seem to know what I am talking about. People in Europe seem to be blissfully unaware of what is developing and how it might play out in their soap opera lives. It’s not that they are unintelligent, we have a librarian, a physicist, a doctor and an engineer. At the Brollin Ceramic Conference I raised this topic of Global Warming quite a few times, but apart from the others on my ‘sustainability’ panel. No-one else wanted to engage, or didn’t want to acknowledge it, or simply didn’t believe it was happening or that it might be an issue. The Americans were particularly skeptical, possibly because of their very particular exposure to their media at home. Fox News doesn’t really inform – except about the state of the whole society in general.
love from the skeptical Adolf unt more liebe from the true believing Leni
As we drive down the freeway through Germany, Bavaria and Switzerland we notice that all the roads seem to lead to ‘Ausfarht’. This is the first time that we have used the freeway system. Up until now we have purposefully stuck to the very minor roads. This takes us a long time to travel anywhere, but we get to see all sorts of amazing places that have otherwise been bulldozed out of the way of freeways. Ausfarht is not on our list of places to visit, so we never follow any of these signs. But hey! It must be a very popular place, as all the roads seem to be leading there. I looked for it on the map, but it doesn’t show up anywhere, so that is a bit of a mystery. Still if I ever get the chance, I’ll be going there. Just to look. As we pass over the border into France I see that they have a similar place called ‘Sortie’. We are in a bit of a rush to get from Zurich to Lyon today,. So I don’t get a chance to check it out. But any place that popular with so many roads leading to it must be worth a look!love from Steve the perplexed driver who is staying on the right, STAY ON THE RIGHT! I hear the Lorelie scream as I veer over to the wrong, which is the right side of these roads. Isn’t it funny that ‘bad’ means ‘good’ here, especially where it is applied to water like springs. Left is right, right is wrong, except on the road where it is correct and bad is good !
I hast been gpracticen mine Yermanic Ersartz German pronunciation and doing quite well. When suddenly we find that in a matter of moments, and without passing any borders the normally sane and good burghers of Switzerland abruptly start to talk to us in outrageous french accents. How can this be? One minute vee are gtalkn to vunanudder in zee correct manner, zen wwoosh! sacre bleu! jesuis petit confusenvaux! Vee now av to change from Ersatz German to Faux French!
more amour from the ‘tricolor’ Pierre and the ‘waffer theen’ Mademoselle Fifi .
From Bowral to the Bay of Biscay and back
More rubbish from the road. A day in Lyon We have just spent the day in Lyon. Walking the new and old parts of the city. We are with Geordie, who has flown over to join us on this part of the trip, so culinary topics are on the agenda. Chefs knife shops, kitchen ware shops, Michelin starred chef’s cafes and restaurants etc. We are quite tired from the 8 hours of walking, but very well and stylishly fed! love from the richly cholesteroled but blistered feet of Nocolas Le Bec and the finely textured and multi layered flavors of Miss Leon de Lyon Today we are back in the Alsacian high country following the Riesling wine trail from won wubberlie willage to another. The scenery is fantastic and the wine is even better. We end up at our friend Karen’s place just inside the German border, where we are welcomed with warm loving care from both her and her husband. When they hear that Geordie is a chef, they book us all into an amazing local restaurant. The service is so special that we feel a little embarrassed to have so much attention applied to us.
Michael mentions to the head waiter that Geordie is a chef, and he is wiskedoff to the kitchens for a guided tour. The food is excellent beyond my descriptive powers, enough to say that it was very architectural as well as delicious. The lasting memory I will take away from this experience is the four black clad young waitresses all walking into the dining room together in a line with our meals and all setting them down on the table in unisun. Quite eerie! But very very special. Food choreography. Michael will not not hear of us paying anything towards it.
love from Mr and Mrs Special
The whapher theeen Miss Fifi at degustation.
After a few weeks now of working, building kilns, laying bricks, firing, walking and carrying luggage etc. during our travels, my worn-out hip is taking the stress quite well. At this time last year I couldn’t walk for more than a few minutes without considerable distress and need to stop and rest it very often. The problem developed so fast last year from an irritation to a full blown drama that I took steps to find out what had happened, that my hip could fail so spectacularly with so little warning, really worried me. I eventually identified that it was the last 25 years of cutting stainless steel on the kick treadle sheet metal guillotine that had worn out the hip. I had always used my right leg. Because I couldn’t afford the very expensive machine meant for the job, I had bought a lesser machine of a lower capacity rating, which I found much cheaper at the auctions. This manual machine couldn’t cut the thicker sheets of stainless unless I jumped up in the air and came down hard on my right heel on the peddle. This needed to be done several times for each cut. I should have realised what was going to happen over the years if I continued doing this damaging activity, I’ve been told before that I’m a stupid boy, I must be very stupid , because I become very focussed on achieving outcomes when I’m kiln building. I don’t do it for fun. it’s a job. The quicker I can get it done, the better. I was told that I would need a new hip within 12 months if I didn’t stop damaging it. It will never get better, but I can stop damaging it further and making it worse. Apparently I’m not too stupid, because I never touched that machine again once I realized what was happening. It lies idle in the factory now waiting for me to get around to selling it, and the more difficult job of actually shifting it out from where it is, deeply embedded in the kiln factory, surrounded by other machines. I bought a hydraulic one to replace it. A machine that is actually designed to do the job. Since the last trip I have taken very specific care of my hip. So I’m pleased that all that careful attention has paid off and I can now walk almost all day, as long as I don’t run or walk quickly, kick anything, carry any weigh like a big back pack and that I stop often to rest. However, it is the back injury that I suffered earlier in the year that is more of a problem now, but I am managing that carefully as well, by not lifting anything heavy – ever. So all is progressing very well and I’m pleased. Today we are in La Rochelle before heading down into Provence for our last few weeks. We went to see Janine’s cousin’s friends, who own a cafe here along the beach front. We just went in to say ‘hello’. It was in the mid-morning and they were both busy at work in the kitchen, as both of the kitchen hands were away that day. We wait for a while and decide to have lunch there. After the lunch rush they come out and greet us with 4 kisses, 2 to each side alternately. I never been kissed 4 times before, it’s usually 2 kisses, one on each side, or sometimes 3. Here it’s different apparently. They insist that we stay. We eventually leave at 11 pm after a 12 hour multi-course degustation that just goes on and on and on.
The cafe only does lunches, so in the afternoon they only do drinks and coffee and the wait staff handle this. Sylvie and David, (pronounced Daveeed) are constantly popping in and out of the kitchen with more little treats and another bottle of wine. My favorite was the goose pate foie gras with onion jam, but the bottle of aged 1987 Bordeaux red was pretty good too. Because we are friends of friends, they won’t hear of us paying. But because I am the only driver. I limit myself to just one glass of wine all day, evening and night and only then because it was such a special bottle that was on offer. I stick with water, I just can’t afford to loose concentration for one second while driving here. It can be really tricky in the little roads with so many cars going so fast. Under the glowering sky on the La Rochelle harbourfront. La Rochelle is a much nicer place, now that the summer rush is over and a great percentage of the tourists have left. All the street performances are gone along with the rows of canvas shades housing all the market stalls and trinket sellers.
The performance artist potter has gone too. He throws simple pots on an old kick wheel – off the hump, everyone claps, he hands around the hat and makes 10 to 30 euros or so. He wedges up all the pots back into a lump, goes and has a coffee or a stiffer drink, then comes back to a new crowd and does it all again, every half hour, all day. He isn’t getting fat though! It must be a tough life.
love from the fat potter, Le Ro and his Chelle.
Yesterday we went to visit the pottery village of ‘La Chapelle de pots’, (The little church of pottery). This is the village where Bernard Pallisy learnt his trade. The small museum next to the Mairie, tells us that pots have been made here since the 13th centuary. We get to see a few examples, but there is nothing special happening here now. The village is very pretty, all built of blond limestone with pale painted shutters. We unfortunately stop to visit a local pottery workshop, but it is all slip cast with very tacky applied transfers on a tin white glaze.
We stumble across a lovely little gallery in the back streets of La Rochelle. The very nice young lady is a potter and has a workshop and gallery space combined, just off a quaint cobbled little court yard with a huge tree in the centre. there is only her and two cafes in the little square. She sells the work of Johannas Peters. We tell her that we collect his work in Australia! We love it. He is a German potter, trained in France, working in earthenware, as almost everyone does here. He makes very funky, pale, slipped, red terracotta with minimal decoration.
Try googling him. it’s lovely work. <http://www.johannespeters.de>
Today we take a ferry out into the Atlantic, into the Bay of Biscay, to visit a very small flat island where there are no cars, only velos. We hire one each and cycle the small island We have fun and eat a lot. The tourist office tells us that there are only 200 people on this island and all of them are full time employed feeding The whapher theeen Miss Fifi and her spherical Steve. The busy tourist information office Not much happens here, there are vineyards and gardens, fishermen, chefs and oyster farmers. Fortunately for us there is virtually no-one here, unfortunately for us this means that there are very few places to eat, but we manage to find one. We have a couple of dozen fresh oysters with lemon juice and pepper, that are still wriggling, we also have the fish of the day and sea food paella. We force ourselves to drink yet another bottle of the local cabinet sauvignon rose, and luckily for us, manage to find the ferry port to get home. The busy city centre. Because there are no cars here it is a very quiet and relaxed place that exists at a human speed. A lesson for me to keep in mind when I return home. While we are cycling, I see wild asparagus flowering in the hedge row. Suddenly I feel a twinge of home sickness. Our asparagus will be coming up now and we’ll miss it. I am greatly relieved that the cycling doesn’t annoy either my hip or my back.
Love from the home-sick sphere and the Whapher theeen Miss Fifi.
A visit to the distillery
Yesterday we drove down the coast through Bordeaux and Cognac and the Medoc. On the way back we find a small cognac producer. This family has a quaint hand made sign on the little back road that we are traveling to escape the tyranny of the highway. We turn into their drive way and we drive down past acres of vines to the degustation building. We are swept back in time a few hundred years. We pull up outside the building and a very smiling and welcoming lady of a certain age issues us into the tasting room. Here on this site, it transpires, she and her husband grow all the vines, harvest the grapes, make a wine of nondescript quality, (which they are aware of, and don’t attempt to sell) then using the absolutely huge copper still in the atelier, they produce their own wine brandy. This is very special stuff. They have huge wooden 2000 litre oak vats going back a generation, full of the stuff. We taste a series of fantastic brandies, all old and wood aged. We walk past the huge vats containing their life’s work. Today they are tasting brandy from 20 years ago. Although I am the driver, I can’t resist at least smelling the stuff. Geordie buys a 25 year old oak aged brandy for about one euro per year. It’s ridiculous, How can they do this and still make a living. It’s because they do everything themselves. Just the way that the Lorelie and I do. It’s the only way to make it pay. She is lovely and very engaging. So pleased that we are buying something. It transpires that her daughter has just returned from Australia and loved it there. We invite her to our house if she can ever get away. The huge copper still was just so gorgeous. I’d love to have one of those, even though I don’t drink spirits! In another life I’ll try my hand at distilling. There is something so uplifting about meeting with a small hand made producer who is doing OK. it’s good to see. and taste!
The French seem to have far too many letters in their alphabet. They don’t seem to need all 26, but because of fraternity, egality and equality etc. They feel obliged to use them all in some way, so they have decided to add at least 2 letters and sometimes 3 to the end of each word, which aren’t to be pronounced. I’ve figured out that you can more or less stop pronouncing the word about half way through, then it sounds just about right. It is important to remember that you don’t need to pronounce all of the letters, because if you do, it will only lead to confusion. Less is more! As is the case with the restrained and Whapher theeen Mademoiselle Fifi. Garçon! another drop of that Chateau La Croix De Berny – Puisseguin Saint-Emilion 2007 sou vous plait!
love from the gourmand whose pants seem to have shrunk.
We attempt to use the French postal system but fail. We have collected quite a few books, catalogues, posters, post cards etc. and we have a strict limit on weight on Ryan air. So we decide to post off all of these non-essential things. It ought to be easy to post a small parcel you might think, but you would be wrong! The French system only has express air mail prepaid set size postal bags for 75 euros. That’s over $100 dollars. We only want a plain padded bag to send sea mail. Non! Absolutemente non! This can’t be done. They don’t have plain padded bags in France. Only prepaid express for our convenience. The $100+ fee isn’t convenient. We will have to create our own package ourselves from whatever we can find in our small apartment room and return to show it to them to see if it will meet their exacting French state postal system rules, which we aren’t at liberty to know just yet. we have to create something and then take it back to them and wait to see what they think.
Mademoiselle Fifi creating a ‘whapher theen’ French style postage package on the balcony, from a wine box of a very good year of bordeaux wine. We go back to the poste with our ‘whapher theeen’ parcel and find to our surprise that everything is OK and that it will cost us just 7.50 euros to post our stuff seamail in our own parcel. “That’s a very good growth” (meaning vintage of wine) the Postie tells us, refering to our recycled box. Today we go to another island off the coast where all the millionaires, rock stars, politicians, film personalities and celebrities have their holiday houses. It’s actually not all that nice really. Most of the island is salt marches or oyster leases. There are a couple of quaint villages, and this is supposedly where all the hype is generated. Certainly, there are a lot of big expensive yachts in the small harbor there. I stick to the countryside. Out on the fringes, we buy 3 dozen oysters of No. 2 size, about 100 mm. to 125 mm. long for 6.80 euros a dozen. They are huge. We order 3 dozen and the very nice lady gives us forty plus 4 lemons. That is the way it is if you go to the farm and speak with the grower. They seem to really appreciate that we take an interest. Especially when we tell her that we have come all the way from Australia, and that her oysters compare very favorably with our Australian ones. Which they do! The island is mostly dedicated to growing vines. They are all over the inland of the island. Sometimes they show a little bit of salt burnt on the leaves but otherwise very healthy. They are grown and trellised very low to the ground to keep them out of the salty wind. The other industry on the island beside oysters and wine is salt making. There are many areas of low lying land where salt mining is the only option for the peasants who formerly lived and worked here. Now that all the land is owned by the rich a lot less gets harvested. We call in to see an old salt harvesting family in their shed. Geordie decides to buy a small packet of their best quality “Fleur de Sel” ‘first flowering salt’ to take back to Australia. He says that it reminds him of the special salt that they use at work. We explain to the lady who is serving us, who looks as though she has had a tough life in the salt fields, with a very tanned and leathery skin. She is about 4 feet tall and quite stout. We explain that Geordie is a chef and will be using it in his cooking in the restaurant back in Australia. She is so excited that she gives it to him, no cost! then she goes out the back to find her export books and brings out an old invoice page where she sold a load of her hand made salt to Australia. Geordie recognises the name of the company immediately. This is the very place where he gets the special salt that he already uses. We are all amazed. What sweet people these are, when you take the time to get into our limited conversation. Today we are lucky, because we have Janine’s cousins with us, and they come here to the west coast of France every few years or so and speak French very well. herbs in the market, the smell is amazing. We have a lovely fishy lunch of oysters and other small shell fish. As I am the driver, I pass on the bottle of local wine that all the others say is marvelous. The company is great, the sun is shining, the wind is blowing off the sea and the salt is in the air. It’s all fresh and lively. During lunch the weather changes and a small squall comes in off the atlantic. The light rain freshens everything up and sharpens our senses. We are dining al fresco and we know that we are alive and everything is real. if I have gained anything from this trip, it is that I am a much better oyster shucker. love from Mademoiselle Fifi who says “So long, and thanks for all the fish” I say “Shucks, twernt-nothin”. Today will be our last day here in La Rochelle, The season is over and almost everyone has gone the weather is cooler. Places are starting to close up. Everything is on sale 20% and 50% off, but it’s just tourist junk and therefore still not worth buying at any price. You can see the town now and it is quite pretty without so many people. Isn’t it amazing that you sometimes end up killing the thing that you love. Here is an example. There will be a jazz concert tonight for the residents and the last of the lingering tourists like ourselves. There will also be an artists atelier open weekend. We will be walking the town to visit as many as we can before lunch with Janine’s rels and their French friends who are driving over here to meet up with them. Because we will be walking all day, I will be able to have a glass of wine with lunch. On re-reading this rambling series of impressions, I realise that I was a bit hard on La Borne. It’s true that it’s dead as far as really good and interesting functional wood fired domestic work goes. There are a few potters around that make Japanese tea ceremony vessels, but not functional domestic. There was a nice moment in the Old Church Museum where we took a little tour and watched a short video of the history. An old French man, retired looking, in faded blue work cloths overalls and a tweed kind of jacket, just to show that he was really dressed up. He speaks to us in thick garlicy French. We told him that we only spoke english. He lifts his palms and gives us the Gallic shrug, then continues on un-interupted in French but slower and louder now, with repeats of all the important bits. He is so good natured and he laughs and smiles a lot, we get along fine. He makes me feel happy, his enthusiasm is so infectious. The ‘Sea-drift’ rutile ‘chip-n-dip’ bowls out in the street still don’t look any better though. The best pots that we have seen here are all earthenware. There hasn’t been a wood fired pot that I’ve seen that I wanted to keep, even if I could both afford to buy it and afford to carry it home. On the other hand, there are some very lovely earthenware pots, particularly in the south. We are heading back down to Provence tomorrow. Maybe we’ll see some better pots down there? Janines woodfired earthenware decorated dishes are as good as any woodfired earthenware I’ve seen so far on this trip, and going on the work that I saw at the Brollin conference, there are a few people who talk about sustainability, but very few who really engage and try to make a difference. There was no-one whose work I saw, or who spoke to me that was doing anything as interesting as the work that I am already engaged in. So in retrospect, I guess that I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing, as I’ve seen nothing more interesting or engaging here so far. I have discussed with Janine the possibility of us making some collaborative woodfired domestic work together. We’ll see how much time we have when we get back. My time in Europe really has sharpened my appreciation of earthenware.
With love from The vitreous, chipped and brittle stoneware Pierre and his soft, forgiving and porous earthenware Mandemoiselle Fifi.
. From the south
On the way back to the hostel, we walk down a very narrow arcade that I haven’t seen before. We find that there are a few small interesting shops in this tiny out-of-the-way arcade. I find a young girl who sell chefs gear. She tells me that she has worked with her farther, (who started the shop 40 years ago), for three years now. He is slowly withdrawing from the business and she is going to take it over. I look around without much interest, until I see a small display of ‘Sabatier’ hand forged chefs knives. These are some of the best forged knives made in ‘Thiers’ in france The French centre for forged steel products. The price doesn’t seem to be too extreme. ‘Sabatier’ has a very good reputation. She explains that the knife isn’t fully finished yet and that she needs to ‘finish’ it off with a final sharpening honing and a polish. She will even engrave my name in it if I wish. I wish! She does. I’m happy. I’m the new owner of a hand forged French chefs 30 cm blade. It’s a beautiful thing. During our artists ‘open atelier’ walk yesterday we saw lots of different work, There was the full range from very slick but somewhat soul-less wanabee art made by rich dilettantes, through the middle range of not really very good at all to excellent expressive stuff that made your soul bleed. One lady who could draw divinely, some of the best gestural figure drawing that I’ve seen. Really affected me. She looked pretty hagged though. When we arrived, 1 hr after the opening time published, we find her door open but the room empty, just a lot of her art spread around the room. There is another room, her bedroom, with her unmade bed, with art in there too, but no-one around. I feel embarrassed, as though I’m some sort of voyeur. I leave and suddenly she is behind me calling me back in. She doesn’t speak much english and with my non-existent French, we manage to exchange a few ideas through charades. She trained in Paris and moved here 10 years ago. Life is tough, but art is the driving force, especially drawing. She tells me that she is full of enthusiasm and energy, her face tells another story. This is the fate that our own parents where so worried about for us when we announced that we were going to Art School to study art. Instead of getting a ‘proper job’. They didn’t want to see us shriveled up in a garret, dying before our time. I doubt that she’ll live long. love from Thomas the Doubter and Mary Mag-so-lean. Tonight we end up in Periguinne, just outside of Bordeaux. We are staying in an old wine chateaux that has been converted into a hostel. It is very old and romantic, with age oozing from it’s old stone walls. We arrive in the afternoon after driving through the Bordeaux wine region. One of the prettiest places along the way was Saint Emillion, with its church built into the stone cliffs of the hill. The village wraps itself around the rock outcrop, making some of the lanes very narrow, windy and steep. We came across a knife maker in one of the little steep lanes and when I realised that he was actually making something by hand, I took more interest. I have become so used to seeing all the same tourist junk in every little town. Here was someone fighting the tide. I bought one of his chefs knives, a 150 mm medium size blade with a lovely rosewood handle. We watched as he showed us the meat carving knife and matching meat carving fork that he was currently working on as a special order. Beautiful work. My second
French chefs knife.
We arrive on the outskirts of Periguinne, locate the Chateaux in among the vineyards and book in. We take a walk around the grounds and the local area, down to the river, that is dry at this time of the year in late summer/autumn, and into the vineyards. The dry desiccated heat reminds me of our own Australian summers. The grass is burnt off to a dull crisp brown and everything is wilting in the autumn heat. The only thing missing is the smell of the dried eucalypt leaves. All the ancient stone work around here is so atmospheric. the wall around the property has turned grey/black with age and is spotted with lichen. We dine in the old wine cellars, high stone arched rooms linked by a series of doorways. We find that tonight, on a slow Monday night, we have one dining room all to our selves. The meal is good but not brilliant and a little bit too expensive for what it is. But we are a captive audience and it is a long way into town for any alternative. The beautiful sweet smelling stone rooms are cheap and the beds are firm, but the discounted room is subsidised by the expensive wine and food in the restaurant.
In the morning, as we prepare to leave, we hear some noise from the side of the Chateaux where we had walked yesterday evening They have a winery in-house here and we saw the huge pile of vine stems from the de-stemmer in the rear courtyard. Now there is a mobile bottling machine that has arrived early in the morning all enclosed in a truck. The fancy thing unfolds into a bottling plant and is very efficient, with 3 people doing everything. The pallets of empty bottles delivered to the truck with a fork lift and the full crates taken away the same way. It is almost exactly the same as the one that used to come to the vineyard/function centre where Geordie used to work, or so he tells me. We drive for most of the day and pass through a village that specializes in Pate de foie gras, We drive past acres of fat geese. Everything around here has Foi Gras in it, including us now. I waddle back to the car and drive on to the Lascauex caves. These are world famous and now closed, due to damage from too many tourists. At dusk, we find a tiny family run hotel in the village of Ezyiers, Finding this hotel was not as easy-as-it sounded. This hotel has been run by the same family for donkeys years. it is now being taken over by the two sons of the owners. One is the chef and the other is the Maitre de, Its a nice little place off the main street and in a little cul de sac. It overlooks the river and they have a room, so we are settled for the night.
Mademoiselle discussing the foie gra with the waiter. We learn a new word.
We go to see the Lascaux cave paintings but the new facsimile cave that they have built out of cement render, no matter what the tourist hype says, isn’t very good. I understand the reasons for preserving the original cave, and keeping the hordes of tourists like me out. It’s just that if I’d known how ordinary the new one was, I wouldn’t have bothered going. Bit of a waste of time. We drive on to visit the Bernard Pallisy museum in his birth place town, but it’s shut on Mondays – in fact every day, except Saturday afternoons from 2 till 5 pm. Firme = closed! Next we pass through Millau and see the biggest, tallest, longest, highest, widest, strongest, greyest, highest, bridge in the world. It’s not that interesting really. I just mention it because of all the hype. Actually we drive under it to go to Roquefort, the cheese capital of the blue-vein world. Geordie has a special interest in seeing the caves and cheese ripening in the cellars built into them. Which is actually really interesting – and delicious. We can’t resist doing a little, well actually, a few hours of blue cheese degustation. it is really interesting how the flavors change and develop over time. I love the fresh stuff, but I really like the 9 month aged variety too. But the winner is the 18 month old aged fine piquant edition. Extremely good. regrettably, this is also the most expensive, pity that, but I can see why. We decide that it might be different at another producer, but it’s not. The oldest is still the most expensive and best. Not to be put off, and to make this a better scientific experiment, Geordie and I decide that we need more data to come to a more accurate decision. – we settle on best of three! It’s lucky that it is all down hill to the car park. The Mademoiselle walks with dignity while trying to ignore the other two spheres that have decided that it is easier to roll down to the car. We go to the local art Gallery but it’s closed on Tuesdays. Firme, shut! The next day we go to the local museum of archaeology, but it’s closed on Wednesdays. Firme! no entry! The local tourist information office is always open on the days that the museums are closed.. They are open to tell you that the museum is closed. They, however, are always closed on the days that the museums are open. So in this cunning way you will always know where they are when they are shut, but never know if they are open, or where to find them when they are! Apparently this makes sense to the French. However, because the French spend most of their time preparing to go to lunch, eating lunch and sleeping off the effects of the lunch, then returning from lunch and finally discussing lunch, they don’t seem to mind or even notice. Places here don’t open till 10 am or 11, then they close from 12 till 2 or 3 when they stay open till 6 or 7pm. All the pate foie gra and lovely wine has finally taken it’s toll on the very particular and restrained Mademoiselle wafer, now closer to a duo wafer, or trio. We have been touring the little pottery villages that exist here in the south of France. Everything is brightly decorated earthenware. A lot of it is not my taste, but some of it is very good indeed. I have now changed my mind about the pots here, up until now there wasn’t anything that caught my attention, but some of these pots are really good. We end up buying a few little things that we can’t resist, but the thought of flying on Ryan air keeps our purchases very small and quite restrained, as is always the case with the very restrained and sensible mademoiselle. Janine suddenly discovers that Geordie has arrived from Australia carrying only 8 kilos of luggage and no hand luggage! This revelation spins her into a frenzy of fashion shopping to the tune of 17 kilos max. which is our combined spare weight restriction on Ryan air. The very fashionable and formerly restrained waffer packet suddenly has leather shoes, cashmere cardie, woolen scarf, parfum, berret, etc. so much so that we are forced to go looking in the discount stores for an extra piece of luggage for Geordie to use as hand luggage so that the M’selle can fit it all in. We have been exploring the Provencial hinterland. The Alps Provencial. Here, well away from the coast in the dry limestone hills there are an endless number of little villages and tiny hill towns with their narrow winding little cobbled lane-ways. I love them, but I wouldn’t want to live in such a closed environment. However, it is so very nice, romantic and nostalgic to visit here. As it is getting late in the day we decide that we had better find a bed for the night. We travel without any real plan, just meandering through the countryside, waiting to see what there is to see and experience and then just letting it happen. Everything usually works out. This evening we head for a very pretty hill top village that looks really beautiful from the valley. When we get up there, it is even better. We spend a half hour lost in it’s tiny meandering little lane-ways try to find our way in to the central square – which is never square. When we finally find it, everything is closed up for the season, we are too late to stay here. There is however a little bar, so enquire, in our most inexpert faux French, of a man sitting drinking a beer and reading the newspaper, if there is anywhere to stay here. He responds that there isn’t, everything is closed now till spring. He suggests the next town. We have spent some time wandering here and it is getting late now , so we try and make our way back out of the village to find where we left the car. These places were built to be defended, and all the circular lanes that go nowhere in particular are hard to navigate It’s like a maze. Just as we couldn’t fight our way in, now we can’t find our way out. Finally we emerge on the other side of town and have to walk around the wall to get back to the car park. We usually find somewhere nice and rustic in a small family run pension or Gite, but today we seem to be out of luck. So far on our trip, we have only had to spend one night in a F1 motel on the highway outside Lyon, but only because Geordie has already booked in there and we went there to meet up with him Mademoiselle and her Chef discussing the aperitifs – post lunch, and preparing for dinner.
As I drive back along the country road along the valley, back to the main road. I see a chalk board out on the road side proclaiming something in French that I can’t take in in time at 60 kms/hr. but I do recognise the word “overt’. I swing into the lane without thinking too much, just a gut reaction, we go down the dirt track and we find the most delightful farm house converted into a pension, and it has a restaurant!! We walk in only to find it totally deserted, but there is a warm fire burning in the enormous fireplace in the dining/kitchen room. The place smells of wood smoke and is very homely. It reminds me of my home that is. We call out, but nobody is in, suddenly a young guy appears in the door way behind me dressed in checkered pants, apparently the chef for tonight. He doesn’t speak a word of English that he is prepared to tell us about but we manage in our newly learnt ‘can I book a room French’ to convey our intensions. He answers rapidly in ‘who gives a fuck French’. I launch a full scale frontal assault and counter-attack with my biggest weapons. First I pull out my wallet, this temporarily distracts him while I slip in a cunning pincer movement of the word “chamber” while simultaneously miming my head on my hands as a pillow. This confuses him, he feebly tries not to acknowledge me, but I swiftly respond with a perplexed, but warm smile. He gives in, he is out flanked and defeated. He tosses us two keys to the ‘gite’ at the back. Fortunately for us. His mother turns up at this point. It turns out that she is running this place all by herself, with her son doing the cooking. It is really charming. It is not for tourists, except during the heat of the simmer. She is open everyday, all year round, her staples are the tradesmen, seasonal workers and traveling salesmen who pass by here or work nearby. As the sun fades, the men turn up in their vans, utes and apes. We are the only tourists. She doesn’t speak much English either, but is keen on our business and is very warm and engaging. We can’t understand her french, even though she makes the effort for us and speaks very slowly and clearly. We just don’t know enough French words, however, we manage to pick up her meaning. The rooms are great, comfortable and clean smelling. Geordie and Janine sit on the deck in the fading light and we enjoy a little aperitif from a bottle that Geordie has stashed in his bag. We are out the back overlooking the vines and fields, on our own little deck. It is very calm and peaceful. We walk around to the farm house and into the huge dining room, that was once an animal stable below the living quarters. It has been converted beautifully. The huge worn but highly polished limestone flag stones that are the original stable floor have that patina of age and work. The room still smells of smoke, as the fire has been ‘kept in’ and wont go out until spring. We are offered two options of three courses from the blackboard, at 15 euros it is very good value and beautiful food, cooked right there as we wait. No wonder that it is well patronised by all the itinerant workers around the area. In the morning we have breakfast and coffee out in the courtyard under the trees.
This lady has reminded me of something of my mother, I think that it’s the caring and the warmth, somehow I can’t put a word to it. Not that I have to, but I’d like to distill it more, but fail to. The moment is gone and we are on our way again. I still cary that sense of loss.
As We are driving through the olive groves of Provence, we stumble across these enormous earthenware olive oil jars abandoned by the side of the road. quite stunning pots. I take some time to look at them carefully. They have been thrown right way up on a wheel of some kind and coil thrown as far as I can tell from my limited experience. Most have had some string or thin rope embedded into their surface while being thrown, presumably to stop them splitting under the load of their own weight and centrifugal force while being rotated. They have been masterfully fired. I’m really impressed. While I am examining one of them, an old French man, on his way home for lunch, carrying a shopping bag of food and several baguettes, changes direction and walks over to where I am standing, in the paddock, by the side of the road. He starts to tell me all about them, Apparently he must have worked in the pottery or the olive oil industry. He tells me how they were thrown, where they were made, who made them, all about the clay and all the details . He knows it all and despite the fact that I can’t understand a word of it he goes on. Having got all that off his chest, he finally slows down to a faltering halt, thanks me for my interest, grabs my hand and shakes it with real fondness and enthusiasm. A real two handed, warm, hand shake. He is brimming over, smiling from ear to ear. Finally, someone who understands! He walks off, back across the busy road to home and a hot lunch, satisfied that he has finally passed on all this incredible information to someone who will carry it forward. I look back to see him looking back. He touches his beret. I wave back. I feel good. God only knows what he said.
love from Mademoiselle Kerouak and her dharma bum.
After these two months on the road, I am quite getting used to the stiff short black espressos that are the usual coffees here. I do need to have a little bit of sugar in it though. I usually don’t take sugar in almost anything, so it is a bit strange for me to drink sweet coffee, but it is far preferable to the strong bitterness of the short black. As we step out walking one day, holding hands, I lift up M’slle Fifi’s hand and kiss her fingers gently – a loving gesture. The Mademoiselle informs me that this is the very hand that she has just wiped her bottom with! Un-de-turd, I lift her hand and kiss it one more time, just to show that I love all of the Mademoiselle. We have managed to notch up almost 10,000 kms in this little Citreon diesel hire car, no problem with either the car or the driving on the other side, other than the stress of it. It has cost us about 500 euros in fuel, at 4.4 litres per 100 kms, and Au$1675 to hire it for the 2 months. That’s less than $2500 for all our traveling costs. Very good value I think. Traveling is Great!. It’s just the travel part that spoils it.
Mademoiselle apres degustation and feeling replete. love from Mademoiselle Kerouak and her Dharma Bum.
I love all the old stone buildings here. There is a stone heart to all the old villages, but I love the little hamlets out in the countryside most of all. I really like the fact that nothing is in straight lines, all the lane-ways wander as if lost. The streets are curved due to some long forgotten reason, but remain as a reminder of that unknown fact. I really appreciate that there are hardly any cars in these little villages. All the old streets are far too small to allow too many cars. So most villages have large parking areas just outside the town walls. People park out there and walk in. Only the residents or shop keepers have the right to drive in, but only to pick up or deliver stuff. It makes for a really nice uncluttered environment and clean air. We stop in at Montpassier, a very small and very old village, now preserved from any further development in the town centre. All the new houses are being built outside the town walls. We park out side and walk in. It is market day and the square is pretty full, not bad, because it is raining very gently. The kind of weather that keeps people indoors. A lot of people are huddled in under the stone arched cloisters around the edges of the square but I go to the centre under the ancient wooden market sq. roof. This is a real delight, such a beautiful piece of vernacular architecture. I want one!
We spend a bit of time watching a bunch of old dudes (not unlike me) fucking around with some old machinery, crushing apples and pressing apple juice to sell to the punters. Now that is fresh! There is a stand selling old French copper cooking pots and pans. These are really beautiful. However they are still very expensive even though most of the tinning on the inside is worn off and the cost of postage will be horrendous. I walk on, I resist the temptation. But those old copper pans are calling me. I can still hear them.
Buy me! Buy me!
I manage to resist, but the thought of learning how to re-tin an old french cooking pot is a real challenge that lingers in my mind. I must have a go at hammering out a solid copper pan from sheet copper when I get home. Another project to keep me busy for when I retire! We drive on to the little village where Bernard Palissy was born. We were here some days ago on our way down to the south and Provence, now we are heading back up north again, we have a second try. The lady that we spoke to back then told us that the museum in the tiny hamlet is only open on Saturdays in the off season from 2 till 5. when we arrive there at 4 o’clock, it is firmly closed. We are severely pissed off. All this way for nothing. We ask another local who tells us that the times are right but the day is Sunday, not saturday. We decide to stay locally this night and try again tomorrow.
Success! We arrive back and the museum is open. – Well almost. There is a sign that says that the lady is down the road at the birth place house of Bernard showing some other guests around. I must point out that we can’t read what this sign says, but some visitors come wandering up the lane and explain it too us, they have just come from there. The museum is very small and most modest. It houses no originals, only reproductions and works of the period attributed to others. There is another site where there is contemporary work of potters inspired by Palissy. Jana Ferris should have her work in this part of the museum. We visit yet another pottery town and although I don’t see anything that I like or want to buy. The pottery and showroom are caves and tunnels under the cliffs so that everything is cool and damp, which is such a relief from the heat outside.
We have made our way back up to the North coast and returned our hire car after two months and there was nobody there at the air port hire car desk. It is a very small regional airport, only used by Ryan air, flying small jets out of Stansted. Still, I felt a little unsure about just parking the car and dropping the keys into a mail box at the car hire desk. This is such a small airport. Just a tin shed. We walk out onto the air strip and up the steps into the plane and think our farewells to France. We have just managed to keep our bags under the 15 kg limit. It is quite a challenge to travel for a two months with only 15 kilos.
Love from London.
We arrive in cold, damp, dark London and everything is different, low skys, low temperature, low expectations, High prices! We find a really crappy, but cheap hostel room in Earl’s court which is very noisy. The only good thing about this place is that I can have real marmalade on my toast for breakfast. This is, I suddenly realize, something that I have missed. I didn’t notice while I was in France because everything else was so good. We spend out time here visiting Galleries and Museums, the Tates, the V&A etc. Geordie has been trying to buy a leather jacket everywhere we have been in France, and although he saw some very nice ones, they were either way too expensive or too small or too big or the wrong style, and if they were the style he liked, they didn’t have his size etc. So we make a trip to the Jubillee Markets near Covent Garden. This is a fairly large, permanent flea market full of tourist junk, but we do find a specialist stall selling nothing but leather jackets. They are affordable, in fact the cheapest that we have seen so far, and I can’t see anything wrong with them. The stall holder is very smooth and quite pushy, but Geordie isn’t completely sure. I see him wavering, the salesman puts on the pressure. I step in and tell him to back off, can’t he see Geordie isn’t certain. Of course I know that he knows that, and that is why he was putting on the pressure, he wants a sale. As soon as I appear, he backs right off. I suggest to Geordie that we go and have some lunch and think it over. My whapher theen research assistant says that she has information indicating that there is an Antonio Carluccio restaurant near here somewhere in Covent Garden.
Geordie is keen to try it out, so we set off in search of lunch. We find it with out any trouble, it is quite busy, but everyone is very attentive and the bruschetta, foie gra, onion tart and Mediterranean pasta later we learn from Geordie that although this is the cheapest jacket that we have seen so far, it is still the cost that is worrying him. That and the fact that he doesn’t like to be pressured. I offer to pay the 100 pounds for it, as a gift. Does that make it easier to decide. It does! We stagger out into the street. The leather man is surprised to see us, he thought that he had lost that sale. Geordie looks good in his black leather. We are all happy with this outcome. We spend the rest of the day on the Thames. The city looks different from the river. We start with the ebb tide, with the tide out there are mud flats all along the rivers edge, with people fossicking in the mud and gravel for I know not what. But I hope that they are not thinking of eating it! By the time we sail back, we are on the flood tide and the river is filling and everything looks different again. We spend the day with a leather jacket on the Thames.
Geordie and the Mademoiselle decide that they would like to dine at a Jamie Oliver’s restaurant. It’s just walking distance from the river. He has a policy that you can’t book, except for large parties, so you just turn up and take your chances. It is chock full and the Maitre De tells us that there will be a 30 min. wait for a table, we decide to wait, and because we are three, that is a difficult number to seat efficiently. However, There is a bar where we can wait and have an aperitif and some olives, but we are in luck. We don’t get to sit at the bar as we are whisked into a table that has just come available. The kitchen here is wide open to the public view, behind a large sheet of glass, Everything is made from scratch. There are boxes of vegetable and pallet loads of flour bags just inside the door. Everything is very clean and efficient, with about 7 chefs cooking for about 100 guests. It’s very impressive. Well I’m impressed. Geordie not so, he tells me that there must be another part to this kitchen where all the prepping is being done. Apparently, 7 chefs can’t keep up to 100 covers without a lot of prepping. I really don’t know. Maybe they do all the prep earlier in the day? Still the food is fantastic and not too expensive, our waiter is very attentive and explains everything in detail. I’m impressed. Geodie’s girl friend Eloise has a mother who has bought almost every Jamie Oliver cook book, so Geordie asks if he can buy one of the table napkins with the restaurant name on it. Our Waiter says that those are not for sale, but there are other designs that are for sale. Geordie buys a pair for her as a present, but indicates that he would rather prefer the blue and white ones on the table. Our waiter tells him that seeing he has bought the souvenir pack, he will look away so that Geordie can steal one off the table, he does and so do I. I feel a bit bad about this, but only for 5 seconds.
love from the Cook, the Thief, and his lover.
We see some relatives and visit a few potters workshops. (we even bought a few pots. Just what we need!) We got tired of gaping wide mouthed at all the beautiful architecture. The buildings are so old. There is some sort of feeing that is generated in me when I’m here amongst all the aged culture. It’s so different from home where all the buildings are relatively new. Our house for instance is quite old, being built in 1893, but this is nothing compared to here, where houses can have components that date from the 1400’s.
This picture was taken in front of the Tate Modern on the Millennium bridge over the Thames looking East to the Tower bridge in the background, I think that it says it all about the English summer. Apparently we have missed the one day that the sun came out this summer. Eskimos reputedly have more than one hundred words for snow! But the British still only have one word for grey. Funny that! We have been pretty busy just coping with the jobs and the traveling, so have not had the chance to write very much earlier. Actually, we probably had lots of chances but we just couldn’t be bothered 🙂 It’s amazing how a month can go by so quickly. We were so busy that I didn’t get a chance to write very much, and now thinking back, I don’t seem to be inspired to recall anything that was so interesting. Or maybe England is just a really dull place? 🙂 On our last day in England we went to visit Mary Wandrausch, who makes very beautiful and quite idiosyncratic terracotta slipware in a combination of very old, traditional techniques and very modern personal interpretations. An amazing force of nature with an incredible personality, quite outspoken, 80 odd, years old, with strong opinions, very plumb accent and received pronunciation, quite posh upbringing – don’t you know – raaathhheeer, what! Don’t you have servants in Australia? How do you cope? She swears like a fucking fishwife, but in such a fucking posh way- yarss. don’t you know.. We bought a very nice, but small plate with a quince painted on it. She took a shine to Janine and took her on a 1 1/2 hour tour of the pottery and then to our amazement, an even longer tour of her old house, dating from the 15th century in parts. She has an museum quality collection of ancient slipware and folk art pottery dating back centuries. It was such a privilege to get to handle such old pots. I’m sure that it will be destined to go to a public collection like the Ismay collection did. An amazing experience, and such a gift. We were very lucky. Love from Steve the chauffeur and Miss Niki the maid xxx Everything is expensive here, but I’m sure that you already know that. After all that sunshine and warm weather in the south of France. We were following the sun southwards down through Switzerland into Italy and Provence. Now it is such a difference here, the sun gets up later here and sets so much earlier, and it rains a lot too. We had only 3 wet days in the last 3 months until now. The new ceramics floor in the V&A is now open and we spent 2 days there. It is only half done, the other half of floor 6 will open next year. The whole thing has been shut for several years now. It was closed when we were here 3 years ago. It is a very good experience to see it all. Apparently, there are 24,000 pots in the display there! We also spent a day in the museum of London. I was keen to see the exhibit of ancient flint tools that they have there. I was very pleased with that, more interesting than the pots, I felt. Have also been to visit ‘Charlston’ the country home of Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and Duncan grant and the Bloomsbury set from the 1930’s. a very interesting history and culturally very important, but the craft work, especially the pots, was particularly poor. We also spent a day in the Kew gardens, it’s a huge place and a day was only enough to be able to see about a quarter of it. it was a very long day walking. My hip has been playing up a bit and I find that I can’t walk as well or as far as I used too, I want to keep my hip as long as I can, so I have to be more careful of myself these days. Doing so much walking with a few kgs in my back pack has taken its toll. It has been good to get back to eating curries again, after all, curry is the most popular food in the UK these days. I miss the great salads that we were enjoying in the south of France. I’m also missing the European beer! English warm flat ale just doesn’t do it for me, so we have taken to drinking Spanish red wine, which is excellent and not too expensive. I got an email from the USA telling me that my article that I sent in response to the ‘Call for papers’, in the Ceramic Technical magazine, was selected, with a unanimous decision by the judges – apparently. My article is called ‘Life as Amalgam’ So I’m ‘chuffed’, as the Brits would say. My article will be published in the November issue. I also submitted 2 other entries and they say that they will publish all three, over the next two years. One per year. With my left handedness and dyslexia I have always found writing quite challenging, if not completely intimidating and stressful. but when it works and I get something published, it’s a real thrill. I also got an email from the USA inviting me to give a paper and demonstration of my Ceramic fibre reinforced clay bodies research at a conference in Los Angles in February. So we might be going there as well, pity it isn’t sooner so that we could add it on the return trip from Japan! Not sure how we can fund that one though! So maybe it won’t happen. So long for now from wet and cool England. Everyone says that staying in London is expensive, but it doesn’t need to be, as long as you sleep on the street and eat dog food it’s OK.
fond regards Dr. Charmondelay-Smythe-Bottomsley and The Right Royal Lady Nina King ( who are starting to feel quite fucking tired from all this travel, don’t ya know, yarrs!) Isn’t it funny that we don’t have servants? I wonder what happened to them?
Love from Steve and Janine .
We have been off the wifi now for quite a while as we travelled down through Italy to the tip of Tuscany and back up the coast through Liguria. Everything is starting to close up around here, as it is the end of the season, but there are just a few places still open and catering for us die-hards, hanging on to the last of the season and the sunshine.
A quiet beach in Liguria, with no tourists. One of the little sea-accessible towns on the cinque terre coastal walk It couldn’t have worked our better, the weather is fantastic and there is hardly anyone around. So we have the place to our selves, with no queues and hardly anyone to spoil our views. Apparently, these places are crowded over the summer months. Everyone told us that we
wouldn’t be able to do so much because of the crowds, but it hasn’t been the case. We spent a couple of days walking the Cinque terre (which was fantastic) and slowly made our way back up the coast. We eventually made our way through Liguria and went looking for Diano San Pietro, the home of Annie Hawes ‘Extra Virgin’ and ‘Ripe for the picking’ books. She lived in San Pietro for 15 years and wrote of it with such affection. What I liked about these books in particular was the fact that she lived in the village for so many years and her observations are not just the short sketches of a passer by, like this lightweight rubbish that I am writing, but well rounded descriptions based on her life over a long period. She has a very dry sense of humor combined with a talent for observing and describing people and their interactions. This is all packaged in a nice quirky style of descriptive writing. Very enjoyable. What Annie Hawes doesn’t tell us in her books, but something that I felt that I read between the lines, was that she was never really accepted by the locals. If you read it closely, as I did the second time that I read it, after a break of a few years, is that all her friends are southern Italians, who also are not accepted by the locals. They form a self supporting ‘clique’ of outsiders. The ‘terroni’ , these were the southern agricultural laborers who migrated to the north to find work, during the economic boom after the war. As I understand it, they were and still are despised and actively discriminated against. The Leaguea Norda, right-wing, racist political party was formed to keep the north ‘pure’ from any immigrants, but particularly against the south. They seem to consider anyone from south of Rome not to be ‘true’ Italians. Rich Germans are just as unwelcome, but particularly the southerners. Annie and her sister, as English are foreigners, but not as bad as Southerner or Germans. So It transpires that all her friends are Calabrians, or similar, or locals who have inter-married with these Calabrian families or other foreigners. She makes light of these separations, but it is there. It also appears as a subtext that is not investigated in Peter Mayle’s books, as well as in others that I’ve read. Tim Park does a great job of explaining the intricacies and complexities of marrying into an Italian family and living there for many years in his books, particularly, ‘Italian Families’ and ‘An Italian Education’. Very entertaining, hugely enjoyable and highly recommended. So when we arrive, San Pietro is not exactly as I imagined, a lot more industrial, but very beautiful once you get up past all those 16 ‘S’ bends to the high ground at the top of the hill where all the olives grow on their stone terraces. this is exactly as I imagined it, very romantic scenery. Olive groves, dry stone terraces and a million dollar view out to the Mediterranean. Patrucco’s roses We even came across the car of Mr. Patrucco, the rose grower, a character in her book. Annie Hawes’s neighbors olives and stone terraces. I’m such a hopeless, incorrigible and tragic romantic. Ciao from Stefano and Niko We have moved on to southern France now, but avoided the Cote de azur, which was all modern buildings, concrete and enormous yachts. We opted instead to travel inland into the high country of Provence and the Luberon, spending our time up in the hill towns. We have no agenda or pre-conceived idea of where we should be at any particular day, so we just cruse along asking for local knowledge of what is interesting in each area as we pass through. We find the most beautiful places that we didn’t know existed, and there is always somewhere to stay, that is still open. Everyone is really helpful and very friendly. Around these little villages where we have travelled, French arrogance is a myth. A great treat was to discover a little village with a waterfall in its heart. The village divided into two parts by the torrent. There were two very old stone bridges, one at the top of the gorge, where it is quite narrow, this bridge is wide enough to allow a cart across. There is another at the bottom of the valley, only wide enough to walk across, both dating from very ancient times. A new stone arch was built in the early 1800’s linking the two villages into one, and this was built over a cascade before it plunged down into the lower part of the gorge. We found a room in a small place over-looking the cascade and slept the night with the window open to the sound of falling water. The water fall below our window Fond regards from the pre-conceived, conceited and arrogant Stefan We have been traveling very cheaply and roughing it mostly in very small B&B’s or back packer’s, so we haven’t had connection to the Wifi for a while. All the pottery here is in the earthenware tradition, and we have bought a few pieces that we couldn’t resist, as if we needed another pot in our house, but they are nice. I hope that I can get them home unbroken. We accidentally ended up in a small village down in a valley one evening, and found a beautiful river that bisected the town into two or three, creating a small island in the centre. As it was getting late and the river looked and sounded great, so we asked around for a room but all the places were closed, as it is after the end of the season. We found one in a small place on the edge of the village overlooking the river and and the little weir (with water wheel) and spent another night sleeping to the sound of falling water. we walked back into the village over the ancient stone bridge and ate a lovely simple meal in the local cafe. In the morning I got up at dawn to film the river flowing outside our window, and the Church bells began to ring just at that moment – magic! I got it on a little video, taken on my cheap little stills camera, a lovely moment. A treasure. Warm days, lots of sun shine and cool nights, beautiful food. Who could ask for more? Well, nice wine as well actually! I found a few prehistoric flint tools, (4) knives and scrapers, one made from obsidian, and two axe heads, both broken, but still lovely, so I am very happy. We ran out of money today, having spent all our earnings from our work along the way, and had to make a withdrawal from the hole in the wall. I’m amazed that we managed to get so far on so little. It’s amazing what theft can achieve! No, not really. We are starting to make our way home now.
Back through England, Hong Kong, Japan and home for Xmas. fond regards Piere and Mademoiselle Nina
Luxury bruises – a sad story
Here is a little event that occurred to us. We had an interesting cruse on a luxury yacht. We had been invited through meeting the wife of the captain, ( we met during one of our workshops). He escorted us in past security and into the first class lounge area, then personally brought us our wine glasses and saw to us being seated comfortably, before returning to his captaining duties. We found ourselves briefly in the world of International bankers, politicians and Russian businessmen doing business. We had been given an invitation on this trip and were keen for a luxury boat ride in special style. We were sitting outside on the upper rear deck in first class conditions, sipping first class wine and feeling particularly second class among all the finely dressed types that inhabit such places. They were a stiff lot, without much animation. Still, the view was very nice and the wine was excellent. I was looking across the deck at a couple that had come out side and sat down opposite us so that he could smoke. He was a tough looking guy, He was sitting with, but almost totally ignoring the young women that he was with. She had been, and could still have been, very beautiful, but wasn’t. Her face said that she wasn’t happy. She looked hagged. The Russian spent a lot of time chain smoking and talking loudly into his mobile, which rang incessantly. Occasionally he would answer and speak much more quietly, immediately getting up and walking to the deck rail and facing out to the water, to continue his conversation in private. He was up and down the whole time. On one occasion, walking to the other side of the boat, where there were a lot less people due to its being in the shade, to face the other deck rail. A very private conversation indeed. She on the other hand just sat there toying with her wine, staring blankly she never moved and had no real interest in the scenery. This girl was not happy. I would, every-so-often observe her when she wasn’t looking my way. I could see the remnants of a fading black eye and after a while a little cut on a faintly bruised lip. I started thinking of how all this could be explained or imagined. Why would a beautiful young woman want to be a trophy wife? or a gangsters girlfriend? Why would you want to be with a violent man that was twice your age. What kept her there? Is it just money? She was not at all happy, I would even say miserable. I wondered if she was being paid, was she a hooker, or just an unhappy wife? She apparently wanted the posh life of international travel and expensive yachts. I couldn’t come to any sort of conclusion. What had she traded off for this miserable life. Was this better than what she had left? My fertile imagination came up with quite a few answers. All quite wrong I’m sure. What I did realise was how lucky I am. Janine never beats me up! Janine and I were invited up to the captains deck to see the Captain and how it all worked, up on the Bridge. Before we left our seats, as we collected our things together, I looked up to see the girl take my photo with her little camera. She looked away immediately, not allowing any eye contact. This really puzzled me. I’m still thinking about it. When we returned from the Captain’s deck she was gone.
Best wishes from Clyde and Bonni
Notes from Japan
Here are a few scribblings from the Japanese part of our trip.
The Box Maker
Kyoto is a very nice old, undeveloped kind of small city, with only limited high rise on the out skirts, with most of the city left as two story wooden buildings that are mostly homes and shops or home and workshop/factory combined. Yesterday we walked all day up and down lots of the narrow little streets, exploring a little bit around the shopping district, but keeping to the smaller places in the margins. We found a little shop/workshop/ home of a wood worker who specialises in making traditional wooden bath tubs and other water proof items out of wood. including fish tanks, with 2 sheets of glass, one in each side! He made me a sushi rice mixing bowl which I bought last time I was here in 1986 and which we still use. The lady there said that the family had been in business on the site for umpteen generations. I didn’t catch the number, as my Japanese isn’t so good. but I did determine that they have been there making wooden objects since the Edo period. That’s more that 2 hundred years, or prior to 1850, I think, not too sure on that date, but it’s a f*@&%$# long time to be in business in the same house, on the same little ally way, in a back neighborhood. I was a bit surprised that he was still there, but on reflection, not so. This time we bought 2 little wooden measuring cups. Simple, restrained, beautiful. They will be a joy to use well into the next 200 years. Geordie’s kids will enjoy using them, when they grow up and learn to cook. Just like the wooden sushi-rice mixing bowl, that we have been using now for over 20 years.
fond regards from waterproof Steve with the tightly fitted lid.
The Knife Maker
It has been quite cool here in Kyoto, with the first snow falling up in the hills. The rain has cleared and we have walked all around this town, taking in all the little delights that there are hidden away in all sorts of unlikely places. Today we walked for 7. 1/2 hours from 9.00 till 4.30 , with only a little fruit for breakfast and a vegie sushi roll for lunch. We are keeping our selves for dinner. We have found a small place that is well off the beaten path, that has the most amazing sushi/sashimi chef, I can’t get enough of it. He does it with such skill. There is so much to see here that we won’t have enough time. Today’s highlight was finding a hand made Japanese knife maker. I decided to buy a beautiful sashimi knife for Geordie. We went through the stock till I found one that I thought was right, one that had a bit of Geordie about it. I was so surprised when they then took it into the workshop at the back to ‘finish’ it off. Two men worked on it, grinding, polishing, and honing it on a series of grinding wheels and honing stones, until the master gave the OK that it was suitably sharp and ‘finished’. That was great to watch. But then, was I amazed when they said, Do you want us to engrave his name in it? Naturally I said yes. They then set to work engraving his name in both Japanese characters and English letters, by hand using a very fine hammer and chisel. Wow! amazing. It brought a lump to my throat. What a beautiful thing. Just the sort of thing that has happened to us almost every day on this trip. Geordie probably wont like it! – NOT. I can’t think of a better person and object to spend his inheritance on!
The Old Tofu Maker.
This little ryokan in this little back lane is such a cute little place, it is an old pickle warehouse. A 2 story wooden building with all the walls made of clay over bamboo wattling or paper sliding screens. So old and traditional, and very beautiful. We have a small room of 4 tatami mat size, just enough for two to sleep in. Which is OK, because all we do in here is sleep. As we are out all day walking and looking. A little surprise for us was that there is an old tofu maker living next door, For 17 generations or about 400 years, his family have been making tofu here. So I have learnt something about making tofu. All tofu makers start work at one o’clock in the morning,and finish at 6 am approximately so that there fresh tofu is ready for the new days customers. From what I can gather it goes like this. The soya beans are ground into a flour by dragging an old rusty steel pallet around by a series of chains, banging into everything that is in the way including our bedroom wall, very often. The next step appears to be to crush the burnt lime by hitting it with a steel shovel on top of a garbage can, Next the tofu maker has a domestic dispute with his partner at high volume , which culminates with him hacking the partner to pieces with a very blunt hatchet, very blunt, as it takes several hours. The lime is tested for pH by dissolving a cat or other small animal in the quick lime to how it dissolve – tail first. Once this is established, the semi blinded cat or small dog is allowed to run off around the factory crashing into any thing and everything. While the tofu is setting, the old man plays frisby with a few garbage tin lids along the ally. When it is done and all that remains is to clean up. This is done by getting inside a big steel tank and using an angle grinder. Finally the work is all done. It is 6 am and all is quiet, the tofu is ready for sale to the earliest customers. For some reason I fall fast asleep and don’t wake until 10 am. When I emerge all the tofu is sold, so I don’t get to taste any. You will notice that I haven’t included any quantities in this recipe, these are only the making instructions as best that I can discern through my bedroom wall. It shouldn’t take too much effort to work out the quantities for your self. If these bags under my eyes get any bigger, I’ll have a use for one of Janine’s old bras! fond regards from Insomniac San and his Sleeping Beauty
The Mad Matter.
We found a Tatami matt maker, working away at this trade. His main work these days comes from repairing the old tatami mats, as the top covering only lasts one or two generations. When the old tatamis are opened-up it is good to see that they are made of densely packed and stitched rice straw. This part of the mat is expected to last indefinitely. It is only the outer covering of woven and stitched, hard stemmed grass that eventually wears out, but this is very long lasted, because tatami mats are only walked on in bare feet, socks or stockings, and never would an educated person dare tread on the fabric covered edge – even in stockinged feet. I see that the new tatamis are made from polystyrene foam which is finished in the same way, with the hard dried grass covering. I’m told that they feel exactly the same under foot and no one can tell. I’m not so sanguine about sleeping on polystyrene in a few years time when it starts to break down and give off its gasses. Do I recall a fuss about bean bags a few years ago in Australia, to do with such gasses coming off the decomposing polystyrene balls? Still, what do I know? I’d still prefer to have the straw thank you very much, but NO. I can’t. Not unless I’m a millionaire. The new tatamis are expensive enough as it is. Apparently no-one can afford to pay for the real thing any more. And anyway you can’t tell, can you! Or can you? Can I buy old rice straw tatamis and have them recovered? Apparently this is a hypothetical question in more ways than one! No, but yes. It sounds like little Britain. No-one in there right mind would sell their heirloom tatamis, each generation or so would have the old ones recovered, wouldn’t they! Why would anyone want to sell their tatamis? I can see his point – sort of. Actually, it’s because no-one really wants the new polystyrene-corred ones if they can have the real thing, but he’s not admitting that. So it’s polystyrene for the rest of us I’m afraid. It is only heathens like us who would unthinkingly dare to tread on a tatami mat with his shoes still on! Polystyrene or no. This is apparently because as westerners, we are crass, ignorant, clumsy and generally uneducated. I get the feeling that I’m a lost cause. I have had another conversation with an old couple who owned a magnificent, but very old house, a traditional farm house. It had formerly had a thatched roof, but this is long since gone, replaced with tin, due to the enormous cost of re-thatching every ten to twenty years or so. Old houses like this are not very fashionable with these older generation folk who are a product of the 3 modern miracles of the fifties; washing machines, TV and refrigeration. All provided through the other miracle of electricity. They have had enough of repairing the old dump and have moved out into a converted shipping container, with no windows, but it does have air conditioning. It has been plonked down in part of the old formal traditional garden belonging to this house, just beside the old gate house. It is a rusty brown steel box, without windows, but it is modern! They tell me that, because I’m a westerner, come here to study traditional japanese pottery, I can’t expect to be able to understand the sophisticated and peculiarly Japanese sense of natural beauty which is inherent in the Japanese soul and culture. They point to a plastic replica of a piece of drift wood, stuck to the steel wall of the shipping container. It’s a copy of a famous piece of wood once selected by the famous Japanese tea master to decorate his tea house. These are readily available in the 100 yen shops (probably made in China). Pointing at this piece of plastic, inside the lightless shipping container, I’m told that the Japanese know, understand and appreciate nature when they see it and apparently I will never really be able understand this. I am forced to admit that I have to agree. I don’t understand.
We got a lift up into the back hills of Iga, near Shigaraki. There is no public transport up in these remote hills. I remember reading a piece from the 60‘s by the American environmental poet Garry Schneider about the potters up in “those rotten granite hills up Shigaraki”. The potters in question being Les Blakeborough and the late John Chappel. It just so happens that I have a grey/white shino tea bowl made in the sixties in Japan by John Chappel in Do Mura and it is one of my favored possessions. So I eventually find myself traveling up in these rotten granite hills myself, draining what I can from them, when we see black smoke in the distance. That has to be a kiln firing, burning off the rice stubble only makes a light grey smoke, and there is plenty of that about at this time of year after the harvest is gathered in. It fills the valleys and shrouds the hills in a grey fugg that will last until it is all burnt and the winter winds come and clear the smoke away, only to replace it with the pollution from the big industrialised cities that are never far away. We make our way by trial and error, mostly error, up the various lanes and through farms and compounds, all interesting in their own way, but not what we have come to see today. At any other time I’d be trying to communicate something of my respect for this ancient way of life, work and food production, but not today, we are on a mission, we follow the smoke until we get to the right place, following the sign language of the intermittent bursts of black. We arrive at a small courtyard of old blackend and weathered grey timber buildings that are the norm here with there infill of ochre yellow/grey clay over bamboo laths. These buildings are quite run down and some of the clay has washed out over the years revealing the bamboo. There are two potters firing, a father and son team. There is another son who has finished the night shift and is now asleep in bed. They are very jovial and quite good natured to us two blow-ins from Australia. They don’t speak very much English and we don’t speak much Japanese, but we muddle through in a very good-natured sort of way. I think that they are quite bemused that we have found our way up here into these remote hills, far from the usual tourist tracks, to watch them fire. We wander into the studio and look at some of the stock from previous firings. The son tells us that he is off to America soon to exhibit his work and possibly build or fire a Shigaraki kiln over there – not too sure about this part. We use all three of our Japanese words as creatively as we can, and they reply with both of their English words. So the conversation eventually grinds to a halt and we sit and watch the process. I haven’t seen a kiln fired like this before. They stoke 50 pieces into the front fire mouth, which is quite a lot of wood for a small anagama, but then they also fill every stoke hole along the kiln until it won’t take any more, 25 to 30 pieces to each stoke hole. Nothing burns efficiently, this is all about creating charcoal, as soon as the smoke seems to be clearing, they start again. This appears to be how they build up that runny pale green ash deposit from under the blue/grey charcoal deposit. The kiln seems to be on it’s last legs with cracks everywhere, it almost looks a little unstable. I act this out in charades, they laugh and agree, it should have been pulled down before this, but they were waiting until the day shift son goes to the US. Dad will rebuild it while dayshift son is away. I don’t know if they are into water reduction like so many wood firers are here in Australia, but they have chosen to build their kiln into the lower wall of the irrigation water dam in the hillside directly above them. The whole site is damp if not sodden. This will surely affect the work that they get from this kiln. Grandfathers kiln was higher up on the slope next to and above the reservoir. He had a 15 chamber climbing kiln there, since pulled down. I don’t think that there is any reason to doubt the placement of their small anagama kiln here in this damp gully. But all this is way too difficult to explain. I have come to realise that I just have to expect that everybody I meet will think that I am retarded, and give me the most simple of answers to my seemingly idiotic questions, delivered in a mixture of mangled Japanese, English and charades. I know that I am capable of some subtle thought processes (although my mother sometimes doubted this), but these people only have their ears and eyes to guide them, so I must seem like an idiot, my tale, all sound and fury, signifying nothing!
We have finally emerged from the distant and remote Shigaraki hills, where I have been extending my knowledge of Japanese woodfiring techniques. We have been firing an anagama wood fired kiln with a potter whose work I very much admire. I think that I learned a lot. Not too sure though. Time will tell. Now we are home, I will need to try and integrate what I think that I might have learned into what I already do, and hope for some sort of synthesis, where what comes out is better than what I was doing before hand. This is of course impossible to gauge or quantify. I suppose that it all boils down to whether I feel that there is any influence or not. These things are very subtle. So far in my ceramic career, I have, more or less, managed to avoid any direct influences from any of my teachers. I don’t make work like Peter Rushforth, Berni Sahm, Derek Smith, Joan Grounds, Nicholas Lidstone, Mike Pridmore, Des Howard or Shiga Shigao. My main influence in my work to date has been Song Dynasty pots and tea ceremony bowls from books and museums. I felt like I could have learnt more from Shiga, but the time wasn’t right in his life for me to be there. I learnt a lot more from being in Nick Lidstones workshop at the Berrima Pottery. He was generous to a fault and very supportive and enthusiastic. A great mentor for years afterwards. His influence can be seen in my domestic wear of the seventies and eighties. I often wonder where my interest in Japanese culture originated. Was it from watching “The Samurai” on television when I was a child? I doubt it, I have never had any interest in marshal arts. It remains a mystery to me, but I have always liked the idea of the culture there and Shigaraki has always been on my list of places to visit. I just love that red flashing and the blueish/green ash glaze that they get on their clay from their wood. When we were in Shigaraki we were in a bit of an out-of-the-way place and didn’t have internet access up there or a toilet for that matter, We had to make a 200 metre dash through the snow to get to the nearest public “convenience”, which wasn’t very convenient. We slept on the pottery floor, or when we were up the hill at the kiln site, in a little unlined hut of only 2 metres sq. Very primitive, and freezing, but a great experience. As it was winter up there, it was cold up on top of the mountain at night – quite cold! somewhere between very and fucking actually. But all is well now and the doctor says that when my frost bite heals, I’ll be able to walk again. As soon as we are back, I will write more, once the bandages are off 🙂
love from the ever so cool Steve and the Ice Queen Madamosielle Fifi. The lovely little hut The lovely little hut built over the lovely little pond. Here is the lovely little Miss Janine on the little stone bridge over the beautiful little pond in the lovely little Japanese garden with the lovely little thatched roofed hut.
I have finally got around to putting a few words and images together about our trip – so read on, if you’re interested? We started with a short stay in Kyoto, where we had arranged to meet the shino potter Tomio Suzuki. he lives just out side of Kyoto, where he bought a house and traditional garden that had belonged to the old temple next door. He was lucky enough to get his hands on both and has built his kiln there. The house is very old and is very beautiful. It is so old and well preserved that it has been used as a set for samurai movies. He makes lovely shino pots and he had said that he could spare an hour for us. We ended up spending 3 hours there with him. I bought a small saki cup from him, which I posted back by sea mail, so I still haven’t seen it again as yet. While wandering the back streets of the Gion, we came across a 3 Meiko or Gaiko on their way to somewhere. I really like Kyoto. I feel comfortable there. It may be something to do with the fact that nearly all the houses in the back streets are little workshops and/or factories, where families run little businesses. It is ever so interesting to spend a week walking all the little back streets and lanes, just looking into the open doors. It’s fantastic to see what is going on in there. We returned to Kyoto for a few days and accidentally bumped into a few nice old pots there which we carried home in our hand luggage. When we were in Kyoto last year we were wondering about and we stumbled into an old wares shop full of junk and dust. I couldn’t see anything of interest, but Janine spotted what looked like it might be a Kawai bottle on a bottom shelf, at the back and covered in dust. She said nothing in front of the owner but quietly indicated to me what she had found. I can still remember what I said, “Me wants precious. I am overcome with avarice and greed. I want it!” We tried to show no particular interest in it, continued looking around the shop and then casually asked the price, said hmmm, then continued to look around showing no particular interest, later coming back to the Kawai, offered one third less and bought it. She wrapped it up in old newspaper and we left. Got out into the street and round the corner and screamed and jumped for joy. As Kawai didn’t sign his work we weren’t sure if it was real or not but it sure is beautiful. So we were happy to own such a lovely object of beauty. Even if it wasn’t a Kawai, and there was no real way to find out. When we returned to Kyoto a month later I went into the same shop to see if there was another one. My thinking being that if there was, they were most likely forgeries. To my relief there wasn’t one. This year we went back to check again. Nothing, so we were a lot more confident. However, during one of our long distance walks in and around the back streets and lanes we came across a little “Tea” shop selling tea ceremony wares. These shops are usually very expensive, but this one was situated in a back lane and didn’t have ‘Main Street’ exposure, so we went in, we have never bought anything in one of these shops, but they are great fun to look around in. To my surprise there was a little section of Kawais, on a table, bought from a deceased estate. There in among half a dozen Kawai cups and bowls was a bottle just like ours, but the brush work was a different motif. I asked if it was a Takaichi Kawai and he said yes. I asked if it had it’s box. He said yes and got it out for me. The box in Japan is very important, as this has the makers stamp and signature, and description of the contents. As this one had its box it was authentic. We bought it for $380. We didn’t dare post it back, so I carried it around in my back pack and carried it home in my hand luggage. When we got it home to Australia we got it out and compared it to our first one. Exactly the same press mould and glaze treatment. We are ecstatic. It confirms our judgement/guesswork of last year at picking out an authentic Kawai from the dross. The next day we walked past that shop again and I looked in through the window to see what was on that back table. A blue and white facetted porcelain gourde bottle sat in amongst the Kawais. They both adorn Janine’s dressing table now. Also while wandering we came across an old wares shop run by an old worn woman. It took her several minutes to get to the show room after I rang the door bell, she was very stooped and bow-legged, possibly from a lifetime of sitting cross-legged? She moved very slowly. There I found an old Seto ‘horse eye’ plate. These are to found in many museums and probably made between 100 and 300 years ago. They were made in massive quantities. We had just seen one in Hamada’s mingei museum reference collection. Hamada’s horse eye plate, in his museum. So there was a real one and only $150. It is chipped and has a crack in it , but it is still a very beautiful object. This came back in my back pack as well. Interestingly, I had seen one for sale in Sydney in John Freeland’s gallery. He had exhibited my work there at one time in a group show. He wanted $750 for it. We agreed to a swap with one of my bowls. That means that I would not have to pay anything for it and I was OK with that. It’s smaller than the one that we brought back from Japan but in better condition. I seem to be getting into matching pairs. A few years ago I was asked by a gallery owner to put some work in a shino exhibition. I said ” Thank you, but I don’t make shino”. She said, “What do you mean, you don’t make shino! You’re a wood firer aren’t you?” It seems that in her mind, everyone who wood fires makes shino. This must be the public perception? Well I don’t make shino, I like the glaze and what it does in the wood kiln, but I’m put off by the fact that everyone does it and then that so many do it badly. But also because I haven’t been able find a really clean white felspar round here without using the complicated froth flotation method to extract it. However, I am now keen to do some experiments in my own way, which means, finding and collecting some felspathic rocks, crushing and grinding them, floating off the prime material and then applying the results to my home made clay bodies and seeing what happens. This is an extreme amount of work, as I have a lot of dark materials. My trip to visit Suzuki was part of this little twinge of interest. We’ll see what happens. I wanted to buy one of his tea bowls, but they were prohibitively expensive, and good on him, he’s worked hard to get where he is. I gave him one of my bowls as a gift, as you are expected to do in Japan. He didn’t offer one of his in return! So I bought a small saki cup, all that we could afford. He did knock $30 off the retail price. So now I know what my work is worth! Maybe I should change my pricing? I gave two of my bowls to Yasuo Terada, one for him and one for his son Teppai, who had driven us around and taken us to one of the museums. Yasuo (the Dad), took them both and said that Teppei (the son) will get his when he (Yasuo) dies and Teppei inherits all his pots! This is the guy who didn’t show me any of his tea bowls after saying that he would. I would have liked to have heard what he had to say about them. Never mind. He didn’t offer me anything of his in return either.
Sometimes I start to get the message.
After a few days walking in Kyoto, we caught a train on up to Mashiko past Mt Fuji. We were very lucky to find a place to stay in an old ‘minka’ traditional farmhouse on the out skirts of the town, a little further on past Hamada’s. We had the place to our selves, because as a guest house it is usually pretty full, but on this occasion, a group of 30 had just left and another group were not expected to arrive until the next day after we had left. So we found our selves there with only one other guest. I say ‘lucky’, because it was the twice-yearly pottery market day weekend, where thousands of potters converge on Mashiko from all around to sell their pots. I must say that I haven’t seen so many ugly and badly made brown pots in one place for a very long time. I’m amazed that they can still get away with selling stuff like that. Not many nice pots there at all. You really have to work hard to find a nice pot in Japan. They are there, but so few of them and scattered thin on the ground.
I should point out that this is my very own biased opinion, and clearly all these pots are not ‘bad’ pots as they all get sold over the weekend – people love them. They are specifically suited to the Japanese cultural sensibility. Clearly I’m not Japanese and don’t aspire to be. I’m looking for something else. Something that is closer to my distorted vision. At the end of the first day of wandering around Mashiko we started to look for a place to get an evening meal. There were a few cafes, but they all closed in the afternoon. Nothing stayed open into the night. We were amazed. It’s quite a big town, with lots of people, but no restaurants in the night time. We ask the locals. NO! there is nothing open for visitors at night. Nobody is supposed to stay here at night. They all go back to Tokyo in the afternoon. I ask one of the stall holders, who speaks good english. “No, you are not expected to stay overnight here”. “Where will you be eating, and all these other stall holders who have travelled here for the weekend. They are all staying here. Where will you eat?” “We will cook our own food here at the stall after we close up, and we will be sleeping in our van.” Not too impressed with this analysis and as it is getting dark, we decide to walk back to our wonderful Minka House and see if we can find some food there. We can’t. However, we are lucky to catch up with our host and he explains to us that there is no food available here in the house, but you are welcome to buy some food and bring it back here and use the kitchen to cook it. But it is too late now, the shops are all closed. He asks us if we like Japanese food. We tell him that we do. He asks again if we are interested in really local food. The kind of food that the locals eat. Typical farmers food. We answer, yes, of course, we would love to experience some local traditional food. He warns us one more time that the menu will be whatever they have collected from the forest and harvested from the fields on that day. We nod enthusiastically, yes we say, that sounds exactly what we would love to experience. He tells us to wait, he will ring. There is a local, very small restaurant, run by two sisters, down in the back streets of the town near the station. It’s only for locals, there are no signs, they don’t speak english and it’s hidden in a very small back lane. You won’t find it by yourself. He goes on to explain that he will ring and if they are open, he will drive us down there. If they are open and have any room. He calls and speaks at length for us. All is good. They will take us, but we need to go now, right now! We are off in the car down a series of little lanes and across farmers paddocks. He explains that with the market on , all the streets are blocked and traffic will be at a standstill. We won’t be able to get there on time. We have to go across country like this. We have no idea where we are. I’m reasonably good at knowing my position on a map or within a location, once I have an idea of the general layout. But here we are completely off my mental map. We enter the built-up area and navigated a series of very small streets. I have no idea of where the station is, as we haven’t see it, or any train lines. Suddenly we are at the end of the very narrow lane. He points towards a red light in a doorway up a little walking lane. He drives off and we walk up to the door and knock and walk in, under and through the ‘noren’ Curtain. The room is small. It has 3 tables, a little like park bench type picnic tables. A meter wide and one and a half meters long. They can seat three-a-side. The first table, near the door, is full, but the 2nd is vacant. The third table is fully occupied with a heavily stubbled and partially mustachioed man with, wild-looking hair. He is sorting some sort of exotic vegetables and peeling and cleaning wild mushrooms. He is occupying the whole space and some of the floor around him. A lady welcomes us in and points us to the empty table. We are encouraged to sit down, one on each side of the table. She does a terrific job of trying to use Japanese language to describe to two idiot Australians, who are completely out of their depth, what they are going to be eating. I pick up the words soup and udon noodles. I explain to Madam Butterfly AKA Janine, what I think that I heard. We nod enthusiastically and say our best Japanese thank-yous. She returns almost straight away with our chopsticks, closely followed by our huge bowls of soup. There were thousands of people who traveled the 2 or 3 hours up to Mashiko from Tokyo for the day. We spent a day looking at all the pots, but there wasn’t anything very inspiring there and another day walking around the town to visit Hamada’s old house and kiln, which was very beautiful. Relocated to a small hill in the centre of town. The kiln is still fired once or twice a year.
Hamada’s throwing room was quite special. A beautiful open space with plenty of light and an earthen floor.
I particularly liked Hamada’s old workshop with it’s row of wheels where the wooden seats are polished from years of use and it’s earth floor and smoky fire in the floor, which someone in the museum still keeps alight every day. We then walked down the road to visit Shimaoka’s house and workshop, where we had a tour around with his grandson and finally to Hamada’s son’s and grandson’s home and workshop, where they had just finished firing the climbing kiln at dawn. We bought a small saki cup of his.
The climbing kiln of Hamada’s son and grandson, still radiating an enormous amount of heat, as the firing had only just finished. A most impressive place that we visited in Mashiko was the 300 year old traditional indigo dye workshop. Where Janine found a really lovely shibori indigo dyed shirt that really suits her. I really loved the ancient quality of the building as much as the traditional and modern interpreted designs that are being produced there.
The smell and feel of indigo is so very Japanese and quite special. I really have a strong affiliation for it, but choose not to wear it myself, as I don’t feel comfortable wearing Japanese clothes in Australia. However, I think that it looks great on Janine. After Mashiko, we spent a week in Tokyo visiting a lot of museums and learning to navigate the various different train lines to get around. There was a very good show of blue celadons at the Nezu Museum, which was the best collection of blue celadon I have ever seen in one place. Absolutely astounding. Too much to take in in fact. I really needed to go back but didn’t find the time as there was simply too much to do in Tokyo for one week. When I was in London, I visited the Percival David collection when it was in the Bloomsbury district. I felt overwhelmed by all five floors of those ancient Chinese Gems. I found that I had to go back twice, just to be able to really ‘see’ it and then again twice more on subsequent visits. So a day in the Nezu wasn’t enough, as well as simultaneously being too much, both at the same time. We were also very lucky to stumble upon an exhibition in a department store of work by National Treasures from all over Japan. They had a dozen Kawai Kanjiro pots, and a lot more as well. I found a really lovely Hagi tea bowl in pink, grey blue and yellow, I know that it sounds awful by that description, but is fantastic to see and to hold. Made by a young potter, not yet well known and therefore affordable at $200. A really uplifting and beautiful object. I must look into Karatsu and Hagi more closely. Maybe if there is a next time? We were lucky that there was a major show of the work of Kanjiro Kawai on at the Mingei Museum celebrating his 120th birthday. But no pictures allowed. This was a real shame as there were so many lovely objects there in their collection.
From Tokyo we travelled to Shigaraki to Work with a potter there. We had met him on our last trip there last year and he invited us back to work with him. That really was the highlight of the trip for me, firing his little anagama (which has 2 chambers, and is still called an amagama).
Shigaraki/Iga, like Bizen and Shino, were all styles that had died out at the turn of the century and no one really knew how the best of the old pots had been made. Bizen was re-invented in a new form and made famous in this new way by Kanashige Toyo. A man with amazing insight. Likewise Shino ware was also re-invented by Arakawa Toyozo, a genius. It appears that Shigaraki and Iga was re-invented by Furutani Michio. I have his book, but hadn’t realised until I got there and visited his son, who still works on the same site, but next door to his fathers kilns, just how much modern day Shigaraki style and the techniques currently used owe to Furutani. He seems to have completely turned Shigaraki/Iga technique on it’s head and rather than re-invent the old ways. He seems to have invented a brand new way of getting similar results, but using a very different kiln and firing technique. We spent a couple of weeks packing, firing, cooling and then unpacking Kato’s anagama. it was a wonderful experience for me and I hope that I will be able to integrate what I think that I have understood from the exercise into my own work at some point. During the cooling, we spent a bit of time walking all the little streets and lanes of the town looking at all the old kilns. All but one of which are now abandoned or sitting in dis-use. They were made for a different time, where industrial manufacture was the thing. All the factories had changed over to oil or gas by the 60’s or 70’s and so these kilns are now falling down where their roofs have rotted off. One is now re-roofed and rebuilt and converted into a coffee shop with chairs and tables set in the chambers. These kilns chambers are so big that I can stand inside with my arms stretched out and not touch the sides or the roof. Most of the artist potters that we visited now use the Furutani design.
Old disused climbing kilns. We visited Furutani and spent time there with his son Kazuya. He was just unpacking his anagama and he had a lot of very nice pots on on the floor for us to look at. We bought a little saki cup.
His father is some sort of National treasure. However, my lack of facility with the language prevented me from understanding more. The family have all lived and worked on this site for over 400 years. They have a small private museum with work from each of the generations represented.
We return to Kato’s and unpack our firing and there are a few gems, a few hits and a few misses. One bowl in particular that I just love, with a lovely subtle combination of blue/green ash glaze and pink/mauve fire change colour with grey/black carbon sequestration form contact with the charcoal at the fire front.
The Uji temple. This is a very lovely place, later we walk to a tea house and tea shop where we learn a little of the very long history of tea. We travel on to Seto to visit Yasuo and Ko-yuki Terada who we met at Sturt pottery in mittagong, not too far from our home. We met up with the Teradas again in the Philippines on a volunteer basis for a privately oranised and run aid program. Terada has several kilns, the most impressive one being the 14 chamber climbing kiln. This kiln took him 5 years to build and is only fired once each year, as he fires other kilns as well. he is a very hard worker. He modeled this kiln on a 400 year old one nearby in Tajimi or Toki. He takes us to visit 2 ancient kiln sites that have now been protected. One is an anagama and the other is the 14 chamber one.
He has just finished a major order of 250 tea bowls for a temple that has recently been rebuilt – not too sure exactly why. I believe that it may have burnt down – or something like that?. To celebrate the reconstruction, He has been commissioned to make these bowls. He has had to make 1000 bowls to get the 250 that he needs. I ask to see some of them and ask him to explain them to me, he says yes, but doesn’t show me any. Not too sure what went wrong there. I’m sorry that there aren’t so many pictures of pots here, but they are all still in transit in the Japanese postal system somewhere on the high seas. I don’t know very much about the tea ceremony, I haven’t studied it, but I do love some of the bowls that are made for it. From an ignorant outsiders position, it appears to be full of rules and politics and is almost like an institutionalized religion with many sects and branches all calling the other wrong and believing that theirs is the only true way. Each person that we talk to has a different way. Even the three Teradas, Father, Mother and Son, who all have different ‘Tea” teachers, have to perform the ritual to very specific and different regimes, and all this variation and difference, all in the same city of Seto. Because everything to do with tea is so expensive, for example a breakfast bowl cost $5, but a tea bowl of the same size cost $250 or more. Because potters can make good money making tea bowls, they put a lot of effort into making them, so the best pots that I saw were all tea wares, mostly bowls. So I’m grateful that the tea ceremony exists, because I can really appreciate the beauty of the bowls, even as an outsider knowing nothing of tea. A lot of clever people have spent an awful lot of time thinking about how to make spectacular pots which I can appreciate for their beauty as objects. Last year I wrote in my diary that I went to Japan again to find ‘that’ bowl. The bowl that would change my life. I didn’t find it, but I got some sense that it was there waiting for me somewhere. I just had to look a lot harder, so I went back. This time I still didn’t find it, because it’s not there, but now I know why and I know where it is. It’s in me waiting to come out some day when the time is right, when I work hard enough and think deeply enough and experiment widely enough, then I might catch a glimpse of it.
. The Snow Country.
We have been out of touch lately, because we have been up the the show country, where there is no internet. At least non that we could find. We are now in a place called Tokoname, One of the 6 old ancient kiln sites. We have been up in the mountains to a place called Shirakawa-go. It is a very deep valley enclosed in mountains, and until recently was not accessible easily by regular public transport. I wanted to go there in the eighties when I was last here but was told that it was too difficult at that time because no one spoke English up there and the travel was very convoluted. This little village is very beautiful because it is one of the few remaining places in Japan where the old traditional 4 story thatched roofed farm houses are still maintained and lived in. The village was inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in the mid nineties. We stayed there in one of the old farm houses, hosted by an very tiny little old lady who spoke only rudimentary English, but was a very good cook. It snowed on the high hills while we were there and it was very cold with a little rain. A very beautiful place. All the rice has been harvested and the stooks of straw are nearly all dried and gathered in for storage and thatching/roof repairs. There are only a few vegetables left in the soil, as within 3 weeks the snow will start to cover everything and the village will remain in isolation for about 3 months till March, when the thaw comes and spring planting will start in earnest. We walked and walked all around that village and it’s surrounding paddy fields, visiting the temples and shrines that are dotted all around here. The cold that we caught in Kyoto and/or Shigaraki has developed well and we are finding it hard to sleep, or is it just the hard futons and the rock like pillows? Still, it’s a wonderful experience and wouldn’t miss it for yen. We watched a workman scale a 4 series extension ladder up one of these thatched houses carring bundles of straw with him. He then started to repair the ridge capping of thatch, some necessary repairs that needed to be done before the snow comes. I took lots of pictures, but traveling very light without a lap top, I don’t have the means of attaching them here.
Snowing on the high hills, coming to a place near us very soon. After the rice crop, the paddy is flooded to inhibit weeds until the snow does it’s work. Thatcher in the back-ground repairing the ridge before the snow .
Janine Sick in Japan , Not Of Japan.
A few nights ago Janine was taken suddenly ill in the little pottery village of Imbe, in Japan. The home of Bizen pottery. She suddenly has severe abdominal pain and vomiting, at first I though it might be food poisoning, but as we had eaten the same meal exactly, it wasn’t that. I could only think of a twisted bowl or a gallstone. Not the best of thoughts when you are alone without language in a foreign place. After an hour of this it got worse if anything and not better, I was too concerned to wait any longer and asked to ring the hospital, booked cab and got Janine dressed in some pajamas and an overcoat, grabbed our pass-ports and went. We were somewhat lucky that there is a hospital in this little pottery village. Also, that the night intern could speak some English. After some questioning designed to eliminate possibilities such as appendicitis, menstrual pain, food poisoning etc. He gave her a pain killer and took a blood test and urine sample to check for blood. He also asked if there was any blood in the vomit, which there wasn’t, luckily. The pain killer didn’t work at all and after knowing Janine as long as I have, I would say that she was in agony, scratching at the wall, crying and generally thrashing about. She’s a tough little stoic and doesn’t usually complain. This must be bad. The doctor came back and gave her an injection of something like morphine or similar and she settled down straight away, within a minute, miracle stuff. Next he organised for some staff to come in to the hospital and give her a CAT scan in the middle of the night, as it was very late by now. This showed an enlarged urethra and kidney, not good, but supporting the kidney stone theory. He kept her on morphine on demand through the night. We had a saintly nurse, with really genuine simpatico for Janine’s plight. Although she couldn’t speak English, she would frame her sentences and look up each word in English and write down her message for Janine and deliver it as a note. So beautiful and so caring! The next day the worst seemed to have passed and the pain eased and the vomiting almost stopped. I don’t know where she was getting it all from, she’s only so small. Janine didn’t ask for the morphine as often and by the next night had stopped it completely. Fortunately for us, there was a visiting urologist specialist coming to the hospital the next day. He reviewed her case notes and said that she had had a blocked urethra, of some unknown cause, and it seemed that the danger had passed and that if nothing more went wrong, she would be able to leave the next day, and travel back to Australia. We were lucky that there was a spare bed and I was able to stay with Janine to rub her back and massage her feet, and generally just be around to comfort and get in the way a bit. I didn’t realise until now that I had not eaten or slept very much my self for the past two days. I was too focused. We are on our way home now, writing this from Kansai airport. Japanese hospitals only take payment in cash, no plastic cards here. Luckily we were able to get enough out of the post office hole in the wall cash machine each day to cover it. We have travel insurance, which we will pursue when we get back. For now, all is well and Janine is safe. We both look forward to seeing you all again soon.
We didn’t want to go to Hagi anyway.
fond regards from All of Steve and most of Janine
Best wishes from Dr. Steve.
We are totally shattered. We got back to the Gold coast from Kansai in Japan by Jetstar in 9 hours. It took us another 12 hours to get here to Balmoral (Camelot) by public transport. We spent all last week sorting through the mountain of mail and emails and doing the washing, and there is still more to do. Fortunately I spent a lot of time mulching the vegetables in the ‘pantry field’ garden before we left, so we have fresh dinner to pick on our arrival. Life is good.
With love from Dr. Steve and the very patient Janine.
We arrived in Paris feeling the usual jet lagged weary that we all know and love/hate, 42 hours after leaving Balmoral. Damn those cheap but longer flights. Doesn’t seem like such a bargain now does it Steve? I did once enquire about direct fights to europe. They don’t seem to exist any more. but there was one once that was all business and first class seats, 18 hours direct, non-stop. 99% of the available pay load was fuel, only 1% for the very expensive seats. Anyway, I like cattle class. The straw is clean and the chaff is eatable. We travelled the first leg on a Qantas AirBus A380-800, very nice, but any long flight feels cramped and boring, no matter what plane your in. The 2nd leg after spending 5 hours waiting in Hong Kong, was in a much older Air France Boeing 777. This seemed positively antique after the AirBus. Narrow, hard, cramped seats with no room and poor reclining ability. I was really sorry to have left the AirBus, still the tri-coloured straw was also clean and the chaff comes with garlic. We arrive in grey Parree, I say this because it’s overcast, dull and very grey, with a very low sky. It’s Sunday morning and the place is deserted. No cars or people, not even many parked cars on the street. No shops open. It seems as though there has been a nuclear war while we were in the air. A very strange sensation indeed. We eventually realise through the jet lagged fog, that the French don’t get up on Sunday till after 12. However, it turns out to be Gay Paris soon enough, because we discover that our hotel is situated right in the middle of the gay quartre. Our hotel doesn’t have a front door to the street and we are forced to cum in the rear entrance. We have been here for a few days now and are starting to get the feel of the place, or at least that place allocated to us here by the locals. Luckily, there aren’t very many Parisians in Paris just now, because they are all out of town on their long summer break. The place is full to the brim of folk like us, outsiders wandering around looking dazed and fumbling with maps. It seems that Parisians aren’t that pleased to have us in their city, even though we the tourists are actually employing them and keeping their shaky economy afloat. If you start off speaking Le Anglais, they take offence and get all hortie. So we tried by starting off with our bad French and they just laugh. So we can’t win. However, It’s probably better to be laughed at than ignored?? When we ask ‘le person dans la Rue’, they just give us the Gallic shrug and refuse to say anything and walk on. However, if we are in a cafe and they want our money, the harlots understand every word and sell their souls for the holy dollar, but probably feel a touch uncomfortable because of it and have to run off and take a shower straight after speaking to us. The only people who come up to us and offer help without being asked, when they notice that we are lost or confused, are the French of Moroccan and Algerian decent. They are genuinely open, warm, helpful and friendly. Something the white locals here in this city just don’t seem capable of with foreigners. A young woman battling with a stroller and two toddlers stops to offer help, another girl with her shopping stops to give us a hand. It seems that egality and equality are only for white Parisians, as they practice fraternity amongst them selves. Having spent time in rural France on other visits, we know that the French in general are warm and helpful. It seems that it is just a white Parisian disease. We on the other hand are practicing our own gallic/garlic shrug.
Although we are murdering their perfect language every minute, we seem to be getting a little better at it and there are less sniggers and guffors each day. Although some attempts at conversations are still quite baffling. One shop lady seemed to be offering me her ‘cervex’ or something similar. I decided not to take her offer and she then told me that she had a blue bag or ‘sac’ as they call them here. Although I was puzzled because she wasn’t carrying a bag at all. Baffling. We have now been to nearly every important museum here in Paris and seen so much art that we are starting to not see it anymore. We need to get out and have an expresso to sharpen us up a bit, then back into it. We have developed a taste for the intense short expresso with a little sugar to ameliorate the bitterness, taken in a couple of shots. It is very stimulating and does the trick on demand when needed. We spent 150 hours in the Lourve yesterday, or that’s what it felt like at the end, but we saw the lady’s smile and the other lady with no arms, too many paintings and antiquities. The Victory of the Samothrace, (which was only 2 nil but there is no info on the rematch). The real gem of a surprise were the three rooms of drawings by Eugene Isabey, quite superb, lovely drawings of old Paris. I bought the catalogue, at 19 euros, it’s not cheap for such a slim volume, but it’s as much to post it home!
Yesterday we wasted a day going to Montmartre, what a load of rubbish. Just street sellers, pick-pockets and trinket shops. We were conned into going into the Dali museum, Nothing there, only what appeared to be fakes and forgeries. Possibly made by the people who imprisoned him and eventually brought about his death? But not until he signed over the reproduction rights to his work it seems. Print runs of 8,000 and still very expensive. Bronzes made after his death by others inspired by a small sketch or other. Terrible stuff in my opinion and possibly not even legal? I can’t understand how they can get away with it? Montmartre is a seedy place with not much of interest to us on our first visit. It was once a place where a lot of famous artist lived, because it was run down and cheap, even semi-rural, but that has all changed now. Smack in the heart of the city, it’s more like Kings Cross in Sydney. I’m not sure what is going on here today, but I’ve never seen so many police cars, vans and blue uniformed feet on the ground. Is this a normal day? There are pick-pocket warnings everywhere. Or are they expecting trouble? There are probably very many interesting people and shops here, but we are not aware of them in our ‘chiaroscuro’ state. The shaft of light is not illuminating them to us today. Leaving out the Dali fiasco, every other museum has been fantastic so far and the street life is thriving until well after midnight. In fact peak hour in the cafes at night seems to be 9 to 10 pm. Mmlle skinny pants has slipped easily into the Parisian coffee culture and demands her daily short, intense, black hit. We wandered into an artist run gallery/studios smack in the heart of the city, with 30 studios full of work in progress. This endeavour is supported and subsidised by the city. They told us that they get 200 people a day on weekdays and 800 or more on the weekends. A lot of the work was too unfinished and rough or ill-considered for my taste, but I loved the drawings of one girl, beautifully languid and linear that rescued reason from kaos just at the last minute and came together with a lovely freshness. At 1200 x 900, it was a bit big to post home.
. We are walking almost everywhere within reason, although we have a ferry pass which is a very nice way to get up and down the seine, only using the metro for the longer trips and those away from the river. The river is a very nice way to get around, but it is rather limited. Today we are off to the outskirts to see the Monet collection at the Marmatan. We loved the Orangerie and the d’Orsay, so we’re up for a bit more.
Best wishes from the Mademoiselle and her porter. .
Sometime later in Paris
We are still butchering the perfect language everyday, but are becoming better at it. The butchering that is. We had a really helpful and enthusiastic waiter this evening at the Cafe Bofinger. We met up with our friends, Toni Warburton and Chris. What a surprise! They got my recent email and replied to say that they were in Paris too, so we dined out together. It’s really great when you have a waiter who is enthusiastic, friendly and helpful. It makes all the difference. He even encouraged us to speak french, correcting our pronunciation and returned with each course to test us on our progress. Great food, very reasonable price and a really nice warm feeling for us.
Perhaps I was a bit too quick to buy a French language tutor booklet, when I saw it cheap on the internet, before we left. “Five thousand irregular French verbs for use at the hair dresser and boarding Kennels” . Only $2, It seemed like such a great bargain! Janine, on the other hand, wasted her money on “10 important and useful French phrases”. Funnily, she seems to be doing better in the language stakes than Moi as we blunder about. Yesterday we spent the morning in the catacombes beneath Paris, walking just 2 of the 90 miles of underground tunnels in Paris’s ossuaries, I’ve never seen so many bones before in one place, tres interessant! Oui – really!
Paris, the city of art, deconstructed, the view from the the Gallery of Modern Art.
Later we spent the rest of the day in the Quai Branley Museum. I think that it probably has some very interesting things in it’s collection, but it’s hard to know, as it has to be the worst Museum I have ever visited in my life in terms of layout and display. Looks and feels like the result of a high school project to design a museum. I think that it justifies a return to public executions of architects and museum designers. It was a positively horrible experience in layout and design. Nothing was logical, nothing could be seen clearly without recourse to use of your own torch – which we didn’t have. It was so dark that we bumped into things. I am aware that some pigments are very sensitive to light bleaching, but why have the ceramics displayed in such dark conditions? The general style of the text for the displays was mostly printed in brown ink on brown background in very poor light. Insanity! some ego trip of a nutter designer. It could have been so informative and enjoyable. What a shame, a real disappointment. Nes Pas interessant – really! There were computer touch screens set into the wall in places, but they were set in narrow corridors, so that people were always walking in front of the screen or trying to get behind me, or just bumping into me. Excruciatingly bad design, absolutely appalling. It’s a huge building, but most of the space is wasted, or not accessible. There is a circular glass storage space of what might have been interesting objects, but we couldn’t get anywhere close enough to be able to see what they were. If they are so worried about light bleaching of the objects in the collection, why have them stored behind glass at all, why not steel storage? We couldn’t see the objects anyway. On the other hand, the current display on the top floor, of the history of Chinese food, cooking and pots was well lit and easy to navigate. it was informative and enjoyable. This display was obviously designed by someone else who knew what they were doing. If only I were interested in Chinese cooking pots 🙂
12 hours a day of walking around the city has taken its toll on our feet, but I don’t seem to have lost any weight yet because of the fabulous food. However, the lovely Waipher thin Mademoiselle still retains her svelt Parisian form. We found a lovely little restaurant in a nearby lane called Bistrot de L’Oulette, really nice, fabulous food and polite and helpful. A really small place, only 10 little tables. A Great experience. The sauces were really reduced down to a viscous flavoursome richness. Janine had the guinea fowl and I had zee duck. mouthwateringly good. These people are really trying hard to be the best that they can be, and they are succeeding. <http://www.l-oulette.com/en>
We walked to the Musee des Arts et Metiers for a tour of French technological achievements. Interestingly, they seem to claim to have invented everything – even the chronometer – about 40 years after Harrison in England, (who didn’t get a mention). They even invented the steam engine and the bullet train!! ( about 20 years after the Japanese, who also didn’t get a mention). They invented everything! Gun powder, the printing press, Paper, moveable type, magnetism, electricity, true north, first to the poles. Nobody else gets a look in. I was amazed! I didn’t know about all these ‘facts’ !!! I think that they should rename this museum the “Musee of the first Frenchman to do something that others have already done”. There is even a little video telling us that from 2012 in Paris, they plan to start rolling out a new system of garbage collection that will lead the world!!! they plan to introduce a second garbage bin, so that people can self-sort their own re-cycleable items from their rubbish – Amazing! Is this a world first or what? Balmoral Village has had it for 15 years. What are they thinking? After being bathed in all this self serving bullshit, we decide to take the self guided tour of the Paris sewers – to clean off a bit. The underground sewers in one small part of Paris, down by the river, are open for self guided tours. It was quite odiferous, but really interesting. Oui really! In a city where you can shit in the street, piss against the wall, let your dog shit in the street and throw your cigarette butts down anywhere, all in the knowledge that someone else will be following along to pick it all up after you. It’s not a good look. Fortunately for them there is a French man of Algerian decent following them around to clean it all up after them and they know it so why bother. I think that it all seems rather lazy and dirty to me, but what would I know, I’m the outsider. It certainly makes Australia look really clean and neat in comparison and our anti-smoking laws in public places are fantastic, unlike here, where you can’t go anywhere without cigarette smoke. The story of the sewers is an interesting piece of history. Funnily, there is no queue waiting to get in. We’re almost the first in and I’m the Third Man. I even saw a rat down there in one of the smaller narrow tunnels. We were getting around down there like locals. Harry Lime would be green with envy! This would be all very well, but Mmslle Fifi, my traveling Office of Cultural Corrections, tells me that those particular sewers were in Vienna and not Paris. They advise washing your hands before you leave, which we did, but I was more concerned about my shoes!
Then we walked over the Seine to the Museum of Paris to see a few more paintings, as if we hadn’t seen enough Art already, but it was just there, so we did. Lovely Matisse room. After looking at art (and shit) all this day I feel like I have a pain in the head. We dine in the street tonight and our waitress gives us a tip, don’t ask for a bouteille d’eau, as this comes at a cost, not unless you want bottled water, better to ask for a carafe d’eau, as this universally free, as it indicates tap water. This is good to know. Sometimes during the heat of the day we would appreciate a bouteille d’eau badoit gasseze. but at others, tap water would be OK. Each day we learn one new thing and forget two others! There are an awful lot of beggars and people, even families, sleeping in the streets here. I wonder what they do in winter? A man in the metro tunnel asks for a euro for his rabbit . I say I don’t need a rabbit thanks. He explains that it’s the rabbit that wants the euros, not him and he is just it’s agent. I try to look disinterested. He says OK you can have the rabbit for 3 euros. I’m tempted but not convinced. OK, his final offer, 2 rabbits for 5 euros. It’s a real bargain. I’m about to agree when Madamoiselle – ‘the voice of reason’, steps in and rescues me. Later, a Romanian woman asks for 10 euros for her baby. I’ve got the hang of it now. I go straight into bargaining mode and say. I don’t need her baby and it’s not worth 10 euros to me and what would I do with it anyway. I’ll only give her 5 for it. However, she is stubborn and won’t part with it. Anyway, She’s only borrowed the baby from her daughter for the day I think that life must be pretty good for Parisians if you are upper middle class, white, well educated and connected, and fully employed. Start work at 10 or 11 am. stop for a long lunch at 1, return – slightly pissed, at 3 and work ineffectively till 6. You’d be pushing it to get 5 full hours of work done. How long can this society survive here like this, when we in Australia are told constantly that we have to be more productive and work harder and longer to compete? Of course if you’re Algerian, young and unemployed, then its another story. I am aware that I will never know this place, after all I’m only here so briefly and as a tourist, The Outsider. We’re not meant to know. There is no depth to our experiences. This is the city of lite! with love from the wafer thin tricolour Mademoiselle and her black and blue Ettienne. .
A Parting gift.
As we prepare to leave Paris and walk the 50 metres to the Place De Voges for the last time. We pass through the gated archway into the park, and find that someone has done the biggest turd I have ever seen in my life, smack in the middle of the walkway. I haven’t seen anyone walking a Newfoundland dog around here, surely this is a sign of human presence? Someone has already taken a skid on it this morning. I have been tearing out the pages from my book of 5,000 irregular verbs, one page at a time to use to clean my own shoes at times like these and have just enough third person, possessive, plurals left to get me through this last day. In this fine and cultured city of art and gastronomy, surely this is a vital artistic installation statement that links both of these great human endeavors!
We catch the train out to Charles de Gaul airport to collect our hire car for the next 2 months of our time here. Young people leap over the station ticket barrier to catch a free ride while we struggle to maneuver our suitcase through the very narrow turn styles. It takes us some time to locate our hire car depot in terminal ‘D’ of section 2 of the 3rd wing of the new centre section of the old terminal. The paperwork is all OK and ready to go, but the girl behind the desk is very surprised to find that we have the car for 2 months. This is apparently quite unusual, it is more common to hire a car for two days it seems, rather than two months. This was the cheapest option that we could find. We compared eurailpasses, but for two people to have unlimited travel to any place, door to door, for two months for $1400, we couldn’t find any cheaper alternative. Everything seems OK with the car, except that I can’t find out how to locate reverse gear. I have to go back in and ask the man in the hire car bay. He shows me a little ring that must be lifted to allow the reverse gear to be engaged. I haven’t ever seen this before, the second unusual thing that I have seen today that came from a ring. We have a room booked in a chateaux near to Giverney and Janine has already bought a dual entry ticket on a special deal while we were in the city of turds and butts. Although I experience some anxiety driving on the right for the fist time in two years. The GPS navigator that we brought with us from home logs in and shows us the way. I don’t think that I could drive on the right and read the road signs in french and avoid accidents all at the same time. I only narrowly miss killing us once on the journey out of Paris, so that’s good – narrowly missing I mean. Being killed in a road accident is a sure way to ruin a good holiday.
The Voice Of Reason, looking at the flowers of the season.
We arrive in Giverny by 2pm and have a little rest to gather my nerves and de-stress , then decide to go up to the garden to have a look around. We have been warned about the 5,000 people per day that file through the garden in the summer. We arrive at 4 pm to find that the last of the coaches are just leaving and there are only a few people waiting to buy tickets at the door, so we decide to go in and check it out for a couple of hours, even though we have full day tickets for tomorrow. We enter to find the place empty. There is virtually no one in there, we wonder around by our selves hardly bumping into anyone else. It is really beautiful and just as we have imagined from the photos in the books. When we return the next day at 8.30, half an hour before it opens, we are able to get a park in the shade right outside the door and next to a cafe. So we have an espresso while we wait. By opening time there are 20 people waiting – nothing to worry about! We are surprised that there are so few.
We get in to find that all the coach tour busses enter by another gate lower down and the place is already chock-a-block to capacity, so we have to shuffle around in the ebb tide of humanity unable to go where we would want but only with the flow. We are really glad that we came yesterday afternoon and saw it empty. We shuffle until around 12 ish when it suddenly thins out appreciably while everyone leaves for lunch. This is definitely not the time to try and get some lunch. So we stay and enjoy the space. It’s a sunny day and the place is lovely, we circulate as we wish and it doesn’t really fill up in the afternoon at all and by 4 pm is pretty empty again. We leave just before closing, very satisfied that we have see it all pretty thoroughly. We wander up the lane to a bistro with a good view and shade to have
an aperitif – well Janine does, she has a local cider and it isn’t bad. As cider makers of 30 years experience, we feel that we are entitled to have an opinion. I have mineral water, as I still have to drive us home and I can’t afford to loose concentration for any reason for a moment. So although I can hear that nice cold beer calling my name it remains behind the bar in the fridge. We like it here so we decide to stay on for dinner
which commences just about now. It’s really great. The waiter is funny and helps us with our pronunciation, the food is really good, it’s not too expensive, there is a little breeze to take the heat out of the afternoon/evening sun. It’s beautifully balmy and life is good. No dog shit to be seen anywhere and because we are outside on the elevated terrace, there is virtually no cigarette smoke.
We decide that the reason that there is no dog shit here is because there are no Parisians, only tourists like us and we don’t have a dog. So the streets remain clean.
The next morning we are on our way south to La Borne, a village of potters with a 4 century tradition of wood firing. We were here 2 years ago, but only for 2 days. I got the strong sense then that it was a burnt-out, past-glory village. Now we have been here for 3 more days and spoken at length to several of the 21 nationalities of potters who have moved here and my conclusion is more or less the same, only better informed this time.
The old ‘Talbot’ kiln, last fired by a Talbot family member in the 60’s. No body here makes pots that are at all influenced by the old tradition, only half the potters still woodfire, most using gas or electricity but they still have a wood kiln in the yard for show. The incredibly plastic natural clay, lightly peppered with a few iron spots, flashes to the most marvelous red when wood fired in those old kilns. The pots in the museum and in potters private collections show this beautifully. This combination of wonderful potters resources that are found in amongst the glorious native forests and brought the potters here 400 years ago, are no longer used by anyone. One potter who has been here for 40 years told me that he didn’t even know where the old clay pits were, he’d never asked, he’s just not interested. He uses clay imported from Spain or porcelain from Limoges. There is no longer any relationship with the location. He came here because it was a place where tourists came to buy pots – not because of any interest in tradition or technique, or locality, or materials. It’s all about marketing these days! Sounds strangely familiar? Almost everyone here in this village is terrified of the repercussions of the GFC. Everything is in free-fall. Less people are coming and those that do come aren’t spending. There are so many ‘for sale’ signs in each village that we drive through. Two years ago there were none, or very few. Now everything is for sale. The ‘for sale’ signs “vendre” are so noticeable. People in Paris who own a country weekender as well as an apartment in paris are trying to consolidate their debt and sell off the non-relevant parts of their debt. Just in case it all goes really pear shaped – as it is appearing to want to do. Too much easy credit for too long. Too much debt. It’s just starting to dawn on people here that it’s the the French and German banks that lent all that money to the ‘PIGS’, (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) and it’s very unlikely to ever come back, or if some of it does, it will be a very, very long time coming. I can foresee it being a time frame of two generations before all this sorts itself out. It’s taken a generation to get into this mess, it won’t be resolved any quicker. I have already observed in previous emails how they don’t work very long hours or very often and have a pretty easy life – or have until now. They could try working 8 hours a day or longer and 7 days a week for the whole year. That might help? What they need is a good dose of Paul Keating like we did in the late eighties. Tell them selves straight. You can’t afford your previous lifestyle any more. Your up against a global market now and you might just have to try a bit harder. You’ve got to be competitive, your up against China where they work very hard and long hours. I know it’s not in the national psyche here, but it looks like it just might need to be introduced in a hurry. So many places close on Sunday lunch time and don’t reopen till thursday and only open from June till October. We were way up in a hill town yesterday and wanted to stay overnight, but the owner of the auberge told me that he always closed after lunch on Sunday and would not open until later in the week. We wanted to stay and spend money as did another couple, but he has always done this and he’s not about to change now. They claim that they are going broke but aren’t prepared to make any changes. Clearly they are still doing all right. Good luck to them, if they can get away with it.
I’m doubting it.
Best wishes from Thomas.
Into the south.
We were not so impressed with the potters of La Borne, as it seemed to me that they have squandered a really great heritage that had existed for over 400 years. The clay is still there in the ground somewhere and the forest is still well managed through coppicing and rotational harvesting. I was hoping to find someone like minded who was interested in working with the local materials and trying to express something new with the old heritage. The old village is tres beautiful in the forest, but overall the feeling was a little bit sad, as they are having a very tough time coping with the onward repercussions of the GFC. I am still amazed at the short opening hours for so many businesses, but I did notice that farmers were ploughing all Sunday through the heat of the day, they are working just as hard as Australian farmers. No five hour days for them. Before we left La Borne, we visited a really interesting house called locally ‘The Cathederal’. The potter who built it, did so over 50 years, starting by buying an old quarry site. He scrounged everything to build his house, which was rambling and really enormous and with so much quirky rustic charm it was not possible to be un-impressed. I asked if he inherited money or something to be able to spend his life building this house and ‘cathedral’, but No! He was a potter and built it all in his spare time, when not making pots!!!!.
As we left La Borne and drove to Le Saturnin we found a very small brocante shop in an ally way, on the way up to the church. In there we found the most beautiful old La Borne walnut oil bottle, fired up-side down, so that the drips of glaze are dripping up wards from the neck and handles. Finding something like this is the kind of thing that only ever happens to other people, or in your dreams, or in the movies. But it does sometimes happen to innocent by standers like us and it was only 45 euros. The chiaroscuro refocuses and the shaft of light falls squarely on us, putting us and this fine old pot in the centre of the focal plane and we are illuminated. A real find. I couldn’t ever have imagined that there could still be many of these still circulating intact in the open market. Here in the little villages that pepper the countryside, there are just so many exquisite little places, gorgeous and rustic – and for sale! Some ones weekender that they can’t afford any more. So many of them all up for sale. The economy is really stalling. We noticed 2 years ago when we were here that we couldn’t afford champagne – ever! It was always too expensive for us, up around the 80 to 100 euros mark or even higher for the well known brands. Now everyone is worried, no one is celebrating going broke. There is nothing to celebrate here now. So Champagne is suddenly really cheap. We have been able to buy real champagne in restaurants for 15, 20 and 25 euros on this trip, not well known brands, but AOC and well made and very enjoyable. These small villages all have their own little, sometimes big, roofed market square . I love the ancient timberwork. I would like to incorporate something of this feeling into my building at home when I get back. I feel that I still have one more large building project still in me. We drove down through the massif central avoiding all the major roads and sticking to grade 4 roads, or worse, small country roads and lanes that don’t have numeration. Zig zagging our way back and forth under and over the freeways and peages from one tiny hamlet to another following our instincts and the GPS. We were driving through a small town when we passed what looked like a beautiful tree lined square, it was towards 4 pm and I said, lets stop here, it looks nice. So we did and it was. It turns out that Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) lives there some of the time. There was a poster up in the local bar announcing a blues performance a few weeks ago and another one next week by him, but we won’t be hanging around for it. Our first brush with fame.
muse descending a staircase.
We stopped in the small village of Lavandieu because it looked old and all the buildings where built out of the local granite stone in a rather random, higalty-pigalty sort of peasant way that touched my heart. As we wandered about, thinking of buying a mineral water and then moving on. We rounded a corner and there was a really interesting old church, we wandered over and as we were trying to decipher the french text on the door. A lady came over to us announcing loudly as she crossed the square something that we didn’t catch, as it was in fast french. It turns out that she was the guide for the 10 o’clock tour, and she assumed that we were waiting there for such a tour!. Luckily she spoke English perfectly with a very posh rounded vowel sound to boot, as well as speaking Dutch, German, French and Italian. Because we were the only guests waiting she said that she would give us the full one hour tour in English. If there was just one French person in the group, then the laws states that everything must only be in French. So off we went. It turns out that it was an abbey from the the 12 century, not all of it had survived in tact , but a lot of it had. I told her I wasn’t religious, I just liked the old buildings and the commitment and dedication that they represented. She said that she wasn’t religious either, she was Dutch!! As if that explained everything? It turned out that she has a PhD in ancient history and came here with her French husband. She wasn’t allowed to teach here because they didn’t accept her degree, so she taught english to the local primary school kids – until they changed the law so that only French trained, French nationals could teach it, so she was unemployed and took the job as the local tour guide working for tips, so that she didn’t feel completely worthless. It was an amazing tour, so much detail. I learnt so many things that I didn’t even think that I wanted to know about abbeys in the middle ages and this one in particular. Every column in the cloister had a story. She was really great, knew her stuff. I loved it. The building was good too! We gave her 30 euros. And she loved that!
We have arrived down on the edge of provence and everything has changed, from cool green to burnt out brown. Its the end of the summer and into the autumn. It hasn’t rained yet and it shows. The days are very warm and the air is dry. It’s quite nice. The vendage is on and the harvesters are working hard bringing in the grapes. This is the Chateauneuf de Pape region, so the grapes are all of grenache variety. I personally don’t like the taste of grenache grape juice or most of the wines made from it in Australia, but I have tasted a few Chateauneuf de Pape bottles here that I quite liked, possibly because they were the ones that were heavily wooded and well aged, unfortunately these are also the most expensive ones.
We make our way to Fontaine de Vauclause, a lovely little village on the Sorgue river. It is most interesting that this river springs out of the hill side not too far from here as a spring. It is the largest spring in France and the 5th largest in the world. It produces something like 300 cubic metres of water per minute. The river is quite soothing and cooling as it rushes and gurgles past our bedroom window all night. I have to close the window so that we can get to sleep. It is so noisy. We find in the morning that the house opposite was the home of Petrargue (Petrarch) the Italian poet and philosopher who withdrew here in the 1300’s to meditate. He idolized his youthful lover Laura, who died tragically young. He was one of the fathers of humanism and wrote about his sense of loss for the rest of his life. We spend the morning in his house that has now been converted into a museum to his work, his followers and his influence on the modernist movement. We see works by Braque, Picasso, Miro and Giacometti. He also had a great love of chiaroscuro painting. I feel like I’m mostly in the dark, but every now and then there is a glimpse of light that partially illuminates my being. love from Francesco and his beautiful Laura.
Vaclause and the Luberon.
Yes, we have heard about the cut backs at TAFE back home and signed the petition online. We’ve been expecting it for the past 36 years! So now it has finally arrived. I can’t say that I’m totally surprised. Terrible shame though. Suddenly kiln building, which I was finding pretty boring, is looking more attractive.
We have arrived in the Vaclause up in the hills above a really beautiful place called the Fontaine de la Vaclause. We make our way down to a small village at the source of the biggest spring or ‘source’ in France. The water from this spring forms the source of the river Sorgue that flows down through the limestone valley bringing life to all the environs that it passes.
Someones vergetable garden viewed over the towns defensive wall. We arrive here in the late afternoon and are very lucky to find a room overlooking this lovely clear river at short notice, all the other hotels in the village are full and there is no room at the inn. The noise of the gurgling water is so loud to us, that it keeps us awake, and we are forced to get up in the night and close the window. It’s such an amazing change from living in Balmoral Village where there is so little water. At 100 euros a night it was very nice but far too expensive for us. So one night of luxury is enough.
We make our way out of the valley and up into the dry limestone hills to stay at the ‘Domaine le Grange Neuve’ for 70 euros a night which is good for around here, the cheapest place we have stayed in was in a hikers hostel on top of a mountain for 40 euros with no linen and rubber coated mattresses! Cheap B&B’s and backpackers lodges are 40 to 50 euros. This place is excellent, it’s out of the way, being up in the hills, but it has a michelin star trained chef. Run by 2 brothers and their mum, it really is very nice and it goes without saying that the food is exceptional. Really great quality accommodation and food at a reasonable price. These brothers decided that they wanted to run their own restaurant, but could’t afford it, so they bought this old Domaine up in the hills and have done it up into a 9 room hotel with exceptional food. Everything is prepared on site by the chef brother, Ralph, even baking their own sour dough baguettes and croissants each morning. A really nice place and worth a google. Thomas, the host speaks good enough english to make us comfortable and encourages us to order in French with a very patient French lesson accompanying each meal. We continue our chairoscuro blunderings through the south, visiting some of the hill towns of the Luberon and down to Marseille, Aix and Avignon. I was disappointed in Avignon not to see any of Picasso’s amazonian women of pink hue and African visage, maybe we were there too early and they weren’t out and about touting for business. However we watched them dance on the pont, or what’s left of it, with a feather in our hat and watched them play bridge in the dance hall. Janine wants to play scrabble in Aix with Cezanne – I ask Why?
We are sitting in a cafe in the square in Aix en Provence with Janine’s cousins. We were told that the pronunciation of ‘Aix en Provence’ is like ‘X on Provonce’, but an American couple behind us are arguing about it. He says its pronounced ‘Air on Provonce’, he knows because he’s here to play in the Aix Guitar competition. She swears that it’s pronounced “EX on Provonce”. She knows because her ‘Aix’ husband was French, and he told her. Now I don’t know, but I will ‘Aix’ on the side of caution and stick with what I know.
The bill comes for our drinks and I am amazed that the Pernot and Rose wine cost 2 Euros each, but Janine’s orange juice and my mineral water cost 3.5 Euros each. I just can’t believe it. Here we are in a country where alcohol is cheaper than water, and I’m drinking water! I’ve managed to catch something nasty while I’ve been here and I’m off my food and wine. Upset tummy, swollen glands and headache – high temperature. As if driving on the right wasn’t hard enough already! I resist the temptation of looking up my symptoms on line and terrifying myself. Instead, I check out the emergency pack in my suitcase. Vitamin C, Aspro, and a sowing kit – some thread and a needle. Good thing that I was thinking ahead, I’ve come prepared! At least now I have something to shit through! love from the wafer thin mmlle and her slimming down Etienne.
The Var and into the Cote de Azur or cote de concrete as it has become.
We are making our way from hill town to hill town out of the Luberon and into the Var. So many small villages, all beautiful. I’m sorry if I fail to describe them adequately, but we ran out of superlatives on the third day of the drive, and yes, they are beautiful and gorgeous and stunning and delightful and interesting, but I can’t keep on using all the same adjectives again and again. So ‘nice’ will have to suffice for the time being and see what time will bring as a way of distilling the highlights of the trip. At the moment all these places are starting to blur in my mind. It’s not that they are not worth remembering, but rather that there are just too many of them in quick succession to recall with clarity. Thank goodness for cameras and diaries, because really, all of my energy is focussed on driving and not looking at the scenery until the engine is switched off. Mmslle – ‘The Voice Of Reason’, tells me when she wants me to pull over so that she can take a picture, or just to take in the view. As we prepare to leave the Luberon, the last village that we stop in is Lourmanin. In the shadow of the Chateaux and in the shade of some plane trees, next to a huge stone retaining wall by the torrent. We sit and break my fast by eating a fully ripe mellon for lunch. Every time I come to France I buy one of those very old fashioned, cherry wood handled, folding blade knifes made here by Opinel. Quite plain and simple, I now have 5 of them, one from each trip. One more trip and I’ll have the full set of six to use as steak knives back at home. Sitting on a huge stone seat by the wall, we use my knife to cut the mellon and the sweet sticky juice trickles down our fingers and is all over our faces. It’s fantastic, sweet, fragrant and flavorsome. Just the thing for a road side lunch on a very hot day. We walk to the fountain, where we wash our hands and faces and then dry ourselves off using stolen paper napkins saved from previous restaurant and cafe meals. Life is sweet like that melon, the sun is shining and we feel pretty good.
We drive down through the Department of The Var. Just like ‘Le-Var’ where Peter and Bobbie Rushforth live and is named for, it is an area of high, dry country on the ridges and deep green ravines. The tertiary grade road that we have chosen is long, winding and very picturesque. A very good choice as it turns out. We end up on the spur of the moment, deciding to stop near Cannes, as we make our way along the coast. The Cote de Azur, but we only catch a glimps of the azur part briefly before it is swallowed by the concrete high-rise that rings the coast here and blocks out the sun from the beaches. Corporate beaches that cost 60 euros to visit, so as to sit in the corporate shade. Monty Burns would be wringing his skinny, withered hands in delight. I’m caused to reflect on the value of money, and how it is like manure. It has a fertilising effect on us when spread thinly around, but when piled up in huge mounds it stinks. We are told that some of the biggest private yachts in the world are anchored here. Some so big that they can’t even enter the bay, but that they launch smaller tender vessels, kept up inside their massive hulls, that are launched to take the owner ashore, whenever they don’t want to use the helicopter. Imagine a ship so big that it has it’s own dry dock inside to harbour it’s tender vessel? These are apparently owned by ex-KGB, Russian petro-dollar billionaires, but what would I know. I’m in chiaroscuro, so little light falls on my focus that I’m stopped down to F1.2 most of the time, so everything at a distance is rather blurry and I have an extremely short focal length. I only know what I’m experiencing and seeing. At moments like this, I realise how lucky I am and that I really love being in Balmoral Village with the Mmslle – ‘The Voice Of Reason’ growing vegetables, loving and nurturing my little part of the world and making small artworks of intense beauty that virtually nobody understands or wants. I almost killed us both again today at an intersection when there was a rather messy interchange and although I was looking intently to my left and staying on the right (however wrong that feels) I didn’t look twice to my right. but thank goodness for the quick thinking and fast reflexes of the French drivers, nothing happened. It was, apparently, so common place, that I didn’t even get ‘beeped’, just another intersection miss-judgement. They probably thought that that I was a Parisian and just being rude and pushy, or maybe just French. Some French drivers are less accommodating though. Yesterday, when we were about to leave a parking area. We got into the car, which was parked in the shade, and started to programme the GPS to take us on the the next beautiful village or hill town with in-sufficient adjectives to justify it’s amazing beauty. When another driver, waiting in the parking lot, gave me the ‘wagging thumb’ signal, like he was hitch hiking, telling me to get out of the parking spot that he wanted because it was in the shade. There were plenty of others in full sun, but he wanted ours. We had chosen wisely. I gestured that I wouldn’t be long, and that he should be patient. Straight away he gave me the ‘bird’ and started a long running oath in fast french that fortunately I couldn’t understand. Otherwise I might have been more offended. I opened my door and indicated that now I’d be taking my time, so he pulled up in front of me, so that I couldn’t get out. I decided to key the entire days itinerary into the GPS. We’ve got all day, were in the shade. Having raised the stakes like this he realised that he couldn’t leave his car there and expect to return to it undamaged, so after a minute he backed off and pulled back into the sun. We left at our very lengthy leisure, not with out checking the water level in the windscreen washers and the tyre pressure. I don’t know what came over me. I think that it was the latent Frenchman in me. When we were in Paris, I was astounded to see the Parisian drivers park their cars. The car at each end of the street apparently has its hand brake on and everyone else is left ‘floating’ so long as the street is on the level. When someone wants to park and the spot is a little tight, they just ‘ram’ gently into the car behind and then the one in front, until there is enough room, shunting all the other cars along, crumpling their bumper bars and bonnets all down the line. They then get out and walk away as if it was totally natural – and it is – for them. The outcome is that every car in Paris is dented and crushed front and rear with bumper bars damaged and bonnets & boots disfigured, number plates bent and twisted and rusting from the years of parking abuse. Apparently that’s just the way it is! We didn’t see a car over one year old that wasn’t crumpled front and back and on at least one side in our area. Cannes is so awful that we decide to head inland, to get away from the crush and hectic traffic. We are ensconced in a very small family hotel in the hills above Cannes, A hotel were Renoir once stayed. It has a view of the coast. Mmslle -‘The Voice of Reason’ found it on the ipad as we were driving along. Originally built in the 16th century and re-modeled in the 19th it is quite sweet and has just 10 rooms and although it is on a fairly busy back road, the sound proofing is excellent through the new triple-glazed French doors, as we have a small balcony. It has proved to be very well located for us to drive into Nice, Vence and Antibes for the museums, all about 30 mins away in any direction.
There is no-one else here when we arrive. We have the place to our selves. later more people arrive, Americans by the sound of it, talking at the top of their voices – very loud. It sounds like a bus load of them as they come in down stairs, but it turns out to be only four of them and they’re Canadian. So much for my prejudices! We share the dining room with them tonight. They think that we are French or some other language group, as we introduce our selves in French – just practicing. Because the place is so small and there are only the two of us, and they speak so loudly in English, that we hear everything that they have to say. I shouldn’t be listening, but they are loud and the place is small. The most interesting part being that one of them was the Canadian military attache to their embassy in China and Moscow and many other countries. Apparently, they made many very poor investments during their life, buying villas that they hadn’t seen and didn’t exist, Lehman bros. shares, or time-share apartments that were so over-sold that they didn’t have time enough to share around all the investors. Now retired, without as much money as they’d hoped, they are reduced to staying in 2 star back packer style accommodation and having to slum it with the likes of us. We met an American couple in Kyoto last year when they were staying in the same budget ryokan as us. We chose it because it was the cheapest that we could find at short notice. We got into a conversation with them over breakfast. We were eating the local Japanese breakfast of pickles and rice, when he came in carrying takeaway coffees and dough nuts from Gloria Jean’s, quite some walk away. He asked us what we were eating and why. We told him that we felt that the reason we travel was to experience another culture at every level and eating the local food was an integral part of that. He claimed he was a successful business man with property developments in Florida and a chain of video rental businesses across the states. I claim that he was a 2nd rate bull shitter. If the was so rich, why was he staying in the same 2 star, low level, ryokan as cash strapped potters? We drive into Nice, which was probably a really sweet and pretty town a hundred years ago, but like so many other places, has been somewhat compromised by the pressure of modern development and freeways. The 18th and 19th century buildings are really decorative and have their own distinctive southern French/Italian style about them. I really warm to this style architecture – where I can find it. We go to the Matisse Museum first off and spend the whole morning in there. It’s really interesting. I could have spent longer there. I wish that there was even more to see. I have a new and much better informed appreciation of him and his work. I vow to learn more after I get back. The lovely Mmlle Bookworm has learnt such a lot of art history that I haven’t retained or didn’t ever learn. She is a font of illumination as we walk around these museums. All that teaching of cultural theory and art history has paid off for her, and I get these personal guided tours, it’s terrific. We decided to walk the one and a half kilometers to the Musee Chagall, which is also very good, and I really like the images, but I’m not religious, so the audio guide was not of so much interest to me. However, anyone who can elevate the goat, both Nanny and Billy, to a position of importance in painting is OK with me.
Later in the afternoon we drive up to Vence to see the Matisse Chapel.
fond regards from Bill and Nan.
Near death experience and welcome to Italy.
After nearly killing us both at an intersestion, or possibly only the lovely Mmlle Bookworm, the Voice of Reason, Mmlle Bonne deux pied, (Miss Goody two shoes), because she always uses the zebra crossing, and waits for the Vert. As she was sitting in the side of the car that would have been the impact side, but we narrowly managed to miss. We arrive back at our hotel and the lovely Mmlle orders two large Martinis, because she is both shaken and stirred this time. We see in the Matisse chapel that Le Corbusier wrote a letter to Matisse, after visiting the chapel, to thank him for such a wonderful building. Unfortunately, the architect who planned everything down to the very last final detail, seems to have forgotten to consider that Janine and I don’t read French. One of the many small oversights that I have picked up on in his body of work. We are in the land of Bouillabaisse and we see at the fish mongers, them beating the poor octopus to death to soften them up a bit. The French word for Octopus is ‘poolp’, I suddenly realise that what I’m seeing is poolp friction. We have our first language triumph. We manage to book into a hotel, organise the room and pay for it – all in French, without reverting to Anglais. We are really chuffed. This is the result of a month of intense practice and we actually got what we wanted. Up until now, we have been trying not to murder ‘the perfect language’ and also trying not to merde-er our shoes as we went. We are actually getting the hang of French to some very small degree. We realise that we never pronounce the last letter, or sometimes the last few letters in any French word, just leave them off. Or take the last 3 or 4 letters and replace them with a totally different single letter with a different pronunciation to the normal pronunciation of that letter. This has the effect of shortening the word somewhat and makes it so much easier to pronounce. Next, never pronounce any ‘H”s in any word, or for that matter, any ‘G’’s or any ‘LL’ combination or any letter with a strike through it. This mostly takes care of much of the centre part of any word. Lastly, because you have now butcherd the word down to such a small pronounceable size, you steal the last letter from the word before it to try and make it a bit bigger – but only if there is a vowel involved. Got it?, We are starting to feel as though we have! Now that we finally have French under our belt, we decide to leave France and try Italian on for size because we don’t know anything about that at all. So it should all work out fine. We say farewell to the land of Picasso, Renoir, Chigall, Matisse, their southern homes and their legacy museums. I liked Matisse’s the best. How amazing to move into a hotel for a while, for your health – as you do. Decide that you like it there, so take over the whole floor and stay for 20 years, eventually buying the hotel and leaving it to the nation as a memorial to your self – as you do! In another life, when I start my hotel, I’ll only rent out the rooms to guests like Matisse! The GPS tells us that the Italian border is only 25 mins away on the ‘peage’ toll road, so we don’t go there, instead we take the very much smaller and winding coastal road that winds through every tiny village along the coast and has wonderful views. This it tells us will take three and a half hours to travel the same distance, so we take it. We’re in no hurry and it turns out to be really worth it. The view is stunning and there are lots of places to stop to admire it. It’s a bright sunny day and the ocean is a deep sparkling azur blue, just like in the postcards, and the land of Pesto is calling us. We eventually arrive at the border and everything changes. Whereas in France on the ‘cote de concrete’, all the hill sides were concreted or were barren and scrubby. Here in Liguria the change is immediate. All the hill sides are cultivated. Built into stone terraces and retailing walls, with every available metre gardened and made productive. It’s quite amazing, the change is so dramatic. The traffic changes too, from busy to hectic. Instantly, at the first roundabout, there are 3 rows of cars in the two lanes provided. No one gives way unless you push in. I hold my breath and go for it. Suddenly there is a gap formed in front of me and it closes behind, like Moses crossing the dead sea, we’re away. No one gives way, you have to take way. Welcome to Italy! We are in Liguria, the home of pesto and our first meal is pasta and pesto, but it is a little bit disappointing. The pesto is somewhat lacking in flavour. Like commercial pesto from a jar. We are used to ‘better’, or should I say more intense flavoured pesto. We grow our own basil each year, and a lot of it is used to make pesto. This last summer I grew over a hundred plants and made 7 or 8 litres of it over the summer. We also grow all our own garlic, at least 5 different varieties of the stuff, pink, red and purple plus white in both hard stem and soft stem varieties, plus Russian. We use really nice Australian extra virgin olive, and plenty of good Italian parmigiano reggiano cheese. I roast the pine nuts until they are just on the verge of going sticky, so as to just start to caramelise the oily surface. Every year I try a slightly different recipe, variation of technique or variety of basil. We are very pleased with the intensity of the flavour of what we have been producing lately after years of practice. We look forward to tasting a lot more Pesto as we pass through Liguria. I wonder why our son Geordie decided to become a chef? As we have no workshops or kilns to build on this part of the trip, no set agenda, we float along the Italian riviera until we reach Diano Marina. We decide on the spur of the moment to move on to Lavento, very near the start of the ‘cinque terre’ national park and stay there for the night. We also then decide on the spur of the moment to do the walk along the coastal path and so stay on another night. It’s very pretty, although quite taxing because we are not used to it. However, we’ve walked it before and loved it.
We are heading to that far point in the distance.
We set off early before it gets too hot, luckily, because we are here in autumn, there are not too many people, in fact we only see a few other couples for the entire length of the first stage, which is really the last stage between the 5 towns along the coast, because most people do it in the other direction, from south to north. Going that way, the first leg between the first and second two towns is very easy, all flat and paved and it can be done with kiddies in a stroller, in 20 mins. The second leg is more difficult involving a lot of stairs and takes an hour or so. The next leg is a lot harder going up and down on narrow paths with some steep climbs and takes 1 1/2 hours. Most people stop for lunch after the first leg, and give up completely after the second, before it gets difficult , they have lunch and a bottle of wine and then catch the boat home, before it gets tough. The last path is very narrow and poorly formed with steep climbs and lots and lots of stairs cut into the steep hill sides. It takes 2 hours +. Not many people get this far, so the path is very narrow.
As we have decided to walk it backwards, we do this long, hard section first, the worst is over at the beginning and it gets easier from now on. We stop and buy more water at the first village then complete the 2nd leg. We are 3/4 done now in terms of time, so decide to stop for lunch, it’s 1.30 and getting to the hottest part of the day, and it’s a terrific day, with a huge blue sky and bright blue water. We have lunch in Corniglia and it’s stunning. We have fresh sardines, caught fresh this morning, scaled, opened out flat and served at room temperature with a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Absolutely sensational. They are so fresh that there is no smell of fish at all, just like sashimi, just the fragrance of the olive oil, the texture is melt in your mouth. Janine has soused sardines caught during the winter and packed in salt, served with roughly chopped fresh garlic, so intense and doused in olive oil, also excellent.
We order a fresh garden salad to go along and a bottle of local village wine – because we must, seeing that we’re here and have spent the morning walking past mile after mile of terraced vines and olive trees. The cold white wine is really lovely. Fermented out dry, with just a hint of sweetness and crisp acidity, this coupled with a charming flavour that I don’t recognise, made from Bosco, Albarola, and Vermentino grapes, it’s not a blend that we see much of in Balmoral Village, but which goes really well with our fish. I’m pretty happy about this, but then comes the surprise. The pesto! Pasta with local pesto, which really tastes like the the pesto that we make, but there is something else in there too. I can’t give it a name, but Mademoiselle bon deux pied, mmslle Bookworm, the Voice of Reason and Bestower of Names, brings it to life when she says ‘zest’. There could just be a hint of lemon in there. Where it comes from nobody knows, but its good. Perhaps some of the basil was lemon scented basil? Both of our Italian words are not sufficient to elucidate an answer from the waiter, who thinks that we are complaining, but far from it. If only I hadn’t been so lazy and had bothered myself to learn a third language before this trip – in my spare time!
By the time we are finished the walk to the last village, we are in time to catch the very last ferry back to Lavento, tired and with achy knees and legs of jelly, we take a hot shower and then think about doing our washing and having dinner.
A very good day.
I’m as happy as a dog with two tails, or a man with two dicks!
With love from the Phantom (Mr. Walker).
Welcome to italy and the firebox of doom.
We prepare to leave Lavento, and go to check out of the hotel. We were offered the last room up in the attic when we rang up to check for vacancies. It was the only place we could find in town that had two nights available when we rang from the tourist information bureau. She told us it was reduced to 110 euros because it was right at the top with a mansard ceiling – lovely but low, she said. Lower rooms were much more expensive. But there aren’t any. When we turn up to look, someone else is there and offers us a double room on the ground floor with private bathroom for 60 Euros – weird, but we take it. When we go to leave she says that there is no card facilities to pay with, only cash, and there is no receipt book either, just cash, she scrawls out the total on a scrap of paper on her desk so that we understand the amount and then throws it in the bin. Just cash! We know that this is illegal, but what can we do? We are now firmly in the black market. Welcome to Italy. Just cash! We drive inland towards Deruta to the majolica ceramic centre of Italy. As we pass through Tuscany, we choose the very long and winding small roads through the rolling hills of Chianti and stop for lunch in Greve, where the little stream that runs through the town is almost completely composed of sewage, at least it smells so. Welcome to Italy. We find the local public toilets and add our own contribution to the mix, Walk into the town centre and have a really good vongole pasta and salad for lunch and drive on.
The pasta had a really complex flavour and mouth feel. I think that the chef must have used a reduced fish stock as well as white wine in the deglaze and a fair amount of butter. It had that certain stickiness that only seems to come from reduced stock sauces. At home I always use any left-over bones to make stock after a meal, but I have never added butter as well to a shell-fish pasta sauce. We travel to learn. I’m probably too concerned about my cholesterol when I’m at home and in control of my diet! Of course, I could be completely wrong and it was just made with colonel Sanders secret mix of 11 herbs and spices, or maybe not! We arrive at our B&B that we booked online last night and all seemed well, but when we arrive in the road specified, there is no sign. It’s not even promising and there are only 3 houses on this dirt track. None of which seem welcoming. The area is rather low lying and dank. I don’t want to stay here or anywhere near here. Having driven to the end and back we stop back at the first house and meet Stefania. She is effervescent in her apology. The place has been closed for a year and is on the market, but she hasn’t gotten around to removing it from all the web sites because she has been in hospital and is gravely ill with cancer. I’m a little sceptical, but soon whither under the sheer volume and pressure of her verbage in a mix of fast Italian and broken, but surprisingly good-enough English. She’s flat-out like a lizard drinking, hardly stopping for breath. It’s getting dark, we are miles from anywhere, there is no room at the inn and there is no mobile phone signal. Welcome to Italy. Her story all boils down to a stock of apology and a de-glaze peace offering. We overlook the lumps and appreciate the flavour of her offer. She has telephoned another B&B nearby and arranged a cheaper room in exchange. We manage to find this place 7 km away, just on dark and it is lovely. High on a hill with commanding views of the surrounding countryside with it’s olive groves and vineyards. No complaints about that!
We spend the next day in Deruta about 20 mins away. This is what has brought us here, a town devoted to majolica pottery since the 1400’s. The towns museum is really well set out with a good sequence and an amazing collection of objects, all really well displayed. I have not been a great fan of majolica pottery, but Madonna Nina, Mmselle bon deux pied, The Voice of Reason, Bestower of Names. The Lovely Bookworm and Raconteur of art history is fully aware of this museum and it’s importance to my ceramic education. I’m immediately converted and in my next life I will try harder to spend more time learning the mysterious and ancient techniques of terra-cotta, lustre and majolica.
amazing ceramic tabletops 1.5m.dia. & 35 mm thick, not my taste, but staggeringly impressive. The Museum’s blurb tells us that there have been potters here on this hill top since Etruscan times, or perhaps time immemorial and even a bit earlier than that. (was that the 3rd century immemorial or the ninth?) A communal statute of 1465 states that “it is forbidden to stack wood, broom and faggotts in the roadway for firing, until the day before they are needed” and rightly so too! There is a really good cafe in this little town, secreted away in a little ally way, we didn’t even know it was there for a few hours, but stumbled upon it by sheer luck, or was it Madame’s subliminal sense of smell just about lunch time!
The cure-dent thin Madonna Nina, The Nose of Grasse, Mmslle bon du pied, The Voice of Reason, Bestower of Names and Raconteur of art history, chooses the asparagus omelette with shaved truffles. I have the salad. The food is amazing but the colour sense of the restauranteur is terrible. I think that it is really off-putting, having such colourful plates and glazed ceramic tables with this fine food. Amazing technology, but poor taste – not the taste of the food though! We visit the archaeological pottery site at the foot of the village and Miss Indiana Jones-King descends into the Etruscan firebox of doom. Passes through the Ashpit of Despair, on up through the Firebars of Eternal Damnation and emerges triumphant from the Inferno of Hope, or so she claimed, or was it those weird fungi she had for lunch?
love from Dr. Steve and Dr. Janine Jones.
Chianti, Tuscany, Umbria and the surprise of Cartiglione d’orca.
The intrepid Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle Bon Deux Pied, the Voice of Reason, Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names and Raconteur of Art History with the sensitive nose, directs me to drive on the right side of the road, which is both right and correct, to deliver her through Tuscany into Umbria. Many people warned us that Tuscany was over exposed and that tourism had made it a less attractive place to be. I didn’t fully understand this until we came here. The place is beautiful, the scenery is spectacular, even sublime on occasion, but this beauty has brought so many people to admire it that it is now very overcrowded, difficult to navigate and has lost its general appeal. Of course the buildings are still there, but the experience is lessened by the huge crowds. We spend a morning trying to get into Montipuciano. We have to park at the station 3 km. away because the parking lots near the gates are already full and then catch a bus back to the town walls where we change busses into a small 10 seater to get ferried up to the top of town. when we we get there, the museum is ordinary, but the whole experience is saved by the information display which deals with their one and only Carravagio painting. This is fantastic and so thorough that I’m glued to the screen and manage to spend over half an hour reading and looking at the painting. I haven’t been so engaged for a long time. It’s amazing what people can find out about things. I knew in general, but the detail is impressive. The tears, the repairs, the re-painting! To cap it all off, it’s probably not even painted by Carravagio, more likely by someone else. but that doesn’t matter. The ride was fantastic. We emerge into the bright sunshine and crowded street. The view from the top of the town wall is sensational.
The cathedral is beautifully plain and simple, almost completely unadorned brick and stone, such a relief from all the usual over-decorated clutter. We fight our way down the street back down the hill through the crowds past what where probably really nice buildings once upon a time but are now universally trinket shops, that sell anything and everything, but very little that is actually from here. Of course there are the wine shops, but apart from that there are plastic toys, high fashion, leather goods, even a wax works of torture. There is even a pottery shop selling slip cast ash trays painted with madonna’s underwear! You know which madonna I mean. It’s all so appropriate! We decide not to press on to Cortona, but to drive out into the Val d’Orca into the country side to look at the view and get some fresh air and space around us. I’ve read some of Iris Origo’s books and although I didn’t plan to end up here, I’m now interested to see the country side that she so lovingly described in her work. They are harvesting the grapes around here as we pass through and still doing it by hand, we have seen several teams of pickers working the rows and only one machine harvester. Possibly because the rows are so steep and narrow, it would be difficult for the machine. I can see in the groves around here that there has been a general adoption of the ‘intaglio drastico, technique of olive tree pruning. This style was pioneered by the equivalent of the CSIRO in Italy in the 80’s, but without much adoption at that time, as it was seen to disfigure the trees, which up until that time had been pruned to be as tall and strong as possible – which makes sense. However, someone discovered that if you prune off all the upward pointing new shoots and open the centre into the classic vase shape, keeping only the downward facing branches, you get a lower, smaller tree with increased yields. Easier to pick and maintain too. but this was rejected here in Italy for a whole generation, with the contadinis sticking to what they knew best. It is only now with the new generation that the science is being accepted, along with the increased income from the larger crops. We drive into the country side for the view, but discover along the way a host of very small hill top villages and hill towns, that are so small that they don’t even appear on our map. So we are fascinated and delighted to stop and look around in them, because there is virtually no-one there and you can drive right into them, up the very, very, VERY, steep roads, in first gear only, grinding up to the top and park in one of the 3 car places in the parking area, then walk around the village. My absolute favourite was Cartiglione d’orca. A very small village set between two enormous jutting rocks that have ancient defensive positions set on top. We wander the steep little lanes that are actually mostly staircases, to find the town square in front of the Marie, which is so steep that the floor level is set at about 20 degrees. The well in the centre is the only level thing there. The house opposite the marie being a full story lower than the marie itself, but only 50 feet away.
It is beautifully paved with a setting of terra cotta bricks in a large triangular pattern flowing out from the well with large water-washed rounded pebbles as cobbles set in between them. All these materials must have been dragged up from the valley a long way away and a very long time ago. There is only one human being visible in the village. A stooped little old man making his way very slowly up the hill to the bar for his afternoon apero. I’m thrilled to find such a peaceful little village that is so lovely and so full of character, where not very much happens. They grow their vegies, their vines and their olive trees, keep some chooks, which wander casually along the little streets, scratching here and there around us as we walk. I love this place of little lanes and passages, stone houses and self reliance. A little like Balmoral village is for me in my mind, only with better architecture and a fantastic view.
As we drive along, miles from anywhere, we come across a very small chapel. The door is open. Thee are no farms around here that we have seen out in this forest. We stop and look in. It’s really simple and beautiful. It’s quite moving just how lovely it is with the vine growing over the doorway. The door is wide open, the keys are in the lock, there are a pair of secateurs and a small hand broom on one of the little rush bottomed chairs. which are incredibly lovely in themselves, because they are hand made from split wood, worked with a draw knife and mortised together, with a tiny little knee rest, also rush woven, sticking out the back for the person behind to rest their knees on when praying. There is no one around and no car. A lovely sense of trust and we honour it. Taking only photos.
With love from the contadini.
Bavagna and Spello
The olfactory compass of the intrepid Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle bon deux pied, The Voice of Reason, The Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names and Raconteur of Art History directs us to take the road much less travelled from Chianciano across the blank part of the Umbrian map towards Spello to the north of Todi. This part of our map is blank and all it says is “There Be Dragons”. We decide to go anyway, apparently it’s an old map. We find to our delight, empty little winding roads through all the usual vineyards and olive groves up into chestnut forest past small family sized saw mills and down again with tremendous views, into a small valley. We see that there is a tiny walled village ahead, so take that turn and park in the half empty parking area by the town’s stone perimeter wall, beside the arched entrance into this little gem of a place. It is 12.30 and seems like a good time and place to stop for lunch. The little main street/square is lovely and there are two cafes. They aren’t really ready yet as the girl is still placing the cutlery on the outside tables, all 5 of them. We are encouraged to sit at one in the shade of the awning and look at the one page hand written menu. Roast local rabbit, stuffed household pigeon, truffle omelette, baked egg plant, garden vegetables etc. We sit and consider. There is a small hill in the centre of the village and lots of little winding lanes full of very old buildings that show in their layered masonary facades, that they have been here for a very long time and have had their usefulness re-assigned many times. There are people wandering about, old ladies on their bicycles peddling home with their shopping. A tiny ape (motorbike truck) pulls up and a huge man unfolds himself from it. A hunter dressed in cams walks past carrying gun and a plastic carry bag with a pheasants tail sticking out. He hands it to the chef, the menu on the board is altered. We sit and observe. We are sitting by a stone arched covered stairway that leads up the hill, to where, we don’t know, but a lot of people are using it. I decide on the roasted pidgin and The Nose of Grasse decides on the egg plant with a bottle of water. No wine as I’m driving. The girl is surprised, everyone round here has wine and still drives! What’s wrong with you? Are you sick? From the kitchen, there is a flurry, a squark and a little puff of feathers, the oven door slams shut. We sit and we sit, I can see straight into the small kitchen, just enough room for two in there, but there are three of them working in the narrow space. That waitress isn’t a waitress at all, she is juggling 3 saucepans on the front burners and two large stock pots on the back burners. She ladles out something from a huge ceramic jar near the door and comes out with a large bowl of what turns out to be olives, all local and preserved onsite of course, with a crisply crunchy sourdough bread with a chewy centre, fresh from the oven an hour earlier. They are delicious. At 1.00 She places the black board out in the square to announce that they are now officially open. The place soon fills and at 1.15 our dishes arrive. This is real food, not cooked until it is ordered. Beautiful, crisp, succulent, juicy, tender, and wonderfully fragrant with a few herbs and a garlic stuffing. On the menu the desert is listed as tart of ‘marmello fruit’. We discuss this. Is it a pie of Marmalade, ie citrus, as we would understand it. Or perhaps the marmello here is the spanish or Portugese interpretation of ‘marmalade’, being cooked quince. But No. Before our meals arrived I saw a beautiful big pie come out of the oven and left to sit and cool, just inside the kitchen door. It is dark red black fruit with a lattice of pastry over the top. Of course the ever inquisitive Mmslle must try it. It turns out to be red berries, a relation of black berry or perhaps currants? However, it is delicious. We finish with with a short black coffee and when the bill comes it lists only our main courses. I signal the waitress that there appears to be some mistake. We have had the full four courses, but only charged the 15 euros for the main course. She waves me away. It’s all in the one price. No-one would dare charge for an entre, desert or coffee in a small village like this! I’m in heaven. I announce that I’m not traveling any further on this trip, but will stop and live here instead, but Madonna Nina, The Voice of Reason, convinces me otherwise. and rightly so! The wise one still has more in store for my art education, and that next thing is Spello. All those years preparing classes in Cultural Productions have finally paid off.
The main course concludes with a warm water and lemon finger bowl, so that we will not be intimidated in picking up the pidgeon and sucking every last morsel off the bones. with love Stefano et Nina, who are as stuffed full as Schapelle Corby’s buggy board bag.
Deruta, Orvieto, Spello, Gubbio, Urbino and Faenza
We have been following the Ceramic scent of Hill Town pottery centres and their museums from the XIV century onwards. The majolica and lustre trail. The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle Bon deux Pied, the Voice of Reason, The Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur of Art History and the Sherlock of Ceramics, Holmes in on the ceramic scent and guides me from hill town to hill town, as we steadily progress northward. From small town museums of local ceramic heros like Master Gorgio Andrioli, the Master of Renaissance lustreware, to even smaller private collections on a pay to view basis. She tracks them all down, picks up their scent on her fingertips from the ipad touch screen and googles them to ground. There is no escape once she has them in her browser window, referring to her diaries and cultural productions note-books, once she has them in memory, they are all reduced to GPS locations and their future is history. We find every one of these little local museums and walk their tiny, and sometimes spacious, isles. Look into every vitrine. Their surfaces as glazed as my eyeballs. When I start my museum (in another life) I will have espresso machines every hundred metres and a ‘scratch-n-snif’ catalogue to keep the aging and interested but tired and wilting viewers, such as moi, focused and on-theme. I will definitely also allow photographs. Surely the work of renaissance potters is out of copyright by now! I’d love to show you some images of amazing examples, but the rules forbade cameras in the museums. I’d like to be able to recall some of what I’ve seen myself, but it all blends into a kind of a blur, the cabinets, the aisles, the halls, the museums, the days, and the places. Too much all in together, I have ceramic image indigestion. We were allowed to take pictures in the towns though, but that doesn’t help. In my next life I will have more time and will sit and draw perfect reproductions of all the pieces that I really like and each museum will take weeks to navigate. I wonder if they ban pencils?
A shadow of our former selves. I write up in my diary each evening, a brief description of what we did and saw each day, this in conjunction with photographs is often enough to bring back the memories; sights, sounds and smells of that day, but without the images, it’s very hard to recall all, or even some of all those thousands of pots. No matter how interesting they might have been. However fascinating it has been this last week to see all these places and pots, the subtle differences and nuances of decoration or glaze application. It remains that the best way to see all these things in one place is still in one of the larger museums like the V&A, Louvre or Faenza. The great advantage of this gypsy-ramble method of art appreciation, as it turns out, is all the ancillary sights, sounds and smalls that illuminate this travel experience manuscript and give it all such memorable context. Even if I have forgotten a lot of it because of overload. In Faenza there is no parking near the museum, so you have to park two kilometres away in the ‘pay to park’ spot and walk back. There is one hour parking in the streets around the museum, but it is only for locals with residents cards and these are the very people that don’t go in there. We drive to the tourist information office, which is hidden in an ally off the main square, with hardly any signs, but we manage to find it anyway. We want to find out where the museum is, we do, but get booked in a ‘one hour zone’ for not being a resident. I see it as a tax on cultural tourism. As we pass the bank, I see that there is an armed guard outside with military style sub-machine gun. When it comes to security here they really mean business. I once saw a guard outside the bank back home in Mittagong, but only once and he didn’t have a sub machine gun, so it’s quite a shock to see such a sign of force here in this little town. I want to take his picture, but think better of it. When I was in Imbe in Japan, studying Bizen pottery back in the early eighties, I met an Italian potter called Henry, he was there like me to study, and had been coming and going for some years, leaving to go home and renew his visa, then return to work in the potteries again. I only had a bicycle in Japan, as did he, so we travelled together for a time and became friendly. He was superficially nice, but I felt a spooky undercurrent there somewhere that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on, or give a name to. (and Janine, The Bestower of Names, was not there to name it for me). I became quite uneasy when he learnt that I had a British passport – which he told me would be very valuable to ‘some people’. He went on to say that if I were to “loose” it. The government would replace it for me, and he was seeming to indicate that he might just know some of ‘those people’ who would pay a high price for it. I didn’t bite – played dumb and changed the subject. I never felt fully secure around him after that and we parted company. StilI, I was very surprised to hear on the grapevine some years later that he had been mown down in a hail of machine gun fire from the armed guards, on running from a bank that he had just robbed somewhere in Italy. These guards have those machine guns for a reason and aren’t afraid to use them it seems. Still, I wouldn’t mind taking this guys photograph but my head of security, major Miss ‘boverboy’ King, sees me about to commit suicide in this way and grabs the camera. She definitely thinks better of taking that photograph. My tour guide The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle bon du pied, the Voice of Reason, The Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur of Art History, the Sherlock of Ceramics, Better Thinker and Saver of Lives, BoverBoy King ushers me out of Italy and into Switzerland while she still can. We are not stopped at the border and boldly but quietly pass out of Italics and into Helvetica, avoiding Geneva hoping for better times, with our criminal parking record undisclosed, under the assumed identities of Heidi and Klaus, high-altitude kiln builders and international potters of mystery – we’re gone, like last weeks wages!
with love from,
Frau Guttenburg King, the Font of Information and her trusty type setter Lead Hand Luke.
The Rat House and cheesy grins all round in Switzerland
My Swissli tour guide Heidi, The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle Bon Deux Pied, the Voice of Reason, The Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur, Noah of Art History, Sherlock of Ceramics, Better Thinker, Saver of Lives, Nik the ‘BoverBoy’, Font of Information, and Frau Guttenburg-King guides me through the remote mountain passes of the Italian/Swiss border, with the aid of our GPS, up over passes and down through vales, high places, ringing with cow bells, so foggy and wet that we can’t see the cows or the road ahead, where a little bit of sugar made the medicine go down, a dough was a little dear-which makes bread expensive, and far was a long, long way to run from the Italic parking fine Carbinieri. After 8 1/2 hours of driving from the Italian adriatic coast. We eventually find our way to the high pastures of the biological village of Sufers secreted high up in the Swiss alps. The trip could have been a little faster, but there has been a land slide in this torrential rain. The Splugen pass is closed because of a landslide and we are forced to make the detour around the effected area through the Maloja and Silvana passes, adding a few extra hours to our trip, but making it that much harder for the Italic Carbinieri to track us down. I did try to go to the post office and pay the parking fine before we left Italy, but I had to wait in a queue to get a number, so as to then wait for the triage officer to distribute my case to the relevant official, who told me in sign language, when I presented my traffic miss-demeanor form, that She didn’t want to talk or sign to me, and I needed another, completely different person to deal with the total gravity of my scale and severity of offense. I queue again, get another number and wait to be called, by this time I’m overtime where I’m parked and am in line to be booked a second time. I finally get an audience with another officer, he has a face like a dropped pie and he indicates that I haven’t filled in the Italic form correctly in Italian italic script, there are some boxes empty where I can’t understand the question. He sends me away to suffer further for my crimes. I put my name and address in every square that is still blank. I queue again for a number at the machine, and am finally rewarded with an audience with a bored looking fat lady who looks at my form with distain, asks for the cash. I offer her my credit card, she point blank refuses to touch it and demands cash. CASH ONLY! This is Italy. I hand over the form and the 40 Euros. She screws up the form and throws it in the bin and pockets the cash. I’m ushered away by security when I ask for a receipt. NO Receipts, CASH ONLY! THAT WAS ITALY. Farewell to Italy. As I say arrivedirci to Italy I’m reminded of Paul Wright’s battle with the Italian bureaucracy in his book about Lake Como. He eventually gave up and lived in the black market, as there didn’t appear to be any possible way to get official recognition legitimately through the Italian system. Over the last high pass and we drive down into the pale sunshine of the Confederation of Helvetical Cantons looking forward to some tea – a drink with jam and bread, So (a needle pulling all these threads together) here we are. The Noah of Art History and popular musicals tells me that Julie Andrews was actually in Austria at the time and not Italy) We arrive just in time to be invited to a meeting next to the village meeting house (Maire) called the ‘Rathaus’. The head Rat has invited us to dinner in his Swissli rats nest(lè). He has an amazing old traditional house, typical in these parts. Stone walls a metre thick, huge wooden beams, We enter down from the road into a deep ante-room stacked with fire wood for the long winter and thence into the outer cellar, then the inner cellar, past all sorts of amazing goodies, dried mushrooms, cured hams, aged cheeses, stacks of fire wood, racks of wine and beer. All kept at a pretty constant 8 degrees, year in year out, perfect preserving conditions. What I wouldn’t give for such a cellar! Such abundance!!! Well, for a start I wouldn’t give up the heat of the Australian summer, or the warmth of the mild Aussie winter, nor the high blue cloudless skies that go on forever, however, I could easily give up frost bite and snow and being locked inside for days on end due to the ice, or having to abandon working in the pottery for 4 months of the year. No. Fuck the cool cellar. I like it the way it is in Australia. That’s why Sir Edward Holstrom introduced the fridge into Sydney in 1928. So that we wouldn’t have to have winters like that!
However, the meal with the Rat and his brother Martine. (I believe that it was James Cagney, who famously said “your the dirty rat who killed my brother”? Luckily neither of these two are dead.) is really amazing in its traditional authenticity. We start with a beer, a beer brewed up in the high, high pastures during the warm summer months when it gets up to 18 degrees. Quite warm apparently, when you consider that the last winter got down to -45 C. The second course is cheese and bread. A smooth, soft cheese from the western, French speaking part of the Helvetic Confederation. This is interesting in that this village, the one that the head Rat oversees, has it’s own ‘Senerai’ or cheese factory. However, they only make hard cheeses, not this flavorsome soft and creamy variety. This is served with traditional finely chopped vegetable pickles, only made a few days ago by a group of villagers all sitting together, finely chopping, slicing and dicing their way through the group contributions of 80 kilos of vegies, for the village pickle of the season. Some things are worth preserving. The main course is a traditional dumpling made of dough and cheese and ham wrapped in grape vine leaves, which are first steamed and then baked in a mixture of cream, grated cheese and spices.
Very delicious and very filling, served with a nice crisp dry white wine. We have 3 helpings and before we know it, it is 1.30 am! We consider ourselves so very lucky to be invited and to be able to sample some of the frugal delights of this ancient way of self-sufficient life. The house is only heated in this one room by the wood fired oven, There is no other heating in here, These people are real stoics. I feel like such a wimp living my very comfortable pseudo-peasants life in Australia.
We visit the cheese factory each day to get the days supplies of cholesterol. Butter, cheeses, yoghurt and milk. All organically grown and produced in this ‘biological’ (organic) National Park.
Eric Nelson is the potter here and he has collected some rock dust sludge from the bottom of the local village lake. He has fired a sample and tells me that it looks like it is something that comes from the dark side. I suggest that we should call it “Lake, I’m your father” glaze. Janine and I sit down and prepare a 20 unit long lineblend of “Lake, I’m your father” glaze material blended with increasing amounts of wood ash.
“Lake, I’m your father” ash glaze blend works best as a mustard yellow/brown matt at about the proportions of 60/40.
During the cooling, we spend a day up in the very high pastures, where only residents of the village who own pasture, or have legitimate business up there are allowed to go. The transhumance occurred last weekend, so all the cows are back down in the valley again now. We walk to a high hut, at 2,350 metres, provided for people so that they won’t freeze or starve to death in case of sudden inclement weather. It’s a beautiful autumn day up there of 12 degrees and a wind chill factor of about -6. It’s foggy, the low cloud soon settles and it starts to rain a little. The chill wind is biting as it blows off the snow. It’s as cold as a mother-in-law’s kiss. I am wearing every bit of clothing that I brought with me for the month in the south of France by the sea, and It isn’t enough! At this high point, the swiss flag is so tattered that it is almost worn away with the constant battering of the wind. Welcome to Switzerland.
with love from, Heidi and Klaus.
This is our Lot
We are now working near the Limosin, between the Lot and the Tarn. There is the village Fètè on tonight to celebrate the end of the ‘vendage’ and we are invited. The weather bureau forecasts rain, so I hope that our Fètè is sealed! It is, and it is quite warm in the local indoor-sports centre/gymnasium with 350 peysans all prattling away in ocètan and patois. We can’t speak French, never mind this romance creole that is as much old latin as it is new French. We are soon introduced to the other 3 english speakers in the room. One of whom speaks English with the most perfect intonation, so much so, that I can’t believe at first that she really is a native French speaker. She has an English that is clear and perfectly enunciated, not received pronunciation or anything posh, but definitely not working class. I can’t determine where it is from, but it is really beautiful to listen to her speak, soft and gentle, well spaced, amazingly listenable. I love it. I can’t stand not knowing, so as she is hanging around, I ask her where she learnt. Does she have English parents? No. She’s a local and just decided that if she was going to learn english, she would do it really well, so she moved to London when she was younger and worked in England to learn as much as she could. It worked, I’m completely fooled. She is of a certain age now and has a job with Air France as cabin crew, where her 3 languages come in handy. We are 3/4 through our trip now and building this kiln in the south of France near Toulouse is our last job. It’s horrible work, but someone has to do it and the locals here prefer to bring in cheap foreign labour to do all their other dirty work for them, so why not kiln building. Maybe they think that because Australia is a country of miners, that I have some special skill in digging the foundations and casting concrete slabs.? I was in the false belief that all this heavy work would already be done for me, but no. At least I know that it is now done well. I never thought of myself and the skill sets that I have developed over my life as being the equivalent of an Albanian laborer! Still – we travel to learn. I’m learning! We can get our email here and learn that there has been snow at home, so much for those early spring flowering plants and fruit tree blossom! People here speak Ocètan as well as French. Our host is Eric and he is a native Ocètan speaker, with French as a second language and as we are close to the Spanish border here, everyone seems to do a little Spanish quite naturally as well as the local patois from their own region. So it is very fortunate for us that they all seem to have a very healthy smattering English to boot, otherwise it would be very hard to do the workshop. It’s really strange for me to be with people that regularly speak four or five languages. It’s absolutely normal here, nobody thinks about it. They learn when they are so young.
The little hamlet of five or six houses is set on top of a hill with nice views. It has a tiny church at the highest point and this small, windy, one lane road, that snakes among these hills is on the St. Jacques trail of the Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage walk. Everyday we see 10, 20, or even fifty pilgrims walking past the house and kiln site. I suggest to Eric that he should make ceramic sea shells with a cross. Something small and light that can be carried in a pilgrims pocket. The Santiago pilgrims might just shell out for a ceramic souvenir? There are between 6 and 10 people helping on this job now, and once we start, the work goes very quickly and the kiln is finished in three or four days.
Everyone is lovely and we find that there is plenty to laugh about while we work, even in different languages. We pack on the fifth day while I finish welding all the steel bracing to the chimney and firebox, then start a small fire to dry out all the wet raw pots that everyone has been throwing at intervals throughout the workshop, on the only wheel that Eric has in his studio, so that we now have a full kiln load, but because it has been raining on and off everything is damp. Two intrepid members decide to stay up very late and Eric gets up very early, so that there is a very small, gentle fire in the kiln all night. When I get up at 6 am, the kiln is warm and dry and we can proceed to fire without too much worry about explosions.
The weather is turning very, very windy. A hot dry wind from the south, 40 to 80 kms is forecast. The flimsy iron and bush pole roof rattles and bangs as the thing shakes with each extra violent gust, the whole ephemeral cobweb of a structure holds, but not firmly. We are up and down all day like a bride’s nightie putting extra screws into the roofing sheets. The wind causes havoc with the draught, gusting and changing direction rapidly, but we manage. By lunch time the forecast has been increased to 100 kms and it really feels like it. Half a dozen roof tiles are blown off the roof of the house and come crashing down in the drive next to our rented car, luckily missing it, but the plastic kiddies play house is blown over and tumbles across the lawn and driveway to crash into the front of our car knocking in the plastic grill. A few of the plastic clips are broken, but we manage to get it back into place. I hope that it still holds at high speed! We are all finished by 9 pm and have used almost exactly 100 pieces of the local pine to get here and made very little smoke, but the wind has been atrocious! I’m quite unsure about the results. I’ve never fired in a gale before. I hope that they’ll all be blown away by the results.
with love from Klause the door and Heidi the salami.
Where Artists live
The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle Bon deux Pied, the Voice of Reason, The Lovely Book Worm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur, Noah of Art History, Sherlock of Ceramics, Googler of iPads and Browser of Sites, Better Thinker, Saver of Lives, Nik the ‘BoverBoy’, Font of Information, Frau Guttenburg-King, My Swissli tour guide Heidi, Firer of Kilns and Survivor of Gales travels with me as we emerge from our condition of chiaroscuro, where so little light falls when I am so focussed on work, and we emerge into the luminosity of the southern French countryside of the Ocètan. Our workshop is complete, and we are invited by all the participants to call in and visit them in their homes on our way north. We have a week up our sleeve. This was probably the reason that I wasn’t sleeping too well. Nothing like having a week up your sleeve to stop you turning over comfortably in bed! We decide to call in on every one of these lovely people that we have now come to know. Of course they don’t all live in a straight line heading to Paris, so our route home is somewhat circuitous, as we make sure that we fit everyone in. Being artists, all of them live in wonderful, exotic and beautiful places. Isn’t it amazing how we define ourselves as artists, not just by our work practices, but by every bit of our interaction with the ‘other’ world. We choose to live in places that other people refuse to. We put up with some inconvenience, sometimes a lot of inconvenience, for the added value of beauty and ‘otherness’. We see opportunity, where others see hardship, so it often comes to pass that we find ourselves living in remarkable places with loads of character, that are largely hand made, or hand re-made, at low actual financial cost but with huge physical input to make up the difference. Nearly all the potters that we visit fit into this category. In Australia, we often find ourselves building from scratch, as there is a lot of blank space to fill in on each page, but here in the ancient northern hemisphere, there are ruins a plenty to rebuild and make your own. These people would struggle to find empty space in the margins.
Our first visit is to Quercy who has made his home to the east of Toulouse in the very little and very elevated, hill town of a Population of 100, in a good year. His family have lived here in this village for about 700 years as far as the available records show, but people didn’t move very far back in those days, so they have probably been here longer, – much longer. Quercy has taken up residence in his late grandfathers house, who is only recently deceased. They live long here. Built into the side of the cliff and being part of the village defensive wall in part, this house dates back to the 1300’s. It is only 4 rooms, one on top of the other, stacked up the cliff face. All of them are big rooms. One was for the sheep and another for the hay and the third for the humans. There is no access to the loft at the moment. All made from the local stone except for a few walls of wattle and daube clay. It has no running drinking water, bathroom or even kitchen. He has proudly installed a flushing toilet recently and is working on a bathroom. Each floor has a ground level access at some point on the sloping cliff face. Quercy has been living in here for 3 years and needless to say, has no wife. He trained in Canberra for a semester, where he went to study furniture and came across the ceramics dept. and changed to claywork and wood firing, worked with Ian Jones for a while and was hooked. When he returned to France, this ruin was recently vacant and in great need of some urgent repairs, so he moved in and has been working hard on it since. There is no room for an anagama in a tiny little ancient village like this, with all it’s National Trust protection, but the family house comes with 2 or 3 hectares of terraces down the steep hill side, outside the village walls and a little flat land at the bottom, a very long and steep walk away. Quercy decided to build his anagama up against the ramparts on one of the highest family terraces, or what was left of them, closest to his house. This was where his grandfather grew all the family vegetables. Quercy has rebuilt a lot of the fallen family drystone terraces in this part of the land and has built and fired his anagama kiln 10 times. His life is frugal and tough, he is very dedicated to succeeding and not scarred of some hard work.
The conservative burghers of the village, originally skeptical and even hostile to anything so new and unlikely, have since been converted by this quiet and very engaging young potter. Especially when they saw him rebuilding the old fallen stone terraces all by himself and not asking for their assistance. He is now widely supported by the village and is often asked, and paid, to lend a creative hand in some of the other rebuilding work that is constantly necessary in such an ancient village. Quercy has a long way to go to get physically comfortable in his new old home and probably even longer to get financially comfortable, but I have no doubt that he will get there and the beautiful view makes up for an awful lot – when you’re young.
Another potter that we call in on is Ingrid, she lives with her mum on 100 hectares of rugged stoney hillside that was once a Paysan’s home and farm. Settled long ago by shepherds, this is an area of very low fertility. The oldest stone building here is dated 1733 and another larger barn is dated 1845, but the main house was only built in the early 1900’s and was a ruin by the time of the second world war, as the resistance used it as a hideout and sheltered a British air man here for some time, as he had a broken leg. The building was also used by a German patrol at the same time with all three groups sheltered here simultaneously on one stormy night. The one surviving child of the original family decided to sell the place in the seventies. Ingrid’s mother, was interested in buying the old ruin and doing it up – as artistic types are want to do, but the old man was difficult to deal with, very cagey, not trusting any outsider and wouldn’t give a price, always stalling. She gave up hope of buying it until one day he phoned her, saying “do you want it or not!”? She said that she did, but wanted to know the price. He wouldn’t say, just be at the notaires in the morning 9.00 am sharp! She turned up and he still wouldn’t give her a price, just asking her to sign. When she refused to sign without a price, he told her that there was no price for the contract, and no deposit either. No money up front at all. All he wanted was a small payment every month, so that he would have a kind of pension in his old age. He was 65 then and it was a good deal. She agreed and he is still alive and she is still paying him his pension, he is almost 100! but she has a wonderful property that she couldn’t otherwise afford and has made the most of it. Her children are all artists and that tells you something.
Ingrid lives in the converted barn with the big glass doors with her partner and children.
With love from Gale and Gail.
The Bourry box at Sevre.
I wanted to stay and help Quercy to build his house, but The Voice of Reason, The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle bon deux pied, Lovely Bookworm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur, Art Historian, Sherlock of Ceramics, Better Thinker, Saver of Lives, Nik the ‘BoverBoy’, Font of Information, Frau Guttenburg-King, My Swissli tour guide Heidi, Firer of Kilns, Survivor of Gales and Noah of all things right and proper to do in all occasions is at my side and we are soon on our way again. The last potter that we visit is Agnes. She is hugely outgoing, adventurous and enthusiastic, high energy kind of creative person. She has an atelier on the outskirts of La Borne, so here we are back again in La Borne and firing her ‘little’ kiln. After the firing she takes us to meet several other La Borne potters that we have not yet met on our other visits.
Agnes has bought a ruined country Maison de Charm, it came with many hectares of ‘park’ land, mostly over-grown and a huge mansion, plus many out buildings, which will become ‘gites’, a studio, and chamber-de-hotel accommodation. She thinks in a different way to me and has the energy to match her thoughts. The entire building has been re-roofed with the traditional roman tiles and there is much else still to do. We visit Limoges and then Sevre on our way back to home and the warm sunny southern hemisphere. Here in the North, the weather is coming from the east, off the snow, that now locks up the alps and our little kiln that we fired in the sun just 4 weeks ago in switzerland will be under the white blanket for the season. The wind has a severe chill to it. It’s a lazy wind, in that it goes straight through you rather than around you. It’s just 4oC here in the middle of the day and with the wind, it’s like minus – 4. We do the usual tourist tours of the old Royal Limoges factory, and visit the shop.
This fine porcelain isn’t really my taste, but my gosh it’s impressive. So white and so translucent. Of course as potters we can see that we are not being told the whole story in the presentations and videos. I look closely and I can’t see a ‘Made in France” on very much of what is on offer here. Certainly there is some production here still, but not very much. I suspect that a lot of it is coming in from China, just as it is everywhere else. I see on the bottom of some pieces, where it proudly proclaims, “designed in France” and ‘Designed in Stoke on Trent”. This, it seems to me to be proof that it is not made here any more. because if it were, they would be proudly proclaiming it.
We have a contact in Sevre and are invited to see in behind the scenes. When we arrive, we expect to see the shop and a quick squiz in the back room. But No. Mannu, our new friend and keen woodfirer, who works here as a glazer, has arranged with the director, to take the afternoon off to show us around the whole factory, so four and a half hours later, we have a very good understanding of what is happening here and it’s very impressive! Everything is still made on site and made to special commission, everything seems to cost thousands of Euros in the gallery, even tens of thousands, it’s very up market. We aren’t invited into the special ‘high rollers’ back gallery, where the Saudis are being entertained. With Mannu’s guidance, we are able to ‘access all areas’ – except the exclusive sales area. He shows us everything, we even get a chance to try our hand at glazing a dinner plate. Everything is still done entirely by hand. They even have throwers still working and manual jigger and jolly machines, where highly trained and skilled people still ‘throw’ the blanks. they still pour and fettle and assemble all the slip cast work by hand. I’m amazed, there is so much highly skilled hand labour still employed here. They are specialising in producing limited production runs of pieces created by famous artists, specially for Sevre.
I’m keen to see the old Sevre wood fired porcelain kilns with the Bourry fire box. To my surprise there are still 5 of these kilns still here, and two are still in working order, whereas at Limoges, there was just one coal fired kiln in the museum section. Mannu is a keen woodfirer in his spare time as a hobby and tells us that he organised a firing in one of these large kilns 2 years ago, to fire the work of a famous French artist potters work. It was successful and the director is pleased with him. He now has ‘brownie points’ and is hoping to organise another firing, if all the planets can be aligned. He asks us if we are interested? ARE WE INTERESTED! let me think about that for one second. Yes we are! So maybe it just might come off. At the rate that the French economy is plummeting and Europe is imploding, it just might be the very last wood firing at Sevre. For very selfish reasons, I hope that it can all be sustained a little while longer.
with love from the Noah of all things right and proper and her partner going together 2 x 2 into the Ark that is Sevre.
We are out of chiaroscuro and into this illuminated manuscript. So we have light now but the sunshine is fading fast, the summer is gone and the indian summer too, and even the autumn is coming to an end. The weather is freezing and there is so much snow that it blocks the roads and the evening news on the television in the foyer is full of snow and weather related catastrophes. I am forced to buy a scarf to keep my neck warm from the icy winds. We are making the most of our last few days here by traveling to Troyes. When I think of Troyes, I think of Helen and a thousand ships. but this Troyes is pronounced like the French word for three, ‘trois’. When we get there, we find that there is very little doggy number twos in trois. The people here seem to be somehow cleaner than the Parisians. With no twos in trois, one is left feeling refreshed!
It is late when I get The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle Bon deux Pied, the Voice of Reason, The Lovely Book Worm, Bestower of Names, Raconteur, Noah of Art History, Sherlock of Ceramics, Googler of iPads and Browser of Sites, Better Thinker, Saver of Lives, Nik the ‘BoverBoy’, Font of Information, Frau Guttenburg-King, My Swissli tour guide Heidi, Firer of Kilns, Survivor of Gales, Noah of all things right and proper to do in all occasions, Savior of this romantic journeyman potter and The Senser of Charming and Comfortable small hotels then directs me to the door of this special place. Its pissing down with rain, it’s dark and the streets are medieval in their winding narrowness. A cobweb of one way lanes that snake between the ancient half-timbered houses, over-hanging each other with each successive story as they go up, almost blocking out the light, and their stone archways leading into cobbled court yards, all so charming and romantic. She has mastered the GPS system and sets the controls to the heart of the sun, but miraculously we end up right at the door of this ancient hotel.
The Diviner of Comfort and Economy directs me to the only empty parking spot in town tonight in this weather and it’s opposite this lovely little hotel which also offers off street parking for our hire car. A minor miracle in these amazing little medieval ancient town centres. This tiny 10 room hotel is very old and rambling and all over the place. The floors are all sloping in different directions, the corridors turn left and right, then up some stairs, around, and then more stairs, another corner, then uphill along another steep corridor, then down and around some more. Finally, a nice small room, quiet and comfortable and reasonably priced too. We book in and get to maneuver the hire car in to the remaining small car space left in this ancient pile. I don’t want to leave to car in the narrow street, as it is certain to get scratched. There isn’t a car in France, other than brand new ones, that isn’t scratched and battered from the narrowness of the streets and the French parking habits of headbutt and shunt. Our hire car contract includes comprehensive insurance, but we have to pay the first 500 Euros of any claim, so I’m very relieved to get it inside and off the street. The maitre’d listens politely to us murdering the perfect language, we struggle through our rehearsed phrases as we try to get a room organised. He is so patient, he listens and gesticulates appreciatively, we struggle to the painful end, he nods in appreciation of our efforts, he is so polite. Finally he says in perfect english and with an Oz accent, well done mate! So what part of Australia are you from? He spent a year back-packing around Australia and loved it, “I had such a great time there. People were so good to me, I’ll never forget it”. We get on well, he encourages us to try out more new phrases and corrects our verbs. He is very lively and entertaining and he must be tough, as he spent the summer of his Australian working holiday with a fencing contractor in western Queensland! Bloody Hell! I wouldn’t want to do that. This guy is tough!
We have come here to visit the museums, to learn more about the Knights Templar, as this is their home. There is a wonderfully stain glass glazed cathedral, small but with so much colour. There must have been a lot of money here in its time. The locals claim that Troyes was the centre for the world gold trade at one stage and the name troy weight originates here. There may be a grain of truth in it, i.e. about 0.06479891 of a grams worth, with 480 grains to a troy ounce.
We are lucky enough to get here in time to see the last few days of a special Knights Templer Exhibition mounted over the summer. It tells us their story from beginning to end. If you believe that there really was an end! Apparently Dan Brown doesn’t think so – so it must be true! The exhibition is liberally illustrated with beautiful pottery shards and all the surviving old parchment documents. It’s all very interesting, but what we have really come here for is the the major museum here in this town and it’s the Old Tool Museum. Now as an Old Tool myself, I’m interested. It tells the history of hand tools and their use through the ages. This is a really great place to spend a few hours – that is if you are interested in old hand tools and their use, which I am. 70 exhibits and 20,000 items. It’s a bit mind blowing for me and my Old Tool Support Team Leader is supportive but somehow distracted by the offer of the free chocolate tasting at the hand made chocolate atelier. Has this city got everything or what?
Troyes is a great place to visit and is actually worth it’s weight in gold!
with love from the GPS Diviner of Comfort and Economy and her Old Tool.
The GPS Master, The Voice of Reason, The Nose of Grasse, Dr. Janine Jones, Madonna Nina, Mmslle bon deux pied, Bestower of Names, Lovely Bookworm, Raconteur, Art Historian, Sherlock of Ceramics, Googler of iPads, Browser of Sites, Better Thinker, Saver of Lives, Nik the ‘BoverBoy’, Font of Information, Frau Guttenburg-King, My Swissli tour guide Heidi, Firer of Kilns, Survivor of Gales, Noah of all Things Right and Proper, Romantic Journeyman’s Savior, The Senser of Charming Small Hotels, The Diviner of Comfort & Economy and Old Tool Support Team Leader directs me directly into the airport car hire return bay without incident. WOW! We can hear Europe heave a great sigh of relief as I get out of the car for the last time. All those other driver and pedestrians are now safe again. Driving on the right has always been a stressful time for me throughout this trip, so I am very relieved to get the car back to it’s home intact and unscratched. My sense of relief is profound. I wasn’t fully aware of the level of stress I was carrying, until I got out of the car and returned the keys. Fortunately for me, the Voice of Reason set the parking bay of the hire car company at the airport as the ‘Home’ for the GPS in France. So that made it easier. Driving is something that I don’t feel should be encouraged and I do as little of it as I can here in Australia and in a very small car to minimise my impact, but it is a necessary evil in this modern world and I can’t see any other way around it. I would rather use public transport where it is possible, but we tried traveling through Europe on our 2009 trip, using only public transport and even allowing for the available discounts, it was very, very expensive. It cost us 350 pounds for the 2 of us to travel from Holyhead in Wales to London and back at short notice and 450 Euros to travel one way across Germany. On the other hand, to hire this small car on this trip it cost us $1400 for the 8 weeks for the two of us to travel door to door through 3 countries and over 7,500 kms. Most of all convenient but also affordable. We spent almost $750 on petrol over the time. I have no complaints. I bought 4 tonnes of carbon credits before we left to do what I can to ameliorate the damage our self indulgent travels have cost the environment. I don’t know whether this works or not, but it has to be better than not doing anything and living in denial. For me, the highlights of the trip were;
the little laneways
the cobbled streets
Oh! and the food and the wine
not too forget the food and the wine!
Did I mention the wine?
I think that I managed to photograph everything that is of importance to me. My apologies if I left anything out. You’ll have to imagine the rest. with love from the potter with two itchy feet, two itchy fingers and his Muse.
We return to late spring time in Sydney. It’s warm in the sunshine but there is a chilly wind. We are jet lagged and know that it will take up to a week for our usual sleep patterns to return. We are feeling exhausted after 40 hours without proper sleep, but know that there is so much to do to catch up, so we must push on through our demented lethargy and force ourselves to unpack and put on the washing. Although dead tired we wander around the garden and orchards taking it all in. Somehow surprised to see the old familiar views again for something like the first time – like it’s not really our place, but somewhere that you would just love to live, if you could just be so lucky. I snap back to reality. It’s reassuring to be back, but all I can see is so much hard work that needs to be done. The mowing and weeding and the house maintenance. I didn’t think much about house and garden maintenance while I was away, I know nothing of the workings of my brain, but I assume that, because I couldn’t do anything about it, there was no point in dwelling on it, so I just didn’t think about it. But something else replaces it.
Red poppies and corn flowers growing wild in our little meadow.
Before we left on this trip I had all the usual anxiety dreams and nightmares about TAFE educational policy and my future employment prospects, but these were soon replaced in France by ‘driving on the right’ anxiety dreams, with sudden images of on-coming cars, and me on the wrong side of the road. Now I’m back, my anxieties are all about mowing, weeding, bushfire threats and broken solar hot water systems. My friend and boss, Marian Howell, once told me that when you travel you take the weather with you. Quoting the Crowded House song, and it’s true, She’s right, and I have. Travel is great. It’s only the traveling part that’s difficult. Travel opens you up to learn so much that you weren’t expecting to learn. It opens the mind to new ways of thinking and of being, not all of which are charming and suitable to be assimilated into my own life, but are useful to keep in mind when I find myself in a difficult environment and I wonder to myself what should I do in this new situation. It comes to mind that when I was younger and a bright eyed enthusiastic young pottery student I had enjoyed the visits to the National Art School by a Japanese potter. He was highly skilled and very entertaining. He seemed like a great person. After graduating, I applied and was accepted as his apprentice. I was working hard, trying to do everything that was expected of me, to be the best that I could be. Unfortunately, the master potter was going through a very difficult time just then and he was becoming a little erratic and unpredictable and prone to emotional out bursts of anxiety. He wrote off two cars whilst driving while drunk during the time that I knew him. He was capable of sudden explosions of rage with no apparent trigger that was known to me. For most of time that I worked there, he called me “You Stupid Boy”. It occurred to me that this must have been what he was called when he was an apprentice, because that’s how we learn, by imitation. He obviously saw nothing wrong with this. Clearly, I wasn’t stupid. It was his weather that he’d brought with him, not mine, but I was buffeted by his gusts just the same. I was definitely unskilled I accept that, that’s why I was there, but I made up for this lack of skill with enthusiasm. I would have accepted being called “You Inexperienced Boy” instead, as this much was true, however, I would have preferred something less demeaning. At one time we were expecting guests in the studio and I was asked to clean out one of the clay tubs and fill it with crushed ice as a bottle chilling fridge for the drinks. I did this, but after an hour, a lot of the chilled water had leaked away and the drinks were sitting high and dry. He exploded with rage with a stinging torrent of abuse at my incompetence. I protested meekly that I did as I was told and didn’t know that the bin leaked. He yelled back, “of course it leaks” and that I should have asked him if that bin leaked before putting the ice in there! This irrational incident shook my faith in him as a suitable person to trust as a teacher. However, it was towards the end of my first year with him that he asked me to make some teapots. I made one and he said make the rest ‘fatter’. He didn’t come back to the workshop till the end of the week, on Friday afternoon and a little bit pissed. I on the other hand, had turned up to the empty workshop each day in his absence, and put in my 8 hours of work and gone home again each day, wondering if he would turn up today or not and by the end of the week I had made, assembled and finished 12 tea pots and felt reasonably proud of my efforts as I’d managed it all on my own. He stormed in, very angry about something. He saw my long board of finished tea pots. Picked them up and threw the board to the ground smashing them all, yelling, “I said to make them ‘flatter’ not ‘fatter’ – you stupid boy”. Had he been around, that simple misunderstanding could have soon been corrected in the first hour. What fatally damaged the relationship forever however, was when he yelled over his shoulder that I should remake them all again before I go home. It was 3.30 p.m. on a Friday. I lost all respect for him at that point. He wasn’t a suitable man to learn from. All I could salvage from this ruin was a lesson on how not to behave – even if you are unhappy. I had originally intended to stay there for a few years, but decided to hand in my notice and move on. I should have slapped him and told him to grow up. To have a good think about what he had just said and done, but I was too young and gentle for any such exhibition of ‘attitude’. I had learnt some pottery techniques during my year with him, but what I took away that was most memorable and has been of most use to me in my later life, was what I learnt about how not to treat people. Japanophiles tell me that it is the role of the Master in the traditional apprenticeship system in Japan to give the student a hard time. This supposedly develops good character. I believe that my character was good enough. I didn’t sign up for ritual humiliation. I agreed to learn pottery skills in return for hard work. That was the contract. I have endeavored since that time not to pay out on others for my own mistakes, anxieties or weaknesses. Which is the exact opposite of the expected Japanese system outcome. So this is just one more thing that I’ve failed at. I‘ll never be a ‘master’ as judged by the Japanese system, because I refuse to engage in ritual humiliation. I remember when I read Lafcadio Hearn, how he experienced something similar during his time in Japan, it’s very nice to be fated as an outsider, but a very different story once your accepted inside the culture. So I take my weather with me and today It’s summer in the sunshine but autumn in the wind. Leaving behind the chilly wind of those winter memories. I must prepare myself for the closure of most of the ceramic Departments. where I have had part-time work for the past 16 years. There is a staff meeting with the top brass soon to let us know that we are all surplus to requirements in this new economically rationalized world. Even though Australia is one of the richest countries in the world, with none of the problems that we have seen and experienced in imploding Europe, there is to be no money for art education here as the right-wing ideologues get their way. Trashing our culture and shoe-horning us into their idea of the failed American free market model. They need a good slap and be told to think about what they have just said and done! I’ve always enjoyed the small amount of teaching that I’ve done. I know that I’m not the best teacher in the place, I’m not even a very good teacher, but what I lack in teaching technique, I hope that I make up for with good will, commitment and encouragement and I’m absolutely sure that I’ve never called any student ‘a stupid boy’.
Fresh picked garden salad for lunch of shredded red cabbage, cos lettuce and finely chopped mint leaves with a white wine vinegar dressing.
Even though I’m jet-lagg tired, I spend the rest of the day in the veggie garden, clearing away all the old cold weather winter veggies that have bolted to seed in our absence. There is nothing quite so positive as planting a spring garden. There is so much promise, so much optimism. A spring garden is all future and bountiful promise. And it’s warm in the sunshine. I’ve brought my weather with me. With love from the stupid boy.
The First Steppe
It is true that the longest journey starts with a first step. Our first steppe is flown over, as we pass over the Russian Steppe. We leave Balmoral at 4.30pm in the afternoon on 22nd of August. Our lovely friend Val, who is house sitting and pottery minding for us in our absence, gives us a lift to Picton station in our car. We catch the train to the air port and book in our bags. We have a few hours to kill before our plane leaves. We have to go through the usual difficulties before we can leave. It always takes longer to leave an Australian airport than it does to enter the next country. We have pass port control/emigration, Security scanning and bomb sniffing people to examine all our things before we can leave. We are on our way with the usual cramped seating in cattle class. I have a glass of wine with my plastic dinner and take a sleeper, then off to bye-byes for a few hours. I awake in time to take a circular walk around the aisles and return to my seat for breakfast and a movie. I don’t like flying, but it is an essential, when you live on the other side of the world. We could catch a container vessel, and I did look into it once, but the 6 to 8 week trip each way was more expensive than flying, due to the food component involved. Of course our working holiday is only 7 weeks anyway, so with sailing it would take us almost half a year to complete our journey. I am quite green, but maybe, I realise that I am not that green! Although I did buy Au$400 worth of carbon credits just before we left to appease my conscience about taking such an extravagant trip, half way around the world. We land in Taipei at dawn, and the China Airways people were really nice, polite, patient and attentive at all times. We decide on the spur of the moment that because we have all day here before our next flight leaves for Frankfurt, we will emigrate through customs and passport control and apply for a short stay visa for the day. This is no problem as long as we can show the man our departure flight boarding pass and ticket, which we can, and we find our selves in Taipei looking for places of ceramic interest. We enquire with the nice and very helpful ladies at the tourist information centre. I Know from my pre-flight research, that the National Palace Museum is only a few kilometres away from the airport, and has a great collection of ceramics. We find that there is a bus leaving, for the pottery district and what is more, this will be free for holders of short stay tourist visas — which we are. We must show our passports and airline departure tickets and boarding passes again and are issued with our free bus passes for the day. There is the option to take a guided tour coach of the presidential Palace, the tallest building in the world ( as of 2004) and the fashion shopping district of excessive consumerism. I’d rather have my dick cut off and force fed to me than take that trip, but amazingly, there is a queue half a mile long for this tour! After thinking for 2 seconds, we decide to take the mini-bus to the pottery district.
It’s a great trip and the guide is very good, keeping up a prattle of information about sites along our way in Chinese, Japanese and English. He is best in Chinese of course, but also Japanese, where he tell lots of jokes. We can tell from the guffors from the passengers that he is good at his job and funny. He is not so confident in English, basic and competent, but we don’t get any jokes — just the facts. We love the pottery district and spend our time there meandering amongst the stalls and shops, we find a copy of ‘RU’ ware celadon bowl and another beautiful celadon dish, for T$50 Taiwan dollars, with the exchange rate of 25 to 1 this makes these bowls Au$2 each! We buy a Ru ware, a celadon, a guan and a pair of Oil Spot bowls for such a small price, all lovely and so affordable. I explain to our guide in English that we are both potters. He doesn’t seem to understand. I get the impression that our guide has memorised the tourist guide phrases for the tour in English, but isn’t s a native speaker at all. I try to explain to him in my very, very limited and incompetent Japanese, that we are potters. He gets it straight away, and announces to all and sundry around him , our profession and inclination to ceramics, what we have just bought and why. There is a flurry of interest to inspect our choices and some others follow our lead.
We have a great day and get back to the airport to relax in the free massage chairs and later in the free showers. Before we exit the shopping zone, Janine finds a fantastic little shoe shop, out of the way and around a dead-end corner. It has lovely, quirky, colourful leather shoes. She buys a pair of very colourful clogs. They are are so fantastic, they make us laugh and feel very happy and lucky to have found such a great shop.
Janine looks great in them.
We board the next jet and are soon “pressing the recline buttons down, with dreamland coming on”, as Joni Mitchell once sang! We arrive in Frankfurt at dawn feeling the best that we have ever felt after enduring a 49+ hour trip to Europe. Michael and Karin are right there to greed us, as we touch the earth and emerge from the non-existent customs area. The atmosphere is electric with anticipation as we drive to the little town of Homburg, we power across the volted bridge over the River Ohm to our current home, watts more, we drive up the ramp into the courtyard of their neutral coloured, ancient half-timbered house and barn. We can’t wait to get active.
We spend the day chatting and recovering, early to bed and ready to start work, bright eyed and bushy tailed in the morning. I’m quite surprised how good I feel after such a long trip. 49 hrs door to door. It’s insane, but true! We get the kiln built in two days, I spend the next day welding on the bracing and then we clean the kiln and start packing it, finishing late. We fire on the 4th day. It all goes well. It’s a good firing and right on schedule. They have cut enough wood for 6 firings at least. T he stack in about 30 metres long. They ask me if it will be enough? I answer that it will be just enough — for a whole year! We are in the little hamlet of ‘Hoffgut Appenborn’, and every one in the hamlet turns out to greet us — all four of them! The kiln fires well, completely predictable. It’s such a relief, I’m pleased, because building these things with unknown materials, and unknown clays, then firing with unknown timber is such a risk. I have to change and adapt all that I’m familiar with to accommodate the new variations. The firing finishes at midnight, after a 6.30 am. start. The fuel we have for this firing is young, thin, dead beech trees from the local forest thinnings. Collected for free. They burn like tinder, they are so dry and of small section. They make some smoke, which I can’t eliminate if I want to fire in reduction, but we are well out in the country side here in this little hamlet about 10 minutes drive from the town of Homburg. We use only 3 metres of the wood stack.
We use just about half of the wood visible in the 3m. stack that is in the background. Karin and Michael, have one black cat, he’s a lovely little number called ‘Moku’ , I ask if his first name is ‘Ten’, but the answer is ‘Nein’! He’s two lovely four words. His coat is so lovely and shiny, I wonder what he eight? By the ent of ze veek, there are some terrifik pots come out, of course there are a few kaputzn as vell. A lot for everyone to learn from the experienz. We took the time to stay up late after brick laying on the first and second days, to make 30 new glaze and slip tests for Karin and Michael, drying zem int das kitchen offen to get them dry enough to fire on ze 4th day. Some of these turn out really well and have great potenzial. We each make a couple of pots as well and these turn out OK too, so we give them to our hosts a gifts. Overall a very pleasurable experience, but very tiring. Ten, eleven, twelve hour days and finally a twenty hour firing day! I’m getting too old for this intensive caper. My back aches and my hip is complaining, But everyone is happy.
So hats off to the potters of Homburg!
Best wishes Stefan unt his Leib Frauline.
I’ve been working till my fingers bleed
This job has gone so fast. There are eight of us working on this job, all of them long-term friends. They all get along really well and there is so much humour and laughter. I can’t help but laugh along too, even though I don’t know what the joke is about. — it could be me! Three of them ‘own’ the kiln. “The Third Man”, or potter who is sharing this kiln with Michael and Karin is Karl-Heinz Till. As well being a potter, he is also a painter, print-maker, sculptor and cabinet maker. A bit of an all rounder, a very nice person and a really good cook. He lives here in this little hamlet, and that is why the kiln is here and not in ‘Homburg’. We eat well on this job. There is always a cooked dinner at 1.00 O’Clock, something amazing from the garden, always delicious and always a surprise. I look forward to our hot lunch/dinner. Karl-Heinz always delights us. This evening we are invited to stay on for supper as well. We have a selection of breads, cheeses and cold meats. That’s a surprise! We encounter something called “hanzercasse’ or ‘hand cheese’ for the first time. It looked something like a cold english dumpling!. But turned out to be a fat free, curd cheese that was very soft and had been hand patted into a ball shape and then preserved in oil and vinegar with caraway seeds onion and a little garlic. It was offered to us as if it was something weird. Karl-Heinz asked if we might like to try just a small piece first, as if he was sure that he would be wasting it if he put a whole piece on our plate. He was sure that we wouldn’t like it. Apparently, most foreigners don’t take to it. I loved its chewy texture, slight tang and interesting caraway seed flavour. It was very compatible with the caraway flavour of some of the rye breads. I have to say that it is one of the most interesting cheese that I have ever eaten. We ate it with finely chopped onion and a little garlic. We were told to place it on a slice of the heavy, local, black roggenbrott bread, thickly spread with butter. Chunky, rubbery slices are peeled off from the round, almost translucent, potato shaped lumps, that sit on the plate in a pool of the oil dressing that preserved them. The smell is strong, but nice. I had no trouble in eating all mine and was offered another piece which I finished off with gusto. I was going to write that I ate it with relish, but of course there was no relish on the table. So I was forced to eat it with gusto. Not my first choice, but as I had plenty of gusto of my own to eat it with. That’s how I ate it. We were offered ‘apfelwein’ or apple cider to wash it down, as apparently this is the local custom, and it was good. Not the best cider that I have had, a little too sweet, but OK. I prefer the slightly stronger flavour of our own dry pear or apple and pear blend. I told them at the table of our pear cider and they were surprised. It isn’t a custom around here apparently. Only apples are used in cider making in this region. Paul, one of the tenants living in the hamlet, is a hunter and had recently shot a huge boar in the nearby forrest. It was positively huge. Its head and tusks had been preserved by the local taxidermist, and it hung in the barn, near the door to the butchery cool room. He had hung and dried some of the meat and we were served some of this on a slab with a carving knife so as to help ourselves. The meat was a dark, crimsony, claret/purple, brown colour. Soft as butter in the mouth and an interesting flavour that I couldn’t put a name to. Mine Lieben Frauline, The Giver of Names, decided that there was a hint of celery in the flavour. So it shall be named as “celery pork” from now on! I on the other hand couldn’t give it a name but, it was dark purple in colour with an intriguing mix of charred sage, roast prunes, capsicum, with hints of stewed blackberry and rhubarb on the nose. Rich, firm, generous flavours of blackberry, mocha, fresh smoked bacon and a hint of eucalypt flooding the palate. This dried pork belly speaks of richness, complexity and mid-palate weight. All completed by balanced, seamless richness and zero acidity. The chew was seamless and mellow, while the finish was soft yet supple, the swallow smooth and the aftertaste just went on and on. Although meaty, there was not hint of tannins. That’s East German Celery Pork for you! Although I couldn’t say that I could taste any celery in it. I was desperate to take a photo of this table full of exotic delights, but we were never alone, and I felt bad about asking, it just seemed to be really rude as it was our first visit into Karl-Heinz and Gudrun’s house. Everything was so impressive and interesting, the old room in this house dating back to the 1700’s. The massive 1.8 metre wide front door, the elaborate wood carvings everywhere, the huge beams, the table itself, the food on it and the artworks and furniture of Karl-Heinz, all around the room. A really lovely cultural and personal experience.
Just a few of our glaze and slip tests from the first firing. Karin and Michael, have this lovely old, hand operated, bread and cold meat slicer in the their kitchen. It is really beautiful object with a patina of use and age, but still very functional, and we used it every day sever times a day to slice the heavy, solid rye bread, that is the staple here. We just loved it and I wanted one straight away. I’m appalled at my own averice and greed, that I recognise in myself, desiring this object with such passion.
We decide to make it our mission to find such a lovely old thing for ourselves and take it home with us if we can. Apparently they do turn up in the flea markets every now and then. Especially people who bring stuff in from the old eastern block countries to the markets sometime have them. Or so we’re told. We’ll see. Karen and Michael also have a really lovely blue and white enamelled metal colander. It is a family heirloom, handed down to Karin from her maternal grandmother. It’s a beautiful object. We covert this too.
We eventually, leave, a little sadly, from Karin and Michael’s home. Where we have been quite comfortable this past week or so, and they help us to buy and install ‘Aldi’ SIM cards in our phones and make our way to our rental car depot. Soon we are on our way up towards Berlin. Berlin is apparently the hippest city in Europe just now, or so all the Berliners tell us. We’ll see? It’s a comfortable drive on the autobahn, we stop off in Erferht, an old cathedral town along the way for a break and a little walk around. Then back onto the wrong side of the road again vit Mine Lieb Frauline reading the signs and working the GPS, while I concentrate on steering. I’m a simple chap and it takes both of us to drive this thing the wrong way. For instance, every-time I want to change gear, I slam my left hand into the car door arm rest, reaching for the gear stick, that isn’t there. The indicators and lights are all reversed as well. SO it takes me a few goes to get it all right, and by this time we have left the intersection, just about at the time that my brain is ready to access it. Mine Frau glances across at me with a look of pity and appreciation. Pity for my ineptitude and thanks for not killing us both in a head on. This car is only one week old, the Europcar man tells us when we collect it. It only has 1000 kms on the clock, and has that distinctive “new car smell” of carcinogenic plastic, that we only ever get to smell once every 10 to 15 years. We only get to notice it tumor times, then it becomes part of the back ground for us. We get to Andreas’s little grey and beige East German village with ease. It is just 100k short of Berlin and hasn’t changed much since the former GDR times. They are the first new settlers here and are having a bit of a hard time from the naturally closed society within the village. Although both being German, they are treated with suspicion as Lori works in Berlin and catches the train into the city to work everyday and Andreas stays home building or rebuilding their old farm house and making pots. They were both trained in Art School and don’t own a pig, drive a tractor or a trabbie, don’t farm the land and don’t wear mud spattered grey or brown. Instead they laugh and smile, are welcoming, the house is now modern, light and warm and has poetry written on the outer walls — in english! Obviously trouble makers.
A fairly typical grey East German farm in a small village from the former GDR times. No paint, just grey concrete and dirty brick. There are only three houses in this village that have paint on them. Paint was not available in the former GDR, so everything is a uniform dirty concrete colour, or dirty brick, stained grey form the years of coal burning chimneys. It’s a grey place full of grey people. We tell them not to worry. All these old people will eventually die, then you’ll be better integrated, or at least your daughter will. We tell them of our experiences moving to Balmoral Village and the small-minded red-neck backlash that we encountered when we arrived to restore the old dilapidated school classroom, that had been closed since the 2nd World War. There is always resistance to change. It’s the normal human condition, or so it seems. Fear of strangers. The new kid in town. When we arrived in Balmoral, we were mostly ignored, but eventually a lady and her husband drove up. The car window was wound down and I was offered a piece of paper out of the window. “Would I and my wife like to attend the local church meeting on Sunday?” I answered that the Scarlet Hussey that I was shacked up was not my wife and that we were not married! With that he piece of paper was snatched back, the car door slammed and the car roared off at speed. Presumably before any of our filth could rub off on them. It was a while before anyone else from the village came to visit us. Eventually, one day, presumably after there had been some discussion about us in the village, the mail man stopped his truck and got out and came to the house and knocked on our door. We got a mail delivery 3 days a week in those days. He was holding our letters in his hand. He introduced himself as Bill the mail man. Although there was a lot more to his story, as time would reveal. He handed over our letters and stood silent for a moment. Then said that ‘they’ wondered what we did? He knew as mailman, that over the past month, he hadn’t delivered any dole cheques to us. They also knew from our surnames that we weren’t married and everyone had noticed that we were always at home everyday, and didn’t go to work — therefore we didn’t have any jobs! So what did we do? Clearly we were drug addicted, lazy lay-about, satin worshipping, deviants! Or could we explain ourselves? We could. We showed him around. Told him we were setting up a pottery, showed him our work and gave him a tour. He noticed that I could do metal work and asked if I repaired fuel stoves? I told him I’d be glad to and did. We became friendly and this eased our passage into our village society. There was a slight hiccup, when I went to a village meeting and stood up to speak against sub-division and suggested that we should retain the larger block sizes of the land. Max, the old bushfire captain, called me a pinko, puffo, commo, fascist. He didn’t see any irony there. I told him to drop dead. And he did! Fortunately for me, it was a few years later. So I wasn’t labelled as a witch doctor as well as a Pinko fascist. We get to work straight away on Andreas’s kiln and it’s finished in just 4 days with 5 of us working on it. It is 2.5 cu. metres, so that is quite a large kiln and will take a lot of pots. We have laid several thousand bricks on this trip and mixed a ton of mortar with water, then steamed it dry in firing.
Does my arse look big in this kiln?
Think it’ll work?
Andreas hard at work firing the bourry box kiln. We pack it the following day, while some of us split and stack the wood for the firing. We start the fire in the evening, as some of the pots are raw and the kiln is wet. We fire the next day. Luckily it works perfectly and fires easily for such a big kiln and a wet first firing. We have to close the damper to slow it down, or it will all be over in 9 hrs. We string it out to 15 hours and finish at 10 pm all burnt down and closed up clean. We are very lucky. At the end of the week everyone goes home apparently happy. All the cones have gone over evenly and it only needed 20 mins of side stoking to bring the back up to temp. It’s a very even firing. I’m relieved. It’s a bit of a worry doing these jobs in strange places with all assortments of different sized 2nd hand bricks of unknown quality, with different clays, sands and mortar. Wood that I don’t know or have any experience of and pots I’ve never seen before, made from foreign clay bodies. I’m so lucky that it all turns out at all, never mind well. This kiln has a flat fibre roof that Andreas and I have decided on and worked out on different sides of the world. I’ve drawn the kiln plans, done the detail drawing in CAD on my Mac and sent them by email and ordered all the material from Australia, the local blacksmith has concocted a rolling sliding track to move the roof sideways for packing and unloading without having to bend or crawl in and out. There’s a lot at steak for everyone involved.
I’ve been working so hard at this for the past 2 weeks now and my clothes are saturated through with the spray of water off the diamond saw, I’m cold and wet, my back aches from all the bending. My hip is playing up again and my fingers are starting to split and bleed from all the brick handling, mortar-n-water and I’m tired from coping with fine, but important, technical details with different people, 2 languages. Not to mention the very long days. Such are the joys of international travel. I think that I need a holiday! fond regards from Steve the Pinko fascist and his Scarlet Hussey.
From our house to the Bauhaus and into Bavaria.
We unpack the kiln and almost all is good. There are a few exceptions. A potter needs time to develop a style that is compatible with the kiln, or to get the kiln to fire exactly to his or her needs. This firing was very good, very even. Before we leave, Andreas takes us for a day trip to the nearby pottery village of Gorzke. Until the wall came down, there were 20 potteries working in this village, many of them employing up to 20 people. Now there are only three and one of them is closed today. We speak with the potters at length, or at least Andreas does. Then he translates for us. They complain about all the same things that we do in Australia. Pottery is a hard life for all of us, no-matter where we live. The work is long and the pay is low.
This huge coal fired kiln isn’t used much these days, but it is still fired once a year to keep the registration active. Once it isn’t used. The registration will lapse and then it will have to comply with the current clean air act and it won’t pass. So they continue to use it once a year . To keep their option open. They also have three electric kilns as well.
They have a dough mixer, just like ours, but with a different brand name cast into it. I suspect that someone in Australia imported one of these post war and copied it, changing the name to “Thoroughbred”. All the other fittings and fixtures are identical. I doubt very much that it was the other way around. All the potters here made a good and not too strenuous living, until the wall came down. Then it all changed, all at once. We have heard stories of supply shortages for clay and kilns in the ‘good’ old days . When you had to have your order in 2 years in advance, and then only one type of clay was available. The price of clay was fixed and the price of pots was also set by regulation. We spoke to one potter who told us through Andreas, that they were farmers, and not direct state paid employees, so sort of free-lance potters in their spare time. The govt. didn’t like any thing that smelt of free will or enterprise. So if they sold a pot for more than the prescribed price. They had to pay the difference that might be considered ‘profit’ to the govt! They went to great extremes to stifle any kind of enterprise or self development. Another potter told us of a 10 year wait for an electric kiln to be made. The workers were very slow and didn’t work very much. They got paid just the same, wether they made anything or not. Apparently a lot of tea was drunk and a lot of cigarettes smoked. So the factory only produced one kiln per week. As soon as the wall came down, she got a call to say her order for the kiln would be ready in a few weeks. She told them to stick it up their arse. She was going to buy one from the West, as she did. No one wanted the old unreliable and poorly made stuff as soon as the wall came down. Many of the old timers apparently still reflect back on the so called ‘good’ old days, when they didn’t have to work very much and an income was guaranteed. As a parting gift Lori gives us a table mounted circular slicing machine that she bought at the markets. She has two apparently. This one is from the 60’s and is not as nice as Karin and Michael’s older one, but still very nice and in excellent condition. She bought it at a flea market some time ago. So this one is ‘spare’. It’s a gift to us. We are very grateful! After our busy time of intensive work. We spend time in Berlin to look around and visit the galleries and museums. Because we aren’t young, hip, cool or drug dependant. I don’t find Berlin that fantastic. It’s a lot like other big cities. I do notice that there is a lot more English spoken here though. English seems to be becoming the international language. So that is the only thing that is hip and cool about us – We can speak the hip, cool language of the moment. We dag about in the hip cool city, arduously avoiding getting pissed or taking drugs. Not staying up late in small crowded bars, but Instead of grooving all night long, we waste our time in Art Galleries and museums. We spend a fortnight in the galleries, or so it seems, then we break for a quick lunch and go back in. I need a strong coffee to keep me concentrating. It’s a lot of mental strain, concentrating to take it all in for long continuous hours. By the end of the first day ‘off’ my fingers have stopped bleeding but my brain feels like it is, but I can’t get a band aid on my brain. Mine Lieben Frauline, the Giver of Names and former Scarlet Hussey, and I set off on our trip. It’s time for a holiday. We head for the Bauhaus town of Dessau, only a short drive away, as a first stop. We drive over the river and catch a whiff of the odour of the Oder. We find our lodgings and go for a walk in the park and I see a plastic token on the ground in the path, something to be used in a photocopy machine or a shopping trolly. I stop and point at it with my foot. Herself looks at me with a peculiar glance, wondering why I am balanced on one foot and pointing with my toe at the ground. I explain that I am making a token gesture, but she doesn’t get it . It was only a small gesture, maybe it wasn’t minimal enough! But that’s all white, I’ll try again, only next time with more thought and less effort. I’ll try and make it look minimal. First off, we visit the Meister Houses of the Bauhaus teachers. This is because we are staying over the road from them and it is our first stop in the morning. It’s amazing how modern these buildings look after 80 or 90 years. From the outside, they could be shown on “Grand Designs” and get away with it. Modernism, it seems, has finally made it to the main stream. Its only taken 80 years now for people to want to live in an empty white minimalist box. The insides of these homes are a different matter. They are not as ‘modern’ as the outsides, The rooms are small and cramped and the doorways are very narrow, the passages are small. All the houses have been, or are in the throws of being rebuilt and restored to their old glory and original colours. We take a few nice images of the interiors.
This doorway is wide because it is new. It was knocked through the wall between the two apartments to make a larger gallery out of the Klee/Kandinsky duplex. This doorway is the generous modern size that we have come to feel comfortable with. All the other doors are small and narrow.
They tell us that the old Bauhaus buildings have been faithfully and completely restored to their original condition over the last 30 years and are now complete – or so we’re told. In this image of the plastic wrapping on the out side facade, I get the impression that “Christo” must have been somehow involved in the initial design ?
I liked Dessau. It’s small compact nature. I could have looked at more Bauhaus material, but keeping true to the theme of minimalism, there is very little to see here in the museums. I would have liked to see and read more of the history ad the on-going lives of those who studied and taught here. We’ve covered all the important places and sights, so It’s time to move on if we are to get through Vienna and down to Venice for our next appointment in ten days. We estimate that we will want about 4 days in Vienna to see the galleries there, possibly more, but we won’t have enough time. We are off to Meissen to see the porcelain factory and Museum. I’ve thought about visiting Meissen since reading the ‘Arcanum’ many years ago.
Meissen is a bit of a disappointment after getting the grand treatment in Sevre in Paris last year, or the old works at Limouge. Its all a bit brain-dead simple and oriented to making sales in the shop. The museum is OK, but nothing to write home about, although now I just have!
We fail to find a room in the gorgeous little inn, in the centre of town called Am Schlossenburg, it was recommended by a couple that we met in a restaurant in Dessau. It’s hidden away, charming and completely booked out. So are all the other pensions in the centre of the town, so we drive 3 k out of town up the hill and get a very cheap room for 59 Euro in a small hotel over-looking the town. We drive back into the centre and park for the rest of the day. We visit the Meissen Works and spend the rest of the day there and then walk all the way up the town along very pretty cobbled streets and lanes and eventually little walkways and finally up multitudes of stairs to the cathedral at the top of the opposite hill.
It’s a good walk and my hip takes it OK, as long as I go slow. The church is Gothic and quite ornate. We dine in a very small cafe/restaurant at the top of the hill with a balcony looking out over the town. Very pretty. The service is tediously slow, taking 3 hours to deliver 2 courses. It’s not that big. I wonder why it is so slow? On the way up we pass a multitude of antique shops all selling what I call shlock. It’s all guilted, gold plated and overpriced, I’m underwhelmed. We continue up and find a lovely little 2nd hand shop, all the things are very cheap, possibly because it was such a strenuous walk up and away from the town centre to get there, perhaps not too many tourists get this far. We buy a translucent porcelain cup and saucer for 12 Euros. Good value. Proving that it’s a long way to the top when want to shop and stroll! We leave Meissen and drive a few hours to Regensburg where we can’t find lodgings in the old town centre, which is charming and ancient, but booked out. We start to feel that our luck is against us, it’s started to rain and there is nowhere to park, when suddenly, we pass a ‘washerie’ or Laundromat. These are as scarce as hens teeth here in Germany. It’s the first one we’ve found. There are a few dry cleaners, but no self-serve Laundromats. Washing usually has to be booked in the day before and collected a day or so later and a price per item is not uncommon. We suddenly feel blessed again. We do all our washing and drying for Eu4.50 and there is miraculously a parking space opposite. As we can’t find a pension in the town, we move on to a nasty hotel on the highway a few km out of town, which is the only room we can find here on a Saturday night where everything is booked out. We are used to this. As we travel very lightly and without a fully pre-conceived plan. We have no forward reservations, so we travel by the seats of our pants. It’s not uncommon to find it hard to get a room on a Saturday night, but we always do. We get the last room in this soulless highway hotel. We decide to do the 3 km walk back into town tonight along the canal, where the barges are queued up waiting for the lock. It’s raining lightly and we feel our luck has run low again, Or are we just very tired? I don’t know, but as we approach town, we pass through the old medieval aches of the ancient buildings along the lock. One of which has been converted into a brewery. Regensburg Spital Brauerei. Situated in the old hospital buildings. We emerge through a stone archway into a side street that ought to go directly into the main road, but tonight its Saturday night and the street is closed to traffic and there are a multitude of stalls selling hot cooked regional food, beer and wine. It’s a well kept secret and it’s absolutely terrific, all the flavours, smells and tastes of the region, and we didn’t know that it was here. We are lucky after-all. We sample the wares from several different stalls, First the local ‘Spital’ beer, then the dry, fruity, white Rieslings. Next, the the local reds and so much food. It’s a great night. There is live music from rock and roll through brass bands to Bavarian folk muzik played by men in leder hoisen and red vests. It’s great, and it’s stopped raining by the end of the night too. It’s a lovely quiet walk home along the canal.
It’s all good, we get into the swing of it all and eat and drink way too much during the night. We stagger home for the 20 mins along the canal and eventually find our way back to the hotel. To find that some metal Goths have invaded the place with their heavy metal, and closing all the double glazed windows doesn’t stop the din. One hopes that they aren’t Neo-Nazis. Andreas told us of a sad story, that in Bad Belzig, the nearest town, there are plenty of Neo Nazis still breeding in the old GDR slums. The local council decided recently to plant a row of ‘Trees for Peace’ in the town square. They were chopped off or pulled out the next night. The council tried again, and again they were killed. They tried a third time, but the Nazis kept it up. Eventually the council gave up. The Nazis won! I ask why they didn’t set up a secret camera to film the site? Catch the culprits. There can’t be that many of them. But they just didn’t. The Nazis won again. The Nazis are still very strong around here. Disenfranchised young people with no hope for the future. No prospects in the capitalist system. Uneducated and unemployed even though education is free for mature aged students. They slipped through the gaps, Propelled by anger and disadvantage, they see no way forward. Two tragedies in one. The right is strong in the East! Welcome to Bavaria! Love from Hildegard and Mr Bingen xxx
From Passau to passe
We have moved on from Regensburg. Regensburg, the home of Schumann and Schindler. In the hotel we get into the lift and find that it is a ‘Schindler brand’ lift. It’s good to be on Schindler’s Lift. We are elevated by the experience.
We spent the last day there looking at the Roman ruins and wandering the old town. There are an amazing number of men in tradition al Bavarian dress, of Leder Hosen shorts and long walking sock, jackets with no collars and Bavarian hats. They are very proud of their National Dress it seems. We check out some of the shops selling clothes. All very local and Nationalistic. I think that it is really fantastic that they have been able to preserve their culture against the onslaught of Globalisation. We haven’t been able to do that at home in Australia.
Our time here has been all very lovely and relaxing. So now my fingers and my brain have stopped bleeding. All my clothes are washed clean and dried. Everything is working out well. The heavy metal goths stayed up till all hours making a din, but finally went to bed at dawn. When we got up we see a ‘do-not-disturb’ card on their door. They need to sleep in!. I feel like taking it off! But I don’t want the house maid to suffer by waking them. We are slowly letting go and slowing down. I feel good today, even allowing for the lack of sleep. We feel so good, we decide we can manage the Kathe Kollwitz Museum of depressing character studies. It’s unrelentingly dark. She was very passionate and talented, but you have to be in the right frame of mind to spend half a day in there. Here we are in Passau, a little bit further south west. In fact as far as you can go in Germany before entering Austria. We are at the confluence of the Danube, which isn’t blue! The Regan or Inn and the Ilz. None of them are blue, all are various shades of dirty greenish/brown.
It’s a lovely little town in South West Bavaria. Pretty little cobbled lanes and old buildings all around. Quite picturesque. It has a glass museum that the Frauline is keen to visit. She has googled us here and found us the last room in a very quaint hotel dating from the 1600’s, and only 68 Euros, right at the water front and in the middle of the town. The iPad has changed the way we travel. It’s made everything quicker and easier, mapping is no longer a problem and insights gained into the state of the local pension scene are all garnered on the way in the car. She sweet-talks the man in the tourist office to ring and book our room for us as the hotel doesn’t speak English well. It’s the hotel that isn’t responding to our emails. She’s so multitasking. It’s all done by the time I’ve found a car parking space that is legal. As it turns out the place I find is smack bang in front of the tourist office and next to the hotel we find ourselves in. So no need to move the vehicle till we leave here tomorrow. Free parking on Sundays and 4 euros will see us clear through till 1 pm on Monday when we plan to leave for Vienna. There were terrible floods here a few months ago, about 5 metres above the street level. All the homes and businesses along the river frontage are ruined and are only now being repaired. All the shops and floor and first level apartments along the road have their doors and windows wide open to help dry them out a bit. There is a pervading smell of mould coming out of them. They are all being stripped out and rebuilt or re-lined and plastered. The tradesman start work here now at 5 am! and work until dark. The whole lower level of the town needs to be rebuilt.
The flood levels over time tell the story. We spend the day walking in the town and end with a dinner in the main square. It’s all very nice. We have to pinch ourselves to make sure that it is all real. Everyone here today eats very early and by 8pm everyone has gone and we are left almost alone to finish our bottle of wine and chat. Just a few people clattering by on the cobbles in the dusk. The lights come on in the fountain that has been serenading us all evening, tinkling and splashing in the back ground. It has a commemorative plaque on it say something about the special centenary of 1803 to 1903!
It’s a nice relaxed place. We gather that its main income comes form the tourist boats that ply their trade along the Danube. There is a nice little gallery in the upper end of town that specialises in fat lady art. It’s good fun. We both laugh.
It’s not over till she sings! or at least cries out!
Hildegarde of Sing-n, – She’s not fat! She’s taking a photo of our stairwell.
Cyclists are well catered for in this town.
We go to the glass Museum. Apparently it has 30,000 pieces of glass in there and I can believe it, having spent a good deal of my life in there! It goes on and on forever. I didn’t know that there were that many pieces of Bohemian glass in existence, never mind in one place. It seemed a bargain at Euro 5 entry. But when you consider that you might die in there without having seen it all. It may be a bargain made for you by Faust. The first few floors are kind of interesting, by the next I was stumbling. My eyes glazed over. At the 9th, the paramedics on duty saw me stagger and fall, they recognised the symptoms straight away. I was given an adrenaline injection and taken to the Bohemian glass remission room for a fast relief treatment. There were other husbands in there with me all talking football and not missed by their wives yet — or at all. The attending triage nurse gave me a tip. Skip the sections – Mannerist to Modern and reappear in the Art Nouveau section, she’ll never realise that you were gone. It’s only 2 floors from the end. I’ll show you the ‘IKEA’ hidden short-cut tunnel. I live to tell all. Hilldegarde suspects nothing and is enervated by the detail and (tedious) repetition with only minor variations. I always thought that to be Bohemian was like being really cool, but now I know better. I should have suspected something when she bought a new 2 and her terabyte memory card for her camera, just before going in. Of course it’s not all Bohemian, some of it is from Silesia. We drove through Silesia to get here. There were baby sheep grazing in the fields. Quite a bucolic, rural idyll. But now I know that it was the silesia of the lambs! Beware. We leave Passau and wind up the hill out of the narrow river valley up onto the high ground to find that there is another modern Passau, where everybody lives and shops. It’s all modern steel and glass shopping malls and rows of suburban houses. I think that it this new Passau should be called Passé, and not Passau.
Love from Hidegarde and Lazarus xxx
We in Wien
The hotel in Passau was so very old. It had been a succession of warehouses and has been slowly amalgamated into one building over time by knocking archway shaped holes through the thick stone dividing walls. The floor level changes every 5 or 6 metres as we move from one old building to the next. We wind up and around, then down a few steps and along and up a ramp, then down and around again. We have to remember the sequence to find our room, and we make a few false moves each time we try until we finally get the hang of it. The whole sequence of linked buildings is like a ‘micrometer’ in plan. Anyone with aspburgers, will know what that looks like. If you don’t or arn’t, then it’s like a half open ‘G’ clamp in floor plan, with an open central courtyard. it’s amazingly old, rustic and very pretty. It’s all been up done very tastefully. The stone walls at the lower levels are metres thick, but a mere 600 mm. at our room 4 floors up. I love this old building of many histories and herstories, of seperate and now conjoined lives and uses. Its abilibity to be reimagined, reinvented and reusd. Its adaptability. I love the warren of seperate stories and storys. I think that it is fantastic that the floor level changes every few metres andthat there areso many stairs and ramps to concor the relative differences and I don’t mind the long complicated wander through time and place to get to our room. It’s so much more interesting than the blank, empty, anonymous, straight corridors of the hotel on the highway that was straight as a die and just as lifeless and dull. What’s more, the floor surface is flat in each section that we encounter, unlike the floors in Hunerdwassers house, where I constantly trip on unexpected lumps in the flloor. Which I considder an artificial and annoying conceit.
When we leave, Hildegard is in charge of the GPS and Googles our way from Passau to Wien. We can hear the schnitzl calling us. We manage to navigate the ‘Ring’ road and into the heart of the city without incident. I’m always a bit on edge at this stage, but all goes to plan and the Viennese drivers are all very considerate and sharing when it comes to road use. No one seems to speed and everyone gives way and lets us into their lane without fuss. It’s so different to Australia, where everyone jealously gards their place in their lane fiercely. We also find as pedestrians, that even the hint of you deciding to cross the road brings the trafic to a halt. It’s so unlike our Italian experience in Chiavenna last time when Heidi was almost killed by a mad Italian driver who refused to recognise the Zebra crossing and sped up and swerved to get between her and the edge of the road instead of slowing down. An incredibly rude and stupid act of a dick head. But that’s the Italian driver culture. Here it’s all so civilised. We go to all the exhibitions, in all the galleries that we can stuff into our 4 days in Wein. We are out and about and on and off the U bahn and walking everywhere. Luckily, our pension is just one block back from the ‘Ring’ and one block away from the Museum Quarter and at just 58 euros a night, it’s a bargain! Compact and clean, but most of all the people here are very helpful and charming. We even get to meet Peter Wild himself, who welcomes us into the dining room on the first morning. We see a lot of Klimpt and Scheile of course. Not to mention Hunertwasser, the Secession, the Leopold, the Belvadere. It’s all so rich and fine, and gold plated and glorious, and fine and posh and very tight and ever so formal. Anal really, but fine. I’m longing for a bit of grubby peasant filth. But Oh No. Not here, this is Wien. Although Klimpt is the artist that is so important and very, very popular. I actually spent the most time looking at, and reading about Schiele. I was most impressed by his early student works. I already knew them, of course, who doesn’t. But I wasn’t prepared to have my socks knocked off by their intensity.
Now I’m having to walk barefooot around the rest of the gallery. Nothing compares. I think that he mellowed as he got older,. The passion waned, the intensity lessened, the later works don’t move me as much. Those early works are just so rough, immediate and intense!! Maybe it’s more interesting that he died so tragically young. I’m not so sure I wanted to see him grow fat, old, complacent and rich and loose that edgeyness. Now on re-reading that, I realise that it sounds really terrible. I don’t wish to see anyone die young, but what he left in those 3,000 drawings and 300 paintings was pretty impressive. However, his style did mellow out as he married, started a family and started to gain recognision and money. I wonder what he would have done, had he lived? We are in the city of Kafka, Beethoven, Witgenstein, and Freud, as well as so many others. There is a section of Erotic art from the period and the images come with a freudian analysis of the artist image! This is a very prosperous, middle class city, pleased with itself and confident. Well healed and comfortable. Everybody is polite and courtious and life seems to travel at a middling even pace, even in the centre of the big city. But there are plenty of confrontational gypsey looking types working the entrance to the U-bahn station in groups, and beggers on the streets. I give some money away each day, to busking musicians and others, but I don’t want to get over-run. I refuse to acknowledge the pestering husslers at the station entrance and push by. I give my money to the old guy who we see each day in the restaurant street selling the out of work magazine, just like in Australia. He seems more like a old, gentle sort of chap, out of work and down on his luck. He looks like he has had a hard life.
We finally get to Hundertvassers house and I find that when I get to hear and read what he had to say. I’m not that impressed. he sounds like a bit of a loony. I still like his images and the house though. He was just a lot more excentric than I had realised. He makes a lot of definitive strong and uncompromising statements that are totally at odds with what I believe and have experienced in my life so far. So I won’t be spending a lot more time reading up on what he thought and said in his time. Janine and I saw his exhibition of prints from the Munich Olympics in Sydney in 1976 or 7. Breathtaking for a young student. They really left there mark. it’s good to see them again, full size and real, not in reproduction. They are very impressive still. I think that this style with the embossing and gold and silver foil, was his best work. The original opaintings on the other hand, look tired and washed out in comparision. In not seeing them up until now, I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything. I find that I’m thinking that Hunerdwasser was trying too hard to be ‘organic’ in his buildings. The ‘lumpy’ floor in interesting to look at, but uncomfortable to walk around on. I think that the old converted warehouse hotel in Passau was truely organic, in a very natural way and not forced like this. Apart from this one difficult feature, I like the house and all the other quirky details and irregular patterns and surfaces.
Schnitzel in Hunerdwasser’s cafe, pretty ordinary.
Our trip is becoming calmer and more relaxed everyday. When we were in Passau, we stayed in the Wilderman Hotel and now we are in Wien, we are staying in the Peter Wild Pension. So we have gone from Wilder to just plain Wild. Maybe our next stop we’ll stay in the Calmer Sutra B&B? Here, we are in a Pension, complete with a mens ‘Sports’ sauna. I wonder what the men do in there? Practice their ball handling skills I suppose? The fat ladies are here direct from the fat lady art gallery, of a certain age, no longer young, but very full of figure and they flow into the room. They are wonderful and very impressive. One has long flowing curley red hair, the other shorter and brunette. They could be sisters, bit I think not. One is carrying her very petite lap dog. Puts it down in the breakfast room to run around. Everyone is charmed by it. But the two fat ladies pick it up and feed it at the table. I think that it’s a bit grose. It then runs around from table ot table barking until someone else feeds it some more. The two fat ladies make no effort to control it. I know that dogs are highly prized in Europe and that it is common to take them into restaurants, but I think that they should be trained to some extent to sit and be quiet. It’s annoting to have a tiny dog yapping at you. I refuse to feed it and shoo it away. Everyone laughts, but I want to stuff it into the toaster. Here at breakfast, there’s the film director David Lynch look-a-like and the weight-lifter, the diminuative Agatha Christie looking lady and the sad faced man. They are all here. Is the circus in town? The only ones we don’t have are the Indian chief, the construction worker and the police man from the ‘Y’ – although I’m not too sure about the ex-Stazi officer in the corner, who doesn’t speak to anyone, but seems to keep a close seruptitious eye on all of us. He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t speak, he doesn’t seem to be eating much, he just watches. It’s and interesting place. Before we leave we spend our last day in the Museum of Natural history to see, in particular, the Venus of Willendorf. She is much bigger than I had imagined, almosr a third larger. She’s about 4 1/2 inches high or 110mm. She is beautiful, and she had a coating of red ochre when she was concieved. I can see her with flming red hair in long flowing locks, like the large lady in the pension.
Best wishes from Steve and his Schiele
The Villa Buzzati
We eventually leave Wien, having had our fill of schnitzel and all things fine and gold plated. We are heading for Venice and the Villa Buzzati. Its a very long drive, so we decide to stay overnight in the tiny village of Feldkirch along the way – the church in the field. It’s lovely, that’s why we decided to stay here, but also because we want to take the very long and winding road along and through the Dolomites to get to Venice. It’s not the quickest way, it’s the very longest way. This will take us a full day in itself, so better to stop now. We want to drive through there to see it all in daylight, also, I need a break from driving on the right it takes a lot of effort and concentration. There is nothing much happening in this tiny place, and we like it that way, but it has a great little restaurant serving local dishes that are both Austrian and Italian at the same time, as is the language here. The locals are very patriotic to the Tyrol and the dolomite area on both sides of the border. They still don’t respect the outcome of the 2nd world War and the carving up of cultural areas to suit political ends. They consider themselves separate. We are in Austria, but we say gratzia at the end of our meal and the waitress answers Prego. It’s an interesting area. Something that does surprise us is that there is a poster up on the wall announcing that Eric Burden’s ‘The Animals’ and ‘The Troggs’ will play here tomorrow night! If we were going to be here we would go and see them. These guys must be in their 70’s or 80’s by now, but still touring tiny towns in Europe. In the morning we stroll up and back down the one main street. Herself sees some tangerine pants and an electric blue woollen top that she likes. They are very cheap at 10Euros, on sale, so she tries them on. While she is in the fitting room I wander around the shop looking at all the piles of colourful clothing and start to take a few pictures on my phone. The colours look great together.
I get the feeling that I’m being watched, and turn around to see the store detective standing right behind my shoulder looking at me with a “What the fuck are you doing” look on her face, her shoulders raised up and arms out-stretched, bent at the elbows and palms upwards. Her face contorted. She’s saying something to me that I can’t understend, but I know what she means alright, I show her the photos on my phone, but she’s not impressed, so I beat a hasty retreat out of the shop. Hildegard comes out looking fantastic in her new Euro-clobber, so I have to go back in to pay using the plastic card. The gumshoe keeps a very close distance and beady eye on me till I leave. We drive the long and winding road through the Dolomites, which is really nice. All the architecture is very “mountain Style”. We could be in Switzerland, or Northern Italy. All these high villages in the mountains look very similar. Its stunningly beautiful. It’s a great day in the mountains. When we get to the border, we think that we may need to buy a highway pass to use the road system in Italy, just as we do in Switzerland and Austria, but we don’t seem to need one today, as there is no one there at the Italian border post. The Austrians wave us through, but only after having checked our windscreen for the essential, glittering, prepaid highway windscreen ‘vignette’ and we drive straight through. Thee is no-one there on the Italian side. Presumably he’s having a snooze after lunch, or the government hasn’t paid him this month so he’s not turning up for work! Who knows? No-one in Italy it seems, either knows or cares. Maybe he’s off doing a job for a mate. Double dipping? Welcome to Italy! Tragedy strikes! As soon as we cross the border, the GPS switches to blank screen. There is no map for Italy! Of course Italy has maps, but this hire car company has only bought the cheapest version to go in this cheap car. We have a Renault Clio. We ordered something smaller and cheaper, but when we turned up to collect, they didn’t have the smallest size of 2 door VW that we paid for. Instead we get this slightly larger 4 door car. No problem, they don’t expect us to pay any extra for it. It does however have a built in GPS. When we ordered the car, they wanted 10 Euros per day for a GPS as an extra! We declined, as we already have a TomTom that we have used for the past 5 European trips and it has always worked well. As it is getting old and the battery has no more reserve power, it only works while plugged into the power supply and the maps are now somewhat out of date, when it comes to new road works. I decided in my wisdom to buy a new one on the internet before we left. I went online and bought the newer version of what we already have, with world maps, so that I wouldn’t have to learn any new software. It worked OK in Australia the week before we left when we tested it out and the battery lasts a couple of hours when going walking with it. Now we need it. I extract it from my bag and install it and off we go again. As we are negotiating the chaos that is the Italian road system. The TomTom freezes and won’t respond any more. Bella Nina reboots it and we try again. It has frozen, locking us out of the options panel. We can only go where it is previously programmed to go. It can’t change its mind until we get there and it can re-think itself to a new location. It can only allow previous and current location. A complete fuck-up. Totally useless! Obviously there is a fault with the software or hard ware and this needs to be fixed, but it isn’t going to happen here and now today. Fortunately, the totally stitched-up, anally retentive and slightly aspy, Brian-a-like Steve has packed the old one as well! Without close adult supervision. Who in their right mind would travel with 3 GPS’s. Well, Me! I pull over, go to the boot, unpack my suitcase, retrieve the old TomTom that the Bella Nina doesn’t know that I have with me and we are off again. The old reliable, out of date and superseded item – Aspy Steve, saves the day. We’ll have to make a warranty claim on the new TomTom when we get home – Useless piece of junk! As for the GPS in the car. Who in their right mind would think of driving from Germany into Italy? A lot of people I would think!. To cap it off. Our rental agreement doesn’t allow us to drive in any former eastern block country. This is a pity , as we would have liked to spend a day in Cesky Krumlov, so as to Czech out that part of the republic, but as it is Verboten, we don’t. I do notice however that the GPS built into the car has maps for all of Eastern Europe, where we can’t go, but not Italy, where we can drive? EuropeCar, get your act together! We finally arrive at the Villa Buzzati in the late afternoon. It is really impressive and totally amazing. So ancient and lovely. In need of some TLC – which means, a small fortune, but gorgeous, complete with weathered frescos on the facades. Its own chapel with campanile, the whole complex is enormous!
And it’s only the summer house! It was built in the 1600’s but only owned by this family since the 1800’s. I love it and would love to work here. It has a few suitable places for a pottery studio and a kiln, but there will be a lot of paperwork to fill out, as the building is a listed ancient building, and it will be difficult to get anything done officially within a decade or so. So it might just have to be done illegally, or should I say without the condo – initially! We spend some days here, and why not, it’s so beautiful. We make day trips in to the prosecco valley next door and another into Venice and another one up into the mountains for some walking. It’s a great place to work out from. In the next valley, not too far away by car, is where prosecco is grown and bottled, so we spend a day there. It’s a thriving industry here, sale are through the roof, and everywhere we go the winemakers are doubling their production and building new processing plant or doubling and and tripling their old buildings, even while the vintage is in full swing. There are tractors hauling big trailers piled high with their yellow/green sugary, sticky grape harvest, all along the narrow lanes. There are queues of these leviathans waiting at the winery, in line, along the dirt tracks that lead into them, all dug in tot the sides of the narrow valley, all clambering for some level ground to build and extend into and onto. The tractors are all queued, waiting their turn, back to the tarred main road. There is no room for us and we are turned back by a young guy, who is paid by the winery to stop tourists like us from entering the small dirt lane. They want our money, but can’t afford to interrupt the vintage. We are told by one of the locals that the place to eat around here, is a few kilometres away, up in the hills. Just go straight on for a while, then at the top of a hill and on a blind curve, there is a stone building!!! Yes,. Like every other bend in the road! Amazingly, just when we feel that we have gone too far and should turn back. There is a likely place, but it doesn’t look open. That’s because it all happens around the back, away from the road near the vineyard. This is where the locals eat, and what a treat. It’s full, but there is one table left for us. The menu is not written down at all, the girl just recites it to us. So I have forgotten most of it, but it is all local produce, cooked on-site in the small kitchen. There is a choice of several antipasti, we choose the porcini salad with salami. Thin slices of fresh porcini and crumbled chunks of parmigiano with a dressing of finely chopped parsley, lemon juice and olive oil. Fantastic!. We choose the local prosecco made by the owner of the restaurant. The primos are various pastas, I go for pasta with goose ragu, La Bella has the Gnocchi, but there are a few others to choose from. The secondi can be a traditional bean dish, Tripe – sheeps stomach, baked boar or venison, as well as some others that I can’t remember. We have the boar and venison. Finally we struggle to the dolcci, there are a few, but we choose Semi fredo and the almond tart – with a little grappa as a correctivo to help us to digest our weeks calories!
Porcini salad prosciutto and figs
pasta with goose ragu gnocchi
The venison The wild hare
The local prosecco, which is very good. Ameretto tarte and Semi fredo ice cream and a ‘corrected’ cafe to finish. The Italians like to ‘correct’ their coffee, so as to aid digestion after lunch. This ‘correctivo’ coffee is very agreeable, the ‘correction’ being a shot or two of grappa. We must drive back to the main road and down into the valley again to look for the special winery that has been recommended to us. We eventually find a very small sign. Tucked into a bend. We can’t park anywhere near the lane-way leading in because of the harvest and constant trail of tractors and grapes making there way into the various wineries. We find a park in another place, precariously on the side of the hill, where the road is just a little wider, so that there is room for us so that the tractors to pass. Luckily we have a very small car. We walk all the way back and up the track past the tractors and their precious sticky, dripping cargo. Past all the building work, extending the winery for next years harvest. As this is Italy, it was supposed to be ready for last years vintage, but still isn’t finished yet. We have been told of this small producer, who has his vineyard on the side of a cliff and that you can walk to it. There is no-one there through the day, and you can go there, perch yourself on the side of the mountain by the old rustico, go in and select a bottle of his best prosecco from the fridge, pay 10 Euros into the honesty box, help yourself to some glasses from the stone ledge near the tap, then find a good possy on the cliff edge to sit, drink, contemplate and solve all the worlds problems. It works for us!. After an hour and a couple of bottles, we don’t have any problems.
We manage to spend some time checking out the view At 10 Euros, the wine isn’t cheap. But we must pay to make up for all the others who just come and steal the wine and the view! Welcome to Italy! On the way home, we stop off in the old hill town of Feltre for a quiet dinner in the old music school, which has been recently turned into some sort of jazz club, but there is nothing happening there tonight in the way of live music, but they have very good pasta and ragu with local wine. I choose the prosecco!
The next morning, the Bella Nina and I are up early to pick some grapes from the vines outside the kitchen window of the Villa, as they are completely ripe, sweet and juicy. Why aren’t the birds eating them like they do in Australia? Possibly because the hunters have shot them all, and there aren’t any left? We pick a couple of baskets full and make a grape jelly for the family, just as we would do in Balmoral Village at this time of year. The Matriarch, tells us that in the good old days, there were people here whose job it was to do such things. She is in her 80’s , as is her husband. and this is only their summer house, they life the other half of the year in Milan. I’d like to see that house too! There are no contadini now and nothing is being kept as it was. Everything is in decay. The jelly turns out very well and we have it for dinner the next night, with all the family at the formal dining table. The matriarch is at first dismissive. Australians? What would they know about fine food, or the life of the contadini?. However, she agrees to taste some. it is a rich black/red and full of summer/autumn flavour. We are proud of it. Her face lights up with the tasting. She has good sized helping. Something unusual for her in her dotage, when nothing tastes properly anymore. She asks for a second helping and then finally a third. It’s a great hit. Apparently it’s just as she remembers the grape jelly from her childhood, that was made from those same vines. She says that we must make some more, and that she will watch how it is made this time. It has brought her alive, and she is suddenly taking an interest in things again. This is apparently something that has been fading in the last few years since she has been confined to a wheel chair. We are flavour of the month now, maybe the pottery and kiln will get the local go-ahead? Amazing what those Australian contadini could do. Almost like real Italian peasants! It’s nothing but pure grape juice and some gelatine, heated and set. Nothing could be easier. The next day I get up a six and go to collect quinces from the trees in the orto and I make a slow cooked quince puree for tonights desert before breakfast. As the others come down into the kitchen for the morning coffee, they see me at the stove – stirring. It’s luscious, soft, tangy and pink. So full of mouth watering flavour, another simple desert from the garden. We go walking into the Dolomites for a day. Driving into the foot hills and then up, up and up. We lunch at the refugeio ‘Tony demetz’. at 2685 m.
There is still snow lingering up here at this altitude. We have a wonderful meal of local dumplings in mushroom sauce. The dumplings are made with a lot of bread crumbs, with parsley , speck and sweet corn niblets. They are very warming and filling up at this altitude. Love from the foreign Contadini.
Deaf in Venice
I’ve been dying to see Venice. Venice has been dying, while waiting to see me! It’s slowly sinking and rotting, dying under its own weight. We almost got here once before, but time ran out on us and we didn’t get there at that time. Now we are here and time is running out for Venice! There are so many people. It’s so crowded, even at the end of the season. The guide books tell us that there isn’t a quiet time in Venice. Venice is so very noisy here, in this spot, We are Deaf in Venice from the traffic noise. Tomassio and Kim, our local guides tell us that this amount of people is not normal for this time of year. Perhaps it’s because of the Bi-annalle? I don’t know, but it is very crowded as we get off the train and along the main street from the station. There’s a Dearth in Venice of personal space. Tomassio whisks us away down a side street. We are not going down the main street. We are off into the back allies and lane-ways, away from the main road and into the Jewish Ghetto for a history lesson, and then to an interesting little pastry shop, which sells very lovely, sweet little nibbles, that we have no difficulty in finishing off during the day. We are taken to all the little known places where there aren’t very many people. Every place has a story to it. At Dinner last night, Tomassio’s brother Francesco tells us a lovely story of one of his PhD students who researched the story of Casanova. Most of the places that are mentioned in his text are all still there in one way or another, so we can make a tour of Venice’s back streets and enjoy a reading of the appropriate passages of the old text.
We manoeuvre around, crossing bridges and zig-zagging between buildings, walking under peoples washing hanging above us. We are told that many of the big Palazzos are empty, they are worth millions, but the owners don’t live in them. The money has left the city. There is Debt in Venice, there is so much debt in this city, as there is in many cities. but the money has left here. The workers who work here can’t afford to live in the city, so must commute in each day from the mainland.
The main residents are the transient migrating hoards of tourists, like us, who swirl in and out like the tide. We walk past an amazing old building with an external circular staircase. The space around it is so cramped, that I can’t get it all in one photo with my small handy camera. It’s beautiful, but run down and needs repairs – like all of Venice really. Run down and slowly sinking and rotting.
I make a 1 minute video of the tide advancing across St Marks Square. It crosses one paving tile in that time. The workers are putting out the elevated walkways. The other tourists are queueing. I measure the Depth in Venice of the rising tide. We disappear into a lane way and off to a small church, then a longer navigation back to the grand canal at the very tip of the point and back along the Grand Canal past the Grand Palazzos from their water frontage face, we stop off at the Guggenheim for a few hours. We are getting Deft in Venice at leaping on and off the gondolas’ and vaporettos’ Deck in Venice as we pass along the canal. We head back into the back lanes and small streets. The old ladies are washings their clothes and hanging them out on the high clothes lines over the laneways.
They’re rinsing out the Dirt in Venice.
It’s very hot and the smaller little back canals are becoming quite smelly and turgid in the heat.
Love from Caz and his lover – Deep in Venice.
We spend some time in the mountains. There were once large glaciers up here, but they are fast disappearing. Receding, as they melt away. Global warming, What global warming?
Marmolada glacier- melting away The Gruppo Sella
Riding the gondolas up to Refugio Toni Demetz. We get to the top via the North Face – The Hard Pay. We pay for the gondola ride to the top. It’s so much easier than climbing. When we get there, there are two men who climb up the craggy face and arrive all flushed and sweaty. Crash helmets, huge bundles of looped rope, and heaps of jangling hardware. They stride into the refugio, and sit and talk, They have earned their lunch up here. We are just tourists. Just like the King tide of tourist flotsam that drifts along the canals in Venice every day. We are the problem. We are the ones clogging the place up. It would be so much nicer without us! I can’t help but feel a little guilty at having all this energy expended on me. I don’t want to be the problem, but I am. I can’t help but think of how the hell they got all this building up here and the gondola cables etc. etc. It was all carried up here by men like these, on their backs. I want to take their picture, but don’t want to appear rude and intrusive. So I don’t.
Happy times and some of the best meals that we have ever eaten.
Keeping the pasta at bay with anti-pasta.
With all this good food, we’re putting on weight at an alarming rate, but enjoying it. All the photos of us above were taken by our friend Kim.
I love Italy. All these old towns and villages. I love the antiquity, the patina of age, but I don’t want to live here. and I certainly don’t want to fix the plumbing! We get a guided tour of Pelligrino by a very kindly local man. We stop and ask directions, he takes us under his wing and gives us a personal guided tour of his town for over an hour. We weren’t expecting to see so much. The old convent, the little allies. The few remaining frescoes on the out side of the older buildings that haven’t weathered yet. He knows he best place to eat. It isn’t marked. You go around the back. Tell them he sent you. We couldn’t have managed any of this without the good fortune to be guided around by Tommaso and Kim. As a local Tommaso can get inside the language barrier for us and unlock access to all this fantastic stuff. We dine on a vast array of local food, course after course arrives. The wine is fabulous too. We dine for 2 hours. I can hardly walk away. I find the till hidden in a corner at the back and try to pay using my card. It’s only 94 Euros, For 5 courses for 4 people, including wines. That’s less than 4 euros per plate. If only really good food was so cheap in Australia. They will take my card. I’m surprised. I thought that it might be cash only. I try to say, “make it a round 100”. They don’t get it. So I write it down. She understands now, but she refuses, she calls her assistant, she refuses. They call the boss over. She says absolutely NO!. I only want to give them a tip, but I think that they think that I want cash out. I don’t know. I can’t tell what they are saying to me in local dialect. I pay just the 94 euros on the card. Everyone seems to be OK with this, but not ecstatic, I’m sure that they would prefer cash, but I don’t have enough on me. I rummage around in my pocket and give them a €10 cash tip. Suddenly we’re all friends again.
Marble steps anchored with iron staples.
We make our way across the north of Italy, lots of little towns and along Lake Como, into Switzerland to visit friends and past customers and then back into Germany. We stop in the Westerwold district and spend a few days in Hore Grenhousen to see the old salt kilns that are unique to this town. This is the town where all the grey/blue salt glazed pots came from for hundreds of years. Up until 20 years ago there were up to 65 pottery workshops here making that grey/blue salt glazed wares. Now they are all gone. Tastes have changed and there are none left now. In fact, there are only 2 of the old kilns still able to be fired. We stay with Sigi and Charlotte, who own one of these old kilns. They have fired it twice recently for nostalgic reasons, but they make their living from oxidised, brightly coloured and highly decorated earthenware. Fired in an electric kiln.
Inside the old kiln shed. The old kiln fireboxes.
We are lucky to be invited to stay with Sebastian Scheid and the Scheid Family. Karl Scheid, Sebastian’s father is the Peter Rushforth of Germany’s post war hand made pottery movement. He worked with Harry Davis in Crowan in Cornwall straight after the war. Sebastian studied with Shimaoka in the 80’s. We spend a terrific afternoon with the Scheids being ‘gleaners’, we follow after the potato harvester has gone over the paddock nearby and lifted the crop. This huge modern machine then dumps all the undersize potatoes, hard clods and small stones in a pile on the edge of the field. We spend an hour or two going over the field and the pile and collect 400 kgs of potatoes. Enough for the collected 4 Scheid families for the coming year. The Scheids know the farmer and she is happy for them to collect this bounty and forestall the potential waste. I’m thrilled to be part of it. If only I knew a potato farmer!