Sacrilege

NZ Queenstown

We travelled to New Zealand in the autumn of 2011 when the Rugby World Cup was scheduled to be held there. This was to be our retirement treat-a three month stonker of a trip that also encompassed Australia [where I have cousins] and a small add-on of a stay in Hong Kong on the way home.

The thrill of such an enormous piece of travel was tempered, initially by having our flight from Heathrow cancelled by Quantas for no reason we could discern. This meant that our onward flights from Brisbane were scuppered, messing up our arrival to Christchurch, New Zealand and losing us a night of accommodation.

2011 was also the year of Christchurch’s catastrophic earthquake, which was heartbreaking in itself, besides disrupting the Rugby matches and venues involved.

After a tortuous and exhausting series of flights we arrived to Christchurch’s small airport. In the arrivals hall we staggered to the information desk and were directed out into the sunshine of the afternoon, where a kindly driver took our bags and we slumped into the back of his car to be taken to the hotel. I felt I’d stepped into a warm bath.

Even in my almost comatose state I was thrilled to see the verges and green spaces which were lined with nodding daffodils-a novelty for we northern hemisphere-ites in autumn.

NZ Xch

Although our hotel was a forest of steel ceiling supports and those roads that had not been blocked off were cracked with fissures the hotel staff welcomed us in.

Having slept we explored our area, Hagley Park and looked at the quake-damaged centre of town. The park hosted an exhibition of the proposed rebuilding of Christchurch.

A couple of days later we collected our rental camper-van, which was exquisitely equipped and set off to explore beautiful, pristine South Island on a gentle, meandering road that followed the railway track and took us through small communities, past stunning scenery and into wonderful camp sites.

Throughout this time I don’t think I ever stopped smiling. People were unerringly kind, the ease of travel unprecedented. In spite of the terrible earthquake we were welcomed. Even the creatures were friendly.

NZ ducks

The rugby games were like huge, joyous parties with dancing displays, music, dressing up and buzzing atmosphere. I lost count of the number of times we engaged with those around us, laughing, conversing and getting hugged.

In between matches we went sightseeing-following the beautiful, wild south coast road to stunning Milford Sound, viewing penguins and snow-capped mountains and scoffing New Zealand pies and scones from the dairies. Then we turned north via Kaikoura, went whale-watching and walked in glorious Abel Tasman National Park before taking the ferry to North Island.

In Wellington the camp site was full so the local rugby club accommodated us, throwing open their showers and their clubroom and even offering us a curry sauce to go with the chicken we’d bought to cook. We visited the amazing hot springs and geysers at Rotarua, 90 Mile Beach, Coromandel, the gigantic Kauri pines.

The trip remains, to this day my favourite to date. If asked I don’t hesitate to say that New Zealand is my favourite of all the destinations we’ve visited for the reasons I’ve detailed and so much more.

What has happened there is heart-breaking. This most beautiful and idyllic of countries has been sullied for it’s innocent beauty.

If you peddle hate posts on social media; if you keep recycling jingoistic, populist, right-wing propaganda; if you keep screeching about ‘taking back control’ and closing borders, building walls to keep people out and showing hate to other races and religions you are perpetuating acts of violence and terrorism.

Enough said.

 

 

 

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Living in a Cultural Desert

The time has come to finally accept that summer is now over for this year. We managed to extend it by a month or so by nipping off to warmer climes, but even there autumn is nudging in. I tend to go through a period of mourning at this time-not being a fan of winter, the cold or the dark. We also have to turn our attention to all the outstanding chores that are necessary when one takes up residence in a new abode-a list that is lengthening as I write.

In our absence an invasion of a miniature sort has taken place in that the outside and all its mini creatures has invaded the space. Chez nous has become spider haven, with a spindly arachnid lurking in every conceivable corner. Going to the study to get a pen [with which to redirect a pile of wrongly addressed mail-some of which had already been redirected here] I made the mistake of reaching out only to find I was plunged into an Alien-like scenario, my hand ensnared in a gargantuan, cloying candy floss of gossamer. Ugh!

Outside, much of the stalwart inroads that had been made before departure in taming the rampant ivy, brambles and unwanted interlopers is now rendered inadequate by their enthusiastic return. October is the month I’ve allocated for planting the climbers I’d brought with me when we moved so time is of the essence. Accordingly I’ve now crippled my back and various other parts with a marathon session of planting. Re-acquainting myself with the garden has only served to demonstrate how much work there is to do in it.

This is also the time when I turn my attention to cultural life and begin to cast around for entertainment to fill long, dark evenings. Those who’ve read these scribblings before will know how much I abhor musical ‘shows’ and how much I love a good play. Here in the provinces, however we are not well served. My own small, local theatre has a programme of events that includes a few broadcast screenings but is dominated by tribute acts, mediocre musical soirees and the odd has-been. The venue is run by volunteers, is a cosy and welcoming space with an art deco façade. It should be a magnetic powerhouse of activity.

A little further afield, in the seafront, tourist metropolis only a bus ride away there are two large concert venues, both touting…yes, tribute acts, has-beens and performers I’ve never heard of. There is nothing for it but to go to the movies. The critics have done a hatchet job on ‘The Girl on the Train’ [a novel I enjoyed] so I may have to try Woody Allen’s latest offering.

After much searching I discovered that Nina Conti-a comic genius with puppetry-is on at the end of the month; on I went to the seating plan. Nothing in the circle except for single seats or restricted view. Nothing in the stalls except for single seats or restricted view. It’s no surprise. I’m not the only person starved of quality live entertainment!

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…

               

                

Seasonal Tales

                It feels lucky to live in a country that has four seasons; or at least, for the majority of my life there has been a spring, summer, autumn and winter. I have also been lucky enough to have lived most of my life in places where the waxing and waning of the seasons could be clearly seen and experienced.

                One of my early memories of the tiny, village school I attended is the Halloween party we’d have. There would be a tin bath of apples in water for us to try ‘bobbing’ for and iced buns on strings we’d have to eat without using hands, games like ‘Blind Man’ Buff’ and ‘Squeak Piggy Squeak’. At the end of the day our headteacher, a stern, formidable woman, would read us an abridged version of the Scottish story of Tam O’Shanter, from an epic poem by Robert Burns, which tells of a drunken man who spies on partying witches on All Hallows’ Eve and is pursued by them. Even once I knew the ending it never failed to induce a delicious terror as Tam rode furiously towards the river to attempt to shake off the witches and his poor mare got her tail pulled off.

                Nowadays Halloween has been hijacked by the American custom of ‘trick or treat’, a pursuit we knew nothing of as children. The shops are packed with elaborate costumes ranging from pumpkin to Dracula, from devil to zombie. I have even spotted a first, newborn-sized all-in-one suit decorated with a skeleton and tried to imagine who might buy such a garment.

                We live on a street with few young families and rarely get mugged on our own doorstep for ‘treats’. I do, however take a dim view of the entire operation. It is not a British tradition. It is begging. If the tots are accompanied by their parents the parents should know better. If they are not, the parents should be prosecuted for neglect. This may seem a humbug attitude to those for whom a traditional, British experience of the seasons is unknown but I am unapologetic. The year’s milestones and celebrations should be simple, grass roots affairs, not monopolized by gift shops or inundated with marketing opportunities.

                Thankfully, although fireworks have become as ubiquitous as talent shows, our very own, English November 5th revelries are as yet little known in the wide world. A few years ago I happened to be returning by plane at night from a trip away and as the plane began to make its descent over London a rash of colourful explosions spread over the sky below us, prompting fellow passengers to exclaim in surprise. Of course they know nothing of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot and I’m sorry to say I felt a little smug, despite not having celebrated bonfire night for many years. At least this is one celebration we can still call our own!