Monday, July 31, 2006

War! What is it Good For? Absolutely Nothing!

Taking a break from holiday postings for a moment, I feel compelled to make comment on recent events.

The sickening lurch I get every time I read about innocent adults and children being killed by bombs doesn’t go away. I don’t care whether they are called freedom fighters, illegal combatants, or an official national army. If you kill innocent people you are a terrorist. Whether that is Al Qaeda, The US Army, the IRA, The Israeli Army, Hezbollah, The British Armed Forces or Black September. There is no justification, ever, for killing innocent people to satisfy your political leanings.

People are not cardboard cut-outs. People are not nameless figures. Every single person killed in a conflict had parents, friends, carers, lovers, children, siblings or someone who cared deeply about them.

If you have volunteered to join the army, any army, then you know the risks you are taking. But if you are a civilian, a non-combatant, an ordinary, everyday person who is just trying to live their life then you do not deserve to be shot at, bombed, maimed or killed in the name of some else’s beliefs

How can anyone think that killing innocent people will stop a conflict is completely beyond me. If a stray bomb – intentional or otherwise – was to kill my children, then I would happily lay down my life if it meant I could have the chance of revenge on the perpetrators. Every time a bomb or bullet kills a civilian or child in Lebanon or Palestine, then it acts as a recruiting ground for any organisation that wants to get back at Israel.

Of course it’s never the leaders who are in the firing line. It’s never the people who wield the power who have to worry about their children being hit by a stray bullet or missile. These people who make the decisions that will kill hundreds or thousands of innocent men, women and children aren’t the ones who suffer.

There is a part of me that knows that I will die as a result of some else’s conflict. It won’t be anything to do with a cause I support or believe in. I will just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. An unnecessary statistic.

When I heard about the person who was killed by English football thugs who, after England had lost to Germany in a match, decided to take it out on the first German they could find – and it turned out the poor guy was Dutch; or the case of Jean Charles de Menezes who was killed by the police as a suspected Muslim terrorist but was in fact a Brazilian student; I felt a connection deep in my bones that that could have been me.

Going along the lines that a picture speaks a thousand words, I decided I wanted to create a visual image of the idiocy of conflict, where it is the innocent who are most affected, and to try and undermine the apologists who seek to justify and legitimise the killing of children in the name of their cause. So I used the only outlet at my means and spent all day carefully crafting a Bunt Cogs cartoon strip, using the characters I know and love to try and put the point across.


You can click on the image for the result. While it does in fact say everything I want it to, and can be applied to pretty much any conflict you care to name, in the end it’s just a cartoon strip and I won’t have anything like the impact I would like it to.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that it will make any difference to anyone. Those who are convinced they are right are not going to be swayed by a cartoon, or even reasoned argument for that matter.

For me, though, it just reinforces my sense that you should never trust those in authority. They do not have your best interests at heart. They do not care if you live or die. We are all just cannon fodder for their personal games.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Swimming in the sea

Swimming in the sea is not a common pastime for the Scots (see previous entry - Life's a Beach), even in the summer months. Next stop Iceland or Norway, depending on which coast you’re on, is the framework of understanding when it comes to maritime temperatures. So perhaps it’s not that surprising that my son should be eleven years old and in a foreign country before his first experience of swimming in salt water with waves.

Having grown up in Southern England and South Wales I, on the other hand, get an irresistible urge to paddle, or even leap in whenever I visit a beach. Childhood memories of spending all day on Pendine Sands, diving through waves, attempting to surf on rubber rings, and getting sunburnt to the point of peeling skin, flood back as soon as the water washes over my toes. This is usually followed by a yelp of surprise at just how bloody cold it is.

For one reason or another, whether it has been the tides are at the wrong point in their cycle, we’ve been off visiting other parts of Brittany, or the weather has been a bit dodgy, we’ve not been swimming this holiday despite renting a cottage within ambling distance of the sea. We’ve strolled along the water’s edge picking up interesting looking shells several times, and on one occasion Rogan and I built sandcastles against the incoming tide, but we hadn’t had a proper swim. So Friday morning, the last real day of the holiday, we set aside to catch the incoming tide and go for a swim.

The sun was shining through the window as we woke and it looked like it was going to be idyllic. However, by the time we’d had breakfast, changed into our costumes and reached the sand, the wind had picked up and the sun was obscured by thick strata of grey cloud.

Maggie sat on the beach wearing several layers and a thick jacket; being a Scot, not only was she slightly mystified by the whole leaping-in-the-sea idea, she also had an eye for the more practical approach of dealing with beaches on cool, windy, grey days. Meg had been determined to go swimming but once those toes had been caressed by the cold touch of Poseidon’s domain she rather wisely joined her mother under the beach blanket.

Driven on by testosterone and general male foolhardiness, Rogan and I waded into the sea, stopping every few feet to shout out in distress, especially when the water reached the dangly bits. Determined that I would not back down I strode deeper, allowing the waves to crash over me before finally plunging in. Once my body had acclimatised I was hit with a sudden explosion of endorphins; I was strong, I was powerful, I was the Lord of the Ocean. I started swimming up and down, diving through waves and whooping with joy. Exhilarated? I was ecstatic; for about three minutes anyway. Then it slowly dawned on me that I was losing sensation in my extremities and it was all taking far more out of me than I’d realised. Gently I worked my way back to the shore and up the beach to where a patient Maggie was waiting with a towel at the ready.

The fenced off stones at Carnac
Driven on by testosterone and general male foolhardiness

Rogan had a whale of a time, loving the waves, the extra buoyancy offered by salt water and the space to kick and splash about without having to worry about other swimmers, or lifeguards telling you not to pee in the pool.

Back at the cottage the less than adequate shower eventually rinsed the salt, sand and seaweed off our bodies and Maggie made sure we were warmed up by hot drinks. The next time I decide to do more than just paddle in the sea I think I’ll choose somewhere a bit warmer, like the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, or just off the shore of an active volcanic Island.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Short Legs

I guess we’re all a mish-mash physical mix of our ancestry. Pure-blood usually means in-bred, which as any biologist, geneticist or dog breeder will tell you might create a specific look, but usually means deficiencies in other areas. It is the mongrels, those who are of wide and mixed races, who tend to be healthiest, immune to more diseases and live longer, unless there’s a eugenics agenda in place by those in charge.

Recently I’ve been tracing the family tree using the knowledge of relatives and hooking up with other people who have shared ancestry through the website genesreunited.com. Without doubt it is a fascinating exploration, especially as until I started I only knew the names of a few relatives as far as 2 generations above me. Now, for one or two strands I have names stretching back to the 17th Century. The strands that are easiest to trace are the ones who have stayed in the same area; the ones I have least information about are those who travelled widely. My father is convinced that we have gipsy blood in us from a few generations back on his father’s side, and from a cursory search on the Internet it seems that Ayres is not an uncommon gipsy name in the UK.

But since coming to Brittany I’m beginning to wonder if there’s a bit of Breton or Gallic blood in there somewhere too as I’ve begun to notice that most people here are quite short. At five feet and seven inches tall first thing in the morning (I think I’ve usually lost an inch in height by the evening), I’m shorter than the average British male (5” 9’). I knew something seemed a bit strange when walking around the French towns and markets, but it took me a few days to realise it was the fact that hardly anyone was taller than me. The vast majority of the population where we’re staying are the same height or smaller.

At the market on Sunday, I was sitting on the kerb with the kids, eating crêpes while waiting for Maggie to buy us lunch from a stall selling local sausages and potatoes steeped in local cider and fried in huge pans, when I realised where the shortness came from: it’s all in the legs, or not as the case may be. These are not an elfin race – heads and upper bodies are just as large as any other – it’s the legs that are proportionally shorter.

I’ve always said that from the hips up I have the body of someone who should be over six feet tall, but my legs are six inches too short. It’s not been a flippant remark either, because if I sit on a bench with my stepson who is, in fact, six feet tall, he’s shorter than me. Most of my height comes from my upper body and, as I sat at ground level watching all these Bretons strolling past, I discovered the same was the case with the majority of the locals. Obviously there were exceptions, but I realised that here I had found an entire group of people who shared my difficulty of finding jeans that were cut short enough in the leg.

I do like it here.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dripping

Continuing the ramblings I wrote while on holiday in France

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It’s surely not a good sign when you notice there is a small puddle under the car and upon closer inspection you can see the occasional drip coming from the underside of the vehicle. The last thing I need is for my car to break down in a foreign country. I know that I have Mazda Roadside Assistance, which is considerably more comprehensive than mere AA cover, but my knowledge of French is restricted to ordering croissants. I’m no expert on the workings of the internal combustion engine and would be at a loss to describe what was wrong with the car in English; I have no hope in a different language.

Dabbing my finger in the liquid and sniffing revealed it wasn’t battery acid, petrol or engine oil. In fact it had the consistency of water and no discernable odour. Therefore, by a process of elimination from my extremely limited knowledge, it is either windscreen washer fluid or some kind of condensation caused by use of the air conditioning system.

This latter idea is a complete guess and I have no notion where it came from; for all I know it might be as ridiculous as assuming it to be gremlin urine. However, it has struck me before now that whenever I switch on the air-con it dehumidifies as well as cools the inside of the car, and when I switch it off it’s like I can suddenly smell a slight dampness in the air. So, my reasoning goes, the extracted moisture must be going somewhere, therefore it could be condensing in, around, or just behind the engine bay, which is where the dripping seems to be coming from.

This morning, after the engine had cooled overnight, I went out and looked under the bonnet. All the fluid indicators indicate that there are sufficient fluids, although the windscreen washer might be lower than I’d have guessed, so all I can do now is wait and see. I checked the local Yellow Pages last night and unless Mazda’s go by a completely different name in France then there is no local authorised dealership in Brittany.

Within a few days I’m either going to be calling Mazda Roadside Assistance or I’m going to relax and put the whole experience down to “one of those things…”

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UPDATE: The car is still running, nearly 2 weeks and over 1500 miles later, and still nothing has exploded yet.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Standing Stones

A single standing stone can’t help but bring out the pagan hippy in me - the desire to reach out and touch it, lean against it, or even clamber on top of it if possible, is irresistible. Stone circles even more so – partially it’s the circular nature of them and partly it’s the fact that there are more stones involved. So once we knew we were going to Brittany, it was inevitable at some point we would have to make the trek to Carnac where there are literally thousands of standing stones, many of them in rows several kilometres long.

It was a drive of well over 100 miles to get there from where we were staying, much of it along back roads and not a dual carriageway in sight. With stops for coffee it took the best part of 3 hours. Anticipation was high, meaning that the disappointment at finding the whole thing fenced off, with a sign saying that in order to help preserve the site against the hoards of tourists you were only allowed to wander among the stones during the winter months, was huge.

The fenced off stones at Carnac
Fenced off - tourists not allowed, but you can buy souvenirs at the shop

Peering through the wire fence, along with hundreds of disappointed German, Dutch and British tourists, the whole experience was pretty soulless and reminded me of a trip to Stonehenge nearly 20 years ago. After staying up all night, then watching an incredible sunrise, Dan, Shirley and I had decided to drive up to the most famous of all Stone Circles, 150 miles away. The journey up had been one of excitement and energy, which turned rapidly to disgust and despair as we found that not only did they want to charge us what we considered an excessive entrance fee, but that once inside the stones were roped off so that you couldn’t actually get within 30 feet of them. The very purpose of the journey was denied.

I remember once hearing that an idea had been mooted to help preserve Stonehenge from the vast numbers of tourists that involved restricting access completely and building a replica site made of polystyrene several miles away for the visitors instead. Considering the whole point of Stonehenge was real stones placed at, some believe, powerful ley-line junctions, this seemed nothing less than total sacrilege, but after that complete non-event I began to think it wouldn’t make any difference. People would still come from all around the world to be subjected to a sense of disappointment for an excessive entrance fee.

And Carnac was a similar frustration. Even from the viewpoint on top of the visitor centre that sold atmospheric postcards and mini-menhirs-on-a-keyring there was no possibility of worthwhile experience. Further down the road at Locmariaquer, home of the world’s largest menhir – or at least it would be if it wasn’t broken into 5 pieces – our disillusionment was reinforced when they wanted to charge us 5 Euros a head to look at the pieces of rock. Instead we glanced through the fence at the sour faced German, Dutch and British tourists, who had coughed up and were clearly of the opinion that their cash would have been better spent on coffee, beer or prostitutes, climbed back into the car and endured the 3-hour return journey to the cottage.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mosquito Coil

On a warm summer’s evening in Brittany, where else would you want to eat your dinner but outside on the patio, seated at a cheap plastic table on cheap plastic chairs?

The drawback of flying biting creatures would be solved, I was convinced, by the dinner-plate sized mosquito coil I bought at the local supermarket. After discovering that suspending it from either the nearby tree or the overhang above the rear door meant the smoke utterly failed to float anywhere near us, I had the brainwave of attaching it to the underside of the sunshade poking through the middle of the table. Mosquito-repellent-smoke-tasting food seemed a small price to pay to remain bite-free.

Unfortunately I hadn’t reckoned on the local French teenage-punk midges that liked to live dangerously by recklessly flying through the fumes, then doubling back for more in some kind of intoxicating game of double-dare. I’d swear this coil was attracting rather than repelling the damned beasts.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been drawn to the box by the fact that it had been written in two languages. The English part may have waxed lyrical about enjoying a mosquito free area for up to 36 continuous hours over an area the size of a football pitch, but did the French part actually say the same thing? I'm beginning to suspect it may in fact point out that it had been specially formulated with the pheromones of female mosquitoes on heat of to ensure that British tourists who can’t be bothered to learn the language to a sufficient degree will be eaten alive.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Day 4 and I've Conquered the Boulangerie

“Bonjour, mademoiselle! Wheat cwarsonts, silvoo play.” I smiled sweetly.

“Huit?”

“Wee. Oh and er… du pan… la” I said gesturing to a large rack of bread that was as long as a baguette, but much wider and I didn’t know the name for. I think in the same way that the Inuit have 17 different words for “snow”, so the French have 47 different words for “bread”.

“%@&**;^*&%(!)^*,” she said. I glanced at the till; she’d rung up 7.60. I handed her a 10 Euro note and she gave me change, so I felt smug with my interpretational guesswork.

“Mare see. Oh revwharr!”

“Au revoir, monsieur.”

I think she chose a good loaf especially for me.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Taking a Siesta

I'm back, and about to spend the next couple of days sleeping, reading emails and catching up with bloggy stuff. Although I didn't get near an Internet cafe while I was away, I did take the laptop and continued to write various thoughts and observations, which I will post here over the next week or so.

This first one is the longest by far, but then I was still fresh and eager and had some energy...


Taking a Siesta in Northern France

I lay on the bed pondering the whole concept of the Siesta. With heat well in excess of 30 degrees before noon, after lunch there really is very little you can do with your time other than find a shady place to nap until later in the afternoon when it cools down to slightly more bearable levels. And to think we’d come to Brittany to avoid the excessive heat of the Mediterranean.

Despite leaving Castle Douglas on a dreich, wet, unseasonably cold, end of June morning, by the time we crossed the border into England the sun had come out. Unfortunately the temperature continued to rise throughout the day as it developed into one of the hottest days of the year. All we could do as we headed further south was thank the god of automobiles for the invention of air conditioning.

Ten miles from Dover I was feeling pleased with our progress. It had been a long day, but I’d timed it well so that traversing the northwest corner of the M25 wasn’t the nightmare it could have been. I’d felt particularly smug when we’d got caught in a traffic jam on the A1 near Doncaster which, despite causing 2 hours delays for most people caught in it, I’d managed to negotiate an alternative route using back roads, bypassing the thousands of cars tailing back for several miles in the sweltering heat. I asked Maggie to pull out the directions I’d printed off to find the Premier Travel Inn motel I’d booked for us to stay in the night before taking the ferry to France. “Is it supposed to have tomorrow’s date on it?” she asked. A frantic call to Premier Travel Inn’s Central Reservation Hotline confirmed that I had indeed screwed up the booking. Dover’s branch was full that night but they did have one family room left in Kent although it was in Maidstone. With visions of the family spending the night in the car on Dover docks if we failed to find another place to stay, I turned round and headed 30 miles back up the road.

There are times when I’m ok about the idea of being English; times when I accept it is my cultural heritage and I shouldn’t have to apologise to anyone; times when I feel the arrogant, superior, xenophobic reputation of my fellow countrymen is undeserved. But sitting in the queue for the ferry, while eight of my fellow countrymen, sporting England (or IN-GER-LERN-DA) football shirts and drinking beer at 7.30 in the morning, sang along to Classic Football anthems such as “England’s Coming Home” and “Vindaloo” blasting from their car stereo mere inches away from my eardrums, I found myself wishing I’d put an “Ecosse” sticker on the back of the car instead of the “GB” and had learned how to fake a convincing Scottish accent. These same people would be outraged if cars full of French soccer fans drove through England with Tricoleurs flying from their windows. I felt as sick as an American aid worker in Iraq when Bush opens his mouth. Don’t judge me by the actions and behaviour of loud-mouthed arseholes who happened to be born on the same chunk of rock as me.

Once on board the ferry we took the kids up on deck so they could experience the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover disappearing into the hazy distance. Part of the haze was in fact a large cloud of tobacco smoke as this was one of the only places on board that the addicts were allowed to indulge their habits. My son drew my attention to a small group of seagulls who appeared to be deliberately riding on the wake of the air currents in such a way that they were able to breathe in the cigarette fumes. One in particular seemed to favour the not-so-subtle aroma of a Frenchman’s Gauloises. I’d swear I saw the same bird later on, looking over the shoulder of a woman reading Sartre.

Adaptor stickers for the headlights securely in place, we drove off the ramp on to French tarmac and set off to Brittany while I continually chanted the mantra “drive on the right, drive on the right,” which set me off pondering about the insularity of the British mentality.

In essence, the British world view is that the Earth is 2 groups of islands. There are the British Isles and there is the-rest-of-the-world, and the-rest-of-the-world is smaller and less important. If pushed, most people will acknowledge that there are many different countries with many different cultures, but psychologically they all get lumped into the singular category of “foreign”. The Americans are viewed as an extension of the British Isles as they speak more or less the same language, although you could perhaps think of them as an annoying younger brother who has some irritating habits but earns more money than you do, and while you openly express a superiority about being less materialistic, you secretly envy all the gadgets he has.

This view of the world comes primarily from the barrier of the English Channel. In order to go anywhere foreign, you have to make a big effort and it will cost you a chunk of money: the only ways off this Island are by plane, ship or Euro Tunnel train. This sets up a strong sense of “other”. For example, when I was on exchange in Canada, I was known as an International Student; in the UK, those on exchange are known as Overseas Students. You can be International in your own country – it is an inclusive term – but that very use of the word “overseas” reflects a them-and-us mentality. You might be German, Egyptian or Chinese, but you’re definitely foreign.

But for all the geographical barriers, which in these days of modern communications and travel options mean a great deal less, it doesn’t help that the closest nation to the UK is so different. Once my tyres touch that French tarmac I have far more than just which side of the road I should be driving on to deal with. I now have a different currency to use with a variable exchange rate, a different scale of speed and distance, and of course an entirely different language (not to mention the fact that I’ve had to move my watch forward by an hour).

I know that there are some words that are similar, after all the French were the last country to successfully invade the British Isles, nearly a thousand years ago. Consequently some words, especially legal terms are more or less the same although pronounced with a different accent. However, what makes the language so tricky to grasp is not just the vocabulary, but the sentence structures. While in English we are very good at minimalising phrases, it seems that the French go out of their way to make them as complicated as possible. When approaching a junction at 50mph (80kph), for example, I’m used to seeing signs that say “Give Way”. En Français, however, I have to cope with “vous n’avez pas la priorité”, which literally translated means “you do not have the priority” – “give way” is the implication that follows such a statement, but isn’t actually mentioned. Reinforcement, if any were needed, that Johnny Foreigner is indeed a funny bugger. And justification, if any were needed, for singing the praises of IN-GER-LERN-DA while waving the St George’s Cross or Union Flag and expecting Monsieur Foreigner to recognise, and defer to, his cultural superiors.

Of course what those who would fly the flag of nationalism and promote xenophobia conveniently forget is the common emotional experiences that connect every human. We all laugh and cry, feel fear, excitement, hope, embarrassment, desire and loss. It is our ability to empathise, to recognise those feelings in others, that is the true mark of our humanity. When we alienate people, when we see only the differences and ignore the similarities, when we buy into the notion us and them, that is when we are capable of the expressing the worst aspects of mankind – war, torture and brutality.

And there it was on the radio, the reminder we’re all the same. Although I couldn’t understand a word, the excitable voice left me in no doubt that if I just visited his shop today then I wouldn’t find a better deal on a carpet anywhere in Europe than at Pierre’s Carpet Emporium. After the ad break, Marie from Normandy was on the phone to the DJ who was encouraging her to sing along to a popular French hit from the 70s. She was both excited and embarrassed, and he made sure he milked every last drop of both emotions from her. Every culture has its share of irritating local radio presenters.

People talk of a more relaxed way of life in Rural France. I’d always thought it was exactly the same way they talk about a slower life in Rural Britain – basically they are just comparing with frenetic city life. However, we have discovered that lunch “hour” lasts from noon until 2pm. In fact, several shops don’t really open until 3pm and they’re not occupied by customers until about 4pm, when the local town seems to come back to life.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun goes the expression. As I’m not the former and have no desire to make a big deal out of being the latter, taking a siesta seems like the ideal option in this heat.