In Vino Veritas in Vanuatu

The flight to Vanuatu was uneventful, as statistics would dictate. The peculiar arrogance of the individual – combined with the power of imagination – dictates that I spend all flights certain that, somehow, this one is different, this one is doomed to a forced water landing or perhaps just going down in flames, no survivors.

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Up to Speed

Okay, due to various factors (including Diana’s new favourite iPad game), I’ve fallen behind on these posts, so I’ll bring you up to speed quickly.

Venice

Venice was cool. We met some nice people who actually got married in Venice on the sly and had a big night hanging out with them, which began for me with a dangerous Filipino waiter giving me a solid tumbler full of Jack Daniel’s. In Venice, we saw rain in Europe for the first time.

Florence

Florence was nice, I guess. The galleries were incredible, of course. But the city felt… used? Stretched thin, maybe. The biggest up-side was the B&B (which apparently stands for Bed & By God You Think You’re Getting Breakfast No You Must Be Kidding) apartment, all to ourselves. We got our fix of the Renaissance and moved on to Rome.

Rome

(This video’s been lost during a server update.)

So now we’re in Croatia. Split is an extremely beautiful city, very glad to be here. Not sure what’s happening tomorrow, but I suspect we’ll be heading to Sarajevo.

Venice, Vedi, Vici

Sorry for the lack of updates. Again.

While it seemed like everywhere we went in France – cafes, hostels, etc. – had free wifi, Italy is more intent on squeezing cash out of you by having you pay by the hour for it.

We took the train through the French Alps to Venice (photos in the previous post include Diana sleeping with her head surrounded by my jacket). There was an option for us to fly to Venice instead, but I’m extremely glad we took the train. The views were incredible.

So we arrived at Venice. Now, Venice is a ridiculous rabbit’s warren of tiny alleyways populated entirely by paid actors to give the visitor a really traditional feel. The canals smell mainly of Rotorua and the economy seems to be founded primarily on gondoliers exchanging 10 minutes of gondola riding for people’s first-born children; masquerade masks; feather-quill fountain pens; and glass.

The iPad, with a preloaded map of Venice and GPS, was invaluable in navigating. And someone (Gareth?) said something about food sucking in Venice. Not our experience. Diana decided early on that we would find places to eat by leaving the busier touristy areas and only eat in places where locals seemed to be eating. (You can easily identify French and Italian people from a distance by a slight distinct pattern of freckles down the side of the face – too complex to go into here.)

We saw one piece of graffiti that said, “Tourists go home.” And only one beggar, who just stayed there kneeling forehead-to-cobblestone with a cup out. And only one busker, who played the mandolin and was very good.

Our hotel was the San Cassiano, and our time there was kindly donated by my employers at Shift and Tequila. It’s a fantastic place, and I recommend it to all.

The Doges’ Palace was great to wander through, though we missed out on the Secret Itineraries tour. And next to it, the St Mark’s Cathedral or whatever it was, is stunning. Saw some long-dead fingers and leg bones of saints, etc. General shocking disregard for the signs saying no photos, no talking, and so on.

Before I go, I want to give a massive shout-out to booking.com, which is so good. We’ve given up on the Lonely Planet book for places to stay (though Hotel Touring in Bordeaux was a winner). Booking.com is great. We find our next destination, search for places, sort by price and get some incredible deal on somewhere not too far from the train station.

I’m actually writing this from Florence, and today we’re on to Rome, where we’ve got a great deal on a hotel right next to the Vatican. So more on Florence and Rome later.

Grenoble Intentions (adieu, France)

Yes, still alive. Sorry about the delay in updating. It’s not that we’ve been busy – quite the opposite.

As I said earlier, Nimes was a fantastic place to relax for a few days. I also took the opportunity to prerecord do some live crosses by satellite uplink to the Discourse election special. If I didn’t recommend it before, allow me to highly recommend the Hotel César in Nimes.

On Friday we took a train from Nimes to Avignon, which is intensely charming and I regret that we only spent a day there. We did have time to visit the Christmas markets (collecting a variety of gifts to send home in one big package) and a museum (photos in the previous post).

From Avignon to Valence, where we were picked up by Dom and Steph, friends of Diana’s family, who hosted us for three nights in their house in Montmeyran. It was refreshing and relaxing to be staying at a house rather than a hotel, hostel or backpackers for the first time in two weeks, and Dom and Steph were lovely hosts.

We’re now in Grenoble, staying with Dominique and Guy, other friends of Diana’s family. Today we looked around Grenoble, including taking the gondola up to the mountain fortress bastille. Incredible view (we still haven’t seen a drop of rain in Europe and every day has been clear blue skies) of both the surrounding mountains and the pollution hanging above the town.

So that’s the update, but the thing is, tonight’s our last night in France. Tomorrow we spend all day on trains taking us through the Alps to Venice, Italy. Sorry to say goodbye to France, though we’ll be back in Paris at the end of our time in Europe.

What better time than now for a few final observations of France?

Let’s see.


Often, we’ve gone into restaurants and I’ve said what I thought was, “Un table pour deux personnes, sil vous plait,” or something similar enough to get the point across. No less than three times, this has resulted in a waiter bringing two beers over to us. I figured that my pronunciation was so bad that my words were repeatedly mistaken for “two pilsners”.

Dom and Steph solved the mystery. I was indeed mumbling my words (in the hope that being inexactly right would be more effective than being exactly wrong in my pronunciation). When I was saying “deux personnes”, it was sounding like “deux presonnes”, or “depression”, which the waiters were taking to mean I wanted two draught beers from the tap.


I’m finding the constant barrage of people asking for money exhausting. It feels like it takes active energy for me to ignore them. Because so many ask me for money, I give money to none. Because I’ve seen people very obviously lie to me to get money from me (“I have a baby at home, please buy me a pain a chocolat to take to feed him.”), I give money to none. And almost certainly some of them actually need money.

So I feel guilty about ignoring them, every time. It makes me feel bad. And then I start to feel angry at them. I blame them for making me feel guilty for not giving them money. They’re no longer individuals asking me for money; they’re individual manifestations of a broader phenomenon that annoys me intensely. I’m on holiday – how dare this Entity keep adding guilt to my holiday, my first real holiday ever?

Naturally, feeling ridiculous and petty comes swiftly on the heels of the paranoid righteous indignation. I wonder what will come next.


Most people are friendly here. I was given vague tales of how everyone in France speaks English but refuses to admit it. Maybe that’s so. Diana pointed out to me how frustrating it would be for me if I worked in hospitality in New Zealand with a bare knowledge of French and French people kept coming up to me and refusing to order things in English, always demanding I make frustrating forays into half-remembered high-school French. So we make an effort, and it seems to be appreciated.


London had majesty everywhere, while people scowled their way about their business. In France, every town is built on geological strata of fossilised charm. Ancient layer after ancient layer. It can’t be faked and it can’t be concealed. The creeping moss of commercialisation – the chain stores, the occasional McDonalds, etc – never seems to penetrate beyond a superficial level. The slightest scratch and it falls away, revealing the cobblestones and crumbling brick walls and old French ladies with terriers and big wine-soaked French men smoking cigarettes, looking variously grim and elated and nothing in between.

Au revoir, France. Merci beaucoup.

Nesting in Nimes

We didn’t so much spend a day in Cahors as spend a day getting out of it, but I have to say: beautiful place, even more so in daylight. At a little restaurant opposite the train station we had some of the best food yet on our trip, and probably for the lowest price yet.

From Cahors, we went to Nimes, which meant passing through Toulouse. No revoir, Toulouse. Then on to Narbonne, where we switched to a regional train to Nimes. So now you know.

We pre-booked a place in Nimes with booking.com, which has an advantage over wotif.com of including some really low-cost places everywhere. The Hotel Cesar was our destination, and even though I can literally see the train station from the breakfast room right now, I still managed to get lost due to roadworks blocking our way.

Hotel Cesar is fantastic. Its imaginative name comes from the town’s obsession with the old Roman empire (and bull-fighting). Apparently, when the Romans met the Celts who lived in this region in 400BC or something, the Celts welcomed Roman rule without resistance (*cough*), and Nimes was sort of rewarded with some of the most awesome Roman buildings in Gaul.

The biggest attraction here is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world, which we’re visiting today. Yes, I will take photos.

Gotta go now. Back later. Keep safe, New Zealand.

Temporarily in Toulouse

Where do I start.

Yesterday we had a lovely last day in Bordeaux, with Diana doing a bit of shopping and us going up the tower and into the cathedral. Now, while I’m sure I’m in for stunning buildings in Rome and everything, I was still struck dumb by the cathedral in Bordeaux. I took a few photos and then gave up. There’s no point. You had to be there.

And we headed down to the train station and bought a few tickets to Toulouse. I took some footage on the train of the sunset and the little farms going by and everything. I’ll post that up soon. It was a nice trip.

Then.

“Bonsoir, Toulouse!” I say as we exit (or “sortie”) the train station. By this time we have already been asked for money twice. One guy had some sort of bleach-braided hair that looked like it probably cost several hundred New Zealand dollars.

It’s dark at this point, around 7pm. We’re looking for a place called Hotel Chartreuse, which Lonely Planet tells us is opposite the train station. What’s actually opposite the train station is a collection of around 20 rough-looking dudes with 20 rough-looking dogs. We gingerly circumvent them (two new requests for money added to the tally) and cross a river thing to the street opposite.

There’s the Hotel Chartreuse, lovingly nested between strip clubs. We knock on the door and the guy apologises – they’re all full up.

Now, you might think it’s silly to go somewhere without booking a room. And basically, you’re right. The thing is, up until now this has not been a problem. It’s the off-season, and backpackers and hostels have been stoked to see us.

Diana isn’t too concerned, as it’s not an area she’d like to stay in anyway. I’m inclined to agree. So we buy a map and start tracking down other places recommended by Lonely Planet. A half-hour trek through the city later, they’re full too – a particular pity as I had managed to ask for the room in French.

Now we’re thinking, “Fuck it, we’ll just take any old place in a two-star hotel.” So we retrace our steps, going into hotel after hotel. Complet, complet, complet. No room at the inn. I start waxing poetic about what a poignant story the Nativity tale is. We get almost all the way back to the train and try for a room at a place called l’Hotel Des Ambassadeurs, I think.

“Pardon, Monsieur. Complet.”

We stare mournfully up the stairs at the concierge who’s told us the same thing everyone else has. By now I’m wondering how well I could put a positive spin on spending the night at a 24-hour internet cafe, an old trick I’ve used to save on accommodation while backpacking, but probably not easily sold in to Diana. What would appeal to her? Could there be a 24-hour internet cafe next-door to some kind of 24-hour petting zoo?

The concierge takes pity on us. “Come up, come up,” he says, intuiting that we’re not native French speakers.

We scale the stairs and Diana collapses into a sofa in the waiting room.

“Everywhere is full,” explains the concierge unnecessarily. His name is Mathias. “There is a congress.” A convention. Some kind of business convention in Toulouse has booked out every damned room in the place.

So the concierge starts trying to help us. He thinks there are two beds left in a dorm room at one particular place in the city. He starts trying to phone them for us, but there’s no answer. All the while, about once every five minutes, the door downstairs opens, a bell rings, and a new person is told that there are no rooms left at this hotel.

Finally he gives up, at the same time as he finishes his shift. “The last available room was 30km away,” he explains. And it was snapped up hours ago.

So I start formulating a plan. We’re getting out of Toulouse. We’re moving on to our next destination, either Carcassonne or Nimes, and we’ll book accommodation ahead of time there.

First step: finding out whether or not any trains are going out this late. Mathias joins me on the walk down to the train station, having briefed his replacement at the hotel.

We walk past the collection of guys on the street with dogs, and I have to ask Mathias, “What’s with the dog club?”

He explains. It’s against the law in France for policemen to leave dogs unattended on the street. So all of the homeless guys have dogs as protection against being arrested. To arrest the homeless owner of a dog would be to either leave the dog unattended (not allowed) or somehow look after the dog (too much hassle). Thinking back, most homeless people I’ve seen in France have had sad-looking dogs with them.

So I get to the train station ticket counter. Naturally, there are no trains left going to either Nimes or Carcassonne. In fact, our only option is back to Paris – or something on the way to Paris.

This is the first time I have heard of a place called Cahors. But that’s our destination. Maybe. I ask the lady how many people live in Cahors, what the population is. She looks surprised and says, “I have no idea.” She asks the lady next to her, in French, who laughs hysterically at the question but doesn’t answer it.

Now, back to the hotel to see if we can book a place there.

The new concierge (Kevin) doesn’t speak much English, but we muddle our way through. He brings up booking.com and we book a place in Cahors. We use my credit card. We get details of where it is (500m from the train station). It all sounds good. We’re on our way out the door to buy the tickets before the train leaves when he says, “There is problem!”

What now.

He’s booked (and I’ve paid for) a room in a hotel in some place that’s not Cahors. When he searched for Cahors hotels, some other city’s hotels came up too. This is no good. He cancels it and hopefully cancels the credit-card payment, and with many many apologies books the Deltour Hotel in Cahors. He gives us a booking number and a four-digit code. I write them down.

Where is it? 2.5km from the train station. Is it a safe walk? Oh, yes, yes.

We get to the train station. The ticket counter has closed. So I walk up to an official-looking fellow and ask if he speaks English, because I’m too tired to try for French at this point. “Non, non, Laurent, Laurent!”

He points me to a man named Laurent, who starts singing Lionel Ritchie at Diana: “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for? I could see it in your eyes…”

We laugh a little. He asks where we’re from. “New Zealand,” we say.

“New Zealand?! Get out!” he says. Apparently they follow the rugby in Toulouse.

Now he takes us to a man who can sell us tickets to Cahors. Laurent speaks quickly in French to the guy, mentioning “Nouvelle-Zelande”.

“Nouvelle-Zelande?!” says the man. “Tell them to get out!”

“We wanted France to win!” says Diana desperately, and I’m reminded of that scene in Saving Private Ryan where the captured German guy, fearing for his life, starts saying, “Fuck Hitler! Fuck Hitler!”

Anyway, we buy the ticket and get on the train. For an hour and a quarter, things are going fine. Because we’re on a train. Diana plays Civ on the iPad. I read a book. Then we arrive in Cahors.

Now, we’ve got a map. It was printed out by Kevin at the hotel, from Google Maps, and it shows the route we should take to get to the hotel. It’s not detailed enough to have street names, but there are helpful step-by-step instructions (in French).

As far as I can tell, one of the first things we did was take a wrong turn.

It’s midnight by this point. I know the general direction we need to head in, but France appears to be a country dedicated to obfuscating the names of its streets. Every so often a street is labeled and it’s not a name I can find in our directions.

We see a main road and head there. There’s a bar, closing up. We find someone in there who speaks enough English that we can ask for directions.

“We’re going to the Deltour Hotel,” I say. “On foot?!” he says. And points us up a road.

“Keep on going. You’ll see it.”

Okay. So we start going in that direction. At times there is no footpath. At times there is no lighting. I pull out the flashlight and use it to help us out. Every so often we stop and take in the night, because it’s actually magnificent. Mild temperature, a clear sky of unfamiliar stars, a river running alongside the road we’re taking. Every house in Cahors is like a caricature of a French house. Some are massive, all are charming.

Finally we hit a road I recognise from the directions. Google Maps, in its endearing way, picked the technically fastest route from the train station to the hotel, which meant lots of tiny side streets instead of taking the main road we did. Naturally.

So we arrive, around 1am, at the hotel.

The story doesn’t quite end there.

We arrive at the hotel and there’s a sign on the door saying, in French, its open hours are until 9pm (about half an hour before we booked our room online), and there’s an emergency after-hours number. There’s a machine that looks like an ATM out front, and I’m too exhausted to think twice about it.

But the door to the hotel is open. We walk inside and gratefully put down our backpacks. Now, at least we’re warm. We could sleep in the lobby if we had to. Things are looking up. I check that emergency number and figure we’ll give it a call.

Diana finds a payphone and I pull out some change, but no, it only accepts some kind of telephone card. Then Diana remembers that she has some global roaming on her Vodafone prepay phone, which is currently beeping due to low battery. I call the number and a sleepy-sounding French woman answers.

I explain as simply as possible that we’re in the lobby and we have a reservation and we’re very sorry. She says, “Tres bien,” and then the battery dies on the phone.

There’s a horrible 60-second wait as I wonder how easily the furniture in the lobby could be turned into bedding, and how we’ll explain it in the morning. Then a hastily dressed woman emerges from a room, all but rubbing her eyes, and walks past us outside to the ATM-looking machine.

Remember the code we were given as part of the room reservation? Yeah, me neither. Anyway, apparently if we could read French, we would have seen that it wasn’t an ATM (and why would there be an ATM there anyway?) but an automated check-in machine. So, more apologies to the poor girl we’ve dragged out of bed.

We get given the card. We get to the room. We collapse on to the bed.

Various lessons learned, but now we’re in Cahors. We would never have visited here if all of this hadn’t happened. There are some sights to see, and there is a distinctive local wine to try, and we have to plan our next move.

Whoo! Anyway, your loss, Toulouse. Enjoy your congress.

Bye, Bordeaux

So we’re leaving Bordeaux today. A few things left to see before we do – got to climb to the top of that bastard tower, going to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art to see their Secret Societies exhibit… I think that’s it.

There appear to be no squirrels in Bordeaux.

Next stop is Toulouse. Twice the size of Bordeaux, I’m sure it’ll be a bit different. From there we’ll do some day trips to various places and marvel at Roman engineering, etc.

Last night we had dinner at a place called Bistro Regent, I think. They serve nothing but a hot plate of some kind of meat or fish, which is served on your table over a little tea light that keeps it hot. And over all of them is the same family-recipe shallot sauce stuff. There are three options of what meat/fish to have with the sauce, and that changes every so often, and they don’t sell any other food (except for unlimited fries on the side).

So tasty.

We’ve been in Bordeaux for… What? Three days, I suppose. Maybe two and a half, all up. I’m sorry to leave. But I expect I’m going to feel sorry to leave every place we visit, and sorrier again to leave the whole continent.

Climbing the tower today. Next post will be photos of Bordeaux from above.

Beautiful Bordeaux

Bordeaux is beautiful, though I always wonder with beautiful places. You know those episodes of Star Trek where they find a paradise-like planet named “Eden” and everyone’s super happy, until it’s revealed that unhappy people are being taken out back and shot? Maybe that’s what’s going on here.

I’m actually witnessing some kind of police action right now. The first time I’ve seen police here in Bordeaux (compared that to the cops with machine-guns in London and Paris). A police car cruised past me slowly through this pedestrianised street and stopped outside McDonalds. Three cops got out and talked to a guy who was standing outside. Tense stuff. Anyway, they wrote him a ticket, presumably for not being quite magical enough this morning, and drove off.

Bicycles, dogs and pedestrians everywhere. So many dogs.

The place we’re staying in is called the Hotel Touring, a family-owned business in a building straight out of the ’40s. There are a few photos in the previous post, and I’ll post a few more today.

In fact, I’ll post again later today. Or tonight, by your standards. Sweet dreams, State Highway One.

Bedding in Bordeaux

That’s “bedding”, the noun, not the verb.

For most of yesterday morning (Saturday), Diana and I had pretty much planned on flying to Madrid. Then, over lunch, we weirdly decided to jump on a train through the Tannel (thank you) and down from Paris to Bordeaux.

My first time in a non-English-speaking country. It’s a bit claustrophobic, a bit stressful, especially when you’ve got only the vaguest instructions of which line to take on the Paris Metro to get to the other train station where the line to Bordeaux kicks off. Still, somehow we muddled through.

There was a full-on genuine street crazy on the Metro link. There are a few street crazies in Auckland, but they tend to just mutter a bit here and there. This guy gets on at one stop with a fucking fire extinguisher, sets it down and starts lecturing loudly in French, punctuating his rant with complicated gestures. At the next stop, he picks up his fire extinguisher and disembarks. Okay, we think. No more crazy. But no, he was just putting the fire extinguisher down on the floor of the subway outside the train, and hopped right back on to continue his lecture.

There’s street crazy, and then there’s French street crazy. Rue crazy.

Navigating the public transport in Bordeaux at 10.30pm to get to the hotel I’d booked was a whole other mission. Took a tram to a place to catch a bus that gives no indication of where it is, etc. Managed with the help of a Korean couple.

Well, I say tram. When I hear “tram”, I think of antiques crunching their way around Christchurch. Christchurch, by the way, has more people living in it than Bordeaux. Bordeaux’s not big, but apparently the mayor here woke up one morning and said, “Fuck it. We’re going to make Bordeaux fucking b’dass.” Here’s Lonely Planet on it:

The mayor, ex-Prime Minister Alain Juppé, roused Bordeaux, pedestrianising its boulevards, restoring its neoclassical architecture, and implementing a high-tech public-transport system. His efforts paid off: in mid-2007 half of the entire city was Unesco-listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage Site.

“Hey, where’s the World Heritage Site around here?” Mogo doesn’t socialise.

So, smaller in population than Christchurch, and when I hear “tram” I think “antique”, basically. So getting on a goddam space elevator was a bit of a surprise. I was told before coming to Europe that I’d want to spit on Auckland’s public transport-system when I returned, but that’s not quite accurate. I’m no longer entirely convinced that Auckland even has a public-transport system.

The space elevators trams cover most of the city, and they’re 1.40 Euro no matter how far you go. And they go fast. And they’re clean and they’re frequent.

Anyway, that’s where we are now. Gonna grab some breakfast, find a backpackers to stay at, and look into this “Bordeaux wine tour” thingee.

Keep it foolish.

Biking in Britain

London is pretty incredible.

We’ve been getting around with a great automated bike hire/exchange set-up in the central city. You stick in your debit card, unlock a bike, take it and just lock it into another stall somewhere else when you’re done. You get charged a few pounds depending on how long you used it, or no charge for under 30 minutes.

Helmets aren’t provided, nor are they apparently a legal requirement here, which makes me a feel a bit naked on the bikes. Drivers are incredibly understanding and tolerant, but pedestrians are fucking dicks to people on bikes. Hardly a green light goes by where you don’t have to dodge people crossing – if you’re not a car, you’re not going to stop them getting to the other side.

Everything is massive and old here. It feels like there’s no such thing as a new, purely functional building. Sex-toy stores and superettes lease streetfront properties that look like they should house centuries-old banks and courthouses.

I feel sorry for people who grow up here, acclimatised to the… weight of it from birth. Puking at 3am on the wall of a building that Isaac Newton built by hand, stubbing out a smoke right on the spot where Nelson shot Hitler dead with a crossbow, etc. Like people being born on the moon and treating Earthians with an amused disdain when they make a big deal about being about to jump so high.

That’s my metaphor and I’m standing by it.

I say, “Look, honey, another English pub!” a lot. Initially because the pubs are all so overwhelmingly English that I felt compelled to comment, and now more or less because I think it’s funny that Diana doesn’t think it’s funny any more. They’re all called things like “Lord Harrowmont’s Rooster” or “The Wyvern and Echidna” or whatever. They smell of wood and beer and friendliness.

I expect we’re leaving tomorrow, through the Tannel (another joke Diana assures me is not funny) to France.

I like London. I can imagine living here, though how I’d get anything done while spending every day feeding almonds to squirrels in St James Park is a whole other mystery.