Accent the Positive

TRIPWIRES

A Traveller’s Working Notes

Marseille

May and June 2013

In Anglospeak, it’s Marseilles, pronounced as if to claim that one’s dear old mum takes part in the Fastnet races, or the Sydney-Hobart.  It is in fact Marseille, pronounced Mah-say. The city is as deserving of appropriate diction as Paris (Pah-ree), Lyon (Lee-ohn), Orleans (Aw-lay-ohn) and sundry other Francophone places. For that matter, it is possible to fly to Marseille from London or Edinburgh (not Londres or Edinbourg) so it’s fair to say the chaussure is firmly on the other pied too.

Neither is it genuinely a question of the difficulty foreigners are said to have with the etymologies of the places they are in. I was in Paris (Pah-ree) with a chap called Paris (Pa-ris) for a time, a while back, and no one thought his name was Pah-ree. (I should mention that I have never been to Paris, Texas, pronunciation unknown; though I did enjoy the movie.)

These random thoughts come to mind while we are beginning to absorb the unfamiliar culture and ambience of Provence. There is never much value in travelling if you’re going to pack your shibboleths, your cultural presumptions and your ignorance in with your smalls.

We are in the city for a month, domiciled in a fine beachfront apartment obtained via a house-swapping exercise. Without that defrayment of accommodation expense, we should not be able to be there at all, so we’re immensely grateful. The place turns out to be slap bang in front of La Grande Roue de Marseille, a huge Ferris wheel that at night lights up like a mad Cyclops, or a giant kaleidoscope, and flashes malevolent mixtures of light through one’s windows.

It does bring to mind the disturbing works of Stephen Donaldson. I briefly consider, at one point, silently calling the name “Nom”, just to see what might happen.  But it’s not really a problem. Within a day or so we hardly notice it, unless we want to have a laugh or count the people on it. A ready supply of vin rouge (rooghz-uh in the local patois) is to hand to assist with the laughter and complicate the counting.

I have brought Plato along on the holiday. Now I have a Kindle he travels everywhere with me. And it seems rather fun to have brought him to Massilia, the ancient Greek city upon which the Romans, followed by assorted Goths, Vandals and other barbarians, then built their own facilities. Plato was an exploring Greek, after all.

****

Marseille has many attractive women.  This is no surprise, since it is in France. Several such adornments are distracting in various ways at the luggage carousel at the airport after our plane arrives from Amsterdam. French women have a mysterious zest, éclat, élan, a deliciously promissory air. Possibly this is a fiction: the product of a diet of French films and French presidential reputations. The French girls I knew in the days when pursuit was permissible and dealing with the prey, were it willing, simply a matter of course, were all eminently sensible people. But this is why everyone I knew at school, whether or not they were a linguist, left that establishment able to ask: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

Be that as it may. No woman from any other culture wears her Follow Me Home’s or flicks a hem to greater effect.  A Frenchwoman can be old or young; she may be black, brown, brindle or of standard Frankish pallor; she may have blonde or red hair, dark hair, long hair, short hair or even no hair; she can be mucking out the stables or bathing in champagne; she can be short or tall, thin-line or broad-point, rich or poor, loud voiced or a whisperer, even – though this is admittedly, even with a French woman, at a very long pinch – either educated and erudite or the obverse. It doesn’t matter. Whatever their circumstances they seem to possess a level of allure that eludes others.

That is, I mean, in this context, to men. The heterosexual ones at least, which according to glossy magazines and the internet now form a disastrously declining cohort.  One might say decimated, in the modern way, signifying near extinction; but since the word actually means reduced by 10 percent that might not be high enough.

The attractiveness of other women is, however, among the many things that are generally left unmentioned in discourse with distaff associates; even those who are French. This has more to do with self-preservation than with natural courtesy.

It is better, and far safer, to appreciate with the dispassionate, distant eye of the landscape artist than to seek to emulate Titian. Only the foolhardy would risk acquiring a black eye, for example, by citing the chief claim to fame of Tiziano Vecelli (or Tiziano Vecellio) in other than very familiar company:

While Titian was mixing rose madder

His model reclined on a ladder.

The position, to Titian, suggested coition;

So he ran up the ladder

And ’ad her.

Of course Titian was Italian, not French; he was a citizen of Venice, the Serenissima, which also has many attractions, not least among them being that it was the only Italian republic that was never an Italian republic.

****

On our drive from the airport to our temporary digs there is a signpost pointing the way to the French Foreign Legion recruiting office. Good lord, do they still do that, one thought. But the location was noted as a precaution, lest a criminal or social embarrassment, whether inadvertent or otherwise, cloud our stay and make a Beau gesture an option.

HECTOR’S DIARY Bali Advertiser, June 12, 2013

His fortnightly diet of worms and other non-religious experiences

 

A Quirk a Day

The best part about writing a diary is that you can be as quirky as you like. It is thought, or used to be thought before energy drinks laced with high-octane caffeine came along and fried everyone’s brains, that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. We like apples, but a quirk is a far better preventative.

      So it’s great fun being temporarily based in Marseille. It’s not Paris; this means no one’s actually rude to you just because they can be, or possibly because the climate is nearly as bad as Britain’s. Foreigners who hire cars in Marseille are warned that Provencal drivers are mad. Well, yes, they are. But they’re not nearly as mad as drivers are in Bali, so it’s been a bit of a rest-cure really. If you had to sum up driving conditions in Marseille and the rest of Provence in one sentence, you could say this: They are indeed all mad, but they stay in lane.

     Quirks there are, aplenty, in this part of the world. At Cassis, for example, the car park in which we deposited our hired conveyance while we trotted off in search of a quayside luncheon, provided toilet facilities. We thought to sample these facilities on our return to the car ahead of what might be a lengthy drive. To utilise the privy, however, one had to visit the caisse (pay station) to obtain permission and then return with your parking ticket duly authorised. Armed with this the door to relief could be comfortingly opened.

     Since achieving this would have meant queuing up to talk to the one harassed gent behind the glass screen and stating the nature of one’s business in very poor French amid a milling and quite possibly sniggering crowd, we forwent the opportunity and drove home, humming little tunes that had nothing to do with tinkling streams.

     We made it. But like Waterloo (we didn’t hum that Abba song either) it was a damn close-run thing.

     It was a day for minor embarrassment. At lunch a well turned-out French woman who had been dining at a table next to us was leaving and accidentally brushed the Distaff’s chair. She apologised with a smile and excused herself by saying (we think) that lunch must have fattened her up. Her demeanour underwent an inclement change when the Distaff, no doubt distracted by the foreign tongue and the delights upon her own plate, replied brightly, “Oui!”

A Regal Luncheon

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, at the mouth of the River Rhone in France’s Mediterranean south, is a spot any traveller to Provence should visit. So of course we did, driving a chunky, boxy little Fiat 500 whose Italian designers have cunningly removed all possible spatial-awareness guides to drivers, making it entirely a guessing game as to how many millimetres remain between your vehicle and the nearest obstruction. Still, it’s well equipped and runs the iPod through the quality sound system, so Geoffrey Gurrumul has now played the Rhone Delta.

     Foreign travel is always a delight. We lunch a lot on such expeditions, because acquiring new tastes and sensations is essential (or reacquainting oneself with them for that matter: a break from rendang sapi is no bad thing) and it’s good to experience how other people live.

     So at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, we found a delightful little tapas bar and restaurant off the main tourist strip, in a quiet little street back from the beach. The street was named Rue Capitaine Fouque, apparently after a local hero. Your diarist, having always taken the view that dark humour is best in a tight spot and being a Blackadder fan to boot, inwardly speculated that it might have been named in honour of the last known utterance of the gentleman concerned; as in the manner of Captain Blackadder’s enigmatic statement, on his failure to avoid having to lead his men over the top in a final suicide mission on the Western Front in 1917, that he thought it rhymed with clacking bell.

     The establishment was called Ambience Tapas and provided a snug little courtyard at the back, out of the rather stern breeze, where you could sit and nibble in the dappled shade provided by the plane trees and a see-through shade cloth overhead. We did and it was divine. The strawberry soup was particularly so. The tempura mussels ran the soup a very close second. The aubergine baked in honey was magnificent. The vin ordinaire was very, very far from being in the least respect ordinary.

     It is early in the season so the little place was not crowded. And apart from us, the crowd – scant as it was – was entirely local, which is how we like it. We had a chance chat over lunch with fellow diner, guitar king Antonico Reyes, son of the legendary flamenco guitarist Jose Reyes and author of several prime Gypsy Kings tracks, whose group is called the Gypsy Reyes. The Distaff strongly desired his fingernails. The Diary thought Reyes possibly coveted the Distaff’s boots. It was that sort of day. Reyes and his group were playing that night and we would have stayed (free tickets were in the wind) but couldn’t. We’ll have to see if we can get him to Bali.

Beeline to Aix

It is impossible to visit the Midi and not go to Aix-en-Provence. It is far better, from the Diary’s perspective, when deciding what to keep in your schedule and what to drop out, to go for Aix rather than Avignon. It might have less papal history, but there’s less of a song and dance about it too. One can easily have too much of a good thing.

Sur le Pont d’Avignon / L’on y danse, l’on y danse / Sur le Pont d’Avignon / L’on y danse tous en rond

(On the bridge of Avignon / We all dance there, we all dance there / On the bridge of Avignon / We all dance there in a ring)

    We’ve modified the old ditty to our purpose, since our digs in Marseille afford as well as a beach panorama a fine view of one of the local roundabouts. These essential traffic regulators and their sensible rules are of course ubiquitously ignored in Bali by people on motorbikes and frequently by those driving vehicles.

    Our version goes like this:

Sur la rond-pointe Bonneveine / L’on y danse, l’on y danse / Sur la rond-pointe Bonneveine / L’on y danse tous en rond

    Hector’s helper had noted on his Facebook that the trip to Aix-en-Provence had revealed many university students but no Marie Bee lookalikes. He got a swift note back from Bee, a graduate of Aix and nowadays one of the brighter luminosities of Ubud, to say that she had indeed been there – just a few days prior. Ah well, next time.

Same Old Bali

It’s good to see that in our absence Bali continues being … well, Bali. The place just wouldn’t be the same without continuous performances of that favourite soap opera Farce of the Day. So news that the Buleleng regency wants the new coal-fired steam power plant at Celukan Bawang closed because its Chinese builders and their local operating arm haven’t acquired licences and operating permits as required by Buleleng is cheering indeed.

    Regent Putu Agus Suradyana is lately reported to have issued a formal warning to the companies – this was on Apr 19 apparently: so much for timely disclosure of official local government business – listing five reasons why the project should be stopped. He’s miffed that the operators have failed to create a company profile (and apparently that they haven’t kept him informed). We can discount these as the usual blowhard guff that emanates from regents who confuse the grandiloquence of their titles with the prosaic (and unfortunately also notional) public utility of their office.

     He may have a point with complaints that no detailed environmental impact plan has been presented (don’t give a Chinese company a building contract would be a suitable prophylatic against that condition); lack of a detailed layout for the plant (ditto); lack of an accurate time schedule for completion of the project (Come on! This is Bali!); and failure to obtain all necessary permits from the central and regional government. Needless to say, local landowners are also miffed that they didn’t get as much for the land required for the project as they had persuaded themselves they deserved.

     So it’s business as usual all round. If the Buleleng Regent is so concerned about how things are done, he should do us all a favour and protest at the confusing mishmash of regulations that confronts anyone trying to do anything potentially productive; he should press for a national-provincial (and enforceable) environmental planning law; and he should recognise that in matters such as energy policy and power plants, local government councils have only a minor role.

Hector’s Diary appears in the Bali Advertiser newspaper. He tweets @ scratchings.

HECTOR’S DIARY Bali Advertiser May 29, 2013

His fortnightly diet of worms and other non-religious experiences

Family Time

The ties that bind otherwise widely disparate families and characters into a familial network are very apparent in Bali, as in many other cultures. They are decreasingly visible in western societies where the state has long since taken over the role of matriarch (or patriarch if you like) and individuals are far more mobile and have much wider choices of employment and location.

So it is good still to be numbered in the declining percentile and be firmly for the family. This was reinforced during a week in Scotland in mid-May, a sojourn deemed necessary for remedial, toe-in-the-gene-pool therapy. It was a time spent among the family in the Border country where the churches are Episcopalian, a goodly portion of the ecclesiastical architecture has identifiable Norman leanings, and the food is, well, fantastic.

It is true Sassenach country (Saxon country), very far from the Scotland of the picture books and tourist brochures. This made it altogether strange that the railway station near where we were staying with a lovely cousin was named An Druim, in Scottish Gaelic, as well as Drem, the name by which it is universally known.

There was a lovely party on the weekend before our departure for notionally warmer clines, involving several cousins and including a representative of the family’s Australian connection – a genuine one, not the ring-in Diary version. There are few people with whom it is possible just to take up a conversation where one left it two years earlier; and even fewer who on first acquaintance seem instantly to be family.

Auld Reekie Revisited

We were twice in Edinburgh, a city that soothes the soul – big enough and sufficiently cerebral to be a genuine national capital, yet small enough to be both manageable and scenic – and which is a great place for lunch.

The weather was bleak in the unforgiving way that bleakness acquires only nine degrees south of the Arctic Circle, but the food makes up for any chill the city can throw at you, especially in the Grass Market and on Lothian Road. Soup warms the bones as well as the heart; and at certain venues Italian cuisine, in good company, absolves all sins.

What the weather serves up in the way of inclement conditions is in any case offset by the long days at this time of the year. It’s a treat to be able to sit outside (rugged up if necessary) and drink in the 10pm twilight.

Marchon! Marchon!

From Scotland we went on to Marseille (it’s better, and authentically, spelt that way) which was to be our base for a month. Our apartment, a particularly fine home exchange option, overlooks the Mediterranean (actually the Ligurian) Sea and the sweep of Provencal coastline the north and west of the city: a magic spot.

Equally magic is the variety of eating and shopping experiences close by. We’ve even been to Carrefour, a one-kilometre stroll up the road from our beachside digs, though just as at home in Bali we prefer smaller, local shopping opportunities. We’ve found those too, and in consequence are eating really rather well.

The walking routine is as close as we’ll be getting to the Marseillaise and its command to the citoyens to marchon, even though we are temporary residents of the city that brought the world the French revolutionary anthem. They’ll have to excuse us. Our sang is still a bit froid to make us happily sing about someone else’s nationalistic fervour. And anyway, it’s not July 14 yet.

Schengen Shenanigans

KLM’s Denpasar-Amsterdam service is very good. Even with an hour-plus on the ground in Singapore, the time in air from wheels up at Ngurah Rai to touchdown at Schiphol is well under 17 hours. Flying westward, the effects of jet lag are minimal, especially on the KLM schedule which effectively makes the trip just one very long night. Just set your watch on Amsterdam time on departure, and relax.

We had a very short connection time in Amsterdam before flying on to Edinburgh, but (in contrast to Air France via Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris two years ago) our luggage nonetheless managed to accompany us to our final destination.

But Schiphol does have a problem with Schengen area passport control and central security screening. On our trip back from Edinburgh via Amsterdam to Marseille that part of the programme was a shemozzle. The queues were huge, unruly and cross, and the airport staff and security personnel similarly distempered.

No one sensible objects to strict passport controls or to invasive security checks. But someone at Schiphol needs to work out that people with short connection times need to be accommodated on a more productive basis than complete lack of official interest in whether they make their flight or not.

We’re in Touch

Not too many years ago departing from anywhere to anywhere out of immediate earshot meant cutting yourself off from current events in your place of origin. Sometimes this was to personal advantage: Raffles, for example, could invade Java free of any worries that someone at head office might see a tweet from him or look at his Facebook and detect a scurrilous plan in the making. Similarly, England’s wayward remittance men could safely be sent to the colonies and never be heard of again.

No more, of course, with the internet ubiquitously available. So even though we’re half a world away (only temporarily; no one should get too excited) we’re fully briefed on Bali business.

Among those things to have piqued our interest is an impending event in the AYANAsphere due to take place in June – happily, on a date after our return to Bali. They’re launching their grand ballroom and meeting rooms, set for MICE (spenders rather than rodents) and introducing new sister resort RIMBA at a function on June 21. We’ll be there.

Family Tree

It might strike some as strange that the new Mangrove Motorway through the fragile marine environment of Benoa Bay – an enterprise we are assured will solve South Bali’s horrendous traffic problems, won’t do a bit of harm to the mangroves, and will be launched (we do hope not literally) by the President in June – has not yet been given a name. They do things differently in Bali.

Never mind. Things are moving on that front now. Suggestions for names are beginning to emerge. Among them is a great proposal from Udayana University academic Darma Putra Nyoman, who says the toll road – Bali’s first – should be named after dance artist I Wayan Lotring (1898-1983), a grandmaster of Balinese dance and percussion from Kuta who contributed mightily to the development of Balinese art and culture both locally and as an international icon.

We really like that idea.  It seems appropriate. There’s already been a bit of a song and dance about the road. And it would be so much better than recycling a name from the political or insurrectionist past or choosing something utterly soul (and culture) destroying as in the case of Jl. Sunset Road. Come to think of it, we’re not much into tautology, either.

Undercurrent

Speaking of Sunset Road, which anyone who has to drive to or through Kuta does frequently, often in less than complimentary terms, we got a giggle out of some of the feedback in The Beat Daily recently about the new underpass at Dewa Ruci.

This followed a report that the Bali legislature is inquiring into the adequacy of emergency escape staircases at the underpass, which is now partially open to traffic. Our lawmakers apparently want to know where this essential bit of infrastructure is and indeed, whether it exists. They could pop down there in their taxpayer-provided limousines and have a look of course, but that’s asking a bit much.

One comment on this issue related to the misbehaviour of motorbikes, a constant issue on Bali’s roads. It also suggested that given the fact that it rains now and then, and that motorcyclists invariably seek shelter, the underpass would inevitably be blocked in anything heavier than a passing sprinkle.

We’re all in favour of upgrading Bali’s arterial road system. But this would be of far greater utility if driver skills were similar improved, by several thousand percent.

(Hector is away from The Cage, on a slightly longer than normal Short Essential Break)

Hector’s Diary appears in the fortnightly print edition of the Bali Advertiser. He tweets @scratchings.