Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Sometimes words are enough

Once the guests went back to wherever they came from, things got quiet around here. I'll admit upfront there have been no amazing or life-changing incidents nor pulitzer prize-winning photos in the last couple of weeks (see previous postings for examples), and this may cause some ... lack of focus in today's blog.
The house becoming quiet reminded me the entire region will also be getting pretty quiet and most of the people I've been seeing since I got here at the beginning of July will be going back to wherever it is they're from. Apparently, this little tourist burg rolls up the carpets at the end of August and goes to sleep. For those of you who know me, you'll know I'm a bit of a high-twitch personality. Things like near-death experiences, which occur daily on the roads around here, or buffets of semi-nudity on the local beach are the kinds of things that keep me alert. If all of the crazy drivers and open-minded women go home, what am I to do?

Speaking of open-minded women, I feel compelled to mention the nice young lady from New Caledonia we met at the tapas bar a couple of weeks ago. Keep in mind there were four of us enjoying some wine and  finger food when this very bubbly young lady, perhaps half my age, asked Ann for her shoes. Sadly, there is no hidden meaning here, she was barefoot and required shoes to go into the bar. A few bottles of wine later and the same young lady was insisting we all take our clothes off for a midnight swim in the ocean. I was all for it, in my head, but outwardly I supported Ann's concern for our position on the maritime food chain. Needless to say, common sense and Canadian puritanism won the day, although the two members of our group with a Y chromosome went home quietly disappointed. I want to be clear about not suggesting Arcachon has become a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. I have yet to read in the local paper of any incidents where people have been trampled by groups of naked revellers rushing to the surf to participate in ritual midnight swims. Although if it were happening, I'm not sure I'd figure it out unless there were photos.

Back to the topic at hand: what is a boy to do? I'm sure all of you yoga enthusiasts, and you know who you are, have been wondering when am I going to find my way back to my happy place. As the saying goes: "the winds of bliss are always blowing, we need only set our sails." In my case, the rigging seems to be all tangled and I haven't figured out how to weigh anchor. I finally found the group who occasionally does yoga on the beach and I was disappointed, to say the least. It appears to be run by a well-meaning retiree who may not have actually taken yoga, nor seen yoga practiced. My best guess is she had a friend explain the basic postures over coffee sometime and she has decided this qualifies her to lead others. Yikes. Now I know you helpful readers are screaming at your monitors for me to grab the bull by something convenient, hopefully the horns, and march down there to lead the class myself. That would be fine, as I expect I could mime my intentions, lacking sufficient French vocabulary. Also, I doubt anyone would miss the point of me pushing the current instructor off her mat and tossing her into the surf. However, this sort of behaviour is frowned upon in most yoga circles. Any advice on this matter would be greatly appreciated. I will continue to search for a local yoga solution that will better suit my needs.

Topic change: wildlife. There appears to be an extensive variety of spiders currently inhabiting our house and surrounding territory. The most visually unsettling species has a disturbing habit of appearing on our bedroom ceiling just moments before I turn off the light, usually directly above the bed. I haven't established whether we are in some sort of spider hotspot or this is typical of the area. For one of our cats, this situation could not be better as she is constantly on the prowl for ways to supplement her diet. Most spiders tend to provide some feline entertainment, however briefly, before being consumed. The other cat has also adjusted to the new culture by catching and eating geckos, much to the delight of our guests. Spiders and geckos, although interesting, can not hold a candle to the cat-sized hedgehog we saw on our way home from dinner last week. I had no idea a hedgehog could reach such proportions. Once again, I was cursing myself for failing to have a camera under circumstances essentially parallel to a yeti sighting. I look forward to the day one of the cats brings a hedgehog home so I may establish some link to reality by providing appropriate photographic evidence. Also, there have been no signs of wild boar although I've been told the forests here are lousy with them. Perhaps I should look into hunting as a hobby. Everybody likes shootin' stuff.

I have decided to forego the story of the fellow on the plane back from Paris who I watched photograph everything from take-off to landing, including the in-flight magazine, on the grounds that a only a thorough description of events could properly convey the kookiness of the situation. Also, I will deny the rumour that the chicken I purchased, and prepared, before roasting for yesterday's dinner magically turned into a duck by the time I had begun carving it. If there is a lesson from this mythical situation, patently not true as I was saying, I would say it is important to read labels before purchasing food. The duck was fabulous.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Wild, Wild West

Ok. So we have some guests and its time to get started on official hosting duties. What better way to start the Burrage Hotel than taking it cross-country. Road trip #2: Carcassone. For those of you completely ignorant of 12th century history of the southwest region of France, you’ll have to do your own homework. And, since I am completely ignorant of such things, I used Wikipedia for a complete but probably inaccurate overview. Needless to say, we’re talking about a classic medieval city with walls and towers and more history than you can shake a stick at. It started with the Romans, some Cathars came along, and then the Catholics finished the job, as it were.

As we drove the four hours along the high-speed toll highway, I became extremely conscious of France’s role as one of the big producers of the European union. Other than the obvious hillsides full of grape vines, I saw a cornucopia of agricultural produce: corn, sunflowers, something that might have been peas, something that might have been radishes, some other stuff that was clearly food but just what I couldn’t say, and more corn. The terrain away from Aquitaine becomes more in line with what we think about when we think of France: rolling hills, small towns, and little chateaus with the occasional broken-down castle covering the high ground.
The town of Carcassone is quite pretty as a river rolls through town and the classic castle covers the heights. And, it was hot, but apparently not so hot that anyone but us complained.

So, what does one do when one is in a touristy city? Why, go to the wild west show, of course! Or, in this case, the 12th century European version of the wild west, with a tiny Hollywood spin. I’m not sure how many times I could sit through a dramatization of a jousting tournament, complete with a ‘Black Night' and swordplay, but once wasn't too many.

I’ll admit it was kind of fun although quite cheesy. Just imagine small town dinner theatre quality acting combined with Calgary Stampede rodeo barrel racing. But who better to deliver the cheese than the French?
As we left the show I stumbled upon a siege engine from possibly the 12th century, although no one could help me with the name (trebuchet? Catapult?):

We also wandered through the old city, checking out the gift shops containing various period-piece weaponry (e.g. a real Samurai sword for 25 euros) or my choice of scale model dragons. Hmmm….

Also, as the day wore on, and the crowds increased, I began to get a better understanding of how the plague might have been so effective back in the day…

The next morning Ann was able to find even more tourist hot spots within striking distance of Carcossonne.  First stop, the  Lastours castle complex. Again, it was hot, which made the climb that much more rewarding, especially for the disinterested teenage girls. History can be good exercise! 

I didn't think 800 year-old castles had landscapers but there you go...

Fortunately, the more treacherous trails had a system of rope railings which kept you from plunging a few hundred meters to your death. I felt safer.

I realize that my photo journal rarely includes people, and I’m sure many of you are suspicious of the possibility of internet photos being downloaded to cover fictional trips to interesting places. I commend all of you conspiracy theorists, and challenge you to identify the photoshop lines in the following shot:

 I know what you're thinking: "this kid could be anybody", which is true. But most will admit there is a striking resemblance to my daughter. 
We finished the day with a tour of a cave system, blessedly cool after a few hours in the sun. It was quite fascinating, although I'm beginning to think the guy who set up the first caving tourist trap hasn't varied his game very much. I've been in a few and they're all starting to look the same. Stalamites, stalactites, and puddles of water dominate the landscape. It was still pretty cool, and this one has been in the tourist business for almost 200 years.

A quick 4 hour drive home and we find ourselves back in the warm confines of chez Burrage.  Who knows what adventures are lurking in the next couple of weeks?

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Holy Cow! This is not the Calgary Stampede!

Content Warning. For all you PETA members out there, you'd best go find something else to do, because I may get into some subject matter which will make you uncomfortable.

 I've been told leaving a post-blog comment has been a problem (Thanks Christina), up until now. I had the security settings set incorrectly although you now are anonymous unless you say who you are in the comment. Perhaps that is best. My apologies to those who were unable to correct my grammar in previous blogs.

Ok, for the rest of you, since all the estrogen in the house was away in Paris for a few days,
I chose to experience a time-honored tradition where a large animal with horns tries to disembowel what can best be described as a bit of a nancy-boy strutting around in his little brother's modern dance outfit. That being said, it was still fascinating.

One of the local towns lies just on the north edge of Basque country and this gives them all the excuse they need to have a five-day drunken extravaganza. I was reminded of the Calgary Stampede as everyone was dressed in classic red-and-white garb, and traditional events of various kinds were held each day. I had no idea how close the parallels ran until I parked my car at 11 a.m. and the guy in the next car plunked a half-finished 1.14 litre bottle of vodka on his hood and began preparing what was obviously not his first drink of the day. Also, I witnessed post-partying carnage on a scale not seen since a certain softball tournament in Whitefish Montana many years ago: there were bodies everywhere. Most  seemed alive although the stench didn't allow me to get close enough to be sure. The reason I arrived early was the promise of a Pamplona-style running of the bulls. True to form, the town had thrown up an extended dog run through the middle of town and ran a bunch of large and angry bulls after a bunch of small and frightened people as shown here:

Oops. That can't be right. Now I remember. They had a preliminary running of the bull-like things, to the great delight of all the small people in the crowd. And then my camera battery died and then the real bulls were unleashed. Rookie photographer mistake. Sorry. Just scale up the image I have here to real bulls and bigger people without smiles and you get the idea. Fortunately, or not if you're squeamish, I was able to get the battery pack charged in time for the real show later in the day.

I wasn't sure what to expect, considering this little town has a single traffic light. I thought, perhaps, I was going to be in for the bullfighting equivalent of seeing a performance of Cats or Les Mis,  done at the local dinner theatre.  I'd say the jury is still out.

I'll give you the reader's digest version of a bullfight. The frisky but clearly pissed-off bull is released into the arena. His horns are very pointy and he looks like he would happily kill anyone stupid enough to step into the ring. Four or five junior matador guys wave their capes at the bull and run him around the arena a bunch of times. Next, in comes a fellow riding a horse that has so much padding one would question whether it is actually a horse under there. The nice man has a long pointy stick, which he  does his best to jam into the meaty bits behind the bull's head as the bull tries to turn his mount into steak tartare. As a side note, I don't think I'll be ordering the steak tartare here as we weren't able to get a clear answer as to what happens to both the bull and the horse after the event. The horse is blindfolded, which makes sense because although horses aren't tremendously clever creatures, they wouldn't willingly do this:

The next bit is what I deemed to be the job of the guy who draws the short straw that day. He has to jab two much shorter pointy sticks into the shoulders of the bull, who is by now really angry. No horse, no cape, all they have are quick feet.

These guys do their best with the short pointy sticks, which I have been told are tipped with a sedative to make the bull a bit goofy (where's the sport in that, I ask you?). Then, the shiniest guy of all, the matador, comes in to 'finish the job'.

We had good seats, close enough to get some dirt flung in our faces when a bull made a quick turn. At least, I hope it was dirt.  Being up close afforded me an opportunity to see just how cosy the matador and the bull could get.  I'll admit, there were times when I was quite impressed with how they hung it out there.

These guys were pretty good, especially when you consider they're wearing slippers while they work.

 Generally speaking, the bull loses. I have to admit there where times where I was looking for an atypical finish. I have also read that on rare occasions the fans can petition for a particularly fiesty bull to spared. Sadly, that was not to be on this night. Final Score: Matadors 6 - bulls 0, with one draw (to be explained later).

Between bulls, the local version of the Zamboni would appear:

Now, before you get too disappointed in the somewhat dull version of events I have described, there were a few good moments for the bulls. One bull knocked the horse guy on his butt and in the confusion to keep the horse from being damaged, one daring but not too clever individual jumped into the fray to assist. I have to ask, "does this seem like a good idea to you?":

As far as the draw goes, one bull slammed his head into the boards in his haste to decapitate on of the junior matadors. He rang his own bell so hard they let him go. I hope he is experiencing early retirement with full benefits, if you know what I mean.

I will not be turning this blog into a forum for discussing the ethical complexities of bullfighting. I've seen one now and won't be back for seconds. I've left out many pictures that suggest a somewhat more gruesome event than the one I've described. I've also left out descriptions of the numerous botched 'finishes' which quickly reminded me of dinner theatre, Tim Burton style. We were up close, so I didn't miss a thing. On the bright side, as I drove home, I only experienced the usual number of tendencies towards butchering strangers, so the event seems to have no lingering effects. Still, not for the faint of heart.

Next: guests, and how to get rid of them.