Sunday, 25 September 2011

Milan with a Plan

48 hours doesn’t give you time to absorb the essence of many places, but that was the challenge laid down for us on this weekend’s adventure. Never mind that Perri is teetering on the precipice of total emotional breakdown with the imagined spectre of repeating grade nine looming over her at every moment (“c’mon, you’ll only be missing one day. What’s the worst that can happen?”). With that same ‘can do’ attitude our settler forefathers displayed, we boarded a discount airline flight to Milan. The plan was simple: see a bunch of old stuff, buy some expensive, but hopefully not too expensive clothes, see a soccer game, eat too much good Italian food, and get home safely.

At the end of the weekend, I can say, with confidence, we met expectations.

After finding our bed and breakfast, which included only two stops to ask for directions, which for us is a record, we set forth upon the multi-faceted public transit system armed with our newly minted 48-hour passes. Milan has an extensive underground metro, a comprehensive bus system, as well as a trolley and tram system. Please, no questions about the difference between a trolley and a tram. Let’s just say there were all kinds of public conveyances available, and move on. At our first stop, as we emerged from the underground, ours eyes were assailed by the image of our first significant ‘old thing to be seen’: the duomo, Milan’s grand cathedral.

It might have been better planning had we gone somewhere else first, as the Duomo is quite spectacular and everything after that felt less so. It was built over a couple of hundred years and finished during Napoleon’s reign (I think he was crowned ‘king of Italy’ there). I’ve seen a few big old churches in my day but the Duomo manages to be imposing and delicate at the same time. We took advantage of the hike to the roof where the attention to detail is overwhelming. Why somebody decided to put all that detail 100 meters from the ground I’ll never know. Maybe you get to have a close look on the way to heaven. I have pictures for those of you destined for other eternities:

I got a shot of some dumb tourists taking their own picture. They must have been Americans (no insult intended to those of my readers from the land of undefinable national debt).

Ooops. Wrong tourists.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the sites and shops around the Duomo. We saw the Castello Sforzesco, which was interesting but quite un-photogenic. I’m afraid the trip to Carcassonne has set a minimum standard for castles and Castello Sforzesco doesn’t make the cut.  
It also happened to be fashion week in Milan, punctuated by giant posters and billboards, as well as the occasional freakishly tall and skinny 20 year-old girl. The main shopping street had a three-block-long red carpet and Perri couldn’t resist:

We closed the day with a tremendous meal, which, by itself, would have made the trip worthwhile.

Up early the next morning (at least by Milan standards), we wandered through the streets leaving no shoe store or boutique unexamined. By accident, we found ourselves standing in front of La Scala, one of the greatest opera houses in the history of such things. Not much to look at on the outside, we ventured into the opera house museum, which occasionally allows visitors to stick their noses into the opera house itself. It was not to be that day, as the company was rehearsing. The upside is that we were allowed to watch some of the rehearsal, and it was … fantastic. If they had offered tickets to that night’s performance on the way out, I’m sure I would have paid whatever they asked (tickets start at 200 euro for the cheap seats, when they are available, which they weren’t). I was busy that night anyway.

Near the opera house, and the Duomo, is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a funky shopping mall containing very exclusive designer stores … and a McDonald’s. One of the other curiosities within the galleria, is a tile mosaic whose centerpiece is a bull, whose naughty bits have been replaced by a shallow hole in the tiles. The local traditional suggests placing your heal in the hole and giving yourself a quick spin will bring you good luck. When in Rome, or Milan…

A couple of more meals, one technology museum with too much information, and what seemed like 100 stores later, we were on our way to Milan’s second great church: San Siro, the soccer stadium for both of Milan’s professional teams. I’ve been told that Catholicism is the ugly step-sister to soccer in Milan, religiously speaking: she never gets dates on game-day. And, with two professional teams, I imagine there are a few poorly attended masses over the course of a season. At the risk of wearing out sports clich├ęs, there was a buzz in the air as we emerged from the metro. The fans were there in force and we merely had to keep our feet moving with the crowd to get to the stadium. Outside the stadium were probably 100 different food and paraphernalia vendors, and the joint was jumping! I had already looked into the match for the evening and was pleased and disappointed, in equal measures, that the opposition was a fairly useless team who was not considered a significant rival. This meant a good chance of a victory, and a small chance of a full-scale riot (but not a zero chance).

Once we got our tickets, we approached the stadium, which holds over 60,000 fans when required, and I can say it is an impressive structure. 

What was more impressive was the security: tickets were reviewed with photo id twice, metal detector, bag search, electronic ticket-entry gate system, and one more ticket review for each section. Ann wasn’t sure whether or not to be pleased with security exceeding that of an international airport. I expected a fairly full house, as acquiring tickets was a fairly arduous process.  Once we’d settled into our filthy seats (I quickly understood why many of the fans brought seat cushions sporting the team colors), I realized it wasn’t going to be a full house.

Once the game actually started, I would estimate the stadium was perhaps half full. However, the team booster section, was full, and, oddly enough, fenced-off. They were so loud I was pretty sure I would have permanent hearing damage. I also noticed a significant lack of ushers and security personnel in the same section and once the road flares started going off (how did they get those through security?)

I realized being in an almost empty section wasn’t so bad. The home side won 1-0 and I missed the only goal because I was watching the shenanigans going on in the crazy fan section. The giant video-tron seemed determined to only show us the time of day, not even the game time, rather than the score, or any replays we might be interested in. I imagine the lack of replays helps the life expectancy of the referees and linesmen.

The next day we were up at 8 and back in Bordeaux by 2 p.m.. Perri got her homework done and, Bob's your uncle, we’re all ready to face the week.

A few random thoughts on Milan: They like their baked pastries filled with custard or cream – so do I. I didn’t see a single insect the whole time we were there until the lights went out in our B&B, at which time the local mosquito breeding facility came to life (of course the windows were open – it was 26C). I believe the nearest green space was 6 blocks away, so I am interested to know from whence they came. There aren’t nearly as many kids in Italy as France. Ann tells me they are having a population implosion because it costs too much to get your own place and raise kids. One result is an even higher number of momma’s boys than before. Hard to believe. 

To close I’d like to cast aside all doubt as to the inadequacy of seeing a place with as rich a history and culture as Milan in the brief time we were there. We didn’t even get a chance to see Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ (you had to book ahead) although we saw a rendition at the technology museum (not the same, I know). I would estimate at least another 6 or 7 hours would have been necessary to see the whole thing.

No immediate plans except for Tuesday, when Perri’s teachers embrace their right to strike for the day. Thankfully, I have a tee time booked already. The October school break requires us to find something to do for a week and Sardinia, or Corsica, is on the radar. I favor Corsica because I’ve never really liked sardines. Ann also mentioned one of the Stans but I'm not in favour because I don't know one from the other and I think half of them are not particularly safe right now and I'd hate to get it wrong (Khurdistan? Khazakstan? Derkaderkastan?).

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Most Dangerous Game

Last week, as I was running along a bike path through a park not far from my house, I was distracted from my hyperventilating by the sound of two sharp reports. “Gunshots?” I asked myself, immediately launching into an oxygen-deprived half-dream about interrupting a drug deal gone bad or a violent domestic dispute.  A few minutes later a happy springer spaniel with a cow bell on his collar bounded up to me, tail a waggin’. “This clearly isn’t the sort of dog a drug lord would have”, I thought to myself just as an older gentlemen, sporting camouflage gear and a shotgun appeared out of the trees. We swapped ‘bon jours’ and I continued on my way wondering if the shotgun could have possibly been the source of the sounds I had heard earlier. I only had to wonder for about thirty seconds as two more shots were fired from the general vicinity of the nice man and his dog. I decided wind sprints were in order and briskly trotted back to the main road and then home.  Later that day, my neighbor, Luc, was out washing his Audi for the 12th time in six days and I thought he might be able to tell me whether or not joggers were in season. Luc has no English – absolutely none. However, he does have a lot of French, which he generously shares with me at every opportunity, knowing full well I have almost no French comprehension.  After an extended mime session on both our parts, he was able to tell me that hunting season had started the week before, and I wasn’t likely to be shot while jogging, provided I stayed upright to avoid any resemblance to a boar or a rabbit. He didn’t seem the least surprised that someone was blasting away in the park. He also probably mentioned he was a hunter himself, and would be out hunting pheasants with his dog Vulcan (pronounced Vool-Khan), and would I be interested in one or two should he manage to be successful, I think.  Apparently, his wife doesn’t like to eat dead things unless they’re killed and cleaned by strangers. I nodded in my best mime that I would be happy to take any dead things should he happen to bag one or two. For the uninitiated, most Saskatchewan boys know how to turn a dead thing into supper as long as a sharp knife or two is available. I forgot how disgusting the experience could be, as my last dead thing cleaning experience pre-dates MTV, compact disks and personal computers. The mission was accomplished on the back deck, much to the joy and amusement of the neighbours's cats. I give you a pheasant (female) before and after:

Baked (stuffed with sliced apple and onion) and served with baby potatoes and carrots, a pheasant provides just enough for three not terribly hungry people. Fortunately we had dessert.

Normally that would be enough excitement for one weekend, but not for Ann. She had signed all three of us up for a team running relay Sunday morning. My initial thoughts on this matter were neutral but I knew I had French bureaucracy working for me. As it turns out, a person can’t enter a checkers tournament without a medical certificate, and we weren’t able to find a doctor who could see us on short notice. Darn! Now I would have to spend Sunday morning watching France destroy Canada at the rugby world cup. Too much to hope for as the nice man running the relay race was able to provide us with a doctor who would happily see all three of us on Friday at 6:45 p.m..  How is that possible? Does this doctor person have no social life? No family?

Certificates in hand, we arrived bright and early Sunday morning for three-leg relay (not  a three-legged relay) where each leg starts and finishes at the same place (Eikeden). Ann would start with a 6 km leg, I would take the second position with a 10 km stretch, and Perri would anchor with a 5 km leg. Our goal was simple: don’t finish last.

After a quick perusal of the other competitors I began to wonder whether we had set the bar too high and, as Ann chugged out of the starting gates, I began to unconsciously change the goal to “finish”.  To my surprise, Ann returned much, much, later in a respectable 28th position (2nd or 3rd last). I then loped away just as some of the better teams were lapping us (a 5 km loop). Eventually, I found the finish, having reeled in a few of the runners on recreational teams with names like “beerhounds” and “couch potatoes”.

I then handed off to Perri, who was fairly excited about the whole event, who then took off like a rocket, in spite of my repeated advice to start slow. She survived, but the bitter harvest of a summer resisting physical exercise was almost too much to stomach as she oozed across the finish line.

 To be fair, she had just recovered from a cold, so she wasn’t at her best, and we exceeded expectations by finishing 27th in a field of 31. Yippee!!

Normally 27th place doesn’t get you much. However, when you are the only team in the ‘family’ division, good things happen:

The girls got roses with the cup. We were also treated to a box of fresh oysters (enjoyed with the pheasant), cookies from a local patisserie, and some passes to the local fitness club. Not a bad payoff for a bunch of foreigners.

Seriously now, next week: Milan.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Le Weekend - Basque to the Future

If it’s the weekend then we must be going somewhere. This time Ann has discovered some obscure boat race in San Sabastian, a mere two hours drive down the coast, just across the Spanish line.  The race has its roots in the fishing business when rowboats were the tool of choice when putting out nets. Eventually egos got in the way and now there are races every year with teams from towns up and down the coast.
Since the race was Sunday and Ann is a strong believer in the old adage about idle hands being the playthings of the devil, we headed off Saturday morning to explore some terrain in Basque country near the town of Bayonne. You know you’re in Basque country when the road signs become completely incomprehensible, through the addition of x’s and q’s and the removal of helpful vowels. One could argue the Basques are slightly spicier than their northern neighbors in both attitude and cuisine. It became clear to us that this may derive from their generous use of locally grown peppers.

We stumbled across a pepper farm conveniently attached to a gift shop on a little back road near Bayonne. Upon entering, the salesperson commenced upon a comprehensive lecture about the rules around hot pepper designations (along with pork, cheese, and curiously, chocolate. Who knew the Spanish gave up on the chocolate business when running the Jews out of town back during the Inquisition? Apparently, the displaced population moved to Bayonne and brought the cocoa importing business with them, making Bayonne the chocolate capital of Europe.  I hope the Belgians, and perhaps the Swiss, have been informed).  We also completed an informative walking tour of the pepper plants while just barely dodging heat stroke. I think the walking tour softens you up for the gift shop. I expect many poor purchasing decisions are made while dangerously dehydrated. 

From there, we had a nice picnic lunch (note how Perri's disposition changes as a meal approaches) and just made the last funicular to the top of a local mountain. It was never made clear to me why a funicular was built 100 years ago to go to the top of this particular mountain, as a couple of restaurants are the only things of interest once you get there. The view is nice but I would think the neighboring peaks provide something competitive.

We managed to reach Bayonne before dusk and checked into a quaint hotel. Ann assured me the hotel represented traditional Basque hospitality and not to worry about the name (Best Western). We were in the old part of town, just up the street from the cathedral, which I thought was very nice until the next morning.

 I remember waking to the sound of church bells and trying to guess the time by the number of tolls. Well, I must have really slept in, because by my count it must have been about 800 o’clock. No pun intended, but what the hell?  You can be sure that in future, church proximity will be a significant factor in choosing a hotel locations. On the bright side, we were up, fed, and ready to go by 11 o’clock sharp for our day in San Sabastian.

San Sabastian is a typical beach vacation town, with a protected harbor and a couple of nice beaches: one with big waves and one without. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this boat race but the crowds around the bay suggested it was a big event. Once we finally found parking, I was astounded by the volumes of people, television coverage (including helicopters), and vocal fan support. Each boat was a distinct color  and the fans dressed so their was no doubt about their allegiances.

There was also plenty to eat, and the specialty of the day seemed to be grilled sardines with fresh bread, which I studiously avoided.

My personal high note of the weekend was reached when a sandwich vendor thought I was French. It wasn’t until later that I realized I’ve got some serious problems when I think being mistaken as French is a highlight. Still, it meant I didn’t have to attempt Spanish, which is worse than my French, for a few short minutes.

Once the races finished and we had had our lunch, we decided to wander through the park up to the old battlements. On our way there, I couldn’t help but notice the many street vendors providing cold beer and wine-by-the-bottle with no apparent concern for the age of the customers. It wasn’t until we were well into the park that the harsh repercussions of this policy were realized. Imagine stumbling into high school graduation party where the liquor cabinet had been left open and unattended. Now take that image and multiply by many thousands and you will have in your heads what we had before our eyes as we ascended through this no-longer-quite-so-beautiful park. Needless to say, there was plenty of grist for the ‘drinking is bad’ mill and Perri was entertained by many graphic examples of ‘there is such a thing as too much fun’. I couldn’t take any pictures for ethical reasons and, more importantly, I didn’t want to get beaten up by the many groups of drunken Spanish youths who were wary of our presence.  It seemed there was an unspoken agreement whereby adults allowed binge drinking by their kids provided it was done out of sight. I can't think of a better example of the value of local knowledge. With the exception of small clutches of terrified tourists, Ann and I were the only representatives of the adult demographic in a very large park. Ann later insisted on a picture of me although I could scarcely suppress the nausea and disgust I had experienced shortly before the shot.

The lesson from this experience: Next year, arrive early so Perri can get started with the local kids.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

On a Sunday Morning Sidewalk

As expected, the pace of life has dropped off significantly here with the summer tourists migrating inland, and north. Nowhere is this more evident than the roads, where one can get from here to there without being surprised by a spontaneous parkade in the middle of the local highway, like some facebook flash mob where everyone stops their car at a prearranged time rather than breaking into song.  Today, the dark side of  ‘not summer’ reared its ugly head in the form of the grocery stores, and any other useful stores, all being closed.  I was forced to procure dinner at the local farmer’s market through incomprehensible muttering and gesturing reminiscent of a mime having a grand mal seizure.  With the stores being closed, Perri and I had no adequate defense against a family bike ride, and Ann pounced. I’ll admit the bike paths here are quite extraordinary. They are well maintained and I think from here I can ride to Spain in one direction and probably Moscow in the other (only the latter is a slight exaggeration) without ever getting on a real road.

Tonight, I was able to grill some chicken on my brand new Weber barbecue (this is blatant product placement - I'm sponsored by Weber). This may seem quite uneventful to those of you who live in a  civilized country. However, to get a French propane tank to provide gas to your North American barbecue is no simple matter. No less than three trips to the local hardware stores, two trips to the local service station, and one lengthy email from the Weber legal department stressing, in the strongest possible terms, the dangers involved with attempting to retro-fit one to the other, were required for us to get the whole package working in concert. Yippee! No more briquettes (what's that smell? Is that gas?).

School starts this week and with it comes a significant change of Perri’s daily rhythm. Her summer days have traditionally started each morning around 11.  Tomorrow, the alarm goes off at 6:30 a.m.. I think she'll struggle more with the early starts than she will with a new school in a new educational system

And speaking of the French school system: one curiosity I discovered, and there are plenty, is the absence of classes on Wednesday afternoons. Apparently, this is where your child finds some kind of activity to take the place of the total lack of extra-curricular activities provided by the school. It also makes it almost impossible for both parents to work as all of these directionless kids must be shepherded to their appointed ‘thing’. That being said, Perri and I accepted the challenge of finding something for her to do. It was here that I was re-acquainted with French bureaucracy. Using the reliable internet, we tracked down the local municipal building purported to deal with athletic clubs and general activities. Upon arrival, a very friendly woman at reception explained we were in the wrong place, as there was another office in another building responsible for sub-adult recreation. “Don’t worry, I have the address and phone number right here,” she may have said to us as she wrote out an address and number.  As we left, Google maps had the audacity to tell us there was no such address, but we would not be denied. After much driving and some arguing, Perri and I came to the shocking conclusion that our helpful municipal employee gave us an address which didn’t exist , at least not in this universe. Ok, so maybe it was a simple typo, and besides, we always had the phone number as a back-up.  The phone number was also wrong.

Fortunately, the next day we were able to go to the local sport and activity club open-house, which allows local teams and groups to recruit for the coming school year.  Ann monopolized the experience, exploring her potential membership in a number of clubs rather than finding something for Perri. The oddest part of the day wasn’t realizing our new home didn’t care much for girl’s soccer; we knew that already.  What rose (raised?) our collective eyebrows was realizing a place unable to support a competitive volleyball club could easily support three separate line dancing clubs (I’m in hell). Apparently, line dancing is synonymous with America, and yes, that is a confederate flag on the table:

Please excuse the quality of the photo: 14 year-old phone-wielding photographer at work.

As for me, neither the quilting club nor the ham radio club caught my fancy. I am waiting patiently for the approval of our membership at the local golf course, which I intend to utilize in the extreme until the rains come.

I was going to go into a lengthy discussion about the fellow working out down by the beach wearing a muscle shirt, a speedo, and running shoes with long brown socks, but I realized I live in what is arguably the most fashionable country in the world. Soon I will learn to appreciate these things rather than question them. Vive le difference!

Next stop: a weekend in Milan  (who loves discount airlines).