Wednesday 30 September 2009

Le Goûter

Bon après-midi!

Le Goûter has always been one of my favourite French concepts. When I was an au pair, Madame Maniere and I would occasionally sit down to tartines of sliced baguette, buttered and filled with squares of milk chocolate. Oh là là.

The other day at goûter time I introduced Gregory to Nesquik. Gregory, Nesquik; Nesquik, Gregory.

I had some too, just to see if it was as good as I remembered.

Num, num, num.

[PS I am back from my road trip, which got pushed back a day. Why? Well, it turns out that Gregory wasn’t perfecting his impression of Darth Vader, he actually had croup. As in Anne of Green Gables. So Eithne’s Hospital for Sick Children was once again open for business yesterday. But GK is better today and I took off … full details and photos tomorrow!]

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Greece: Flashback 4 – Skiathos

I am going on a mini Provencal road trip today, so I’m posting another Greece entry.

From Thessaloniki, I travelled to Skiathos. The journey was not without incident. I got asked out by the taxi driver who took me to the bus station in Thessaloniki (flattering? dodgy? can’t decide) and enjoyed the bus journey that passes Mount Olympus on the way to Volos. I thought of making an offering to the gods, but clearly I displeased them because when I got to Volos there were no tickets left for the flying dolphin to Skiathos (here’s a hint to any Skiathos-bound lady travellers – flying dolphins are liking floating dentists’ waiting rooms, and not very big – book in advance!). So I had to spend a night in Volos, but enjoyed the AC in the hotel (it’s the little things) and my walk along the seafront and the Chinese noodles I had for dinner (ssh, don’t tell any Greeks, but I was craving some non-Greek food).

I was beside the boat the next morning about an hour before I needed to be, but loved the journey across to Skiathos as the sun was rising. Skiathos is picture perfect – cliffs, pine trees, white houses rising up out of a dark blue sea. Georgie, Stu and Sunday came to meet me which was also very lovely and we drove back to Villa Zorbathes for breakfast under the grape arbour.

I had a little room up in the eaves of the house with a patchwork quilt (not that I needed it) and a visiting cat.

We had a very peaceful week – joined by Derek and Maya and David, with lots of eating and swimming and cold beers and cuddles with Sunday in the backseat of the little car.

We visited some beautiful beaches with silken water where you could see everything so clearly that it looked deceptively shallow, even where it was metres deep. The Friday evening, the seven of us plus Jenny who was staying down the road had dinner at Sklithri taverna, right on the beach. The full moon rose as we were sitting there – I tried, not very lucidly, to remember the myth of the moonspinners.

Monday 28 September 2009

The Boy with the Sunflowers

This boy caught my eye on Saturday. He was carrying a bunch of sunflowers – almost as big as himself – through the streets of Aix. He reminded me in part of the Pied Piper, in part of a tour guide selling the wonders of Provence … what could I do but follow him?

I never did see his face, but I hope he got where he was going with his sunflowers intact, and that they are brightening up someone’s Monday.

Sunday 27 September 2009

A Vehicle for Macaroons

This is Cormac’s birthday cake – which we ate at 1am on Saturday morning. The cake itself was a very dense chocolate moussey confection, but the highlight was the macaroons. I confess to having a macaroon obsession and have been hanging around the macaroon shop in Aix a bit more than is good for me. On Friday I decided Cormac’s birthday cake needed some macaroons to make it complete. My favourites are the dark blue macaroons which taste of jam … I think maybe they are savage myrtille flavour.

I have made macaroons myself (I recommend the Ottolenghi recipe) but I can’t figure out how not to get them to stick to the baking paper. So if anyone out there has any Hints to Macaroon Makers – send them my way please!

Saturday 26 September 2009

Greece: Flashback 3 – Thessaloniki

After almost two weeks in Kariani, I spent a few days in Thessaloniki before going on to Skiathos for Phaedra and Simon’s wedding. I love Thessaloniki – it’s full of Byzantine ruins and it has a great covered market (where I bought an icon of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers) and lots of beautiful churches. I pretended I was a Mary Stewart heroine and wandered around in my new fish dress and sandals and drank lots of κρύα σοκολάτα – a habit I acquired in Serres and am still trying to kick. I went for a long walk one evening in search of the Byzantine walls. The walk took me uphill for about an hour, where the city becomes a series of villages with narrow streets and steep steps connecting different levels. There were beautiful views all the way down to the sea.

There were no buses back to where I was staying because of a big football match, so I walked all the way with many blisters and devoured a giro as a reward. Mmm, greasy meat.

Friday 25 September 2009

Thursday 24 September 2009

Market Day(s) in Aix

Aix is a very pretty town of many fountains and yellow stone houses with blue and green shutters. It has lots of shops (clearly someone here has money to spend) and markets on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

In the Place de l’Hotel de Ville is the flower market.

Fruit and vegetables in Place Richelme,

with fish off to one side (just by the Pain Quotidien which, as you know, I love, but this one I’m afraid is notable for the surly, slow service. Say that ten times fast.)

Cheese, charcuterie and more produce in Place des Precheurs.

Antiques and crafts around the Law Courts (apparently the wooden dummy is très collectible).

'Fashion’ is around Palais Monclar and on the street with my favourite name of all, Rue Rifle Rafle.

Would anybody like a basket? I'll fill it with sunflowers, fish, tapenade and a moth-eaten fur coat, all courtesy of the marchés d’Aix.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Greece: Flashback 2 - Biriba!

Today I was planning to stalk Picasso some more, but to misquote my friend Mr Burns, the best laid plans of peripatetic aupair/museologists gang aft agley ... Gregory is sick (but on the mend, Mammy) so I'm at home with him and posting another Greek flashback.

In Kariani, Roisin and I spent several evenings playing cards with Panagiota (her sister-in-law) and Nikki, (her next-door-neighbour). I took a while to learn the game of Biriba and Greece were beating Ireland by a shameful margin until the night of the 2000 points, Sakis Rouvas and Johnny Logan. Roisin and I, by a mixture of luck and sabotage, racked up two full biribas, worth 1000 points each and then we all got a bit drunk and very giggly and then I started singing along to Sakis Rouvas on the radio (Sakis was the Greek entry for Eurovision this year and also the subject of much attention here) and then we had a very intense conversation about Sakis and I said, ‘you know, Sakis’ Eurovision hero is actually Johnny Logan,’ and then Nikki jumped up and yelled ‘I love Johnny Logan’ which is why Nikki, Giota, Ro, Natasha and I ended up dancing on the garden furniture singing ‘Hold me now’.

What do you say when words are not enough?

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Stalking Picasso

Last week we had the Storms of September. When we weren’t having Storms, we were having visitors: Maire Aine and Dave (that’s his alias, to preserve his cover). On Wednesday, MA and I went to see the Picasso/Cezanne exhibition at the Musee Granet in Aix. Very full of people and I couldn’t help but wonder why they had chosen to put all their text in the corners (pet peeve no. 1) in white on a pale gray background (???) but interesting themes and a great story of Picasso telling his dealer in Paris that he had bought Cezanne’s Mont Ste Victoire. ‘Which one?’ asked the dealer, thinking he meant a painting. ‘The real one,’ Picasso answered.

Which led us to Thursday’s walk, from Les Venturiers to Vauvenargues, on the slopes of Mont Ste Victoire, and the chateau where Picasso lived in the last years of his life and is buried. Beautiful sun-dappled pine trees, dozens of butterflies in different combinations of red, orange, yellow, black and white. We tried to photograph some of them but then realized our walk would take a lot longer than we intended.

Admired Picasso’s chateau from the outside, then followed a group of firemen to a café for lunch.

Overheard a group of Englishwomen at the table next to ours discussing their tour of the chateau and criticising the choice of paint colours ….

Greece: Flashback 1

It’s true that I am actually in France now, and will be posting about that, and the fact that I have eaten my own weight in bread every day since I arrived, but I started off in Greece so for the sake of having a FULL and COMPLETE account of my travels, I’m going to flashback to some of the things I saw and did there (besides, the Greeks invented flashbacks, The Odyssey is full of them.)

First of all, I had to leave London. If you guessed that I cried to say goodbye to my beautiful flat in Bonnington Square and my lovely flatmate of six years, you would be right. The last Sunday in the flat, I drank all of the leftover champagne from my 30th birthday party on the roof with Fan, Mary, Andy and Wiebke, in the rain.

Then I had to fly to Dublin, pick up the car, get the ferry to Holyhead, drive to London, pack up the flat, say goodbye again, drive to Holyhead, unpack the car, clear out approximately 1/8 of the attic, put all my boxes away. If you guessed that I was a pale, quivering wreck by the time I finished, you would also be right.

Then I had to go to Italy. That part was very fun, although Mary and I may draw a veil over our inability to find our agriturismo until 5 in the morning. There were no signs!

Then I had to pack. Packing, I’ve said it before, is fiendish.

But then I went to Greece. Greece was hot and sunny and the sea was clear and blue. Roisin met me at Thessaloniki and we talked very, very fast all the way to Kariani where their house is.Gregory was being shy when he saw me and hiding his face in his mammy’s shoulder but really giving lots of flirtatious smiles. To be honest, he took a while to warm to me … for example, one day I went to pick him up from his nap and when he heard the door open he stood up and lifted up his arms … then he saw who it was and lay back down in disgust.

We swam every day and ate lots of Greek salad (and in answer to all the people who wanted to know, in Greece, Greek salad is called village salad) and I surprised the 28 inhabitants of Kariani by taking lots of pictures of the village.

He Knows My Name

My work here is done. Spending time as Gregory’s au pair has paid off. That’s right, he knows my name. That’s Auntie Nehneh to you.
My hint for today (not sure if I’ll manage to come up with one every day, we’ll see) is to wear warm clothes in French supermarkets. I went to Carrefour this morning in a dress and sandals and had to massage my toes in the car to get the circulation going again.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Hints to Lady Travellers

When I was trying to come up with a good name for this blog, I thought of Isabella Bird – the iconic Victorian author of ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ and other gems. She is one of the authors featured in the John Murray Archive exhibition and so has a very special place in my heart.

Inspired by IBB, I started reading about other Lady Travellers and came across (thanks Royal Geographical Society!) the fabulous Hints to Lady Travellers: At Home and Abroad by Lillias Campbell Davidson, first published in 1889. Her book is full of useful tips (my favourite? If stays are worn at all, they should be short riding ones; but tight lacing and tricycle riding are deadly foes.) and encouragement for the independent female adventurer.

So in the spirit of Isabella Bird, Lillias Davidson and other intrepid ladies, I’m creating my own travelogue. It may not be A Spinster’s Tour of France or Unbeaten Tracks in Japan but I hope it will be a colourful and true record of my year chasing the summer.