Friday 29 January 2010

Unsolicited Film Review

Máire Áine and I agreed we didn’t want to be the only people in the world not to see Avatar. Well, that was before we saw it. If we’d known what was to come, I think we would have gone to pick a fight in the car park instead.

What do you get when you take Disney’s Pocahontas and mash it up – in 3D – with a bit of Braveheart, the music from Titanic and a makey-uppy language? Why, Avatar, of course. Except at least with Pocahontas, there are songs. There are no songs in Avatar, so we just murmured lines from Pocahontas to each other when appropriate. One of us would say, ‘He thinks I’m an ignorant savage – and he’s been so many places, I guess it must be so …’. And the other would reply: ‘And still I cannot see, if the savage one is me, how can there be so much that you don’t know – you don’t knowwwww.’

If there’s someone out there who would like to defend the film, I’m curious to hear it, but for me, this was a VERY LONG film about blue people with magic plaits that plug into plants and animals to create a mystical connection (yes, they literally plugged the plaits into things) and mean humans who will let no blue people (or trees) come between them and the Unobtainium they are mining on the blue people’s planet. All this while speaking awful, leaden dialogue that any real person – human or alien – would be ashamed to utter.

We came closest to being thrown out when the hero and heroine started to get snuggly and Máire Áine whispered to me, ‘do you think he’s going to use his plait?’

Give James Cameron all the Awards for Special Achievement in Making Flying Dragons and Floating Mountains Look Great (it does look amazing, I’ll give it that) you like, but as a piece of storytelling, this film is a big pile of poo. And that’s how Eithne Cs it. (Yes, I love Glee – I love it as much as I unlove Avatar.)

Here's me, looking sad in my 3D glasses:

PS I laughed out loud when I read a review this morning that described Avatar as the most elaborate Thundercats episode ever made. So true.

Thursday 28 January 2010

Coming Home

In search of inspiration – for the day as much as for the blog – I turned to the book that has been my comfort and delight these past months – Unsuitable for Ladies, an anthology of women travellers edited by Jane Robinson.

I flicked to the chapter called ‘Coming Home’ and considered the following:

We had now concluded our long journey of more than three months and a half. I was rejoiced at its termination; for though mixed with many pleasurable associations, many new ideas acquired, many wrong notions dissipated; I was tired of the constraint and the increasing hurry from object to object. I was glad to rest, and to be able to see the dawn and daylight appear with indifference. I felt inclined to do as an Indian officer I heard once did. After he left the army, he paid a man to blow a bugle every morning at daybreak, that he might have the satisfaction of feeling he need not get up.

Lady Sheil, Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia, 1856

I quite like the idea of paying someone to blow a bugle for me every morning (and liked it even more when I mis-typed that as ‘blog a bugle’ – shall I blog a bugle? How would that work?) but otherwise wonder what Lady Sheil took from her travels in Persia at all. I’d like to think that the six months I’ve spent travelling have made me more appreciative of dawn and daylight than less – literally and metaphorically.

It seems as though I will be staying in Ireland for a couple of months to work on a project here, but I’m determined to approach my stay with no less curiosity and open-mindedness than I tried to bring to the last six months. I haven’t lived in Dublin for more than six years and I’d like to reacquaint myself with the place. So, alors, my new blog project (I do like a project): Home Town Tourist. If anyone has Dublin hints for this (temporarily) returned emigrant, please share!

Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Blog That Went Whoosh!

When I was a little girl, I was fond of a book called The Bed That Went Whoosh! The story was about a magical flying bed. In subsequent books, the bed whooshed! to exciting places like Dublin, New York, Moyle and, erm, Boris in Ossory. It struck me today that my blog has a tendency to whoosh! from place to place. So please hold on, because now we’re going to whoosh! from France back to Zimbabwe.

I was very curious to see what downtown Harare looked like and Robbie obliged me by giving me a guided tour. As with other places I’ve described in Zim, there’s a general air of datedness about the place and it could use a good clean and touch up. I think if I hadn’t spent time in South Africa, the cityscape would have come as more of a surprise, but I recognised a familiar mixture of colonial houses, concrete towers and Wild West architecture.

We saw lots of signs fixed to trees all over Harare: people looking for work and selling things.

This beautiful house, straight from my Out of Africa fantasies, is now a medical centre:

And there are lots of this style of housing block.

We visited Gallery Delta, a wonderful contemporary art gallery where I saw work by a lot of the artists who had featured in the Prints from Zimbabwe exhibition I worked on.

Something about the Telephone Exchange struck me - a bastion of the Old World in New Zimbabwe.

And here we're getting to downtown downtown (and I think we sang the song as we drove along - when you're alone and life is making you lonely you can always go ... DOWNTOWN!)

And here's a shout-out to Robbie's great-grandfather (great-uncle?) who was the architect of one of the buildings below ... I think. There were lots of buildings and I was trying hard to take unblurry photos.

Here's the National Gallery - and a man very surprised to see me taking photos.

And here's the Gallery inside - it could use some serious care. This, by the way, is the Courtauld Gallery.

Here's the part of town that reminded me a bit of Woodstock, where I lived and worked in Cape Town.

The one place that I didn't take photos of was the brown tower with a chicken (or perhaps rooster?) symbol on top. This was the HQ of Zanu PF - but it looks more like the HQ for Nando's, the chicken restaurant. Robbie explained to me that the Zimbabwean equivalent of Nando's is Chicken In (or Chicken Inn?) and so locals refer to the Zanu PF building as Chicken Out. It's equal parts terrible and absurd - but I suppose as long as people can laugh at the absurdity, there's hope.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Winter in Provence

I’m trying to get back into the routine of regular morning posting. This morning, though, I got up at 5.30 to drive my father, the Midland Potato Farmer, to the airport. Got back at 6.30, very cold (it was -3 degrees). Got back to sleep about 7.30 and slept until 10.40. I NEVER do this and am still shocked at myself.

I’m going to sit here and think about what I’ve done and you can look at this selection of photos from the weekend.

Dog-training in the park:

The market in the Place des Precheurs:

The inimitable Aix flair for van-dressing:

Stand-up coffee at the Brulerie Richelme:

Filet de boeuf (and when I asked for mine rare, the waiter visibly relaxed and said he was worried I would want it well done. He’s heard that that’s what foreigners do. Oh no, I said, I was well brought up.):

Mimet, the village where we had Sunday lunch:

Monday 25 January 2010

Marseille Part Deux

Today we will compare and contrast. In October, Roisin and I spent a golden day in Marseille, described here. That was an Indian Summer day, with crisp autumn-coloured leaves and sun warm enough for lunch outside.

Marseille in January is almost more beautiful. The light is amazing: clear, pure, bright.

Our trip in October was heavy on the cultural appreciation whereas this one was more focused on shopping appreciation. Oui, les soldes were in full swing. Well, actually, more like coming to an end meaning bargainous bargains were to be had.

We spent an hour or two walking the main shopping streets: shoes were bought (silver dancing shoes with a Cuban heel for Sally), boots were admired.

We went for lunch at Les Arsenaulx (again), but sat inside in the book-lined restaurant this time.

Erin ordered the soupe de poisson avec sa rouille et ses toasts and the rest of us looked on admiringly.

I had pork (again) and followed up with the café gourmand. This is a genius idea whereby you order a coffee and get one or two mini desserts with it. This time it was a coconut pannacotta with raspberry coulis. Num, num, num.

More cultural shopping experiences after lunch, including some successful purchases at Tara Jarmon, everyone’s new favourite shop. We also had a very fun browse in Hermes, thanks to the charming assistant who insisted he enjoyed nothing better than unfolding the scarves for us to see.

After that, we walked over to the old port. Twilight is something I missed in Africa – and this was a beautiful specimen:

We had an aperitif at a bar overlooking the harbour called La Caravelle,

and I took pictures in the mirror (it’s like a sickness with me) of Notre Dame de la Garde – the beautiful church high on the hills of Marseille, that Roisin and I cycled to in October.

J’aime bien Marseille en hiver.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Aix Again

I have one or two more posts about Zimbabwe to share, plus a few to wrap up my South African adventures, but maintenant, even as I type, je suis back en France! All the striking air traffic controllers in Ireland couldn’t keep me away. This is just a quick trip, for a girls’ weekend with Roisin (the big sister), Alma (friend from Dublin via London), Sally (friend from Donegal via Calgary), Erin (new friend from Calgary via Sally).

George (the brother-in-law) and Gregory (the adorable nephew) have gone to Greece but we saw them briefly on Thursday morning. Here’s Gregory getting ready to go on the avion (he speaks French now):

And here I am trying to grab a huggie before he left:

The sun is shining and it’s lots of fun seeing places that I last went to in summer weather in their winter clothes.

We’re going to walk into downtown Aix now and have a look at the marché. A très bientôt, Eithne xxx

Friday 22 January 2010

Rock Paintings

On my last evening in Zimbabwe, Robbie and I went, with R’s delightful friend Charlotte, to a place called Domboshava.
This is a granite rock the size of a small mountain about 30km outside Harare.

Here’s the interpretative centre:

They have a quaint custom in Zimbabwe of having one price for locals and another for tourists. At Domboshava, the sign announced admission was $2 for Zimbabweans, $10 for non-Zimbabweans. I find that a bit unencouraging to the tourist trade, personally. With no intention of paying five times the local rate, I just smiled sweetly at the woman and handed over $2. If the attendant didn’t hear me speak, how would she know I wasn’t a local?

We climbed up to the top, where we met two friends of Charlotte celebrating their wedding anniversary. Then Robbie and I climbed down the other side to look for the prehistoric rock paintings. And took some photos of flame lilies.

(Interpretative Signage.)

Look: there’s an elephant …

and some bisonybuffalowildebeest type things …

Domboshava zings. It has the energy of a place that has been a centre for human activity for centuries. In an odd way, it put me in mind of Notre Dame – they both have charged atmospheres.

The other reason for the charged atmosphere was the almighty thunderstorm that broke out when we were on top of the rock. (Perhaps because Robbie did a Sermon on the Mount impression?)

We ran down the slope, lightning hitting the rock behind us, rain coming down in sheets. We took refuge in the bar at the bottom, and drank beer in the dark, because there was no electricity.

Thursday 21 January 2010

Stone Cream

Robbie and I spent a very entertaining morning looking through his Granny Molly’s recipe book. It dates from an era when aspic, rolled sandwiches and fricassees were popular.

This, though, beats them all:

R. particularly loves Stone Cream and so Toni said she would make it for supper.

How can I describe it? A pale grey, very liquid, wine-flavoured, creamy mousse. One of the strangest things I’ve ever eaten – and strangely delicious.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

In Hot Water

Since I came back from Zimbabwe, lots of people have asked me about the trip and been surprised that I didn’t have more to say about human rights abuses, corruption and suffering.
But I can only write about what I saw. And so mostly I’ve written about my experience of how, in the face of corruption, brutality and privation, people still carve out their own kind of normality. Did you catch that ‘mostly’ there? Because I did have one brush with the kind of story that keeps Zimbabwe in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

On our way back to Harare from the Vumba, Robbie decided that I really couldn’t leave Africa without seeing a baobab tree. He proposed taking a detour via a place called Hot Springs were there are, in fact, hot springs and also lots of baobabs.

Here’s where I put up my hand and say that I really wasn’t very enthusiastic about the hot springs plan. I would like to claim that I had a premonition, but it was more that it was a very hot day and I wasn’t wild at the idea of broiling myself like a lobster. But Robbie was very convincing, so off we went.

Between Mutare and Hot Springs we went through perhaps ten sets of road blocks, though neither of us gave this much thought: we’d passed lots of road blocks on our trip. The police were friendly, only stopping us to ask for water. We paid more attention to trying to work out the signs being made by locals on the side of the road: they joined their fingers to make a kite shape. Looking for money? Food? A new political symbol?

We got to the Hot Springs Resort where there was fencing around the perimeter and a sign up saying ‘closed for Ren Ovations’. A security guard asked if he could help us and Robbie explained that we had been hoping to go to the hot baths. And here’s where the story gets very strange. This super friendly and super confiding guard explained that the resort was now a diamond mine: ‘very good diamonds, very big, lots of miners from South Africa, Russia.’ He proposed hitching a life with us down to the office where he would check if it was okay for us to use the baths. (Please imagine just how keen I was to go ahead with the bathing plan at this point.)

But it seemed that there was no way out. The security guard went into the office and came back to say that there was no problem, we could use the baths for $3 apiece, and pointed us to the changing rooms. The ladies’ was bad enough – peeling paint, flooding toilets – but Robbie came out of the men’s saying it was being used as the miners’ changing room and smelled like a latrine. I caught a waft as I walked past – he wasn’t exaggerating.

The two cold pools were green with algae, but the hot pool was moderately clean. We got in, carefully, and spent no more than five minutes in the water. Got changed again lightning fast and then – wait for it – took some photos.

Meanwhile a few bearded miners wandered past. We were waved off by the security guards and headed on our way, feeling that we’d had a lucky escape.

How lucky? Well, we got back to Harare and discovered that Hot Springs is part of the Marange diamond fields, seized by the government in 2006. Some miners were soldiers, others locals, forced to work there. Illegal miners moved in (or legal miners smuggling out diamonds in lieu of salaries, which none of them were paid) until, inevitably, there was a crackdown last October. Helicopter gunships came in and opened fire. Depending on the source you read, anything from 50 to 150 people were killed.

The people we saw making ‘kite’ symbols were offering to sell us diamonds. I doubt they were legal. I imagine they count as blood diamonds.

And the truly surreal part is that Robbie and I wandered in, had our bath, took photos and wandered out again.

For more on the Marange diamond fields and Zimbabwe’s blood diamonds, see:

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Tony's Tea Shoppe

First of all, a big thank you to Robbie for getting the photos to me on cue.
The story of Tony’s Tea Shoppe would certainly not be complete without photographic evidence – and when we went, the battery on my camera had just died.

Tony’s Tea Shoppe is what they call an institution. People I met in Harare, who had never even been to the Vumba, asked me if I’d been to Tony’s. It’s not hard to see why. Tony’s is an extremely stylish and extremely expensive establishment that wouldn’t be out of place in London. In the middle of the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, it certainly sticks out.

Tony himself reminded me of a Siamese cat. (This is a compliment – I like Siamese cats.) He has a triangular brown face and very sharp blue eyes. He sits at a table by a window where he can see people coming and going as he works on a crossword puzzle. Robbie and I were put through our conversational paces for about ten minutes before, with a queenly nod, we were directed to a table.

The tea shoppe is in the upper level of a house that blends modern and traditional African architecture: a thatched, peaked roof, plastered wooden frame, polished wooden floors. Inside the theme is Africa-meets-Chinoiserie, with beautifully upholstered chairs and menu (which Tony made himself).

The menu includes many delicious cakes, many kinds of coffee, tea, hot chocolate and several kinds of booze with which to lace your coffee, tea, hot chocolate or cake. Part of the experience is having Tony declaim the kinds of cake he has - I will never forget hearing him roll the phrase 'creme chantilly'. We ordered ginger lemonade to start, then Robbie had orange and coconut cake with chocolate sauce,

while I had Viennese coffee cake with a meringue and almond topping. Oh, and tea.

Please note the expression on my face, which, then and now, I can only describe as lustful:

And the cakes didn’t disappoint. The coffee cake was moist (helped along by a generous soaking of brandy – no I didn’t order extra, it came like this) and though I (and it) didn’t really needed the cream and meringue topping I managed to choke it down … in about three minutes. The Zimbabwean Tanganda tea, served in a silver pot with bone china cups, was perfect.

And Tony himself was, if you’ll forgive the terrible cliché, the icing on the cake.

Monday 18 January 2010

(Azalea) Bush Bashing with Bertie

Yes I am BACK and managing to stay awake for at least five hours a day. I have unpacked; caught up with two parents (2), one brother (1), one sister-in-law (1) and my friends Maire-Aine and Dave; wandered around Dublin’s city centre looking at all the shops and restaurants that weren’t there the last time I wandered; commented on how cold it is and been told – every time, without fail – that this isn’t cold. (I have clearly missed a Seminal Bonding Experience by not being here for the Great Freeze of 09/10. I have no story of being trapped in the snow in unsuitable clothing and therefore will have to renounce my Irish citizenship.)

With no snow stories, I have to fall back on Tales from Zimbabwe. So, let’s see: when I left off (to get emotional and sentimental and sing the Littlest Hobo) we were at the Inn at the Vumba. The next day, we drove up the road about 10km to a place called Seldom Seen.

I could have stayed for weeks. Our cottage was Crimson Wing (if you’re ever booking a stay at Seldom Seen, make sure you have this cottage – it’s the best) and it was at the end of the road. If Inn at the Vumba was 1960s colonial, Seldom Seen was 1960s National Geographic. It was a little bit Born Free, a little bit Jane Goodall … a wooden cabin with green trimming and floral curtains; iron daybeds, bamboo furniture. It even had a pantry. It was perfect. (Oh, and there was a stash of vintage National Geographics.)

Here’s the verandah:

My room (Robbie said it looked like a nun’s room – the question is, how would he know??? But yes, it does look like a nun’s room):

The pantry:

The view:

Although tempted to stay and work on my memoir of raising a lion cub, we did leave for a few hours to go for a walk.

Well, I say walk … it was more of a crawling, scrambling, shimmying, pushing, fighting, leaping (and falling) affair. We went to the cottage where Robbie’s Uncle Patrick used to live, at the foot of a mountain covered in montane cloud forest (doesn’t that sound magical? It’s a kind of evergreen forest that gets its water from the clouds.) But to get to the mountain proper, we had to fight our way through what remained of the garden.

Holy moly. We jumped across drainage ditches (I fell into one) and crawled under the vicious azalea hedge. We pulled brambles, spiders, birds nests and twelve kinds of dirt from our hair. I’ve never seen anything like it: in less than two decades, nature had completely reclaimed a once-tame garden. Occasionally Robbie recognised a tree or shrub, but it was invariably surrounded by thick undergrowth.

We made it to the forest eventually (absolutely filthy) and I caught my breath, while Robbie continued the good work of getting rid of non-native pine trees.

There was a brief interlude for tree climbing,

and then we got to the savannah and the whole point of the walk.

At the edge of a plateau, the ground just fell away – way below was more forest, and beyond that the view stretched far, far to Mozambique. The photos really don’t do it justice (for a start, you can’t make out how far below us the drop was, but it was at least 100m and probably more). Without any exaggeration, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life.

Our walk back to the car, through the forest, was much more sedate. We did see gingerlilies growing wild, though. But the afternoon wasn’t anticlimactic. Oh no. Because after the walk, we went for tea at Tony’s Tea Shoppe. This deserves a post all of its own (and also I need to wait for Robbie to send me the photos.)