Thursday, 24 February 2011

Travel Tales #3 A case of mistaken identity

At an airport once, while waiting for my flight to be called, I caught sight of someone I knew and who I really wanted to avoid. Luckily for me there was a party of Glasgow Rangers football supporters seated nearby, so I thought I would sit near them and hide behind their impenetrable accents. 

It was a good strategy that had worked once before and would have worked again if fate hadn’t once more conspired  to deal me a crummy hand.

After about ten minutes my human shield of football fans got up en masse and made their way to their boarding gate. Their flight had been called! I felt vulnerable, exposed. Luckily the object of my shyness was nowhere to be seen. But better safe than sorry, so I found another refuge, this time behind a school party of young teenage girls.

I started to feel relatively safe, cocky even, and then I looked up at the screen and was filled with a near panic when I saw that my flight was delayed for one whole hour. I was also beginning to regret that second cup of coffee I‘d had an hour earlier, knowing the way that caffeine goes through one, or at least through this one.

I prayed that something would happen to distract everyone’s attention just long enough for me to slip to the loo. Maybe the schoolgirls would suddenly turn into a flash mob and start tap dancing on the tables. Isn’t flash mobbing all the rage these days? In England flash mobs have been descending locust-like on public libraries threatened with closure and borrowing every book on the shelves leaving them empty, bare and bookless. 

I crossed my legs and pleaded to myself: Please, schoolgirls, please, don’t just sit there, start flash mobbing!!! 

But all they did was giggle and gaggle and send text messages to one another like a bunch of schoolgirls! 

I waited about twenty minutes until I could wait no longer, checked that the coast was clear, hoped that I wasn’t being watched by a pair of cat’s eyes, and then made my dash. 

I made it in five there and back without incident.

So who was this individual I was so paranoid to avoid? His name was…… No, I can’t bring myself to say it. He had a huge mop of yellow hair and was always whistling. I worked with him for about two years. He was a doom monger, a prophet of doom. We’re doomed, he used to tell us. Doomed, doomed, doomed. We needed to repent to save ourselves from being doomed. Otherwise we’d be doomed. Doomed, doomed, doomed.

Ten years on and I could still hear his doom laden voice. I couldn’t be expected to put up with that. Well, could I? Five minutes of Dr Doom and I’d be a nervous wreck.

Twenty minutes, then the screen announced that our flight was called and that we should make our way to the boarding gate. It was the school party’s flight, too, so I followed them to the escalator.

It was a long escalator, and as we were going down I spotted a head of bright yellow hair in front of us. Of a man’s bright yellow hair! My heart missed a beat. I felt doomed! Was this his way of getting his revenge for all the nasty, rude, sly, sarcastic, pointless, mean, malicious, malevolent, voraciously unnecessary, sneaky, unspeakable, low-minded and often down right gratuitous comments, insinuations and rumours that I’d made about him all those years ago? It was certainly possible, there are some people who never forget anything! 

We got off the escalator and began walking the long corridor to the boarding gate. If he recognizes me what should I do? I needed a strategy. I could either be covert, keep hiding behind the schoolgirls. Or I could be overt, put all my prejudices behind me, and greet him with open arms as a former colleague and brother in arms.

I decided on the latter, and was on the point of making this decisive move so important for my psychological, philosophical and emotional development, when he suddenly turned, first in profile, then full face……and I noticed that it wasn’t him at all!  In fact, apart from the hair, it didn’t look anything like him. Of all the low, sneaky…..

I felt a surge of something rush through me. Relief? Soulagement? I wanted to rush forward and embrace him and thank him for not being who he wasn’t (I know what I mean). But instead I just found a seat and waited for the off.

The off came about 15 minutes later and soon we were flying at 30,000 feet and speeding through the stratosphere at 500 miles per hour, or at whatever speed planes speed at when they’re speeding at 500 miles per hour (I know what I mean), with nothing but the giggling of schoolgirls to stop me from relaxing. It was a cheap price to pay.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Rain, art & immortality

Palazzo di Brera

What distinguishes real art from ersatz art and tourist art is that real art has no shelf life, no use-by date. Real art is timeless.

And in a world which, to misquote Oscar Wilde, ‘knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’, it has become a commodity to be traded in the marketplace like any other.

Fortunately for us and for the world there are many public and municipal museums and art galleries in which the artistic treasures which belong to us all are preserved and put on display for public consumption at a modest entrance fee, and often at no fee at all, and one such is the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

I visited the gallery one rainy day. The rain, in fact, was torrential and had been for several days and was the main topic in the news. The cathedral, il Duomo, the main tourist attraction of Milan, was open, but visits to the roof were not. This was a disappointment, but the Pinacoteca was definitely on, so it was there that I headed.

I wanted to visit the famous art gallery for one specific reason: to see Raphael’s Lo Sposalizio della Vergine masterpiece, The Marriage of the Virgin. It is one of the glories of il Rinacimento, the Italian Renaissance.

I made my way to the rain soaked via Brera. The gallery façade was covered in tarpaulin, but the gallery was open, and I walked through the arch and into the magnificent Palazzo di Brera and into the gallery.

I paid my 5 euros and told a gallery assistant that I was looking for Lo Sposalizio. It seemed her most frequently asked question. She smiled, a curator’s smile straight from antiquity, and gave me my directions. 

Raphael painted his masterpiece in 1504, and it marks, according to the art historians, the transition from Early to High Renaissance. I found it without difficulty in Room XXIV.

The painting is oil on a wooden panel measuring 67 inches x 46 inches, and depicts the joining together in marriage of Joseph and Mary by a high priest. According to legend, each of Mary’s suitors was to place a rod on the holy altar, and whoever's rod was the first to flower would marry Mary. Attending Joseph are five of the failed suitors, one of whom is breaking his rod.

I looked at the painting for about 10 minutes, then at the other paintings in the room, then moved on to the next room and joined the flock of the faithful moving from room to room, canvas to canvas, reverential sheep from a secular world, as close as we would get to immortality.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Thinking voyeurs, Chinese laundries & political incorrectness

Place du Palais, Nice

A man goes into hospital to have a leg amputated. The surgeon performs the operation and the next day he visits the man in his bed. The man asks him how the operation went and the surgeon replies: “I have some good news and I have some bad news. The bad news is that we cut your good leg off by mistake. But the good news is that your bad leg is getting better."

Hardly had I finished telling my joke than the cabin crew told us to fasten our seat belts for landing.

The place we were flying into was Nice - yet again!!! My flights to Nice arrive at Terminal 2, which is very bright and airy and which you can get through very quickly, très rapidement, which is good news for travellers like me who are always rushing. But WHY am I always rushing??? Why, why, why, for God’s sake why??!!!?? It isn’t as if I have an important deadline to meet. I don’t do important deadlines, never have. Nevertheless, I rushed out, bought a day ticket, un pass, and hopped on the first bus to the Gare SNCF Nice-ville, the train station in the centre of the town.

It’s a great journey in, which I’ve probably blogged already, so I’ll cut to the chase and fast forward to the Place du Palais, the square in which the Palais de Justice, the Law Courts, are located, though it isn’t about the Palais de Justice that I want to talk about right now, as interesting and fascinating as that may be, but about a café on the square, one of my favourites in Nice.

Now let me say first of all before going any further with this rambling narrative that the food they serve in this café-restaurant, for that’s what it is, is not haute cuisine, or haute anything, in fact it’s pretty ordinary, although the omelettes are quite nice. No, the attraction of the café is its location, in a peaceful yet animated square, and one which is often filled with musical buskers, one of whom plays jazz standards on a soprano saxophone. But mostly it’s good for people watching.

In the year One Nine Hundred and Jumpin’ Sixty Nine there was a popular musical called O Calcutta! which its producers promoted as a play for the ‘thinking voyeur’. 

The thinking voyeur? Now that pretty much sums me up…..apart from the thinking bit, that is…..and I don’t believe that I’m alone in this regard. Because let’s face it, there’s a voyeur in all of us, we all like watching people, their quirks, their mannerisms, and not forgetting their national peculiarities, if that’s not a politically incorrect thing to say, though it probably is, in which case so much the better. (Political correctness is another thing I don’t do.)

Now I’ve already blogged national traits in an earlier post so I wont babble on about that, instead I’ll recount an esoteric conversation I had with a man on the terrace of the café who spoke English in an accent that I couldn’t quite locate but which was ineluctably east of the Danube.

I was quietly watching a young woman reading Guerre et Paix, when the man sidled up to me and said to me in all seriousness: “Excuse, sir, where I find Chinese laundry, please?”
I had no idea, but suggested that he try China.
“Is too far”, he replied, again in all seriousness.
I suggested next that he stops the first Chinaman he meets and asks him: A: Do you do laundry?; and B: Do you know a Chinaman who does? 
“Naturally”, I told him, “you will only ask B if the answer to A is in the negative”.
“And if answer to B is also negative?” he asked me.
“Then you look for another Chinaman”, I told him, “and you keep looking until you have get a positive answer either to A or to B”.
“Is shirt I want laundry”, he told me. 

I glanced at the young woman reading War and Peace. I read it once myself and only liked the war bits. A woman friend of mine also read it and only liked the peace bits. I wondered which bits the young woman on the café terrace liked. Her face was intense, she was obviously absorbed in the book. Possibly she was reading the part where Napoleon abandoned his retreating army and scooted off post-haste to Warsaw for some extra-marital sex with his Polish mistress. All in all, not a terrifically responsible thing to do, but typical of the great personalities of history, all of whom were completely irresponsible. Imagine how much duller the history of the world would be if they weren’t!

“Please, what I do?” the man asked me.
“Um?” I said. “You still here? Well, if you don’t like my first suggestion, you could always try the tourist office or the public library”.
The man thought for a moment and then replied: “Yes. Is good. I try”. And then he left as promptly as he had come.

I looked across at the young woman reading Tolstoy but she too had gone. So I cast my voyeuristic eyes at the tables around me, but apart from an elderly English couple talking to a young seedy looking waiter who obviously couldn‘t understand a word they were saying, there wasn’t much happening.

So I got up and left and swear that I spent the rest of the day involuntarily looking for a Chinese laundry. I found none and so can positively affirm that they do not exist in the beautiful city of Nice. But please don’t quote me on that.   

Saturday, 12 February 2011

A whinge and a prayer in Euroland

Why oh why did Europe ever adopt the single currency? The euro! Even the name’s a joke. It’s not a name at all…it’s a prefix! There’s that little tiny one…the 1 eurocent…so small you need a magnifying glass to read the writing on it. The notes are like Transylvanian Monopoly money. And the pictures they put on them: windows, monuments. No national heroes!...Napoleon, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Caesar. With so many national prides and egos not to damage, better to keep it safe and bland.

Europe is such a fascinating continent with its rich and varied diversity of cultures and traditions and languages…so why is it being reduced to eurosameness? The money is only the tip of the iceberg. That Low-Minded Cabal of Eurobeaurocrats, the European Commission, decreed once that costermongers in the United Kingdom must cease selling their apples and their pears in Imperial measurements and use metric weights instead. The cowardly supermarkets complied at once, but the free spirited market traders gave the eurocrats in Brussels the two-finger salute - the ’get stuffed!' variety - and continued - and still continue! - to sell their produce by the pound. (Ask a market trader in Liverpool for a kilo of onions and he’ll look at you like you’ve just stepped out of a spaceship from Mars.)

Several Eurozone countries now hate the euro and wish they’d never heard of the it. Greece hates it as it is officially bankrupt and being bailed out by Germany. Germany hates it as it is having to bail out bankrupt Greece. Then it was Ireland’s turn with Portugal and Spain waiting in the wings. 

So maybe the writing’s on the wall for the euro and it’s about to croak like a eurocrat with a nut in his throat.

Let’s all pray that it is and wish it a fond adieu.