World Clock

Monday, 30 June 2008


Kiss count: 2. Left-Right.

For the entire week that I spent with Katrin in Marseille, I was trying to organise another CSer for my next destination, Aix-en-Provence, 30 minutes north by bus. I had a difficult time of it as everyone seemed to have left the city for some reason. I eventually ended up checking into the hostel (known as an Auberge de Jeunesse in French) here for the first night and planned on staying for that one night... Until...

Initially founded as a Roman military camp named Aquae Sextiae in 123 BC, Aix-en-Provence, or just Aix (pronounced like the letter 'x'), is now simply a wonderful city. The colourful buildings, cobbled streets, countless restaurants and cafes, numerous and plentiful fresh produce markets, and relaxed atmopshere all make for a very pleasant stay indeed in what is one of France's most graceful and popular cities. My only issue with the place was that I could never find the bloody centre-ville! To the north of the city's main, tree-lined boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, lie the quite tortuous, chiefly pedestrianised streets of the old Vieil Aix area where I spent most of my time, but for some reason I could just never get my bearings here and found myself wandering around aimlessly on many occasions. In a city like this, that's definitely not a bad thing..
Within hours of arriving here I had made friends with a lovely American lass named Simona, a former French-language student in Aix, and a few of her friends. We got to chatting and somehow I ended up spending a lot of my time hanging out with them, eating late breakfasts with Simona and she even offered me her couch for a couple of nights! It's funny how these things happen... She was so accommodating, I really appreciated her hospitality! Thanks mom ;)
Again, there wasn't particularly all that much to do in town apart from enjoying the lovely weather, atmosphere and buildings, which is nice as I was not in a particularly "sightseeing" mood. A good excursion from here, however, is to the nearby Mont Sainte Victoire. The peak of this limestone range, the major landmark of the Aix region, reaches 1011m and affords magnificent views over Provence's mountains and rolling plains and the bright aqua-coloured lakes at the ranges' base. I decided to take a morning and afternoon out to scale this picturesque mountain which is immortalised in the many oil paintings by famous artist Paul Cézanne - boy was it hot, and I managed to get myself nice and burnt before missing my bus back into town and having to get a lift by a friendly holidaying Parisien couple.

It was here also in Aix that I was introduced to my first, and last, foie gras (lit: fat liver): the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened by force-feeding, in accordance with French law - let it be known that at the time I did not know that this form of animal cruelty was used in the production of foie gras (in fact a number of countries have laws against selling it due to how it is produced). It is one of the most popular delicacies in French cuisine, but to be honest, I can't really see why.. It's not all that interesting in my opinion, if anything it grossed me out thinking about eating a duck's liver. I think Simona's French friend, Angel, might have had a different idea though..
I spent my last afternoon hanging out at the house of another of Simona's friends. Romain, while being an overall nice guy, also writes and produces music mainly in the electro genre. He showed me some of his work and I was quite impressed, and he seemed similarly impressed with my singing. Hopefully we'll get a chance to work together at some point. I guess time will tell...
That evening, Angel - who could speak not a word of English, mind you - was kind enough to give me a lift to the bus station ready to catch my bus to the next town. Unfortunately I had read the timetable wrong and ended up being 15 minutes late for the final bus. He and Simona were such champs and offered to drive me all the way to Arles, about 70km away! When we arrived, they waited for me to check in at the Auberge and then we enjoyed dinner at an Italian restaurant in the town centre before they left me at the local Aussie pub (in which there was not a single English speaking person) and headed off on their road trip back to Aix.
What a great few days!!


just in case i forgot where i was..

the streets of Aix

i found it! he actually bought this in Australia..

Montagne Sainte Victoire

the view from the top was amazing!

Simona from her apartment

a brush with fame.. is that..?


a touch of love - apparently these can be found on rooftops all over the country

Friday, 13 June 2008

Marseille or Marseilles?

Kiss count: 2. Right-Left.

Technically, the French name for this city is Marseille, but in English it's spelt Marseilles. The interesting part is that they are both pronounced the same - mar-say. This leads me to wonder why some names of cities or countries change between languages? Another example is Corsica: the French name is Corse (which is, in my opinion, a simpler version - however, I suppose it does sound a lot like the English words coarse and course). Nevertheless, I will try use the French terms in my blog (I don't think there will be many differences, but it'd be fairly pointless coming to France and asking a French-speaker - a Francophone - how to get to Corsica).
Marseille is about one-and-a-half hours away by train in the neighbouring province of... Provence. It is a much larger city than Montpellier, and as such is much more city-like. There are still the winding archaic streets (mainly in the outer quartiers, or neighbourhoods), but there are quite defined directions for the main rues and cours and a more (if only slightly) grid-like pattern has been employed for the layout of the city. It is situated by the ocean with lovely Vieux Port, brimming with sailing boats, restaurants and tourists, at the head of the main strip, La Canebière. At the other end of La Canebière, where the tramlines diverge from their course along the wide boulevard, is what looks eerily like the skeletal remains of a cathedral.
Maybe it was because of upcoming festivals, maybe because summer is upon us, maybe because it's school holidays, or maybe it was a combination of all three, but it was impossible to find any accommodation here. I had to contact the only CSer (yes, I'm going to try do this in most places I go, I find it's quite rewarding staying with a local as opposed to in a hostel - plus it's cheap haha) that gave me any kind of positive response, to ask if she would mind if I stayed for 2 nights. This was alright with her (even though she was really wanting her space after already hosting a bunch of people the few night before). Turns out I ended staying with Katrin, a German in France on the ERASMUS programme, for 6 days :)
My first day here was quite unfruitful and I basically wandered around the central city, getting oriented with the streets, stopping for an hour or two to enjoy a baguette aux 2 fromages and un café under a fountain of naked ladies (statues of course).. The following day was a little more active, beginning with a brisk walk up a hill to the highest point of the area. Located here is the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, a large cathedral atop which sits a massive golden statue of Mary and Her Child. The building itself didn't particularly tickle my fancy but the views over the sprawling city and its harbour were spectacular. On my way back down I took the scenic route through the neighbourhood streets down to the ocean and past a number of plages (beaches) - I noticed that people seem to be a little more liberal here on public beaches, happy to sunbathe topless even if sitting right next to a trendy café. In the evening, Katrin introduced me to her boyfriend, Mathieu, and a few of the couchsurfers he was also hosting and we all went tango dancing (or attempted tango dancing - a few too many left feet there I think) at a local dance hall, followed up with some salsa dancing at another club.. A great night!
Katrin was kind enough to let me borrow her bike the next day so I could ride out to the Calanques, huge mountainous limestone formations that are the remains of ancient river mouths and that have been further carved out by glacial activity.. Basically a Mediterranean fjord. I got a little lost trying to find them, managed to reach the first part around 30-40 minutes away from the city centre, but turned back after this.. Not to worry: we went for a real trek out there a couple of days later.
The weekend I was there was the Fête du Soleil (Festival of the Sun) and so there was a whole bunch going on in town from African beats (there is a massive African presence and influence in the south of France, particulary Moroccan and Algerian) to more tango, giant giraffes, hip-hop, travelling horn players, cute old grandmas making crêpes, reggae, and everything in between.. So many people, and so lively.. It felt as though half the city was there. We just couldn't help but dance the night away :) On a low note though: Mathieu's CSer was pickpocketed whilst enjoying the music - her passport, credit cards, everything gone. Luckily (oh, so luckily) for her, the culprits merely took the money (only about €30) and threw her purse on the street where she found it a short time later.. Phew! Everyone took a little more care with their possessions from that moment on..
After the excitement of the previous night, no-one was in a rush to go anywhere fast. We all met up at Mat's place for a late morning breakfast of croissants and pains au chocolat before taking a slow ride to the beach - most French towns offer bikes for hire for the cost of €2/week - where we spent most of the day lounging around under the warm sun, playing chess and just generally watching the day go by.. To finish the day off, a few of us played a game of Pétanque, a variation of boules that is very popular in Provence - it's the most-played sport in Marseille - and then an early night for me ready to hit the Calanques! There's so much explaining I could do about this hike, but I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves..

Interesting observation(s): 1. Yes, people do carry around baguettes everywhere: in their handbag, the basket of their bike, even while rockclimbing apparently... 2. People do say "bon appetit" (for those of you who didn't know, it's actually pronounced "bon appetee") at every meal: in fact, I was standing on the street eating a croque I had just purchased, when a guy on a bike pulled up next to me, lifted up his visor and said to me two words... "bon appetit"!


Katrin (centre) and friends traipsing about in the Calanques!

lovin' it...

that's some clear water alright...

at the start..

a little bit of tango

getting into it at the Fete du Soleil

going for a ride

i don't know what it's called so i'll just call it the "skeletal" church

Vieux Port

one of the streets in the more well-to-do area

quite a busy photograph, with the Basilique way off in the distance - it can be seen from most places in town

getting a few lessons in tango from Mathieu and Katrin

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Je suis en France! ...Montpellier...

Salut mon amis! I've made it to France! I don't know if you remember, but my initial plan for this trip was to organise a French working visa so I could live and work here.. I plan to learn French, and what better place to do it than in this country? Well, the work visa part didn't work out, but at least I'm here in Montpellier.. It's a start..
Montpellier is the sunny capital of the Languedoc region of France, with over 300 days of sun per year. The region's name originates from Langue d'Oc, a language closely related to today's Catalan and quite distinct from the forerunner of today's French, Langue d'Oïl (the words oc and oïl meant 'yes'). It's a student city with students of the university (or 3 of them actually, including Europe's first école de médecine founded in the early 1100s) making up about 25% of the population. The look of the city is quite typically European, especially in the old town in the centre: thin winding paved pedestrian streets set on an overall undulating landscape, hanging lanterns suspended between buildings, medieval-style buildings, very rustic and very beautiful..
The train ride here from Barcelona was smooth and rather scenic. The tracks followed the coast much of the way, passing through marshlands, villages, rolling hills and, of course, vineyards... I arrived at Montpellier St-Roch station just after 9pm and Bene, a friend I first met in NZ, along with a couple of her friends were there to greet me. They took me out for a couple of drinks that first night which was nice. I attempted to use any French that I knew, but realised that I knew basically nothing and that most of what I did know was pretty pointless in conversation, e.g. j'habite en France (I live in France) or je suis architecte (I am an architect) haha. I was able to stay with a couple of Bene's friends, Nicolas and Julie, the first few nights here, and my last two were spent with a very accommodating couchsurfer named Vanya.
In the city itself, there isn't much in particular in the way of sights, it's more about just soaking up the atmosphere of being in a French city. This is done in one of two ways: either order a croissant, pain au chocolat (a croissant variation filled with chocolate - quickly becoming my favourite breakfast food here, gulp..) or brioche (kind of like a toasted sandwich covered in melted cheese) from a boulangerie/patisserie and proceed to eat it whilst checking out the full range of French books on offer in one of the many stalls that line the city's main strip, Place de la Comédie, for the annual book festival, La Comédie du Livre; or you could choose to sit in one of the many cafés that can be found on basically every street corner and in-between, sipping on a café, or vin rouge if you prefer, and watching people partake in the rather peculiar greeting ritual of cheek kissing 1-2-3... The right side first, then the left, then the right again.. The greeter must do this with each and every person in the group, not necessarily just friends, to not appear rude.. 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3... A tiring exercise if meeting up with, say, a group of 15 people.. This particular pattern appears to be specific to Montpellier at the moment as other places seem to only have a 2-kiss greeting. I'll keep you posted..
I've seen and experienced a few neat things in Montpellier, some of which a reflective of the French culture in general.
1. The first being the 'mandatory' cheek kissing which I think is quite cool - it immediately creates a sense of intimacy between 2 people.
2. The second: a quaint little jazz bar offering beers from all around the world (including a few Aussies beers - Coopers Sparkling even, Asahi from Japan, Tsingtao from China, etc.) and many, many from each region of France - you walk into a huge store room, pick your beer and the bartender will grab a cold one for you, awesome..
3. The third was a Saturday night gathering in a small square in the city centre (le centre-ville) after a birthday dinner for Julie. There was a circle of people playing guitar, a group of people with didgeridoos, a fire breather and even a guy with an extremely loud trumpet. All there for no particular reason but to enjoy their Saturday night. That was great fun!
4. A street performer that would stop cars at traffic lights and perform a quick routine rolling a glass ball around before the lights went green. I watched him do this maybe 10 times, at every red light. It was funny to witness and at the same time I appreciated his determination and his originality.
I stayed in a hostel for one night in Montpellier (every other night was booked out and Bene had left Montpellier for work up north, hence the CSer). Here I met an American girl, Bonnie, who had just finished a semester in Paris, learning French. This particular morning had great weather (whereas the previous couple were overcast and even raining, unusual for this city) and so we made the most of it and caught a bus out to the beach, 12km away. As the bus approached the beach, the clouds started closing in the sky. We missed the stop, somehow, and ended up having to walk about 2km in the rain (yes, it had started raining by this point.. pouring, in fact, with thunder thrown in for good measure - so much for the 300 days of sun). We were absolutely soaked by the time we reached the beach, exactly the same time as the sky cleared up and the sun came back out.. What a weird day. After all of that drama though, the beach and surrounding town turned out to be really nice and we spent a good few hours there.
My last night in town was spent at Vanya's place, along with another CSer from Turkey who was staying the night, chatting into the wee hours of the morning and sharing organic vegetables for dinner and her lovely homemade dessert.. Mmmm.


a French apartment buzzer

typical setting for a cafe

Arc de Triomphe, one of many throughout France

spot the paintings..

Me with Bene and a couple of her mates

l'école de médecine

he's even got the clouds right :)

at the beach at Palavas-les-Flots (doesn't sound very French does it?) - oh, and before you say anything, I'm aware it's not raining.. umbrellas make for good sunscreen too :)

love these streets!

the Chateau d'Eau (Water Tower) in the large parklike area known as Place Royale du Peyrou

number 4

The Barcelona Three

There are a few things that enter my head when I think back about our time in Barcelona: Paella, Tapas, Architecture, Carlsberg, Non-stop Partying, German School Groups, Pigeons, Architecture, La Rambla, Bob Marley, Maoz Falafel, Winding Streets, who could forget Sangria, Relaxing, Street Performers, Gelati, Internet Cafes, Regular Cafes, Handbags in Sacks, Architecture, Pizza, Placa Reial, Frosties and Chocolate Cereals, Bananas from my stall in the Mercat de la Baqueria, Flowers and Birds, Sleep, No Sleep, and more things of that nature...
In fact, a big portion of our 2 weeks in Barcelona was spent relaxing in Placa Reial - the placa into which our hotel faced, the placa that never slept (up until at least 5am every single day there were people sitting in the cafes and restaurants outside our hotel window drinking, laughing, singing anything from classic 80s hits to happy birthday..
This city is just full of life, everywhere you look the streets are bustling, there's always something happening, something colourful to catch your attention, a busker playing an accordian or guitar, sitting still as a statue only to jump out at unsuspecting curious passers-by scaring the daylights out of them, dressed as a clown entertaining crowds at the expense of innocent bystanders, or maybe even pumping out a dance beat or two to complement his juggling routine aimed at the outside-dwelling patrons of a nearby restaurant..
The weather was fine, the people friendly (and pretty damn good looking too, I might add - both guys and girls), the views over the city spectacular from the cable car to Montjuic.. It is just generally a great place, and one quite high on my list of favourite cities :)
While getting lost amidst the web of small alleyways flanked by towering 4-storey buildings - many of which date back to medieval times and where washing hangs out of the open windows over balconies that provide a home to numerous flowerpots and weathered wooden shutters - was definitely a highlight for me, we also managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing too. Some of the most memorable places we visited were.. Get ready for it: the Egyptian museum (Museu Egypci) with a very interesting display of photographs from the uncovering of Tutenkhamen's tomb; the Ethnological museum (Museu Etnologic) displaying info and artifacts of several indigenous cultures from around the world (including Australia, which the museum had quite an interesting viewpoint of - see the photo); another Olympic site, this time from the 1992 Olympics; La Sagrada Familia, the enormous and visually exciting Roman Catholic church that has been under construction since the 1880s and is still not expected to be completed until about 2026 (!); the Picasso museum, devoted entirely to the man everyone has heard of, and including an exceptionally interesting special exhibition on the famous painting, Las Meninas, and Picasso's (and others') various interpretations; the wonderful and huge fresh produce market, Mercat de la Baqueria, which reminded me a lot of the Adelaide Central Markets, brilliant; taking in a flamenco performance in a very intimate club called Tarantos; and last but definitely not least, the Benedictine abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat built atop the very picturesque mountain Montserrat just outside of Barcelona. Phew....
Above all, though, it was lovely hanging out with my mum and sis for the last time in what I suspect may be a while as we all split up to go our separate ways on the 29th of May. Mum flew home to Australia, Lee moved on to Granada in the south of Spain and I took the train northeast about 4 hours into the south of France!!! This Thursday was a particularly teary day...

A few small facts that you may or may not have known: Barcelona is in an area of Spain known as Catalunya, which also used to include a small region of France. It has its own language (Catalan), separate from Spanish and sharing many similarities with French, and is considered essentially as a separate nation. Bullfighting is not a Catalunyan tradition, but a Spanish one, and as such is not practised within Catalunya (except when the Spanish government decides to take the arenas under their jurisdiction - which they can do - at certain times in the year, when even the Catalunyan authorities are replaced by Spanish).


Placa Reial by night

the fountain in the centre of our placa

in the Museu Etnologic - the world's view of Australia

graffiti is quite widespread through this city

La Sagrada Familia - notice the cranes in the background

an alleyway

another alleyway

an interesting way to make a few dollars...

healthy breakfast options

Monument a Colon (Monument to Colombus) at the end of Las Ramblas

one of the best markets I've seen...

on the cable car from Montjuic

at the top of Montserrat!

we found this small church also near the summit of Montserrat

hide and seek

Saturday, 7 June 2008

A week in London

Flying into London was obviously exciting, yet I was, for some reason, also quite nervous.. Arriving in Heathrow airport meant that all of those months (over 12 of them) of planning and organising and talking about our Asian adventure had finally come to a close and our itinerary had essentially ceased to exist. I had now officially entered the realm of infinite possibilities and the unknown.
Something else that bothered me was entering back into western culture.. I say this not meaning to offend anyone, but I see the "western culture" in general as somewhat superficial, especially when comparing it with the extremely functional cultures that we came across in south-east Asia. I didn't particularly care for the people's "need" to be fashionable, the "need" to show ones wealth with a nice car or the "need" for possessions in general. I basically found the place and people quite uninspired and uninspiring because of this. This was definitely a case of reverse culture shock, but I guess I've always felt this way and it was just magnified by my experiences at the time. Nevertheless, as with everything, it doesn't take long to become accustomed to your surroundings and I am now quite used to the culture again, and have even been noticing a few substantial positive attributes within our ethos as compared to the Asian societies.

I say I was entering the unknown.. well, sort of... I have been to London before, a couple of years ago, and so had no trouble in finding my way around the Tube (which seemed a little lousier than I recalled from last time - the metros in Japan and China were definitely better - but in its defence, the Tube is nearly 150 years old, the oldest underground metro in the world) which, let's face it, is pretty much all you need to know your way around London. We had our 2-year UK working holiday visas stamped (phew...) as we passed through immigration and caught the Tube to King's Cross station where we met up with Nic (the Northerner; you'll remember her from my NZ blog). From here Lee and I split up to stay with separate friends.
This short time in London was pretty much one big catchup session for me with a whole bunch of people I hadn't seen in ages (or hadn't ever seen for that matter). Nic, Jode and their housemates were kind enough to lend me their couch for the few days I was to spend here. Man, it was great (and strange) meeting up with Nic again, this time in her own country.. She even took a well deserved day off work and we took in a bit of sightseeing and took the train out to the Prime Meridien and Royal Observatory at Greenwich, where we got the very novel idea (I'm sure) of taking a photo of us standing with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other in the western.
I caught up quite a bit with my best mate, Jubby, who I had only seen for 1 month or so out of the past 20. He has the same visa as I and came over last August. Like old times.. Nothing changes.. And that's the way I like it :) No-one can understand what we're on about when we're together - and I think most of the time we have no idea either haha. The first night out we had was spent in Walkabout - a very typically Aussie pub, complete with Foster's flags, a sign pointing to the "Dunnies" and some of the bar staff wearing All Blacks shirts.
Ella, another fellow Adelaidean and long-time-no-see candidate, is also here and we shared a few beers (and double vodkas, right?) and spent some quality time, along with Jubby, standing pointlessly in the line to get into a club hosting Paris Hilton. Stupid £20 entrance fee... Instead of paying this ridiculous amount (equal to about A$45) we headed to a nearby bar - with the best cocktails in the world! - called Archangel.
About 10 years ago, I'd say, when the old chat lines were cool - ICQ, mIRC, etc. - I started chatting with 3 gals from Michigan, USA. I have kept in particularly close touch with Michelle. Obviously with me living in Australia and she in the US, we haven't really had the chance to meet. Until now.. Turns out she and her friend Ami were in London at the same time as I was! What are the odds? We just had to catch up! And how else does one catch up but over a beer? We chose a pub and got to chatting pretty much like we had known each other for years, which technically we have :)
On the 16th of May, our mum flew over and spent a couple of days in London with us, getting ready for her two week trip in Europe.. And when I say Europe, I mean Barcelona!


The tube! A familiar sight...

Nic and me with a little friend I like to call Hot Chocolate


Me and Michelle

Playing in the park

the Meridien

Bridge.. What bridge..??