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Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Hello JFK. Now where's my luggage?

It's bad enough arriving in New York for a long weekend knowing that you're going to have to face interminable queues and the rigours of immigration before you can really begin to enjoy yourself.

But when your luggage goes AWOL, it can really shed new light on the whole experience.

Perhaps though I should have seen it coming.

After all earlier this month the international press was full of some frightening statistics as to the frequency with which airlines manage to "lose" passengers' baggage.

Plus there was an anecdote from a journalist on French radio just last week responding to the figures with his recipe for ensuring that his luggage always arrives.

Apparently he sends one suitcase as a back-up a week in advance to his destination and then actually travels with a second one.

In addition he takes all his "essentials" with him in his carry-on.

"A bit extreme," I thought as I only half-listened to his advice, but perhaps I should have been paying a little more attention at the time.

Ah the wonders of hindsight.

Arriving Stateside can be a bit of a nerve-wracking experience for any tourist and since my last trip across the Pond a year ago, security certainly seems to have been stepped up.

Back then it was “Left index finger on the digital fingerprint screening pad, followed by right index finger. Look into the camera and don’t smile too hard. And when asked the purpose of your trip, don’t even think about a clever reply.”

Now it's "Four fingers right hand - pressed against the pad - followed by thumb right hand.
And then four fingers left hand and thumb left hand. That's all topped off with the all important and serious (don't you dare smile and remember to take your spectacles off should you be wearing them) photo and the purpose of your visit."

Once again, no smart answers.

Oh yes and that's not forgetting the visa waiver application which has to be filled out "correctly" before you make your way to immigration, containing exactly the same information you've had to complete at least three days before your flight leaves for the United States in the online Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA).

The welcome may be somewhat surly and the wait seemingly endless, but after all they're only "doing their job" and once through it's time to find your luggage - which was where I was headed.

All right, so I've rather given the story away in the opening sentences of this piece, because of course when I pitched up at the carousel my trusty Samsonite was nowhere to be seen and the belt introducing suitcases was no longer moving.

Even though I knew there was no point, I still continued to look, until finally I turned to a member of the ground staff to ask whether there was still luggage expected from the Paris flight.

"Is your name on that list sir?" he asked pointing to a nearby whiteboard.

I scanned it quickly and sure enough, there third from bottom was my surname "Summerton" and initials "JG."

"Yes it it," I replied. "So what does that mean exactly?"

"It means sir that you are in New York," he responded. "And welcome by the way. But unfortunately your luggage is still in Paris."

Of course I knew that was what he was going to say, but it didn't stop my heart from sinking.

Everything I needed for a four-day stay in the Big Apple, clothes and all my toiletries were packed in my suitcase, and carry-on had consisted merely of an overweight laptop, a pen and a notebook for scribbling longhand.

"How useful would that be for cleaning my teeth or providing clean underwear for the morning," I wondered.

"So what do I do now?" I asked rather lamely.

"You'll have to go to the Air France office just after customs," he replied, giving directions on how to get there.

So no suitcase, but there was still there was an upside to not having any luggage to speak of.

Customs was a breeze.

"Nothing to declare sir?" asked the puzzled officer. "No suitcase?"

"It's still in Paris," I replied with a shrug. "I need to find the Air France office."

"Oh," she responded.

"Turn right along the corridor on your way out and they'll be able to help you. Good luck, sir. "

I thanked her and sped towards the exit, made a right and pushed open the discover that I was far from being the only one to have arrived without their baggage.

And joy of joys after the wait at immigration, I now had another line to join at "baggage-not-yet-here!" inc.

This is where it has to be said that in spite of the obvious bad humour of most of the passengers, the staff was immensely helpful, apologetic, efficient and friendly.

Clearly none of them was French!

And it more than drove home the point as to how service-oriented Americans normally are - certainly in comparison with their European counterparts.

The baggage, I learned, would arrive on the next 'plane - approximately four hours later.

It would be delivered directly to my hotel and all I had to do was provide a description of it and leave the key with them as it was locked.

Any unaccompanied luggage arriving in the US, I was informed, is automatically searched.

There would be a "four hour delivery window" after it arrived, and I was asked for my name and home address so that "compensation could be arranged.

Now that really was service - I hadn't even thought about requesting it.

While the staff clearly knew what they were doing, the same couldn't have been said for the unlucky passengers who still seemed somewhat dazed from learning the fate of their luggage.

When asked to "describe" my suitcase for example, I was somewhat flummoxed. "Er, medium-sized and black," was all I could manage.

But somehow the clerk managed to tease the size, brand, shape, colour and material out of me, and done and dusted, I was presented with an "emergency" pack of toiletries and assured that, "everything would be with me by the morning."

And what do you know, true to her word, that's exactly what happened as the hotel lobby rang me at 7.00am to inform me that my suitcase had been delivered.

So in a sense "All's well that ends well" and one person in particular had learned a valuable lesson the rather hard way.

I'm not sure that in future I'll resort to having a second case sent on in advance, but I might give some consideration at least to taking on a few more essentials in carry- on rather than stuffing everything into my suitcase.

And I should be thankful of course that mine was not among the reportedly 1.2 million (and rising) irretrievably lost each year.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The winner wants it all

Just imagine for a moment that you're in a casino playing on one of those slot machines.

Next to you is a friend, also happily gambling away, and although you've been pumping money into that little devil for quite a while now, you've not actually won anything of any consequence.

So you turn round and ask your friend to hit the lever to set the thing in motion and then press the appropriate button to stop its rotation.

All the time of course it's your money that has been playing and it's in effect "your" machine.

Your friend obliges and.....KERCHING - you hit the jackpot to the tune of €2.175 million!

That's exactly what happened a couple of weeks ago to Marie-Hélène when she won at a casino in Palavas-les-Flots not far from the city of Montpellier in the south of France.

And her friend, Francis was with her the next day when the bubbly was flowing and the casino handed over a cheque for the full amount.

The local press was even there to record the event, with the smiling winner proclaiming, "He's my lucky charm, my four-leafed clover."

End of story perhaps. Except of course it isn't.

It has now been picked up by the national media because Francis would like something more than simply to be remembered as Marie-Hélène's "porte-bonheur".

He also wants a slice of the winnings - half of it reportedly - and of course he has found himself a lawyer.

"My client was playing on the machine next to the one which hit the jackpot," Luc Abratkiewicz told the national daily, Le Parisien.

"She asked him to 'play' for her and he set the machine in motion and pressed the button," he added.

"To win, a player needed to perform three separate actions* and my client carried out two of those."

As far as the casino is concerned there's only one winner.

"It's clear Marie-Hélène is the winner," said Jean-Marc Masquelier, the director of the casino.

"On the day that the jackpot was won, nobody said anything other than that - including her friend who even participated at the celebrations to hand over the cheque."

So far Marie-Hélène has refused to comment, and she certainly hasn't handed over any of the prize money.

Instead the case has been turned over to investigators from the brigade des jeux who are looking at video footage of what actually happened before, during and after the slot machine went KERCHING.

And the moral of this tale?

*the other one of course being to have provided to the money in the first place.

Monday, 23 March 2009

French Catholics split over Pope's comments

Comments made last week by Pope Benedict XVI, when he rejected the use of condoms to fight Aids, continue to make the headlines here in France.

First came political criticism from the foreign ministry, which said it expressed "its very strong concern about the consequences of the statements."

Then there was the decision by French television to carry the on-screen logo of Sidaction, the HIV-Aids awareness campaign, during its weekend programming - including for the first time the retransmission of all religious services.

Now it's the turn of the French in general and more specifically the country's Catholics to express their disquiet, with the release of two separate polls this past weekend.

And, if the polls are to be believed, the results show that they seem to be having some problems coming to terms with what the Pope said.

The first was published in the national daily, Le Parisien, on Saturday and conducted on the newspaper's behalf by Conseils-Sondages-Analyses, CSA.

According to the poll 57 per cent of the French in general - regardless of religious belief - have a "negative opinion" of the Pope following his statements.

Perhaps even more surprising though is the number of French Catholics who hold that point of view - 55 per cent according to the survey with only 29 per cent saying that they held a "positive opinion" of the Pope.

Admittedly the figures looked a little different when those who said they regularly attended church services were asked with 52 per cent saying they still held an overall "good opinion" of the Pope as opposed to 28 per cent who didn't.

Another poll in the national weekly Le Journal du Dimanche, and conducted by L’Institut français d’opinion publique, IFOP went even further and asked France's Catholics whether they thought the Pope should resign or retire.

While 54 per cent said he shouldn't, 43 per cent thought he should although the trend was reversed when asked whether he represented the values of the Catholic church - 49 per cent saying he didn't as opposed to 22 per cent who thought he did.

On issues which reflect the changes there have been within French society, there was also the widely held opinion (again among French Catholics) that the Church had to modify both its statements and position in several areas including contraception (83 per cent), abortion (77 per cent) and homosexuality (69 per cent).

Of course opinion polls are always open to interpretation and there's no disputing that they can also be influenced by those commissioning them and the composition of the questions.

But a similar survey also conducted on behalf of Le Parisien last September, perhaps puts the most recent ones into perspective.

It was carried out just before the Pope's three-day visit to this France when millions turned out to celebrate Mass both in the capital Paris and later in Lourdes in the south-west of the country.

At that time, among the French in general, 53 per cent of those questioned said they had a "positive opinion" of Benedict XVI.

Around 51 per cent of France's 63 million population say they are Catholic.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

France on alert for young girl abducted in custody battle

YouTube Video

There's still no sign of a young girl abducted on Friday afternoon in the southern French city of Arles.

Police launched an amber alert after the three-and-a-half-year-old Elise was snatched on her way home from school with her father.

And over the weekend that hunt was extended Europe-wide and in particular to neighbouring Switzerland after there were reports of a sighting of a girl matching her description at Geneva airport.

Those reports later turned out to be false.

Elise has been at the centre of an international battle for custody between her parents since the couple split three years ago, and already in her short life has been abducted three times.

Her father, Jean-Michel André, is French and her mother, Irina Belenkaya, is Russian.

Both parents have been given custody over their daughter by their respective countries and that has played a large part in the fact that Elise - and remember she is only three-and-a-half years old - has already been abducted three times in her short life.

When the couple split three years ago, a French court gave André custody of their daughter.

But just one month later she was kidnapped by Belenkaya and taken to Moscow.

An international arrest warrant was issued for the mother at the time but Russia refused to comply or even acknowledge it, and instead gave Belenkaya custody over her daughter.

So a stalemate was reached, with French courts having given André custody while as far as Russia was concerned Belenkaya was completely within her rights.

In September 2008 André flew to Moscow to find his daughter and for the second time she was abducted, although without any violence according to André.

Again the two countries' legal systems differed as to the rights of the parents.

As far as France was concerned, André had acted within his legal rights to bring Elise back to this country, while the authorities in Moscow said had had breached Russian custody law.

On Friday Elise was abducted for the third time.

Her father was left battered and bruised, and said afterwards in interviews that his daughter had been taken by two men "dressed as security" guards and a woman "wearing a wig".

For André it was clear that not only was Belenkaya behind this most recent abduction, she was also the woman "wearing a wig" and France has reissued an international warrant for her arrest.

If, as suspected, Elise is either on her way back to Moscow with her mother or is already there, André says he would once again try to retrieve her, even though there's an arrest warrant out for him in Russia.

"Of course I would go back to Russia, and of course I'll look for her. She's my daughter," he said.

"When I last went there to find her, I did it for her (well-being).

" Her mother had made me 'disappear' from her (Elise's) life. She didn't remember me any longer.

"I'm not frightened. I won't stop."

Friday, 20 March 2009

Shooting outside nursery school in Lyon UPDATE


According to Le Figaro, police have taken a 17-year-old in for questioning.

He was discovered in a building near to the school and had apparently been "trying out his new air rifle with a group of his friends," regional security official, Xavier de Fürst told AFP.

(Previous story)

Police are still hunting for a man in the French city of Lyon, who shot and wounded several people outside a a primary school in the centre of the city on Friday morning.
The shooting occurred around 11.15am local time as parents were gathering outside the the Harmonie-Rebatelle nursery school on la place du Docteur-Rebat in the third arrondissement.

Up to 11 people were treated for minor wounds and according to AP (French) three of them were taken to hospital but quickly released.

The gunman, whose identity is unknown, used an air rifle, according to the local police who found a lead pellet at the scene, which has been cordonned off.

He then fled and a special elite police unit has been dispatched to try to find him.

A spokeswoman for the local education authority in Lyon, Anne Le Scanff, told AP that the shots had not been aimed directly at the school but at passers-by in the vicinity.

"At no time were the children in any danger," she said. "They were all inside the school at the time of the shooting and had no idea what had happened."

LCI - a 24 hour French television news channel reports that a psychological unit was set up at the school following the shooting and traffic has been blocked from entering the area.

Religious programmes to carry Aids logo during Sidaction

Reverberations are still being felt here in France over the comments earlier this week made by the Pope when he rejected the use of condoms to fight Aids

Following the foreign ministry's criticism of Pope Benedict XVI's comments, now comes the turn of French television in a move which surely sends a clear signal as to the way many feel in this country.

Starting Thursday evening and finishing on Sunday is the annual Sidaction "weekend".

Sidaction is an organisation set up in 1994 which aims to raise money and awareness of HIV-Aids.

The annual event is a time when many national television channels carry the logo of the organisation throughout the entirety of their programming and a number to call to make donations.

With the exception that is, of the religious broadcasts on public television on Sunday morning.

But this year will be different, according to a story on the website of the weekly news magazine, Le Point.

It says that the number two at French public television, Patrice Duhamel, has also asked for the logo and number to appear on-screen during the retransmission of ALL the religious programming - including that of the Catholic Mass.

"It's a collective decision that has been taken," France Television confirmed to the site of although it was reluctant to make a direct link between the Pope's remarks and the change that will take place for the first time.

As usual, France 2 will also broadcast a special two-hour variety programme during prime time viewing on Saturday evening featuring a host of celebrities from the world of French music and cinema.

In total 11 television channels both private and public will carry the logo of the Sidaction on-screen throughout the entirety of the programme schedule, including TF1, M6, Canal+, Arte, W9, and LCI.

In addition five national radio stations will carry message telling listeners how to make donations and provide constant reminders that it is Sidaction weekend.

Over 4,000 volunteers will man the 'phone as people call in to make their pledges and there are 350 events planned up and down the country to raise money in support of Sidaction this weekend according to Le Point.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Annecy to bid for Winter Olympics 2018 - in with a shout?

Well it could be after the decision by the French Olympic Committee (Comité National Olympique et Sportif Français, CNOSF) to support Annecy in its bid to host the Winter Olympic games in 2018.

The picturesque city dubbed "the Venice of the Alps" in the Rhône-Alpes region of southeastern France, beat out rivals Grenoble, Nice and Pelvoux in the first round of voting on Tuesday and will now thrown its hat into the ring with some powerful international rivals.

They include the two front-runners Munich in Germany and the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, along with Almaty in Kazahkstan.

Those are the other cities that have so far declared their bids or confirmed their interest.

YouTube Video - Annecy 2018, official video

Annecy might still be an outside bet, but after yesterday's decision some here in France at least, are hopeful that it could spring a surprise.

Indeed it already has, to a great extent, in overcoming the much more-fancied Grenoble so easily.

"This bid has to be supported by the whole of the French sporting community," said the president of the CNOSF, Henri Sérandour, who'll be stepping down from his post in May.

"That's a message I want to pass on to my successor".

So what has Annecy got going for it?

First up it's undoubtedly beautifully situated and is chocolate-box pretty.

That in itself of course isn't enough to host such an event, but it's only 30 minutes away from the international airport of Geneva in Switzerland, and has a regular high-speed TGV link with the French capital, Paris.

So getting there shouldn't be a problem.

Asked on French national television why he thought Annecy had been successful in convincing the CNOSF to support the city's candidature, Antoine Dénériaz, French downhill gold medallist at the Games in Turin in 2006, said much of it was down to the make-up of team which had put together the bid.

"The principle reason for its success so far has been that the bid was led by sportsmen and women, with the support of the mayor (himself a former sports champion) and add to that of course we've already played host to a number of international sporting events," he said.

It's true, Annecy has held international ice skating events, already has an excellent infrastructure in place with three major ski resorts nearby, including Chamonix, but will that be enough to see out the might of the Pyeongchang, widely fancied to be the favourite?

It'll be a tough job according to Jean-Claude Killy, the triple Olympic champion in Alpine skiing who dominated the sport in the late 1960s and is probably one of this country's best known sportsmen.

"South Korea has already bid to host the Games twice," he said.

"This'll be the third time, and I'm not going to pretend that it'll be extremely difficult."

But that didn't stop the good folk of Annecy - or Annéciens and Annéciennes - from celebrating the first step in what promises to be a very long journey.

The official application deadline will close in October this year and by next July the successful candidate cities will be selected.

There will then follow the process of evaluation - technical and otherwise - before the International Olympic Committee officially announces the "winner" in July 2011 in Durban, South Africa.

"Personally I believe very strongly that we can win the bid, said Dénériaz.

"We have an extraordinary international symbol with the Mont Blanc....the adventure continues and it'll be something exceptional and of course now we'll be helped by the French Olympic Committee".

Any tips Vancouver?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

France - Xavier Fortin, a free man

Here's the follow-up to a story that made the headlines here in France a couple of months ago.

Back in 1998 Xavier Fortin "disappeared" with his two sons (aged six and seven at the time) rather than return them to their mother.

At the end of January, Fortin was taken into police custody and charged with having removed minors from their mother (who had custody) after he and his two sons were "discovered" in the village of Masset in the département of l'Ariège in the southwest of France.

On Tuesday he appeared in court and was handed down a two year sentence, of which 22 months were suspended.

As he has spent the past two months in police custody, Fortin is now effectively a free man.

During yesterday's hearing, Fortin told the told the court that he had "chosen a life on the run" because he had thought it was in the best interests of his sons at the time.

He was convinced that had he returned them to their mother they would have been subjected to "complete brainwashing".

A week after their father was arrested the boys , Théo and Manu (they changed their names during their years "on the run" from Okwari and Shahi Yena) now 17 and 18 respectively, began a series of media interviews in which they repeatedly declared their support for their father, and expressed the desire for him to be released as soon as possible.

(You can read the previous story here.)

And indeed they were both in court yesterday to attending the hearing.

While the prosecution had been seeking a minimum of six months behind bars for the 52-year-old, Fortin's lawyer, Pascaline Saint-Arroman, said before the verdict was announced that she hoped the court would a little more understanding.

"The father is a victim, the mother is a victim and the two children are victims," she told reporters.

"And that needs to be taken into account when the court takes its decision."

The boys' mother, Catherine Martin wasn't present yesterday and according to her lawyer, Renaud Arlabosse, wasn't looking for revenge or disputing her former husband's abilities as a father.

"The only thing she has asked for is compensation to the amount €1 - a symbol," he said.

"What Catherine hopes is finally to have the time to be able to rebuild a relationship with her two sons. She has to rediscover how to become a mother because she has had that right taken away from her for nearly 12 years now."

On Tuesday evening Fortin was released.

And the reaction of his two sons?

"There is no winner and no loser in all of this," is how Shahi Yena responded after the verdict was announced.

"For me it's a huge step for French justice in terms of actually listening to what the children had to say."

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Black Thursday II as France goes on strike - again

Oh dear. This is becoming more than a little tedious (in terms of writing about it). But once again - guess what? It's a national day of action here in France. This time around it's Thursday 19 March.

It is, if you will, the follow-up to the last general strike or "Black Thursday" held on January 29.

And once again all the signs are that hundreds of thousands will take to the streets in protest over job losses, dissatisfaction with government reforms, reduced purchasing power and privatisation plans.

So moving nicely along, what can those visiting France or even living and working here expect on Thursday according to the French media?

If you're booked to arrive on an Air France flight the chances are that you'll only experience minimal delays.

That's what the company's management is promising.

But once again, after you've landed the "fun" begins.

And rather helpfully a number of national newspapers and broadcasters have already listed which areas are likely to be affected, what the unions are hoping for and what the French can look forward to, and it makes pretty grim reading.

All the expectations seem to be that the strike will not only hit the public but also the private sector.

First up then the public sector, where unions are calling on civil servants, teachers, health workers and all state employees to strike to "stop the political blindness to job losses and set up a moratorium immediately over the details of the 2009 budget."

The country's education system will once again be in "the thick of things" with a number of unions representing teachers from primary through secondary schools, universities and research institutes calling on members to demonstrate against proposed job losses; 13,200 in schools and 900 in universities and research institutes.

Just to add to the chaos, even though there's supposed to be a statutory "minimum service" by local authorities to provide cover when schools are closed, several cities - Paris most notably - have called on parents not to try to send their children to school on Thursday.

Getting around the country could prove to be the usual strike-day headache.

All the unions representing train drivers and SNCF (the French national railway) employees are backing the strike and have called for action from eight o'clock on Wednesday evening until eight o'clock in the morning on Friday.

In Paris, travel won't be a joy either as four of the eight unions representing workers for RATP - the capital's transportation system - have called for action, and once again it's likely to be a pattern repeated in many of the large metropolitan areas around the country.

The only "concession" being made by the unions in Ile de France - the area surrounding Paris - is transportation for those planning to take part in demonstrations.

And so the list continues in the public sector; France Telecom (the country's main telecommunications company), La Poste (the post office), the energy giants, such as EDF, GDF and Suez, hospitals, civil servants.

All right that's the public sector "done and dusted" how about the private one?

It won't be spared either. Top of the list in terms of newsworthiness perhaps is Total - the French oil giant, which last year reported record profits of €13.9 billion and just last week was roundly condemned by politicians from across the spectrum when it announced it was getting rid of 555 jobs.

In the financial services, all the unions representing bank employees have called for action, as have those in the private medical sector, car manufacturers such as Renault and Peugeot, and major private French companies such as Saint-Gobain, Auchan and Carrefour.

Oh yes - and let's not forget journalists! So no newspapers or weekly magazines on Friday probably.

So how do the French in general feel about all of this? That's a question you might well be asking.

In the run-up to January's general strike, public support was overwhelming, with seven out of every 10 at the time saying they "supported" or "had sympathy" with the call for action.

And now - almost two months later - the figures are more or less the same, according to a survey released this week by the French opinion institute, BVA.

A whopping 74 per cent of those polled said they thought this Thursday's strike was justified, with just 23 per cent saying it wasn't.

As the left-of-centre weekly news magazine, Nouvel Observateur shows in its round up of what some of the regional press here in France has been saying ahead of the strike, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his government will more than likely be looking on to see just how much support there actually is on the day.

All right already, the message has been delivered loud and clear. And it would appear to be there are several plans of action if you intend coming to France, or are already here.

a) Don't plan to come to France on Thursday
b) If you have no alternative, then be prepared for long delays and transportation problems.
c) If you're already here - stay at home - or at least don't expect to get to where you want to get to.
d) Join in the demonstrations.

Bienvenue en France - another public service announcement?

Monday, 16 March 2009

A Mother's day reminder

A timely reminder to fellow Brits that this coming weekend sees Mother's Day or Mothering Sunday.

It's a bit confusing really because apparently the two terms don't quite mean the same thing, although the former has come to replace the latter - and let's face it, they both fall on the same day (in the UK) - the fourth Sunday in Lent.

Those of you in other parts of the world may well be scratching your heads at the moment, thinking that I've got my dates mixed up.

The problem is of course that there's no one single day set aside internationally to pay tribute to what's often described as one of the most thankless and least appreciated jobs on the planet.

Just looking at when different countries "celebrate" or "remember" or "pay tribute" shows maybe how out of step we are with one another.

This year for example in Norway apparently it fell on February 8.

A whole chunk of Europe - including Germany, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria, along with many other countries throughout the world such as Australia, Canada, Pakistan and the United States to name but a few, set aside the second Sunday in May - this year May 10.

In France it falls on the last Sunday in May - this year May 31 - as is the case in Sweden and Tunisia.

In fact rather than list every single place in the world, I would be better off providing a link to wikipedia - so here you are.

When my mother was alive and I lived in Germany, I got into a right pickle trying to remember the date back "home".

She insisted that it didn't matter if I forgot, but deep down I knew she was dead chuffed when I remembered.

Mind you, she had to put up with some of the most horrendous gifts down the years, especially when I was a nipper.

Encouraged by teachers I would put a rather dubious artistic bent to full use and pitch up with a painting resembling.....well very little really apart from colour splattered on paper.

Or, if I had been allowed to watch Blue Peter (a long-running BBC television programme for children), she was presented with a useless piece of nothing made from plastic bottles, egg cartons and sticky-backed plastic.

Eventually I moved on from "art" and one year - I must have been around 10 years old - I put what I thought were burgeoning culinary skills to use and my poor mother's tastebuds to the test when I decided to tackle a 10-egg (yep you read correctly) pancake complete with several tablespoons full of.....salt (rather than sugar - far too high a quantity of anything in any case).

I realised my mistake before the monstrosity made its way to the table, and in an effort to compensate emptied the best part of a container of pepper into the mixture. My childlike logic told me that pepper would cancel out the effect of salt - I clearly wasn't the brightest spark.

My ma, when she finally made it down to the smoke-filled kitchen (which of course she would later have to clear up) showed stoicism, patience and the utmost love as well as a huge amount of courage in both praising my gastronomic stomach-turner and even attempting to eat (some of it).

Teenage years saw a return to "art" of sorts (I clearly never learnt from my earlier efforts) with a selection of wooden "thises" and metal "thats" from craft classes, ranging from a chopping board, a cheese grater (she proudly kept it until she died, although I never saw her use it) and a blunt knife. Oh yes, I was full of thoughtful presents.

With hindsight it must have come as something of a relief (to her) when I started earning and actually bought presents - although unimaginatively perhaps I stuck to chocolates and flowers - a safe bet.

Anyway this post - and just as importantly the accompanying video (the former is also an excuse to share the latter with you) is to tell my ma, wherever she might be, "Thank you" and to pass on a gentle reminder to fellow Brits whose mothers are still around, not to forget them this coming weekend.

And hey, even in those countries where it's not officially Mother's day, how about turning around and telling them just how much you love 'em.

The accompanying (probably timeless) video is a rendition of a song with lyrics written and originally performed by the US comedian Anita Renfroe set to the music of the finale of Rossini's William Tell Overture.

It's fast, furious and has something of a ring of truth to it.

YouTube Video

Vendée Globe - the last man home

How many events are there in the world in which the last placed finisher crosses the line a full 42 days behind the winner?

Not many probably, but that's exactly what happened over the weekend as the Austrian, Norbert Sedlacek, finally sailed into port after 126 days at sea to become the 11th and final competitor to complete the 2008 edition of the Vendée Globe.

It's a single-handed, round-the-world, non-stop yacht race, which first started in 1989 and takes place every four years.

As the event's official website says "There's a first and a last".

And after the winner, Frenchman Michel Desjoyeaux, who crossed the finishing line on February 1, Sunday afternoon saw the arrival of Sedlacek.

It was a marathon journey for the former tram driver from the Austrian capital, Vienna, as he completed the course after 126 days, five hours, 31 minutes and 56 seconds - yes the event really is timed that closely - becoming the first person from his country to finish it in one piece.

That's far from being a foregone conclusion as over the years there have been a number of accidents, broken masts, boats capsizing, dramatic rescue attempts that have received a great deal of media coverage and three men lost at sea.

The latest edition of the race (the sixth) wasn't without its usual "drama on the high seas" but at the very least Sedlacek's arrival marked the "last skipper home" as all of the original 30 starters are now back on dry land safe and sound, even if 19 of them were forced to abandon.

There's no doubt that the race is a gruelling and challenging one. Competitors are not allowed to offer or receive assistance from one another otherwise they'll be disqualified, and even though modern technology means that virtually their every move is filmed and followed, they are alone at sea for the best part of two months - if not longer.

Not surprisingly perhaps, as it's a French-inspired race, many in this country follow the proceedings avidly. There's daily television coverage on several channels while the race for the title is underway, and interviews with the leaders for the duration of the course.

Of the six editions, all the winners have been French.

Desjoyeaux set a new record in winning his second title. He, and the rest of the field left that start/finishing line in Les Sables-d'Olonne, in the Vendée departement of France on the west coast on November 9.

And 84 days, three hours nine minutes and eight seconds (to be absolutely precise once again) at sea, Desjoyeaux was the first to arrive back - with some 24,000 plus nautical miles behind him.

He was followed in roughly five days later by fellow countryman, Armel Le Cléac’h, with the top three being rounded out by yet another Frenchman, Marc Guillemot, who made it back to Les Sables-d'Olonne on February 16.

Taking just one hour longer than him to circumnavigate the globe and arriving fourth was the first "foreigner" and woman, Britain's Samantha Davies.

And so the remaining competitors who completed the course arrived intermittently over the following weeks until finally Sedlacek sailed into port on Sunday afternoon.

For fans who prefer not to brave the high seas and the solitude, there's also the more mundane version - or "virtual" version, which can be "played" from the safety of the sitting room, with the website claiming that over 100,000 skippers have so far made the journey in their slightly less arduous version of the Vendée globe.

YouTube Video

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Alain Bashung dies - a giant of French music

Saturday saw the death here in France of one of this country's most respected and decorated singer-songwriters.

Alain Bashung died of lung cancer at the age of 61.

His is probably not a name that will be familiar with many outside of the French-speaking world, but he was a giant of the rock scene here.

Indeed he was described by the culture journalist of the national daily Le Figaro, Olivier Nuc, as "a major singer of French music ."

And that appears to be a view widely held throughout the French media, among his contemporaries and across the generations.

Tributes poured in after news of his death was announced. Both national prime times news channels led with the story and paid homage to Bashung.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, released an official statement saying "It's a prince who has left us this evening, an immense poet and a singer who stood up for what he believed in."

"We take leave of an artist, who has left his mark on the history of music. We salute a man who everyone loved."

Check out the website of any French newspaper or magazine and you'll find the news of his death is still one of the top stories.

When he began his career, Bashung was promoted as an alternative to Claude François ("My Way") a popular singer with mass appeal here in France and internationally.

He had only limited success in the 1960s and 70s and even the release of his first album "Roman photos" in 1977, achieved neither real critical nor commercial success.

It wasn't until the appearance two year's later of his second album "Roulette russe" and the subsequent release and success of the single "Gaby! Oh Gaby" that Bashung's career really took off.

And he never looked back.

He had a string of hits throughout the 80s and 90s, carving out his own very particular niche, revered and respected among his peers and throughout the music industry.

And of course, just like many other French artists, he proved to be multi-talented, branching out into acting.

Bashung's appeal was one which crossed generations and was in its own way very "French". His was a brooding sometimes sombre music, but always redefining French rock (yes such a thing exists) and he was a giant of the music scene here in France.

Just last month he picked up three awards at the annual Victoires de la musique ceremony, that recognises the country's best singers and songs of the year, including best male artist, best album for his 2008 release "Bleu Pétrole" and best live show.

That brought his haul over the years to 11 - more than any other artist in the history of the awards.

When he stood on stage and performed the track "Résidents de la République", the single taken from his last album, he looked visibly weak and a shadow of his former self.

But he received a standing ovation from the star-studded (French) celebrity audience and even the presenter of the show, Nagui was close to tears.

Bashung's voice was instantly recognisable and he leaves behind some memorable and often haunting songs.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Ouhlala, Miss France faces legal action!

It can sometimes be a tough job being a beauty queen.

Just ask last year's Miss France, Valérie Bègue (the former Miss Réunion) who was involved in a tussle with the doyenne of the organising committee, Geneviève de Fontenay, after “suggestive” photographs appeared in a monthly magazine shortly after her election in December 2007.

Bègue was allowed to retain her title but banned from representing France at international competitions.

And now her successor, 19-Year-old Chloé Mortaud, could be facing a similar fate, but for quite different reasons.

It's a long and convoluted tale - of course - and one that's only slowly unravelling. But here's the story so far.

Mortaud, you might or might not remember, was crowned Miss France 2009 back on December 6 last year.

You can read all about her victory here if you're up for it.

Born and brought up in France, Mortaud actually holds dual French-US nationality.

She’s of mixed race (or métisse as the French say – as was Bègue) with a French father and an African-American mother from Mississippi who emigrated to France 25 years ago.

So Mortaud is in every sense of the word very much a French-American Miss and even attended the inauguration of the US president, Barack Obama, back in January.

Indeed she popped up on French television screens during the proceedings, rather tearfully expressing her pride.

At the election for Miss France she represented the region of Albigeois-Midi-Pyrénées in the southwest of the country, where she qualified back in September 2008.

And that's apparently where her problems started.

Her runner-up at that election, Marine Beaury, claimed in an interview with a magazine - ironically enough the very same glossy monthly that had been Bègue's undoing a year earlier - that the vote had been rigged.

Some members of the jury, she maintained, had close personal ties to Mortaud's parents and that contravened the regulations of the competition.

Her claims were rejected by the organisers of the regional pageant, but Beaury didn't let the matter lie there.

She got in touch with a group which represents disgruntled ex-Misses in France - yes such a thing exists, "Collectif des Miss en colère" and the upshot is that the case is going to court.

It's due to be heard on April 27 - a date for your diaries (if you're interested) and it could result in Mortaud being stripped of her title AND having to return any prize money she earned or give back gifts she received.

So the challenge at the moment isn't coming from any of her 35 other competitors in the Miss France contest in December, but from one who is disputing Mortaud's eligibility to have been representing her region in the first place.

But wait, that's not the end of the story (don't groan). There's more, but there again there would be, wouldn't there?

You see Mortaud's election in December was decided by a combination of votes from viewers 'phoning in to choose their "favourite" and a hand-picked seven-strong celebrity jury.

Now another magazine, Télé 2 Semaines, says it has got its hands on information which reveals that Mortaud only won because she had the backing of that panel.

It claims that Mortaud only garnered 40,000 of the public's 'phone-in vote, placing her fourth of the five finalists. That was almost half the votes received by the runner-up, Camille Cheyere (Miss Lorraine) and the third-placed Élodie Martineau (Miss Pays de Loire).

In effect it was the vote of the seven-strong jury that tipped the balance in her favour, says the magazine, raising even more doubt as to whether Mortaud should even have been crowned the winner.

It wouldn't be the first time such a turnaround has happened in the final according to the magazine. Back in 2006 when that year's Miss France, Alexandra Rosenfeld, finished plumb last of the five finalists among the public's vote, she found herself elevated to the crown by the vote of the jury.

So even if the court decides in April that the disgruntled Misses don't have a case against Mortaud, the rumblings about whether she should be the reigning Miss France could well continue.

Ouhlala indeed!

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Bienvenido to Britain-on-the-Med

Forgive the Spanglish. It's a rather feeble attempt to introduce you to a little bit of Britain in the (normally) sun-drenched Mediterranean.

In case you were wondering, this time I'm inviting you to take you a whistle-stop trip with me to Gibraltar.

As promised, here's the follow-up to a post on a recent trip to southern Spain and this time around it's"Britain".

Let's try to clear up any misunderstandings from the outset.

The exact status of Gibraltar cannot be ignored and indeed it has to be mentioned.

Without going into the whys and wherefores (after all there's plenty of information around if you want more detail) sovereignty over Gibraltar has been a major bone of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations for yonks.

Spain still asserts a claim to the territory, the British government has left it to the locals to decide and they're strongly against any proposal of shared sovereignty and want to remain British.

While Spain's position on the issue is perhaps understandable from a geographic perspective - take a look at exactly where Gibraltar is on the map - and to the outsider it would seem that two functioning democracies should have been able to reach a happy compromise (they are after all both members of the 27-bloc European Union) there's also maybe something of an irony about Madrid's perspective.

First up, the whole area of southern Spain is a magnet for tourists - not least of all the British, who seem virtually to have "colonised" large chunks of it. So having a little part of "Britain" officially on the doorstep shouldn't be too much of a hardship.

Secondly, just across the Mediterranean in Africa the Spanish are in a sense just as "guilty" of exactly the same sort of behaviour of which they accuse Britain.

Because there on the coast you'll find two separate Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla "in" Morocco, with the government of that country repeatedly calling for Madrid to transfer sovereignty and likening the situation to the one in which Spain finds itself with Britain over Gibraltar.

All right, that's enough of the geography/political lesson, time to take you around the place with some of the impressions it made upon me during the briefest of brief visits last weekend.

Perhaps the most common ways of arriving in Gibraltar are by 'plane, car or Shanks' pony.

All right there's also private boats for the very wealthy, cruise ships or even a ferry depending on where you're coming from, but the great majority of visitors will be arriving or crossing the border at exactly the same place.

Huh? Well you see the the airport runway is the border crossing point, and that can often lead to tailbacks of vehicles as planes arrive.

In fact the main road connecting Gibraltar to Spain - Winston Churchill Avenue - runs right across the runway.

Why exactly any tourists arriving from Spain would want to take a car into Gibraltar must be something of a mystery as the place isn't exactly enormous (6.8 km2 apparently) and the Spanish border guards have been known in the past to be rather officious in checking vehicle documentation, leading to lengthy waiting times.

The best bet then is to leave your car in La Línea (Spain)- and walk across the border. There's no hassle and it takes all of ten minutes from the car park in Spain to the taxi rank in Gibraltar, which should definitely be where you head first if you want to take a trip around to see what the "rock" has to offer.

Once there - a quick word with one of the waiting drivers and he'll tell you the price for a one-and-a half hour tour (we paid €70 for two) and you're set.

Of course if you prefer to strike out on your own with map in hand you can always continue walking, and if you've just gone to Gibraltar for (duty free) shopping or some traditionally English "haute cuisine" (a Sunday roast, all-day cooked breakfast or fish and chips for example) then another 10 minute or so walk will find you in the centre.

We plumped for the taxi - obviously. The beauty is that you have an informed local guide in the shape of the driver, who will offer you an itinerary, take you there, wait while you look around and answer any questions you might have.

First stop St Michael's cave.

Before entering of course there was a chance to gaze across the Mediterranean towards the coastline of Morocco, the Rif mountains and even one of those Spanish cities in Africa, Ceuta.

It's not difficult to realise just how important Gibraltar has been over the centuries to Britain as a strategic military base, nor the fact that it is perched above one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Turn around in the other in direction and you get a bird's eye view of the marina and there in the distance the Spanish mainland port city of Algeciras.

St Michael's cave is in fact a network of limestone caves and has had a rich and peppered history throughout the centuries, being used for military purposes on some occasions, for picnics (!) on others and even prepared apparently, as our driver informed us, as an emergency hospital (never used) during World War II.

Today it's a tourist attraction filled not surprisingly with stalagmites and stalactites that are delicately illuminated, and steps that take the visitor hither and thither.

A word of warning though, it's pretty humid inside, so sensible shoes are worth bearing in mind and be prepared to be dripped on from time to time.

The piped classical muzak is a little grating but when you eventually find your way to the auditorium you're in for a treat.

It's still used today for concerts - military music and Spanish guitar for example, ballet, theatre and events such as son et lumière shows. It only seats around 100, so performances must be something of a squeeze but the setting is spectacular.

Onwards and upwards with the tour and before taking a look at some of Gibraltar's famous tunnels and getting a history lesson on the Great Siege, there was an obligatory stop at one of the feeding points for some of the perhaps even more famous 300 or so Barbary macaques.

They are of course a symbol of Gibraltar and considered, so our driver tells us, as its unofficial national animal.

As we approached one of them was quick to clamber on to the roof of the car, but soon climbed down to join the rest of the troop.

They're well used to humans and although still wild animals are "unlikely to attack if ignored," we were reassured by our driver as he encouraged us to get out of the car and take advantage of some more panoramic views - this time of the runway separating Gibraltar from Spain.

It's illegal for tourists to feed the macaques, and anyone found doing so will be fined.

After they had obligingly struck various "poses" for the camera while grooming each other, we continued our journey to look at part of Gibraltar's network of 54 kilometres of tunnels.

You can read all about the Great Siege of Gibraltar and the building of the tunnels by the British here.

Only a portion of them are open to the public at the moment but that doesn't prevent the visitor from stepping back in time, and stooping more than a little at some points because they're not high enough for most people to stand up straight.

The oldest were dug and used during the Siege (1779-1783) as the British defended Gibraltar from a French-Spanish attempt to recapture the "rock", and they were extended during World War II.

The welcome to the tunnels advises that "although the downwards walk is pleasant the return is more arduous," but waiting patiently the other end was our driver, and he didn't seem to be in a hurry to finish the tour. So we took our time, read up on the history, gulped at the meagre monthly rations the troops had and admired some more glorious panoramic views.

Once back in the taxi, the driver took us past the Moorish castle, which he told us could trace its origins back to the eighth century and then into the centre of town for a walk around.

It's also there that it dawns on you how very "British" Gibraltar really is.

The names of the roads are a giveaway; Main Street or Library Street for example. Pubs - presumably serving typically warm beer seem to be on every proverbial corner with signs outside advertising English food.

There's a Marks and Spencer, Next, the Church of Scotland (!) a Nat West bank and even the street "furniture" has a touch of the stereotypical British high street about it with a bright red pillar box with the royal crest outside the post office and one of those old fashioned telephone kiosks.

Perhaps - no definitely - the only thing that's different about the place from "back home" of course is the weather.

So that's it. The trip to Gibraltar was over and I had probably had as much of a taste of Britain as I needed.

A final glance back as we walked across the border towards La Línea and Spain, and the thought that when all is said and done though, and like it or not, Gibraltar probably looks very much set to continue being Britain-on-the-Med.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Gaucin, Spain - I can see Africa from my bedroom window!

Time for a break from hard hitting news as I invite you to join me (metaphorically speaking) on another jaunt to the sun.

No need to travel thousands of kilometres for it this time around though.

Instead it was simply a couple of hours by 'plane, knees-to-chin style economy class naturally as I counted the centimes and braved the skies from Paris to Malaga in southern Spain and "Goodbye drizzle, hello sunshine."

My destination was Gaucin, one of those picturesque little villages in Andalusia with whitewashed houses - or pueblos blancos - around 25 kilometres inland from the coast or the Costa del Sol.

More on that in a moment.

Now it might seem odd for a Briton resident abroad to choose to visit a place seemingly teeming with my fellow countrymen all year round but I was "on assignment."

My purpose - to report on a couple who have recently set up a table d'hôte, inviting people into their home and cooking up a storm.

It might seem like a long way to go for a meal, but who am I to pass up the chance of some champion grub?

That'll all be the subject of a future post (perhaps).

Right now join me for just a taste as I wandered through Gaucin, plucked an orange from the garden and gazed out towards Africa!

For fear of repeating myself, the easiest way to get to Gaucin is to fly in to Malaga and then hire a car to make the one and a half hour trip to reach the village, which is just under 120 kilometres away.

Driving along the A7, you head west-southwest, following the coast, past Marbella (probably the best way to visit that particular town, in other words giving it a miss all together) and exiting the motorway some 40 or so kilometres later before starting the final 25 kilometre climb to Gaucin itself.

Now that coastal drive of course provides something of a taste of all the "delights" the Costa del Sol has to offer.

Yes, well. What was once apparently a series of small fishing villages has now become almost an endless line of apartments and hotels.

In recent decades there has been an explosion in mass tourism and the whole area is famously overdeveloped and still, somehow, there seems to be room found to squeeze in even more monstrous constructions (see some of the pics).

The lure of reasonably priced accommodation (to rent or buy), beaches and great weather all seem to keep drawing tourists to the area, and another more recent major attraction has been the number of golf courses that have sprung up.

If the number of bags containing clubs on the baggage reclaim carousel at Malaga airport arrivals was anything to go by, there are more than a fair few golfing enthusiasts taking full advantage of the area's greens.

But I digress. The Costa del Sol and its golf courses were not my destination, I was Gaucin-bound.

Being perhaps completely unoriginal, the word that sprung to mind when first capturing a glimpse of the village from afar was "breathtaking".

And the promise of that initial impression was more than fulfilled on arrival.

Those whitewashed houses are every bit as "charming" as they appear on many a photo. The village is dominated by a medieval castle, and a wander up and down the narrow streets and glance over the rooftops gives another perspective and a peek directly into the way people live.

Great for the extremely curious tourist.

From the outside then, the village looks what might be considered to be "typically Spanish", but that's something of a false impression.

Take a closer look and a listen and you'll quickly realise that the British have "discovered" Gaucin too.

There's evidence everywhere. From the shop which carries an assortment of products such as tea bags, water biscuits and tomato ketchup - which you might expect to find on the shelves of many a British high street supermarket - to the market held on the first Saturday of every month from March to October.

There you'll find stalls, manned by Brits resident in Gaucin and the surrounding area, selling fare such as carrot cake, apple pie and samosas!

You see Gaucin, with a population of about 1,200 is also home to around 300 Brits and is a popular stopping-off point for many a British tourist to the area.

There's even an English language website promoting Gaucin.

Of course the British are not the only ones to have bought property in the area, there are plenty of other (mainly European) nationalities around too.

And it's hardly surprising, given the beauty and the great weather, that people have chosen to relocate or retire there to give up the rat race for a gentler, slower life.

It's just perhaps not as "Spanish" (whatever that might be) as could be assumed at first sight.

But that doesn't mean it's not worth visiting. Far from it.

Because apart from the architecture and the picturesque setting and the fact that it's something of a gateway to the other marvels of Andalusia, there's also one very special ingredient the village has to offer.

That's the view it affords as you look south.

Because there in the distance, beyond the orange groves, past the cork forests is Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.

And there's more. If the visibility is good enough you can even make out the shores of Morocco, in other words the continent of Africa and the outline of the Rif mountains on the horizon.

Take a (very) close look at some of the photos and you should be able to see them.

Where else in Europe, I wondered, could you stumble out of bed, pluck a fresh orange off a nearby tree and gaze out into the distance to see Africa?

Coming next - more Brits "abroad" on a trip around Gibraltar.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Death threats and fake bombs

Here in France there has been quite a buzz over the past couple of weeks over two rather similar but unrelated events.

The first concerns the death threats received by the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, and a number of top ranking political figures.

They were each sent a letter warning them their lives and those of their families were potentially at risk, along with a 38 calibre bullet.

The first letters were sent to Sarkozy and Raymond Couderc, a senator and the mayor of southwestern town of Béziers, at the beginning of February.

And towards the end of February a second wave of letters was sent to, amongst others, the justice minister - Rachida Dati, the interior minister - Michèle Alliot-Marie and the culture minister - Christine Albanel.

The media was rife with speculation as to whether the anonymous letters were the work of a group or "cell" or perhaps the ramblings of one slightly unbalanced individual or as Alliot-Marie said at one point "someone who was a little deranged".

On Wednesday the mystery seemed to have been solved when a 47-year-old military reservist was arrested at his home in Montpellier and taken into police custody.

He had reportedly been "denounced" by his former girlfriend and although he is currently only "helping police with their investigations", if charged and found guilty he could face a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment and a fine of up to €45,000.

While that has been making the headlines, another somewhat similar case also made the news this past week.

Similar in the sense that it seems at face value to be a threat from an anonymous source - this time though aimed at a supermarket chain and the general public.

It involves a man in the town of Vannes in the west of France, who last weekend went along to a local supermarket to do his weekly shop.

Doing as so many of us have been advised to do at a time when belt-tightening and counting the centimes is paramount, he added a family-sized (850 grammes) jar of Nutella - a kind of chocolate spread often eaten on toast at breakfast time - to his trolley and continued with his shopping before heading to the check-out, paying and going home.

A couple of days later, according to a report in Wednesday's edition of the national daily, Le Parisien and reported throughout the media, he opened the jar and discovered not the famous spread he had been looking forward to, its place something that resembled a bomb.

Not surprisingly he contacted the authorities immediately and a bomb disposals expert was dispatched to his home. Although it turned out to be merely a harmless copy, the regional police have opened an enquiry to discover how a fake bomb came to be inside a jar of Nutella in the first place.

The manufacturer of the product here in France, Ferrero, released a statement to the media on Wednesday in which it said that the first it had heard of the "bomb" was from the reports in the newspapers.

"It's highly unlikely that the production facilities were involved in any way," the statement read, which of course rather leaves everyone wondering how it got there and why?

Strange perhaps, and maybe not to be taken as light-heartedly if, as Le Parisien reports, the accompanying note found with the "bomb" is to be believed.

In a hand- written message the police were warned to treat the affair seriously and do their utmost to find the culprit as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Raffles hotel, Singapore - a fellah can dream can't he?

Let me whisk you away for a few minutes to another world and a place that might even be regarded by some as harking back to a bygone era.

Sit back, close your maybe not otherwise you won't be able to read what follows....and join me as I recount a recent stopover in Singapore and a stay at Number 1 Beach Road.

That's the address of the Raffles hotel, a place steeped in history (potted version to follow - more detail can be found here) and one of those magical names that conjures up all sorts of romantic images of a gentler, more genteel time perhaps.

Now let me admit straight up that I'm not in the habit of frequenting the watering holes and resting places of the rich and famous - far from it. Because that's what in a very real sense the Raffles hotel is.

It combines luxury with tradition, perhaps a little out of place in these times of financial woes and is definitely the stomping ground of those with probably more sense than money, world leaders and dignitaries, A-list celebrities and the like.

So what, you might wonder, was I doing there? Well it was a combination of factors really.

It's one of those hotels (along with the Old Cataract in Aswan) I've always wanted to visit, and I got the chance last week, partially as a late Christmas present from my nearest and dearest (lucky me) but also as a reward for overcoming my fear of flying and agreeing to force myself on into an oversized lump of metal to fly half way around the world in search of some winter sunshine.

Just one night mind you, and these are some of my impressions as I poked my nose through the door to see how the so-called "other half" lives.

The Raffles is of course rich with history and tradition.

Even though it's rather a throwback to British colonialism (writ large), certainly in terms of architecture and custom, it was in fact founded over 120 years ago by four Armenian brothers, Martin, Tigran, Aviet, and Arshak Sarkies.

It is without doubt a Singapore landmark and has been declared a national monument by the government. Its heyday was probably the first couple of decades of the last century, and it has in its time seen the great and glorious pass through its doors.

If its pristine white walls could talk they would probably have more than a few tales to tell.

The hotel bears the name of the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles and it survived World War II and the Japanese occupation.

It closed for business two decades ago to undergo a serious multi-million dollar makeover, reopening in 1991. It has also changed hands several times and is now owned by a private international investment company based in Los Angeles.

So much for the past (a reminder once again that you can find out more should you wish to at the hotel's official website here) how about the present?

What exactly do those with deep pockets get for their money.

Well it doesn't come cheap, that's for sure.

Perhaps I shouldn't have (after all I wasn't coughing up the spondoolicks for an overnight stay) but I checked out the rates and GULP they start at something like 690 Singapore dollars (around $US 444 or €335 Euros) for the hotels simplest suites - the hotel doesn't have any "rooms" - rising to goodness knows what at the highest end of the range.

I guess it's a question of "If you have to ask, then you can't afford."

For that you get a warm and personalised welcome when you enter the voluminous lobby and you're escorted to your room - er sorry suite - by a member of staff.

Once there, all the buttons, knobs and doodahs of exquisitely furnished "quarters" are explained, your own personal butler drops by and then you're left to wallow in the splendour.

Now a note on the butler. Of course it's all very charming to have someone around who will cater to your every whim and fancy, but it's also a little disconcerting as such a service is usually carried out by the hotel concierge and unless you're tremendously exigent, you'll be hard-pushed to really find a use for him.

The most I managed was to have him book a table at one of the hotel's eight or so restaurants (I rather lost count).

The principle at Raffles seems to be that anyone staying at the hotel is not treated as a guest but as a resident, and such service, attention to detail and all round pampering can at times be more than a little overwhelming.

Spending just one night there of course didn't really give me the chance to experience all it has to offer, the billiard room, the spa, the pool, the splendid gardens or the shopping, but of course no visit to the Raffles - be it as a "resident" or just dropping in for a quick look around - would be complete without trying out the legendary Long Bar and knocking back a Singapore Sling, invented and first served there around a century ago.

Here's the recipe for anyone who's interested.

I had been warned in advance what to expect - a mixture of businessmen, tourists, ex-pats - sat at the bar or at tables overhung with huge wicker fans, music in the background and monkey nut shells all over the floor.

You see tradition has it that as you munch your way through the nuts distributed freely around the place, you deposit the shells - where else but on the floor.

"It's all very British," I had been told by a good friend - a foreigner who clearly must believe it's typical behaviour of my fellow countrymen. But to be quite honest everyone joins in and does as tradition dictates.

So there you go - the briefest of looks at the Raffles hotel.

Time to for me to return to reality and struggle home through the rain and the rush hour traffic.

It was certainly one of my personal "must dos before the Grim Reaper beckons" crossed of my wish list, but would I really have forked out the money to stay at the Raffles from my own wallet?

Perhaps but probably not.

There again, I'm always open to offers to make a return trip there (or anywhere else for that matter) if anyone is willing to sponsor me to indulge myself on wanton pleasure at their expense.

I'll even promise to write about it afterwards.

Well a fellah can dream can't he?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Mealtime in Malaysia

Monday saw the launch of the 100th edition of the Michelin guide here in France, the "bible" for gourmets (and gourmands) with deep pockets and a taste for fine dining around the world

No real surprises as many of the "ups and downs" had already been leaked over the weekend, and as expected only one restaurant joined the guide's crème de la crème three-star club.

It just happens to be a regular haunt of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, Le Bristol - a mere hop and a skip (or a bloated belly wobble if you like) from the Elysée palace - his official residence.

Say no more!

Of course while many French - rightly or wrongly - consider France to be the very standard bearer of haute cuisine, or at least the arbiter thereof, with food and drink being high on any region's list of priorities, other countries have more than enough on offer to tickle the taste buds of the curious traveller.

Guilty as charged - a somewhat contrived way of sharing some of the food that passed my lips during a recent food frenzy in Malaysia.

Living in a country which prides itself on its gastronomic tradition, and hailing from one which rather lacks a reputation for culinary excellence, food and eating have always been part of the joy of travelling for me.

Trying out local dishes gives also gives me the chance to gain an insight into the culture - well that's my excuse and although it might be stretching a point a little too far, I'm sticking to it.

So without too much (further) ado, here's a taste of just one meal among many, I had the pleasure or downing last week on the Malaysian island of Langkawi.

Just sitting here bashing away at the keyboard fair whets the appetite as I try to make some sense of the long-hand notes I took immediately after the meal.

Well I could hardly sit there stuffing my face with a computer on my lap now could I? That would surely have been one step down from those sitting through a meal with a mobile 'phone clapped to the ear.

There are a few (for my chops) unpronounceable names, and I only hope the spelling is correct. But I'm sure if I make the odd error I'll be forgiven.

It was a blow-out of reasonable proportions - four courses and eleven dishes (I counted) - suitably named the Malaysian heritage menu.

For starters, l'entrée of course. Not just one, but three separate dishes.

Otak otak udang - prawn cake in banana leaf, Pai tee ayam dan Sayur-sayuran dengan sos cili - chicken pai tee with chili plum sauce and Kerabu pelam - local young mango salad.

The prawn cake won me over immediately - something of a surprise as I'm not usually a great fan, while the plum sauce was rather overpowering and the young mango salad tasted a little soapy - or at least how I imagined a bar might taste if I were actually to try eating one.

Not the greatest of beginnings perhaps, but it left room for improvement.

Next up, Sup makaman laut bersamo tomato - or seafood soup with tomatoes.

Surprisingly the tomatoes weren't as overpowering as I had feared. How come I can never get just the right tanginess when using them in soup?

And the whole dish really came alive when washed down by a cheeky little Australian Sauvignon blanc. That really was something of a treat as of course what's usually available back home in France wine and nothing else.

On to the main course - four dishes - they definitely needed to be eaten in the correct order from the least to the most spicy. Thankfully the waiters were on hand to offer guidance.

So bearing that in mind the course kicked off with the Siakap merah goreng tradisi dihidang bersama sos liman kasturi or deep fried snapper with dried herbs, the mildest of the four, and then moved on to the Daging kurma - coriander spiced beef, deliciously tender and rather heavy on the coriander.

But really no complaints on that front as I could eat the stuff until it comes out of my ears.

The Sayuran segar bersama herba masala or masala vegetables went down a treat, which just left the spiciest of the lot requiring some attention, the Ayam merah dimasak dengan jintan or chicken braised with tomato, chili and fennel seeds.

Actually there was nothing to worry about even for this wimp of a palate as it wasn't overly "hot" and had a pleasingly distinctive and lingering aftertaste.

Nasi berperisa oren - orange rice and Papedum lada hitam - black pepper papadum accompanied all four dishes as did another Aussie wine - this time a Shiraz.

Finally pudding or dessert - not exactly my favourite as I don't have much of a sweet tooth and perhaps harbour too many childhood memories of British school dinners and "afters" (prunes and semolina - yeeurk).

So when I discovered that we would be served Kuih loyang dan bebola ais limau kasturi or
steamed banana pudding in banana leaf and crispy fritter with calamansi sherbet, I wasn't exactly brimming with excitement.

But again I was pleasantly surprised and the portion was not a gut-busting size.

All right so the meal might not have been the stuff of worthy of Michelin's three stars, but it sure left one person happily replete and convinced that through his tummy he had experienced some of the culinary delights of another culture.

And all that without the belt-adjusting bloated sensation often felt after a heavy and rich meal back home.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Langkawi rain forest - a five star natural luxury

Ready for a natural history lesson - of sorts?

I'll try to keep it short, although I'm not making any promises as it's not exactly easy to condense such a vast and vital subject into a couple of hundred words.

But here goes.

It comes off the back of a recent trip to the Malaysian island of Langkawi, which bills itself as "brimming with culture, mysteries, legends and an abundance of natural scenery".

It was, the travel agent promised us when we booked last-minute, the "perfect getaway with guaranteed sunshine at this time of the year and wonderful beaches."

And as plans to search for some winter sun in the French Caribbean had fallen through after a series of strikes and protests in both Guadeloupe and Martinique, it seemed the perfect alternative - with the added bonus that we might actually "learn" something rather than sloth it out all day on the beach.

Langkawi, the Jewel of Kedah is in reality an archipelago of 99 islands (plus five other temporary ones) with the largest being Pulau Langkawi with Kuah as the capital.

It's where all the "action" takes place.

Actually there's not really a great deal of that in the sense that might be understood in Bali or Phuket, the main competitors in the region in terms of tourist destinations.

Unique treasure

"While the others have the nightlife, surfing and culture," explains tour guide and conservationist Irshad Mobarak, "Here we have something quite unique which has to be treasured and preserved."

And that "something quite unique" comes in the form of one of the world's oldest rain forests and the mangrove swamps.

In 2007 the whole of the island was designated a World Geopark status by UNESCO and that has played an increasingly important role in maintaining the delicate balance between the influx of tourists, which began in the late 1980s, and protecting the environment from our intrusive wanderings.

The government has encouraged a more eco-friendly type of tourism, and although there are more than 70 hotels on the island, a programme has been put in place to make both locals and visitors aware of the need to protect and preserve the treasures the place has to offer.

Mobarak and his colleagues are probably at the forefront of that effort being made to "protect and preserve".

A former banker, he has spent the best part of the past two decades heading up a team of guides aiming to show visitors around while "trying to educate and get across the beauty of the rain forest in a way that helps people understand."

This gently spoken but clearly impassioned spokesman for wildlife naturalism quickly draws the listener in and reveals some of the rain forest's marvels while at the same time drumming home the need for preservation.

"It's the gift of the gab," he freely admits to one morning session of walkers on hearing they're from Ireland. "I have Hogan blood in me too and can tell a good tale."

It's not true though, he can't just "tell" a good tale. He casts a magical spell over the listener as he makes the place come alive in a setting which offers five-star luxury in terms of appreciating what nature has to offer.

Neighbours from hell

One moment he has us all with our necks craned towards the sky as he explains how a pair of kites became the "neighbours from hell" for nesting eagles when they moved in to their territory a couple of years ago.

"The kites have moved on now," he tells us. "And hopefully this year the eagles will be able to raise their young without being constantly pestered. They didn't breed last year."

The next moment he's going into raptures to explain the extraordinary measures undertaken by the tailorbird to build its nest using spiders web to bind together a leaf to provide a suitable "home".

And then he's mimicking the cry of the mighty hornbill, describing its majestic flight and explaining how at the moment we'll only see the males as the females (they're monogamous) are quite literally holed-up within the nest rearing the young.

During a night walk led by Peter, one of Moborak's colleagues, I innocently ask what the constant racket I've been hearing all day is.

"It sounds as though there's some building work going on in the neighbourhood," I say. "It can't possibly be 'nature'."

"Cicades," comes the answer. "Whose song is being sung by the males rubbing parts of their abdomens together (I'm paraphrasing)."

Breeding by (prime) numbers

And then comes Peter's magical explanation of the insect's life and breeding cycles.

"They stay buried in the ground in their immature form for a number of years," he tells us.

"It can be one, three, five, seven, eleven or thirteen years - depending on which group an individual belongs to - always a prime number thereby confusing some likely predators whose lifecycles simply won't be able to cope with such complexity."

He goes on to explain that when they emerge from the ground, it's for one to two weeks of what has to be the noisiest "love song" ranging from "classical" in the morning, "pop" at lunchtime to "heavy rock" in the evening, as every male goes about attracting a bevy of appropriate beauties.

Once the act is done, the female will lay her eggs before dying.

The male will continue his reproductive "warblings" for just a few days longer, before he too dies. Adults mate and reproduce ensuring the existence of a future generation they'll never get to see - a cycle that is repeated and has been honoured by cultures throughout the centuries as a symbol of everlasting life.

Phew - and I had always thought that cicadas were just noisy tropical grasshoppers.

Taking flight

We quickly learn that the rain forest is not just a place where birds take to the wing.

In Langkawi it's also home to flying foxes (apparently a kind of bat - I didn't get to see any) squirrels and even snakes.

And that's all topped off by the flying monkey or otherwise called flying lemur - the colugo.

Although they're not true lemurs of course, which are native to Madegascar - the colugo has recently been confirmed as a "missing link" between two different types of species Peter explains excitedly.

"What had previously been thought of as a rodent has in fact been reclassified only last year as a primate."

Learning from mistakes

A good reputable guide will not take you tramping through the inner heart of the rain forest, destroying and disturbing nature as you go.

Instead they'll stick to the very edge, which will still give the curious more than enough to hear, see and smell.

The same is true of the mangrove swamps. The previously common practice of throwing food for eagles or monkeys is not just discouraged, it's banned. But the mistakes of the 80s and 90s are proving difficult to reverse.

The omnivorous macaque monkeys for example now expect to be fed and line up on the rocks as boats pass by. During a stop at the bat cave, visitors are warned that if the macaques appear they could become aggressive and intrusive as they search for titbits.

"It's an uphill battle," admits another guide. "There's now official certification for those accompanying tourists, and those working illegally are encouraged by others to get the appropriate training," he adds.

"But even though there are regular patrols to ensure that animals aren't being fed, the old habit of getting animals up close to keep the tourists happy and enable them to get some great 'snaps' for the full on experience, is an all-too-tempting one, especially if the guide wants some extra tips at the end."


Tourism has not only arrived in Langkawi, it's very much part of island life now.

It has boosted the local economy and brought with it a degree of development to what was before a small agricultural community - a fact that Mobarak and his colleagues fully acknowledge.

Their job and the responsibility of the government is a delicate juggling act and there's little doubts that they have their work cut out to overturn past bad practices.

"The mangrove swamps are a vital element of the environment," Peter explains at the end of our four-hour tour.

"They're the breeding ground for sea food and we need to protect them," he adds.

The hope as far as Mobarak is concerned is through conservation work and carefully organised tours, there'll be increased awareness of just how precious the rain forest and mangrove swamps are.

"I like to consider myself a conservationist first and foremost, and it's great to see the reaction people get from understanding nature", says Mobarak.

Oh dear. That wasn't very short was it? Apologies.
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