Le soleil et la neige (or lack thereof)
December 31, 2006, 6:58 pm
Filed under: england

We woke up to our first morning in La Plagne early despite our long day before, keen to hit the slopes. After dealing with a couple more Crystal stuff-ups with our lift passes we eventually got out there, both on snowboards for the first time since Canada.

I realised that the better you get at something, the harder it is to try something else. Having not fallen down on skis for a couple of years, it was a shock having to get up again and again after falling over on the snowboard. It was lucky I was wearing my new helmet.

I quickly got the feel for snowboarding again, but given the less than perfect conditions I was hesitant to do more than leaf (the basic, safe snowboarding technique), fearful of getting overambitious and ending up with an icy nosebleed. So I wasn’t getting much speed up, and it wasn’t as exciting as snow trips should be.

I found La Plagne a pretty challenging resort for snowboarding, as there are a lot of uphill bits linking the runs, which make me fall over. I get a little bit of speed up, then see I’m coming up to a flat or uphill bit. I start thinking ‘okay, just keep balanced, keep going, just don’t fall over, because then you’ll have to get off and walk and that sucks…’ and will promptly fall over from concentrating too hard. Then the only option is to remove your bindings and skate along, while skiers zip past, or even worse if it’s uphill take your board off altogether and start trudging.

Some time in the morning I fell off coming off a ski lift and absolutely caned my leg on a pole (once again, thanks to the helmet), but the final straw towards the end of the day was when I was doing the aforementioned cruising along a flat bit, hit a rock and fell forward, skidding along the ice until my face stopped me.

I lay there for a while, gathering energy, then got up and vowed “that’s it! This sucks! That really hurt. I am not snowboarding any more unless there’s more snow!” So I packed it in, taking my snowboard back to the rental place to swap for skis, which luckily is free in La Plagne.

There on in it was smooth sailing, or skiing rather. There was no more snow so I skied the rest of the week. I zipped around, waiting patiently when Ian had to take off his board or skate, elegantly disembarking from ski lifts, able to ski right to our door, and most importantly not falling over.

Snowboarding in Europe is not the done thing, like in Australia or Canada. 80% of people ski, and 10% who were snowboarding two years ago have moved on to the next big craze, snowblades, which are the really short skis, as good for terrain parks as the slopes.

We did spend a lot of time on the slopes but there were other highlights. Many involved food. One was Ian’s first proper fondue, at a cute cabin-like restaurant at the base of Belle Plagne. Another was the constant supply of fresh, crusty baguettes and other bakery treats. Unlike in Australia, being in the middle of a mountain resort does not mean paying through the nose for fresh food. There is a bakery in Belle Plagne that has a line at all hours of the day, and it was charming watching people walking through the snow with baguettes in their hands. We indulged in French cheeses like Roquefort, and bought so many saucissons we had to take some home.

On the Thursday Ian hurt his shoulder falling over, as snowboarders do, and on Friday didn’t want to risk further damage, so we opted to return our gear early and set out for a mountain hike instead. We got the aforementioned foodstuffs together for a picnic, along with several beers, and set up the mountain (Ian carried the food of course).

We were rewarded with a sun-drenched peak with a view of Mont Blanc, where we sat and ate and drank until dusk. The food was a little less tasty than usual given it was half frozen, but the experience was worth it. We vowed next time we go on a snow trip to take a day off the slopes to do for a hike and picnic again, if the weather permits.


Going from England to France is like crossing Aust
December 26, 2006, 6:55 pm
Filed under: england

We were flying from Stansted to Chambery, which was fortunate, because flights from most other London airports were cancelled due to fog. Of course we didn’t escape unscathed – the chaos and diversions from other airports infected Stansted and our flight was delayed by three hours.

We were shepherded into the aircraft after nearly two hours of waiting. After everyone settled on board, the captain announced that our departure slot actually wasn’t for another hour, but sometimes if planes are ready earlier other slots come open, so we might be able to take off sooner. There were sounds of dismay from passengers, who after already waiting for four hours (including the two involved in checking in), were now facing another, stuck in a confined spot going nowhere.

Luckily I’d brought a lot of reading material, and Ian had his DVD player. I can only imagine what the mothers with small children would have thought.

We were flying with Titan Airways, which is a small charter company that does UK to France runs specifically for ski package companies over winter. My theory is that the big, regular airlines get priority for flight slots, because we sat on the tarmac for the full hour before taking off.

The flight was okay, but when we arrived in Chambery the tiny airport was in chaos, given that the majority of flights were to London airports, to which flights were cancelled. Thanking our stars that we were arriving and not leaving, we found our bags and eventually found our bus, after tracking down representatives from the package provider, Crystal, who was meant to be transferring us.

We got a prime seat on the bus (I suffer from motion sickness, so this is important) and set off. We were informed we would have to transfer at Aime, which was met with more groans from passengers. After a couple of hours we arrived in Aime, which is at the base of the Alps. There we were split up into minibuses for our respective resorts. Once again we were among the first on board, which was good, because soon the minivan was overflowing with people.

Our driver spoke no English (which was fair enough) and didn’t seem to care that the bus was overloaded. Two girls tried to squeeze into the seat next to Ian, asking if we could squeeze over a bit. Thankfully before the bus driver got too much momentum a Crystal representative came up and forced some of the people to get out and go into another bus. Two groups were split up, which caused a bit of consternation.

By now I realised that contrary to the promises of making things simple and efficient, Crystal just hired a bunch of teenagers who had no idea what was going on and sent them out to deal with customers problems, of which there were many.

During one of several delays, we chatted to the young guy who was our Crystal rep. He unashamedly admitted he spoke no French and was not at all familiar with the resort we were staying at, and had only been in La Plagne for a couple of weeks since finishing his training somewhere else.

We eventually arrived in Belle Plagne, the village in La Plagne we were staying at, where the check-in staff tried to charge us, even though we’d paid for the package in advance through Crystal. Her English was worse than my French, and she didn’t or chose not to understand when I said ‘nous avons deja achete, nous avons deja paye…?’). Calling over our Crystal representative didn’t help at all of course, since he spoke not a word of French. Luckily the same drama was happening at the other check-in desk with another group who had arrived with us, and somehow Crystal and the hotel sorted it out.

After lugging our gear uphill through the car park we finally arrived at our room, which was in the highest apartments of the resort. .. great for skiing in at the end of the day. We opened the door and were confronted with a dinghy studio… with no double bed. Two twins, obstinately split, and a bunk bed. We decided to haul the mattresses off the bunks and put them between the twins, which were also kind of our living room couch.

After doing a bit of nesting, it was time to go out for dinner. We’d been up since 6am and it was now 9pm. Ian pointed out that after all of my raving about how great Europe is because it’s so easy to travel to different places, with all the delays it took us the same time to get from Cambridge to La Plagne as it did from Adelaide to Falls Creek. It was a depressing thought.

Nevertheless, we’d arrived finally, and we were going to have Ian’s first ever French meal! We went to leave our apartment and the lock wouldn’t work. We then discovered the phone line to reception written everywhere didn’t work. After a fair amount of swearing we decided Ian would stay in the room while I walked back down the slope to the reception area and got them to deal with it. It turned out the door has a particular locking mechanism involving lifting the door handle while turning the lock, which of course no one had told us about. I also complained to the guy I summoned that we’d tried to call reception. He looked at me incredulously and said ‘but 9 isn’t the reception number, it’s 5900!’ I wanted to throttle him.

Another half an hour later we got to go to dinner. Thankfully the French eat later than us, so at 9:30 the restaurants were still serving. I got a salade au chevre chaud, after my gloriously memorable meal in Montpellier, while Ian got a not-so-French calzone. After trying my salad he vowed to order proper French food for the rest of the week. The aperitif and Belgian beer calmed us and by the end of the meal we were excited and happy about being in the French Alps.

Merry Christmas!
December 22, 2006, 6:12 pm
Filed under: england

Happy festive season, wherever you are!

London Exhibition
December 15, 2006, 6:15 pm
Filed under: england

I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which I’d never heard of before my Finnish friend Ilona took me there. It was fantastic – as well as a sensational collection of vintage clothing they had this intriguing light exhibition in the courtyard.

Ipswich ripper?
December 13, 2006, 12:45 pm
Filed under: australia, england, news

Living in South Australia most of my life, I’m used to tales of strange killers lurking in surrounding areas, like Snowtown’s bodies in the barrels saga, and the murder of Peter Falconio.

But the next time a brit says something about deviants in the outback, I’m going to point out they don’t have a great track record themselves.

The dead women in Suffolk story has been slowly gathering in the British media, and with two more bodies found the storm has hit.

Geographically speaking, this killer is closer than any of the Australian ones were, but differing population densities mean Ipswich seems as close as Broome. So we’re safe as houses here in Cambridge.

Why city high-flyers rap
December 5, 2006, 2:06 pm
Filed under: england, environment, media, news, science

times.jpgThe Times newspaper’s most prominent environmental story today is called “Why rap has become the music of choice for city high-flyers”.

The third sentence is “the study of great tits reveals that not only are they more raucous than their country cousins but will experiment with new sounds and arrangements.”

The story is about how bird calls differ in country and urban areas… of course.

I used to denigrate the the Adelaide Advertiser for its sexing up of science for publication.

But I take it back. Stories in the UK are much worse. I haven’t even read a copy of the Sun yet, Murdoch’s infamous London tabloid.

Goodbye river
December 5, 2006, 10:09 am
Filed under: england, news, travel, weather

This morning was eerie.

I’m trying to get used to this humid but cold weather. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Calgary in Canada was freezing, but so dry that the second I left the cold I thawed out in a fiery flood of blood to the peripheries. There’s something satisfying about that kind of dry cold.

Here it’s cold – but damp. Some kind of orange mould grows on my cleanser bottle. I suppose I’m glad it’s not full of toxic chemicals, but it still seems like an oxymoron.

When I shower condensation in the bathroom battles with the frosty exterior, and water courses down the window panes like clear blood from a severed artery. Our toothbrushes and mouthwash on the windowsill live in an inescapable pool of runoff.

I appreciate Adelaide’s Mediterranean climate like never before.

This morning was humid and windy. So humid it seemed that I almost didn’t need my gloves and scarf over my coat, until a gust of wind and leaves hit me in the face, reminding me of the unpredictability of the weather here.

I cycled from my house to the bus stop along the River Cam, as usual. But today the river wasn’t clear and sparkling and there were no swans to greet me. The river was muddied and stagnant. I wondered if the gale winds the Met Office had been predicting had swept through overnight, dragging up sediment with it.

dsc00126.JPGReaching another part of the river I was stunned to see the punts grounded and abandoned, a few ducks puttering about in the mud, metres below the water line.

It occurred to me that perhaps this was normal – perhaps regularly in winter nasty weather comes along and decimates the River Cam. I’ve been lulled into a sense of familiarity with Cambridge over the last couple of months – perhaps there’s still much to learn.

Or perhaps with the changing climate it’s something long-time residents will have to confront as well.

Arriving at work, I asked if anyone knew what had happened to the River.

“Oh, some guys missing so they’re draining the river,” one of my colleagues said. I looked in the local paper and there was the story of the Jesus College graduate who went missing at 1am on Sunday morning, without a trace. His bike had been left locked up in town, his phone and wallet haven’t been used since then. Of course, he’s fallen in the river, so it’s being drained.

dsc00129forweb.JPGNever mind the ducks and swans, never mind the fish and other wildlife. A Cambridge graduate is missing!

“I hope it’s fixed by Saturday because I wanted to take my friend punting,” my colleague said.

In Australia getting more water in the river has become so critical it’s become political. Here a drunk lad falling in on Saturday night means the river must be dismantled.

It reminds me that in Europe people have been messing around with nature a lot longer than we have back home.