Crossing the border
September 29, 2007, 11:38 am
Filed under: europe, events, festivals, spain, travel

In case you haven’t guessed, I like France a lot. My French is at a level that with a bit of immersion I improve consistently, so I enjoy using it. Hence I was sad when we crossed the border into Spain. I was back to square one again, with a smattering of knowledge that falls short whenever trying to have a conversation with anyone. I will be here for a month, so hopefully I’ll look back on this and think “gosh I’ve come a long way”.

At least I was crossing into somewhere nice and, spiteful as it sounds, where other people have language problems too. Crossing from Biarritz to San Sebastian took us in the heart of Basque country. The Basque have their own language that’s about as similar to Spanish as Welsh is to English. It seems to have a lot of x’s. To give you an idea of how different they are, the town we arrived in, called San Sebastian in Spanish (and therefore English and French), is actually called Donostia by the locals. We were lucky enough to be passing through during the Donostia Zinemaldia (that is, the San Sebastian Film Festival).

We knew this was around the time we would be there, so on arrival Ian asked our taxi driver in broken Spanish whether the film festival was still on. He responded in an incomprehensible Basque accent, but also thrust the newspaper towards us and pointed at the picture of Demi Moore posing on the local red carpet. In case we didn’t get it, we then passed a colossal sign advertising the festival.

Though I do think planning your travel is overrated, in some circumstances, such as during festivals, I recommend it. We had booked our hostel (which was too crappy to merit naming here). It would have been clever to book tickets to something during the festival, but we hadn’t. So there were tickets left only to one English-language production. It was about 5 euros each so we thought ‘what the hell’, festivals are about not being able to base your decision on reviews anyway because you’re the first to see it. So we went and saw ‘Berlin’, which is a doco about Lou Reed’s final concert. It sounded like it could be cool, but we walked out after 20 minutes. Lou Reed may be a great musician, but calling it a doco was exaggerating. Someone had basically just filmed the concert and called it a doco. After four songs we were bored and left.

Emerging from the theatre I saw there were clearly a lot of other people doing things besides attending the festival, because the narrow, high-walled streets were packed. It was about 10pm and of course in Spain on a Saturday night, this is early. Kids were running amok, playing street hockey and elastics (a blast from the past for me). We wandered amongst the bars, having cervazas and tinto de veranos and of course tapas. They have some freaky tapas there. There were some awesome bruschetta (excuse my Italian) with jamón (cured ham) and pimientos (peppers) and excellent squid. I was intrigued by a bruschetta that appeared to be covered in fried worms. We asked the barman what they were and he said they were from the sea. I wasn’t game. Eating jamón while looking at the festy pig leg it came from hanging from the ceiling is adventurous enough for me. Maybe another time, once I’m more adapted to Spanish cuisine.


Biarritz, longboarding capital
September 28, 2007, 3:52 pm
Filed under: beach, biarritz, france, surfing, travel

Biarritz has an amazing assortment of beaches. There’s the little swimming beach, tucked amongst columns and salt-sprayed restaurants. There’s the Grand Plage (pictured), indeed grand with its sweeping promenade, framed by a lighthouse and viewing platform. Then there’s the surf beach, where hundreds of longboarders descend to appreciate the vast lines of waves, rolling in one after the other like a conveyor belt.

I ached to surf, but given we only had an afternoon we settled on bodysurfing. This resulted in Ian getting his head surfed over in his determination to catch a particularly good wave that some surfers were also eyeing off, but after a year in Cambridge he can afford to lose a few brain cells.

Surf is of course variable, so perhaps we just caught the Biarritz surf beach on particularly good days. But I suspect the crisp, glassy curls that seem to fondle the surfers as they tiptoe towards the front of their boards are characteristic waves for Biarritz. For me, this is ideal surf.

I thought fondly of my South African longboard that sits neglected in my mum’s shed at home, too long to fit in cars for most surf trips in these days of fuel efficiency worries. I bought it from an English guy who was trading to a shortboard halfway through his round the world trip, who brought it into the surf shop I worked in as a teenager. Since then it’s had some traumatic experiences like being whipped in a Glenelg storm that landed it in board hospital, and being the subject of a custody battle with my ex boyfriend.

I vowed that, if I win the lottery (or perhaps get a good enough paying job down the track), I will buy a place in Biarritz and take my longboard there, where it can live amongst its kind and serve me well on my annual trips to France.

My French home
September 27, 2007, 3:33 pm
Filed under: beach, biarritz, france, sport, travel

We arrived in Biarritz after an uneventful night in Bordeaux. The air smelt fresh like the sea. In comparison with the Cote d’Azur, I found le Pays Basque more laid back and less pretentious.

Biarritz is my kind of place. It’s a combination of the European sophistication I love about France, and Australia’s ‘life is good, why waste it inside?’ attitude. I feel at home here. I grew up by the beach, immersed in Australia’s surf culture, so Biarritz merges my positive memories of growing up with my fondness for European ideals.

We felt even more at home because France is hosting la coupe du monde de rugby, which by some twist of fate I worked as a reporter for in Australia in 2005. This means I have a passing interest in the sport, as opposed to the others played exclusively by guys, which I find more tedious than dealing with accountants.

There was some cultural mishmashing. I get all worked up about the UK’s disregard for the Pacific, so I found myself in a French bar eating Spanish Tapas, going for the Tongans versus the English. The UK has been good to me, but the Tongans are more worthy of support from Australia.

Perhaps it was because of the rugby or perhaps it’s just a welcoming region of France, but in Biarritz the locals were chatty. I asked a man to take a photo of Ian and I overlooking the bay, which led to a conversation that finished with our French photographer saying he was sorry to say it would be a final between France and England but he felt for us in our looming loss. He said this with a wincing, empathetic expression and his hand on his heart. I graciously thanked him for the photo and his condolences.

Cancan or Eurovision?
September 25, 2007, 2:47 pm
Filed under: france, theatre, travel

Something else I thought Ian should see while in Paris was the Moulin Rouge. I’d been to look at the Moulin Rouge, with its garish lights and suggestive posters, other times in Paris. Most of those times I’ve been a skint backpacker, so entering the boudoir had been out of the question. But after a year working in the UK, with my guy in tow, seemed like a good time to fork out the extravagant cost of an evening show. By the time this plan occurred to me we were far from Montmatre base, closer to the heart of Paris. So we went to a nearby tourist office and asked for tickets for le spectacle ce soir.

“Non”, the lady shook her head, “you can’t get tickets for the Moulin Rouge at the last minute, it’s too busy.”

“Mais nous sommes ici seulement pour ce soir,” I lamented.

She gave me a look of sympathy and a shrug, but whipped out a brochure and called the number. She spoke in much more rapid French to the lady at Moulin Rouge. She looked surprised.

“You have good fortune! There are two tickets left for tonight!” Then she glanced at Ian’s ridiculous ‘sports casual’ T-shirt.

“But you need to dress up, eh? You cannot enter the Moulin Rouge in a teeshirte,” she explained. I silently praised myself for packing a dress and some less practical but more elegant black shoes. Such decisions are hard when backpacking.

So several hours later we descended into the Moulin Rouge. We were seated, squashed into the far left corner (as happens with last minute miracle tickets), next to a Scottish couple. The waiter brought our obligatory bottle of champagne.

I was delighted that the Scottish bloke was wearing a kilt. I wish Australia had an outlandish national costume that passes as formal wear. I only noticed that when we left though, because for the two-hour-long show I was dazzled by the costumes on stage. The bare breasts kept Ian enthralled, while I was amused by the fuzzy tomatoes that flipped into lips and then tails.

The Can-Can was classy, but to be honest the rest of the show was more comically Eurovision than what I expected from the posters. There were some awful 80s space-age costumes accompanied by bad English singing (why? Why? I thought the French were too proud to sing in English!? For good reason!), and unflattering hooped clown outfits. It was definitely the Moulin Rouge though. I’ve never seen a clown with bare breasts bouncing around before.

It’s French for good skin
September 24, 2007, 2:43 pm
Filed under: food, france, travel

We arrived in Paris with nothing planned but our hotel in Montmartre. My last few times I’ve stayed in the same hostel, La Maison, in a dorm room, but with Ian in tow and their phone number not working we decided instead on Calaincourt Square, which was tres Parisien and in a great location.After an evening in Montmartre, wandering around the district of my favourite church (thus far) in Europe, the Sacre Coeur, we spent the next day strolling through Paris towards the Eiffel Tower, via the Louvre and Champs-Élysées. It was Ian’s first time in Paris after all.

We were feeling peckish, so luck smiled upon us when we passed some ladies in pink handing out promotional tubs of yoghurt. They offered one to me and I accepted. Ian looked eager. The lady asked if he wanted one as well. “Oui!” he said enthusiastically.

We sat in the garden of a nearby church to consume our yoghurts and read the accompanying promotional material (good French practice). It turned out this yoghurt was unique in that it was ‘bien pour la peau’, the first yoghurt to enhance women’s beauty from the inside, thanks to added nutrients. “Every woman wants to look more beautiful,” it said. We understood why the woman had been reluctant to give Ian some of the pink yoghurt.

I don’t see why men can’t want beautiful skin as well.

Farewell Cambridge
September 24, 2007, 12:06 am
Filed under: travel

Cambridge farewell

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

It’s my last night (early morning, rather) in Cambridge – in several hours we leave for Paris.

Rosie and Chris cooked a fantastic last supper, with Goldie providing last-minute backup and transport services.

Our apartment is nearly empty, except for a few forlorn objects nobody wanted and bulging backpacks ready for departure.

Thanks to everyone who’s made my year in Cambridge so fantastic – it’s been one to remember!

I’m ready for the next adventure.

Three died
September 19, 2007, 7:31 pm
Filed under: africa, development, england, events, london, news, poverty, science, society

Karimba Primary School, by AP6.

Last week I was in London to report on the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene’s centenary conference, called, ‘Meeting the Millennium Development Goals’.

Professor Estambale from the University of Nairobi talked about whether preventing malaria in schoolchildren helped them learn better (you can read my story on it here).

He talked about the design of the study and his results. In explaining his figures for why not all the children recruited to receive treatment were tested afterwards, he said matter-of-factly, “three of them died”, and continued to explain why other children were not in the final figures.

I had one of those stop-life moments. Three of them died! Here was a man in London explaining his scientific results, just like so many other scientists, but he had to factor in that some of his study participants died. And this was in the group that received treatment! There were more in the placebo group. The deaths weren’t anything to do with his study – it’s just that in Africa, children die, for all sorts of reasons.

Of course we all know that children in Africa die all the time, but it was one of those moments that brought it home to me. I imagine all of the people I know working in science in developed countries who design studies, worrying about so many different factors, trying to recruit enough volunteers – imagine if some of them just died? Halfway through your study, they die for completely unrelated reasons, which you then factor into your results.

I guess it was also shocking because I associate African children dying as flyblown toddlers suffering from malnutrition, not school-age children, ready to sit tests at the end of the term so they can move on in life. I’ve never been a starving toddler (good work mum), but I have been a primary school kid cruising along through childhood, like the kids in the study.

It’s unimaginable that school kids could ever just die matter-of-factly in Western Europe. Needless to say, we have to stop it happening in other parts of the world.