Francais Imparfait

I’ve spent so long learning this language, working on it and playing with it and living by it, that there’s never been time for another. Wandering around the world I’ve wished for others, wishing that I could suck their syntax into my synapses and sing in them, but they stubbornly resist; the words won’t yield, the genders won’t gel, the grammar won’t give. About all I find easy are accents.

It’s hard work, learning another language in adulthood, as I found out last year, taking twelve months to assimilate enough Spanish to survive two weeks of travel. It might have been easier if I’d spent more time on it each week, but there’s never enough time. It might have been easier if I’d learnt more than a few words of it in school, too, but there wasn’t enough time then, either; Spanish isn’t a high priority in Australia.

Neither is French these days, but in that case I was luckier; two years of high school French and some evening classes a few years back have seen me through more than a few French-speaking countries. I always think I’ve forgotten it all, and enough of it always comes back to get by.



A la Recherche du Temps Paris

It’s always hard to make an old place new when writing about it, but how much harder when it’s one of the most visited cities on earth. Every second writer seems to have their own version of Paris, not to mention the painters, photographers, and countless tourists who’ve walked along the Seine. Travel writers nowadays gloss over it, passing through on their way to somewhere else in France; two books by one of my new favourite authors do just that. Because it’s only a short hop from London and New York, everyone assumes that we know all about it.

I suppose I did the same, partly because I’d actually been there before; Paris came towards the end of my own Grand Tour with the family at the age of eighteen. When Jane popped over there for a few days last year, I wasn’t too fussed that I’d run low on leave and couldn’t go with her. I wasn’t about to pass it up a second time, though, so when she went again for a conference last month I went too.



News in Brief

PARIS, mercredi 25 août—Tall red-haired bloke and delightful companion seen cavorting along Boulevard Montparnasse après-midi. Repeat sightings jeudi-dimanche à Notre Dame, Tour Eiffel, le Louvre, etc. First photos available at Detail, with more to come.



Remains in the Sand

The final part after Skye, Lewis and Harris.

This is my earliest memory.

I’m walking beside a giant dune, the brilliant white sand squeaking underfoot, the brilliant white sky glaring overhead. My attention is all at ground level, absorbed in the yellow and green spinifex spiking out of the sand. But I’m aware of a presence, tall, bearded: my father.

There’s no-one else here; there rarely is, on the east coast of Tasmania in 1970. I’m two, and I’m camping in Seymour with my Dad, while Mum is at home, pregnant with my brother.

I’ve found something: a grey shape in the sand, half-buried. It’s the small, dessicated corpse of an animal, a rat or, I prefer to think (and quite possibly it was), a bandicoot.

There’s a handkerchief scrap of skin; a bundle of bleached white bones; and a delicate feather-light skull. Or perhaps it’s fresher than that, and its face still has features; these memories are almost as old as I am, and have been shaped and reshaped over thirty-four years. I can picture this animal in my head, but its details blur under my gaze as sunlight bleeds into it from the sand.

“It’s a bandicoot,” Dad tells me, “a dead bandy.” And I suppose this is my first encounter with death. So this is what happens when you die; the sun bakes you dry, and the wind drives fine white sand through your ribs into your body, until one day you’re just sand, too.

Later that day, the campsite cleared and the fire put out, we climb into our grey ex-Hydro Land Rover and circle around to drive off. “Bye-bye,” I wave at the dunes. Bye-bye, campsite; bye-bye, Seymour. Bye, dead animal.

No darkness, no menace; just a natural death, and a quiet funeral.



Good for Any Time

First there was Skye, then Lewis, and now this...

Even though I’ve been hanging around universities for most of my adult life, part of me still doesn’t feel academic. It isn’t that I haven’t been schooled in the arcane ways of the Jargon and the Text, or had it drummed into me that academic writing avoids words like “isn’t” or “drummed”.

It’s because I haven’t owned any tweed.

Everyone with an M.A. in Obsolete Clichés knows that academics wear tweed. A gown is just for graduation, but a scratchy woollen blazer lasts a lifetime. True, that lifetime ended somewhere in the early 1960s, but who are we to reject an age-old Hollywood tradition?

For a few measly pounds, I could skip the academic rigmarole and go straight to tenure. It’s even easier than sending off for a mail-order Ph.D. in Tantric Theology.

And here I was, in the true home of tweed. Berwick-on-Tweed had been a sad disappointment; the foundations were all concrete, as far as I could tell, and none of the streets were paved with it. As for Tweed Heads in New South Wales, they looked like ordinary skin and bone to me.

Harris Tweed is in fact made all over the Long Isle. Our first sight of it was up in Ness, on the way to the Butt of Lewis. A handmade sign pointed to a small shed, which contained a green-painted 30-year-old loom powered by bicycle pedals fixed between the base and the seat. The shelves held samples of cloth and a few finished items, as well as homemade photo postcards of the woman who made them, sitting at that same loom.

Eventually a man turned up to take our money (clearly no scholar, because he wasn’t wearing any of the goods). I paid five pounds for a scarf that would have cost twenty-five on the Royal Mile. I’m not sure how much I’ll wear it around my itchy neck, but I can always wave it at promotional boards like a bullfighter.

It was good, but it was still one step away from the ultimate: Harris Tweed made in Harris.



Outwith the Inner

Part two of a trip that started in Skye.

The ferry crossing takes an hour and a half by the shortest route possible, from Uig on Skye to Tarbert in Harris. Looking out over the bow, the Minch fills all and then none of the window, as the horizon swings up and down like the edge of a trampoline.

We bounce off at Tarbert, a small town straddling the narrow neck where southern Harris joins north. Walls of rock rise up on either side of the join, and for a moment it’s hard to see where the road could go. Doubly hard, because the rain is now sheeting down.

We salmon-leap up to the crossing through North Harris, a solid march of grey-flecked brown mountains. I pull over in a passing place to let the one-lane traffic past, and wind down the window to photograph a loch, its surface rippling fast. The rain soaks the edge of my seat in the space of ten seconds.

The first surprise about the Isle of Harris is that it isn’t. This “island” is joined to its twin of Lewis, and not at the obvious point of the neck at Tarbert, but here in the forbidding natural barrier of the North Harris mountains. The boundary makes sense even today, when it takes only minutes to cross it by car; it would have made even more when the crossings were by foot, or skirting around the coast. But it would be a couple more days before we’d get a better sense of Harris; on this first day we continued up the coast to Stornoway. Or, as the signs had it, Steornobhagh.



The Skye Experience

Most Australians are bemused by the British obsession with the weather, but as a Tasmanian I never was, much. The line about “four seasons in one day” was an old friend long before the Crowded House song of the same name; a phrase that holds the strongest meaning for temperate islanders, like Tasmanians, Kiwis, and the people of the British Isles. We live at the mercy of vast grey oceans, waiting to see what surprises they’ll throw at us.

When my parents visited in April last year and we travelled around the north and north-west Highlands, we were all surprised by what the Atlantic threw at us: nothing. An overcast day or two in Orkney, and a bit of wind, but basically day after perfect blue day almost to the end. As it was too early for the midges, and too early for most other tourists, the conditions couldn’t have been better.





South Uist, the Outer Hebrides, 24 April 2004.

(More to come.)




It was going around at the end of February, and I came down with it that weekend, feeling it in the back of my throat during School of Rock. By Tuesday I was in nasal gridlock; which was bad enough by itself, but worse was having to get on a plane the next morning.

One session in the cabin-pressure brain vice later, I was back in Belgium—for five days, half of them at a work event in Leuven. It’s a pleasant town; there isn’t much reason to spend more than a day there as a tourist, but it’s fine if you’ve got other business there. The food’s good, as it always is in Belgium. I self-medicated with half a kilo of pralines. (It can’t have been enough, because I was still clogged up on the flight back; my ear canals were an Adventure in Sound. Whatever it was, it lasted another week.)




Parts one and two, for those coming in late.

Travel around Andalucía for long and you’ll climb a lot of hills. Every second village seems to be built on one, with a castle at its peak. The horizon in the countryside is a sine wave broken by blips of blocky square waves.

There’s a reason for it, of course: for a thousand years this was one of the most contested territories on earth. A few centuries of Visigoth rule gave way to half a millennium of the Moors, who in turn were pushed back over the centuries by the Christian reconquista.

It takes a special brand of righteousness to see the displacement of a civilisation three times as old as the U.S. as an elaborate undo command, but then there are those today who would have the past half-millennium of Catholic history replaced by a new al-Andalus: Spain as blackboard, wiped clean again and again, with traces of old chalk showing through.

The traces of Islamic Spain certainly are glorious. Seeing them, it’s impossible not to dwell on what once was, and what must have been lost. But it’s important to keep these treasures in perspective: they’re noticable because there’s so much of the new around them. The “uninspiring outer suburbs” the guidebooks complain about around every historic centre simply didn’t exist a few centuries or even decades ago. There just weren’t as many people.

Similarly, the survival of the Alcázar, Mezquita and Alhambra need not imply the loss of dozens of their equals. These buildings were the most important of their time, with more work devoted to their creation than any other. And they’re still here; parts have been damaged, it’s true, and a lot else has been lost, but these have survived, and they’re the equal of any monument in the world.




You wait a whole month for an entry, and then two come along at once. Part one is here.

Whenever you travel somewhere new, its tastes and colours and sounds rush at you like a happy child. Like in my favourite photo from Andalucía; the one I never took.

After a morning of wandering around Cádiz, we stopped at a pavement café just up from the markets for lunch. Not the best food we’d had, but some of the best entertainment: at the table behind me a small boy was capering about in full Spider-Man costume, lacking only web-shooters and the bit covering his chin. Jane pointed him out just as he ran past us and uphill to the end of the block. He turned around; paused; and then galloped back down with a big toothy grin on his face, his eyes meeting mine as he passed. Click. (If only.)

Jane watched him throughout the meal, and I snuck a peek once or twice. He was hiding behind the waiters as they were taking orders and watching for customers. Their professional mien was undermined a bit by juxtaposition with a five-year-old in red and blue.

Eventually a woman in her fifties (it must have been his grandmother) called him over and started shooing him up the street. He skipped and danced around her—then give her a Spidey-powered poke in the bum. The last I saw of Marvel’s most popular superhero, he was being chased around a corner by a feisty señora twice his size.




It was way too early to reach the airport. We’d meant to spend the morning seeing Malaga—a quick wander round the centre and perhaps the castle before we left Andalucía—but it all went wrong. The autopista from Nerja was fast enough, but the traffic slowed to a crawl at the edge of the city; and then we lost the signs to the centro, ending up there only by chance after half an hour of random circling.

I spotted a blue P and joined a queue of cars headed down a ramp under the tree-lined main street. Every few minutes another one of us was let through the barrier, until it was our turn. Our turn, that is, to join a line of cars all realising at once that there were no free spaces; or, more accurately, that the free spaces so carefully accounted for in the one-in, one-out calculations had been taken by drivers with special parking needs. Like the need to see a bloody optometrist and stare at an eye chart with a big white line painted down the middle, for future reference.

I drove round and around that pit of carbon monoxide, losing space after space to cars driving the other direction or just behind or ahead of us. The clock kept ticking—there went the castle; there went the cathedral; there went any point in even getting out of the car—until eventually we pulled up at the ticket machine, paid €1,80 for our “parking”, and left.

After taking an hour to get that far, it took barely ten minutes to get out. And since Malaga airport is only a few miles south of the city, we got there way too early. Not before I’d missed the turn-off and driven dangerously close to the tower-blocks of Torremolinos, though; I did a desperate U-turn around an obelisk ringed with sphinxes and labelled MONUMENTO AL TURISTA, and found the right exit next to the San Miguel brewery.