Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Cruising to Kusadasi - Turkey

I've wanted to go to Turkey for a long time, partly because of my devotion to bellydancing but also because it seemed exotic and a rich mixture of interesting cultures. I had to settle for a stopover of 3 hours on my cruise.

We had sailed towards Turkey during the evening. I looked out my cabin window at the port. The architecture was certainly different to the Greek stuff I'd seen so far. It seemed better organised, cleaner and tidier and rather less run-down.

We transferred to buses to visit a truly impressive archaeological site - Ephesus. This is a must-see. It's huge. The first neolithic settlements were established 6000 BC. It was one of the Seven Churches of Asia mentioned in the Bible and the Divine Revelation came to Evangelist John in this city

To kick-off the visit we started at the nearby site of The House of the Virgin Mary. With all the persecuting of Christians going on, Apostle John took the Virgin Mary to Ephesus. She didn't like it there so she settled at what was to become her final home (it is alleged)not far away. She died there in her 60s in 45AD. The house became derelict and forgotten though it was referred to in old writings.

Over the next 2000 years nuns and others made visits to find the grave of the mother of Jesus, a nearby church is said to be built over the place Mary lived. The current pope visited this church but it's worth keeping in mind this version of the church is barely 200 years old.

Ancient toilets in the city still remain. I was constantly amazed at the technologies used 3000 years ago which seemed to have become lost during the subsequent millenia. Slaves would have sat on the toilets, warming them for the well-to-do. The toilets had water supply flowing underneath to carry the waste away. it was a large room with toilets around three sides, most of which can still be seen.

The old library of Celsus initially had 12,000 books in it as of the second century AD. Celsus's son built it with the money his father had bequeathed to do so.

Over the two thousand years of its existence, severe earthquakes have toppled most of the monuments at Ephesus. Wars have taken their toll too but it's mostly the earthquakes that have destroyed this amazing city.

I was surprised to see the quality of workmanship evident still in the city: relieve carvings, statues (often headless now), old fountains with amazing plumbing, a huge marble-paved road with columns which would have supported walled buildings for shops and restaurants, baths, a temple to Artemis, bathhouses, numerous churches, a bordello (yes they could tell it was that), residential dwellings.

Despite the extreme heat, I climbed all the way up the Grand Theatre, a huge amphitheatre capable of holding 25,000 spectators. The exact date of construction is unknown but we know it was there in 100BC. Like the rest of the site, it was severely damaged in a series of major earthquakes at various times.

Turkish leather is well known for it's good qualities. Our excursion group discovered we had a compulsory stopover at a Leather manufacturer near Kusudasi. On arrival an organised fashion show took place. Nothing took my eye and it annoyed me a bit because I didn't want to have to sit through it and have the hard sell afterwards. We dutifully filed through into their showroom and filled time for 20 minutes.

There's no doubt it was very good quality. Some of the garments were so supple they felt like silk and draped accordingly. One of the salesmen came up, assuming I was English. No, I replied I'm from NZ. "Kia Ora" he replied, that surprised me, clearly he'd had contact with some Kiwis. I explained there was nothing in my budget for purchases and I absolutely wouldn't be swayed. Jean-Claude looked on with interest and probably amusement as the salesman insisted I try on a jacket the guy had selected. A perfect fit. he explained it was his job to know my size and he never got it wrong as he brought out garment after garment for me to try. I had fun and the salesman flirted outrageously. The answer stayed no. I didn't have 200 let alone 1500 euros to spend on a coat.(see photo of me with the hard-case salesman)

Monday, 27 August 2012

Cruising to Mykonos

What's it like to go on a cruise? What would it be like to cruise the Greek Islands? I never expected to be doing that but there I was, accompanying Jean-Claude on a last minute trip to visit some Greek Islands on a French-speaking tour.

We flew to Athens and then bused to a hotel quite some ways away. There was just the Aegean Sea and a few homes around us, not luxury but adequate.

We weren't used to the heat, coming from Paris. The days were in the mid 30s celsius and climbed to 42 degrees for the last two days. Drinking was a survival strategy as heat stroke was an ever-present danger.

A day later we were visiting Sounion along the Apollo Coast. This is the site of the ruins of the Temple of Poseidon. The promontory looks over the sea, a beautiful spot. It became training for the sites we would visit in the next few days.

After spending time adjusting to the heat we travelled by bus as a French-speaking group, collecting members from their hotels along the way to the Port of Piraeus which is the largest port in Greece and 10 kms from Athens. The process of checkin for a cruise ship takes a long time and during this our passports were taken from us and transferred to the ship Louis Olympia for 'safe-keeping'. Each passenger was issued with a plastic card with package details including codes for meal arrangements. these cards had to be used to check in and out of the cruise ship so crew could keep tabs on who was or was not on board.

Our little cabin was located along the external side of the ship which meant we had a window and I enjoyed watching the water swooshing past or the sun coming up or going down. A lot of the travelling was done at night.

After we left the port of Pireaus along the coast from Athens we cruised to the island of Mykonos. It's very touristy but a good introduction to your typical Greek Island. There are two items to see of note: Little Venice is a waterfront portion of Mykonos where you need to be rather careful as you squeeze past the eateries, otherwise you are likely to be dumped on by a wave.

There are old non-functioning windmills near the waterfront but you can't go inside them to look around. Mykonos is part of the Cyclades group of islands. It was a long day, having got up extremely early in the morning (most days), caught a tour bus, checked into our cruise ship and made an excursion on Mykonos. All excursions cost additional money.

When we got back from our evening meal onboard we found the cabin staff had turned our towels into a little work of creativity. That was fun.

Another night we returned to find the towels as a rabbit wearing my glasses.

Each night we had a choice of restaurants to visit and there was certainly plenty of food.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A fresh start again

I'd like to introduce you to my new town. After living in my studio in Cafeolait I am now living in a much bigger apartment in a small town.

It was originally the home of the counts of Montfort and Amaury. Although the Montforts were an important family and m town was an important duchy up through the 17th century, its location on the fringes of its greater neighbours of Chartres and Nantes left it somewhat passed over for a time. The population is between 5000 and 6000 inhabitants. While it still retains its provincial character with the stone houses and shops, my town has a fast-growing high-tech industrial center (3100 of 3400 jobs are in the industrial sector). One of the largest employers is Bristol-Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical giant. Their manufacturing plant, built in 1960, employs 300 people in the production of cardiovascular and anti-fungal medicines.

I wandered around the town by foot though it's too big to do the lot easily without a car. I located the Town Hall and decided to pop in and explain I was a new resident and ask for information. The lady at receptions was lovely and friendly and wondered if I'd like to arrange to vote in the local elections but I explained I'm not eligible.

I went away with a smile on my face because I enjoyed my visit there, was able to communicate adequately and had a handful of brochures. As I read through them later I pondered if there might be a hobby i could take up. There's no bellydancing, of course, but there is Jazz Ballet. Unfortunately I gave that up years ago because of my back problems so I'm not sure that's a good thing.

There are violin classes but I need to think if I want to get heavily into such a commitment even though my instrument has been languishing for decades - food for thought though. I want to find some way to integrate myself into this town more fully than I was able to in Cafeolait

In the meantime I make the most of wandering the town. My apartment is further away from the centre than I was in Cafeolait but it means I get to walk about a bit and look at people's homes, the shops, the market on Saturdays (quite small). This seems like a town that will expand in the future. I already enjoy the supermarket and DYI store here. I've located the branch of my bank. I need to find a doctor and dentist and the government agencies. There are also things like the church and a museum to visit. That'll have to wait until I get back from my cruise.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Back to Bretagne

JC and I went back to the port of Binic in Bretagne to spend some time with his father, explore the countryside and attend the Binic FolksBlues Festival. I've been to Bretagne many times now and I always find something beautiful to experience and photograph. The very first time I was in Brittany (Bretagne) was in May 2010, right in the centre.

Not that far away was Lac de Guerledan (Lake Guerledan) which is a manpmade construction resulting from a dam. I thought it was a tourist attraction but the day I visited the weather was cold and windy and it rained off and on. Despite being the tourist season hardly anyone was there and the local merchants must have been doing it tough.

There were only 15 people in the cruise boat which is captained by an old guy who's been doing it for at least 40 years.It was relaxing but there wasn't a lot to see and it was too cold for kayaking or pedal-boating or even swimming but the countryside is lovely.

On the way I stopped off in the rain to catch a glimpse of the old Abbaye de Bon Repos. It's in ruins but there are now hut-like structures nearby and sound and light and historical actions take place. I'd be interested in seeing recreated goings-on some time.

The FolksBlues festival had two performance stages at various places on the waterfront so there was continuous music for three full days and most of the night. It was loud, mostly in English from visiting imports but rather mixed in quality. I think I must be too old to bob up and down to no-matter-what being played on a guitar.

JC and I preferred to walk all around the waterfront boats, shops and beaches. It's a pretty place. Along the way we came across some of the villagers who had formed a circle and were doing some traditional dancing as the sun went down. I actually preferred that, with it's celtic musical flavour.

We travelled to see the Forges des Salles site not that far from the centre of Brittany. This steel-manufacturing village is a fine example of industrial heritage and of everyday life in a forge village during the 18th and 19th centuries, completely focused on the blast furnace. Situated in the Quénécan forest, this site was once one of the largest wood-fired forges in Brittany.

Since 1990, you can visit this exceptionally well preserved former steel-manufacturing village, nothing has changed since production came to a halt in 1877. The visit takes you to the the coal stores, the 12m high cast iron blast furnace, from the “bosses’ house” to the workers’ and foreman’s dwellings, the canteen, the grocer’s shop, the mixed-sex school (unusual for the times), the stables, the chapel, the terraced gardens.

It rained heavily and took a tumble on the greasy, wet steps, bumping down 3 steps on my bum. Luckily I didn't break anything. Good to discover I didn't have osteoporosis and pleasant to see the sun come out to smile on all the flowers.

Another day we drove around the coastline from St Brieuc to Val Andre to Cap Frehel. It's wild and windy and only low-growing plants hugging the ground can survive. We were too late in the season to see the landscape in its pink and yellow splendour but there was just enough left to suggest what it must be like in June.

The pink tones are provided by the ericas and the yellow is gorse.

The end of the Cap Frehel peninsula sports two lighthouses: one built by Louis XIV and another built in the twentieth century. You can climb up inside the latter, which is still working, to look at the view of the coastline. Parking and entry have small charges. Then it was back to Binic and prepare to head back home.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Moving Home Part 2

It’s one thing to think you have found something you want to live in but quite another to get through the process of moving with minimal hassle. I didn’t accomplish the later. Some of the subsequent difficulties were predictable. Others were much worse than I could have imagined.

I found an apartment in another town. It is even smaller than Cafeolait and until a few months ago I knew nothing about it. The town was one of the locations which I had visited the most often in my search for somewhere to live because it had a train station that could connect with  a line to Paris. It was a little more affordable but required money and time for travelling to and from work. In a way that wasn’t such a bad thing. Sometimes it’s good to leave the work place well behind one at the end of the day, drive through the French countryside or take trains and arrive home in a completely different environment.

The apartment has two small bedrooms and a big balcony and is full of light. I found it on the internet and needed to deal directly with the owner so no agency fees were involved. Jean- Claude helped with the details and my dossier was accepted immediately. I had only to wait until the apartment was available but for a while at least I would have to pay rent for two apartments as I was required to give my boss two months notice. Quite a financial stretch for me but this is normal in France. Other ‘normal’ things in France were more challenging and this is where this Kiwi found the cultural differences tough.

For starters, the apartment had no storage. Not one cupboard or shelf anywhere. Look around your home. How would you manage with nothing like that at all ? This is standard here. There are usually no built-in wardrobes or vanities or medicine cabinets or kitchen cupboards or linen cupboards in hallways. The three consequences of this are as follows: 1. You must buy all of this yourself and install it, on top of the expense of moving, 2. Everything you install reduces your habitable space so what may have looked workable becomes cramped and uncomfortable, 3. When you move you must either leave it all there for the lucky landlord or next tenant or remove it and hope it will fit exactly into your next place (unlikely) or try to find a buyer at a time when you are up to your ears in shifting.

This meant I had to consider EVERYTHING. I had to ensure I budgeted for each of these items on top of trying to find money for essential things like a bed, a table and chairs, a fridge, an electric jug etc. I had to research on the internet what was available and how to order it, all in a foreign language. This was quite a challenge for me. I ordered some curtains which have not arrived a month later, some bedlinen I ordered was only partially correct but the vacuum cleaner and fridge I ordered via the internet arrived perfectly and function very well. Small successes such as these proved important as the rest of the process was arduous and stressful.

I couldn’t afford to hire a man with a van to move everything at once (very expensive here) so many trips by car after work and in the weekends were the norm. In the meantime Jean-Claude put his handyman skills to good use and built some little shelves in the entranceway for me to arrange my DVDS. He used the materials from an old vanity to build something under the sink in the bathroom and built some open shelves and somewhere to hang my coat and put my muddy boots in the hot water cylinder cupboard. Fortunately I’d had the chance to mention to the owner that I was disappointed not to see any storage in the kitchen and so was told two cupboards and a small bench top would be installed. I was grateful to have that small amount but there was no work space on the small bench in the kitchen so JC made a little table to lift up my microwave to give room for plates underneath.

Speaking of kitchens- it is usual to discover you have only a sink. That constitutes a kitchen in a flat in France. This is a severe culture shock for a Kiwi. In NZ you could expect an oven and cooktop, kitchen cupboards above and underneath some sort of work bench. You may or may not have a dishwasher but you could at least put food and plates somewhere and cook a meal. So, in France you need to supply your own kitchen, you only rent the space. The landlords want to maximise the rent from habitable space so they rent out empty rooms. If they don’t supply something they are then not liable to maintain it so there are no light fittings or cooking facilities or appliances. In some contracts if you make a hole in a wall to hang a picture or for any other reason you will be charged 10 euros per hole. My rental contract says nothing about this but it is constantly in my mind when I think of what I need to do to create a home for myself. Absolutely nothing about this moving experience has been like all my previous ones. The smallest arrangements are fraught with uncertainty and unwelcome surprises which are too numerous to mention but I will mention one aspect of my move that was particularly gruelling.

I needed to order some furniture. Normally this would be rather exciting and a great creative exercise. I was interested to discover what is available in France, how one orders, what are the sizes. I discovered that when one orders furniture it is not automatically delivered and it is NOT in a state immediately usable. In my price range (that of most French people who don’t have much money) it’s all flat-pack. You have to put it all together yourself. I can do a small table or a small desk but that’s it. I gave away all my tools when I left NZ. All I have is a measuring tape and a hammer I bought here. Putting together free-standing bookshelves with glass doors, free-standing wardrobes, a bed, table, even chairs was beyond me so I had to pay to have it all delivered flat-pack and to have guys assemble it. That made me very nervous, and rightly so because you cannot be sure what you will end up with. Two guys arrived to unload the van and one was left behind to assemble all the furniture. That in itself was ridiculous, it was also dangerous.

He started in the bedroom, always good practice to get the bedroom sorted first, and I thought that after a while I could head off to Cafeolait and collect some more of my belongings because today was my moving day. He had difficulties working out things from the instruction booklet and trying to construct an armoire single-handed was much too heavy for one man. There was a crash right in front of me. He was on his hands and knees with his hands on his head looking in horror at the splintered base of my armoire. It wasn’t a hopeless case but it was damaged and so was he, on his arm where the base hand fallen. He refused my ministrations and stoically tried to carry on, hiding the splintered section of the armoire under the next layer of construction, but one of the doors to the armoire couldn’t function because the wood was bowed. There were pieces missing from a handle on the chest of drawers and one drawer was too tight for a female to open and close. The bedside cabinet door wouldn’t open or close because the key couldn’t open it. The bed could not be erected because one side had been mysteriously broken. There was no piece of furniture in my bedroom which could function correctly and some was unusable.

The two glass-fronted display/library units I ordered for the living room seemed to have problems with doors not lining up and the back panel was so thin it was like paper. Most of the chairs rocked around markedly on the floor as none of the legs seemed in sync with each other. The side buffet had doors that didn’t hang on too well. The only piece of furniture I had bought that was in a decent state to function was my dining table. Everything else had defects or pieces missing. It was a nightmare trying to sort out my belongings as I didn’t have anywhere to put them away. Moving was very delayed. I had to wait two days to have each piece unpacked and discover parts missing or damaged. This being the French summer I would have to wait until sometime in September to have things corrected.

What really upset me were the gouges in my bedroom wall. A brand new wall already marked and I hadn’t slept a night there yet. Marks from packing materials smudged the other wall. There was nothing I could do about either but It did spoil what should have been an exciting experience. JC and I had to go to the main distribution warehouse at Chartres to speak to the foreman there and go through every set of assembly instructions to identify each defective or missing part. Luckily for me JC is a very competent handyman or I’d have been sunk. One and half hours of our time were spent doing this.

Days later when the guys from France Telecom came to give me a phone/internet/TV connection they found they couldn’t give me any TV service ; maybe the trouble was the decoder, I’d have to look into it myself (even though I’d had to pay for the installation that was incomplete). Gritting my teeth I took off with JC for a few days at his father’s place in Brittany.

I will have a lovely place eventually but the persistence and expense required to move myself forward in any way is exhausting and disappointing. Oh well, life’s like that. So far this year I have found a car and a home. Not so bad. Though I’ve visited my new home frequently, I still haven’t lived there. I look around at the completely new environment. I’m starting over again but it will take time for it to feel like ‘me’. Once I sleep there and have some hotplates for cooking that will help me bond with my new home. I’m looking forward to that and to exploring my new town.