Sunday, 25 December 2016

Hampton Court Palace - fit for Tudor aspirations

Some kilometres out of London is an ex-royal palace brimming with history and tales of notable monarchs such as Henry the Eighth. Built around 1515 by Thomas Wolsley, Archbishop and advisor to King Henry VIII it was gifted to the king in the hopes of renewing waning favour. It didn't work. Henry had him arrested and he died of natural causes before he could be executed. Hampton Court is one of only two remnants of more than 60 royal palaces and houses that were used by Henry in his day, which have survived. The second remnant being Lambeth Palace which isn't open to the public and which has little more than the gatehouse remaining.

It was here that Henry's only son was born and also here that his third wife Jane Seymour died after giving birth to the future Edward VI. The tudor influence has been greatly diminished by monarchs William and Mary who demolished half the Tudor palace before they died.

You can easily distinguish the two architectural styles; the Tudor in rose-red bricks with black markings and elaborate chimney stacks, and the Baroque in plain pink bricks with white details. Henry built a hammerbeam Great Hall which still stands today. It's wonderful to look up at the workmanship and imagine the Tudor goings-on during meal-times and events.

After Anne Bolyn was executed the king ordered any references to her expunged but in one corner of this place they missed one and you can clearly see the initials of Henry and Anne.  There's an astrological clock that was installed during Henry's time. Incredibly it still accurately works after 500 years. It shows the time, the phases of the moon, star signs and high tide at London Bridge near the Tower of London, a key royal residence. One can marvel at the quality of ancient technology.

None of Henry's gardens remain but there are knot gardens outside a Tudor wing in the style. It's more of a kitchen garden really. The other garden areas are more modern and impressive.
A horticultural oddity is The Great Vine, planted in 1769. Incredibly it still gives a good harvest of grapes which are sold at the palace. I can't vouch for the flavour though.

 The day I visited there was an exhibition of beautifully crafted objects in very fine white paper. Representations of food and table decorations as well as period costumes were displayed in several rooms. They were quite exquisite and I couldn't imagine how they had been crafted. The interiors of the palace have some impressive contents but it lacks charm for its sheer size. It's easy to get lost here so allow at least 2-3 hours to explore inside and out. For more information go to and also

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Windsor Castle: when the Queen's away

Windsor Castle is one of the most important secular historic buildings in Britain and is the largest inhabited castle in Europe. I thoroughly recommend a visit to see the exquisite interiors but be sure to pick a time when the Queen's not in residence. Tours are not available when she's home.
No photos may be taken inside the castle, which is such a shame as it's the interiors that mark this place out as first rate.

It's immaculate despite its age of almost a thousand years. It clearly benefits by being an official home of the Queen so it's kept in top condition. It's gone from being a fortress to a medieval hunting lodge to a baroque masterpiece and then  the focus of the British Empire. Now it's the home of the Royal Collection.

Around 1070 William the Conqueror constructed this (and the Tower of London among other fortifications) motte-and-bailey castle. It commands a ridge overlooking the Thames. The castle has been developed, modified, restored and modernised through the ages by the rulers of England. The artistry is amazing. The details, superb art collection and furniture left me truly impressed. It's as good, in its way, as Versailles and contains some items from the Louis XIV period in France which now only exist in England. Many wonderful items from French history have made their home at Windsor while their original homes have been destroyed or eliminated in France. The relative stability of the English monarchy (other than the time of Oliver Cromwell) has meant that so much history has been preserved in a continuous line. Queen Mary's dollhouse is an interesting item, faithful in its smallest detail with operating lighting and an elevator.

In 1992 there was a devasting fire which destroyed a large part of the castle. Fortunately most of the furniture and artworks had earlier been removed for safe keeping from the fire-ravaged area while renovations were being done. A careless workman had left a spotlight on which ignited a curtain above the altar in the Private Chapel. The fire gutted the wonderful Saint George's Hall and many other key rooms. They have, with British craftsmanship, been completely restored to the highest level. As I gazed around me all I could think of was "It's perfect."

Having been impressed by the beauty and quality of the interior I came to a crashing disappointment with the gardens. The only thing to say here is - boring. I could do so much better. There are very few flowers or garden beds. It's monotonous and shows no imagination at all, in my opinion. For a castle of this importance it doesn't hold a candle to Hampton Court Palace which is NOT these days a royal residence. A few roses, mostly all the same variety in a couple of beds doesn't do it for me.

The day I visited there was a display of vintage cars in the courtyard. I don't know why.

The town of Windsor is quaint and used to having important dignaries passing through.
Check out a detailed history at:



Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Tower of London - full of great stories

The Tower of London, containing the White Palace, is a must-see when in London. There is so much history and many fascinating stories to discover. Make sure you do a tour accompanied by a yeoman warder. They bring everything to life and give you the juicy bits.

The Tower idea first saw daylight towards the end of 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest of England. William needed to cnstruct defenses for his new realm. The White Tower which gives the castle its name, was built by William the Conqueror  and was a resented symbol of oppression, inflicted upon London by the new ruling elite; a bit like the Bastille in France. The castle was used as a prison from 1100 until 1952. But has also been a luxurious Royal Palace for centuries too.

It has served variously as an armoury, a treasury, a menagerie, the Royal Mint and is still the home of the Crown Jewels of England. 

The peak period of the castle's use as a prison was the 16th and 17th centuries, when many famous figures  such as Elizabeth before she became queen, Sir Walter Raleigh and Margaret Pole were held within its walls.  Ann Bolyn was executed there on Tower Green and a plaque marks the spot where she and others like poor old Margaret Pole met their end.

Royalty and nobles often has very comfortable lodgings just before execution. They arrived via the River Thames at Traitor's Gate. Some prisoners were in unpleasant lodgings and were tortured, such as Guy Fawkes. Most were executed nearby at Tower Hill. Rudolph Hess, Hitler's deputy, was held there for a while. The castle suffered bomb damage during WWII but was rapidly repaired and reopened as a key tourism attraction, as it has been for hundreds of years.

There's the infamous story of the princes in the tower who were probably murdered at the behest of their uncle Richard III who was seizing the throne after the death of his brother Henry IV. Skeletons were found of two boys and buried properly some years ago. The irony is that Richard was also found recently, unceremoniously lying under a carpark in Leicester, outside of London.he to has been reburied.

It must have been a wonder in the days when it housed the Royal Menagerie before zoos really existed, with lions and other exotic beasts and birds. These days there are only wire sculptured animals on display as remnants of a past exhibition. They are cleverly made from chicken wire.

There are still 7 ravens lving there and probably always will be as there's a saying that if the ravens leave the realm will fall.

I very much enjoyed this visit, arriving by a Thames cruise, being escorted around by a knowledgable yeoman warder. These guys are there to defend the place. They are all ex military service men and it's a sinecure for life. They have the right to be buried on site. Few others, apart from royalty through the ages, have had that right. You can catch the ferry back to Westminster if you wish. The Tower ramparts are also a great place to watch the Tower Bridge. I had the luck to be there just as it was opening for a small cruise liner.
For lots more info on the history of the Tower of London go to 

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Doing the Lambeth Walk.

More than six years had passed living in France and I had never, ever visited England. So near and yet so far. Having no idea how long I will stay in France I decided to bite the bullet and just do it while I still lived in Europe. Many of my ancesters were English and Irish as well as French - it was time to explore another of my cultural and DNA influences.

I used airbnb to keep the costs down yet stay in central London for five nights. I'd have loved to have rented an apartment but all I could manage was a room in an apartment in a block of apartments in Lambeth with other renters. It wasn't ideal with only one bathroom and toilet and limited cooking facilities so I decided not to cook. Instead I included pottles of yoghurt and a jar of cereal for my budget breakfasts in my luggage. I bought milk teabags and sugar from a little grocery shop not far away. That's the advantage, for the moment, of the UK being part of Europe - you can just bring anything with you.

I have to say, I loved London. It was so good to speak English everywhere I went. I felt quite safe and wasn't worried about terrorists, even though London has experienced its fair share in the past. In London its easy to walk along the river as far as you want, easier than Paris and the Seine. It's cleaner too and it seemed livelier, more optimistic. Paris is grey and depressed these days with tourist numbers considerably down.

Living where I was, I did A LOT of walking to get around the central city. It was doable. I learnt to catch the bus using my Oyster card kindly given to me by a friend's daughter who's living in London. I often got fed up waiting for the bus, especially at night and would just take off in the direction of my lodgings. It wasn't unusual for me to beat the bus home and it was pretty cool walking along the Thames at any hour, day or night. The Tube station nearest to my accommodation was closed for renovations so walking along Lambeth Road, past the Lambeth Walk became regular.

I got to know the bridges over the Thames very well, especially Lambeth and Westminister bridges. I sometimes caught a bus outside the remains of Lambeth Palace to Victoria Coach station on the North bank for day-tours.

The Houses of Parliament were my daily accompaniment on my walks, past the London Eye and the Art Gallery. My first monument to visit was the Museum of London. It's located near St Paul's Cathedral.
They had a special exhibition on about the Great Fire of 1666 but I didn't have time to visit that. Instead I enjoyed the general exposition on the history of London including very ancient times, invasions by Romans, Vikings, the Black Death, the Great Fire, theatres like the Globe and the Rose, wars (inevitably) costumes and paintings. Many of the museums and art galleries are free in London which is a wonderful way to share culture and history.

Friday, 14 October 2016

How to become French - Part 3

Last night I was travelling home on the train after a very long day. The lights of Paris slid past me into the shadows as I reflected on why this country still mattered to me, despite my almost complete lack of hope in a positive future here.
" But look, you're here, still here. You can visit Paris whenever you want, it's part of you." Yes, but I was not part of it.

Earlier that day I had been driving through the glorious countryside, fields ploughed with up-turned dirt waiting for fresh seeds to germinate in late Winter. The sun was shining on a calm, fresh  autumn morning. Yes, this was the pleasure for me of being here. Simple, uncluttered by worries. Still here after six years of struggle, knowing that to be torn away from it by someone's else's decision would leave a permanent scar on my psyche. I gave a deep sigh of appreciation of how lucky I was and also how precarious things were. The rest of the day passed uneventfully.

After I arrived home and grabbed a bite to eat JC handed me my mail which I took upstairs to open. I opened the first letter. It was from the French Republic, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (Ministère de l’intérieur). My eyes were immediately stuck like magnets on two key points. ".... you have acquired French nationality since the 21st of September.......... published in the official journal."

What? Thats unbelievable! How could this be. It had been only 11 months since my dossier had been accepted. Normally one has to wait at least 18-24 months. The lady who interviewed me at Tours had said there probably wouldn't be a decision before 2017, that I'd have to wait between 9 and 18 months more and maybe have to have an interview with the gendarmes. Instead, here I was, already French  for the past three weeks. I hadn't felt different.

This was so unexpected. Clearly they had made the decision before my current pitiful job contract became visible. What timing! How could this decision have been made so quickly? JC had his theory. "The preparation and presention of your dossier was superb," he said. " I'm sure the light of your love of France would have lit up the woman's office in Tours during your interview, sweeping away any concerns there may have been about your already limited income. You absolutely deserve this, it's totally warranted. I've been here almost from the start of your journey towards this in France and I've seen what it has cost you and the effort you've put in. I knew you'd hang in there until the end but I was worried France might not grant you what you so deserve."

Later I heard rhythmic clapping downstairs - " Bravo!...Bravo!...Bravo!..."
What's happening? The political debate on TV?"
"No, it's for you. You did it! And that's a finger up the arse for all those people who mistreated you and wanted you to fail, especially The Professeur, and the ones who saw it all and didn't care," he said.
"Yes," I said, and in my mind, privately, I added Jerome to the list, but already I was closing that door, though never to be forgotten, What I was seeing were other doors that might open to me if I chose them. Most would remain closed through choice now.

This is a very big deal for me. I'd rate it right up there with the birth of my daughter Laura, for importance and influence on my life. The oppressive weight I'd been under since my arrival lifted. Today I experienced France in a new way, free of the fear of eviction. I belong to France and France belongs to me; all its wonders and eccentricities. It will be me who determines our relationship from now on.

There remain important hurdles such as my employment situation. Without a decent fulltime job where I can have an independent life I won't be able to stay. There will be no liveable old age pension for me here. If anything brings me back to NZ it will be for family and/or financial reasons. I'm still a kiwi and I've never stopped taking an active interest in my native country even though it has robbed me of the right to vote long ago but I have dual nationality now and I can balance that easily.

" So, you'll be able to vote in the elections next year, piped up JC. OMG what has France done - let loose a kiwi in the middle of French democracy?" he joked. I will be taking advantage of my lifetime right to vote in French politics no matter where I live in the world.

Now I must wait six months for all the official documentation to be completed and for the naturalisation ceremony. I look forward to receiving my letter from the President of France, my National ID card, applying for a French (and thus EU) passport. It gives me the freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe if I can find something. Shame about the Brexit. Not great timing!

I still have no idea of my future in the medium or long term but an obstacle has been removed, the weight pressing on my heart is gone. My soul is free to feel its natural comfort in the country of my ancesters. A very bad year just got a lot better and I feel more positive. My value has been recognised. Where there's one miracle there are perhaps more.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Barriers to hard work and initiative for some expats in France

Unless you've been in my situation it's a bit hard to believe some of the bizarre, counter-productive systems raging in France. I just want to work as much as possible so I can stay here. Recently I asked a French businesswoman why systems are designed to make it incredibly hard to work a normal job. She told me it was the powerful French Unions blocking those of us who want to work as hard as we want, whenever we want. That may or may not be true; it's certainly more complex than that, I think, but when the Code du Travail is significantly heavier than any other European Labour Law tome, throw in the tendancy of the French to support communism and socialism (what the?) and the seeming need to protect some privileged folks against all the other folks (except if you're a public servant in which case you are bullet-proof against anything), well, you have a mix that's resulting in rampant unemployment, disincentives for small to medium businesses, unproductive attitudes and work habits, a wide-spread sense of entitlement even when certain people don't actually need it, well, it's  a toxic mix.

Take my efforts to find work, for example. The crazy systems here are blocking me from becoming a productive and passionate French citizen; here's how.

My visa states I am a temporary salaried worker. That means I have to stay in that category unless something extraordinary happens; I marry a Frenchman (no one want to marry me), I become endowed with 5 million euros to invest (I'm unlikely to be in that situation), or I become naturalised (which I have applied for - it's in the pipeline but might be unlikely to succeed due to my current income). My visa category does not allow me to be self-employed.

Each year I have to renew my carte de séjour (residence card) but to do that I must have a decent job otherwise it's OUT. I have grovelled, cajolled, suffered work abuse and nudged, persuaded my employer to keep me on each year but the rules are strict and change. This year I have had my income (which was never very good) halved. I have a half contract despite the fact there are teachers at the uni doing the same teaching hours and the same work as me but earning double and considered to be working full time. Hey, I once had one of those contracts so how is it I am now half the person I was? Land of egalite? Cost-cutting I suppose.

This new contract means it's difficult for other employers to hire me for a few hours during the week because there are minimum hours I must work for my principal employer in order for me to legally search for other work and they want proof I'm doing them. There's nothing clear or transparent about the amendment to my previous contract that I now operate under. It does not say how many hours I must work, nor does it say how many additional hours I can work. The normal details in a NZ work contract are totally missing. There's just the pay per month before income tax. Through pestering various people I have discovered how many base hours I must work and how many extra hours I can work as overtime. The overtime hours are extremely limited (144 hours per year).

Other employers look at my base hours and say they can't hire me because my principal employer isn't giving me enough hours. I explain that I'm doing some extra work for the uni. The other employers ask where's the proof? I must supply a copy of my past contract and its amendment even though the two documents don't bear any similarity to each other in terms of pay or hours of work. Apparently contracts are not confidential in France. Any man and his dog can demand to see it. I even have to supply payslips from my current employer. I'm not allowed to be self-employed so most folks wanting teachers don't want to hire me because hiring someone on a contract for a wage is too costly because of the social charges. It's chicken and egg stuff. Most unis will not hire me as I don't have a required status from the French system. Too bad I'm a more competent teacher than so many French teachers of English. If I was self employed I'd have to show three years of proof of income as a self-employed person before I could be hired and I can't teach as a supply teacher if I have reached retirement age.

Teachers who do not have privileged permanent positions or who are not civil servants are not hired on merit. You are hired to fill a blank so long as you have the right documents and the right legal status. If you do a good job and the students like you this is no garantee you will ever be employed again by that employer. If your contract says it can be renewed for a second year you'd be silly to believe that. I was shocked to discover that in fact my past contract would not be renewed unless someone with the same sort of contract left the employer just at the right time. In fact you don't get your contract renewed you get someone else's? So why say it can be renewed? Who would have thought? I'm grateful to have some work but my current contract means very few other employers will take a risk and hire me in case I'm not quite legal due to my limited hours. They are also nervous because I must apply for permission to work elsewhere, even though I have only a part time contract and permission can take six weeks. Meanwhile I'm supposed to have started my other work weeks before that. What happens if the principal employer refuses? Won't I get paid for what I've worked?

All this tornado of rules and regulations does my head in every day. Nothing is transparent or honestly portrayed. There are goverment decrees for this, that and the next thing which determine your work but they are never explained on your contract. I gave up trying to understand them on the websites because they are so opaque. Must be a French thing.

If I can't find a principal employer of any kind with certain minimum hours I will not have my carte de sejour renewed next year. I'm still waiting to find out  what's happening with this year's request for renewal. Right now I can only legally stay until 22 December. It's endless stress and I have missed out on being hired elsewhere because of the wall of legal obstacles.

Don't worry about what you can't change, you say. Sure, easy to say but I don't know what I don't know and everything changes anyway. There is no way you can be 'prepared' for this kind of rootless living situation and it's only human to need some sort of clarity and certainty about one's financial status for a year or two or if I'm greedy, three?

I feel I'm in limbo, my life is on hold until I can see my way ahead, until something good or bad happens. No roots, little hope left and with constant reminders of my precarious existence here it's hard to stay positive and my gritty determination is now wearing thin. I just need a decent full-time job but it's uncertain as to whether France wants to give the same commitment to me as I have whole-heartedly given her. So far she just doesn't care.