Copenhagen

290 – Six Years of Blogley

It’s six years since I left Bristol to teach English to EDF nuclear engineers in Lyon. Six years since I started writing this blog. Six years since I met Elizabeth. And six days until I go back to the UK. Wednesday 6th September.

For those of you who read this blog, you know the score. And well done by the way! It must have been a terrible struggle for you. But thank you all the same.

If you haven’t read it, here’s a very brief recap.

After two years teaching in Lyon, me and Elizabeth went to live on a farm in the middle of nowhere in Queaux (Vienne), about 90kms from Limoges. After that we went to Bordeaux for three months to look for work but ended up getting drunk on 3 euro pints of Budvar in the Revolution bar. We were saved when asked to look after a posh hotel over the winter on the Arcachon basin in Taussat. This took us up to May 2015 and after a brief housesit looking after three irritating dogs in Alaigne (Aude), we made the disastrous decision to head back to the UK to teach English in Box near Bath. After four tedious months teaching Italian and Russian bankers we jumped ship again and in October 2015  ended up in the minuscule village of Auty (Tarn-et-Garonne) to look after an 18th century chateau. The following spring we worked as holiday reps in Souillac (Lot) teaching canoeing and ferrying tourists round. After this we headed back to the chateau for another winter. But not before looking after a campsite in Serramonacesca (Abruzzo, Italy) for two months. In June 2017 once the chateau finished, we headed off to Copenhagen where I worked as a bicycle courier. This I finished on Monday.

During these six years, I’ve written a book on France based on this blog, a book of short stories (see Books) and a novel (unpublished). I’ve also made many short films which vaguely trace the last six years. (See Films). And also – much to my amazement – some paintings (see Paintings).

I’ve made many friends, met lots of people and done lots of things. Fulfilled lots of dreams. Written a novel, cycled with a French cycle club, cycled to Spain over the Pyrenees, learnt French, been a bike courier in Copenhagen, seen wild boar, lived in a chateau! I never thought these things would happen when I got on the Eurostar six years ago. It’s been one of the most interesting periods of my life and amazing what is possible when you simply don’t think about things too much. Say YES when given an opportunity. If I’d said NO I’d still be in Lyon knocking out phrasal verbs to EDF students. And that’s something you don’t want to be doing in your forties I can tell you that. 

I’m not sure when the next post will be. Maybe never. Perhaps it’s taken its course. Achieved its goal of being a log of what I’ve been doing these last six years. For myself as much as anybody else. I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it. It’s been quite a journey. Bye and thanks for reading.

(For a complete breakdown of posts by place or by month click on the ladder shaped menu icon at the top of the page. Or for a more concise read. A Man in France is the book based on the blog and can be bought as an eBook or paperback here)(Or buy my short story collection. The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, 24 short stories influenced by 20 years of dreadful jobs. A vivid journey through the cesspit of modern life can be bought here )

 

 

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Copenhagen

289 – Notes from Copenhagen #4: Tuborg Lager

I’ve been in Copenhagen for 6 weeks now and it’s rained for half of them. The barkeeper in the pub down the road told me on Thursday night that it’s been the worst summer for 38 years.

‘It’s not normally like this,’ he said pouring me another pint of Tuborg.

The day after was glorious but I didn’t notice it. Laid up on the sofa all day with the worst hangover for years. A quick calculation from the money I didn’t have in my pocket gave me a total of 9 pints. Elizabeth grinned at me from the armchair egg and bacon butty in hand as I lay there groaning like an old man. Managing to sip my cup of tea without having to rush to the bathroom.

I’d so far resisted the bowl. My prized capacity for alcohol wasn’t going to be beaten by some dodgy Danish beer. Which was of course the reason I felt so wretched. And not the fact that I can’t take my beer any more.

I’ve suffered some cruel hangovers in my time. Hard, grinding ones that seem to hang around for days like the smell of bacon fat or burnt toast. I haven’t had one of those for years. Partly because I don’t drink as much. But this laid me low. Like a man who’s suddenly contracted a terrible illness and has days, if hours, to live. Melodrama being one of the traits of drinking too much.

I was actually on call to work as a cycle courier, but luckily there were no orders because half of Copenhagen is on holiday. August 1st is when things spark back into action here. This was good fortune as while I’ve gone to work in the past with the most frightful of hangovers, I didn’t fancy charging round the city with a thundering headache barely able to keep the contents of my stomach down on what was a really hot day. If you know what I mean.

Today is cold and raining again as predicted by Stig, the barkeeper on Thursday night.

‘If you’ve got anything planned for the weekend, see it tomorrow,’ he advised.

I said I would make full use of the glorious weather. Then he poured me another pint. Although in truth I did make it to the sea for a swim yesterday in a desperate attempt to kill my aching head.

I like Copenhagen. Swimming in the harbour is one reason. But there are many. It’s phenomenally relaxed, it’s not as expensive as people always say (4-5 quid a pint), it’s friendly, and there’s loads to see. Plus you can cycle everywhere. It’s quite easy to get a job, people speak English (or French/German) and nobody really gives a shit.

It’s perfectly normal to see people of all ages and social backgrounds wandering round the streets or the parks with a can of beer in their hand. It’s also normal to see people picking them up off the floor and putting them in plastic bags.

This is called Pant collecting. Pant in danish meaning deposit (or mortgage.) as all bottles and cans here (except wine bottles and a few others) have a value depending on their size. Each bottle or can is labelled according with either Pant A, B or C.

When you get enough, you take them to the machines in the supermarkets where you get a ticket for the value you collected. With this you can buy more beer (or food).

It’s  a good system as it discourages littering. And if people do, there’s always people (like me) who’ll pick it up.

It’s become an obsession of the city. Everybody does it. Especially in the parks and open areas. The Fælledparken near here is a goldmine. After the recent Guns & Roses concert we collected almost 120 kroners worth of Pant. A similar amount after a football match. Even on a nice summer’s evening (rare) there’s enough for a meal and a few beers.

But you’ve got to be on the ball. If you don’t get there on time, there’s not a can or bottle in sight. The entire park scavenged by anybody with a bike or a bin bag. The entire park spotless within hours. It’s amazing. As though the park has a built-in self cleaning function. Press the PANT button and within hours the park is as clean as when it was built.

It’s funny because of all the things to do in Copenhagen, this is one of the things I enjoy doing most. You wouldn’t think it would you? But along with my bicycle courier wage, I’ve been able to scrape together enough to live on. So much in fact that I can afford to go and drink 9 pints of Tuborg on a Thursday night.

(*My absurd guidebook to France, A Man in France, is currently free to download until 31st July – click here)

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Copenhagen

288 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

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287 – Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier

My job in the Indian takeaway lasted precisely 25 minutes. Beating my other record for staying in a job by a full 20. Forty-five minutes being the time I did a job in Exeter cleaning commodes and soiled bed covers for Devon County Council’s geriatric department.

That turned out to be a clerical error on the part of the temping agency I was working for. I was meant to be doing data entry but some admin joker thought that if somebody can do one shit job, they can do another…(Great humour!)

I walked out of that job and didn’t say goodbye. This one though was more mutual. The takeaway owner letting me go 25 minutes into my shift, citing that I was too qualified and would probably leave anyway. Which was true. I had planned to leave. Just not so soon. But after almost half-an-hour of standing by a silent telephone looking at faded photos of India on the wall, I was mightily relieved when he stepped in and fired me.

Sauntering back up Osterbrogade that slices east and west Copenhagen in two, I started thinking about what I would do now, seeing as my only job so far had come to an abrupt end. My plan on coming to Copenhagen was to find a job as quickly as possible. Something interesting, something different. Three weeks down and I was still cessantibus. Which according to the Copenhagen jobcentre is latin for unemployed. (For the record unemployed in Danish is arbejdsløs.)

As fate would have it though, as I turned onto Nordre Frihavnsgade – a super cool street lined with diners, bagel bars, cycle shops, vegan takeaways and yoga rooms – I noticed a cycle courier piling burgers into a large square pink styrofoam box the size of a WW2 field radio.

‘That’s my job,’ I said to myself noting the company.

A week later, I had the job complete with my own pink box which has enough space for a family sized buffet, wine, beer and ice.

I don’t look very happy in the photo but that’s because it was my first shift. I was phenomenally nervous owing to the fact that my knowledge of Copenhagen was limited to the bakery, supermarket and beer shop near where I live. I had a smartphone with Google maps on it, but that turned out to be as useful as a chessboard without any pieces.

Half an hour into my first trip my phone started beeping. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘Another order!’

Only to discover moments later that it was my battery, which promptly died, sending me into a spasm of pure panic. Without a phone, it was impossible to do the job. I was as good as lost. And would have had more chance finding my destination blind drunk using that good oldfashioned paralytic global positioning system employed by millions of drunks daily in their fight to get home.

With a steaming pizza on my back I rushed home, plugged my phone into my laptop and threw the whole ensemble in my box hoping I had enough power to last me until eight o’clock. Luckily, it did. And the next day I bought a huge 14 megawatt phone recharger powerpack. Just in case.

In the past I imagined bicycle couriering to be a glamourous affair. Whizzing round the city like some modern day beat poet. Crazy, aloof, cool. A rebel for the cause. In reality, it’s nothing of the sort. You’re just another jerk on a bike delivering pizza. Or bagels, or Indian, or Thai, or Korean, or Japanese, or Russian, or Greek, or Turkish. Or any other food type from around the world. Even Danish, believe it or not.

I got through my first week and enjoyed it immensely despite the occasional meltdown from an overload of orders. My legs are like iron, my brain like a walking atlas of Copenhagen and I know every takeaway in town. Except the ones where the signs and street numbers have been obliterated by years of heavy rain and violent winds. Copenhagen in case you haven’t been, has the climate of Newcastle.

Below is yesterday’s delivery route (click to enlarge)

And the day before

It looks like the drunken meanderings of a man after 20 pints desperately trying to get home. And if I’d had this technology when I lived in Warsaw it may have been an accurate representation of a typical Friday night there. Rub out Copenhagen, write in Warsaw and I wouldn’t have known the difference.

I generally work between 3.30pm and 8.30pm and receive my orders via my phone. There’s a line in The Bourne Identity film where the hitman played by Clive Owen tells the hitman played by Matt Damon: ‘We always work alone.’ This sums cycle couriering up for me.

  • We never see who gives the orders.
  • We never see another cycle courier.
  • We only ever see the target when they open the door.
  • There’s no boss breathing down our neck wafting some hideous aftershave or perfume over us.
  • No colleagues discussing my performance in front of the cleaning staff.
  • No gossip.
  • No boring chitchat.
  • No small talk.
  • No speaking.
  • No office parties.
  • No photocopiers.
  • Just me and the road. (And the 3/4 million people who live here. But I can deal with them because they’re normally just a blur in my side vision.)

In short, it’s the perfect job for me…Almost.

The cycle culture in Copenhagen is great from an ecological standpoint – less cars, less pollution, less noise. On the other hand it’s a nightmare for a cycle courier. This might sound odd – almost demented coming from someone who rides bikes around the city all day. But it’s true. Ask any taxi, bus or delivery driver on the planet what would make their job better and they’d reply, almost unanimously, ‘Get rid of all the commuters, day trippers and joy riders!!’

Cycle lanes are a good idea for sure, but like roads, the more you have, the more they are used. To the point when they become clogged. Copenhagen is famous for lots of things. Jazz, opera, fish. It’s also famous for cycle jams. Lots of them.

The key to a successful cycle courier career is speed. The more orders, the more money you make. As a result you’ve got to move fast. Which means avoiding clogged up cycle lanes. Just like you might avoid the M1 or M25 at rush hour. Choose your route. Know the city. Be cool. Don’t get killed.

(to be continued…)

For more Blogley in Copenhagen, see Notes from Copenhagen #1

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286 – Notes From Copenhagen: The Takeaway Attendant

I’ve been in Copenhagen two weeks. The city is flat and low rise.  The streets are wide. There’s more bicycles than cars and people seem happy. I haven’t totally adjusted to life here, partly because I’m still expecting to wake up and look out over hills, lakes and forests. But any city where you can swim in the harbour and where cyclists get priority over cars, is certainly worth a few months of my time.

I even brought my vintage 1980 Peugeot PK 10 with me so I could try and look as cool as everyone else. Although my street cred took a hammering on my first morning when a lace from my chunky green Lidl trainers (cool?) got wrapped round my front pedal, upsetting my balance on a bike that’s already three sizes too small for me and sent me crashing to the floor like someone who’d just graduated from a tricycle.

I managed to compose myself, pretending it was some mechanical problem caused by shoddy French engineering, rather than my own incompetence. I then carried on to the city centre and witnessed my first ever cycle-jam.

40 or 50 cycles queuing patiently at a red light which made me wonder whether they’ll have to widen the lanes like they do to motorways to take more traffic. The lights went green and we all moved on, all 100 bikes now, for another 200 metres, until the next traffic lights where we all stopped again for another few minutes.  Nothing is perfect I thought. Even Copenhagen.

As for the Danes themselves. They are everything I expected. I went to the jobcentre on my first day here to ask about employment issues (tax, bank, legal status) and it was as though I was visiting an old friend. The man treating me as though I’d lived here all my life and wasn’t some scrounging Englishman looking for an EU passport.

I found him pleasant.  He smiled and got to the point – Danes don’t do small talk I’m told –  telling me to find a job (with a contract) and come back here and we’ll go from there. I left feeling confident that I might find my dream job here in the Kingdom of Denmark.

That was 10 days ago. Tomorrow I start work in an Indian Takeaway. There is a French phrase: faute de grives, on mange des merles, which I learnt when I first rocked up at the cycling club in Caussade on my vintage Pk 10 when everybody else was sporting 3 grand tour bikes.It roughly translates as beggars can’t be choosers or half a loaf is better than none. (*Literally, if you can’t eat thrush, eat blackbird).

In the interview with the takeaway owner he asked me where I lived. ‘Sankt Jakobs Plads,’ I said.

He was impressed. Then questioned me on why on earth I wanted to work in an Indian Takeaway, waving my CV in his hand like a judge pressing a charge. My CV is a schizophrenic mess of short contract teaching and catering jobs spanning most of my life. And he’s probably right, I’m probably over qualified – just.

I thought of telling him that I’ve never worked in an Indian Takeaway before so I’m just filling in the blanks. Getting more experience. Instead I told him the truth. ‘I’m running out of money in one of the most expensive cities in Europe. I need a job.’

I’m not sure he was entirely convinced, dressed as I was in a checked Pringle shirt, blue cotton trousers and brown brogues. And as I live in one of the most expensive parts of the city (a flat courtesy of a friend), I looked more like I was a home counties lawyer on a day out at the races, than a man looking for a job as a takeaway attendant.

‘How do I know you’re not going to run off after a few weeks and get a job at Berlitz?’ he asked me.

I laughed. ‘I doubt it, they pay less than you.’

He liked that one. ‘Really! Less than me,’ he said laughing.

‘Yeh,’ I replied. ‘Teaching English is notoriously badly paid. Don’t you know. It’s why most teachers end up working in bars and restaurants. Or working in shops. Or dead.’

After becoming serious again, he said I had the job and that I could start Monday. ‘But you must learn the menu over the weekend,’ he said pointing to it. ‘Tuesday’s going to be busy. Gun’s and Roses are playing.’

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, genuinely perplexed. ‘Guns ‘n’ Roses, as in the American rock band?’

‘At the stadium. Just there.’ Pointing to the national stadium which is literally over the road.

‘The original lineup?’ I asked.

Now it was his turn to look confused. Perhaps thinking I was referring to his menu rather than which burnt out rock stars were reuniting because they were skint fresh out of rehab. ‘As in Slash, Duff, Izzy?’ I said.

‘Just learn the menu,’ he said curtly. Clearly not a fan of classic rock.

I said I’d see him Monday and spent last night learning Indian Menu codes while drinking generic Carlsberg lager that’s half the price of The Best Lager in the World. I only got as far as Chicken Madras 228, Lamb Spinach 333 and Fish Tikka 447 because I couldn’t help thinking of Guns and Roses.

I’d seen them (the original lineup) in 1993 at the Milton Keynes Bowl. Driving down from Nottingham and parking my ancient metro in some industrial estate on the outskirts of town (if Milton Keynes is a town). Then walking 5 miles to the venue. Getting there at 11 o’clock in the morning and waiting until 10 at night with nothing to eat or drink (just a few cigarettes) before they came on.

That was 24 years ago and as I tried hard to remember vegetable curry codes, I couldn’t help one of those stupid questions people always ask filtering into my head:

‘Hey Oggers, if I said that the next time you hear Guns ‘n’ Roses play live you’ll be taking orders in an Indian Takeaway in Copenhagen, what would you say?’

‘I’d say, don’t be so fucking stupid. How would that ever happen?’

(to be continued)

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285 – Pyrenean Cycling, Vikings, Lego and Copenhagen

It’s that time of year again. End of the winter, end of looking after the chateau. Time to move on.

First stop is Spain to which me and Elizabeth are cycling to in a few weeks time. Me on my ultra modern road bike, Elizabeth on her 1970 Peugeot Randonneur. The bicycle equivalent of the Ford Econoline van used by travellers and musicians in the 1960/70s. Lots of bells, chrome fittings, lights and racks. Perfect for a cycling trip in France and 1000 times more stylish – and comfortable – than my 21st century posing pouch.

We are going to be following part of the Chemin de St. Jacques to sling shot us down to St Jean Pied de Port and then catapult us over the Pyrenees towards Pamplona. It’s actually something I’ve wanted to do since I was there a few summers ago on a camping holiday (Read Blogley post 139 if you can be arsed)

In the Pyrenees 2014

After that it’s back to Auty, then the long drive back to Double Brexit – sorry I mean the UK – to sort out a few bits and pieces. Like assassinate all the politicians and burn down the House of Commons. After I’ve done that it’s onward to Denmark via Essex (Also known as Stansted Airport).

Going to Copenhagen for three months feels almost exotic. Not in a Radox-blue tropical sea sense. Exotic in a Northern sense. Mysterious. Edgy. Cold. Vikings, longboats, herrings and plastic building bricks that get stuck in your foot.

I once saw a film when I was a kid in which a Viking chieftain is cremated on a longboat. The ship gently sailing out into the harbour fully ablaze until it caved in on itself and sank into the bay. A glorious send off. None of this black tie funeral parlour stuff full of straight faced vicars and washing line thin pallbearers receiving weak silent handshakes from relatives they’ve never met.

I remember the Viking funeral being spectacular, full of passion, death, honour and glory. Sending the warrior to a new life sitting at the high table next to Oden, a voyage over the waves, through the clouds and into eternity. Stark contrast to what happens to most of us: burnt in a cheap wooden box and then tossed into a rose bush or kept on the mantelpiece for the next 100 years like a ornament.

I said to my father after I’d watched the film that I wanted to be buried like a Viking. To which he replied while reading yet another dismal writeup of Leeds Utd’s latest demolition, ‘You’ll get buried like anyone else. In the ground. Here in Leeds. You’re not a Viking, Philip.’

‘Oh. Aren’t I?’ I replied and wandered off to research other burial practices from around the world. Parsi was my favourite: the corpse left on a high tower to be baked in the hot sun and then ripped to pieces by vultures.

(**Memo to my father: If I die in Copenhagen, I have the right to have a full Viking funeral. Longboat, flames, honour and glory – The Works.)

One Christmas I remember a quiz question from one of my sister’s board games. It asked, ‘Name three Danish brands?’

Most people would probably say what I said, ‘Lego and Carlsberg.’

I tried Danish pastries but that didn’t work. I could have said Bang & Olufsen (TVs), Netto (supermarket), Prince (fags), or Arla (cheese). Good to know now though.

I only other thing I know about Denmark is that it’s flat, which might be a welcome break after the ascent of the Pyrenees in a few weeks time. It’s also – or so I’m told – stylish. Which is where I may or may not fit in.

Style for me is drinking good coffee, not pretending it’s good just because it’s been squirted out of a ludicrously expensive Nespresso machine like a dribble of warm tar. Feeling good on the inside as opposed to obsessing about what I look like on the outside. It’s why I’ve been in the middle of rural France on and off for the past four years. I can dress in a hemp sack and there’s no one here to say, ‘What are you wearing a hemp sack for? You hippie!’

In Copenhagen I’ll probably have to say something like, ‘It’s not hemp, it’s brushed Japanese cotton. Seriously, you think I’d be wearing hemp. That was so last season!’

In a few weeks we’ll leave Chateau Dumas for good. It’s been a very pleasant year (2 x winters) and I’ve done lots of things. What, I’m not sure, but now it’s time to move on to Danish ‘Arla’ pastures new.

I’ll leave you with the last ever short video made here, featuring me trying to head a red football into the cold outdoor swimming pool accompanied by Beethoven. Au revoir and Bye!

More silly stories about my time in France can be found in A Man in France: Available in Books

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284 – Guy de Maupassant and The Trip of Le Horla

I’ve been reading the short stories of Guy De Maupassant, a French writer who died over 120 years ago.

I first came across him in a bookshop in Montauban, a small redbrick town, 50 kms north of Toulouse. I was looking for some Albert Camus as I wanted to start reading novels in French and was counting on the famous Algerian ex-goalkeeper (and novelist) to get me started. There are only so many times you can read The Little Prince.

I asked the proprietor if he had La Peste (after The Outsider, Camus’ most famous book). He said he had: four copies in fact. I took the one with the biggest print and then he asked me if I’d read any Maupassant. ‘Who?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t that a village near Cahors?’ I joked (Montpezat being a village a few miles from here). He smiled weakly (idiot Englishman), ‘No, he’s the master of the short story. Very good for learning French,’ he said in English. ‘Because it’s simple.’

He didn’t have anything in stock so I forgot about him until nearly a year later. Christmas Day 2016, Elizabeth gives me my last present of the day. It’s a book. Paperback.

‘Guess what it is?’ she asks. I roll off a few authors. ‘Camus, Hemingway, Auster, Ballard? ‘Nope,’ she replies. ‘Delillo, Steinbeck, Exupery?’ ‘Nope. Open it.’

I open it and The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant falls out of the wrapper and onto my lap like a giant block of Emmental. Tears well up and I say a big thank you! And so begins my interest in Guy de Maupassant.

Born in 1857 in Tourville sur Arques near Dieppe in Normandy, he died in Paris in 1893 and was buried in Montparnasse Cemetery. His most famous story, Boule de Suif (Butterball), tells the story of a coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The inhabitants: a prostitute, a wineseller, two nuns, a factory owner, a count, a politician, and their wives, constitute a fascinating cross section of French society in the late 19th century.

This story is the first one I read and is a perfect introduction to his style. The simplicity of which stems from his first hand knowledge of  the farmers, fishermen, tradesmen, prostitutes, soldiers, civil servants, shopkeepers, landowners, writers and vagabonds he encountered in his  life.

After moving to Paris in 1878 to work as a civil servant he wrote in his spare time. However, after Boule de Suif was published in 1880, Madame Tellier in 1882 and Mademoiselle Fifi in 1883, his reputation was so high that he gave up his job to write full time. By the time he died he’d written over 300 stories, six novels, plus countless collections of poems and other writings on travel and nature.

One of the things you notice when you read his stories is the phenomenal amount of food they eat. In Miss Harriet, a story about a puritanical English Protestant woman living in a rundown auberge in a small village called Benouville on the Normandy coast, they typically lunch on: ‘a ragout of mutton, followed by a rabbit and salad, followed by cherries and cheese.’ All enjoyed with cider. In another story aptly named The Beggar, their ‘simple’ lunch consists of a couple of chickens, a partridge, a side of ham, followed by cheese and a tart. Again washed down with cider. I daresay not everybody enjoyed such lunches in 19th century France. However, this abundance of food is so common in his writing that I suspect this was how rural people ate.

His stories are also at times very tragic and sad. The Blind Man, the story of a man who’s abused and tortured by his own family because he can’t work on the farm, is one of the most crushing stories I’ve ever read.

Conversely his stories can be phenomenally uplifting and amusing. Almost farcical. Stories such as The Duel, The Drunkard and The Relic are silly comic book affairs. Whereas stories like The Necklace and A Piece of String (and Boule de Suif) are highly political.

I enjoy his works because they are simple, finely crafted stories distilling a code of values and ideas into short pieces. Normally with staggeringly abrupt endings. So abrupt at times that I’ve wondered whether some pages have been torn out.

There are over 300 stories and yet my favourite is The Trip of Le Horla, a fascinating trip from Paris to Holland in a hot air balloon. It charts an overnight voyage – yes overnight! – from the centre of Paris to Huyet on the Dutch coast. There’s some awe inspiring description of the trip – a trip I assume he made himself – but it’s also a superb meditation. This is one of my favourite sections as they float across France at 2000 metres:

All memory has disappeared from our minds, all trouble from our thoughts; we have no more regrets, plans nor hopes. We look, we feel, we wildly enjoy this fantastic journey; nothing in the sky but the moon and ourselves! We are a wandering, travelling world, like our sisters, the planets; and this little world carries five men who have left the earth and who have almost forgotten it. We can now see as plainly as in daylight; we look at each other, surprised at this brightness, for we have nothing to look at but ourselves and a few silvery clouds floating below us.

His diversity is astonishing. Tales of varying length and assorted subjects ranging from tragedy to satire to comedy to farce. All different and yet all possessing the author’s vivid set of personal experiences.

Visit http://maupassant.free.fr/ where all his material can be found. Or download the complete short story collection for your Kindle, tablet or phone for free here – 800 pages of a late 19th century French writer. What else could you want for the spring?

Or you can read my own selection of  short stories, The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd, here

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Auty

283 – How To Tap Walnut Trees to Make Syrup

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I like maple syrup on my porridge. It’s sweet, nutritious and tastes great. It’s also expensive. So yesterday morning Elizabeth said to me, ‘Why don’t you tap the Walnut trees in the garden? There’s loads of them.’

‘Oh yeah,’ I said looking out over the walnut grove of the chateau we look after over the winter. It once produced nuts on a commercial basis, now it’s tired and overgrown. And while the trees still produce nuts, they’re only appreciated by the family of wild boar who have taken up residence there.

The truth is there’s an untapped reserve of walnut syrup on my doorstep. So I rushed out to tap it. The results were spectacular. Here’s how you do it.

1. Find a walnut tree – this is an English Walnut, but Black Walnut trees are equally good. The best time to tap them is now (February/March). Cold nights (preferably freezing) and warmer days. In the morning about 10 o’clock.

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2. Drill a hole about a centimetre in diameter at hip height. PS. If you’re planning to use your walnut tree for making chairs and tables – don’t do this!

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3. Push a metal spout like this into the hole.

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4. I don’t have one like this – this is one from Canada (where else). So I used a piece of cut off hose and jammed it in.

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5. It works fine (little bit of leakage down the tree). Now you need to set up a bowl underneath and wait.

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6. When I first did this, I thought the sap would be already treacly and brown. But it actually looks like water, which you can drink and tastes really nice. This bowl took about three hours to fill, but it depends on the conditions.

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7. The next step is to take it inside to boil down, or set it up on an open fire.

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8. Let it boil away furiously. Open some windows as there’s loads of steam. Hence why it’s better outside!

9. Drink coffee while you wait. It takes about two hours for 5 litres of sap to boil down.

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10. Boil until you get a brown syrupy liquid in the bottom. But don’t boil it down too much as it will cool down and solidify more. (And don’t forget about it either and burn it. Or your house down!). Then decant it into a bottle or jar. Et Voila! 100% pure English Walnut syrup grown in France.

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11. The one above is a touch too syrupy for my liking. I made that yesterday. The one below I made today and is about right. A lovely rich colour.

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OK, I know what you’re saying. ‘You don’t get a lot, do you?’ No you don’t. About 35mls of syrup from 5 litres of sap. But it’s great fun to make, especially with children, plus you’re connecting with nature from the inside out as it were. So how does it taste? Play video to find out!

12. Philip Ogley tasting his home-tapped Walnut syrup.

 

For more information on other trees that can be tapped, visit site: https://wildfoodism.com/2014/02/04/22-trees-that-can-be-tapped-for-sap-and-syrup/

Photograph of spout courtesy of http://homestead-honey.com/2014/03/10/beyond-maple-syrup-tapping-black-walnut-trees/

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Auty

282 – 99 Reasons Not To Buy This Book!

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My hugely popular guide book to France has been called many things since I published it a year ago:

“The most misleading guidebook to France ever written”

“A treasure trove of inaccuracies”

“As informative as a piece of wood”

“As boring as Sartre”

“Blander than French coffee.”

“More self-congratulatory than a Michelin restaurant”

To celebrate these plaudits and the book’s anniversary, here’s another 99 reasons not to buy it. In case you’re tempted.

  1. It’s factually inaccurate.
  2. It’s not really a guidebook at all.
  3. Most places I’ve mentioned, don’t actually exist.
  4. I wrote most of it on the toilet.
  5. It goes off on tangents and never comes back.
  6. It’s not really about France anyway, it’s about me.
  7. It’s years out of date.
  8. Prices are still in Francs.
  9. Half of the characters are animals.
  10. The other half are dead.
  11. There’s no violence in it.
  12. Definitely no sex.
  13. There’s no famous people (except me).
  14. There’s no happy ending.
  15. There are no free apps.
  16. Or video games.
  17. Or maps.
  18. Or photos
  19. Or newsletters.
  20. Or special offers.
  21. Or dedicated fan sites.
  22. Or anything else much of interest.
  23. Roman Aqueducts are featured a lot.
  24. There’s too many references to baguettes.
  25. And crap coffee.
  26. Mosquitoes.
  27. Flies.
  28. And cheap lager.
  29. There’s no plot.
  30. No dialogue.
  31. Very little action.
  32. No direction.
  33. Certainly no heroes.
  34. Paris isn’t even in it.
  35. Nor is anywhere else.
  36. It’s absurd.
  37. Obscure.
  38. Ridiculous.
  39. And stupid.
  40. And that’s not even 99 reasons, which says it all. Rubbish!

However, if you still want a copy,  it’s your lucky month. Because during March, I’ve cut the price from an extortionate £1.99 ($2.99) to a bargain basement, cutthroat price of 99 pence or cents. Which means wherever you are (UK, Europe or the States) it’s the same price. Provided of course you buy the ebook (compatible with laptops, phones, tablets, Etch A Sketches, stone slates, or papyrus pith) and not the clunky paper version.

So for the price of a stale croissant, you can read this remarkable book for only 99 copper coins.

(It’s really quite good, despite what you read. Click the croissant below to buy.)

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Auty

281 – Egg and Spoon Races on the Tour de France

Every Sunday I cycle with the Caussade Cyclo Club. A smattering of hardened veterans, Lycra clad family guys,  grizzled tradesmen, and me. The fresh faced Englishman from Auty who looks after a chateau there in winter. Who appears around November and then disappears again in May, and who only seems to cycle with the club in the ice, freezing fog and howling wind.

This Sunday was no exception as we headed out in storm force winds up to Caylus north of Caussade, then across to Espinas and down into St Antonin in the Aveyron gorge (where Charlotte Gray was filmed). Then we headed up the other side of the gorge on a well known local climb called Côte de Saint Antonin, which as it happens, formed part of Stage 6 in last year’s Tour de France.

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Granted, it’s hardly Alpe D’huez, more a pinprick in comparison, but it’s quite a nice climb all the same: the wide road winding up the side of the gorge giving great views of the valley and town. (You can see the road in the photo below.)

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I’ve done it a few times since I’ve been here and have always found it pretty tough, clocking up times of 15.24 and 14.23 respectively. Both of which are pretty poor.

However, this Sunday after I got back and downloaded my data from my GPS watch (whatever happened to old fashioned speedometers, eh?) I saw I’d done the climb in 11.50 and had risen up to 235th on the Strava leaderboard for the Cote de St. Antonin climb.

If you’re not familiar with how Strava works, think of it like this.

It’s school sportsday, the last day of term, your family are here and you’re approaching the finish line in the egg and spoon race. You’re in the lead. Everybody is cheering, even your grandfather who’s nearly dead, and then calamity! You trip and fall over, break your egg and watch Fatso McGeekan, your longtime nemesis, glide past you and take first place. Leaving you scrabbling around on the yolk splattered grass picking up broken eggshell along with your shattered dreams.

But now let’s imagine that wasn’t the end of it. That you had the chance to rerun the race again and again as many times as you liked in a sort of parallel universe to ensure you came first instead of Fatso McGeeken.

This is what Strava does (more or less).

Let’s take the Cote de Saint Antonin climb, for example. On Strava, this is a Segment. This means that every time a cyclist does this climb, their time is logged and their position ranked on a leaderboard alongside all the other riders who have done it in the past.

An individual can move up the leaderboard by improving their time. Therefore, if my imaginary egg and spoon race was a segment on Strava, which it could be in theory because anyone can set one up, I could rerun the race over and over again and beat my nemesis. (This is hypothetical of course: I’m actually 43 and not still at school.)

I understand that the whole point of races is that the winner is the winner on the day. However, what’s interesting is that after my cycle on Sunday while enjoying a homemade croissant courtesy of Elizabeth (they take three days to make she tells me) I saw on Strava that even though I’d done the Cote de St. Antonin in 11.50 minutes, the quickest time was actually a mind boggling 7.04. Wow! I thought. That’s quick. Very quick! Furthermore, scrolling down the page, I saw there were loads of good times. 7.10, 7.13, 7.15 and so on.

‘Holy Christ!’ I cried out, nearly choking on French pastry. ‘What the hell did these guys think they were doing, the Tour De France, or something?’

Turns out that’s exactly what they were doing, Stage Six to be precise, a Who’s Who of modern day cycling on the same Strava leaderboard as me.  Even one of my favourites, Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour de France winner and double Giro D’italia winner, was there. Look!

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And here’s me on the same leaderboard back in 235th place.

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I then started thinking about my sportsday analogy. If I could beat Fatso McGeekan in an egg and spoon race, then by applying the same schoolboy logic I could beat 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali. All I had to do was get a time better than his on the Cote de St. Antonin and I’d leapfrog him on the leaderboard. 

Not waiting to see if my logic made any sense, I stuffed a few more croissants down my neck and headed back out on my bike to St. Antonin. You better watch your back Nibali, I’m right behind you…

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Vincenzo Nibali

For more anecdotes and undeniable logic read my book A Man in France. Available here

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