Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Snow nose

Snow nose: before and after

Munson’s big snow day between Voiron and Grenoble produced a small souvenir: snow nose. Those familiar with northern breeds will recognise this loss of pigment. It’s usually seasonal, but some are born with it. Lucky I had some earlier shots of Munson to show the before state!

Bondi always had some on the bridge of his nose, but was never prone to the temporary form. The only real risk it poses is sunburn. I often had to block out Bondi’s pink patch with zinc cream.


It seems I am not the only constant traveller in my family. My family history researches have thrown up a number of individuals who have travelled widely, and certainly many who intentionally braved the long sea voyage to Australia to create a new life for their families. There’s also more than a handful who were dispatched in the direction of Australia by virtue of their occasional lack of virtue.

Sam is my second cousin on my mother’s side, and thus descended from the first of my convict ancestors. Some years ago I connected with his mum online in the course of my genealogical quest but owing to Sam and I meandering across different parts of the globe at any one time, we haven’t met in person yet.

Having “been chosen by Mongolia” (his words), he’s spent the last few years teaching English in the capital Ulaanbaatar. Now he’s launched a blog and a podcast “Chewin’the Yak”on all things Mongolian – at least something to do while sitting out the –25C temperatures. Curiously, Ulaanbaatar is a sister city to the Gold Coast in Australia,  a relationship probably built on a shared propensity for vodka consumption during the school holidays.

Meanwhile, I must go back to vacuuming up after my domestic yak, who is undergoing a major moult.

[10 Feb edit: yakkyman.wordpress.com has moved to yakkyman.com. Links above updated accordingly]

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Big yellow moon, big hairy loon


Forget about any artfully posed shot tonight.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nature calls


2011-01-18 Sunrise   lake

My second foray into the local choir last night didn’t produce anything musical from my lungs, so the universe conspired to close down my singing efforts by giving me a head cold. As I woke to this development I also caught this wonderfully moody sunrise.

A little later, Munson drew my attention to a small visitor in the kitchen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Le Glee

As I’ve mentioned before, singing isn’t exactly my strong suit, as much as I’d wish it otherwise. The last time I made an attempt to rectify matters vocal & choral was about 13 years ago, when I enrolled in an adult class called the Tone Deaf Clinic. Unfortunately almost every one else in the class was a female older than my mother (including the teacher), had no music training (no not including the teacher) and sang in an arrhythmic strangulated vibrato that my young(er) vocal chords simply could not tune themselves against.

Today I dropped by the house of my friends Chris & Emmy, and over a coffee Emmy mentioned the amateur choir she was a member of, and that it was a great way to integrate with the local community. I asked when the next rehearsal might be, so I could at least sit in and observe (much like a wannabe torturer at Guantanamo). “Tonight”. “Oh?” I replied in my closest approximation to a descending tone, trying not to blast a mouthful of coffee across the table.

Thus at 8.30pm I turned up outside a small building in a commune about 10 minutes away. Emmy was waiting for me in the carpark and led me into a smallish room with a digital keyboard at one end, and about 15 people milling around, removing their overcoats. As I stood in the doorway, 15 pairs of eyes swung around and almost as many mouths cried “un homme! un homme!”. Even in France, men are still in short supply when it comes to singing  - and I await with some trepidation Jean’s invitation to start ballet when she starts teaching dance again.

After muttering some words of introduction, I was tentatively assessed as “tenor” and ushered into a circle for vocal warm-ups. One exercise was to “pass” a sung tone around the room as if in a game of Chinese Whispers. Unfortunately I was the concluding recipient before having to return the “tone”- now sounding like it emanated from a damaged theremin – to the teacher. Listening to this with saintlike forbearance, she would gesture with her hands – higher or lower – in a manner which hadn’t made me so nervous since getting stuck in Naples traffic.


First song was a Jacques Brel number which I knew in English translation. By way of conversation I said “J’adore la musique Belgique” to one of my fellow tenors, which earned an appreciative snigger. Reading the SATB sheet for my part, I quickly realised that I couldn’t manage most of the upper range of notes assigned to the tenors – not intentionally anyway. We moved onto “Down by the riverside” which at least was in English, and halfway through I was shifted one seat over from tenors to basses. That way at least I could rumble under the melody rather than lurching from my so-called chest voice into chipmunky countertenor head voice. There were additional rumblings on occasion from the back of the choir: I’m a head taller than the next tallest person in the group, so when I stand near the front, no one behind can see Mme professeur. Not wanting to rock the bateau regarding placement of basses, I could only smile, stare theatrically at the floor and feign curiosity as to where the little voices from the back were emanating from.

 my f-f-f-f-fêve

Following the singing there was a small amount of wine and cake. I initially turned down the cake, but was convinced to partake as they were celebrating La Fête Des Rois which falls on the first Sunday of each year. The puff-pastry cake or galette des rois (cake of the [three wise] kings) has some object in it – the fêve ( as it was originally a fava bean ) – and the recipient is crowned king. A queen is also anointed, either by discovery of a second fêve, or by the king’s selection. Moments after this was explained to me, I found something hard in the portion of galette I was chewing – I had a mouthful of Super Mario Brother! Alerting the others of this discovery, I was swiftly crowned King – a cardboard gold crown settling onto my head just before I delivered regal kisses onto each cheek of my new Queen. I thanked them and said that I was a bit nervous about being made a king in France because I might be separated from my head. “France is getting a reputation!” someone cried.

I hung around for a while to talk to some of my subjects the other singers – many of whom were not in fact French, but hailed from Germany, Holland, Italy or the UK. I promised to return next week, a mixed blessing for them I’m sure. I’m even more sure that people who have known me for a long time will be crying with laughter (or shock) at the thought of me in any singing capacity. Maybe next week I will substitute Munson…

Postscript: The BBC just published an article Can the tone deaf learn to sing?, with a musical aptitude test run through BBC Labs (requires sign-in).

Music-nerd humour alert: I'm contemplating a treatment for a new primetime TV show about high-school musicians in early 20thC Russia, called GLIERE. It will feature students spontaneously breaking into a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, and competitions against the Mighty Handful.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Six mois

It’s 6 months now since Munson and I flew out of Sydney. Doesn’t time fly when you’re doing paperwork!

What’s happened in that period?

Six months - 1

We started with a few days in London, introducing Munson to his namesake cafe, getting his pet passport and a car to get us across the channel. Munson enjoyed his first train ride and visit to a pub. With the car delivered, insurance sorted, and a ferry booked from Plymouth, we squeezed in some time with friends in Wales and Cornwall, with Munson’s first hotel stay on our Exmoor stop-over.

Six months - 2

On July 19 we arrived in France and drove down to Condom in the Gers, where we were Peter’s guests for a few days. Within the week we had moved onto our temporary home in the Haut-Garonne. For a few months it was all about tasting foie gras, swimming in the Gorge, visiting Toulouse, weekly visits to farmers’ markets and touring through the Pyrénées. Oh yes and the paperwork: finalising car insurance, transfer of car registration, getting a bank account, getting a phone account etc. Don’t worry there’s more of that to come after this six months!

Six months - 3

At the beginning of September, my friends Brent and Jean sealed their purchase of a farm in the Gers. By the middle of the month Munson and I moved into the farmhouse’s salle de degustation (party room) just in time to greet my furniture shipment from Australia. Weeks of cleaning, walking the farm and familiarisation with the area followed.

Six months - 4

In mid-October, we had a mini-holiday in the UK, travelling north via Chartres, and returning via Lyon. The centrepiece of the trip was walking from Dolgellau to Barmouth with Chris, but we caught up with more friends in London, and had a side-trip to Swanage, the Jurassic Coast and Bristol.

Six months - 5

Four months to the day since we left Sydney, we moved into our permanent home – the villa on the Gers farm. November’s days were taken up with setting up house, collecting firewood around the farm, and preparing for baby Zèlie. A week before Xmas, Munson saw his first snow, but it was just a thin dusting lasting no more than a day. To make it real, I took him on a brief trip to the edge of the Alps, where he could enjoy a snowy wonderland. We saw in the new year with several days in the Lot, days of donkeys, dolmens and rock-hewn history.

144 blog posts later, and here we are, making new friends, reconnecting with European friends, and missing all our friends down-under. It’s a very different life to what I’ve lead before, but I find myself quietly happy, and Munson is growing into the new environment.

There is a guest-room…

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

AUCH: Organ and fries

P1032151 Damien in Auch Cathedral

Auch is the capital of the Gers department where I live, and I usually see its central cathedral when I’m visiting the adjacent prefectural offices. The Gers is one of the most sparsely populated areas in western Europe – with a slightly declining population - , so this small city of 22000 is a very minor outpost amongst the nearly 100 departments of France. Evenso, the cathedral has a very impressive interior, with Renaissance stained glass windows, and one of the most important sets of carved wooden choir stalls in all Europe. The stalls I will have to visit another day; today I was meeting a friend for lunch, and was otherwise transported by the sound of Bach’s Chaconne being played on the cathedral organ. I’ve recorded a short piece below.


Auch Cathedral Organ

It’s a very fine instrument judging by the short performance I heard today. It was built in 1688 by Jean de Joyeuses, and declared by the king to be the finest in his kingdom. It was most recently restored in 1997. I’ll have to look for any news of recitals here – especially if I can hear the entire Chaconne (originally written for violin), or perhaps the C minor Passacaglia. I’ve played around with both of these titanic pieces on the piano, but would love to soak them up in the cathedral acoustic.

2011-01-03 AUCH Cathedral

Nos burgers

Poor Munson had to sit outside while I quickly circumnavigated the interior. My friend Damien took us to lunch at an Irish(!) Pub behind the cathedral. I balanced out my Irish cider with a Gascon burger which incorporates foie gras and fig chutney. The fries of course were lovingly cooked in duck fat.

Monday, January 03, 2011

FIGEAC area: Rocamadour



There’s a village hidden deep in the valley…

Rocamadour is the cliff of St Amadour, a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, partly because it houses one of the hundreds of “Black Madonna”paintings found throughout Europe since the 12th century.


My first sight of the cluster of chapels and monastery, with the town below, was from across the gorge. From there it looked for a moment like a toy town glued painstakingly onto a papier-mâché hilltop on an elaborate train set.

We drove down, down to the public parking area, and from there could look up as noon-day bells rang out and bounced around the gorge.

All the chapel bells were ringing in the little valley town…

P1022052 P1022150

I had to wonder at this pedestrian-only sign that blocks the beginning of the path up to the town. It’s clearly not negotiable by a vehicle. Even worse is the matching sign at the top end, which would be very difficult to walk around if you were not sure footed.


From below, one first encounters the commercial street, mostly closed this Sunday even with tourists in plentiful supply. The main stairway up to the chapel complex is being repaired, so there’s a choice between paying 3 euro for a three story elevator ride, or marching up a kind of dirt goat track and crawling under a small bridge at street level above. At the time, only the latter option was visible, so a-crawling we went.

P1022096-1  P1022068-79   82-94_stitch hsphere

As the diagram above shows, it really is like a religious cineplex, as if there were nothing to do for 500 years but build more chapels and pray for an internet connection.

P1022097-110_stitch hsphere

All of the buildings on the cliff side just merge into the rocks. Below you can see multiple intersecting planes of brick and rock around an elevated mural. Suspended over one of the little plazas is a sword fragment attributed to the medieval knight Roland (sometimes rendered as Orlando) who fought under Charlemagne and became an all-round hero for centuries of folk-tale, verse, opera and so on.

2011-01-02 DAMIEN -3

At time it feels like you’re walking around a regularised version of an Escher print where stairs dart off at every angle.


P1022128-33_stitch hycl

This is the largest of the chapels, altar facing (above) and the rear melting into the cliff face (below, left).

P1022134 P1022124


2011-01-02 DAMIEN -4

The composer Francis Poulenc has an association with this place since visiting in 1936 and composing his first religiously-inspired work: Litanies à la Verge Noire (Litanies to the Black Madonna). There is a museum dedicated to his name here.

2011-01-02 DAMIEN -5

Sunday, January 02, 2011

FIGEAC area: Lone spa


from the teahouse

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know exactly where these photos were taken – only that they’re on the edge of a commune northwest of Figeac, probably around Gramat. It’s part of a large open site that was once a health spa. Now there are a few shuttered and graffitied buildings and the not-too-battered edifice seen above. It’s like something I might have seen in the grounds of Sanssouci in Potsdam.




P1022024-29_stitch hcyl

FIGEAC area: Hey Hey We’re the Donkees

Bees to honey nougat

If you raise bees, then you’re on the way to making your own honey nougat!

2011-01-01 DAMIEN -4 For our first lunch of the new year, we visited Anne & Alain’s farm high on a rocky mount south of Figeac. After negotiating the steep road to their property and looking at the singular terrain, my first conclusion was that they raised free range stones.

After a beautiful lunch in the house they’d built beside an ancient stone barn, we walked around the property – me being scrupulously careful to avoid going any near the falaise. That would be a cliff for acrophobes like me. Anyway, I had more pressing issues, as when I peered out over the door of the outdoor dunny, and wondered big ass like that could fit in there.

I think donkeys may be as photogenic as malamutes – and they’re sooo curious about everything.

Hey Hey We're the Donkees

Saturday, January 01, 2011

FIGEAC area: The largest Dolmen of the Lot


The twenty tonne rock we’re lying on is the dolmen of Pierre Martine, which has been here for about 4000 years. Concrete piers were added to the side-slabs in recent decades after the capstone was broken in two. There’s a small burial chamber, accessible to your average eager malamute archaeologist. While there is a joke in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that Indie was named after the dog, the surprising background to this is that the name comes from George Lucas’ malamute Indiana, who also inspired the wookie Chewbacca. There are obvious parallels between Indiana Jones and a malamute’s propensity for excavations and hair-raising adventures.  Back on the farm, there’s a smallish concrete box near our house which connects a couple of plastic aqueducts. Munson will sit before it all day, alert and ears cocked, as if it were a pharaoh's burial chamber. I suspect rabbits or moles might occasionally pass through it, but have yet to find any trace of their movements or any primitive rodent ceremonies being carried out in the box. However if there are indeed small furry druids operating in the area, Munson will unearth their secrets.

Dolmen de la Pierre Martine

Dolmen de la Pierre Martine

The capstone is about seven metres long, sitting quite securely on the new foundation. Originally it would have rocked on the side slabs. Once it would have been covered with earth to form a barrow, but given the great passage of time since their construction, this is weathered away to leave the stone table skeleton.

Dolmens are found all over the world, with the largest one in Europe having a 150 tonne capstone. Bondi and I went looking for one in the Burren region of Ireland, but got a bit lost in a maze of small roads and never found it.

A short drive from the dolmen is the Lac de Lacam, with the small stone shepherd’s hut that is emblematic of the region.

Lac de Lacam

Lot: Figeac

Polar plinth

My return to the farm was subverted/diverted/perverted by an invitation to stay over in the Lot department near Figeac. I didn’t get to see a great deal of the town as we were caught between a long visit to the market to make up dinner for New Year’s Eve, and the fall of night. Munson was very distracted by the large number of cats wandering the streets. I got his attention back with the promise of a bag of bones from the market butchery.

The significance of the brightly lit display above was completely lost to me, and not easy to photograph when one hand is attached to a leash attached to a dog who’s attached to the idea of chasing the nearest street cat.

Musée Champollion

Figeac is the birthplace of Charles Boyer and of Jean-François Champollion, the first translator of the Rosetta Stone. Champollion’s work was fascinating to me as a boy, having encountered the story in Franklin Folsom’s book The Wonderful Story of Language (which I borrowed repeatedly from the local library, and finally found as a second-hand copy many years later). Next time I visit Figeac I’ll be sure to visit the museum devoted to his life and work.

Blessed are the cheesemakers  Cow juice vending machine 
Nougat tendreI missed the museum, but the local growers’ market attached to the GammVert store was like an archaeological dig for a foreigner, starting with the raw-milk vending machine outside. Jean mentioned seeing one of these in St-Gaudens, but we’ve yet to encounter one in the Gers. It’s pretty straightforward – you bring or purchase a container, put your money for the required volume and fill up from a spout – with a cowcophany of mooing to accompany the bubbling cow juice.

Inside there were slabs of fresh nougat that you could buy by the kilo, and local cheeses flagged with photographs of their makers.
Plenty of other goodies found both for tonight’s dinner and to stow away in the car.