Sunday, July 31, 2011

SWEDEN Mike and Munson shop for Moomin mugs in Malmö

Optimistorkestern guest-starring optimistmalamute

I only spent a couple of days in Malmö on my last visit, developing some fondness for it rather quickly. I still had a good memory for where to find most of the major landmarks – or as Gustav would hasten to point out – where I can indulge my disease minor passion for collecting Moomin mugs. Every trip to Sweden seems to add a few more of Tove Jansson’s characters to my mug rack.
MalmöMoomin mugs
Lilla Torg, Malmö

After collecting a few more mugs from the iittala store, we drove to the nearby university town of Lund, which apart from being one of the oldest communities in Sweden is also one of the international homes of Indian food along with New York and Sydney. (Someone might like to fact check that one, as I’m taking local signage as my primary reference)

From there it was another hour’s drive up the coast past Helsingborg to the Bastad area where Gustav lives. The afternoon concluded with a swim on a short stretch of dog-friendly beach – somewhat limited in that dogs had to be on leash in and out of the water. Still, not a bad place for our first dip in the Baltic.

A dip in the Baltic

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Roadtrip north: Germany, Denmark, Sweden

2011-07-29 ROADTRIP 3 Malmö

Today’s journey would be the longest of the three driving days this week. Left Cologne at 6.25am and other than a couple of short stops for refueling food and self, didn’t really notice much off the road until the outskirts of Hamburg nearly five hours later. Even then it was simply the surrounds of the New Elbe Tunnel, 3km of darkness under the Elbe River before it empties into the North Sea.

By this time I’d decided to foreswear the “85 euro route” via ferry, which my GPS now assured me would save perhaps 3 minutes off the alternate route. So we ploughed north through Schleswig-Holstein and into Denmark, turning east near Odense and then crossing the first looooong toll-bridge. Even before reaching the border the roads were starting to crowd with Danish campervans returning home like migratory birds who’d swarmed all over Europe during their annual vacations. I remember well getting stuck behind many of them on narrow roads in Ireland and Scotland, unable to get the attention of their drivers – do they have autopilots perhaps?

At some stage we stopped at a “Tulip” roadside services place perched on the edge of a cornfield. Munson at least got a good run-around on Danish soil, but the human refreshment offerings and ambience were of some old-fashioned high-school cafeteria.

It was nearly 4pm when we rounded the outskirts of Copenhagen for the Öresund Bridge to Sweden. After a truly dull but smooth journey, two potential hiccoughs came in quick succession. First of all, as soon as I got onto the bridge my fuel light came on. I’ve not tested the fuel reserve on this car, but I’ve been in vehicles where that light means you’ve got enough left to gracefully coast to the side of the road. I hoped that wouldn’t be the case in the middle of Europe’s longest road/rail bridge. I asked Brian the GPS to find the next fuel station so I would be ready to top-up on the other side of the toll-booths.

As it happened after paying my 40 euro crossing fee, a customs agent waved me over to ask if Munson had had his worm tablets. I had a mental d’oh at this point as I thought that this was only an issue in Norway. His vaccinations were not enough – he had to have had tablets within the past 10 days. I saved the situation by saying I had some worm tablets with me, so she watched me pop them down Munson’s throat and allowed me to continue but said I should have them (expensively!) administered and certified by a vet before crossing.

I went to get some fuel but realised at the last minute that the station was on a one-way road straight back across the bridge to Denmark. D’oh again. I spun around, found another station and continued on to Malmö.


Munson excited by adding two more countries to his CV

That evening, as I stepped out onto the streets of Malmö with Gustav and his friends Magnus and Jesper to buy some Chinese take-away food, I saw a guy across the road armoured with a tin-foil helmet and clutching onto a plastic bucket. I was told that he must be a groom-to-be celebrating his last week of freedom. A few minutes later he came over and showed us the contents of his bucket: thousands of screws and bolts of varying dimensions and degrees of rustiness. We were to take one, no two! of these as a gift. I picked out a couple and pantomimed attaching them to my neck in the popular style of the Frankenstein monster. The friendly groom smiled and said “Yes! You are Einstein now”.  Einstein indeed.

Friday, July 29, 2011

COLOGNE Dogs and cash only

Yesterday’s rain gave way to an overcast morning and by lunchtime quite a sunny but humid day. Our hotel was only a few minutes from a rail station, a short stretch of unattended platform hidden in a back street. I wasted a good fifteen minutes fighting with the ticket-machine, partly because it resisted many attempts to switch the touchscreen interface to English but mostly because it kept choking on my debit card. It kept reporting some issue in German ( multilingual machines never seem to be multilingual in telling you what you’ve done wrong) and fellow commuters who tried to assist simply shrugged their lack of understanding of the problem. I eventually dug up some euro coins and got our ticket into central Cologne.
Cologne train journey
Munson seemed happy with this train than he had been with the frequently bumpy London Underground lines, and sat quietly by my side for the twenty minute journey, occasionally checking the view or sniffing passengers who came to say hello. We surfaced at the Neumarkt station, and after checking my bearings located the Schildergasse, Cologne’s main shopping street, supposedly the busiest in Europe, blandly dominated by internationally identifiable shopfronts. I resisted the temptation to breakfast on berliners or any of the other sugary pastries weighing down the cafe counters by the thousand. I’m learning from farm-life to get some proper protein down the hatch at the start of the day to ensure a slow-burn through a long day.
Schildergasse WDR Arcades

Properly fuelled, we turned north towards the big sightseeing draw for the day, Cologne Cathedral, whose huge mass and double spires were seen as we crossed the Rhine river on our train journey.  Taking over 600 years to complete, it was briefly the world’s tallest structure in the 1880s until overtaken by the Washington Monument. Kölner Dom’s front façade is still the largest of any church. First seen on foot as it looms over the commercial centre, I’m reminded of the start of Star Wars as the gigantic cruiser passes overhead. The smog of industry and proximity to the central railway station haven’t been kind to the cathedral exterior, making it seem more forbidding than awe-inspiring: gothic horror in stone.
Cologone Cathedral

However there is no sombre façade that can’t be enlivened by sticking a handsome malamute in front of it. In fact you can even improve many otherwise attractive structures in this manner.
Cologne cathedral   Munson  Munson at der Kölner Dom
None shall pass! - Gandalf and Charlie Chaplin stand guardThe default decorations in the cathedral square are an assortment of living statues, a painted Gandalf and Charlie Chaplin who rarely stood still, somehow defeating the point of their roles. It would have been great if “Gandalf” had stood before the cathedral doors and waved his staff around, declaring “None shall pass!” but a little too much to hope for on a weekday morning.
Mike explains religious iconography to Munson  so this is Narnia...
Lunch at Cafe Rico
As we wandered around the city, no shop, arcade or cafe was closed to Munson – dogs were just unremarked companions for people going about their business. I did belatedly find that almost no place would accept credit or debit cards – if you didn’t have a special German debit card, it was cash only. I spent nearly an hour in one store buying some bits for my camera only to be rejected at the cashier, and I didn’t want to hit my daily cash withdrawal limit on non-essentials, so bought nothing but food and fuel during my stay. I belatedly realised why I couldn’t buy my train-ticket earlier – foreign plastic wasn’t accepted (even if from the eurozone). Rather surprising when even parking meters across Europe will often take any card and stores in Cologne were running huge sales to attract customers.
Cologone 4711After lunch we walked a short distance along the Rhine, possibly the first time I’ve been by this river in all my years of travels. Munson got to rest his paws on some grassy stretches and I met two young Aussies, David and Melanie, Queenslanders like Munson, who were spending a few months in this city.

We passed the home of the famous 4711 eau de cologne commemorating the street address of its maker.  The original eau de cologne was developed by an Italian expat living in Cologne 300 years ago. It was a remarkable sensation for being the first successful attempt to blend many plant oils to get a completely new fragrance.
On our last pass of the Schildergasse for the afternoon, we sat to watch some street musicians on cello, violin and drums playing rock music. Munson rolled onto his back to invite the crowd to a belly-rub, which made at least two of the musicians crack a smile mid-song.

Stilbruch play for Munson

Random sights and silliness
tired Munson

This has been Munson’s biggest day out for the year; he crashed out quickly on the train ride back to Vischeringstrasse.  As we left the station, rain started, a sharp wind not far behind. Just after we reached shelter in the hotel, the sky really unleashed everything: torrential rain, Donner und Blitzen, Sturm und Drang. A perfectly timed exit from sightseeing.

I sat in the small hotel lobby for an hour or so, updating the previous days’ posts and pruning email. Munson made lovey-eyes at everyone entering or exiting the place, which was universally reciprocated. The duty manager came over to say hello to him occasionally: “he’s just a teddy bear isn’t he?”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wrung out around Paris, and on to France, Belgium, Germany

Day 2It was difficult to tear away from our hosts this morning, but we’ve got another 7.5 hours of road-trippin’ ahead of us and a desire to avoid the heavily trafficked times around Paris and our destination. There was about 50-60km of roads through densely connected villages to negotiate before I took the first toll-road entrance ticket and started zooming Paris-ward.
The Parisian outer ring-roads must be some foretaste of hell – like driving on Parisian streets but at breakneck speed and in competition with multiple lanes of traffic. Vehicles pulled out in front of us without warning, tailgated aggressively and only reluctantly allowed us to switch lanes to exit to another level of the game. As I said, just like on Parisian streets, just at three to five times the speed.

It seemed to go on and on, eyes nervously twitching between road, rear mirrors and GPS screen. It seemed as if the road never curved around Paris but was built up of a series of interwoven tangents, accelerating us like some poor hadron under the Swiss countryside. For all I could tell, we may have accelerated around Paris multiple times before gaining after energy or karma points to shoot off in the direction of Lille, Belgium and finally Germany.
Parc Asterix
I did get a wee bit excited when I saw the signs for Parc Asterix off to the right, but knew that any any love of the books might be ruined by spending even ten minutes of a grey school-holiday Wednesday on its grounds.

The road-signs after that were scarcely as interesting: the Gaulish village is not followed by Roman encampments of Laudanum, Compendium, Totorum et al, but by endless places with European treaties named after them, or sad reminders of battles on fields long gone.
I recall Bondi’s first stop in Belgium had been at a petrol station as we sped across it between Calais and Amsterdam. Munson at least got a bit of a walk around at some forlorn-looking roadside services area before we continued on. There is definitely a great dip in the quality of these places between France and Germany!
Spooky clowns  Munson stopped for a long Pooh

It started pissing down rain on the last stretch into Germany, but at least we weren’t too long delayed by the start of Cologne’s rush hour and settled into cheap but clean and comfortable hotel room in  suburban Holweide (two nights of which would cost us less than a short Danish ferry trip!).

I took Munson out for a long walk along the commercial strip, I guess for a kilometre or so and then returned along the other side of the road. It was difficult to size up the neighbourhood based on its quotient of hairdressers, spooky clowns and other sights, but everyone was smiling and polite, and no one asked if Munson was a werewolf (as far as I could tell).

Munson at Burger King 
I couldn’t see any obvious place to eat out, and really just wanted to take something back to our room and flake out. There was a Burger King across the road which seemed to lie on the path of least resistance. “Seemed” because I hadn’t ventured into a BK in over a decade, having had two successive bouts of food poisoning from two successive visits to their establishments in the USA and Australia.

As I approached the entrance, I dodged a family with a yappy little dog and realised that they had brought the dog out of the restaurant. So I nonchalantly walked in with Munson and went up to the counter. To my relief, I didn’t have a minimum-wage molecular gastronomer leap the counter and spatter me with indignant foam for having dared enter their Michelin star-in-waiting establishment with a filthy animal. Instead the nice people a) got their tin of special dog-treats, and then b) switched gracefully into English to take my order.

There were two other dogs in there at the time, but they ignored Munson, pretty much like the response he gets from other dogs in English pubs. And no we didn’t get sick. For those keeping tally, that’s two visits to places that don’t accept dogs where I got sick, and one visit to a dog-welcoming establishment where I didn’t.

Tomorrow is a break from the road. Bondi conquered East Germany, and now it’s Munson’s turn to take control of the West.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

We’re all going on a summer holiday

9am departure - Mike & Munson ready to go
Munson & Legend - final romp

As usual my week of packing meant thinking about what I’d pack for 6.5 days, emptying the fridge for 6.7 days and then throwing everything into a bag in the final 0.3 days. I’ve done this before.

My early night’s sleep was disturbed at 4.30am by Munson demanding my attention outside. I staggered out to the terrace and looked into the night without figuring what was going on. Maybe Munson was fidgety about all the car-packing. It wasn’t till the morning that I found that an animal (possibly a fox) had pulled up some of the tomato plants growing in a barrel near my kitchen door. The vegan predators have been scared off from the other house by Legend/Legume and made my garden the new target. So be it – I’m not going to be able to enjoy any of the fruits of my gardening over the next month or so.

Munson had a final romp with Legend. I wanted to record their comparative sizes now in anticipation of Legend’s growth in our absence.

Rubber-necking at chateaux

Setting off at 9am on the dot, Brian (Blessed, the voice of my TomTom) predicted a 4.00pm arrival at Ken & Walt’s house. I tried to avoid the motorway for the start of the journey – it detours a bit towards Toulouse and doesn’t save any time for those who are heading in the general direction of Paris. It also neatly bypasses the toll-road – those euros can really add up on a long journey.

So we drove through Agen, and then through very pretty countryside until we hit Perigeaux’s lunchtime traffic snarl at noon (on the dot as it happened). We pulled over in Limoges for lunch and for Munson to empty himself, and I reset Brian to calculate our time based on taking the motorway for most of the remaining journey. That allowed me to email Ken with a 4.30 ETA. Surprisingly, even with road delays, stopping to fill up the car and rubber-necking at chateaux we pulled into their drive.

Ken and Walt are the first bloggers I’ve followed and subsequently met since I got back to Australia a few years back. So there is that curious feeling of cybernetic pen-pals finally meeting , although with blogging you are each “broadcasting” into space and hoping to find intelligent life and then interacting through our comment threads. So despite meeting face to face for the first time, we have a long familiarity with each other’s lives and you zip past a lot of chit chat into deep conversation.
Munson & Callie
Munson met Callie the collie and they had a bit of a romp together in the nearby vineyards. I’m already missing the ones we had on the farm, as they break up the landscape of pastures and allow deer and other animals to approach the houses.

A fantastic dinner ( please refer to all the cooking entries in their blogs)  and then an early night.

Köln tomorrow!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Road-trip update: Danegeld 2011

We’re about to set off for Sweden, where we’ll be for about a 10-12 days, after which it’s a dash across to the UK to begin our 14 day hike along Offa’s Dyke, taking us up to the last week of August.

Yesterday I started to program some of the stops into my TomTom and got a little shock. It turned out that the “map of Europe” that came included with it didn’t include anything east of Belgium/France/Switzerland/Italy. Whereas my old Garmin came with “the works”, I couldn’t program in my stops in Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

So 50 quid later and hours of downloading and fiddling around to get everything on my device. Even then it turns out that the TomTom which is less than a year old has skimped on memory capacity so it can’t actually hold the entirety of Europe and I have to pick zones of countries to stick on the device. It means I can never plan a road-trip across Europe because there is no zone that will allow that. Rebuilding the device’s map each time is a horribly time-consuming procedure while it slowly removes the old zones (and helpfully deletes all my destination history and favourites grrrrrr) and puts the new zones on. Really poor stuff TomTom!

So after that unplanned diversion, I’ve got most of our overnight stops booked and entered into the wretched device, but have had to do some extra route-planning for the crossing of Denmark, to balance time and cost.


On Friday I’ll be driving from Germany to Sweden, and there’s several ways to do this coming from my direction. All the roads lead past Hamburg, so I’ve condensed the map to just show the Hamburg-Malmö options.

The quickest route is the central one (dark blue line) which incorporates a short  ferry journey from Puttgarden-Rødby costing at least €85. Now that route is only 30-40 minutes faster than the more circuitous land-based route to the west, which made me ask what the benefit is for many drivers. I checked to see if there were road-tolls – yes, there’s a €31 charge for crossing the Storebælt bridge, but even with added fuel-costs, it’s still about half the cost of the ferry.

Once I get to Copenhagen, I still have to cross the Öresund bridge to Sweden, and that’s a further €40.

A third option is to get a ferry from Rostock in Germany to Trelleborg in Sweden (the red line), which is €165 but is a 6 hour crossing with very limited boarding slots.

For completeness, I’ve also included the longer Rostock-Gedser ferry journey (purple line) that Bondi and I took from Copenhagen to Berlin. At €124 it’s no bargain, and one notices that adding the Öresund bridge toll takes the price up to be the same as the Trelleborg ferry.

So Denmark is definitely not a cheap country to cross, and keep in mind that it’s not like buying a highway sticker for Switzerland which covers you for a year – this is just a single one-way fare! The Vikings no longer need to plunder other lands; a few domestic water-crossings is all they need provide and the world comes to them!

My first plan was to  travel onwards to the UK taking the Esbjerg-Harwich ferry (you can see Esbjerg in the top left of the map above), so I’ll be up for €71 to cross Denmark west to east in two weeks. Ouch.
However, I’ve found that the requirement for a cabin booking pushes that cost to €385 and it only travels every second day, so I may just swap that for another roadtrip via Dunkerque - keeping in mind I have to go through the veterinary fuss for Munson 24-48 hours before crossing the Channel. Ouch damn ouch.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Duck in distress

Les Demoiselles De RochefortThe flyer for the Courrensan fête this weekend advertises a dinner of “demoiselles des canards grillées”. The folks at the big house weren’t sure exactly what a “demoiselle” was in this context as the dictionaries just identify it as a young lady or bridesmaid.

In culinary parlance, it’s really just a fancy Gascon term for the carcass of a duck or goose. I guess a half duck is a demi-demoiselle, right down to morceaux des hemisemidemi-demoiselles. In any case, it’s not a shrink-wrapped frozen Daffy Duck.

Google image search - demoiselle de canard

When I did a search of images on Google to show them, I got a funny surprise: one of the first examples was a picture from this blog of Munson sniffing a duck carcass I’d bought for him almost exactly a year ago.


If demoiselle looks familiar to English speakers, it’s because it’s the substantive piece of Mademoiselle, the counterpart of Miss in English. If you look at each of the familiar titles, it’s a pattern of gendered possessive + identification, to whit:

  • Madame = ma + dame = my lady or milady
  • Mademoiselle = ma + damoiselle = my damsel (used for actresses of any age or marital status)
  • Monsieur = mon + sieur = my  sire / sir / lord
  • Monseigneur = mon + seigneur = my lord or milord

Plurals use the formula mes + : mesdames, mesdemoiselles, messieurs etc

Knowing the formula helps when you get stuck on the spelling!

Vranken Demoiselle champagne   damselflies
Demoiselle is also the the French word for damselfly (a cousin of the dragonfly) and for the damselfish (a cousin of Nemo the clownfish).

Vranken distillers also have a brand of Demoiselle champagnes, and their website uses a trio of flittering damselflies as decoration.
So, how were the actual demoiselles des canards grillées?

Everyone had two large portions delivered onto their plates from large foil-lined crates – not so much damsels as ugly stepsisters in my reading of the story. It’s a bit like eating crab since there’s not much meat left on any portion; all the substantial cuts of meat have been removed , and you just have to attack it with mouth and fingers. Hoeing into these large burnt-looking objects with tatters of flesh made me think I’d crash-landed in the Andes. It tastes OK but a few of us had to ask for extra pieces from the servers roving the salle des fêtes.
2011-07-23 at 22.49.27A longtime local told of some new residents to the area had turned up to a fête on their first night, and reported that they’d been served some poor burnt creatures that had been run over by a tractor. It wasn’t hard to guess what that was.

This is peasant food, the avian equivalent of pork spare-ribs albeit with a lower flesh:bone ratio. As the remains stacked up on the tables it struck me that I’ve never made so much effort eating something and it still looked like it did when it was put in front of me. Not much difference between the before and after pictures. How often do you pick up something and realise you’ve already eaten it? Now try to picture Julia Child with a flamethrower preparing a banquet of these poor ducks…

Monday, July 18, 2011

Love is all around

Milkshake & Munson 
Munson gets daily his play-time with Legend, and kitty familiarisation classes at every opportunity. One of the more recent converts to Munson’s charm is Milkshake, who may think that Munson is another tortoiseshell cat since all the other furry creatures around here have solid-coloured coats.

I think I have Munson well along the way to seeing the kittens as different puppies, so he’s good with sniffing their butts while they lick his paws. Milkshake and Candyshop are quite happy to recline under Munson’s great head and bat his snout with their paws.  

In other inter-species dating news, Chris collected dozens of of dried snails from out in the paddock to photograph. He washed them off and left them to dry, only to discover that they had woken up and started to colonise my kitchen island.

Chris’ star performer “Carlos” only has puppy-eyes for him now:

I feel it in my fingers ...

Sunday, July 17, 2011

MIRANDE Il est un petit peu de la musique country


It’s rather weird seeing a French market-square decorated with their red, white and blue hosting line-dancing exhibitions under the hot Gascon sun. But what else would you expect to see at Europe’s largest country-music festival, running in Mirande since 1992.


The centre of the town was filled with stalls selling Americana in the loosest sense of the word – everything from Nashville-chic to Peruvian Andean pipes. It was not uncommon to see leather vests with a blaze of American brands, neatly underlined with the word FRANCE. It also seemed that everyone knew that a MALAMUTE was in town. We had barely gotten into the main square before Munson was being embraced and coddled by many peculiar-looking individuals. As I walked around the stalls, I realised that the unbelievable quantity of wolf-motif clothing and decorations made the reaction to Munson’s appearance a bit more understandable. It really was rather OTT, I mean I lived in the Pacific Northwest for years and the wolf-dog shtick was not so pronounced as here.

hillbilly and hillmally
As much as I would have liked to have given in to my inner hillbilly for the day, it was too hot for my poor hillmally and rather than let him turn into a baked alaska, stopped off for a swim at the lake on the way home.


banjo velo
Milkshake and tire swingAt home it was good to see that the animal menagerie was out in force,  having some good ol’boy tyre-swingin’ fun.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Midnight sunflowers


Chris was keen to get out and do some long-exposure photography under the full-moon – what better subject than sunflowers? I found a road on the outskirts of Vic-Fezensac that placed us between some large fields, and Chris set up his camera about a half hour before midnight. Unfortunately the moon was quickly obscured by clouds so we had to resort to “light painting” – using a torch to sweep over the field of view, or illuminate specific sections by tracing backwards and forwards over it.

The above field of sunflowers was photographed on a long exposure with me holding the camera in my hands, whereas I’ve borrowed Chris’ tripod for the shot below.


The tree above has been “painted” by tracing over the main limbs and some of the foliage for about a minute. The flowers and night-sky are just illuminated by what remains of the moon’s presence. It’s a weird blend of night and shadowless day.

The results from Chris’ grown-up camera equipment are much more successful (much like his efforts during our walking days in Wales last year):
Midi-Pyrénées Sunflowers

You can find some of Chris’ other sunflower compositions from this week in his Flickr photostream.

LUPIAC Munson back in the swim

Mike & Munson @ Lupiac 2011

All this time that I’ve been swimming at Lupiac, Munson has had to miss out because I’ve been using a rental car. The natural order was restored today, with my friend Chris visiting from London again and finally getting the warm weather he missed in March. Chris took this wonderful picture of Munson and me enjoying our time in the water. Munson’s got a bit of a “clay beard”from the water, but is otherwise wonderfully clean.

2011-07-15 Lupiac 
Chris has been training for some long-distance swim events in the UK, and did a few cross-lake laps to keep up his form. Munson was very concerned when he took off and started paddling after him, nearly reaching the other side, about 70-80m away, turning back as Chris returned. I followed at a distance just in case he (Munson) got into trouble – I wasn’t worried about Chris as Munson was watching after him Smile.

On the return leg Munson seemed just a wee bit out of breath, so I swam up next to him and gave a little boost up – still treading water myself, the lake must be at least 3-4m deep here - and then gave him a further  push towards the shore. When he found his footing again, he turned around and immediately went out into the deeper water. You can see the stretch the two swam across in the right-hand inset picture above.

2011-07-15 at 17.04.36 
We had a very clean, very tired dog after that exercise.