Saturday, June 30, 2012

If life gives you pipes, make alpenhorns

What's this?

What happens if I breathe heavily through it?

Too darn hot

Munson's barrel shade
Paraphrasing Cole Porter, I’d like to play outside with my pup tonight but it’s too darn hot.

After Wednesday’s 40C, the thermometer still had the energy to crawl up to 42 the next day. There was a slight breeze which took the edge off but I waited until it had fallen to about 30 before I took Munson for a long swim.

terrace roses P1090969

Unlike last year’s savaging of my garden, there’s been just enough rain and night-time waterings to keep every going on the terrace. My first roses have appeared and are thriving in their exposed position on the corner of the terrace. Some of the smaller succulents I planted managed to quadruple in size during my weeks in Sweden and continue to prosper. Elsewhere I have volunteer tomato plants growing out of the succulents, from my lemon tub, and even from dirt filled cracks in the terrace tiles!

In the smaller planting tubs, the lavender and mint have grown and blossomed, also lending some shade to hidden pockets of tomatoes, basil and rosemary. Late on Thursday night I was about to go to bed when I remembered that I should drench everything ahead of the following day’s heat, so spent about a half hour filling buckets and watering cans in my bathroom ( there’s no outside water source ) to cover about 20 linear metres of raised planters plus all the tubs, pots and hanging containers. About two minutes after I finished, a small shower of rain came from out of nowhere to duplicate my effort.

lavendar mint

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Des glaçons de bouillon de boeuf

beef stock ice cubesWhen my desktop weather gauge gives a local temperature it’s usually understating it by a bit as it’s interpolating between a few weather stations.

Right now it says 36C, but my outdoor thermometer says 40C and it’s not even sitting in direct sun.

It doesn’t take much exposure to convince Munson that he’s better off inside on the cool tiles – if I go outside he doesn’t do much more than poke his head out the door and then retreat.

As a treat for Munson I’ve frozen some of my left over stock from a slow-cooked beef casserole I made two weeks ago. A handful of those keeps him happy for half a day. Malamutes are not the gluttons that barrel-chested breeds like labradors can be – it really doesn’t take much to keep them running, especially if you take care about the quality of their diet.

When Munson’s activity level drops as happens with most dogs in the warmer months, I reduce  his food correspondingly. Most of the time he’s quite happy with the reduced amount, but he will summon me to the kitchen late at night if he’s really hungry. It’s not a privilege that he abuses.

Unless I’m going to swim at the lake there’s nothing particularly exerting I want to do outside right now. Watering the plants is about my limit in this heat so I’ve also cut down my food to essentially a good breakfast of ham, scrambled eggs and ratatouille and then I don’t feel hungry till early evening (not counting the opportunistic grabbing of fresh strawberries or pea-pods on the terrace). At that time a very light meal of cheese & dates or home-made vegetable soup is more than enough.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A plage for both our houses

Mike, Munson & Lucy

Im sure I’ve said it before here, but photographing Munson and Munsoneers at the same time is very frustrating – one of them always seems to be moving, or their mind has wandered off to other things. I’ve got folders of pictures with Munson and various quantities of children, each of which has a rapid face-dissolving blur centred on one of them. I bet those photographers who specialise in children’s parties or Santa Claus snaps drink themselves to an early retirement.

Anyhoo, it was hot again, Munson was restless and I thought it would be nice to bring lead Munsoneer Lucy along with us to the lake at Lupiac for her premiere splash. I’d spent a few minutes loading the car up with new music for the drive, but this proved to be superfluous as Lucy ticked off all the reasons why she was more like Barbie in Barbie and The Three Musketeers than any girl alive, being  a 1) blonde, 2) farm girl 3) learning to fence and 4) living within driving distance of Lupiac, birthplace of the historical d’Artagnan.

One of the reasons I’d invited Lucy was that she could help give directions to her parents when they brought the Munsoneers in future. To that end I was pointing out the major turns and milestones of the route, but Lucy was very busy enumerating the advantages of a lake over a municipal swimming pool. This reminded me of a letter I’d written to my grandmother at that age when we’d moved to a new town and a surprisingly large house “and then you go through a door to another room, and then you go into another room, and out a door into another room” and so on over the page. Obviously I had been straining for a Borgesian effect that went completely over her head even when she mirthfully shovelled a handful of these epistles into my hands about ten years later. I mean the very short “Dear –––, I’ve got the scabs, love Michael” is the sort of pisstake on Camus that a seven year old would write.

Munson shakes himself dry  Munson shaking dry again

Anyhoo, as Lucy’s recitative wound down we reached the lake and found that it was full to the gills with weekend sunlovers. We got down to the water and Lucy exclaimed “look at all the tadpoles” (which I’m sure is not slang for French children). We were in fact away from the main plage so that Munson could join us in the swim. Unlike the last visit he was very keen to stay in the water and circled us again and again like a big hairy dugong.  As you can see above, Munson likes to shake himself dry while he’s still half-immersed, either as a buoyancy measure or because it just feels good.

Forty minutes of swimming later and mission was largely accomplished with both of my charges quite tired for the return journey. We listened to my music on the way home.

Thursday, June 21, 2012


late sunset

I took Munson for a late swim at Lupiac, taking advantage of these longest of days. I only spent twenty minutes in the water but it was balm for body and soul. It takes me about 20-25 minutes to get to the lake but I enjoy a lot of that drive so much; even passing through the short boulevards that announce each small commune on the route gives me a little lift. They’re just one of the little things that differentiate life here even from other not so distant parts of Europe.

Munson is fully engaged on the journey, perched between the seats, scanning ahead and to the side. Just going into town is interesting but when we keep going and take the lake road he is more than interested and looks at me to signal his approval. By the time we’re on the final descent into the basin where the lake was created he’s sooo happy that he’s jumped into the front passenger seat.
boulevard the open road - toot toot!
If anyone wanted to make a horror film called The Lawnmower Man and not want to spend anything on special effects then they’d only need to trail me around after half an hour or so in the garden. While there hasn’t been so much airborne pollen this week to attack my eyes or sinuses, every contact of skin with grass seems to inflame it with a mass of angry welts. Even with medicinal ointments, it takes a day or two to settle down.

I’ve had that experience since I was a teenager in rural Australia so I look for indoor escapes … like swatting flies. Even when I was living in Seattle the pollen would make me sneeze so frequently and explosively that my coworkers called me Bubble Boy. But water is always the cure. In Seattle I couldn’t necessarily swim to escape the pollen (it was a water city curiously sparse in swimmable locations indoor or out), and getting to the beach in Sydney means fighting traffic and then looking endlessly for parking so I can be within five minutes walk to the sand, but here I can step into the water mere seconds after stopping the car.
IMG_1067 MVI_1063

Usually Munson is faster into the water than I am, but as he’s matured he’s begun to wait to get the nod from me before plunging in. This evening he was still reluctant to do much more than lap softly at the water’s edge and then run up and down the shoreline before sitting down to watch me paddle further out. I think he may have been put off by a tractor working the slopes of the farm further up on the opposite shore, its noise buzzing across the lake like an unseen motor boat.

I was able to tune that noise out by focussing on other sounds: a lone swimmer at the other end of the lake, ducks taking off from the hill-shadowed waters behind me.  I missed having Gustav there to share that, so refocussed again: the late light on the water, Munson smiling on the shore, coolness around my toes, red skin consigning its anger to the depths, small recognitions of pleasure jostling each other like a foam of bubbles.

IMG_1071 MVI_1073

Eventually Munson came in and set off like a giant otter albeit one with a bushy white squirrel tail that never got wet, flung up and aft. His heart didn’t seem in it though, his arrival excitement tempered by that tractor buzz and so he went back to his rapid to-and-fro along the shoreline, stopping only to shake himself all over my clothes again.

And then home again,  my music playlist settling into a perfect mood triangle of Sia Furler, Joel Frederiksen and Giovanni Mirabassi’s Cantopiano underscoring more small moments: boulevards, painterly skies, wet dog smell.
Gascon skies

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Seasons in the sun

Mike & Munson at Lupiac (1)

We’ve been home for a week now and – catching up with sleep aside – it’s been a busy time. After restocking the refrigerator I got to work making batches of ratatouille and of cauliflower soup. Now I’ve got a few weeks’ worth of meal accompaniments squared away. The fruit, vegetable and herb plantings have gone well in my absence: I’ve made my first dill harvest and I can see peas, strawberries, and tomatoes are leading the pack against the blackcurrants, apricots, plums, aubergines, zucchini and capsicums.

The weather has returned to the mish-mash of rain and shine, cold and heat that we saw in early May – I had a cold and incipient hayfever then, both have returned but just at minor discomfit levels. Reclaiming the lawn from prairie status has been my other priority -  much of it will have to be done at least twice to get it back in order.

Today I’ve submitted my documents to renew my French visitor visa. I had to stop by a Trésor Public to buy some tax stamps to accompany my application. When asked for my name for the accompanying receipt, I say “Michael, comme Michael Jackson”. The clerk asked “and who might that be?” and giggled. So much more human than most of the bureaucrats I have to deal with! Alas, she still typed it up as Mickaël.
Mike & Munson at Lupiac (2)The happiest part of today was having my first swim of the season at Lupiac. Munson had a great canter around the lake, and when he took the plunge for about the twentieth time, I joined him for a half hour of splashing around. I think he’s forgiven me for leaving him home all morning while I shuffled and signed papers in Auch. Shaking himself dry all over my clothes was undoubtedly part of the reconciliation process.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Roadtrip to France: many roads, one home

all roads lead to homeCan I tell you how happy I am to be home after 25 days of bouncing around through seven countries? Yes that thirty minutes in Luxembourg counts! Roughly 6500km, eight beds, five major bridges (all in Denmark, all done twice) and no passport stops. That’s like driving from Sydney to Perth and then back as far as Adelaide, a journey with fewer bridges and as many passport stops.

One special treat when we got home was finding a package with the painting above done by Em in the Limousin, inspired by a photo I took along the side of the farm back in April. As if I don’t feel special enough with all the nice folks I meet and correspond with over the course of this blog – thank you thank you Em! It’s going over the living room mantle-piece now with a proper hanging when I’ve recovered some energy. It seems that I forgot to leave the fridge door open while I was away so I have a shorter but more epic quest ahead of me to scrub out the film noir festival now screening inside.

Munson finds a familiar roost
Meanwhile Munson, who started getting excited as soon we re-entered the Gers early this afternoon has sublimated all this into a series of short naps in all of his favourite places around the house. Before we got home I made a stop at the supermarket in Eauze so I could collect some milk, eggs and a small set of meaty bones. When I emerged with an armful of groceries, I found a large jeep hovering next to my car with a couple of distinctly malamute-shaped heads visible inside it. They weren’t driving it of course, but one of the two human heads asked “are you Mike?” and so I met Jacquie, Phil and their two handsome lads due to my cyber-notoriety.

25 days - 6100km
I’m going to have a long sleep now. I have 4000 miles of dreaming to catch up, perhaps to think on Ray Bradbury, following Venus across the Sun.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Roadtrip to France: pushing south

Munson contemplating AmsterdamOur departure from Amsterdam didn’t get off to a good start. Although I woke early and stumbled out to the tram stop just after 7am, the short journey was doubled as the tram waited for a rubbish skip to be parked kerbside by a large street-blocking truck. Once out of our final stop, I got a little lost finding the way back to the park+ride station as there’s no signage and no one I asked knew where it was. Add in Munson spotting two bunny rabbits and wanting to give chase each time, and I was more than a wee bit grumpy by the time I got to the station.

As part of the checkout process I had to visit the parking office at the World Fashion Centre P+R office first to return my tram cards. I was told to pay “over the other side” and then when I finally worked out which  hidden corner of the large mall reception area was being referenced, put my parking and debit cards into a big parking payment machine.

When an error message flashed up in Dutch (despite having selected the English interface) and my debit card made crunching noises and it looked like I may never see it again in one piece, my heart sank. Praying that an unlabelled button might be an “eject” button I pressed it and my cards were extruded in one piece. Stepping back I found that the almost identical adjacent machine had slightly different orifices and I managed to pay with that after a few passes with incomprehensible Dutch messages. It seemed that no part of the exit process had been tested on visitors.

Back to the car and I found my row had been flimsily cordoned off with some crime-scene tape. I wasn’t sure if I’d done something wrong but I was beginning to feel like committing a few crimes as a stress release. Munson and bags were packed in, and then … the battery was nearly flat.

I went back to the parking office to tell them, expecting they’d have a jumper box but this wasn’t to be. They told me to call for service ( luckily I’d signed up with the German auto club ADAC for pan-European coverage ) but when I asked them how a technician would reach me inside the centre they realised it would be easier to try starting the car themselves.  With their assistance we got it going with a push-start and we were finally off.

Once on the open road I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to stop for a while until the battery had a good charge. The Netherlands is not a good place to do a hill start, and as it happened I wasn’t going to find any significant slope until I had crossed Belgium and was well into France some hours later. I did have to refuel much sooner than that, and found myself leaving the highway to do so and then finding that the station was one without any garage facility attached. After a couple of these I just couldn’t wait any longer and took my chances. I carefully picked a pump with good forward clearance in case another push was required. Thankfully this wasn’t necessary and the car was well behaved for the rest of the journey.

Aside from the time-slowing vortex of traffic around and through Paris, the drive south was otherwise uneventful and we reached Ken & Walt’s refuge in the Loir by 5pm. This journey home has been something of a slog, but it has made a real difference staying with familiar faces every night rather than crashing out in a relais (road house). Another bonus here and at Julian’s in Denmark has been the opportunity for Munson to stretch out in open space with another dog, so thank you to King and Callie on his behalf.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Roadtrip to France: Amsterdammerung

English Book Shop, The Jordaan, AmsterdamTwo days of driving and walking is recipe for a long sleep-in and slow day. When I finally emerged onto the street at about 11am, we drifted a few blocks toward central Amsterdam’s Jordaan district, founded 400 years ago. It’s a drizzly grey day, perfect for gravitating toward The English Bookshop even though I haven’t yet even had my first coffee of the day, and more pointedly, I undoubtedly have several packages of books waiting for me when I get home at the end of the week.

Inside the bookshop there was a small stuffed sleeping puppy at the top of the entrance stairs that Munson kept trying to wake up for play. While obviously fake, its creator was at least as skilled as some of the more explicit taxidermy I saw in Jordaan windows:

spectrum of taxidermy today
Circus Treurdier - flaming piano  cold comfort

brunch & sudoku

Shortly thereafter I found a cafe (as distinct from coffee shop) to settle down in, fill up and enjoy the passing spectacle, rather than being the passing spectacle.
Munson's cuppa water (1)  Munson's cuppa water (2)

We moved on to the American Book Shop – Amsterdam is very well served for English language literature – and after loitering there for a time decided to head south towards the Albert Cuyp street markets. Checking back to a blog entry from 2005 I saw that I’d bought Australian dried apricots there, which are drier and tarter than the Turkish style, and figured it was worth a two kilometre walk.
Chipsy Kings
En route I fortified myself with a servings of frites from Chipsy Kings which basically sells three serving sizes of fries with a huge variety of toppings. I’d left Munson tied up outside as it was so crowded indoors, but he caught the attention of the staff at the back at the store, and when we left I could hear everyone calling out “bye-bye, bye-bye”.
Wasabi cheese @ Albert Cuyp market
Munson in his elementlocal street signage
I found the Australian dried apricots I wanted – which they label “sour dry apricots” but after lugging them all the way back home found that I could have bought them as cheaply in the street market around the corner. The Dutch are truly the spice-kings and I’m more than a little jealous of the availability of so many inexpensive spices, sauces, nuts and the like which are not readily available in France.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Roadtrip to France: Something beautiful you can truly own

Munson below the bar Arno & Munson (1)
We went out for dinner with Martin and Arno to Cafe Kostverloren, sitting outside for our first courses while the sun still warmed us. I’d been walking around in a tee-shirt all day but most people were wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing and scarves. The sheer density of people is a far remove away from my new hermit-like farm life. Just having people smoking on the streets, tobacco and the ever-present marijuana from coffee shops was really aggravating my throat like a mild case of tonsillitis.
Martin & Munson Arno & Munson (2)
Lady admirersEverything was put to rights with wine and a meal, starting with an oven-baked cheese dip lightly flavoured with honey, and then moving on to a satay chicken and finally chocolate mousse.

Inside for our later courses, Munson was winning over staff and patrons alike. Two women at the bar kept leaning over to play with his ears, while a young girl from a distant table kept tiptoeing over to take photos – mostly of the back of his head I would surmise.

But at the next table a young woman seemed to have lost the attention of her male companion, who turned his chair ninety degrees just to stare wistfully at Munson through his meal. If you can’t afford a Jaguar, then if you want to truly own ( or rather be truly owned by ) something beautiful, a malamute is a fine place to start.

Roadtrip to France: Amsterdam canal routes

Munson on Alfred's doormat

Amsterdam, like its newer ex-namesake New York, is a city that invites walking … and walking and walking. When I first visited NYNY in 1988, I left the Chelsea Hotel each morning by 9, grabbed cawfee and donuts, and then pounded the pavements until I sat down for a proper meal between 10pm and 1 am, and then did it all over again the next day and the next for over a week.

This morning I had a 10am coffee audience with my friend Alfred, who I hadn’t seen since Bondi and I came here in 2005. The 2km walk to his new penthouse apartment in the World Fashion zone was an excellent opportunity to stretch Munson’s legs and get his ablutions out of the way for the day.
Rembrandt Park Rembrandt Park hounds (1)
About half the walk was through Rembrandtpark, giving Munson a great burst of green space to sniff and let his eye wander to every dog and duck.  Alfred Verhoeven
Alfred was in fine form, showing us around his new apartment. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as I’d done a Google streetview of the building before arriving so that I would recognise my destination on arrival, and saw that the place looked like a construction site with cement mixers everywhere. Checking in with him yesterday on this matter he revealed that he and his husband had been living inside one of these mixers for a year and a half. It sounded rather gritty but I thought it would at least give them something concrete to build from.

When Munson and I boarded the “industrially themed” elevator I remembered that one of the Netherlands’ most famous horror films was called De lift. The horrific element for most Dutch was the nosebleeding experience of being taken one floor or more above ground level. I believe it was the film 2012 which prompted Alfred to move out of his 4th floor apartment of 19 years to a 6th floor apartment that would actually be above sea level.

After a few hours we left Alfred to his sweeping views of of the submarine city and headed back towards the city centre via the Vondelpark. It’s a very busy place and I’m sure I’m not the first of its ten million annual visitors to have to dodge a businessman riding a bicycle hands-free while clipping his fingernails.

Vondelpark 2012-06-05 Amsterdam
Coffee Company
By the time we’d zig-zagged through streets, parks and over canals to Alfred’s and returned to Centrum, we’d already covered 5-6km so it was time for another coffee break. Munson was free to enter every shop I wanted to visit, and it was rather sweet to see not only proprietors but other customers providing treats or fetching water for him. It was a small triumph for me being able to take him into Waterstones book store as their British parent forbid it in the UK.
Cheesy Amsterdam
Munson sees pussy in window of red light districtOn my last visit to Amsterdam, a number of the ladies in the red light district emerged from their windows to say hello to Bondi. This time they weren’t so forthcoming but Munson did spot a pussy in one of the windows there:
Football crazyWe got about as far as Centraal station before turning back to Arno & Martin’s house. While I worked out how much distance we’d covered (at least 13km) Munson crashed out for an hour or two, his eyes very soon twitching in REM sleep.