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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Three weeks, three birthdays and three cameras

It all seems so long ago now and yet it was all there to look forward to only three weeks ago. We had an itinerary based on a 70th birthday to which, if the timing was right, we would be adding a new birth and then, given time between train, we factored in Peter E's birthday and a celebratory cappuccino.

So, once upon a three weeks ago, we set off on the trusty Eurostar bound for St Pancras International, where we checked out the new high speed link to Kent and secured a "terrace" table at Le Pain Quotidien. This reliable chain, although it does serve coffee in bowls much to JC's dismay, was founded in Belgium, whereto we would later travel. We were thoroughly amused at the waiter's inability to understand Max's request, in English, for the bill and found it even funnier when he did comprehend my repeated request, in French.

The North East of England is a wonderful area. The people are friendly, the landscape appealing, and it is the home of two f the 2Cs. As with most of the UK and northern Europe though this summer, the weather is shite. It was better than last August though - every cloud etc! Apart from spending quality time with our lovely friends there were a number of highlights: sitting in the centre of the Millennium bridge between Gatehead and Newcastle eating our picnic and becoming involved in a theatre production; seeing Durham and its magnificent cathedral on the day of the Miners' Gala; being treated to a massage; having a go on the fitness Wii; checking out where Topher does his voluntary work at the Washington Wetlands Centre. And we did sit outside in the beautifully landscaped garden which is more than we managed last year!

The 9th of July saw the rather rapid birth of a new niece: Imogen. Whilst this wasn't perfect timing it meant that we were in Grantham just four days later and able to spend time with the family and its new addition. Thursday being Mother's café day, we indulged in a little nostalgia with brother Ian by driving to Belper where we lived almost 40 years ago. The house at 26 Knowl Avenue , brand new when we moved into it in 1970, was our home for all of 20 months. It evoked little in the way of memories to be honest. More interesting was a very bumpy ride along Long Row where the mill workers cottages abut the school all three of us attended for a while. Herbert Strutt Grammar is now home to a primary school, the grammar system long since having given way to comprehensive education. I still have the polar bear I fashioned out of wood in my first and only year there. On the way back to Grantham we stopped in Burton Joyce to find two houses where our grandparents had lived back in the 1960s. The first was easy enough as it has a small tower on the corner and a dried up stream running through the garden. The second eluded us but we discovered later that it was probably opposite to where we had parked the car.

And so to Leeds. It was pouring down and we huddled with the smokers in front of the NO SMOKING signs at the entrance to the railway station waiting to be collected. Leeds was not our final destination though for the very next day we drove with birthday girl Margaret, 70 years young, to The Old Hall at Madeley where the celebrations were to take place. What a superb spot! Our new friends Gary and Simon have excelled themselves in producing the highest possible standards of a top notch guest house within an historical building. Champagne was imbibed, a magnificent repast consumed and many a fine song karaoked. It was all over far too soon and before we knew it we were headed back towards Leeds via Holmfirth and an arranged drop in visit to see family but an unexpected lunch.

Once again in Leeds our Monday was filled with the wonders of Harewood House and its plethora of attractions.

We'd upgraded to First Class for journey back to Lille on Eurostar to celebrate Margaret's inaugural Chunnel experience as part of her birthday tour, and, of course, to ensure that there would be more fizz. The journey takes no time at all and, almost as soon as you have finished the last mouthful of onboard meal the announcement for Lille is made.

Our time in Lille with our septuagenarian guest was fairly quiet though on Sunday we ventured further afield and set the controls for De Panne, a seaside resort in Belgium. The logic being that most of the french resorts on the Cote D'Opale are around two hours drive away from Lille whereas just over the border in Belgium is only about an hour away. So, two and a half hours after setting off we arrived at our destination and finally found somewhere to park with an allocation of two hours in which to have a desperately needed lunch and a stroll along the promenade. Lunch was glorious, De Panne less so. It wasn't exactly ugly, just lacking in character. And moules are exhorbitantly priced! We drove home via Bruges on wide, almost empty motorways.

And finally on Monday we drove backto Bruges to meet Mark and Sarah who we

re sojourning there. Bruges remains on the right side of Disneyesque with many very well preserved and rebuilt buildings. The canals make it of course. Parking this time was a breeze as there is a multi-storey next to the railway station that costs at most 2,50€ for 24 hours plus a free bus, should you elect to miss the stroll, into the centre. And it's only around 50 minutes in the car from us. The drizzle cleared allowing us a couple of outdoor beers and then moules frites al fresco. Still pricey but less so at 17€. Very tasty in their Provençale sauce, though I am almost certain I can make them better and for far less at home.

What about the cameras? We spotted a bargain Vivitar in Asda Grantham for only £35; the perfect replacement for Maman's ailing model we thought. The quality was inconsistent and mostly poor so it went back albeit to an Asda Leeds. After research we decided on a number of models recommended by Which? all of which were out of stock at Argos. Sainsbury Leeds came up trumps with a fine looking mega pixelled Fuji, which again let us down. Back it went to Sainsbury Tottenham Court Road, London though not without reluctance on their part - email has been sent. Armed with the eventual refund, Max popped next door to PC World and acquired the current camera, a Kodak. Fingers crossed.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Not right after all

Saturday afternoon we just happened to find ourselves driving through the small town which has been the the focus of much media attention these past few weeks: Hénin Beaumont. The far right party Front National came top in the first round of the partial municipal bye-election a couple of weeks ago and the very real possibility of their taking the town loomed large on the horizon for this old mining town. Their success had far more to do with the indictment of the major for embezzlement and the ongoing inability of the parties on the left of centre to sort themselves out than any real taste for nationalistic fervour.

I have to say I didn't recognise the town from the rather negative, and inaccurate, picture painted in the Guardian on Saturday. The town centre at least is pleasant with lots of commercial activity and, whilst we were there, some kind of demonstration along with flares (the ones you light!) and a red faced rather drunk skinhead type shouting "Vive Le Penn". I hope lots and lots of uncertain voters caught sight of him too.

We were on our way to Alinéa, which is probably best described as a French version of Ikea, to check out the sales. We also popped into the local Ikea where J-M picked up some fried onion pieces. Deliciously dangerous! Anyway, the shopping area in Noyelles-Godault which sits cheek to cheek with Hénin Beaumont was rammed with people. The area appears to have swapped coal for consumerism.

Yesterday mid evening came the very good news ie the far right had been beaten by a, some would say unholy, alliance of all who are anti right wing. So the recently softened-down Marine Le Penn, daughter of the bumbling Jean-Marie, doesn't get to add deputy mayor to her recent return as an MEP.

Friday, July 03, 2009

This little piggy...

... went to Lille and did some lèche-vitrine yesterday. Having been stuck in the house all week and with only a baker's dozen of bundles of hedge bits confected in the garden to my credit - ready for the Bopes to put out for the encombrants - it was time I smelled some heady retail Sales fumes as long as I didn't properly inhale!

Also I've been somewhat under par this week and have imagined all kinds of possible conditions not least, given the current climate, that of swine flu. In reality, even if I did have it, I doubt whether it would qualify as more than the littlest oink though it did wake me up last night with a severe coughing fit.

Anyway, I digress. Lille. It's Fête du Cinéma all week. Buy one full price ticket and gain a pass to as many others at just 3€ each. So off I trotted. A snuffle around FNAC where there are some veritable bargains to be had in the 5 for 20€ troughs, and truffles aplenty to be had in Galeries Lafayettes where we qualify for an additional 15% since we are cardholders. I did give in to temptation and bought three items but let's just say they were not for me but for another growing litter...

Back to the cinema. I enjoyed The Boat That Rocked on my own. For some strange reason it has been retitled Good Morning England for the French market. I wonder why? A joyful little film which entertained well enough. More a boypic than a chick flick though perhaps. The music from the era is superb: simple, unaffected, good tunes with words and melodies, untainted/enhanced by computer or digital technology. But then again what's the betting the originals HAVE been enhanced for the purposes of the film? No matter. I am tempted to acquire the soundtrack. Woop de wooh it's a double disc!!!

Meeting up with Max, we checked out the new Woody Allen, Whatever Works. I am pleased to be able to report that he is on a winning streak having delighted with Vicky Christina Barcelona last year (which could so easily have been Almodóvar) he is back on more familiar territory ie Manhattan where we are regaled vignettes of the angst and delights of various intertwining relationships.

We Flunched, then these little piggies went home.