Archived entries for holidays

A refreshing glass of ale from the Ardennes

Last night I sat down with a refreshing glass of La Chouffe, which as well as being a delicious, award-winning Belgian ale reminds me of visiting the Ardennes.

It was our second trip down to rural Wallonia, and we were staying with friends in a nice little farmhouse gite near Houffalize. You could walk straight from the house along a path to a nice forest, a river, fields with horses and some great views. A fairly steep climb up to the viewpoint and then a leisurely descent down into the valley.

Ardennes trees Stream in Ardennes

The first time we did this walk, we got close to where we thought we were supposed to be going but, in typical Belgian style, there was a complete absence of signs, no halfway maps or anything. We asked some locals who were having morning coffee in their garden, who reassured us that yes, we did indeed need to keep walking in the direction of the dark forest road that looked as if led to nowhere in particular.

Sure enough, we carried on for only a couple more minutes and there it was, nestled snugly at the foot of the valley, surrounded on all sides by trees: the Chouffe brewery.

La Chouffe

Outside right now, there’s still snow on the ground and the temperature remains at a level that can only be described as Cold Enough To Freeze Your Nuts Off. It’s nice to drink a glass of Chouffe and to look forward to more weekend adventures in Wallonia.

Icicles in Waterloo

“The next tune to arrive on platform three….”

It’s been great to be back in the UK for a little while over Christmas, catching up with family and friends. A couple of memorable moments included:

Seren being too quick for us and falling down the stairs at my parents’ house. “I’m going downstai-” Thud thud thud crash. Luckily the stairs were carpeted and she was fully dressed with jeans on so she was fine.

From a young Dad and friend of ours, listening to an absolutely hilarious blow-by-blow account of childbirth, told at lightning speed, on the way home from the pub, with both my brothers looking horrified with every extra bit of detail they really didn’t want to hear.

Sharing recommendations about local ales in a tiny pub – I didn’t spend all my time drinking, honest – with a random chap at the bar. “It’s a very consistent ale, that one. You can go anywhere in the country and if they have that ale, it’ll always taste the same.”

Golden Pippin

[Image: http://www.copperdragon.uk.com]

Drinking whisky – honestly, I was sober for some of the time – while watching a fantastic adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Restless on the BBC.

Zoe and I watching a stunning sunset across a Hampshire field, while getting soaked with rain. Some very impressive dawn skies too.

Hampshire sunset

Hampshire sunrise

Hampshire sunrise

 

Listening to a stranger playing some pieces by Ludovico Einaudi on the free pianos that have been installed in St Pancras station in London. A lad was just walking by with his girlfriend, spotted the piano sitting there and started to play. A beautiful, spontaneous moment which had Seren and I enthralled for a good 20 minutes. Possibly the first and last time I will hear live, classical piano mixed with loudspeaker announcements about the next train.

Pay as you go

So Zoe and I were on the way back from a lovely holiday spent in the French Alps and then to Perpignan for a friend’s wedding, and at the airport we discovered that because we didn’t check-in online, Ryanair charged us 40 euro each to do so in person. We didn’t use the online option because, surprise surprise given the nature of our work, both of us were keen to stay “offline” for the duration of the holiday. So it came as something of a shock to be told that we had to pay extra to get boarding passes for the aeroplane at the airport.

I mean, can you imagine if other situations were handled with a similar, “give us your money first” level of arrogance?

At the hairdressers: “Sorry, Madam, but the density of your hair is likely to wear down the sharpness of these scissors. There’ll be an extra twenty euro charge to cover the excessive utensil strain.”

At the beach: “Excuse me, young man,” said the lifeguard. “There’s a large amount of sand between your toes. That means there’s now less sand for the others to enjoy. You don’t need me to tell you that there’s an on-the-spot fine of fifty euro under the Rules Governing Responsible Use of Sand-Based Recreational Areas. Time to pay up, I’m afraid.”

At the ferry terminal: “You forgot to validate your ferry ticket, madam, so I’m afraid there’s a two hundred euro fine attached. The validation machine is located in the engine room of the ferry. The fact that you need to board the vessel first in order to access said engine room isn’t my concern, madam. Cash will do nicely.”

It’s all a bit ridiculous, really.

Rain and reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to reach into the attic, among the big jumpers, mattres springs and those other objects you have absolutely no recollection of purchasing, and get down that dusty old box labelled “Things To Do This Winter”. Like the class bully on the first day of a new term, autumn came along this afternoon in the form of a fierce gale, broke my umbrella and told me just what it thought of my summery memories and long, lazy evenings on the terrace. Not to mention just where I could shove my new sunglasses.

So in the spirit of getting through Winter by taking on something new (always a good way to keep going through the dark days ahead), I’ve started attending a philosophy class, with the School of Philosophy, having studied something of the subject at university. It’s quite different, though, because whereas my studies involved looking at the original texts of Plato, Hegel and friends, this course has an emphasis on the more practical side of things. So it looks at, for example, how to take a philosophical statement such as “It is easier today to triumph over evil habits than it will be tomorrow” (Confucius) and discusses how and why this might be the case. Then the class is encouraged to put this into practice during the week, to look at, say, doing something that needs doing immediately rather than putting it off until another time, and so testing Confucius’ theory in an everyday setting. The idea is that you then at the next lesson discuss the results, and try to work out why a certain philosophical idea worked or didn’t work. To learn philosophy by living it.

It’s only been the second week so far, but it’s certainly been enjoyable. I like the idea of sitting around and giving feedback on how useful, or not, these ideas have been. For me, it’s taking philosophy back to its original purpose of questioning assumptions and trying to talk through the deeper meaning of what goes on in our lives on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the course might have on my usual winter mood of complaining bitterly about the cold and the rain. Why, I might ask, am I feeling angry at the icy rain that’s trickling down the inside of my shirt? Will I be able to see the bigger picture if I’m shivering wreck waiting for a tram that’s 20 minutes late? I can’t wait to find out.

Breathe in the air

I’ve changed the theme on this blog and also, hopefully, begun the process of writing entries more regularly. A lot has happened since my last post, I’ve been to stranded in Strasbourg in the snow, I’ve watched the Belgians out in force to try and preserve the unity of their country, and I’ve found myself suddenly, marvelously in a relationship with a lovely girl, Zoe. Hence the reason for the slight diversion from documenting my goings-on here. Only to be expected, of course. One can easily imagine the outcome in the first couple of weeks if I’d have devoted more attention to online reportage than romance: “Could we leave that meal I was going to cook until maybe tomorrow? It’s just that I was planning on writing a blog entry tonight about a hilarious conversation I ha…hello? Are you still there?”

This last weekend was good. I went to meet Zoe for a short trip to Geneva, where she was attending a meeting of the Grain council in her capacity as an agriculture journalist for Agra Europe. The weather wasn’t too great on the Saturday, but it was great to be close to nature again, and it was dry and cold as we walked along Lac Leman and to the Jardin Botanique. Just to hear the sound of the lake and to actually see the horizon was a much-welcome break from the cluttered streets of Brussels. The real highlight though was Sunday morning, just before we caught the plane back, because it was fantastically clear and sunny, revealing the snow-topped Alps all around the city. Next time, we’re going to plan in advance to try and get out into those mountains. Obviously it’s always good to get away from work from time to time. As an EU journalist, perhaps there’s a deeper appreciation when it comes to escaping for some fresh air.

Still Life

Sardinia

Just back from Sardinia, where I joined my family who were staying near Stintino, in the North West of the island. As we went out of season, both Stintino and the surrounding area were deserted, giving the place a very “League-of-Gentlemen” feel: “Lei è locale?”

It reminded me in a way of where I come from, North West Wales. Beautiful scenery, absolutely packed with people in the summer months, and a bleak emptiness in the winter months. I began to wonder what would pass for news in Stintino, what would get the locals chatting excitedly in the shops, cafes and by the post box:

“Man Drops Keys Down Drain”

“Last Night’s Full Moon: Exclusive pictures inside!”

Speculating on what might constitute headline material in this remote part of Sardinia reminds me that North West Wales has itself produced some memorable “news” items recently:

Man rang 999 to report cold meal

Man gets breakfast tattoo on head

There comes a time when Scrabble clearly loses its appeal…



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