Monday, January 26, 2004

Jan 17 - homewards bound

We farewell Anne and Doug - thanks guys for a marvellous time. The mood evaporates somewhat as we wend our way slowly through AA's queues, and totally as the TSA unpacks our bags - they've spotted the two air nailers I picked up at Home Depot, plus the bag of video cable fittings and other metal bits. Well, the nailers do look like guns, and the fittings might look like bullets. But it doesn't help us in terms of timing for the flight, because we suspect our names are then passed down to the personal check, and it's 'spread em' time. Very politely. 'I'm going to touch you briefly with the back of my hand'. Hey, I paid Florida sales tax too! Couldn't you linger? But what with all this, we make a 3.20pm flight at 3.23. 'Where were you?' We refrain from noting the obvious - that we were being felt up by TSA spooks. And so to LA. Great kinetic scuplture at Tom Bradley terminal. Terrible coffee - we've been spoiled. Then the long flight back. Then the lost baggage at Auckland. It's only a flagpole for a flag we bought on the Keys. But really!

Jan 15/16 - Florida Keys

After a leisurely start (breakfast, more Folgers coffee) we swing (well, crawl at times, remember those Florida drivers) down the Miami freeways, onto US1 and the Keys! The Keys are really a cross between a railway embankment (put down in the early 1900's by one Henry Flagler right down to Key West, then blown flat by the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 with attendant loss of life), and natural coral islands. The Keys divide the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, and have an Atlantic-side reef to protect them (well, until the next big storm surge - the 1935 event had 15-18 feet tides and an average land height of maybe 6 feet...).
So there's an air of devil-may-care and laid-back-ness about the Keys: certainly there are a lot of folk who have bought a boat and gone charter-fishing there. Ernest Hemingway and all that imagery, too. We have a poke around, a sun-soaked lunch, more of a look (searching for sailing hires - not many on offer) and finally a sunset Key lime pie (local delicacy, like a deliciously bitter cheesecake, needs a lot of beer to wash it down) and of course the aforesaid sunset. Which slides right into an inconveniently placed Key further down. Bugger.
Then off to our accommodation, which has raccoons on the ground outside. Fat raccoons, from thoughtless guests who feed them. On Dunkin' Donuts, evidently. We refrain. The raccoons yowl away for a while, we sit out on the balcony, and a delicious scent from outside vegetation steals through the room - gardenias, perhaps. We make vague, alcohol-propelled plans to buy a boat (with a sail) and move down here.
The next day, we locate a sailing hire down at Mile Marker 82, and an Enviro-tour which goes bird and manatee watching. The Mile Marker system is very sweet - all addresses are prefixed with the Mile marker (MM) so you can see that 85430 will be between MM 85 and 86. Very logical and useful. A slight quirk, MM's on the Keys run from Key West (the end). Well, they have to start somewhere. So going down the Keys (accommodation is around MM95) is a quick study in subtraction. Or using a calculator.
There is a correlation between driving and type of vehicle that, although we laugh it off at first, gradually really does become apparent. Ford F150's house the legendary flaky drivers, it seems. US1 is all single-lane, so it's very easy to get stuck behind a raised drawbridge, someone who knows they have to turn right somewheres around here (to within oh say 10 miles) and goes 20mph to check every street sign, or the aforesaid F150. And it's literally the only way in or out of the whole 118 miles of Keys - a scary thought if evacuation really needed to happen. However, mostly the traffic rolls right along at the predominant speed limit of 45mph.
Our Enviro-tour isn't, as it turns out, in a woven flax corracle with a sail, with a SNAG captain (or captess) who sings to the fishes. It's in a 30ft Boston Whaler with a 225hp Merc out back, Captain Reed at the helm (favourite sound bite "hang on back there" as he slams the throttle right forward), making around 35mph on the water. Well, we do have some territory to cover. And the Merc is enviro, being a four-stroke. We see manatee grass but no manatees, skates and sharks and lots of fishes. And birds, who take over certain mangrove clumps and not others. Note to diary: birdshit en masse really stinks the place up. No wonder every public building through Europe is festooned with upward-pointing spikes (laid out in collated strips, like nailgun nails) to discourage roosting. We idle through narrow little backwaters amongst mangroves and islands in an ultimately unsuccessful but hugely enjoyable search for the elusive manatee.
Back at the lodge, we have arranged a one hour sail on a Hobie cat, so I take Doug and Anne out on a very laidback cruise. Mild onshore breeze, so we can reach out to sea, tack away up the beach, sail right back. There's no jib, just a mainsail - the way a catamaran can go in even a moderate breeze leads me to suspect they've had to chase one or two right out to the reef in the past. We just pootle about, staying out of the way of powercraft, and generally having a great time. So I have to buy a sailboat fleet and move to the Keys, now.
On the Enviro-tour, we have spotted a decayed-looking drinking hole (Papa Joe's) which promises a better sunset. So once back onshore, we head there and await the sunset with a beer. Or two. It sets behind land (again! but by now we don't care) and a backdrop of power lines which serves as a good metaphor for the Keys - power poles marching to a vanishing-point, water and pelicans everywhere, good bar music from a real live entertainer (taking time out from fishing charters, probably) and good company. A sunset movie, naturally. And a long afterglow with underlit jetstream cloud overhead. Why isn't every day like this?
We trail back up US1 and witness a truly dopey piece of driving by (what else?) an F150 inhabitant. He's trailing a 25ft boat, going at much less than the speed limit, accumulating a respectable tailback behind him. And when he gets to the passing zone - he (you can't make this stuff up) stays in the fast lane, forcing everyone to pass on the wrong side.... Just as well Hemingway wasn't in the tailback. Mr F150 would have had his two brain cells plastered all over the inside of the cab once Ernie drew alongside.

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Jan 14 - on the Inland Waterway and Cuban coffee

An early start to make a boat trip down the inland canals system into the downtown Miami area. The trip is very good: a bit of commentary about the houses of the rich and famous, passing under many bridges, waiting for others to open up (which they do very satisfactorily to W's engineers mind, and a movie to record the fact), past lots of rather dire condo-type blocks, and also a lot of very classy ones.
But the main impressions remain of the sheer size (we travel down perhaps 1/3 of Miami's total length), the amount of construction, and the general affluence. We don't really try to get to downtown - shops are the same anywhere - but have a good Cuban meal and discover Cuban coffee. Black, quite sweet, very strong, quite addictive. Two cups are in order. And T-shirts.
Back on board, back up the same waterway, but on the other side of the boat it's all new. The inland waterways extend pretty much right up the coast, and we pass two major ports: Fort Lauderdale (cruise ships, ro-ro vessels and oil tankers) and Miami (in the distance, at least 10 container cranes, lots of activity to judge by the semis with containers backed up right over the bridge into the port area). A great day.

Jan 13 - Miami

Early start, as we check out, very last tube trip out to Heathrow, where AF has actually delivered the luggage! We grab it and head for our plane. Timing is tight but Ok in the end. 9 hours in the air, Ernest Ranglin on the MuVo, good meals (we're flying BA this leg). The plane goes on a great-circle track from UK to Canada, then down the eastern seaboard of the US to Miami. M sees lots of snow in Canada as we overfly. They're having big storms, low temperatures.
Not in Miami, however, which is a comfortable 25 C, with low humidity. We get our bags (lots of queueing, but our NZ passports get us waved through once we get to officialdom). We mill around Terminal B for a while till we hook up with Doug (Host #1) and then circle around for a further while till Anne (Host #2) hoves into view. Then freeway travel with light traffic and minor examples of the fabled crazed Florida driving only, out to Lauderhill (north of Miami) and relaxation and lots of catching up.
The house is a large suburban one, with a swimming pool out back, lots of palm trees, a canal with ducks, snakes, toads but (we are slightly disappointed to learn) no 'gators - there's a grill out at the road end to keep them out. There was a iguana some time ago in the back, and photos to prove it. And fireants, until they got treated. So we plan tomorrow's excursions in relative safety, predator-wise. With great Folger's coffee.

Jan 12 - Air France - The horror, the horror

We visit the Zweigart factory for a look-through, have lunch with the directors, then off to Stuttgart airport (an exhilarating motorway trip in the trusty Audi - our host has bucked the Merc fixation) - where the AF horror starts. We had (at CDG pPaaris transfer desk) swapped our flights to earlier ones back to London, to allow us more time at CDG with that dreadful changeover. They (what else) fubar'ed both the original and the replacement flights at that point. Our efficient (German, of course) AF people at the desk sort this out, but it takes about 20 minutes and much dark muttering by three people. We hear the word 'kaput' more than once - never a good sign.
But Paris-bound we are, and duly arrive at CDG, and the inevitable bus.
Just imagine, you build an airport, taxiways, parking bays, runways, terminals, cargo and baggage areas. Each terminal has many gates, each with an airbridge. So far, so standard. But at Paris CDG, you do not let actual planes near the airbridges. In fact, you don't equip many of the gates with actual dockable airbridges, but terminate them in stairs to ground level. Instead, there are three rules of operation:
1 - keep those planes away from the gates by parking them a kilometre or so away
2 - transport everyone everywhere (plane-terminal, terminal to terminal) by bus, one planeload at a time. This guarantees bottlenecks, as there's only one bus allowed per plane, so it has to wait for the last passenger
3 - express incredulity and pained surprise when planes are missed and luggage goes astray
It seems fair to assume that this model of airport operation will not be emulated by other airports which want to have a future. And in our limited experience, it certainly isn't - most others exhibit reasonable standards of efficiency, cleaniness and punctuality. Including Mulhouse, but then it has Swiss and German exits which exert a benign organising influence. So there's the obvious answer to CDG: shift it to Strasbourg and let it imbibe the German attention to detail. With a fast rail link to Paris, it wouldn't even take longer.
We eventually make it to Heathrow and, quelle surprise, Air France has left all our luggage in Paris. They offer to forward it to our hotel. No thanks, we are going to Miami the next day. Monsieur, we can forward it there for you. Ah, but when? Not trusting AF to find its ass with both hands, we arrange to personally pick it up at Heathrow (different terminal from our Miami trip, of course, Sod's law) rather than trust it to AF's by now highly questionable stewardship. A last Picadilly then District tube (costs 3.80 instead of the rip-off Heathrow Express at 25.00) to Victoria and our hotel. What a day. But it's our last night in dear grimy tired London. Sniff.

Black Forest - Jan 11

Our marvellous host has a drive through the BF planned. We had always thought of it as an enclave or pocket, but it is absolutely huge: around 180k long and averaging 50k wide. We drive into the middle, to Bad Griesbach and (what else) a little local restaurant with local delicacies. But first, a small bush walk, to an abandoned dam which holds special memories for our host. Very rustic (dam was for a fishing lake) and quiet. And rainy. So we retreat to a lunch of wild venison (hirshragout) which is really gamy and marvellous. Then a schnapps - firewater, made from a cherry base. The first slug lifts the top gently from your head, the second (although you're technically meant to knock it all back in one swallow) gently stirs the brain cells with a long-handled silver spoon and the third... well you can't feel it.
The BF drive continues: there was a hurricane (150-200k winds) several years ago which simply flattened parts of the forest, and the processing industries (a lot of them, all over - the BF is a huge wood resource) are still working through the bulge in log supplies. Most of the region is well roaded: there are bush tracks for the logging, and the whole area is intensively managed or at least kept an eye on by rangers, compartment by compartment. The extent amazes us, even in the 200 k's or so we drive. Snow on the tops, pine forest (black trunks, dark interior, hence Black forest) on the steeper slopes. Then all of a sudden, on gentler slopes, a consistent pattern emerges: cultivated land, orchard trees amongst this, then a village in a hollow by a stream, more fileds, back into forest over the ridge tops. Many, many villages. Intensive cultivation, with no fences. Very neat and orderly, even to the extent of sealed narrow roads through the fields for the farm equipment, all open to the main roads.
It's all very Swiss/German postcard, and there is a whole lot of it. No wonder this area was coveted by the kings of yore. The weather as we drive through is not great - mist, rain, if it was colder there would be snow over the tops. But we like this: it gives a sense of how 'black' the forest must have seemed in older days, when bears, wolves and other carnivores roamed, the damp crept everywhere, the fire burnt lower and cabin fever set in. This is Brothers Grimm territory, no doubt about it. Again, this experience is not the usual touristic one: which is evidently limited to a selected few pretty villages, and a brief swing through some trees somewhere along the line. We really feel we've seen the real, hard-working, orderly Germany. And to cap it off, we take a short-cut through the cultivated fields on the way back to Sindelfingen (after stopping in at a fish ponds back in the forest, to buy some smoked trout for dinner), and it's like driving through the farmers' private territory. A 2.4m sealed strip, cultivated to within a metre or so each side, park-like trees dotted around. No fences, no stock (all is kept indoors except a few sheep). An absolute delight. And we have trout, more good wine, and cheeses for dinner. Ans see a totally delightful little film that is shown every New Years throughout northern Europe: Freddie Frinton's 'Dinner for One'. FF was English, but this is a rare treat, around 50 years old, very slapstick/music hall influenced. We'll try to get a copy somewhere along the way.
There's no doubt that the fabled German fussiness is there: nice smooth railbeds for the trains, orderly fields and forests, sealed roads down to farm lanes, beautiful machinery (the factory we see is spotlessly maintained and every cable and pipe has it's place), but what's missing from this stereotype is what we've seen: the humour, the earthiness, the sense of judgement in architecture, and the delight in nature (those monks and their ceiling paintings of which we have many photos). This won't be our last trip to this area.

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Bebenhausen - Jan 10

Another Cistercian monastery, just up the road from Tubingen. Well preserved: there doesn't seem to have been the episodes of iconoclasm (image smashing) which destroyed so much of British churches and abbeys, and which occurred in France just prior to WW1. There is a great deal of painted stone left: something very common then but most old stone we have seen up till now has been cleaned back. Lots of botanical images, and the rising sun emblem (for Christ, we think) on celing bosses in the vaults everywhere. And more humour: a painted pulpit with a stone figure holding it up. A great afternoon, all round. Dinner with local and French wines in the evening.

Tubingen - Jan 10

Our hosts in Sindelfingen take us to the university town of Tubingen - 180 km/h on the autobahn (for only 5 k's, unfortunately) and a swing through what turns out to be an outpost of the Black Forest. Tubingen is a university town, enlivened by 30,000 students, and has a strong medical/genetic background: cell nuclei were first isolated in the schloss' kitchen, and the fuchsia was named after one Fuchs, whose house we photograph.
And those houses! They are everything the postcards say - stone bases, timber post-and-beam construction with brick or rubble infill, above. Ancient timbers, carefully replaced (this form of construction is quite easy to repair, as it's all exposed), and just oozing antiquity. Many humourous touches - carvings of little people holding up bits of the buildings on corners and under beams, and a lot of painting to resemble other, grander decorations on otherwise flat surfaces. Old timber. Bulgy stone walls. Delightful colours and lots of hills. We have a great old walk around - mine host acting as guide, and getting around the (inevitable) mediaeval streets without getting lost. We lunch at a Schwabian specialty restaurant (one of many): dumplings and various local dishes. Very filling and delicious.

Mulhouse - Jan 8

We arrive sans M's luggage, courtesy of those fubar Air France peasants. Not ever, ever flying Air France will become a resolution....
The trip next day to DMC goes well, access to their rarely-opened museum granted, and photos permitted. Then we take to the trains: Mulhouse-Strasbourg-Stuttgart. The first leg is SCNF (French) and is quite good - wending through the Rhine valley, with schloss (castles) on each major hill (the rich Rhine valley land has been traded back and forth between various overlords for some time, now). We change to DB (German) at Strasbourg, and immediately things improve even more: German timeliness and nice level trackbeds make for a very comfortable ride. Of which we see nothing, as it's now dark.
We brave the German language and the Stuttgart S-bahn (city rail, again courtesy of DB) and find our way to Bobelingen, then a cab to Sindelfingen and our hotel.
Sindelfingen is home to a large Mercedes plant, where the employees can buy a Merc for 20% under list, then sell it after a year for that same amount. So, unsurprisingly, the town is full of new Mercs. It's a rich area in farming terms as well: cultivated fields right up to the Mercedes plant and (we see in the Monday when we fly out) the airport too.

Paris - Jan 7 - stuck at CDG

Early start to catch an 0915 plane to Paris, then on to Mulhouse, all on Air France. Ha! We had reckoned without Heathrow's queues (for take-off) and Charles De Gaulle (CDG) airport's inter-terminal transfers. We make Terminal F (coming in) at the exact time the Mulhouse flight departs, and the transfer to Terminal B takes fully 35 minutes. There is quite a lot of activity at the transfer desks as passengers re-book missed connections - must happen a lot. It's the first airport I've seen with specialised busses, able to hold a whole planeload by the looks of them, with bodies able to be raised up to the airbridge level. Obviously a desperate measure to ferry round transfers, although the busses don't seem to be moving at all. But our inter-terminal shuttle has to crawl along behind baggage trolley tractors, wait for cross traffic, and dodge freight and airline food vehicles. Doesn't say much for the general level of organisation: mostly these streams are kept well segregated. Ho hum. We have a late afternoon flight to Mulhouse booked instead of the one we missed, and we re-schedule Monday's (coming) flights out of Stuugart, to allow a whole lot more time, and to allow a later flight to London. For we mustn't miss that Miami flight early Tuesday.... Two cafe-au-laits in quick succession restore the optimal blood/caffeine ratio. No wireless internet acccess in the terminal. Mais naturellement. But of course. CDG's stylised layout map, we notice, resembles a porcupine's outline. We think we now know why.

London - Jan 6 - last day

Work and then a hop across to Kypera up in Clerkenwell. I catch a Picadilly tube and get off at Holborn, thinking, it's a short step down the hill to Smithfield and Kypera. It's a long hop.... but I pick up a nice NZ Marlborough white on the way, for a very kind person whose NT card we have had all this time. Thanks sincerely.
Goodbyes all round, then a quick caffeine-up at a little Italian place in Cowcross St, and onto the Tube at Farringdon for the last time. This is the oldest part of the entire tube system, and looks it. I'll miss it heaps.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

London - Jan 6 - Sir John Soanes

More work, but the Soanes Museum is open by candlelight on the first Tuesday every month. So off we go to Lincoln's Inn Fields. Sir J was an eminent architect in the late 1700's to early 1800's and his home is a museum of architectural fragments: castings, pieces, books, plans. Generally, the collection is unexplained, so you have to know a little about the times and styles to make much sense of it all. It's very crammed in, lit by an amazing variety of internal and external skylights, and just an absorbing session.
The realisation that we're leaving day after tomorrow is sinking in, and so we wander down on a last walk through central London. Down Kingsway, where the impressive blue-lit facade of the BBC looms, through to Somerset House. This is an old (1650 - 1700) pile, which hosts ice-skating over the December/January period. We stop, have a mulled wine and watch for a while. Most out tonight are the clutch-the-railings-and-hope brigade, it seems. Then we amble back up Father Thames to Westminster Tube station, and so home to dear old Victoria. One more day. Sniff.

London - Jan 5

Work, work, work. Macdonald's salad. Cheap, boring.

London - Jan 4 - Science Museum

Yet another huge place, up in the group of 3 museums (Natural History, V&A, Science) in South Kensington. So we cherry-pick: machinery and marine, plus the genetics/brain development part of the Wellcome Wing.
The machinery is quite astounding: some of the earliest steam engines (beam pumps from the Cornish mines, made by Boulton, Watt and Trevithick, around 1770) are there. Extremely crude in making: hand-filed cylinders (machine tools had simply not been invented), few screws, lots of wedges to hold things together, lots of wood. Yet the progress within just a few decades was also impressive: as those machine tools started to be used widely. So much is there: Stephenson's 'Rocket' locomotive (1829, looking very fragile, small, bendy frames), Brunel's block-making machines (the first production line machinery in wide use outside textiles), early lathes, planers, steam hammers. Not that I would have liked to run any of it: dangerous looking boilers everywhere, nasty flat-belt drives.
Driven by what else? There's a full-size, working (on steam) stationary engine - the real old workhorse type that ran factories in the UK and sawmills (in NZ bush). Huge flywheel: fully 20 feet diameter, making 700hp. And so quiet! A bit of clacking from the valve gear but otherwise pure rotation without noise. This particular engine ran 1700 looms in a woollen mill well into the 1970's, and now runs for a couple of hours on Sundays (at least). I'd heard of such engines: an old bushman mentioned one with a 24ft flywheel at the 'Razorback' mill on the coast south-west of Tuatapere, but I didn't really understand just how big they were. Drive was straight from the outside of that flywheel, so it didn't need to run fast - around 40-60rpm, to make good belt speed. And very little wear at that sedate speed, hence the longevity. Quite a peak, seeing this beauty.
The genetics/brain exhibit was very current and informative. Good written material, but no book back at the store afterwards - a disappointment.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

London - Jan 3 - Evensong at St Paul's

Back across the Millenium Bridge. This was the suspension one that had to be hurriedly closed days after its opening in 2000 for 'adjustments' after it quickly exhibited resonance effects under the feet of several hundred people crossing it. Like there were no resonance issues generally with suspension bridges - think Tacoma Narrows for starters (it twisted itself to pieces in about 10 minutes during a moderate gale in the 1940's). Classic Brit engineering SNAFU. It's a nice bridge now though, after its de-bouncing treatment, and leads straight to St Paul's from TM.
We arrive at St Paul's at 5 pm - evensong is just starting, Hmm. This could become a habit. The tourists mill around all through the service, coming and going through the prayers, taking flash pictures (ushers try to stop this, but aren't everywhere). The service is very good: very inclusive (unlike the RC cathedral in Barcelona) with prayers offered (as in Salisbury) for victims and survivors of the Iran quake. A stirring organ voluntary at the end, with applause from the less aware tourists. St Paul's is under cleaning and reconstruction inside and out, so the glorious dome is visible in fragments only from inside. But it's a lovely tall, light-filled church, unlike (M feels) Westminster Abbey which was much more gloomy. And more obviously and obtrusively full of dead people to boot. Boot Hill, in fact. St Paul's is an absolute London landmark: it's dome shows up in the skyline everywhere (think, the river views in 'Love Actually'). Christopher Wren, the architect, has an epitaph which translates roughly as 'For my memorial, look around you' and it's still true 350 years later.

London - Jan 3 - Tate Modern

Bounced back after a good night's sleep: takes more than an overgrown calamari to do me in. And it hasn't soured Barcelona at all. Washing in the morning. Wander back from Monument tube stop along the Thames (overshot, but who cares when the way back is from Hooke's Monument after the Fire of London, along the river) to Millenium bridge and Tate Modern.
TM is in a former power station and the entrance is truly stunning: the former turbine hall (complete with overhead gantry crane) has been left empty, but a huge lit-up sun abstract is at the eastern end, and the ceiling is mirrored. There's a small mezzanine for viewing. People lie on the floor (in the 'sun'), make shapes, watch themselves in the roof, watch other people, take pictures pointing at the sun (which guarantees a Big Yellow Thing type photo unless you can control the camera exposure, which we can, thanks Nikon). It's a living work of art, just wonderful in conception, and constantly changing as the crowds come and go. A nice little tail-piece - a couple make as if they're pedalling a tandem, lying on their sides, watching themselves in the roof. A better introduction to abstract and kinetic art could not be had.
TM starts off very well - early 20th Century beginnings including one where I say to M - 'looks like that guy had seen a lot of Monet' - and it's a Monet!. Dali, Picasso (not much or interesting), some Tanguy, Ernst, Man Ray. Great kinetic art too - this sort of stuff just has to work. Then it gets a little silly (Man Ray again, someone who does heating vents, a flat-sided car). The crowds (TM is free, so lots of people of all sorts, knowledge and ages come) give some guide. Works that show (as I always look for) clear evidence of technical skill and familiarity with the materials attract people at least long enough to read the labels. A very popular work is a traditional musuem cabinet with opening exhibit drawers and display shelves, full of artefacts removed from two digs in the Thames outside the two Tates: South Bank (where we are) and Millbank (Tate British). There's everything from human bones to plastic Coke caps and AA cards. The installation runs to the head digger's overalls, boots and coat. People just love this stuff. There's drawer opening and closing, circling around and coming back, and the merest nod to 'Modernism' in that the artefacts are not arranged in a conventional way (no chronology or explanation - more by shape and size than anything). But it's capital A Accessible.
Which is more than can be said about some of the rest. The reaction of people en masse can't be mistaken for knowledgeable criticism, but it is noticeable that the circulation through is very fast, and the benches (except for that in front of a Pollock, for some reason) are not occupied by art lovers but, if at all, by parents and other fractious walkers who have just taken a few steps too far into the wrong part of town.
There are three main schools of art in this part of TM:
Hurl and Hope (Pollock),
Tray and Roller (Rothko) and
Squat and Push (we didn't stop to read the labels about which artist but they certainly had a good feed beforehand).
My Barcelona productions, framed, would have won prizes in two of the three categories I have devised. It is entirely understandable that artists of all sorts need to differentiate themselves, go against the perceived 'order of things' and generally challenge the senses. But when the effect (a Tray and Roller school piece) is a 2x3m solid red canvas, and the work has to stand on it's own against a lot of others, there is no context anymore, and the technical skill is certainly not evident. Most people can think of a partly stripped wall in a spare room that looks like some of these pieces. So they think to themselves, stuff this, there's bound to be something I can relate to further on, and just keep going.
Most of the works are too recent (this century) for real judgement to occur, but I feel history will quietly discard some of these pieces. Or the cleaners will make a dreadful mistake. Or, in the case of the heating vent 'artist', some hapless local heat/ventilation/air con (HVAC) engineering firm, summoned to attend to a malfunctioning plant unit in the vicinty, will take the thing away entirely. 'There's yer problem, guv'nor - thermostat's gawn'. Tee hee.
TM is of course well worth seeing for the sun, the art and the silliness. How else to figure it all out? It's only when things go way too far that a sense of where the middle lies, and what constitutes skill worth supporting, can evolve.

Barcelona - revenge of the calamari Jan 2

I (W) have a tummy bug: half the night speaking to the Great White Trumpet, manage to block the hotel's washbasin. Don't even ask how. And we fly back to London today. Fortunately, the worst is over by hotel checkout time: hot and cold flushes but I'm travellable. Barely. It was classic food poisoning, and I fear the octupus-wrangler from two nights ago may be to blame. We have run out of our 4-day Metro pass so just get a cab: the Placa Jaume L is just up the hill and as a seat of local government always has lots of cabs. Sleep away the time until the flight with music courtesy of the trusty MuVo, and have an entirely forgettable flight on an Airbus A320 back to Heathrow. I'd been looking forward to flying the Airbus, but it really is a disappointment compared to the Boeings I'm used to. Even allowing for my fragile state, the plane flies rough: engine vibration all the time during flight - and the air conditioning is a sad joke. Even Heathrow's taxiways feel extra bumpy. Just like me.

Barcelona - Gaudi day Jan 1

One of the nice things about Gaudi, architect and genius, is that he worked chiefly in Barcelona itself, so his opus is easy to get around. And it's New Year's day, with very little open. We head up to Park Guell, a 20 hectare site which Gaudi developed over 15 years or so. It's a World Heritage site, richly deserved. There's a bit of everything: fairytale gate-houses with mushroom roofs, twisted/sloping columns on walkways, an entire lookout space supported by stone pillars, dog head gargoyles, and viaducts including the 'enamorata' with included love-seats. And the salamander (tiled, huge, kids love it). And that's the best thing about this park, it is loved and used by everyone. Spanish dog walkers. Families, Tourists. Kids of all ages. And from the upper reaches the Sagrada is visible. What a marvellous memorial.
On the way back (the park is around 1.7 km from the Lesseps Metro stop) we have a cafe con leche y pastri (the Catalan language is quite easy to grasp if you've done Latin), then see the Casa Vicens - of which it's said it was the last straight line construction that Gaudi ever built. Very Moorish, rather sadly hemmed in now. Walked out (we got around most of the park). Head off to the main Cathedral which has a rather forbidding feel: they want tourists' money but deter them from being included in services. We visit the cloisters and the nativity scene which has real geese: the cathedral is built over Roman walls and the geese are descended from Roman stock. Lots of very richly gilded and painted saints shrines - dating back to the 14th century. A collection box by each. A service is starting but we don't feel welcome enough to stay. A tapas meal much later, with calamari (tempting fate, read on) back in Placa Reial, and the day is complete. Turns out that the streetlights in this placa (place) are designed by Gaudi - his first-ever commission. We had noted and photographed them first day out. Completes the circle, really.

Barcelona - New Year

Of course after the meal, we walk back to Barri Gotic up Las Ramblas, already getting noisily happy, find the Placa Reial (just down from the hotel) and buy ourselves a place at a strategic table with a truly excrable red vino and a barely passable beer. New Year happens quite quietly, considering: a bit of yahooing by younger people in a fountain, lots of slurry shouts and blurry phone-camera pictures happening, all very cheerful and good natured. To bed, very happy. The happy shouting goes on a bit but that's the same the world over. It do echo in these here old stone faced 2m wide alleys, but.

Barcelona - La pedrera and Sagrada climb

After Casa Battlo, we briefly look in on 'La Pedrera' (The Quarry) - same street, one tube stop away. The nickname suits it: apart from the patent curves and amazing ironwork on terrace balconies, it is quite unappealing from the street. The roof does have more Gaudi elements, but there was a queue... And a charge....
So off to the Sagrada - where we stand in a queue (no other way) to (it turns out) climb the eastern towers. The other queue was for the elevators (who knew?) but is cut off much earlier than the climbers one. So eventually climb we did. Round and round, up and up, with very little lighting or internal handrails (on the first part). The Spanish are very pragmatic about such things, no OSH police, clearly, and the next day we see steps in Park Guell fully 25 feet high, 1 m wide, no handrails whatsoever. Still, with all those saints (each with their own private collection box), they probably figure they are protected enough anyway.
The steps can only be climbed as fast as everyone in front moves, which suits, and it is dark once we get near the top - the floodlights come on while we are still going up. We can see the good progress made on construction - the nave is nearing completion, and we understand there's an NZ architect involved. Lots of scaffolding is up way past the existing height of walls, and that's an indication that much more wall is expected soon. On the back we can see reinforced concrete shell walls, faced with stone and decoration. Not as traditional but faster. One of the deadlines is 2026, the anniversary of Gaudi's death. He knew the cathedral was not 'his' (he had inherited an already built crypt) and perhaps purposefully left few detailed plans but a lot of impressions and sketches. In that way, the work was intended to evolve, and so it has.
We cross over between the two main towers and go down the other side. One photo - of the 'offerings' of fruit at the top of the second (down) tower stair. These upper stairs are between the outer and inner walls, so it is quite safe feeling going down. We really should have a T-shirt ('We climbed the Sagrada') but content ourselves with a tube ride down to the beach and a very Spanish dinner. I have bacalao (cod) which arrives in a black-ink octopus sauce, rather unexpected but very palatable. Of which more later.... I imagine there's a special chef out back with a specialty in annoying octopi till they squirt the aforesaid ink - a dangerous job, but somebody has to do it. OSH would have a fit. So would PETA.

Barcelona - Gaudi, Casa Battlo

We chose Barcelona because we have long known about Antoni Gaudi, and I picked up a Gaudi handbook a couple of years ago, at, in all places, Metropolis bookshop in Acland Street, St Kilda, Melbourne. Casa Battlo is a conversion of an existing building and has all the trademark Gaudi features: three dimensional woodwork, curves everywhere, tiles facade, chimney and roof decoration. We stump up the steep admission asking price and wander through, blissed out.

Barcelona Wednesday Dec 31 - Textiles and Sculpture

We (Jane/Trev and Maddy/Wayne) split up for the morning: we (M/W) head for the Textile Museum for some work research. It's in a marvellously Spanish building: large gate/door to the street (Carrer de Montcada - the one we overshot last evening), enclosed inner courtyard, tiles roofs everywhere. The textiles collection was less numerous than we had expected, but interesting nevertheless. A quick cafe con leche each, and we head down C. de Montcada.
But not for long - a sculpture in a shop window nearby attracts us in, and we gingerly ask the price. It's ours (assuming it survives transit) within half an hour. A Catalan ceramic artist, with echoes of Gaudi, South American faces, and some of Maddy's later pottery.

Barcelona - Sagrada Familia

We head for the Sagrada as the first stage of a Gaudi trail, late afternoon. It's a Metro excursion, and the station exit is right under the west facade of the Sagrada.
This is the crucified Christ facade - which Gaudi did not want built first, as it would frighten the supporters of the Church. He started the eastern (birth, life) facade first.
The western facade is indeed brutal: strong lines, chunky statuary, setting sun illumination. Very striking. The Sagrada occupies a whole city block and is a construction village: the work was started in 1882, Gaudi died after a tram accident in 1926 with little more than the eastern facade towers elementary structure in place, and it is hoped to have substantial completion by the centenary of his death in 2026.
The eastern side has almost closed up by the time we get there, so we have a leisurely cafe con leche and wait for the tower floodlights to be turned on. Promptly at 1800, they are, and photos ensue. The towers are around 100m tall, with distinctive flower crosses atop, and words around and down them. There are still people moving down the towers, which gives us tomorrow's plan (we have not paid to go in, suspecting something like this to be the case).
So we head back for a quick freshen-up and then a ramble down on the other side of our area. Which almost turns pear-shaped, as we overshoot the street and end up in little alleys where the locals eye us distinctly as prey. We smartly turn and exit stage right. We find the Santa Maria de la Mer church - ancient, shrines to many more saints than we know about, clear evidence of a simple but devoted approach to religion here, as a woman goes up the image of one of the saints, touches both knees, and kisses his feet. Back through more narrow streets, but friendlier, to Hotel Levante.

Barcelona - Museums

Tuesday, we have a breakfast at Placa Reial (through a narrow street (Carrer de la Lleona) from the hotel) and head down Las Ramblas (the main drag) to the sea. Barcelona is very much a working port, and the bottom of Las Ramblas houses the Harbour Board, the Navy, and a statue with a figure pointing west. We like to think it's Columbus but suspect he's Portguese. The inner harbour is very clean - we see fish swimming - and deserted (we are up early). We take a precarious cable-car from the harbour, then a chair-lift to Montjuic - a hill with a fortress which dates back to Roman times, although the guns are definitely 20th century German.
Montjuic starts the cat thing: Barcelona is full of wild cats. Further round Montjuic, at Museum of the History of catalonia, there are whole tiled roofs which are inhabited by pigeons and patrolled by clearly well-fed cats. Picasso hung out at a bar called Quatre Gats (four cats) which is there to this day, so the cats are of long standing.
The Museum is mainly notable for its location - on the slopes of this steep little mount, with an avenue of fountains all the way down the hill to a Placa (plaza) with impressive but ornamental towers. The fountains are off for the season at present.

Barcelona - arrival

Although Heathrow has been unkind, we don't really mind - Barcelona is largely closed (museums etc) Mondays anyway. We arrive and find only 1 of 2 bags there. Claim time. Spanish practice. It quickly transpires that a whole luggage trolley has missed the cut, and will arrive next plane. Or thereabouts.
On to Barcelona and our hotel. We buy 4-day Metro/bus tickets (very cheap) and hop a bus to the Plaza Catalunya - a short trip, then brave the Metro system (colour coded and lines are numbered too) to our stop. Everything works fine. We find the hotel without drama - it's in the Barri Gotic - think, 3 m wide streets, 4-6 storey buildings, but clean, lots of foot traffic, feels very safe but definitely exotic. Trev and Jane arrive later on, again without drama. We very much like what we've seen so far.

Barcelona - Heathrow Horror

Monday 29 December was carefully planned - 1030 flight from Terminal 1, so a District then Picadilly tube at 0730 to make Heathrow at 0830. Fine. Except that Heathrow was experiencing a fire alarm and would not let anyone in. 'Soon', which as any child knows means 'we haven't got a clue but hang in there'. Three 'soons' from an African attendant who clearly didn't know any more than we (about 100 by now) knew. So after the fire alarm clearance, the inevitable crush to get in and to the correct check-in area, and waiting in queues, of course we miss the 1030 plane to Barcelona. As must, we reckon, probably 80% of the seats sold. Didn't stop it flying though - possibly it is cheaper to fly anyway and not upset the repositioning and subsequent schedling domino effects, than to actually have paying pax. Only God and BA know.
So we go to (what else?) another queue to re-ticket, and are handed a card after about 1/4 hour waiting and shuffling, with a number to call to re-schedule by phone. But a nice little vignette occurs first.
A short, blond, American, loud female stalks up the queue, partner in tow, hapless BA employee by the buttonhole. Right opposite us, she stops and demands (the loud bit) why she has to queue, and where exactly the ticket office is. So many queues, you see. The BA bloke, polite to a fault but not without a certain smugness, points out the bleeding obvious: that he can show her the ticketing office all right, but then she and silent partner will have to return to the end of the queue anyway. And the queue will have grown. But of course she must see the ticket office. So she does. But with one little concession: she is ferried to the far end of the now much longer queue in a motorised trolley. By the same BA employee, smile more than fractionally wider.
We ring the number and, mirabile dictu, reschedule our flight for 1500 over the phone. So we check in - another queue, naturally, and then Murphy strikes again. Twice. We are (you couldn't make this stuff up) too early to have baggage checked. So we get seats confirmed and troop off to a cafe upstairs. Coffe and snack #1 goes down to applause all round. We get coffee and snack #2 and Murphy intervenes. Another fire alarm. Everyone out. We take ourselves, luggage and snack, but leaving coffee to its fate, outside where (what else) it rains. We have umbrella. And snack, to the obvious envy of some fellow travellers. Well, they didn't get on a tube at 0730 without breakfast, did they. We get back in. Coffee has been cleared away. We invest in coffee #3, and fast-check the luggage as soon as possible. The rest of the afternoon proceeds without incident, although the plane is 50 minutes late because some dimwit passenger checks luggage on but no-shows, necessitating a full unpack and re-pack of the hold. We'd cheerfully contract one of the many sub-machine-gun equipped police in the terminal to deal with the offending chap(ette) except, of course, being no-shows, they aren't there. We take off at 1600 - 5 1/2 hours late compared to schedule. And I have the final encounter with the short loud blonde thing: I use the loo on the plane, and she raps on the loo door to hurry me up! There are only three others, all empty. Where are the armed sky marshalls when you need them?