30 November 2009

In defense of heavy suitcases

Every time I fly back from Lansdale to London, I'm laden with a few boxes of Triscuits and many containers of Crystal Light—lemonade, pink lemonade, and citrus. No defense possible for the latter. Friends and family cringe at my addiction to a diet version of Russian tea.

A visit this past Thursday to Partridge's on the King's Road to pick up some Jiffy corn muffin mix for Thanksgiving dinner revealed that both Triscuits and Crystal Light are now readily available over here. But at a price. Luckily the muffin mix and Lipton's dried onion soup that I actually needed were a lot more reasonable.

Click to enlarge the photos below, Dad, and prepare to be amazed: Triscuits are £5.95 and Crystal Light £7.99. That's $9.85 and $13.22 at today's exchange rate. No coupons either!

Claudia—that Crystal Light you lugged over for me a couple of years ago was worth a small fortune.

28 November 2009

Imagine my chagrin....

Would I be able to sit through 158 minutes of 2012 without chocolate-covered raisins to go with my popcorn?

24 November 2009

An image I can relate to

The Guardian runs a series called "Best Shots," where a different photographer is profiled each week. This photo from 18 November 2009 is one of my favorites, especially in conjunction with the resonant explanation by the artist.

This picture is called Invasion of Everything That Was Restrained. It's basically a lot of paper balls hanging in the air. They're meant to represent ideas that you had but didn't follow through on: they're still around, invading your space.

It was very simple to set up. I hung the paper balls up with transparent line then shot the picture. Afterwards, on the computer, I had to remove a couple of bits of string that were visible; but other than that, it's all as it was.

I took the shot for a big exhibition in Brazil in 2005 called Between the Rain and the Snowman, a line inspired by the lyrics of Leonard Cohen's Love Calls You By Your Name. When I listened to the song, I started to think about the relationship between rain and snowmen, which I realised was very circular: the rain comes, we get a freeze, we make a snowman, it melts and we start again.

I shot it in a corner of my studio in Brazil. So the bits of paper represent all my own bad ideas, the projects I never finished – and they are invading my space, for real. But the picture is meant to be about more than my own personal life: it's about the life that everybody leads.

My titles are all important. They are the starting point for the work. But the combination of title and picture is like a marriage – sometimes it works incredibly well, sometimes it's not so good. My work is about action. I construct all my photographs, almost like sculpture or an installation. But I use very simple elements, just the things we have around us, to say something important and poetic. It needn't be complicated.

Sara Ramo: Movable Planes is at the Photographers' Gallery, London W1, until 31 January.


Born: Madrid, 1975

Studied: Went to university in Brazil at the age of 21. "But you need to discover art on your own."

Inspirations: Brassaï, US photographer Francesca Woodman.

High point: "A very experimental piece for the Venice Biennale."

Top tip: "I feel I am always learning. I start every day fresh. That's the best way for the artist to be."

22 November 2009

How time flies

A cartoon Michael came across in Private Eye:

Grand Tour (Day 6), 19 September

Les Sables-d'Olonne to Blaye (pronounced Bly)

Over two months ago now. Lucky I scribbled a few notes.

Michael makes his way through the fog to collect a sand sample from the beach along the promenade before we drive off to Île de Ré. Timing has worked so that we'll be arriving the day the Forteys (minus Richard, who has had to speechify somewhere else in Europe) depart from the island, so we decide not to pester them.

En route we stop to photograph this refreshingly simple church in St-Denis-du-Payré. The most elaborate decoration is provided by the tafoni (again, see throughthesandglass) in the limestone blocks around the door.

Two of the town's 370 inhabitants insisted that I take their picture as well when
I got out of the car to get a few close-ups.

A series of four increasingly close photos. What can
I say? I'm married to a geologist.

In the town of Triaize, we admired the almost Middle Eastern effect of this black steeple. The church dates from the 12th century, but the steeple was rebuilt in 1771.

We continue through the rather unprosperous Le Pays Né de la Mer (country born from the sea), missing out on La Rochelle owing to lack of time, before paying 9€ to cross the bridge to decidedly prosperous Île de Ré; until 1988, we would have been getting to the island by ferry. Up through medieval times there were as many as four islands, the narrow channels between them gradually connected through siltage and deliberate landfill. Today's holiday haven, with more retirees than professional fishermen, and probably more bikes than cars, is a single strip of land, about 18 x 3.5 miles.

The first stop on our circumnavigation is Fred La Boulangerie [sic]. The bread turns out not to be as good as that we bought in Vannes, despite the enticing ambience and long queue of eager customers.

We found more tafoni at stop #2, Fort de la Prée. First constructed in 1625, two years before the island was briefly invaded by thousands of dastardly English under the leadership of the Duke of Buckingham (there's still a Café Boucquingam in St-Martin), it was renovated and reinforced by Louis XIV's hyperactive military engineer Vauban in the 1680s and occupied by the Germans 1942-45.

Enlarge and look closely for tafoni:

The fort was near La Flotte, where Jackie and family were staying. I had jotted down that the house they were renting had green shutters. Useless bit of information it turned out, since this was the default trim color on the island. No house can be more than two stories high, and most are white with green shutters and tile roof. Here's their rental property, from a selection of internet photos, built circa 1890, refurbished 2004:

Unfortunately I don't have a photo of the girl who served us at our next stop, a shop in St-Martin stocking only local wines. Michael says he would have bought anything this tousled Saffron Burrows lookalike wanted to sell him.

From there it was on to the beaches, Martray and Phare des Baleines with its wonderful eponymous lighthouse (1854). We only saw the "phare" in the distance; the nearby beach approach was crowded with tacky, velvet-painting-type stalls, so we took ourselves off to a forested area just inland from a shoreline with great ripple patterns, more tafoni pebbles, and German gun emplacements. Michael taught me the word enfilade, for guns positioned at the sides of a group of bunkers, not the front, to maximize their range. One immediately thinks of the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. In fact, several scenes for the 1962 film The Longest Day were filmed on the coasts of Île de Ré, where bunkers like these are a grim reminder of the most recent chapter of the island's military history:

Now for a few less depressingl beach scenes. Île de Ré's salt industry may be in decline, but various types of marine life are still there for the taking, with lots of happy gatherers strolling along the sand, buckets at the ready. A guide posted for novices:

And a professional with a truckload of oysters:

It's almost an art installation, this practical and poignant display of lost shoes:

At this stage we start looking at the map plus the Relais & Châteaux and Logis de France guides to decide where we might spend the night. We immediately rule out the conveniently located Château de Mirambeau with its "refined guestrooms" as too OTT and expensive for the likes of us, settling instead on the more modest Hôtel La Citadelle in Blaye, on the Gironde estuary.

This destination involves a bit of a drive, so we hit the village nearest Blaye around 5:30, just in time for what looks to be the French equivalent of a high school parade, complete with cheerleaders flourishing red pompoms. We start to get worried when we find the streets of Blaye thronged with families: will there be room at the inn? No problem. It turns out we've coincided with a weekend "du patrimoine," a sort of heritage celebration with museum open houses and vendors setting up stalls for the occasion; most of the people in the streets are local residents or daytrippers.

Our room is small but adequate. We dump the suitcases and head out for a quick tour of the town while it's still light. Vauban was busy here, too.

All shops are open late, and we buy a bottle of Côte de Blaye for Michael (this is Bordeaux country; NB vineyard in second photo above) and a black leather and silver bracelet for me (magnet clasp came undone last week, probably at Borough Market—I have bad luck with jewelry**).

Here's Michael at dinner, gazing across the estuary to Médoc while waiting for his oysters to arrive.

The aesthetic highpoints of the meal—sea bass with pesto on ribbons of carrot, courgette, and leek; chocolate pâté, coconut sorbet, and mango-passion fruit nectar. Unfortunately I neglected to jot down exactly what Michael's dessert, in the last photo, was. Strawberries in a caramelized sauce, with something crunchy and something cold.... He followed this with a small glass of vintage Armagnac, from an impressive stock of bottles we had noticed as we passed the bar on the way into the restaurant. Another fine French meal!

**a miracle: just found bracelet in fridge cheese drawer within an hour of noting the loss here. How lucky is that?

15 November 2009

Musical footnote

Atonal music has its admirers and its detractors, but I suppose both groups consider Arnold Schoenberg the towering eminence of serialism (which isn't to imply that I could recognize it if I heard it). Tone deaf as I am, what always grab my attention about musicians are the more dramatic biographical details: for example, Schoenberg's wife's affair with a 25-year-old expressionist painter that resulted in her lover setting fire to his paintings and stabbing then hanging himself when she returned to her husband and two children. And this was in the first decade of the twentieth century, not usually thought of as a period of fullblown romanticism. In the will he wrote at the time, Schoenberg's own approach was far more modern, if not exactly minimalist:

[The will] begins with a long explanation of his painfully accumulated self-knowledge. The argument is tortured: "My wife betrayed and lied to the person she thought I was. He was her creation . . . she never saw me, and I never saw her . . . perhaps she never existed at all."

If he says so.... Schoenberg could on occasion, however, rise to irony as well as existential angst:

Schoenberg, too, preferred to consider his music as the product of historical inevitability. Asked to identify himself during the first world war, he gave his name. "Are you the notorious composer Arnold Schoenberg?" he was asked. "Yes," he replied, "somebody had to be."


14 November 2009

As good as Channel 4's weather report....

This image has apparently been up on all sorts of sites on the net since 2006. I only came across it a few days ago in a "Reasons Why You Should Have a Camera Phone" e-mail forwarded by my father:

I also liked this one from the same group:

08 November 2009

Grand Tour, Day 5 (18 September)

Vannes to Les Sables-d'Olonne

After breakfast I scurry over to a boulangerie we had spotted across the street from the Comfort Hôtel La Marébaudière. It is wonderful! I leave with my single baguette (which turns out to be one of the best loaves we've ever had), wishing we were closer to Laroque des Albères so that I could have loaded up on a few more treats.

This is a sandy day, with stops at Cromenac'h and Grand Lanroué, where I start adding bags of pebbles to the sand filling the trunk of the car. On our way to the latter beach, we pass an old windmill by the salt flats near Guérande and a second, inhabited by someone with a remarkable green thumb and fondness for topiary, in the town of La Tourballe.

From the whimsical to the grim. We next visit St Nazaire, where the Loire meets the Atlantic and massive submarine pens were built by the Germans in the 1940s. These huge hulks of concrete were so well fortified that they're still a foreboding presence today. Back in London we had been watching a series on Atlantic convoys, so we knew all too well the damage wreaked by Admiral Dönitz and his U-boat crews. What we didn't know about, though, was the 17 June 1940 tragedy of HMS Lancastria off the coast of St Nazaire, the worst maritime loss in British history, suppressed at the time to keep up post-Dunkirk morale: http://compunews.com/gus/lancastria.htm

A more uplifting story is the incredible survival of an American airman in January 1943 during Curtis LeMay's Flying Fortress attack on Saint Nazaire (from Wikipedia):
The damaged aircraft included the seventh B-17 flight of Staff Sergeant Alan Magee, from which Luftwaffe fighters shot off a section of the right wing causing the aircraft to enter a deadly spin. Wounded ball turret gunner Magee leapt from the plane without a parachute, losing consciousness due to the altitude. Magee fell over four miles before crashing through the glass roof of the St. Nazaire railway station, which mitigated Magee's impact. Found alive on the floor of the station, Magee was taken prisoner of war and given medical treatment by his captors. He had 28 shrapnel wounds, several broken bones, severe damage to his nose and eye, and lung and kidney damage; and his right arm was nearly severed. Magee was liberated in May 1945 and received the Air Medal for meritorious conduct and the Purple Heart. He was later featured in the Smithsonian Magazine as one of the ten most remarkable survivals of World War II. [Magee lived to be 84.]

Like Liverpool and Bristol, St Nazaire was also a key stop in the slave trade. This memorial in the harbor pays tribute to the 450,000 Africans who passed through on their way to Central America.

The present isn't exactly swords (or chains) beaten into ploughshares, but shipbuilding, still a key St Nazaire industry, certainly has a more benign aspect these days:

After a picnic at Pornic (once home to the infamous Gilles de Rais, possibly the inspiration for Perrault's Bluebeard, though he murdered children not wives), we continued with our collecting, pebbles for me and garnet-rich sand for Michael at Plage de la Parée in Bretignolles-sur-Mer:

Now that we're south of the Loire, the sun has finally appeared and with it a change in scenery. There are fewer flowers and the tile roofs and stucco of southern France are beginning to replace the slate shingles and building stone of the north. Here on in, as well, butter is no longer served with bread at dinner.

By the time we get to the oceanfront Atlantic Hôtel [sic—not Hôtel Atlantique], storm clouds are again gathering. Michael manages to get these shots from our room window, which is just as well since we're fogged in the next morning.

We skip the three-course demi-pension and—such restraint—have the two-course, €26 option. Michael chooses a 2008 Château de Maupas Menetou-Salon. That's excellent, as is Michael's leek and seafood appetizer in a heavenly cream sauce and my dessert, below. Our main courses, both local fish, were pretty damned good, too.