Saturday, 27 February 2016

The shape of a hill

For some people, the attraction of a mountain lies in its height.

(Interestingly enough, manufacturers of fountain pens subscribe to this school. So Montblanc nibs are inscribed 4810, Platinum has a 3776 series celebrating the height of Mount Fuji, and a Taiwanese company has 3952 for Yushan.)

But for me, the shape of a mountain is more important. I don't just mean its shape as you look at it, but as you walk it, too. In fact, some mere hills are for me more delightful than any mountain because of the shape of the terrain.

Take the Malvern Hills, for instance. Walk along the Malverns and you're walking along a dragon's back, up and down and along, on a ridge with flat land both sides - one side looking over the Severn Valley all the way to the distant Cotswolds, and the other looking over to Wales and the Brecon Beacons, and the assertive blunt nose of Hay Bluff.

Pen-y-Ghent is one of my favourites, with a snub nose and a long tail. If you're walking the Pennine Way you can climb up the steep face almost like a staircase and then yomp joyfully down the other side. Ingleborough, with its tiered, stepped profile, is almost like a Mayan pyramid or a slumping ziggurat. Seen from another angle, it's a sleeping lion with its head on its paws.

Out of the three Yorkshire peaks, it's Whernside I find disappointing - though it's the highest; it just seems to be a long sprawl of rock.

Even Munro-bagging, not all peaks are equal. (Let's aside discussion about which peaks are actually Munros and which are subsidiary peaks, which quite often appears to be a discussion about aesthetics rather than height.) Schiehallion's big bulging cone of rock gave me more pleasure than many much higher mountains. Loch Tay's horseshoe - Beinn Ghlas, Ben Lawers -  arches away from you as you walk it; not only are the views over the loch particularly fine, but the view seems to keep organising itself so that you always enjoy the vision of that outswept ridge with the peaks strung out along it.

Higher mountains often come in several stages. You're only aware of the part you're on; a glacier, a scree slope, a subsidiary peak. Hills, on the other hand, are often simpler; you can appreciate them as a whole. A tiddler like Glastonbury Tor has a more sharply defined and readily identified character than many full scale mountains.

And so, of all the mountains I can think of, Fuji is the one I really want to climb. Fuji with its simple conical shape, the icon that appears in the prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the mountain so recognisable that Hokusai sometimes seems to hide it away in a kind of ukiyo-e 'Where's Wally?', seen through a trough of waves or a haze of cherry blossom.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Why I hate the bucket list

The bucket list is, in essence, an admirable thing. If you knew you had six months to live, what would be the things you'd really want to do in that time?

Would you read War and Peace, or Ulysses? Visit the Galapagos, or climb Everest? Or make peace with the family of that auntie your side of the family never speak to, and no one can remember why?

However, most bucket lists don't look like that. They look like this:
  • Macchu Picchu
  • Taj Mahal
  • Everest
  • Eiffel Tower
  • Venice
And I have a problem with that. Several problems in fact.

First problem: it's not personal. It's just another consumer list, like '1000 places to go before you die,' which, if you think about it, is itselfa depersonalised bucket list.

A personal bucket list might have some of these sites on it. But it's more likely to have a theme, or a number of themes, depending on the person. For me, it would include a couple of deserts and some far off the beaten track Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh, Lahaul, and Arunachal Pradesh. For one of my friends, it would include a couple of Formula One racing tracks and two Belgian breweries. For another, it would be filled with places he'd visited through the years and wanted to see one more time.

Second problem: it devalues everything else. In particular, it devalues spontaneity. (I've just seen a bucket list template which includes 'got married' and 'got divorced' on it. Frankly, if I had six months to live, I wouldn't go out and find someone to marry just so I could divorce them within the timeframe and tick the items off. But the creator of the list obviously thinks I should.)

I once sat for an hour watching a Buddhist monk create butter sculptures in a room in Spituk monastery, hearing the song of the ploughmen drifting up from the fields in the Indus valley below. That memory still fills me with joy; the Taj Mahal, on the other hand, was just a building. That's the problem with bucket lists.

And the third problem? They're such good vehicles for marketing. The places you have to see "before you die". (Well, put it this way, I'd be extremely interested if any PR sent me a story with places to see after I was dead.) And as always, they'll be places where someone has a luxury tour, a package holiday, or a resort - a way of neatly ticking off these items without actually learning anything or being challenged.

Oh, and the fourth problem. Why wait until you're diagnosed with something life-threatening to find the time to travel? (And then of course you probably can't, because you won't be able to get travel insurance.) Do it now!

I think, really, it's time to kick the bucket list.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Damn fine coffee, and why I like Thais

Sometimes the nicest little things are tucked down back streets, and it's just luck that you find them.

I found the loveliest little coffee shop purely by chance last time I headed into Bangkok by train. The train from Chumphon arrived at silly o'clock in the morning, far too early to check into my hotel, so I decided I'd walk from Hualamphong station to Marine Department dock, and take a leisurely boat up to Phra Arthit pier.

Just as I got to Si Phraya I saw a little coffee shop, Set Up, and thought: I could really do with an iced coffee. It would indeed Set me Up.

Now, iced coffee in Thailand comes in many varieties. Some is just Nescaff granules mixed up with evaporated milk and ice. Some is espresso with ice. And some is really damn fine coffee on ice cubes.

This one gave me a hit of pure arabica - those rich, chocolatey, almost sweet flavours combined with the slight dryness of roasty-toasty not-quite-burned beans. A wonderful aroma, too. All this for, if I remember correctly, 45 baht, which is a bit more than a euro and a bit less than a pound.

Anyway... I like to let people know they're appreciated, so I mentioned to the woman behind the counter that it was the best coffee I'd ever had in Thailand, except one - and that was on a coffee farm...

She clapped her hands, squealed, and leapt in the air with joy.

Now, that's why I love Thais. They are not cool. They don't do English understatement, or a Gallic raised eyebrow.

Yes, there are sulky Thais, and dour Thais, and I'm sure there are a few Thai curmudgeons. But Thai culture seems to encourage spontaneity and a sense of joy and fun. (A blog post brings Buddhist mindfulness into the equation as well in discussing what exactly Thais mean by 'sanuk', usually translated as 'fun'...

As well as delivering the best coffee I'd had for a long, long time, that encounter was a source of pure joy.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Belgian carnivals

This year I attended my second Belgian carnival, Aalst. It's a bit different from Binche.

Binche is all about the Gilles. Yes, there's a children's day, and a carnival parade, but it's the Gilles with their stuffed straw bellies and hunchbacks, their ostrich feather headdresses, green-spectacled masks, and clogs and bells, who are the heart of the carnival. Hear the snare drum, the stamp of sabots on cobbles, the tangling hollow sound of the bells, and the plaintive clarinet tune of the early morning as the Gilles assemble, one by one, and you feel something primitive and bloodstirring. There's nothing quite like that at Aalst.

Aalst is carnival as show. One local described it to me as "The Rio of Europe". Well, no samba bands, but I understood what he meant. The definition for a small carnival group here is "fewer than a hundred members". Some of the biggest ones have three or four floats as well as marching and dancing members.

Some of the small groups are genuinely small. We saw a couple of solo participants and a number of groups of only five or six, including the 'Gay Farmers' Group' on their pink tractors, 'Hell's Grannies' on souped-up mobility scooters, and the 'Allahschnackbar'. (Tastefulness and political correctness are very much not part of the Aalst carnival. To be honest, I wasn't very happy with the 'African' contingents. I doubt those would be allowed in Britain. On the other hand, blackface in Aalst is generally smudgy griminess and you couldn't confuse it with any attempt to look 'African' - it's simply dirt.)

There is a genuine satirical element to the carnival, too. I spotted at least 26 Angela Merkels, mostly considerably more buxom than the original, plus three Vladimir Putins and a couple of Obamas, (David Cameron was refreshingly absent, unless I just missed him.) The Belgian police starred with an example of how to get a police horse to go faster - put him in a jeep. (I got the impression this might actually have been the Belgian police taking the piss out of themselves, given that there was a real police car detectable under its disguise in that carnival group.)

As soon as we arrived, we saw a crowd of identically arrayed Carnival Princes. Now, there's only supposed to be one carnival prince - this year, Prins Dennis, whose spectacles became one of the leitmotifs of the carnival. But another contender for the position had threatened legal action - he was passed over because his exam paper was wrongly marked, he said. These Princes were of the view that anyone could be a prince; one told me they thought the whole idea of suing was one of the best practical jokes he'd ever seen.

Unfortunately for outsiders, a lot of the satire is expressed in Oilsjt (the local name for Aalst) dialect - even basic Flemish isn't going to help you. The message of the smoke-belching, grimy Volkswagen corporate limo, though, was easy to understand. The Spar cashiers with plastic penises on their noses remain a mystery.


The heart of Aalst, though, is the 'Voil Jeannette' or 'Dirty Janet'. Big Flemish men from below the age of legal drinking up to grandfathers, wearing women's clothing.

This isn't a transvestite or drag festival. Several of the Jeannettes were carrying banners that said (excuse me if my Flemish isn't up to the mark) 'Een voil Jeannet is geen travestie'.

The tradition stems from the fact that Aalst is an industrial town. It had a big brewing trade and a lot of factories, and a lot of factory workers, who weren't all that well paid. (A hero of Aalst is the catholic priest and socialist Daens who worked to improve workers' conditions.) No spare cash for carnival costumes. So they simply borrowed their wives' old dresses and anything else hanging around the house. And so the Jeannette costume has come to include:
  • fur coats (preferably but not exclusively fake)
  • big wigs
  • bird cages
  • herrings, often in the bird cages but sometimes in a pram or on the end of a fhsing line
  • saucepans
  • toilet brushes (one official carnival float had a massed band of drummers playing on bedpans with toilet brushes)
  • lampshades, worn as hats
  • big boobs, sometimes naked
  • umbrellas, preferably lacy
  • perambulators.
One Jeannet we met not only had the pram, s/he had a baby dangling from one tit. What was in the pram, then, we asked?

"Jupiler," she told us. "Want one?"

(Aalst used to have its own beer, Safir. That brewery was bought by a bigger brewery and closed down, though a few bars still show its name proudly above their doors. Jupiler is the big-brewery replacement.)


 Poor Jacques. He's game, I'll say that for him. But in the space of three days, he was given a dressing down for dressing down, and then liberally made up with bright red lipstick; kissed by a number of Voil Jeanettes; smacked with a very smelly herring; and given a garlic salt dressing for his hair "to get him in the party spirit".

I escaped most of this, though not the herring, nor the garlic salt. (It didn't wash off in the shower, either; I drove all the way to Tournai smelling like a failed culinary experiment.)


The Gilles may not be the centre of the carnival, as they are at Binche. But Aalst does have its Gilles. The story is an interesting one.

Once upon a time, back in the 1930s I think, there was a bunch of Aalst locals who had been to Binche and thought what a good idea the Gilles would be for a carnival costume. They could have picked Hawaiians, or cowboys, or chimney sweeps, or characters from Mother Goose, but they just happened to pick Gilles - nothing traditional about it. They won a prize. They thought hey, that turns out to have been a good idea, why not do it again next year? (I imagine that economising by not having to buy another costume next year might also have been a motive.) And eventually, the Gilles did become an Aalst tradition.

And in Aalst, they have women as Gilles. Progressive.


On my way back, I visited Tournai, and found to my surprise another tale of one Belgian city pinching a festival tradition from another.

I found out about it when I saw a delightful wrought iron shop sign, on which was written in gold 'Au siecle de Louis XIV'. This turned out to be where cabinetmaker Edouard Trehoux set up his shop.  But as a plaque on the facade told me, that wasn't his real claim to fame.

Making furniture was not enough to satisfy his artist's soul. After he visited his sister, a nun in Ath, and saw the giants there, he decided that Tournai needed its own giants, and he started work. In 1932, Reine Tournai danced in the streets for the first time, to be joined over the years by crusaders Lethalde and Englebert, the Princesse d'Espinoy, Louis XIV, Childeric ... and more recently, M Trehoux himself.

As a final twist in the story, M Trehoux has now been immortalised among the Tournai giants. And in a spirit of friendly rivalry, a few years ago the Tournaisiens decided to take him to the festival at Ath.