Friday, 27 March 2015

En Passant 2015 day 5: Snow walking

Today I went back to the road head that I had got blown back from two days ago. In between times I had bought some ladies leggings to use as thermal underwear (to some amusement from the shop owner!) - but they weren't needed. I climbed from 1450 to 1750 m in 3.5 km. Chicken shit by mountaineers' standards - but for someone of 56 who lives in the flatlands it gave a sense of satisfaction (hence the rare selfie).  When I got tired I stopped and looked at the fluffy white clouds.

I can't remember when I last walked up to such a height or had to do snow walking,  not for long stretches, but sometimes on steep gradients - kick your boot in twice, lean on the pole (on the mountain's side) and repeat -it's like riding a bike really, once learnt...(but then I did do a mountain leader's course - stage 1 - twenty years ago, when I was looking at alternative career options to becoming an academic).

By the frozen lake I heard marmots, their voices amplified by the canyon and the frozen lake.


But the intended trip onto the waterfall seemed like one step too many.  The snow was deep, the gradient steep and I hadn't told anyone where I was going. And there was a church in the valley beckoning!

Gone tomorrow?

The trees are watching
And spring beckons?

En passant 2015 day 4: A day trip to Aragon



Thursday, 26 March 2015

En passant 2015 day 4: A (foodie's) visit to Aragon

I ate in a Michelin recommended (note -  that is not the same as starred) Comodor today.  It was located in the cloisters at Roda de Isabena,  an 11th Century cathedral perched on a rock in Ribagorza (Aragon) with 360 degree views across astonishingly different landscapes.  The building used to be the canteen for the monks and was established in 1125, so this is almost certainly the longest established catering facility that I have ever dined in.  The surroundings were opulent with vaulted ceilings, remains of frescoes on one wall and classical music). The menu del dia (three course meal with wine water & coffee) consisted of two bean soup, a veal stew and yoghurt with honey. And I  got  change out of 20 Euro! I'm still so full here's no need to even go in search of tapas tonight.  My first meal in Aragon! 

The sun shone today and the wind stopped blowing off the snowy mountains.  I went down from wearing four layers to a T-Shirt and  drank my first coffee on a terrace in 2015!. Really good therapy after 15 hours of worrying about whether my car hire contract was going to fall through, 12 hours of torrential rain and a day of sub zero temperatures because of the wind blowing off the snow-clad mountain tops.  I love (Northern) Spain- when the weather's hospitable.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

En Passant 2105 Day 3 Val de Boi

A more auspicious start today than on Monday/Tuesday. Yesterday's rain gave way to clear blue skies and the first thing I saw when I hit the road was two golden eagles circling low above me.   Headed up the Val du Boi - a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site (on account of its nine or so 10-11th Century Romanic churches - almost untouched since that time) and also one of the gateways to the Parc Nacional de Aiguestortesi Estany di Sant Maurici.   Despite clear blue clear skies there were snowflakes in the air - being blown off the mountain tops (take a close look at the first and last photos).  It was too cold to go walking above 1400m (and into the park itself) so I opted to visit a couple of these churches and a solid four course Catalonian lunch - including locally raised lamb and locally produced yoghurt with honey.  Mm I think it will just be Tapas tonight!

Airport Traumas - part 7

I thought I had this trip so well planned. Did an enormous amount of research, a dozen guide books and as many autobiographical accounts. The flight and car were booked six weeks in advance, same with a self catering gîte in a tourist hot spot over Easter week. But you know the best laid plans of mice and men......


I got to the car hire at Toulouse Airport and they only accepted credit card swipes for the deposit.  I'm sure that's a French thing - but I may be wrong.  But I didn't have my credit card with me - for five years I have only used it for online purchases - hell I don't even know its PIN no.  After a long discussion with the supervisor they agreed to accept 1000 Euros cash as a damage waiver for the car - but I just couldn't tap into that much from my cards that evening. Especially after having swiped a large wad of cash already the same day (in advance of an insurance payment) to pay for car repairs.  So I had to find some overnight accommodation in Toulouse, waiting until I could get more money out of the machines the next day.   

I did some sums that night and calculated that the combination of daily withdrawal limits and available reserves on my cards might not be enough to yield another 500 Euros the next day – so I called a friend at home and asked him if would top up an account until I got back. He agreed but doubted the money would be there the next morning.   It was and I got back to the car hire desk suitably primed to pay the deposit – only to be told by the new clerk that they would require significantly more than the 1000 Euro asked for last night.  I started clenching my fists and sweating in panic and frustration and asked again for a supervisor. After another lengthy negotiation he pointed to the contract pack where a 1000 Euro down payment had been authorised.  We went through the paperwork and she tried to sell me two outrageous full and half cover protection policies – the full cost half as much as my maximum liability with no protection. Just as we were concluding the deal she said it’s a lead-free car. ‘But I ordered a diesel’ I replied.  She phones the fleet manager to see if there is one available for three weeks.  Another round of negotiations with the supervisor who tells me the first one is available on Friday (it’s now Tuesday).  So I reluctantly accepted the petrol car.  By twelve o’clock I was heading out of the airport – some fifteen hours later than planned – and about 90 Euro out of pocket (one nights hotel reservation lost and taxi fares between the airport and the nearby hotel).  I had two consolations was on my way and I had saved myself 240 Euro in Tom-Tom rental charges by having the foresight to bring my own with me.   I was in my scheduled destination five hours later,  eating tapas and looking at a rainy sky.

Something traumatic seems to happen every time I go through Toulouse Airport (see airport traumas 5 & 6 in my last blog).  A big high five to me though. This is the first blog I have ever written on a tablet!

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Airport traumas parts 1-6

I wrote this post almost six months ago but for some reason didn’t get around to posting it.  Next week I am flying back into the airport where traumas five and six occurred. So it now seems like a good time to post this and hope I have a less stressful journey – there and back.    

I travelled quite a lot in the past 12 months. I hate the travelling but love being in new places. But airports bring out a special kind of trauma. Brian Eno recorded an album called ‘Music for Airports’ It’s one of my favourites of his:  very tinkly and relaxing– but I think the true soundtrack for airports should have been made by Genesis P. Orridge, Skiddo 23 or Lou Reed in his Metal Machine Music days. Just thinking about airports brings me out in a rash. Does anyone have any worse stories?  

1        Belgrade – August 2013- I bought a bottle of honey vodka from a local shop on the way to the airport and put it in the wrong bag – my carry on instead of the one going in the hold.  Not such much a trauma as an inconvenience -as I watched it go into the dustbin.  

2.  Bangkok – November 2013 - severely jet lagged on Saturday morning, I find that none of my debit cards work.    It hadn’t occurred to me to tell my banks that I was going to Asia in order for them to work there - after all they worked in Serbia a few months ago - and that’s outside the EU. It was Saturday morning and customer services at neither bank were open until Monday.  Still I had  my hotel was already paid for and I had 80 Euros in cash in my pocket, and a friend was due to arrive at the hotel the next day.  But still, it was a close call – almost stuck in a strange city alone with no currency. Lesson #1: always keep 100 Euros / dollars liquid to tide you through emergencies. 
3.      Brussels -May 2014 - stupidity tax. I went to the wrong ****ing airport!  All the cheap fights to Portugal I had been looking at left from Charleroi. The one I booked – which was still cheap - left from Brussels International - the airport whose flights wake me up at 0600 every day.  I don’t know how long it took for me to register that the absence of a flight to Lisbon on the departures board at Charleroi meant that there was something wrong. Very wrong. And it was my mistake.  Nor can I recall how long it took me to do the calculations about time and energy, loss of face with my flatmate (‘Yu’re back’ ‘Yes - um I went to the wrong airport’) and booking a flight tomorrow when I already have a pre-paid hotel room in Lisbon and - worst of all - having to make own way to the middle of the Portuguese countryside.  Only one thing for it. ‘Taxi! How much to Zaventem?’’ “**** I think, that’s more than the cost of the flight”.  Several deep breaths.  “Any room for negotiation here?” Absolutely not – he has me over a barrel.  We made it (just) through the rush hour traffic on Brussels’ outer ring road. Three minutes or so to spare before they closed boarding. “Any reason you’re so late sir?” asked the check in clerk. ‘Yes I went to the wrong ****ing airport’.  This story deserves a few expletives.  I don’t know whether the smile he gave me back was one of sympathy or superciliousness.  But I made that flight. And the fish, potatoes, beans and vinho verde that I consumed that evening tasted that much sweeter for it. And I had one of the best trips of my life.
4.      Oslo – June 2014 - a double whammy: I had a 45 minute transfer at Oslo on my way to Trondheim.  It turned out to be too short since I had to reclaim my baggage, go through customs and immigration and check my baggage back in - something the online booking agency had clearly not taken into account - you can’t do that in 45 minutes.  So I was bumped onto the next flight. Fortunately there was a next flight – the last one out of Oslo that night. I got the airline to try to call the hotel to let them know I would arrive late (like very late- after 1 am) but their answer phone was permanently on.   I was assured that, yes, there would be a bus running at that late hour and went to find a cash machine - which wouldn’t give me any money. Bangkok revisited?  This time I didn’t have any liquid cash as I didn’t anticipate logistical problems in Scandinavia - which has a reputation for efficiency.  I was sweating like a pig with the stress of it all.  Fortunately the cash machine in Trondheim was kinder and - yes - there was a bus and my mobile roaming was working so I could disturb the concierge at almost 2am to finally check into my room (although it took him twenty minutes to find the keys, while I was standing in a biting cold wind wondering if will ever get dark - it didn’t).  The next morning I was not bright and early at my conference.  

5.      Toulouse – September 2014.  The worst yet? I had a 6.40 flight from Toulouse to Copenhagen to attend a workshop. That meant being at the airport by 5.40 which in turn (according to travel planning sites and my Tom-Tom) meant leaving Gruissan at 0400. Let’s say 0330 to be safe.  I woke at 0300 - got my still very groggy head and ass into my car by 0320 and headed off.  Somehow a one and three quarter hour journey morphed into a two and a quarter hour one.  I got to the airport at five to six thinking I can still make it! But then it took me ten minutes to find the parking lot – fifteen minutes for the bus transfer to the terminal and then another ten minutes to find the check in (and I thought Toulouse would be a small provincial airport) – which was closed.  Damn. What to do?   Two choices: go home and forget about Copenhagen and my workshop or try for another flight.  I did some mental sums and an emotional weather check.  I checked out all the likely flights and found one for €330 Euro.  (Taking off the fact I could reclaim the airport taxes on the original flight and would lose my first night’s hotel charge and that translated to about €170 net loss painful - but not as financially painful the taxi ride to Zaventem four months earlier). Ah well bite the bullet and regard it as a another dose of stupidity tax.  I had two and a half hours to appreciate the ambiance of Toulouse airport and was soon on my way to my destination, arriving somewhat tired after having got up at 0300!   

6.      Toulouse again- on my way back from Copenhagen I got to the parking lot at almost midnight. The machine didn’t accept my (foreign) bank card – nor did it accept cash. Nor was there was a ‘help number’. ‘Here we go again’ I thought.   Fortunately another car was making its way out of the parking lot and I knocked on the window – feeling that I might appear like a crazy fool.  They appeared very reluctant to wind down the window and I had a real fear that they were just going to drive away into the night. But they just wanted to get through the barrier and then pulled over.  They believed my story and that I could pay them cash if they used their card to my pay my bill.  So all ended well, thanks to some good Samaritans.  But I was almost out of cash on the way home and barely had enough to pay the motorway tolls between Toulouse and Narbonne.   In compensation I did see the citadel of Carcassonne from the motorway –some 5km away and sitting so splendidly and so hugely on its rocky foundations. Yes I need to go back there.  

Does any else find travelling so stressful?

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Biofach 2105

A short essay on the world of organics, innovation, commercialisation and 'creative destruction'.

 Guess who was the host country at Biofach this year?

Yep it was the Dutch. They put quite a lot into their show – building this dome (the largest I have seen - Eden Project excepted) as a ‘chill out’ space (though those weren’t the words they used).

 They enticed their ‘Agricultural Minister’ to stay for two days.  I put Agriculture Minister’ in quotation marks as the Netherlands doesn’t (at least the time I last looked) have a dedicated Ministry of Agriculture.  It was subsumed into the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation some five years ago. It might possibly be the only country in the world (some city and gulf states excluded) that doesn’t have a dedicated ministry of agriculture.

 The last thing I did at Biofach, after all the meetings and seminars, was to pass by the novelty display – the area where all the new products are displayed. It’s the first (or last) stand you see if you go in or out through the man entrance. And that says a lot about the importance given to product development and innovation by the BioFach team.  I rarely get passionate about new products.  In fact that’s an overstatement – they usually singularly fail to excite me: aren’t there enough artefacts and products in the world already? 

It was a thought provoking experience. I have always felt uncomfortable with the emphasis on commercialism and product development at BioFach. To me the organic movement –has (historically at least) always had simplicity and scaling back as implicit - if not core - values. I find it strange – and some what distasteful - to see it caught up in this Darwinian adventure of varietal destruction.  Schumpeter terms it creative destruction; the process by which a capitalist market economy reshapes and refines the products and services it provides.   I had real problems when I first exposed to this first few times (the first was fifteen years ago) I went to BioFach.  I came into organics through the world of wholefood shops and brown rice and would have thought of the product range available now as a betrayal of ‘core principles’.  But in that intervening period organic market share (in the EU) has gone up from less than 0.5% to more than 5% - that’s a huge growth and has involved a large amount of ‘mainstreaming’ without compromising on core values.  Mostly I think the balance has been achieved.  There are now organic supermarkets in most large (and some small) towns and cities in mainland Europe (a phenomenon that one speaker pointed out has not yet taken off in the UK and is a potential market opportunity) and a range of outlets from farmer’s markets and delivery schemes for the dedicated consumer to supermarkets to the occasional or time-pressed organic consumer.

But back to product development: there were 7055 new organic products on display at Biofach this year.  I didn’t count them all: they were numbered sequentially.  They ranged from cheeses to chutneys; sauces to oat bars to a vac-packed fresh pasta with pipe holes at the bottom that allows the user to serve ‘fresh pasta’ at home – straight out of the fridge.   I’ll say that again: that’s 7055 new products from the organic sector. Given that the organic sector accounts for about 5% of the European food market (and most of the innovations were food) that suggests that there might be 140,000 new food products launched onto the market every year (perhaps a bit less given that the organic sector is more innovative and buoyant than the conventional ones).  I don’t know if they all been launched or if some are just prototypes. How many will survive or succeed? Underneath this it’s interesting to conjecture how many people have been involved in developing them: how many peoples hopes and dreams resting on gaining success, recognition or even sales order from this one competition?   

One of the projects I work with had a partner who exhibited a new line in this competition (a line of pure berry extracts).  Though they didn’t win a prize they did get much recognition and commercial interest and were ‘chuffed’.  I am sure that if I came up with a new recipe or processing idea that I wanted to commercialise then I would eat my words about my apparent distaste for innovation.  But its not innovation as such that I am uncomfortable with but with the overwhelming emphasis that is placed upon it – as illustrated by the Dutch Ministry’s choice of name.  Yes there is role for innovation but it seems that other values get lost in the rush for something new and better.

On the journey home I had much time to digest the latest (now in its 16th edition) version of the World of Organic Agriculture. Helga Willer and team at FiBL and IFOAM have once again done a wonderful job tracking the changes in organic land – under different regimes of cultivation and consumption – combining detailed statistics with snapshots of the most interesting developments.  Its not easy counting (or estimating the  number of organic producers / hectares in Say Mali – where government statistics of any sort are in short supply. We’re now up to 11 countries in the world with than 10% of their land certified organic – a sort of psychological breakthrough when claiming that that organic is no longer marginal.  And while some of those countries are micro-states or very small – they do also include Sweden, Italy and the Czech Republic.  Well done to Helga and her team at FiBL and IFOAM for publishing another excellent and as ever better informed book (which is also available online).  

Monday, 12 January 2015

Beginnings of a new year

I reclaimed my office this weekend.  After my roomy left in November I decided to leave it empty for two months uncertain whether to find another roomy or reclaim ‘the spare bedroom’ as my office space.   The benefits of having a roomy were manifold: company in the evening without having to go out - someone to look after the flat and my mail on (those frequent occasions last year) when I was away and, not least,  someone paying half the rent.  But it did involve certain sacrifices – having to negotiate freezer space (he bought lots of frozen veg – I like to cook double and freeze these for a ‘rainy day’ (plenty of those in Brussels) and squeezing my office into a corner of (first my bedroom, then later our lounge).  It never really felt like I had enough space.  My desk was too small and the wrong height, I experienced ‘paper creep’ – letters and work projects taking over the sofa, the carpet and eventually the kitchen table.  And sometimes important papers got put away somewhere obscure and answered too late. But I decided to sit it out two months and see what came out in the settling process.  
 Eventually this weekend I took the plunge and spent much of Sunday de- and re-wiring my office –a process made more complicated by it being cramped into one corner with the wires and connections hidden behind and underneath furniture.  There were the inevitable problems with wires not being long enough to put the various bits of kit where they would be ergonomically and aesthetically most pleasing- I was sure I had a long cable to attach the printer to the pc but after a long search through my suitcase full of cables it couldn’t be found so I had to come up with an inventive office redesign that - to my surprise - actually works.   The most attractive feature though is that the office really catches the morning light and you can see the skyscrapers of the Brussels’ World Trade Centre glimmering in the light. On a sunny day the room is positively luminous – a real incentive to start the day on a positive note rather than procrastinate about starting to work.  It finally likes the start of the New Year is finally upon me.  Roll on sunny days and longer evenings!