Wednesday, 17 December 2014

A near trauma

Today I acquired a kitten – on a short term basis – looking after my neighbours' joy and the centre of their life for ten days over Xmas. For the first hour she was all over the house like a troupe of monkeys. Checking which chairs and pieces of furniture she could access looking ather reflection in the flat screen – trying to clamber onto the keyboard of my laptop. Then I went downstairs to collect my post. I went back up looking at the post I my hand rather than what was going on around me. After half an hour I noticed things were curiously quiet on the cat front. I started to look around the flat - under all the sofas and cupboards that I had seen her checking out for as potential hiding places. Nothing. I called out kitty kitty kitty. Nothing. I threw a chicken leg on the floor. Still nothing. I went to check upstairs to see if she had slipped out while I was looking at my post not at life around me and might be sitting outside her own flat. Nope. I went down to check out the courtyard where she usually goes to play every day – though I thought it wise not to let her out there unsupervised on her first day in a new environment. She wasn't there. And worse the main door was from the courtyard to the street was open - as my downstairs neighbour was starting her move out. The streets outside the house are fiercely heavily trafficked with the daytime and there's no natural cat hiding places except for a couple of derelict lots.

Oh ****. This can't happen surely. I didn't believe it could. I can't lose my neighbours cat within two hours of taking her in? Can I? As the hours went past I thought perhaps I could. I chanted for a solution 'cats always come home don't they?' Yes, 'but not if they are looking for their owners' – á la 'Incredible Journey'. I put a chicken bone by my front door and to the impending annoyance of the cleaner of the communal area rubbed chicken fat from the skin on the front door of the house and up the stairs.

I distracted myself - did a bit of work – playing a lot of word scraper (online scrabble). I also posted a message asking for the address of the local animal sanctuary. And I wrote, google- translated and printed out twenty 'cat lost' posters to distribute later. How can I face my neighbours and tell them I've lost their cat I asked myself. How can I be so inattentive and irresponsible to do that? I had real self-confidence attack- so much so that I ended up taking the modern-day equivalent of a valium. I walked the block twice just looking.

Yet I held my ground (just). These things don't happen in real life do they? Four hours after the original panic set in I heard a very quiet crunching sound – the chicken bone wasn't where I had left it – there was purring cat under the sofa. So thank you every protective spirit and guardian angel on the planet for keeping me from going into total 'headless chicken mode' and for slowly losing my deeply ingrained conviction that the worst is always bound too happen.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Agroforestry in temperate climes

This blog came out of the (short) walk I did two weeks ago (see last blog). It seemed to merit its own space.

I tend to think of agroforestry as a tropical thing: vanilla pods being wound up coconut trees, while coffee and cassava mature in the shade. OK - perhaps I am mixing my agro-ecosystems up here – but you get the picture! On a recent walk in Belgium, I came across agroforestry in action in the temperate north – a place where I wouldn’t expect it.

It was an orchard on the estate of the Hulp Chateau where they were growing rare and endangered varieties of fruit trees. The powers of globalization - sucking in exports from European countries where labour is cheaper – and wanting uniform products delivered on specific dates - means that Belgium has lost 80% of its orchards and the apple and pear varieties grown have been decimated. This site is preserving those species endangered by hyper-commercialization - but actually does much more.

It marries conserving rare apple and pear (and other fruit) trees with a low intensity grazing regime. As such it has a number of synergies. The cows keep the grass short (no need for spraying agrochemicals or mechanical controls) and also fertilize the soil – recycling its nutrients. Having grass cover prevents soil and nutrient erosion.

It was a real treat to see this lovely, vibrant, orchard with the cows grazing contently underneath the canopies of the trees. So different from the tightly packed rows of miniaturised trees (bred thus for easier picking) standing on bare soil - that pass for orchards these days. It’s a shame that there was no visible sales point. I’m sure the juices from this orchard taste delicious.

Such approaches don’t need to rely on CSOs or NGOs. Driving down the back roads from Halle to Bruxelles earlier in the summer I passed a farm where there were cows grazing and chickens pecking in an orchard. I did a three point turn and went back to find the farmyard. ‘Can you sell me a chicken?’ (I fancied an organic roast that weekend) No, they don’t sell them (they probably keep them for themselves and their neighbours). But they did have potatoes and eggs for sale. Ah well that’s good enough. A ‘tortilla á la paysan’ was on the cards. It was good to see traditional farming practices still in place 20km outside of Bruxelles – and no – they weren’t organic - it was just the way they learned, and like, to farm!

Saturday, 1 November 2014

All the leaves are red and the sky is blue

Saturday 1st November. Chateau de la Hulp (70m elevation!). The Soignes Forest.

The weather forecast predicted a bright andd sunny day- so despite dancing until just before the very last metro last night and having promised a friend to help him move in the late afternoon / early evening - I get myself out to the forest south of Brussels. This place looked nice on the map and I chose it for no other reason. I wasn't disappointed.

It was almost 20 degrees - T shirt and shorts weather - just wondering and hoping that we might have another very late Indian summmer, as we did in 2012!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Grey skies but a rainbow of communities.

The skies aren't so grey at the moment but its inevitable that they will be soon

I hosted a leaving party for my soon-to-be ex-flat mate last night. At some point in the evening I counted the nationalities of the people attending: two Belgians (one Flams, one Wallonian), two Brits, two French, one Spaniard, a Pole, a Lebanese and a Cote d'Ivorian and two people of mixed origin (Belgian /Polish and Belgian/Turkish). And their professions ranged from surgeon to urban gardeners to tourist guide to cleaner! (And not a single lobbyist or 'fonctionnaire' in sight

Much though I have issues about living in a cold, damp, climate in an often over-crowded, polluted and heavily-littered city I doubt if I could enjoy such socio-cultural diversity in many other places in Europe. Here's to Brussels in its ugliness, beauty and diversity.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Gee - but it's great to be back home

It's cold (no more 27 degree days) and gets dark so early. There's no mountain views or little fluffy clouds overhead.

BUT it is still nice be home: To touch and arrange 'my things'

And also it's nice to be back in a place where I 'sort of' belong. After saturday's concert we went to a bar and there were three friends hanging out there. :-)

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Rolling home

En passant – end of part 1. Bagneres de Luchon - Brussels (almost 1200km)

I didn’t plan such an early departure but I find myself leaving Luchon in the pre-dawn dark. My body clock woke me up at 5.30 AM. I was packed and ready to leave within an hour. The first forty five minutes on the road home is slow: mountain roads whose curves, cambers and twists I am not familiar with. I cross the Garonne three times and the railway line twice. Just as I get to the motorway it starts getting light. Half way to Toulouse the sun rises – a huge ball of luminous orange. I cross the Garonne twice more before hitting Toulouse and the morning rush hour.

But its only a short delay through Toulouse and once north of the city I stop for a coffee and then pick the A20 heading north – with nary a glimpse back at the mountains that have enfolded my life for the past three and half weeks. This is no time for sentimentality. I have a serious drive ahead of me. The sign says Paris 700Km +. That’s a lot of clicks to cut through – then there’s some. The A20 is a new motorway that (not on my 25 year old Michelin map) that gave me the impression that I was tearing through the heart of the Massif Central. In fact it runs through its much less significant neighbour, les Causses de Quercy. Every village name ends in ‘nac’ or ‘zac’ and its remarkably colder here than in the Pyrenees - even though I’ve only travelled 200km north and the sun is shining brilliantly.

By Limoges the countryside becomes less savage, more fertile and more populated 9although not much less hilly0 There’ more traffic here for a while and then it thins out again A little further on – after another coffee and quiche stop and I’m half way home. Ii hadn’t entered my head that I could do this trip in one data: but its only 1330 and the TomTom says ‘ETA; 1915’. Damn that still almost light. I get the idea in my head that I can do this trip in one shot – see my own bed tonight and not have to get up the next day thinking aware that I have another 5-6 hour’s drive ahead of me.

From Vierzon onwards the motorways start get wider first from two to three lanes, then four and around Paris to five. Its half past four and I’m hoping I get around the periphique before the rush hour. Fat chance. It takes me around an hour and half to get through 50km of the ring round and then there’s another bouchon by the Charles de Gaulle turnoff. It’ running late. – but I’m just three hours from home and one and a half hours daylight left. I think I can make this. I gun it - foot down to the floor till it gets dark then stop for a coffee and to set my TomTom to night vision. Forty kilometre from The Belgian border I pas the last peage of the day – and the first manned one I have seen all day. The TomTom reads an hour and a half to home. I slow down a bit when I cross the Belgian border – the road layouts are different, the engineering specs different and it takes a while to readjust to them. A tanker with a huge luminous smiley on the back overtakes me. I tick into his wake like the peloton on a bike race and let him guide and drag me all the way back to Junction ?, where I turn off into Brussels. Almost 1200km. Just over 1400 hours. About 75 Litres of diesel and about 60 Euros of tolls. Epic. I’ve crossed the Garonne (five times), the Gironde, the Dordogne, the Ivorie, the Loire, the Seine and the Somme: the rivers and valleys that define the geography and history of western France.

Back home there’s a bowl of soup waiting, some help with unloading and my flat mate has already organised my social life for the next ten days. There will be a pile of bills and lots of files to update and transfer. But for tonight some sleep.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

En passant : days 18-25, Bagneres de Luchon. Le fin de cette voyage

I'm in the geographic centre of the Pyrenees. My French guide book eulogizes Luchon. But its more dodo than bo-bo. I lose track of the number of grand hotels that are closed / under renovation. One street doesn't seem to have any enterprises open any more. This is a quiet spa town that has seen better days! But it's a good place to be for a few days rest, writing and recuperation before taking on the long haul (1200 km) back to BXL. Time to swap my white summer panama for a black winter trilby!

Une maison a retaper?

Friday, 17 October 2014

En passant day 17

Andorra la Velha - La Seu D'Urgell - Sort - Puerta de la Bonaiqua (2084 m) - Eth Portillon (1298m) - Bagneres de Lucheron (195km)

The longest day's drive yet- as this is the biggest gap between road passes along the whole of the Pyrenean chain (80km or so as the crow flies). Also the most scenic - on a gloriously sunny autumn day and my fisrt glimpse of snow clad 3000m+ peaks. I'm posting more than my (self-imposed) 6-7 photos a day!

En Passant days 15 and 16 - andorra la Vella

Two days outside of the EU! It was overcast and rainy and I felt claustrophobic amid the designer labels shops and stuck deep in a narrow valley - where for my stay at least the sun never seemed to shine. But I got to see an international football match (for free!). And I found a wine that won a gold medal at Biofach (the world's largest organic trade fair) for less than 3 Euros a bottle. I took the last three!

Monday, 13 October 2014

En passant- the Pyrenean Trip day 14: The day of the high passes

Llivia (1200m)- Col de Puymorens (1920m) - Pas de la Casa (2085) - Porte d'Envalira (2408m) - Andorra la Vella (ca. 1050m) 73 KM

Today is the day of high passes. Three big ones - including Porte d'Envalira, the highest road pass in the Pyrenees and one of the highest roads in Europe. The prognosis is not good. The cloud level is about 200 metres above Llivia - the lower peaks around the town are visible, but the higher ones - visible most of the last two days - are masked. Carpe Diem.

About 5km out of Llivia the road starts to climb following the River Carol and though I'm going into the cloud there are encouraging breaks in it too, revealing the magical interplay between land and sky that I have been watching in the Cerdagne for the past two days.

As I continue climbing the clouds grow thick, the rain heavy and then - at around 1600m - I break through the clouds - into sunshine and rain - and a wonderful auspicious sight for the journey ahead.


And I needed auspicious omens. Last night I read that British citizens need a valid passport to enter Andorra. While my passport is valid –it’s 'only just valid'. It runs out in two days time and I am planning to stay three days in Andorra. (There is a reason for this lapse that goes beyond mere oversight on my behalf! In May the Passport Office had a huge backlog of passport applications with a return time of three months - a situation that was so badly managed that the Director General of the Passport Office was asked to resign. I didn't want to be without a passport for three months and kept monitoring the wait-time and figured that things would get better after the summer holiday rush - without realising I would prolong my stay in France until after its due date). That may have a pay back now - but it shouldn't be an issue. I have a valid Belgian residence permit - and ironically the only time I need my passport in Europe (even when visiting former satellites of the USSR) is when I go back to Britain. But you never know.

I make the top of the first pass under skies that changed in rapid succession from blue to cloudy, but never turn into a full-on mist or cloud. About 200m below the pass I go above the tree line - just a few shrubs hanging on in here and there. There are some really exposed stretches of road with truly vertiginous drops - but equally inspiring views to the peaks above and the valleys below. And the road surface shows the effects of repeated exposure to expansions and contractions caused by being frozen for 4-5 months a year. This is white knuckle stuff.

The massive hotel cum restaurant at the top of the pass is for sale – too many hard winters maybe? And then it’s a 4km cruise down to a pass where two national routes join up. The one I've been one was almost deserted. The one I join is like the road to Brighton on a sunny bank holiday, crawling with cars going to and from France and Andorra. Geez - I know Andorra was a popular shopping location - but I didn't realise it was that popular (although it is a Sunday). So I join the multitude of cars heading up the mountain in search of tax free earthly delights. A few more kilometres of delightful (or desperate) hair pin bends and we're at the Andorran border: a moment of truth. I slow down to wind my window but the border guards just wave me through. The same isn't true in the other direction. The French customs seem to be taking seriously their job of ensuring people don't abuse their tax free shopping privileges. There's a three kilometre tail back / traffic jam (at 2000 metres altitude in the mountains) to get through French customs - and this at 12.30 in the morning. One can only guess what it's like on a Sunday evening.

Three kilometres over the border stands the village of Pas le Casa - possibly the world's highest tax free shopping zone? Its rampant consumerism: shops selling tax free everything : booze, smokes, electronics, perfumes, sports kit, kitchen items, pharmaceuticals (apparently Andorra is rather more lax in its laws than its neighbours about what can be bought over the counter). It’s like being in Oxford Street on Christmas Eve – except it’s the lights aren’t up yet, its on a one in three hill and they haven’t pedestrianized it yet. Oh - and if you look above the buildings you a surrounded by a wonderful vista of 2500m + peaks. But it’s not wise to look above the buildings – because the roads are choc–a- block with cars dawdling and looking for somewhere to park and with weary shoppers who have forgotten the basic rules of the Highway Code– who just wander out into the middle of the road with their armfuls of tax free shopping expecting oncoming traffic to stop for them. Everybody seems to be in blind junkie-like state of consumerism. Which is possibly not surprising – they probably mostly got up very early in the morning – drove one, maybe two, hundred kilometres in a major traffic jam to an altitude of 2000m and are now confronted with all the goods they ever wanted (and many they never even thought they did want) at silly knock- down January sale prices.

It takes me about three quarters of an hour to navigate through about 2 kilometres of Babylon. Second time around I get lucky and find the road to Porte d'Envalira. Yes, there is a tunnel that cuts off the pass and it’s far quicker, less fuel-consuming (and in winter more reliable) but what’s the point of trying to traversing every Pyrenean road-pass if you don’t do the highest one? Twenty minutes later my car is at 2400m (with the temperature gauge still only three quarters towards ‘hot - you should pull over now’) and I‘m gazing down into the one valley that really makes up Andorra. And sitting there for a moment I think what an ecological idiocy it is that all this stuff is being freighted in (probably from Barcelona - the nearest sea port) driven up to 2000m altitude so that french tourists can create a traffic jam in the mountains in order to buy the stuff 20% (or so) cheaper than they can at home. Ah the ways of the world!

A few minutes over the brow of the pass a herd of horses who have decided to come and look at the traffic. They are massive. I’ve never seen such big horses, both in height and girth. And they are so Zen. They just stand there in a group, hardly moving just looking at the cars while the people in the cars take photos of them. After that very welcome distraction (I spend fifteen minutes glued to the spot) I continue downwards to Andorra la Vella: thirteen hundred metres of descent in some 27KM. The weather, which has been kind to me today until now, turns. It rains heavily all the way down the valley: so much so that I decide to skip a couple of attractive looking churches and vistas on the way down. It’s just too wet. Andorran towns and villages seem much larger on the ground than the Michelin map suggests, but perhaps that’s because I am dropping down into them and have a panoramic view. I coast slowly down the valley- which sometimes seems like more than a gorge - into Andorra la Vella - the highest capital city in Europe and definitely a candidate for the prettiest.
(View from my hotel window!)