Monday, October 29, 2012

Whiskered Wonder

Maison Tavel is Geneva's oldest still-standing house, dating back to the eleventh century. Due to the small size of Geneva's historic Vieux Ville and the fact that it costs nothing to get in, the house has been a regular spot on my Chateau Lockett Visitor tour.

Despite assuming a familiarity with the permanent exhibits, two pictures leapt out at me during the last visit.

The first lady was found in the kitchen, near the enormous wood fireplace. Portrait de la mere Lacroix, painted by Jean-Baptiste Bonjour around 1840.

She's no oil painting (tish boom) but her self satisfaction is as evident as her enjoyment of the restaurant meals she supposedly made with her husband.

There's no readily-available information on Mrs Lacroix or the painter in English, but the museum curator said that she was well known in Geneva for her homely and generous cooking. No argument there - the portrait depicts a woman who loves her work. And licking a ladle or two.

In the same room, but almost missed due to being placed in the doorway, was this one:

No, it's not Paul Simon in disguise, but La mere Robineau, poissonniere a Geneve a l'age 72 ans, painted in 1847.  Hang about - la mere - Missus. With a mo and a goatee any hipster would be proud of.

Why did Monsieur Bonjour (hello...? Why is his surname 'Hello'?) paint her with such, um, honesty?

If she'd been Queen Anne - who had been described by her lady-in-waiting and supposed best friend Sarah Churchill as 'exceeding gross and corpulent' and was later buried in a square coffin - the artist would have merely made her slightly on the husky side and kept any uncomely features out of his mind and off the canvas.

But if you're a seventy two year old fishwife with good scaling skills and facial hair to make any 1970s action star envious, then every single imperfection is ripe for the painting. I felt sorry for her; this woman I'd never met who'd been born a couple of years before Captain Cook proudly plonked a flag of arrogant ownership in the sand of Sydney. On second thought, there seemed to be very few greys for someone entering their eighth decade on earth.

A few floors away was an enormous panoramic picture of La place du Molard en 1843. My first reaction was to scowl: this was the spot where my wallet had been stolen, so it harbored no nice memories for me. But, seeing as the picture was so large - at least three metres wide - it became apparent that the people in the street weren't just scenic fodder, but had been depicted extremely well, ensuring that famous Genevan personalities were deliberately featured.

And there, on the left, I saw her: la mere Robineau, at work. Black dress, white cap and that unmistakable goatee.  This is merely the postcard I purchased before leaving, so you'll have to take my word for it that, in full size, Goatee Gal was instantly spotted.

Despite her pungent-smelling poisson pursuits and lowly origin, she was clearly a person of note in Geneva during the 19th Century. Apart from the old guy in the white Santa Claus beard on the far right, she had more facial hair than any other person in the painting, male or female.

Frustratingly, I was unable to find a single morsel of information on La mere Robineau or the artist. Was her portrait commissioned by a proud Monsieur Robineau or was she a figure of fun in the town, or famed for pursuits and deeds beyond gutting a guppy in record time ....?

I don't know. But I like her and reckon she'd have had some stories to tell.

..... she might also have brandished her knife ala Crocodile Dundee and scared away the pick pocket who fancied the contents of my handbag.....

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ponce-alot and Flatchat* we've spent a few days in Paris.

It only took us a year and a half to get there but when you're only a three-and-a-quarter hour train ride away, there's a half term break and reasonable-ish ticket and hotel deals on, the siren song finally hooks you in and lures you irrevocably towards it.

I first visited Paris as a twelve-and-a-half year old with my parents in 1981, during our whistle-stop three week driving tour of Europe in the Scottish summer holidays. How Dad managed to drive the UK-licensed Bedford van on the wrong side of the road without a GPS or chemical assistance of any kind is still an admirable mystery. 

The ultimate holiday souvenir gifted to myself was an oh-so-classy gold coated mini-Eiffel Tower sitting tastefully on top of a small bottle of green-coloured violet scent, all encased in a spray of fake flowers inside a plastic cube. I didn't open it for years as it was far too beautiful to desecrate.

The second time was in 1991 as a twenty three year old with an unforeseen Easter break. The family I was housekeeping for in London were Jewish and, at the last minute, gave me the entire weekend off. None of my friends had the cash or the time to join me, so I booked a flight (this was pre-chunnel days) and spent a rather lovely but slightly lonely time in the city of romance by myself. Couples seemed to gravitate towards me, all cuddled up, kissing, walking hand-in-hand and generally smooching their smug happiness in front of my singleton self as I sat on a park bench opposite Notre Dame eating a baguette and a bunch of grapes. I swore that next time I visited Paris it would be with the man I loved.....

The holiday souvenir was not a one night stand with Pierre de Milliardaire but a tiny watercolour of a Parisian street bought off a market stall for 10 francs, stuck on a white tile. This was proudly displayed on assorted bookshelves in various states of Australia until Love Chunks' Flemington Fireplace Flop of 2010 rendered it entirely black.

This time, twenty one years after my repeat trip, I had my husband, my child and her best friend Imogen with me.  No sleeping with my mother in the back of the Bedford as my Dad and brothers got wet in the cowboy tent or stuck in a hotel room in a freezing double bed watching Paul Hogan in the ANZACs speaking in dubbed Francaise.  No, it was a funky hotel in an arty farty neighbourhood and company aplenty. 

Sapphire and Imogen both had digital cameras at their disposal and were determined to end up with pictures that would stand the test of time, such as being bozos on the blue bus tour:

Melting mud face masks in the miniscule hotel room:

Caffeine-crazed cackle faces:

Appalling appearances at the Eiffel Tower:

Silly sugar highs at Champs Elysees:

......and toothy goofiness. 

..... I joined in, sharing their disappointment when we slogged our way from one side of Paris to the other only to find that the much-anticipated Catacombs were closed:

Still, consolation could be found in a new hat.....

.....and in adding another 'Munching in front of Monuments' pic to my growing collection.

Love Chunks reached for my hand many times. It was his first visit to Paris. "It's so beautiful," he whispered. "There's so much more for us to see, so we'll have to come back again. And again."

I squeezed his hand in return. "I always said I wanted to come back to Paris with the man I love," I said, voice filled with emotion.

"Oh well, better luck next time."

Pens shaped like baguettes, smelling a guy's nuts all the way up the Sacre Coeur (roasted almonds, you perverts) and making my migraine move on in front of the Mona Lisa were just some of the highlights.

This, however, was probably the best one:

* names of two French scientists that appear - among others - on the Eiffel Tower 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Pee on Lyon*

* Lyon is pronounced 'Lee-On' which is why I thought 'Pee on Lee-On' would be a witty title until the realisation that it would require an explanation and thus remove all forms of cleverness from it entirely. Oh well, it's done now.

Anyone who has travelled with me - and that means any journey from a half hour dog walk to weeks and weeks and weeks - knows that my biggest concern is always toilets. Where they are, what condition they're in and if they'll be in ready supply when my bladder all-too-readily bellows. You'll be climbing the light house; my head will be impersonating one by swivelling in all directions looking for the ablutions block.

With Love Chunks back at work and Sapphire starting her new school year, my folks and I decided that a further foray into France was not to be missed. Lyon, an hour and a bit's train trip away, was our starting place.

Situated between Marseille and Paris, Lyon is second only to the latter in terms of size and population and seemed like the obvious place to start.

At the impressive and beautiful Place Bellecour, the brand new tourist office beckoned; a bright and beacon representing the famous city. Inside it was even better with funky seats, loads of brochures in an array of different languages and touch screens galore.

It was 10am, so my two morning coffees and glass of orange juice courtesy of the all-inclusive continental breakfast buffet were signalling their intention to depart my being.

"Where are the nearest toilets?" I asked politely, assuming that they were somewhere inside or close by the almost-packed tourist office.

"Across the square, in the underground car park diagonally opposite," the lady said, waving her hand dismissively in front of her.

We walked confidently across the square, dodging the builders pulling down scaffolding and their ubiquitous ciggie smoke and entered the rather acrid bowels of the car park. No matter where you find yourself in the world, the cement cavern of an underground car park is never a spot of beauty or for lingering, and this one was no different.

Twenty Euro cents was nervously inserted into a door that looked as though it had been kicked in on a weekly basis. Alas - or maybe not - it refused to open.

Back at the parking toll booth, the attendant shrugged. "Use zee male."

Unlike the women's, it required no coin as a gap large enough to insert my hand was where the lock mechanism should have been. Using the toe of my boot, I gingerly eased the door open.

It was an ancient porcelain squat job, not seen by me since the privations of a no-star outer-Parisian caravan park stay thirty one years ago. Unlike then, this one was not clean and had been splashed all over in sour-smelling urine. How even the high up flush chain was dripping in the yellow stuff was beyond me and any further thought on the matter was forgotten in the age-old tourist trial of trying to lower myself down to decrease the chances of splashing my ankles; my jeans pushed down but not so far as to touch any part of the floor, walls or door as well as keeping tabs on my jacket, backpack and sun hat slung over various parts of my body.

The door was almost wide open but I didn't dare butt it shut with my head, hoping that my dear parents would shoo any pee freaks away.

Mum and Dad waited for me outside, noting that my face was even paler than usual. It seemed prudent to leave the description for another time but to thank my mother for her sterling advice of always taking a spare breakfast serviette and keeping it in my pocket for paperless cubicles.

Hoping to clear my nose of the pungent smell of piss, I found myself disappointed when we emerged back onto the streets again. The whiff of wee was everywhere. Pavements were streaked with it; corners were splashed in it and gutters were washing leaves further down the drains towards it ....... Didn't men have toilets at home? And what did women do..??

Our bus tour was informative on a number of counts, including the ceaseless stench of secretions about the city.  It was explained that some building owners placed half-sized pyramids of bricks and building debris in corners. "It's not for appearance but to prevent men from using it as a restroom.  It is designed to splash right back at them."  We also took note that the more style-conscious-but-still-anti-urine owners had metal shields permanently installed in previously piss-friendly places. Their shiny surfaces were at the perfect height to return the piss to the pisser, or shield cats from the rain.

After the tour and a walk through the intriguing silk makers' traboules, moody Mother Nature was moaning again.

"Look there," Dad said helpfully. "There's one of those Techno Toilet thingies."

Ah yes, those metallic rounded edge tiny buildings that give you ten minutes to do your business to piped classical music before the door automatically opens out to the world.

I pressed 'Ouvrir.'

Well smack me flat with the lizard gizzard entrails of Tony Abbott's brain.....  The tiny room revealed inside was a hell hole of excrement, the now-expected Lyon wee and a swarm of large and well-fed blowflies. "SHUT THE DOOR!" we screamed in unison, before hurriedly covering our mouths and reeling back from the shock.

"No wonder the homeless lady outside washed herself down in the fountain," Mum said.

Further along, we spotted Techno Toilet Number Two. Needless to say, Number Twos were sadly the main decorative feature as it was thickly and generously plastered all over the walls, ceiling, floor and hand basin with a handful of ancient loo paper sheets stuck to slightly wetter areas as profane embellishments.

"Why on earth would the council have a huge sign saying 'Public Conveniences' and a large arrow pointing here? Surely they're not proud of it," I moaned, struggling to walk with the need to pee and the lingering shock to my visual and nasal sensitivities.

Three was my all-time favourite number, so surely Techno Toilet Number three would not let me down? After all, a normal-looking bloke had just vacated it and didn't appear to be visibly flinching or running away.....

Nope. Shit city with the tang to match.

We found ourselves back at Place Bellecour, seriously contemplating a second visit to the underground car park when Mum spotted a McDonald's: the patron saint of desperate lavatory lovers the world over. "Yessssssss!"

Dashing up the stairs, I saw the sign, pushed through the door, had my jeans halfway down and then stopped in shock. The toilet was filthy, paper was strewn everywhere but on the roll and the seat was liberally dripping wet with waste. But this was McDonald's, a place that had never let me down in Bali, Egypt, Amsterdam, Perth.... Obviously in Lyon it was Pee On.

This time, my squatting skills were not only extended to increasing my chances of aiming correctly and staying dry but also to keeping my large arse aloft over a wider bowl area.  Quite the challenge when my undies were clamping my knees together.  As I exited in dismay, a gorgeous young lady sashayed in: all long straight hair, skinny jeans and the ubiquitous Chanel ballet flats. She was busy talking on her mobile phone and paid no heed to my rather well-acted  - and kindly - 'don't go in there' charade.

She CONTINUED to speak on her mobile phone when she closed the toilet door behind her! Did she have eight hands to maintain a conversation, keep her suede jacket from touching any part of the wall, her leather shoes dry, the oversized designer bag urine free, the hair exclusive of moisture, some toilet paper or alternative wiping material and a method of keeping the hem of her jeans from trailing in the puddles?

We didn't buy a coffee on the way out.

After lunch (not at McDonalds) we trekked up the hill to the cathedral.  Every old city has one.  Toilets too, if the French are feeling generous.

They were, but not for toilet seats or toilet paper.  Just the bare metal, hospital-like commode was installed, in faint deference to the monk-like, no frills lifestyle of the dark ages perhaps. No absolution, just ablution. 

It isn't exactly fair to claim that Lyon's bouquet is wholly whizz-scented; cigarettes vied for top billing as well.  We were staggered at the volume of people with lung darts hanging from their lips and despaired of finding a spot not clouded in second-hand snorted smog.

Toulouse might be famous for violets and Nice for the refreshing scent of the sea, but for my money, Lyon's signature fragrance would be this one: Cigs et Piss.  One squirt (or stray dribble down your trousers) and you'll be instantly transported back to the second largest city in France....

And it was all capped off perfectly when we left Lyon on the train.  As I pulled my tray table down, there was a poem in French, written in beautiful, swirling hand writing. How appropriate then, to see the word 'l'anus' in amongst it.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Love Chunks wasn't impressed either way

Regular readers know that my dog Milly is the apple of my eye.

She's my furry secretary, squirrel-spotting walking companion and fuzzy-butted friend.  It's not too large an exaggeration to admit that I think the sun shines out of her.

But this ...... ?

Oh Milly, what have you done?

I know that you know you're in trouble because you're not making eye contact with me.

It's okay, you're a good dog and you didn't mean it. So don't get all huffy and offended now....

And remember, dear dogadoo, just because I showed this latest brocante purchase to Love Chunks and he said, "It looks like a golden turd," doesn't mean that is one.

No, it's a golden croissant!

Okay, brass. Filched from an old boulangerie wall sign and so utterly pointless I just. had. to. have. it.  Who doesn't need a gold-coloured food stuff?

So my awesome little orange dog is not to blame after all. 

Or for this:

When you've spent the best part of a week doing overdue tax returns and keep getting the 'Please call us between our business hours of 8am and 6pm' voice machines the banks switch on several different time zones away, you have to get your jollies somehow.

Thank goodness I have some soft ears to scratch, a tummy to rub and some gentle snores occurring near my feet. Love you, Milly.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


Yep, this 'break' from blogging has been the longest I've taken in seven years and 945 posts.

It was due to a combination of house guests, international travel without crossing any oceans, hostessing, tour guiding, thirteen year old-wrangling, achilles heel hurting, paid writing, travel planning, crap food eating, dishwasher unpacking and a hell of a lot of time waiting on train station platforms.

And what have I learnt during this time away from the blogosphere?

1) Owning a dog gives me instant knowledge of all geographical locations within a 20km radius and earns me new friends and impromptu conversation wherever we go.

To prove this finding, I'll give you just one example. As I walked with Sapphire and my parents to the UN - and discovered that it was on the day where not a single flag was up (annual washing day perhaps?) - I'd no sooner given a stricken intern some directions to the Number 15 tram stop than it was time for the obligatory pose. Everyone who stays at Chateau Lockett must stand in front of the UN flags. Or bare poles, in my parents' case.

"Is she friendly," they asked.

"Of course Sapphire is," I responded, slightly offended. "We've had our moments of course, but she's a good old stick mostly."

"No the DOG. Can we pat her?"


2) The only people you'll see in Europe wearing broad-brimmed hats and sunscreen are Aussies.

'Stretched Leather side saddle' seems to be the look that most Europeans prefer, whether it be sprayed on and pongy or grilled in over hours, days and years of rotisserating on a beach towel.  I'd be interested in finding out their skin cancer statistics when there's a spare moment.

3) Fondue is a legitimate meal.

Each and every visitor and house guest has been treated to fondue ala Lockett. Scorchingly hot bubbly cheese and stale bread is speared on long prongs and is best eaten outside on the balcony for Milly to hoover up the debris. Simple, perfect and delicious. Sort of like Love Chunks. Even in this beanie, worn on the day his beloved Crows narrowly lost to Hawthorn in the preliminary final. Results were texted to him on top of the Matterhorn, with Kate writing, 'Get to a TV now!'

4) Restricting your daily fluid intake inversely increases the need to locate and use a public toilet.

The state of such necessary facilities have left a lot to be desired during our recent travels. Despite now perfecting my squatting and impromptu cleaning skills with a stolen breakfast serviette, if a loo block is spotted, I invariably end up saying, "Don't look a gift toilet in the mouth," and use it immediately, even if my bladder is not yet calling for it. 

Alas, I've also discovered the hard way that the 'anticipatory whizz' doesn't factor into the bladder's future storage capacity or prevent an uncomfortable walk less than half an hour later when your mother says, "I don't care how lovely this market square is, if we don't find a toilet soon, I'm going to change the colour of the water in that fountain." 

5) If you smoke in France, you can make a cup of coffee last for two hours.

Unfortunately - no, not really, it's very fortunate - none of us suck on ciggies, so we can't make an overpriced and small hit of caffeine last for as long as it takes to nonchalantly smoke twenty cigarettes over a stone cold espresso cup. It'd be interesting to see the stats on lung cancer as well....... Instead, my father lacks any sort of capacity to sip a beverage no matter how hot it is and chugs it down and usually eats his croissant in a single mouthful, so our butts barely touch the seats before the waiter whips our cups away and we're back out on the streets again. 

6) Undies dry out really well when hung from cupboard handles.

We Reads (that is, me and my parents) love a good batch of hand washed clothes in an already-cluttered hotel room. Jocks on (door) knobs, t-shirts hung from the thief-proof coat hangers to drip on flattened plastic bags carefully set out on the carpet below as well as damp socks on window sills means that a small cabin bag is sufficient for a fortnight on the railway system instead of having to drag a 23 kilogram behemoth whose left wheel was popped off by a cobblestone in Nice.

7) Germans don't age very well.

Now I'm aware that this statement comes from someone so aged that even a coffee, followed by a hot shower and intense moisturising does not erase the pillow folds from her face, but the middle-aged Deutschlander is a sight to behold. Still, there must be a 'best before' switch that God flicks over at, say, age forty. The previously blonde, nubile and slim German male and female then get to see the shocking results of two or three decades of worth of stealing sunbeds at dawn, scoffing down various fat-filled offal products and cheeses and bingeing in beer gardens. When the switch is activated, the faces turn to dour scone dough, the butts widen to double-door entry only and hairs sprout where once only dewy beauty lingered. Trust me.

8) It's what's NOT said that's important. 

Is it lying if an important fact is omitted?  For example, Neuschwanstein Castle. We'd booked a hot, more-like-fifth-class second class train that saw Love Chunks hoon ahead to push aside a dozen old ladies and thrust his foot out of the carriage door in order to 'reserve' some seats that didn't have gum on them or be situated in the 'Bikes Only' section.  

Enduring a crowded and sweaty ride from Munich, we told ourselves that the discomfort would all be worth it to lay our beadies on the famed, Cinderella-like vision plonked amongst the stunning German hill tops.  From the information we'd gleaned from many sources, I anticipated seeing this:

...but instead was presented with this:

....which made us all firstly stop in shock; then laugh uproariously before being shocked again at the thousands of tourists swarming around us who were still happy to take photographs. Me included I s'pose. It would have perhaps changed our day trip plans if - oh, I don't know - the website, ticket seller, train station or tourist office had told us that the ENTIRE CASTLE would be covered by scaffolding and gauze....!??  AND that horse and carts took lazy farts up the hill and I'd invariably put my sandalled feet into a freshly-dropped frisbee of moist manure.

Same goes for the famed interior of Lyon basilica.  Not manure, but Lord knows what the poor tour guide was telling her group in Russian when the entire interior was hidden behind the world's largest Meccano set.

.......Or the cable car trip up the mountain to Saleve for the breathtaking view of Lac Leman, Geneva and the French hills beyond.  We'd booked the posh restaurant on top of the peak for 7pm and arrived at the bottom to discover that the cable car's last run for the day was 6pm.  If we'd been any earlier we'd have caught the last ride, enjoyed a terrific panoroma and meal and then been stuck up the top until the telepherique cranked up again on Sunday morning.

As it was, as we trooped back down to the bus stop we phoned the restaurant to cancel our booking and explained why.  "Didn't anybodeeee tell you zzat zee cable car was not running?" 

No they didn't, buddy.

9) Items presented over and over and over in souvenir shops are rarely seen in the real world.

Take Edelweiss.  Switzerland's national (and protected, which should have given me a hint) flower.  It is to be found on key rings, the fabric bands that hold cow bells, place mats, coffee cups, earrings, hand soap, snow domes, stickers, pencils, gingerbread, fondue pots and army bags but I've yet to see one in the wild.

Berne bears.  Three live ones are currently living a peaceful life by the river's edge and all were imported from Russia.

Lac Leman 'filets de perche,' found in every restaurant in the Geneva, Vaud, Valais and Haute-Savoie.  It has been revealed that over ninety percent are caught in Norway, and snap frozen before being sent to Geneva for deep frying and charging CHF 44 a plate.

10) Never underestimate the power of IKEA.

When extra guests arrive, there is nowhere else that sells pillows, sheets and serviettes cheaper.   On a rainy day with cobwebs in the wallet it's also the place to get the afore-mentioned 'filets de perche' and chips for CHF 4 francs and a bottomless glass of diet coke complete with the endless entertainment of watching other patrons eat, fight about furniture selections and accidentally spritz mayonnaise instead of topping onto their soft serves.  Mum and Dad loved the place.

And so, it is now time to drape more wet sheets over doors, towels over the outdoor chairs and muster up a skerrick of interest in collating the documents for our long overdue Australian tax returns.

Then again, I could just have a little rest before reading other blogs, making a coffee and patting my dog....