Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Smelling the sights of Paris

You smell it before you see it.  And when you smell it you know what it means.

My 1960s unit complex has quite the quirk; every few months or so the sewage line blocks and overflows.

The result?  Well, let's just say the back lawn has been well fertilised as waste from all six units cascades out from time to time.

It's not pretty and the smell sticks to your nostrils days after the trusty plumber has literally dived in and cleared the blockage.

Every time it happens I hope that it's the last time I have to witness anything to do with sewage.

Does anyone ever want to see sewage?  Probably not.

But in Paris, they've boldly turned part of their sewers into a tourist attraction.   And yes, people actually pay to visit it.

Not the side of Paris often shown in brochures
Thankfully, it bears little resemblance to the scene in Les Miserables where Jean Valjean falls into raw sewage while trying to save young Marius.

Like most visitors to the City of Lights, we didn't travel to Paris specifically to tour the sewers.

Best lit and cleanest sewer you're ever likely to visit
But the Musee des Egouts de Paris (Paris Sewer Museum) was included in our Paris Museum Pass and one afternoon (after our lunch had been sufficiently digested) we thought we'd give it a go.

We were greeted by wide, well-lit underground tunnels and barely the smell nor sight of sewage to be detected.

The Phantom of the Opera or Jean Valjean could be just around the corner
The current version of the city's sewer network dates back to the 1850s, though various other systems and models existed as far back as the Middle Ages.  It's a labyrinth of more than 2,400km tunnels, with the museum focusing on just a small section.

Apart from showing a completely different subterranean side of Paris, it charts an interesting journey of how the city, and its sewer, evolved.

It also notes that Paris' sewers have been the setting for a number of major fictional stories, from Les Miserables through to The Phantom of the Opera.

Sewage might not be high on the travel bucket list, but the Paris Sewer Museum is one of the most memorable and bizarre Paris adventures you're likely to have.

It also makes you appreciate something you take for granted and normally don't give a thought to... until it is overflowing onto your back lawn.

If only I could charge people to witness the overflowing sewage pipes at my unit complex.

One of the steel balls they send down the pipes to clean a blockage

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Pavement pounding politeness

We don't know each other, but we will both smile, breathlessly utter "morning", or at least give a nod as we run past each other.

It's just one of the unwritten rules of running etiquette.

It's like we're both acknowledging each other's effort and/or discomfort, and sending encouragement across the track.

With the Gold Coast Marathon fast approaching and running training in full swing, I've had plenty (and I mean plenty) of time to ponder the social behaviours of runners.   

It's not something that anyone will sit down and tell you, but has just evolved out of necessity.   Here's a few rules I've discovered:

Pit stop politeness
On long early morning runs, it's not unusual for runners to require toilet breaks... even when there isn't a toilet around.   If you see someone run off into the bushes, it's strictly a policy of "don't ask, don't tell".

Don't mention the smell
At the start of races, as runners get into their paces, sometimes their bodies "adjust" themselves with a little flatulence.  The unwritten rule here is not to embarrass or draw attention to the runner with comments like "pee-eww", but charge on as if you are running through a field of flowers.   The same goes for more serious race accidents like soiled pants.

Don't block the path
After one or two hours of running, suddenly changing direction, and stopping and starting become herculean tasks requiring massive amounts of effort.   Good runners know to keep left and keep the path clear for others... now if only we can pass this politeness onto packs of cyclists, walkers, pram pushers and children with short attention spans on bikes.

We're in this together
While running races are competitive, there's also a real camaraderie - which is unusual given it is a solo sport.   This is probably born of the universal acceptance that the person who is most likely to stop us from crossing the finish line is ourselves.   As a result, runners are an encouraging lot who will say "hello" when you pass them (if they have the breath for it) and even a few kind words when you look like you're on your last gasp.

We're just not that into you
So while runners are friendly, they're not necessarily interested in listening to the thumping music or inane conversations of fellow runners.   Keeping your headphone volume down and your chit chat to a minimum are key to not alienating the runners around you.   We're also not too keen on listening to you  brag about your blistering pace, offer unwanted advice, and pontificate about how "barefoot running is the way to go".  

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Colour me winter

There's a chill in the air in Brisbane town.

After what felt like a very long, hot summer, winter seems to be finally here.

When it drops below 20 degrees in the Sunshine State, it's not to unusual to start to see a proliferation of scarves, gloves and even the odd ski jacket.

Let's face it, we're just not used to not sweating.

Even if the city dips below 10 degrees Celsius (which is rare), it doesn't stay there for very long and by the middle of the day, the scarves, gloves and ski jackets have long been discarded.

Unfortunately, the Brisbane cold isn't the "useful" kind that is ever going to produce any snow.

Still, stepping out on a few crisp mornings, you could almost imagine that a snowfall is on its way and it won't be long before you are pulling on your ski boots again.

Many people think winter is a grey time of year, but I enjoy the fresh reprieve from the summer heat and sweat.

And the season doesn't have to be dark and dingy at all.

The Canadian ski resort of Silver Star proves that even in the icy depths of winter, it can still be a vibrant and colourful time.

Silver Star is an impossibly pretty resort, with luminescent, coloured buildings radiating, even on the cloudiest grey day.

And what to do with all that snow?


Each year, the resort hosts an ice sculpting competition as part of its winter celebrations.

During the course of a few days, with teams of sculptors working around the clock in sub-zero temperatures and the odd snow storm, familiar shapes and figures start to emerge from compacted blocks of ice and snow.

The result: dancers, people, turtles and the more abstract creations, all vying for attention of those wandering the resort's "main street".

And like the passing skiers and snowboarders, these ice sculptures must surely hope that winter hangs around a while longer and that the melting summer temperatures are still many months away.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Thank you for the music... and everything else

The annual Eurovision finale is like waving off a good friend at the airport.

We've had a wonderful time together, but sadly that has come to an end for now and I know it will be some time until we see each other again.

But at least I have the memorable moments I'll cherish.   Malmo, Sweden, delivered plenty of these.

Europe may have voted for Denmark as the winner (their choice, not mine), but how can you single out just one dish from the entire buffet?

And Eurovision leaves us with more than just music.  It's legacy extends well beyond melodies; it shines a light on some "interesting" fashion and choreography, some of which will stay with us long after the last piece of glitter has been swept up.

If Eurovision 2013 was a trendsetter, here's what we'll be wearing next season:

1.  Spacesuits (as worn by Montenegro)

2.  Glitter suits (as worn by Latvia)

3.  Skirts, skorts or some other variant (as worn by Greece)

4.   The sexy "Nana Mouskouri" (as worn by Israel)

5.  Fringing (as worn by Belarus)

6.  Something Ming from Flash Gordon would have worn (as worn by Romania)

And if the Eurovision 2013 choreography was anything to go by, here's what we'll be doing:

1.  Being carried around by giants (as per Ukraine)

2.  Generally putting our hands up (as per most entrants this year, but particularly Slovenia)

3.   Rocking so hard our guitars catch on fire (as per Albania)

4.  Contorting our bodies in a glass box (as per Azerbaijan)

5.  Attending same-sex marriages (as per Finland)

6.   Being a human volcano (as per Moldova)

Missing you already Eurovision.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The single person's Federal Budget wish list

It's Federal Budget time of year again here in Australia.

Like every other year, you can expect the word "family" to be bandied around a lot with phrases like "battling families", "struggling families" etc.
But I know they don't mean my family; mine doesn't count.

They only mean families with a middle-aged couple, two kids and a pair of black SUVs in the driveway with "My Family" stickers on the back.

And this is despite the fact that the majority of Australian households aren't "families" at all, rather singles and couples.   Still, it's political gold to pretend it's 1953 all over again.

As a single, I haven't got anything against families.   I'm certainly not "anti-family" (whatever that means).  In fact, research shows many singles come from families too.

It's just that at Federal Budget time, the Australian child-less single seems to be overlooked.

It's wishful thinking, but here are my five Federal Budget initiatives for the Australian single:

1.  The "Thanks for not being a burden on the system" Bonus
So you didn't use a hospital during the past 12 months?  Maybe you went to the GP once or twice, but didn't use Bulk Billing?   You've stayed in shape and looked after yourself, so here's a bonus for not being a drain on the system.

2.  The Disposable Income Economic Stimulus Reward Scheme
Let's face it - single people are more likely to have disposable income.  We're not paying for young Jordan's braces or Olivia's school camp.  Instead, we're spending our disposable income on ourselves. Some may call it selfish, but I call it stimulating the economy.   After all, where would the entertainment, fashion, health and fitness, travel and other sectors be without the single dollar?

3.  The Single Person's Travel Allowance
Great citizens are global citizens.  This allowance helps Australian singles explore the world, soak up new cultures, destinations and ideas, and bring the best of these back to Australia.   Ok.  So this one might face a bit of an uphill battle to pass through Parliament.

4.  The ERNP (Environmental Rebate for Not Procreating)
It's fair to say the risk of the human population dying out is fairly low.  In fact, rampant population growth seems to be killing the place.  Apart from being childless, singles are also probably more likely to live in medium to high-density dwellings, thereby reducing urban sprawl; less likely to have a massive fuel-guzzling car running idle outside schools, child care centres and sports grounds; and are certainly emitting less CO2 gases by not whining about how rewarding / hard it is to have a family these days.  So if you've managed not to have a child during the past financial year, the environment and government says thanks.

5.   The Single Productivity Incentive
As a single person you didn't take time off from work to look after young Tiffany when she got chicken pox or the flu or whatever else was going around child care.  You also didn't take paternity or maternity leave.  And you probably came into work earlier and / or stayed back late (and maybe even did weekend work) because you weren't dropping kids off at school, taking them to the doctor, and because, let's face it, you've got no life to speak of.  You were probably also more likely to do those work trips requiring nights away because... well it's not like there was anyone waiting at home for you, was there?  As an economic unit you're pretty efficient and productive, and this incentive recognises this.

And if all of these great ideas are just too hard to implement, how about just a handwritten note from Treasurer Wayne Swan saying:  "thank you for funding all those things you'll never use or ever be able to access because you will probably die alone in your flat with only the smell of your decomposing body alerting the neighbours"?

It's not too much to ask is it?

NOTE:  If you take this post too seriously, you should be slugged with an extra tax.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Vocal power to the people

As the party prepares to kickoff in Malmo, Sweden, next week, it's pretty clear that nothing compares to Eurovision.

But during the height of the Cold War, a Soviet rival did emerge to challenge the glitz and glamour of the West's Eurovision.

I came across this nugget of Eurovision history through the wonderful SBS documentary The Secret History of Eurovision.

It seems behind the sequins and white suits, there's a lot more to Eurovision than meets the eye.

The Eurovision Song Contest was started in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union as a way to unite war-torn Europe through light-hearted entertainment.

Proving the Soviet philosophy of "anything the West can do, we can do it better", it launched the Intervision Song Contest.   Ok, so originality wasn't necessarily their thing.

Intervision was an evolution of the existing Sopot International Song Festival (held in Sopot, Poland) and, unlike Eurovision, it was held in Sopot regardless of which Soviet state won.

Intervision was staged between 1977 and 1980, but came to an abrupt end when rising unrest in Poland during 1981 made it politically dangerous to stage such a major broadcast.

Interestingly, while Eurovision was only open to Western European countries, in an attempt to make this the world's premier music event Intervision was open to everyone.   This saw representatives from the Soviet states perform alongside those from countries like Cuba and Finland.

However, one of the most hilarious aspects of Intervision was that because most citizens behind the Iron Curtain did not have telephones, viewers voted by turning on their lights if they liked the song and turned them off if they didn't.

The fluctuating demand on the electricity network determined the number of points granted to each contestant.

This seems quite an ingenious way of voting in the days before phones, internet and SMS, but surely open to flaws; what if everyone decided to take a toilet break during the same song?

It also seems remarkable that in the Soviet Union, citizens were given a small taste of democracy (albeit in a basic and crude form) where the voice of the people actually mattered and determined the winner.  

Surely the organisers of Intervision didn't realise they could be whetting the audience's appetite to have a say in other aspects of their lives.

More than three decades later, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall and disintegration of the USSR, it seems Intervision may rise again.  

In 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proposed to restart the competition, but this time between Russia, China and Central Asian countries.

In the meantime, I'll stick to next week's Eurovision... and I'll be watching with the lights on.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Basil Fawlty School of B&Bs

Shags in the bathroom and walls that slant,
A full English breakfast with hosts who rant,
Mismatched manchester and creaky bed springs,
These are a few of my favourite things...

...about B&Bs.

Before visiting Europe, B&Bs were a bit of a mystery to me.

Sure they exist in Australia, but they tend to be the "boutique" and premium kind where a single night costs several hundred dollars.   To me it always seemed like an awful lot of money to essentially stay in someone's house.

But the commonplace B&B found in towns and cities across the UK and Ireland changed my thinking forever.

B&Bs scream UK and Ireland roadtrip!
They're often a little rough around the edges and you may get the distinct impression you're in a modern remake of TV's Fawlty Towers,  but for me they're one of the fun and memorable things about a road trip through the UK and Ireland.

Just finding one for the night can be an adventure;  arriving in town in the late afternoon you fan out in search of one that is a) available and b) looks half-decent.   Needless to say, any B&B with a nice-looking door and flower pot in bloom out front will most likely have no vacancies as this seems to be the universal method used by travellers for judging a property.

Is a B&B with a flower box better than one without?
The process can be hit and miss at times, as the initial impression of a B&B can be deceptive.   But on the whole, you're unlikely to find a quirkier, more convenient and more economical stay.

Here's my top five Fawlty Towers moments from UK and Irish B&Bs:

1.  Carmel of Kilrush
Carmel represents the quintessential quirky B&B owner.   Downstairs, Carmel's husband ran the bar in Kilrush's high street, but the rooms upstairs were Carmel's domain.  On checking in she didn't waste time cracking a smile or dishing out pleasantries, she went straight to the rules.   And there was one rule which stood above all others: don't eat in the room.    She repeated this to us a few times as she showed us to our room.    Naturally, we did have Chinese takeaway in the room that night, and half-jokingly suspected she was watching us on hidden cameras, cursing our names.   So concerned about her extraordinary powers to smell out the forbidden food, we tip-toed across the road in the middle of the night to dispose of the evidence.

2.  Shags in the shower
Not shags of the hanky panky kind thank you.  After all, everyone in the building would hear you.   Here the best shag you can hope for is the shag pile in the bathroom.  Along with mystifying hot water  taps which can take a while to master, carpet in the bathroom seems to common in B&B bathrooms.   It's a concept Australians aren't quite used to, but on a chilly European morning, stepping out onto a mission brown or avocado green shag carpet just feels right.
Welsh roadtrip!

3.  Slanty shanties
In one B&B we stayed at, the cupboard door never stayed shut and it was really easy to walk to the bathroom.   This was because the wooden floor had warped and slanted as the beautiful old stone building had aged and settled.   You can look at it two ways depending on whether you're a "glass half full or glass half empty kind of person": it's down hill to the bathroom, but an uphill climb back to bed afterwards.
A B&B room with a view in Chester, England

4.  Big breakfasts, little space
Stuffed animals, flying ducks on the walls, and an armada of miniature ships in bottles.    Welcome to the B&B's breakfast room.   One of the true delights of the B&B is the full English (or Irish) breakfast.  The morning meal which keeps you going well past lunch.   But sometimes squeezing into your seat or moving to the cereal bar amid the owner's kitschy paraphernalia is a challenge in itself.   It's usually during breakfast that you really get to know your hosts.   You hear the local gossip, complaints about the weather and economy, and warnings about the state of the roads you're about to travel on.

5.  Room finder GPS
Few B&Bs seem to have been built for the job.  Instead, they're old period properties which have been renovated for their new purpose.   While they are still a home for the host family, they have dedicated spaces for their guests so you never feel like intruding.   But the renovations also result "unusual" layouts which sees rooms in the attic, a labyrinth of corridors and stairs, and unconventional room configurations.  You'll never see a more complicated fire escape route plan stuck on the back of a room door.

B&Bs with a view at Portree on Isle of Skye, Scotland

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Communal blues

When it came to pick the colour of the new fence at my unit complex, the jury was well and truly out.

Heritage Green?   Eggplant?   Mock Redwood?  

My fellow owners and I were in gridlock over what colour the new fence would be.

Had we been in the northwest Moroccan town of Chefchaouen, the choice would have been much easier.

Blue?  Or white?

Chefchaouen of Morocco
This simple colour palette has been used on almost every building in the old town, which cascades down a hillside in the Rif Mountains.

Chefchaouen proves you can never be too blue
Forget colour trends and fads.   Forget the colour wheel.   This town chose its true colours generations ago and they've stuck.

I doubt the local hardware store even bothers to stock any other colour.  After all, there doesn't seem to be too much demand for Avocado or Caribbean Green around these parts.

The network of narrow white and blue streets easily transform into a maze

The rhythm of daily life seems to be set by the local children; they scurry to school in the morning, rush home for lunch, and then turn the streets into sports fields and playgrounds when school ends.

Unlike me, they have no trouble navigating their way through the narrow, maze-like streets around the central kasbah.

Just remember: you're staying in the white house with the blue door
With many homes looking identical, it can't be that unusual for children to accidentally end up at the wrong house inhabited by another family.  

But there's seems to be such a feeling of community here in the medina that you could also imagine that same family taking in that lost child for a few nights until they eventually found their way back home.

View of Chefchaouen

Waking up in Chefchaouen, you could be forgiven for thinking you've arrived on a Greek island.

But this isn't a town which is pretending to be something it is not; the Mediterranean influence here extends well beyond the colour scheme.

Blue doesn't have to mean boring
Originally founded in 1471, the town was once was part of Spanish Morocco and it's not unusual to hear the locals speak Spanish, rather than French like their southern Morocco counterparts.

But step into one of the many shops and restaurants in the medina, and it's 100% Morocco all the way.  

Like everywhere else in the country, tagines, kebabs and couscous rule the menu.   But the locals are most proud of their goats cheese... oh and cannabis.  

Yes, it seems the region is one of the main cannabis-producing regions of Morocco.  

This probably explains the presence of the bohemian backpacker crowd lounging happily around the al fresco cafes.

It also probably explains the incoherent conversation I had with a New Zealander by the hotel swimming pool who seemed unsure of not only where she was, but also how she came to be here and for how long she would stay.   She may still be there, though she probably wouldn't know it.

The many hues of blue in Chefchaouen
Chefchaouen isn't "undiscovered" by international tourists.  But it's tight patchwork of white and blue buildings makes you fleetingly feel as though maybe you are the first person to stumble down this particular street or marvel at this intricate azure doorway.

Local gents gather for a morning chat outside Chefchaouen's kasbah 
And full credit to a town that not only managed to pick a single colour scheme, but ensured everyone stuck with it... for generations.

Back home, we've gone with Heritage Green on our fence, but there is dissent brewing.   Eggplant threatens to make a comeback at any stage.