Friday, 27 July 2012

Dad missed the Olympics

While many people I know are either escaping from England during the Olympics, or locking themselves in their homes, or friends’ homes, as far from London as possible, we are returning from France for the spectacle. Despite my passion for watching cycling I have always considered I am not interested in sport.

I can’t catch a ball, and was always the last to be picked for teams playing anything at school. In fact, after a bout of pleurisy at 15, I had a note from my mother, excusing me from P.E. lessons at school which included the magical phrase

 “Janice shouldn’t partake in PE lessons for some time, owing to her health”.

 I carried this around for the 3 years remaining at school, and never partook again.

Somehow, over the years I have become an interested spectator. I enjoy the atmosphere of live football (soccer, and American football) matches, where I care about the outcome….so Huddersfield Town getting promoted a division last season sparked some interest. I have only seen one Green Bay Packers game live…..but it was an incredible spectacle.

Even as a stroppy 15 year old who hated sport, I recall skipping school to visit Wimbledon, queuing for standing tickets in the days before centre court was all seats, and then worrying about TV coverage and being spotted in the crowd when I should have been at school. Lew Hoad turned and smiled at me, when I applauded a shot on one of the outside practice courts in 1970. Now of course, Nadal has replaced Hoad and Rosewall in my affections.

I have perfected the same half interested way of questioning my husband about his golf games as my mother did when she pretended to care how dad had got on……however, I find myself  looking forward to the Ryder Cup every 2 years.

Cricket has also become something of a fascination. It’s the 5 day nature of test matches that I find absorbing. The tactics, the pace, the rhythm, and recognising that even over 5 days, every ball bowled is important….. it all has me hooked. Travelling to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to watch us lose and then win the Ashes over the last few years has helped cement my interest. I haven’t been to a Brisbane test yet….. something to be remedied I suspect. We’re off to India this November and will include the Kolkata test in our travels.

So….the London Olympics……
My father was an amateur athlete in his youth. During his national service stint he spent time in Berlin (during the airlift…..another story), and trained in the somewhat derelict at that time, Olympic stadium, used for the 1936 Olympics. This was the stadium where Jesse Owens upset Hitler’s applecart by winning a couple of gold medals despite not being blond and blue eyed. Ironically, my father, who loved athletics, missed the 1948 London Olympics as he was in Berlin. Had he been at home, he could almost have walked to Wembley stadium from his north London home in Hendon. So he missed London 1948, and died 5 years ago…..but as least he knew GB had won the bid to hold the games in 2012.
Dad, at the Berlin Olympic Stadium, 1948

We have some athletics tickets, and have shared them out amongst our children ( those who have managed to secure babysitting services for the appointed days) and will be among the thousands of people held up in dreadful traffic and travel problems, security nightmares, toilet queues, pouring rain, etc. etc……..but I am looking forward to it.

So…..I’m not interested in sport……except when I am.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Le Tour is over

Cav on the podium

Sprint winner in Paris, Mark Cavendish

He couldn't quite believe it.

( All photos, taken from the  ITV 4 coverage, by me, sitting very excitedly in front of the TV )

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Our day with le Tour

Mark and I have always enjoyed following the Tour de France. Neither of us cycle ( we have bikes, but rarely use them ), but somehow the extreme nature of a race over 3 weeks, thousands of kilometres, mountains, valleys, through the heat and sometimes through the snow often leading to one person beating another by just seconds, holds a fascination for both of us.
our bikes, stored and rarely used.....

It is impossible to talk about le Tour without recognising that it has been tied up with drug abuse scandals. Even this year, when everyone is saying what a clean tour it is, Schlek has retired following a failed test, and of course the court case surrounding Lance Armstrong’s string of victories in the recent past still continues. They are strange men, they are driven , and they are so focussed. It is hoped that the rigour of testing today means that it is now cleaner than ever before.

a sculpture inherited from my friend Darlyn
I love the tactics. It is never just 198 individuals trying to beat each other. It is like chess. I love the way teams support their sprinters through their lead out experts. I love the way team leaders are supported through the days they may have stomach upsets, or following crashes when they are battered and bruised. I love the way les domestiques fall back to pick up water and give up their bikes if their team leader needs it. I love the mountain climbers complete dedication to pushing those pedals round, pulling themselves top the mountain tops, and I love the way there is always a Frenchman in the  break away when they are trying to hold off the peleton. I love watching the peleton pull back the break away, and the thrill of the cat and mouse games between leaders of a break away that may actually make it to the end without being caught.

Watching Mark Cavendish over the last couple of years has been thrilling. This year, the world champion has been sacrificing his potential stage wins for the greater good of the team, and to support Bradley Wiggins. To see him emerge from a bunch finish, as if from nowhere, is one of the most exciting sporting moments for me.

In previous summers, we have watched the UK coverage, and then caught a few stages on French TV or radio, sometimes in rented French holiday homes or in bars, when we have been in France.
This year I have been in France for the whole Tour and on 15th July, Mark and I went to Chalabre, to watch part of the stage that went from Limoux to Foix, as part of the spell in the Pyrenees.

We arrived in the village as the local cafes were getting ready for the day. Handpainted banners were set up, and people started to settle in their viewing spots for the day.

We found a great corner, thinking it would be a good place to see them all sweep into the town. By 10.00 am we were settled, near enough to cafes to pop in for fresh coffee and trips to the loo, and able to watch as the crowds grew, and les gendarmes and les pompiers chatted with everyone, occasionally, suggesting that people sit behind the great straw barriers on the corner, rather than in front of them.

The atmosphere was great. We chatted with a lovely French couple and their elderly friend who had lumbago and had to be helped in and out of her very comfy deck chair beside the road. Then, at about 1pm, the caravan arrived. Over a hundred advertisers in specially designed floats and other vehicles sped through the town, distributing freebies as they went. Key rings, hats, t-shirts, newspapers, bottles of water, and all manner of sugary sweets were thrown from the moving vehicles. It was quite sensible to avoid the bottles of water as they were dangerously lobbed into the crowd.

Everyone laughed, and the anticipated arrival of the bike race itself grew noisily in the crowd. Rumours abounded…they were minutes away, there was a break away, they had only just left Limoux, Sagan was in the break away, Sky had it all under control……etc etc.

Finally, 3 riders flashed past us, one was in lime green, that was Sagan, then less than 30 seconds later the yellow jersey group swept around our corner. Bradley Wiggins was easily seen, wearing the leader’s yellow.
the peleton zooming past us

Wiggo in yellow

 He was surrounded by the Sky team, although they went past so quickly we didn’t manage to see if Cav was with them, in his world champion’s colours.  Less than a minute later, the rest of the peleton went past us…….and it was over. In 3 minutes, the race had passed us, another minute later they had left Chalabre and were on their way to the steep mountains of the high Pyrenees.
a street banner with the green, polka dot and yellow jerseys

We later discovered that controversy had struck as some idiot had thrown tacks onto the road and many of the leaders had punctures. Cadel Evans had 3. Wiggins, doing what the yellow jersey is supposed to do, made the peleton re gather together and hold back, waiting for Evans to catch up. It didn’t go down well with other than French supporters, when the leading French rider claimed not to have heard the Wiggins’ call for the hold back. He sped off to try to catch the breakaway, and some glory for France. He was caught before the end, and ignored by the peleton as they swept him up near the end.
a group of Wiggo supporters
It was an amazing day. Wiggins stayed in the yellow jersey, won considerable respect from the organisers and other riders for controlling the race after the tack attack…..and was generally magnificent.

(Apologies for the length of this post, I wanted to have a record of our day and my thoughts about it. Blogging has become a little like a diary for me at the moment.)

Added a week later....with the final result known:

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Quatorze Juillet

After a month alone here in Caunes, I now have company. Husband Mark arrived back here on 14th July, in time to celebrate the Fete Nationale (sorry, I still haven’t worked out how to do accents on this keyboard).

I watched a very impressive feu d’artifice display in the village on the 13th, from my hillside vantage point.
Then, on the evening of the 14th, Mark and I drove to a hillside overlooking le cite of Carcassonne, to prepare ourselves for what everyone had told us, would be an amazing display.

I have only seen fireworks in France on quatorze Juillet once before, and that was in 1969, when I was staying with a French family just outside Paris. It was the summer of the moon landing, of Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick, and the first time I had ever followed the Tour de France on TV. I was 14, and was thrilled to be driven to a hillside overlooking Paris, and watched the fireworks in wonderment. I think it was seeing Paris laid out in front of me that impressed as much as the fireworks. Anyway, it was quite an experience for a 14 year old on her first trip abroad.

Back to Carcassonne…… …… …… …… whole families had gathered on the hillside, and soon after we arrived, the traffic on the road below became quite chaotic. People parked anywhere, facing the wrong way, in the middle of roundabouts, just anywhere they could leave the car and climb to a viewing point.

Almost as soon as it was dark enough……. about 10.30pm, there was a red flare that announced the start of the half hour display. It was stunning. No doubt it cost a fortune, is entirely frivolous, probably dangerous, etc. etc….but it was stunning. Everyone sat or stood and watched in amazement. At one point, the outline of the city vanished, all lights were out, and a red glow covered the whole area. It looked as if the city was burning, and then suddenly, the silhouette of the city reappeared and the main display began.

It was as amazing as we had been told.

The hillside erupted in applause as the display ended, and hundreds of delighted people wandered down the hill to find their cars.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Wine with Wendy

Wendy Gednes runs a wine tasting /touring company called Vin en Vacances,   and I was lucky enough to go on one of her day trips last week.

Wendy spends the summer based in Caunes  and organises very special wine tasting tours in the whole Languedoc Roussillon area. In fact, if you want to go somewhere else….she’ll design a tour for you. Her expertise is amazing and her enthusiasm is infectious. I had a great day. This isn't an advert honestly.

We began in Caunes, and travelled towards Perpignan. There were 3 of us on the trip, along with Wendy, and her commentary as we drove past vineyards of the Minervois and Corbierres  was just like a chat among friends. However, with great subtlety,  almost incidentally,  she told us about the terroirs and the political and economic  ( and religious) influences that had affected the growing of vines and the production of wine in the area.

Our first stop was at what Wendy called a “ garigista wine maker” in Maury. Corin and Jayne  Fairchild run a small operation, or at least that is what it looked like from the garage door  entrance to the winery. Hearing about their numerous vineyards however made us realise it was not just a little back garden operation.

Corin  shared his passion for making beautiful wine and showed us the various stages of wine making, enthralling us with tales of hailstorms, local jealousies amongst wine makers, the outrageous costs of barrels, and  whether or not corks, plastic corks or screw tops were best. ( Corks good for wine that needs to mature, screw tops good for wine that needs to be drunk now…..and plastic corks ….no good , ever, for anything, especially the planet ). There were also some interesting technical terms used such as not “filtering the arse” out of the wine, meaning that some microscopic bits if skin can be found in bottles….. and this is fine.

Wendy shared her expertise on wine tasting and the language of the art……basically if you think a wine smells of sweaty socks, that is fine, you’ll remember it, if you have noted the name with “sweaty socks” next to it……you wont remember not to buy it again just by the label, because you will have forgotten what the label looked like.  We swirled wine round in large glasses( or tried to ), noticing legs, ( I never knew wine had legs), colour and transparency. We sniffed it, and then we tasted it, noticing its effect on the tip of our tongues ( sweetness), our gums ( tannin) and our cheeks……, I can’t remember what that was for…. I’ll have to go again.

Jayne had prepared lunch for us, and we sat with Corin and Jayne, overlooking a spectacular hillside, with terracing dating from Roman times. We ate with Corin and Jayne, while they answered all our questions about their experience as wine makers. Their frustration at some large scale English buyers ( mainly supermarkets) was evident. The buyers don’t want to taste the wine, just buy the cheapest they can, and the fact that the labour intensive process, the cost of barrels etc means that better wine costs more to make, is of no interest to them. The UK tax on wine and the transportation costs means that Corin and Jaynes’s wine is never going to be able to sell in Tescos for £3.99. Their basic wine , called le Fetard ( the merrymaker), sells for about 6 euros a bottle,  meaning that once the extras are added on, and Tesco’s  profit margin, it becomes an expensive wine for Brits to buy, and they wont when there is so much cheap stuff available. Wendy reckoned that some of the wine we buy in English supermarkets, means that about 10p is actually on the wine…the rest is tax, transportation cost, bottle and label costs and supermarket profit margin. Corin and Jayne can’t sell their wine for 10p !!!!!!

The rest of the day with Wendy was spent travelling through some spectacular country side. We visited the Cathar castle at Peyrepertuse, which was stunning……but that is another story.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Concerts, Castles and Cathars

It is clear the the summer season has started in the Minervois. I am spoilt for choice for entertainment.
On Friday night I went to the first of les Vendredis Classiques de Caunes….classical concerts held every Friday for a few weeks.

It started with a public rehearsal by a choir and small orchestra of a Bach cantata, ending with a performance where the audience was invited to join in the Amen section . The choir was excellent, the soloists were great and the conductor, Michel Brun, was brilliant at explaining what he was trying to get out of the performers as he commentated on the rehearsal.

The main concert  ( Vivaldi and Purcell) of the evening was also excellent, but not as much fun as the Bach rehearsal, although the counter tenor’s voice was astounding.

Between the Bach and the Vivaldi I went for a meal in the local bar with Veronica, one of the altos in the choir, who contacted me ( through a blog posting) . It was good to hear about her experience of moving out to France working and living here and about singing in the choir. It was also the first time I have met someone directly through blogging. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting up with her. So, if you're reading this Veronica, thanks so much for a lovely evening. 

Then on Saturday I had a whole day organised, wine tasting and visiting Cathar castles….it was a perfect combination, and will certainly feature in a later blog.

Peyrepertuse, a Cathar refuge during the Albigenisian crusade.

Today, Sunday, I’ve been thinking about watching the tennis on TV this afternoon and how I can maybe fit a few lengths of the pool in between sets. Prior to this exciting afternoon I have planned, I drove into the nearby village of Rieux, to experience their medieval fete. I am so impressed at the effort people make to enable these happenings to take place and be such enjoyable occasions. So here are a few of the photos I took.

I love those 12th century sunglasses.

This little girl was fascinated by the sword

After all this activity, I may forgo the swimming, and just slump in front of the TV, with fingers crossed for Murray.