Christine's Travel Journal
Thursday, June 03, 2004
3 june 2004
Sun is shining in Inverness. It was cold and cloudy early this morning in Aviemore as I sat over coffee waiting for the Funicular to open. It's a new railway trip to the summit of Cairngorm. The clouds kept sweeping over the mountains then clearing again. What lovely drama.
Last night with Iain Wallace and Diane his partner, we walked through the spongy forest feeling it glow all round us with the translucent green of the native berry plants just coming into flower. Iain was carrying a shopping bag which turned out to contain a bottle of Crofts Original, three sherry glasses and some nibbles. We sat by a lochan enjoying perfect reflections of the mountains.
The flies in this ointment were large mosquitoes!
Mosquitoes in North Scotland??? Is this new? I think so.
Thursday, May 13, 2004
from cousin Donald's near Montpellier, now 14 May
Nine countries in seven days, well not so ridiculous in Europe, if you think of Liechtenstein, Monaco to name two of them. That 'boast' also includes Mexico, USA and Germany(transit), Switzerland, Austria three times :) Italy, France.
You could have knocked me down with a snowflake when I woke on my last day in Switzerland: snow covered all the roofs and was falling steadily. Did it hold up the transport system? Not on your Nellie. I took an earlier train from the mountain, just in case the route over San Bernadino had problems. There were a good eight inches on the pass but the road was clear. The bonus for the early train was a pleasant hour over coffee in Thusis with an enthusiastic pair from Brisbane who had seen all of Switzerland and gave me lots of reasons to come back..after all I had only had a glimpse of her many splendours.
Did I tell about Marcel and Claudia's home aged ?350 years in a most traditional village, wow. Ground floor has storage for hay and even below that are sheep... it is still used for sheep, I saw some in the dimness. Inside has lots of new wood panelling and floors.
Much as I would have been thrilled to go on the river --- Marcel's natural home where he teaches kayaking and rafting --- it was pretty rainy and soggy so we all went to their shopping town Chur for the afternoon. Saw a lot of country including confluence of two Rhines ---oooh fabulous lunch.
On to Nice by train, a 12 hour journey, absolutely fine except for about four hours south of Milan when it was packed. The coast part was a dream as the sun descended on one lovely town after another. Mind you there was a lot of ugly utilitarian stuff as well. Beaulieu sur mer just after Monaco was the prettiest. The railway is right by the sea for a lot of miles.
Big thrill to meet Margaret at Nice airport next morning and pick up our car. Scary scary scary setting off north hitting the right road but not into top gear for a day or two! Less traffic as we turned off for the mountains but narrow winding roads and about every third car towards us taking up ALL the road.
Rain, even loud thunder at St Martin Vesubie. Overcast, quite cold. Maybe we made a mistake, we thought, maybe we should have stayed at the coast. But next morning, ahhh the deep blue of a mountain sky in spring. Great! Upwards we climbed, right into the snow. More high peaks ahead: Italy! Time to turn round--- on small roads towards an area west of Cannes, called Esterel. It too has hills - right by the coast. You can imagine, the coast road is a traffic nightmare, Margaret was the driver again and coped beautifully in spite of my squirming. I DID try to look at the sea instead.
The peaks of the Esterel massif gave a wonderful view of the Cannes coast, it was great to have a Sunday walk in the hills, all sorts of wild flowers to quiz ourselves over, chirruping birdsong too.
Two days in Forcalquier area with Margaret's sister in law were a delight of laughter, great landscape, brilliant food and copious excellent wine. Oh and Far from traffic! Vicky and Simon are living the Provencal dream, and have created a marvellous arty characterful colourful home over the last seven years. They have a guest wing for hire so like us have a variety of visitors.
It was a glimpse into a lifestyle adapted to the French way which places so much importance on fresh food and careful preparation, and sociable enjoyment of eating together.
Gosh this holiday lark is such hard work but one has to push on, :)
Margaret had to get to London for the Opera - more Wagner - on Tuesday, so it was an early start on Tuesday, plenty of time. My moment of truth came when she was suddenly gone and it was only me, the car, and the roadmap.
Out of the airport, got off the motorway OK then ran slap into a weekly market day in the first town. Not so good. roads closed. Round a bit, round again, then ahhh, found it. No more troubles, I was launched.
Arles was the destination, Pat Cook had enjoyed a coffee on the main street, that was recommendation enough. Plenty to see there, very old stuff incl a Roman amphitheatre still used for bullfights and concerts. Van Gogh stuff everywhere of course. It was pretty busy with mostly German visitors.
Across the Camargue, famous swampy haunt of wild white horse, black fighting bulls and flamingoes. Now also of rice paddies. I saw samples of all four icons, without hardly a stop.
Big challenge facing me was getting across Montpellier, a sizable city. Well, I just followed the traffic and by chance got out the other side, fortunately not on the road to Spain.
I found the village of Grabels, teensy streets again so I found an offroad park and asked an elderly gent with a handsome dog, where the street 'rue de chateau' might be. Well he was just Donald's father in law wasn't he, and he was keeping a lookout for me. I was right outside the house.
Donald is my first cousin but we had not met for 30+ years. His wife Sylvie belongs here - she speaks beautiful English with a Scottish accent - and there are two gorgeous teenagers Chloe and Sophie... both seriously into womens basketball, train five nights a week.
There is a lot to catch up on and we have made a very good start! Plus, Raphael from Paris came down on the fast train for the day.. we did Montpellier on foot and found several spacious squares, esp one which Donald says is the biggest pedestrian square in Europe. Full of people! All sizes and colours. Yet another fabulous old town with twists and turns, a million restaurants among the aged pink walls and carved wooden doors.
Today we have been into the hills, as far as St Guilhem an old town on a famous pilgrims' route to N Spain. Lots of pilgrims, none on their knees thank goodness. This is an area where Donald cycles a lot at weekends, so he knows all the side roads. Some pretty teensy!
Yes Donald cycles all the time, into town for work: it's highly dangerous. They do have some cycle tracks but not well thought out eg they cross very busy roundabouts and go too close to the tramway and are often blind, narrow and two-way, he says. It's not like I saw in Switzerland where motorists seem to take a lot of care and there are many cyclists and children.
Hasta luego baby.
Monday, May 03, 2004
3 May in Widnau Switzerland
Just for this day or two I am inevitably comparing Mexico with Switzerland. I am amazed at the children playing everywhere in open gardens, biking down the road to school by themselves. Indeed the houses are open to each other and to the road, so modern, immaculate and just oozing domestic bliss and a sense of security. . Each enclave of houses seems like a village within a village, within a larger town, with a lot of green spaces but on a one-acre scale at most. Every tree is in blossom and the perfumes are wonderful as one coasts along on a push-bike. Small herds of cows and sheep intersperse the more scattered houses.
Yes I have been practising driving on the right, following Hanna as we did some little errands this afternoon. She did 5000km on bikes in her pre-married days, (in NZ and from Vancouver to San Francisco)and is still enjoying using it every day. In fact she has a wonderful little chariot behind her bike, in which three children under 7 were carried home from school today.
Car drivers are so used to children and bikes everywhere they seem to behave much better than NZ. The modern European car seems to have plenty of room inside but takes up very little room on the pavement.
Husband Rene works for UBS Bank, I think he controls three branches locally. Yeah, I know a Swiss banker!
The children are perfectly gorgeous and full of energy at four and six. We visited Roland, with whom Hanna was biking in NZ back in 1991. He too has a lovely family and an immaculate home. Everyone works long hours through the week, but seems to have time for the family too.
The contrast between Los Angeles airport and Munich airport has to be a telling one. It was a dream to alight in transit to an enormous, quiet, shining acreage, with onward flights clearly marked, friendly people in the shops. I won't tell you how many pointless queues we stood in at LAX, it's all over now and I don't have to do it again.
Customs in Zurich was no issue, and today we drove across the Rhine to Austria, were waved through and back. Hanna took me up a cable car (Karren) to see the town from above. There is a big mountain opposite, called Sentis but we didn't do that because of a bit of cloud coming in. We have seen four countries from here. (Liechtenstein being the fourth).
Yesterday the family took me for a drive across about four cantons including the last one to give women the vote in 1980. They all still vote by acclamation in the main square. (If it works, don't knock it!). Saw two old town centres, fabulous buildings going back centuries, an enormous cathedral. Statues, boutique shops, nothing but the best. A small piece of evidence of reputed immigration problems were some out-of-place loungers around the bus depot.
Oh, Colin we watched grass skiing, real speedy stuff. Remember that?
On to Versam tomorrow. It's less than an hour away. I have my ticket for the train to Nice. Finally posted some cards - yes LAX does not have a stamp or a postbox in the entire airport. I checked with 3 persons.
hasta la vista baby for another week or so.
Thursday, April 29, 2004
This was my journal on 28 April
Well on Thursday 22nd after Anita and Dena flew back to USA, Christine and Naomi left the secure and luxurious surroundings of the Monterrey Residence for a bus ride across country to San Miguel de Allende, ten hours mostly on narrow dual carriageway which was an endless stream of huge trucks. Trade is alive and well in the States of Mexico!
My mistake was, as always wanting to be at the front looking out, however as there were blinds all around, I had to watch the driver.. it seems his challenge was to do as many things as he could with his hands while chugging along at 90, inches from the next truck he was overtaking. His favourite was to wrestle with the box of CDs, hold one up, try to read label, meanwhile hanging on to four with the other hand. There was always a wad of something in his mouth, maybe tobacco....
Believe me I watched over him with care and shore 'nuff no catastrophe came to pass :).
You would have been proud of us as on arrival we dropped our bags, had a shower and stepped straight into a marathon of sightseeing, shopping, lunches and dinners! Tough work but we kept at it.
The town is very popular with Americans so house prices are enormous. Houses can be enormous too. Thick concrete, lovely sundown colours, masses of potted colour - geraniums, etc. I also saw NZ flax in pots. Domes everywhere on every scale from miniature to enormous make a delightful skyline.
Hot for a lot of walking on rough cobbled streets. Not unbearable heat but enough to make you want to shower after each outing. Mostly friendly although our hotel had a problem with staff morale and everyone there looked miserable. Huge grounds which I appreciated, air a bit fresher and no traffic noise.
Last evening after a night on a bus again N and I still managed to attend a piano concert, some of my favourite Beethoven, nice to hear it live. N introduced me to a few she knew, people from other embassies, also Americans.
Today they are moving furniture for a reception tomorrow for Texas University people here on a sales drive. We are going to see a museum or two and keep clear of the action.
The house is 65 big steps long and I hadn't included the last room. The main reception area is 23 big steps long and 13 wide. My bedroom ceiling goes on upwards so I can't see the roof! Wonderful space. Most of all, wonderful company.
This was my journal on 22 April.......
We have been four dazzling flowers with one magnificent squire. Monterrey has come to a stop!
Like all the best moments in life it has ended far too soon. Dena and Anita are on their way to the airport and will be back to family and weekend activities by night time.
Next phase is that I get Naomi to myself for three days.. she has organised us to spend the weekend at her favourite colonial village St Miguel de Allende. It is an overnight bus ride so we leave about 9.30pm.
Only those who have spent half a lifetime apart from closest family can appreciate how much the last five days have meant to all of us. I have had a quick brushup in American humour and wish some of that light touch would rub off on me... I have also enjoyed John's tremendous range and depth of knowledge about world affairs current and past.
Naomi and John are regarded most warmly by the staff at the Consulate-General as well as by the business and government community of the region. As a team they will be a very hard act to follow.
It is a busy office, in fact the dept that issues entry visas to US is the busiest in the world. (you should see the long, long, anxious but patient queue each morning). As well as Visa dept there is a Commercial section which encourages trade opportunities both ways, a dept looking after Americans abroad, security and policing (of course) and the diplomatic side. An encouraging number of very bright and charming youthful women are in charge of these Sections.
Naomi puts on enormous affairs and receptions at the Residence. They have had two US Presidential visits in two years, one world summit and one continental summit. A procession of US dignitaries incl Clinton twice lately.
Mexico is evidently an important neighbour of US...and Monterrey is well-placed to enjoy the fruits of increasing trade. At 4 million and rising fast, it appears to be a relatively happy place to live, however air pollution is a very visible problem to be faced by the authorities. The surrounding mountains are stunning: when one can see them!
April 29 my last day with Naomi. She is busy with not only tonight's reception for Texas Universities but next week's one, which has been sprung unexpectedly, for professional womens' basketball teams from USA.
Nothing is straightforward for them as there are a myriad of agencies with whom they have to deal. It is no easy ride being the Consul-General, the duties are, as they say, 24/7 and very much involve their home being on call as well as themselves.
However it is very evident that they have made a huge success during their tour here, both within the Consulate and with the wider Monterrey community, and will be much missed when they leave in July.
Naomi will miss Mexico too after eight years in the country, and altogether about 23 years out of her native USA. She has taken the art, architecture and music of Hispanic America to her heart and carries with her a great deal of knowledge, sympathy and understanding of those cultures on to their next posting, which incidentally is still unknown to them at this late stage..
My hope for them is something most of us take for granted in our own lives, something they yearn for: a home of their own with a lawn to mow. Handy to work and study, somewhere with clean air and trees. A community of neighbours who help each other.
Yes life has been challenging, eventful, sometimes wonderful, in the diplomatic service. Both John and Naomi have fulfilled their talents and still have more to give. I hope that they soon will get that desired 'settledness' as well as continuing challenges in their work.