adventures in flanders …

The decorators finished early, and by 0605 on Saturday morning we were already on the continent, en route to Ypres (via Brugges) for an educational week-end in the killing fields of Flanders.

Ypres – or Ieper in Flemish but never wipers – is typically Belgian with narrow cobbled lanes that contrast the architectural modernity of a town that has clearly experienced re-development since its obliteration from heavy bombardment during the Great War. It also boasts the Menin Gate, where every night since 1920 (except for the war years, when the ceremony moved back to England) locals and tourists gather under this monument to watch wreaths being laid at the playing of the Last Post. I don’t think I have ever been in a more moving remembrance event and while the general mood was decidedly sombre, I also sensed something else … something equating to relief, you know that feeling you get after paying back a long-term debt. To the 37 thousand or so British and ANZACS soldiers whose names adorn the walls of this monument because their bodies have never been formally identified, found nor interred, we can but hope that in over 80 years that this ceremony has been running, the crowds have accrued enough dignity to put their souls at rest.

For The Fallen
by Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

However, when it comes to understanding the true horror of this war, a visit to the museum at Sanctuary Wood aka Hill 62 is a must. If the stereoscopic photos, recovered munitions and miscellaneous memorabilia do not paint a clear enough picture of the 4 years of hell endured by the British forces in defence of the Western Front, then slip through the back door and walk in the trenches and/or potholes to get that first hand experience that I guarantee you will not acquire anywhere else. War, at best is ugly and horrific, but the First World War set a precedence for a shameless waste of human lives that has not and hopefully will never be surpassed.

For a change of scenery, we moved onto Brussels and checked into the Holiday Inn, set a stone’s throw from the chic shopping area of Avenue Louise. Earlier we had promised J2 seafood (mussels in particular) for dinner but not having the stamina to face the touts in Rue des Bouchers, we ate locally at Delire Parisien on rue Jordan, just off Ave Louise. Now this is great french cooking, with very friendly service in a setting that is convivial and spacious. The plats du jour promised l’Os a Moelle (bone marrow) which was quite delicious, but we were too late for the foie gras and pheasant, but found equally delectable alternatives a la carte – J in particular fell silent during her entree of Salade de chevre Chavignol with honey which she pronounced as simply excellent. Note: it seems that even in a French restaurant, the diner cannot escape the Belgian witloof (chicory or endive, depending on your linguistic persuasion). The one on my plate accompanying the rognon de veau was surprisingly tasty, perhaps a credit to chef who has managed successfully to present this rather mundane vegetable so that it actually invites ingestion Anyway, the Ch. Grand Bourdieu (Graves) we selected was perfect accompaniment to an outstanding meal, and afterwards we walked off the excesses by strolling into Sablon and taking in a compulsory beer at the Cafe Leffe!

The clocks may have gone back on Sunday morning, but we continued to enjoy summer temperatures as we setttled down to waffles and crepes for breakfast, around the corner from the Grand Place. Several chocolate shops later, we were ready for another break, this time at the Cafe de Bxl for a degustation de cinq bieres, which rounded off beautifully our little week-end in Flanders.

But during our time here, our thoughts were never far away from those men who fought and died that we may continue to enjoy the liberties and pleasures of this life. So boys and girls, remember this …

When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.

new toys …

So it’s been a while since my last post. J and I were looking forward to a period of unadulterated chilling out which we did manage to achieve despite the chaos created by our earlier accident with the water tank. As a bonus, our respite ended on a materialistic high with some new toys for SWMBO and me: J bought a new car, and I’m now the proud father of this little bag of wizardry. The O2 XDA Exec (the Universal from HTC a.k.a. T-Mobile MDA Pro, Vodafone VPA IV, Orange SPV M5000, Qtek 9000, i-Mate JasJar, Dopod 900) is a replacement for my XDA II and Nokia 6630 – I now retain full PDA/MP3 functionality with TomTom 5 satellite navigation plus the added bonus of 3G high-speed data services including 2-way video conferencing with J’s Sharp 902 (Ferrari limited edition) – an early birthday present from yours truly. With the Blackberry Connect client expected imminently, I shall be in a position to get rid of the 7100v too – taking me down to a single device. Oh happy days!

It’s half term next week. The kids are home and I’m planning to take some time off to do some DIY on the house, addressing other parts that are not being worked on by the builders/decorators who will be onsite again repairing the walls and ceilings from our recent accident with the water tank. If they finish before the week is out, we may emabark on our annual pilgrimage to Disneyland Paris for Halloween and if not, well there’s always something here that needs doing. An old house is very much like an old car – when the fixing is done, one is instantly bowled over by the beauty of the finished product, but while it is being worked on, the monotony of repairs is just unbearably tedious

Which is why we needed some retail / gastronomic therapy today. Fresh & Wild (we visited the branch on Queens Road, Clifton) is fast becoming a mecca for the discerning foodie while providing instant gratification to those shopping for natural remedies / alternative skincare products. While J fiddled with rose-perfumed face cleansers, I rooted around the organic veg section (pah! don’t you just hate it when people do that and then add the detestable caveat of No pun intended) for some butternut squash for soup-making later … ummmm, I’m really into soups at the moment, particularly veggie ones. Afterwards, we popped into the new branch of Space.NK – a super-modern apothecary with Habitat-inspired decor, stocking the latest skincare products from Eve Lom plus other pricey items, but if you’re on a tighter budget especially after paying for so many new toys , then I recommend the relatively affordable Kiehl’s Lip balm. Oh, and the Men’s eau de toilette is just divine – Santa, are you taking notes?!

ciao venezia …

My friend David once described Venice as a theme park for grown ups where the rides never end. There’s no denying the magic that’s woven into the network of interconnecting canals and the gravity defying gondoliers, but I just don’t recall coming across so many touts and fake handbag sellers in Disney. Or so many whinging Americans for that matter Oh, and there is another big difference – Disney is not drowning (see photo).

This has been a holiday of nearlys – like how we nearly missed our flight (making check-in with 5 mins to go), or how we nearly made it to Harry’s Bar for a Bellini, or how we nearly dined at Vini di Gigio or nearly tucked into tagliatelli con granseola at the Trattoria Favorita, and how we nearly visited the cemetery island of San Michele. But for all the near misses, we made some interesting discoveries that I suspect Venetians would like to keep out of tourist guide books – for example, ending up in a wonderful hotel on the Grand Canal ideally located for the buses, trains and vaporetti, sipping lots of Bellinis at Bacaro Jazz with Diana Krall playing in the background, or having the full 3-courses (seafood antipasti including the local Venetian delicacy of sarde in saor (fried sardines braised in wine vinegar, onions, pine nuts and raisins) followed by spaghetti bursara and carpaccio) in the garden restaurant of Al Nono Risorto, or sitting Wagamama-style in long benches at the Osteria al Bomba where J declared she had the best ravioli ever as I slurped at my very tasty spaghetti nero, cooked in squid ink and full of bits of cuttlefish, or how we ended up walking on the long island of Lido, admiring the huge country villas that would make nice holiday and/or retirement homes.

In a recent BBC TV series, Francesco da Mosto lamented the passing of his beautiful city from a historic strategic trading post to a mecca for street traders, peddling imitation Murano glassware, tacky carnival masks and dodgy leather goods. And while I sympathise with him and the 40,000 or so Venetians who have to put up with the commercialisation of this beautiful city, Venice just wouldn’t be half as interesting without the quaint shopping alleys in Rialto and San Marco. I mean, try to imagine the Champs-Elysee without shops, or the Khan in Cairo without the souks – without commerce, these places would be interesting only to architects, hard core historians and romantics like da Mosto, all pining after a era that is not as encapsulating or relevant to a materialistic 21st century society who is armed to the teeth with the ubiquitous credit card. I’m sure Casanova (or Byron for that matter) never had this problem with shopping – but during his day, he probably had more things to occupy himself … like going skinny-dipping in the canals with his girlies – a practice that is no longer allowed, clothed or otherwise Ummm, there’s a thought – if I was the Doge in 8th century Venice, I would order the sinking of Murano (to obliterate any future in glass making), become more friendly with the Pope, sack a few more cities in Asia, and turn the Lido into a nudist colony. And then I would call my pal Walt to build a giant underwater roller-coaster along the Grand Canal, which will stay open despite the rising sea levels caused by future global warming.

normality is for whimps …

Waking up at 0500 every morning has given me a sense of purpose and achievement- but now that this bidding cycle is over I shall have to find an equally satisfying activity for the early hours … because it will take a while before my mind and body come to the realisation that it is OK to sleep until 0730. Really.

And there is a lot on my mind. Like trying to find the optimal sequence to buy and sell property without incurring a shameful amount of Capital Gains tax, or working out the best return on long term investment based on SIPPs … and most importantly, obtaining the addresses for the best eateries in Venice when J and I visit this week-end.

But this evening, I shall put my feet up, pour myself a glass of something strong and reminisce on past times and old friends … because I just don’t agree with Liam Fox when he says that the past does not qualify him to become the new leader of the Conservative party. People judge us by our ability to deliver on our promises, and in return, we judge others in advance by looking at previous reputation and old behaviours. Just like on this bid team – there are some folks I will never want to work with again, but then there are others who I would actively seek out to collaborate with on some future project together.

And as we wait to learn our fate on this bid (announcement due in early November), I feel I need to remind myself that often it’s not the destination that matters … but the journey.

future nav …

Is this the future of web navigation? Feeling the need to tear myself away from bid documentation, I decided to check out Google Earth. Now a really cool interface for me would involve overlaying Big Picture over Google Earth, with an option to communicate directly with your handheld GPS device (which also happens to be a mobile phone, PDA, espresso maker, etc.) Picture this, having trawled the net using this new interface, read the reviews and decided on the latest toy you absolutely cannot live without, you can zoom into the retail outlet nearest you and check out the traffic situation before leaving the house and have the location details sent directly to your GPS system cum coffee maker. Oh, if you are really astute, you will have programmed additional criteria into Big Picture to ensure that the gadget shop is adjacent to purveyors of female fashion goods, thereby earning extra brownie points from the significant half who will be chuffed to bits by this sudden display of generosity. And if she does murder you after discovering how much you have spent on said gadget, you will at least be posthumously awarded the Nobel Prize for Marital Reconciliation. Alternatively, you can sit on your fat arse, break open a six-pack and buy it through eBay. It will save you a new pair of shoes and (if you are really unlucky) a handbag.

Speaking of gadgets – if you haven’t yet discovered Gizmodo, check it out here.