Thursday, 10 July 2014

Unexpected Kew

I am on the move so not visiting everyone's blogs as much as usual, and I can't sort out a problem with comments either -grr! But .I will do it on my return and meanwhile here's a post I drafted just before I left about a few unexpected aspects of those famous botanical gardens at Kew. 

Like  this goose with absolutely no sense of privacy has laid her eggs in the flower urns on the border of the great lake by the Palm House. About the busiest imaginable part of the Gardens, but perhaps she was inspired, in her little bird brain, by the sight of the egg like decoration all round the urn. They are about the size, shape and colour of her own eggs! You'll see the gardeners have put a barrier round her, with instructions to the public not to disturb her. But really she seemed perfectly unfazed.

There are usually special events and artistic things going on in Kew - I think they aim to make it worthwhile to spend the day there with the family.  I couldn't for the life of me work out why they had given this tree a wonderful crocheted coat (below), but this little fellow was most delighted with it.

And this little girl loved the wooden sheep and her baby lambs.

Now I do know what this (below) is for. It's about choosing how much funding to give various areas of medical research involving plants. It's a way of voting. You choose a strand of wool in the colour that corresponds with the area of health you think should be prioritised for research, and tie it on the vine tree.

It is highly unscientific, but does look pretty.  I think I voted for antibiotics research.

For as long as I can remember, the big building you can see in the background of that goose picture at the top, was called the Wood Museum. I could never figure it out (you will notice I am not very good at figuring out things at Kew).  It was always interesting in a Victorian sort of way, and reminded me of the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, in the days when Pitt Rivers was truly dusty and forgotten.

Now, the Wood Museum has become a museum of Kew Gardens' collection of the things you can make of plants, and contains all kinds of intriguing Victoriana. Some of the collection is pretty old, but new exhibits are always being added, and it's an important resource for researchers. I was captivated by a model made by Rakkal Chunder Pal in India in 1886, showing an indigo dye works in all its intricate, realistic detail, from the ox-carts carrying the indigo plants to the works. You see the men carrying them up to the racks to dry

After several other processes, these poor fellows have to stand in the indigo up to their waists and beat the mixture with their paddles.

It's a huge model, and really deserves a whole post, because it's large and indigo dye making is an intricate process ... but hopefully you will get there yourself one day and manage to see it all.

These are earrings, created from some little seeds called Job's Tears, and what seems to be some form of yarn. The accompanying notice said that the Royal School of Needlework was helping conserve many of their more fragile items, like this.  I was particularly intrigued by a 19th century Japanese vest made of mulberry paper, but unfortunately I couldn't get a good shot as the museum is quite dark.

I found these porcelain false teeth, set in india-rubber, most fascinating.  I wonder when dentists stopped calling themselves "surgeons."

The exhibition looks to be permanent, and so I hope to revisit next time I go to Kew and look at it all again - it repays close examination.  But it was getting near to closing time when I left, and I took a rather remote woodland path around the side of the gardens just to see the student show gardens.  And I met this blocking my way, standing in the middle of the path.

I've never met a peacock in a wood before.  It didn't exactly seem scared of me but after we looked at each other, it decided to make a detour through the long grass instead of continuing along the path.. 

What a wonderful thing to meet in a wood!

And of course in between seeing this stuff I also saw any number of amazing plants. That's what Kew is all about, and my next post will show some of the most picturesque and interesting.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

What Would You Do?

 I noticed a couple of days ago that our flat is looking grubby.  We've both tidied and cleaned up and yes, mopped up the baby sick, constantly swept up thousands of sticky lime flowers that coat the front path, etc but big things haven't been done, no dusting, no dirty fingermarks wiped off paintwork,  oven not cleaned, etc. and I sure didn't help by carrying a Christmas tree in a pot between two floors, shedding showers of dead needles into places that you wouldn't think needles could get into.

So our happy home had gone way past the description of  "shabby chic," "home-like," "relaxed,"  and was edging into "ick" territory.  Since we've got house guests arriving shortly I decided to hire in a cleaner from an agency at ten pounds an hour.   I just wanted the floors cleaned PROPERLY, kitchen taps shining, and all those lurking pine needles discovered and disposed of.

I asked for five hours, and the cleaner came along a bit early, after travelling an hour and a half from the other side of London.   I told her what to do, she nodded, I left her to it and for five hours I heard her working hard.  Every now and then I looked in on her and saw the dusting was getting done and so on.  I tried to talk to her and realised she didn't speak much English.

At the end of the five hours, she was ready to go. She asked me to look at her work and see it was OK as the agency would ask me for feedback.  "I've only just begun this job" she said, "it's important to me to get good feedback."

Well, I took a look around and I was dismayed. She was supposed to have washed the kitchen floor - it wasn't wet. I asked why not and she explained she had wiped it over on hands and knees with a damp cloth, rather than using the mop.  She hadn't known how to use the oven cleaner because she couldn't understand the instructions. Nor did she use the right tools and materials for other jobs.   She hadn't noticed dust in some of the corners, and I found many pine needles lurking.  She'd left dried watermarks all over the showers and taps. She had worked constantly, but she didn't know how to clean in a professional way, she was disorganised and obviously her standards just weren't that high.

I couldn't have begun to tell her what was wrong with her work. But the house was better than before, even though it hadn't been the proper clean I had hoped for.    So I just said "OK" and off she went on her 90 minute return trip. An eight hour day for whatever proportion of my fifty pounds was left for her after the agency had taken their cut.

I decided to tell the agency that she couldn't clean.... but hesitated.  You know what would happen - they wouldn't train her or help, they just wouldn't use her again. There's loads of poor people who need to work for next to nothing.  Why train one or deal with her problems when they could just find someone else?  She wasn't lazy, she was nice, she was just a young untrained woman far from home working hard but just not very good.

I think I know what I am going to do when the agency contacts me for feedback in the next few days.  But just wondered what you would do?

Friday, 20 June 2014

Carinthia: Calm as a Picture Postcard. Mostly.

Just back from that trip to Austria I mentioned.   I visited the lakes of Carinthia, the southernmost bit of Austria, on a press trip with Headwater Holidays, who run "soft" activity holidays.  I wanted to go partly because when I was a child we lived in Germany and took our summer holidays either at lakes or somewhere along the Baltic.  Of the latter, say no more (think freezing winds even in midsummer) but the lakes seemed idyllic in memory, and I wondered if my memories had been rose tinted.  Actually it was just like I remembered.  To look at the view above makes me imagine swimming there, as we did, and Mum and Dad sitting just out of shot with icecreams ... sigh..

These lakes are remarkably clear and clean, with water from the mountains, so some of them have that distinctive turquoise tinge found in glacial water.  And there is something calming about swimming in a natural environment, being amongst plants and fish and ducks. Not that I managed any lake swimming on this occasion, (see why not, a bit further on) but it's so much nicer than staring at tiled walls and smelling chlorine in a pool.

Anyway, Headwater has opened up Carinthia as a new destination. I've never understood why English speaking people just don't seem to go to this part of Austria.  True, the flights from the UK aren't that good, but you can easily get a cheapo flight to Munich, Germany, and then take a train - it's a great trip which could form a good start to a holiday.

Still, the area is not short of visitors. It's particularly popular with Germans and Austrians who want eco friendly family breaks, or like to cycle or walk along the huge network of immaculate trails and small roads on the slopes of the mountains.

It isn't their high season yet, but the weather during our trip was warmer than is usual in June, and there were plenty of people looking as if they were posing for tourist board brochures. In fact, a lot of the scenery looked like a picture postcard.

You will need to take exercise to work off the meals.  The food was all of good quality but although everyone else in our group loved it, it was frankly too stodgy for my taste.  It is like German food used to be but these days in Germany you can get much lighter fare, and less of the fried dumplings and slabs of meat. Take a look at a local speciality - pancake soup!  A delicious bouillon, to be sure, but filling it up with sliced pancakes - ?  This was not for me. I passed it on to one of the other journalists, and he enjoyed it.

I mostly chose salads and fish, though, and the surroundings were usually so lovely that I could forget about the awkwardness of leaving half of the huge portions.

The place above is on the Millstätter Lake and below is the Hotel Schönruh, Faakersee, where we had lunch on the terrace.

 As you see the menu is all in German, although everyone seems to speak English and the waiters are happy to translate. 

We did a sort of condensed version of the company's holidays, so there wasn't as much cycling as there would have been on one of their usual trips,  but we covered forty or fifty kilometres, including some moderate hills.  Here are a couple of members of our group, dawdling around as we considered which route to take.   Several of the houses we passed grew their own fruit and veg and did bio bed-and-breakfast.

The cows apparently hadn't yet gone up into the "Almen" - the high mountain meadows - but seemed happy enough in their spick-and-span barns.

There's more sunshine in Carinthia than other parts of Austria but that didn't spare us from some spectacular mountain weather. One day, we were supposed to be seeing a falconry show in a ruined castle atop a hill. As we climbed, the weather began to look pretty dodgy in the distance, with the lakes going dark green beneath gathering clouds.  But it was still bright and sunny where we were...

And for a while, the show managed to go on - it was all in German and the birds were rather small so I can't really tell you much about it. What you can't see from the picture below is the extremely high wind which had blown up by this time. Or perhaps you can, if you look closely at the bird's slightly ruffled feathers. That shot was pointing in the direction of the relatively "good" weather, by the way, not the dark clouds which were racing towards us from the other direction.

But eventually ......

Great pillars of rain began to fall out of incredibly black clouds. I was hoping to get some of the spectacular forks of lightning which were shooting around, but didn't succeed.  Needless to say, this lot ruined the falconry display when it finally reached us, and its rainy, cold aftermath also stopped me from lake swimming  (see above)- but it was well worth experiencing such dramatic weather. 

I thought Headwater was good, by the way.  They mostly use their own reps (rather than buying them in) and the trip was very well planned, with routes that were interesting and varied, but not too alpine for the  kind of "occasional" cyclists who form most of their customer base.  Our press group ranged from people who had ridden bikes as kids,  to one veteran of the Lands End-John o'Groats run.  We all felt pretty happy with the routes.   And we stayed in pleasing hotels, like this one below, the Familiengut, which as its name suggests, caters mostly for families. But the fact it had an outdoor pool, play area and lots of grass to roar around on didn't stop it from being civilised for adults too. Like many other places we saw, it had well tended gardens full of roses, and varied, civilised outdoor eating for grown ups. A bit like being in someone's particularly nice back garden. 

One of the highlights was traveling out in a motor boat to a pontoon moored outside Kollers Hotel on the Millstätter See.  Guests can book an eight course meal on this glamorous pontoon, with staff zooming out in boats with each course.   Click the link on their website for a better image of the pontoon - I didn't manage to get one but this was the view from it.

We didn't have a meal but they gave us sparkly water and local wine which hit the spot on our first day - which had involved a 3 AM start for me.

The cycle trails were pretty good. They even had toolstations every now and then, with free tools for your bike repair.

Carinthia is not a place to go if you want bright lights or metropolitan buzz in any shape or form, and I doubt you'd meet any incredible challenges on these holidays, unless you feel challenged by heights or the occasional thunderstorms. It seems like a cosy little corner of Austria, although apparently the inhabitants of Vienna are a bit scornful of their Carinthians' countrified ways, I was told.   But when I spoke to a local newspaper reporter, she said she hadn't reported any murders at all during her twenty year stint in the region, and I guess that is worth a few Viennese sneers.  

The area's biggest town, Klagenfurt,was certainly calm and rather beautiful.  Look at this apothecary's window, with shutters hundreds of years old. 

On our last day, we had a guided tour of Klagenfurt, and discovered much harder and darker sides to the area's history, however calm and prosperous it is now - as is usually the case everywhere that has any history (and there is plenty of history here). 

But what I saw seemed to me prenaturally calm, beautiful, easy and well organised. Almost uncannily so, when I compare it with the normal hustle and bustle of my everyday life. So I can only suggest that you do come here if you like some gentle cycling and hiking with Headwater, or come independently for a clean, attractive, well equipped and not too expensive family holiday (in German),  And don't come here if your normal life includes patrolling Detroit in a cop car or hunting down drug gangs, because quite frankly, the shock will be just too much. :)

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Signs of the Times

When I take little walks around London,  I like to snap things on walls  - posters, notices, adverts.   Thought you might like to see some of what I've seen lately.  

I happened to get off the train at South Croydon, a small old fashioned station.  In the old fashioned waiting room I saw this old fashioned poster. I suppose it's a reproduction or perhaps it's a new piece of art work. I wonder.  Anyway, I thought it was rather clever. Except when I got far enough away to see the picture, I was too far to see the writing. Oh well. 

 A set of brilliantly coloured, lively murals celebrating the Notting Hill Carnival by Fiona Hawthorne, who is described as "Barack Obama's Portraitist".  Her picture of him apparently hangs in the Library of Congress (I haven't seen it).  But she has lived for many years in Notting Hill, the area of London made famous by "Four Weddings and A Funeral".  And she has created these huge murals on a long stretch of wall. They're almost life sized. and even though I'm an old grouch who doesn't like carnivals, I did love these. 

I liked this poster at the entrance to some beautiful gardens on Hampstead Heath. I'm hoping to write about them soon, as they're very interesting. Nothing like softening an order with a smile, is there?

I saw no dogs in the gardens, so I think the notice must have worked.   This bossy poster, by contrast,  has been comprehensively ignored.  

I loved this shot.  It shows some 1950s posters which have survived in a garage in Soho. I thought the girl suited them very well, somehow. 

And finally, here is a sign from Athens, with an unofficial addition.   A donkey lane.  I like the idea!.

PS and talking of animals I'm waiting another few days to see if anyone else wants to go into the draw for the dog book in my last post. Not that I mind if you don't - it's not my book - but it is actually quite a nice one! :)

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Rain, Press Releases, and a Small Competition

Been living a quiet life for the past week or two, trying to get organised before my next trip, which is to Austria, with another trip close on its heels. Not complaining but I'm a little concerned that I seem to be so much less organised than I was. Things pile up so I'm often worrying about how I'll get it all done. On the other hand, now I hang around photographing flowers  - like these on the balcony, after a fierce rainstorm. What do they remind you of? 

They make me think of elaborate fabrics to dress princesses up in....

Or palace furnishings.  Wouldn't this  (below) look sensational on a sofa?

Been working on press releases for the children's book launch, as the kids would love it if someone covered them in the paper.   Makes me think about all those press releases I don't even bother to read usually... hey, they're hard work to write.  

The syringes arrived today.  We're going to give each child in the class a "medical style" pen shaped like a syringe full of blood, apart from the fact it won't be sharp - and the blood isn't real.

Also received a couple of books to review. Here's one, below. I am afraid I haven't reviewed it though it looks very entertaining, from a quick read, specially for dog owners (which I am not).   

It's inspired by a blog called "Phileas Dogg," which describes itself as the only travel site written for and by dogs (thereby showing how important it is to have a focus for your blog, even if it doesn't always make sense.) :)   I'd like the book to go to an appreciative home so I'm doing a little competition. Just add a comment saying why you'd like the book. I'll choose a random name from those who are interested,  and hey presto, we will have a winner.   (If you don't want to enter the competition, that's fine, just don't mention it if  you make a comment). 

Still talking of dogs, I noticed a huge muddy puddle the other day into which this small, well groomed white dog suddenly plunged with joy.... to be dragged out by his owner a few seconds later, looking much less well groomed, as you see.

And also I noticed this (clean, I hope) little dog making itself at home in a shop window the other day. It positioned itself to get the sun while being able to watch its owner inside the shop. Is that a cushion it's lying on, or a garment later to be sold to an unsuspecting customer?

Monday, 26 May 2014

Athens - Mostly Food

Before I say another word,  can anyone suggest a browser for Apple devices that supports Blogger? Safari doesn't, so I can't blog when on the move, and I'm away a LOT this year. So I am really sorry it's taken me so long to write about Athens, and that I haven't been commenting much on blogs. Well, hopefully that will change!  

I really loved revisiting Athens after several years away.  The picture above shows a stunning sculpture of a boy jockey on a horse from the transformed Athens Archaeological Museum.  I can't get over that that it was created when we in Britain were scratching things on walls of our mud huts, or whatever we did in the years BC (see below). 

I knew there were many new things in Athens since my last visit, over 10 years ago.  The cleverly-planned, world-class Acropolis museum, extensions to the fascinating Benaki, new venues, parks, restaurants and hotels. But I'd also seen some negative stuff because of the economic situation, and been warned by Greeks to be a little more careful about personal security than before, even though the city is still very safe by most standards.

So I took the advice and was careful, but despite more empty shops, to me Athens seemed much the same as usual, better in many parts, the only worse thing I noticed was more graffiti than before.  I felt safe, welcome and happy there.  In fact, people seemed to go out of their way to be generous, hospitable and friendly; but then, I tend to expect that in Greece.

For instance, in the city's central market, I saw these strawberries, very cheap. I bought half a kilo, and the stall owner tipped in an extra handful, and knocked off the extra cents due to him when he weighed them.  And they were the most wonderful strawberries, very fresh and just as good as they looked.  I was impressed. He knew we were just tourists, probably wouldn't be back, but still treated us well.

So as a little thank you to that proud and generous Greek stallholder, I'll tell you a bit more about the food in Athens.  Of course it's a great city to walk around the back streets of, and en route to the central market we saw all kinds of interesting things, including a shop selling honey and bee products, with honeycomb stained glass

 and we met this nice lady who feeds the tortoises who live in the grounds of the Petraki monastery.

We climbed the many steps up Mount Lycabettus,

and saw the silver icon of St. George in the little church at the top

and the views on the way down.

And finally arrived at the market. It's still a typical old European city wholesale market, lots of fun to walk through, looking at lots of good quality stuff, while the owners call their wares.

  A lot of meat, mostly lamb....

Fish of all kinds, very fresh

preserved fruits and nuts

 - all kinds from sesame roast almonds to silvered wedding nuts, dried nectarines, peaches, kiwi-fruits

I bought crystallised kumquats and hibiscus flowers

Red easter eggs (since it was Easter)

Great piles of whole spices...

All types of unusual olives

and, in the familiar,scruffy area around the market, there are now shops selling wonderful cakes, which there certainly never used to be.

I remember when it was impossible to get decent international food in Athens, even though Greeks seem to use very good quality ingredients.   That's not the case now.  The hotel where I stayed, (Airotel Stratos Vassilikis) had remarkably good food for what was otherwise just a pleasant, middle priced hotel.    This was all I managed to photograph at breakfast, but they had lots of unfamiliar things, sweet and savoury, and different each day.  The evening meal we had was also way above average, and not expensive. I reckon they have a chef who loves his job. Although the hotel was some way from the centre, I'd stay there again for the care they took over the food.

Oh, and I was pleased to learn that a whole lot of travel articles I wrote years ago are coming online. Nice to know they have not been forgotten. I will investigate and will link to them as soon as I can, in case anyone's interested. (Well, I am! ) I'd added a couple to the sidebar already, but it will be much quicker to link.

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