1st October 2010
After last week’s “good access to tramps” from the Warsaw office, another appropriate use of an inappropriate word floated into my world on Wednesday. I had to catch an early flight for a meeting in Milan (more of this later). A member of my team who is based in Paris was also flying to Milan at the same time and we expected to meet mid-morning in the office in Milan. When I arrived at Milan’s Malpensa airport I turned my phone on. The phone beeped to tell me of an incoming sms. My French colleague was stuck in Paris, but what the sms actually said was, “I’m sorry but I won’t be able to meet you in Milan. My flight has been cancelled due to a thick frog in Paris”.
The flight from Geneva to Milan is just a short hop over the Alps. It used to be a route operated by Alitalia in a noisy propeller-driven aircraft, but they pulled out of the route some time ago. Now the route is operated by a French company called Twin Jet. Sounds promising!
I arrived at check-in to see a sign on the desk that read, “We remind passengers that there are no toilets on board the aircraft”. Remind? I don’t remember them telling me in the first place! OK, maybe it’s a small aircraft.
There were six passengers at the boarding gate and we got on the bus to take us to the aircraft. Now, I’ve flown in a six-seater seaplane over Dubai; I’ve flown in a four-seater Cessna over the Grand Canyon; I’ve even flown in a tiny helicopter over the Canadian Rockies, but I was not prepared for the aircraft that confronted me.
Twin Jet? Somebody seems to have replaced the jets with small propellers! We climbed the aircraft stairs to find a very basic interior. It was like a tube with 18 seats, and a very cold tube at that. We sat down and a guy walked down the plane to check that we were all wearing our seat belts. I began to wonder if he would give each of us a Bomber Jacket and Biggles Flying Helmet. Sadly not, because by now I was pretty cold. He told us we could help ourselves to croissants and coffee at the front of the plane, and then sat down in the co-pilot’s seat.
A few minutes later the propellers started up and the ventilation system blasted into life. In my case it blasted a cold jet of air up my skirt. The discomfort was short-lived and finally warm air began to circulate around the tube and feeling returned to my fingers, toes and, er, other parts.
The aircraft trundled around the airport and with a deafening roar it accelerated down the runway. We climbed quickly and were soon heading towards the Alps. Then something happened that made me forget everything that had gone before.
The plane filled with a strange light as the sun started to rise above the Alps. Magnificent jagged peaks were silhouetted against a sumptuous orange sky and it almost took my breath away. I wish I had been able to take photos of this moment, but perhaps it is better locked away in my memory. God has created a truly beautiful world and sometimes we forget just how beautiful it can be.
I had a new experience this week – dealing with the media! Several weeks ago I was contacted by a Russian magazine called F5 who wanted to know if would do an interview with them. Sure! Why not!
Time passed. E-mails went back and forth to try and find a suitable date and finally the event happened on Tuesday. The interview was conducted by telephone and lasted almost an hour and a half, but I can tell you that the time just flew by. On the other end of the line was a journalist who spoke no English, and a translator. They were interested in my cooking and especially my conversion to Islam. How did it happen? How did people around me react? Why Islam and not Judaism or another religion?
I don’t know when the article will be published, but when it is I’ll post it here on the website. I have a couple of friends who have offered to translate it into English so that we will all be able to read it!
9th October 2010
As a frequent traveller I am all too aware of how international politics can affect people’s freedom of movement across boundaries, but this week I found myself in the strangest of situations. I haven’t visited my team in Russia for almost 2 years so a trip to Moscow was long overdue. I received my Letter of Invitation from the Ministry of Migration as usual and began to fill in the visa application forms.
Wait! What’s this? A new form? For citizens of USA, UK and Georgia??? OK… So I need to provide much more information than before. No problem. “List all your previous employers with address, telephone numbers and the names of your superiors”. Fortunately I don’t have too many previous employers. “List all educational institutions you have ever attended.” I can do that. “List all countries you have visited in the last 10 years, together with the years in which you visited them”. And I am supposed to fit all that information into a box 2” by ½”??? I attached a separate sheet…
Having completed the forms I sent them off to the Russian Consulate in Geneva. The news came back “Application Rejected”. Huh??? “Sorry, you work in Switzerland but you live in France and we cannot give you a visa.” My host in Russia was a bit upset by this, so we contacted the Russian Embassy in Paris. “Sorry, but we cannot process this visa application unless you have a Residency Permit for France”. But I’m a citizen of the European Union and don’t need a Residency Permit, nor will the French Government give me a Residency Permit. “Sorry, but we cannot process this visa application unless you have a Residency Permit for France”
How about the Russian Embassy in London? “Sorry, but we cannot process this visa application because you are not resident in the UK”. So none of the Russian Embassies where I work, live or was born will give me a visa to visit their country because of a technicality. I wouldn’t mind but my passport has two expired Russian visas in it. And I thought French bureaucracy was bad.
Every room is starting to look like this
Plans are well advanced for moving home back to the UK. The Removal Company has been booked; arrangements for transporting Cat have been made; ferry tickets are paid for. Packing is still ongoing but I haven’t yet started to pack all my pots and pans. This may happen next Saturday, so I have a few more days left to make videos.
Part of the “fun” of the move is eating up whatever is in the ‘fridge and freezer. I have found plastic boxes of curries in the freezer which I made months ago and forgot about. Often I forgot to label them too, so evening meals have become like a Lucky Dip. Smelling frozen red gunk doesn’t always help to identify what it is…
I found some Turkish sausages in the freezer together with some chicken thighs. I instantly thought of doing my version of “Chicken with Chorizo”, but then noticed I didn’t have any tins of tomatoes in the house. Aha! But here is a box of frozen red stuff! Let’s use that!
Turkish sausage and grilled chicken cooked in Pizza sauce is an… interesting combination. I won’t be making a video of that any time soon.
18th October 2010
The house feels strange. All those little things that make a house a home are packed away in boxes. The walls are bare, the CD rack is empty and the dangling lightbulbs give a stark light to the rooms. Every room has been transformed into a pile of boxes and dismantled furniture. Even my kitchen cupboards are starting to look bare!
The fuel situation in France could not come at a worse time. Striking workers are blockading the refineries and it is starting to affect petrol stations. Both our cars run on diesel and this is a commodity in short supply in this part of France at the moment. God willing, the removal van will arrive on Wednesday morning after it’s journey from the UK.
Today I spent a few hours driving around and have a stash of diesel in the garage which should be enough to get us to Cherbourg by Thursday night. Moving home is stressful enough without having to worry if you will have enough petrol to get to your new home!
So we shall be leaving this country at a time when the Unions want to assert themselves and don’t care if the country comes to its knees. Nor do they care about the plight of the majority who just want to live their lives. And what are the Unions so upset about? The raising of the State retirement age from 60 to 62…
So Goodbye France. Somehow it feels that it is the right time to be going home. There are things that I’ll miss about this place – the house, the mountains, the summers, the few friends I’ve made here. But a new life awaits; a whole new chapter waiting to be written for all of us. The pen is poised and the page is blank…
LET’S ROCK AND ROLL!!!!!
29th October 2010
Moving home is always stressful – I know because I’ve done it a few times in my life. This latest house move had an extra dimension of stress which I have never encountered…
I became aware of this new dimension on the weekend before the move. Several petrol stations around us had run out of diesel, and my friend Jen said that she was also having problems finding diesel for her car. Alarm bells started going off in my head as this coincided with increased blockades of oil refineries and fuel depots in France. Three major concerns flashed into my mind:
- Would the removal lorry arrive on Wednesday morning as planned? Or would it be stuck somewhere with no fuel?
- Would we be able to find enough diesel for our car to drive to northern France and catch the ferry on Friday morning? I worked out that we needed two full tanks of diesel for the journey…
- Would there be road blockades en route preventing us from getting to the ferry in time?
I devised a plan. I drove about 30 km south of our home and bought six 10-litre containers for petrol. I was able to fill four of them at two petrol stations nearby, but my attempts to fill the remaining two at another petrol station were blocked by the attendant frantically waving his arms and yelling “pas de jerrycans ici!”
In principle I am against panic-buying, and I did feel a sense of embarrassment standing at the diesel pump filling my bright red containers with diesel while there was a queue of cars behind me. They were probably worried that they might not be able to get enough diesel to get to work. My sense of shame was not shared by the gentleman in front of me at my final visit to a petrol station. He drove up to the pump and lifted the tailgate of his car to reveal four metal 25-litre containers in the back. He proceeded to fill each of them as well as his petrol tank. It must have been an interesting conversation when he drove up to the kiosk afterwards to pay for about 120 litres of diesel… in a Renault Twingo!
By Monday night we had our “insurance” and knew that we did not need to worry about petrol stations having no petrol.
Tuesday night I was still packing things, but at 9:30 in the evening I ran out of both tape and boxes. There was nothing to do but go to bed and get what little sleep my racing mind would allow me.
On Wednesday morning Man and I were up at around 6:00 in the morning. We had breakfast, showered and then dismantled our bed. With no more boxes I was hoping that they would have a few boxes on the van that I could use. Time passed.
At about 9am the phone rang. The delivery van was late and wouldn’t be with us until early afternoon. The lady on the phone was very apologetic, but as far as I was concerned this was fantastic news! Firstly they would be here on Wednesday, albeit late, but secondly it gave me time to go out and buy some more boxes and tape!
The van arrived just before 1pm and two lovely gentleman with West Midlands accents introduced themselves. I found myself slipping back slightly into my “native” tongue; “Jow wanna cuppa tay?” “Arrr. Two shuggas playz”.
As they emptied the rooms I cleaned the floors. In the space of five hours they had managed to pack the van. We wished them a safe journey and they drove off with 99% of our worldly goods. If you are moving home I can recommend Burke Bros. Friendly, efficient, and competitively priced!
Man, Dog and I loaded our suitcases into the car and set off.
We had booked a room in a motel about 3 hours drive away. Man was getting hungry so we stopped for a takeaway pizza at around 9:30pm. As we set out on the last hour of the drive I noticed a supermarket with a petrol station. We drove in and Lo! They had diesel! We filled up and as Man drove away from the pump there was an almighty BUMP! This was followed by the unmistakeable noise of flat tyre flapping in the ground. A quick look revealed the worst of news – an inch long gash in the sidewall of the tyre.
After some tugging, grunting, and a considerable amount of abuse directed at the unusual system of retaining the spare tyre, we were on our way again but at a reduced speed of 80 km/hour. Now I had a new concern: Would we be able to get new tyres early enough in the morning so that we could keep to our planned schedule?
As we approached our overnight stop my new concern evaporated. There were four garages less than 200 metres from the motel!
Sleep came easy that night. We woke early, had breakfast, got new tyres, and by 10am we were on our way again. Our itinerary would take us 600 km to northern France, but we had been driving no more than 10 minutes when we came to a stop on a dual carriageway. It was misty so I imagined an accident. Traffic would stop, then move forward about 50 metres, then stop again for a few minutes. Eventually through the mist I could see smoke rising straight up. A car on fire, perhaps? But where were the blue flashing lights of a fire engine?
The closer we came to the fire the more things became apparent. There must have been about 50 guys (and a few token women) standing at a roundabout blocking the traffic. One guy came up to our car and tried to push a leaflet through my window – something about a Call For Action against raising the age of retirement from 60 to 62. I told him to get lost (although I wasn’t quite so polite about it) and he went back to his comrades at the blockade. I saw him point out our car for “special treatment”. When we finally got to the front of the queue our was stopped and about 10 French guys started yelling at us. What a motley bunch of people they were! Man later described one of the token women as looking like a Daughter of the Revolution and not being out of place in the cast of Les Miserables. The others looked like extreme social misfits.
I wound down the window and told them that they needed to start living in the real world instead of living in the past. “He-haaw! Les Anglais!” blustered one of the buffoons. They seemed to get bored with us very quickly and that gave me a chance to observe the scene….
In the middle of the carriageway on both sides of the roundabout there were fires burning – a mixture of wooden pallets and car tyres. There must have been about a hundred “protesters” milling around. I did manage to spot four Gendarmes watching from a distance and drinking coffee. This wasn’t so much a “protest”, more a “small pocket of anarchy” reminiscent of a scene from Mad Max.
I did wonder what might prompt the Gendarmes to intervene in this situation. After all, if you or I decided to start a bonfire on the middle of a public highway and randomly stop traffic by throwing wooden pallets in the road I’m quite sure a bus-load of Gendarmes would drag us away and throw us in the Bastille for a few weeks.
Eventually we were allowed to pass and we continued onwards and inhindered. As we drove through the sunshine I began to wonder what these clowns really hoped to achieve through their actions. The reality is that they stopped normal people from going about their daily lives. Some of those who were inconvenienced had jobs to go, or deliveries to make, or relatives in hospital to visit. Did the clowns really imagine that they would win the support of those people whose lives they disrupted so directly?
We finally arrived at a hotel about 50km south of Cherbourg just as it got dark. We had managed another fuel fill-up, but it was obvious that those petrol stations which did have diesel were rationing it.
Friday morning saw the last leg of our journey in France. We arrived at the ferry port in good time and checked in. Food onboard was… er… “synthetic” and reminded me of something produced by the Food Dispensing Robot in the film Judge Dread. “Eat recycled food. It’s good for the environment and it’s OK for you”. Four hours later we had cleared immigration in the UK and began our drive up to mid-Wales.
I’m used to driving both left-hand and right-hand drive cars, but I’ve never driven a left-hand drive car on the left side of the road. I am surprised at how quickly I adapted and the only real problem is at roundabouts where the passenger headrest can block the view of traffic coming from the right. We pressed on, crossing the Severn bridge and arriving at a hotel in Rhayader for the weekend. After 750 miles (1200 km) of driving the journey was over at last!
The three nights in a hotel was a welcome break from the worry, hassle and tiredness created during the previous three or four weeks. It gave us a chance to re-experience typical British drizzle, as well as re-orient ourselves with the hills that would surround our home. We ate a meal at “The best Indian Restaurant in Mid-Wales” – I suspect the competition for this illustrious title is not large – and enjoyed wandering around the Elan Valley.
Monday morning came, and so did Moving-In Day. The van was waiting for us and after a brief delay while solicitors moved money around we entered our new home.
It’s now Friday and we are still surrounded by boxes but at least my kitchen is useable. All the furniture has been re-asssembled and all the boxes are in the correct rooms. I’m also up-and-running from my home office. The new chapter has begun…