Monday, 22 January 2018

Monday is Queens Day: 15 Jeanne d'Albret

Jeanne d'Albret was the niece of François I, the daughter of his sister Marguerite. She was raised in the austere chateau of Plessis-lèz-Tours and as a young woman spent much of her time at the heart of the French court with her uncle, as well as being Queen of the tiny Protestant stronghold of Navarre in her own right. Declaring definitively for the religious reformers in 1560, ultimately she led the Protestant cause in France, along with her son Henri (later to become King Henri IV of France).

Despite her loud and very public protests, at the age of 12 she was married to the Duke of Cleves (brother of Henry VIII's unloved bride Ann). Continuing to reject her husband she finally got an annullment based on the fact that the marriage had been forced. Technically, the church allowed girls to reject potential husbands, and in this case she had been physically carried, kicking and screaming, to the altar. Still, it indicates real force of character even at a young age that she continued to hold out against family pressure. 

Later she fell for the womanising Antoine de Bourbon and married him once her manipulating uncle François had died. However, the marriage, which lasted 14 years and produced five children, was rocky. They rarely saw eye to eye, partly because Antoine's was continually roving. She seems not to have got on with many of the women at court. She and Catherine de Medici clearly greatly disliked one another, and even her cousin Renée de France (Louis IX's younger daughter), who was a fellow Protestant, couldn't stand her. Jeanne came to be seen as a dangerous fanatic.

Nevertheless, in 1570 she decided to negotiate with the Catholics in an attempt at reconciliation. Her son Henri was to marry the Catholic Princess Marguerite, daughter of Henri II and Catherine de Medici. Jeanne's sudden death in Paris not long before the wedding was later to contribute to Catherine's reputation as a poisoner.

The Jardin du Luxembourg has statues of 20 French Queens and Illustrious women. The subjects were chosen by Louis-Philippe I in 1843. This statue was created by Jean-Louis Brian 1848. To see Jeanne looking austere you have to go here.

Eventually all 20 statues will be featured here.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Little Penguins at Manly Wharf

One of the surprises of the Sydney harbour and seaside suburb of Manly is the presence of a colony of Little Penguin Eudyptula minor. The authorities are a bit cagey about how many birds there are exactly, and where you can find them. This is because they are greatly at risk by human disturbance.

Foxes are a threat to the penguins, as are domestic dogs.

The penguins spend much of their life out at sea, but they come in to Manly to breed in burrows between May and February. They use a number of islands in the harbour but also 60-70 pairs uses various secluded (and not so secluded) coves and are the last remaining breeding colony on the mainland in New South Wales.

Kids are encouraged to get involved with the penguin conservation project.

The penguins are diligently protected by volunteer guardians who watch over them as they scoot up under the wharf at Manly. Members of the public are welcome to watch from a suitable distance, and the volunteers enjoy passing on their knowledge and enthusiasm for the little creatures. Because of the penguins, dogs must be kept on leashes along the Manly foreshore. Plastics and fishing detritus are a problem too. The volunteers pick up rubbish on the beach, but Lucky is so called because he was rescued from entanglement in fishing net. The penguins can also swallow plastic flotsam, in the mistaken idea that it is prey.

Trust me, there is a penguin (possibly two) in this photo
 (on the left, under the wharf, near the bent metal bar).

Young male penguins return to the place they were born. The wharf in Manly Cove once had several pairs, but now only has Lucky, who was born there, and Bella, the mate he enticed there several years ago. This year they raised two chicks, so perhaps the colony will be augmented next year if they were male.

Manly Wharf.

Little Penguins are the smallest of the penguin species, found on the southern coast of Australia and New Zealand. They stand about a foot high, weigh about a kilo and a half and are slate grey on the back, white on the front.

At dusk the access to Manly Cove beach is closed so that the penguins who nest under the wharf can come in to shore undisturbed.

I can remember as a small child being taken to Australia's most famous Little Penguin colony, on Phillip Island, south of Melbourne, to see the penguins come in for the night. I also remember that visit because it's where I caught measles.

A display outside the now closed Manly aquarium.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Idiot Wagon

First of all, an explanation. The term Idiot Wagon isn't pejorative, but a term of affection, rather like you would use when your dog does something silly...

The AMG A45 is a bit of a beast. Mercedes send their smallest 4 door hatchback (the A series) to the AMG factory, where the car is un-manufactured, the engine and gearbox rebuilt (each item done by one individual who signs his work), fitted with a mahoosive twin turbo, and just about everything else upgraded - suspension, interior, steering, wheels, brakes. Then, according to the options you choose, an aerodynamic pack is added, and all of a sudden you have a 4 door shopping trolley that will outrun most supercars.

The car my brother very generously lent us when we were in Australia:
A fully optioned AMG A45 4matic

I kid you not. The handbook (all 3 inches thick of it) states that using the 7 speed, dual clutch gearbox, no way - no way AT ALL - should you exceed 287km/h (178mph) in 6th gear. It has a 1991cc, dual turbocharged, 376hp engine, 4 wheel drive, and will reach 100km/h in 4.2 seconds.

This makes overtaking a real blast - literally. Injudicious application of the loud pedal, even in "ECO" mode, will take you past most trucks before you realise it, and even the shortest of overtaking lanes become practical. In sports mode it's even faster...

Apparently all those plastic aerodynamic bits aren't just for looks.
I never really drove fast enough to find out.

It climbs hills and goes around corners like a lunatic, meaning you have very little use for the super huge (and super efficient) brakes. In sports mode it cackles like a demented witch everytime you take your foot off the accelerator, and the seatbelts give you a hug when you put them on. The load space will take two large suitcases, and there is room for 3 in the back seat although anyone behind me would benefit from being either 1 metre tall or a dual amputee. The GPS more or less works, although it does sometimes take serious convincing about describing the route YOU want to take, and the sound system seems to be ok (not that I ever used it). Likewise the sunroof, which I opened once just so I could say I'd done it.

The headlights are amazing, although the auto-low beam function gets confused when confronted by reflective road signs, and the windscreen wipers just don't cope with the way it can rain in Australia. On the other hand, the climate control really did cope with Australian weather  - even when the outside temperatures were in the 40's (well over 100F) we were looking (and feeling) cool.

I particularly enjoyed the adaptive cruise control, which you can set just above the speed limit and forget, allowing the car to slow as the traffic in front of it slows, before automatically accelerating (usually like a maniac) when you pull out to overtake. There were stretches of over 100km where I didn't touch either pedal at all. I never tried the automatic reverse parallel parking (press the button and it reverses into the parking place with no driver input) because although it sounds like a good idea, I never needed it.

Yup - flappy paddle gearbox, and the bit of the speedo you use is all in the bottom left corner.

It does have issues. The suspension has virtually no travel (and with 19 inch rims the very wide but not very thick tyres aren't much use for absorbing bumps), and the racing Recarro seats aren't made for man sized people. It's also very low, which meant the proximity "watch out, we're going to crash" alarm went all hysterical when encountering speed bumps in station car parks. The lack of suspension travel might not be so much of an issue on the good roads around here, but on some of the windey roads I chose to take in Australia, road surface isn't really a thing.

Not a car for mature people, or those with dodgy hips or knees..

Would I want one to live with? Honestly, I don't know, although the fuel consumption was ok (we used 545litres of fuel for 6893km at 7.9l/100k ) I imagine the insurance would be more than two Traction Avants (insured as Taxis) and a 1.5l Ford hatchback all added together. I also thought it a bit loud even in ECO mode, although the soundtrack in sports mode - where you want it - was really antisocial and therefore a good thing. I love the reassuring squeeze the seatbelts give you when you do them up, the way it goes around corners, and the way it overtakes. But then there is the issue of cost - a Porsche would be cheaper.

The risk? The risk is that I might want one..

Just substitute the seats with a nice comfy sofa, and give the suspension some travel and I might consider it. Especially if every time I got out the car I had an idiot grin on my face...

Friday, 19 January 2018

The Long and the Short of it

Something to brighten up a Northern Hemisphere January morning:

Surfers on Manly Beach.

Surf culture is alive and well in the Sydney suburb of Manly, which has an ocean beach and a harbour beach.

The two guys in the photo demonstrate the two different basic styles of surfboard. The one at the front is a shortboard, the one at the back a longboard. Modern surfboards are made from polystyrene foam coated in fibreglass. The longer or wider a board is the more stable and easy to control they are.

Shortboards are for showing off on, zippy and contrary so that the rider's skill can be highlighted with a technique known as 'shredding'. Longboards are easier to paddle and stand up on but don't get airborn and can't be twisted into the sort of extreme turns and displays that modern surfing competitions put on display. They are more for the old fashioned art of hanging five (walking up the length of the surfboard to hang your toes over the very front of your surfboard as it is lifted up and pushed forward by a wave).

These two surfers are wearing wetsuits, probably not so much because they found the water chilly but because they are protecting themselves from UV in the sun's rays. This is just one difference between visiting beaches in Australia and visiting beaches in northern Europe.

We spent eight weeks in Australia over the 2017/2018 southern summer and will be writing about it regularly

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Things are Grave Part VII -- Susan Sontag

Not someone who entered my consciousness much, Susan Sontag was an American writer and activist. Except briefly in the late 1950s, she never lived in Paris, but her experience here as a student was apparently the most important period of her life. 

We visited Montparnasse cemetery in September and are posting about selected graves over a period of weeks.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Random Bits of News

We have some good news, and some bad news..........

First the less good news: We arrived back in France at 06.35 last Friday morning. On the plane I slept quite well, but appeared to have caught a cold. Saturday was spent being (I'm sorry, there isn't a politer word for this) very snotty. By Sunday it had migrated to my chest, and by Monday I was at the doctor's for an investigation. I have asthmatic bronchitis (as opposed to the usual slightly inconvenient form of asthma I am subject to day to day) so I am on a course on antibiotics, and three (count 'em) different types of corticosteroid. It is now uncomfortable rather than painful as long as I don't cough, but extremely painful (and distressing for Susan) when I do cough.

Boo to airlines making their planes so cold!

But now the good news: Yesterday I booked our train tickets to go to Paris for Retromobile. I was pleasantly surprised (actually no I wasn't, I was amazed) to discover that if you're lucky you can now get from Saint Pierre des Corps (4km from Tours) to Paris in less than an hour, for 10€ (yup - ten euros!) per person each way. This is because Ouigo now service our neck of the woods with their no frills trains.

>There are a couple of fairly easy to deal with conditions - you have to check in (on the platform) at least 30 minutes before your train, and your baggage allowance is a cabin bag and a handbag each. Additional luggage (up to 30kg per person) is 5€ per bag. You have to pay an additional 2€ if you want a seat with a power plug, and the trains arrive and depart from Paris Montparnasse Hall 3.

The previous cheapest TGV tickets to Paris were 17€, but usually more like 20€ or 25€ depending on time of day, so this is quite a win! There are supposedly 3 Ouigo services per day from Bordeaux to Tours, stopping at Angouleme, Poitiers, and Saint Pierre des Corps. All tickets are 10€pp until 18 July. There's more info here