corders in the hague

It's like having the Corders round for dinner - except the kids don't smash stuff and Mike doesn't drink all your booze. And when you're bored you can get rid of us with a mouse click rather than having to start tidying up the house.

My Photo
Location: The Hague, Netherlands

Monday, August 25, 2008

Finally, the final holiday posting

It's possible I may have come over a bit food snobby in my last post. This isn't really the case, I was just taking an easy shot at the Dutch and their eating habits. I'm ashamed to say that after insulting my adopted countrymen for lugging the contents of their larders hundreds of kilometers I discovered that Irmie had smuggled stuff called Ontbijtkoek (breakfast cake) into our luggage. It is a nasty stodgy spiced cake that reputedly has the power to keep one's bowel movements regular even when your diet consists only of white French baguettes and the livers of obese geese.
I never touch the stuff (onbijtkoek I mean - I can never eat enough fois gras) in the Netherlands but when I'm camping I have no desire whatsoever for regular bowel movements. I can think of few things I would rather have during a week of camping than a good dose of constipation.
Of course, if I'd been blocked up I would have missed one of the highlights of the holiday - the sign posted all over the one toilet/shower block of our campsite in the Cevennes.
Apparently some kids had been playing in or around the toilets. The campsite was run by a couple of hippies so instead of beating the offending children with sticks or telling their parents they wrote the following message (translated from the French by me) whose poetic philosophy reminded me that France is the nation that gave us not only pate made by torturing geese but also Beaudelaire and  Sartre: 
"Using the sanitation block as a playground is forbidden.
It shows a lack of respect for the campers and those who clean the sanitations.
(So far so straightforward, although I'm not sure how much effect appealing to the respect of 10-year-olds for their fellow campers is going to have, then the powerfully existential kicker).
The freedom of the one begins or ends with that of the other.   
Beautiful isn't it? I read it and immediately felt like tracking down and guillotining the offending kids.
The campsite was on the banks of a fast-flowing mountain stream called the Tarn. Our tents were pitched right next to it. Alarmingly, there were lots of signs advertising evacuation routes and illustrated with little pictures of stick people fleeing fast-rising water. The picture above is of the river. The bridge crosses it at a point where it slows down and widens out enough for the kids to safely swim or canoe.
It was pleasantly primitive - there were no lights anywhere so the whole place pretty much was asleep by about  9pm. It was right next to an old footpath once used by Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson and his ass Modestine during a journey chronicled in a book called 
Travels in the Cevennes with a donkey. These days, strolling along the route behind a stinking mule is considered a very cool way to spend a two-week holiday and yuppies trailing their rented pack animals wandered by a few times each day. 
You can't blame them, the Cevennes is a very pretty part of France. After sweeping past our tent in a channel so narrow and shallow a donkey could wade across it in a couple of steps, the Tarn suddenly swells and has carved  a pretty impressive gorge out of the granite hills. French people thought it would be amusing to build houses on the very scariest edges of the gorges which made it all the more spectacular (see vertical picture above).
We enjoyed a couple of days of solid sunshine and then what is known euphemistically as "good walking weather."

Friday, August 08, 2008

En France

So Radovan finally arrived and we duly departed a week ago, scooting out of Voorburg at first light to renew my loathing for caravans as we scuttled through Belgium and Luxembourg.
First stop was at my brother Rob's house in Burgundy. Rob and his wife Sarah like their wine. To reach their new house, you leave the motorway at Beaune and follow a road called the Route du Grand Cru before turning up a steep hill just out of the beautiful village of Mersault.
For those of you not in the know, Grand Cru translates directly as Large Price, which is what you pay for a bottle of the local plonk.
Rob showed us around his new house in a ho-hum kind of a way - nice new kitchen, beautifully renovated rooms, pool's going in here, Yada-yada-yada. But then he started beaming with joy as he opened the heavy oaken door of a room on the lowest of the house's three levels. It was a large (crying out for a pool table) vaulted cellar big enough to hold thousands of bottles. It has a perfect (so the real estate agent told Rob) moistness and constant temperature that would make any self-respecting bottle of pinot noir want to settle down in its bedroom slippers with a good book and just lie there for several years maturing gracefully. There were already a few dozen bottles stacked up neatly at one end and I'm hoping we'll get a chance to drop in and add a few more on our way home.
In the evening, Rob and Sarah yanked the cork out of a good and just slightly less good bottle of the local white, made of chardonnay grapes, but tasting totally unlike the stuff I'm used to drinking in Australia. If they had any grand cru lying downstairs, they weren't foolish enough to waste it on me.
Sarah tried in vain to teach me to slurp the wine as I tasted it. This apparently mixes more air with the booze in your mouth, enhancing the flavors and underscoring its length - whatever that may be.
The gurgle involves leaning forward, taking a good slug of wine and then sucking in air through pursed lips. Sarah and Rob made this gravity-defying feat look easy, while my hopeless attempts made them wash their new floor.
After sobering up the next morning, we headed south to my mum's new house in the Ardeche. Last year, we camped nearby and helped mum move into one dusty room of what was essentially the shell of a building. This year, it is totally renovated - complete with pool and even a kitchen. The girls love the pool and the tv/dvd player in almost equal measure and I have to say I like both too. The pool ensures we all get plenty of exercise and the dvd player ensures Esther and Julia stay out of the sun around midday and allow Irmie and me to take a leisurely siesta.
The house is in a tiny little village flanked by vineyards on three sides and a river on the fourth and is the most peaceful place. I'm sitting typing this on the deck accompanied only by the chirping cicadas and a glass of the local white (Mersault it isn't, but it's pretty drinkable and spilling it on the floor out here while slurping is not too serious, you can just hose down the tiles).
However, from time to time you have to brave the local town of Vallon, which is a tourist hell at this time of year.
Irmie, Julia and I went to the local supermarket today to stock up for the next leg of the holiday - camping in a national park a couple of hours west of here - which begins tomorrow.
In town, we were reminded that as well as being rude overseas, the Dutch also are creatures of habit - particularly when it comes to buying food.
A few people have asked me if it's true that Dutch people empty their kitchens and take all their favorite stuff with them on holiday. I can confirm that this is the case.
The supermarket in Vallon is smart enough to realize that even a Dutchman cannot load his caravan down with enough food for a three-week holiday and so has several shelves dedicated to Dutch products ranging from peanut butter to mayonaise for smearing on chips.
In the customary interests of full disclosure, I admit here that we brought with us olive oil (Spanish, I think), salt and pepper and a couple of bags of liquorice for in the car. However, beyond that we like to sample the local fare - having frogs legs and snails for breakfast and garlic with everything.
In the supermarket we saw two Dutch blokes pushing a shopping trolley that contained: two cartons of Fristy, (a foul-tasting Dutch yoghurt drink), two cartons of Chocomel (chocolate-flavored milk usually drunk piping hot from the microwave with a dollop of whipped cream on top - very nice after an afternoon speedskating on the local canals, but it was 35 degrees outside today), one packet of edam cheese (stuff so horrible that not even Dutch people eat it back in the Netherlands). The list goes on. I think they even had Dutch soap.
It's sad that people eat this stuff in Holland, it's flat out bizarre that they would go to a country widely and rightly recognized as the center of the culinary universe and forgo a ripe, locally produced disc of goat's cheese or a slab of rocquefort and pick up an extortionately priced chunk of cheese that tastes alarmingly similar to the plastic it's wrapped in.
And here's a really strange and not wholly unrelated thing:
We've taken to eating an exceptionally good mass-produced vanilla ice cream here - it goes perfectly alongside a slice of apple tarte tartin and is made (so the tub informs us) using vanilla pods imported from Madagascar, which apparently is the source of all the world's really first-rate vanilla (who knew?).
Reading the back of the tub today, we discovered that this fragrant delicacy is produced by Unilever, a Dutch multinational that makes almost everything you buy on your average trip to the supermarket - from soap to deodorant to coffee. And yet you can't buy this stuff in the Netherlands - all you get there is stuff called whipped cream ice cream which tastes of nothing except maybe frozen milk. I guess Unilever knows where it can get away with selling blandness and where it has to inject a little flavor into its foods.
I'd love to post a few holiday snaps of us sneering at Dutch tourists, but I can't transfer my photos from my camera to my mum's laptop so you'll just have to wait til we get back to Voorburg in a couple of weeks' time.