Category Archives: France

The French Take Over Cambridge

(SCROLL DOWN FOR PHOTOS)

Taking bicycles to Cambridge is a bit like taking tea to Yorkshire.  Cambridge is Britain’s number one cycling city with two-thirds of its residents regularly getting about on two wheels.  Surprising then that thousands turned out to welcome the Tour de France cyclists depart for their third leg from the historical town today.  I had come all the way from Spain to watch (long story) and although it was a mere nano-second when the peloton passed me – my fascination was with the French-ness of it all.

I first heard about Le Tour’s Cambridge stage many months ago as we began developing an art project involving recycle bicycle parts – which has come to fruition this week.  One of our first contacts were the Alliance Francaise in Cambridge who insisted that Cambridge wouldn’t know what hit it.  The take over started at the weekend, when the AF and a wealth of French businesses hosted an array of stalls at Le Big Weekend on Parkers.  Cheese, bread, olives and every French dish you can imagine was available. We tried to buy a drink in English and where met with a stubborn display of French. It had begun.

Early this morning a lady in clipped English offered me a free croissant and coffee from a stall set up outside a quaint English church.  No tea and cake in sight.  Croissants continued to be a theme, as did sticking “le” in front of anything.  But most impressive where the Gendarmerie, who I observed shouting instructions the British “tour makers” and French officials on bright red fold up cycles barking into walkie talkies.  I stood next to a menagerie of French media crew and their motorcycles.  Clad in denim and leather the all male group brazenly smoked roll up cigarettes, greeted each other with double kisses.  It was a real culture shock for many onlookers, but I loved it.  There was a real confidence in the air.

First came the “caravan” which I am assured by those that know the tour well is a traditional and perhaps even a little tongue-in-cheek affair.  It was slick and corporate, as a bizarre set of   sponsors paraded their shiny cars along the route. There was less free Haribo and Bic lighters than I expected, and Carrefour merely waved, but plenty of people caught boxes of air borne Yorkshire tea.  A car with a giant bag of McCain oven chips was followed by a Sheffield Hallam University Landrover. An old couple next to me shook their head in disbelief, but the middle-aged man in lycra on the other side was delighted with the spectacle.  The day after-all was his.

The Gendarmerie returned in force and lined their bikes up in a neat row out side the Catholic church and took photos on their smart phones.  French officials took their photos with the Cambridge police and their “funny hats”.

And then the cyclists went past, and it was all over.

France has had its moment in Cambridge – and they certainly proved they can put on a show.  As a nomad, I have to admire their ability to put down and then pick up camp in a matter of hours.  I’m not sure the tour will have inspired yet MORE of Cambridge to cycle, but it has generated a new admiration for the French I am sure – and many can go home and have a nice cup of Yorkshire tea.

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Il n’y a pas de terroristes au Pakistan

Il n’y a pas de terroristes au Pakistan

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Il y a vingt ans, le philosophe, sociologue et politologue français Jean Baudrillard signait un essai intitulé « La guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu ». Publié en partie dans Libération et le Guardian (Royaume-Uni) le texte, qui soutient que le conflit dans le Golfe est une guerre virtuelle et essentiellement fictive, a soulevé l’opinion de gens tels que Christopher Norris, qui a fustigé Baudrillard, et d’autres intellectuels postmodernes dont certains ont même qualifié Baudrillard de « théoricien du terrorisme ». Baudrillard ne niait toutefois pas les pertes de vies humaines ni le fait que plus d’explosifs aient été largués en deux mois de guerre du Golfe que pendant toutes les attaques aériennes de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale réunies. Son argument principal était celui de l’interprétation et de la présentation des faits à travers l’objectif des médias. Il se préoccupait surtout de savoir si l’événement pouvait être qualifié de « guerre ».

 

Pour Baudrillard, le bombardement aérien massif des infrastructures civiles et militaires en Iraq constituait une guerre dépouillée de passion et de violence. Expurgée de toutes les images abominables et « dénudée par ses techniciens », elle a été revêtue d’une « seconde peau » par « l’artifice de l’électronique ». Selon lui, ce conflit était gagné d’avance et bien que la « guerre » fût présentée au public entièrement par les médias, cela ne prouvait pas réellement son existence : « la retransmission en direct par CNN d’informations en temps réel ne suffit pas à authentifier une guerre ». Son argument consistait à dire que la guerre du Golfe « telle qu’on nous a poussés à la comprendre » n’a pas eu lieu.

 

Vingt ans plus tard, à la différence du vernis jeté sur la guerre du Golfe, ce sont les horreurs graphiques de la guerre qui semblent attirer notre société moderne. En 2009, l’artiste Jeremy Deller a récupéré les débris d’un véhicule bombardé à Bagdad pour leur faire faire le tour de l’Amérique. Comme l’écrit le Guardian, il a nous a mis la violence de l’Iraq « sous le nez ». Pendant l’invasion du pays en 2003, nous avons reçu nos informations de blogueurs tels que Salam Pax qui a diffusé pour nous le traumatisme en temps réel de la vie à Bagdad, et aujourd’hui, le petit écran nous abreuve de peur, de danger et de la proximité de la guerre par le biais de journalistes assoiffés de conflits sur le terrain.

 

Aujourd’hui, Internet nous apporte autant de sang et de tripes des points chauds du globe que nous pouvons en digérer. Nous entendons parler de la mort d’Oussama Ben Laden au Pakistan, mais nous voulons des images, nous voulons sa dépouille mortelle, aussi horrible que cela soit. Nous voulons sa tête. Et cela seulement rendra sa mort réelle. Même une violence inaccessible, telle que celle qui a sévi au nord du Sri Lanka en 2006, voilée aux yeux des médias et des organisations internationales, a été capturée par les caméras des téléphones  portables et diffusée sur YouTube. À la différence de Ben Laden, la tête défoncée du leader tamoul Prabhakaran était sur tous les écrans quelques heures seulement après sa mort et, maintenant, les horreurs du sang versé des civils tamouls se glissent dans nos pages.

 

La sensation de guerre et de violence semble toujours attirer le spectateur des informations. En contraste à la guerre du Golfe assainie décrite par Baudrillard, c’est d’une autre guerre dont nous témoignons, attisée par la concurrence qui fait rage entre Internet et la télévision, une compétition pour qui creusera au plus profond d’une infâme souffrance. Les enfants affamés ne nous émeuvent plus. Les caméras du monde restent fixées sur la tête bandée d’un bébé après une attaque au mortier, un enfant démembré, les larmes d’une veuve désespérée. Et pourtant, notre goût européen de l’horreur n’est rien comparé à celui de l’Asie. Il y a dix ans, la presse du Sri Lanka diffusait en première page la photo de la tête tranchée de l’auteur d’un attentat-suicide (avec le titre « connaissez-vous cet homme ? ») et une visite récente au Pakistan a révélé que, dans cette nation exaspérée d’être constamment associée au terrorisme, les journaux transmettent un flux ininterrompu de bombes, meurtres et révoltes.

 

Lors de mon dernier voyage au Pakistan, je me suis rendue à Karachi. Pour préparer cette visite, mes recherches sur Internet m’ont révélé les corps calcinés de victimes d’explosions, des assassinats dans tous leurs détails et les nouvelles de furieux incendiaires. Même les gens éduqués m’ont dit que je risquais d’être décapitée, kidnappée et, à cause de l’intérêt que je porte à l’Islam et au Pakistan, j’ai reçu des courriers chargés de haine de gens qui m’ont dit que je serais violée et assassinée (parce que c’est ce qu’ils font aux chrétiens, là-bas). On ne pourrait avoir confiance en personne.

 

À ma grande surprise, la ville pakistanaise que j’ai découverte déborde de générosité et d’attention, d’innombrables tasses de thé et de mets de toutes sortes. Les centres commerciaux ont des cafés italiens, des McDonald et des boutiques Next. Les gens vont au travail, les enfants vont à l’école, qui n’est pas forcément une madrassa militante radicale, les étudiants bavardent gaiement et vont à leurs cours à l’université, les policiers en uniforme impeccable se chargent efficacement de la circulation, les hommes d’affaires sont éloquents et de jeunes femmes me confient que « Karachi est un endroit fantastique pour les femmes, actuellement ». Et je ne mentionne pas les kilomètres de sable doré qui bordent l’océan Indien, avec leurs enfants qui jouent au football, les familles qui se baignent et qui sourient, les gens qui me saluent amicalement de la main dès que je sors mon appareil photo. Même dans le quartier de Saddar, endroit dont on m’avait dit que je ne ressortirais pas vivante, j’ai rencontré beaucoup de gens bien loin de s’entretuer, bien loin d’être violents. La plupart vivaient des journées ordinaires, derrière les étals de fruits, balayant les rues, conduisant des autobus. J’ai même rencontré un travesti costaud dans un sari rouge vif, qui m’a dit avec esprit : « vous avez sûrement des gens comme moi, dans votre pays ! ». Le Pakistan est devenu l’un des premiers pays du monde à reconnaître officiellement un troisième sexe. J’ai visité une élégante église catholique. J’ai l’impression qu’on n’entend pas vraiment parler des églises au Pakistan, à moins d’un attentat à la bombe.

 

Comme Baudrillard, je ne nie pas les faits. Je ne prétends pas que le Pakistan soit un pays sans sa part de problèmes, ni que Karachi ne soit pas le siège d’actes de violence extrême, ou qu’elle n’abrite pas certains terroristes célèbres. Je ne prétends pas non plus que des explosifs ne soient pas chargés dans des véhicules ou attachés au corps de malades mentaux avant de détonner. Ni que des gens aient perdu la vie. Mais la réalité de cette ville particulière et de ses 18 millions d’habitants est très complexe et peut-être impossible à présenter sous une facette unique dans les médias. Selon ces derniers, l’impression dominante nourrie par la découverte de Ben Laden est que le Pakistan est un foyer du mal, et les cyniques pourraient arguer que cette perception est tout aussi manipulée ou, au mieux, forcée, que ne l’étaient les reportages des médias lors de la guerre du Golfe.

 

Baudrillard n’était pas fasciné par l’événement qu’était la guerre ni la vérité de la guerre en soi, mais par la notion de réalité et l’érosion de cette réalité par la technologie et les médias. Le point de vue selon lequel le Pakistan est « plein de terroristes » est fabriqué spécialement pour nos esprits avides de sang et d’histoires unidimensionnelles : nous sommes de simples consommateurs de médias, accros de la distraction que procurent les catastrophes. Le philosophe français affirmait que l’être humain est naturellement attiré par une version simulée de la réalité, mais sommes-nous allés trop loin ? Peut-être cet appétit négatif est-il nourri par les envoyés spéciaux débordants d’adrénaline qui filent les « chasseurs d’ambulances » de Karachi ces jours-ci. Au risque de me faire moi-même taxer de théoricienne du terrorisme, la semaine de la découverte de Ben Laden au Pakistan semble le moment opportun pour affirmer : « Il n’y a pas de terroristes au Pakistan ».

 

FIN

Paris Photo Blog

Two days in Paris galloping around the drizzly place with the camera.  The only time I put it down was when I slipped into the intriguing Church of Saint Severin – which is well worth a visit – it’s more mythical art installation than church.  I managed to capture some “common ground” for my arty stuff but a lot more besides….enjoy the slideshow

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Massacres, Sunflowers & Sweet White Wine

I promised to write again. (I am feeling that I need offer readers some genuine nomadic truths as this blog now has over 10,000 hits – a weird feeling).  But I am happy to report (not least to my doctor) that I have removed myself from net and screen for nearly a whole week (just the occasional peak).  In the main I could be found laid out next to a private pool surrounded by sunflowers, basking in the heat of the South of France.  I may have risen from the poolside to take in a tour of the local vineyard (delicious sweet white wine) or to venture briefly into the humourously name local French town of Condom for supplies, but in general I have been unwinding under the gaze of the sun and not even thinking about writing about it (well nearly not).

But, as hinted at in my previous post – on the way down to our southern retreat,  we stopped at Oradour Sur Glane. You perhaps think it a little unfair that I would drag five children to a site of a massacre during what was meant to be two weeks fun in the sun.  However – every one of the kids was enthusiastic about the visit – for different reasons.

For those of you who don’t know Oradour or the story:  on 10 June 1944  Oradour-sur-Glane in the Haute-Vienne Department of France was attacked by soldiers of the Der Führer Regiment of the 2nd Waffen-SS Panzer Division Das Reich. On that day they killed a total of 642 men, women and children without giving any reasons for their actions and to this day there is no universally accepted explanation for the massacre (although some say it was in retribution for the success of a single resistance fighter whose family hailed from the region).  People were burned alive in their homes, and women and children rounded up, locked in the village church, which was then set alight.

The village remains exactly as it was – in remembrance of those that lost their lives.

Each of us had a different response walking around.  The teenage girls amongst us felt almost disappointed that the charred husk of a village didn’t evoke more adolescent emotion.  Their lack of tears bothered them and they picked away at each story contained in each home – looking at the twisted metal of children’s beds, of rusty bicycles, dead cars and the patterned remains of fire-places searching for sadness.  My littlest boy, aged eight, seemed to find it most poignant, and studied every detail of the place.  Already a keen historian he was also fascinated by the evidence of how people lived in the “olden-days” (which extends to my own childhood in his mind!).

My own feelings were of anger.  Not that this atrocity had occurred, but that in modern-day times such crimes continued.  That villages of civilians are being burned.  The women and children are massacred.  So vital that this memorial remains and hats off to the French for such an appropriate and dignified site – but how much has the human species learned from it?  Iraq.  Afghanistan.  Somalia.  Rwanda.  Sri Lanka.  I could go on and on.  All places that have seen similar cruel death and torture since 1944.  Oradour just baffled me.  An incomprehension that humans can be so vile to one another.

My other half although moved by the story which he knew well, was surprised at how unmoved he was by the place itself.  He felt that so much time had passed it had been sanitized – and in true moving-on fashion my 11 year old commented that he thought it would make an excellent paint-ball site (but was otherwise hot and bored and wanted to leave).  The teenage girls were shocked – but I felt strangely heartened that he was so lucky that conflict was so foreign to him – the only association he could find in the place was in entertainment.  True conflict transformation from the mouth of a kid.

Despite my anger and bewilderment at Oradour, I remain a stubborn optimist.  I understand that for every bullet in this world there are as many if not more acts of kindness that cannot be measured.  One of the plaques at Oradour cheered me most – it read “from here 6 men escaped”.  Even in a field of dead sunflowers….if you look very carefully you will find a bloom.

Resistance

Seems like I am beginning to establish a pattern of nomadicity.  Routinely trekking  from the Isle of Britain to Brittany.  This time an entourage in tow.  As usual I find it hard to shake my day job and thoughts of Pakistan comes flooding, quite literally.  I am unable to resist thinking and feeling for those who have suffered and who are suffering.  So day one I find myself at the American cemetery in St. James.  Rows of white headstones causing the tears to pour down my cheeks.  My two boys too are moved.  Having watching Saving Private Ryan only days before – they can visualise the ghastly deaths of the 4,500 American soldiers whose bodies lay here.  All died in the summer of 1944.  A single American family are also pacing somberly around the graveyard.  They take photos and the  younger ones pat the older ones on the back.  We are voyeurs to their grief, but feel it non the less.  My grandfather was tucked away in India during the war – flying missions over Burma.  During the Normandy landings he was far away in Asia.

Oh happy holidays – I attempt to prise myself away from conflict and up to Avranches.  But this is another significant site from the war….it’s hard to avoid the Sherman (no, not “German”; “Sherman) tank in the centre of town and as we take in breathtaking views of the Mont St. Michel from a pretty sun-flower filled botanical garden, my 8 year old boy can’t stop imagining the bullets flying as the Americans break through the German front.  He dances across the lawns and poses dramatically as the Statue of Liberty.

We buy pétanque, the sunshine appears and we head for the beach at Jullouville.  Holiday and laughter at last.  And I checked – no D-day landings on this beach. We might even get a bit of a tan.

But I’m not getting complacent.  As we drive south in a few days – we are making a stop at  Oradour Sur Glame.  Resistance is futile.

Travelling without Moving: Somerset, The Cotswolds, Sheffield, and France

(or “Moving Without Travelling” whichever works for you)

(image with retrospective thanks to blogger isaria’s excellent post on poetry in urban landscapes – photo taken in Sheffield).

Despite my lack of travel-blogging the past couple it doesn’t mean I haven’t been places.  Usually in the passenger seat, dabbing at mascara stained cheeks and sometimes giggling with tiredness and new found closeness to those I love who are still alive.  I’ve been exploring a range of family members in a catalogue of places (see below) but without getting too hippy, it’s the internal journeys that have mattered .

A catalogue of places:

  1. The Cotswolds. A stuffy Tory area of England perhaps made worse because I have needed to do business with Estate Agents during my recent time there.  Cotswold stone is pretty and every house is made from the honey coloured stuff.  The countryside (of which there is lots – dotted with pretty, if not claustrophobic villages) is a stunning vista of rolling hills littered with pro-hunting signs.  Cirencester (England’s former capital city), I am told is THE up and coming heart of this region. Despite the population being decidedly elderly I am tempted to believe this news, not least because since my mum’s death it seems quite likely that I might actually end up living there (s’complicated). Anyway “Old” is the new “Young” and at least they’ve got a FatFace in Cirencester.
  2. Somerset.  I can’t believe I used to want to go and live there.  Having lost my mum in a road crash on a bendy country road in Somerset I can quite honestly say I am no longer a fan of bendy country roads in Somerset.  Funny that.  Navigating my grief around this region has meant perpetual gripping of the dashboard and potholed panics.  A normal road in Somerset has a steep bank of hedge either side and there is barely enough room for two cars to pass.   Even Glastonbury feels like a complete sham to me at the moment.  The Tor was visible from my mum’s house and art studio (in fact can be seen for miles around) – and walking around the town last week with its crystals and goblins – it appeared very superficial.  If this place ever was spiritual then it was a very very long time ago and no matter how much Shaman juice we partake in, I am afraid we missed it.  And talk about claustrophobic – Somerset makes the conservation conservative Cotswolds look like a breath of fresh air.  Rant aside – there IS a lovely little pub called The Stoke in Chew Stoke, which I thoroughly recommend – and not just because my best mate owns it.  And not just because I have just slagged off Somerset where my best mate lives.  But because the food there is gert lush (especially them pies).
  3. Sheffield. OK, I’ll stop moaning now.  Despite my clearly cantankerous mood (only slightly improved by pie), I have to admit I quite like Sheffield.  Although I had never set foot there until last year, it conjures up a sense of nostalgia for me.  People there REALLY are friendly (like in the olden days).  The steep streets and Victorian suburbs remind me of my hometown – Bristol (which is slightly in Somerset but NOT to be confused for the distaste for the “Somerset countryside” under reference above). The area surrounding Sheffield is drop dead gorgeous.  I’m pining for city life at the moment, but this REALLY IS “Escape to the Country”.  Hiking routes and picnic spots.  Cotswolds Shmotswolds – this is the real England I’m after.

Not ALL the shopping centres in Sheffield have been finished (or even started really) – a glimmer of hope perhaps that they will develop without the burden of shallow retail sector – and perhaps in the enlightenment to follow, Sheffield will lead Britain in turning would-be-commercial-business-zones into new open green space for thought (not unlike the cloudless vapour trail free skies following the Icelandic Volcano ash chaos).   Seriously, it’s sad to see such evidence of the recession from a city which has had its fair share of knocks – but its strength is in its people – it’s resilience, it’s generosity of spirit.  Good times, and thank you Sheffield – just the tonic I needed right now.

  1. France. Over the past few months I have seen more long distance motorway travel than you could wave a stick at.  The biggest 24hour driving session began and ended in Cambridge with stops in Portsmouth and rural Britanny along the way.  Early morning empty main-roading is great.  I’m clear headed and up for the challenge of grubby Le Harve and her fantastic bridges (REALLY worth a look), but the midnight Portsmouth return, plagued by heavy lorries and average speed limits was less fun (especially after a sick bag filled channel crossing).  The only compensation for the traffic calming was the occasional glimpse of a night-time crew feasting on potholes– like cockroaches caught out by the sudden illumination of a kitchen strip light. At least someone out there had some purpose.

As ever though, we DID manage to get the most out of a mere handful of waking hours in France and like Cirencester spent some of it with an Estate Agent (well, a Notaire).  We rather foolishly fell in love with a huge run down town house in a small run-down village.  She needs electricity, water and (bits of) a new roof.  But as usual we are counting chickens before they are hatched.  In fact, come to think of it, we haven’t really even got any eggs yet.

As for the internal journeys – whilst being sometimes grisly passenger I was also a deep thinker.  The budding trees rushing past, the gaze of the yellow robot like speed camera, and the splash of the ocean on the ships windows – in many ways prove to be empty poetic imagery which did not penetrate my inner thinking.  To say I have been “in deep” is an understatement.  My reading has been of eastern philosophy, of death, and unusually of very little.  Although for many of my journeys I flicked ash from a small crack in the window, I gave up smoking 17 days ago (not that I’m counting).  Perhaps my unusually bitter accounts of Somerset and the Cotswolds reflect this.  Smoking is smelly, expensive and not good for me.  Despite what I have been telling myself since I was13 – it is NOT a good look.  I made the decision to give up smoking the day after my 40th birthday.

The journey continues of course.  I realised somewhere in the past couple of months that I do actually want to live as long as I humanly can (and not a moment longer – Eddie ref).  I think I understand that my body is home to my spirit/soul/whateveryouwannacallit- so it might be a good idea to make it work for me as best I can.

How I spend my time on this planet has been another conundrum.  I like to think I’m on a journey with this (making a difference, earning a living, expressing my creativity, dedication to others, living for my children, going with the flow, pushing for positive change…..lumox) but I think it may take a few more years of therapy and counselling before I even untie the vessel from the quay.  Maybe it starts tomorrow- with a journey I am NOT looking forward to.  Nearly two months after my mum died I have assembled enough faculties to return to my place of employment and “work out” a way forward.

Emerging from my burrow of detached-ness  (that has allowed me to contemplate life, death and anything but my job).   I will be blinking my way into bright normality tomorrow via the morning commuter train.  The passenger seat once more.

Arctic French Monkeys

I’m back in France.  Actually I was here for new years too – but felt crappy and ended up in bed, sober, by 11.30 on New Years Eve.  Gotta say I enjoyed the ferry crossing in both directions (despite floor sleeping on blow up mattresses).  My daughter – “is this the Ryan Air of Ferries, mum”?  Yep, it was cheap – £120 to get five of us all the way across the channel and back – plus car – but it did the job.  Snow on deck, naval vessels out of Portsmouth, and not a lorry driver in sight.  Nice.

Now I’m back.  I already have dirty finger nails and an aching back after a hard days graft on the house.  Today we made a second bedroom, with the cunning use of stud walling.   It all looks rather lovely (to mine eye), although a tumble of junk awaits us downstairs in the morning.  Arriving in darkness (with Landrover and trailer), my other half didn’t notice the splendid redesign upstairs has meant that all building materials have been scattered like an upturned biscuit tin of goodies onto the ground floor.  I hoping to manage a major clear up before heading for Ikea in Rennes tomorrow afternoon, and the MAIN REASON for coming to these parts and staying in a freezing freepart-renovated building in mid-winter – the Arctic Monkeys.  Les Singes Arctiques better be good!