I’ve often said, only half in jest, that when you go to a foreign country, your IQ immediately drops by 50 points. A task as simple as buying milk in the store has pitfalls for the unwary. And so it was on our recent visit to France, which featured several instances of idiocy, fortunately none of them calamitous.
On our first night in the gîte, I was struck by the amazing clarity and multitude of stars in the pitch blackness of the night sky, and I called Yuko outside to share the experience. The glass door was fitted with wooden shutters, so I pushed them closed to reduce the light coming from inside the house. Then I heard a tiny, horrifying, “click” as the shutters latched closed behind us, and all thought of stargazing was instantly dispelled. Anxiety rose as it became clear that we really were locked out of the house, in short sleeves, at night, miles from civilisation. I tried to force the shutters open, applying more and more force, but to no avail.
Then it occurred to me: had I left the car unlocked? I had! Which meant I had access to tools. A minute later I had succeeded in popping the shutters open, with no discernible damage, and we were safely inside once more.
One of the pleasures of staying in France is that you can buy very good wine at very low prices, and I enjoyed a glass (or two) of red wine with my dinner each evening. The second gîte had a fancy corkscrew that looks like this:
Obviously, the screw is intended to turn freely when going down into the cork, then to “lock” and pull up without turning to lift out the cork. But whatever skill or technique was required to achieve this simple sequence eluded me. No matter what I tried, the screw remained in “locked” mode, pushing the cork ever further down the neck of the bottle. By the time I admitted defeat and resorted to a simpler, no-moving-parts, idiot-proof corkscrew, it was too late. I only succeeded in pushing the cork the remainder of the way down the neck, forcing the now-pressurised contents to spray all over me. Good wine or not, it stings when you get it in your eyes. My white shirt was ruined.
Lait Ribot is a Breton fermented milk product, like buttermilk. I did not know this. When randomly choosing a container of fresh milk from the supermarket shelf, I just assumed that “Ribot” was the brand name.
Granted, had I read the label more carefully, I would have seen the words “lait fermenté” written right there. In red. But it went into the supermarket trolley without that level of scrutiny. I discovered my mistake when I poured it into my coffee that evening and it curdled unpleasantly.
Well, when life gives you fermented milk, what do you do? You make crêpes! And that’s how we came to have crêpes for breakfast every morning for the last 4 days of our stay. For 10-12 crêpes:
- 200g of plain flour
- 300 ml lait ribot (or buttermilk)
- 300 ml fresh milk
- 2 eggs
- a pinch of salt
Put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the beaten eggs. Mix a little. Beat in the milk and fermented milk in stages, continuing to beat until the batter is smooth. It doesn’t need to rest but can be used immediately.
Serve hot with butter, jam, fresh fruit or compote. Delicious!
We stayed in a really charming gîte (holiday rental) in Upper Brittany.
These gîtes ruraux are usually in quite remote countryside locations; typically they are former farmhouses that have been renovated and converted for use as comfortable holiday homes. It’s not unusual for the gîte to be located around 4 km from the local village, so a car is really a necessity.
This gîte, however, was particularly remote, set among cornfields at the edge of a vast forest, with the nearest house over 1 km away (straight-line distance) and the nearest shops 8 km away.
You can imagine how peaceful it is, a beautifully-tended acre surrounded by farmland and wilderness, the only sounds the sounds of nature. And the stars at night, far from streetlights and the lights of habitation, were a breathtaking spectacle. Not twinkling dots, but hard steely brightly-coloured points of light in the deep blackness, on either side of the great overhead sweep of the Milky Way.
The address is “Lieu-dit La Feutelle”. Lieu-dit literally means “place called” or “place known as”, but it has become a common noun in French to refer to these remote rural places. Lieux-dit are somewhat equivalent in concept to “townlands” here in Ireland, in the way they are used for rural addresses.So for example you could say (despite the apparent redundancy) un lieu-dit nommé «La Croix Rompue» — A lieu-dit called “La Croix Rompue”.
The hierarchy of places in rural France goes something like this:
- lieu-dit: a rural location that may have one or two houses, or may be completely uninhabited;
- hameau: a hamlet, a cluster of houses with (typically) no shops or services;
- village: a village with a church, and shops such as a café and a bakery;
- bourg: a larger village with a market-place and a weekly market, often the administrative centre of the commune.
- ville: a town big enough to sustain local industry, services and administration and not focused on agriculture.
All of these are faced with a challenging future as young people migrate to cities for educational and employment opportunities, and rural France becomes increasingly empty. Hamlets are deserted, village bakeries close and towns struggle to find a future. Farmhouses become holiday homes for Parisians, permanent homes for retired English people or gîtes ruraux for weekly rental to visitors like us.
After one week in that area, we moved to another gîte in Lower Normandy, in the Val de Saire. One thing that was very striking in that area was the unusual place-names.
Some of the place-names come from the local Norman dialect. For example, the address of our gîte is Rue du Plat Douet, where douet is a local word for a stream. The sign in the picture above indicates the hamlet of Hamel ès Ronches, which looks exotic but is just a local version of hameau des ronces — the hamlet of the brambles. Placename elements are shared between this part of Normandy and the Channel Islands: for example names ending with -hou such as Tatihou and Quettehou in France and Jethou, Burhou and les Écréhous in the Channel Islands.
But many of the placenames in the Val de Saire turn out not to be Norman French at all, but Danish. After all, the Normans were originally Northmen, Danes, Viking raiders, before they settled, adopted the local language and went on to conquer England and Ireland, as well as more far-flung places in sunnier climes. And they left reminders of their original Germanic culture in the local toponomy.
For example, the nearby beach in Cosqueville was called Plage de Vicq (vík meaning harbour); Clitourps is klíf torp (cliff village) and the tôt in the village name Tôt de Haut is also a variation of the word for village (topt). Even the names that appear French in form are often actually Scandinavian in origin. The fleur in Barfleur is not a flower but a river; the many places with tour are not French towers but Scandinavian villages. L’Anse du Brick is not the cove of the brick but of the brekka (coastline). La Mare and La Houe are not native French (“the pond” and “the hoe”) as they appear but Nordic names in disguise (“the salt-marsh” and “the holt”). And finally, one name of Irish origin: Néville is not “new town” but “Nial’s town”; one of our Viking settlers may have come from Ireland.
We’ve been in France for the past two weeks; last week in Upper Brittany and this week in the Val de Saire in Normandy.
The countryside of north-western France is full of standing stones known as menhirs, dating back to the Neolithic period more than 4000 years ago. They carry no markings, nor any clues as to the beliefs or intentions of those who went to tremendous effort to transport them and erect them. One suggestion is that they may have served as grave markers for important people or families.
Near our gîte in Brittany we came across such a standing stone, called the Pierre de Richebourg.
Like many such standing stones, it is on private property, and in fact this one is behind a chain-link fence.
It’s a somewhat rough-hewn piece of schist about 2.5 metres high.
Menhirs are popularly associated with Brittany, partly because of the huge concentration of stones at Carnac, and in fact the word menhir itself comes from Breton (Celtic) words meaning “long stone”. But in fact they are to be found all over Europe, especially north-western France, Britain and Ireland, and long predate the Celts. Fans of the Asterix comic books (set in Brittany soon after the Roman invasion of Gaul in 50 BC) will remember the character Obelix carrying a menhir around on his back. This is a humorous anachronism, as the people who raised the menhirs were as distant in time from Asterix and Obelix as the Gallic Wars are from us.
Here in Normandy, there is an impressive menhir in a field just a few hundred metres away from our gîte, known as the Longue-pierre (a French calque of the word menhir). It’s a piece of granite about 6 metres high, of which 4.5 metres are above ground.
I met the lady who owns the field (and, I suppose, owns the menhir, insofar as that means anything). She told me there is a second, similar stone buried in the field. This standing stone is one of three in the commune of Saint-Pierre-Église, known as the 3 princesses. There is an old belief that they each swivel around during the midnight mass each year on Christmas Eve.
In addition to solitary stones, there are dolmens known as allées couvertes, or covered alleys. A very impressive example near where we stayed in Brittany is called La Roche aux Fées (the fairy rock), in the commune of Essé (Ille-et-Vilaine). Like Newgrange in Ireland, it has a south-westerly orientation, its opening aligned with the first rays of sunrise on the winter solstice. The name comes from a legend that the fairies built the monument in a single night.
This comprises 42 huge blocks of purple schist arranged to form a covered passage 20 meters long. This structure has survived substantially intact for 5000 years. Just inside the entrance (which features a truly massive lintel) you have to bend low as the passage is quite constricted, but once inside it opens into a long chamber in which it is possible to stand up.
A similar megalithic structure can be found not far from our current holiday home, in the hamlet of la Forge in the commune of Bretteville (Manche).
This is also an allée couverte about 20 meters in length, but features a side entrance with a portal stone at right-angles to the others.
Unlike the Roche aux Fées, it is oriented northwest-southeast, and the side-entrance is near the southeast end.
Some of the capstones (roof-slabs) are missing, but the walls of the passage are intact. Near the side entrance there is an L-shaped slab forming a door that you must squeeze past to reach the main passage.
A row of smaller rocks or kerb-stones alongside the main monument mark the edge of the tumulus of earth and rocks that once covered the whole structure.
This weekend, almost exactly a year after our return from Japan to Ireland, we’ll finally be moving into our new house. Our search for a permanent home in Dublin has not been an easy one, but that’s a story for another time.
Once again, our home is piled high with boxes as we pack up all our possessions ready for the move. The same boxes we used a year ago for the move from Japan to Ireland (in some cases, battered veterans of the earlier journey from Ireland to Japan) now find themselves reconstituted, taken out of flat-stored retirement and pressed into service one more time for the much shorter and easier move from Cabinteely to Leopardstown.
Houchigai jinja in Sakai city is a shrine that specialises in house moves. At the end of our recent visit to Japan we went there on our bikes to seek good luck and success in our forthcoming move.
The shrine was built 2000 years ago at the boundary of three ancient provinces: Settsu, Kawachi and Izumi. To this day, the area is known as 三国ヶ丘 Mikunigaoka, meaning 3-country hill. The tradition arose that as the shrine itself, being at the boundary and therefore not being part of any of the 3 countries, is not oriented in any direction, so a traveller by visiting the shrine could avoid unfortunate or wrong directions. The name 方違 houchigai reflects this tradition.
The water basin and well have old-fashioned characters written from right to left. The character for “country” in 三國山 is the same as I saw used in Taiwan; in modern Japanese writing it is simplified to 国.
Although the shrine is along the main road, it is a very tranquil place. Around the car park are camphor trees and a stand of wisteria, the trunk of which looks ancient and gnarled.
The shrine backs onto a wide moat surrounding a steep wooded island, which is a keyhole-shaped tomb or kofun, off-limits to human visitors.
We brought with us a charm that we had bought on a previous visit to this shrine; a charm that had since then clocked up many air-miles and suffered much abuse in cargo holds and baggage carousels, as it travelled back and forth across the world attached to suitcase handles.
The tradition is that when a charm has done its job of keeping you safe, you bring it back to the shrine where it will later be destroyed in a special fire. For the moment it just gets dropped unceremoniously into this used-charm receptacle:
We bought an identical replacement charm for 500 yen, and then Yuko did o-mikuji.
Her fortune was good.
There is a very special and important shrine called Fushimi Inari Taisha in the mountains near Kyoto.
What makes it special is its thousands and thousands of torii shrine gates.
The shrine includes the whole mountain, and the paths and steps leading all the way to the summit are lined with these gates.
There are so many torii mounted so close together along the path that in many places it feels like walking through a tunnel.
At one point we came across a couple having wedding photos taken.
(My smartphone camera seems to have coped poorly with the unusual colour of the setting, compensating for the predominantly red surroundings by giving the daylight a bluish tinge. The photos taken by Yuko using her DSLR came out better, so we can hope the couple’s wedding photos turned out well also.)
Why are there so many gates? The reason is that this is an Inari shrine, a shrine dedicated to the god of fertility and industry. People show their gratitude for success in business by donating a gate to this god. The name of the person and the date are inscribed on the uprights of the gate.
The gates are painted or lacquered in a colour called 朱色 shu-iro—vermilion. There is variation between the shiny finish of the newest gates and those that have faded over 5 or 10 years to a pale whitish pink. We didn’t see any gates older than about 20 years.
As well as torii gates, Inari shrines are very strongly associated with foxes. Every Inari shrine, however small (for example the one on the roof of my office building in Osaka), has a pair of stone fox guardians, usually holding symbolic objects like a scroll or a sheaf of rice.
As the foremost of all the Inari shrines in Japan, Fushimi Inari shrine has lots of fox statues.
There was also a statue of a horse god housed in a small wooden building. The floor was covered with business cards.
The fox theme is interactive—visitors are invited to draw faces and write wishes on wooden fox masks, which are hung up and displayed outside the shrine building.
The railway station also picks up the theme.
Visitors typically walk up the hill behind the main shrine building, which meets a circular path that brings you to the summit. The walk is about 2 or 3 kilometres, and it can be a bit tiring walking up steep steps. I recommend you wear comfortable walking shoes. However it is worth the effort as there is so much of interest to see along the way, in terms of both religious significance and the beauty of the natural environment.
Photo credit: As usual Yuko took the beautiful photos using her Nikon DSLR. Some of the photos were also taken by me using my smartphone.
My name doesn’t have good connotations in Japanese. In one local dialect on the Sea of Japan coast, dara means “idiot”. (Perhaps fortunately, I have yet to visit that area.) It also features in the word 堕落 daraku, which refers to a moral lapse or descent into apostasy, corruption, sin or depravity. And in the word darake which refers to being completely covered in something (generally something bad, like mud or blood), or filled with mistakes.
And then there is this phrase dara dara, meaning slovenly, idly, slowly, lazily.
This biscuit tin features a very popular character called “Rilakkuma” (relax bear) looking characteristically relaxed, with the slogan (written in Roman letters) “kyou mo minna de daradara goron”, which means something like “today also, everyone idly idle about”. I bought the biscuits because I felt the word dara dara was being used in a nice, positive context.
dara dara is one of hundreds of gitaigo, so-called mimetic or onomatapoeic words in Japanese. For example:
- They were seated bara bara (separately);
- The stars were shining kira kira (glittering and sparkling);
- She was laughing kusu kusu (giggling);
- She was laughing gera gera (loudly and boisterously);
- She was laughing hera hera (condescendingly);
- He speaks English pera pera (fluently);
- Rain can fall zutsu zutsu, shito shito, pota pota, potsu potsu, depending on the intensity.
This aspect of Japanese is really hard for the learner. Japanese is simply filled with these words: people sleep guu guu, they eat mogu mogu, they lick pero pero, crunch food gari gari, stare jiro jiro, get nervous doki doki or impatient ira ira…
Even with flash cards and other learning aids, they just seem to defy memorisation. Part of the reason must be that, despite being known in English as onomatapoeia, they are mostly not in any meaningful sense mimetic, but rather seemingly arbitrary. Another possible reason is that these words somehow don’t “feel like” real, proper Japanese, but like some kind of add-on, possibly childish or slangy. (For example they are always written in kana, not kanji.) This feeling is incorrect; they absolutely are an integral part of the language, including the literary language, but it’s hard to shake it off.
Together with another type of adverb (of the form bikkuri, yukkuri, shittori, pittari, kussuri, ukkari…), countless hours of effort are spent trying to memorise these vocabulary items for the JLPT exams. Effort which is mostly wasted, since this kind of knowledge (lists of arbitrary items learned by rote memorisation) is only shallowly rooted in memory and is quickly forgotten once the exam is over.
It’s different, however, when you learn one of these words in “real life”; somehow hearing it used even once in the context of a conversation anchors it in reality and instantly makes it much more memorable. And once you use it yourself, it’s with you for life.
At 509 metres high, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in East Asia, and for a few years held the title of tallest in the world.
In an otherwise low-rise city, it stands in splendid isolation as the city’s premier landmark. Its vertical rhythm differentiates it from other tall buildings, and is intended to suggest the form of a bamboo plant.
While Taipei 101 has now fallen to number 3 in the world height rankings, it retains a number of records, including the world’s fastest elevator.
Travelling at a speed of over 1 km per minute, it whisked us to the 89th-floor observation deck in double-quick time. Although there was no real impression of speed inside the lift car, there was a helpful illuminated display to let us know how high we were and how fast we were going.
The 91st-floor outdoor observation deck was closed today (no explanation was given) so we viewed the city through the floor-to-ceiling glass of the indoor observation deck. Taipei tends to be very hazy, limiting the visibility of more distant areas, but there was a great view of the area of the city closer to the tower.
World Trade Center
Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial
The 2 General MacArthur bridges over the Keelung River, and Yang Ming Shan mountain in the background
At the heart of Taipei 101, a huge metal ball forms part of a tuned mass damper, protecting the building from excessive movement in high winds and earthquakes.
This ball is 5.5 metres in diameter and weighs hundreds of tonnes. It is the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one open to view by the public.
The lower floors of Taipei 101 are given over to an upscale shopping mall. The exposed structural elements of this atrium seem to combine a 19th-century Industrial Revolution aesthetic with a science-fiction sensibility.
After visiting Taipei 101, we hopped on the metro for a visit to Astoria Café. Astoria was founded by a Russian exile in 1949, and was the first western-style bakery and café in Taiwan. The White Russians, who had formed a community in Shanghai having fled the Russian revolution, were forced to flee yet another Communist revolution in 1949 and found themselves in Taiwan.
When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted “lunch or café”. As it was a bit too early for lunch, we opted for café. The menu had an extensive range of coffees and teas. The prices were very high, especially by Taiwan standards ($180 for a cup of coffee, equivalent to around €4.50). I chose a Russian blend coffee and Yuko went for a cold longan tea. (Longan is a delicious local fruit, quite similar to lychee.)
The menu didn’t feature any cake, only drinks. We wondered if we were supposed to buy cakes from the bakery downstairs and bring them up. But we asked the waiter and he brought us a cake menu. The cakes were good value at $50 per slice (€1.25). Yuko had a millefeuille and I had a coffee cake.
The décor is charmingly old-fashioned, with various significant items on display including old photos, samovars and a collection of matryoshka dolls.
The old-world style of the Astoria stands in delicious contrast to the Temple of the City God on the other side of the narrow street. This was the view from the window seat as I sipped my Russian coffee and nibbled my cake.