Art Déco in Saint-Quentin

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We are in temporary possession (thanks to Airbnb) of a very fine Art Déco house in Saint-Quentin, in the north of France. Saint-Quentin is called the “cradle” of Art Déco. After the city was almost completely destroyed in World War I, many of its buildings were rebuilt in a style that embodied modernity, luminosity, gaiety and optimism in the face of the horrors that had gone before; a style that was launched on the world in 1925 and came to be known as Art Déco.

Art Déco emphasises verticality and light.

Nothing is new under the sun: the Romanesque doorway of the post office echoes the facade of the basilica just across the square.

These two buildings, by the same architect, illustrate the sheer diversity of style that falls within the umbrella of Art Déco. On the right, number 13 draws on regional styles and materials, uniting Picard red brick with cement, stone and wrought iron, with a Flemish-style saw-tooth gable reaching for the sky. On the left, number 9 uses pseudo-African or south American motifs and textures in its pediment and bow windows.

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Nouvelles Galeries

Originally, this “phare” would have been glazed and illuminated. Sadly, it now presents a blind concrete face to the world.

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“Oasis” motif doorway

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In the Carillon music hall’s frieze, we see two bells ringing against a backdrop of luxuriant vegetation, reminiscent of a jungle.

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Post office wrought-iron window

The architect of the post office included the letters PTT (the old name of La Poste) in the ironwork.

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Roses are a very common decorative theme in Saint-Quentin’s Art Déco buildings. If you look closely you can see that the flowers are all different – it seems they are not merely moulded but were individually carved into the fresh cement.

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The characteristic Art Déco lettering style is used even when an establishment gets a new name.

I can’t help feeling that Saint-Quentin was fortunate (from an architectural point of view) that it was rebuilt after World War I and not after World War II, the bleak and inhuman doctrines of post-war modernism allowing little space for the whimsical detail and variety that bring a smile to your face as you wander through the city.

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Many faces of Macau

 

Pandas, Portuguese colonial heritage, Cantonese opera, super-opulent casinos, the lights and bustle of noisy shopping streets, a bewildering mix of the old and the new. In our brief 2-day stay in Macau we encountered so many different aspects that it’s hard to form any coherent impression of the place.

On our first day in Macau we started by going to the top of Guia Hill, which is the site of an old Portuguese military fortress, a lighthouse and a chapel. We took a #10 bus to the entrance of the botanical garden and then a cable car to the top of the hill. The cable car ride only cost 3 patacas (about 35c) each.

We continued walking all around the old Portuguese town centre, including the famous ruins of St Paul’s cathedral, Mount Fortress and the Senate square.

I thought it was interesting that Portuguese is still in use as an official language, with all signs and public documents displayed in Portuguese, even though hardly anyone in Macau speaks or understands the language.

We discovered some historic links between Macau and Japan. In the 16th century, the Jesuit St Francis Xavier came as a Christian missionary to Japan, and there is a park named after him in Sakai city. The bones of St Francis Xavier, as well as those of Japanese Christian martyrs, are on display in a reliquary in the crypt of the ruined cathedral of St Paul in Macau.

There happened to be a big religious festival on that evening – the birthday of A-ma or Tin Hau, a goddess who looks after sailors (very important in a port city that historically depended on fishing and trade). We took the bus over to the temple at Barra, where we were greeted by great billowing clouds of incense and the strains of Cantonese comic opera.

 

The next morning, we left the Macao peninsula behind and took a bus over the bridge to “the islands” (Taipa and Coloane were formerly separate islands, but have been joined together by land reclamation; the resulting strip of land, called Cotai, now hosts some of the world’s grandest and most elaborate casino resort hotels.) Our destination was a park in Coloane where you can view pandas (both giant and red) and other animals.

The contrast between the jungly hillside of Coloane and the tall buildings of the peninsula was remarkable. I was glad that we had the chance to experience this lesser-seen aspect of Macau.

That afternoon, for yet another startling contrast, we spent a few hours in the resort hotels of Cotai. The Venetian, the Sands, the Parisian, all link up to form a huge shopping mall/hotel/casino complex, with completely over-the-top decor including a replica of the Eiffel Tower and Venice’s Grand Canal. Once inside, you very quickly lose any sense of connection with reality and the outside world. Note that all of the below photos were taken indoors.

While sipping coffee in the Parisian, on the terrace of an ersatz French street, we were serenaded by genuine French opera singers in fancy costumes. IMG_0423

Although 2 days may seem like a very short stay, we made the most of our time and tried to experience different aspects. All in all, I was very impressed by Macau and found it to be a fascinating place, well worth a visit.

Sentier Littoral – coastal pathway

There’s a pedestrian route, designated GR223, running litorally all along the coast of the Cotentin peninsula between Isigny and Mont Saint-Michel (a total of 446 km). It’s called the sentier littoral or the chemin des douaniers.

There are similar coastal routes in other parts of France (over 4,600 km in total), thanks to a law which guarantees public access to a strip 3 metres wide along the entire coastline. It’s enforced pretty seriously – on one occasion the army was called in to blow up a private wall that was blocking access.

The result is some fantastically scenic walking routes, not only here in Normandy but in Brittany, the Basque country, the Mediterranean coast and elsewhere. You can dip in and out or walk all day.

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Rugged coastal landscape at the Nez de Jobourg on the north-west corner of the Cotentin peninsula.

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Slightly tamer scenery on the sheltered east coast of the peninsula.

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The pathway is marked by these yellow bornes or milestones indicating the distance to the next destination.

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Here Shiro is inspecting a German pillbox left over from World War II.

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Car Wash

I’ve long contended that being in a foreign country is equivalent to losing 30 to 50 IQ points. I’m not talking about obvious language or cultural differences, or which side of the road you drive on. No, it’s the subtle differences in ordinary day-to-day tasks that trip you up.

 

Yesterday I tried (and failed) to use an automatic car wash in France, an experience that cost me 8 euros. To make matters worse, that’s the second time I have done that; exactly the same thing happened 2 years ago in a different part of France.

You see, in Ireland, when you want to use an automatic car wash, you first enter a code or a token, then drive into the archway until the sign says STOP, and then the car wash cycle begins. That is not how it works in France.

In France, you drive your car into the archway first, then get out of the car, go to the machine and conclude a complicated transaction involving buying and inserting tokens, and then remain outside the car while the wash cycle takes place.

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So what happens if you are in France and try to do it the Irish way? As it happens, I know the answer to this question. You enter the tokens, get into your car and drive into the archway. Meanwhile the machine has attempted to start the wash cycle but becomes confused when it can’t detect the presence of any car. Then, when you drive in, the movement triggers a safety switch, causing it to shut down completely. In the end you have no choice but to reverse your still-dirty but foam-spattered car out and drive away, 8 euros poorer and feeling utterly incompetent.

For things like this, the way you are used to is so obvious that it would not even occur to you that it might be done differently elsewhere. If I told a French person that I had attempted to drive into the car wash while it was already running, with the intention of sitting in the car while it was being washed, they would probably look at me like I was some kind of maniac. Much like I would look at a French person in Ireland who attempted to open the door and get out of his car while it was in the car wash.

It’s a story with a happy ending: yesterday evening I tried again and finally got it right. Happiness is born of such small victories.IMG_0237

Smultronställe—a hidden secret place

A wonderful new word I discovered on this trip to Sweden: smultronställe. The literal meaning is “wild strawberry patch”, but the word is used to mean a special place that is close to your heart, that isn’t so easy for others to find, where you feel at ease and at one with the world.

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Flower meadow at Ribersborg strand, Malmö

Your personal smultronställe may be a quirky café, a woodland glade or a place with a fine view, far from the madding crowd. (Examples taken from the Wikipedia article.)

Ingmar Bergman made a critically acclaimed film called smultronstället (Wild Strawberries), in which the elderly protagonist dreams of fondly remembered scenes of his youth.

Lots of berries and fruit end in -on in Swedish: hallon, smultron, plommon, nypon, hjortron, lingon, päron, and on and on…

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Strawberry and wild strawberry yogurt

Our home in Sweden for these two weeks is in Plommongatan (Plum Street) and all the neighbouring streets are named on a similarly fruity theme: Rose-hip Street, Bearberry Street, Raspberry Street, etc.

So what about you, do you have a smultronställe where you can escape the demands of the world?

Living Swedish style

Our home for these two weeks is in a lovely leafy suburb about 5 km from the centre of Malmö. It is a quietly affluent area with huge parks and an astonishing number of wild rabbits. Our house adjoins a cycle and pedestrian path, part of a network that is largely separate from the roads, so that you can walk or cycle around safely without having to deal with vehicle traffic.

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View from our bedroom towards the city centre

We rented the house through Airbnb. On Tuesday morning we briefly met the owners; they were just about to set off on a two-day drive of their own, for a holiday in Croatia. They are completely laid back about having us living in their home; the only “rule” they posted on their Airbnb listing was “treat our house as if it were your own”. They also left us a bottle of wine with a note inviting us to help ourselves to the tomatoes and cucumbers growing in their glasshouse.

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We’re also free to use their bicycles, including this handy (and somewhat unwieldy) cargo bike for doing grocery shopping.

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Two things we noticed very quickly: there are no curtains and no clothes storage in any of the bedrooms.

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The lack of curtains is typically Swedish; we had noticed years ago that as you walk around a Swedish neighbourhood in the evening you can see all the people in their houses and apartments going about their evening routines. The explanation I have heard is that Swedes don’t approve of having something to hide; if you are not engaging in nefarious activities, why would you need curtains?

What we hadn’t realised is that in summer, the lack of curtains means you are woken every morning at 5 a.m. by the full force of the sun shining directly in your face like a 100 MW laser beam. Which is good in a way, because it means you get up early and make the most of the day.

The lack of any wardrobes, closets, hanging space or drawers for your clothes is a bit more problematic. It makes for a really uncluttered look—the only things in your living space are things of beauty such as photographs and artworks that you have specifically chosen. But it’s quite inconvenient. For these two weeks, we’ve got around it by just living out of our suitcases; we’ve left our suitcases open on the floor of one of the children’s bedrooms.

The dogs are very happy to have a big garden to run around in. They were predictably excited at first by all the rabbits, but there are so many that they may actually be starting to get bored with them.