Sunday 27 March 2011

Forbidden City, Beijing

Today is census day for Britain (coming around every ten years since 1801, except for once during WWII), and also the day we put the clocks forward to daylight savings. I can't bring myself to say 'summer time', since despite the rash optimism of my previous post, it's a grey, nippy 8º C outside. 

A day, then, for another in my series of random travel posts, this one from a trip to China two years ago ...

While Shanghai (see here) gave glimpses into the personal, private details of life in China, Beijing, from the moment we landed at the spectacularly shiny, spanking-clean, post-Olympic City airport, was all drama, power, history. And nowhere were these elements more concentrated than in the Forbidden City.

For around 500 years the Forbidden City was the seat of power and intrigue, access to it denied on punishment of death to all but a select few people. It was home to China's Emperors, their families, servants, guards, senior civil servants, as well as, famously, the emperor’s concubines – well-educated young women chosen from the ‘best’ Manchu families to spend the rest of their lives cloistered in the Forbidden City – and the eunuchs who guarded them. 

(Both these last have their own stories, such as the last Chinese eunuch, who died in 1996 (see here) or the young concubine who rose in the ranks to become a powerful Empress Dowager - see here).

I'm the sort of person who is invariably drawn to details, but the aerial photo below gives a sense of the scale of the City and why exploring it properly would take weeks. Also called "the Great Within", it lies right in the heart of Beijing, which is arranged in a series of concentric circles around it, on a south-north axis from Tianenmen Square, in the foreground below... 

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... and is laid out in perfect symmetry – a series of intricate palaces linked by huge squares, courtyards and man-made lakes.

Their names speak of their designers' intentions - you pass through the  Halls or Gates of  Supreme Harmony, Heavenly Purity, or Earthly Tranquility, now guarded (it's a UNESCO world heritage site) by men and women in traditional dress...

Inside, every architectural feature, colour and decoration has symbolic significance ...

Beauty in the details of doors, ceilings and cornices, above and carved stone floors, below.

On this day in October, the great majority of the crowds thronging through the City seemed to be Chinese rather than foreign visitors ...

People crowding to touch a giant urn for good luck (above) and a little girl gets a better view riding on her father's shoulders (below)

All the buildings are made of wood. Huge bronze urns, like the one below left, were kept filled with water to deal with the fire hazard.

And below, the modern face of China's might was in evidence through the policemen who stood to attention or marched around all over the Forbidden City. I'm not sure what their purpose was there, other than simply a reminder of their presence, but in that they were certainly effective. (I was a little nervous taking this hurried photo. Is the guy in the centre of the front row giving me the beady eye?).

In Beijing restaurants, in the vast, sky-scrapered modern city, we were introduced to some of the best food we'd ever eaten in our lives, with vegetarian daughters deciding they'd landed in food heaven ...

Finally, it would be unforgivable to visit Beijing without a day-trip to the Great Wall of China ...

... though sadly, for me it was impossible to do justice to this sight in pictures. The photo below, of only a tiny section of the wall, may give some sense of how literally awesome it felt to be there.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Spring has sprung

At last,  some days of sunshine and temperatures creeping as daringly high as 10º C!  It seems to have been the longest winter ever, but here we are today with actual blue skies, for crying out loud (nou toe nou!) ... 

These pink blossoms have popped out on the scrawny tree outside my front door, and such was the bucolic scene at the farm down the road today ...

Yes, the trees are still bare and leafless, but lets focus on the daffodils and the spot of sunshine ...

Awake, thou wintry earth -
Fling off thy sadness!
Fair vernal flowers, laugh forth
Your ancient gladness!

Yes, quite, Thomas Blackburn, but I'm having panicked thoughts: do I even have any summer clothes? Where are they, and will I still fit into them if I can find them, after seven months of red wines, vegetative DVD-watching and comfort eating? 

Calm down, it's not like we're out of the winter coats and boots yet. Venturing into the garden (above) for five minutes has been quite enough excitement for one day ...

Saturday 19 March 2011

A foodie's weekend in Edinburgh

Last Friday younger daughter and I skived off up north to Edinburgh for the weekend.  In the wee hours of Saturday morning it started snowing. By 9.00 a.m., as I made my way out of the city, care of a lovely, chatty taxi driver (is it in the Scottish DNA, or something in the water up there that makes them all such nice friendly people?), we were passing through fields of white ...

I was heading for Kirkliston, a little west of the city, to indulge a birthday present from last year, at the Edinburgh School of Food and Wine, in this amazing location - a coach house (bottom right in the pics above) with views of wooded countryside ...

in the grounds of Newliston House (below) designed by Robert Adam in the late 1700s ...

Inside, coffee and brownies warm from the oven were waiting, followed by a full day of alternate cooking, eating, drinking, demonstrations, more cooking, eating, drinking (did I mention that the Scots love to drink?), ending with a champagne tasting. Staggering out at 6.00 pm, the evening's dinner reservations began to seem like a very bad idea.

I'd had fun, learned loads of new things, and resolved that that would be the first and last time I attempt to make my own pasta (don't ask, it did not turn out well).

On the left, the lovely Tom, one of the school's staff, casts a politely doubtful eye over my cooking partner's and my presentation; on the right, rocket in the windowsill awaits dressing, as snow continues to fall outside.

By Sunday morning the snow had melted in the city and we had a day free to wander, drink coffee and explore, guided by our native Edinburgher, daughter the elder ...

View from Prince's Street across the gardens, left, and sisters wrapped up against the chill in front of Greyfriar's Bobby, right.

Clockwise from top left: David Livingstone in the Prince's Street Gardens (the High Kirk steeple through the trees behind), a young fiddler balancing precariously on one leg on top of a bollard on the Royal Mile,  the green and gold dome of the Bank of Scotland, the Elephant House coffee shop where J.K. Rowling famously wrote the first of her Harry Potter books.

The (Walter) Scott Monument, left, and spires of Edinburgh University's New College, right, home to the School of Divinity.

And look! 24 hours after being blanketed in snow, the sun was shining on spring flowers popping up in Prince's Street Gardens ... 

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Monaco Blues

I have a bad case of the winter blues. (I keep hearing that spring is on the way, but other than longer days I can't see many signs of it around here). I have so completely had it with freezing temperatures, with heavy coats and boots. I'm dreaming about the sensation of warm air on bare skin, grass or sand underfoot. Planning our summer holidays this past weekend brought on a feverish fit of vicarious sun-seeking, browsing pics of summers past.

The gardens of St Martin in Monaco-Ville overlook the bay on the Côte d'Azure, where the Alpes-Maritimes meet the Mediterranean. We took a train ride along that coast a couple of summers ago, from Antibes past Cagnes-sur-Mer, Nice, Villefranche-sur-Mer, Cap Ferrat, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, to Monaco Bay, watching the boats bob along that impossibly blue sea.

The gardens are perched up high on a cliff top, adjoining St Nicholas cathedral where Grace and Rainier are buried, and are full of exotic plants, water features and sculptures.

I liked it up here. The tacky commercialism of Monte Carlo fades from this distance, and all looks serene and blue.

Pick a yacht, any one you like ...

The Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium are up here too, courtesy of Albert I (great great grandfather of the incumbent Albert), and very cool they were too, in every sense of the word ...

Roll on summer. I'm getting desperate.

Saturday 5 March 2011

Reads and flicks

I've recently read two novels that were contenders for last year's Booker Prize. Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, an exploration of male Jewish friendship and identity, was the winning novel.

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This was not my best read ever (see here), and I'm not convinced that my lack of engagement can be put down to the fact that I am neither a Finkler nor a man. After posting that review I was interested to find while browsing online that many other readers had almost identical problems with the book, often more strongly expressed - see this Man Booker readers' forum, for instance. It's not everyone's cup of tea, it seems. I was amused to read here though, Jacobson's tongue-in-cheek claim that he will spend the £50 000 prize money on a handbag for his wife ("have you seen the price of handbags?").

On the other hand, Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, shortlisted for the prize, had me fully engaged from start to finish (see here). Galgut's story is based on experiences of his own life, raising the question of whether it is autobiography rather than fiction. He does a curious thing in narrating it, of switching (sometimes within one sentence) between first and third persons, so that the 'Damon' of the story is both (involved) narrator and (distant) character. My work includes an interest in the 'narrativization of memory': what we choose to remember, to give prominence to, and what we choose to forget or downplay, is all part of the selective process of remembering, and the 'connections' between events are the ones we choose to see. So I found it interesting to read here (and listen to here) Galgut's explanation of why "the act of narrating a memory is an act of creating fiction". 

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I'm told that Galgut has been compared to the more famous South African writer J.M. Coetzee (Nobel prizewinner and twice winner of the Booker), and I must admit that a similarity in writing style occurred to me more than once while reading In A Strange Room.  The very obvious difference, to me, between the two is that you are never in doubt of Galgut's humanity and kindness. 

On a different note, I caught up with two movies that were on the circuit last year - both coincidentally on the same theme of 'bourgeois wife finds late-life passion with unsuitable paramour' ...

In Luca Guadagnino's I am Love (Io Sono l'Amore)the brilliant Tilda Swinton, speaking Italian with a Russian accent, plays the wife of a hugely wealthy Milanese industrialist whose carefully constructed life (and those of her family) unravels when she falls for a handsome much-younger chef, who seduces her first with his food and then with his, umm, magnetic personality. The point is really less the plot than Tilda Swinton, who is perfectly magnificent in a physical and mental transformation from immaculate, proper and designer-perfect wife in a stultifying patrician family ...

to cropped-head Natural Woman ...

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The stunning visuals of clothes and interiors (the Recchi family mansion is the Villa Necchi Campiglio - take a look here) are the second reason not to miss this film. 

Less opulent but no less dramatic is Partir, with Kristin Scott-Thomas (below) as the French wife and mother in comfortable middle-class existence who falls for ... the builder, this time - a rough-around-the-edges Spaniard with a dodgy past and a sketchy income. Her controlling, obnoxious doctor-husband, nicely played by Yvan Attal, is the third player in the dark twists and turns that follow (well, you don't expect a heartwarming Disney plot from a French drama, do you), but again, it's Scott-Thomas who really shines here.

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Both these films should come with a health warning to married women who find themselves tempted to run off with the hot handyman (this cannot end well!)

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