3 Weeks in New Zealand

On Saturday an Air France 777 dropped me back into the greyness of a Paris January, after three weeks back in my island home.

Despite a very wet December, the consensus was that pohutukawa flowers this year were particularly spectacular.

However, the Hawke’s Bay region provided us with 6 days of perfect sunshine, and some wonderful scenery. It was my first visit to the east coast of the North Island.

At Cape Kidnappers, the gannet colony was noisy, smelly, and full of…  gannets.


The trip along State Highway 2 through the Waioeka Gorge was like driving back to before the arrival of humans.

In towns like Opotiki, the local colour reminds you that we are a Pacific nation…

It is a privilege to belong to the nation that invented the paua wonton!

Kicking Around

It’s been a long time between posts… work and travel have kept me a long way from the blog.  There’s not much point in trying to catch up, but here’s a very brief summary of what’s been happening since September:

We spent a late summer weekend in Dijon, looking at art and architecture, and buying mustard…

We accidentally bumped into the Fête des Vignes in Montmartre in October

I spend a few days with family and friends back in New Zealand, while on a rapid business trip.

Holly leapt out of the lily pond and watered my uncle’s lawn.

In the process, I circled the planet on Air New Zealand (CDG-LHR-LAX-AKL-HKG-LHR-CDG)

And since then, I’ve been back in Paris, in a blur of métro, boulot, dodo…

There’s another trip to New Zealand coming up soon, and I hope to get back to some more regular blogging !


Aron and Adb al Malik

It seems everyone ends up in Paris, eventually.  Aron Ottignon was raised in Auckland, New Zealand and I knew him when he was still a prodigious jazz pianist, playing professional gigs around town at an unusually young age.

Since then Aron’s played his way through the scenes in Sydney and London, released a solo album under the name Aronas, and now he’s ended up in Paris, playing with rapper Abd Al Malik.

As well as touring with Abd al Malik, Aron has appeared with the band on French TV shows such as Le Grand Journal, and earlier this year played at the Victoires de la Musique in Lille:

Aron was sneaky enough to film this very performance from his own perspective, on his iPhone…

And, if you’re quick, you can even see his iPhone in the live footage from France 4! :

Energy State: 4 Days in Saudi

Last December, I spent a few days in the Gulf – it was, as I mentioned at the time, a most intriguing experience.  Last week, I had the opportunity (and the visa) to go further down the rabbit hole: this time to Riyadh, the extraordinary capital of Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh is extraordinary, in the sense that in ordinary circumstances, the city should simply not exist. In Riyadh, 7 million people – the population of one and a half Scotlands – live at 600m above sea level, in the middle of one of the hottest deserts on the planet, with neither a river, port or a strategic geographic setting to recommend it. One can barely imagine the energy required to bring water, food, fuel and power to the place. And yet the city still grows, and the traffic gets worse, year after year.

For visitors (who are either businessmen or expatriate workers, the Kingdom does not welcome tourists), there is virtually nothing to do.  Saudi Arabia offers neither bars nor cinemas. Alcohol is contraband, and the outside temperature in summer (40-50 degrees) makes sport simply impossible. If my experience is typical, visitors spend their days shuttling between air-conditioned hotels and offices, in air-conditioned taxis, climb to the top of the Kingdom Tower to count the mosques, and then jump on the next plane home.

Even the shopping malls are strictly regulated, to prevent single men and women mixing. There are separate floors for women’s shops, and “family nights” are reserved for wives, husbands and their families: single people are turned away at the door. At prayer time, we saw shopkeepers closing their shutters, and Mutaween cars cruising the streets with loudhailers, apparently berating the backsliders and infidels for not attending prayers.

My hotel thoughtfully provided a prayer mat, in a bedside drawer, along with a sticker pointing the direction to “Holy Makkah”. In the privacy of your hotel room, there are thankfully no Mutaween: the instructions to face Makkah can be heeded or not, as one wishes.

After four days in the Kingdom,  although I had been fascinated by the experience and deeply appreciated the generous welcome given by our Saudi hosts, I was very happy to depart. It is a privilege to live in a place where there are trees, public transport, and where the media consisted of more than just koranic readings, propaganda and football. Allah may not have blessed our western countries with almost endless oil wealth, but in our own way, we are very blessed indeed.

Christchurch, the Distant City

Christchurch, February 22nd 2011

Christchurch holds onto a small but indelible place in my imagination. I was born there,  as was my younger sister, but since then, the city has played only a minor role in my adventures.

We left Christchurch when I was small. To all intents and purposes if I have a “home town”, it’s Auckland. By birth a  South Islander, I quickly became a North Islander by habit and conviction.

However, my first verifiable memories are rooted in Christchurch. An image of my father, waving to me on his bicycle across the street in Riccarton, as I’m strapped into the child seat on my mother’s bicycle. In that image, the sun is shining, as it so often does in Canterbury.

Later, there’s the moment that I nearly bit my tongue off falling from a plastic toy tractor, and Mum and Dad rushed me to Accident and Emergency. Nothing the doctor could do. “We don’t stitch tongues“, he solemnly informed my parents. I survived.

And then we moved to Auckland, and Christchurch became a place viewed from afar, in the saturated colours of Super 8 family films projected on the family room wall.

Christchurch was a place of fleeting visits: summer Christmases with my aunt in her sprawling house in Avonhead, lounges full of bean bags, afternoons full of swimming pools and tether-ball on the back lawn.

Christchurch was a duck-blue rowing boat with Not-My-Real-Uncle Tony on the River Avon; the heat of January sun at Pigeon Bay on Lyttleton Harbour; and spotting UFOs from the back seat of my cousin’s car as we crossed the high road over the Port Hills.

In later years, Christchurch became even more mysterious. It was a place passed through on skiing trips to the Southern Alps, a gig here and there at the Dux de Lux. A city glimpsed briefly in between airports, roadmaps and twilight hours.

one million dollars on tour – Cathedral Square, June 2004

Today, Christchurch is again a city viewed from afar: via a flood of hasty Twitter messages, shaky iPhone video taken through clouds of dust, and an expanding litany of bad news on the world’s websites.

French news anchors pronounce “Christchurch” as if spitting out the overly prussian name of one of Bismarck’s generals. Flat-vowelled kiwi accents are overdubbed into Parisian Media French. Al Jazeera interrupts coverage of Gadaffi’s final madness to earnestly report on New Zealand’s destruction – from their Kuala Lumpur bureau. Afar has never quite seemed so far.

My aunt is safe. But New Zealand is a small place, and Christchurch even smaller. Our stories link together strongly. The cathedral where friends of mine sang in the choir is in ruins. The cliff at Sumner has collapsed. We ate once at a suberb beachside restaurant below it, called “Scarborough Fare“.

People are sleeping in tents in Hagley Park, while others spend the night still trapped under collapsed buildings, hoping for rescue. Some are digging in the rubble, or organising food and water supplies, or looking after neighbours.  Others still lie silent, awaiting discovery and burial.

When you’re a New Zealander, the chance that you know one of these people personally is very strong. I can’t be anywhere but Paris right now, but for the moment, my imagination is back in Christchurch. Kia kaha koutou nga morehu o Otautahi.

Paris est à nous! (non, c’est à nous!)

Returning from a rather pleasant informal brunch yesterday, in the 19th arrondissement, a companion and I were entering the métro on rue de Belleville, heading towards Chatelet. I made the quite unconscious remark that we were “going back into Paris“. Which is a ridiculous statement, because we had never left Paris.

This is one of the paradoxes of a city like Paris: when you live near the centre, a journey of 20 minutes to the 19th arrondissment can feel like you’re heading into the countryside. Every part of town, despite being readily accessible by métro, feels distinct and somehow independent from every other district. Living and working here means that you might traverse several of these parallel universes every day.

As I’ve noted before on this blog, Paris is geographically a very small city,  you can walk the length and breadth of the city in around 4 hours. But unless you’re a taxi driver, most Paris residents have never visited the whole of their city.

As a relatively new arrival, I probably know less about Paris than most. But after 18 months, my Paris consists of a number distinct brightly-lit zones centred on metro stations and friends’ apartments,  some fuzzy grey bits in between, and some completely dark areas, which remain utterly unexplored and unknowable.

As most guidebooks will tell you, Paris revolves around neighbourhoods –  quartiers – of which there are an infinite number, because everyone will have a different sense of their own little neighbourhood.  My amateur definition of a quartier is a part of Paris within which you know where all the boulangeries are located: just in case your favourite one is closed, another has run out of baguettes tradition, and your third choice has a queue 20 metres long outside the door.

By this definition,  my own quartier stretches along the Left Bank from the Musée d’Orsay in the west to the far end of rue de Buci in the east, and as far south as Boulevard St Germain. South of Boulevard St Germain is also familiar territory, but I wouldn’t know where to buy bread: so it’s not my quartier.

Similarly, there are other parts of Paris I’ve come to know quite well: the eastern section of the 10th arrondissement, from Place de la République to the Canal St Martin; the streets of the Marais around métro St Paul and Place des Vosges;  rue Clerc in the western part of the 7th;  and a few avenues north of Etoile, heading towards Parc Monceau.  In these parts of town, I know where to find shops and certain cafés.

Additionally, I can also get myself to Fnac Montparnasse to buy bandes dessinées and find my way to Leroy-Merlin at Beaubourg to buy screwdrivers, lightbulbs and glue. But this hardly counts as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.

Place de Clichy and most of the 17th arrondissement, the métro 3bis, the towers of les Olympiades in the 13th… all these parts of Paris – only 20 minutes from my front door – remain as mysterious to me as Moscow or Seoul.

This sense of compartmentalisation is reflected in the way the city is administered – surely, only the French could take a small city of 2 million people, and divide it among 20 separate mayors . One mayor for each arrondissement.  Of course there is a SuperMayor of all of Paris, (our friend Plastic Bertrand), but I wonder whether the arrondissement system – created in the rationalist afterglow of revolution in 1795 – remains truly effective today.

Certainly the arrondissements emphasise the sense of separation between different parts of the city, each with its own “typical” resident profile. The 7th, (where I happen to live), is derided as being bourgeois, expensive, full of government ministries and overall, rather boring.  If you have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry, the stereotype dictates that you must live in the 13th. The 11th is the place to be if you’re a young bobo media entrepreneur. For African groceries, head to the 10th around Gare du Nord and the parts of the 18th around Tati. And the 4th is where you hang out if you’re, well,  gay or Jewish.

Somehow all of these little districts fuse together – with varying degrees of success – to create a conglomerate whole which is a city called “Paris”. Figuring out how it all works (or doesn’t) is one of my constant fascinations.

I feel a little sorry for the tourists who jet in for a week of plastic Eiffel Towers, photos on the parvis du Notre Dame, and takeaway portraits sketched by the artists on Place du Tertre. I’m sure they all have a wonderful time, and tick all their boxes, but they haven’t really seen much. If anything, the problem about Paris is that there’s too much to see, and nobody can agree on what it is that you’re supposed to see, or why it looks that particular way.

Please excuse me, I’ve got to leave now. It’s Sunday, and I’m going to visit Paris  for the afternoon.

Story Time

Spending some time recently cleaning out my hard drive, I rediscovered a short story I wrote a few years ago. It’s entitled How We Destroyed Panama, and anyone who is interested can pick it up in PDF format here (5,800 words, 11 pages).

Reading over it again with a few year’s hindsight, there’s very little story, and what story there is, has very little to do with Panama. The writing is uneven, but I figure as I’m giving away the story for free, nobody really can complain too much.

(The usual disclaimers apply regarding coincidental resemblance to real people and events.)

2010… wait, what?

Bit of a strange, slightly rushed year, this one. On a personal note, the sense of disjointedness in 2010 has not been helped by moving through three jobs and five weeks of unemployment during that time. And just two weeks holiday: the much-vaunted life of leisure promised by the French social-democratic compact has yet to eventuate.

However, there have been highlights, and many things I should be thankful for. Since I can no longer hold anything in my head longer that five minutes, I needed to look back at my photos for the year to realise what a lot has happened. Here are a few cool things that have happened this year:

Driving to the Western Fjords of Norway

Finding Brussels bathed in sunshine

Performing Beethoven, Schubert and Sibelius with Marc Korovitch and my friends in l’Orchestre des Concerts Gais

Walking the length and breadth of Paris, twice.

Hanging out in Hingeballe with Sigurdór, Sice and their family

Parisian photo safaris with my sister and future brother-in-law (yes they got engaged while visiting me!)

Getting my first glimpse of the Middle East… Abu Dhabi and Qatar

So, all in all, a lot happened in 2010, without really trying. A lot of visitors passed through my apartment, and somehow I improved my knowledge of this strange city called Paris. Thanks to everyone for sticking at it these last 52 weeks, and may I wish you all a very happy and fulfilling 2011, wherever you are.