- Category: Steve's Blog - 2010
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How do you explain to a three year old about a world war almost a century ago? My best effort was to tell James, as we walked through the Australian War Memorial at Villers Bretenoux, that “long ago, before I was a little boy, there was a big fight, and lots of people got hurt and lots died”. I should have seen his response coming. “Why Daddy”?
As I made my way through the headstones James simple question kept coming back to me. “Why indeed”?
Why did so many men and women and children have to die in these fields and villages for the sake of the power and ego of a few men? Why when the shooting and bombs began and those men saw the sheer numbers of people being killed or maimed or injured, did they choose to fight more and not less? Why could they not see the carnage for what it was? Why did they not find another way to settle their differences?
We had come to Amiens as our last stop in France. For me it was an important stop to make because one of my grandfathers had fought here. He was also one of the lucky ones because he didn’t die here.
In some respects I’m quite fortunate because I have three Grandfathers, but only one was ever able to hold me on his knee. Joe Maxwell was that Grandfather and he passed away before I was two years old. My mother has told me a story about Joe holding me one day, and in the midst of a light hearted conversation, he paused and looked at my mother. “Don’t ever let him go to war, Joy. Promise me. Don’t ever let him go to war” he said.
Joe survived Gallipoli, the Battle of Amiens and other assorted battles on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Along the way he picked up a Military Cross and Bar, a Distinguished Conduct Medal and a Victoria Cross. While proud of his medals, he wasn’t prone to talking too much about the horror that was the First World War. His book, Hells Bells and Mademoiselles, details his war experiences without ever going into the nitty gritty of what it was really like on the front lines. Instead he wrote mostly of life in between the fighting. Like most other veterans he preferred not to discuss the horror in detail.
I have come here to honour his memory, and the memory of the people he served with. I have come here because even today when I remember marching in the local Anzac Day parade as a 10 year old I can almost feel the weight of his medals across my young chest. I remember clearly the veterans coming up to me, smiling as they looked over the medals before saying matter-of-factly, “So you’re Joe Maxwell’s Grandson”.
Our first memorial visit is to Villers Bretonneux. It is the site of the Australian War Cemetery and Memorial. It is sad and stunning. Grave after grave line each side of the cemetery leading to the memorial which stands at the peak of the hill. Many of the graves record the names of the fallen, but many simply record that below this earth is a Soldier of the Great War. An un-named soldier.
The memorial is grand and has been adorned with Australian flags by relatives visiting their ancestors and finding their name recorded on the walls or in the cemetery. The face of the tower has pock marks in the stone. The information boards tell us that these are bullet wounds inflicted on the memorial during fighting in the second world war. It astounds me to be somewhere so sombre, remembering the fallen from a terrible war, to think that it happened all again in the same places just a couple of decades later.
Le Hamel is next. It’ a smaller memorial set in fields of wheat and canola which were ready for harvest. Here the memorial remembers the dead who managed to fight their way to the top of the hill and hold the high ground above the village of Le Hamel. Beside the memorial are the remnants of German trenches which still contain pieces of rusted wire and shrapnel. Signs warn visitors not to touch or disturb any old ordinance you may find. Almost 100 years later there are still dangers on this hill.
At Thiepval we visit the British memorial for those still missing. The building is massive and it needs to be. Inscribed on the walls are the names of 72,000 service personnel who have no known grave and who were killed serving on, or near, the Western Front.
A week later I’m on my own, driving in the rain and heading for another Australian Memorial. This time it’s the 5th Division Memorial near Passendale. The memorial here is to both the Australian and New Zealand troops who fought in the battle for Polygon Wood and at other sites along the Belgian section of the front.
On that day the woods were quiet and I had the forest and the cemetery to myself. The cemetery and memorial stand in the centre of the wood which has regrown. The birds were singing in the early morning air and there was just a hint of a breeze through the trees.
The site is vastly different to the photographs from the days of the war. They show it as a muddy field littered with broken trees. The men moved on duck boards and there was little sign of life other than the movement of the soldiers. If you think of a WW1 photograph showing the fields of Europe devastated by the months and years of fighting, of smashed trees and tired looking young men sitting in the mud and slop, you will have an idea of what transpired at Polygon Wood and how it looked at that time.
Today however the cemetery is surrounded by lush forest which protects it from the outside world. The headstones are in their relentless neat rows and they’ve been planted with roses and hydrangeas which give some colour and life. Many gravestones record the name and origins of the fallen. Once again, too many record nothing of those that lie underneath.
5471 Australian soldiers died here of which many are still lost in the forest. In recognition of those that were never found, the NZ memorial records the names of those who fought and died and who have no known grave. It is stark and beautiful and a terrible reminder all at once.
This year the 11th of the 11th will be a little different. I always try to observe the moment we are supposed to pause and remember, but sometimes life gets in the way. This year I will pause and think of those lines of graves. I will think of the lists of those thousands men still missing in the fields of France and Belgium. This year I will think again of my step-grandfather and his insistence that my mother never allow me to go to war. I will understand that plea better than ever before.
As far as explaining “The Big Fight” to my three year old son. Perhaps that may have to wait a few more years. Perhaps, like his dad, he may only really understand why it’s so important to remember what happened in these fields when he stands alone in the early morning light, somewhere in another country, in a clearing filled with graves. Just then it may hit home that little bit more.
- Category: Steve's Blog - 2010
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Paris is grey & I don’t mean the sky. I mean the city itself. Standing on the top of the steps in the early morning light at Sacre Coeur the view of the city is clear and crisp. The stone used to build many of the old buildings is a creamy grey and when viewed from the top of the hill, with the intense density of four and five story buildings sitting higher than the street trees, you can see almost un-interrupted grey
This is not a criticism. Grey is just the colour of the place. London for example has more trees poking through and a mixture of stone and brick. Edinburgh is a deep grey thanks to the local stone. Paris is light creamy grey with a chocolate pink tower as the centre piece.
I have come to Paris for three days on my own. Jo did the same the week before and loved it intensely. She has pushed me to do the same before we are all tighter again stuck in the caravan.
If you have only ever been to an Australian city it’s very hard to imagine the size and scale of a place like Paris. The buildings are mostly 4-5 stories, but they stand shoulder to shoulder. The surface area of the Melbourne CBD is miniscule compared to a place like this. Paris is, and feels, 10 or 20 times larger than Melbourne or Sydney. Brisbane is a country town in comparison and Ballarat a mere village.
Almost everyone lives in apartments which also means they congregate on the streets and in the cafe’s and in the bars for their socialising. The city is just alive with people standing, talking, drinking or smoking. Every corner has a restaurant. Every street a Bar/Tabac. Every community has so many cafe’s it’s hard to keep track. The colours on the street are very different to the view from the hill.
Set amongst all this are the tourist sites like The Eiffel Tower, the Arc De Triumph, Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur and the Hotel Des Invalides. [these are just some of the ones I visited, there are dozens more!] All these things bring on gasps or nervous twitches in the average tourist, but the locals walk by unconcerned. These places are almost part of the furniture.
I noticed it first at the basilica. Standing at my vantage point against the railing all I could smell was stale pee. So I moved. The next spot also smelt.... plus when I looked I could see the stains. When a looked around a little more, I noticed there were also beer bottle tops and wrappers from chip packets and the like. It seemed this may be a local spot to hang out.
After that I started to notice wee smells everywhere. Each good vantage point where the view is good had the same familiar smell along with some evidence of food and drink. Each spot on the street where you could get out of the flow of foot traffic to check a map came with the odour of stale piss
The smell is even in the grass around the Eiffel Tower. Jo noticed it first when we were looking for a picnic spot. We ended up opting for a bench in the Champ Du Mars rather than risk the grass.
Thankfully the Parisian legend of streets littered with dog poo is no longer applicable. They appear to have replaced that with urine smells and stains. [it’s ONLY in Paris... nowhere else smells like wee!]
They are everywhere. We, of course are not tourists, we’re travellers. We are not in this country for a few paltry days. We are here for months to soak up the city and the local culture and to get away from tourists. Well it seems like I’ve come to the wrong spot for that.
Walking the streets of Paris every accent is on show at some point or another. I’ve heard Russian, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, English and some dialects I just can’t work out.... most of those I assume to be Scandinavian.
I’ve heard English in all its forms especially Australian. “Is that a bus stop?” the wife questioned. “ Nah.... bus lane, mate!” replied the husband. The lovely nasal twang is music to my ears. As for other English speakers, Americans are loudest, the Welsh the most emphatic, and the English seem to like whispering in case anyone is listening.
At one point in while exploring the Military museum at the Hotel des Invalides a man walks in front of me and says, just before he passes, “Pardon”, rather than “Excuse moi”. I can tell he’s a foreigner by the way he’s dressed. He’s wearing the sort of shirt, shorts and hat that ageing Australian rock musician seem to favour and I’m guessing he’s a fellow countryman. It’s all confirmed when he speaks softly to his female companion. There it is! The gentle twang! He’s as Aussie as I am and so is his partner.
A short time later while looking at Napoleon’s favourite horse, the same Australian couple approach again. The horse is preserved in a glass case and is clearly showing its age. The couple haven’t heard me speak yet because I’m alone, and because the sanctity of the museum doesn’t exactly encourage me to strike up pleasant conversations with passers-by. So I wait and look at the horse in the glass case.
When the couple are standing beside me I quietly turn to them, smile, and say in my best strine “She’s not quite Phar Lap!” The look of surprise at my accent and the light laugh it gets is worth it. They understand the joke when just about no-one else in the museum would. I spoke not another word to them. I just quietly slipped away and went off the see the rest of the exhibits in amongst the tourists.
- Category: Steve's Blog - 2010
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It’s been 2 weeks now and we are surviving France. It seems a diet of Camembert, Baguette and wine is not nearly as dangerous as I thought it might be.... it’s just buying our supplies that can be difficult.
Before we left Australia, Jo and I had a crash course in French with the Ballarat chapter of Alliance Francaise. That short intense course has armed us with enough of the language to ask for the basics of life and to read signs and have at least a general idea of what they are saying. The problem comes when someone replies.
Understanding French in a small rural village is difficult at best. They speak quickly and succinctly and often we have no idea what was just said. Thankfully if people do speak English they are happy to help once they realise we are struggling. Then it’s often it’s a combination of broken English and broken French that gets us through.
Take for example my recent trip to a dentists. He was about 60 and spoke no English, I’m in my 40’s and speak very little French. So how do you tell a medical professional that you think you have a gum infection? Thanks to Marcel Marceau the world has the universal language of Mime! From those crazy hand gestures on both sides, some key words here and there and quite a lot of pointing we worked out that I did have a gum infection, that I would need Antibiotics and anti inflammatory drugs and that I needed a mouth wash.
The next challenge was the chemist, who tried to explain in English and French how many of which tablets to take when and how. The only stumbling block was when she wanted to tell me not to swallow the mouthwash. Lots more wild gesticulations ensued, the contorting of faces and words being thrown carelessly about before I realised what she wanted. “Spit?” I asked. “Ah, oui... Speet” she said nodding like we had just answered the riddle of the Sphinx.
Language is not always a barrier though. Often we need to visit a certain family restaurant for internet access. Thankfully many young people in France have learnt some English and many are very keen to practise. While we will struggle through our order in French for something simple like a soft drink or coffee and some chips to snack on, they smile back and ask “ will that be all?” in accented but very good English. We’ve been told the French like it if you at least try and that seems to be holding true for the most part.
Our only other major challenge is timing. We like to head off for a look around at about 11 O’clock. That gives us time to get up and ready ourselves and decided what to do and where to go. The problem is that many places shut down at midday and do not open again until 2pm or 2.30. The French have this idea that stopping in the middle of the day for 2 hours for lunch in the village square is somehow an acceptable practise in this modern world.
Now I think that most of us know that if asked how you are these days you are expected to reply by telling the person how busy you are, that you are flat out and have had to cancel some form of recreation you had been looking forward to. We seem to be expected to show the world that we have no time to do the things you actually would rather be doing. We appear to have a need to show that we are constantly productive. If you are not always busy you are somehow seen to be doing something wrong, or wasting time.... or perhaps just some sort of weirdo.
Well, from my observations the French are classic time wasters for 2 hours every day. They sit and eat and chat and laugh. They rest and have a glass of wine or a cup of coffee and the world doesn’t end. Their world starts up again at 2PM when the shops re-open, the cars get back on the road and life recommences until the close of business at 7PM. It’s a very civilised way of doing things and a real way of bringing towns and villages to life for two hours a day because most people head for the Cafe’s rather than their houses.
It feels like the locals are taking a big deep breath and then letting it out slowly to get ready for the rest of what’s to come on any particular day. Unfortunately I think too many of us are addicted to the idea that we have no time for life’s pleasures anymore, too many of us have been brainwashed by the political insistence of “productivity”, to ever be able to adapt to a big pause like that in the middle of the day.
Sitting in a cafe or a small bar, having a coffee or a beer or a wine, and watching the world go by for just a little while each day is something that is almost unacceptable and something we can’t bring ourselves to do these days..... all I can say from what I’ve seen here so far it’s rather nice, and I wish we’d do it a bit more.
- Category: Steve's Blog - 2010
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It happened almost without me noticing. We’d been driving back to the cottage at La Lande D’Airou chatting away and paying little attention to the car radio. When we pulled up at the gate to our driveway I realised the Cricket was on, so I started listening for the score. With every word I got a little more confused because it all sounded so horribly familiar.
Here am I, sitting in a car at the gate to our house sit in Normandy in France on a bright summers day knowing it’s an Australian match because I’m listening to Jim Maxwell from the ABC. He is sharing his thoughts on what turns out to be the Pakistan team as they host Australia at their temporary English home ground.
It all sounded so ..... normal. So much like the other hundreds of test match broadcasts I’ve heard before. I could have been pulling in to any Australian driveway in any part of Australia during a typical summer day. But I am on the opposite side of the world with the family in the car, having a very different summer.
Radio has become my main way of staying in touch with the world. Internet in France is great if you live in the cities. There are free WiFi points scattered around the city. There are numerous companies willing to supply internet at very reasonable prices compared to what’s on offer in Australia. But if you live in the regions, the Departments as they are called, the story can be very different.
At our house we get several phone signals from mobile phone providers, none of the signals are reliable. They fade in and they fade out. When we do get a service, unless it is in partnership with our phone company we can’t make or receive calls. To make sure we can use our phone we have to drive into the towns and villages.
The Internet is equally fraught. In the UK we bought a Wifi Dongle [a plug in modem] through one of the major companies and it worked in almost all areas. In most rural areas it was horribly slow, but it worked. The Dongle cost us 45 Pounds and came with a month’s internet access. That dongle will work in Europe, but it will cost us an arm and a leg if we use it. The salesman explained that it would cost about 1 Pound per minute on the internet if we used in France. And he assured me, it would be a similar charge in just about all other EU countries.
When we looked into buying a dongle in France the cost was 140 Euro, or around 5 times the price in the UK, and again it would only be any good in the country of purchase. We would have to buy another one in Germany, and another in Italy, and another in Belgium, Holland, Poland etc, etc. It’s left us relying on a certain “Family Restaurant” and other free wifi hotspots when we can find them.
It means for me that I look to radio and the so called “traditional” media for my news and information fix. Thankfully the BBC runs a Long Wave radio service and it just so happens that our car has long wave in the car radio and so far it works across France. So the BBC has been my life line to English language news and programmes.
Unfortunately the BBC doesn’t have a huge focus on Australian news. They announced the elevation of Julia Gillard to the Prime Ministership in about 15 secs flat. They gave no context other than to say it was a party room Ballot. State Politics is just not heard of. Premiers Brumby and Kenneally are absolute no-bodies in the British media landscape. I would have a better chance of being a news subject than they would. [as I write this I don’t even know if Brumby and Kenneally are still Premiers!]
Like much of the western world’s media, when the Brits look to international news [as opposed to European news] they look to America and China, the world economic heavyweights. I’ve heard many reports on the BP oil spill, and all the latest news from Washington in similar amount of detail to what we get at home. I know China is still the “Great White Hope” of the world economy, and when China sneezes the world dares not breathe for fear of Pneumonia.
The biggest news item from Australia has been the claims by AFL footballer Jason Akermanis. He suggested that many other AFL players would feel uncomfortable in a dressing room with a fellow player who they knew to be openly gay. That prompted quite a few panel discussions and lots of comment by the British media.
However when it comes to other news issues we just don’t rate a mention. Some years ago former Prime Minister Keating copped a hiding for saying it, but our country is at the “arse end of the world”. It was true when he said it and it’s true now. Like it or lump it.
So instead of the latest State or National Political news, or someone suggesting they’d like to turn a replica castle into a Brothel or that a local windfarm proposal is a good or bad thing, I settle for an occasional chance to read papers online. It’s not as satisfying as having the real thing my in hands but it keeps me grounded.
And then there’s the cricket on the radio. Just like any other Australian summer I can sit back and listen to Jim Maxwell describe the Australia-Pakistan matches, live and uninterrupted, on the Beeb
- Category: Steve's Blog - 2010
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After months on the road we have stopped.... finally. We are based in an old stone barn which has been transformed into a holiday cottage, or Gite, by it's English owners. The rent is free but it does come with tasks. We have to look after the chooks and tend to the vege garden and green house. On top of that we get to eat the eggs and vege's from the garden, so even those onerous tasks have a side benefit.
The house is near the town of Villedieu les Poeles and the locals are know as Sourdins, or the "deaf" due to it's long history of copper work and the constant hammering which made the inhabitants quite hard of hearing in days gone by. Most these days seem to hear us just fine, it's just that they don't understand us at first.
Our french lessons have been very handy already, even just to let the locals realise that we are not from these parts. Once they realise we are Australian and trying to speak French they are immediately helpful. I'm not sure what reception we would get if English, but being from the antipodes seems to help a bit.
The cottage is quite modern and warm inside although it is without a radio, without a phone and with out TV reception. Internet coverage is woeful and the mobile phone doesn't work.... we are just a little isolated but it doesn't seem to matter too much at the moment.
We do have very fuzzy TV reception from our caravan TV. That unit is able to pick up a signal from the channel Islands, so it's in english AND it has the World Cup Channels!
This entry to the blog must remain short as it comes to you via the wireless internet of a well know family restaurant.... and I've finished my coffee and they are starting to mutter French obscenities about me behind the backs of their hands.....Oh well ... they aren't doing much better than us in the soccer so at least I'll have that as ammunition if it comes to an argument.