23 June, 2018

Where I wanna be with the surfers, sand and the sea

This post is the sequel to my trip along the Pacific Northwest coast. After my first week in a largely humid environment, my second week was spent in a largely dry Mediterranean climate. The limit from one ecosystem to the other was rather sudden. It had rained hard all night in Eureka, California. I drove South along Highway 101 among the tall redwood forests: every thing was dark green. At Redwood Valley, I turned on Road 20 towards Clear Lake and suddenly the landscape was very much drier, small brush on grey stony lightsoil. In Lakeport, I was already among the grapevines announcing the Napa Valley further South.

My first highlight from the Southern part of my trip was my lunch in Lakeport. The chef at the small Park Place Restaurant had upgraded the concept of the fish burger by replacing the battered fish with a battered whole soft-shell crap. Yuck factor: it looked a bit like eating a giant spider. But it was deliciously. I very seldom take photos of my food, but this original treat was worth keeping a trace of.

I then drove through the Napa Valley and its vineyards. However, I did not stop there to sample wine, preferring to taste a glass of wine here and there with my meals. Ironically, I drank a lot of water in Calistoga because I stopped in one of the local spas for a thermal mud and hot spring bath. Immersing myself in the thick hot mud bath was a strange experience, and I must say, rather oppressive after ten minutes with a very hot mud cask all around my body. This was followed by a HOT bubble bath and then a HOT humid hammam. I drank a lot of cold water to stay hydrated and avoid overheating.

I did not stop to visit San Francisco. I preferred to stay in rural and natural areas. I met up with my old university friend Martin Jambon who is now a programmer in one of the Bay Area start-ups. We spent a whole day trekking 18 km up and down the Muir Woods to Stinson Beach and back. However, the ocean was still too cold to get into the water.

Driving on further South, I visited Monterey Bay Aquarium and the following day dove into the bay with an 8-mm thick wet suit. My dive computer finally explained to me why I could not get into the ocean up to now: it was only 12°C at the surface and 10°C 10 meters deep! I cannot say it was pleasant dive: it took more than one hour for my fingers to be fully prehensible again. I was nonetheless delighted to see in their natural habitat most of the sea creatures I had seen behind glass in the aquarium, including a curious sea lion at the surface coming to see other large bobbing sea mammals.

In Central California, I was struck by the beautiful landscapes of the Big Sur coastline. The constrast between the ecosystems from one valley to the next was very sharp. When the coast was very dry and windy, just a stream going through a narrow protected valley was enough for a lush humid redwood forest to emerge. Further inland, the temperature rose dramatically to 38°C. I really wondered why the Spanish missionaries decided to establish San Antonio di Padua mission in the middle of such a hostile environment.

I finished my trip with the city lights and stars in Los Angeles and Hollywood.

This is where I finally managed to get into the Pacific Ocean and enjoy the surf at Santa Monica Beach!

Beaches in mind
The beach boys. That's why God made the radio, Capital records

15 June, 2018

On the range where the deer and the antelope play

I have gone on a road trip again. After the Australian West coast in 2016, I am now making my way down the United States Pacific coast in 15 days.

This blog post is also a way to circle the full circle. I started this blog eight years ago after following a course on knowledge management tools and methods. Our course coaches had encouraged me to start a blog and I did so. I have also taken every opportunity I could to facilitate knowledge sharing events, as I have related in several of the posts in this blog. So after all this time finding my own way in knowledge management with help from various friends, I was delighted to be greeted as I alighted from the airport train in Seattle, Washington, by knowledge management guru Nancy White. Nancy had been the principal facilitator of the knowledge management course I had taken so many years ago and she has managed to keep some links with many of her followers all these years, providing helpful advice and pictures of chocolate goodies all along. I started my road trip by settling in for a few restful days in the cabin Nancy and her husband Larry have purchased overlooking Skagit Bay, very close to the Canadian border.

The first week of my trip has been through damp, humid, even wet terrain in the North West and Northern California. I actually consider I have been pretty lucky with only one day and a half of actual rain. I only got really wet when hiking in the North Cascades national park, but I think it was mainly because of my own moisture staying trapped under the waterproof jacket, and the fact that my ten-year-old hiking boots had lost their waterproof powers! Otherwise, I have had glorious sunshine or only cloudy skies.

Here are some notes from this first humid part of my trip:
I have been amazed by all the beautiful landscapes I have passed through.

When the navy jet fighters would pass over Skagit Bay, I felt like I was in a Star Wars movie with space ships zooming past a wonderful natural landscape; only that today's jet fighters do not screech like in the movies.

I have encountered orcas just five meters away from me during a whale-spotting boat trip.

I have not managed to get into the Pacific ocean: it is too cold!

I have soaked several hours in the Sole Duc hot springs in Olympic national park: they are soothingly warm.

The giant redwoods of Northern California form a natural awe-inspiring cathedral.

I can only eat French fries four days in a row. I had to switch to pasta on my fifth day in the US. Despite all the variations on bread type and filling for my daily sandwich lunch, despite the differences in types of fries I had sampled, my stomach needed a break from deep-fried food. However, I happily went back to burger and fries when something really interesting was placed within the bread bun. Read more next week to find out more and for my highlights from the second drier half of my road trip.

Home on the range
Traditional, Roy Rogers, Home on the range, Vanilla OMP

03 December, 2017

As I wander on life's pathway know not what the future holds

I have made a radical career change and I have turned 40 recently.

Read here how I have managed to find real fulfillment from my work as a young professional for agricultural research and development up to now.

Looking forward to discovering new professional pathways beyond the pass I have just reached.

Precious memories
Waylon Jennings, Are you ready for the country, RCA

05 October, 2017

Dona eis requiem: Gill Corble

I have joined the choir of the local symphonic orchestra based in Pau but meant to cover all the Bearn countryside. This past weekend, we went on tour in two rural towns to sing a concert of choral blockbusters. I only had three weeks' rehearsal since I joined in early September but luckily, I already knew half of the pieces, these being blockbusters.

The first Saturday evening concert went very well in the quaint romane church of the small mountain town of Arudy. The small audience was enthusiastic and we gave a very good concert. So we were all very comfortable and pleased with ourselves before starting the second concert in the larger echo-y church of Sauveterre-de-Béarn. There were many small mistakes here and there; somehow we all seemed to be distracted on the Sunday afternoon. It had rained all day. I was feeling rather disappointed with myself coming back home on Sunday evening.

It is lucky I do not activate internet access on my mobile phone otherwise I would have been even more distracted and I may even have sobbed through the whole Sunday concert. When I got connected again back home on Sunday evening, I read an email from my good friend Frank Guthrie announcing the death of his wife Gill Corble. Gill, Frank and I had sung together with Canterbury Singers when I was studying for my PhD in the UK. Gill was not only the elected Chairwoman of the Singers, Frank and she were also both the cheerleaders of the group. Their never-dying enthusiasm made sure a small group would make it to the pub for a pint with them after our weekly practice. I was very grateful to both of them for their warm welcome of the young froggy tenor who had to sight-read through the very British and not always easy (Elgar, Britten, Tippett) repertoire that all of the other Singers already knew.

We have kept in touch ever since. For the past thirteen years we have visited each other in Herne Bay and Paris. We have exchanged musical news and went to listen to each others' concerts. We have sent each other post cards from the most exotic destinations. Because Gill and Frank were also great travellers, cycling through whole countries, trekking up and down mountains, exploring foreign lands in search of large smiles like theirs. I was really looking forward to host Gill and Frank in Pau to go hike together in the Pyrenees mountains. It will unfortunately not be the case for Gill who succumbed to a sudden surge of her latent leukemia. Rest in peace, Gill.

W.A. Mozart, Requiem KV 626
Wiener Singverein, Berliner Philharmoniker, H. von Karajan, Deutsche Gramophon

Photo choir: OPPB
Photo brèche de Roland, Pyrenees mountains: Frédéric A

22 August, 2017

They gotta be the luckiest dreamers who never quit dreamin'

Three years ago I wrote a post about my friends Margot and Christophe starting a sheep and vegetable farm in the middle of the Southern Alps. Having become a co-owner of the land they were using to let their sheep graze in the mountains, I had been feeling very guilty that I had not managed to go visit them for the yearly summer co-owners' meeting and lamb barbequeue. I was starting to fear that my friends and the other co-owners would start thinking I was a selfish and absent landowner, uninterested by the lives of the farmers on this bit of land I co-owned. So this year I hired a car and drove across France from the Pyrenees mountains into the Alps through the Cévennes, Lozère and Ardèche mountains in the centre of the country.

It was a beautiful road trip. I really enjoyed driving through the narrow windswept country and mountain roads. The landscape changed along the way East from agricultural fields to chestnut forests, pine and fir trees, and finally heather moorland just below the Mont Lozère. After dropping down into the Rhone Valley, I climbed back up into the Alps on the other side to enter lush valleys where farmers were growing the fodder their animals would need in the winter.

In Glandage, although the paperwork for our co-ownership land association has still not been finished, the association has already bought the land with the monies we all invested. Margot and Christophe have thus expanded their farm: 0.8 ha give organic vegetables. They supply local villagers, their children's school canteen and an organic shop in the main town of the valley. Thanks to the land all their friends co-invested in, they now have 70 ewes (three got killed by wolves just ten days ago!), which give birth to one or two lambs every winter. Likewise, the meat is sold in local marketing and processing networks. Margot also harvests the wool, which is of good enough quality to be processed into clothing yarn.

My friends' agricultural project is essentially of a social nature. They wish to make the most of their social and direct marketing networks to sell off their produce. But they seem to be fulfilled, very busy and, now in their third year, they can actually make a small monthly revenue to spend on something else than just the farm or the essentials to feed and nurture five lovely and lively children! Their plans for the farm still include finishing off the paperwork for our land association...

But, they are much more excited by the possibility of clearing the trees from the mountainous pasture land to open up more land to grass, and using the funds left over to buy another smaller plot of land closer to their house where they could have the sheep graze in the spring. Finally, another young couple from Switzerland has moved into the neighbouring house and would like to join Margot and Christophe's farm business to improve the vegetables' productivity and possibly open a small processing enterprise to add value to the produce.

I am keen to see how all this will develop in the coming years.

As long as we got each other (theme from Growing Pains)
B.J. Thomas, Midnight minute, Warner Bros/Wea

07 August, 2017

Aqueras montanhas

After two years of a rather disappointing professional experience at OECD in Paris, I have decided to change job completely. From data-based policy research and evaluation in an international organisation, I have just moved to Pau in Southwest France to head a team of 30 staff whose main role is to administer the activity of local farmers for the local representation of the French government. It is an exciting and challenging professional turnaround for me. This being a governmental position, I am bound once more by the code of conduct and secrecy of the French civil service. I will have to explore avenues for professional blogging when I get a better idea of my new professional environment.

In the meantime, the musical and culinary scene in Pau are not to be disdained.

First on food, I am in the heart of a region famous for its ewe's milk cheeses, spicy chilies, Blonde d'Aquitaine beef, maize grain-fed poultry products, cured ham and all kinds of pork-based delicacies, sweet cherries, and pastries galore... Local wines from the Southwest of France are increasingly improving their quality and Bordeaux is not far away for the snobbish drinkers. I am looking for accommodation close to the central Pau city market, open from 7.30am where I can find cheap local produce six days a week, with a farmers' market on Saturdays for an even wider selection of fresh food. So I am not at all worried about the food part of my new duty station. I am also now only two hours' drive from my parents' country house so I can always drive back home to enjoy my Mum's Asian cooking if I run out of good ideas on what to eat.

On the musical side, it is a bit quiet now in the heart of the summer holiday. Still, I went to hear a very good French gospel group last night. Although their English pronunciation was not always perfect, the New Gospel Family had intensity in their singing, perfect and sometimes excitingly blue harmonies, and the characteristic groove of this moving musical genre. This region also has a local tradition of singing in harmony, both in the Bearn and Basque country mountains so I look forward to being moved by the close harmonies of this traditional repertoire. I hope to audition for the choir of the Pau conservatoire, which sings with the regional symphonic orchestra when vocal parts are needed. I also discovered a local opera company close to my parents' house, which produces a new show every summer with amateur and professional singers and intrument players. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity to get back into a staged production.

And if all this fails to fulfil me, I have the Pyrenees mountains just 45 minutes' drive away for trekking, skiing and amazing vistas. So here it is goes for yet another new, colourful and delicious period in my life!

Aqueras montanhas
Occitan traditional song, Nadau Zenith de Pau 2017, Nadau

07 May, 2017

Goûtons voir si le vin est bon !

Last week end, I went on tour with Choeur Varenne to the wine-growing region of Burgundy. We spent a good part of the three days eating and drinking. Our first stop after two hours' coach ride from Paris was in the middle of the Chablis vineyard. And by 11am we were tasting the resulting wine from previous years.

We learned about the complexity of Burgundy wines and why it is important to try many different bottles before purchasing anything. The soil and growing conditions can be very different on vine plots just two meters apart on the same hilly slope because of varying sun exposure, soil drainage and depth, rockiness. This results in a great variety of wines although they are mostly all processed from the same grape varieties: chardonnay for whites and pinot noir for reds.

We visited historical buildings that had been hosting wine processing since the 12th century. We were treated to a fantastic red wine which changed aroma and taste each time I took a sip from my glass. It started off with red berries when we first tasted it at lunch time and had evolved to leather and cocoa notes by the evening when we opened left-over bottles with our picnic on the way back to Paris.

Of course, we also sang a concert. Electrified by the surprisingly large audience already waiting for us when we reached the rural church to give our concert, we gave one of our best tour performances. We, of course, celebrated our musical success with more eating and drinking at a restaurant in Dijon.

 Three days of eating, drinking, visiting, singing. No wonder I felt exhausted every day at siesta time.

Chevaliers de la table ronde
French traditional song

Photo of me napping: Caroline L.