10 December, 2016

I'm running running running running

I have just had a rather hectic week: some of it was planned, some of it was not.

Last Thursday I took a plane from Paris to Bangkok. The main reason for this trip was to sing with the choir for the wedding ceremony of my French friend Pascal Butel, with whom I used to sing in the Bangkok Music Society choir. Pascal had invited all his singing friends from various choirs we used to sing in to join the music-making for his wedding. When I got the invitation last April I immediately replied that I would come because it was also a golden opportunity to meet all my friends from the choir in one go. Bangkok-based singers had already started rehearsals throughout November. I had worked on my parts at home and arrived for the dress rehearsal two days before the actual ceremony.

My diary was already quite full with events related to Pascal and his lovely bride Ko Tammy: a dress rehearsal for the wedding's music on Saturday afternoon (including 1.5-hour one-way travel to the venue and another 1.5 hour back), drinks and light food on a yacht on the Chao Phraya river for the foreign guests on Saturday evening, an Indian wedding dinner ceremony on Sunday evening, departure at dawn on Monday for a final rehearsal of the wedding ceremony's music, the actual mid-morning wedding ceremony and the delicious Indian and Thai luncheon that followed.

The trip started to become hectic when I also inserted other activities into my Bangkok programme: visits to meet other friends who would not be part of the wedding on Friday afternoon and all day Sunday, Friday evening drinks and dinner with former colleagues from FAO's Bangkok office, my Christmas shopping at Chatuchak week end market on Saturday morning and in town the rest of my free time, and preparations for a few days at the beach in the Gulf of Thailand following the wedding ceremony. The two hours' delay of my incoming plane did not help; I arrived with my bags just in time for my first lunch appointment on Friday noon. Basically, my time in Bangkok was completely filled up. The guards at the apartment I was renting must have thought I was strange: every day of my stay I would leave in a hurry, come back in a hurry at midday and leave 20 minutes afterwards having changed clothes, but still in a hurry, and again in the evening. 

And then the unplanned elements of the trip kicked in. On the morning of the wedding ceremony on Monday, I read an unsettling email arrived during the night from my father informing me that my grand-aunt Yvette Laulom had just passed away at the very respectable age of 96 years old. By the time the wedding ceremony had started, I had already made up my mind that I would forgo Thai beach and seafood and fly back immediately to take part in the funeral. It was easy to find a good-value one-way ticket back to France that evening, and I bought a ticket for the next train to join my parents in their country house and help prepare for the Thursday funeral ceremony.

Grand-aunt Yvette was an important person in our family. Although she never married, she took care of her nephews, nieces, grand-nephews and grand-nieces, feeding us all when we came to visit, or handing us food, cake and biscuits to bring back home or to boarding school. She also patiently knitted clothes for three generations of babies in the family, and elaborate and colourful pullovers for the children and teenagers. As if taking care of her extended family was not enough, she would also regularly visit the pensioners of one of the old persons' homes in Mont-de-Marsan, talking away with them, running small errands and knitting woolen blankets for them. She would fondly refer to the ladies she was visiting as "the little grannies from the old persons' home"; but she was often older than them. She only joined an old persons' home herself in the Summer of last year. 

Having been asked to say a few words at the funeral service, I did some research and managed to insert the reading of Matthew 25: 31-46 into the service. Given the good deeds she had done all her life, there was no doubt for those listening on which side of God she would sit if His Kingdom came. For the final homage from our family, my parents asked me to find a more cheerful text. I selected the beginning and last section of a poem by Victor Hugo mentioning chirping birds; she liked walking outdoors and was a keen amateur ornithologist and botanist. My parents, two of my cousins and an aunt all thought the text was well chosen and well read.

After this busy and stressful week, I will take a few days at home to recover. Today my parents and I put up the Christmas tree, which we cut out from the forest behind the country house.

Gave me something
Jess Glynne, I cry when I laugh, Mis

25 November, 2016

Horizon to horizon

I have just spent two weeks in Western Australia travelling up and down the Indian Ocean coast. I have been stunned speechless by the vastness of many things I have seen. An unpopulated vastness I think best conveyed by photos I took of the horizon.

 The ragged cliffs in Kalbarri National Park

 Eery termite mounds scattered on the flat moorland South of Exmouth

Empty highway, empty sky, empty bush between Carnavon and Northampton

Fields of barley around Northam

 Swanbourne beach in Perth

All this vast emptiness was then filled up by the four days I spent in Perth with my Uncle Tom, Aunty Betty, my cousin Darrell, his wife Jasmine, their two baby children and in-laws, including the large amounts of Chinese food eaten in the best oriental Perth restaurants.

Vapor trail
Rush, Vapor trails, Atlantic

12 July, 2016

Sur les nids sur les genêts ... sur les champs sur l'horizon...

I have joined a small chamber choir called the Ensemble Claudio Monteverdi late last year. We have partnered this season with the Choeur de Chambre d'Ile-de-France (CCIF) to sing a near complete anthology of French 20th century composer Francis Poulenc's music for unaccompanied choir. This week end, we went on tour in the rural Morvan region of Central France where Poulenc had spent some time and composed some of his music.

The building in which we were hosted, held our rehearsals and gave one evening concert was a purpose-built structure for musical projects. Many working rooms at the Maison du Beuvray have a piano or harpsichord. The largest room suitable for concerts also holds a grand piano and even an organ. However, the rural setting with the view of the Morvan mountains made the location also ideal for a yoga or meditation retreat.

Our first concert on Friday evening was given in stifling heat, which made concentrating on the singing rather difficult. Windows were being opened one after another all along the concert to try and let a breeze into the hall. Because we were alternating pieces sung by one choir and then the other, I had many opportunities to take a seat in the audience and listen to CCIF. And among the complex harmonies of Poulenc's music, I could also discern the chirrup of the crickets in the night outside. This reminded me of a blog post I wrote six years ago: I was experiencing the same thing again in a live setting.

This pleasant reminiscence was turned into great exhilaration as we succeeded in pulling off the performance of the poem Liberté by Paul Eluard, set by Poulenc on fiendishly difficult and disconcerting harmonies for double choir. Reaching the final chord of the piece with the two choirs at the top of their voices and two solo sopranos singing a very high-pitched note is at once a relieving and breathtaking conclusion to an arduous piece.

Francis Poulenc, Figure humaine, New London Chamber Choir, Hyperion

27 June, 2016

Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Marie-Galante...

This title is the start of an iconic 80s song by French singer Laurent Voulzy. It lists names of isolated islands from around the world, comparing their isolation with the feelings of the mixed-race singer given his difficulties of cultural and racial assimilation into French society. To me however, the island-themed refrain has always had a more exotic pull to keep visiting fascinating sites all around the world.

I have just come back from Marie-Galante, an island of the French Caribbean archipelago of Guadeloupe. The diversity of landscapes on the three islands I visited in Guadeloupe is astonishing: sugar cane fields on high plateaux with cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to the East; lush tropical gardens in the steep valleys of the central part of Grande-Terre; rainforest ecosystem on the Soufrière volcano descending nearly directly to the Caribbean Sea to the West of Basse-Terre.

I had a very restful time trekking along the footpaths in different types of ecosystems, scuba diving with sea turtles and all kinds of fish, kayaking in the bird-rich northern sea lagoon. Over the ten days I stayed there, I ascended the Soufrière volcano at 1 460m and descended five times to 20m below sea level as per my current diving limits. The local fruits and seafood were delicious. The sun shone most of the time. All this made this trip a wonderful pre-Summer off-season holiday.

The only thing that was surprisingly missing was music. On the evening of the Fête de la musique on 21 June, it was raining very hard on Marie Galante. Every body stayed at home...

Belle-Ile-en-Mer, Marie-Galante
Laurent Voulzy,
Belle île en mer 1977/1988, Sony

13 May, 2016

Take the water to the mountain

I have been roaming a lot in mountainous environments that are very close to large bodies of water. I am not used to this vicinity of water and mountain but it is particularly beautiful and soothing.

I have spent a week in North Wales at the end of April. I had surprisingly good weather trekking in Snowdonia National Park and visiting astonishing medieval castles. The newly born lambs were very cute in the fields and delicious with mint jelly in the plate. I was delighted to meet up with ILRI former colleague Peter Thorne; we walked up Snowdon together.

Only last week end, I went on tour with Choeur Varenne to Montreux and Lausanne in Switzerland. We got to admire the Alps surrounding Lake Léman and tasted a delicious Swiss cheese fondue. The weather was again outstanding.

My next holiday will again mingle a mountainous peak surrounded by water. Stay tuned to discover where that will be...

Take the water to the mountain
Yes, Union, Arista

15 April, 2016

Dancin' to the boathouse rock

Last week on Saturday I was invited to a party on a boathouse moored along the Seine River just below the Tuileries garden in the centre of Paris. Although the weather outside was very wet, the party kept going under the marquee on the bridge outside and inside the boat itself.

Barbecued sausages for hot dogs, healthy quinoa and durum wheat salads, cheese and cake to eat.
Plenty of wine and cocktails to drink.
Even a live jazz trio for the music!

On that same night a colleague was also in a boathouse further upstream under Notre Dame Cathedral in a 1970s funky dress party!

So the next time you take a cruise along the Seine and pass by a barge, think twice: it might not contain just grain or sand.

Jailhouse rock
Elvis Presley, Jailhouse rock, RCA records

04 January, 2016

From Orient are

A native pig farm in Dak Lak

Happy 2016 to all! One day after Epiphany, here's a short story from the East.

It is an illustration of the base-of-the-pyramid business concept. Or how a large private animal feed supplier is doing business with smallholder pig farmers in Vietnam, and how the bigger more powerful firm has to adapt to the structure and production conditions of the smaller farmers.

This is the last blog post I wrote while at ILRI last Summer. It took some time to get cleared by the private-sector partner and then published here.

We three kings
Traditional Christmas carol, The beach boys, The beach boys' Christmas album, Capitol records

Photo: ILRI/Kat Orbizo