Sunday 27 September 2015

The genie in the fennel - Flavigny-sur-Ozerain

It's a September afternoon.  In the garden the fennel has blossomed into upside down umbrella flowers.

When I snap one, the aroma of aniseed fills the still air.  It's as if a genie has been conjured from the creamy white stem, filling the garden with the memory of another time and place ...

... Another golden September afternoon.  We are in the Burgundy village of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, perched on a hilltop, picture postcard pretty.  They made the film of Joanne Harris's book 'Chocolat' here.  Enchanting book, magical film.

The shop at l'Abbaye de Flavigny where Vianne Rocher offers chocolate temptation in the film, sells sweets in this world.  They are called Anis de Flavigny and we buy a jar of them.  The tiny white sweets, which are sugar coated seeds of anise (pimpinella anisum - related to fennel), have been made here for centuries.  We suck them as we wander the sun drenched streets where nothing moves faster than a lazy cat.  Wasps hum, apple blissed.

September is the month for nostalgia.  The gilded strands of web stretching across the garden are attached to memories; of the summer past, of all the summers past, of summers beyond the individual memory.

September is perhaps my most creative month and I find I have a 'posse' of stories jostling for attention in my mind - always welcome!

Today though I'm going out blackberrying.  September brings out the deep memory of the hunter gatherer too!

When my favourite photographer finds some photos of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, I'll add them. Memories don't always come date stamped!


For those of you who've grown used to my Tuesday / Friday routine, service should be back to normal by next Friday!  It's good to kick back sometimes (Big smile).  

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Red squirrel power: an antidote to blogger's block

Back home after a fortnight spent in France, the country that steals another piece of my heart every time I visit, I have a touch of blogger's block this morning.  I'm wondering what 'the hopeful traveller' is all about.

For many months my blog writing has been Cuba powered.  Perhaps my best piece of travel writing to date, The Soul Loves to Sing, is set there. If Cuba can't set a writer alight, then where in the world can? But I've always felt that the hopeful traveller is about more than actually travelling.  Perhaps it's post travel restlessness, perhaps it's September which is, they say, the new January: a time for fresh directions. I'm wondering where to go next.  Not literally, you understand.    

So while I ponder, I'm falling back on the infallible charm of red squirrels.  It might seem random, but these chaps are scurrying all over the forests of the Limousin where I've been scurrying too with my trusty photographer.

Squirrels provide a lesson in focus and being in the moment.  For them, right now is the moment to collect as many nuts as possible.  It's as simple as that.  Stand and watch them springing through the trees on this mission and you too can't imagine life is about anything more important either.              

Kelly Holman

Tuesday 15 September 2015

French is the language of ...

An elderly gentleman is searching for his cholesterol-lowering margarine.  In a supermarket full of native French speakers, he chooses me to help him.  

French: the language I adore.  It's recognised as the language of passion the world over.  But you know what? Even a discussion about margarine sounds like poetry when it's in French.  And an everyday conversation in a foreign language is like a little miracle.  It's one of the joys of travel.    

Photo © Kelly Holman.

Friday 11 September 2015

France. Milky Way gazing in St. Medard-la-Rochette, Creuse

The church of St. Medard-La-Rochette beneath the Milky Way
What a joy to go stargazing one night in the heart of rural Limousin with so little light pollution to spoil the spectacle.

Over the hilltop village of St. Medard-la-Rochette, the dark velvet sky seemed encrusted with tiny glistening diamonds. The Milky Way was so thick with stars, it resembled a smudge of chalk across a blackboard.

From the prominence on which the 11th century church stands, the sky felt at the end of our fingertips, as if we could reach up and pick one of the stars or pull the Plough across the heavens. Jupiter shimmered rainbow-coloured, seeming to dance back and forth like a kite tethered on a string. The longer we looked, the more the heavens seemed alive.  Nothing was static.  It was bewitching.

It was only, after an hour, as a jet fighter shrieked overhead, practising for a conflict real or imagined on our planet, that we become aware again of our feet on the earth.          
The Milky Way

All photos © Andrew Holman.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Cuba: Esto no es un Cafe, Havana

He chased us through the twilight of the PIaza de la Catedral wielding a Campbell's Condensed Soup can.  All he needed was a bowler hat to make the surreality complete!

It was our first night in Havana.  We had dined al fresco at 'Esto no es un Cafe' amongst foraging chickens and the odd hopeful cat.  The food was excellent, the staff welcoming and the musicians in the courtyard of the Callejon del Chorro were enthusiastic.  After the first tense night in Havana, this felt, well, like a holiday.

The name of the restaurant might be a play on the work of Belgian Surrealist Magritte - the owners have even adopted the infamous pipe as their logo - but everything is honest, straightforward and exactly what you order.  That said, they do serve their signature pork dish on an urinal shaped platter!  
Armando, Adelaida the Fortune Teller and Alexis
And most evenings and lunchtimes a fabulous woman called Adelaida or 'Senora Habana' comes round.  She is a fortune teller and so dazzling that I'm sure her predictions are full of adventure, magic and excitement.  How could they be anything else?  

I have only had my fortune told once on a coach travelling through the former East Germany to Berlin by a Taiwanese man who, unlike Adelaida, looked like a computer programmer.  That, as they say, is another story. 

Day after day we returned to the restaurant.  We ate almost everything on the menu: chicken, fish, salads. Everything was fresh and some of it was 'bio' from an organic farm in Pinar del Rio.  We couldn't get enough of the ratatouille and the black beans, humble maybe but packed with flavour. 
Lunch: Ceci est un bon plat
We had come to see as much of Havana as we could.  After a few days we had to ask ourselves the question: were we missing out by not trying a different restaurant every night?  By then though it was not just about the food.  It was about the people.  There was Armando with the beautiful baby son whose mango tree fell down one night and severed his water supply (that tree produced the juiciest mangoes ever, sweet, with no fibre).  There was Tais who sang like an angel, was a fitness instructor and who, like many apparently, is now emigrating to Ecuador.  And there was Alexis who was chomping at the bit to become a bespoke tour guide (how does 'Meet My Havana sound?)

It was Alexis who chased us across the square with his soup can but no bowler hat.  We had got muddled up and underpaid our bill, dropping 10 CUCs less than required into the pot(age)!

He is charming enough to say he simply cannot remember.

Friday 4 September 2015

The Soul Loves to Sing - my nearly winning travel piece from 2015

The music floated from the Church of St. Francis of Assisi and over Mother Theresa’s head to where I sat in the garden.  It was exquisite.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sang of every human emotion with deep understanding.  Joy, love, sorrow, grief, fear … I felt them wrap around me and mingle with my own.  Outside the garden, Havana’s Chevys and Buicks spluttered on their way to the Malec√≥n.  Inside, Mother Theresa and I sat statuesque and silent, listening.

Havana was thick and sultry.  We’d arrived the night before, and I’d felt like a bird searching for a roost after dark.  Rubble blockades turned the taxi back again and again as it circled around Compostella looking for our Casa, and figures, looming giants in the headlights, pointed us in yet another direction.  I felt unwelcome, far from home, wondered why I thought a city half way round the world might help me grasp losing my sister, grasp being an only child with a very sick mother and yet grasp my own life again.  But it was when, finally, we stepped out of the air-conditioned taxi that it hit me.  And then it curled around me and squeezed like a boa.  There was no air to breathe.

The young woman at the Casa had given our room to someone else.  She showed us to another, ‘just for tonight’, clean and adequate, but close and brooding.  I felt my panic notch up and with it, her lack of understanding.  ‘We’ve been without mains water for weeks,’ she kept saying, as if that explained something.  ‘I will be without my sister for the rest of my life and I can’t breathe,’ I kept thinking, because that explained everything.  We sat the night out with the balcony doors thrown wide open.  Only when the birds began to sing, in the glimmer of dawn, did I calm down.

Daylight revealed a crumbling, but beautiful city, as well as the failing mains water system.  In the streets of Old Havana the old cast iron pipes were being ripped out.  The city was indeed without water in many places.  Soon we would grow accustomed to the lumbering 1950s water tankers that spewed black diesel fumes into the air as they struggled through the narrow, dug-up streets.  Only hospitals, schools and expensive hotels were guaranteed a delivery.  Everyone else had to go begging or bribing.

That people could make music so sublime in this ground down city caught hold of me. My focus began to shift.  I admired how Cubans are resilient and resourceful.  I watched how they picked their way through the rubble on the way to work, keeping their shiny shoes clean.  Saw them rush out to the tankers with every recycled water bottle discarded by a visitor that they could find.  Noticed too how the tension ratcheted up at the Casa when the water delivery, begged for, bribed for, was late. Our en-suite room was always first to run out.  We were water canaries, signalling impending drought.  When they came, the tankers arrived after dark, honking their horns in what we liked to think was celebration.  Relief flooded through the Casa as the water was pumped, deafeningly, into the storage tanks. 

I opened my heart to this fighting Havana, but the mistrust of that first night lingered. 

One afternoon, Armando, the regular pianist in the bar over the street, is murdering ‘Stardust.’  I am oblivious to this but not my husband.  It was the signature tune of his grandfather’s accordion band.  Armando can’t get it right.  Unable to listen any longer, Andrew goes off on a mission.  Amongst the many things he has brought to Cuba is the music for ‘Stardust’.

When he returns, an hour later, Armando is playing ‘Stardust’ as badly as ever but he is over the moon.  He has found a different, jubilant home for all of the music, classical and popular, that he has schlepped here:  the young woman who owns the Casa.  She not only keeps the water flowing, just about, with bribes, she is a professional violinist.  She has invited us to a concert.

Mother Theresa is sitting in the garden when the music begins.  I am sitting in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.  The voices of the violins, the cellos, the basses and the violas sing again of every human emotion with deep understanding:  of joy, love, sorrow, grief and fear.  Of how the first two prevail because, despite tragedy and hardship, the soul is resilient and it loves to sing.

When the music ends, the young woman from the Casa, the violinist, looks over to me.  We share a smile.

Kelly Holman

Awarded a Special Mention in the Bradt /Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015.
The brief was to write a piece of between 600 - 800 words in the first person and on the theme of 'Serendipity'.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Bradt/Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015

The streets of Havana

The six finalists in The Bradt / Independent on Sunday Travel Writing Competition 2015 were announced last week.  I can't wait to read the winning entry in the Independent on Sunday on 13th September 2015 and will try to post a link to it if I can.

The theme was 'Serendipity', a force of life that never fails to give you a frisson when you encounter it.  You will not be surprised that my entry was set in Havana.

I did not reach the final six, but I am delighted, over the moon and grinning from ear to ear when I tell you that I got a Special Mention.

That means that in "the country's leading travel writing competition" (to quote the Independent on Sunday and big myself up!), one of the judges deliberating at the final judging meeting thought my piece had legs.

Now I won't deny that I would have loved to win an eight day trip to Iceland but a 'Special Mention' is just peachy, thank you.  I adore the whole process of writing, it's how I love to spend my time, but writers write to be read and when someone enjoys what you've written ... well, it's a thrill.

I will be publishing my piece here on Friday 4th September 2015.