Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Vive la France!

Having now returned from France, I can safely report that les tabacs, croques monsieurs, Bougytel, moules frites, Zebda, Renaults and menus speciales are all still very much accounted for and thriving. Was it ever great to be back! All of the same sounds (a breathy “merci” and "au revoir"), tastes (non-refrigerated milk?), sights (that special way of tying a scarf), and smells (mais oui, les crottes de chiens) are exactly as I remember them from 2000, and I realise I still miss them so very much.

I spent 5 days of my Christmas holiday with Fiona and her family in a glorified cottage in the town of Tortefontaine, located in the region of Pas-de-Calais, literally a 10 minute walk from the border to Picardie. The place was fantasic, right in the middle of the French countryside and complete with wood burning stove and a patisserie just down the road. As I expected, there was much wine drunk (28 bottles among 6 of us, mostly red) and much cheese consumed (Munster, you still smell like les pieds des anges but taste divine).

And much to my pleasure, there was the chance to speak (and hear) the beautiful French language - at the fromagerie, the brasserie (the French cafĂ© au lait still is the best caffeinated beverage I’ve yet to taste) and even with the local farmer. This chap is friendly with Fiona’s sister-in-law (her family owns the cottage), so we were invited over to his farmhouse to meet his family and have dessert with them. Not only were the desserts fantastic (including homemade tarte-au-pomme, oh la la) but so was the wine, cidre and the conversation. As only Fiona and I can speak French, we did most of the talking from the anglophone side which was a great opportunity to practice our vocabulary.

Another opportunity to speak the language came during a walk we took around town on Christmas Eve. We were outside the gates of an old monastery when we came across an old man lying on the grass beside the road. We couldn’t get a word out of him, and since it was cold and approaching evening we decided to go back to town to get help at the local pub. A few of the locals came back with us to the spot to check on the man who at this point was responding to our voices. The locals figured the best bet would be to call the local authorities, so they left to do so while us anglos were left to watch over him. I can safely say it was the most surreal conversation I’ve ever had with someone, and in French no less. Turns out our new friend was quite drunk and had decided to spend Christmas under the stars, and I don’t think he quite knew how to take me with my (as I was told) Quebecois accent and "formal" grammar. He seemed almost sad to go when the cops finally came and took him away – but I imagine that’s more to do with the fact he’d be spending the night locked up rather than because of my company.

We also managed to do some fantastic daytrips. One of the best was a visit to the town of Montreuil-sur-mer, a beautiful old medieval town, complete with walled ramparts that we were able to walk around. This is also the town where Jean Valjean (from Les Miserables) was Mayor before he was forced to do a runner. One pub even sold a Cosette Bier – and why not? We also managed to get down to Berck-sur-mer to walk on the beach and see La Manche (a.k.a the English Channel), to have a wee walk around Abbeville and to spend an afternoon in Amiens – the town with the largest Gothic building in France. The building was in fact a gorgeous cathedral built in the 1300's, and while I may have seen a few beautiful old gothic cathedrals in my day, this one still had the wow factor. The town itself was gorgeous, complete with Christmas markets, old half-timbered houses (a la Rouen) and scarved French women with little poodles.

This was certainly a most surreal Christmas, but one that was thoroughly enjoyable and one which flew by far too fast (as these things can do). I unfortunately gave my family the wrong phone number to reach me so I was unable to speak to them until I returned to Glasgow. A proper apology was most certainly due….but it does sound as though all is well with the Canadian Wilson’s. Trusting the rest of you also had a great Xmas time, and that the New Year’s experience works out for you. I’ve found that New Year’s tends to be the most overrated and annoying time of year, so I’ve decided to avoid all the hype and nightclubs to go up north to try something very different. But that surely is a story for when I return. As such – I wish you a Happy Hogmanay and look forward to making the next update in 2004 – cheers!

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Christmas Wrap-Up

This will be the first Christmas I’ll not be spending in Canada, which is quite strange and sad for me. But at the same time, it is equally strange and exciting to be spending it in France. I haven't been back to France for a few years now, and am very much looking forward to the return. Ambitious plans include the consumption of copious amounts of red wine and cheese, walks in the country, dominoes and hopefully a small kir in a petite brasserie.

Last night I saw Return of the King, which was needless to say a thoroughly phenomenal movie. I really let myself be immersed in the moment to the point where 3 hours and 20 minutes seemed too short. Truth be told, there were a few blink back the tears (and pretend you have a bit of dirt in your eye) moments. Now it's sad to think that it is all over. I’ve looked forward to each of the movies in the trilogy for so long now that it's strange to think there are no more. Well, until they make The Hobbit anyway.

The Darkness didn’t quite get their Christmas #1 this year, but neither did any of the other favourites. Out of nowhere, the cover of Mad World by Gary Jules (as featured on the Donnie Darko soundtrack) received some serious airplay, and the single sold enough to get the coveted top spot. Despite the fact that it’s been out for well over a year. Fair enough.

I would like to wish all of you a very happy holiday season. And to my fellow Canadians, enjoy a cup of egg nog for me – I’ve looked everywhere for it in Glasgow and it’s simply nowhere to be found.

Sunday, December 14, 2003

Merry Christmas #1

The UK appears to be the last place in the world where people seem to still care about the music singles chart. The only time I could imagine anybody considering buying a single would be if the song were clearly a one-hit wonder. If the single comes from a good album, why would you spend £3 for it when you could have the entire album for £10? Instantly, this ensures that any talented artist has negligible singles chart success. For example, despite the fact that The Thrills and Athlete have sold albums by the bucketload this year, they have had hardly any singles dent the Top 40. People own the album, why would they want the single? The result: a chart full of bubblegum pop and novelty garbage. Furthermore, why would you spend any money on one single when it is so easy to either download it (paid or otherwise) or arrange somebody else to burn it on CD for you? Since paid downloads aren’t included on the singles chart, the sale of only a few thousand singles across the entire UK could result in a number one.

Most people are quite aware of this fact. Single sales are down by as much as 30% from the previous year. The bands charting - by and large - do not represent the taste of the British music buying public. To quote The Smiths, they certainly say nothing to me about my life. Yet British institutions such as Top of the Pops and the Radio One Countdown still stubbornly stick by the dinosaur that is the official singles chart.

Even stranger is the Christmas #1 which is the best selling single for the week leading up to Christmas. The rumours of who might get this year’s Christmas #1 have been circulating since October. I’m told it’s more of a tradition rather than actually having any meaning. Regardless, the big race begins this week to determine who will get the coveted #1. I’m personally gunning for The Darkness and their retro 70’s -sleigh bells and falsetto and all - Christmas single. This band is the one exception to the rule – by in large they have accounted for a huge surge in 7” vinyl sales (of all things!) which has translated to solid singles chart success. Since their Christmas single does not appear on their excellent album, and I don’t have the hardware to properly download it, I just might end up picking up a single after all. I can join the ranks of a few silly thousands who buy a single this season. If nothing else, I’d help ensure the Pop Idol finalists don’t take the Yuletide crown.

Onto other things:
After weeks of bureaucratic shenanigans, I finally managed to get the paperwork through at work and now have access to my new flat in Inverkeithing, a town not far from my work in Rosyth. I can’t express how happy I am to leave the confines of a hotel to something that I can call my own. Though I will now have to pay for my own pints. I’d tell you more about Inverkeithing, but there really isn’t much to say. It doesn’t even register as a blurb in my Lonely Planet guide to Britain. I think there was a battle or something nearby though – I’ll get back to you.

I also went to see the extended version of The Two Towers this weekend. If you’re a real fan of Tolkien’s books, it really is impossible to go back to the original once you’ve seen the extended version. Granted, the added scenes and lines may not be integral to the core plot per se, but it adds so much to the motivations and stories behind the characters and flushes out the history of Middle-earth without feeling like overkill. The flashback scene with Faramir and Boromir is worth it alone. I said it before, and will say it again: I am SO ready for Return of the King! 6 more days, precious.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

An Extended Sunday

Long lies on a Sunday in Scotland can ensure you hardly see daylight. With the sun now beginning to set before 3pm, a sleep-in until noon represents less than three hours of sunlight. But now that I’m one year closer to 30, a heavy pub night on Saturday and the following sleep-in were the order of business.

My friend Steve informed me this week that he managed to obtain tickets to an advanced screening of Return of the King for the 15th. With my working away from the city, and a Christmas work party coming up, it is now likely that I won’t be seeing this film until at least the 20th. My envy towards Steven is great.

However, consolation came this Sunday morning as I searched the paper for movie listings for the afternoon. Turns out that one of the cinemas in Glasgow’s city centre was screening the extended version of Fellowship of the Ring. Needless to say, all other movie plans were put on hold. And was it ever brilliant to see this movie on the big screen again! In all its extended glory! It also turns out that they will be screening the extended version of The Two Towers next weekend. So not only do I not have to track the extended version down on DVD, but I can now see it in all its cinematic glory. I am now so psyched for ROTK it hurts.

As expected, Radiohead was excellent. They even played "Just" and "Fake Plastic Trees" this time. While their new material isn't as strong as some of their classics, it's made up for by Thom Yorke's crazy dance routine. Think epileptic seisures, but with rhythm.

Christmas shopping is nearly done, and all the packages that need to be sent overseas have been dropped off with Royal Mail. Which made me think – why is it that in Canada we get “mail” delivered by Canada Post whereas in the UK we get our “post” delivered by Royal Mail?

And only two more working weeks until the holidays. Due to the timing of Christmas, New Year’s and a Scottish bank holiday on the calendar, I end up getting a full two weeks off work. Which is honestly the best gift I could have asked for!