Saturday, 19 November 2011

April of this year. And Pilar Donoso.

Sorry, I'm still not ready to post again but if you want a laugh, have a browse through the videos I posted in April of this year. There are some stonkingly funny ones.

Why don't I feel the urge to write at the moment? Because I'm neither angry or emotional enough. The former brings on my eczema, the latter is induced by excess, so it's verily a no-can-do at the moment, even though there is a subject I'd like to share with these virtual pages. No wonder professional authors are basket cases and prone to premature death, like Pilar Donoso. Born in Madrid in 1967, she died this week in Santiago de Chile, leaving behind three children, one of whom found her. The most touching part of her testimony was the feeling that she almost expected and understood why her mother had ended her life so early, as if she'd been waiting to become an orphan for a good number of years.

While I'm riffing on writing, here's a bit of news: my brother has been shortlisted for the Montreal International Poetry Prize. We all love organising words on a page in our family, though my dear bro is the best, and certainly a lot better than many who do it professionally. If he wins, I'll let you know, though you probably won't give a shit, and that's OK, too.

So whip your pens out and do it yourselves, just like this delightful lady below.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


...the less I write, the more visitors I seem to get. That's a good business strategy in anyone's book. I'll get back to my old stream of verbal diarrhoea fairly soon; haven't felt particularly 'creative' these past few weeks.


Friday, 7 October 2011

Calming Down

Our new neighbours are calming down. It has something to do with the fact I shouted at them last night: "Close your window; some people are trying to sleep, here". There are actually two men, a woman and two dogs in 30 square metres. Only the dogs are not alcoholics. They're quiet, too, so are basically more civilised than their 'masters'. All the other owners are putting a letter together to send to the owner, much good as it'll do in this country which protects low-lifers at the expense of ordinary people.

Just let me go and live in a house in the middle of nowhere. People stink.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

More Pondlife.

Bizarre, sociopathic neighbours are not the exclusive preserve of the studio above our bedrooms. We now have a somewhat antisocial creature plus his wife/girlfriend/moll as well as a large Alsatian who have taken up residence in the upper flat opposite our front door. This flat has, until now, always housed diligent, quiet female law students and was the few score square metres in the building which were, as far as tenant quality goes, 100% reliable. Now the owners appear to have done a volte face and given us a couple of park bench dwellers who spend their days drinking, smoking and swearing. All this, of course, with wide-open windows which give on to a beautifully resonant courtyard. Toulouse is still in the midst of an Indian summer so we have the privilege of being subjected to their incoherent, alcoholic ramblings whenever they're in residence. It's a bit like living next door to Hans Neuenfels. Tomorrow is our house management company's AGM, so we'll have a few things to talk about.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Smelly Neighbour

OK, she's bonkers, she's fine, really, but when you come home and find that your place stinks of cat when you don't even own one, then you know something's awry. She has seven up there (so to speak), along with a couple of dogs, some rabbits and some birds. Mrs. F did spread some balsam on the wound by reminding us that she was, actually, incredibly quiet, which is true. For my part, I chewed over the concept that in this country, where rights take continual precedence over responsabilities and duties, it appeared to be impossible to reasonably 'expect' two complementary qualities from one person i.e. that they respect your personal space and don't stink like a warthog. Our compensation for the fact her insanitary, reeking, third-floor personal-therapy zoo is deemed acceptable is because she doesn't wake us with rap 'music' at 3am or impromptu, midnight flamenco classes. Were she to, we may be permitted to reflect on the fact that she didn't smell like a third-world sanitary installation. Nice trade-off, eh?

Is it like this everywhere? Or just the street where I live?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Delightful skin conditions.

We moved to Toulouse in October, 2004. In December of that year my fingers started developing cracks which then refused to heal until the weather improved, making for long winters, pianistically speaking. This irritating little condition then disappeared for a few months before, apparently for no reason,  rearing its head again and staying a little longer and spreading a little further. This pattern continued for a couple of years before getting serious, so I finally decided to have it looked at by a dermatologist. By this time I'd heard every possible medical explanation, ranging from conventional medicine's catch-all concept of treating the symptoms and not the cause to homeopathic calls to purify yourself from the inside out, preferably to the accompaniment of a CD of New Age music, available from the receptionist at €12.99. My eczema attacks became longer and more violent until I was finally prescribed neutral soap, a moisturising cream and a pot of cortisone to keep my paws on the straight and narrow, at least until that particular bout was over. I remember playing Carmen with the fourth finger of my left hand curled up against my palm, completely useless, and simplifying Meistersinger almost to the level of Peter Rabbit Plays Richard Wagner. I was told it was linked to my recurrent hay fever and that, basically, nothing could be done. I had to live with it and go through these periods when they chose to descend. Fine.

My current bout of eczema started in February of this year. I remember having it when I started yoga in March and cortisone and a Mapuche aloe vera compound cream helped me through my stay in Santiago de Chile. It had eased off considerably by the time I started in Bayreuth in June and strategically-timed bouts of cortisone kept the door bolted until I got back to Toulouse after my private concert in Leipzig on September 7th. After that, my hands exploded, literally. Within two days they looked liked something out of a horror film: my fingers went dark red, brown and green and cracked open, oozing a vile, toxic discharge which needed to be mopped up every fifteen minutes or so. At the same time, the skin around my eyes became inflamed, swelling up and giving me a false, neanderthal brow whilst covering over half my pupils. I looked like a cross between Fu Manchu and the Elephant Man and only ventured out with sunglasses, even when it was raining.

I made an appointment to see an acupuncturist who also specialises in homeopathic remedies. It was a good visit and he prescribed a modest dose of natural medication. The next day, a colleague grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and dragged me to his favourite magnetic healer, who immediately diagnosed my problem as me not wanting to play the piano any more and wishing to return to conducting. Apparently that's why I could no longer see nor play scores. After some prodding and poking he also suggested a few domestic issues which could be addressed and, before leaving me pensive and profoudly depressed, prescribed a shopping list of homeopathic medicine which left my local chemist gleefully planning a week in the Bahamas.

Rightly or wrongly, I just added this new round of medication to that prescribed by the acupuncturist. Seeing my hands immediately getting worse I contacted the acupuncturist and asked for an emergency appointment. To his credit, he saw me that same afternoon. Mrs. F and I cycled off to his surgery, where I sat in the waiting room with my sunglasses on and my arms folded, just so as not to frighten anyone else in the waiting room. After a few minutes I felt peculiarly sick, so stood up and made my way to the loo. The next thing I remember was being seized by the doctor and manoeuvred to one of his acupuncture couches. I'd blacked out at the door to the loo, my blood pressure was in the basement and now he was there binding my arm and pumping air into the reservoir. It didn't take long until I was feeling OK, so I also told him my dick had started itching awfully that lunchtime and would he mind having a look. The swelling was apparently due to the cocktail of incompatible pixie-dust I'd been swallowing in good faith and that it would go down very quickly. Later that afternoon, in front of this same computer, I checked my spam folder and found something I'd never received before: a mail exhorting me to increase the size of my member. Maybe the doctor sent it.

Anyhow, the acupuncturist said I was to stop the homeopathic medicine immediately and referred me to a conventional dermatologist - who would take me between patients - to get some good old white man's medicine. Cortisosteroids and antibiotics were the order of the day, then we could see about the natural treatment later. We turned up at the dermatologist's surgery and were seen almost immediately. The doctor's first words upon seeing me were "Fucking Hell" ('Oh, putain!'), a bizarre sort of compliment, if you like. He prescribed me a course of treatment which could fell a rhino at 600 yards: Silver Nitrate, Scrubs, Corticosteroids, Antibiotics and Cortisone Cream, just so that I can be pianistically up and running again by tomorrow. Once we've successfully masked the real problem an umpteenth time I'll be able to go back to the acupuncturist and find out exactly why my hands refuse to work every few months. For the Tibetan-trained healer it was clear: I'm not happy in my job. Whether or not that's true I don't know, but it certainly doesn't feel it on a superficial level: I work in a great theatre at a high level, have regular, challenging avocational pursuits, am with my children every day and live in a very sweet flat (although too small) in a beautiful city. Billions would kill for that, and I realise it. OK, I do miss conducting, but not on an everyday level. After being a lazy shit all through my teens and twenties I still marvel that top grade classical institutions want to keep me on their payroll. The last thing I conducted, other than my choir, was an opera in 2009 which, despite the complications involved and the knife-edge final few days when everything looked like imploding, was probably the most satisfying musical venture I've experienced in recent years, maybe ever. The subsequent studio recording was complex and time-consuming, as was the editing, but the only stressful aspect was making sure I wasn't late for the theatre after a few hours in front of the mixing desk. Let's be realistic, though: these projects don't grow on trees and my family needs to eat. Unless Stadttheater Khatmandu comes 'a-knocking with the offer of a conducting post, we're here for the foreseeable, and if the magnetist's diagnosis is correct, then my next challenge will be making peace with my decision to stay planted in front of the ivories.

So here I am, stabbing away at the keys with hands blackened by silver nitrate and rendered quasi-immobile by cortisone and my own frenzied friction attacks (which I'll have to stop, but hell, it's difficult sometimes). My digits should be up and running sufficiently to bash through the organ part in Tosca tomorrow afternoon, then there's the prospect of a much lighter October where I just have a lot of university English tuition here, and a wisdom tooth extraction around the middle of the month. By that time I should be having needles stuck into me, too. So this year, as I slide naked down the razorblade bannister of life towards my fiftieth birthday, will be all about trying to patch up what can be saved of my existence before the countdown towards my free bus pass starts in earnest. Maybe this is the beginning of a mid-life crisis, but I feel just as upbeat and optimistic as I normally do, occasional rants aside.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Flying's no fun, anymore.

To anyone who regularly stepped on an airplane in the 1990's, the next statement won't come as any surprise: Flying is no fun, anymore. There.

Between Santiago de Chile, Germany, England and the Czech Republic, I've had a pretty airborne summer. Of the thirteen flights I've taken since May 22nd, eight were delayed, some of those causing me to miss connecting flights. Thinking back to the halcyon days of the early to mid-1990's when I flew almost exclusively Business and First Class, I can't remember so many planes taking off late, or maybe I just didn't care, sipping on a G&T in a real glass in the Senator Lounge with a Dunhill between my lips. Now I don't smoke anymore and the increased democratisation of air travel has led to scores of frequent flyers with grimy trilby hats and carry-on live chickens in cages, all of which has led me to believe that flying is now a mug's game. I've already written about the comatose Swiss in and around Zurich Airport but let me recount what happened earlier this week when I was scheduled to fly to Leipzig to give a private concert for a luxury car manufacturer.

My concert was due to start at 8.30pm in the Presidential Suite of a new, five-star hotel in the centre of Leipzig. I booked a flight out of Toulouse which would, after a change in Frankfurt, plunk me down on the outskirts of J.S. Bach's home town at 2pm, leaving me six full hours to rest, have a trip to the spa, practise and generally prepare for what was not an insignificant appearance. I checked in online the day before and got to Toulouse Airport early, just to be on the safe side. The first thing I saw was that our flight was delayed a full hour, endangering my connection in Frankfurt. The girl on the desk informed me that there was no problem, as the connection was also delayed. OK, I though, getting to Leipzig at 3pm instead of 2pm is no big deal. All flights out of Frankfurt were apparently delayed that day. Were they f***.

We landed in Frankfurt at 1pm, the time my connection was meant to be leaving, and, in the absence of any kind of information board whatsoever, I legged it to Terminal A, only to find the flight Frankfurt-Leipzig had just left, presumably the only flight leaving on time from Frankfurt that day. The next was at 5.15pm. If all went well, I'd be at the hotel two hours before curtain up. Faced with four hours to kill in the land that time and taste forgot, I set off to find a sushi bar. The Japanese noodle bar, Mouschmousch, is actually pretty good, more enjoyable if you've decided there's nothing you can do about your fate and just accept your karma that day. Needless to say, the 5.15pm to Leipzig was also delayed and I ended up landing in Saxony at 7pm, arriving at the hotel a mere hour before the recital was due to begin, still needing to have a quick rehearsal with the singer, sit down for a few minutes' rest and get changed. I was so tired and concentrated when the concert began that I played liked a God, even if I say it myself. When you know there'll be no safety net if you lose concentration you force yourself to go that extra mile during the real thing. The audience benefits, believe me. My one regret was not having the time to check out everything the hotel had to offer, so I had to make do with salivating over the broschure on the flights back, which, needless to say when you have no pressure on time and no appointment to catch at your destination, all left and arrived on schedule.

Flying is now as ordinary and bland as waiting for a National Express Coach to take you to Peterborough. Songs like Come Fly With Me belong to a bygone era, when a seat in the sky was, for many people, the height of distant romance, not evocative of a Ryanair short-haul where you have to pay to watch Gerard Depardieu piss on the carpet. No; flying is now on a par with regional rail travel; too many people do it; there's no room or space left, delays are the norm and services cut to lower prices to enable even more peasants to buckle up and enjoy the still-free, crappy Languedoc wine. I paid a handsome price for my last trip and still had my drinks out of a plastic skip; not so many years ago, Lufthansa still gave you glasses.

All over the world, there are Centres of Approximate English (CAEs). These locations are called airports. I can appreciate the desire to make English the global lingua franca, but, for God's sake, do it right. It's not a difficult tongue, but once you've heard or read the suggestion to 'Speak to our staff who will advice you' or 'Change your ticket against a rail pass in case of cancellation', you feel like shouting 'For f***¨sake, we have very little grammar! The only difficulty lies in the pronunciation, so please stop trying to make us all sound like José Bové'. My favourite experience was at Frankfurt Airport on the way back, where I had a three-hour layover before my connection to Toulouse. Peckish around noon, I decided to have some potato wedges. My server was called Niko and, according to his badge, 'spoke' Greek, German and English. I started out in German and, unable to understand him, tried English. Both to no avail. Bear in mind that these are two languages I really do know my way around. I decided his badge meant that he was able, with either German, Greek or English facial expressions, to give an approximate impersonation of an obscure Amazonian dialect. In the end, I just pointed at the potatos and proffered him a €5 note. They'd clearly sat on that stainless steel slide for the best part of Angela Merkel's last term in office and tasted dull and nondescript. At least there was an Audi A7 Quattro to coo at and salivate over in the concourse afterwards.

My biggest gripe with all this flying nonsense is the half-hearted attempts by the airline companies to still give you the impression you're special, that you're part of a privileged airborne club. You're not, so they should really stop trying to kid us. Special these days is flying your own plane. As in all walks of life these days: when 'service' is ubiquitous and mediocre, the real luxury is DIY.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

It was all Greek to me...until I read this...

I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering how Greece got to be such an economic basket case, other than the fact they're probably even more dishonest and corrupt than the Italians and the French, for example. I'd read that their Civil Service was pretty atrophied and that nothing moved much, but hadn't seen any evidence of it until the following job advert caught my eye. As a little preamble: when you advertise an advanced sitvac, you assume any applicants are going to have a pretty good idea as to what's involved, so you write : "Blahblah invites suitably-qualified candidates for the following position: Director/Head of/etc". The Greek National Opera is currently looking for a new Chorus Master. If there was any doubt in your mind about how flexible and mindful of innovation this particular government body was, then have a read of this:

The Greek National Opera announces a call for expressions of interest for the position of Choirmaster. We are looking
for a figure from the artistic community with a broad-ranging musical and general background, excellent knowledge of
the opera repertoire and various styles of choral music, and the ability of manage ensembles.
Candidates with the following qualifications will be viewed in a particularly positive light:
1. Diploma in conducting skills for choirs or orchestras:
a) issued by schools offering qualifications in conducting (at university music degree level) or Greek higher
schools offering music qualifications.
b) issued by schools offering qualifications in conducting (at university music degree level) or higher schools
offering music qualifications in a Member State of the European Union, whose qualifications are recognised
by the National Academic Recognition Information Centre (DOATAP, formerly the Greek Inter-University
Centre for the Recognition of Foreign Degrees (DIKATSA).
c) issued by a university outside the European Union (university music degree), recognised by DOATAP
(formerly DIKATSA).
d) issued by the Thessaloniki State Conservatoire or other conservatoires recognised by the Ministry of
Culture & Tourism, which operate schools teaching orchestra or choir conducting skills.
2. A degree or diploma in piano or recognised symphonic orchestra instrument, with parallel studies to at least
the level of grade one at a higher piano academy. For holders of qualifications in symphonic orchestra string
or wind instruments, studies at a middle piano academy are sufficient.
3. A qualification in counterpoint from the Thessaloniki State Conservatoire or other conservatoire recognised
by the state. By way of exception, no qualification in counterpoint is required for holders of qualifications
from choir conducting schools.
4. Knowledge of voice training (soloist studies will be viewed in a positive light).
5. Excellent knowledge of the Greek language and good knowledge of at least 2 foreign languages (mainly
Italian and secondarily French, German or English), demonstrated by submitting the relevant certificates.
6. Recognised professional past experience in directing and teaching choirs or musical ensembles.
The Choirmaster’s monthly pay shall be set in accordance with Law 3988/2010.
Each of the top three candidates during the first selection phase will undergo a minimum 3-month trial period during
the artistic period 2011-2012. The final candidate will be selected by the end of the artistic period 2011-2012. The
contract for the G.N.O Choirmaster who is selected will be 2 years.
Greeks or foreigners interested in applying for the position should submit an application by 14:00 hours on 1
September 2011 to the offices of the Greek National Opera. In particular applications should be lodged with the
G.N.O’s Protocol Office in the administration building (39 Panepistimiou St., 3rd floor, Athens GR-10564) from 08:00 to
14:00 hours from Monday to Friday (tel. 210 3711200).
In addition to their application form, which can be obtained from the G.N.O’s Protocol Office or online from the
website, interested parties should also the following:
1. A detailed CV with photograph.
2. Qualifications (original documents or copies attested by the competent authority).
3. Proof of employment with operas, musical ensembles, etc.
4. Proof of the candidate’s artistic activities such as programmes from performances, sound and image
documentation, reviews, etc.

Click here for Application form

Well, what are waiting for?

Rant de la rentrée

I just wrote a mail to a friend, saying that, but a few short days ago, I looked in the mirror in Bayreuth and saw a smiling, healthy, cheerful man. I looked in the mirror this morning in Toulouse and noted the rings and bags under my eyes with disgust. In four days, I'd aged ten years, and I feel this way every time I come back to the south after a summer in a country and a town which works. It's been exacerbated this year by the necessity to register my German-bought Audi in France. Exchanging ownership papers and registering in Bayreuth took twenty minutes from start to finish. Here in France, I started at 10am today and won't finish - if I'm lucky - before September 14th. Here's why:

For some obscure reason, the French require a Certificate of Conformity to 'prove' that the car you wish to register is known to the authorities. In a sane world, you would imagine that an Audi A3, now on its third owner and possessing a full service history (I bought it in Germany, after all), would not cause Jacques & Co. to have a seizure. Wrong. I was informed it was 'essential' and that 'nothing could be done' until they were in possession of this particular little sesame. 'So', I asked; 'how do I get one? The Germans didn't see the need, seeing as the car was first put on the road in 2000'. 'You get it from the manufacturer'. Great help. This was after being informed I needed another piece of paper from the tax office (don't ask) to prove something or other. It was free, but it just seems to be there to keep people busy. And frustrated. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I (finally) found the number of Audi France and they prodded me in the right direction. With any luck, I should receive the thing through the post in about a week.

What drives me insane is that no two people in authority in this country will tell you the same thing. For neophyte car importers, that's a pretty big issue. Why the hell they insist on this CoC (exactly) is beyond me, seeing as their own cars are such shit they fall apart after five years of sink estate handbrake turns and bump-bump parking manoeuvres. In addition, they're so pathologically corrupt they need a piece of paper from a German company before they'll recognise obscure brands and models such as the Audi A3. Once I've finally registered the bloody thing and providing I haven't gone postal by then, it'll have cost me around €300. The price I paid in Germany? €59. One employee of Audi Toulouse even told me I'd have to have a new MOT done here in France, even though the car went through the TÜV in Germany on August 15th. I suggested that might be sufficient, would it not? He replied that 'We were in France', as if they could do a better job than the people who built the bloody car in the first place. Makes you want to puke.

There has to be a victim in all of this, and there was one, I'm afraid. Something else I needed to do today was print off an invoice to send to a company near Stuttgart. The printer, which has seldom given me much hassle, decided its black ink wasn't going to work. I tried printing the bill; no dice. I cleaned the heads. No dice. I tried again. And again. And again. Eventually, it decided the other colours all needed replacing and wouldn't budge an inch until I'd spent f*** knows how much replacing half-full cartridges, just to see the test paper refuse to show any evidence of black whatsoever. After half an hour of kärchering the heads to no avail and having used up my stock of spare ink cartridges I finally lost it and pummeled the printer into oblivion, smashing my fist down repeatedly on its cover, shattering the photocopier and scanner glass, unfortunately under the watchful eye of Fingernail II, who wandered off to Mrs. F and said "Daddy's killed the printer". I tried to explain my way out of it as best I could, the fact it was the result of red mist that had slowly been descending ever since my first contact with the civil service after my arrival from Germany; the fact that the size of our flat is driving me crazy; the smell of the streets; the incivility; the lack of room anywhere and just the fact that I didn't deal with a frustrating situation as well as I could have. In the end, I said, it was all due to a lack of self-control and no excuse I could make will ever divert attention from that truth. There are worse things in life. I can't wait to sell this place and get the hell out. Seriously, it's getting critical. I've just spent three months in places that work, then I come back to one of the world's richest countries and encounter nothing but bullshit and indifference. Stupid, spoiled f*******; do they know how good they've got it? I'd better stop. It's curious: I'm the happiest I've been for months, now that I'm back with my little family, yet my nerves are currently jangling for no more reason than I have to go about my everyday life with people who are obstructive and unhelpful. Life never gets easier, it just gets more familiar.

Monday, 22 August 2011

End of summer blues

I wish I had something thrilling and titillating to tell you, but I don't. I could file for intellectual bankruptcy (Wouldn't that be a first, eh?) and just post a picture of a porn star (Actually not such a bad idea - note to self) but will probably just plunk for typing randomly-assembled words to fill up a few minutes before I despair at my own stupidity and vacuity and go to bed, accompanied by - I'm serious, I kid you not - an experimental didgeridoo concert on Bavarian Radio. The fact of the matter is that my line of work interests only those already in the business whom I have, as a matter of precaution,  pre-drugged, gagged and tethered to chairs or radiators and seeing as that's all I've indulged in since buying that Audi A3 (well, almost all) I basically have nothing to tell you. I'm still not back in France, I'm still not getting irritated with noisy neighbours, I'm still not drinking the wine regions of Gaillac and Fronton dry, but I am playing lots of Wagner and Verdi, sitting on my terrace in a gorgeously-hot northern Bavaria and having more than the occasional Weissbier, but frankly, do any of you give one? No, and nor should you; most of you visited this blog in the hope of finding some pearls of wisdom related to life in southern France and virtually all posts since May 22nd must have disappointed you (except that one of Pamela Anderson, come on...).

'Come on,' I hear you cry; 'You say your line of work won't interest us, but try us! We're adult, we have our BCGs'. OK, here goes: It probably won't be Frank Castorf; it'll be a collaboration between Hans Neuenfels, Stefan Herheim and Katharina Wagner. Satisfied? OK, where's that picture of a porn star...

See you in France.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Audi A3 Sportback - our passport to freedom.

In my original profile I mentioned the fact that Mrs. Fingers and I didn't own a car. Well, now we do. 'Ooh Gah!' I hear you cry; 'He's finally done what virtually every other adult on the planet did ages ago, and got himself a car'. I know I'm a bit slow on the uptake with all these things but I have been a car owner before: I had a couple of BMW 520i's in Hamburg, back in the late eighties to mid-nineties but gave them away when I moved back to London as I didn't need them anymore. It's a shame you can't get rental car 'miles' which ultimately get you a discount on car insurance when you go back to owning a vehicule, as that would probably have made quite a difference to what I'm going to have to shell out for this one, now. It's also the reason I picked something pretty small and not too powerful: as far as the insurance companies are concerned I am - despite having had my driving licence over thirty years - a new driver; the No Claims Bonus I acquired in Germany expired in 2002 and France was never going to go that extra mile to start me on that percentage. Nor should they, either.

The real reason for getting the car is that we're now equipped to go house-hunting in areas which don't necessarily have a highly-developed public transport system i.e. anywhere in and around Toulouse. It also means we can just pop off somewhere for a day or an afternoon instead of having to stick it out in the centre of town. If you want to get out into deep countryside here, you need a car; it's as simple as that.

Here's a little piccy of the model I bought:

Now there's just the small matter of driving 1600km back to Toulouse in just over a week's time...

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Chilean MILF politicians - an artist's retrospective

I'm pleased that certain surfers have - probably much to their enormous disappointment - been directed to my Chilean MILF page, but regret that the full comparative horror - seeing pictures of Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Estelle Morris - has not been experienced. In fact, I get the impression that the Chilean MILF politicians v. Blair's 'Babes' page is probably the least visited page of the entire blog. This does, however, indicate that there is a benevolent God; one who, even in the pornographically liberal environment of the World Wide Web, still spares innocent (well, OK...) internauts the sight of three of the most appalling human execrescences ever let loose on our fair soil. I was just back in England for a week and, hell, it is a gorgeous country; noting that Blair's autobiography is part of a 3 for 2 deal at W.H. Smith's does jab a matchstick at the corner of my mouth, but it's not enough. Not until NuLab and its subversions have been eradicated from the collective conscience can life really improve. I realise this may not make me popular with a large percentage of the population, but, you know: I don't give an airborne reproductive act; that's the beauty of getting older: you care less about what people think and say. It's also why people label us cantankerous old buggers. Can't believe I'm banging on the door of the local Darby and Joan Club when I'm still regularly called 'Young Man', 'Jeune Homme' and 'Junger Mann' (at least in Europe) by people, often younger than I, who then don't expect to be corrected. Bizarre. Age is in the mind, seriously. When you get older, you become more of what you always have been.

This is getting off the point, of course; The point being that Chile - great country, fab miners - has hot female politicians and Great Britain - great country, fab er, scenery - has not. Notwithstanding, I still maintain it is easier to get into a conversation with a Brit than with practically any other national, anywhere. Try it out - at home, if needs be - and let me know. We may be a spent force, an ex-empirical power, an easy touch for Third World benefit scroungers, but hell, can we chat! Seriously, you can start a conversation with a Brit for nothing and about nothing and your life will be richer for it, providing you have a sense of humour and a capacity to give as good as you get. Try it this summer - wherever you are - and watch our population increase even more than it did under New Labour. But naturally, this time. Countries with a good sense of humour tend to have a higher birth rate than stick-in-the-mud nations. Dubious? Check the statistics.

That's enough late-night bollocks. Sleep well. Preferably with one of us.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Delay, Delay, Delay.

 Just back from the inside of a week in England; a wonderful meeting-up with Mrs. F and the Fingernails after six weeks' absence. England was a joy: great weather and no traffic jams, but I realise I just got lucky there, nothing more. It was interesting to see signs in Russian up in Wisbech, a sleepy Georgian market town and epicentre of the local agricultural picking and packing trade and now host to many Eastern European labourers who have done nothing but win friends since their arrival a few years ago. Many return home once the season's over, others stay on and pick up other work. They're also buying businesses and houses, so they're definitely there to stay.

The only downside of the trip was the experience with Swiss Airlines, or whatever they're called this week. Every flight I took was delayed, one connection (same company) was missed and even the Nuremberg flight I was re-booked on after a three-hour hang around took off late. If you're flying via Zurich, as I was, you have to go through passport control and security before picking up your connecting flight, yet there appears to be no airport coordination between a late-arriving Swiss flight and its subsequent connections. There's certainly no fast track for short connections; everyone stands in line as the few border guards there are peer at every passport as if it's the first time they've seen a travel document. They're not going anywhere, so they're not in a hurry. You either make your connecting flight or you do not, there appears to be no kind of policy and everyone you speak to has a dim, glazed-over expression on their face as if mildly surprised you wish to reach your destination as planned. The route Nuremberg-Zurich-Manchester was stressful but the return trip turned out to be less so as we got so late they just informed us we'd all miss our connections and that we should go to the Transfers Desk to pick up our new boarding passes for later flights. They came accompanied with a voucher for CHF 10 which will get you a beer and a pretzel, at least it will if you get up and remind the dozy waitress of your order after waiting for fifteen minutes. I can safely say I have never encountered such a dozy, thick, initiative-free and gormless group of people as I met flying Swiss this last week. God only knows how the country got so rich if this is the mentality. The only part of the trip which worked was when the plane was in the air, but even Air France gets that bit right. Getting to the plane and getting it in the air was the big challenge, and here they failed dismally. A trip which should have taken twelve hours door-to-door ended up taking 18. Never again if I have the choice.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Happy Birthday, Mum!

Today is my mother's birthday. I sent her a mail as I couldn't reach her by phone. She finally retired this last May i.e. two months ago, having served as librarian, teacher and local politician since the age of 18. Somewhere along the line, 1981, I think it was, she moved to another part of the country, was out of work for a little while and missed paying six months of N.I. contributions which severely dented her pension prospects, so she carried on working beyond retirement age to fill the gap. As a single parent from 1969 onwards she single-handedly brought up two boys in an era when divorce was more than frowned upon, all the time working full-time as a schoolteacher and never received a penny of benefits. She would stay up every weekday until midnight planning lessons and marking for the following day and never complained about her lot. In one year, she lost her mother (my grandmother), at the age of 59 to lung cancer, herself gave up smoking and got divorced, yet ploughed on, working full-time and bringing up two feisty and renegade sons without so much as an Oy Vay on the horizon. This 'single parent' saw her sons off to university and on to respectively Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard and a not-so-unsuccessful working musician. Both my brother and I speak five languages each, too. Nothing directly to do with Mum, but indicative of the culture of education we'd received.

After several years as County and Borough Councillor following retirement, my Mum was nominated as Mayor of King's Lynn and West Norfolk, where one of her subjects was HM The Queen (Sandringham, you see), with whom she built up an amusing relationship, having received her in King's Lynn a number of times and having been invited to Buckingham Palace and Sandringham House for genteel, royal bun fights. After her stint as Mayor, where she absolved 500 official functions in one calendar year without anyone at home to cook or clean up for her, she returned to being Borough Councillor until she decided she could take the committees and self-interested in-fighting no more and announced she would not stand as LibDem candidate this year for her ward and would retire. She was staying with us in Toulouse the day of the elections, yet still insisted I gave her the links to the election results before I left for work so she could see who had got elected and who not. I said "Mum, it's not your problem any more" but it clearly was; she was concerned about who had got in. For any Telegraph readers (like myself) out there: her expenses bill for 17 years of service: £3.64. One day as Mayor, she was absolutely ravenous between four engagements (6am - 5pm) where no lunch had been scheduled and said to herself "Hell, just this once". Bon appetit, maman.

My mother turned 79, today. Freshly retired after a lifetime of service to her family, her pupils and her constituents. And no, she doesn't live in a huge house, she rents a two-bedroomed bungalow in the country as she paid off all my father's debts and could never afford to buy. You'll instantly recognise my mother if you bump into her: she'll be the one smiling and asking you if she can give you a hand. Happy Birthday, Mum, I love you.

Countdown to Sunday.

Since getting back from Austria on Monday life has just felt like pleasantly marking time. We had our premiere on Tuesday, on Wednesday I went to a colleague's production then off to the wonderful Stadtbad for a dip, picking up a pizza and a bottle of happy juice for the evening. Coached a bit of The Ring this morning, then it was back to the pool for a couple of hours then off to the supermarket to get some sustenance to tide me over till morn. I don't normally do this ready-meal nonsense, but seeing as I'm off to England on Sunday I'm loathe to buy too much fresh fruit and veg in case it goes off while I'm gone and I'm greeted by cockroaches and rats the size of NBA superstars upon my return. The two remaining onions I had in the larder were full of mites by the time I got back from my Austrian trip and I'm sorry, but creepy-crawlies in the kitchen make my flesh creep. And crawl.

Sunday heralds being with the family for a few days and I can't wait. Can't wait to hold those children in my arms. It's been far too long; I've hardly seen them since May 22nd, when I left for Chile. God only knows how my colleagues do this all the time; I think I'd wither and die within the year. What's more, I just yesterday turned down another offer to go back to Chile in late August. Apart from anything else, my regular day job starts up again at the end of that month, but I can see how a freelancer would leap at the chance and postpone his big family reunion for another three to four weeks. This profession is dominated by people who either have no family or, by necessity, neglect the one they have to a certain degree; it's a precarious life and if someone offers you work you say 'yes', then think later. Zubin Mehta was once asked in an interview how he'd combined his extraordinary career with the fact of being father to three children. The meat of his reply was that music had taken priority and that 'it was too late, now'. Depressing. I honestly thank my lucky stars that I can work at a high level in this business and be with my family 95% of the year. Anyone who understands how classical music works will realise how lucky and unusual that is. Anyhow, mustn't get too maudlin about this; Sunday's not far off and the Wagners are organising a bun fight for us tomorrow. It's not like in years gone by, when we'd all trot off to Wolfgang Wagner's house but times change. Apart from anything else, the people who invited us to the house are no longer with us and a new broom has swept through the Green Hill, so new entertainment techniques are to be expected. Can't get too sloshed, though; we've got a performance the next day.

Isn't that gorgeous? Corresponds to Mrs. F and the Fingernails, too. Only another couple of days.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Andrea Chénier, Bregenzer Festspiele

I drove down to Lech am Arlberg in Austria, yesterday, in preparation for my recital on Sunday with KFV and SK, stopping off in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to visit the Richard Strauss Institute; something I've been promising myself for years. The place is fascinating and includes a good exhibition of his life and works, his house in Garmisch and quite a few of his artefacts, including - horror of horrors - a clip-on bow tie. I honestly thought he was better than that. Upstairs, there's a superb library chock-a-block with just about everything ever written on or by him. I left the building with a three-volume collection of his correspondance with colleagues and, of course, a mug.

I got to Lech at 6.30pm and was immediately asked if I wanted to go on the trip to the premiere of Andrea Chenier at the Bregenzer Festspiele. Knackered as I was I agreed and hell, what a good decision that turned out to be.
For those unfamiliar with the Bregenz Festival, one of the productions is on Lake Constance. You sit in a 7000-seater grandstand and the action takes place on a stage built on the water. It's spectacular; we saw Tosca there a few years back, the production which is featured in the James Bond film A Quantum of Solace. Practically every production done on the lake is Opera Meets Cirque du Soleil and is a feast for the eyes and ears. Yesterday's Andrea Chenier was, along with Stefan Herheim's production of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival, quite simply the best thing I've seen on an operatic stage, ever. The singing is, for the most part, very good, in particular Hector Sandoval's revolutionary poet, but it's the way that opera singers, dancers, acrobats and performance swimmers combine so seamlessly under Keith Warner's direction to tell the story of the doomed poet without one special effect ever appearing gratuitous. The set is a marvel to behold. Designed by David Fielding, it is an enormous, stylised reproduction of part of Jacques-Louis David's 1793 painting La Mort de Marat. Jean Paul Marat was a radical Jacobine, stabbed to death in his bath by the 'moderate' Girondine Charlotte Corday and it is André Chénier's impassioned ode to her that seals his death warrant. In addition, there's an over-dimensional open book and a hand surging out of the water, carrying a tray, providing two more stages and an enormous knife which appears out of the water, as if from nowhere. The face is incredible: the eyes open and close, are by turns vacant or alive, the mouth opens, acrobats appear out of the top of her skull, singers are seen to walk amongst the folds of his nightcap. The skin changes colour according to the plot and, finally, enormous needles appear out of the entire face and upper body, impaling the citizens and looking, to all intents and purposes, like the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. As Chénier and Maddalena are executed the body turns the colour of a corpse, the lips turn blue, the eye sockets black. Their death is represented by Idria Legray, the lady Maddalena replaced on the scaffold, slowly being engulfed in the French Flag, a tricolour stream of water, in the enormous facsimile mirror, presided over by the Grim Reaper, an omnipresent character the entire evening. I'll try to find a picture of the set. Don't go away.

Yes! There it is. The hand holding the platter starts off in front of the bust i.e. where you can see the knife. The pièce de résistance was the court scene, where the head tipped back as if its throat had been slit (this being the implication) to reveal stacks of enormous books and the procurators suspended in mid-air. Lots of swirling dried ice for this scene, naturally. Quite the most amazing thing I've seen for many a long year. If you have the opportunity to see it this year, it runs in Bregenz, Austria, until August 21st. They're doing it next year, too. Book now.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Nothing French About This Blog, Anymore.

Apart from a few days, mid-June, I've not been in France since May 22nd and won't return until late August. I'm used to spending the entire summer abroad but hooking three weeks in South America on the front completely changed the rules of the game and I'm horrified, yet again, at just how adaptable human beings are. It's a basic survival instinct, I know, I know, but I don't like life feeling 'normal' without the family around. OK, enough of that.

I was just re-reading some early posts on this blog, and I was amazed at how life has changed these last few years. To think I got into such a lather about some of those issues, though some were justified (the noisy neighbours, the drug dealer, the cretins pouring toxic liquid into the gutter). As for the rest, I suppose I'm just a bit older and less neurotic than I was. Priorities change and I'm not as angry as I was. I don't know whether that's a good thing, as we arty types are supposed to all be pathetically immature and throw TVs out of hotel room windows or some such crap, before channeling our creativity into a mould-busting performance of Beethoven's Fifth, Bohemian Rhapsody or Hamlet. I say: keep the child-like passion for the music and save your money on refurbishment. Someone once said that artists should never have children as they should never be distracted from their path and creativity. F*** knows what that was all about, but it was someone pretty famous; an author, I think, and not just any old one. If you don't live, love and create, how can you be an artist? All your 'artistic' creations are mere conjecture, born in a vacuum of talent but bereft of experience.

Yup, nothing French about this blog anymore, at all. Circulez, n'y a rien à voir...

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Eva Perón - 7th May, 1919 - 26th July, 1952

I've just finished reading maybe my fourth book about Evita, a fairly poorly-written tome by Abel Posse which, nonetheless, contains an awful lot of information. Set in the last months of Eva's life, we juxtapose the early 1950's with her personal history starting in Los Toldos, eventually catching up with her remaining days in Buenos Aires. The end is, actually, extremely good, but you need to be an Argentina fan like myself to make it through to page 350 or thereabouts, when he gets bitten by the great biographer bug and seriously turns up the heat. We have Argentinian friends in Toulouse, both younger than myself, who have pictures of Evita in their flat, even though she'd been dead twenty years before the elder of the two was born. Apparently, a few years ago, the Argentinian government minted a coin with her effigy. In just over a week her beloved country will commemorate the 59th year of her passing, yet her impact remains, apparently, undented. Once back in Toulouse, I must ask our friends just what it is that is so enduring about Eva Ibarguren/Duarte, later Perón. Better still, I need to spend some serious time in Argentina.

Instead of the usual pictures of Eva, I'm going to post one of Doctor Pedro Ara - posed, of course - who was entrusted with enbalming her body, a task which took over a year and earned him around $100,000:

General Pedro Aramburu participated in the 1955 coup which deposed Perón, who was then sent into exile in Panama. He is said to have been behind sending Evita's embalmed body out of the country, along with a host of fake coffins to throw people off the scent. She eventually turned up in a Milan cemetery in 1972 under the name of Señora Maggio. Her body was returned to Juan Perón who, at that time, was living in exile with his third wife in Franco's Spain. She can now be found in the Duarte/Ibarguren family vault in Buenos Aires' most elegant cemetery, La Recoleta. Aramburu was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by political enemies in 1970.

It's a fascinating story, one with more twists and turns than a crime novel,  seemingly distant geographically yet within chronological reach of most people alive today.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Putting the record straight.

There are some people who claim that Bayreuth was consistently much better in years gone by, that the singers these days don't hold a candle to the stars of yesteryear 'n' all that. It's true that there were fine singers in the past, but to implicitly proclaim every performance then was superior to what is available now is pure folly. There are excellent Bayreuth recordings featuring luminaries such as Wolfgang Windgassen, Leonie Rysanek, Martha Mödl, Frieda Leider etc but let's just have a quick look at the tenors who sang here last year:

Jonas Kaufmann
Klaus Florian Vogt
Lance Ryan
Simon O'Neill
Johan Botha
Robert Dean Smith
Christopher Ventris
Norbert Ernst

Considering that even the biggest houses worldwide practically never schedule more than two Wagner works each season and that we perform anything between five and eight in five weeks, uniting talent like that is going it some. Here are some of the other names who've sung here since I've been working here:

Nina Stemme
Ricarda Merbeth
Adrienne Pieczonka
Judith Nemeth
Linda Watson
Eva-Maria Westbroek
Michaela Kaune
Peter Seiffert
Petra-Maria Schnitzer
Irene Theorin
Evelyn Herlitzius
Annette Dasch
Camilla  Nylund
Frank van Aken
John Tomlinson
Olaf Bär
John Wegner
Kwangchoul Youn
Samuel Youn
Georg Zeppenfeld
Arthur Korn
Reinhard Hagen
Hans-Peter König
Andreas Schmidt
Stephen Gould
Petra Lang
Roman Trekel
Michael Nagy
Michael Volle
Adrian Eröd
James Rutherford
Robert Holl
Alan Titus

If I'd started a couple of years earlier I'd have been able to add Placido Domingo and Waltraud Meier to that list.

I could go on and on. Hardly the moribund event some naysayers harp on about. Considering the festival now has to compete with the world of the chequebook-driven, photogenic, media-hyped 'star', the fact that artists of such stature still want to spend their summer performing Wagner in his own theatre says a lot for their integrity. Bayreuth is a great leveller: Wagner's music is always, without exception, more impressive than even the most talented and photogenic interpreter and no-one is bigger than the creator, here. It's fantastic. Musical life the way it should be.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Schools on the Grünen Hügel

The part of Bayreuth where the Festspielhaus is located is called the Green Hill, or Grüner Hügel and it's pretty much the northern edge of the town. Beyond Richard Wagner's theatre are a restaurant, a forest and a few schools, and it's the latter I want to mention, here.

A spread-out estate built up around the theatre in the 1950's, all the streets being named after Wagner's operas or characters therein. So we've got Tannhäuserstrasse, Dalandweg, Lohengrinstrasse, Amfortasweg etc. You get the picture. Just behind my street up here is not only a pre-school but a primary school and a vocational secondary school, or Realschule, as it's known, here. Beyond that little campus is a good Italian restaurant, the Bürgerreuth, and then the forest. Every morning I hear the children enjoying playtime and pretty much always cross them going home as I'm on my way either to or from the theatre. The wonderful thing is that even the youngest of these children walks home on his or her own. There is no danger, here. We're surrounded by fields, apart from the school buses there's next to no traffic and these little people wander home on their own at the age of five, six and seven etc, pausing to look at flowers or something else they've seen on the ground in complete safety. How wonderful to be able to start your life like that. I remember walking home from St. Martin's Infants in Salisbury on my own, but that was also the 1960's and life has, sadly, changed a lot since those days. With that in mind it's lovely to see young children still able to do that in parts of Europe. How sad that something so natural should now be seen as a luxury. What a sad indictment of the world we now live in.

This is what you see from the schools. It's not like that where the Fingernails go, I can tell you.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Pamela Anderson

A propos of nothing at all, here's a picture of one of my favourite philosophers, Pamela Anderson:

Thank you, and good night.

Visitors from Crawley, West Sussex!!!

I can't tell you how happy I am to have had visitors from Crawley, West Sussex. This is the town I spent twelve years in, from six to 18, living in Tilgate and Gossops Green, going to school at St. Andrew's, Furnace Green, Holy Trinity in Buckswood Drive, then Hazelwick in Three Bridges. Even though it was - and still is, I would imagine - of no particular architectural note, it was a brilliantly planned town, just the right size and with, then as now, I believe, the lowest unemployment rate of anywhere in the UK. This was due to Gatwick Airport (little more than an aerodrome when we first arrived), Manor Royal Industrial Estate and its proximity to London. Crawley had everything going for it, but I think I've written about it in a previous post, maybe the one about Mini ManUtd, I can't remember.

So, dear Crawleyites, thanks for coming. Is L.H. Cloake's records still there? Probably not, but worth asking all the same.

The George Hotel (picture) and the White Hart Inn (opposite) are just about the only pretty buildings in Crawley, but everyone's got a garden. At least they had when I lived there.

No Smoking in the Czech Republic, by the way...

Apart from incredible debt, the one thing which unites EU member states is its no-smoking policy. I'd even go as far as to say that the success of a country's  candidacy depends more on its willingness to demonise smokers than proving it can balance its books. Take the Czech Republic, for example. Anything which even only looks like a public building is covered with improvised No Smoking signs, many of them one-off attempts to copy the classic smoking cigarette in a red circle with a line through it. Karlovy Vary's north station is peppered with attempts to get this simple model right, with varying degrees of success, it must be added: some examples have no red circle at all, so even though the text exhorts you not to light up the picture implies that it's more than OK to do so. In fact, it looks like you're in a designated smoking area and some killjoy has written No Smoking on the wall just to annoy you. This wouldn't be so bad, but the fact is that the station is basically completely open to the elements, so we have people basically being told they can't light up in the open which is, in anyone's book, smoker or not, a gross infringement of civil liberties. The same goes for bus stops. They're all open, but a flimsy attempt at a roof seems to alter its status to that of public building, so no tar, thank you very much. I've now been a non-smoker for four months and I don't miss it one iota, in fact I now find the smell repulsive. Still, I can't help but find this authoritarian, totalitarian Brussels-fuelled intolerance to anything which doesn't fit into the unelected commission's worldwide socialist Common Purpose agenda more than vaguely worrying, I find it downright frightening. Right wingers will walk away from things they don't like; left wingers seek to have them banned. That is effectively the difference, yet it is always the left-wingers accusing the right of intolerance, whereas it is they who are the true fascists of the piece. So ultimately, the Czechs and everyone else in Europe have been happy to impose a blanket infringement of civil liberties in exchange for a bit of money. By the way: the only public building in Europe to possess a smokers' lounge is the European Parliament in Strasbourg, so what does that say about their hypocrisy? See where a simple riff can lead you?

Returning to Karlovy Vary station, the main platform roof is the classic wooden-slatted, inverted V with that raised crown so the steam can escape. The stansions are wrought iron. It's simple yet so beautiful and puts me in mind of the Central Station in Santiago de Chile, designed by someone called Gustave Eiffel who, apart from that and a little bridge in the Dordogne, built nothing of note.

 You think this is a joke, don't you?

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Czech-up time, again.

The cost benefits of Eastern European dental treatment are no secret to anyone these days and I'm happy to avail myself of its amazing value for money. Last year I had four crowns put in, and this morning I headed off again, this time just to have a gold crown replaced. Every time I go to Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad as the Germans call it, or maybe just plain old Charlie's Bath (as no-one calls it, I'm sure), it's blisteringly hot. You snake through the backwoods of Upper Franconia, the border country railway stations fading with their post-Schengen significance until you reach the Czech town of Cheb, which need not concern us here, save for the fact the place probably engendered the word 'unlovely', even if its station café is quite fun in a comradely, post-communist kind of way.

On the way, you'll have changed trains in Marktredwitz. If the timetable allows, you'll have time to wander into its charming centre and have a look around. The main street is typical of the region: all buildings between 100 - 200 years old, very well - maybe too well - maintained and a landmark with a story. Every little town or village has its claim to fame around here, and Marktredwitz is no exception. Goethe himself once spent a few days in what is now the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus), August 13th - 18th, 1822, to be precise. You can visit his room during weekday office hours. It is civil servantsville, after all...

My dentist was as brilliant and cheap as he always is and his surgery is the most space-age I've ever seen, but I think I've mentioned this before. Anyhow, there's a supermarket right by the bus stop for the trip back to the station, so I popped in to get a couple of things, one of them, loo paper, being fairly urgent as I knew I was out of the stuff in Bayreuth and wouldn't get back in time to catch the shops. I found the section easily enough but then cackled so loudly that a couple of nearby shoppers turned to look at me. The house brand of loo paper is called 'Grand Finale'. Honestly. You couldn't make it up. I also couldn't possibly not buy a pack with a name like that. I only wish I had the little digital camera with me here so I could have taken a photo and posted it.

I find I can understand quite a few words in Czech, thanks to the leftovers of my mediocre Russian in the 1990's. One phrase which creases me, though, is the Czech for 'No Parking': Ne Parkovat. Honestly, I though English was lazy on occasions. It's almost like a send-up of itself, as if the 'Russian' were No Parkski Here-ski. Buggeroff. Essential words like beer and numbers are very similar. In Russian, you'd order a 'Pivo', but pronounce it 'Piva', as the unstressed 'o' sounds like 'ah'. In Czech, it's 'Pivo', with an 'o'. The price is the same in both, at least at the lovely little kiosk in front of Charlie's Bath's northern station: Dyevit Vosyem, or Twenty-Eight to you and me for a bottle of Gabarinus Premium 12%. Bargain in any language.

Anyhow, it's back to Karlovy Vary/Karlsbad/Charlie's Bath on Saturday to get the real thing fitted in my gob. The next dental undertaking is to have a pesky wisdom tooth removed in October, get a brace on my lower set and eventually have teeth I can present to the outside world. Once the mechanics are out of the way it'll be back to the Czechs for a more photogenic 'grand finale'...

Extra services not reimbursed by the French Sécurité Sociale. I shall write to my MP. Oh, that IS my MP.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Swimming Pools and Beer

Something I didn't mention about the poolside café in Bayreuth is that you don't just get your snacks served up on paper plates and the drinks are as far from Max-Pax as you could imagine: there's proper crockery, glasses for the juices and cups with saucers for the hot drinks, all this three yards from the water's edge. The crowning glory here has to be the fact that you can order any one of five different beers, two of them on tap, and have them served in the appropriate glass, not just a plastic skip like you'd find in Elf 'n' Safety England, not that you'd be able to have a beer inside a public swimming pool there, anyway. In short, you can sit in a delightful little café area and eat and drink as if you were in a normal café. Many people wouild say that it's dangerous, having glass so close to a pool, but the fact remains that disciplined, civic-minded people are able to get away with this precisely because they respect the parameters and don't let it become dangerous. I posted a while back about how the smoking ban was applied differently in Europe. Indisciplined, corrupt countries like France and Italy had to put up with a total ban on day one; places like Germany and Austria had some leeway as it was known they wouldn't abuse the loopholes. Bavaria closed the loophole last summer via referendum, a decision taken by the populace and not the politicians.

So, if you want to enjoy a bit of freedom you have to show you're capable of respecting it. There's no secret, really...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Stormy Weather

I noted in an earlier post that Bayreuth has all manner of weather, every day, and today is no exception. It was gloriously hot - up around 30°C - all day, and now, at 9.30pm, there is a mother of a storm outside which looks like it could fell trees. I remember one a few years ago which did actually do that, killing a young woman in the process. My house here sits in the middle of a tree-infested garden and I pray every year one won't come crashing down on us. Oh! Now there's lightning, too. There are also two moths playing up in the sitting room lights. How the hell did they get in?

And a thunder crack! This is going to be a long night in Northern Bavaria, I can feel it now...

Stadtbad Bayreuth

I know I've got a tendency to go off the deep end about things, particularly those I like, but you've honestly never experienced municipal bathing perfection until you've had a dip in Bayreuth's Stadtbad, or Town Pool. Built in the 1920's, it is a gem of a building which is beautifully appointed, clean and never full. It's not cheap: without reductions, a ticket will set you back €3.80 but for that you get two pools and a jacuzzi as well as steam baths, a weights room, relaxation areas, terraces and a café right by the water. What's more, unlike in France, you can pitch up in a pair of boxers and just jump in. French pools require you to wear a stupid swimming cap and speedos in order to restrict the filth as much as possible, yet the fundamentally cleaner of the two countries does not see such measures as necessary, presumably assuming the bathing public will show enough responsability concerning their personal hygiene so as to render such by-laws irrelevent. I always think of Napoleon legislating the country beyond what should be necessary so as to protect the people from their own tendencies.
These two Bavarian beauties weren't there this afternoon, but that's pretty much how full it is whenever I go.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Surveys, research and other rubbish.

I've just read an article on the Independent website that recent research has found that people with wider faces are more likely to cheat and lie, yet make better businessman (duh). Make of this shit what you will, but I'm certainly the exception that proves the rule: I'm a useless businessman and couldn't lie to cover up my iniquities if my life depended on it, so I don't cheat. Too stressful and what's the point, anyway? Predictably, the picture they used as a header was Richard Nixon; even forty-odd years after his administration, he's still trotted out as the last person in the developed world to mislead anyone about anything.

I'm not saying it's not worth conducting research into behavioural traits, but should the findings of one group of 'scientists' extrapolated from a mere 192 business students really merit front page treatment in a so-called 'serious' daily? Just a couple of years ago, an admittedly privately-funded item of scientific research in the UK came to the conclusion that a man's enthusiasm for female breasts was - no, seriously - fundamentally sexual in nature. What???? Men find tits attractive? How much did this piece of research cost? I know they were trying to find out if there was maybe an infant-mother angle to explore, but really. Honestly. In the end, who cares? We love tits, it's what we do. Everything else in our life is padding until we can see some more. Is it important where the impulse comes from? OK, that's way too much information about me, but which straight man is any different? Only broad-faced business students would dare disagree with that.

The most upsetting aspect to all this is the fact that our news sources are under such incredible pressure to keep us poor, sad punters supplied with new news items twenty-four hours a day that they are required to publish this kind of drivel and hope they keep their reputation in the process. Little matter the content or erudition, the important thing is to line up a new series of words under the cloak of serious journalism. In the absence of informative, thought-provoking articles we are obliged to continue rating the titles we know, elevating their buffed-up news-wire offerings to the status of true information.

Read it.

Monday, 4 July 2011

I told you so. And I'm not even a journalist.

Back on May 20th I published a post called 'Dominique Strauss-Kahn IV and Serial Misinformation', the contents of which turned out to be remarkably prescient in the light of the last 48 hours or so. I made those comments based on a hunch, that something was just not quite right with the story, aided by having just read a rather fascinating and well-researched book, Flat Earth News. I'm not even a dot a on the journalistic or political landscape, but was still able to unearth a point which soon proved to be contentious, so what are our quality journalists doing out there? Would you mind being a little more honest? And can we play too, please?

Slim-Fast Diet Blog

I would dearly love to know how the 'Slim Fast Diet Blog' became one of my traffic sources. Has there ever been anything I've written which may suggest you'd be better off not eating a couple of Big Macs at 9am or snacking on a dead sheep at three in the afternoon? Anyhow, if you want to lose weight without spending a cent/centime/penny/kopek on any fads or gimmicks, you've come to the right place. Here's how to do it:

1)    Don't eat crap. Fast food is a no-no. Fresh fruit and veg, meat a couple of times a week, fish another couple of times. Other than that, just eat stuff that grows out of the ground.

2)    Don't eat between meals. You should have breakfast, lunch, a bit of tea and dinner. Don't overdo this last one; you probably won't burn the calories unless you're a nightclubber, and even then, you're likely to consume a lot of calories either through alcohol or late-night 'snacks'.

3)    Move your body. Walk when you can, take your bike the rest of the time. This isn't rocket science; we've just invented a thousand ways to be inert and the wheel has turned full circle: the luxury of convenience and inactivity has made repulsive, obese farts out of millions of people all over the world. Reverse the process: throw away the X-Box, the Play Station and anything else which requires the exclusive use of thumbs. Get up off your arses and eat and move the way nature intended you to. Seriously, there is no secret and even less any reason for anyone to spend thousands on the latest, most efficient, scientifically-proven diet. Look at people in central Africa: ripped bodies and amazing teeth. I rest my case.

Never seen the inside of a Burger King in his life.

Franz Liszt 1811 - 1886

Most of you won't know who Franz Liszt was, much less give a s*** that this year is the 200th anniversary of his birth. Still, Bayreuth Town Council cares, and not just because he was a famous composer who revolutionised, amongst many other things,  not only piano literature but also how we listen to it in public. That is a post all of its own and one to which I'll get around e'er long. No, Bayreuth and Liszt go back a long way: one of his daughters, Cosima, was married to the town's meal ticket, Richard Wagner and he also died here, just over the road from Wahnfried, Wagner's house, in a little flat which is now a museum.

This year, Bayreuth is putting out the Liszt flags: there are events and recitals at Steingräber & Söhne, Bayreuth's own piano factory and one of very few independent makes left anywhere, lectures in town and - this is my favourite - a bus (number 310, if you're interested), sporting an enormous photograph of the great man with his name and an internet address - (I think) - where you can find out more about the tributes in his honour. For my part, I find it refreshing that a public body has chosen to spend some of its money in this way, but Germany really does still consider classical music important and not just a refuge of the bourgeoisie, like in France. If anyone ever sees a bus in an English-speaking country plastered with either images of Elgar, Aaron Copland or Percy Grainger instead of adverts for Sex and the City, The X-Factor or Neighbours, then do let me know, but I, for one, will not be holding my breath.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Slow Sunday II

It's been a few days since I've posted, the reason being a go-slow by my home internet access as well as, er, pretty much nothing happening. Both of those elements in equal parts, by the way. This town is certainly THE place to relax in Western Europe, even more so now we have no rehearsals on Sundays. The sky is heavy and overcast, it's about 12°c, so more or less like Toulouse in January, only this is northern Bavaria in July.

So, relax shmelax, I've got Verdi and Puccini to learn for next season, hence my sitting here in Wagner's original rehearsal studio (now a VIP lounge once the festival gets under way), poised at a desk and Steingräber piano, taking advantage of the house wi-fi connection and the fact I am, apart from the lady at the stage door, the only person in the building. Once I've finished tapping out this ill-conceived post containing nothing but a random stream of liquid bollocks I'll turn my attention to one of those Italian masters and hope that Mrs. F will see I'm online and contact me via Skype. Too much time on my hands at the moment, and no mistake.

Take it easy, it's Sunday.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Ricky Gervais on how not to contract a certain disease. Unbelievable.

Bear with me, please...

I know I bang on about this, but I'm here, typing this post, listening to a 24/7 stand-up comedy channel on iTunes having just signed off Skype with the family back in France. I realise most of you have been doing this for years but I've just discovered it and it's absolutely life-changing. Being apart from the loved ones is not a fraction as painful as it once was and it's nice to have a little more variety in my listening choices than just Bayerischer Rundfunk, excellent though it is. Just to put this in perspective, this comes from someone who still marvels at the miracle of the landline telephone and the fact that the vast majority of homes in the developed world have running water. I hope I never lose this ability to gape, open-mouthed at things that teenage entitlement junkies regard as old hat. Unlike many, I will never cease to find joy and amazement in what so many others consider basic everyday requirements. And this from someone who has had computers since 1997 and had a mobile phone in 1995, so it's not like I was unaware of the concept, just a bit slow keeping up to date with it, that's all.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


I'm sitting here in my kitchen in Bayreuth, listening to Radio 4 on iTunes Radio and waiting for my freshly-made cup of PG Tips has brewed sufficiently to be acceptable to a card-carrying Englishman like myself. There's a pot of Marmite in the larder and a few jars of Patak products in the fridge: mango chutney, korma curry paste and mixed pickle. To all intents and purposes I'm one of those nightmare British expats on the Costa Brava who is basically just looking for Luton with a bit more sun and cheaper beer, but the reality is that this parochialism is very recent and only indulged in because it's possible: computers can now locate you wherever you want and provide you with anything in any language and the Britfood came from an Asian supermarket in the centre of town, here. When I first moved to Germany in 1987, none of this was possible (at least not in Koblenz) and the irony of the matter is that the increased 'internationalisation' of just about everything we see around us merely serves to push people further back into their narrow-minded cells. Seems to be a contradiction, doesn't it? But it's not. Here's why:

Using Koblenz, 1987, as an example: if you arrived from abroad, you would have needed at least a smattering of German in order to get the basic legal residential requirements done: registering yourself and, if applicable, your family, finding out where the relevant government offices were located etc. Then you would have needed to register yourself for tax purposes with the local finance offices, inform the police where you're living etc. Not one of these services was available in English, so my second day in Germany was spent wandering around town with a phrase book and a pile of official papers (contracts etc) from the local theatre, my employer. After a few hours I'd got everything done, so I went home and continued studying the language. This being 1987, there was no satellite TV where I was living and all radio stations were - naturally - German. The message was clear: learn the language or go under. Now it seems that none of that is necessary and the eternal celebration of one's origins merely pushes new arrivals further back into their caves. You have satellite TV as standard, so you need never learn that pesky new language, cuisine has become so international that you can enjoy all of your own delicacies from home without ever having to buy what the locals eat. Chances are there's also a thriving, convenient expat community which will jovially sound the death knell for any remaining urge you may have entertained to actually mingle with the natives. Many people even survive in France without learning the language, and that's quite some achievement.

Being honest, I like having a little piece of England where I live, but I say that from the standpoint of someone who speaks five languages and has lived and paid tax in seven or eight different countries, only two of which were English-speaking. The books on my bedside table are in German and Spanish, the magazine in the loo, French. Here in Germany, I prefer coffee in the morning and my beverage of choice is Weissbier. Think global, drink local.

Good place to spend a summer.

This is where I've been coming every summer since 2004. Great place to work, great music, great institution. Long may it reign:

Let's hear it for Richard Wagner.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The Economist. Excellent magazine, dreadfully inefficient service.

Until a few days ago I was a subscriber to that superb weekly, The Economist. Now I'm not. Here's the story...

I signed up in February and thoroughly enjoyed reading practically every word. I say 'practically' as there is so much information that you'd need to forgo sleep for five nights in order to cover it all before the next edition rolls up on Saturday morning. Being a passionate amateur scribe I decided to order their Style Guide from their online store. This book offered tips and guidelines on how to achieve something approaching the house style. It was available on its own or as one of a trio of books, the other two being the Numbers Guide, a sort of basic economics textbook, and the Pocket World in Figures, which contained profiles of all the world's major countries, including GNP, birth rate, average annual household income etc. You get the idea. I decided to order the book trio and, just as advertised, the little parcel pitched up three weeks later and contained the pocket guide and two copies of the Numbers Guide. Yup, the Style Guide was nowhere to be seen.

I got on to The Economist immediately, who requested I return the rogue copy of the Numbers Guide, upon receipt of which they would then send me a copy of the Style Guide. To cut an amazingly long story very short, they never managed to send me what I'd ordered and paid for, instead constantly sending me mails expressing their sympathy and proffering their apologies for this inconvenience. Come June, a full five months after initially asking them to send me the bloody book, my patience ran out. I asked them to either send a copy immediately to the address where I am currently working or to terminate my subscription, reimbursing almost €100 of unused capacity.Well, blow me down with a feather, they had that money transferred to me within 48 hours, regretting that I had chosen to sign off from their publication. I replied that I regretted it too, but drew the line at being taken for a fool for months on end, adding I would gleefully re-subscribe when their Customer Service Department improved beyond being a courteous reply service and actually took care of its paying clients. I also expressed surprise that they would clearly rather jettison a paying customer than actually send him the product he'd ordered and paid for. I'll phone them soon just to find out what exactly the deal was as it has left more than a nasty taste in my mouth. In the five contentious months I corresponded with three people in the CSD, none of whom seemed to have any connection with the other two. It was like banging your head against a brick wall, made worse by the fact they always sent very concerned and responsible-sounding stereotypical responses.

It shouldn't really come as a surprise. Flat Earth News primed me on the cost-cutting that has been going on these last thirty years in the press and it seems that those pesky, customer service types who are bad for profits are the first people to be cut, their jobs reduced to a few stereotypical e-mail responses and the hope that the aggrieved customer will eventually just go off and crawl under a stone, his spirit broken to the point where he can't even bring himself to bad-mouth the company. Not me, sorry; I'm not going to rest until I get a satisfactory response to my questions. Wish me luck; I may need it.

Interesting concept.

The library in this lovely little town has moved and expanded. It's now a spacious, user-friendly and courteous institution which is a joy to visit. They also have a café on the second floor with a wonderful roof terrace, yet the café itself has a difference...

The café itself is staffed by a number of people who all have one thing in common: they are slightly handicapped. One has Downs Syndrome, one appears just slow and another seems to suffer from a form of Asperger's Syndrome, yet all muck in and make the place work. My espresso macchiato was excellent, served with a little chocolate and accompanied by a glass of water. The sun beat down on my parasol and I was in heaven: 34° centigrade and a beautiful coffee on a stunning roof terrace. When the Germans do something, they do it well. Ideally, I'd like to spend every day in the library, but work, rather unfairly in my opinion, forbids! Now it's time for a cup of tea on my own terrace, a few pages of my current book then back to work for 6pm, but not before hanging my washing out to dry...

Monday, 27 June 2011


It may not be the fastest connection on the most up-to-date computer in the world, but for me, it's discovering a new way of living. I'll explain: Germany has a chain of coffee merchants called Tchibo. Apart from caffeine-based beverages they also sell good quality boots, panties, kitchen appliances, computers etc. In short, a cross-section of many things we believe we need on a day-to-day basis. Having learned from Deutsche Telekom that their USB-stick internet connection costs €5 a day, I decided to follow a colleague's advice and see if Tchibo had anything like that. Answer? Oh yes, they did: the stick was €29,90, and for that you get a month's free surfing, then every subsequent month with unlimited access is €19,95. It seemed too good to be true, but I tried it, anyway. After phoning up to activate the SIM-card I was expecting to have to wait another 48 hours before anything worked, but, lo and behold, it was ready for service when I got in, tonight. So, this post comes to you courtesy of an extremely good chain of coffee peddlers based on the eastern bank of the mighty Rhine river. I'm sure this kind of revelation is old hat to many of you, but, for me, it's life-changing. Can't wait to Skype with the family tomorrow morning without having to cart my stuff into work and risk being overheard. We get more private the older we get. Don't blame us, it's the way life is.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Slow Sunday

Here, in our Northern Bavarian cultural residence, we are no longer allowed to rehearse on Sundays. That in itself is not a bad thing, but overlooks the fact that if you work six days out of seven it might actually be useful to have a free day when you can get boring, everyday stuff done, like shopping, washing and the like. OK, you can wash on Sundays, but pretty much everything else is a no-no: museums and swimming pools are closed, shops barricaded up (well, they're not, as there's no vandalism here in Bayreuth, but you get the point). It was even more extreme when I moved to Koblenz in 1987: the weekend curfew began at 12 noon on Saturday (except for the so-called 'Long Saturday', once a month, when the shops stayed open until - wait for it - 2pm!) and encouraged hibernation until 9am, Monday morning. The idea is to encourage family life, and that is incontestably a good thing. The strange thing is that Germans have the smallest families in Europe, if they indeed have families at all; their birth rate is, along with Austria and Spain, the lowest in the European Union. Just had a nice Skype session with Mrs. Fingers. The Fingernails are both at friends' places this weekend, so my dear spouse is feeling particularly lonely at the moment.

This post is coming to you courtesy of a TMT Hotspot in the theatre. I'm completely alone in these hallowed Wagnerian halls; in fact, I don't even know whether or not I'm allowed to be in this particular part of the theatre campus, having reverse-opened a fire door to get here. I just hope no-one from security has seen it open and locked it again, then I really will have a solitary Sunday.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Jumble Sale

When we lived in Germany you couldn't move for jumble sales, or flea markets (Flohmärkte) as they were called: they were to be found in every town village, neighbourhood, whatever at least twice a month. The French have 'attic clearances' (vide greniers) but you really have to be alert to see where they are, for commonplace they are not. Anyhow, there was one organised in the square just downstairs from our flat so Mrs. Fingers put her name down for a pitch and went up to our little studio to retrieve all the things we no longer need, use or value and which weren't broken. You hand over €10 to the organising committee, set out your stand, settle back in our folding chair and pour yourself a cuppa from your thermos, providing no potential customer insists on wasting your time by actually wanting to buy something. This is France, after all. The weather was fantastic and most of the other parents in our school circle either had stalls or came by, generously buying the odd thing they'll never need.

We ended up selling about 80% of our wares, no mean feat considering the competition. It's a very good area, so it was a bit like going to the Oxfam shop in Highgate Village to pick up an Armani suit for £20, sort of a thing. I let a few things go very cheaply just to get rid of them. There's no point dragging them back to the flat for the sake of a euro or two. I'll post a few pictures just as soon as the upload function chooses to work, again.

Miracle of miracles, it works.

There's another in September. Come on by.

Northern Bavaria

The funny thing about where I spend every summer is that you can have all kinds of weather every day. Today, for example, it was sweltering until about 2pm, when it turned chilly. Each day can bring you sunshine, hail, sleet, rain, sunstroke, famine and drought in equal quantities, a formula which is then repeated practically every day the entire summer. Now, looking out of the window, I can see that it will rain cats and dogs within five minutes. Curioser and curioser. Work starts tomorrow morning, so tonight will be all about getting ready. And having some beer.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Blagnac Airport, Toulouse

So we're off again. I'm starting to feel like a real musician, again: spending more time in airports than at home but it's not the same without Mrs. F and the Fingernails. We'll see each other in England in late July.

Getting through security was typical: only four machines staffed out of a possible eight this morning, resulting in a fifteen-minute wait just to be frisked by a bored minimum-wager. God knows what they do when there's a lot of traffic. The loos are a bit cleaner than they were when I left for Santiago a few weeks ago but you never quite get a away from the feeling that any service provided is done grudgingly at best.

Tonight is the famous, Jack Lang-initiated Fête de la Musique, an impro jamboree to celebrate the first day of summer. Bands set themselves up on street corners, solo artists stand in shop doorways etc etc. Anyone can go into the street and make music. It's a nice idea and there are some good acts, but most is just pure shite. Getting out of the country this morning is like grabbing the landing bars of the last helicopter out of Saigon.

Better sign off before my free wi-fi runs out. More soon from Germanland.