Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Cajun spices

January 16th, 2012

I’d breakfasted in a small cafe in Mamou. As much intrigued by the mish-mash of French and English on the radio in the background as the server’s name. Boniquica. I’d had to ask her how to spell it. Her sister-in-law’s similarly obscure but I forgot it almost as quickly as I’d been told it. She was from out of State. Struggling to conceive what might draw her to Louisiana, and Mamou at that.

Pondering the map. French influence – Ville Platte, Plaucheville – with a teasing German presence. Hamburg. Mostly unkempt. Suburbs often little more than shanty towns. Tired single storey wooden shacks, paint blistered by the summer sun. Children’s toys scattered amongst the junk outside. Old cars. Often hard to distinguished the abandoned from those still struggling along. Just bright white water towers bearing the town’s name offering the merest glimmer of civic pride.

Past the occasional stack of crawfish pots besides the rice fields. Barely more than subsistence farming. Into Bunkie and another cafe. Bright and friendly affair belonging to Kelly, Tommy and their daughter Miranda. Names I could spell. Chicken salad with some complimentary funnel cake fries. Resembled pancakes rolled up like cigarillos, deep fried and dusted with icing sugar. They too were from out of State. Florida. Lots of English friends.

The road out of town mostly shattered tarmac. Crazed. Uncomfortable. Made more so by a driver who steadfastly refused to pass, despite ample opportunity to do so. Instead the occasional burst of her horn. I watched the queue of cars grow, knowing they’d blame me for the hold-up. But to pull over would plainly encourage her to expect the same in the future, cementing her inadequacies. And that I couldn’t do. Firm believer that you should never reward stupidity. Goes against Darwin’s concept of natural selection.

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Yukon Man

October 2nd, 2011

We’d needed a rest day, however impromptu. Chance to dry out wet tents and damp kit. And have a shave. My feeble attempts at growing a beard were no more. Actually, it resembled little more than a few days stubble, but was still uncomfortable to remove with a razor. I’m sure it would have blossomed, but I’d decided the Yukon look probably wasn’t quite me. It had to go.

WhiteRiver (6)

In the past there’d been strict rules for this sort of thing. No beards. And always making a point of never dating a woman with one. Just like poor lip-synching, I find it a bit off-putting. Under-arm hair I can live with. Quite like the French.

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We want… a creperie

September 30th, 2011

"Deux crepes chocolat sil vous plait" I’d said in quite appalling school boy French. Later adding, as Mike and I departed, "Les crepes. Tres bien!". However surprised he might have been with my grasp of foreign languages, that’d probably been overshadowed by our plain amazement at finding a genuine French crêperie in the midst of Canada’s Yukon Province. Makes Alaska look crowded.

We’d mistakenly assumed the friendly couple running it were French Canadians. But no, there were from France. Quite what had inspired them to wake up one day and announce "We want… a crêperie" – in the remote Yukon, at least twenty miles or so from the nearest house – had alluded us. My conversational French not quite up to this. And jolly nice crepes they were.

[With especial thanks to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" for inspiring this post’s title – the piece where the Knights that say "Ni" demand a shrubbery..]

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Provocative mutterings

May 22nd, 2011

He despised everyone. Or so it seemed. But especially the French. And the Germans. Both of which there were quite a few at the campsite. If he disliked the English he didn’t say. Far too cowardly for that. Instead, a steady stream of provocative mutterings. Confident in the knowledge that he’d not be challenged by those he lamented.

Deuusi had been staying at the site for some weeks. Fruit picking locally. But soon to return to the Paris suburbs. One week left. And then the park’s cleaner cum gardener consigned to history. Where he belonged. She smiled.

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Watching the Westerners

November 17th, 2010

True. I’ve met a few Westerners in Western China. More travellers than tourists, drawn to the oasis towns of Turpan and Dunhuang. But Xi’an is different. Lots more of them. Hardly surprising, the Terracotta Army close by, drawing visitors in. Intriguing to watch.

It starts with breakfast. Guests invited to place their trays on a trolley when they’ve finished. I do so because that’s what the sign says. And I’m English. It’s what I do best. The Germans, a couple of retired couples, their smart casuals and scarfs an immediate giveaway, do the same. I’d expect nothing less.

A solitary French couple leave the remnants of breakfast behind for others to clear away. I’d sought to engage them in conversation, explaining “Je parle peu le Francais“. A young Spanish couple keep themselves to themselves. Something to do with Franco.

Later I meet Jesse, Clive and another French couple on a tour to the Terracotta Army. More travellers than tourists. Sense of adventure. There’s mention of Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonalds. General agreement that there’s nothing wrong with the odd spot of Western familiarity. Think we all admitted to sneaking into one of the chains, or had plans to do so before leaving Xi’an.

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Faux pas

October 1st, 2010

School boy error. Silent ’h’. Of course. First Westerner I’d seen in a while and I couldn’t even get his name right. Henri was French. My embarrassment was compounded by having already mentioned I’d studied his native tongue at school. So absolutely no excuse for my faux pas.

He was an environmental consultant, spending a few days in the city of Hami. Visiting mines in the region. A fluent Chinese speaker, having lived in the country for a decade, he was curious as to how I got by linguistically. Did I have to resort to English? I explained not, instead relying on a few simple words, and being painstakingly polite.

Inexplicably, especially given my earlier blunder, I mentioned that it was something of a rarity to encounter the French. I’d stopped short of actually saying "..other than in France", but the implication was probably there. Henri suggested it was because they weren’t an adventurous people. Assured him that wasn’t case. Mentioned the two French cyclists I’d met back in Kazakhstan.

He’d had to head off to meet up with colleagues, leaving me to ponder a stronger cup of coffee. Not a great start to the day. Suppose I could put it down to the remnants of the cold I’d been battling with. In the desert. Mental note. If we met again, remember to remind him of those great swathes of French colonies in South East Asia, West Africa and South America. Adventurous stuff. But probably best not to mention Algeria…

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Tour du Monde

July 5th, 2010

They were a rarity in Central Asia in two senses. Long distance cyclists. And French. We’d met whilst queuing for visas at the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan. And their situation made my present tussles attempting to enter China appear to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

Their Kazakhstan visas would expire in two days, and, contrary to the advice they’d been given, could not, as they’d now discovered, be extended. And they’d no visa for any of the neighbouring countries. All their hopes lay on securing entry to China, and in just a couple of days.

To be fair, seemed they’d been mis-advised by the Consulate when they’d been given their Kazakhstan visa. I’d not been surprised by this, as I’d found contradictory information about Kazakh immigration and visa rules on official websites. An understandable mistake.

Like most languages, other than English and a smattering of Welsh, my French was never great and hasn’t improved. But found I could make some sense of their website – www.freresquiroulent.fr – appeared they too were on an around-the-world trip, albeit skipping Australia and Africa. Assuming they don’t get detained or deported in Kazakhstan first.

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