what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

words are important

Great frustration – my windows system won’t open and I have lost the recent material I hadn’t saved on hard disc. Fortunately I noticed some warning signals and had copied individually most of the hundreds of websites I have. And, equally fortunately, we have a spare notebook.
Interesting discussion triggered off by "transparency" - another bit of technical jargon which serves wider political purposes which the foreward to Tony Judt's Reappraisals touches on namely the amnesia which overwhelms current society.
The Compassionate Mind (which I'm struggling through)suggests that, as individuals at any rate, we don't live enough in the present. But, arguably, as a society we live too much in the present and don't try to lean the lessons of the past. "Transparency" covers the issues once covered by participation (1960s); consultation (1970s) and open government (1990s). Why do we need a new word? Partly to pretend that we've just discovered a new issue; to cover up the fact that previous efforts failed; and to make sure that the new efforts will also run into the sand. Here is an example of collusion between elite interests and those of the academic scribblers and technocrats whose specialisations are a form of product differentiation to secure their incomes.

Friday, June 25, 2010

appreciative inquiry

The World Bank is actually beginning to produce readable documents! Some time ago, they started a newssheet called People, Spaces, Deliberation which is sent out bi-weekly. It aims to explore the link between public opinion and governance issues – and its publications look in detail at the communications process. Most often it is outsider practitioners who contribute. Today’s issue has a piece on appreciative inquiry on which I had downloaded recently a couple of google books – but to which I had not paid proper attention. I found a good short summary of the AI approach in this paper -
I hadn’t appreciated that it rejects the “problem-orientation” approach – choosing to identify and work on the positives of an organisation. This took me back to discussions we had in the late 1970s when those of who developed Strathclyde Regions’s deprivation strategy anguished that our selection of areas of multiple deprivation could compound the negative forces at work.
Google scholar actually gave me a 300 page book Locating the energy for change – an introduction to appreciative inquiry; Charles Elliott (1999). Incidentally you can sign on to the WB newssheet by writing to commgap@worldbank.org

I've chosen this photo of one of our sessions in 2006 in Atbashi, north Kyrgyzstan - partly as a homage to those who are suffering in that country at the moment and partly as an illustration of the process of dialogue and change.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

weather for reading

gloomy mist all around the house at my 1,300 metre level. At 07.00 the light is so poor that I need the lamp to read Andrew Robert's The Story of war - a new history of the second world war. I'm also dipping into one of the early Le Carre novels - and staring Tony Judt's Reappraisals. An earlier blog referred to historian Judt's latest book (Ill fares the Land). This one is a collection of the trenchant essays he has written on various European figures such as Albert Camus, Hannah Arendt, Eric Hobsbawm, Kennedy, Kissinger, Arthur Koestler and Edward Said. His theme is the role of ideas - and our forgetfulness....A wonderful writer - and his Post-war Europe remains not only one of the few treatments of this subject which includes central europe (Garton Ash is the only other historian who has done central europe justice) but the most eloquent and passionate.
So far this morning, the find has been a prolific EU Think Tank which focusses on the neglected field of the EU's democracy programme. Ive downloaded interesting papers on its strategy in Central Asia, for exampe.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

obituaries, catalogues and stocktaking

Its a sign of my advancing years that every day seems to bring sad news of the death of a writer who has been significant for me. Yesterday brought news of Norman McCrae's demise. He had long been associated with The Economist journal - and wrote prescient essays on debureaucratisation and the end of communism in the early/mid 1980s - see here for a good obituary. The weather continues damp and overcast - a good excuse for sitting at the desk with the excellent Romanian classic music channel in the background and catching up with my internet. Trying to do a quick-save of the hundred of favourite website and blogs as recommended on yahoo answers gives me less than half the sites I have - so I decide to go through each and save manually. Its a ueful stocktaking - particuarly of the blogs.
Trying to track down some Slovak painters of the mid 20th century made me realise what a good buy the Bulgarian painters of that period are. I see that I missed a Victoria auction at Sofia's Serdica Hotel on 1 June (see their site in the list of my favourites) and must try to get down to the next one.

The picture is one of the sketches I bought in Sofia of Marco Behar's.
Found yesterday a rare example of commentary (in English) on Bulgarian painting -
And have just ordered from Amazon (amongst other delights such as a collection of Updike essays) the 4th volume (400 pages) of an early 20th century history of European painting (by country) by one Richard Muther.
I showed the French artist the 2 volumes (covering the letter P) I have of the Romanian national gallery's Catalogue - he was fascinated and asked if my job involved painting! I have the Belgian and Bulgarian Catalogues. They are a delightful thing to collect!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Murder in the mediterranean and Osh

With the travel and visits in the past 2 months, and only fleeting access to the internet, I have not been able to make any comments about what’s happening in the world – particularly in the waters off Gaza and in southern Kyrgyzstan. On the murders of Turk humanitarians by SAS people, all I can say in response to the pathetic rationalisation of the murderers is how do the Israelis expect people to behave when they launch an attack on a defenceless ship? A few days later I read of how the Nazis had treated the residents of a village whose men-folk had dared defend themselves against their attack in the early 1940s. They massacred the women and children – just like the Israelis. How quickly do the victims become the perpetrators!
We all knew in Bishkek in 2005 just how many guns there were in the Osh area – but horrifying how quickly they have been used to institute ethnic killings on a Yugoslav scale. And Putin’s Russia just stands by and watches – as they did on the edge of Warsaw in 1945. When will we ever learn? For the human aspects of the situation there read this Spiegel piece-

And I was stunned to learn of the death of Fred Halliday who wrote so eloquently about the middle east.Open Democracy has a tribute which gives a good sense of what we have lost see -

through Romania

People complain about the Romanian road system - and I used to be defensive since I do know some good parts. But, as I tried - for he first time for a deacde- to descend from the North West to my house in the carpathians (near Brasov) I realised what they meant.
Monday dawned misty – I wanted to avoid the Monday morning traffic through Cluj and took a detour which promised Turda (definitely the ugliest town!) and contemplated writing a complaint to the Prefect as I tried to avoid being forced off the appalling and winding forest mountain road by great trucks. Eventually, however, I found myself bypassing Cluj and on a spectacular new motorway which took me to Turda over the mountains. The complicated access system, however, seemed typically Romanian.
I assumed that the Sibiu-Brasov section is not yet complete and therefore chose to go via Tirgu Mures – which required me to go through Turda and the very long village which borders it. Very frustrating. But then the road to Sighosoara was very scenic –although a detour almost broke my suspension!
Stopped at the various fortified churches I encountered – all were locked with no indication of who held the keys (at Busteni I was told the house which had them but it too was locked!). And why don’t they put a notice on the door indicating who has the keys?
Eventually I arrived home at 15.30. They too had suffered from torential rain - and therefore no question of my being able to use the muddy track at the bottom of my garden to ease the emptying of my overloaded car. I made at least 5 journeys up the hill before calling it a day - and talked with the French artist who had arrived just behind me. Marcel Moulin had used the Hachard Guide (like others) to locate the guesthouse - and had travelled alone from his place near Mont St Michel in Normandy.
It was lovely to be back in my house - Maritsa fed me with one of her soups and I prepared at home pork and the rice I had bought in France. Two amazon packages were waitingfor me. After some internet posts to bed

Slovakia to Romania

Left Moymirovce just after 06.00 on Sunday and was soon coasting along what must be one of the most wonderful motorways in Europe. Made a mistake, however, in deciding to try the middle route East (not, that is, the one which goes via Poprad to the Tatras and not the one which skirts the border with Hungary) – since a car rally forced me into detour with an execrable mountain road. Dagmar had recommended the town her father had been a priest in – Betlar – since it boasts Slovakia’s best Kastiel. It is clearly very popular. From there, the best connection to Miskolc pointed me backwards. The pic is of Lupcianski Hrad (thanks to Miroslav Blaho)
At the border I had an argument about the vignette which is compulsory – and almost double the price of the Slovak one. In fact it is a real cheat since the road system had hardly changed in a deacde for the section I was travelling. Hungary was never my favourite country and I crawled through it as what seemed a snail’s pace - already missing the Slovak countryside and friendship.
I made my entry to Romania at my old crossing point of Satu Mare – and started to look for some accommodation. I thought Zalau (one of the ugliest towns) might offer something but none which offered the security for the car I needed with its contents on the back seat so visible – let alone the bike on top. At last, at 20.30, on the downward section of the steep hill which leads to Cluj-Napolca I found what I needed – although the accommodation was a bit communist (no hot water and a leaking shower system). I had missed Slovakia’s second match – played in the afternoon – which they lost 3-0 and watched on the floor another forgettable one on the tiny TV set.

Monday, June 21, 2010

time in Nitra

Friday was wet again – but only after I had cycled to and from the morning swim. Thunder rumbled in the distance all the gloomy afternoon. Eastern Slovakia was badly hit with floods in recent weeks.
Still looking for decent art books on Slovak painters. Bought Dagmar, my hostess, two things her well-endowed house seems short of - 6 good-sized wine glasses and an apron! And browsed in a large book-store. Reading Zeldin’s The French. The Nitra wines are disappointing – Mojmirovce ones are vastly superior but not available in shops.
Thursday I visited Tesco’s in Nitra and picked up a selection of Nitra wines to taste and hopefully find some I could take back in bulk. Also a pair of comfortable German shoes; a tent (in a sale for 20 euros) and a pillow (ditto for 5 euros). It was a warm and sunny day – so I strolled the back street where I used to have a bank account and had left some cash – only to find that a new bank was in its place. Nothing daunted, I went in with my passport and was told that customers of the previous bank were customers of the new one. After some difficulty, my file was duly produced and a figure of several thousand euros duly appeared on the screen. I was stupid enough to ask whether this was DM or euro (since my account in 1996 had been in German marks). I could barely believe my luck as the money was counted out in euros! I shared some of my good fortune with Tatiana and Edit – who certainly need a break. Cooked the meal for Edit and family who had been working hard on their house – mildly marinated pork and basmati rice – with my exotic side dishes of banana and yoghourt and orange and onion.
In evening met up with Stefan – whose father-in-law has taken a bad tumble.

idyll in Mojmirovce

Swimming at 07.00 in the morning – and cycling around the village is a great luxury. I realised that, starting from the stay in Wezembeek-Oppem, this journey has become quite nostalgic. Time spent in WO and in Mojmiriovce was always quality time – both places treasures in their different ways. Both offer quality living – but the first as an artefact of the 20th century with the emphasis on private wealth; the second is a real society very much centred on the Kastiel and the wider cooperative. Tuesday was the day Slovakia played its first ever game in World Cup Finals – against New Zealand – and, an hour before kick-off, a large TV screen was duly assembled in the Kastiel restaurant as we ate our lunch. Then a reunion with Edith, Tatiana and Theresa who had been so kind to us in 1996 when we rented the house from them. They have fallen on dark times in the last few years – and it was moving to see them all in such good spirits. They have been homeless for the past month or so – and with typical generosity Stefan has put them up at the Kastiel as they manage the Herculean task of making a home from the shell they have bought in the village.
At 14.00 the match started and within hopes were raised when Slovakia scored a goal. I had to leave for a haircut (afternoons only – and only 2 euros!) and my return seemed to bring bad luck as New Zealand equalised in the dying seconds of the match. The Kastiel is so successful that I was unable to prong my stay there (they have 100 beds) and the girls too had to leave – but fixed us all up at a friend’s who has a very large modern house in the village.
Wednesday I had promised to take Edith to the Nitra Hospital for her check-up - but the arrival of missing workmen called her back while we were en route. Later we resumed the journey – by which time steady rain had set in. I wanted to see the antiquarian shops – and duly bought Stefan a Czech ceramic tea set and entertained Edith and Tatiana to lunch with the rain drumming overhead. I had left Stefan with my material on Bulgarian and Belgian art – and presented him with the tea set.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Flags and what they say about Belgian and German nationhood

I had remarked to Marie Claire that the small number of Belgian flags on the houses seemed a bad sign for the outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary vote in Belgium. And this was underscored by the plethora of German flags hanging out of German cars as I drove through Germany on Sunday – the day the German football team starts its attempt in South Africa at World Cup glory.
I left Brussels at 05.00 and decided to try a new route – via Trier and Heilbronn rather than Aachen, Bonn and Frankfurt. It worked – although I significantly made a false start through failing to remember that Luik is the Flemish name for Lieges and is the only designation given on the aurotoute to the town from north Brussels for 40kms or so until you hit Brabant county.
The Eiffel countryside is very pretty – and the German church service on the radio was an added pleasure on the morning drive.
Hit the Danube just after 14.00 and made a detour to Passau to try to find a village Gasthaus to stay in. Wolf an der Danau offered a lot of them but seemed too small. Standing was too busy! Returned to the motorway (without tolls!) and came off again at Deggendorf – on the Danube – a very charming small town where I put up at the StadtHotel – www.stadthotel-deggendorf.de – for 35 euros (inc breakfast).
A large TV screen had been mounted in the town square to allow people to watch the German match later in the evening – and there was a real festive feel in the air. A fantastic Asparagus soup, cordon bleu and Gruner Weltliner (Ried Sandgrube) – and quality service – in the courtyard of der Graue Hase rounded off a good day. Although I did join the German crowd in the bar opposite the hotel to see the German team score 2 gaols. I felt, however, a bit self-conscious about the academic way I reacted in such a gathering to the goals and quietly slipped away at half-time.

As anticipated, the Belgian vote (its compulsory there) produced another deadlock – with Flanders voting for independence and Wallony continuing to support the kingdom of Belgium. Support for the independence option is less than 25% - but, on that argument, we would never have seen a Scottish Parliament. Amazingly the Belgian Constitution has no provision for referenda. Admittedly the Czech-Slovak break-up took place without a referendum. And, when a country is divided into 2 equal parts, a referendum should technically be held in both parts and require a majority in both.

Serendipitidy finds my best bookshop

Friday morning sat in street cafe in central Brussels and watched the world go by – in all shapes, forms and colours. Quite amazing – if only I could shoot my camera unseen to catch the severe black burka, for example, with a colourful and sexy midriff dress; or the young woman in a fluffy white dress whose arms were covered with tattos!
I wandered through the old square as a tourist – and then ventured up the hill toward Gare Centrale to check the old bookshops I used to frequent there 25 years ago. What I discovered was my Aladdin’s Cave – an old house stretching to five floors and groaning with books and pamphlets. Surely the greatest bookshop ever for me! POSADA ART BOOKS Rue de la Madeleine 29 – http://www.artbooks@posada.be
I asked about Belgian realist paintings and Constantin Meunier and de Groux in particular – which established my eccentricity since few books exist on this period (mainly latter part of the 19th century). I did lose a bit of credibility, however, by revealing my ignorance that there were in fact 2 de Grouxs. Professional pride and curiousity was, however, aroused – and I had half an hour’s great help from an American customer who knew a great deal about the subject and who managed to track down exactly what I was after – which was a considerable feat as neither of us knew what that was! It turned out to be Arbeit und Alltag - soziale Wirklishkeit in den belgischen Kunst 1830-1914 produced in 1979. Even the toilet was crammed with sketches and posters. In one section I found a 1947 publication (in A4 size) on L'art Moderne Bulgare (which managed to omit mention of Nicolas Tanev (and others) but which was still worth buying for its woodcuts, perspective and rarity (I have seen no other book on the subject). I had paid and was (reluctantly) heading out almost 3 hours after entering (along with a catalogue for a Paris sale later in month of Orientalist stuff) when, typically, I hit gold – a 1904 first edition of a book on Die Belgische Mahlerei – with pictures of many of the relevant painters!

Friday, June 11, 2010

a place in Brussels?

Having praised the Belgian painting schools, it was appropriate that yesterday was a celebration of Belgian architecture. The apartment I was looking at was in the Simonis/Jette area – within sight of the huge Basilique St Coeur and round the corner from a stately park. The turrets of the red brick buildings with a mix of bay windows and balustrades stretch into the distance – with hardly a space between them. Images of elegant carriages (from Flemish painting) contrasted with the reality of burkhas!
The flat was from the 1930s with one of these marvellous see-through arrangements of 3 rooms - ie the 3 rooms opening out on one another and allowing the light from front and back windows to light the place.
Having a flat in Brussels makes more and more sense for me at my advanced age - with all the access it so easily offers to the cultural treasures not only of Belgium (or whatever will follow its presently anticpated demise) but of France, Germany and Netherlands.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Brussels culture

Have now identified some possible apartments here in Brussels and will make a first visit Thursday – in a nice area. Had the idea today of revisiting the Musee des Beaux arts whose presentation of Belgian painters and sculptors so impressed me first more than 20 years ago. And this was no disappointment – although only one of the striking Constantin Meunier sculptures of coal miners and their grieving wives now on display (see above). I had forgotten just how powerful Belgian realistic painters of the late 19th century were - such as Charles Degroux and Eugene Laermans with their studies of poverty (Le banc des pauvres showing the haggard faces at the side of the church service) and the effect of alcohol , Braekeleer (with his interiors) and Leon Frederic (with his studies of various age groups). The museum library was groaning with books on Magritte, James Ensor and Felix Ropf – and also on Breughel and Bosch (one of whose massive triptychs was folded to draw the visitor in for closer study) but not a single book apparently on the realist painters. However I did find one of these large black and white catalogues of the entire museum stock of “modern” painting which gave me what I wanted – 700 pages each with about 10 small versions of the paintings - for 5 euros! I came out of the gallery to typical Brussels gloom and rain. The gallery has an excellent website where you can access most of the paintings. The pictures which now head up the last few blogs are taken from that website.
Before that I had encountered one of these amazing shops devoted to classical music –at least to the (German) Nexos brand which allowed me to get 2 free CDs for 1 bought at 7 euros. This encourages experimentation – and so I was very pleasantly surprised by such revelations as Alfred Hill’s String Quartets vol 1 (a New Zealander who lived from 1869 to 1960); Giovanni Platti’s 6 Flute Sonatas op 3 (1697-1763) and various French Flute composers (Donjon; Genin; Godrad; Gaubert; Gounod) of the late 19th century. The opportunity for such musical and cultural serendipity is perhaps the main criterion in the selection of the base I seek – and does strongly point to this area. I remember with fondness a similar shop in Sofia.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

vision and commerce

Had been worried about black specks floating occasionally in my vision and managed on Friday to get a session with an optician who gave me various tests and pronounced me clear of glaucoma but suffering from further deterioration of sight and therefore now in need of driving glasses. Idea of variable glasses came up – allowing one to have perfect distance and reading vision in one set. And so I duly popped in on Monday to a shop which explained (visually) the 3 levels of such glasses – in such a way, it must be said, that left little option than to ask for the “individualised” rather than the “standard” or “optimum” models. Running my parameters through their computer produced a figure of 360 euros for each lens plus the frame – meaning a bill of 1,000 euros. That explained why each customer had a cubicle to himself – and a seat on which to collapse! Belgium is, therefore, not immune from the crass commercialisation which has overtaken healthcare – and well analysed and critiqued in a book I bought later in the day from Waterstone’s – NHS plc by Allyson Peacock.
I managed to resist the other titles – simply noting them for Amazon purchases which work out at half the Waterstone prices. They included new collections of articles by Garton Ash, John Gray; an intriguing psychology book (The Compassionate Mind by Prof Paul Gilbert); a book on the politics of the present economic mess by the admirable BBC economic commentator Robert Peston; and John Kay’s one on markets; a large historical overview by John Keane, the great writer on democracy; and a delightful one on poetry by the renaissance man Stephen Fry.
Tuesday morning started with the luxury of reading another edition of New York Review of Books which I had also managed to pick up at Waterstone’s – and was very struck with an article by Mark Lilla which helped make sense of American politics - http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/may/27/tea-party-jacobins/
The picture is a de Brakeleer from the Brussels Musee des Beaux Arts

Monday, June 7, 2010

le plaisir de flaner

Saturday to Roddebeek and discovered that one thing has changed in the last decade. The second-hand bookshop at Woluwe St Lambert is no more! It has given way to a hairdresser’s (of all things). But the Saturday market is still on – with its home fare including, par exemple, le pain gouteux aux noix. And one positive development is that of the Ateliers de la Rue Voot – which runs courses on pottery, bike maintenance etc. On Saturday morning, you can bring your bike in and get a 3 hour course on maintenance – for 10 euros!
The next day, the same square was packed tight with its annual Flea market. I needed almost 3 hours to do the various stalls justice. Initially I thought there was nothing – but I emerged with a small marqueterie box reminding me of the exhibition which so impressed Daniela in Josselin (May 18 entry has photo); an old but superbly-crafted heavy wooden duck; a 1930s powder puff (Roma); a small 1928 book with the typeface, paper and wood engravings which I love; and, the piece de la resistance, a large Art Nouveau toilet jug for Sirnea. The book (La Rive d’Asie by an unknown for me - Claude Anet) is actually a good read – being part of a series (Le livre modern illustre) and the woodcuts by one Jacques Engelbach. Between its pages was lodged a programme from a September 1943 concert in Paris. Pity the cover had been spoiled by nondescript wrapping glued to its cover.
The picture is one of Frederic' most famous - in the Brussels Musee des Beaux Arts Royales

Friday, June 4, 2010


Interesting chat with Daryoush when we were in Waterstone’s. He’s been working on Yemen’s educational system and remarked that education was the key to a country’s future. “Yes and no” is my feeling. I remembered the veneration still accorded in 1980s Sweden to the reforming social democrat leader (Branting?)whose educational initiatives clearly made a major impact on that country’s subsequent social and economic development. Daryoush assured me that the transformation of Finland (an Denmark) was based on similar thinking. But notice that these programmes were based on a very distinctive set of values – they were not pushing education the way the technocrats do these days. And a review article of D. Ravich’s Death and life of the great American public school system in the 13 May edition of The New York Review of Books which I had bought in Waterston’s gave a clue. The article makes a distinction I hadn’t come across before – between the community-oriented schools of 19th century and the child-centred schooling which the thinking of Dewey had brought in. Apparently this was a distinction de Tocqueville made during his visit to the US in the 1830s –
In the US the general thrust of education is directed toward political life; in Europe its main aim is to fit men for private life
! Ravich’s latest book is an attack on the choice and measurement approach to schooling now dominant – and, intriguingly, Colin Talbot reveal that David Osborne who wrote the (in)famous Reinventing Government book of 1992 was opposed to choice in education.
He was asked what he thought about choice and markets in secondary education. The Charter Schools movement in the USA – very much similar to the ‘free schools’ policy of our Coalition government – had started just a few years earlier.

As with ‘free schools’, Charter Schools were supposed to be freed of state controls whilst still being funded from the public purse, and, crucially, be non-selective. Parents had the choice to send their kids to a Charter school or ordinary state school, but the Charter Schools were not supposed to select who they took. A perfect example of choice in operation, very much in line with the themes of ‘Reinventing Government’, one might have thought.
David Osborne however thought otherwise. He said that whilst he was in general in favour of choice there were some areas where it was not appropriate for super-ordinate reasons, and compulsory education was one of them. Why? Because, he argued, schools were the crucible of a pluralist society – it was the place where kids learnt to get along with people of different class, ethnic, religious and other backgrounds. Without this crucial formative experience existing divisions in society would be amplified and damaging – he even pointed to Northern Ireland as an example of what happens when you have segregated schooling. And of course the USA already had an all-too recent history of school segregation which the Civil Rights movement had fought in the 60s and 70s.
Schools choice, Osborne asserted, was already leading to renewed segregation in American schools. Whether or not the schools operated selection (and he thought they in reality did) it was pretty obvious parents were operating self-segregation. There were white Catholic and white Protestant schools being formed, black Protestant and Hispanic Catholic ones, and so on. He thought this was a disaster in the making and for over-riding reasons of democratic pluralism was against choice in this case. State-funded compulsory education, he argued, ought to be used to bind society together rather than splinter it into fragments.

His remarks clearly surprised quite a few in the audience, me included. Most of his listeners were clearly not convinced – this was after-all a mix of Tory policy-wonks and civil servants keen to do the bidding of their (current) masters – and in any case even the opposition New Labour party had gotten the ‘choice’ bug. But I came away thinking just how wise, thoughtful and courageous, his response had been. Some of our current and former leaders could do well to think a bit more about his arguments

For more see here.
Glorious weather now since I arrived here in Brussels. It’s great to have the luxury of relaxing and not having to tear around the countryside looking at areas and houses. If it wasn’t for the prices, Brussels could be ideal for a pied-a-terre. The faces in the city centre were happy and so cosmopolitan. Brussels and Sofia are definitely my favourite cities. Have been going through the last month’s back numbers of Le Monde – mainly for my vocabulary. But it is interesting to see the various issues which have been given prominence in that excellent daily - the argument about increasing the French retirement age (only 60 at the moment!); the growth of China; the future of the political centre in France; the future of the euro (naturally) and Europe generally.
The painting is
L'homme a la fenetre
by de Braekeleer

Thursday, June 3, 2010

long journey

Monday another public holiday. Tuesday last house viewings in Carhaix and then Rosproden. Wednesday said goodbye to the cottage at 06.00. Thirteen hours - and 950 kilometres – later, I was in Brussels. I stopped for lunch (of bread and salami) at Verneuil sur Avre on the basis that this, I think, was where I stayed with a French family when I was about 15. A superb example of a French medieval town.

last few days

Sunday also wet - and had good chat with Mark and Ronnie who had bought the large property and land for more than 200 k a few years back and then had to bring all the buildings back to life. Mark mentioned how many English were returning home – many to be with grandchildren - as I had experienced in La Gacilly. The idea of a long-term let in the area makes more and more sense – although it doesn’t solve the issue of how best to invest my capital; nor ensure access to French health facilities.
Decided to check out the cafe bookshop in the forest just outside Huelgoat (l’Autre Rive). Reminded me of UK left-wing bookshops of 1970s. Found there the Gallimard Guide to south Finistere (Encyclopedies du Voyage) which I had been looking for. Also a 2nd hand translated edition of DM Thomas’ The Fluteplayer”. And some nice small-run local editions of poetry and pictures – on beautiful paper - which inspires me to think of a Romanian edition of my blog.
Then on to Morlaix – through a deep, boring forest. And Morlaix not all that interesting. The run down to Pleyben was across the spine – with superb views. And easily found the Vert Depot

late update

Saturday dawned wet and reckoned this was the day to see Carhaix – 20 minute drive back east. It seems in fact the most liveable of all the settlements I have seen – with medieval touches and some nice glimpses of countryside from its hilltop position. House prices seem good – although the English in evidence through voices and newspapers in shop. Booked in to 2 agencies for Monday. The literature in the tourist agency the best yet – for the Poher region.
Then on to Park I agency (Josiane) in Rosporden which has the TGV and is only 12 kms from sea – the first 2 modern houses being well designed – although overpriced at 143 and 128 respectively. Garden at first was great.
The notaires’ system somewhat redeemed their reputation – by the Rosporden guy showing me 2 fascinating houses right in the centre – smaller one for 117,000 (conservatory added at back to make its sitting room, 2 bedrooms and large office space in grenier) and then a 3 level period house for 125,000 et un jardin sauvage. Price low because (original) windows need double glazing. The guy who received us was dignified, open but a bit brittle. He had had the house for 6 years and the agent told me later that he was leaving because of a divorce. Ideal but for the 3 levels – and the house starting basically on first level. Obviously taxes are higher – perhaps 300 more so.

Even after 10 years living in Finistere, people apparently still discover new places – and I can believe this after the last few days. The tourist information centres are an impressive feature – ensuring that local history and geolo/graph/y are properly celebrated. You have the feeling that you could never be bored. Although there has been criticism of the role of the English in inflating house prices, we should never forget the role they played in restoring old houses – adding to the supply as well as the demand. Someone has surely done a study of their net effect? Probably a thesis hidden away in a university library!

Friday drove the short distance to Huelgoat which is very picturesque and very...English! Enough said.
Le Faou is the estuary and had the smell of the sea.
Brasseparts tourist centre has an edge – only one so far with an internet connection for 1 euro an hour
Discovered that Port Aulnay was vision on my retina from 1999. Popped in to Jenny and Kevin to share my thoughts. They mentioned an interesting decision tool which involves listing all the desiderata – and then scoring each against the others. Sounds intriguing.