Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Why am I in Narbonne? because the alternator has broken and we have to wait a day for Fiat to fit a new one. It is a small pleasant town that we would otherwise have passed by. In fact we had already passed it by when the alternator failed we were almost level with Carcassonne, but if you breakdown on a French motorway, even if you have made it to a service station, you get taken where the official rescuers take you.
As we are now back in France it is necessary to get the French SIM in the iPad working, which meant a visit to the local SFR shop

Fortunately the hotel had a good wifi, so google maps told us where to look. At first sight it seemed odd that the marker pin came down in the middle of one of the bridges over the river ( see map). However google maps is accurate, the shop is actually on the bridge, which is completely built over.
So here I am, iPad functioning writing this blog sitting in a cafe in the main square in Narbonne and Lois is smiling.
Among the many interesting things about Narbonne, most of which I have not discovered yet, is the local accent. I think it is Catalan. They pronounce many words differently; for example the word 'demain', tomorrow, which is when the van will be ready. Round here they pronounce as it is written, to an English person. Normally in France the latter half of the word is pronounced 'man' whereas here they say it 'main'. 'Cinq', or five is pronounced 'sink'. My french is not brilliant, but add in the strange accent and a stay in Narbonne is a study in miscommunication.
Hopefully the van will be ready soon.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Saint Tropez

We had lunch in St Tropez today. The van was having it's brakes replaced, a job that took four hours, plus two hours for lunch, as we are in France. This left us with six hours to kill and no van to sit in. Unfortunately it was also raining quite hard, so some sort of sightseeing in the smart car forced it's way onto the agenda. Saint Tropez is about 30 miles away along the coast, and of course it is famous, so off we went.
Luckily it stopped raining by the time we got there. It took over an hour to get there because the road winds around the edge of the sea. This is great for the passenger who can sightsee, but there are so many bends and enough traffic that the driver has to concentrate all the time. I think it is a feature of France that the place is also awash with cyclists. Not the Dutch kind who swarm over Amsterdam, these are the serious looking, lycra clad versions. They go almost as fast as a car and tend to be sociable and talk to their mates, thus taking up so much road that you have to follow them around a few curves before they either notice or there is enough straight road to be able to see your way past them.
So getting to Saint Tropez takes a while. When you get there you need to park, fortunately they have provided some huge parks, one of which is by the harbour so you can be envious of the masses of floating gin palaces and very elegant yachts.
The harbour front is covered by restaurants and shops selling stuff that is priced about five euros more that any other place nearby. Take the trouble to walk back a few streets and you find yourself among a mass of designer boutiques with almost every famous international brand represented.
The place is a sort of Torquay meets Bond street, and it grows on you.
We wondered around the shops, where dressing yourself for a stroll down the block would cost the same as a small car and had lunch as about the cheapest thing to do.
Luckily it was only going to take six hours to fix the van, so our temptation to bankrupt ourselves in order to look cool was curtailed. We made it back with our wallets intact and picked up the van. Now we can drive it without making horrible graunching noises every time I touch the brake pedal.
The history of Saint Tropez is that it was a sleepy little seaside place until Bridgett Bardot made a film there. Since then it has been trendy, and judging by the designer goods on show it is likely to stay that way.
Hardly surprising therefore that there was a painting of Bardot on the wall of the bar where we ate.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Broke brake

For the last few miles the van has made funny noises when we stopped. Graunching, would be the normal english word, which translates into French as...
Spent an interesting day driving around Frejus, which is west of Cannes, looking for a Fiat dealer. We eventually found one and arranged to have one of the front disc brakes replaced on Wednesday. That means we will have to stay here a couple of days. Oh what a shame, the camp site has it's own swimming pool and the mediterranean is about sixty yards away. We actually swam in both today.
Last night it poured, with added thunder, leaving a few puddles about the place which have dried out in the sunshine today.
I did manage to write a chapter last night while the rain was keeping me awake. Now we have French Riviera weather, as in the post cards, and it's hard to write anything with an iPad in a deckchair.
The brake disc saga has been instructive, however. If you want to get to know a strange place, set your
mind on finding something out of the ordinary.
We once spent a whole day on Zakinthos trying to find a printer cable,
Lois was writing a thesis and it was the one thing we had forgotten. That escapade turned out to be much more fun than watching numbers of package tourists steadily turning pink by the pool, reading those novels where the author's name is in gold block letters on the paper back.
Tomorrow is my birthday, I think I might go to St. Tropez, it's just along the road.

An addendum. In the afternoon I did actually swim in the sea. Lois took a picture to prove it.

Sunday, 8 April 2012


At the moment we are in venice. Anyone who has been there will know that it is almost impossible to describe, so I won't try. Reading some of the web resources I find that many recommend simply getting lost as one of the top travel tips. The place is a mass of tiny winding streets interrupted by canals of varying sizes, so getting lost is easier than trying to find any particular attraction.
The process of getting lost is assisted by modern technology. I carried a new iPad, so in theory I could use Google maps to get around - in theory. My iPad has a phone SIM in it, so should be able to work anywhere. In fact it needs a decent 3G signal or access to WiFi. In order to avoid vast data roaming charges from my UK network I bought a pay as you go Italian SIM card. That worked well in Verbania and traveling along the autostrada to get here, but in Venice it is far less good. The picture shows what Google maps produces for most Venice, not very helpful.
An alternative is to use what I think is called a MiFi, which is a sort of mobile phone that produces a local WiFi signal. We tried that on the second day and did manage to get maps to work for a rather larger part of Venice. The rechargeable battery ran out after about four hours, so if you really needed to rely on this to get around, then you either need two, or you have to keep switching it off to save power. It takes a minute or so to boot up each time, so would not be much help for things like translation on the iPad. The app called Converse, for instance, is brilliant but it needs the Internet to be connected.
I am impressed with the iPad, I've taken some great movies and pictures with it, but if Apple really want people to get the best out of it, then they should use some of their money and muscle to get the mobile phone companies to perform better. It is completely foolish that a place like Venice, an internationally renowned treasure should have a rubbish mobile phone coverage.
Having said all that, nothing can detract from the wonders of the place. It is, of course, unique. The solution to getting everyone to walk and use public transport and be slim, is not to flood the place and make the streets narrow. Anything learned about to live life here would probably not be relevant anywhere else. I am sure they run the place better, they could learn something from Disney about how to manage crowds and queues, for example, but in general it is just one of those must see places and I am immensely glad I came.
The pictures are just a sample, limited both by space and by writing in Blogger's very primitive iPad app.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Research or reality

Research versus reality

Part of my novel Side Effect is based in Verbania, in Northern Italy, a place I've never been to. I did pass fairly close to it on a coach going to a ski resort, but that hardly counts.
How come I set the scene there? I needed one of the characters to have come from somewhere near London and to have been on a holiday to Italy, when she was still at school. I searched for places south of London that were twinned with towns in Italy that looked as though they would make a plausible holiday destination. After a certain amount of messing around I found that East Grinstead was twinned with Verbania, a town on the north side of lake Maggiora. On that ski trip the coach had driven along part of the shore of that lake, on the way from Milan, and I remember that it looked pleasant. So Verbania was, at least a possibility.
I set about researching the place from the Internet and spent about an hour playing with Google Earth, trying to get an idea what it was like. It seemed to fit the bill. The place looked as though it had a romantic charm and a certain amount of style, sufficient to be impressive to a 17 year old schoolgirl, who might fall for an older italian in a place like this.
Much later in the book that same schoolgirl's daughter returns to Verbania, with the same italian, after she has discovered that he is her father. By then he is dying and the place also has to make sense as a a setting for a sort of nostalgia, that she has never had, a place that could be sad and happy at the same time, where ragged ends could come together and life make sense.
Finding all that out from the Internet is a tall order, but the tools available now are very impressive. After a day researching it I was fairly sure that it worked and I included Verbania in the book.
This year I got the chance to go there and see if the real thing lived up to my imagined view. At one level I have to say that I was slightly anxious, what if it was completely wrong? I guess I would have to go back and edit the book. As it turned out I found that my impression from the web was a good reflection of the actual town.
The real thing has more depth. You can't get the atmosphere of little cobbled streets and the elegance and style of some of the shops, by looking at pictures taken from a satellite miles above. What is surprising, I think, is the way that the structures you can see give the impression of the sort of place that it turns out to be. Well designed public areas, like the harbor for instance, are clearly seen from space, so it is easy to assume that there would be shops and restaurants capable of paying the kind of taxes necessary to keep up appearances. It wouldn't be cheap and there wouldn't be rubbish in the streets; and there wasn't. The picture show Lois in one of the charming, winding streets. It would be impossible to capture that from space, but google street view is already beginning to provide pictures that do reflect local detail.
If I had been there would I have written the same thing? I think there is a real risk that I would have written too much, would have been tempted to include a little more flavor, a little more depth and perhaps got in the way of the story.
If you want to write about a place, then I suspect you have to go there and walk the streets, smell the flowers and eat the soup, or in my case, the pizza. If on the other hand you need a place for something to happen, then what you can find on the Internet may be enough. If the place is a setting, then you need about as much reality as the backdrops and scenery in a theatre; enough to take the imagination of the reader to a place that works for them in the story, and preferably no more than that.

This post is being produced on my iPad, sitting in our camper beside Lake Maggiora, see the second picture. The text was written in pages, which seems to default to American spelling and the post was constructed in the free blogger app for the iPad, which is a bit on the clumsy side. I am fascinated to see how it turns out,