Boars, Birds, Birthdays and Barbecues: Everyday Life in Entre-deux-Eaux, May – October 2013

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link
E2E2013no2.pdf (seven A4 pages)
There are a couple of embedded links in the text

I should have known better than to go out into our field on a dull October Saturday to gather branches of pink spindle to cheer up the gloom. Suddenly there was a very loud bang. I turned and saw men with guns, dark against cloud-shrouded woods, closing in silently on the stream that separated us.

But, for the first year, the local huntsmen were not an unwelcome sight. The very night after the hunting season opened, in the quiet of the night, and completely unheard by us, a party of scavenging boars had turned over a long strip of grass between the orchard and the “arboretum”, and had returned to complete the job on a subsequent night.

Boar diggings

Boar diggings

Fond as I am of doing patchwork, it proved near-impossible to return the overturned clods to a reasonable position to make an even surface for the lawn mower (and its sea-sick driver) next year.

Earlier in the year we had heard an unfamiliar, harsh barking in the same field. No, not boars, though raucous enough for how one imagines them sounding, but deer. We watched, entranced, from the terrace as a baby deer was loudly encouraged by its mother, bound by bound, to make its way back from this unprotected field towards the shelter of the forest. What was it doing there? Had it got lost in the grass which had grown tall in all the rain and almost hid it from sight? Was its mother frantic with worry? It had to leap so high to follow its mother through the long grass to relative safety.

And, back in July, we’d seen an even rarer visitor. We’d spent the day in Strasbourg, where John had found a new (to us) restaurant in the picturesque Petite France area, close to the canals. We’d sat at a table outside on the narrow pedestrian street amid buckets of flowers and watched the world go by as we ate. My starter was a delicious fish terrine of North Sea fish and green vegetables with a lemon mousse sauce. The main courses were excellent too, so beautifully served, though the desserts seemed a bit ordinary in comparison.

Storks and tractor

Storks and tractor

We came back to find two tractors busy cutting the field below us and two storks foraging rapidly between the noisy machines, skipping and dipping their beaks for the uncovered lizards, crickets, voles and frogs. The very word “stork” sounds mediaeval and fairytale, and you think of their picturesque nests on turrets and steep roofs in Alsace villages. They used to be more common on this side of the Vosges (indeed, Rene Fonck, the First World War ace from the next village, used a stork as his emblem on his flying machine). Perhaps, while we were eating out in Alsace, these two had flown over to Lorraine for a day trip of gourmet harvest food. Will the young farmer be blessed next year with babies brought by the grateful storks?

Our next surprise – a resident, it would seem, rather than visitor – was less pretty. Back in autumn the men installing the photovoltaic panels had dumped the removed tiles there. In France the norm is to install photovoltaic panels directly onto the roof as a replacement for (rather than as well as) the existing covering – less weight?


Bufo bufo

Eventually we got round to selling the tiles to a man with a trailer. When John shifted a pallet on which a pile of roof tiles had been stacked, a very large toad, with a scaly grey face like a miniature dinosaur, sat motionless and staring in the hope that he wouldn’t be seen. So we don’t know when the toad had taken up residence or where he disappeared to when we weren’t looking.

Visitors here using the little back road, are used to their passage being blocked by Vozelle’s ducks, geese, guinea fowl and chickens, but rarely notice those of our neighbour Madame Laine, which were, more safely and discreetly, in a large, wire enclosure and wooden house behind her potato patch. The sad news is that, having stopped keeping a pig and other livestock, she has been killing off all her birds this autumn. As her legs have got more painful (and her husband’s heels have long been dodgy), the daily feed, especially in bad weather, has become more of a burden. So, end of birds and of the side-line in egg sales. Only the rabbits remain. A chair-seat has been installed on their back stairs. “It’s no fun, getting old”, she says morosely.

The monthly afternoon gatherings of the anciens of E2E continue with cake, champagne, cards and chatter. In May, to celebrate my 70th, John kindly baked a typical English, rich fruit cake for me to take to the gathering. I’d thought, long and hard, about whether to stick to what they were used to (éclairs would have been fine), or to introduce a bit of cross-culture. Alas, the organisers had to eat a slice each and insist it was really nice before any of the hardened traditionalists would risk it.

Much more festive was the gathering of our family and friends the following week. Sadly the weather was nothing like as good as it always is for John’s birthday at the end of October.

Wet and misty climb to The Donon

Wet and misty climb to The Donon

In mid-May we had rain, hail and snow. So no sipping champagne on the terrace. But, despite the weather and various coughs and colds, we managed a couple of good, though wet, walks, a couple of restaurants, a Colmar quiz and museums (out of the rain), and John’s back recovered sufficiently for all his cooking to go as planned. The star guest (for us, at least) was grandson Jacob who took delight in all the small wet rural pleasures like floating buttercups in puddles and running like mad for shelter. A typical memory of the gung-ho “make the best of it” spirit, was of the Italian café in the covered market in Nancy, where we took shelter from the lashing rain and cold, and created mayhem, while Toby and Stella walked through snow in the E2E hills! Guests were forced to accept a copy of Footprints, the novel I’d been writing over recent years, and fortunately managed to look more politely grateful than the villagers with their fruitcake. Its production was also the result of John’s labours, as he’d got it proof-read, printed and published, using an Amazon-related company, and although I’d always disapproved of vanity publishing, it was a thrill to see it in print for my birthday.

As you can imagine, despite the quantities of sausages in the freezer, we didn’t manage any barbecues that week. But shortly afterwards, the young couple at the chalet beyond us (the Munsch house) held a roofing party, with eleven or twelve friends up on the roof removing the old tiles, laying external insulated boarding and laying new tiles, and with protracted lunch-time and evening feasting down below in the garden. It all looked very bucolic. Maybe it was a bit too bucolic as the morning after the first overnight rain they returned to put plastic sheeting between the chimneys, which has remained there over the summer months.

The next barbecue involved the anciens of E2E trying out another new (to them) idea: the Sainte Marguerite farm museum’s annual lunch. We had been to the lunch a couple of years ago. This year’s invitation to the anciens presumably came about because the museum is run by two sisters, one of whom has become our mayor’s companion (now we know why he was running the bar there a couple of years ago). The E2E contingent were given two long trestle tables in the centre. Between courses, the main course being barbecued lamb, the other sister and some young people played old musical instruments (possibly from the museum collection), and a man told entertaining anecdotes whose punch-line John and I consistently failed to understand.

The most recent barbecue also involved the anciens, and also an odd experience. Our vivacious ex-fireman’s wife had offered to celebrate her September birthday with a barbecue lunch for the oldies to which everyone would take salads, and those who also had birthdays would take cakes. Of course, the weather that morning was 5°C with rain threatening, so everyone sat indoors in the community hall at beautifully decorated tables, while the ex-fireman and one of our neighbours set up the barbecue under the overhanging roof by the front door. It was very well done, with tasty starters followed by ample quantities of meat and colourful salads; but before the cake desserts, I was invited to join the group of three “walkers”. You won’t believe where we went. As we left the meal, one asked me lugubriously, “where will you go when you’re dead?” and looked shocked when I said I didn’t know. But it’s obviously important here, for we shuffled off to the cemetery, all of two minutes away, where I was introduced to the predecessors of everyone still in the village that I might or might not know. I heard who didn’t get on with whom, who drank themselves to death, who killed someone, who had a relative who came to the funeral in scarlet, who died last year, the children of whose mistress had placed an engraved tribute, who died young of leukaemia … until I pleaded that I was cold on the hill and we returned to very welcome desserts and warming coffee. I hadn’t realised what an endless source of gossip a churchyard could be, and we only did the top three rows!

But it’s not just been wet barbecues. We have, of course, continued to enjoy our restaurant excursions. One of these was the Sunday after my birthday celebrations, we drove across the Rhine to the small German village near Europa-Park where the former chef at the Blanche Neige now has a hotel and restaurant. As if we hadn’t eaten enough the week before, we indulged in his five course surprise menu, and then drove on to see the wonderful Chagall exhibition in a nearby village, in what was part of an old brewery, now all white walls and big spaces. We drove back via a third village, through pretty hills and vines and sunshine, to find the producer of the delicious Muskat that we had drunk with our lunch, only to find that it had closed a few minutes earlier. Heading home, the Rhine and the canal locks looked dangerously high, with water splashing up onto the bridge and tourists stopping to watch. Fortunately the Rhine level had dropped quite a bit when we returned a week later to buy the Muskat from Weingut Abril.

Another of our occupations, the vide-greniers, or flea markets have been a bit disappointing this year, partly because of poor weather, but also because most people have already sold off their interesting items in previous years. However, at nearby Saulcy, I was much taken with a large framed print of a Gauguin painting for only 1 euro. It now adorns the wall above the wine rack in the revamped second barn/ entrance lobby. And at Ban de Laveline we picked up some useful shelf brackets and a little brass tortoise (originally an ashtray) which is nosing its way along the garden path (without getting very far unless accidentally kicked). We didn’t spot much on the stalls at the Fraize flea market, but went up some front steps into a narrow house after John noticed, through the invitingly open door, the unusual blue and white tiled walls. It turned out to be an old butcher’s shop; the butcher’s grandchildren explained that the shop had been turned into a sitting room when the couple retired about twenty-five years ago, and now that grandmother had died and grandfather had moved in with them, they were selling the furniture and contents. So we bought some of their wine glasses as a small house-warming present for Toby and Stella. After all, not every English family drinks from a French butcher’s wine glasses.

You will gather from the above that Toby and Stella have, after all the delays, moved from their London basement. Months ago they put in an offer on a house they liked in Letchworth Garden City but contracts on that and their flat were not completed until August.

Jacob and John and bricks

Jacob and John building bricks at the new house

While I was enjoying a long-planned train-gang re-union in York, John helped them with the move and then (with brother-in-law Derek’s help) demolished much of a partition wall between their new kitchen and dining-room. The house is lovely and spacious and they are slowly decorating it to their taste. Jacob really relished the freedom of the new garden on the sunny days that followed. Toby then faced the delights of the daily commute to an office in Victoria (We took Jacob to the station with us in the car one evening to pick up Toby, who then failed to appear, having fallen asleep on the train. He did wake in time for the next station, but for a long time, whenever trains or stations were mentioned a little voice piped up, “Daddy asleep on train”).

Meanwhile, back in E2E, we had been forced into several considerably more expensive purchases than our flea market ones. When our small car, Snowy, aged 13, was taken into the garage because the brake pedal was suddenly very bad and he needed a service, it was discovered that all the underneath had rusted and corroded very badly (possibly after all the winter salt on the roads). As it would have cost well over £2,000 to repair, we started to think about a replacement. Snowy was named after Tintin’s little white dog, called Snowy in the English translation, as he was white and felt like a short-legged little dog scuttling along through fog and snow as I drove him back through France and Belgium to England after we collected him from the dealer in Epinal in December 1999. John was driving our bigger car just behind, shepherding Snowy along! It was very sad abandoning the faithful Snowy in the Toyota compound in Saint Dié. After some thought about whether we still need 2 cars, we chose a slightly larger Toyota Verso S from the showroom, which also happens to be white. We tried out various names for the new car including Milou (the original French name for Tintin’s little dog), but somehow none felt right, and we reverted to calling our small car Snowy.

Heating oil and boiler maintenance and repair are a regular expense. I wish I had a photo of John’s anxious face and twitching hands as he watched the lad who was sent out to repair our boiler when it refused to start after being turned off for an oil delivery back in July. The lad, who looked no older than a work experience third former (and hardly any older than the boiler itself), had clearly not encountered this model before, so John kept showing him the pages in the manual. Eventually, we tactfully suggested that perhaps his patron was more familiar with such an old model, and he withdrew, relieved. The patron, his arm in a sling, duly came with the lad the next day, but seemed no wiser. But eventually they ordered and installed to correct part. For some reason, we haven’t yet had the bill.

John has long been muttering about getting a new computer, and has finally done so. Transferring data and programs was always going to be a pain, but at least the timing was such that, having also immobilised his right leg with a hefty blow from his shovel while mixing cement, he had plenty to keep him occupied indoors. An X-ray showed nothing broken or chipped, just very bad bruising and he was prescribed crutches (a tasteful shade of blue, with reflectors for the dark nights). His leg is meanwhile recovering slowly, and after four weeks he can again put on real shoes, rather than slippers or crocs, – and tie the laces.

Another large (in size, this time) purchase has been of wood. The Vosges area is littered with wood yards and the sound of sawing. But most of the timber is pine or similar. John has been planning on replacing our old barn doors (the ones that are large enough to allow a fully-loaded haywain to enter).

A typical old Sunburst doorway

A typical old Sunburst doorway

A charming, typical regional barn door style is the “sunburst” in which the panels in the upper semi-circle radiate out from the centre. We haven’t seen any replacement doors made in the old style, so this has been a challenge. One of the local wood yards had larch which John had seen recommended on the internet for garage doors. But the larch was only exterior cladding quality and not ideal for carpentry. The alternative was to work in oak. After many calculations and detailed consultations on possible designs with John S (including during the birthday celebrations), he put in an order for oak at the Lusse village wood yard at the end of July. Of course, you never expect anything to happen in August in France, but we were surprised to hear nothing throughout September. While his cheque remaining un-cashed, we began to wonder if the enterprise had gone bust or burned to the ground (or both). So, after a walk above Lusse, I wandered into the wood yard, where a man and a woman were loading some wood into the back of their van and I finally found a man on a tractor. Ah, still in business!

Knife block

Knife block

And, following my visit, John has finally heard that some of the wood they’d cut had not been of satisfactory quality but that the new wood should be available next Monday.By now it is, of course, getting too cold to work in the atelier where all his machinery is. His previous wood project had been a knife block for his Sabatier knives. So this is on a somewhat larger scale.

The walk above Lusse village was with the Sainte Marguerite group. As it was a lovely sunny day and also the start of the mushrooming season, there was a large turn-out. We parked just by the mouth of the long tolled road (originally rail) tunnel under the hill to Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines. I had hoped we might be going up to the chaume, the grazing pastures on the ridge, where we’d first seen the traces of the lordonbahn, the German supply railway in the First World War. But in fact we took a lower route. But I was pleased when we passed the countess’s château I’d been reading about (which the Germans occupied) and could now visualise some of the outlying hamlets mentioned in a village woman’s journal of the 14-18 war. The further we walked, the more and more strung-out the group became as people lingered to pick fungi – they each seemed to have their favourite species for cooking and swapped quite amicably. At one point the path had become obscured by brambles since the leader had last walked it two years ago and I thought we’d lost several stragglers (the leader didn’t seem to do much counting of his herd). However, when the front reached a hamlet and paused to chat to inhabitants, the rear of the group with their bulging bags slowly trickled down and it was pronounced a good walk!

Being ignorant of the good and the bad in the fungal world, we have not been experimenting. But our shelves in the barn have been restocked with rhubarb and ginger jam and a spicy plum jam reminiscent of mulled wine. More plums are in the freezer till we acquire more jars; so only one batch of plum chutney so far. This year the autumn raspberries, blueberries, green beans, peas, courgettes, beetroot, carrots, onions, leeks, chard and squash have all been good, despite a late start. But the blackberries, blackcurrants and walnuts have been almost non-existent and the broccoli have bolted. A strange year.

And perhaps we should conclude with a bit of Culture, as there hasn’t been much so far. Saint Dié, as you are constantly reminded, is the capital (self-appointed) of World Geography. At the beginning of October street signs and shop signs there started to appear on banners of beautiful calligraphy; for the guest of honour was to be China. There were plenty of worthy lectures on economic geography which we could have attended, but of greater appeal were the talks on contemporary Chinese novels, and on problems of literary translation. And which characters peopled the last lecture I attended? Tintin and Snowy, of course, in a very entertaining discussion of the Chinese calligraphy, political allusions and background architecture in the Blue Lotus.

And finally, if you are feeling cheerful and devoid of guilt at this point, I should say, “Fashoda!” with a knowing sneer. We have grown accustomed to being made to feel guilty, on behalf of the perfidious English, for the burning of Joan of Arc and the theft of the Rosetta Stone. But Fashoda? It was at a lecture on France, China and the Boxer rebellion that the F word was mentioned and dirty looks cast, and we acquired another burden to bear.

So, F … arewell and Au revoir!

Photovoltaic panels output

We have two roofs with 21 and 19 150W panels giving a total of 6000W. The two groups of panels are connected to two converters which log the actual output. It is possible to connect to the converters using Bluetooth to retrieve and then process the data. For the days when we are here (and my computer is running) the results are uploaded every five minutes to our web site.

We have 21 and 19 panels rather than two sets of 20 panels because of the position of a chimney stack on one roof. It is possible to drill down into all the data on the web site to see day-by-day output (and the sunny days!). The chimneys are also the reason why the set of 19 panels is more efficient; the set of 21 panels has more partial shade from one stack in the early part of the morning.

In France it is more usual to sell all the output to EDF rather than using some and just selling the surplus generated. There is only payment for the electricity actually sold (unlike the UK). We get paid at about three times the amount per unit we can buy at.

Photographing the International Space Station (ISS)

If you click on the images they will open full screen; it is then easier to see the ISS transits

There is also a later update The International Space Station (ISS) July 2020

As the third brightest object in the sky, after the sun and moon, the space station is easy to see if you know where and when to look for it! I signed up to get e-mail notifications of the visibility of the ISS from NASA-Spot the Station last November. The ISS observation web site gives more information than is contained in the Spot the Station e-mail.

But since then there have only been very limited opportunities to see it as we’d not had that many clear nights until earlier this spring! This week we’ve had clear night skies which have been dark as the moon is in the waning crescent phase so I’ve taken the opportunity to try to photograph the passage of ISS over Entre-deux-Eaux.

I decided to use a Pentax digital SLR with an 8mm fish-eye lens to get as much coverage of the sky as possible. The idea was to obtain the passage of the ISS as a continuous trail of light across the static background of the stars. The main problem has been in determining the exposure settings as not only can the ISS take over 6 minutes to go from horizon to horizon but for the earlier evening sightings the sky can still be lit by the last sunlight rather than night dark. There are not that many opportunities or much time to experiment! I opted to use the 100 ASA setting to reduce the noise (graininess) but for my first attempt I used an exposure of 30s @ f22 as I thought the image would be over-exposed with the very long exposure. That wasn’t the case. The attempt was when the sky was very dark and I was only able to see anything at all on the images by enhancing the images significantly. But even then the images were very poor and grainy.

Yesterday evening I tried again when the ISS was due to be visible (Time: Thu Jun 06 2013 10:57 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 77 degrees, Appears: WSW, Disappears: ENE). This time I decided to experiment with 100ASA at f8. But the sky still wasn’t completely black so I tried first with an approximately 2 minute exposure and then another with a 3 minute exposure to give images for further reference. These images both had good exposure and showed the partial track of the ISS clearly. However, the Pentax does a lot of processing when saving long exposures to try to eliminate random noise. So there was a gap of well over 2 minutes between the exposures. In addition, I was saving the images both as RAW and JPG files which added another few seconds to the delay between possible exposures. I had time before the next ISS pass to process the images and combined them into a single image using my usual Hugin panorama stitcher software to give a composite image which shows the west and east parts of the ISS path.

ISS 10.58pm 6 June 2013

ISS 10.58pm 6 June 2013 – composite image showing west and east trails

The ISS was due to pass again about 90 minutes later (Time: Fri Jun 07 2013 0:33 AM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 44 degrees, Appears: W, Disappears: ENE) and I decided to try to capture the total 6 minute overpass in a single shot. The sky was now completely dark so I chose to use the same aperture and ASA settings. However the ISS was lower in the sky this time and I failed to adjust the camera angle so the ISS passed through the centre of the image. Fortunately it was still totally within the frame! The arc of the path is due to the distortion by lens; had the camera been set for the ISS to pass through the centre of the image the path would have been captured as a straight line. The stars are blurred as the earth had rotated about 1.5º during the 6 minute exposure time.

ISS 00:33am 7 June 2013

ISS 00:33am 7 June 2013 – 100ASA 389s @ f8

And this evening there was an overpass (Fri Jun 07 2013 10:08 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 51 degrees, Appears: SW, Disappears: ENE) but, although I could see the ISS, the sky background was too light to capture the ISS with the long exposure. The next pass was about 90 minutes later (Fri Jun 07 2013 11:44 PM, Visible: 6 min, Max Height: 49 degrees, Appears: W, Disappears: ENE) when the sky was dark. This time I set the camera angle to show the farmhouse. It was dark when looking south, east or west, but the ISS was to the north. So, although the passage was captured clearly the image shows the light pollution we get to the north from Saulcy-sur-Meurthe and Saint Dié des Vosges.

ISS 11:44pm 7 June 2013

ISS 11:44pm 7 June 2013 – 100ASA 357s @ f8

Tarmac and Trams and Tulips: January – April 2013 in Entre-deux- Eaux, Lisbon and Porto

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link
E2E2013no1.pdf (five A4 pages)

There is a complete set of labelled photographs (950+) showing many more of the museums, galleries, street scenes, graffiti, etc. we saw during the Portugal trip. They are on eight web pages starting at

Can you hear the rumble of a lorry coming up rue du Mont Davaux? No? False alarm. Just the EDF man in his blue van to read the meters. The only other activity outside is the steady chewing of the cows in one field, the galloping of two excitable horses in another, a pair of buzzards circling overhead and a flash of brown, possibly a hare, on the north field.

We have been getting slovenly over the protracted wet weeks of winter, often reading (books or computer screen) in bed till quite a late hour in the mornings. But today we were up and dressed soon after 7 o’clock, as French workmen can arrive at 8 o’clock to get in a solid chunk of work before the two-hour lunch break. We were looking forward to the latest (though it never turns out to be the last) of the outdoor house restoration projects. However it’s 10 o’clock and no Monsieur Pasquier and his tarmacing team. So now to relax, have a coffee and catch up on newsletters, the last one being a pre-Christmas one.

There was a chance that this newsletter could have come to you from India. However, after Christmas at Leila’s in Nottingham, we spent a longer than usual time in London (thank you again Jessica and Mark!). It was great to catch up with family and friends, especially seeing more of Jacob as he approached his second birthday. And then the hot season on the east coast of India was approaching too fast to get organised with injections, visas, etc. and still enjoy cooler weather throughout our travels. So our third Indian adventure is postponed till autumn.

Instead, we spent ten days at the end of February and start of March in Portugal. We arrived in Lisbon (by plane from Basel) and took the metro. With warnings about pickpockets circulating, I clutched my belongings possessively, but we emerged unscathed into a square at the foot of one of Lisbon’s steep hills. Our hotel was near the castle, which, like all castles, was on top of the hill, and we had just missed the clanking number 12 tram. The taxi at the head of the queue in the square was a decrepit Mercedes, long ago exhausted by the hills, and whenever it was brought to a halt in the steep, dark, narrow cobbled streets, we were uncertain whether it would lurch into rattling action once more. The light spilling out from the hotel’s glass door was very welcome, as was the news that they’d upgraded us to an enormous room, complete with sofa, armchairs, low table, writing desk, vast bed and a large terrace (the perfect room for relaxing in between sorties). Had we caught the tram, I doubt we’d have found the right stop to get off, let alone the hotel, in the dark, unlabelled streets.

As so often, it was the unexpected things that were entrancing. On our first morning we paused at what looked like a bank to ask for directions, and the woman insisted on our exploring her building which had recently been converted into a design and fashion museum with fascinating exhibits.



MUDE had indeed once been a bank (Banco Nacional Ultramarino) before being gutted, apart from the bank director’s wooden-panelled room and some mosaic murals, then left unused. Another day we’d reached the old water pumping station and museum, hot and sticky after a boring walk by the railway line, and the small static equipment and photograph exhibition was rather dull. Then, as we pushed open a door, we were engulfed by the most wonderful sounds of early choral music. In the middle of the aromatic, highly polished (floors and brass) pumping station machine room a small choir was rehearsing. The acoustics were excellent as we scrambled up the wrought iron staircases and walkways above the choir and now-retired pumps. And to further revive us, the tile museum a bit further along the railway line was in a rambling convent with an unexpectedly good café.

Lisbon-Ethnology Museum

Lisbon-Ethnology Museum

Another unexpected treat was the Ethnology Museum, now mainly just an archive, which recently had enough funding to display one room of exhibits; Mali puppets leered out of the darkness as individual showcases lit up at our approach. And a very informative young researcher conducted two fascinating store-room tours of Portugal’s everyday rural life implements and Amazonian artefacts.

Lisbon tram

Lisbon tram

The trams were as much fun as we expected, and we enjoyed exploiting our three-day tourist ticket to the full by riding several to the end of their lines (although, for pensioners it is doubtful if the combined museum entrance/tram ticket is cheaper than the other museum discounts available). We also stopped at the enormous tram depot, where we had some difficulty in locating the small tram museum and rousing the staff; eventually they mustered one lady to sell tickets, one man to open the door at the far end to usher us and the solitary other visitor into a waiting tram, one man to drive said tram (a beautifully re-upholstered and curtained vehicle) to some far sheds, one man to open the small shop, and one man to man the small gallery. The tram driver sat and twiddled his thumbs till be were ready to be returned to the exit. As well as the trams themselves, it was interesting to see the safety posters, the tramway corporation’s brass band exhibits and the in-house ticket printing equipment.

Lisbon-Rossio station

Lisbon-Rossio station

Our tourist ticket also entitled us to take the train out to Sintra. The railway station from which we left Lisbon was a stunning mixture of elaborate Manueline exterior, modern escalators and glass, and platform walls tiled with what looked like scenes from literary fantasies. Sintra’s railway station was more modest, unlike its palaces, over-priced tourist restaurants and cafés, and Moorish castle remains. But we enjoyed wonderful views from the Moorish walls and spotted an interesting-looking neo-gothic mansion, chapel and gardens.

Sintra-Quinta da Regaleira

Sintra-Quinta da Regaleira

Our map identified it as the Quinta da Regaleira, and on impulse we decided to find it. The terraced grounds contained the neo-gothic essentials of ferns, winding paths, follies, statuary, noisy waterfall and dank grottoes. Inside, amid hunting scenes, a pianist was rehearsing thunderously and his cascades resounded up the staircase, into the small library with its unnerving floating floor and out onto the ramparts with their gargoyles and sculpted snails. Again an unanticipated pleasure.

In Porto where, alas, our room was less lavish but the breakfasts superb, it was rainy, so we sheltered one afternoon in one of the lesser-known (to us, at least) port wine producers, Calem, near the more famous black silhouette of Sandeman; the tour and tasting was rather fun. We also took the metro about 30km to very nearly the end of the line and a small fishing village, Vila do Conde, with its dramatic aqueduct and narrow streets.

Porto-Lello bookshop

Porto-Lello bookshop

Porto also has my idea of the perfect-looking small bookshop, recently restored to neo-gothic splendour, a dairy serving great éclairs, and tall, decaying buildings, art-nouveau, tiled, and much in need of money and loving attention.

We were tourists, in cities, and at popular tourists sites, so were not seeing the dire economic situation of Portugal most of the time. And whilst there were very few people eating in the small fish restaurants on top of our hill in Lisbon, the café bars were busy with locals eating pastries and drinking coffees at all hours. However, one afternoon the trams came to a halt some distance from the main squares for the huge “Fuck the Troika” march, with protesters of all ages, classes and political beliefs united in protest against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF, EU and Central European Bank. We watched it file noisily past for some time, unable to pass through it, and sensing no end to the throng, retired to a café to put a few euros into the economy.

Before we went to Portugal we had indulged in the usual round of winter activities in and around Entre-deux-Eaux. At the mayor (and commune’s) lunch for the old folk, the food was good as ever and the wine flowed as freely as ever. The main course was described as “parmentier de canard, fondant, au beurre de Normandie, gratine, pousses de mesclun, copeaux de parmesan et tomates confites”, or, as John more succinctly translated, duck shepherd’s pie with salad. For the first time an accordionist from the village provided the music and banter, whilst the dancing between courses was as stylish as ever. The mayor sat quite near us and we realised that his lady friend is one of the delightful sisters who run the nearby La Soyotte farm museum. Later the same week the E2E monthly club for oldies had its AGM followed by lunch, – this time couscous, cooked by the retired fireman’s wife who’d gone to a lot of trouble on the desserts, making ice bowls with leaves and petals prettily encased between two layers of ice to hold the orange slices and ice cream. It was a real delight when Marcel was persuaded to go and get his accordion. He was the kindly shopkeeper back in the 1990s when we first bought our house, and has gone through a bad time since his wife died a few years ago. So it was really lovely to hear him play –he’d once recounted to us how he used to play when he was young at weddings and in their family café. Apparently he was also mayor some time before our present long-standing mayor. John sloped off after the lunch as the packs of cards and the Scrabble board came out. I always say that Scrabble-playing improves my French, though the idiosyncratic spelling of the charming and vivacious wife of one of the former Big Four Farmers doesn’t really help. We had no dictionary, so shrill appeals were made to the mayor who had once been a teacher. But, after a few glasses of wine, as her protests became shriller, it was easier to give her a free hand with spelling.

There was also the AGM of the Philomatique (which is not some tin-pot local history group, but self-styled “savants” with a good publication programme). It concluded with an interesting documentary film about St Dié at the end of the war. And, of course, there was the annual trip over the hills to the village of Saulxures, where a group of local actors feed their audience (with a kir aperitif, wine and coffee included, to get everyone in a good humour) before their performance. This year’s farce was set in an ecologically friendly house in the Vosges so had local references and some Vosgian dialect, which were much appreciated. One of the main characters was played by a local baker, who, apparently, does very good bread on other days!

One event we had not been aware of in previous years was an antiques fair in St Dié, this time held in the old police building. One dealer caught me returning to gaze at a couple of drawings, which were in fact limited lithographs of pencil drawings. He told us that the artist was Abel Pann, who worked in Paris from 1903-1913. He then went to Jerusalem, intending to settle there, but on his return to Paris to collect his things, was prevented by the first world war. He finally moved there in 1920. “My” drawings were part of a series of forty seven illustrations of the first five books of the Bible, done in 1930. Pann later did holocaust pictures and our salesman claimed he is usually bought by Parisian Jews with whom the exodus story resonates. A complete set of forty seven would command huge prices, but he would accept 200 euros for his two. Attractive as they were, we left them for any visiting Parisians to snap up.

On a more mundane note, John sampled the opticians as he had snapped the bridge of his glasses over Christmas, and his fetching epoxy resin glue repairs had not lasted.I still had a few remaining sessions with the St Dié orthoptist, prescribed by the Strasbourg ophthalmologist for eye exercises after I got my new glasses from the Ste Marguerite dispensing optician. These sessions were agreeably childish, looking from the red car to the red mushroom, or following the elephant on the stick! The highlight was when I had an exercise with a screen rabbit (like Peter Rabbit) loosing his tail and his bunch of flowers. It was clearly a treat as it wasn’t repeated. The subsequent screen fish tank and the kites were not as whimsical. We have not had nearly as much snow as the UK, but I did have to clear the garage exit several mornings before these appointments.

The snow was more of a problem on the day that ERDF (the company that owns the electricity infrastructure) were due to make the final connection for the photovoltaic panels. On arrival the man announced that he would be unable to test whether they were working with snow on the roof covering the panels, so made a second appointment to connect. That second morning he rang to confirm there was no snow. All was well. Then an hour before his arrival, the snow started to fall, covering the panels rapidly. John went out with a hose trying to wash the snow from the roof, and later got the ladders out on the snowy terrace to brush the bottom sections of the roof clear. Cold and slippery work, especially when some snow landed on his eye and went down the gap at the top of his anorak. The man said the roads were slippery too as it was new snow. Fortunately he was able to get enough minimal output to be able to check the connections and meters, but it definitely wasn’t the best of weathers for starting to produce solar energy!

We have, however had a few balmy days since our return from Portugal. One of those days we spent wandering round Colmar, seeing it with fresh eyes as we followed a tourist trail devoid of other tourists. We did, however, run into a couple we’d sat with at one of the E2E post-Christmas lunches but did not know well; although we recognised their faces, it took some time to really realise who they were. They were amazed to find two other villagers in the Bartholdi Museum courtyard! And another morning in Ribeauvillé was equally pleasant (again without many tourists despite the spring sunshine).



In a more recent outbreak of dry weather, John was able to get the potager rotavated and I dug in compost and started sowing vegetable seeds. Then the sun came out as Mark and Jessica arrived en route to Putney from Sienna (where they too had had cold and wet weather) so shared our enjoyment of the cowslips covering the orchard, and the windflowers, daffodils and first butterflies. After they left the following morning, we joined the Ste Marguerite group for a walk at the Col de Ste Marie. It was very pretty as it went down from the ridge through woods and fields, then slowly up through the woods to the Tree of Liberty, passing German bunkers, shelters, workshops, traces of the funicular, a mortar launching pit and an intriguing sign to a swimming pool (possibly to aid recovery, including from gas attacks, probably for officers), all from the first world war. However, Lucien, the leader for that day, who is a cyclist not historian, pursued his walk relentlessly, so no exploring. Somewhere to return to with a torch one day. It was the perfect day for a walk.

Snakes head fritillary

Snakeshead fritillary

In the latest precious trio of sunny days, the damson and plum
blossom frothed up, and we spotted more fritillaries in our meadow than we’ve ever seen before – silently colonising amid the more noticeable ladies smock. And so far two bold scarlet tulips and six fiery orange ones have survived the rodent winter feasting in the flower garden. A colourful small spring triumph.

But now the rain has set in again, the tulips look forlorn and the tarmac team have definitely not arrived. We hold our breath.


Lisbon street art

Lisbon street art

Mistletoe, Mud and Snow: September – December 2012 in Entre-deux-Eaux

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link
E2E2012no4.pdf (five A4 pages)

December 1st and the fields and trees outside are crisp and white with frost in the morning sunshine. Yesterday we had a light sprinkling of overnight snow (not the first end of the year, as there had also been flurries at the end of October). Cheered by the sunshine at the end of a grey week, we decided to go to Nancy. The hilly scenery soon opened out into flat fields of pasture, winter wheat or bare ploughed furrows, and a more distant horizon. A bird of prey hunched on the overhead cables, huge balls of mistletoe festooned the copses of bare trees, reed plumes and teazles along rivers, ponds and ditches glistened regally in the sunlight, and there were flashes of scarlet hips and lemon yellow birch leaves.

Nancy’s Place Stanislas was tarted up for its 250th anniversary seven years ago and still presents scrubbed white façades and flashy gold on the ornamental wrought ironwork. Having bought photo quality printing paper (for some of our Christmas cards), we parked near Place Stanislas and headed for a scruffy looking but well-recommended, tiny, unimposing on the outside, restaurant, Le Cosmopolitain, behind the covered market. Inside it was small but elegant and packed, mostly with young business people. It’s not often, these days, that you find a good two-course meal with coffee for 10.90€, which added to the pleasure.

Patchwork 2012

After setting out in different directions to explore the shops, we later met up unexpectedly in the covered market and had another coffee. Outside the market, wooden cabins were being erected and Christmas trees planted ready for the Christmas market and tomorrow the main streets will be closed for the Saint Nicolas procession. We were glad to enjoy Nancy and its shops on a “normal” day and equally happy to see the distant whiteness of the mountains as we drove home. The last two and a half months feel as if they’ve been dominated by maintenance work — house, body and car. But there have been the usual autumn highlights like the patchwork festival and the geography festival and the pleasure of sharing some of them with visitors.

Part of a Japanese patchwork

The patchwork festival brings to life the surprising number of old churches (also a former bank, the theatre and a mansion) in Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines and neighbouring villages in the Val d’Argent, trailing and draping colour from the organ lofts, pulpits, stage and counter as well as walls and windows. John came, rather reluctantly, for the first time (as we had visiting friends of his), and outside the first large church of the Madeleine spotted a stall with Moroccan leather slippers (no trace of patchwork!); the perfect birthday present to replace his old ones, which he’d bought in Marrakesh in 2004, through which a toe had bored a hole.

Sculpture in Villa Burrus garden

You always see things differently through the eyes of friends, with Julia’s focus on techniques, Graham’s scientific / mathematical approach and John’s photographic approach. The colours, as ever, were stunning. The former tobacco industrialist’s Villa Burrus in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines displayed delicate Japanese quilts indoors and patchwork flowerbeds with eye-catching sculpted heads outside. From there we drove down the wine-route, with the vine leaves golden in the evening sun, to the mediaeval walled village of Riquewihr. Near the upper gateway we had an enjoyable dinner at one of our current favourite restaurants, Au Trotthus.

We had an equally good lunch there the following month when Leila, Stella and Jacob were with us. This time it was grey and drizzly outside, but we did sneak a quick walk round the cobbled streets and tiny shops. The food was as good as before, but we were very conscious of the Maitre d’s disapproval at our lowering the tone of his establishment with a CHILD. Jacob, at 18 months, had no such inhibitions and, when not eating the food we’d brought, relished dipping into Leila’s creamy mushroom amuse bouche, and munching pieces of chicken wakame, shrimps, mussels, toast and terrine, and apple tart, though considered the service rather slow, so got down and played by the table, which of course incommoded the bustling Maitre d’. However, chef kindly came several times and gave him great bear hugs.

We had brilliant sunshine for the Saint Dié braderie while Graham and Julia were with us. We headed through the food, clothes, linen, leather, balloon and boiled sweet stalls to the flea market at the centre and browsed among old books, furniture and knick-knacks, emerging after a couple of hours with the Little House on the Prairie series of books (in French) and some new tea towels. On the other hand, the weather was grey and miserable for the Ban-de-Laveline flea-market while Leila, Stella and Jacob were with us. Our car Bluto was reluctant to start, Jacob wasn’t feeling happy (probably still tired from their journey out the previous day), and everything seemed pricey, so it was not such a successful event!

It’s interesting how different even Entre-deux-Eaux looks through visitors’ eyes. Walking round with Shelagh, Melvyn and the excitable small Prinz (I’m not good on dogs, but think Prinz has Cavalier King Charles Spaniel pedigree), we encountered all the village dogs and cats. The Alsatian-cross, chained outside the “drug dealer’s” shack, struggled, as ever, to break his bonds and gobble up this small intruder. Ex-farmer Duhaut’s large aged golden dog lumbered up affably, telling us about his poorly leg. Behind him was the new pavilion (bungalow) Duhaut is having built, and behind that the new two rental apartments above old farm buildings (were they pig, cattle or machinery housing before?). Jacob was, of course equally interested in all these dogs, and specially liked the six that rushed out of the next farm, Vozelle’s, and licked him enthusiastically and accompanied us till we had left “their” section of the road. But we had to stop to look at the hens by their stream and the geese, who were fortunately involved in a loud and bitter dispute of their own. But the highlight, for Jacob, was being ushered into Madame Laine’s poultry enclosure and running around among her birds, then having some of the fat rabbits lifted out of their hutches and held firmly by the ears to be stroked. The little tricycle we’d bought for a euro in a flea market was great for these expeditions. Jacob was more cautious, however, about the ride-on tractor and contented himself with pushing Teddy round on it.

Jacob and Al(bear) on 29 October 2012

At first he insisted on being carried by Mummy in the field to see the cows, but he was soon following John, clutching the faithful Teddy, through the long grass on masculine tours of inspection of the orchard, drains and “arboretum”. The arboretum has suffered from deer chewing the bark and rodents chewing through the base of the slender trunks. So the new trees which his sister Ann and Derek gave John for his birthday have more substantial protection, including wire fencing and bright orange plastic tubing. (And with this years bulb plantings we’re trying net onion bags and cardboard egg boxes as anti-rodent protection!) But so much for small dogs and boys to look at (and sniff out) locally.

It was the night before Leila, Stella and Jacob’s flight out that we had our first snow, and it was still falling as we crossed le Bonhomme. The gritters, however had prepared well. Stella and I thought it would be good to take a walk through the snow and drove up one day towards le Hohneck. I was being cautious, as our smaller car, Snowy, does not have winter tyres. I was glad I stopped at the point I did as we later saw a car stuck on the road up to the café at the summit. “No winter tyres!” exclaimed a man in camouflage who had helped push them. But it was worth the leisurely walk up through the trees to the ridge and spectacular views. The sun was out, the snow glistering and scrunchy beneath our boots, and the orange lollipop poles marked the track out in the snow. The hot chocolate at the top was good too. Jacob had to content himself with pressing his nose to the living room window and watching the snowflakes on the balcony and the birds coming to feed. Long after they had left, I kept hearing little cries of “Birdy!” whenever a bird landed on the food.

Saint Dié’s International Geography Festival (known affectionately by locals as le FIG) had a cover-all theme this year : Les facettes du paysage, nature, culture, economie. Few of the geographical lectures appealed to me, apart from one on landscape in Tolkien. I don’t think the organisers realised quite what a large cult following Tokien has. They did move the talk to a larger area of the library than the advertised one, but by the time I discovered the change, the old reference library was crowded out and it was impossible to hear from outside. However, the invited country was Turkey, and the literary talks about Turkish authors were interesting. The first I went to was in a huge hall with an audience of eight (now why didn’t they use that for the Tolkien talk?), but so interesting that I ended up buying a novel by Sait Faik Abasiyanik and an autobiographical volume by his translator into French. There was another interesting talk on Pierre Loti and Turkey, and the opportunity to see the haunting film “Once upon a time in Anatolia”, (a film with a 15 certificate in the UK which had no classification in the programme and a teacher had brought a junior school class to see, the teacher finally ushered the children out a few minutes before the end when a graphic autopsy took place). John only went to one of the cookery demonstrations (alas, not Turkish food), as the others had little out of the ordinary. The Turkish food tent was busy though, and there was a lively Turkish street band with dancer.

Photovoltaic panels being installed

In between these activities and visits, house improvements continued with the installation of photovoltaic panels on the south-facing roof. Fortunately there were no serious mishaps in the process. The man who measured up arrived on a wet day and scrambled around on the slippery roof with no safety helmet or other protection – and looked considerably paler-faced by the time he descended. The van bringing ladders and safety netting on the first day decided to turn on the field and got stuck in the mud; fortunately the milk tanker was just returning from the cattle shed at the end of the road and kindly pulled it out. The lorry delivering the panels and electrical boxes was more prudent and turned at the end of the road before unloading. While it was blocking our narrow road the impatient farmers in a car attempted a turn in the other field and also got stuck (it has been rather a wet autumn). But after that things proceeded smoothly, and we now await connection to the grid by EDF and possible inspection by the mysterious sounding Consuel. Their approval (they only physically visit about one-in-five installations of electricians they generally trust) and certificate is necessary before EDF will return and put the final fuse in. But when we went to change our house insurance, we learned of an unforeseen French hazard for solar panels: huntsmen firing at them when hunting (was the man joking?) Perhaps we shouldn’t risk cheering as the deer cunningly zig-zag up the side of the orchard away from the shots (we’ve seen that twice already this autumn). Autumn maintenance included a boiler check, a once-in-twelve years oil tank sludge clean-out and fresh oil delivery for the winter ahead. John is currently making enquiries about geothermal heating, and we are finally arranging to have the now muddy area at the front and side of the house tarmaced.

As for body maintenance: John had day surgery (in Saint Dié’s new hospital block) on his out-turning eyelid which had been causing scratching of the eye, redness and irritation. He was allocated his own room with bed, ensuite shower and loo. English patients must be a rarity (or else I was a very bad patient) as one of the nurses remembered me from five years ago. Work was still being done in parts of the new hospital block and some of the accommodation was temporary, so there were no signs up at that stage, just one very busy lady directing bewildered patients to different sections along multi-coloured but otherwise bare corridors. Arriving in the right place felt quite a triumph. There is a shortage currently of ophthalmologists and dentists in France, so perhaps it was fortunate that John was critical enough to be seen within a week at the hospital and operated on a fortnight later. I had to travel over an hour to Strasbourg to get a routine eye test. Then, clutching my new prescription, I toured the opticians in Sainte Marguerite and Saint Dié (no shortage of retail outlets) obtaining widely varying quotes for supplying lenses to my existing glasses. Ophthalmologists (eleven years of medical training and many now charging a lot more than the state will reimburse for an examination) and dispensing opticians are mostly separate businesses in France. More recently, opticians have been allowed to do simple eye tests just to check for minor variations from prescriptions up to three-years old, presumably to try to alleviate the shortage? Jacob seemed entranced by all the long mirrors in the optician I chose (the cheapest quote), and ran round looking in all the mirrors as I tried on my new glasses. As for my dentist, he was looking well-tanned when I got an appointment after his month away (more shortages and long waits). And his surgery has a lot of new paintings up (all his own work, presumably over his long break). However, he has had time to do some temporary work (so I can stop chewing the cloves), and proposes expensive work after Christmas.

Our main car, Bluto, however is in a less fortunate state. We were getting increasingly worried about problems starting and had booked a service and check in Epinal where there is a larger Toyota workshop. But the day before the service, Bluto refused point-blank to start. Unfortunately he was in the garage, and his insurance only covers break-downs over 25 km from home (no AA/RAC in France but most car insurance policies include it as an extra). Even the break-down driver was unable to elicit any signs of life and Bluto was towed out of the garage and taken ignominiously away to the Toyota garage in Saint Dié. Unfortunately there is only one mechanic/lad working there (who, incidentally, looks remarkably like Tintin) and they could give us no idea when Tintin could look at Bluto, who currently is now languishing forlornly in the car park. Our pleas that we wish to drive to England shortly fell on deaf ears. Since I started writing, snow has been falling. Will snow-covered Bluto recover in time for Christmas? Will Snowy have to be pressed back into long-distance service? Will we see you?

Next week the postman will call with his calendars, Saint Nicolas will visit the children in Entre-deux-Eaux and the neighbouring villages will turn on their Christmas lights. We hope you have all escaped the autumn floods and landslides and enjoy your December preparations. We hope to catch up with as many as possible of you over Christmas and New Year.

A week in Berlin, August 2012

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures) click on this link
E2E2012no3.pdf (five A4 pages)

Brandenburg Gate c1975The triumphal Brandenburg Gate, topped with its chariot, horses and goddess of victory is a stirring image of Berlin. In John’ slides from the nineteen-seventies it stands grey and sullen behind the grey dividing wall. But on a sunny morning at the end of August, with the tour parties milling around and men with rickshaws zipping themselves into stifling brown bear suits (presumably for photos with tourists), it looked less impressive.

Three other gateways struck us as more stunning symbols of the magnificent but transient power of empire. Entering the first hall of Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, a broad flight of steps, twenty metres wide, sweeps dramatically up to the portico of the Pergamon Altar, excavated in the eighteen-seventies and -eighties in Turkey and reconstructed in the specially-designed museum. The sense of awe is enhanced as you climb the stairs, linger at the top, then pass between the columns to the inner court lined with friezes showing the life of Telephus, legendary founder of Pergamon. More splendour follows in the next room as you pass under the Market Gate from Miletus and encounter the blazing blue and golden yellow of the Ishtar Gate and processional way of Babylon; fragments of glazed tiles pieced together to show golden aurochs and dragons marching across the dark blue gateway while golden lions prowl the high blue processional way. The very height of this speculative and partial reconstruction made a more dramatic impact than their fellows, the dusty lions, bulls and dragons of Istanbul’s museum.

We had arrived at Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof late on Thursday afternoon, after setting out on the single-track railway line from St Dié to Strasbourg, then shuttling with bicycles, children and students on the busy little train which crosses the Rhine every hour to link with the efficient German network at Offenburg, where we picked up the sleek Interlaken-Berlin express. There had been a very good offer on first-class tickets, so we travelled this section in style, plied with free newspapers, small madeleine cakes and refreshing hand-wipes. Berlin station is now a stylish five-storey glass-sided edifice (even the trains run on two different levels) and it took a while to find the tourist office amongst all the shops and cafés; there a very helpful man (who retired from the fray, closing his position with a big sigh after answering all our requests) furnished us with a three-day museum pass, a booklet on museums, a couple of maps, advice on bus and train fares and where to catch the number 142 bus. Our hotel, the Adelante, was a recently-developed small block in a quiet street of flats, large kindergarten, evangelical church and corner bread-shop-cum-café in Mitte, formerly in East Berlin. That evening, as we strolled round the area, we steered by the gilded Moorish dome of the synagogue which glinted in the evening sunshine. It had survived the burning on Kristallnacht, but sadly not the allied bombing and, with a greatly diminished and impoverished Jewish community in East Berlin, was only reconstructed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We stopped for a great (and cheap) meal at Dada Falafel restaurant, which also does a brisk over the counter trade, and that night had a very good jazz pianist/ singer.

The following day, we ignored the hotel breakfast and ate at the corner café used by workmen in dungarees, regulars with their dogs, and bikers in black leathers, as well as by tourists, where the “small” breakfast included ham, salami, cheese, salad garnish, rolls, butter, jam and a big mug of coffee. Then, armed with our list of fifty-seven museums we could visit over the next three days (it had to be consecutive days), we revelled in the splendours of the Pergamon Museum (finishing in the Islamic Art section), then skirted the baroque cathedral, crossed the river and a park, pausing to greet the sculpted figures of Marx and Engels, and visited the eight-hundred year old Nikolai Church in the restored and quaintified Nikolai Quarter. Back on Museum Island at the Neues Museum, my memories are less of ancient Egypt and the bust of Nefertiti than of the pernickety custodians obsessed with size and position of shoulder bags (correct position is nosebag style), the laments that the glories of Schliemann’s Troy excavations are still in the hands of the Russians, and the flaking remains of nineteenth-century décor oddly incorporated into David Chipperfield’s renovation. Next door, the temple-like Alte Nationalgalerie had equally fussy custodians (despite the fact it would be difficult to knock the large framed paintings off the wall with a bag slung carelessly over one shoulder) and a suite of rooms of Adolph Menzel paintings. That evening we ate at the Toca Rouge, a Chinese restaurant a few doors from our regular breakfast café.

On Saturday our museum trail led us further afield as we caught the S-bahn and then a bus to rediscover the Peruvian artefacts in the Ethnological Museum. John had visited an earlier museum building in West Berlin back in the seventies and returned home with some interesting pictures. The collection is now in a capacious modern building in the leafy suburb of Dahlen, but the Peruvian artefacts were poorly displayed with sparse information as to dates and provenance. And what had happened to the wonderful textiles? The attendant was not helpful. On the other hand, the Pacific collection and the African artefacts, mainly from the Congo and Cameroon, were dramatically presented (though are black windowless walls for the “dark” continent quite p.c.?). But we left disappointed by the pre-Incas and regretting the paucity of information in translation in such an internationally famous museum.
John had to be revived by that Berlin speciality, the currywurst (pork sausage covered with ketchup and curry powder!), from a friendly stall by the bus stop. In comparison with the huge Ethnology building, the Brücke Museum in the woods two short bus rides away, featuring Expressionist artists, was bijou, which was just as well as the current exhibits are mainly painted postcards.

The bus journey back to the centre took us via the Kurfürstendamm (with all its big shops like Oxford Street), where John remembered having seen the solitary bombed belfry tower of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche next to a new church. We had to search hard to find the old tower among the modern blocks as it is currently being restored and is encased by scaffolding and hoardings, while at ground level the previously deserted traffic island was thronging with shoppers, tourists and a sea of stalls promoting facilities and opportunities for the elderly.

Our attention shifted from issues facing the elderly to those of youth as, after a bus ride from the Zoological Gardens to Alexanderplatz, we got swept up in a noisy march of hundreds of black-shirted, arm-pumping young people along the Torstrasse. There was a carnival atmosphere in the afternoon sunshine and slogans on the lorries about Pussy Riot, the counter-culture and GEMA, the German performance rights organization, which is increasing music fees for clubs and events. Reaching our hotel off the Torstrasse we learned that we had been part of the Fuckparade, the annual techno demonstration against commercialisation and the investment groups who are buying up property where the clubs and cheap accommodation have flourished. With rents and prices rising fast in the former East Berlin as areas gentrify, the inhabitants are being forced out and the tourists are flocking in to the new hotels, cafés, boutiques and restaurants. The places we had enjoyed, not to mention our very presence, were clearly a Bad Thing.

On Sunday Torstrasse was peaceful and the only procession we encountered was a much quieter one of rain-caped cyclists who brought our bus to a halt near the Brandenburg Gate. We later, at traffic lights, saw a splendid double-decker bike (it must have been hazardous stopping where there was no handy resting/dismounting post). We had been to a very good surrealist exhibition in Charlottenburg at the Sammlung Scharf-Gerstenberg and also to see the Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Functional ceramics and furniture at the Bröhan Museum opposite. Disappointingly the Berggruen Museum was still closed for renovations, so we couldn’t see the Picassos, Klees, Braques et al, so we went on to the Bauhaus Archive and then the Hamburger Bahnhof, where Andy Warhol’s paintings seemed positively classical compared with offerings like Cy Twombly’s or the photographs of boring blocks of flats which were dwarfed by the lofty proportions of the converted railway station. We emerged muttering unappreciatively like Grumpy Old Things, but cheered up over a hearty German Sunday dinner at Restauration Tuchlosky on the junction of Torstrasse and Tucholsky Strasse. Round the walls were photocopied newspaper cuttings, cartoons and theatre programmes about the Jewish satirist and critic of the Weimar republic, Kurt Tucholsky, who wrote books, essays, newspaper columns, and lyrics for cabaret songs, – and their calf liver in a rich sauce was the best ever.

On Monday we decided to explore further afield in Berlin in the hope of seeing a bit more of what life in the former east sector might have been like. We strolled north from our hotel to a preserved section of the Wall, in a stretch of no-man’s land next to a busy tram route; behind it lay the church graveyard which parishioners from the west with the correct passes were allowed to visit, despite being separated from their church. A fading wall of photographs was a reminder of those who had died trying to cross the wall and there were detailed information panels. But, unexpectedly, my old memories of the news reports, the permanent dread created by the iron curtain, and the spy stories and films were more powerful than the remains themselves.

We really benefited that day from the freedom of day travel tickets. We caught a tram from the wall, then the U-bahn overhead enticed us to follow its line as far north as our tickets permitted to Blankenburg. It ran at first between grim blocks of flats, but then everything got greener and we passed small plots like allotments with summer-houses; though the houses and gardens were so small, they looked a pleasant contrast to anonymous apartment life. After that we selected a line running south-west, passing a number of deserted railway roundhouses, till we reached Grünau, the last stop in zone B. Through the trees we could see the sparkle of the large lake which rejoices in the Harry Potterish name of Mügglesee. We hopped on a tram heading for the lakeside town of Köpenick at the confluence of the rivers Dahme and Spree, one (or both) of which the tram crossed to reach the old town centre and its attractive, tall, Baltic-gabled, brick houses. That mine of useless as well as useful information, Google, reveals that William Voigt, a jobless and previously convicted shoemaker, popularised Köpenick when, disguised as an officer of the imperial army, he occupied the city hall on October 16, 1906, arrested the mayor, took the city treasury and “accidentally exposed the German subservience of this time”. Apparently theatre plays and films were made about this coup. Unaware of this, we failed to spot his statue as the tram rattled through. To complete the picture, here is another snippet from the same website: As Berlin’s washhouse, Köpenick casted its feathers together with other established industrial companies with more than 50,000 inhabitants before World War I and became the “Headquarter of Berlin’s East”.

Leaving Berlin’s washhouse, our tram headed for Friedrichshagen and we continued for two stops on the S bahn to the lakeside resort of Wilhelmshagen. The town had probably been bustling with day-trippers in holiday mood over the hot, sunny weekend, but on a Monday it felt as desolate as Margate in winter. We just missed the afternoon boat trip round the lake, which was setting off from a jetty behind the brewery, so we headed back on the S bahn towards central Berlin and walked through the Neukoln area, along Karl Marx Strasse and over the Oberbaumbrücke with John pausing to photograph striking painted walls and the ornate brickwork of the bridge where even the bosses in the gothic cross-vaulting looked like illustrations of fables or folk-tales. We returned to our hotel by tram and in the evening, still having a transport ticket, ventured a little further afield (but only two bus stops) to a shared trestle table outside the popular Monsieur Vouong for his Vietnamese cooking.

It wasn’t until our last day, Tuesday, that we made our way to the foot of the Brandenburg Gate. Of course the other great change for John in that area was the domination of the skyline by the new glass dome of the Reichstag. More sobering were the undulating alleys of plain slabs of the Holocaust Memorial, whose anonymity was a contrast to the small brass plaques in the pavements of Mitte which recalled by name the people who had lived there before their removal to the camps.

From Potsdammer Platz, possibly tantalised by the abandoned railway roundhouses glimpsed the previous day, we took the U-bahn down to Gleisdreieck, where huge brick factories once served by rail, canal boats, and road now house the Technology Museum. We were keen to see their steam engines, carriages and railway architecture (and even furniture and crockery) in two bomb-damaged reconstructed semi-circular engine sheds, with a restored turntable outside. It included powerful sections on ‘Railways and the swastika’, ‘Armaments’, ‘War and the railways’, and ‘By train to the death camps’. It was also interesting, as our hotel was on Borsigstrasse, to see the earlier section on August Borsig and his locomotives. Although the road transport collection and the brewery were closed, there were so many other aspects of technology to explore. In the factory and office building once used by a pioneering refrigeration equipment company (and complete with spiral staircase for horses and stables for sick horses) we examined pre WWII mechanical and post-WWII electromechanical and electronic Zuse computers and telecommunications, radios, and gramophones; behind the engine sheds there was a photographic equipment display; and in a high modern extension, we cast a look over the shipping, aviation and space exhibits (including some battered rusting fighter planes which looked as if they had only just been pulled out of the river). And if you have ever wondered about the best method of converting your hard cardboard into 1920s style suitcases, this museum provides the answer with its historical machinery and demonstrations of punching, crimping and bending, pressing, nailing, riveting and finishing. And there was still much that we did not see – pharmaceuticals, paper-making, film-making…….

That last evening we walked up to the top of our road intending to eat at the recommended Honigmond hotel, once a meeting place for political opponents of the East German regime (including pastors from the Calvary Church opposite whose rousing bells we heard every day at 4 o’clock) and frequently closed by the Stasi. However, having seen the plates of food already being eaten by customers, we decided to return to the Tucholsky. This time we sat outside, looking down Tucholsky Strasse to the dome of the synagogue, and it seemed very appropriate, given how much railways had featured during the week, that right below our feet the S1, S2 and S25 trains continued to rumble.

It had been a stimulating week, we agreed the following morning, as we sat in the sunshine outside the Hauptbahnhof glass palace waiting for our train back to Entre-deux-Eaux.