Thursday, 19 November 2015

A Walk Around the Block

On Monday evening (our time), we were Skyping with the Baguette-winner’s parents. Her Mum was surprised to hear that she had been at work all day. France is in a “state of emergency,” after all. The truth is, most of Paris is “business as usual.” People are at work, on the metro, in public spaces and in the bars and cafés.

To give you an idea of what the main attack sites look like, as well as the neighbourhood that this all took place in, I went for a little walk yesterday...

This is Rue Oberkampf, the centre of my French universe. We live here, and I only really know my way around Paris in terms of getting to and from this street. It’s Wednesday, and the street is busy. It’s always busy. During the day, it’s all delivery vehicles and shoppers; at night it’s a hotspot for the young and hip.

Just a little further down Rue Oberkampf, a shrine has sprung up. Until today, this corner was the closest people could get to Le Bataclan. Over the last few days, people have been congregating here, bringing flowers and candles, crying and, sometimes, singing.

Le Bataclan is on Boulevard Voltaire and, until today, this whole block had been closed to the public. It has now been opened to pedestrians (but not cars), and a new shrine has emerged directly facing the concert hall. I’m guessing that the two shrines will have met up by tomorrow.

I happened to be here at the same time as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, who were showing support to the victims of Friday’s attacks. They drew some attention from the people present, but most of the crowd were there to read the messages left at the shrine, and to leave flowers of their own.

Just a stone’s throw from Le Bataclan (by a good thrower of stones) is the Oberkampf metro station. All metro stations were closed on Friday and for much of Saturday morning. Today, it’s only Oberkampf that remains closed, apparently at the behest of the police.

Continuing down Boulevard Voltaire, we come to Place de la Republique. This has now become the centre of world journalism, it would seem. If you’ve watched BBC World or Sky News in the past five days, they’ve probably been reporting from here. In fact, I was watching this guy just before leaving the house:

When Charlie Hebdo was attacked, people gathered here every night for a week, and left all sorts of messages (and flowers and candles, of course). This time, the vigils have been a little smaller. Perhaps the sheer number of people killed on Friday night makes people feel less safe in large numbers. Perhaps it’s the idea that anyone is a target this time. People are out and about - the streets are busy - but they tend to want to keep moving. Or maybe I’m projecting, because I want to keep moving.

Parisians are still coming to this square, to pay respects and to mourn. Some come to meet (and interview) Lady Liberty herself:

There’s also a guy wearing all white, pseudo-breakdancing and rapping along to his headphones. He’s rapping in French so I’m not exactly sure what the message is, but he keeps saying “La Republique,” so he’s probably making a statement. Whatever the case, people are mostly ignoring him - today is not the day for such rambunctiousness.

There are also totally normal things happening here. Some kids skateboarding, some people just sitting in the sun, and a guy juggling (for some reason).

We’re heading north from here, towards Le Petit Cambodge. It’s on the other side Canal St Martin, which is a good opportunity to take a photo of two ducks. If it was Summer, the Canal would be busy as heck, but it’s a little cold at the moment.

Over the Canal and 40 seconds up the road is another shrine, set up outside Le Petit Cambodge and its neighbour Le Carillon.

Directly over the road is a hospital, where the waiting time to give blood is currently more than one week.

I wrote above that everything is “business as usual,” but individual behaviours are not exactly the same as before. People are jumpy; if you’ve seen the video of people fleeing Place de la Republique when they hear firecrackers go off, that’s obvious. You’ve probably heard that the attitude is defiant, that people are going out to prove that they are not afraid. Certainly, if you ask a Parisian what they plan to do, the answer will invariably be “we will party and spend time with friends, and show these people that they can’t beat us,” something along those lines.

I went out last night to meet a couple of friends for a drink. We were near the Pompidou Centre and Les Halles, major areas for tourists and locals, usually a bit of a nightmare thanks to the foot traffic. There were still huge numbers of people on the street, but these people were all leaving their offices and heading home. The bars and cafés were virtually empty (especially for central Paris). My friend (a Parisian) wanted us to keep walking until we found somewhere busy - he found the empty bars spooky. Maybe it’s an overreaction to say that the atmosphere has changed to that degree. It’s November, never high season for tourists, and it’s starting to get cold and dark. But the usual joie de vivre - a cliché, but only just - has been replaced with a truly deep sadness, and a growing sense of worry about what the future might look like.

It’s only Wednesday - as I write this, raids are still being carried out against supposed members of the terrorist cell from Friday night. It’s probably too much to ask that the city is exactly as it always was, so soon after. The bars and cafés will fill up again, maybe even by this weekend. And people will stop trying to convince themselves that they need to act Parisian, and will simply go back to being Parisian. After all, as John Oliver said on Friday night, this is the country of “Jean-Paul Sartre, Edith Piaf, fine wine, Gauloises cigarettes, Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macarons, Marcel Proust, and the fucking croquembouche!”

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Sense and Senselessness

We live in the 11th arrondissement maybe three minutes' walk from Le Bataclan, which is maybe three minutes' walk from the offices of Charlie Hebdo. For some reason, our neighbourhood has been at the centre of a whole lot of violence in the last year. There might be something special or infamous about where we live. Equally, there might not.

It was easier to dismiss the January attacks; Charlie Hebdo is a controversial publication which was under constant security. They had been hit before. It was horrifying, but it made some sense.

After last night's "fusillade," that logic is out the window. Le Bataclan is a significant live music venue, but it's not the biggest in Paris, nor the most famous. Stade de France is very big and very famous, but these attacks were not in the stadium. And where does this leave Le Petit Cambodge?

We try to find links, a pattern to follow to ensure that we're safe. It makes sense, sadly, that an attack may occur at or near a French football match - the President was there, after all. We can avoid large displays of nationalism, sports, culture or otherwise. But must we also avoid all American rock bands? Was it something about the name Eagles of Death Metal? Do we stay inside on Friday the 13th? Never patronise Cambodian restaurants? How long is a piece of string?

Today, my partner and I want to go Christmas shopping. The malls are open, which in itself seems extraordinary, but that's just the attitude here - to change one's plans would be to admit defeat.

Making the day's schedule is one big logic exercise: we should avoid the Metro, because that's an obvious target. We shouldn't go to Les Halles - the mall in the centre of Paris - because there were reports of attacks there last night. We will head for a mall well outside the central city, because somehow that seems safer.

But should we even leave the house at all? These attacks might not be finished, and there could be copycats and co-conspirators awaiting their turn. But then, what makes tomorrow safer than today? Maybe we should leave it three days, just to be safe? We want to lean on some clear-cut logic for reassurance, but last night just wasn't logical. These terrorists aren't following the script.

In a totally unrelated setting, as a Wellingtonian, I've felt something similar to this before. We are overdue for a major earthquake. We have been my whole life. My primary school was on the fault line. We practiced and prepared, and we carefully constructed our buildings, and we gathered emergency supplies. And it was Christchurch who were hit the worst. 

As sensible people, we want to rationalise what happened last night, to make sense of the senseless. But I'm not a security expert and I don't know how this works. So I'm doing what all of my French neighbours are doing, and just carrying on; just doing whatever it is I do each day. And today we're going to the mall.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Pat's Guide to the Farmers' Market

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you need to buy food. Supermarkets are great for packaged items, hygiene products and cigarettes, but for fresh produce, we must embrace the farmers’ market. You see, supermarkets think they can charge whatever nonsense price for apples that aren’t quite good enough to sell to the Japanese. They’ll sell you a cucumber for $4. Four dollars! For a watery log that you’ll never notice until your Dad puts it in your sandwiches because you’ve run out of Milky Way spread and it’ll ruin your month, but you still have to eat it because you can’t go outside until you’ve eaten everything in your lunchbox because school is fascism!

I believe it was Adam Smith, the inventor of economics, who said “When I’m a-philaderin’, I always bring a mandarin.” He also said this thing: “I buy all of my fresh produce - mandarins included - at the farmers’ market. It simply cannot be bestened for value.” Whether or not “bestened” is truly a word, the sentiment rings true. For value, the market is your new king.

But you can’t just wander into a farmers’ market unprepared. The savings could quite literally murder you in your sleep. Not to worry, however, I’ve put together this comprehensive five-step guide to shopping at the local market.

1. You’ve gotta have “A Guy”

See this guy?

He’s my cherry guy. He sells me only the finest cheapest cherries. I know what you’re thinking: why don’t you just buy big bumper packs of cupcakes, eat the cherry off the top, and throw the  cupcake in the rubbish as a celebration of opulence? Believe me, before the GFC, I had no idea that cherries were available as a stand-alone product. Times have changed. Screw you Madoff.
We’re coming up to winter here in Paris, so the cherry well has well and truly dried up. Luckily, when we’re out of cherry season, my cherry guy becomes my clementine guy. He sells me only the finest cheapest clementines. And he sells them with a smile. Well, not really a “smile”, but he sometimes calls me ‘chef’, which means ‘chief’, not ‘chef’, and he probably patronises me because he respects me so much.

2. If you’re buying horse meat, buy from the best

Obviously. We’re at the end of the Northern Hemisphere racing season, so it’s a great time to shop around for horse meat. Horses are majestic creatures, and their flesh is rich in nobility. You might never be a lord or a viscount (whatever that is), but you can eat like an earl or a count. Count me in!

We should all eat horse, if only as a method of population control. Horses hate us. They’ve taken down some of humanity’s greatest: they got Superman; they got Geronimo; they got Genghis; they got Theoden in LOTR; they got Roderick, King of the Visigoths. They even got Eadgils, “the semi-legendary king of Sweden.” [One day I’ll donate to Wikipedia]. If we don’t eat horses, who will they get next? Richie? I don’t bloody think so.

Top tip: Unlike unicorns, a horse’s meat does not contain any supernatural properties, so you’ll want to supplement this meat with about twice your daily Centrum dosage.

Bonus top tip: Ask your horse guy whether the jockey was right- or left-handed. You want to make sure you’re getting your horse steak from the whip side, as it comes pre-tenderised.

3. Make yourself sound smarter by pretending to know about fish

This is actually a good idea for many of your produce purchases. Just the other day, I had this exchange with my melon guy:

Me: “Say, you don’t happen to have any Moroccan melons, do you?”
Melon guy: “Yes sir, all of our melons come from Morocco.”
Me: “I thought so. That’s why I asked."
Now, we all know that the important part of a melon is how long it can sit in your pantry once you’ve forgotten about, before the fruit flies arrive (aka ‘the pumpkin rule’), but the point is I impressed the melon guy. He even asked me to marry his daughter. [He didn’t ask me that, and if you thought he did, you’re a bigger racist than me (and I’m the one who wrote it)].

When you’re at the fish stall, it always pays to turn to the person next to you and make some bold comment about being surprised at the price of gurnard these days. Don’t worry, they don’t know which one gurnard is either, but they’ll respond with some inconsequential remark about tilapia, and you’ll both rush home to over/under cook your catch and feed it to your resenting families. The thing is, buying fish is almost exactly like buying wine. You look at the price, then you look at how much it has been marked down by, then you buy two bottles/kilos because “I can’t believe how cheap this Beaujolais/grouper is,” even though you have no idea how much it should cost normally.

Truth is, only Dads really know the names of fish. And they only really know the names of two or three, and then they just make something up to impress the children who do all the heavy fishing (ie, hold the rod and try to stay awake). Dads will probably tell you that they “love a snapper”, or “I’m a kahawai guy”, which is similar to when people say “I only smoke Lucky Strikes”- it’s true, but only until Pall Malls are 50c cheaper a pack. As long as Dads can lob it straight on the barbecue, that fish will do.  

4. Appear interested in the expensive stuff that you have no intention of purchasing

A weird thing is happening at the market these days. For some reason, it’s transitioning from a place where people shove past one-another, hoping to snag a few bargains before hurrying home to their Sunday hangovers, to a place where people just stand around, eating “gourmet” things and listening to “musicians”. I personally think that these “vendors” are taking up perfectly good produce real estate, but some people seem to like ‘em.

Why not pick up a can of fancy foie gras? Don’t buy it, of course. You’re here for carrots, avocados, capsicums and the like.  Just look at it, nodding sagely as you peruse the ingredients (if the duck’s tears aren’t included, it’s not authentic foie).

You could even have an oyster or six, straight from the shell. Perhaps enjoy a dry Gewürztraminer, hoping like hell that the sugars in the wine will kill the vibrio bacteria before you board your flight later that day. Of course, you won’t do these things, because carrots, capsicums, etc. The point is, you aren’t an out-of-control bourgeois type, but you can pretend to be for these precious minutes.

5. Run home with your new produce, because it’s probably already gone off

Yeah, sometimes you aren’t getting the créme de la créme, as my Italian friends say. But with prices like these, who cares?

Smile, you’re a market guy now.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Norway José

The Baguette Winner and I paid a long weekend visit to Oslo, which is in Norway, which you knew, but secretly you weren’t certain that it wasn’t Finland.

Oslo has an opera house. It’s called the Oslo Opera House. It’s good.
With countless hours of semi-professional architecture admiration in my past, I can tell you that this is pretty solid architecting. Norway held an architecture competition to find the best design. At first, I was a little grumpy that my entry was not considered:

In the end, I think they chose well. The final construction came in US$52 million under budget, because this is Scandinavia, and your money is no good here.

One good think about the Oslo Opera House (aside from the fact that it looks like an alien spacecraft rising out of the ocean) is you can walk on it. It would also be a good surface to roll a watermelon down. If I go there again, I’ll take my Matchbox cars so that I can race the Corvette one vs the London bus one. The London bus one would probably win because it is heavier, but also sometimes it can tip over. The Corvette has doors that can open.

Oslo is a good city, partly because it is on the ocean. Most of the good cities are on the ocean, although some other good cities are not on the ocean. If your city is not on the ocean, it’d better have a river because where are we going to do bombs? Anyway, Oslo’s got a nice waterfront:

Oslo also has mountains, which is good because it snows a lot. Since it snows so much, the Norwegians like to do lots of silly snow sports. For instance, they love a bit of cross country skiing. This is just like cross country running, but with skis and a lot more Lycra. They love this so much that they do it in the summer, on roller blades:
Image from, ironically.
It’s a silly pastime, and we are duty-bound to laugh at these people.
They also love a bit of ski-flying, which is way cooler (although still totally weird). For those that don’t believe me, watch:

You can see Oslo’s massive ski jump from pretty much anywhere in the city. In fact, it was built as a monument to the country’s celebrated whaling culture. Whale fishermen (mammalmen?), when they arrived at dock, would point out the giant whale tail to their dying quarry, taunting them in their death throes. Come winter, it was discovered that the huge construction worked nicely as a ski jump, and thus ski flying was born (and the whaling continued).

It’s a big jump. I never dropped in on the vert at the Kilbirnie Rec Centre, but I sat on top of it. I reckon this jump is at least four times higher than the vert. Lucky for them it was summer, so I couldn’t give it a go. Their records are safe, for now.

As an aside, the jump would also be a good slope to roll a watermelon down. In fact, many types of melon would roll nicely down the ramp, as would a grapefruit.

We did not eat out a lot in Oslo, as we were staying with friends. Some quick observations:
- Coffee wasn’t bad;
- Bakeries were good. They love variations on the cinnamon bun. This seemed to be the main food item of note;
- Everything is expensive;
- Beer is more expensive;
- Wine is most expensive;
- You can eat whale. I didn’t, but you could. They have signs outside restaurants that say “WE SELL WHALE”; they’re not even hiding it. It’s like the Rainbow Warrior died for nothing.

On our last day in Oslo, Tom, one of our gracious hosts, offered “shall we go to the penis park?” It’s rare, these days, that one receives a truly unique proposition. And so, to the penis park we went!
The “penis park” is actually Frogner Park, ‘sometimes incorrectly referred to as the “Vigeland (Sculpure) Park”’ (Wikipedia), ‘incorrectly’, because “penis park” is a far more appropriate title. But it’s not just penises here. All the bits get their time in the sun.

As a city or, hell, a nation, your choice in statues says a lot.

That man there is King Dick, and you will bloody well respect him. He died at sea, which is a manly place to die. But it wasn’t the sea that claimed him. It was “a massive heart attack” (Wikipedia again, obviously), which, like gout, is a kingly affliction. He stands atop a plinth (I reckon), with a finger raised to the sky to say “we’re number one!” That’s probably not the best statue in Wellington, which is amazing, really.

The most famous statue in Oslo is this kid:

They freaking love this kid. He’s on all the postcards. He’s part of the Vigeland Installation in Frogner Park, and he’s one of the more “normal” statues you’ll find there (“normal” in the sense that Europeans love a depiction of a chubby little naked kid). I can see why they like the little jerk, though. He perfectly sums up that moment in every Norwegian’s childhood, where it’s dinner time and Mum has cooked bloody whale again! We’re always eating whale! CAN’T WE HAVE SOMETHING INTERESTING LIKE SEA HORSE OR BENGAL FUCKING TIGER?! Nope, it’s whale for every meal, like Chårlie Bucketssøn.

As I mentioned earlier: the bits. Tom said that he calls it the “penis park” because, although all of the statues are naked, the men have penises and the women are all smooth (and devastatingly lacking in detail). The reason for this discrepancy has been lost to the sands of time, but the best guess is that Mr Vigeland was raised by wolves, and had never actually seen a woman nude. How did he know about boobs, you ask. Big Kate Winslett fan.

The best thing to do, at this stage, is just to share a few snaps of the statues, and we can all imagine hilarious captions.

These kooky (and impeccably sculpted) figures stand guard over the centerpiece of the whole park: the monolith.
This is most likely an enormous stone celebration of the Catalan tradition of building human towers. For more information, watch this video:

Another theory is that these people are intertwined in their quest to reach the heavens (or enlightenment, because Norway is heaps-not-religious). I say “theory”, because very little is known about Gustav Vigeland. We do know the following: he was Norwegian (definitely true); he designed the Nobel Peace Prize medal (also definitely true); raised by wolves, as mentioned earlier (highly likely); danced with said wolves (probably what the film was based on).

The monolith is really good, in a creepy way. It’s meant to illustrate the desire to reach the divine, but I sort of thought it looked more like a bunch of people trying to climb out of hell. All the twisting of limbs and squashing together looks wildly uncomfortable. But, as I’ve written before, art is all about looking at it and making impressed noises, and people were doing that. So this is definitely solid art.
There’s also an excellent fountain:

It’s a great park, with lots of beautiful, insane sculptures. If you have a couple of classes of Year 10 boys, take them to Frogner. They’ll be entertained for hours.

In summing up, that was Oslo. It was very much like Wellington, although without the Cricket Museum. And with heaps more genitals.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Cinque Terre: The Land of the Five Lands

What follows is an unnecessarily detailed and dramatic retelling of the time I did a walk. It’s a well-known walk, one which many, many people have done before. I did it too, though.

I am a fairly spectacular urban walker, of this there can be no doubt. But I’ve never really enjoyed walking as a pastime. It’s slower than its close relation ‘running’, and contains a higher risk of boredom. To spruce up the whole endeavour, I decided to listen to the entire Radiohead back-catalogue in order. Well, just the albums. And I started at The Bends - I’m not a psychopath. I swear this just happened organically, at least for the first three albums. After that, it just seemed rude to change.

The journey began in the tiny Commune Di Framura. Framura isn’t actually itself a town, but rather a collection of minute villages dotted across the side of a hill. What it does have is a dynamite little hostel, quieter and far cheaper than its touristy cousins in the Cinque Terre. It’s run by a charming chap who speaks no English. I don’t think he speaks German. I didn’t try French. I assume he speaks Italian, but how would I know? Our relationship consisted mainly of “ciao” and thumbs-ups.

[Sidenote: This really was a great little hostel (Ostello Perla del Levante). At check out time, I wasn’t quite ready, and he was off somewhere to do Italian things, so could I please leave the key in the letterbox, and just drop some cash on the desk to pay for the room. All of this communicated in hand gestures and trust.]

With base camp set up, it was off to Cinque Terre. These are five little towns amongst the hills, connected by train tracks and walking paths. I had done little research, but I guessed I’d go to the other end of the track, and walk until I got to Monterosso, the nearest town to Framura (and the one with a beach). The German woman in my dorm had done some of it yesterday, and came back looking like she’d done several back-to-back Tae Bo classes (back when that was a reference). I asked her whether it might be too much for one day?
“For me, yes. But I haven’t done any sport since last September.” It’s a little weird that she gave a specific time period of non-sportingness. She probably expected me to ask further questions. I asked no further questions.

She continued, “but you probably do a bit more sport than me.”

“Oh, you know, occasionally,” I replied humbly, but I could tell she knew. “I’ll give it a go. There’s always the train if I need it.” I had no intention of needing it. What she didn’t realise was that she had challenged me and all of New Zealand, and I would not let us down.

“Where do we go from here…”
While waiting for the train at little Framura station (10am), I decided to listen to The Bends. It was sunny, and sometimes I listen to The Bends when it’s sunny. I had packed the essentials:
-     - H&M shoes;
-     - H&M shorts;
-     - H&M socks;
-     - Towel that’s too small for proper beach use, but saves an insignificant amount of space in one’s bag;
-     - H&M swimming shorts;
-     - Biscuits which weren’t very nice, but the good news is they were expensive;
-     - Water;
-     - All Blacks shirt, because patriotism is a responsibility.

The plan: Walk really fast; cursorily observe the history and culture; get to the beach at the end; forget most of the history and the culture. Oh, and I pass you, you don’t pass me. (I’m competitive, it turns out).

“You’ve got to feel it in your bones…”
I arrived in Riomaggiore (10:35am), the first (or the last?) of the Cinque Terre, and I was pumped. Let’s hit this trail. Stop - culture; history! Also, KISS graffiti:

So I walked around a little. Yeah, cool town; funny colours; don’t need souvenirs, thanks. Let’s hit the damn trail! Normally, this part of the journey is the easiest. There are nice, flat, seaside pathways between the first two towns – a gentle warm up:

This would be true, if it weren’t for landslides. So we’re going over. It was at this point that I noticed that a lot of people had hiking boots, and moisture-wicking clothing, and backpacks with chewy straws which you can chew on while pretending to hydrate. Some people had ski poles, so maybe there’d be chairlifts? Oh, and all the shoes were brands named after Himalayan villages and such, and were in earth tones so you knew they were serious. I didn’t see many pairs of DIVIDED by H&M.

After walking around for an eternity trying to find the trail, I spotted the sign to Manarola (let’s say 11ish):
Hard to believe I missed it the first time!
“Sometimes you sulk, sometimes you burn…”
Immediately, we were going up. And up. Stairs made of (not necessarily flat) rocks. And narrow. I could see that some of my colleagues – the ones penciled into Death’s To-Do list – were finding the going difficult. I, however, had done the Tongariro Crossing when I was about 10, so I had a good base fitness to build on. Also I figured that, if “up” is the worst way, then doing it slower will only make it take longer. Better to go faster.

Eventually I made it to the top of the first hill, redfaced and gleaming thanks to a sweat comprised largely of olive oil and a little house wine from last night at Sylvia’s, a nice family-style joint in Costa, Framura. By this stage, I was well onto OK Computer. These albums are surprisingly good for walking to, by the way. But maybe the message is just that walking to whatever your favourite music is will always be a great time. Flight of the Valkyries would be spectacular, I imagine.

“Such a pretty house, and such a pretty garden…”

“Fitter, healthier, and more productive…”
Walking down is obviously better than walking up. What is especially nice about walking down is passing people going in the other direction, and giving them the little “you’re nearly there”, “great job”, “this is really impressive, for you” looks.
Eventually, I made it to Manarola around 12:15.
Here’s the truth about the Cinque Terre: the first few towns kind of look the same. The exciting part is doing the trail, hating every second of it, then spotting the next town, then realising there are two more “ups” before you get there. When I was in Riomaggiore, Manarola and Corniglia, I was mainly thinking about the next leg, filling up my water bottle, that sort of thing. I’ll bet the guide books say something else – that each of them is unique and spectacular and there’s all sorts of history. Anway, if you want to know more about Manarola, read one of your precious guide books. Just know that I was there, I looked at it, then I left it.

“It’s gonna be a gloooooorious day…”

As much as I’d like to whinge about identical towns, steps, and that nagging feeling that I was on the precipice of chaffing, the scenery and the climate combined to make it an extraordinary experience. Now back to cynicism.

“Hey man, slow down. Idiot, slow down…”
In all my excitement to be the king of the mountain, and thanks partially to the incredibly inadequate signage, I got lost:

I battled through some bushes, and I battled some more. Here I was, in a populated, tourist mecca, lost like something out of a Rudyard Kipling novel (never read anything by Rudyard). Lost like something inaccurately translated. Lost like those guys in Lost. I pushed through, and stumbled upon grape vines, in what seemed to be someone’s backyard:

I had two options: Go back down to the last legitimate path I’d seen (maybe 20 minutes of climbing), or head right (if I had a compass, I’d tell you the direction. Also if I knew how to read a compass), jump a few fences, and try to find the track.

I weighed the two: I really didn’t know which way the track was. I didn’t know what lay ahead. Would I be shot? Would I walk on forever, never to find the path, trapped in a sort of Waiting For Godot narrative, in which Godot is a path?  

But I couldn’t go back. I was winning. King of the Mountain! To go backwards would be to admit defeat, or at least non-total-dominance.

I chose to be bold. For whom does fortune favour? That’s right, the bold. Well, in this case it really favoured me, because the path was about 10 metres to the right. It’s possible that this whole episode was far less dramatic than I imagined, in hindsight. But hindsight’s 60 Minutes, as they say.

“Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon. Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon…”
Lemon trees are EVERYWHERE
Yup, we’re on to Kid A. It’s now starting to feel a little weird listening to this very minimalist, industrial-sounding music from the turn of the millennium in this context. Where’s the mandolin? Maybe some alt-country would make more sense?

We’re also onto Corniglia (1:30), the third of the towns. This one’s different because it’s perched up on a cliff. Other than that, though, it’s not heaps different. They do have their own Westpac Stadium, though:

I stopped here for four biscuits. As I told you earlier, they were pretty lousy:

And in produce news, I purchased an apple and an orange. The sign outside said they were  2.20 a kilo, but I paid  2.60 for one of each. In hindsight, I don’t think I bought a kilo worth of fruit. On the plus side, the woman who served me was holding a slice of pizza in her spare hand, and it’s fun when stereotypes bear out.
After my biscuits, I left Corniglia.

“Cut the kids in half. Cut the kids in half…”

You know what would make this whole ordeal even better? A baby! These two were keeping an open mind about the mess they’d found themselves in (both in the moment, and in the bigger picture), but I can’t imagine it being fun after 20 or so minutes (ditto).

Ps, the baby was crying.

[We’re on Amnesiac now, by the way]

“15 Steps, then a sheer drop…”
So many steps. It was like how Melissa Moon used to do those races where skinny people run up all the steps in a really tall building. I was the Melissa Moon of Cinque Terre. I’m not actually comparing myself to world champion stair runner Melissa Moon, but I’m also not not.
[Sidenote: Melissa Moon used to teach at my high school, when she wasn’t running up something steep. I never actually met her, but I like to think that she remembers me fondly.]

“I guess I’m stuck, stuck, stuck. We thought you had it in you but no, no no…”
I’d be lying if I said the mood was still high, the pace still quick, and my feet not sore. As cost-effective as these shoes were, they are not really any match for the oddly-shaped rocks these stairs are made of. Mood was low, and I forgot to fill the water bottle in Corniglia. The great carrot was the beach at the end, but first I had to get to Vernazza.

“Down is the new up…”
It didn’t feel like much more climbing to reach Vernazza. That’s probably due to Corniglia being on a cliff, and Vernazza being down at the water. Still, it’d seem a waste not to go up at least a few stairs. So we got that out of the way, and then it was a more considerate rolling path back down.

Also, along the way I finally found a sign that I liked:

Disappointingly, “playa” is just another word for “beach”. This really had the potential to be an elite sign. Still, I had a little giggle, and then it wasn’t far to Vernazza.

Vernazza is probably the prettiest of the Cinque Terre. It’s right on the water, and it really felt like it was designed to be looked at from within. I didn’t stop long, because there was only one more path to climb, and then it was beach time!

“Yeah I might be, paying attention, paying attention, paying attention…”
[BIG SIDENOTE: Diligent Radiohead fans will have noticed that I totally neglected Hail To The Thief. Congrats. That was a test. Actually, I forgot it entirely. I remembered about it on the way to Monterosso, but I figured I would add it on at the end if necessary. In the end, it was not necessary.]

“Little by little, by hook or by crook…”
I was officially over all the stairs, the climbing, the other people at this point. I felt that my ‘if something is worse, do it faster’ mentality made sense, and started really moving.  Feet hurting, sunburnt and thirsty, I was determined to end this thing. The good news was that this was the last leg. The bad news was that people had told me that this was the hardest leg. I don’t know if it was any harder than the first two, but I guess you are supposed to go “around”, not “up” for them. Anyway, it was annoying, hard, and I was over it. The beach was calling, and it was time to greet it.

They say that this part is meant to take an hour and a half. I don’t know who’s in charge of that, because it took more like 40 minutes. [“God defend New Zeee-eee-land”]
Gloriously, mercifully, the beach finally materialised (4pm). Freedom. Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, and probably the one that I would choose to spend my free time in, mainly because of the beach.

“The water’s clear and innocent…”
Because it’s Europe, this is a bikini tops-off friendly beach. Naturally, I took mine off.
The beach, with it’s cold-but-not-impossibly-so water, was exactly what Dr Whatman ordered. You’d be a nutcase to do this trip the other way around, since there are no beaches at any of the other towns.

All in all, it took about five hours. It’s meant to take more, and I definitely could not tell you the deepest secrets of any of the little towns I visited. It was a nice, healthy challenge. For all the whinging about sore feet and the seemingly inevitable onset of chaffing (never actually arrived, miraculously), plenty of geriatrics were there, cranking it out. She’s no K2.
I celebrated by lying on that beach for two hours, acquiring further sunburn, and then with a delightful spaghetti and a bunch of beer:

Most people probably prefer to make these sorts of journeys with friends and loved ones, laughing gaily and enjoying the sights. I preferred the thrill of victory. I looked mother nature in her eyes and laughed scornfully. She, with her stone steps, tiny signs and dusty walkways; she, with her souvenir shops and overpriced fruit; she, the creator of obstacles and the burner of skins, could not defeat the human spirit. I laugh at her as I laugh at moderate foot pain, as I laugh at estimated journey lengths and I laughed at the children I brushed aside on the road to victory.

But mostly, I laugh with pride, because on this day as on every other day since time began, New Zealand was better than Germany.