Book review – In the Café of Lost Youth

This is my first post for the blog at TripFiction (many thanks for the invitation, Tina, and for the book!).

What a great website this is, combining twin JustRetiring passions of books and travel.

Books set in a location help us get under the skin of a place in a way that is quite different to a conventional travel guide.

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, novel set in Paris

You know those enigmatic, slightly pretentious French language films, with lots of silences and meaningful looks between the protagonists, played out in a smoky café on the Rive Gauche?
This book reminded me a little of one of those.
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The central human character is the young, lost soul of Jacqueline Delanque, nicknamed “Louki” by the cast of regulars at the tacky Café  Condé she wanders into one day. The louche bunch of actors, writers and poets take her under their artistic wing, without ever really knowing her past or helping her figure out her future.
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But through flashbacks and other characters – and in one of the four chapters, from Louki herself – we gradually come to understand her troubled and impoverished upbringing. She becomes known to the police, wandering the streets of Montmartre alone and too young, while her mother works at Le Moulin Rouge. Gradually she explores further afield, bumping into the drug world through a chance meeting with Jeanette Gaul, known ominously as “Death’s Head“. Louki fails in her ambition to study, when she is rejected by the esteemed Jules-Ferry lycée. She drifts into a brief, doomed marriage with Jean-Pierre Choureau, director of a real estate agency.
 
But through Roland, a lover she lives with after she walks out on Jean-Pierre one day, we sense she might finally find a little happiness.
 
Roland binds the narrative together, through his obsession with the real star of the story – Paris. He talks about the Neutral Zones: “intermediary zones existed in Paris, no-man’s-lands where you were on the fringes of everything, in transit, or even suspended. You enjoyed a degree of immunity there. I could have called them free zones, but neutral zones was more exact.” 
 
Louki lived with Jean-Pierre in the affluent, sterile suburb of Neuilly, where there is an inevitability that the marriage will fail. She and Roland find a temporary peace wandering the grimy streets of the neutral zones late at night, but a tragic ending to this sad, short novella comes as no surprise. 
 
You may not fully engage with the human characters of In the Café of Lost Youth, but TripFiction fans will love the book’s insight into Paris. Stroll along the sleazy side streets of la Ville Lumière, drink with the regulars at the Café Condé and share Louki and Roland’s aimless meandering through the dark underbelly of the city.
“We were wa;king without any precise aim, we had the entire night ahead of us. There were still glimmers of sunlight beneath the arcades of of rue de Rivoli. It was early summer and we were going to go away soon. Where? We didn’t yet know. Possibly to Majorca or Mexico. Perhaps to London or to Rome. The places were of no importance, they all merged together. The only purpose of our journey was to go to the heart of the summer, to where time stops and the hands of the clock are set forever at noon.”

Inspired by a book

Many 15 year-old boys are disillusioned. But not many leave home, telling their parents: “I’m bored with my life. Please don’t try to find me. I’ll be back within a year.”

Arthur Heeler-Frood disappeared on Tuesday, 6th September after leaving home to go to school.

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He has recently been found,  two months later and 10 miles from his rural Devon home, although apparently en route back to his parents.

The pieces of his adventurous jigsaw are being pieced together, but it sounds as though George Orwell was Master Heeler Frood’s inspiration. He had been reading Down and Out in Paris and London, and – like Orwell – had also been washing up in a restaurant kitchen.

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In the iconic book, Orwell’s largely autobiographical novel tells of the underbelly of society in both capital cities.

The author’s 15 year-old disciple apparently spent time walking around England’s three largest cities – London, Manchester and Birmingham.

Other details will no doubt emerge over time, and perhaps Arthur’s adventures will also form the basis of his own novel in later years. But – forgetting the obvious distress for his parents, family and friends – how refreshing that a 21st century boy has been so inspired by a book from the 1930s, rather than by a rap video downloaded from YouTube.

Costa Rica – part 2

My published article for Silver Travel Advisor on a pretty amazing recent press trip to Costa Rica, thanks to Explore – the Adventure Travel Experts:

Part 2

Activities

Costa Rica is undoubtedly heaven for anyone interested in the natural world, but there are plenty of opportunities to combine a man-made adrenaline rush with your sloth.

Whitewater rafting on the Balsa riverThe white-water rafting on the Balsa river was a blast. With Class 2-3 rapids, it’s fun and safe but still gets the pulse racing.  The guides were as entertaining as they were competent, and I can still taste the fresh pineapple, laid out on one of the upturned rafts with watermelon and yellow oranges, as we caught our breath on the riverbank, half way down the 10 km route.

And for a thrillingly different perspective of the Monteverde Cloud Forest, dare to experience the Sky Trek Ultimate Zip Lines. Whisked by gondola up to an altitude of 1,600 metres; 8 zip lines; longest cable 750 metres; highest cable 100 metres above the forest canopy; total zipped journey of almost 4 km; and a surprise at the end, called Vertigo, go and find out for yourself what that might be.

Zip-lining high above the Monteverde cloud forestStrapped to the zip line like a spit-roasting hog, we screamed along the first couple of cable slides into thick cloud – a leap into the dark, way above the lush green forest. And then the sun emerged, and the clouds cleared – like the parting of the Red Sea – to reveal a rare, perfect view of the distant Arenal volcano.

Too energetic? Relax in the many natural hot springs near Arenal, the volcano’s geothermal activity creating bubbling bathing water as warm as 105F.

Coffee

If you like coffee, that’s just one more reason to visit Costa Rica. An important part of their history, culture and economy, they are the world’s 13th largest producer, again punching way above their geographical weight.

90% of the production, from 70,000 farmers, is exported around the world. Coffee represents 11% of the country’s total export revenues, and a significant proportion of its GDP.

And it’s good coffee. Very, very good. A Presidential decree in the late 19th century ensured that only Arabicacoffee is grown in Costa Rica. How prescient was that!

Picker coffee beans at the Doka Coffee EstateWe had a fascinating tour of the Doka Estate, on the fertile slopes of the Poas Volcano. We learned about the complete growing and production cycle; how each worker is paid $2 for filling a cajuela, a basket containing 1.5 kg of perfect coffee beans and how a very good picker can fill 20 cajuelas a day. During the harvest – 6 months from October – most of the Estate’s workers are from neighbouring Nicaragua, and their deal includes a house, water and electricity.

Naturally, we had to try some mature, finished product, which takes a full 4 years from end to end. It’s worth the wait. The Estate’s Espresso Italiano is strong enough to make you want to wrestle crocodiles; try their French Roast, Breakfast Blend or House Blend for something a little less punchy; or – for something completely different – sample the Peaberry, a sweeter brew produced from a bean which represents only 5% of the total harvest and which produces one round seed, rather than two flatter pods.

People

In 1948 the President of Costa Rica, Jose Figueres, took a sledgehammer and smashed a hole in the wall of the country’s military headquarters. This symbolised the remarkably forward thinking decision to disband the army, and to redirect any military budget towards spending on education, healthcare and environmental protection.

Arenal volcano from the Monteverde cloud forest zip-line adventureAll the ‘Ticos’ – as Costa Ricans call themselves – we met in 2016 seemed educated, polite, friendly, happy, proud, kind and deeply aware of their environment and sustainability issues.

I wonder what would happen if we made a similar decision about Trident, and the rest of our own defence budget.

Throughout our trip, meeting local people was a joy and an integral part of the travel experience. And they may have originally plagiarised a Mexican comedian, but the phrase ‘Pura Vida’ very much sums up the Costa Rican psyche and culture today. The literal translation is ‘Pure Life’, but to Ticos it means much more. It is used to say hello and goodbye, how are you, have a good day, enjoy life but on a deeper level, it represents how Ticos live their life every day, how grateful they are for what they have and a recognition that others are less fortunate.

So start saying “Pura Vida” now and embrace life like a Tico as soon as you reach beautiful Costa Rica. It really is an enriching place to visit.

Costa Rica – part 1

My published article for Silver Travel Advisor on a pretty amazing recent press trip to Costa Rica, thanks to Explore – the Adventure Travel Experts:

Part 1

I walked out of my bedroom, a converted sea container, and ambled towards the swimming pool, hypnotised by the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean. It was already stickily hot, and the guttural dawn roar of the howler monkeys – dangling in the tree canopy of the adjacent Manuel Antonio National Park – had just subsided.

And then I almost stepped on the baby crocodile.

Welcome to Costa Rica.

The country occupies a narrow strip of Central America, between Nicaragua to the north and Panama to the south, with the Caribbean on its eastern coast and the Pacific Ocean to the west. In a land of less than 5 million people, a scarcely believable 5% of the world’s biodiversity is squeezed into just 0.1% of the earth’s surface. And Costa Rica’s enlightened government and naturally caring people embrace conservation as a way of life, making it the perfect ecotourism destination.

El Faro Hotel

The El Faro hotel nestles in the steep hillside contours of Manuel Antonio Park, and is just 400 metres from a white sand beach. Its bedrooms are sea containers from China, rescued from the Costa Rica port of Limon. Construction was 35% faster than for comparable hotels, saving 60% in concrete and water consumption, and producing just 25% of normal construction waste.

On our final morning of the Highlights of Costa Rica tour with Explore, the adventure travel experts, we could see a humpback whale breaching the choppy ocean, as we ate breakfast in the restaurant, above our container bedrooms and as if we were on the top deck of a luxury cruise ship. And ok, it turned out to be a healthily large iguana rather than a baby crocodile, but the story still epitomises the perfect harmony of nature and sustainable tourism in this remarkable country.

Here are a few other highlights:

Volcanoes

Part of the Pacific Ring Fire Circle, Costa Rica has more than 200 identifiable volcanic formations, dating back over 65 million years. Today, only 100 or so show any sign of volcanic activity, and just 5 are classified as active.

Arenal volcano in Costa RicaThe volcanoes have played a key part in the country’s spectacular natural diversity, their frequent past eruptions making the soil fertile and rich in minerals. In turn, this has nurtured dense verdant forestation, supporting te huge variety of wildlife and bird species, as well as the magnificently exotic plants and trees throughout the country.

Poas is one of the active volcanoes, and is close to Costa Rica’s capital San Jose. We got up close and personal with its crater rim, after a short hike on our first morning. At 2,700 metres above sea level, we began to struggle slightly for breath, but the effort was rewarded with a spectacular view down to the boiling acid lake of the active crater, 1,050 feet deep and nearly a mile wide.

And to the left of the bubbling cauldron, a wide grey path – like a slushy late season ski piste – sloped away into the gathering clouds below, showing us the lava flow course of the last eruption of Poas in 2011.

Later in the trip we spent time exploring Arenal Volcano National Park. Arenal is a more classical conical shape than Poas, and rises majestically from the surrounding landscape in the north-west of Costa Rica, 90 km from San Jose. A short 2 km hike through lush forestation brought us to the point where dark rocks from the 1998 eruption remain, after being hurled from the volcano’s core as incandescent, glowing lava.

Although still classified as active, Arenal last erupted in 2010. But in 1968 the local area was devastated by a violent and unexpected eruption, lasting several days, killing 87 people and burying 3 small villages.

We stayed in the charming town of La Fortuna. Previously called El Borio, it has a perfect view of Arenal and was renamed after 1968, in recognition of being on the eastern side of the volcano and surviving, while those settlements to the west were submerged. Lucky indeed.

Wildlife

Costa Rica is a paradise for animal and bird lovers.

White-water rafting on the Balsa river, a short drive from La Fortuna, we saw white egrets; black vultures; green and Amazon kingfishers, skimming the surf around us; cormorants, their wet feathers reducing buoyancy to ease their fishy feasting; and – high in the trees above the riverbanks – our eagle-eyed guide pointed out iguanas, almost perfectly camouflaged by the branches on which they languished.

Howler monkeysEn route to the world-renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest, Mario – our excellent guide and driver for the week – pulled the bus to the side of the road to point out a troop of mantled howler monkeys, rustling the trees above us. Specially adapted hyoid bones in their throats allow them to emit their elemental roars, usually at dawn and dusk, to warn of danger or to communicate with troop members.

And in the special environment of Monteverde, there are more than 100 species of mammals, 400 types of birds, 120 amphibians and reptiles, tens of thousands of insects, and in excess of 3,000 plants, including the largest orchid diversity in the world. Of its total 4,000 hectares, only 3% is open to the public, the rest being virgin forest.

We walked a few of Monteverde’s trails during the day, seeing millipedes and centipedes ambling across our path; an agouti, a rodent resembling a large guinea pig; two baby hummingbirds, lying side by side in a half-concealed nest, and breathing almost imperceptibly; and on a soggy afternoon, as we climbed past ferns, mosses, trees and vines to the top of the verdant canopy, we straddled the Continental Divide. Here, the water drains into the Atlantic and Caribbean on one side, and the Pacific on the other.

TucanAnd, with the insight – and torchlight – of a specialist guide, we also enjoyed a night walk through this incredible forest. Exploring other trails and crossing long, high hanging bridges, we saw a plethora of exotic bugs and insects, dodged freshly spun spiders’ webs, spotted a tarantula running for cover on a branch, and several different types of noisy crickets. But the most vivid memory is of fireflies, flourishing in the humid forest and lighting up to capture prey or to attract mates. As we dangled high above the canopy, torches switched off, it felt as though we were intruding on a private orgy. Perhaps they should have turned the lights off too.

A few hours south and west of Monteverde, we had a boat trip through the mangrove swamp, to the mighty Tarcoles river where it joins the Pacific Ocean. Keep your hands by your side, this is crocodile territory. We saw several, lounging on the banks or sliding menacingly into the murky mangrove. Tornado, decades old but undisputed king of this stretch of water, lay lazily near the mouth of the Pacific. The locals know he is at least 5 metres long, but with just his ugly head and a small proportion of his scaly torso visible on the muddy bank, he looked almost cuddly. Almost.

Sloths - courtesy of costa-rica-guide.comIn less than 2 hours on the boat and thanks again to expert guides, we also saw a mangrove hawk; a black iguana, the second largest species in Costa Rica, basking on a slain tree trunk; two scarlet macaws, screeching high up in the trees and looking like an advertisement for Dulux; a white ibis; a green heron, skimming the water; a rink kingfisher, the largest variety in the country; a wide-winged osprey with a catfish in its mouth; cormorants in search of their own lunch; a snowy egret, with yellow feet; a yellow-headed caracara; and lithe mangrove swallows, with iridescent blue breasts sparkling in the sunlight, darting around in search of food churned up by our boat.

On the water again at the end of the trip, this time in a catamaran in the open waters of the Pacific, we tracked humpback whales by their water spouts, and were almost on top of them as they breached the swelling ocean. Not to be outdone, a school of dolphins performed an almost perfectly synchronised routine. And one of our group spotted a rare and highly poisonous yellow-bellied sea snake.

And on our final day, getting up early to beat the heat, we entered the Manuel Antonio National Park. It might be the smallest of Costa Rica’s National Parks, but it packs a mighty punch of biodiversity in its forests, mangroves and on pristine white sand beaches. We saw more pizotes, unfazed by close human presence; white-faced capuchin monkeys, destined forever to be called Marcel, after the one where Ross gets a pet in Friends; and – finally, after days of anxious searching – some 3-toed sloths, lazing around high in their special tree. One even started moving.

The group and accommodation

Our group crossed the generational divide, ranging in age from 26 to 66. By the end of the tour we were like family, no surprise, given the incredible experiences we had shared.

The group on their final night in Manuel Antonio National ParkMario, the tour leader, was a 34 year-old Costa Rican with a passionate enthusiasm for his country, its wildlife and people. His knowledge added significant value to the holiday, and his humour made even the bumpy transfers in the bus a fun experience. Catch-phrase of the week was “no se monte, mae” – “don’t push it, mate” – and the epic selfie video of us all singing it in the bus, to the tune of 1972’s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep by Middle of the Road, will linger long in the memory. Look out for it in the Costa Rican charts.

A Day To Remember

Well, I’m glad today is nearly over….

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Leonard Cohen checks out on Remembrance Day.

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We get back from the funeral of Victor Sayer, a wonderful old friend of Gill’s, and who will be sorely missed….and find out that my dear father is in hospital again.

In the prescient words of Jools Holland and his ever brilliant Rhythm & Blues Band, who we were lucky to see in Guildford last night with good friends Chezza & Dave: Enjoy yourself….it’s later than you think.

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Blogging along

I set this humble blog up a couple of years ago, initially as a playground for my writing efforts.

Roil forward to this momentous day – with The Donald confirmed as the next occupant of the White House…and where am I?

Well, I suppose I’ve been sidetracked a little. My recent focus has been on travelling…and travel writing. I’ve been lucky enough to be sent on several exciting trips – to Greece, Andalucia and Costa Rica – and I was also shocked to win one of the Daily Telegraph’s Just Back weekly competitions.

This blog has been left behind a little, like a jilted girlfriend. But I do still try to write reviews of  books read, movies watched, meals eaten and theatre productions enjoyed.

Today though, it deserves a little TLC. So I’m spending the day on a Blogging: Next Steps course with Claire Dee, at the Guildford Institute.

Watch this space to see the fruits of my labours, and Claire’s expert insight….

 

 

Theatre review – Spillikin

Can there be a more rewarding artistic medium than live theatre?

I love a good movie. Occasionally there’s something interesting and thought-provoking on TV….Damilola last night was certainly an emotionally engaging experience. And of course reading a good book is one of life’s  greatest pleasures.

But watching live theatre – particularly in a small, intimate venue – engages the senses more completely, perhaps, than anything else.  And seeing Spillikin tonight at The Firestation Arts Centre in Windsor certainly left no emotional stone unturned.

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Sally has Alzheimer’s. Her husband Raymond, a genius and academic, is away at a co-co-co-co-conference. A colleague of Raymond’s has just installed a robot with Sally, to keep her company.

Of course it’s soon clear that Raymond is dead. But his love for Sally ran so deep that he has programmed the robot with his own memories, to ensure Sally is not alone as she spirals further into confusion and isolation.

As Sally gets to know and engage with the robot – now Raymond – the story of their real life is movingly played out by two younger actors alongside them on stage.

This emotionally charged drama, written by Jon Welch and produced by the innovative Pipeline Theatre company, raises so many questions about love, loss, betrayal, memory, dementia, caring – and Artificial Intelligence! – that a Q&A session after the play, with the writer and the cast, barely begins to blow away any clouds.

But that’s the beauty of theatre. Interpret it as you will. Which is likely to be different from everyone else.

Huge thanks to friends Jonny & Laura Lees for letting us see Spillikin with them. And to Will Jackson, the robot maker, as well as the writer, cast and crew. A brilliant and thought-provoking experience.

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