Hawaii

Uppsala

9 December 2017

It is late afternoon and already bible-black.  Earlier it was universal grey.  The sun seems to have long-deserted this forlorn northern country in winter.  It is no wonder that the old people have a look of desperation when they pass.  They know that they have several months before they may smile again.  Younger people seem to be more cheerful, but in time, many will also succumb to glum.

I pass my time waiting for my long-sought South African residence permit.  I started the process back in June.  I had all my papers and certificates available within a month, except for one; an FBI certificate from the US.  Somehow the Americans managed to take more than four months to respond.  When I thought that I would patiently pass 6-8 weeks in Europe in pleasant autumnal weather, waiting for the wheels of South African bureaucracy to slowly grind, I have found myself shivering once more in the frozen north.  Two years ago I was stuck in winter months waiting for a new passport and last year it was a wintry wait trying to prove to my bank of more than 30 years that I was not now a money-launderer.

Ya basta…

But I am never lost for things to occupy me: my investments, writing and family research, never mind my daily 2-hour walk, regardless of the weather.  And in the late evening, I have the life-long habit of reading before going to bed.  At the moment, I am once more reading James Mitchener’s Iberia, based on his four decades of travels and extensive research in Spain.  It is a book that never fails to whet my appetite for walking on the Spanish caminos.

Over the years, I have read many of Mitchener’s books – The Drifters, Sayonara, Caravans, Centennial, Chesapeake, to name but a few.  The first that I read was Hawaii.  When we set off from Toronto in February 1971, I had that book in my bag, and most evenings I slowly progressed through the epic tale, covering the history of the islands, from their creation to modern day; it is a formula that Mitchener has oft repeated in other novels.

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James Mitchener (1907-1997) in 1991 (photo from internet)

For four days we crossed a frozen Canada by train, to be welcomed by Vancouver to four days of torrential rain.  We flew south to San Francisco, but the weather was not much better, with more rain and fog.  By the time we flew west to Hawaii, I had had enough of crap weather; I never wanted to be cold and wet again.  And with its tropical climate and luxurious vegetation, Hawaii did not disappoint.

For the first few days we stayed near Hilo, before moving on to the island of Oahu and Honolulu.  We found a lovely small hotel on the beach.  It was bliss to lie at night with the screen doors wide open, a warm breeze, and the sound of waves crashing on the shore.  What luxury that was!

On one of the days there, I set off alone to walk into the nearby hills.  I walked all day, following a quiet country road, seeing nothing more than occasional plantation buildings.  At one point I came across a small museum, set back from the road.  I paid the modest entry to an old regal-looking Hawaiian lady and for a time browsed among the exhibits.

As I was about to leave, I noticed that I could buy ice-cold drinks there, so I rested in a comfortable chair, while I sipped on a beer and chatted to the lady.  It turned out that she was something of an expert in Hawaiian history and culture and the contents of the museum were items that she had collected over very many years, for she appeared to be quite ancient.

When I mentioned that I was currently reading Hawaii and asked if she had ever come across it, she clapped her hands and with enthusiasm told me that not only had she read it, but that James Mitchener was a great friend, and that she had assisted him in the research for his book.

I have never forgotten that day.  My life has been full of coincidence.  It is almost as if there is an unseen plan for me and every now and then I come across an encouraging sign that I am on the right path.

And here I am, once more in the frozen north, waiting to go back to the warm south.

As Yogi Berra once said, ‘It’s déjà vu all over again‘.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Buquebus

Each northern hemisphere winter, from November 2013 to April 2016, we spent five months in Montevideo.  As a Uruguayan tourist visa only allows for a maximum stay of 90 days, we had two options; we could either request a once-only ‘prolongación‘ of a further 90 days at the immigration office (Dirección Nacional de Migración), or we could leave the country and return, same day if we wished, whereby we would be granted a new 90-day stay.  We have done both.

The most convenient way of crossing the Uruguayan border was to take the ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires.  In March 2014, we chose to travel with Buquebus, an Argentine company, which operates ferry services between Buenos Aires and both Montevideo and Colonia, and also has a fleet of coaches in both Argentina and Uruguay.  Our ferry was the ‘Francisco‘, one of the fastest in the world, capable of travelling at up to 107 km/hr, with 1024 passengers and 150 cars.  Compared with all the hassle of air travel and airports, international travel by ferry is both comfortable and relaxing.

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The newest Buquebus ferry ‘Francisco’, named after the Pope (photo from internet)

I was very much looking forward to going to Buenos Aires.  In late 1984, when my project with Bank of America in Lima was completed, my next assignment involved my moving to Argentina, where BofA had recently acquired a large retail bank.  The BofA HR department handled all the paperwork for the application for my work permit.  Unfortunately, in that era, I was travelling on a British passport and the Americans did not seem to realise that that might prove to be a problem; it was not long after the Falklands War and UK citizens were about as welcome in Argentina as pork chops would have been at a Jewish wedding.  My application seemed to disappear into a black hole and we could get no feedback.  After two months of waiting and marking time, I unexpectedly received an attractive offer for a senior management position with a computer services company in England.  I accepted, but that is a story for another day.

When I finally got to Buenos Aires, I confess that I was rather disappointed.  At the ferry terminal, locals warned us not to leave the terminal and to only take a certain type of taxi; apparently there were a lot of muggers in that area and many of the taxi drivers were less than honest.  And later that afternoon, within ten minutes of leaving our hotel, in a bar in the square outside, a young tourist at the next table was robbed and a crowd set off after the thief.  Compared to the relative security of Montevideo, Buenos Aires seem to have its problems.

We were staying beside the Plaza del Congreso, about 2 km from the Casa Rosada and the waterfront.  For the next eight days, we walked all over the inner city.  Although we found parts that were clean and well taken care of, with small parks, in general most of the city was grubby and had seen better days.  The pavements were narrow with irregular surface, the streets full of traffic, and every doorway seemed to be replete with smokers; at times the pollution was very noticeable.  And not a day passed without parades of protesters with their banners and chants, accompanied by heavily armed riot police.  Buenos Aires seemed to be a city in stress.

In comparison, the waterfront area was a welcome contrast, with its wide walks, fresh air and interesting modern architecture, with several very large parks.

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A small section of the waterfront
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The former navy training frigate ‘Sarmiento‘, now a naval museum

We returned to Uruguay as we came, by Buquebus, but this time by the relatively short crossing of 1:15, to Colonia del Sacramento.  It was noticeable that the water was thick with silt and occasional tree trunks; it looked more like a ploughed field than a river.

Colonia was founded in 1680 by Portugal, to protect its southern border with Spain. But the Portuguese were repulsed by the Spanish later that same year.  A treaty between Spain and Portugal, signed the next year, returned Colonia to Portugal.  Colonia changed hands no less that nine more times until the founding of Uruguay in 1828.

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Pórton de Campo – the City Gate

Colonia is renowned for its historic quarter and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  One can find whole streets with Portuguese architecture and others with Spanish.  And with streets and pavements of cobbled stones, just as one can see in the villages and small towns in Portugal.

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A typical street in Colonia
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And a street leading down to the river, brown with silt
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Sunset across the Río Plata

From Colonia, with our new 90-day visas,  we travelled back to Montevideo, once more  by Buquebus, but this time on the highway.  When we got back to our little apartment, it felt as if we were home again.

Bertie Law

Since my mother died in 1985 and my father in 1995, my visits to my homeland have been few and far between; Portrush is about as far from NW Europe as one can go.

In the spring of 2005, I drove over to Ulster, via Stranraer and the ferry to Larne, to spend some time in the archives in Belfast; I wanted to research part of my Irish family history.  And afterwards, for two glorious days I went walking in the Mourne mountains.

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An abandoned ice-house on the lower slopes of Sleive Donard, in the Mourne mountains

Instead of returning directly to Larne and Stranraer, as I had intended, I decided to take a detour north to Portrush and around the stunning coastal road.  Almost without exception, when I have returned to Portrush, my first stop has been the graveyard of the ruined church at Ballywillan.  For in that graveyard are buried my Douglas ancestors, as far back as the early 1700s.  My parents and paternal grandparents are also buried there and for a while I wander from one known grave to another, lost in memories of when many of them were alive, especially in the case of my first schoolmaster (see Jimmy) and Derek Aiken, a school friend, who died at age 44.

Existimos mientras alguien nos recuerde

(We exist while someone remembers us)

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Further down the hill, was the grave of Molly, the wife of my first cousin, Bertie Law.  After leaving the graveyard, I intended on passing by his house in the hope of spending some time with him.  I had just found new data on ancestors in which I knew he would be most interested, for like me, he was an enthusiastic amateur genealogist.

But when I arrived at Molly’s grave I was momentarily confused; she had been dead for thirteen years, yet the soil had still not settled.  And then of course it dawned on me that Bertie was dead, and only very recently buried.

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Bertie’s mother, Annie, was my grandfather’s sister.  She died three days after giving birth to Bertie’s younger brother, John, commonly known as Jackie.  Twenty years later, Sergeant John Douglas Law of the R.A.F. died over Germany and is buried at Rheinburg War Cemetery. I believe Jackie to have been the only WW2 casualty of the village.

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Bertie was my mother’s first cousin and the most complete example of a handyman that I have ever known.  He was an accomplished carpenter, bricklayer, plasterer, roofer and decorator.  He built his own house in Glenmanus and most of the buildings on my father’s farm: the housing for the incubators, chicks, poultry, turkeys, the pig pens, and all of the storehouses.  And when my mother was on one of her ‘I’d like to change this room’ moods, Bertie would construct cupboards and partitions.  It was through observing Bertie at work, that when the need arose, I knew instinctively how to lay bricks, plaster, rebuild a shower, decorate etc.

Bertie was something of a workaholic.  During the day he worked as a conductor for the local bus company and later he would work on the farm buildings.  And when he returned home, he would spend time in the evening in his extensive vegetable and flower garden.

It was after the death of my father that I discovered Bertie’s interest in family history.  He showed me the charts that he had drawn and we ended up by combining our research.  And we supplemented it by mail, by telephone and occasional visits by me.  Bertie’s charts are the backbone of what I know today of the history of the Douglas family of Glenmanus.

I felt very sad that day in May when I eventually left the graveyard.  It felt like the end of an era, for Bertie was my last close contact with my parents.  I still have two cousins living in the village, Hughie and Brian Douglas. I have recently renewed contact with them and long may that contact last.

Sometimes I feel most fortunate, for I am rich in memories.

Fragolina

I first arrived in Montevideo on 1 December 2013 and Lotta joined me a few days later.  Within another week we moved into a small serviced apartment in nearby Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  And for three southern summers that apartment was our home.

It was not much of a challenge to feel at home in Pocitos.  Within a short time, the doormen of the neighbouring buildings would greet us, together with the parking attendants and the armed guards outside the banks.  On La Rambla, we quickly progressed from nodding acquaintance with the locals and their dogs, to greetings and conversation.  After I had been to a barber (see here) and Lotta had been to a beauty parlour (and here), we could not pass their premises without their waving to us.  It was the same recognition and welcome that we received in the bars, restaurants and supermarkets that we frequented.  And one of the parking attendants used to sing ‘You are my sunshine’, when Lotta passed him on her early morning run.  We felt quite at home.

When we returned for the second year, we wondered if we would be remembered.  We need not have been concerned, for greetings transformed into hugs and embraces.  We were now really part of the local scene and it felt so good.

Outside a brand-new building in the next block to our apartment, there was a small chalk-board on the pavement advertising daily specials for a new restaurant, Fragolina.  The restaurant was part of the large central lobby, with a small shopping complex, and had not been long opened.  It was lunchtime, so we entered and ordered a meal and found the food to be excellent and plentiful.  As soon as we finished eating, the chef came out of the kitchen, greeted us warmly and wanted to ensure that everything was to our satisfaction.  That was our first introduction to Gaston Garrassini and his immaculate attention to detail.

We returned to Fragolina at least a couple of times every week that we were in Pocitos.  We never failed to feel honoured and warmly welcomed by Gaston and his staff.  When we left in April 2016, there was Cecilia, Belén, Anna and Romina.  And of course Gaston’s father, who used to sit at the bar or at an empty table, reading a newspaper, or working on his laptop, until there was a home delivery for him to take care of.

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Fragolina during the day (photo from Fragolina)
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And during the evening (photo from Fragolina)
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Gaston Garrassini, chef extraordinaire, and his speciality, a gigantic paella (photo from Fragolina)

Every morning Gaston goes to the market to select the best quality meat, fish, vegetables and fruits.  And he never seems to follow a standard recipe, for each dish has a touch of his improvisation.  One cannot please all the people all the time, but I suspect that there are very few who leave unimpressed with Fragolina and its staff.

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A typical potato and cheese dish, with a sprinkling of bacon bits and parsley – my kind of food (photo from Fragolina)
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Or a lasagna, large enough for two (photo from Fragolina)
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And a typical ‘Gaston’ hamburger with the trimmings and chipped potatoes (photo from Fragolina)

These days we are based in Cape Town and have not been back to Pocitos since 2016.  But we follow Fragolina on Facebook (see here), and the business seems to be going from strength to strength.  We often look at their daily menu, and wherever we are, we say – ‘Why don’t we have lunch today at Fragolina?’

One of these days, perhaps soon, we will return.

 

Galapagos Duck

For me, Sydney in the years 1971 to 1976 was idyllic.  I had left behind the cold damp climate of Ireland to find myself facing the long freezing winters of Toronto.  After five years of purgatory, I decided that enough was enough and the lure of the South Pacific won me over.  I escaped and I have never regretted that move.

For one sight of the piercing blue sky, the profusion of bougainville, the immense drowned-valley harbour, with its ferrys scuttling from point to point, and the string of beaches and headlands up and down the coast was enough; I fell head and heels in love with the country.

And I was living in Kirribilli the night of October 20, 1973, when the Opera House was officially opened, and the sky exploded with a magnificent display of pyrotechnics.  Life felt really felt good.

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Sydney Opera House as seen from Kirribilli
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And at sunset, with the harbour bridge in the background

For my first two years in Sydney, I was employed as a computer programmer with Nestlé, at their offices on Foveaux Street, close to Central Station.  They were good employers and I was relieved to have a steady income; when I received my first salary, my account was empty. And it was there that I met Philip Cockell, with whom I am still in contact.

Soon after I joined Nestlé, I was recruited into the football team, that participated in a local works league.  Our home ground was a pitch beside the Nestlé factory, and when we were downwind, the smell of chocolate was quite overpowering.  We got quite accustomed to that smell, but visiting teams usually visibly suffered: having a home game was definitely an advantage.

But I was ambitious in those days –  I guess that I still am –  and a plodding existence in Nestlé was not for me.  In 1973, I was offered a similar position in a local computer services company – IDAPS Computer Sciences, and I made the move.  And after a few months I was promoted to manage their small group of programmers.

It was in the early days of service bureaus and few companies could afford their own computers.  Our clients would deliver their data on paper at the end of the business day and our key-punch operators would convert it to card or paper tape.  The data would then be loaded on our mainframes, processed, print reports produced and delivered to the clients, in time for the start of the next business day.

During normal hours the programmers worked on new developments or enhancements to existing systems, and at night we provided on-call support, in case of production failure.  As I lived close to the office I handled most of the on-call support, and there were few weeks when I did not get called in at least once to sort out a program bug or operator error.  It was after one such late night that I stumbled upon The Basement jazz club.

The Basement was located in the basement (where else?) of a nondescript  building close to Circular Quay, not far from my office.  In those days meals were served from early evening and live jazz from nine o’clock to the wee hours of the morning. The food was good and the house wine inexpensive and I soon found myself going there regularly, usually alone during a weeknight, sometimes with friends at weekends.

The Basement opened in 1973 with a relatively unknown modern jazz group called Galapagos Duck.  And later on, most nights they would be joined by other jazz musicians and a jam session would get going.  I used to love to sit there at a secluded table, sipping on a bottle of wine and letting my mind wander.

Galapagos Duck performed continuously at The Basement for 16 years and to this day still appear there from time to time.  They made their first album – Ebony Quill – in 1974, and I still have a copy.

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The cover of their first recording

Sometimes when on my own and in a nostalgic mood, I turn the lights down and the volume up, and with my glass of wine at hand, ‘Ebony Quill’ takes me back in time to a late night in Sydney.

Listen with me to one of the tracks…

 

Voltaire

‘J’ai décidé d’être heureux, parce que c’est bon pour la santé’  (Voltaire)

For most of eight years, 1999-2007, I had a small mezzanine apartment in Paris at 24 Rue de Lille, one short block removed from the left bank, opposite the Louvre.  It was a perfect location for me; a short walk to the metro at Rue du Bac and two minutes from the river, in the historic heart of the city.  Over the years, I read many historical novels set in the area, and often I would walk the streets of the old city in the late evening, trying to envisage what it must have been like in past centuries.

I have never aspired to cook, other than to boil an egg, make a coffee, open a beer or a bottle of wine.  When it comes to preparing a meal, I defer to those who are more expert than I.  Over time, I ate at most of the restaurants and bistros within a ten-minute walk from my apartment, but the one that I most frequented was La Frégate, on the corner of Rue du Bac and Quai Voltaire, at the Pont Royal.  There were very few weeks when I did not eat there at least once, and I soon became recognized as a local client, as distinct from one of the many tourists. But despite the earnest efforts of the maitre d’, Patrick, to introduce me to more exotic French cooking, it was rare that I deviated from my omelette au fromage or salade mixte.  But Patrick and I had one passion in common – rugby, and we had many animated conversations about the prospects of the French and Irish teams, especially during the annual 6-nations competition.

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La Frégate (photo from internet)

To walk from my apartment to La Frégate, indeed to get to the river, I almost always walked down the last block of the Rue de Beaune.  And there on the corner was the house in which Voltaire died, in 1778, as recorded on a plaque on the wall.

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Where Voltaire died (photo from internet)

Voltaire was his pen-name.  In real life he was François-Marie Arouet, born in 1694.  He was a profligate writer of plays, books, essays, letters; the criticism of organised religions was a frequent theme in his writing.  He wrote more than 50 plays, dozens of essays on science, politics and philosophy, several books on history and more than twenty thousand letters to friends and contemporaries.  And yet, he is seldom read today.

When he was younger, he became wealthy, by exploiting a flaw in the French lottery, together with a syndicate of gamblers.  His resulting wealth allowed him to be independent and able to pursue his academic interests.

Voltaire was reputed to work up to eighteen hours day and often fueled his energies with more that forty cups of coffee a day.  He spent part of his life in prison, at one time in the Bastille, or in exile, and lived for most of his later life in Geneva.  He was also an entrepreneur, setting up a successful watch business in Switzerland.

He never married nor had children, despite many relationships.  On his death bed, he is reputed to have told the priests – ‘Let me die in peace’.

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Portrait de Voltaire (Francois Marie Arouet dit, 1694-1778) tenant l’annee litteraire. Peinture de Jacques-Augustin-Catherine Pajou (1766-1828), 18eme siecle. Paris, Comedie Francaise

There are many buildings in central Paris with plaques recording their previous inhabitants.  Like that of Voltaire, there are so many fascinating histories to be discovered.  At one time, I aspired to document many of the plaques and to write a short historical summary of the lives of each subject.

It is not yet too late…

 

 

 

La Rambla

For three years, 2013-16, we escaped the cold, dark, barren northern winters and flew south, like migrating birds, to the welcoming warmth of the Southern American summers.  Each year we rented the same apartment in Pocitos, a beach suburb of Montevideo.  Our serviced eleventh floor apartment was just above the top of the trees that completely shaded the street below.  It was a perfect location for us, just two short blocks and three minutes from the river.

From Montevideo, the Río de la Plata does not look like a freshwater river, for it is so wide that one cannot see Argentina, about 100 kilometers away at the closest point.  Massive container ships, tankers and cruise ships, on their way upriver to Buenos Aires and beyond, look like tiny toy boats on the distant horizon.  When one of the regular earth-shaking tropical storms hits the upper reaches of the river, for days the water is brown with sediment.

Along the river runs La Rambla, a wide promenade, that stretches along the coast for more than 30 km, and is reputedly the world’s longest uninterrupted sidewalk.  Every day, almost without exception, we walked on La Rambla, first in one direction, then in the other.  After a short time, we started to recognize the locals, and before long we were greeting each other like neighbours.  Some times we would count how many people we had  spoken to in the course of a walk, and the number would usually end up in double figures.  We felt very much as part of the community, for Pocitos had the feel of a village.

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La Rambla at Pocitos

On La Rambla we also got to recognize the local birds, not just the species, but in some cases the individuals.  There were numerous birds along the river, some quite exotic.  There are reputedly more than 450 different bird species to be found in the relatively small country of Uruguay; the internet site, Avibase, lists 479.  Not only is Uruguay on the major migration path for many birds, but the country has plentiful water and a climate without extremes.  It was not long before I bought a book on Uruguayan birds and in the second year Lotta turned up with a new camera to photograph them.

Most days when we passed the end of the beach at Pocitos, there were several small snowy egrets with yellow feet, fishing at the edge of the water.  Often there was also a much larger great egret.

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A snowy egret

We once spotted a great egret sitting on top of a tree, near the small harbour at Punta Carretas.  When we went around and through the trees to get closer, we saw a black-crowned night heron.  It was a young one and it flapped away before Lotta could get a second shot.  Although we went back on other days, we never saw it again.

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Great Egret
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Black-crowned night heron

Where there were rocks by the river, inevitably there were cormorants with wings outstretched, drying their feathers.  Once we were very fortunate to witness a large flock of cormorants in a long semi-circle, hunting together, driving a shoal towards the shore.  We could see the fish splashing in the water, trying to escape their predators.

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Neotropic cormorant

Everywhere where there were mature palm trees, there seemed to be colonies of monk parakeets.  When they are feeding on the grass, they are well disguised, but when they are flying or gathered on a palm tree, they make their presence well known, for they make quite a racket.

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Monk parakeet

Humming birds are tiny; they hover and then move so quickly that one has to be lucky to see one, and even more fortunate to take a photograph of it.  One day we hit the jackpot, just up the hill from Playa Ramírez; a tree in full flower with many humming birds feeding on the nectar.  And for several days they had a banquet on that tree.

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A humming bird

Above the hill behind Playa Buceo, we often saw this little hawk, resting on a light pole.  If not an american kestrel, it was similar.  Even in the strongest wind it was able to hover motionless for several minutes, sometimes not far from us, then it would suddenly drop, grab its prey and fly off to nearby trees.

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The southern lapwing is Uruguay’s national bird and in the summer they are plentiful, especially on the parkland between the golf course and the river, after heavy rain.  The lapwings have a strange hesitant walk, that always reminds me of John Cleese in Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

During our first year in Pocitos, we used to see one lapwing that was always on its own.  At first we thought that it was always standing on one leg, but when it started to hop, it was obvious that it had only one leg.  It appeared to be quite healthy, but perhaps the rest of the flock rejected it for not being quite normal.  I guess that handicapped people in our society can suffer the same rejection.

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The Southern Lapwing with only one leg

The last year that I arrived back in Pocitos, I settled my few possessions in the apartment and then went out for a short walk along La Rambla.  At the end of the beach, there is a small park and there on the edge of the park, waiting for me, was the southern lapwing with only one leg.

I felt as if I had come home.