Guard Dogs and Tadpoles

One of our regular valley floor walks follows the river Aveyron to the north-east of Chamonix, as far as the furthest bridge and back along the other bank.  The rapids are fed by the melting ice from Mer de Glace, the largest European glacier. 

At regular intervals along the river are warnings to the public not to venture near the river bed, as the water level can rapidly change when water is released from the dam further upstream.  When that happens the current through the rapids is so powerful that small rocks the size of a fist are spat into the air.  Despite the warnings of the danger being in French, German, English and Italian, many people wandering on the riverbed or sunbathing on the rocks appear to believe that they are immortal. 

Or perhaps just plain stupid.

At the upper end of the valley is a small subsistence farm, with herd of goats and their accompanying guard dogs.   Their enclosure fencing is moved most days and it meanders up and down the valley, the goats consuming anything that is edible.

Initially the huge guard dogs used to growl and snarl if we got too close, but now they ignore us.  Apparently they have got accustomed to both our smell and voices and no longer view us as a threat to their charges.

 Near the farm is a small pool beside the road, host to a multitude of tiny tadpoles. They must have ‘hatched’ out in the last few days.  It will be interesting to follow their life cycle.

 And guarding the farm is a sleepy old Basset hound that has seen better days.

Old Man Watton

Old man Watton was a very old man, at least as I remember him when I was young.  He was grizzled and grey and said very little.  But he was so strong.  In his hands the heavy hammers and pliers of his blacksmith’s trade were like a child’s toys.

When I close my eyes I can still recall the sound of the hammer striking iron, the huge black bellows that he operated with his foot, the intense heat from the coals and the fierce hissing when he dipped the red-hot metal in the water.  I went to the forge may times as a child, usually delivering eggs to old Mrs Watton, sometimes taking a piece of metal thatmy father needed reshaped for the farm.

A typical country smithy

 The forge was on the way from my parent’s farm towards Portrush, past the headmaster’s house and Carnalridge Primary School and just after the honeysuckle bush that my mother loved so much.  When I was young she used to take me there of a warm summer evening to experience that heavenly scent.  When the air was still, one could smell it from quite far away.

A honeysucle bush in full bloom

The smithy was at the end of a narrow lane.  It overlooked the town and was not far, probably no more than ten minutes walk from our farm.  On the right of the entrance was the tiny cottage of the Dallas family with their beautiful vegetable garden and opposite there was a spring, with a metal cup hanging from a hook.  That water was so pure, so cold and refreshing.  And at the end of the lane was the smithy.

But progress and modernization have marched on.  The spring had been covered over and the lane turned into an asphalt road.  The old Irish cottage of the Dallas family has been replaced by a tasteless modern bungalow and the vegetable garden is now a car park.  The smithy has disappeared and the honeysuckle bush has long gone.

These days I know more people in the graveyard than in the street.

And sometimes I feel that it would be better never to return again, just to remember it as it was.

Fiftieth Anniversity

It was on this day – 8 July 1965, that I left Ireland and migrated to Canada.  Like several million Irish before me, I set off to travel and make my fortune.  I had just over £100 in my pocket and all my possessions fitted into a small suitcase, with plenty of room to spare.  I was just eighteen and still quite ‘wet behind the ears’.

Since then I have managed to see a great part of the world, but there are still many places in which I would like to spend some time.  I may need another fifty years of wandering.

 As for my fortune, it is still a work in progress.

And apart from a small collection of books, my few possessions still fit in a small backpack.

I could never be described as a conspicuous consumer…

Hot August Night

‘Eat, drink and love: the rest is not worth a fillip’ (Lord Byron)

The first time I came across that quotation was on a steamy summer’s early evening in a little Greek restaurant in London, in Soho, just down the street from the Palladium theater. The quote was incorporated in a large fresco of an idyllic Greek island scene. At the time I was insanely in love, but apart; she continued travelling around the US and I had to return to the UK to work. That quotation just about summed up my nascent attitude to life in that era.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)

After an early dinner, I went to the Palladium for a Manhattan Transfer concert and the next day I flew out to Nigeria to start a three month assignment with an multi-national oil company.

Manhattan Transfer

And today, sitting in the sun outside a bar in a little plaza in Leon, I came across that same quotation, and I recalled that night long ago. I don’t know if the restaurant still exists or if Manhattan Transfer still perform, and her path and mine only briefly crossed one more time. But I don’t believe that my attitude to life has changed much since that hot August night in 1978.

Pilgrim in Martigny

Yesterday in the Fondatión Pierre Gianadda, there was an interesting exhibit about the pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome.  It was the first time I had seen it displayed.  I had read of it, but the routes to Santiago have always been foremost in my mind and I still have many to complete.  If I survive long enough I may one day attempt the route to Rome.

Later I went into the church in Martigny and was sitting quietly contemplating at the back.  It’s striking how quiet the church always is.  The silence almost hurts.  Sitting in the church is something I seem to do every time I am here and almost always I have been alone.

Today an older man came in by the side door.  He was dressed as a pilgrim and had a backpack, and on it was the pilgrim’s shell.  He stood still for a long time at the front – perhaps for ten minutes.  He never looked around.  When he left, I immediately went out to find him and talk to him, but he was nowhere to be seen.


This morning when I was passing through the outskirts of Martigny, on my way up the valley to the Col de Forclaz and on to Switzerland, I saw the same pilgrim in the distance, ahead of me. Although I walked as quickly as my lame leg would allow, before I could catch up with him, he turned left onto the path to the Saint Bernard pass and Italy.  When I reached the turning, he was out of sight.

The upper end of Martigny, where the path to the Saint Bernard Pass turns left and that to the Col de Forclaz continues right

Was that a sign of where my personal path is leading me?

George Bernard Shaw

I am currently reading an autobiography of Gabriel García Márquez  – Vivir para contarla.  In it he quotes George Bernard Shaw – ‘Desde muy niño tuve que interrumpir mi educación para ir a la escuela’ ( ‘From childhood I had to interrupt my education to go to school’).

 George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

That also about sums up my attitude to formal education.

Over the years I tried very hard to shield my views from my sons.

I hope that I was not too successful.

Mendoza Parks

Mendoza is in the foothills of the Andes, on the main road that runs from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile.  It was totally destroyed in 1861 in an earthquake measuring 7.2 and of its population of 12,000, an estimated 4300 were killed and 750 injured.  The city was rebuilt in a nearby location.

The rebuilt city has a 6×6 block core, with plazas on each of the four corner blocks and a huge 2×2 block central plaza, known as Plaza de la Independencia.  Each of the plazas is well shaded by massive trees, that were probably planted during the redevelopment.  From my window beside the Plaza de Chile, I can see a huge hawk on the topmost branches of a huge coniferous tree waiting for its even larger parents to return with dinner.  There are reputedly at least four hawks resident in this plaza.  I suspect that they keep the local pigeon population well under control.

 Plaza de Chile in the early evening

In Montevideo and here in Mendoza, it is not unusual to see jugglers performing at busy junctions.  As soon as the lights change, they perform and then dart alongside the traffic, collecting contributions.  Many of the characters are remarkably talented.  But here in Mendoza I witnessed an unusual act at an intersection; a couple dancing tango to their own musical accompaniment.  Not only were they talented, but the presence of their baby in a pram on the pavement raised the poignancy of their performance:  not only were the drivers contributing but also people passing by on the pavement.  A little while later I saw the couple sitting on a bench in the park, the mother breast feeding the baby.  I suspect that they would have an interesting story to tell.

About a twenty minute walk to the west of the Plaza de la Independencia lies the Parque General San Martín.  With almost 400 ha and 17km of roads and paths, it is one of the largest park areas in Argentina.  The park contains a zoo and an open air theatre, as well as an 800m rowing lake, a football stadium, horse jumping arena, a velodrome, an athletic track, a tennis club and a golf course.  And all day long, regardless of the temperature being in the 30s, a horde of runners, young and old, throng the paths.

 The rowing lake in Parque General San Martín

As well as the wide range of sporting facilities in the park, there are several open air restaurants with excellent food and wine.  It is not surprising that on each day of my stay in Mendoza, my feet, as if on automatic pilot, led me back to the park.