Friday, 29 June 2007

A week in England and France

Storm clouds over St Mere Eglis in Normandy, France.

Isn't there a poem that drivels on about "Oh to be in England now that summertime is here..." What total loser wrote that I wonder? It was raining lightly when we arrived and for the rest of our trip it either had just stopped raining or it was just about to start. We'd flown from Dubai to London Heathrow on Virgin. The flight was fine and although the entertainment selection couldn't rank with that offered by Emirates, at least Virgin doesn't let passengers go hungry (see my post of July '06). There was a full lunch, a fruit and bikkies run mid-flight and then a light 'afternoon tea' type meal an hour or so before landing.

We picked up the rental car which was a Ford Focus not a Nissan Sunny thank heavens. Colin connected the GPS and we drove to Terry's place in Somerset which took about 2.5 hours, during which the rain varied between light showers and torrential downpours. Terry's place is in Somerset, out in the country at the foot of the Quantocks. The surrounding roads are mostly tiny lanes often only one car wide, with high hedges on both sides. Many of the houses in the local villages have thatched roofs.

Headed to Goodwood for a day at the 'Festival of Speed' held in the grounds of Goodwood House. Petrol head heaven! Huge grounds with a hill climb from the entry gates up past the grand house and further up the hill to the "top paddock" which is bigger than a lot of country towns in NZ. Walked up to the rally section through the forest, though unfortunately it started to pour while we were up there.

The event was really well organised. To get people down from the top paddock there were tractor rides down the hill past the Dakkar race cars that were giving rides to some of the more thrillseeking punters. Down came more rain, resulting in thick mud that even made the tractor trailer slide sideways. After a fantastic day at Goodwood (and having seen a new HSV in the carpark) we drove down to Portsmouth. We stayed at the Marriott which was a huge rip off and also had the most annoying automatic lift voice in all creation. In the evening we had a drink at the Ship Anson an old pub on the Portsmouth waterfront next to the Naval Dockyard. My mother used to go there when she was a Wren during the war. We then walked along the road and had dinner at the Lady Hamilton another old pub.

Went to see my Uncle Ted who's now in his 80s, then back down to Portsmouth for a quick trip round the historic dockyard. We went through the "Warrior" past the "Victory" and then to see the "Mary Rose". More rain. Dropped off the hire car then walked over to the ferry terminal to catch our ferry to Cherbourg in France. The announcer on the ferry advised us that it was going to be choppy. I thought of 'Cook Strait choppy' which means the boat would have been rearing up and then plunging down like the first scenes from "Warship". It wasn't anything like that at all, it was hard to stand up straight but nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. The announcements were given first in French and then in English. The announcer's English sounded like the policemen from "Allo Allo" and when as part of the announcement he said "Leezen carefully...." then was almost a cry of "I vill say theeese only once.......". Terry and Pauline picked us up from the ferry at the other end. Staying in small country cottage near the village of St Sauvier about 40 minutes drive from Cherbourg.

First stop today was the small town of St Mere Eglise which was the first town liberated as part of the D Day landings. On the morning of the landings before the main force landed, the Airborne Rangers parachuted in to secure the town. One of US soldiers was trapped when his parachute became entangled on the church spire. He hung there in the dark unable to free himself and was shot when the sun rose and he was spotted. A model of the soldier and his parachute now hangs from the spire as a memorial and its become quite a tourist attraction. On to Bayeaux to see the tapestry (1066 and all that), then headed for the nearest pattisere for coffee and croissants then a drive to the coast to Arromanches to see the D Day beaches. The remains of some of the equipment remains on the beaches even after 60 years and the hulks of the ships that were sunk off the beach to form the base for the wharf are still visible. The museum that overlooks the beach has a good model which explains how the artificial harbour was constructed and there's also a movie. After that we drove out to one of the WWII cemetries which has an excellent museum and presentation on the US involvement in the D Day landings. All the time it rained constantly.

Today Terry took us for a drive to the Atlantic Coast to Mont St Michel which is rocky island approx 1 kilometre off the coast. Up until recently it was joined to the mainland by a thin strip of land that appeared only at high tide. The abbey was consecrated in 708AD. It was deconsecrated following the French Revolution and then used as a prison. Its since returned to church control and has been almost fully restored. We then drove up the coast and then back to St Sauvier. In the evening we all had dinner at Donjon, a family run restaurant in Briquebec the nearest town to the cottage. On the way back to the cottage we visited the site of General Patton's camp used during the advance following the D Day invasion. There is a well preserved Sherman tank there but not much else. Il fait quel temps ?
D'habitude,il pleut.

Ferry back to Portsmouth then caught the train to London. Took a taxi to the hotel which was in the East End near Aldgate East tube station. Dinner in the Hoop and Grapes, the nearest pub. Colin had decent sausages so he was happy. Still raining.

Bought a tube day pass. Did a bit of shopping in Oxford St including at Foyles the bookshop. It stopped raining, halle-bloody-lujah! Had lunch in Soho, back to the hotel to drop off the shopping. Tube to Westminster and a visit to Churchill's war cabinet rooms under the Government offices and the Churchill museum next door. Walked to the Houses of Parliament with a quick view of 10 Downing Street. Walked over the Thames on the Lambeth Bridge then along the South Bank to Westminster Bridge and back over the Thames. A quick visit to Westminster Abbey then caught the Tube to Tower Hill. Had dinner in the Minories, a pub which is built into an arch under a railway bridge. Then to Tower Hill station to go on the "Jack the Ripper" walking tour. This was interesting even though there really isn't anything to see as few of the old buildings from the time still exist, the East End having suffered greatly during the WWII bombings of London. Even some of the roads from the time have disappeared. Still it was all in the telling, and our guide Angela did a great job. Some of the people on the walk started out with an almost romanticised image of the Ripper but this was quickly dispelled as the morbid gruesomeness of the killings was described in great detail. That part of London has undergone huge change since I lived in London in the late 70s-early 80s. It used to be almost a 'no go'area back then but now its being gentrified and is a very popular area with lots of restaurants and pubs.

Off to the South Bank again to Shakepeare's Globe Theatre a faithful recreation of how an Elizabethan theatre would have looked though not specifically the Globe as all plans of the original theatre have been lost. Thatched roof, bench seating though you can hire cushions, and cheap tickets in the standing area in the pit directly in front of the stage. The people in the standing area are known by the same name as in Elizabethan times, "groundlings". We were lucky enough to see the actors in full costume rehearsing and also to hear a few pieces played by the musicians who provide the Tudor music during performances. From there up to St Pauls where I was surprised to find that God's servants now charge 9 pounds ($27 approx) to see His church, so we didn't go in. Wandered down to the London Wall area and went to the Museum of London which, unlike St Pauls, had free entry and was absolutely fascinating, wish I'd been able to spend longer there but it was time to head for the airport for the flight back to Dubai.

The next chapter should be called "Heathrow Hell" and it deserves its own blog entry.

The photos are here

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Straight shooting in RAK

Last Friday Colin told me he had a surprise for me. Off we went down Emirates Road, passing all the places I thought could be ‘it’ until we got to the RAK Shooting Club. Cool, I haven’t done any shooting since I left Aus so this was really a lovely surprise.
By following the sound of gunfire we found the ‘range’ such as it was. It was like an old pre-fab classroom, the people shooting were leaning against the inside walls and firing out of the windows. The club uses 9mm handguns and the vibrations each time one was fired were really painful to the ears. A pile of earmuffs lay on a table so we grabbed a pair each pronto, unfortunately this made explaining that we wanted to shoot rather difficult but the message got through.
To my total amazement, both the guns and the ammo were kept in an unlocked wheelie-box near the door. Nobody asked for ID, we just strolled in, said we wanted to have a go and the guy took out a couple of Heckler and Koch 9mms and handed them over to us with a box of 50 bullets each. We were given a very brief description of what to do, and after following this procedure you sort of waved the gun around out through the window and this comprised the ‘safety check’. At the St Ives Pistol Club in Sydney, safety was of paramount importance and its what I’m used to, so the casual approach at RAK was a bit disconcerting.
Also taking part in the same session was a young Indian guy who was just learning and at the other end of the row two Russian guys whose shooting was alarmingly accurate!
Unfortunately there was a technical problem (the wire that pulled the target rack along had broken) and every single gun club employee including several carrying the Dubai All Purpose Maintenance Kit (a hammer and a bent screwdriver) disappeared out onto the range to do battle with the errant wire and pulleys. This left us with absolutely no supervision. We could have wandered off with the 2 guns, 100 bullets (maybe even more from out of the wheelie box) and there was nobody to stop us, except maybe the Russians but they probably had the same idea. Best of all we wouldn’t have paid for any of it.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Bellydancing in Dubai

On Thursday night a group of us went to watch Soirse (Soraya) dance at the Carlton Towers Hotel here in Dubai. Soirse and I worked for the same law firm in Australia, she was in the Melbourne office and I was in Sydney. The Maddocks Mafia strikes again! She’s a fabulous dancer, performing in restaurants and clubs in Melbourne but now she’s taken the plunge to come to the Middle East and work as a dancer here. So far she’s had contracts in Bahrain, Morocco and now in Dubai with another contract in Ras al Khaimah starting next month inshallah.

Soirse does 2-4 shows a night, seven nights a week at the Carlton Towers. Eeek, who drafted that Enterprise Agreement? As it was Thursday, the last day of our working week we decided go to her “early” show at 11:15pm in the hotel’s Arabic nightclub. There’s a band at the nightclub so it was an opportunity for my students to see a quality dancer working with live music. When we arrived at 10:15 the place was totally empty and even when she danced the place was only a quarter full. But at around midnight the crowds started flocking in and by 1am it was packed. Mostly locals in the audience, lots of groups of men but also mixed groups with the ladies in hijab and abaya. The strange thing (to me anyway) is that in the Gulf nobody gets up to dance. How anyone can stay sitting down while this fabulous music is playing just beats me. If you looked around the audience though, you’d see that everyone was grooving in their seats; the ladies were ‘getting down while in a seated position’ and even the local guys in dishdashes were doing the Gulf Head Nod and twirling their worry beads to the rhythm. (What can I say except that you should never believe anyone who tells you that expats are the only consumers of alcohol in the UAE , enough said.) The band at the club plays all night with 2 shows by Soirse and performances by a couple of singers. Soirse does her early show then does another performance at the club at around 2am.

We left the nightclub and moved on to catch Soirse’s 1:15am show at the Greek Taverna which is in the same hotel. A costume change and dancing to CD this time. Different vibe completely to the nightclub. The taverna was just like Scorpios in Annandale where I was the dancer for ages, or the Greek Typhoon in Sydney. The audience was made up of Greeks or people who were “Arabic other than Gulf”. It was great. The music started and within a nano-second there were guys on the floor dancing and before long everyone was up dancing and having a ball. The girl singer did a bracket of debke numbers which of course went down a treat with the Lebanese in the audience. There was also the obligatory drunk Russian woman in fur topped boots who insisted on doing a solo 'dance' performance right in front of the girl singer.

Great night, eventually arriving home sometime after 3am - its been a long time since I've done that. There are some photos here.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Aerosmith in Dubai

Photo: Gulf News
Aerosmith were 'in the house' at the Exiles Rugby Ground last night.

Expected the usual Dubai traffic nightmare so, as the concert started at 10pm we left home at about 7:30pm. Murphy’s Law, there was hardly any traffic, the trip only took about 35 minutes and there was heaps of space available in the club carpark. Although it was early, queues were already starting to form for food and drink. The caterers were running the system where people queued up to buy a ticket then had to queue up again somewhere else to get their food/beer (Budweiser beer in red plastic cups). Even early in the evening it was obvious that this system was not going to work, and subsequently I’ve heard many complaints about long delays. This has really annoyed a lot of people as it was 44 degrees during the day and wasn’t much cooler in the evening and the security guards confiscated all outside food and drink when you entered the ground including bottles of water. One person recounted that it took 45 minutes for him to go through the queue-token-queue-purchase system just to buy 2 bottles of water. We snuck our water in, thank goodness for being a bit older and looking 'respectable’!

We were in the standing area behind the moshpit and the heat was absolutely suffocating. The band came on about 30 minutes late and played for 90 minutes. I have to say it, I was disappointed, although the music sounded good and they played all their biggest songs (opened with ‘Love in an Elevator’). For some reason, they just didn’t connect with the audience. It really seemed to be a performance where they were going through the motions and striking the rock star poses. Sadly, while Mick Jagger still seems to be able to ‘do the business’, Steve Tyler has become a caricature of himself. He did the usual macho rock star ‘why don’t you come backstage’ thing to a pretty girl in the mosh pit and interestingly the crowd reaction was more “eeuww” than “phewrr”. His voice is also showing the signs of years of abuse. “Dream On”, great song, is a challenge and he pulled it off last night, but I wonder if his voice will hold out for the entire tour.

Like a lot of people, the overwhelming heat finally got to us and we left before the end of the show. I didn’t get to hear “Janey’s got a gun” or “Walk this way” as they played them last. (Many in the audience possibly wouldn't know that WTW was around before RunDMC.)

Maybe the tour arrangers had no choice but, for Dubai, the show was a month too late, the weather has changed, and it's just too hot. The band had cold air on them the whole time pumped out through large fans (mechanical ones not human ones) but for the audience it was almost unbearable. Someone asked me "Were people dancing?" No way! Dancing would only have made you hotter.

Dubai needs an arena for outdoor shows, there are arenas being built for everything else so why not a performance venue?